Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mama (2013)

Director: Andres Muschietti
Writers: Neil Cross, Adres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Genre: ghost horror, child horror, PG-13 horror
Recommended to: fans of ghost films, Guillermo del Toro fans, budding horror fans
    Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) -  The feral children (ages 8? and 6?)
    Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) - The girls' uncle, an artist, Annabel's boyfriend and Jeffrey's brother.    
    Annabel (Jessica Chastain)  - Lucas' girlfriend, musician in a rock band
    Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) - The girls' psychiatrist
    Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) - The girls' wealthy aunt
    Mama (Javier Botet and Jane Moffat) - The ghostly protector
    Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) - The girls' homicidal father

Jeffrey abducts his daughters after going on a killing spree. Taking refuge in an abandoned cabin, he is killed by a ghostly figure. Five years later, the girls are found living in a feral state, brought back to civilization, and taken into custody by their father's twin, Lucas, and his girlfriend Annabel. However the girls' phantom guardian has followed them and looks on the new family with a jealous eye.

The Ramble:
 As a big del Toro fan I really wanted to like this film. In fact, given just how much of this film I did like, I have a hard time giving it a thumbs down, however marginal.

An expanded adaptation of Muschietti's short film of the same name (easily found on the internet if you would like to see it), Mama does have a lot of good things going for it, but there is one glaring weakness that undermines all that good will.

To start, Muschietti's direction is strong for most of the film. He frames a scene well, and effectively uses sustained shots to set up scares. He keeps the film moving, and I never found myself bored. He also gets two outstanding performances from the young girls, who must portray varying degrees of civility throughout the film.

Most of the film is carried by Jessica Chastain's Annabel, a Joan Jett wannabe who initially wants nothing to do with children. At first I suspected that she would grow into the film's "evil stepmother" and invite Mama's wrath, but instead events evolve her into a strong, caring mother figure. Chastain could have gone overly sentimental, but I found her growth natural and convincing.

Mama herself is a mixed bag, a combination of practical and digital effects. Those who can't turn off their CGI hate will probably lose this film around the midpoint as her manifestations become more frequent. I'm a bit more forgiving of the effects here, given the film's budget and the ambition of the story. My only real complaint was with her face, a little too cartoonish for what the story demanded.
Where I think the film fails is in its screenplay. It certainly starts out strong, with the feral children providing some of the strongest scares and creepiest images in the film. But as the film progresses it slowly loses its way, and falls apart just as it should be delivering an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I believe that a big problem lies in its origin - this was a short film being dragged out to ninety minutes, and the bloat is evident.


Aunt Jean does little in the film except provide a potential custody threat, but even that feels hollow. At no point do you feel that she has a serious chance to take the children, especially with Mama guarding them jealously, and when she is finally dispatched, it is to little effect and for little purpose.

More sinful is the handling of Uncle Lucas. Early in the film he suffers a Mama-induced accident, putting him in a coma for a good part of the film (but we are assured quickly that he will recover, undermining any chance for Jean to take custody of the children). They could have kept him there, and it wouldn't have changed the rest of the film one bit. Once he does awaken, he has one (two?) visits with the girls, but Annabel never informs him of the ghostly happenings (nor does he mention Mama pushing him down the stairs). He has a bad dream which sends him on a quest for Mama's origins, but he gets lost in the woods, gets a phone call, then gets knocked out. He contributes exactly nothing to the plot, and his vision quest goes nowhere.

A similar fate befalls Dr. Dreyfuss, the girls' shrink. At first he disbelieves in ghosts, but some conveniently supplied exposition seems to sway him easily, and has him running back to the cabin to look for clues in the middle of the night, where Mama kills him. To my memory, no one ever tells this to Annabel or the girls (he seemed to be forming a connection with Victoria), and after Annabel steals the MacGuffin Box, his life and death are forgotten.

As to the film's climax, that seems to be the source of dissatisfaction for most viewers (based on the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes feedback, as well as my wife's two cents), as Mama is given the remains of her dead child, but stubbornly refuses to move on to the great beyond as dictated by the great ghost cliche'. I didn't mind that so much - she wanted her child, not a bundle of bones, and for the past 5 years Lily and Victoria were her children - but I can see why so many wanted the pat ending. My problem is that what follows fails to commit to an ending. Either Mama needs to take the girls, or she needs to be vanquished. Instead they take a half measure, sending Lily off with Mama, and Victoria with Annabel and Lucas. Oh, and Lily becomes a butterfly. By refusing to commit one way or another, I found the finale emotionally confused, and undercutting the story that had been built to that point. So much work had been done to earn the emotional breakthrough between Lily and Annabel that it was hard to take this as a happy ending, but clearly we were meant to think Annabel (and Victoria) were okay with what transpired. An emotionally vague, cut-the-baby-in-half ending simply left me feeling empty and apathetic. 


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Choice cuts from 2012

Another year over, another year older.

While living through it, 2012 didn't seem a great year for genre entertainment, but in hindsight it looks much stronger. Unfortunately a lot of the best things came in the form of independent and foreign films, though genre television really stepped up its game.

I've been marathoning 2012 horror flicks all through Christmas break in an attempt to catch up on what I'd missed. After doing my top 10 for 2011 for the Dark Discussions Podcast, I caught three films (I Saw the Devil, Attack the Block, and Hobo With a Shotgun) which I regretted not seeing in time to make my list. Still more than a few I missed, but I do have a job to keep.

Favorite Film, Period: 
Django Unchained - I guess I'm just a whore for Tarantino. I'm just a few hours out of the theater and this stands, head and shoulders, above any other film I've seen this year. Not sure what genre it falls in - too bloody for drama, too quiet for action or thriller, but its a film filled with great performances, and great direction.
Runner Up: Looper

Favorite Horror Film:
Cabin in the Woods - A standout film, solidly entertaining with witty writing, good performances, and an actual point to make. Its also my most quotable film of the year (which is tough given that there's a Tarantino release on the calendar). Of course I'm a notorious Whedon whore, so there may be some bias. Runner up would be the wickedly fun Israeli film Rabies.

Favorite SF Film
Looper -  Rian Johnson knocks this out of the park, and delivers a taught thriller rife with moral ambiguity and some challenging notions for the viewer. Hopefully this elevates both Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt into the A-list. Runner up would be the funny and sweet Safety not Guaranteed. To be fair it is very light on the SF elements, but by simply using the notion of a time machine (whether it exists or not) to explore how we deal with regret, and the importance of moving forward, it dwells in the arena of ideas, where real SF belongs. Sadly this was a pretty thin category this year, but 2013 looks much stronger.

Favorite Action Film
The Raid - I refuse to use the proper, silly title. Not quite the second coming of Die Hard as some promised, but still a very solid film with fantastic action set pieces and a strong emotional core. Its telling that my runner up, Dredd-3D, has almost the same plot.

Favorite Comedy
Juan of the Dead. Could have done Ted or Safety not Guaranteed, but this one had a zombie/shark rematch (with the proper outcome this time). Very funny film, and well worth catching if you are fans of the horror-comedy sub-genre. Runner up was Bob Goldthwait's deliciously violent-yet-cathartic God Bless America. Our guttural little Bobcat has grown up to be a pretty sharp filmmaker.

Favorite Comic Book Film
The Dark Knight Rises - No it isn't perfect, and it isn't as good as The Dark Knight, but damn if Nolan doesn't have the magic touch right now. Runner up is really hard to pick, but its hard to go wrong with The Avengers.

Favorite 3D Film
Dredd-3D - As a rule I am pretty indifferent to 3D. My eyes tend to get used to it pretty fast in a film, and after about 30 minutes I stop noticing. Dredd, though, made good use of the effect, particularly for the various "slo-mo" deaths and drops from high heights.

Favorite Remake
Has to be The Woman in Black, practically by default since I missed Silent House and Mother's Day, and the rest of the field stank.   

Favorite Zombie Film
The Dead. Juan of the Dead was a more enjoyable film for me, but The Dead simply does the zombies better - possibly the best they've been done in decades.

Favorite Vampire Film
Midnight Son is, I think, the only film that comes close to qualifying here. Didn't make my top 10, but its a solid entry for the creatures of the night. I was tempted to add The Revenant, but they went too far out of their way to insist he wasn't a vampire.

Favorite Nature Horror Film
The Bay - Barry Levinson proves that found footage isn't dead, and does it using critters I found creepy long beforethe internet found them. Runner up: The Gray

Favorite Found Footage Film:
Chronicle - Solid character piece about the birth of a super-villain, and uses his TK powers to add some visual flair without violating the genres conventions. Runner up would be The Bay, but V/H/S and Megan is Missing also showed their is still life in this sub-genre.

Best Kill:
Old Seth's troubles with the timestream in Looper, but props to the carnage unleashed in Cabin in the Woods, Dredd,  and The Raid. Was especially fond of the 3D, slo-mo death scenes in Dredd, but I just can't pick one.

Deserved Better Award:
Dredd-3D -  With reviews largely praise worthy, I can only assume this was done in by its release date and the horrid Stallone predecessor. Supposedly needed to make $60m to greenlight a sequel, but it fell far short. I'm hoping it finds second life on home video, and gets Urban back in MegaCity One.

Most Disturbing 
Megan is MissingMegan is Missing is far from the most polished effort of the year, but this cautionary tale of internet predators got under my skin from the start. The trouble starts with a 14 year old girl giving detailed descriptions of her sexual exploits, and end with a single, 5 minute steady shot that just fills my heart with despair. The filmmaker may have made his point too well, because I cannot in good conscience recommend this to anyone.

Worst Film:
Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 - I'm not a Twilight hater. I've sat through all 5 films now and found them all wanting, but I can at least see what tween girls see in them (adult women not so much), but they're not for me. But in this case, the film is poorly constructed (and never should have been dragged out to 2 parts), and the sexual simmering just gets creepy with the wolf boy and the offspring. There are some interesting ideas and characters sprinkled throughout, all of which are dropped to get back to watching Kristen Stewart glare at her enemies.

Most Forgettable Film:
The Raven - By virtue of the fact that I keep forgetting it came out or that I saw it. Not horrible, but nothing stands out either, save for a terrible ending (which I can not really remember beyond the fact that it annoyed both me and my wife).

Great Cheese Award:
Bait - Sharks in a supermarket? Say no more. Much better than other deliberate efforts to make shark-cheese like Shark Night (my 2012 pick for most embarassing DVD purchase). Bait also gets my "best use of dog" award.

Best Scene of the Year:
"Puny God!" - The Avengers
Runner up: Revealing the white board - Cabin in the Woods

Worst Scene of the Year:
Revealing Chloe Moretz' secret in Dark Shadows.

Best Ending
Juan of the Dead  -  Just joyously magnificent, it is the perfect end to Juan's journey, and can't help but put a smile on my face. Of course this is just for the ending. If I was awarding the best third act, it would be Cabin in the Woods by a country mile.

Worst Ending
The Devil Inside -  I don't know that the URL ending was received as intended, but it doesn't matter. No matter how good the preceding 90 minutes (and it wasn't), this was sure to leave audiences not just disappointed, but pissed.

Hero of the Year:
Juan - Not exactly the best role model, but he's the everyman that rises to the occasion.

Villain of the Year:
Isaak Sirko - Dexter. Though Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones) remains the most detestable character in any medium, Ray Stevenson finally gave us a worthy successor to John Lithgow. It probably helped that they stopped trying to find the next "Trininty Killer", and focused on character rather than gimmick. Stevenson's mob boss is smart, and deadly, and the actor imbues him with enough depth to keep him from being a cartoon. Runner up would be Tom Hardy's Bane - he managed to take a character that I have generally loathed, and give him depth and nobility that made him fascinating to watch.

Best Creatures
Men in Black 3 - You'd think I'd give this to Cabin in the Woods, but those were all (intentionally) derivative designs. MiB3 managed to get some truly original critters on the screen, and that's a rarity nowadays (which is weird when you consider how CGI should be opening up the imagination).

Career Boost:
Tie - Chris Hemsworth, Joseph Gordon Levitt

Career Block:
Tim Burton - If M. Night can still get paid to make After Earth, I'm sure it'll take a lot more than the 1-2 BO flops of Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie to derail Burton, but these are two giant black marks on his increasingly spotty record. Runner up - Everyone involved in John Carter.

Performances to Watch

Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Anne Hathaway - Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables
Tom Hardy, Michael Caine - The Dark Knight Rises
Vincent D'onofirio - Chained
Gretchen Lodge - Lovely Molly
Jamie Foxx, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sam Jackson - Django Unchained
Lena Headley - Dredd, Game of Thrones
Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Carpenter - Dexter (season 7)
Liam Neeson - The Gray
Pretty much everyone in The Game of Thrones, but the scenes between Charles Dance and Maisie Williams were among the best of the year.
Everyone in Breaking Bad