Movie Review ~ Queen & Slim


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments.  From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut.  This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder.  It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.

Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out.  If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success.  I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it.  The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him.  He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time.  Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer.  All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion.  Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.

So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice.  That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences.  Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites.  Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions.  Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.

As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color.  Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place.  There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective.  Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner.  This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down.  A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been.  Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn.  Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.

It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic.  Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way.  He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one.  Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park.  As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways.  The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.

It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members.  I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand.  What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved.  Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts:  Ever since the first trailer for CATS dropped in July, it’s been the talk of the town and not in the way Universal Studios had hoped it would be.  The initial reaction to the starry cast including Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) being turned into digital felines was a mixture of hilarity and horror but once that first round of shock wore off I think there was a general curiosity to how exactly the movie would turn out.  Insiders had underestimated the power of a family-friendly feel-good holiday musical before and The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of that.  Still, CATS is a different beast and even though it continues to have it’s strong supporters (I’m a ride or die Rumpleteazer fan and will not apologize) plenty will line up to tear it down.  I was hoping this second trailer would smooth things out a bit and put some of those naysayers in their place but this is another weird looking swirl of kitty kat mayhem.  I mean, I’m fascinated more than ever to see it but it didn’t exactly calm my nerves.  The proportions are strange and the bodies seem weirdly matched to the heads…it’s all just so bizarre.  My mind is just…amazed.

With a little over a month left before the film opens, we’ll be getting more and more teases of CATS and that started last week with the release of a new song written for the movie by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber.  With the movie rumored not to be ready in time for early awards consideration (think Golden Globes), the song may be the best bet the picture has at getting an Oscar nomination.  Listen to it below.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Invisible Man (2020)



Synopsis
: When Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia’s works to prove she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Release Date:  February 20, 2020

Thoughts: In 2017, Universal Studios had big plans to create their own tentpole franchise by resurrecting their classic monsters in a new Dark Universe where stories/characters could crossover.  Announcements were made with A-list stars signed on and release dates staked out – this sounded like it could be something to get excited about and a nice alternative to the superhero series that had been dominating the box office.  Then, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise came out and completely tanked…uh oh.  As expected in this risk-averse era, everyone got cold feet and all the grandiose plans for the Dark Universe were scrapped.

It’s interesting, then, to see this first trailer for The Invisible Man make its debut.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) and starring Elisabeth Moss (Us), it appears this was made by Universal Studios without any restriction on future sequels or how it might fit into larger plans for existing projects.  That means it could be a nice little mystery building off of the name of the novel by H.G. Wells, though it doesn’t seem to share many similarities to 1933’s The Invisible Man.  I worry the trailer is a tad too long and wish it left a little more to the imagination…but there’s something intriguing about this concept and it makes me think of those slick ‘90s thrillers we don’t seem to get on the big screen anymore.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tremors

The Facts:

Synopsis: Natives of a small isolated town defend themselves against strange underground creatures which are killing them one by one.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne

Director: Ron Underwood

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’m sadly too young to have experienced the popularity of the B monster movie craze of the ‘50s and ‘60s that kept kids entertained during the afternoons and on weekends at the drive-ins.  There were no shortages of mutated tarantulas, scorpions that came from under the earth, radioactive lizards, or other pesky beasts that preyed upon fine upstanding Americans.  Now looked back on with some degree of novelty, these movies did some serious business and often had a fun tie-ins that made the film experience unique in a way that meant you had to go see it in the theaters so you’d know what everyone was talking about.  Seeing it on TV as the midnite movie later on just wouldn’t cut it.

While I may have missed out on that piece of movie-going history, I was lucky enough to be there for a tiny resurgence in the early ‘90s when creature features came back into fashion.  Before everything became overdone with CGI and lacked that life-like sheen, practical effects provided some nifty scares for audiences, which is why these films have held up better over time than releases that came several years later.  Having actors able to battle something actually in front of them (the more realistic, the better) raised the stakes and made for the kind of memorable moments I think audiences had all those years ago.  It didn’t need to be bloody, it didn’t need to be gory…it just had to have some intelligence to it and a little creativity didn’t hurt either.

Tremors is a sterling example of how to make a B-grade monster movie that feels like an A+ effort from all involved.  It’s scary in all the right places, cleverly keeping you on your toes (literally) for a large part of its economical running time.  Better yet, screenwriters Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson firmly establish their characters long before they’re have them eaten by an unseen creature attracted by seismic disturbances.  As an added bonus, they’ve somehow managed to make the film funny on top of everything else.  That the laughs come from character-based dialogue and not from physical humor shows how in tune the screenwriters were with the world they were creating.

Seeing no future for themselves in the dying town of Perfection, NV, handymen for hire Earl (Fred Ward, Silkwood) and Valentine (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day) decide today is the day they are packing up and heading out of this one horse town.  If only they had left just one day sooner.  Just as they are thinking of moving on, something else has decided to move in and it’s claiming the town and the neighboring valley as its own.  The warning signs come fast.  A seismologist (Finn Carter) notices an uptick in unexplained underground disturbances around the same time Val and Earl find several dead bodies around town.  Convinced there is a killer on the loose, the townspeople gather to form a game plan only to discover what’s really hunting them…and it’s not what they expected.  Now, they have to say one step ahead of (and above) something they’ve never seen before and find a way out of their valley town that’s as isolated as it gets.

Director Ron Underwood keeps things buoyant throughout the movie, keeping his foot on the gas and easing off only slightly along the way.  The film has a strong momentum to it so it never lacks for energy or risks losing our attention.  This is partly due to Wilson and Maddock’s screenplay finding a way to keep the townspeople moving into increasingly dangerous situations that require them to strategize a way to stay off the ground from the horror trying to grab them from the ground.  The other point of success is the tremendously enjoyable performances from Bacon and Ward as the good ole boys just going about their business put into the roles of heroes to townspeople that just the day before were paying them to clean their septic tanks.  It’s also noteworthy to see Reba McIntire in her first film role as gun toting survivalist’s Michael Gross’s equally excitable wife.  Like the rest of the small cast, she understands exactly what movie she’s in and plays it pitch perfectly.

Spawning several direct to video sequels that unfortunately did start to use those dreaded CGI effects to less than stellar results as well as a short-lived television show, there’s just no matching the original Tremors. It’s endlessly rewatchable and a fine solution if you are in a group of friends wanting to watch something scary but not too scary.  There’s something for everyone in Tremors and all should come out satisfied.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Christmas (2019)



Synopsis
: A group of students are stalked by a stranger during their Christmas break. A remake of the 1974 horror film Black Christmas.

Release Date:  December 13, 2019

Thoughts:  Though Halloween has often worn the crown as the original stalk and slash holiday film, 1974’s Black Christmas beat it to theaters by a solid four years.  Though it failed to make serious waves in its first release, the effective chiller (made by the same guy who gave us A Christmas Story!) has become a classic with countless imitators over the years.  It’s been remade once before in 2006 when rebooting old chestnuts was all the rage and didn’t do much but make audiences long for the simplicity of the original.  Now comes a 2019 version that seems to chuck everything but the title and the thin premise out the door.  While I’m most certainly down for any wintery horror arriving smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, I’m disappointed to once again see a trailer that gives away so dang much of the movie – where’s the restraint?  Starring Imogen Poots (Green Room) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), my interest dropped a few notches after seeing the preview and only because I feel like I’ve caught the gist of the entire film.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lawman Luke Hobbs and outcast Deckard Shaw form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain threatens the future of humanity.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eddie Marsan, Helen Mirren, Eiza González

Director: David Leitch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To their credit, Hollywood studios have been actively trying to elevate the summer movie to being more than just a two-hour mélange of special effects and explosions in a cookie cutter plot about world domination. For example, the sophistication of where Avengers: Endgame wound up is a far cry from the early days of the first Iron Man. Audiences have shown (in most cases) to have ever evolving and distinctively discerning tastes and the same old action movie just won’t do any more. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic comfort food and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of summer blockbuster entertainment.

With each installment growing in popularity and box office returns, it was a natural next step for the producers of The Fast and The Furious franchise to think about the future of the series and how to keep their product going. While the main series could keep speeding forward thanks to a seemingly never-ending roster of characters that rotate in and out, were there any fan favorites that could anchor their own film? When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) joined the group in 2011’s Fast Five, Special Agent Luke Hobbs quickly stood out thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and the way the writers worked his character from law-man adversary to comrade over the next three films. Jason Statham (The Meg) made the biggest change, with his Deckard Shaw starting as the revenge-seeking villain in 2015’s Furious 7, eventually switching sides and joining the crew…though he never did take a liking to Hobbs.

Even before The Fate of the Furious came out in 2017, this spin-off was already in the works and, depending on who you ask, it came at the right time. Some of the stars not involved were, um, furious that the next installment was going to be delayed while producers were focused on this stand-alone film and there is reportedly bad blood between Johnson and Vin Diesel regarding professional behavior on set. Best to let their biceps cool down on opposite sides of the world. That freed Johnson and Statham to team up with original The Fast and the Furious writer Chris Morgan and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch for a new adventure and it’s clear this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

In London, an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) ingests a deadly virus rather than let it fall into the hands of a genetically enhanced legionnaire (Idris Elba, Zootopia) sent by a mystery figure to retrieve it. Now on the run with a ticking time bomb flowing through her veins, her best hope is to rely on Hobbs and Shaw to help her find the scientist that created the virus and is the only one who knows the way to get it out of her safely. Adding to the complexity is a history Shaw has with the super-soldier unyielding in his pursuit and the fact the MI6 agent is his estranged sister. Together, the trio evade continue to evade capture in increasingly impressive action extravaganzas while Hobbs & Shaw learn to work as a team and put aside their beef.

Truth be told, the first half an hour or so of Hobbs & Shaw is a bit of a rocky ride. The set-up of these films is usually the weakest part and that’s the case here, not to mention the film having to juggle re-introducing two main characters sufficiently before they can bring them together. There’s frankly too much time spent getting the guys in the same frame and that feels like wasted energy for a movie that thrives on pure adrenaline. A useless cameo by Ryan Reynolds (Life) as an annoying co-worker of Hobbs grows tiresome almost the moment it begins, though I could have easily spent more time with Shaw visiting his cheeky mum (Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) in prison. It’s when the two meet up for the first time when the movie kicks into gear.

With Statham and Johnson doing what they do best, it’s no huge news bulletin to note they are both extremely watchable and have terrific chemistry. They have a nice yin and yang sparring about them that never goes too far and never falls in favor of either man. Though the film throws in some nice surprises along the way (including one great cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) it remains focused on its two leads while leaving space for others like Elba and Kirby to shine. Speaking of Elba, his next-gen soldier might be a bit far-fetched and not fully explored but he doesn’t oversell the advanced tech power he possesses. As with most of his performances, Elba looks like he’s having a great time and that energy is infectious. As the lone female leading presence, (though there are several females in power positions besting their male counterparts, a nice touch) Kirby holds her own impressively both in the dramatic scenes and in the physical stunts and fights she’s involved with. Kirby’s star is definitely on the rise and her performance here only cements that ascent.

With an edge of your seat finale set in beautiful Samoa, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is an out and out audience pleaser that elicited the first mid-movie applause I’ve heard in quite some time. Even clocking in at 135 minutes (including multiple post-credit sequences… completists will need to sit through a lengthy credit crawl for a final scene) the movie justifies its length by giving you every bang for your hard-earned buck. Sure, it’s a silly ride at times but it’s an exciting one all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts: I mean, I literally was speechless after I got done watching this first trailer for the long-awaited (by some) film adaptation of the international hit musical CATS.  Since it premiered in 1982 on Broadway there has been buzz of a film and though a purrrfectly decent direct to video movie was made featuring Broadway and London stars there was always a Hollywood version slinking around.  Boasting a star-studded cast with the likes of Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) among others, I was holding out some hope this might quell some persnickety naysayers that have always turned their noses up at the show.

Yeowch!

I’m sufficiently creeped out by this preview, though, and even more amazed they let Hudson sing ‘Memory’ in its near entirety!  It’s the big 11 o’clock number…why give it all away?  Still…I’m more curious than ever to see how big of a dumpster fire this one will be.  I’m gonna get dressed up in my finest finery for the Jellicle Ball come December.

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.

Movie Review ~ Us

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother and a father take their kids to their beach house expecting to enjoy time with friends. But their serenity turns to tension and chaos when visitors arrive uninvited.

Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Jordan Peele

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I don’t think anyone expected 2017’s Get Out to be the massive critical and commercial hit it eventually became. Though the early trailers looked intriguing, it’s January release and low-grade buzz didn’t cause Hollywood to give it much more than a second glance. Besides, did one half of a television comedy duo have the goods to deliver a social commentary thriller in his first time out of the gate as a writer/producer/director? Well, a huge box office take, multiple memes, endless cultural analysis, and an Oscar later I think Jordan Peele proved he had more than an inkling as to what he was doing. So when his second feature, Us, was announced, everyone held their breath to see if the sophomore slump would strike someone everyone was now rooting for.

A mere two years after Get Out landed with a bang Peele is back with a film that’s bound to be compared to his previous work but is actually a different experience all together. Where Get Out was a slow-burn thriller, a clear (and clever) response to the then current political climate when it was made, Us is pure horror and doesn’t dig quite as deep into what divides us as a community but instead turns the attention into what defines us as individuals. It’s no less thought-provoking but is resolutely aiming for any exposed nerve where it can strike…and strike hard.

Arriving at their California lake house outside of Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Non-Stop) and Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther) are ready for a serene weekend with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). It looks to be an ordinary few days. The kids bicker like most siblings do while the parents settle in. Gabe has bought a boat he wants to take for a spin around the lake but first he has to convince Adelaide to spend the day at the beach with their casual friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss, The Old Man & the Gun) and Josh (Tim Heidecker, Ant-Man and the Wasp). Yet there’s something about the beach at Santa Cruz that puts a knot of fear into Adelaide…and we’ll soon find out why.

To give away much more than that would possibly delve into spoiler-territory and I wouldn’t want to reveal any of the secrets the film has been wisely holding back in its carefully curated promotional materials. What I can tell you is nothing the previews haven’t already given away. Another foursome confronts Adelaide and her family on their first night, a family that looks an awful lot like them, a family that may have a link to a traumatic incident from Adelaide’s past that has come to haunt her present, a family we come to know as The Tethered.  And they have a rather unique score to settle.

Peele drops clues to what’s happening along the way but most are only obvious in hindsight as you drive home or start to discuss the film in the parking lot with your friends and loved ones. Like Get Out, Us will be a movie that is fun to dissect long after it’s finished and already ranks high on the re-watchability scale. I also appreciated that Peele kept the movie mostly within the realms of acceptable reality. This is not a supernatural movie where people walk through walls or events occur that are totally unable to be explained. It amps up the tension and makes you feel like what’s happening could conceivably take place. Even if all the pieces don’t quite line up under our modern microscope, there’s enough giddy ways that things fall into place that I was able to forgive the elements that didn’t quite get resolution.

While Get Out was a fairly solid movie considering the budget and novice of those involved, Us represents a leveling-up of all elements. Peele’s already present confidence as a writer and director has grown even more, this is clearly an individual that knows his film history and respects the process.  He has an eye for what looks good and crafts several sequences that are not only technically difficult to construct  but are visually impressive as well.  Everything just looks wonderful in Us. The production design, costumes, cinematography, and score are all key players here and add to the overall effect the film has on its audience. If any of these areas were weak it would have left the film feeling off-kilter in unintended ways. So many horror films that take place in the dark are hard to see but even in dark settings you can follow everything that takes place (though you may be watching it from behind your fingers covering your eyes) and Peele blessedly sets many scares in the stark daylight.

Nyong’o already has an Oscar for her devastating work in 12 Years a Slave and if I had any say in the matter she’d be in the running for another one for the stunning work she turns in here. Playing a dual role that requires her to play two very different sides of a complex coin, she separates the characters so much that when she shows up for the first time as her other character I actually didn’t believe it was her at first…even though I knew it was. It’s a total transformation and though through the wonder of special effects she can share the screen with herself it feels like there are actually two actresses on screen with one another at the same time. Both roles are infinitely challenging and tightrope walking in their level of skill and I can’t imagine any other actor working today who could have done what she did with them.

As he did on his first film, Peele demonstrates a keen eye for casting and has filled the rest of his cast with standouts from top to bottom. Duke is a great match of Nyong’o, he’s a laid-back dad and supportive spouse that holds his own with his formidable co-star. Joseph and Alex make good on going the extra mile in difficult roles for young actors and complete a convincing family unit with Duke and Nyong’o. In their small supporting roles, Moss and Heidecker are appropriately awful in their triteness. Moss especially seems to enjoy basking in her California housewife attire and saying things like “it’s vodka o’clock”…something you know the actress has never said (and would never say) in her entire life.

A huge part of the fun in Us will be for audiences to experience it in theaters with a crowd. While Get Out worked like gangbusters on the big screen for an initial viewing, it’s thriller nature leant it to play just as strongly if you saw it for the first time at home. Yet I think Us will best be enjoyed first and foremost if you’re shoulder to shoulder with another person getting the same jolt you are.