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Ma (2019)

I’ve just sat and watched the entire 99 minutes of Ma, a low-budget horror thriller starring a three-time Oscar nominee, and I’m genuinely confused who exactly this movie is for. Does it qualify as campy? Is it meant to be campy? Is it meant to have a message? The optics are just all over the place and begging for more context, and you have Octavia Spencer holding court with a movie that teeters into Mommie Dearest territory of bizarre choices. If someone asked me to recommend this movie I wouldn’t know whether it was possible. Not because it’s so overtly bad that no human being could find some degree of enjoyment, though make no mistake it’s certainly not good, but because I have no idea who to recommend this to. It almost feels like if you’re that very small niche that absolutely loves Showgirls, Sleepaway Camp, Falling Down, and Everything Everything, then maybe this will be for you. Is that person out there? Does that person exist?

Ma (Spencer) is a lonely veterinarian technician in small-town Ohio who is enlisted by a group of teenagers into purchasing them alcohol. She offers up her basement for the kids to get their drink on, free from the law and other prying adults, and it becomes a hangout space for the entire school. Ma starts dressing younger, stalking the kids online and in person, and getting a little too attached to her new friends and the feeling of being young and part of the in-crowd.

This is a Crazy Person Movie, which means it falls under the formula of the Crazy Person infiltrating the likes of, presumably, non-crazy individuals, warming to their company, and then eventually going too far and revealing themselves to be dangerous and crazy. As such, there’s a natural plot trajectory where the Crazy Person cannot be too off-putting early on. They need to be a little odd, maybe misunderstood, and very vulnerable, enough so that other characters may take pity upon our Crazy Person and invite him or her into their lives. That doesn’t work when your Crazy Person is acting crazy and dangerous so early and at every turn. The entire premise hinges on a group of teenagers befriending a 40-something woman who opens up her house for their parties and underage drinking. I have to imagine, even in a small town as the setting, that teenagers have to find other places to go drinking. It can’t be that hard. Given the opioid crises, there has to be more than one or two abandoned houses in this neighborhood. Regardless, the first time this older woman invites them over to drink, under the auspices of making sure they’re going to be safe with their shenanigans, she literally points a gun at one of them and pretends like she will murder him. Then it’s revealed it’s not loaded and everyone has a laugh. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if a stranger pulled out a real gun and threatened a friend of mine, that would be our last interaction with that strange stranger. This tenuous grasp on reality makes the movie feel much dumber as it goes, as we keep waiting for what the final tipping point will become for our teenagers to finally conclude that Ma might not be all right.

The problem with this is that it makes all of the characters into complete morons, and they’re not very well developed beyond stereotypes to begin with. I was struggling to remember the difference between the white guys. The adults aren’t much better. Nobody seems to be acting like actual human beings and they’re all so boring. This means we’re drifting along and either waiting for them to get a clue or get killed, and when it feels like neither is happening any time soon, Ma can become a dreadfully tedious experience that invites further criticism.

Tonally, I don’t really know what director Tate Taylor (The Help) was going for here as he stepped into unfamiliar genre territory. This was also evident in his film adaptation of The Girl on the Train, which got really confusing and sloppy and potentially campy itself, at least with how self-serious it got to be even when it was twisting corkscrews into necks. When Ma wants to be scary, it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be funny (?), it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be dramatic, it gets very serious but never follows through, falling back on camp or creeps. Ma has a tragic back-story involving a sexual humiliation, and it just happens that her all-white high school are the cackling faces pointing and laughing at her pain. The flashback scenes of young Ma feel like they were made in the 1960s and not, presumably, the 1980s. She is victimized by the collective white supremacy of her school and the film never deals with the racial aspect. There’s a truly weird moment where Ma paints the black male friend’s face white, saying there is only room for one of them in the friend group, implying they are token minority positions, I guess. But she literally puts him in white face, and this moment isn’t given any more thought and the movie simply hasn’t earned any of this. None of the moments relating to race are given any more than passing mention. There’s a motherly revelation that, much like the other heavier elements, feels tacked on and never explored in depth, calling into question its very inclusion. There are so many story elements that get thrown out that it feels like Taylor and his screenwriter are just blindly stumbling through their narrative and hoping that something sticks together.

If there is in fact any reason to watch Ma, besides morbid curiosity, it’s Spencer (The Shape of Water) who works to find the humanity of an increasingly cartoonish character. Finding out Ma’s back-story provides a suitable tragic motivation for her to seek vengeance on the children of her high school tormentors, but there’s also the strange element of her intense attention on Andy, the son of the man she was crushing on in high school. Is she setting him up for some devious end result to get back at his father, or is she trying to get with this kid as a means of tapping into the intimacy with his father that Ma was denied but still obsesses over? She seems to zone out at work often, but is this a general malaise, the idea of a physical or mental sickness that she alludes to, or just her being a poor employee who daydreams about her murder vengeance fantasies? Spencer is bouncing around many different emotional poles and maintains a sense of dignity even when the movie is asking her to behave in cringe-inducing, youth-imitating behavior. I don’t know what movie Spencer thought she was acting in from scene-to-scene, but then I don’t know if Taylor knew what movie he was directing from scene-to-scene either.

Ma is a strange movie for Taylor, Spencer, and every viewer left scratching their head. It’s not really a comedy. It’s not really a horror movie despite some blood and gore. It’s not really a drama because whenever it introduces potent dramatic elements the film abandons them. And it’s not really a good movie. It feels like a game experiment that everyone attached just lost clear sight of, ultimately losing whatever thread or meaning had appealed to them with the project. Just say no to Ma and yes to Mamma.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Girl on the Train (2016)

girlontrainposterConsider it Gone Girl lite. The adaptation of the mega best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train seems to be on a runaway collision course with irony-free, amped-up melodrama and sundry “adult” sensuality reminiscent of the 90s boon of erotic thrillers like Jade and Sliver. The book by Paula Hawkins had three strong female lead characters each telling their own miserable worldview of trying to live up to social standards of motherhood and marriage. The movie seems to have shorn most of the focus on character and included every twist and turn, no matter how absurd. Take for instance just how insular this world is: Rachel (Emily Blunt) is the ex-wife to Tom (Justin Theroux) who left her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who has a nubile nanny Megan (Haley Bennett) who is unhappy with her controlling husband Scott (Luke Evans), who happens to be the couple that Rachel voyeuristically observes and fantasizes domestic bliss. Megan goes missing and Rachel cannot account for her whereabouts because she has become a blackout drunk to kill her self-loathing and sense of internalized failure. The whodunit aspects of this movie can come across as rather hokey and overblown, but lacking the nasty nuance and subversive gender politics of the far superior Gone Girl. Every single person in the film has to come across like a suspect (Megan’s husband, Megan’s therapist, some guy in the road?) and talks in a curiously oblique style. The attempts at sexy lack heat but more than that they lack conviction. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) seems to think he’s directing a Hitchcockian thriller one minute and a tawdry art film the next. The screenplay is also unhelpfully nonlinear, frivolously jumping around in time and point of view and muddling the overall timeline. Anna and Megan are drastically underwritten; Megan is a sex kitten with a dark secret that’s trying too hard to be provocative, and Anna is an even more thankless role as the stand-in for Rachel’s swirling antipathy. The concluding moment of girl power feels unearned, and the answers to the mysteries leave a lot more lingering questions about train platform-sized plot gaps. The best thing this Girl has going for it is Emily Blunt, who delivers a better performance than the film deserves. She’s unrestrained, red-eyed, sloshing, and disturbing as a drunk. She’s wounded and lashing out ferociously at the world, at her self, and it’s fascinating and heartrending to watch. I bet it would be even better to read.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Help (2011)

Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling publishing phenomenon has now become a box-office smash. In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is coming home after graduating from college. Her ailing mother (Allison Janney) is convinced that she will die without any grandchildren and pressures Skeeter to find herself a man. Instead, she finds herself a job writing for the city newspaper. She answers reader household and cleaning questions as “Miss Mryna.” She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged woman who’s worked as a maid to rich white people her whole life. Skeeter soon changes her focus and wants to interview other maids about the indignities they experience. She wants to get their story out there. This is a time where it was actual Mississippi law that anyone working against segregation could be imprisoned. They try reaching out to Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid recently fired from the services of Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the Southern belles. Minnie is much more outspoken and her mouth causes her to get into trouble. The only job she can find is in the household of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), a woman ostracized by Hilly’s forces. Skeeter transcribes the life stories of a dozen maids and the results become an anonymous bestseller that sets Jackson tongues a waggin’.

The Help enlists a colorful cast of characters (no pun intended) and tells a familiar story about people taking a stand during a tumultuous time in history. This is traditional classic Hollywood storytelling with the respective characters banding together, leaning upon one another, building camaraderie and victory, and then finally able to stand up to their antagonists, which in this case is really just Howard’s snooty racist character. It’s well told, well directed (both credits to Terry Tate, childhood friend of the author), very well acted by every member of the cast, and watching all 145 minutes is like being fed a heaping helping of home cooking. You leave feeling full and sated, and some may even feel nourished. You feel good about yourself. I tried to resist but resistance was futile. I can’t help but enjoy The Help. And even though I walked away liking the film, something stuck in my craw. It felt a little too prefabricated, too eager to be liked, to go down easy, gentle, a sweet Southern story about women taking a moral stand and finding their voices. But what is the film’s real focus when it comes to race relations?

Naturally nobody is going to look as The Help as an exhaustive document of the Civil Rights era, but the movie seems to seriously downplay the intensity of that struggle. Sure it pays lip service to Medgar Evans assassination but by this time there were riots, churches being bombed, children being killed, open collusion between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, and the Freedom Riders were being met by violent mobs. There are a lot of bigger things going on than black maids sitting down for interviews with a college girl. Come on, this is Mississippi we’re talking about here, the home of racism. I understand that the Civil Rights movement had thousands of anonymous acts of courage and the actions of these (fictional) women should not be out rightly discounted. However, the parting message of the film seems to be not about the courage of the black maids but the tenacity of Skeeter, a middleclass white woman who herself grew up with “help.” The Help’s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.

I guess my main fault is that this is not Skeeter’s movie. I don’t even think she’s needed. Yes she provides the outlet for the stories and secrets of an undervalued class of people. But did she need to be the co-lead? Does she need her own storyline where she stands up to her mother cowing to racist social norms? She had her own maid (Cicely Tyson) unceremoniously dumped while she was at school. Surprisingly this does not give too many insights to Skeeter’s character. Do we need any scenes of her going out on dates so that we can forever be reminded how ahead of her time she was, how liberal and progressive she was and destined to be unappreciated by a pool of men who were looking for only pretty housewives? As my friend China Gentry said, we’d all like to think we’d be the forward-thinking progressive voice of change in these historical dramas, to make ourselves feel better, but we’d most likely just be another silent face in the background. The boyfriend storyline is a complete waste of time. Skeeter goes out with a drunk jerk, he comes back and apologizes, they go out again, then after she gets published he freaks out and storms out. And that is the last we see of this guy. That’s the end of his story. He apparently puts his foot down when it comes to dating a female author. This storyline adds nothing to the overall narrative or to the character of Skeeter. There’s entirely too much Skeeter in the movie, and I say this as a gigantic fan of Emma Stone (Easy A). It’s not the actress’ fault either because she performs well in her first dramatic film role. This is just not her movie. This is not a movie about heroic white people; at least it shouldn’t be. This is a movie about the help, so let’s devote more time to them, notably Minnie and Aibileen. The movie opens and closes with Aibileen’s voice over. She is the star of this story. Why do I need another character just to coax out her story? Yes, I understand the limitations to a woman in Aibileen’s position in those days, but that’s no excuse. She deserves to be the focus.

Davis crushes in this movie. She is a one-woman force of devastation. You can just see the wear on her face, the tremor in her eyes, the sadness etched into her face. This is a woman beaten down by her position, and Davis is excellent. How good is this woman? She’s so good she got nominated for an Oscar for a single eight-minute scene in 2008’s Doubt. That’s Judi Dench territory right there (Dench famously won a Best Supporting Actress trophy despite only appearing onscreen for about nine minutes in Shakespeare in Love). She has a few big acting moments but mostly she’s not an outspoken woman. She’s more a downtrodden woman used to the many disappointments of her lot in life. She raises other people’s children while seeing very little of her own son. She develops close relationships with those kids, and the kids feel more attached to their maids than their mommies. And there’s the shattering disillusionment that these children, who once loved their maids, will transform into spitting images of their parents. The help gets treated less like family and more like a disposable, impersonal employee. The ease of severing ties can be heartbreaking. And Davis lets you feel all that without even having to speak. Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), in easily her biggest role of her career, is enjoyable with the more outspoken role. She’s more the mouthpiece for the audience.

As I admitted in my review of 50/50, I don’t think there’s any role that Howard (fun fact: both Howard and Stone will play film versions of Gwen Stacy) can play where I won’t fall in love with her somewhat. This is more a hypothesis than a theory at this point. Hilly is a social queen, the Southern belle who likes things just the way they are. She has influence over the other middleclass wives in Jackson, but she does make for a pretty marginal main antagonist given the time period. She can threaten the livelihoods of the maids, so she is a threat, and her worldview is decidedly racist (she thinks using the same toilets will spread “black diseases”). She’s built up enough to be a threat but not enough to be unstoppable. She’s defeatable, unlike the intolerant ideology so prevalent in the South. We can’t defeat racism but we can topple one racist white lady. Well, we can laugh at her and bring up the fact that she ate something very gross once. I won’t go into spoilers, but this plot point where Minnie gets wreaks personal vengeance on Hilly via baked goods feels out of place for the tone of the film. It doesn’t fit.

I resisted seeing The Help for so long, believing it would be a painful experience with mushy emotions and many life lessons served up on an easy platter. And to some degree, the movie is exactly that. But it’s also hard to dislike the sweep of the old fashioned storytelling. The Help is a nice movie, extremely well acted, and filled with period details that will make the audience sense its authenticity. It’s easy to get caught up in the writing and the acting, so it’s easy to ignore the otherwise somewhat questionable examination on race relations. I don’t know why we still need white people to tell “their story.” The Help is a well-crafted movie but it fails to move the conversation forward. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation. Not every Civil Rights era story is required to properly educate the public, let alone a work of historical fiction. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the story like so many million readers have. But the power of Davis’ performance claws at my memory, telling me she deserves a better movie focused on her character. For once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie about race relations that doesn’t require white people as a framing device. Let’s let the right people tell “their story” for once.

Nate’s Grade: B

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