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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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Wilmington

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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