Movie Review ~ Ma


The Facts
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Synopsis: A lonely woman befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.

Stars: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis

Director: Tate Taylor

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Since it was founded in 2000, Blumhouse Productions has made a name for themselves in producing low-budget films that make a killing at the box office. Often making double, triple, or quadruple their budgets back in opening weekend monies alone, these movies don’t need to survive on word of mouth to turn a profit and are seemingly content to burn fast and bright before slipping into your streaming queue. Firmly arriving in 2009 with Paranormal Activity and following that success with its numerous sequels, it was 2012’s Sinister and 2013’s The Purge that truly made other studios sit up and take note. Knowing Hollywood, it was likely due to the millions shelled out by movie-goers for these horror flicks but having an established star such as Ethan Hawke as the lead in both must have also piqued their curiosity.

These past years the company continued to establish ties throughout the film business by teaming up with other production houses to nab similar big stars like Jennifer Lopez (The Boy Next Door) and James McAvoy (Split & Glass), delve into serious Oscar-y fare (BlacKkKlansman), and even tried to get into the animation to live action craze (Jem and the Holograms). The low-budget horror is still their bread and butter, though, and titles like The Gallows, Happy Death Day, Insidious: The Last Key, and Happy Death Day 2 U will keep their coffers full and make sure they have financing to explore other genres.

The latest get rich quick flick released to theaters is Ma. Made for around $5 million dollars (and grossing four times that opening weekend), it’s one of the more prestigious projects to emerge from Blumhouse and not just because it boats three actress Oscar has recognized (two with wins, one with a nomination) but because it’s not exactly the movie it’s purports to be. Since the advertising has already shamefully spoiled several key scenes for you, you likely know what a visit to Ma’s house will be like…but the journey to get there has some unexpected turns in the road.

Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) is adjusting to living in a small town and trying to blend in at her school after being uprooted from her city life by her mother (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear) who needed a change. Returning to her hometown, Erica hopes to start fresh and a job slinging drinks at a local casino isn’t going to change the world but it’s a place to start. While she figures her life out, Maggie is befriended by The Breakfast Clu, or more accurately, a quartet of stock high school characters screenwriter Scotty Landes has vaguely sketched out. As most teens do, they spend their free time driving around looking for ways to get into adult mischief and that brings them face to face with the seemingly harmless Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water) when they ask her to buy them alcohol.

Befriending the teens and becoming their regular supplier, Sue Ann eventually not only makes time for them in her day but makes a space for them in the basement of her remote homestead. Turning it into underage party central, Sue Ann serves as pseduo den mother to the town kids looking to drink and do drugs without getting caught…but her focus always comes back to the original five who first caught her eye. Eventually (and far too late for everyone else in the audience) Sue Ann starts to give the gang the creeps and they ghost her, bringing to the surface old wounds from her own high school experience she’s been hiding. Speaking of hiding…what secrets is Sue Ann keeping in the upstairs area no one is allowed in?

Director Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl and the Train) manages to make use of the first hour or so of Ma to create a rather compelling portrait of a fractured woman who manipulates others as a justified defensive mechanism. She strikes first before they can injure her and that’s what makes her so unpredictable – you never know what will set her off. The more we learn about Sue Ann’s backstory and why she becomes so invested in the lives of these high schoolers the more we can form the slightest sliver of sympathy. It’s nothing new and not anything that hasn’t been done before and better in revenge tales but credit is due to Spencer for taking what could have been a cookie-cutter psycho killer and giving her some modicum of realized rationale.

The problem comes when Ma has to eventually get down to its horror business and converts from a psychological thriller to a gory horror film. The change is startling and workmanlike, performed with little heart or conviction. Formerly reasonably intelligent people turn into idiots and nothing lines up with the groundwork that had been laid for the last sixty minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me the entire cast and crew had been replaced with pod people – the shift is that noticeable. The bloodletting isn’t creative and aside from Spencer’s brief flirtation with castration (prosthetic genitals in hand and all) there’s little suspense to be had in the outcome.

Spencer, frustrated she wasn’t getting leading roles, signed on to Ma without reading the script because her long-time friend Taylor told her it might be a good project for them to reteam on. Although she helped craft the backstory which turns out to be one of the more successful elements of the movie, my guess is she’ll do her homework next time and read the material because she’s too good for the movie this turns into. Same goes for Lewis who has aged nicely into the mom role after playing the rebellious teen for so many years. Eternally underrated (like Spencer), Lewis is completely convincing as a cool mom with limits – if only the script had been more about her and Spencer. Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) and Missi Pyle (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are two more adults that unwisely enter Ma’s orbit, along with another recent Oscar winner who appears unbilled in a fun cameo…so I’ll keep their name a secret here too.  As for the kids, only Silvers makes much of an impression…much like she did in the recently released Booksmart.

I went into Ma thinking I knew how it would all turn out based on the previews and one poster that literally gives away one of the final scenes of the film. So I was surprised to find the first 2/3 of the film a fairly well-structured schlocky psychological thriller but ultimately disappointed that it devolved into what I expected it to be all along. My advice is to visit Ma’s…but leave early.

Movie Review ~ Jem and the Holograms

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a small-town girl catapults from underground video sensation to global superstar, she and her three sisters begin a journey of discovering that some talents are too special to keep hidden

Stars: Juliette Lewis, Molly Ringwald, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Ryan Guzman, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Though I found myself sitting through it often, I wouldn’t say that I was a huge fan of the Jem cartoon series that ran from 1985-1988. The animation was rough, the music was a little grating, and the focus on “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame” didn’t really register in my pre-teen consciousness. In the cartoon, Jerrica Benton is the owner of Starlight Music and, with the help of her holographic computer Synergy becomes Jem, a rock star singer taking the world by storm with her band the Holograms. They are often in competition with The Misfits, another all-girl band usually is up to no good and getting in the way of the Holograms success. It was fantasy entertainment to the tune of 80s girl group pop rock and it was nothing if not a pleasant distraction.

Talk of a big-screen Jem has been raging on for years and what was initially planned as an animated feature morphed into the live-action doozy that’s being released 27 years after the series ended. If you aren’t familiar with the cartoon you may be willing to give the filmmakers a pass in what is in the end another in a long line of failed female driven franchises. Banking on the success of Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Universal Studios enlisted director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels to produce a new take on Jem and it’s a miscalculated failure on nearly every level.

First off, this should never have been a live-action film. The appeal of the cartoon was the colorful world of fantasy and fashion the series nailed in its relatively charming low-budget way. The concept of a holographic computer creating images and scenes to protect its owner isn’t that far removed from the kind of animated offerings released by major studios today. Plus how often have we had an all-out rock cartoon, and a female-led one at that? If anything, a feature length cartoon of Jem should have found its way to theaters in the early nineties after the series has ended.

Landels hollows out the film down to its bare bones, leaving most of the names intact and switching the gender of the main antagonist. Jerrica Benton is a meek singer/songwriter too scared to go out on her own still living with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3), and two foster sisters (Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau). Times are tough and their guardian aunt (Molly Ringwald, Sixteen Candles) is in danger of losing their California suburban home, threating to split the tight-knit family apart. When Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and records a late night acoustic song, Kimber uploads it onto YouTube where it becomes a viral sensation overnight, rocketing Jem to stardom.

This is when the movie first shows signs of jumping off the track. The sudden stardom of a YouTube superstar is something director Chu knows a thing or two about having helmed Justin Bieber’s film Never Say Never. There are definite parallels between Bieber’s swift rise and Jem’s quick ascent to pop culture icon, though I think Bieber released more than one song before audiences went totally wild. The film tries so unsuccessfully to have us believe that Jem causes a commotion based on one melancholy song that I half expected the entire movie to be a dream at the end.

Before they know it, the executive of Starlight, Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear, who is either brilliantly badass or crazed campy…I still can’t decide which) is guiding them through make-overs, pop-up concerts, and red carpet walks that leave the girls in a daze.   Erica’s son, Rio (Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door) is charged with watching over the band and, shocker, he develops a thing for Jerrica that threatens his relationship with his scheming mother.

Synergy is now a tiny robot, the kind you’d by at a Brookstone for Christmas and sell at your garage sale the next summer, and it presents the opportunity for the film to have one interesting nugget to keep audiences awake for the next 118 minutes (it’s so long…so very long). You see, before Jerrica and Kimber’s dad died, he left Synergy unfinished and the little bot wakes up when they enter Los Angeles offering clues to a treasure hunt of sorts. So while Jem is struggling with her newfound fame (the film takes place over the course of 30 activity filled days), Jerrica is on a personal quest to finish the work her father started.

Musically the film isn’t that memorable. While Peeples has a pleasantly sweet voice she lacks the overall presence and star power needed for Jem. Her big solo number comes across as Lady Gaga light, performing in front of limber back-up dancers (when did they rehearse?) that kept my attention more than she did. As a group, Jem and the Holograms aren’t that distinguishable from any number of girl groups populating the music landscape now. I kept waiting for The Misfits to make an appearance, challenging the girls to up their game in the music department. Sadly (and maybe spoiler alert?) there are no Misfits to be had and the group works their way through two generic sounding ditties. The overall message in Jem and the Holograms is learning to love yourself no matter what life throws at you or how scared you may be to show who you really are and it’s a worthy one…but it comes in such a neon colored empty bucket of a film that I wound up just wishing it was printed on a T-shirt. Chu fills the film with all kinds of social media interjections, randomly cross-cutting cinematic scenes with YouTube videos of undiscovered music acts. There are also a healthy number of testimonials from those personally affected by Jem discussing what her music means to them. I couldn’t tell if these were all scripted or if they were people actually honesty linking their personal experiences to Jem. It’s so heavy with current social media that in five or ten years’ time it will be looked at as a time capsule of the here and now.

I would have liked to see the movie either become a full-fledged musical (an impromptu a capella moment on a beach had potential) or be a period set piece with all the excess of the 80s. Instead, it’s a film in serious need of autotune.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jem and the Holograms

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Synopsis: Music executive, Jerrica Benton, lives a secret, adventurous life as a glamorous rock star named Jem.

Release Date: October 23, 2015

Thoughts: When I heard Universal Studios was getting behind a big screen treatment of the ‘80s cult cartoon Jem I was looking forward to a neon-colored camp odyssey that maintained the more fantastical elements while bringing the rock heroine forward into a new millennium.  After viewing the first trailer for Jem’s silver screen debut I’m…pretty bummed.  While I’m sure it will strike a chord with the Pitch Perfect crowd, this looks like a piffle of a mash-up of Josie and the Pussycats and Dreamgirls more than it does the Saturday morning flash-fest that inspired it.  Nice touch having ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles) onboard and I’m never going to say no to a Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear) appearance…but yeesh…this looks terrible.

Movie Review ~ August: Osage County

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.