Monday, September 30, 2019

Ma Knows Best

Anyone who's ever spent more than three minutes talking to me (be they friends or delivery people) knows that few genres excite me more than that of the psycho-biddy, often better known as hagsploitation but more classily referred to as Grande Dame Guignol. While it tends to offer more promises than satisfaction, the idea of casting middle aged women at the core of horror, often as both protagonists and antagonists (and occasionally at the very same time) is so darn refreshing for a genre that seems to feed on the young. 

It's been a lifetime since Auntie Roo chased some children and Baby Jane twirled her ice cream cones on that black and white beach, but there's a slight chance of hope that we're reviving the trope, at least if mid-budget studio horror of 2019 has anything to say about it. 

Quick Plot: Young Maggie has just moved back to her single mom's childhood town. Being a pretty white girl means she has an awful hard time fitting in, so much so that it takes a full half day before she's getting drunk with the cool kids in the local rubble park. Since Maggie and her new brood (somewhat) look their 16 years of age, they hang around outside a convenience store hoping to find someone over 21 to buy their booze.

Enter Sue Ann, a lonely vet tech who finds herself charmed by the teenagers, so much so that she invites them home to party in her very own basement. Before the semester is over, Sue Ann (who prefers to be called the titular Ma) has become the high school's most popular girl, hosting regular keggers as she tries to reclaim her own teen years.

As you might guess, Sue Ann isn't the healthiest or well-est adjusted of all adult figures. Played with a ferocious juiciness by Octavia Spencer, Ma is the kind of character you rarely find at the center of a film, much less one in the horror genre. 

Horror filmmakers can be very, very dumb.

Much like (the much worse) Greta, Ma's first mistake is that it doesn't quite trust its older, phenomenal lead actress to fully take charge. Spencer is clearly relishing her chance at playing the big bad, and Ma is never more alive than when she's being belligerent to her boss (Allison Janney! Playing second fiddle to Octavia Spencer in a horror movie! THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING!) or flirty with Maggie's dumber than vaping fumes boyfriend. The problem, just like Greta, is that the film thinks we actually care about Maggie and her concern for a group of friends so bland I can't remember how many of them there actually was.

It's not the young actors are bad. They're just young pretty teenagers attempting to carry a genre flick that could be dancing on the pinky of its real lead.

Truthfully, Ma is kind of a mess of a movie. Scotty Landes' script apparently ended up at Blumhouse at the perfect moment for director Tate Taylor (The Help) to discover it might just be the vehicle he was seeking to give his friend Spencer a meaty lead role. On paper, Sue Ann was a white woman with no backstory. With Spencer aboard, the project evolved.

If only it had a little more time to collect itself. While Ma is certainly entertaining, the 100 minute runtime is so stuffed with hastily handled side stories that it's impossible to find any footing. Crammed into the plot is a tale of '80s slasher nerd vengeance, Munchausen by proxy abuse, a torture den, and Juliette Lewis learning how to be a casino dealer. It's a little much.

High Points
Octavia Spencer is a pure delight, and for as much as this movie doesn't rise to her level, her performance is still something to see. Some bonus points to the always reliable Missi Pyle as a mean girl-turned-middle aged blousy alcoholic mean girl who gets glorious comeuppance

Low Points
Mild spoilers: I didn't necessarily need the blood of youth on Ma's hands, but her choice of murder victims (ultimately all adults, some from her past, one inexplicably from her present) seems a little bit of a cheat 

Does the Dog...
There are MANY scenes of Sue Ann being iffy with four legged patients and casting threatening glances at Maggie's beloved old lab Louie's way, but thankfully (and unlike the here's-one-more-reason-to-hate Greta), no canine is irrevocably hurt 

Am I Overthinking This Or...
I realize my adoration of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? colors a LOT of how I see the world, but could there be anything deliberate in casting Dominic Burgess as Juliette Lewis's coworker Stu? It's the kind of unnecessary role that could have been easily eliminated with no real loss to the film, but perhaps the only real reason to maintain it in the final cut is how much Burgess resembles Jane's scheming accompanist played to such perfection by Victor Buono

Lessons Learned
The modern gingerbread house was not built on sweets but on non-expired pizza rolls

Horse tranquilizers are great for fighting migraines

If you quit before you reach the haggard age of 25, you'll face no negative effects of smoking


Ma is not a well-paced or overly well-made movie, but it's something different. There's probably just too much on its mind it wants to do to get any of it done well, but how often do you get to see Oscar winner Octavia Spencer doing the robot in a bedazzled hat before sewing head cool girl's mouth shut? It's certainly something. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Eat Your Heart Out, Rollerball

A good sports flick is, for me, a great thing, but a good POST-APOCALYPTIC SPORTS FLICK? There's a special place in heaven for that.

Quick Plot: Sometime in the future, the world has become a barren wasteland of dusty agriculture and dog farms. The only real source of entertainment seems to come from "The Game," a rugby-esque sport played by both city professionals and wandering teams. One such group is led by Sallow (the late and always great Rutger Hauer), a former pro league member whose fall from grace now has him eking out a nomadic existence.

When Sallow's team has a particularly violent round of The Game, their "qwik" (think the Quidditch equivalent of a seeker) becomes too injured to carry on. A scrappy farmer's daughter named Kidda (a young and forever kickass Joan Chen) fights her way onto the team, quickly proving her skills and convincing the bitter Sallow to take a chance visiting the big underground city for a chance to go pro. 

To understand what any of this means, it's helpful to have a better picture of The Game, which is awesome and should be an Olympic medal event. The main thrust is simple: there's a dog skull in place of any traditional ball or golden snitch, and the qwik's goal is to impale it on a stake across the field. In his or her way is the equally motivated opposing team's qwik, plus the defense: a slash, drive, and backdrive (typically big dudes or dudettes armed with specific weaponry trying to block qwiks) and the position I'd most definitely fight for: the chain. 

It's exactly what is sounds like: an armored chain-spinner who in the glorious case of The Blood of Heroes, is played by a baby-faced Vincent D'Onofrio.

For all its swordplay, The Blood of Heroes doesn't overdo its violence. In fact, it's probably far more fitting to categorize this film as a sports flick over any other genre.

Written and directed by David Peoples (screenwriter of Twelve Monkeys), The Blood of Heroes is a pure delight for someone like me. Yes, any violent post-apocalyptic sports drama tends to connect, but I have TWO cases of Rollerball that prove there can always be exceptions. 

Why this film isn't discussed more surprises me. Sure, the production values are modest, it being late-era Ozsploitation, and the internet tells me that the game has found some longevity across the world (both under the name "Jugger" and "Blood of Heroes"). As a narrative, it's fairly swift and small, its "big game" played out in a dark indoor black pit of sorts with a fairly small crowd for its first half. But guys, here's the thing: The Blood of Heroes might very well be one of my new favorite sports films.

Does it hold a pomchenko to The Cutting Edge or a full-split foul ball catch to A League of Their Own? No, but its gender politics are on par. The Game is a coed sport and never once is Kidda or her female teammate The Big Climber every questioned for their sex. What's even more progressive is the film's attitude toward sex, which is to say, its total "it's cool" attitude towards sex.

Kidda has sex. She has sex with her teammate, which makes perfect sense, even if there's some truthfully light joking about how doing so after a game is as impossible as it is necessary. Later, Kidda has sex with a different teammate in a scene that is more tender but no less sexy. Her former partner shows absolutely no bitterness or jealousy. In Peoples' world, adults are attracted to each other and act on it, and the consequences are simply that they have a good time.

This shouldn't be revolutionary, but can you name a single film--especially from this era--where that's the case?

While I could have taken an extra hour of world-building in The Blood of Heroes, its smallness is incredibly refreshing and ultimately, very satisfying. We know just enough about Kidda and Sallow to be fully invested in their goals, and their supportive teammates (including a young Delroy Lindo) are intriguing enough to hold up the rest of the film. While the version streaming on Amazon is apparently cut, I found it to be nearly perfectly paced, ending (mild spoiler) on a simple post-game celebration that needs no further exposition. This is a lean, modern sports drama that hits the right emotional beats we've come to expect form our baseball and football flicks, but adds a surprising level of maturity that you simply wouldn't expect to find from a bit of Ozsploitation with a one-eyed Rutger Hauer

High Points
Seriously, this movie even has a last minute aged player coming out of retirement to sub in AND incredibly moment of sportsmanship between rivals. IT IS PURE JOY

Low Points
While it's both a product of a low 1989 budget and mediocre transfer to Amazon Prime, it's still a little frustrating to see how hard it can be to differentiate the two teams during several scenes of gameplay

Lessons Learned
Silk is real, and it is fabulous

If playing The Game with only one eye, the trick is to simply swivel your head a whole lot (or just be as cool as Rutger Hauer)

No one carries the dog boy

I loved many things about The Blood of Heroes, and with its swift 90 minute running time, there is absolutely nothing that should keep you from watching it on Amazon Prime yesterday. Have at it. 

Monday, September 16, 2019

I Prefer Ponytails

I love to see a fresh, completely original genre film connect with audiences.

I usually just wish I actually was a part of said audience.

Quick Plot: Petula and Tilda are paying off their student loans the old fashioned way: selling drugs from an NYC apartment. When cops bust their stash, they realize the $83,000 they now owe their terrifying boss can only come from one source.

Hopping on the Amtrack, the ladies travel up north to their childhood pal Daphne's sprawling Mrs. Havisham-like estate. Daphne (played by the always wonderful Madeline Brewer) isn't quite all there. Following a childhood treehouse fall (caused, no less, by Petula and Tilda), Daphne seems to be stunted in an endless game of make believe. Playing the doting mother, she welcomes the antsy Tilda as her fantasy daughter and slightly more controlled Petula as the visiting "doctor."

Written and directed by newcomer Mitzi Peirone, Braid has big ambitions of being high art. With its perfume ad imagery, overused filters, and deliberately muddled narrative, it's working really hard to stand out as avante garde.

I hated it.

Now I say this with a big grain of salt, most likely the very expensive pink Himalayan type. Braid is unique, and there's a lot of credit owed to Peirone's vision. She gets strong, if frustratingly aimless performances from her three leads, and certainly creates something you haven't quite seen before. I just wish it gave me something more in return.

One of my most frequently referenced films of recent years is the very divisive #Horror, a social media-fueled tale of preteen terror that seems to attract pure admiration or hatred from its audience. While I found it oddly and deeply thoughtful in capturing a very specific age, I can also fully understand another viewer--particularly one who never experienced the joys of being a 13-year-old girl--turning it off after ten minutes. Braid had a similar quality for me: I can, objectively, understand a critic raving about its use of imagery and nonlinear storytelling as an innovation. I will just not be one of them.

There's a sense that Peirone never wants her audience to really connect with the characters. Our sympathy is never aimed at anyone in particular, and as soon as the stakes seem to be raised, they're just as quickly removed with virtually no consequences to anyone's actions. 

But it all looks reallllllly pretty.

High Points
You can't complain about Braid's setting, a sprawling Yonkers mansion perfectly suited and filmed for this kind of story

Low Points
The film's own dismissal of any real consequences makes it hard to invest anything on our end into the story

Lessons Learned
If you really prefer drug dealing to office work, it's probably not a great idea to take selfies with your merchandise

The best way to stay fit when left to your own devices is to center your diet around the most colorful gelatin creations your kitchen can produce

Facial scars heal fast if they're accompanied by aggressive opera music

I didn't care for Braid, but it's by no means a waste of time. The style just didn't connect with me, but as is often the case, one woman's impression of pretentiousness is another's prime perfection. Those who want to check out a new filmmaker's voice, and especially fans of more ethereal style genre film may certainly find a lot here. I didn't, but hope to with Peirone's future work. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Newlywed Game

Sometimes, you reach a point that you look at yourself with pride in recognizing how well you're living your life. Then you realize you missed the chance to spend your wedding night playing a Clue-meets-The Most Dangerous Game version of hide-and-seek and you wonder if your marriage is even valid.

Quick Plot: A gloriously chaotic prologue hints at a very deadly game of hide and seek, with young Daniel hiding his little brother Alex before all out Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978-ing the hider, a tuxedoed groom about to meet a grisly fate.

Cut to 30 years later, when little Alex Le Domas is all grown up and getting hitched to Grace. Where Alex comes from an esteemed family who built their immense wealth on the gaming industry, Grace grew up in foster homes, never knowing what it meant to belong. Her wedding day is edgy but successful, as expensively dressed in-law after expensively dressed in-law welcomes her to her new clan.

Of course, like any marriage ritual, there are important aspects of tradition that must be honored. In the case of the Le Domas estate, no new entry into the family is accepted until he or she plays a game at the stroke of midnight. It could be an innocent round of checkers or old maid, but if the newlywed draws the “hide or seek” card, the evening gets a tad more complicated…as in, the entire family must catch the hider and sacrifice him or her to their ancestor before the sun rises.

Hey, I planned a wedding: sh*t gets intense.

Grace wastes no time accepting just how dire her situation is, and while Alex is doing his best to help save his new wife, an entire armed extended family with their own lives on the line is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully, they’re stuck using antiquated weaponry and in some cases, limited by a long day’s worth of cocaine and whiskey. Still, Grace has her work cut out for her.

For all the years of horror fans grumbling about remakes and unwanted sequels, what a fine age to be living in when we get a fairly steady flow of theatrically released genre films built on original premises. Based on a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Southbound (and to less exciting extent, The Devil’s Due)’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready Or Not has a fresh energy met well by its quick pacing.

The cast certainly helps. With The Babysitter, Mayhem, and the mixed (but well-acted) Picnic At Hanging Rock miniseries to her name, Samara Weaving has quickly built a wonderfully genre-heavy resume, and with Ready Or Not, she deserves the most bloodily bedazzled crown fit for an official scream queen. We don't know much about Grace's past (or even present, marital status aside), but it's impossible not to be on her side. This is the refreshingly smart and gloriously sarcastic leading lady we deserve.

Likewise, Ready Or Not is stacked with some wonderful supporting turns. Cube's Nicky Guadagni's Aunt Helene is a glorious creation, while Melanie Scrofano's overly competitive Emilie (NOT A CHARACTER I IDENTIFY WITH AT ALL) brings a wonderfully manic energy to the proceedings. On the slightly more serious end, Adam Brody's Daniel gets a surprising arc, while Andie MacDowell's manages to create a full character history with just a few quick conversations as Grace's sympathetic-to-a-point mother-in-law. It's a genuine delight to watch this family unravel.

Ready Or Not will probably make you laugh more than jump, but it's still an incredibly satisfying genre film. For the most part, Bettinelli-Olpuin and Gillett treat the material with a smart weight. Real lives--and a family dynasty--are at stake, making most of the hunt feel heavy even when its rich, often airheaded villains end up bumbling fools. It's quite a smart tone, especially for a wide theatrical release.

High Points
Is there a contract with the devil somewhere in your antique weapons closet that keeps Samara Weaving acting in horror movies for eternity? Also, do you have a pen?

Low Points
Look, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh when the Robert Palmer-looking maids met their unlucky fates, but there is a certain level of cruelty that might have deserved a little more of a commentary

Lessons Learned
In case you’ve never seen a horror film set in a Victorian mansion, allow me to confirm that dumbwaiters are never safe spaces

Always pack a comfortable, quiet pair of sneakers for whatever may come up on your honeymoon

Never trust a wealthy child

I had a darn good time with Ready Or Not, and would encourage any horror fan who wants to support creative, quality genre fare to buy a ticket. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Oh What a Beautiful Morning Talk Show

I have a theory about the filming of Lifetime/Hallmark movies that makes watching crowd scenes excessively entertaining: as these are made as cheaply and quickly as possible, I firmly believe that no minute of usable footage is wasted. Hence, when you see your handsome leads sitting in a diner discussing the meaning of Christmas, note the couple in the booth behind them, who are most likely in the middle of filming their own Stalked By My (Fill In the Occupational Blank) drama.

This comes into play in true glory in Staged Killer, wherein halfway through, we enter a bustling hospital in a one-shot scene of frantic life-saving activity that feels ripped out of a failed ER reboot. 

It is a thing of glory, true of most of Christopher Olen Ray (clearly the son of Fred)'s Staged Killer. Note that my definition of the word "glory" means something very different from Webster when dealing with Lifetime-esque dramas. 

Quick Plot: In the world's fastest prologue, pretty and perky Naomi hosts a late night college show called Campus Cool with her platonic partner Jake. Things are going well enough until their interview subject, the school's star quarterback, makes the moves on Naomi. His ex-girlfriend Lana makes a scene, and a minute later, the jock we hardly knew is stabbed to death.

Cut to an ominous "ten years later" card as Naomi is now a mini-Kelly Rippa, hosting a morning show with Jerry O'Connell's brother. Who should arrange a chance meeting at her favorite coffee spot but Jake, now grown into a creepy former Florida news host who puts on his best Patrick Bateman to worm his way back into Naomi's partnership.

First up is Jerry O'Connell's brother, whose ominous heart problem makes him easy prey for a poison-protein-shake-packing Jake. Since live morning shows can't dare be interrupted, Jake fills in for the now dead Jerry O'Connell's brother. Audiences eat it up, and a hit is born.

Next on the list is Naomi's dumb architect husband Trent. After googling "rape date drugs" as you do when you're a criminal mastermind, Jake spikes Trent's half a beer and sends him on his way to crash into a traffic pole. Scarlett, Naomi's best friend and executive producer, grows suspicious but because nobody in Staged Killer has a triple digit IQ, she too ends up dead, drowned in her own bathtub and framed by an empty bottle of fruit juice/wine.

Seriously, it can't be THAT hard to fake merlot onscreen.

Staged Killer is everything you want in a perfectly timed 90 minute TV thriller: pretty people whose decades of expensive hair and facial products have rotted their brains so that their actions grow progressively stupider with every passing frame. You will marvel at just how easy it is to poison hospital pudding cups and create a media empire with simple social media tactics. Everything is guffawable in the best of ways.

High Points
Perhaps there's something to tension buildup, but I can appreciate a movie that wastes no time in introducing a character only to have him immediately poison Jerry O'Connell's brother's protein shake

Low Points
For a movie that has so much fun with its villain's mastery of his audience profile, the ending feels a tad rushed and unsatisfying

Lessons Learned
Morning television is a copycat medium

When questioning an old acquaintance about brutal murder, it's best to do so over a glass of champagne

Dream boards are inspirational, especially when you fill them with a dozen pictures that were taken on that one day you filmed a scene

The Winning Line(s)
This is Olympian levels of dialogue and thusly must I count down podium style:

The Bronze
"We're already trending on Chatter!"
Few things make me happier than movies that make up their own social media services. Just TRY to say that one with a straight face. That actress should have won an Oscar. Instead, she just got fruit punch

The Silver
"I'm on my way to the glam squad. It's been a really long day"
Context required: our heroine says this right before heading to hair and makeup to film her morning show, which, you know, films live in the morning which means she's been awake for all of two hours

The Gold
"Wow! I've never met a successful architect before!"
Pity the man who's lived his whole life without really, you know, living. Also, you're in a Lifetime(ish) movie! There's ALWAYS a successful architect!

Look, Staged Killer is a pretty stupid movie about very stupid pretty people. If that's what you want on a bright summer day, you really can't do much better. Pour yourself a nice big glass of fruit drink and enjoy!