Cinema Dispatch: Ma

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Ma and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions

Directed by Tate Taylor

The only reason this movie has gotten on anyone’s radar is because of Octavia Spencer, and frankly it did its job quite well.  Sure, sometimes a horror film will pick up some serious talent like the new IT movie coming up or when Helen Mirren was in that crappy Winchester movie, but somehow this feels even MORE of a surprise and a genuine selling point.  IT’s gonna sell itself no matter what, but by having one of the most popular actors of the moment (and in the prime of their career) showing up and starring in your crappy horror movie is a coup that very few films can boast, and yet somehow there she is; on all the posters, in all the trailers, and even having an Executive Producer credit to boot! What was it about this movie that convinced such a great actor to whole heartedly come on board, and was worth her immense talent and valuable time to do so?  Let’s find out!!

Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer) is just your typical small town citizen.  She works as a vet, she walks her dog, and on occasion it seems that she can be convinced to buy alcohol for the local high school kids.  At least that’s what Maggie (Diana Silvers) finds out when she asks her to do it as she walks by the liquor store, and being the new kid in town she needs to deliver on the goods if she wants to get in with the popular kids.  One of the popular kids is Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) who Sue Ann seems to recognize, and after a moment’s consideration decides to get them the booze they need.  Not only that, she ends up opening her basement to them and other kids in the neighborhood as a safe and secluded area to drink where they won’t have to worry about cops and where Sue Ann will make sure no one gets their keys back if they can’t drive.  In fact, everyone seems to be so enamored with her that they start to call her Ma and everyone wants to hang out at her house!  However, things are not as rosy as they seem which Maggie picks up on after a while and she seems to have a dark side to her that’s just barely hidden beneath the surface.  Perhaps it has to do with Andy’s dad (Luke Evans) who she knows from years ago?  Maybe even Maggie’s mom (Juliette Lewis) who used to live here but moved away many years ago before returning?  Well they’re all gonna find out eventually because Ma’s house seems to slowly turned from party central to a house of horrors!  Will these kids learn of the terrible secrets lurking in Ma’s house as well as her tragic backstory?  What is Ma planning now that she has the children of this town wrapped around her finger, and can she somehow realize what she’s doing is wrong before it’s too late?  Okay, seriously.  Did Octavia Spencer lose a bet or something to be in this movie?

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“RELEASE ME!!”     “Not until we make thirty million on opening weekend.”

This uh… this is pretty bad.  It’s SHOCKINGLY bad in fact.  And the thing is it’s not like I had high expectations for this going in, but it still managed to surprise me with how bad it got.  I didn’t think Blumhouse was making movies this bad anymore, naïve as that thought may be, but everything about this movie screams horror flicks from two decades ago; when there were no expectations for quality and the genre was still considered lesser than most others.  We’ve had HUGE strides since then with Blumhouse itself often being a leader in that change, but I guess the higher the quality gets the harder things crash when they fail, and BOY is this an fail of epic proportions.  Whatever Octavia Spencer wanted out of this movie I hope she got it, because she sure as heck didn’t get a good movie out of it.

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“Thanks for making this movie, Miss Spencer!  Here’s your check!”     “Yeah, how about we double it?”

If there’s nothing worth praising about this movie (spoilers, there’s not), I can at least say that I KIND of understand what Octavia Spencer saw in this role.  The movie doesn’t do her any justice, but taken in isolation and just looking at her specific character and all that’s rolled into it, it DOES look like a solid role.  Had this movie been more like a Taxi Driver or American Psycho where we see the whole film from her perspective this could have worked because, as sloppily as its handled, you do understand the trauma that Sue Ann has gone through and why (at least to a certain extent) she would want to take revenge.  A better written story would have done more with her character and even the town itself as some sort of hotbed of debauchery that wronged her in a way that cannot be forgiven, and you do indeed get shades of that throughout the movie, but the execution is utterly botched through poor editing, bizarre story beats, and a narrative that pulls away from her to instead focus on the teens.  And the thing is, this ALSO coud have worked with the premise they had!  Probably not to the degree that a Sue Ann solo movie would have, but you can see traces of a Coen Brother’s style ensemble film, albeit with a darker subject matter, just bubbling under the surface of a generic teen drama.  There’s SO much history just under the surface of each scene, yet I never got enough of a sense of that or of the other characters who were part of Sue Ann’s tragic backstory.  Supposedly Maggie’s mom was a part of all this, but I defy you to remember who she was or what she did in the flashback scenes, and Luke Evans should have been the focus of Sue Ann’s aggression and not just someone who comes in and out of the narrative!  How do you take a solid premise like this and proceed do EVERYTHING wrong with it!?

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“If anyone here is being held against their will, blink twice.”

I’ll TELL you how you do everything wrong with it!  With an attitude that STILL thinks high schoolers acting out is good and salacious content!  UGH!!  It’s downright creepy how much of this movie sexualizes minors, and I KNOW the actors are all in their twenties (some to a hilarious degree), but the fact that the camera is just drooling over its teenager characters as they drink, make out, and even get naked at certain points feels like a total throwback to the more skeevy periods of horror.  It’s so jarring to see this right after Booksmart which ALSO dealt with teen sexuality and drinking, but that one was done so much more tastefully.  First of all, because all the characters in THAT were at least eighteen and we are expected to believe the characters in here are sixteen, but even more importantly is that these topics felt relevant to the characters and their arcs and weren’t there for titillation.  Catharsis, sure, but it never felt exploitative or Superfluous the way that it does in this movie.  Now aside from that I think that Maggie is a pretty well rounded character and Diana Silvers has to do a lot of heavy lifting dramatically, but she ultimately feels tertiary to the story despite being the POV character, and it’s like that for basically everyone else.  Aside from Octavia Spencer, a character’s relevance to the plot is in inverse correlation to the amount of screen time they get.  Luke Evans is barely in it as is his girlfriend who was the primary bully against Sue Ann, Maggie’s mom is in here more than them but I don’t think she even shows up in the flashbacks, and Luke Evan’s son who you’d think might have some conflicted feelings here given what we eventually learn is in this far less than Maggie!  Did NOBODY proofread this script before they started filming!?

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“I think we got the script pages mixed up?  There’s no way I have this many lines.”     “We’ll fix it in post.  Let’s just make the day.”

Even beyond the myriad of story issues and the weird framing of it all, this movie is just kind of poorly made across the board.  There’s not much in terms of style or creative camerawork and the editing doesn’t do a great job of establishing time.  I don’t if this movie takes place over a series of weeks or months, and several times we’ll do a hard cut to a significant amount of time later without an establishing shot, a fade, or a montage to give us a clue.  The film’s scares are pretty minimal as well which on its own isn’t necessarily a criticism if the movie wanted to be more of a psychological thriller or even a character study, but everything about this movie’s production screams cheap horror fluff (not to mention the presence of Blumhouse’s logo) and the film doesn’t really deliver on that.  Then again, the grubby nature of the darn thing might appeal to some in the audience, but it did absolutely nothing for me; especially when it tried to awkwardly cram in heavy subject matter into such a hollow experience.  This kind of goes back to what I was saying about Octavia Spencer’s role KIND of working in isolation where the film does some decent stuff with her character, but it’s undercut by the rest of the movie around it.  Someone who suffered what she had to go through and the consequences that had on the on rest of her life should make for a good movie, but I wouldn’t exactly call it fertile ground to build a junk horror flick on top of.  One scene she’s being humiliated and the scene is framed as sympathetic to her, but the next she’s doing creepy stalker stuff which I don’t think fit together all that well and has some rather unfortunate implications about those who suffer from bullying; especially when it comes to a twist pretty late into the movie that MIGHT have had the potential of saying something about the cycle of abuse, but it just doesn’t mesh together at all.  Most importantly though, this movie is just boring.  The film was so inconsequential that the audience I saw the movie with was loudly talking throughout the whole thing which I didn’t mind because it at least kept things interesting when the movie was utterly failing to do so.

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“Quit looking at your phone and watch the movie!”     “You already have our money, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT!?”

I usually have at least one terrible horror movie on my worst of the year list and this one might just go the distance.  It certainly doesn’t have the craftsmanship and creativity of Escape Room, and while this plot definitely had the POTENTIAL to be better, it just falls flat whenever it’s not outright off-putting.  To some, I think this WILL work for them, the uncomfortable nature of it all combined with such a heavy backstory for Sue Ann, but it just didn’t do it for me and I can’t really recommend going out to see this.  Even when it gets a home release, it’s probably not worth your time, but Octavia Spencer is pretty good in it and maybe being able to fast forward just to see her scenes will make this a much more watchable experience.

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