Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Mama

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

In horror and monster movies it is generally understood that what remains unseen is far more frightening than what a director can show you. Jaws is one of the most famous examples of this. Steven Spielberg couldn’t use the expensive rubber shark through most of the shoot due to technical issues. The result is a terrifying film because our imaginations fill in the gaps, conjuring horrifying images of the terror in the water. Since then almost every monster movie has attempted to repeat the formula to some extent.

In Mama, a ghost story written and directed by Andrés Muschietti and co-written by Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, a spirit watches over two young girls whose father went off the deep end and was about to take their lives before the ghost whisked him away. The girls are discovered five years later living animal-like in a cabin deep in the forest. Put into the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his wannabe rock star girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) their maternal spirit protector follows them, jealously guarding them from any outside influence.

What could have been a run of the mill scare-fest turns out to be a tale of maternal instinct and jealousy, learning to love a child unconditionally, and the mistakes of the past coming back to haunt us. I was a little disappointed to find the movie, from which I expected more in the hands of producer Guillermo del Toro, resorted to the old cliché of putting a young woman in harm’s way by abruptly sending Lucas into a coma. But then I realized this was a story more about the ghost than about those she’s tormenting and the point is to show her feeling threatened by anyone who might take her place as mother to the two girls.

There are some things that work, including some terribly chilling moments, mostly achieved through Antonio Riestra’s cinematography which makes excellent use of what we can’t see in the shadows. Unfortunately there’s far more in the film that just didn’t work for me, including some plot elements that make no sense, and the complete lack of suspense in the final act mostly thanks to the reveal of ghost. There’s a psychiatrist character who is officious and straight out of the horror movie screenwriting handbook with very little of interest emerging from his mouth or actions. One thing I will say in the film’s favor is that the ending doesn’t go in for the hackneyed sappy conclusion. They were wise enough from a storytelling point of view to keep their characters honest.

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