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MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Mama

 

 

MAMA (Two and a Half  Stars)
U.S.:Andy Muschietti, 2013


Remember the good old, bad old days of movie horror, when screen frightmeisters didn’t always seem to try to turn our stomachs to make our hair stand on end? Remember when blood and gore and paranormal high   jinks and lousy, deliberately  amatuerish-looking camerawork and  weren‘t the names of the game, when audiences could get scared at a moviewithout   also getting revolted? Some pretty good movies helped make that grisly transition — shows like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street, and even not so good but interesting pictures like The Blair Witch project– but that doesn’t mean those same movies weren’t also resposnible for an awful lot of crap.
Mama is something of a throwback, and at   times a stunning one.. At other times, it’s not stunning at all. But at its best, this state-of-the-art modern ghost story   — another scare saga from the Guillermo Del Toro factory — recalls those   earlier, less bloody days of fear and (not necessarily) loathing, when horror   films were made for adults, and when they could even strive to be a little subtle, and literate.  Filled with elegant, spooky images of otherworldly   phantasms plaguing fairly real-seeming people, Mama spins a yarn about two little   feral girls, Victoria and Lilly, left in the forest in a shabby cabin after   their distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) freaks out, following a   financial wipe-out, and hustles the girls out to the forest. His goal: trying to kill them both, followed by his own suicide.
The girls, however are rescued by a sinister-looking wraith-thing that   is (or was) apparently their mother (played by Javier Botet, with lots of   CGI). And five years later — after somehow surviving in the woods by   themselves for all that time — the girls are discovered and brought back to   civilization. (Unfortunately, there are still financial woes, thanks to the U.   S. Congress at its most monstrous.)

So the lassies are set up in a fairly posh home by an inquisitive  doctor interested in their psychology (Daniel Kasha as Dr. Dreyfuss). They are  cared   for by their late father’s brother, a Bohemian-style artist named Lucas   (Coster-Waldau in the second stanza of a double part) and his punky-pretty girl band girlfriend   Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Needless to say, the two little girls – the tamer   and more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger, wilder Lilly   (Isabelle Nelisse) — prove quite a handful. Not as much of s handful, though,   as the flying, swooping, totally spooky creature who is apparently their very   protective mom. Or what she’s become.

 

I’m not partial to a lot of   modern horror movies, especially the ones with a big Ick-factor. But I like   most of Del Toro’s work, and I enjoyed this one. Del Toro was the executive   producer here, and the director-cowriter, making his feature debut, is Andy   Muschietti. He’s no Del Toro, but he’s an imaginative chap with a very spiffy visual   sense,
Besides, starting Mama off with a big financial crisis   demonstrates that the movie has a good sense of what’s genuinely scary about   contemporary society — and who the real monsters are. Also, having a heroine   who’s a punk rocker of sorts shows both that the movie is somewhat hip and   that Jessica Chastain — an Oscar favorite this year for her work as the CIA   Bin Laden hunter in “Zero Dark Thirty“ — can be an amazingly versatile   actress.

Playing Annabel, she attracts and repels (a little) and stirs things   up. She also gives us a sense of reality, and her believable reactions to all   the spooky things swirling around her pull us right into the action. So do the   wild responses of Charpentier and Lelisse as Victoria and Lilly, two of the   scariest little girls on screen since the blank-faced little ghosts in Stanley   Kubrick’s and Stephen King’s chilling classic The Shining.

Anyway, watching Mama, I was occasionally  reminded of another classic movie horror tale about a little girl and her   mother, producer Val Lewton’s and co-director Robert Wise’s 1944 low-budget   Curse of the Cat People. Mama isn’t low-budget, and it doen’t have any cat people, cursed or not, but, at times, it scares you without creeping you out.   So does Jessica Chastain.

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CATHERINE LACEY: Do you think that your writer DNA was sort of shaped by how your family was displaced by the Nazi regime before you were born?
RENATA ADLER: It’s funny that you should mention that because I think it affects a lot else, specifically being a refugee. I wasn’t born there. I didn’t experience any of it. But they were refugees. So then I was thinking of this business of being a refugee, no matter in what sense.

Prenatal refugee.
Prenatal refugee and actually postnatal refugee. And I thought there are probably things in common between being a child and being a refugee and being an anthropologist.

It gives you a sense of curiosity.
But also a complete displacement. You’ve got to read the situation. You’re the new kid in school all the time. But I wasn’t aware of it then. I’m aware of it now because language affects you differently, or not. But I used to talk to Mike Nichols about it because he was a refugee. Do you envision an audience when you write? Do you envision a particular person? 

No.
Every once in a while I think: Now, what would Mike say to that?

There’s that idea that when you’re blocked, you can always just write as if it was a letter to one specific person.
Oh, that’s good. That’s a wonderful idea. Mine is more in terms of criticism. If someone was to say, “I know what that is. Do you really want to do that?” But anyway, about Mike and his attitude toward language, I remember him saying—it was a question of whether something written was fresh or not—and he would ask, “Why not smell it?” Which, from an English speaker’s point of view, is hysterical.

~ Renata Adler and Catherine Lacey In Conversation 

“Oh it was just hellish. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It would be stupid for me to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It has taken me five years to decide on a first film and I always held out for something like this. The lesson to be learned is that you can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. Because when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood over the money, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing movie of all time, sit down, shut up and feel lucky that you’ve got him.’ It’s another thing when you are there and you’re going ‘Trust me, this is really what I believe in,’ and they turn round and say ‘Well, who the hell is this guy?’ If I make ten shitty movies, I’ll deserve the flak and if I go on to make 10 great ones, this’ll probably be looked upon as my first bungled masterpiece.”
~ David Fincher, 1992

 

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