In “Mama,” things get scary when a custody fight enters the supernatural realm

“Mama” is unique in a couple of ways. First, it is a little horror movie that stars a current Academy Award nominee, and second, it grew from a three-minute short. And by the way, it opened with a healthy $28 million at the box office, also unusual for a horror flick.

The brother-sister team of Andres Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti made the short film, which received a boost when Guillermo del Toro saw it and decided to be executive producer for the feature-length production. The multifaceted del Toro, who has been a driving force behind such projects as “Kung Fu Panda,” “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” knows a few things about scary things — you’ll see stories by him in the horror section of the bookstores. He has said he believes mothers can be one of the scariest characters in horror stories, noting that Alfred Hitchcock did very well exploring in his movies horrible mothers and the consequences.

With del Toro aboard, the Muschietti siblings’ little film has grown into a creepy tale that has the effective chilling elements, including children in peril and people whose lives are thrown into dangerous disarray. Andres directed the movie and shared writing credit with Barbara — who also served as producer — and Neil Cross, creator and writer of the award-winning crime drama television series “Luther.”

The best break for “Mama,” however, was getting Jessica Chastain, nominated for Best Actress for “Zero Dark Thirty,” for the key role of Annabel. Chastain’s Annabel adds texture to the story by playing a young woman not only knocked away from her comfort zone but soon facing deadly ramifications.

“Mama” begins with a prelude in which a man at a Wall Street firm, Jeffrey, in the midst of a financial and psychological meltdown, kills a few people, including his estranged wife. He then scoops up his young daughters, 3-year-old Victoria and year-old Lilly, and flees. But on an icy road he loses control of his car, which plunges down a hill. But all three survive the crash and struggle on, finding an abandoned and secluded house — that’s always bad news. Jeffrey’s attempt to close down his tragic life via a murder-suicide is dashed by some unseen force. The little girls, abandoned, soon learn there is someone — or something — else in the house to at least keep them fed.

Five years pass. While authorities have given up on finding Jeffrey and the girls, Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones”), assisted by a couple of grizzled old hunters, continues to search. One day the old guys come across the house and find the girls, now 8 and 5, alive but primitive.

Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel are basically starving artists. He draws pictures and she plays guitar in a punk rock band. But he is intent on raising the girls, if they can be rehabilitated back into a normal life.

Trying to block the custody is Jean (Jane Moffat), sister of the girls’ slain mother. Although she clearly would be the better option for the orphaned girls, Lucas has an ally in Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who would like the girls to stay local, rather than be relocated with Jean across the continent, so he can continue to study them. Dreyfuss even arranges for Lucas and Annabelle to set up residence in a nice big house, rent-free.

While Victoria (Megan Charpentier) has managed to retain some vocabulary, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) knows only one word, “mama,” skitters around crab-like on all fours, likes to hide in empty boxes and prefers to sleep on the floor under Victoria’s bed.

Soon strange things are happening. The girls talk to and draw on the walls. Moths are fluttering around, coming from holes in the dissolving wall. Lucas has a frightening encounter that lands him in the hospital.

Annabel finds herself in an unfamiliar role as a mother. Chastain, who has adopted the chameleon capability of Cate Blanchett to look different in each role she takes, bears little resemblance to her appearance as the CIA agent Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Normally a redhead, Chastain dyed her hair black and cut it short to become Annabel, who also adorns tattoos. Annabel not only has to shed her self-absorption as she cares for Victoria and Lilly, she also finds herself alone in trying to figure out what’s going on. In Chastain’s expert hands, Annabel transforms from a living-by-the-minute, mostly irresponsible person to a determined care-giver.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dreyfuss in his research discovers some disturbing history related to the abandoned house where the girls survived for five years. The usual skeptic when it comes to supernatural issues, he soon is challenged to change his thinking. But he also fails to realize that when people of academic standing start poking around in these ghostly matters, they set themselves up for an abrupt demise.

Since it is obvious some sort of entity has attached itself to Victoria and Lilly, “Mama” relies on the usual creepy tactics of flickering lights, doors opening and closing by themselves, shadows and figures appearing behind oblivious people, and the unraveling of the mystery of just what the entity is, to sustain the story. There are not a lot of gotcha scary moments, but the eeriness is palpable throughout. And with Chastain bringing some depth to what could have been a stereotypical characterization, “Mama” offers the chills, mystery and emotional punch necessary for a functional scary flick. Also, young Isabelle Nelisse was amazing, managing to make a 5-year-old child not only innocent and vulnerable but also an alarming channel for an angry/jealous spirit’s malevolence.

“Broken City” is yet another yarn about corruption in high places

Boasting a loaded cast, “Broken City” is a slick, polished but utterly predictable story that joins the ranks of movies that put politicians in an unflattering light. Here we have Russell Crowe portraying New York mayor Nick Hostetler, a man who has become so powerful and full of himself he believes he can pull any strings he needs to get what he wants. But then he tangles with a former detective named Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg).

Years earlier, Taggert was involved in a shooting that appears to have been an execution of a young man who beat a rape charge on a technicality. Although not enough evidence can be obtained to charge Taggert, he is let go from the NYPD. Now he is trying to make a living as a private investigator, a struggling enterprise as he never accepts fees upfront but later has trouble collecting money from his clients.

So when Hostetler calls him in and offers him a job, he accepts. Hostetler, in a tight battle for re-election with an up-and-coming politician named Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), wants Taggert to get some photo evidence that Hostetler’s wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is having an affair.

Aided by his loyal assistant, Katy (a scene-stealing Alona Tal), Taggert gets the evidence but is stunned to see that Cathleen’s secret meetings are with Valliant’s campaign manager Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler). Reluctant to turn the evidence over to Hostetler, especially after Cathleen confronts him and says he does not know the whole story, Taggert nevertheless is forced to give the photos to Hostetler. I paid for these, Hostetler reminds Taggert.

Within days there is a high-profile murder and Taggert realizes he has been an instrument in Hostetler’s dishonorable manipulations. So the ex-detective begins snooping, and there are no surprises here, as he discovers a major land deal Hostetler has brokered, much to his own financial advantage, the details of which the mayor would prefer to be kept secret. Trouble is, when Taggert confronts Hostetler, the mayor informs Taggert he is in possession of incriminating evidence on the former cop’s controversial shooting.

So the issue is whether Taggert will do the right thing and redeem himself, or allow Hostetler to continue his dirty reign. Any guesses as to what he does?

“Broken City” moves along at a brisk pace but does get derailed with a subplot involving Taggert and his struggling actress girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez), whose big break, starring in an independent film, features an explicit love scene that Taggert just cannot handle. Taggert, who had been on the wagon for seven years, falls off in one of those standard scenes of a person renewing his/her drunken habits, making a scene — a messy, ugly meltdown.

“Broken City” still is solid entertainment. Although Zeta-Jones is underused, Crowe is marvelous as the cocky, strutting mayor, a man who thinks he is above the rules. Wahlberg continues with his niche as a basically nice but flawed guy wrestling with a conscience but decent at the core.

In Search Of search is over …

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