Chastain does horror in 'Mama' and why I care about movie awards

Jessica Chastain, who burst on the film scene last year with head-turning performances in "The Tree of Life" and "Take Shelter" and an Oscar-nominated performance in "The Help," may be on her way to her first Oscar win. The actress received an Oscar nomination last week for her magnetic turn in the controversial "Zero Dark Thirty," and is a front-runner to win Best Actress.

Even though "Zero Dark Thirty" just opened in wide release last weekend, Chastain has another new movie out this weekend. She's got top billing in "Mama," but as most stars of horror movies know, it's not really the actor on display, it's the genre itself. "Texas Chainsaw 3D" didn't open at No. 1 two weeks ago because audiences wanted to see Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager and Tremaine Neverson (who?). They wanted to be scared. (It must not have worked because the movie had a 76 percent dropoff in tickets sold during week two — can you say bad word of mouth?)

Luckily for Chastain's reputation during Oscar season, "Mama," about two feral children and a mysterious mother-figure entity that watches over them, isn't a complete disaster. It just suffers from the usual things that trip up average horror movies: way too many plot contrivances and coincidences. Here's the problem: filmmakers going for mainstream horror hits (not the thriving underground indie festival horror scene) know that mainstream horror audiences expect everything to be explained. So that's what "Mama" does.

Daniel Kash has the unfortunate task of doing that. As the psychologist who sets all the contrivances in motion in order for the plot to function, he is stuck with all kinds of expository dialogue. At one point — which was surely added after test screenings let director Andrés Muschietti know that audiences wanted even more explanation — Kash spells everything out in a wholly unnatural voiceover narration that comes out of nowhere.

Chastain is actually quite good as a rock musician not ready for adulthood who becomes a reluctant guardian of the young girls. The visual effects and sound design are unique too, and a pleasure to watch, even when the suspense isn't really working. Producer Guillermo del Toro (who directed the evocative "Pan's Labyrinth") should have let more things stay ambiguous and encouraged first-time director Muschietti to concentrate on the mood. Maybe then "Mama" might have been able to rise above the mire.

Good movies rising above the mire is precisely why I get so excited during movie awards season every year. (How's that for a segue?) I will fully admit that Hollywood handing out awards to itself each year during a glamorous, black-tie event is pretty unseemly. Yet I still care about the Oscars. I get worked up every year over which movies and performances are getting attention. It means something to me, and I know that it shouldn't. After all, what investment do I have in these films?

A lot, it turns out. I am a tireless advocate for films that move me. I take that emotional investment very seriously. If having a big, glitzy award show is the only way to get certain films noticed on a bigger scale, then I'm all for it.

For example, would anybody be writing about and talking about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "Amour" in the past week if they both hadn't received surprise nominations for Best Picture and Best Director? No way. On top of appreciating them both as great works of art, I had a visceral reaction to these movies. (They both appear on my Top 10 movies of 2012 list, "Amour" at No. 1.) I am absolutely thrilled to see them become a part of the conversation, right next to multimillion-dollar Hollywood films like "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Life of Pi."

Is it possible to say definitively that one movie is the Best Picture of the year? No. But America thrives on competition. Look at the top-rated shows on TV: "Monday Night Football," "American Idol," and "The Voice." If it takes a televised competition (which people mainly tune into to see what celebrities are wearing) to put these challenging films in the spotlight, then so be it.

By the way, "Beasts" director Benh Zeitlin and "Amour" director Michael Haneke are about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. Thirty-year-old first-time filmmaker Zeitlin shot the $1 million-budgeted "Beasts of the Southern Wild" on 16mm and cast non-actors in the lead roles. Haneke is a prickly 70-year-old Austrian provocateur who says he makes films to challenge what he calls "barrel-down" American cinema.

Regardless of who wins next month at the Oscars, the real benefit of this silly awards show that I adore — with all its excesses and foibles — is already happening. People all over the country are renting "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Amour" is getting a big box office boost. ("Amour" will probably screen next month at Liberty Hall.) That's enough for me.

Besides, I like a good competition.


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