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Movie Review: “Mama” Or, “Breaking the Curse of Halle Berry”

Sections: Academy Award, Movie Review, Movies

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movie poster for "Mama"

Yo. Mama.

Every now and then, a rising actress (or actor, but for now I’ll use actresses) comes along, soaking up the spotlight and seemingly captures the imagination of the movie-going public, as well as the La-La Land gossip sites. They churn out buttery performance after buttery performance, turning well-written roles into once-in-a-lifetime performances. They can do no wrong – whether talking about box-office receipts or within the harshest critics review.

Then they take any of that buzz and all of that golden momentum and manage to screw it up by picking the most anemic script that they come in contact with for their next vehicle – which is, more often than not, a toothless, generic horror film.

It’s almost as if it’s a curse; kind of like the “Poltergeist” curse, only less violent. Maybe we can call it the “Curse of Halle Berry.”

Berry is arguably the poster-girl (a gorgeous one, at that) for this phenomenon, as she went from winning “Best Actress” Oscar gold in 2001 for bearing her soul (among other things) in “Monster’s Ball” to following it up with two, god-awful horror/sci-fi films – the trapped-in-the-nuthouse fable “Gothika” and (in my opinion, the worst superhero movie of all-time) “Catwoman.” In fact, Berry actually won a “Worst Actress” Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) for “Catwoman” in 2005. So, basically, she went from the “Best” to, essentially, the “Worst” in four years time.

Just take a look at the level of talent that’s been affected by this “curse” recently.

First off, there’s Jennifer Lawrence – the young star of “The Hunger Games” franchise, who happened to sandwich two Oscar-nominated performances in “Winter’s Bone” and “Silver Linings Playbook” with the awful and utterly forgettable “House at the End of the Street.” 

Then there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who gave a fantastic, balls-out, Academy Award-nominated performance in the psychologically-disturbing thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with she followed with a starring role in “Silent House,” which was the psychologically-dull, (nowadays obligatory) English language-remake of the Spanish, real-time horror flick. “La Casa Muda.” Even though “Silent House” was technically finished before “Martha Marcy…,” it was released in theaters after – so I say it counts, dammit.

At this point in the review, you’re probably asking yourself, “What in the hell does this crap have to do with the recently-released, ghostfest “Mama?” To put it simply – Jessica Chastain - that’s what.

Yes, that same Jessica Chastain that warmed our hearts and was nominated for a “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar, last year in “The Help.” Yes, that same Jessica Chastain that is the odds-on favorite to take home this year’s “Best Actress” Oscar for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

And… yes, that same Jessica Chastain that cut her hair short, dyed it black, drew on some fake-tattooed arm sleeves, threw on a Ramones t-shirt and learned how to hold (don’t know about “play”) the bass for her role as the angst-filled, not-ready-to-be-a-Mom Annabel in “Mama.”

From “Zero Dark Thirty” to I wish I wasn’t thirty.

Now, it’s not like these movies aren’t financially viable. In the two weeks since it’s opened, “Mama” has taken in almost $50 million at the box office – opening up at #1 and only slipping one spot to #2 in its second week in theaters. It’s just that, how shall I put this… What the hell is wrong with these actresses? I mean… Why do they keep picking these awful, run-of-the-mill fright flicks when they, in all probability, have better scripts and/or projects that they could partake in? In all honesty, the money most likely has something to do with it, not to mention the financial profitability… wait… is that the same thing? Well, then it’s got to be the cash, right?

Regardless, whatever the reason behind the “Curse of Halle Berry” is, Jessica Chastain, believe it or not, is seemingly immune to it.

Almost 600 words into this review, I’ll finally put it out there…. “Mama” is a good movie. There, I said it – and I meant it, too. This film is a well-constructed, disturbing, unsettling horror movie that keeps you in a constant state of uneasiness.

The film starts out at a fast pace, putting you right into the middle of a situation that seemingly has no escape and can’t have a happy ending. I won’t give away any of the finer points of the plot, but eventually the events that occur leave two toddler-age sisters to fend for themselves in an abandoned cabin (“Who’s house?” and “Why does it have a 1970s motif?” are two of the bigger plot holes) with an ghostly, yet helpful, entity floating around.

Credits roll, the word “Mama” is scrawled onto the screen in a child’s handwriting style, and a series of Crayola-based drawings show the audience what the girls had to go through in the five years since they were left in the funky, ghost cabin. Needless to say, both children, – Victoria and Lily, have such an overwhelming case of feral child syndrome, they make Nell and Tarzan look like British Royalty.

That being said, the kids that play post-PTSD Victoria and Lily are brilliant and without their convincing portrayals of the “dogglers,” (see what I did – I combined the words “dog” and “toddler” and came up with “doggler” – brilliance, utter brilliance) the movie would have fallen flat and been corny and contrived.

But it wasn’t, it was far from corny and not a bit contrived.  In fact, it had a balanced pace, an eerie tone, and a well-built back-story that was constructed around a story of a… well… I shouldn’t give that away, either. I will say that there was an ongoing theme of security, protection, and all of the other factors that go with motherhood and parenting. And that’s where Jessica Chastain comes in.

Chastain (well, besides the two girls) literally delivers the only performance worth noting. Of course, the screenwriter Andres Muschietti, who also directed the film – with Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro’s blessing, only wrote well-rounded female characters. Not surprisingly in a film entitled “Mama,” the male characters are one-dimensional.

Although, some of them mean well – like the twin brother of the sisters’ father (I should’ve just said their uncle, right?) who shows a genuine interest in their well being or the psychologist who plays the obligatory investigative role. You know, the one in horror films that “finds out” about the antagonist’s evil and terrible history – i.e.: “Freddy Kruger’s mother was a nun who was raped by a hundred maniacs? Oh my God, I’m glad I did my research at the closed convent and found that out. Now, where did that nice nun go who told me about that? It’s like she vanished into thin air.” Dun…Dun…Dunnnnnn.

Chastain’s portrayal of Annabel was pretty honest regarding how a great number of this generation’s women aren’t ready for children. Especially the hipster, micro-brew swigging, Hot Topic-shopping, organic pasta-cooking, in-a-garage band  woman that Annabel is. Her transformation from not-giving-a-crap to powerful mama bear (pun intended) is raw and well-arched.

On a related note, I can’t say enough about the performances of Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse as the two kids. They are fantastic with the way that they interact with the character of “Mama” and Annabel’s budding version of real-life Mama, as well.

They seem to genuinely care about each other’s well being. It is actually pretty touching to watch the scenes they’re in, especially towards the end when they drift apart a bit.

There was some negative about the film, however. The original version of “Mama” was completed as a short film, which was also called “Mama” and directed by Muschietti .

That five-minute long film was, literally, more terrifying than the full-length movie – if only for the way that the “Mama” monster was shown on screen – and not shown, for that matter. I have three letters in the alphabet to blame for the way that “Mama” is shown in the full-length film – C…G…I.

The “Mama” ghost is shown waaaaay too much in full light on screen and is much creepier when filmed through a blurry lens or coupled with a flashing, strobe light effect or not shown at all. In the end, the ghost looked a little like the ghost from that crappy, tooth fairy flick “Darkness Falls,” when it should have looked more like the ghost from the short film – which looked to be created with make-up, not a computer. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

Overall, I recommend this film. It is actually scary. What a novel concept for a horror film. It’s probably one of the scarier films that I’ve seen since “Insidious” came out about two years ago.

All hail Jessica Chastain!!! Breaker of the “Curse of Halle Berry”!!!

 

At least for now…

 

 

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