Thursday, May 30, 2019

Party Mom: "Ma" a twisted, off-the-wall ride with a sensationally unhinged turn from Octavia Spencer

Ma (2019)
110 min.
Release Date: May 31, 2019 (Wide)

Blumhouse’s “Ma” might not directly deal with race, but it does shake up the typical slasher formula by taking the token African American character who usually dies first and making them the killer. Director Tate Taylor (2016’s “The Girl on the Train”) and screenwriter Scotty Landes offer a halfway-original premise, even if it goes where one pretty much expects, but they ultimately recognize what they have in Octavia Spencer’s sensational against-type lead performance. If one wants to say this longtime character actor turned Oscar-winner seems to be slumming it in a horror B-movie like this, it would be underselling all that Spencer does with what could have been a stock, over-the-top villain part. Unassuming as it is unhinged, “Ma” is a cautionary tale about teen drinking, a small-town intergenerational revenge story, and a slow-burn thriller all wrapped into one ghoulishly entertaining, off-the-wall package. 

Having left San Diego to start a new life, 16-year-old Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) has just moved to a small Ohio town with her casino-waitress mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), who grew up there. Maggie may be the new girl in high school, but she quickly falls in with a group of teens—nice guy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), party girl Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown)—who invite her to party. First, they need booze, so they make Maggie stand outside the liquor store to coax someone into buying it for them. Along comes vet tech Sue Ann  Ellington (Octavia Spencer), who reluctantly agrees and then later invites them to drink in the basement of her isolated home in the woods. She just wants them to be safe and even has them call her “Ma,” but Sue Ann does have one rule: do not go upstairs. The situation seems too good to be true, and eventually Sue Ann’s basement becomes the ultimate house party spot for the kids’ peers, but once Sue Ann’s hospitality turns into neediness by blowing up the kids’ phones and showing up outside their school, Maggie and her friends reject their host who increasingly unravels.

Beginning as an authentic drama about a mother and daughter starting anew, “Ma” is really a bonkers B-movie about a seemingly friendly and hospitable stranger who winds up being a psychotic nutcase when rebuffed. Working again with director Tate Taylor after winning an Oscar for her performance in “The Help,” Octavia Spencer receives her first lead role, where the film seems to have been built around her, and she is immensely fun to watch. In complete contrast with any previous role the actress has imbued with equal warmth and backbone, Spencer is unleashed and seems to be having a complete blast. It helps that Spencer is such a total pro, knowing just how to play Sue Ann as a human monster without coming across as a monster immediately. Upon Maggie and her new friends first meeting her, Sue Ann passes for normal, until a switch is flipped. She’s lonely and vulnerable, the sins from the past having taken a heavy toll on her psyche, and like anyone else who never felt like he or she ever fit into a clique in high school, Sue Ann wants a popularity do-over of sorts, only through any means necessary. Because of Spencer, the extremes Sue Ann goes to achieve her otherwise unbelievable plan is rendered plausible. 

Diana Silvers (2019’s “Booksmart”) is an appealing find as Maggie, who may be adjusting to a new school but comes across as approachable enough to make friends fast. She’s also uncommonly smart for a teen in a horror film, while the rest of the teens do fine with what they have been given and share a natural chemistry with one another, particularly McKaley Miller, a fun scene-stealer as the mouthy Haley. Beyond Spencer’s powerhouse turn, there is a whole ensemble to speak of, right down to the most unknown performer (Heather Marie Pate) who memorably plays a student making a habit out of falling asleep at parties. Of the other adults, Juliette Lewis excels the most in a would-be vanilla mother role, coloring it with edge and love as the strong-willed Erica, and Luke Evans elevates a potentially standard part as Ben, Andy’s father from Sue Ann’s past. Missi Pyle is underutilized as obnoxious floozy Mercedes, and Allison Janney (who also worked with director Tate Taylor on “The Help”) has limited screen time but makes the most of it with her sharp-tongued delivery as Sue Ann’s exasperated boss Dr. Brooks.

As Ma goes off the rails, “Ma” gets more wild and crazy, and yet, it still retains a macabre sense of humor even as abs are ironed and lips are sewn shut. A few final beats with Maggie might have made the conclusion feel less abrupt, although the image director Tate Taylor chooses to close his film on is chilling. The film wants to explore the psychological darkness of bullying and the pressure to fit in, and at times, Octavia Spencer classes it up and almost turns the absurdity into a tragic character study in trauma and desperation with unexpected gravitas and complexity. It might be tawdry, but “Ma” is a deliriously twisted ride that leaves audiences incredulous in the right way.

Grade: B

Monday, May 27, 2019

Bowed to Kill: "The Perfection" a lurid, steadily insane genre-hopper that keeps reinventing itself

The Perfection (2019)
90 min.
Release Date: May 24, 2019 (Netflix)

The pleasure of watching “The Perfection” lies in not knowing what is going to come next and how it will get there. Writer-director Richard Shepard (2014’s “Dom Hemingway”) and screenwriters Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder have concocted such a lurid, brazen, steadily insane ride that catches one off-guard as it keeps changing and shuffling through so many different thriller subgenres—an erotic thriller, revenge horror thriller, contagion body-horror and psychological thriller, and not necessarily always in that order—with nearly as much flair and tension as the best of Brian De Palma and Park Chan-wook.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) used to be a cello prodigy at Boston’s prestigious music conservatory Bachoff before she sacrificed her career to take care of her dying mother in Minnesota. A decade later when she reaches out to her former cello mentors, Anton (Steven Weber) and wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman), Charlotte takes a flight to Shanghai for a reception to celebrate the next generation of musical talent and meets Anton’s latest talented protege, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Wells (Logan Browning), who immediately took Charlotte’s place upon her leaving. As Charlotte and Lizzie fawn over each other with admiration and begin a friendship that evolves into something more, these two perfect pupils then get on a bus to tour China, until Lizzie begins to feel extremely sick. To say anything more would spoil the twisted delights and wild, what-the-fuck secrets.

Deliciously, compulsively watchable, “The Perfection” is a brew of duplicitous storytelling that keeps reinventing itself with each new turn and perspective rewind as cleavers and brain-burning, bug-bursting illnesses get thrown into the mix. Allison Williams (2017’s “Get Out”) and Logan Browning (Netflix’s “Dear White People”) make this two-woman show captivating as Charlotte and Lizzie’s relationship blossoms and keeps developing in unexpected directions. Once again playing a character who’s a far cry from Marnie on HBO’s “Girls” (Shepard directed twelve episodes throughout all six seasons of that series), Williams has honed such a poised, preppy façade of perfection just ready to crack and has a stealthy, deadpan delivery about her that later calls attention to the many layers within Charlotte. The stunning Browning is as much of a star as Williams, here going through quite the emotional wringer and making her arc involving as Lizzie. Steven Weber also subverts his usual wholesomeness as the young ladies’ demanding cello instructor Anton.

Director Richard Shepard plays with audience expectations like a violin—or a cello?—in never allowing them to predict what kind of film “The Perfection” will keep becoming. Is it a strange concoction of “All About Eve,” “Black Swan,” and “Whiplash”? Is it a sinister, heightened genre statement on the “Me Too” movement? It’s all of the above. Stylishly shot by Vanja Cernjul (2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”) and making countless uses for a split diopter lens (one of the film’s technical influences to De Palma), the film has a polished, classy look as a counterpoint to the ugliness that unfolds. Even if the narrative relies on the dominoes to fall almost perfectly, plausibility be damned, “The Perfection” rarely hits a wrong note as the bonkers symphony of perverse thrills and catharsis it achieves to be.

Grade: B

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Boy of Blood-Drawing Steel: "Brightburn" delivers what it promises as a bold superhero-horror blend

Brightburn (2019)
91 min.
Release Date: May 24, 2019 (Wide)

What if Superman was never a symbol for hope? What if his powers were used to do bad rather than good? While the film is never directly about Kal-El/Superman/Clark Kent, “Brightburn” certainly takes a similar mythos of the Superman archetype and subverts it with a what-if premise for a bold, mean genre blend of superhero origin story and bad-seed horror. If director David Yarovesky (2014’s “The Hive”) and screenwriters Brian Gunn (producer James Gunn’s brother) and Mark Gunn (Brian and James' cousin) sought to make the warped antithesis of what Superman has always stood for, they do succeed in that regard, satisfying those who are up for a film that doesn’t shy away from a pitch-black, dangerous vision.

Brightburn, Kansas couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) struggle to get pregnant, until one night when a tremor shakes their entire farmhouse and a baby literally falls from the sky. Years later, their “adopted” son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is celebrating his twelfth birthday, but he begins being drawn to the trapdoor in his parents’ barn, where Tori and Kyle hid the space pod he crash-landed in. Once Brandon is called by a voice from the spacecraft in the night, the pre-teen does its evil bidding when his alien powers manifest. While Kyle’s best friend and brother-in-law Noah (Matt Jones) and Tori’s school-counselor sister Merilee (Meredith Hagner) chalk up Brandon’s angry, superior attitude and acting out at school to puberty, Brandon’s parents realize that their son’s origins might have something to do with their precious boy wanting to harm a hair on everyone’s head, including their chickens. 

Delivering on its bloody, R-rated promise, “Brightburn” should make even the toughest genre customers squirm when one of Brandon’s hapless victims pulls a shard of glass out of her eye and another loses his jaw. As Brandon’s diabolical plan escalates, there isn’t much more complexity to his transformation than a once-decent kid becoming pretty single-minded and relentless. Even so, as effectively played by Jackson A. Dunn, Brandon Breyer does become a creepy extraterrestrial slasher donning an unsettling hand-made cape attached to a red ski mask that could catch on as a Halloween costume this year. Elizabeth Banks injects warm humanity and a cool edge into the role of Tori, a loving mother who would do anything for her child, even if he displays signs of otherworldly psychopathy, and David Denman does fine work as well as Kyle, who’s comparatively quicker on the uptake in realizing that Brandon is not the sweet boy they thought they raised.

The narrative sometimes feels disjointed in its timeline before Brandon goes full Evil Superman, but as a testament to what makes the film work more than not is its simplicity and ballsy willingness to go as malevolent as it is allowed, particularly in a suspenseful set-piece set at a diner. Emblazoned with a nihilistic streak, “Brightburn” pretty deftly toes the line between being mean-spirited and just uncompromisingly nasty with zero hope in the end. By the end credits, which play Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” to eerie effect, the film opens up the possibilities for an entire franchise revolving around Brandon Breyer, and that might be the one shred of hope the film actually offers.

Grade: B -

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dirty Rotten Gold Diggers: Hathaway and Wilson find laughs where they can get them in tepid "Hustle"

The Hustle (2019)
93 min.
Release Date: May 10, 2019 (Wide)

A female-led redux of the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin farce “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” itself already a remake of 1964’s “Bedtime Story” with Marlon Brando and David Niven, “The Hustle” is at least a tad more inspired than its bland, forgettable title. It should be noted that the original working title, “Nasty Women,” was a better (and more relevant) one and more in line with this remake’s gender swap and throughline of men fearing and underestimating smart, clever women. Such a title change would seem like a merely cosmetic criticism, but it’s really emblematic of a sharper comedy having its teeth pulled. Director Chris Addison and screenwriter Jac Schaeffer, reworking the script by Dale Launer who reworked the original script by Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning, do flirt with a more subversive feminist bent, only to slavishly follow “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” scene for scene with a few contemporary additions (social media and Venmo) and a minor third-act switcheroo that it’s too bad the script didn’t color outside the lines more. For the mild, hit-and-miss amusement that is offered in "The Hustle," it is a testament to Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson who hustle hard to find laughs where they can get them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, even in a 2019 remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with women: a British-accented Anne Hathaway gets the posh Michael Caine role and Rebel Wilson is in the corresponding bull-in-a-china-shop Steve Martin role. Wilson’s Penny Rust is a low-level Australian grifter who catfishes gullible, pathetic men in New York City for their money, but once she’s nearly caught, Penny books it to the French Riviera, beginning her first scam by using a stock photo of a busty, blonde woman to spin a story about her sister being kidnapped and in need of ransom money. Hathaway’s Josephine Chesterfield is a more sophisticated operator who has made the south of France her turf to con men. Though she has two employees (Ingrid Oliver, Nicholas Woodeson) working for her, Josephine works alone, until Penny gets in her way. When Josephine thinks she’s put Penny back on a plane and reclaimed her territory, Penny ends up staying, as she’s ready to step up her game. The two con artists team up for a while, as Josephine lands the mark, strategizing that all men love to be heroes to a vulnerable woman, and Penny helps drive them away but not before making sure the men leave behind a high-cost engagement ring. Ready to call it quits on each other, Josephine and Penny both set their sights on unassuming tech millionaire Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) and compete for his affections. Whoever can out-swindle him out of $500,000 wins, and the loser has to get out of town. May the best con win.

Besides opening with the kind of delightful animated title sequence that seems to have been lost since the ‘80s, “The Hustle” starts off on shaky ground but improves a bit past its half-hour mark. Even if the situations adhere so closely to what came before and pale in comparison, it comes down to the stars being game and bouncing off one another. Anne Hathaway works her beguiling coolness as Josephine, and she is most amusing when putting on different identities and accents, whether it’s a simple, giggly, lottery-winning American or a German doctor with severely unorthodox therapy methods. Coming off her standout part in 2018’s gender-flipped spin-off “Ocean’s Eight” as a vapid but smarter-than-she-lets-on socialite, Hathaway clearly relishes the part of a powerful schemer and reminds how terrific she can be when performing comedy. Rebel Wilson feels a bit unchallenged here as Penny, coasting on her brassiest-person-in-the-room persona, but she is still more than capable of wringing laughs out of her physical antics, deadpan delivery, and improvisational skills, particularly when Penny pretends to suffer from hysterical blindness to earn Thomas’ trust and sympathy. As the earnest, impossibly wide-eyed Thomas, relative newcomer Alex Sharp (2017’s “To the Bone”) is charming, but there’s also an edge to him that makes the inevitable double-crossing not come out of nowhere.

Always on the cusp of earning bigger laughs but settling for sporadically amusing, “The Hustle” is a breezy, undemanding diversion for both anyone who has and hasn’t seen Frank Oz’s 1988 film, but it shouldn’t have been this tepid. The scenes involving Josephine’s “Lord of the Rings” scam, where Penny must play Josephine’s homely, locked-away, mentally ill sister named Hortense who sees herself as a fairy princess in order to secure diamond rings from a series of men, are more flat and strained than funny and certainly inferior to when Steve Martin performed the same ruse playing an overgrown toddler. There’s also little sense in why a montage is set up to have Penny practice her knife-throwing and scaling a hurdle, only for those skills to never come in handy. The freshest joke is a random throwaway sight gag of the back-and-forth of an airplane lavatory’s “vacant” and “occupied” sign, as well as Penny wearing a black leather dress that helps her camouflage herself next to a bunch of trash bags. It seems inspiration was low on the priority list after casting the two ingratiating stars as comedic foils because the switching of genders doesn't much change the fact that this material was done better the first and second time. Come to think of it, “The Hustle” was smarter and more wickedly funny when it was called “Heartbreakers,” an underappreciated 2001 mother-daughter con comedy with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Grade: C +

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Couple Trap: “The Intruder” a dopey, shout-at-the-screen thriller that’s kind of fun

The Intruder (2019)
102 min. 
Release Date: May 3, 2019 (Wide)

An ex-homeowner from hell wreaks havoc on a married couple who has just moved into his precious house in “The Intruder,” the latest entry in the boilerplate subgenre of “…from Hell” domestic thrillers. On one hand, it is a been-there-seen-that pastiche of 1990’s “Pacific Heights,” 1992’s “Unlawful Entry,” 2003’s “Cold Creek Manor” (which also starred Dennis Quaid as one-half of the terrorized couple), 2008’s “Lakeview Terrace,” and 2015’s “The Perfect Guy” (which also starred Michael Ealy as the Rebound from Hell), and then on the other, it is an entertainingly sleazy and dopey hoot. Director Deon Taylor (2018’s “Traffik”) and screenwriter David Loughery (2009’s “Obsessed” and the aforementioned “Lakeview Terrace”), both remaining in their comfort zone, approach this Lifetime-ready material on the most rudimentary level even in a post-"Get Out" world, but they do seem to recognize what kind of movie they set out to make. If one is willing to shut their brain off like its too-good-to-be-true married couple, “The Intruder” might be worthwhile for a Friday night with a preferably rowdy, liquored-up audience.

San Francisco advertising director Scott Russell (Michael Ealy) decides to finally give his wife, Annie (Meagan Good), what she wants: leave their chic penthouse and the hustle and bustle to settle down and eventually start a family. They find their $3.5 million dream home in the Napa Valley, and the estate called Foxglove (as in the poisonous plant) has been in the family for generations according to Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid), the former homeowner who introduces himself just moments after shooting a deer in front of the Russells. Charlie seems a little off, but he’s lost his wife to cancer two years ago and is set to move to Florida with his daughter. When the house turns out to be out of Scott and Annie’s price range, Charlie goes down in price, throws in the furniture and decor, and wants them to have it. Scott and Annie make the move, and once they settle in and make it their own, Charlie turns up one day to mow the lawn. Annie feels sorry for the widower, so she invites him for Thanksgiving dinner. As time goes by, Charlie keeps coming by the house unannounced, which makes Scott uncomfortable, and noticing changes to his house. Even though Charlie is supposed to be in Florida by now, Annie likes having a man around the house, or least she thinks she does until it takes her a while to discover that Charlie has more than a screw loose and isn’t ready to let go of his house.

As stock as its title, “The Intruder” is a commonplace but slick and watchable thriller designed to invite audiences to have a lively conversation with the screen. From the very beginning, we already know Charlie is a complete psychopath—a daydream of Charlie’s rage makes sure of that at Thanksgiving dinner—and will do whatever it takes to make Annie the new Mrs. Peck and move back into his house. Scott is the first to realize something isn’t right about Charlie, and his hotheaded best friend Mike (Joseph Sikora), who might as well have “Dead Meat” tattooed on his forehead, suspects Charlie burned the leather interior of his precious sports car with his own cigarette butt. Then there’s Annie, who is compassionate to a fault and more willing to give Charlie the benefit of the doubt than Scott by letting the seemingly harmless nutcase help her put up Christmas lights and inviting him inside for a bottle of wine when Scott is working late. Or, maybe she’s just oblivious and quite slow to catch on. Annie is so trusting, in fact, that she doesn’t even ask the right questions when Charlie shows up at her door with a pizza, somehow knowing that Scott is in the hospital for being clipped by a truck (who could that have been?).

Michael Ealy and Meagan Good are likable, attractive, and charismatic as Annie and Scott, and the camera loves them in close-ups. They seem to be so blissfully in love, christening their kitchen, although there is a hint of Scott having an affair in the past and his inability to not flirt with other women. Scott also has an anti-gun stance based on his brother being gunned down, which could have led to a more provocative blue state vs. red state conversation between him and "Bambi killer" Charlie but is presented solely as a throwaway detail. As for Annie, she tells Charlie that she freelances, writing empowerment pieces for a women’s magazine, but Annie is never once seen behind a laptop, only drinking a lot of red wine. Though Meagan Good looks like the kind of person with as much smarts as she does beauty, the viewer must accept that Annie has to play naïve and act slightly beneath her normal intelligence because she has never seen a thriller before, and there would be no movie otherwise. Ealy and Good are earnest because they have to be when Dennis Quaid, on the other hand, is committed to dialing it up and being crazier than a shithouse rat, using his joker grin to creepy effect and somehow channeling two of Jack Nicholson's two most iconic roles in one movie. Quaid gets few chances to ever play a bad guy, but here as Charlie Peck, he is a menacing, over-the-top B-movie psycho who just won’t go away, and it is admittedly a blast to watch him go for it, particularly in an icky scene that requires him to lick another character.

Director Deon Taylor has fun placing Charlie where Scott and Annie won't notice him, like having him leer in the shadows while the couple has a passionate moment in front of the fireplace or revealing Charlie standing in the hallway with a flash of lightning. Once it all comes to a violent head in the climactic showdown in Foxglove and rises in tension, the film does deserve points for delivering upon the expectations of the type of movie Taylor is making. There is a twist, if it can even be called that, that's absurd but on par with a lurid thriller that isn’t Hitchcock or even Verhoeven. Make no mistake, “The Intruder” is not a good movie—its plot is a foregone conclusion with contrivances and plot holes that are glaring even in the moment—but it is bat-shit crazy in a crowd-pleasing way without trying to be more. As is, this is decent trash.

Grade: C +