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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 01.18.13] horror

Guillermo del Toro is still a golden boy. Over the years he's attached his name to various projects in the capacity of executive producer and his name continues to carry weight. The reason for that is clear: he doesn't support bad movies. Sure, some are a little hit and miss but for the most part, the offerings from the del Toro camp are worth noting and the roll continues with Mama.

Expanded from Andres Muschietti's three minute short movie from a few years ago, Mama is the story of two little girls, Victoria and Lilly who, through a series of convoluted events, find themselves alone in a cabin in the forest. Their uncle Lucas ("Game of Thrones" pretty boy Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has never stopped looking for them, spending whatever savings he had on a continued search for his brother and missing niecess.

Eventual success. Five years after their disappearance the two man search team finds the nearly unrecognizable girls living like animals. They're taken in for observation before eventually being released to Lucas and his rock musician girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) under one condition: continued observation. What Lucas and Annabel don't realize is that the shrink is searching for ghosts and he thinks he may have found something with the girls.

Supernatural horror movies, as this one clearly is, have a tendency for wacky plot points and story lines which only work to service the next scare and that's certainly a problem here. Bits and pieces of this story are fantastic while others just don't work. The opening, though it features a couple of really great scenes and an interesting observation on the economic crisis, is a ham fisted setup for getting the girls into the forest and under the care of the ghost while the movie's closing twenty minutes is a near farcical series of predictability that tries far too hard to play on a very fine emotional connection between Annabel and the girls. The ending shoots for serious but the CGI ghost is horrendously distracting resulting in an emotionally vacant, and somewhat laughable, closing scene.

Just because Mama is bookended badly doesn't mean there's nothing good. The goodness is in the middle and Muschietti certainly knows how to elicit scares. For the most part, the ghost is kept in the shadows, with only glimpses of a limb or hair to suggest something menacing around the corner. As is apparent in his short, Muschietti has a flare for sweeping camera movements and close ups, both of which are used to great effect on a number of occasions, effectively capturing the fear in a character's face without showing what is so terrifying. It's an old trick that works wonderfully here.

Coster-Waldau barely makes an appearance in the movie which focuses mostly on Annabel unknowingly vying with the ghost for the girl's attention and Chastain steps up to the challenge, channelling fear and insecurity into the character as well as a great amount of sympathy. The moment she connects with Lilly is beautiful and as effective as any scene in a great family drama.

Though it's not without problems, namely a weak opening and closing, Mama is effective, delivering scares even if it doesn't quite manage to live up on the family drama storyline.

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