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By Vernor Rodgers
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"MA"
This is a movie I wish had not given away so much in the trailers. The fact that an Oscar-winning actress like Octavia Spencer is starring in a movie coming from horror factory Blumhouse with an association with Universal, was intriguing enough. True, Spencer did have a supporting role in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," but being the lead character in a movie that appears to be a horror/thriller simply was irresistible.

So, already knowing key elements of Spencer's Sue Ann in "Ma" really degrades what could have been a superb movie experience. We know what Sue Ann, dubbed "Ma," is up to, so that decimates the shock factor that would have been key in elevating this movie.

"Ma," directed by Tate Taylor, who worked with Spencer on her Academy Award-winning performance in "The Help," is written by Scotty Landes, and since we know Sue Ann is buddying up with the local teenagers for some sinister purpose, the only revelations will be what is motivating her actions and will she be stopped.

The roster of teens in "Ma" has the usual staples. Diana Silvers is Maggie, in the Final Girl role, the new student in high school when she and her mother Erica (Juilette Lewis -- it just does not seem so long ago Lewis was playing the restless teen) move back to Erica's hometown following the breakup of the woman's marriage. It is Maggie who from the start is puzzled and then alarmed by Sue Ann's inconsistent behavior.

Then there is McKaley Miller as Haley, the popular-though-nobody-knows-why girl and general bad influence on everybody. And the guys: Andy (Cory Fogelmanis), Maggie's love interest, and the tagalongs like Dorell (Dante Brown) and Chaz (Gianni Paolo), who get a few scenes but way too little character development.

The chilling aspect of "Ma" is that Sue Ann, like Glenn Close's Alex Forrest in "Fatal Attraction" and Jessica Walter's Evelyn Draper in "Play Misty for Me," can disarm people with charm and intelligence while being brilliantly resourceful and manipulative.

It is via brief flashbacks throughout the movie that we learn what is driving Sue Ann to carry out her diabolical plans. The problem is this is telegraphed from the beginning so when the final revelation is made, it is not all that shocking.

Nevertheless, "Ma" is worth viewing because Spencer, as in all her movies, is riveting. Her scenes in previous movies were always the highlights, and in "Ma" it is her presence on the screen in which the movie flies.

"THE HIGHWAYMEN" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/aH6vC-BBKOc

 

"THE INTRUDER"
Speaking of actors who go against normal casting, Dennis Quaid is the best reason to see "The Intruder." Much like "Ma," the trailers to "The Intruder" pretty much give away the plot.

A young couple, Annie and Scott Russell (Meagan Good and Michael Ealy) purchase what is for Annie a dream home in the open country of Central California's wine region. The seller is Charlie Peck (Quaid), who admits this has been his home all his life, but now he is going to live with his daughter in Florida. Except the move to Florida keeps being postponed.

Meanwhile, Charlie is still hanging around, at first doing seemingly harmless things like mowing the lawn. He manages to charm the hell out of Annie while Scott grows more irritated and then more alarmed as Charlie escalates his involvement in the Russell's life.I

Of course, there are more revelations coming forth about Charlie, per usual things that prove Charlie is not who he seems. This leads to the inevitable evolution of Charlie the nice but lonley widower to an obsessed psychopath.

All predictable but fun to see Quaid break away from his nice-guy role.

"THE HIGHWAYMEN" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/aH6vC-BBKOc

 

"BRIGHTBURN"
"Brightburn" builds upon the premise of what would happen if the Superman story went horribly wrong, that the baby from some other planet does not turn out to be a superhero who pursues truth, justice and the American way but something sinister and deadly. 

Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are Tori and Kyle Breyer, a couple from Brightburn, Kansas, taking on the role of the Kents of Superman lore. Unable to successfully conceive a child, they assume a divine event takes place when a capsule containing a baby crashes several hundred yards from their home.

Some idyllic years pass as the baby in the crash, now named Brandon, grows from infancy to toddlerhood to young childhood. The story then takes up as Brandon is 12, on the edge puberty, and things are starting to happen.

The Breyers tell Brandon to stay out of the rickety barn on their property -- that is where the crashed capsule is stashed -- but he is drawn there anyway. Meanwhile, Brandon displays vast knowledge and intelligence, and then, ominously, super strength. He has a sketch book he fills with symbols and scary images.

We know where "Brightburn" is headed. Kyle, who might have had doubts about Brandon from the beginning, now has some red flags flapping, while Tori is immersed in denial. The movie then moves to the nastiness as Brandon realizes what he is and what he must do to prevent others from pursuing any probes into what the hell is going on here.

The script is by cousins Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, yes the Gunn family of "Guardians of the Galaxy" writer and director James Gunn.

Once Brandon's survival instincts kick in, "Brightburn" does get bloody. The question is: will somebody be able to stop Brandon?

Look for a raving cameo by Michael Rooker.

"Brightburn" is another movie, like "The Prodigy," that focuses on a scary horror sub-genre of evil children. On the Bad Child Family chart, Brandon kind of ranks in the middle, well below, the AntiChrist Damien Thorne. 

What hurts "Brightburn" is that it is never revealed what is driving Brandon. What is his purpose? We see random stuff, but not even a hint of the bigger picture. Whether this was done to tease to a sequel is only a guess, but whatever, "Brightburn" at this point will become lost as it tries to get us horrified over a violent but otherwise mysterious but bland entity.

"THE HIGHWAYMEN" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/aH6vC-BBKOc

 

"APOLLO 11"
This is a superb documentary on what was one of the greatest accomplishments of the space program, the successful mission to the moon and back in July 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon while their fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited the moon alone in the craft that would transport the three men back to Earth.

Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to go through tons of footage, all shot on film back then, and provide a taut 93-minute recap of the misson. The team putting the documentary together used the work of Ben Feist, who was able to improve the quality of the sound recordings, cleaning up the communications between NASA and the astronauts. Feist also did a great job of logging the times of the communications, allowing Miller and company to synchronize the radio exchanges to the film.

"Apollo 11" has no narration, but uses subtitles to offer additional data, such as telemetry displaying the rapid acceleration during the booster rocket firings as well as the scary rapid descent numbers as the lunar module Eagle was landing on the moon. 

This movie unfortunately only had limited release in theaters but it is well worth a look if it shows up on other platforms. It is a film of triumph as well as a recalling of the 1960s and an illustration of how technology has changed in the 50 years since. Also, it offers a much more lively real-life Neil Armstrong than what Ryan Gosling did in "First Man."

"THE HIGHWAYMEN" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/aH6vC-BBKOc

 

"LIZZIE"
Now being showcased on Shudder, "Lizzie," co-produced and starring Chloe Sevigny, is another take on the famous 1892 double murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, in which despite a consensus among people that the killings were committed by daughter Lizzie, nevertheless ended in an acquittal of the young woman. One of the sensations of the crime was the belief that Lizzie took an axe to her father and stepmother while nude, thus eradicating the possibility of blood being found on her clothing.

The stunning murders also were the inspiration for this little ditty:

Lizzie Borden took an axe

Give her mother 40 whacks

When she saw what she had done

Gave her father 41

I am old enough to remember when Elizabeth Montgomery, just three years removed from her iconic run as the adorable witch Samantha Stevens in the TV series "Bewitched," created a sensation when she went against casting and played Lizzie in the TV movie "The Legend of Lizzie Borden" in 1975. Christina Ricci also has taken a shot at Lizzie Borden, more TV productions -- "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" and "The Lizzie Borden Chronicles" in 2014-15.

"Lizzie," however, is not a TV movie and thus not subjected to content restraints. So the nudity is not implied and the violence is brutal if not explicit. The results of the attack are shown and pretty gory.

Sevigny portrays Lizzie much like the other performances, as a young woman trying to be rebelious under the stern thumb of her father but constrained because she must rely on him to survive. She and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) live in a large but darkly lighted home. 

Andrew Borden (Jamie Sheridan) here is seen as a not too sympathetic character. He seems to love his daughters and strives to protect them but also appears to thrive as an uncompromising patriarch. Other portrayals show him as a ruthless businessman who has made his share of enemies, which helped in Lizzie's trial in suggesting there were other people out there who wanted Andrew dead.

"Lizzie" focuses on another pivotal character, the live-in maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). She and Lizzie become close, and more than friends. In addition, Andrew sneaks into Bridget's bedroom at night, this hinting that maybe even Bridget had reasons for wanting the man dead. Meanwhile, Abby (Fiona Shaw), is passive and timid and accepts that her husband is fooling around with the maid.

Abby and Lizzie do not seem to have a tense relationship here, which makes the brutal slaying of the older woman even more terrifying. It is overkill that is more attuned to horror flicks. Following the hacking to death of Andrew, Lizzie is the one who demands the police be summoned, as she either is innocent of the crimes or setting the foundation for getting away with murder.

The trial in "Lizzie" features Bridget as the key witness who appears to clear Lizzie of guilt, possibly because Bridget herself might have been culpable.

Although Lizzie Borden was found not guilty, she has been since seen as a cold-blooded killer. She is seen as being shunned post-trial, and in real life, she and Emma were alienated the rest of their lives.

Much like Bonnie and Clyde and the shootout at OK Corral, the Lizzie Borden case has been entrenched in folklore. So there have been and will be more interpretations, as well as books and even cruises. "Lizzie," written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill, offers an explicit take on a case that will never be satisfactorially resolved.

"THE HIGHWAYMEN" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/aH6vC-BBKOc

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