★★ / ★★★★
In the middle of the camp-lite psychological thriller “Ma,” directed by Tate Taylor and written by Scotty Landes, I wished the focus were on the adult characters instead of the teenagers. The reason is because veteran performers like Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, and Allison Janney can effortlessly elevate a tired plot toward a legitimate good time simply by injecting a fresh line reading, giving out pointed looks, and controlling body movements a certain way. These are qualities that the young cast is lacking. They provide passable performances, but their characters are clearly, and quite simply, lambs lining up for a slaughter.
It is apparent that Spencer is having a good time with her role. As Sue Ann, known by the party-loving teens as Ma because she allows them to lay back and let loose in her basement, she is almost always creepy and quite diabolical when triggered. And yet at times we are provided glimpses of her lonely life at home and how powerless she is at work. When she is humiliated, it is difficult to determine how she will react. Following this woman over the course of one day might have made a curios short film: veterinarian’s assistant by day, stalker and deadly killer by night. She is as quick to give a smile as she is at slitting someone’s throat with a scalpel.
Flashbacks involving Sue Ann being tormented by her peers in high school are uninspired. It might have been the wiser choice to remove these completely and focus on enhancing the script. Simply referencing traumatic details from the past could have been enough given the caliber of its experienced actors. Notice the power of reunions. For instance, we feel Erica’s embarrassment of having to cross paths with a former classmate after it was believed that she moved to California to live a life of success. Erica’s sense of failure is written all over Juliette Lewis’ face. Her body does not want to be on that casino floor, skimpy clothing and all. Even though she is a mother who is strong and proud to raise her daughter by herself, at that very moment she feels like trash.
Maggie, Erica’s daughter, is played by Diana Silvers, the new girl that the popular crowd (McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown) welcomes into the their group. She has a memorable face, but the screenplay fails to create a memorable heroine. For too long she is shown as a passive observer; she begins to notice strange things at Sue Ann’s home and yet she continues to return and party in the basement. When the third act rolls around, we are supposed to care about her fate simply because she is the main girl and nothing else. Never mind the familiar horror tropes of being drugged and waking up to be tormented.
It is rare when solid performances manage to save a generic screenplay. “Ma” is no exception. While entertaining on the surface, I found little value—or excitement—in it. It is one of those movies that you allow to play in the background as you perform chores, check texts, or browse social media while occasionally looking up as decibels begin to rise.
The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.