There’s more pleasure than guilt in enjoying this guilty pleasure as director Tate Taylor collaborates with Octavia Spencer, his muse from The Help, for a memorable, against-type, unhinged performance in the psychological thriller Ma (B). When a lonely veterinary assistant starts opening her basement to a quartet of partying teens, it becomes clear something sinister is afoot in her drug and alcohol crazed makeshift speakeasy. In the spirit of Misery, Carrie or One Hour Photo, there’s a disturbing backstory to the central character’s plight and a method to the madness. Spencer nails the macabre mood swings of a character who longs to fit in with the in-crowd, and she brandishes a smartphone and ruthless cunning as weapons of choice. For every routine resolution, there’s also a disturbing detour, including some surprising props and prosthetics; and the sometimes preposterous story works as perverse entertainment largely because of the subversive nature of Spencer’s unflinching presence. The film practically begs for the call-back, “No. She. Did Not.” The teen actors including Diana Silvers and Gianni Paolo are authentic and engaging, and so are Spencer’s contemporaries including Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Juliette Lewis, the latter of whom has some satisfying echoes of her Cape Fear role. The chocolate icebox pie Taylor and Spencer served eight years ago has aged into a new mocha bonbon, a dish of revenge served cold by a woman scorned. By the time the film reaches its delicious denouement, you may find yourself grinning from the thrill and audacity of it all.
The haunted house movie, the expectant mom horror film, the pretentious self-aware arthouse offering and the annual fall travesty starring Jennifer Lawrence all sink to incredible new lows in the gobsmackingly bad new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! (D). Rarely has a ham-fisted metaphor been more startlingly stretched over a motion picture’s running time. Ostensibly this often irritating film is about an author (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Lawrence), both written as extraordinarily passive, as they rebuild a secluded Victorian mansion and their life together after a tragic fire and try to stave off a series of invasions into their space. The preposterous and inexplicable events that occur as the story unfolds are simply stupefying and increasingly shrill. What starts with genuine menace and some real scares devolves quickly, and the payoff should really involve a refund. From the bizarre lack of chemistry between Lawrence and Bardem to unusual cameos involving two additional Oscar nominees, a former member of the SNL ensemble and a Force Awakens cast member, this cavalcade of hot mess surprises at every corner and not in a good way. Finding out some of the illusions are actually allusions provides only a modicum of solace after all the cacophony. The story and subplots are at the mercy of the symbolism, which renders character intention irrelevant. I did like Michelle Pfeiffer, who makes some fun and arch choices with her houseguest-from-hell character. Ultimately Aronofsky’s off-putting opus plumbs more biblical proportions than even his misbegotten Noah. By the end, the experiment was obvious, and it was performed on the audience. See this film only to discuss it.
Prepare your senses for the clock-woke orange pulp confection of audacious moviemaking to hit a nerve in some time. Funnyman-turned-first-time-director Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out (A-) is a suspenseful and lively tale of a twentysomething black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the suburban family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and the maiden voyage is a mindbender. Let’s just say that after the home tour, the events that follow will leave you guessing about a whole lot more than who’s coming to dinner. From the spot-on casting of Williams’ ultra-progressive parents to the sustained sense of dread around the townspeople and groundskeepers, Peele depicts the mounting terror that may be afoot in the neighborly facade. It’s like Shining-era Stanley Kubrick got an all-out David Lynching. Themes about the appropriation of race and culture are seamlessly marinated into a savory stew of a storyline; and the acting, music, sounds and setting all work in harmony to incredible effect. Catherine Keener is a standout as a therapist with unconventional hypnotic techniques, brilliantly rendered. As a horror film, it’s less gory and more allegory. But it’s edge of your seat material and sure to be the conversation starter of the year!
Regaining his strut as a writer/director of modern-day suspense films, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted an entertaining psychological thriller and met an acting match for his cinematic chutzpah in James McAvoy headlining Split (B+). The film is above all else a showcase for the considerable acting talents of McAvoy as a man with 23 discrete personalities (Dennis, Patricia, Barry and Hedwig among the most notable). McAvoy uses some pretty sly ticks and tricks to bring brilliant life to his menagerie of characters. What starts as an abduction and escape room type movie in the vein of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a more labyrinthine glimpse into a shattered mind. The female protagonist played by Anya Taylor-Joy helps anchor the film gracefully; she’s a perceptive outsider bent on cracking the code of the man holding her captive with two other teens. It’s also a hoot to see a late-career Betty Buckley in fine form clearly relishing a role as a therapist specializing in split personality disorders. The two other abducted teens played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren’t quite as indelible in the face of other sharp characterizations. The film is mesmerizing at times and taut throughout until the end, when it limps a bit to the finish line. Like his clear antecedent auteurs Hitchcock and De Palma, Shyamalan has created a twisty tale full of engaging mental machinations. It lacks the visual urgency to match its lead performances and can’t quite sustain the mental sharpness of its moving pieces. But for horror fans who like a PG-13 level basket of scares, it’s a gangbusters gateway drug to the genre and a corker of a story.