Movie Review ~ Ma

The Facts

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.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Raise the Red Lantern


The Facts:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry the lord of a powerful family. Fifty year old Chen has already three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. Each night Chen must decide with which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it’s hers. However, things get out of hand…

Stars: Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, Saifei He

Director: Zhang Yimou

Rated: PG

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The early 90’s were bountiful times for US audiences “discovering” foreign films.  While usually relegated to the small art-house cinemas, the independent film and foreign film market really exploded around the beginning of that decade.  Nowadays foreign films play next door to the latest slapstick comedy and indie films are being given their due.

Chinese films have always been of interest to me and the more they have a historical or cultural angle, the better.  Raise the Red Lantern was a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars in 1991 and was on numerous critics best of lists for that year and the decade itself.  As I’ve become more varied in my tastes in movies I’m starting to circle back to films like Raise the Red Lantern…films I was too young to see at the time or neglected due to other interests.  How much great cinema have I missed?

Li has been a major force in Asian cinema but has never really showed much interest in being a crossover star in the US.  Despite strong performances in Memoirs of a Geisha and the otherwise insipid Miami Vice, Li works steadily in China and is quite well respected.  She seems to excel at playing characters like she inhabits here – strong willed women that are difficult to like but layered enough to root for.

Opening on a close up of Songlian’s (Li) face as she and an offscreen voice of her stepmother weigh her options on a future, Songlian eventually makes the decision to become one of the wives of a wealthy Master.  Though the Master plays a large role in the movie, we only ever see him in long shots but never his face.  It’s a strong choice for Zhang to direct the movie and utilize the back of an actor’s head more than his face.  It works, though, in illustrating the detached nature of Songlian and her feeling toward the life she indeed chose for herself.

Newly dubbed Fourth Mistress, Songlian is appropriately the fourth wife and we are treated to several showcases of cultural significance regarding the pecking order of the wives.  It’s a theme that was revived in one of the plots portrayed in The Joy Luck Club.  Here though is a movie that is squarely centered on the wives and their various schemes to be in the good favor of the master.

Chief rivals for Fourth Mistress are Mistresses 2 and 3…both with their own secrets and tricks up their sleeves.  It could have easily turned into a cat-fight-y and bitchy battle of the wills amongst the women but there is high art to be had and a not-so-sincere smile is used in place of a nasty quip.  One is never quite sure who the good guy is which makes the developments of the last hour so deliriously watchable.

Fourth Mistress is no heroine and you’d be hard pressed to side with her in most occasions.  She seems unnecessarily selfish and cruel to everyone around here…but maybe that is the American voice in me talking.  We’re so trained in siding with the “new girl” but that is turned on its ear here…she can be as wicked as the next and true to form she sets into motion several major events that threaten to tear the household apart. 

Beautifully shot on a labyrinth of a compound fortress and aided by a score with a chorus of voices that is both ominous and soothing, Raise the Red Lantern is deservedly a high point in Asian cinema.  While it may be a bit too Westernized to truly speak to the cultural points of the era, it was tremendously entertaining and memorable.