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 ~ Get on Up

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd

Director: Tate Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As I mentioned in my review of the trailer for Get on Up, my dad was responsible for introducing me to the music of James Brown.  I remember he had several cassettes of Brown’s hits in his car and though I liked his early music just fine it was his later smash “Living in America” that I requested most often.  May dad passed away in 2009 and watching this long overdue biopic of Brown I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have grooved with this well made, if overly sanitized, look into the life of the Godfather of Soul.

Being a James Brown fan I was a little leery about how this PG-13 biopic chronicling Brown’s rise to fame would tackle some of the more R-rated aspects of Brown’s life and career.  The answer to that is it treats some of Brown’s run-ins with the law, drug use, marital problems, and allegations of domestic abuse as anecdotes to his story rather than events that played a huge role in the path his career and life ultimately took.  It’s more reverentially respectful to the man once called Mr. Dynamite than condemning.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.  The movie is designed to be an audience pleaser, thundering along with hit after hit…not making you wait for the music like June’s Jersey Boys, which seemed afraid to let their Broadway-trained actors actually sing the songs crowds know by heart.  As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t do any singing of his own but impressively lyp-synchs to Brown’s vocals.  And what vocals!  The sound design is appropriately loud and immersive, allowing ticket-buyers the opportunity to hear every horn and funky beat that Brown and company laid down.

Director Tate Taylor wasn’t the obvious choice to helm 2011’s adaptation of The Help and he’s an odd choice for this one too…but he brings a certain flare to the screen that matches well with Brown’s larger than life personality.  Working from an oddly structured script by brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (already represented this summer with Edge of Tomorrow), Taylor brings along several of his ladies from The Help for comfort and winds up giving them another chance to shine.

The script has its problems though.  The brothers Butterworth opt for a fractured timeline to tell their tale, beginning in the 80s before quickly moving backwards, forwards, sideways, and such to other years in Brown’s life.  I get that the standard narrative of biopics is straight-ahead-with-no-stops but what happens here results in confusion of time and place, making it difficult to see how certain events of the past influenced the star in the future.  It also conveniently places emotional arcs right where they need to be, peeking with a poignant (though well acted) crescendo shortly before the credits roll.  It’s as if the film was put together randomly, rather than from a place with strong narrative intentions.

The randomness of the scenes could have been a death sentence for the film had the performances not been so terrific.  Boseman (Draft Day, 42) takes on another real life story and knocks it clean out of the park.  The first time we see him as Brown he’s walking down a shadowy hallway before a concert late in life with Brown’s recognizable swagger.  Then we see his face and for a moment I wasn’t sure if it was Boseman or stock footage of the real man he’s portraying.  Boseman nails Brown’s raspy voice and rapid fire delivery and acquits himself as a dancer quite believably.  It’s a fully realized, galvanizing performance that signals Boseman is just getting started in this business.

Maybe even better than Boseman is Nelsan Ellis (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as Brown’s second in command, confidant, and life-long friend.  Meeting an imprisoned Brown while performing with his gospel group in a local penitentiary, Byrd takes him under his wing and allows him to fly even after Brown outgrew his old band mates.  Ellis too lyp-synchs quite well and goes toe-to-toe with Boseman in several highly charged scenes.  It would be great to see Ellis nab an Oscar nom for his valuable supporting contribution to the film.

Rounding out the cast is Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as Brown’s absentee mother, Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) in a marginally realized role as Brown’s aunt running a shanty town brothel, & Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), contributing less than his fair share as Brown’s agent.  All are merely there to bridge gaps between scenes where Boseman and Ellis can do their thing.

Though it misses opportunities to dig into some sensitive territory, Get on Up is nonetheless a pleasing bit of entertainment that accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell the James Brown story through music.

The Silver Bullet ~ Get on Up

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Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

Release Date: August 1, 2014

Thoughts:  One of my earliest musical memories is my dad owning the soundtrack to Rocky IV on vinyl and playing it while he went through his workout. Though Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” may be the most closely associated with the third sequel of Sylvester Stallone’s popular franchise, the song I always dropped the needle on was James Brown’s horn heavy whopper “Living in America” and its remained a personal favorite ever since.

Though The Godfather of Soul has been gone for nearly eight years, a biopic of his life is just now making its way to the big screen in a late summer slot. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and featuring Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) as James Brown I’m wondering why the previews I’ve seen so far haven’t made me as excited for this film as I think I should be. In addition to Boseman, Taylor has hot screenwriters Jez & Jon-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), a fine group of actors like Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), and has the music not to mention the real-life drama to produce what should be a slam-dunk. Yet I’m left feeling that this will be a surface dwelling account of Brown’s rise to stardom and the troubles of the drug and legal kind won’t be lingered on for long.

I hope I’m wrong because done right, this could be the kind of music biography that gets the crowd on its feet.