Ma (2019)

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There’s ridiculous and then there’s ‘Ma’; a new feature from the Blumhouse brand. Sometimes loco is enjoyable but in the case of this horror, it never reaches the entertaining heights the premise deserves.

New to a town in Ohio is Maggie (Diana Silvers) who winds up with the popular gang. Due to their youthful age, they need an adult to buy them alcohol and in walks Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) who is more than happy to help and way too eager to please by offering the school kids a party set-up in her basement but her obsession grows, leading Maggie down a dangerous path.

Tate Taylor who directs this barmy film has some thriller know-how in his back pocket as he was the man in charge of Emily Blunt-led ‘The Girl on the Train’. However, the good handling of thriller tones in the first two acts of ‘Ma’ are totally undone by an absolutely bonkers third act. Even though the plot and dialogue within the first hour can be dumb and less than engaging, there is a credible amount of taut tension but it speedily unravels by the finale.

The basement gatherings are frequent and are an excuse to load the cinema speakers with party tracks and ply the screen with typical teen drinking and revelry but they are fairly tiresome and the only celebratory aspect of these home parties is Octavia Spencer busting moves and cavorting with high school adolescents which suitably builds up the air of unease.

Spencer is a sensational actress and has won or been nominated for many supporting roles; so it’s great to see her stride out of the sidelines and be front and centre. She definitely doesn’t waste her spotlight moment, taking a gigantic bite of the role and slathering on layers of sinister chills to the character. The mumsy costume of Sue Ann; what with the animal patterned tops, her knitwear and then her veterinary position all do wonders in setting up a lovely, cosy American Mom which makes her descent into crazed anger all the more batty to watch.

The plot is silly which is sad, because if tackled well this could have been a dumb yet really creepy horror outing. Instead it doesn’t work as a so-bad-its-good film but feels rather hollow and shuttles into an insane third act. Not even the flashbacks help round out the story or justify Sue Ann’s choices, in fact all they do is provide a cliched attempt to deepen the lead character but it’s misplaced and does very little to have you sympathise with her.

‘Ma’ is very, very B-movie material featuring a crew of students that are neither interesting or quirky enough to like or root for. It’s a silly narrative with a fairly strong suspenseful start which crashes and burns into a fiery end. Only worth the watch for Spencer lapping up the screen-time and enjoying every second.

4.5/10

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The Secret of Marrowbone (2018)

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Produced by J.A. Bayona; this ghostly tale sees the writer of ‘The Orphanage’ step forward as a first time director and on the most part, Sergio G. Sanchez does a good job in bringing a level of intrigue to the forefront, but the characters and any horror scares get slightly pushed aside.

At a house in the middle of nowhere live a family called the Marrowbone’s. There’s some dangerous past that they’ve run away from and Jack (George MacKay), the eldest does his best to protect his sister and two brothers. After becoming friends with Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the children think life is just grand but a tragedy swiftly arrives and their home seems to harbour a menacing spirit.

It would be a disservice to call this film a horror because in terms of that genre this is not a very scary movie in the slightest. It’s way more effective as a paranormal thriller, one of those almost alarming psychological yarns that spin around in your mind and get you reeling. It takes a while to get there but when the events of what happened six months ago are shown, this story comes crackling alive. It’s also one of those films that once the secret is revealed I kicked myself for not realising the truth earlier. ‘The Secret of Marrowbone’ progresses in a clever way, drip-feeding clippings of the past to distract you from what every minute detail of the secret could be.

The house of Marrowbone itself is a neat character, the blackened ceilings, covered mirrors and locked doors all combine to make the building feel like a foreboding presence throughout the movie. Though there weren’t many times that the film provides scares and if it did they were through the cliche of jump-scares, I must admit that the most frightening points involve shadowy nooks and crannies.

I’m still thinking on the aftermath of the movie now and I probably still shall be in a couple of days time. It definitely is a ghoulish mind-f**k of an ending and I would compare the narrative and twist to another film but I won’t because that will spoil the drama. It’s a story from Sanchez that I’m not sure if I fully liked, it’s mysterious but also confusing and with deep thought would likely sway to the side of negativity because the melodramatic family angle feels like it doesn’t make sense as to what the ending shows.

The cast of home-dwelling siblings are good on the most part. Mia Goth has elements of the screaming Shelley Duvall about her but in the quieter moments her performance is quite stunted but gets better. Matthew Stagg plays the young lad and as all horrors utilise, he captures that creepy kid aspect well. Charlie Heaton possesses a lonely angst but doesn’t get to explore his turn as Billy that much. The true star is MacKay who deals with a lot as the leader of the pack and his acting progresses in more ways than one.

‘The Secret of Marrowbone’ will sit with me for a while and for now I can say I liked what it was going for, the characters may not be as interesting as the curvature of the narrative but for the last 20-30 minutes alone, this is a chilling feature that plays on shocks and family connections.

6.5/10

Beast (2018)

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Stalking the screen with effective tension is this beastly feature. It certainly has bark and bite, as we see this dark thriller take hold and swallow you up, in a dangerously palpable mystery.

Celebrating her birthday is Moll (Jessie Buckley), who ends up dancing the night away before crossing paths with the possibly shady Pascal (Johnny Flynn), the next morning. There have been a series of grim murders plaguing the island and it isn’t long until people suspect Moll’s new connection, as the man behind the disappearances.

This is a debut work from Michael Pearce; who unarguably knows how to layer on the tension. The film almost sweats out a deep and engaging psychological tale, as if Pearce is allowing us to peer through a magnifying glass at all the worrying little details possessed by Moll and Pascal, details that keep us questioning their relationship and the trail of murders.

Coinciding with Pearce’s fantastically hypnotic visuals is a score from Jim Williams that drips with almost spine-chilling strength. The entire look of this movie is that of a frightening British drama, with a cold dirtiness and a somewhat fun immersion into thriller territory that is enhanced by the plot. The narrative is one that definitely kept me guessing and the end is one I could talk about for some time yet, it’s visceral, unexpected and almost reaches the realm of being powerful.

Saying all of this, I don’t know whether it’s a film I’d watch again and it’s a story that I was a little disappointed didn’t end up being darker or more twisted. The film also slightly suffers from feeling like a slow tick-tock aspect, which does make it feel a little bit long. I’d definitely say the film is strongest in the first two thirds.

The acting is blindingly great, some of the most captivating performances I’ve ever seen. Flynn excels at playing this secretive, maybe dodgy character that turns up in Moll’s life. There’s a great balance of masculinity and softer love he portrays as he gets wrapped up in the whirlwind of the flame haired Buckley. She is incredible, the emotions she goes through are numerous and each one is carefully performed, drawing you into her as a character. It’s almost a tour de force show that she puts on and Moll comes to vivid and horrific life thanks to this.

This could be bad or good but I still don’t really know how I feel with ‘Beast’ and perhaps that’s testament to how fearless and different it is. The movie is rife with tension and I can at least safely say that it’s two leading stars ensure you cannot look away.

7/10

Unsane (2018)

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Completely shot on an iPhone 7, this psychological thriller from director Steven Soderbergh is an interesting tactic in terms of its execution, but is hugely let down by a narrative that is easy to pick apart and far from riveting.

After landing a new job in Pennsylvania, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) can’t shake the feeling her stalker is still around. She visits an institution to speak about her fears and demons and inadvertently winds up admitted into this mental facility. Within these walls she continues to see her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), but is she to be believed or is she insane?

Well, I obviously won’t answer that because that will spoil the outcome but what I can say, is that the progress of the plot becomes more and more dumb. There are plot holes galore and how a certain character manages to gain freedom of movement without suspicion is insanity in itself. The writing pair of James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein have tried emulating some fraught, claustrophobic sense of horror akin to the wonder of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ from what I can tell, but it’s miles away from that captivating and concerning plight of hospital entrapment. Understandably, it’s unfair to compare this film to that Jack Nicholson feature, because this 2018 release is meant to be a B-movie of intimate proportions, but there’s frequent moments that take you out of the picture as you question what is happening, due to the lack of sense it presents.

The technical achievement is worthy of some credit, to have shot the entire film on a mobile device is impressive and adds some kind of personal madness to the story. It also shows that just about anyone can make a movie whatever the constraints but on the other hand, a name like Soderbergh goes a long way to get a film of this nature green-lit for cinematic release. I imagine if a student with an iPhone had written and directed the same thing, it wouldn’t have got anywhere, the power of his name helps sell a film that is otherwise a gimmicky lukewarm feature.

Aside from the issues the story throws up, I found myself very distant from the film thanks to the way it was shot. It’s as if the filmmakers want you to be immersed in a gritty narrative and believe the craziness on show, which would be fine within a fantasy filled genre but the way that ‘Unsane’ looks and is created with the phone camera; adds a realistic close up touch which deletes the suspension of disbelief you’d usually retain for fantastical movies and truly makes the latter half of this film, far-fetched and coldly distancing.

Foy does excel and is by and large the best thing going for this movie. She commits and gets under the skin as someone your mind sways back and forth with, concerning the notion of her mental state. She manages to make a character that I didn’t connect with someone that I still empathised with. Jay Pharoah as Nate brings a needed level of light relief to the plot and gets some good scenes with Sawyer. Juno Temple is the right choice for an unhinged patient and Temple makes sure that Violet is worrying to be around but every character around Foy are less than engaging and serve as little more than script help for Sawyer to get through the film.

I wasn’t expecting to write so much about this Soderbergh release beforehand, but after seeing it I had a lot on my mind about how poor the story is that I can’t shake that off. Foy is great. Everything else is irritatingly not.

5.5/10

Hush (2016)

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I’m loving Netflix for these movies that I otherwise wouldn’t see. This psychological horror is fantastically written, deals with tension so well that I don’t think it lets up from the moment the killer arrives to when the credits scroll upwards. It’s even better because it doesn’t jump to jump scares for help, in fact I don’t recall any in the entire feature…hurrah!

Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is struggling to write a second novel. She has multiple endings but cannot decide on which suits the story best. As she sits at her laptop she is unaware that a masked murderer (John Gallagher Jr.) is outside planning to kill her, he has an element of power because Maddie is deaf and mute from contracting meningitis when she was 13, however she won’t go down without a fight.

It is the tension in this that works so well, I read that director Mike Flanagan was originally going to have Maddie not hearing anything captured in complete silence, which he went back on realising the lack of sound would take audiences out of the picture. He is bang on, the echoing heartbeat effects drumming into recognition do enough to put you into her world but keep the tension brewing very nicely.

On the whole, this is a movie that cleverly plays with sound and flicks between the almost hollow scope of Maddie’s hearing and the louder life we are used to. It’s interesting giving the villain an advantage yet still having him not always being the almighty killer you’d expect him to be. The house is another character in a sense, as it provides our heroine with rooms of escape, crawl spaces and vantage points to try and win the night.

Though there is not a lot of dialogue, I must commend the writing of Flanagan and actor/wife/writer Siegel who both master a scene of superb tension between the killer and a neighbour who comes checking in. The levels of power play bounce back and forth and that dramatic irony of knowing who he is as he pretends to be otherwise is perfectly set up just making you want to shout out to John that all is not good. The inclusion of her as a writer is beautifully utilised as we see numerous choices for Maddie to possibly take, like her story left with many possible ends.

Katie Siegel is a great central character, her lost sense is never a weakness as she possesses a strong will and in her eyes there is that clear sense of determination even if she nicely showcases fear from time to time. Gallagher Jr. is great too, once he takes off the simple but damn effective mask, he goes to town on an unhinged murderer without needing backstory to create a well structured dynamic antagonist.

I was immersed into this taut and skilled movie from the offset and that connection was never lost. ‘Hush’ is an excellent home invasion release that is very smart and very tense.

8/10

 

The Forest (2016)

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Creepily foreboding, this is a nicely wound horror film, perhaps not tightly wound like it could be but there’s still enough worrying moments to find yourselves lost in, as the character herself gets lost in the forest.

Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) hasn’t heard from her identical twin sis for quite a while which worries her. The last Jess was seen was leaving her teaching duties in Japan to enter the apparently dangerous Aokigahara Forest; more troubling as it’s where people go to kill themselves. Sara is adamant Jess is still alive and with the help of a tour guide and Aussie journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) they set off the forest path.

It has a really slow start, cutting from a girl running to Sara’s journey into Tokyo and beyond. The true foresty things don’t really happen till about the 30/40 minute mark. Also for a horror film this isn’t really scary or in fact scary at all. It goes for jump scares, ghosts and morphing faces but they’re ticking the book…that’s all. I don’t mind that though, I liked the more psychological factor it leaned towards.

Jason Zada directs this film knowing the forest imagery is the visual audiences came for and he stuffs this landmark with creepy schoolgirls, hordes of ghosts and mind twisting questions as Sara wonders whether she’s losing the plot or not. In a similar but not as good way as ‘Oculus’ this movie plays on the brain, what’s real, what’s trying to kill you and in a big way, self. Having twins is the first and largest proof of this movie utilising the idea of identity for Sara’s decline.

What I found the most interesting was the forest, the history and spiritual belief behind this place. It is a lush looking ecosystem but wow is it made to look sad and empty. As if the souls of apparent yurei are calling out through the trees. This truth based idea for the forest is deep but sadly the story doesn’t warrant it to go deeper. There’s too many questions at the end and it becomes a standard stab at a horror film.

Natalie Dormer is great, showcasing talents in playing two characters, subtly in the more unhinged Jess compared to the blonde female lead of positive and caring Sara. Taylor Kinney comes in as a good character giving us questions to who he is, if not necessarily giving us the answers we wanted.

It shifts in a untidy way and where it could have triumphed by focusing on the changes into the psychological fear of Sara, it instead becomes lost in the Sea of Trees.

5.5/10