Judge Gordon Sullivan has decided against the cabin in the woods for his next vacation.
A Mother's Love is Forever.
Parenthood is scary. To have absolute and sole responsibility for the life of another for years before they're minimally self-sufficient is a very daunting a task. And yet when people screw up or try to shirk their parental duty we recoil in horror. Mama is a horror film that tries to play around with some of these notions, both the fear of being a parent and what happens when people don't live up to these responsibilities. Sadly, it's also a lame collection of time-worn ghost-story clichés and lack of character development.
Facts of the Case
Mama opens with a radio report of a massive financial crisis…we watch as Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) emerges from the car and enters his home, obviously agitated. A gunshot follows, and he rushes into the room of his two daughters, intent on taking them away. Despite snowy conditions, Lucas rushes away. His speed causes an accident, and the trio find themselves lost in the woods. They find a cabin, and deciding to end it all, Lucas attempts to kill his daughters first. A shadowy woman emerges from the interior of the cabin to swallow Lucas in darkness. Five years later, Lucas' twin brother (also played by Coster-Waldau) hasn't given up the search for his brother or his nieces. He still pays a local hunter to search for them, and when his nieces are found, Jeffrey looks for custody. Even though he and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, The Help) have no experience as parents they take the girls in, but it seems they've also invited whatever was protecting the girls as well.
Because there's so much wrong with Mama I want to highlight the things it gets right so this doesn't devolve into a rant. Mama has a powerhouse center in Jessica Chastain. I have no idea what about this project attracted the up-and-coming actress, but if nothing else it adds to her growing body of diverse work. Though her characters have all been well-defined and different, break-out roles in The Tree of Life, The Help, and even Take Shelter had her performing variations on the girl-next-door type. She started to break away from that with her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, and Mama shows us that she can probably go anywhere. Here she's playing a kind of goth-punk rocker, all tattoos and dyed hair. When we first meet her she's on the toilet taking a pregnancy test, and the rest of the film lives up to that iconoclastic moment. She's still Jessica Chastain, America's sweetheart, so it's easy to sympathize with her when spooky stuff starts happening. The film also does well for having Coster-Waldau on board as well. He's a solid presence on screen, and that solidity helps to prop up the rather weak moments in the story.
Mama wins some points for atmosphere and cinematography. When it's not being hokey trying to provide a backstory to justify the scares, the film does a good job brooding. The house much of the story takes place in is sufficiently spooky without being a parody of American Horror Story, and the opening moments in the snow capture a sense of isolation and desolation wonderfully. If it weren't for the story, this film could almost get by on just its visuals. Those who just require a few jump-scares and some spooky visuals might be able to stomach the "story" of Mama enough to appreciate the grim atmosphere.
The other thing I can't deny is that Mama has been lavished with an excellent Blu-ray presentation. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is gorgeous. The film spends a lot of time in shadows and with an icy-blue cast, which this transfer handles perfectly. Detail is strong throughout, even in shadows, and black levels are consistently deep and noise-free. If anything the film might look too-perfect, which is a weird sort of compliment. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is just as exceptional. Annabel plays the bass, and everything from her musical stylings to the dialogue and occasional jump-scare are well-balanced and remarkably clear. Surround activity is strong, especially during tense moments, and dialogue is always clean and easy to hear.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Andy (director, co-screenwriter) and Barbara (co-screenwriter) Muschietti. The pair is chatty and insightful throughout talking about everything from producer Guillermo Del Toro's involvement to the use of different kinds of effects. It's at times more interesting than the film itself. Next up are a pair of featurettes totaling 15 minutes…one each on the effects and one that interviews the cast and crew about the background to the film. We also get seven minutes of deleted scenes along with the original short that birthed (ha!) the feature film, both featuring optional commentary. The film's trailer is also included. This is a two disc set that also features a DVD of the film, along with Ultraviolet and Digital Copy version of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from Chastain's (and to a lesser extent Coster-Waldau's) performance and the excellent cinematography, there's very little to recommend the re-heated ghost story mash-up that is Mama. There's little mystery to the actual ghost-story—there's never a question that the girls are being followed/protected by a spirit—and the mystery portion (why Mama is protecting them) is seriously un-compelling. Though there are definitely some creepy moments to be had, the story itself just isn't interesting enough to make them worth sitting through.
I'm not usually the person to cry "that's illogical!" at a horror movie, but by 30 minutes into the film I was scoffing at the absurdity of the film's plot. I buy a guy who's lost everything in the stock market killing his wife, but why then take your kids somewhere else to kill them? I'm willing to buy that the girls could somehow survive on their own for five years with the help of Mama, but their quick transition back to normalcy beggars belief. There are various other absurdities I won't spoil, but I think I actually exclaimed "ugh" by the middle of the movie at the increasingly silly machinations of the plot.
Mama solidly demonstrates that Jessica Chastain is a talented and well-rounded actress, and the crew know how to frame and light a film. However, the screenwriting process doesn't leave enough room for actual characters and instead relies on worn-out ghost tropes. This Blu-ray is an amazing way to see the film, but it's only worth a rental to all but those who love the film.
Guilty of being all surface and no substance.
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