No Comfort in Ma

Formulaic teen slasher films have been around for decades. Popular kids who fulfill all the tropes chased by an immortal antagonist, one who is relentless in its pursuit and thorough in its decimation of all things young and fancy free. But this time, the boogeyman is a black woman who harbors a deep-seated anger for those teens, and you’ll find her in Tate Taylor’s Ma.

Maggie (Silver) meets Ma (Spencer)

Maggie (Diana Silver) has moved from San Diego to her mom Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown so they can start over after her mother’s divorce. Willowy and pretty, Maggie soon picks up with a bunch of popular kids who like to hang out and drink. Looking to score some booze from a willing adult, the kids finally convince an unassuming veterinarian technician Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) walking one of her charges to buy their partying supplies. She’s concerned they’ll drink and drive, so she offers her basement for them to party on the conditions that they don’t swear, leave sober and most of all, don’t venture upstairs.
The kids, thinking she’s a little odd but ok for an old broad, decide to take her up on her offer and nickname her “Ma”. Ma’s basement soon becomes a booze can for the local teens, and she’s the life of the party until things get more than a little weird, intense and dangerous.

I’m going to try and stay spoiler-free, but Ma made me sad for many reasons. Through flashbacks, we learn that Sue Ann wasn’t a popular girl in high school and neither was I. She constantly felt like she was the butt of the joke, and I always felt that way too. Her character allowed me to feel empathy for her, but I’m also sad that most of the production team were white. The writer, Scotty Landes, hit a lot of notes well, but Sue Ann’s character ended up looking really pathetic. Could he possibly know what it was like growing up unpopular, black and female? Probably not. Perhaps he too was an outsider for whatever reason, but the Carrie-like narrative that was done well by Stephen King for instance, didn’t translate here. And trying to turn the mammy/black care-giver stereotype on its head didn’t work either. It was messy, aimless and too delicate a subject for this kind of treatment.

I’m also sad that Ma didn’t ramp up the weird. Landes is behind several episodes of Comedy Central’s Workaholics and Adam Devine’s House Party-two extremely bro-ish comedy series, and has had a brief career in stand-up comedy. He and Taylor could have pushed it to a slightly more absurd feel, like the 1973 film, The Baby. That film was disturbing, absurd and everything you need to make you squirm uncomfortably, but this isn’t the 70s, and sadly, we only find those films kitschy in hindsight. While the comedy beats were decent in Ma, I wished Landes and Tate had drawn more from the absurdity of the situation instead of straight horror with a few laughs.

Spencer’s performance was really, really good. I was a fan of hers after I saw her in Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, and when you look at her IMDb page, there’s so much variety there, especially within genre film, that you know she’s a versatile performer. Spencer and Taylor are reportedly best friends, so there’s a mutual trust for her to give her best performance. Her emotional transitions were seamless; really putting Sue Ann’s unhinged persona center stage. I also loved Allison Janney as Sue Ann’s disgruntled veterinarian boss, in fact I feel there was a spark between Spencer and Janney that was wasted. That venom could have been central to the film, because really, who needs to see more teens in jeopardy, but Janney was only in a couple of scenes and I almost forgot she was in it.

Ma creeping on the teens.

I wonder what a black female director and writer would have done with Sue Ann’s character. It’s a shame Spencer shows her range in a starring role with complex character who doesn’t quite get the attention she deserves. If you’re set on seeing Ma, go for Spencer’s menacing performance and what I hope is her gateway in more starring roles in more genre films, but this time with a black female horror director.

The Perfection: Dedication and Depravity Scores a 10

If you’re thirsting for an Asian horror-inspired, stylized roller coaster ride with buckets of tension, look no further than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection.

Charlotte (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out) is a musical prodigy.  Enrolled in the elite Bachoff Academy where students are hand-picked for their talent, she is destined to become a legendary cellist. Family obligations put her career on hold and 10 years later, Charlotte is ready to reclaim her life.  She reconnects with the school dean Anton (Steven Weber, Channel Zero), and is invited to Shanghai to judge a competition along with the school’s newest star, Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women soon learn they are fans of each other’s work and become inseparable.  When Lizzie falls mysteriously ill, both their worlds change forever.

Charlotte (Williams) in Shanghai

There’s a fine line you walk when reviewing The Perfection because it presents a unique timeline that catches you off guard, making it difficult to navigate around many a spoiler. What I can say is that the film is exactly what a fan of Asian extreme cinema would enjoy, and Shepard parlays the themes, style and body horror of Asian extremity in an exciting way for North American audiences. He does so not because the film sets the scene in Shanghai or because there are Asian actors, but by using the tone and beats so often used in Asian extreme cinema. Shepard has mentioned in interviews The Handmaiden and Oldboy by Park Chan-wook as inspirations, and I also get a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike vibe as well. The story starts subtly, lulling the audience with romance and kinship that’s sexy and not gratuitous, then landing an unexpected roundhouse kick to our plot expectations. We’re sent reeling just enough to collect ourselves and follow along for the ride.

Both women were made for the all-American girl role; Williams, who played the awful Rose in Get Out, is perfect as Charlotte with her fresh looks and innocence versus Browning’s appeal as the more worldly and tougher of the two. It works well, especially since they’ll need to draw on their opposite bad girl/vulnerable selves later. They both reportedly learned how to play the cello as well, to make their performances believable, and their chemistry is undeniable.

The haunting music was composed by Paul Haslinger, former member of Tangerine Dream, the band so beloved for their numerous film scores, so there’s some major musical street cred involved. I also love that Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo who both mastered complicated plots for the TV series Supernatural, were on the writing team. Their skill at dealing with intertwining plot threads is well used here.

Lizzie (Browning) and Charlotte (Williams) play together.

Shepard’s The Perfection ultimately captures the intricate web women must navigate for success, the weight of societal expectations, and what women have endured to achieve it minus the male gaze-y tropes. Be prepared for abuse, full-on gore and a whole lot of twists and turns. It’s mandatory to endure all of it for one of the most bizarre, violent and satisfying finales I’ve seen in a long time.

The Perfection is streaming now on Netflix.  Let it be the salve for you jaded horror fans out there.

See You Yesterday Taps Into Sci-Fi and the Black Lives Reality

Netflix does it again by taking a chance on representation. In the tradition of classic TV series like Sliders and Quantum Leap, Stefon Bristol’s first feature film See You Yesterday combines time travel, mistaken identity and black family bonds for a strong sci-fi debut.

CJ (Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Crichlow) trying to figure out time jumping.

CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) is a brilliant Brooklyn high school student and along with her best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), devises a time travelling, or temporal relocation, machine. After a few technical glitches, they successfully jump to the day before. When her brother Calvin (Astro aka Brian Bradley) gets killed by police due to mistaken identity, CJ thinks she can change his destiny by jumping back in time to save his life.  

Expanding on his short film of the same name, Bristol gets major points for giving us a black female protagonist who is determined, ambitious, intelligent and extremely likable, as well as a heartwarming take on the West Indian community in Flatbush, a loving brother and sister relationship, and a single mother family that lost their father while he was in the army, not by any crime. He shows us everyday life in Brooklyn for black folks, from visiting the neighborhood bodega to being harassed by the police.  The characters seem real with Duncan-Smith, Crichlow and Bradley showing an easy chemistry that transitions from light banter to intense discussions well. Bristol was an intern for Spike Lee, who also produced the film, and you can see Lee’s influence in an homage to his “double dolly shot” and the social commentary narrative, but Bristol has created his own vision of young black Brooklynites in jeopardy.

There will be obvious comparisons to Jordan Peele’s recent Twilight Zone episode, “Replay”, starring Sanaa Lathan. Here, she plays a mother who wants to document her son’s arrival at college with her vintage camcorder only to realize she can rewind the device to go back in time and save him when a racist cop guns him down. Both stories deal with the daily fears of black people being pulled over, interrogated and killed because of the color of their skin. Both deal with strong women who refuse to take the fate doled out to so many innocent black men in this time of protest, but where Peele made an effort to show blacks conquering, Bristol aims for a sobering and open-ended resolution.

The look and feel of the film is deceiving. The wardrobe is hip and young, representing a DIY style of kids on a budget.  A squeal-inducing cameo by one of the original time travellers Michael J. Fox as CJ’s science teacher Mr. Lockhart, the bright, summery cinematography, and strong, witty language seems like a formula for fun, but Bristol has made a teen sci-fi film for this new age of awareness.  This lightheartedness changes tone abruptly to mirror life when you first realize your world isn’t impervious to the outside terrors of violence. Even though this film is speculative and fiction, for those of us who have lost someone when we are young or naïve, it’s a reality. This may not please a lot of people because the film also ends abruptly, but it’s all too real because in this current climate, there aren’t a lot of black families who get their happy ending.

CJ racing against time.

See You Yesterday is streaming now, so do yourself a favor and see it for a perfect representation of how black people continue to create their own narrative. It gives us a wonderful black female character, the message of both despair and hope, and a story that could easily be continued as a popular Netflix series.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Brings the Thrills

If you know me well, you know I love Keanu Reeves. I will defend him to the death, especially when I hear the tired complaint that he’s a one-note, wooden actor and has no talent. The Matrix franchise shows he knows his strengths and plays up to them, and the John Wick universe is no different. In John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Reeves transports us to perhaps the strongest film set in his assassin universe.

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum continues where John Wick Chapter 2 leaves off: Wick has an hour to find refuge after he’s condemned for killing a fellow assassin in the New York Continental Hotel, a consecrated place of neutrality among assassins.  With a $14 million bounty on his head and perhaps the cutest pit bull ever at his side, he soon has to pool his resources and secret caches to get himself back into the fold. There are many consequences with his major faux pas, ones that involve the manager of the hotel, Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who both must make a choice of loyalty to Wick or fealty to the powers that be when the adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon)  from the High Table comes to lay down punishments. Anyone who helps Wick falls victim to her ruling, and it’s severe. Her assassin for hire Zero (Mark Dacascos) is bent on fulfilling her wishes and adding Wick’s kill to his trophy wall. Wick must fight his way across the globe with only his skills, determination and reluctant allies to help him find his way back to his status.

The first two movies are primers for this third spectacular action film; they condition the audience to expect the rules of this assassin universe.  We clue in by the second entry when you realize people having epic fights in the streets doesn’t make the locals bat an eye. It also allows for some characters, like Russian task mistress The Director played by Angelica Huston or the mystical Elder played by Saïd Taghmaoui, to evade stereotypes and become archetypes to whom John Wick must pay his dues in order to finish his odyssey.

Speaking of fights, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is a master class from director Chad Stahelski (a former stuntman himself) on how to film back to back fight scenes and break tension up with humor. Fabulously choreographed fight sequences in a library, a stable (with some brutal kicks from the horses themselves), on horseback and in an antiques warehouse dazzles and leaves you winded, and I was pleased to see Yayan Ruhian, fight choreographer for The Raid movies, as one of the shinobi ninjas after Wick. There was also a motorcycle fight reminiscent of a similar scene in 2017’s female assassin film The Villainess and just as insane. The cinematography by Academy Award nominated Dan Lausten (who also worked on The Shape of Water, John Wick Chapter 2 and Crimson Peak) was stunning, with dark rainy Bladrunner-esque scenes to endless sand dunes in the desert. Throughout the whole film was a self-awareness by the characters that was clever and tongue in cheek. Oh, and thank you to the John Wick gods for putting that man on a horse.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

As I mentioned before, Reeves knows his strengths and he plays them up in true deadpan style to a “T.” A shout out goes to Halle Berry whose role could have gone to literally anyone but they decided to choose diversity. Berry does the work, gets the knocks-she sustained three broken ribs training for the role- and delivered as Sophia, one of John’s past allies.

The franchise machine is known for watering down beloved characters, but not here. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is my favorite of the three films. It’s filled with heart, dark humor, outstanding fight scenes and it’s a must-see for fans of the John Wick universe.  

The Ranger Comes to Shudder!

What happens when young punk rockers do bad things, hide out in nature, and piss off a diligent and psychotic forest ranger? You’ll need to watch Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger to find out.

Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is an introspective young woman running with a rowdy bunch.  During a raid at a punk show, Chelsea is cornered by a cop, who is stabbed by her protective and rebellious boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu).  The group of kids narrowly escape capture and make off to Chelsea’s dead uncle Pete’s (Larry Fessenden) cabin deep in the mountains.  They meet a forest ranger (Jeremy Holm) at a rest stop who recognizes Chelsea because when she was a girl, he rescued her after her uncle died in hunting accident. 

Levine as Chelsea

At the cabin hideout, her cronies begin to party and desecrate the forest around them, upsetting Chelsea.  Fraternizing with punks who don’t seem value much except drugs and loud music doesn’t suit her.  She begs her friends to be more respectful of their surroundings, but they ignore her and suffer the consequences of disturbing the Ranger’s domain.  Terror and death plague them, and Chelsea struggles with a secret the Ranger holds over her head as she fights for her life.

The kids. This is just “no place to party”!

Wexler, along with writer Giaco Furino, turns the urban/suburban slasher into a severe, rule-abiding entity with seemingly omniscient powers.  The Ranger is in touch with nature in a very psychotic way, and plays off of Chelsea’s fish out of water persona in the big city.  Wexler also gives us a band of rotten teens reminiscent of the lot in Return of the Living Dead, and offers a decent throwback to 80s horror for her feature-length debut. You’ll see some effective kills, a mandatory Fessenden appearance (the film is backed by his Glass Eye Pix production company), a driving punk soundtrack and a same-sex couple to boot. 

The cast gave solid performances as caricatures of destructive punks, and Levine plays a fantastic final girl with lots of heart and determination. Holm, a familiar face on House of Cards and Mr. Robot, is memorable and super-weird as The Ranger, making Wexler a director to watch. In fact, I hope she has a prequel coming because we need to know all about the origins of nature’s slash-daddy!

Holm as The Ranger

See why The Ranger was buzzed about at SXSW in 2018, gained several nominations, and a win for best soundtrack at Fantaspoa International Film Festival on May 9th when it streams on Shudder!