Friday, May 31, 2019

'Ma' Ma Mia!

Ma loves you. A LOT.

Classic slasher movies tend to follow familiar formulas: teenagers getting knocked off by a mysterious stranger who is eventually revealed to be someone with some kind of grudge, usually having to do with neglectful or mean teenagers in their past. Ma follows a bit in that vein, but omits some of the mystery. There's no doubt Ma is nuts, and doesn't have her teenage posse's best interests at heart. But the why is revealed slowly, as is the extent of her insanity.

Set in an unnamed southern town (though filmed in Natchez, MS), the film establishes our Final Girl immediately. Maggie (Diana Silvers, recently seen in Booksmart), and her single mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have recently moved to town, but it doesn't take long for Maggie to make friends with the cool kids: party girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and a trio of boys, including insta-boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

The group's go-to fun time is drinking at the Rock Pile, which is, literally, a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. Getting booze for these jaunts requires hanging outside a liquor store and begging an adult to buy up for them.

Enter Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first adamantly against it, she eventually gives in, for reasons that are very obviously ulterior, especially after she makes sure the kids get caught that evening. When she conveniently runs into them again, she tells them they can drink in her basement. After all, it's better than them driving around drunk, right?

She quickly earns the nickname "Ma," and before her complimentary Pizza Rolls are even finished, her basement is the new hot ticket, although there are rules: there has to be a designated driver, and no one is allowed to go upstairs.

While partying in a middle-aged stranger's basement doesn't seem particularly odd to the teens at first (because, one, drunk, and two, dumb teenagers in a horror movie), when Ma starts to send them incessant texts and video messages, practically begging them to keep showing up, they get wise, and spread the word that Ma is a little weird, and they should probably stay away from her party den.

Which gets back to Ma....

At first, we just assume Sue Ann is a lonely woman who gloms onto the kids out of a combination of concern and lonely desperation. But flashbacks reveal Sue Ann has a history at their high school, and with some of their parents. But the pace at which those flashbacks are scattered throughout the film is off, both slowing things down, and remaining annoyingly enigmatic for the majority. We know something bad happened to her, but when they finally get to it, the event loses much of its impact.

Pacing in general is a big problem, as there's nothing gradual about Ma's turn from creepy to completely psychotic. In fact, her break is so sudden it ends up being one of the film's biggest laughs, which the movie could use more of. And indeed, there are clues that this is all being played for camp, the biggest being the presence of Allison Janney as Sue Ann's veterinarian boss, who spends all of her extremely brief screen time glaring or yelling at Sue Ann ("Sue Ann! Why isn't that dog shaved?!"). But Ma never truly commits to the camp.

(I'll also add that the fact that Ma works with animals had me tense throughout the whole thing, fearing she was going to murder everyone's pets. Happy to spoil it for the similarly nervous and say no dog dies, though one does get hurt.)

Director Tate Taylor worked with Octavia Spencer previously on the film The Help, which was firmly set in the south, and dealt with historical race relations. Ma is also centered on a black woman in the south, and yet race plays almost no part in the story. The flashbacks reveal she was the only black girl within her social group, and everyone she deals with as an adult is white. (Aside from one of the partying teenagers, and at least that doesn't go unnoticed or without comment)

By ignoring the topic, the film falls into the camp of unsurprising crazy killer stories, offering no real nuance, commentary, or subversion to the genre. It had me imaging what someone like Jordan Peele could have done with the same story. Perhaps he could have given us a film actually worthy of the all-in performance from Octavia Spencer.

Friday, May 24, 2019

'Booksmart' Schools The Teen Comedies That Came Before It


Booksmart, actress Oliva Wilde's directorial debut, is the first film of 2019 I immediately wanted to see again, both to catch the jokes I missed when they were drowned out by laughter, and because it just made me so...happy.

A ribald, raucous, and revelatory comedy centered on female friendship, it manages to firmly entrench itself into the annals of great teen comedies, while also flipping cliches, and avoiding the tropes that often make us look back at our teenage faves thinking, "Really? Really, now."

The story centers on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver), two high school seniors on the last day of school. Both have gotten into Ivy League schools, though that's not something they can brag about since class president Molly instituted a rule that seniors can't talk about their college admissions, lest it make lesser students feel bad.

You would expect two overachievers like Molly and Amy to be the butt of many a joke, and they are. But they also deserve some of the derision they get because they're a bit insufferable. And that's what makes them perfect heroines. They aren't just nerdy outcasts. They also have a tendency to be condescending and dismissive of their more carefree classmates. Which is why it comes as the most tremendous of shocks to them when they learn that a lot of those classmates also got into good colleges (aside from the one slacker who repeated a grade and is heading straight to a coding job at Google).

"How?!," screams Molly, "You guys don't even care about school!" "No, we don't only care about school," replies the girl known as AAA for reasons related to rumored roadside hand-jobs.

Realizing they spent four years needlessly devoted to nothing but school, Molly and Amy decide to pack four years of fun into one night. This means going to a house party thrown by Molly's underachieving but very cute student council vice president, Nick (Mason Gooding), if they can only figure out where it is. (Unsurprisingly, they weren't invited.)

The resulting evening is filled with both the things you'd expect from a teenage comedy, and surprises. While Molly and Amy are looking to possibly hook up with the objects of their affection, that's not the sole purpose of their evening, which is instead a broader YOLO smorgasbord of shenanigans. (That Amy is gay is nicely presented as long established fact, and only her Christian parents, played by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, who are comically over-accepting of it, ever seem to give it much thought.)

There are plenty of times where we laugh at Molly and Amy, but also plenty of times when we laugh with them. And what I found most refreshing is that not once are Molly's or Amy's looks the object of derision. There are no jokes centered on weight, or their level of attractiveness. At one point, a student even talks about how he'd totally get with Molly, if he could only put a paper bag over her "butter personality."

And yes, perhaps that's not a realistic portrayal of high school life in the age of the bully-in-chief. But it sure is a nice break from stereotypical cinematic mean girls who always seem to pop up in high school comedies to do nothing but be mean and pretty. Instead we get girls like Gigi (Billie Lourd, perfection) a rich party girl with an almost shamanistic supply of insight and hallucinogens, and Hope (Diana Silvers), who is, yes, mean and pretty, but also...well, I won't give it away.

Director Wilde perfectly weaves the film's raunch and warmth, perhaps best demonstrated during Molly and Amy's conversation about masturbation and the involvement of a beloved stuffed animal, while also throwing in some truly gonzo bits of surrealism (animated Barbie dolls are involved). It's rare to see a comedic debut so masterfully assured.

And Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Deaver are so, so good as the BFFs, I almost assumed they actually did know each other for years in real life. They didn't, but apparently Wilde suggested they immediately become roommates once they were cast in the film. It worked. That familiarity paired with the script by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, gives us the most believable pair of besties since...well, since Ilana and Abbi bid us farewell a few months ago.

Booksmart is being compared to 2007's Superbad, both because of the subject matter and because Beanie Feldstein's older brother Jonah Hill starred in it. And while I liked Superbad just fine, I ultimately came away from it feeling like it just wasn't a movie made for me (and that period shaming scene wasn't the only reason why, though it was a big part). Booksmart had the opposite effect. It's the teenage comedy I wanted as a teenager, and as a young adult, and now, and forever.

Friday, May 10, 2019

'Poms': Diane Does Death

"Is that Angelica Huston twerking?!"

In a recent interview promoting her new film John Wick: Chapter 3, Angelica Huston threw some major shade at Diane Keaton's latest women-of-a-certain-age comedy, Poms. To wit:
Quite honestly, I’m looking for movies that impress me in some way, that aren’t apologetically humble or humiliating like, “Band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah,” you know. An old-lady cheerleader movie. I don’t like that kind of thing. If I’m going to be an old lady — and I’m sort of touching old lady these days — at least I want to be a special old lady. I don’t want to be relegated to some has-been making a comeback. I hate comebacks.
Yikes! Did Diane Keaton murder Angelica Huston's puppy or something? Is there some kind of longstanding feud between them since they both dated Jack Nicholson? Or did Angelica just see the Poms script, and couldn't help herself? (She has since apologized. Kind of.)

Because the truth is, she's not wrong about the movie. It would be more fun to watch a passive aggressive exchange between Angelica Huston and Diane Keaton centered on anything than it would be to watch Poms.

Now, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with an old lady cheerleader movie, or an old lady comeback movie, or just an old ladies being old ladies movie, if done well. But Poms is nothing but (a blissfully brief) 90 minutes of wasted opportunity and talents.

In a lot of Diane Keaton movies, Keaton essentially plays Keaton, her quirkiness filling in for character development as needed. But in Poms, her quirk just isn't equipped to do that much heavy lifting. Within the first five minutes of the movie, we learn basically everything we're ever going to know about her character, Martha: she's unmarried, never had kids, is not seeking treatment for a recent cancer diagnosis, and is moving from some unnamed city to a retirement community in Georgia.

Why's she giving in to death? What was her life like? Was it a good one? Why Georgia, of all places? Does she have any friends or family to speak? We never find out the answers to any of those questions. There's plenty of time to show Martha puking into various toilets as her illness progresses, but apparently not enough to develop her into anything resembling an actual person.

Except, of course, for the cheerleading thing, which is either a missed opportunity that has haunted her her entire life, or just something she's reminded of because she finds her old cheerleading uniform in a moving box. Really, either could be true, as it's nothing but an inelegant plot point stuck in the movie so it can get to the old ladies trying to start a cheerleading squad.

Of the pompon squad, Jackie Weaver gets the most development as Martha's outgoing and randy next door neighbor, Sheryl, while Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman, and Phyllis Somerville get painfully few opportunities to shine. The rest of the squad are relegated to background players.

Which leads me to wonder, if the film isn't going to bother using the acting talents of those other actresses, why not just hire older dancers instead? That way, the cheerleading scenes would actually be executed well, instead of the painful and ineptly choreographed routines director Zara Hayes tries to convince us are rousing and worthy of viral popularity. While Poms would like us to believe the cheerleading is some kind of metaphor for dancing in the face of death, the inspiration falls as flat as a drunken sorority girl on top of a pep squad pyramid.

Friday, May 3, 2019

'Long Shot' Comes Out Ahead

Note: the hats are not hiding head wounds

While Long Shot does open with a scene in which journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) suffers a blow to his head (and, well, his entire body), that accident does not lead to some kind of head trauma-created alternative reality in which women like the beautiful and powerful secretary of state Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) find him irresistible; I guess that conceit is reserved for the ladies. Instead, we're to accept this is a romance based in reality.

And that's fine! Beautiful people fall in love with shlubby people all the time! I just wish when it came to Hollywood, that scenario wasn't relegated to the realm of fantasy for one of the sexes.

Following that slapstick-filled opening, the alternative weekly Brooklyn paper Fred Flarsky writes for is bought by a right wing media conglomerate owned by the Roger Ailes/Rupert Murdoch-esque Parker Wembley (a heavily made up Andy Serkis). The very liberal Flarsky quits in disgust. His best friend Lance (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) attempts to cheer him up with a day of debauchery, and because Lance is rich (though it's never made clear exactly what he does), the night ends at a fancy benefit featuring Boys II Men, and a guest list that includes Secretary of State Charlotte Field.

Flarksy and Field have a bit of history. When he was 13, she was his 16-year-old babysitter, and he made his crush on her embarrassingly obvious. While he's never forgotten her, he's kind of hoping she's forgotten him, or at least, the more embarrassing parts. But she does recognize him, and their conversation helps her remember the idealist she used to be in high school.

Field is a skilled--and youngest ever--Secretary of State to an imbecilic president (Bob Odenkirk, nailing it) who seems to have been elected simply because he played the POTUS on a popular television show; (it's not unheard of!). She's set her sights on succeeding him, and needs to improve her public image a bit to boost her numbers. This means hiring an advisor (Lisa Kudrow, in a killer cameo), to help her improve things like her wave, and punching up her speeches with humor.

Enter newly-unemployed Fred Flarsky. Field's chief of staff (June Diane Raphael, in what would normally be a villainous role, but is thankfully more nuanced), is steadfastly against the hiring, but Field is adamant. So before Flarsky can even change out of his painfully ugly neon windbreaker, he's jet-setting around the world as Field's new speech writer.

Flarsky spends as much time as he can getting to know Secretary Field, in between her 10 minute, eyes-wide-open power naps, and during the seven minutes she may have between phone calls, and Rogen and Theron have a believable chemistry together. For the most part. When they end up having sex that results in simultaneous orgasms after 20 seconds of intercourse, I kept waiting for Secretary Field to roll over, laugh and say, "Ha ha, but seriously, get back here and help me finish."

And certainly, Rogen and Theron do look like an unlikely pair. Rogen is playing a pretty standard Seth Rogen man-child character, but his pairing with Theron as both his straight man and a comedic partner, helps make him more likeable than he has been in years. Their escapade taking molly at a Paris nighclub is funny. But Theron's scene handling a national crisis while still high is funnier than anything else in the admittedly pretty funny movie.

You can't have a romantic comedy with roadblocks, which include the belief Field's staff has that voters won't accept someone like her paired up with someone like him. They're convinced they'd be more accepting of a romance between her and the handsome but milquetoast Prime Minister of Canada (Alexander SkarsgÄrd, hilariously playing against type).

But it's a potential scandal with Flarsky at the center that is set up as the true roadblock forcing Field to choose between love and career. While the screenplay (by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah) does acknowledge just how difficult and unfair Field's being a woman has made her rise to power, it also exists in a world where Donald Trump as president doesn't, and never did, exist. In some ways this is problematic, as we're all too painfully aware that scandals aren't enough to convincingly bring down a presidential candidate any more, so why would they even worry about it?

But on the other hand, it also broadens the romantic fantasy. Sure, it's nice to imagine a happy ending between a seemingly mismatched couple. But isn't it even nicer to imagine a world where the last three years never even happened?