Ma


Everyone ready to party with Ma?

(2020) Horror (Blumhouse/UniversalOctavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Dominic Burgess, Heather Marie Pete, Tate Taylor, Luke Evans, Margaret Fegan, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Matthew Welch, Skyler Joy, Nicole Carpenter. Directed by Tate Taylor

High school is a time when we find ourselves, or at least begin to. One of the things we explore is alcohol. It’s illegal – forbidden – so naturally, we have to check it out. Teenagers are natural contrarians to begin with, so telling them they can’t do something is tantamount to giving them incentive to do just that. A friend of mine who fancied himself a wag once said that the only way to get his teenage daughter to do her homework was tell her she wasn’t allowed to do it.

Young Maggie (Silvers) has moved to a small town in Ohio with her freshly-divorced Mom (Lewis). Her mother grew up there and still has a lot of her friends living there. Maggie is a bit on the shy side, but quickly makes a bunch of friends and just as quickly finds out that there’s not a lot for kids her age to do in town other than to score some alcohol and find a place to party, mainly in places that are probably not ideal for a bunch of drunk kids to hang out in.

Trying to get an adult to buy some liquor for them proves to be difficult until along comes Sue Ann (Spencer), a veterinary assistant who remembers what it’s like to be young. She offers her basement for the young people to party in, once she buys the laundry list of liquor that they provide her. She just has a few ground rules; no spitting on the floor, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, and under NO circumstances are the kids to go upstairs.

At first, the situation seems to be ideal – a safe place to get hammered, and Sue Ann turns out to be a fun party thrower. She gets everyone to refer to her as Ma, and soon she starts to become more and more entwined in their lives. It starts to get more than a little creepy and when the kids start to push back, they start to realize there’s something seriously wrong with Sue Ann.

Spencer won her Oscar under the direction of Taylor, so it’s no surprise that she turns in another brilliant performance here. Sue Ann is a complicated emotional creature and often her moods spin on a dime, from motherly to sexual to full-on rage-aholic. Sue Ann isn’t completely evil; there’s some pathos to her story and Spencer makes the audience believe that here is a seriously wounded psyche. We feel bad for her – until she snaps.

The problem here is that the most relatable character here is Sue Ann. The teenage kids with the possible exception of Maggie are all seriously self-absorbed and borderline cruel. Most of them are pretty much interchangeable. The adult roles have some strong actors, including Janney, having a ball as a bossy vet, and Lewis who for my money has been criminally underrated throughout her career.

The movie takes a while to get moving, but once it does Taylor knows what to do with it. Spencer is definitely the reason to see this, but she’s got some decent support – although not enough to elevate this out of middlin’.

REASONS TO SEE: Spencer gives her usual strong performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Hard to root for anybody in this typical “teens in trouble” romp.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it brutal – as well as sexual content, teen drinking and drug use, profanity throughout, and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor previously directed Spencer and Janey in The Help.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Uncle Peckerhead
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Pledge


The cast of a raunchy teenage sex comedy suddenly realizes they’re in a horror movie.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (IFC Midnight) Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Melanie Rothman, Jim Calello, Steve Lipman, Billy Thomas Myott, Sam Naismith, Jason Polinsky, Max Schuster, Emerald Toller, Keith Weiss, Natalie Walsh, Jackie Taylor. Directed by Daniel Robbins

 

Part of the college experience is rush week. Various fraternities and sororities try to lure potential members with parties, free booze and the promise of social acceptance and lifetime friendships. Of course, in some cases there is always the implied promise of a college career full of debauchery but that’s not always the case. However, those that do choose to pledge generally have to go through a series of tests that will test their limits, often to the breaking point.

Not everyone is accepted though. In the case of Ethan (Botello), Justin (Byrd) and David (Weiner), they have gone to party after party, often not even getting in the door. The three are freshmen who not only are socially awkward they wouldn’t seem out of place at either a sci-fi convention – or a raunchy sex comedy.

Disillusioned (although hope springs eternal for David), they are walking back to their dorm, with Ethan and Justin ready to spend the night there drinking when they meet Rachel (Boozer), a gorgeous and sexy coed who invites them to a party at a house somewhat more remote than the others they’ve seen. When they get there, they are treated to a party of well-dressed preppy sorts, and wonder of wonders the three (and two other seemingly less socially awkward guys) are accepted into the frat – excuse me, it’s a social club, not a frat – and the hazing begins.

Except the hazing starts with actual branding and goes downhill from there. The three pledges realize that they are in a world of hurt and in way above their heads. The three frat brothers – I mean, club members – diminutive Max (Dalla Villa), intimidating Bret (Pimentel) and enigmatic Ricky (Cowperthwaite) don’t seem disposed to letting anyone out the door but out the door the boys must go if they are to survive the night.

Frat hazing gone wrong movies are not in and of themselves anything particularly new. Sometimes these movies are fairly tame when considering the actual shenanigans that go on in college campuses nationwide. Weiner, who wrote the movie and conceived it along with Robbins and executive producer Matthew Barrett, seems to have based the lead characters on himself, Robbins and Barrett. However, their role model for the social club seems to be more Skull and Bones society rather than Greek.

The acting is solid if unspectacular and the violence here is occasionally unnerving. Robbins proves to be an adept director who does a lot with very little budget; every penny looks to be onscreen, and Robbins doesn’t waste a moment with unnecessary dialogue or exposition. He introduces the characters by showing how they are perceived by the frat brothers of the various fraternities they visit and eventually we get the sense that while their main character traits are pretty standard (overweight guy, minority and eager but clueless ringleader) Ethan and Justin show some pain at the way they are treated. They just don’t laugh it off. In fact while there are some decent comedic moments, the movie is pretty much played with a straight face.

Unfortunately, that’s where the real innovation ends. For the most part it’s a standard slasher film with a side of torture porn. It’s not going to rewrite the horror book – but it is pretty entertainment and most horror buffs should end up appreciating it. Those who are a bit more discerning may find it overly familiar.

REASONS TO GO: Robbins packs a lot of tension into the short run time; not a moment is wasted.
REASONS TO STAY: This film really doesn’t add anything to the subgenre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, much profanity, some sexuality and plenty of teen drinking..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers found the house they used as a filming location through AirBnB.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rockaway

Body (2015)


Pretty little liar.

Pretty little liar.

(2015) Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden, Adam Cornelius, Dan Brennan, Kimberly Flynn, Ian Robinson, Jack Brenner, Mike Keller. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all make mistakes in life but some can’t be taken back. When you make a really awful mistake, sometimes one bad decision can lead to a cascade of them.

It is the holidays and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen) and Mel (Molina) are bored. They’ve been at Mel’s house having a holiday feast and have been playing Scrabble. Like most young college-age women, they want to do something fun and smoking weed with Mel’s younger brother (Robinson) just isn’t it.

Cali then manages to convince her friends to move the party to her Uncle’s house which turns out to be a McMansion of the cavernous sort. The girls continue drinking, play vintage arcade games and horse around. However as Holly explores the house, it becomes clear that the family that lives there is Asian and Cali is most decidedly a blonde and blue-eyed Caucasian. When confronted, Cali admits that the house doesn’t really belong to her Uncle so much as to a family she used to babysit for.

The girls then decide to put an end to their festivities and leave but before they can get out, the groundskeeper (Fessenden) surprises them. A struggle ensues and Holly accidentally sends the hapless man tumbling down the staircase to the bottom where he lands with a sickening crack.

Now the girls have done something that can’t be undone. Cali becomes the alpha female and convinces her friends that while what happened was bad, it need not destroy their lives. They cook up elaborate plans to hide the body but before they do they discover that, in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s “not quite dead yet.” Now faced with a moral dilemma, they find their moral compass is spinning like a top.

Berk and Olsen, who also co-wrote the movie, have the three girls representing Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego and the superego. Cali is a shoot first and ask questions later kinda gal, whose only instinct is for self-preservation. Holly is the voice of reason, often drowned out by Cali’s hysterics. Mel basically floats in the breeze, going in whichever direction seems to be convenient at the moment. The dynamics between the three change with Holly or Cali asserting dominance and Mel’s support going to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment. It leads to some pretty gruesome acts by the ladies, complete with primal screams in case the Freudian overtones weren’t enough.

The girls are all fine actresses, veterans of a variety of indie projects. They do pretty well here, as does Fessenden who is one of indie cinema’s most recognizable names and faces. Some of the supporting cast doesn’t do as well, with one actor whom I won’t embarrass doing a noticeably awful job.

As thrillers go, the suspense level isn’t super high, but I think that the changing dynamics of the three leads is more the point than creating an edge of your seats thrill ride. This is more of a cerebral thriller although there are visceral elements to it (as when Helen tries to manufacture elements that a sexual assault occurred) which may be squirm inducing for some.

It’s a fairly short film, so the action is compact. The filmmakers do a lot with a little and that’s heartening. As first features go, this isn’t half bad but what bothers me is that there really isn’t anything terribly new or original here, although this kind of movie is generally done with male leads for which I give the filmmakers points. However, the plot is definitely something you’ll have seen before.

REASONS TO GO: Gender roles are a bit different than is the norm for this type of film. Love the Freudian aspects.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the acting is stellar. The escalating violence is a bit disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, teen drinking and drug use and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Slamdance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuck
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Imperial Dreams