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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 05:30 pm

Effective Mama undone by lazy storytelling

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On the basis of a 2 1/2 minute short, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) decided to produce director Andres Muschietti’s debut feature Mama. Based on the movie of the same name, which can be seen at www.youtube.com/mamathemovie, it’s easy to see why. No doubt, he’s got the chops as he employs effective pacing, holding his cards close to his vest while steadily doling out clues to the film’s horrific mystery and using minimal special effects to create an effective sense of dread during the film’s strong first hour. Unfortunately, the magic wanes during the movie’s third act. Inexplicable actions by its characters and desperate coincidences are employed, slowly deflating the suspense that had been so patiently crafted.

The financial meltdown of 2008 is the catalyst here as Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a desperate financier, does not take the downward turn in his fortunes well. After killing two fellow employees and his estranged wife, he goes on the run with his two daughters, Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse), only to crash his car in a remote rural area. After blundering through the woods, they find an abandoned cabin where they take refuge. Problem is, they aren’t alone after all, and whatever it is that’s lurking in the shadows soon kills Jeffrey but spares the little girls.

Five years pass and the girls are found, having miraculously survived their ordeal. They are placed in the care of a behavioral psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again) is contacted, who along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), is stunned by what they see when they meet the two sisters. They’ve both become feral children, with Lily gamboling about on all fours, while Victoria, though older and retaining some of her speech, also is more wild than civilized. Lucas and Annabel are far from ready to care for them but Dreyfuss offers to put the family up in a suburban home as long as he can continue to study the girls. They agree and once they move in, a series of paranormal events occur that suggest that Victoria and Lily aren’t the only ones who’ve returned from the forest.

The visits by the title character are done with a degree of subtlety and cleverness that not only put the viewer on the edge of their seats but also have them anticipating the creature’s next appearance. Of particular note is a scene in which we see Lily in her room with something that’s playing tug of war with her – from which we are distracted – only to look back and see the girl somehow floating near the ceiling. It’s a moment of great promise that Muschietti fulfills with one well-executed scene after another that steadily reveals Mama’s origin and intent, all of which create a sense of anxiety that serves this material well.

Unfortunately, the spell is broken once Mama’s background is revealed and Muschietti rushes toward a bland, silly conclusion. Intelligent characters suddenly become as dumb as posts and ridiculous coincidences pile up at an alarming rate, both of which ruin the credibility of the film. Also, Mama herself is a bit of a disappointment once she’s on full display. This is a creature that works much better obscured in the shadows and her full appearance is almost laughable at times.

This is too bad as Muschietti obviously has some talent and the film is buoyed throughout by another fine performance by Jessica Chastain who’s strong, sexy and fierce as a Bohemian stranded in the ’burbs. In the end, Mama winds up being a film of moments rather than a cohesive whole that succeeds in being as strong narratively as it is in tone.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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