Saturday, January 19, 2013
Generally the rule is: if it isn't an Oscar contender and it was released in January, go bowling instead. January is the month where studios quietly dump the movies they have the least amount of faith in; the movies that are so bad that they can only hope to compete against other terrible January movies. Yeah, sometimes something legitimately good will get released like "Drive Angry 3D" or "Haywire", but most likely we'll only get crap such as "Red Tails" or "Underworld 4" or the third remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". For once, I generally had high hopes for a couple of January releases this year, but those hopes seem to have been completely dashed. This review and the next post (which will be a review of "Gangster Squad") are fully in the deep fathoms of January depression.
"Mama" pretty much had everything going for it as a horror movie was concerned. It was proudly presented by Guillermo del Toro, who may not have directed a movie in awhile, but most of the movies with his name attached are generally positive. 2011's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" wasn't a very memorable movie, but still a simple and solid scary movie, similar in style to horror stories for children. "Mama", however... isn't a trainwreck, but its very very close to being a good movie, but still an unfortunate failure. The concept was good, the filming was great, there were some believable performances including some good work from some very creepy children, and just about three-quarters of the way through, I thought it would break the January curse and come out as a generally good movie, but definitely not a rockstar. Then the last act started, and... the movie collapsed all at once for me. I can even pinpoint the exact moment, when there was a flash of a special effect so bad-looking that I burst into hysterical laughter that lasted for about ten minutes.
I hate to pin most of the failure of a movie on a really bad-looking CG ghost, but they seemed perversely proud of this creature, showing it directly in your face for the entire overblown ridiculous climax. Some people might find this thing creepy looking, and it is a weird creature, but its obvious CG, and I haven't seen something this bad looking in a ghost movie since the little cherub spirits from the remake of "The Haunting". I'll cover more on the special effect later in the review, but every bit of fear I had simply vanished the second I saw how silly-looking this ghost was. Also, luckily, I don't have to pin the failure of "Mama" solely on the effects, there's also the ending. Which is awful, and completely off-tone. Spoilers ahead, but don't worry, you're not going to feel like you missed anything.
The movie stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is best known for playing Jaime Lannister on "Game of Thrones", so I'm just going to call him Jaime for this review. Jaime Lannister is actually one half of a set of twins, both played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The first twin was a successful Wall Street tycoon guy, but the 2008 financial crisis hit, so he murdered his partners, his ex-wife, and kidnapped his daughters presumably to murder them too and then kill himself. For once, luckily, the guy crashes his car in the woods and leads the girls to an old abandoned cabin, which also luckily, is haunted by an evil ghost, that eats Jaime I and saves the daughters. Jaime II, the Wall Street guy's brother, then spends the next five years looking for his brother and his little nieces, and ultimately does.
Now after five years of living in the wild and being fed by a demon, these girls are pretty screwed up. The younger one is completely feral since she was just an infant when she was lost from civilization, but the older one is at least able to communicate, though not without problems. Jaime very reasonably wants to raise them, but his wife, Jessica Chastain, secretly doesn't want anything to do with this. She's a wanna-be rockstar, she died her hair black, she's actually really something of a bitch in this film*, there are a lot of issues. Unfortunately behind the already massive problems of adjusting these damaged children back to normal family life after everything they've known has been taken away, they're also being haunted by the ghost in the forest that they call "Mama". And now the family is in a ghost story.
For just about 80% of the movie, you don't see Mama at all beyond whispers in the children's words or shadows on the wall. Jaime Lannister gets too close to the ghost appearing through the wall** and winds up falling down the steps and breaking his neck, leaving the kids alone with Jessica Chastain, who as we've already seen, never wanted to be a parent and already is somewhat resentful of her husband for forcing all this on her. And slowly Mama is getting more and more violent, while Chastain is totally unable to connect with these kids. Its all nice and creepy while Mama is not shown, as she's just a legendary whisper that you know is out there, but you can't quite see. There's a clever shot where the little girl is playing tug of war in her room over her blanket. You think she's just playing with the big sister, but you can only see one of them through their room's doorway. The shot also let's you see down the hallway, and then you can see the big sister walking down it, so the little sister is actually playing with Mama.
Unfortunately, the movie really starts to fall apart fast once you actually see the ghost. I mean, inevitably you were going to have to see it, so a great deal of the suspense is lost right there, but when you see it... man. Its one of those character designs that seem like brilliant ideas once they're sketched out, but look absolutely awful when compared to a real human being. It looks what they were going for was a twisted surreal creature out of a Stephen Gammell illustration, but instead Mama has a head like a block of gray wood, one eye about half a foot higher than the other one, and a really silly expression on her face. I mean, its very scary when its in the dark making freaky moaning noises and only illuminated by a few brief flashes, but when its chasing Jessica Chastain down the hallway, it looks like a cartoon character. This isn't the monster of a hardcore live action horror movie, its a monster for a scary kid's video game. Worst of all, somebody had the brilliant idea to superimpose the ghost's face over a real human woman as a big scare scene, making the world's stupidest looking creature and leaving me in hysterics for five long minutes.
If you were in that theater with me, I'm sorry. I know I was distracting, I couldn't help myself. I haven't laughed that hard in a movie theater since I saw Michael Sheen hold up Papa Carlyle's decapitated head in "Twilight 5".
The climax is also a huge mess. One thing that should never happen in a ghost movie is for the main characters to confront the demon out in the open with a flat shot where you can get a complete view of the monster. And they do this. You see the monster just floating there outside, just hanging around with its goofy face and cheese-block head. How scary is your monster if the heroes are standing in front of it, ready to fight a boss battle with it? Not to mention the conclusion is pretty terrible in its own way. One of the little girls decides to stay with Jessica Chastain (because she likes her for no reason that's explained), and the other one goes to suicide with the ghost over a cliff. And they turn into pretty little butterflies because this is supposed to somehow be a happy ending. Well, I call bullshit, sorry. A little kid is dead, the ghost might be gone, but a little girl is still dead now. I don't feel any catharsis at all, your butterflies are nonsense. Is this supposed to be uplifting or something? Well it isn't. Its silly, its awful, its the movie being ruined by its ending.
Yeah, I know sometimes there just aren't happy endings to things. "The Orphanage", a Mexican horror movie also produced by Guillermo del Toro, had a really depressing ending, but that one actually fit the story, and I don't recall any goofy butterflies trying to tell me that everything is okay. Worse, Jessica Chastain only ten minutes earlier actually was able to liken up for a moment and have a moment with the little girl who got killed, so there could have been a happy ending. The entire relationship between Chastain and the girls was pretty understated, and unfortunately it was supposed to be the main point of the movie. At best, "Mama" could have been a mediocre movie with a decent premise, but now its merely a bad movie that couldn't get its tone right.
And seriously, that is one awful-looking ghost. January... man.
* She isn't quite as cold as she was in "Zero Dark Thirty", because they actually gave her a character in this beyond "bitchy". You know, psychological underpinnings behind why she wouldn't want children, how she wouldn't be suited to be a parent, and she even actually changes as a character as the movie goes by. I know "Mama" still isn't a good movie, but I'd say its generally better-made on a character level than "Zero Dark Thirty", and to me that's probably the most important thing.
** The ghost appearing effect is the same "wall turns black, moldy, and oily" that I just recently saw used in the truly awful horror movie, "The Apparition". That was a far worse horror movie than this, but its still unfortunately I have to be reminded of something so horribly mediocre.