Review: ‘Mass’ (2021), starring Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney

February 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Breeda Wool in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

“Mass”

Directed by Fran Kanz

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Mass” features an almost all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men and two women who have a tragedy in common gather in a church meeting room to air out their differences.

Culture Audience: “Mass” will appeal primarily to people interested in dialogue-heavy movies about grief, mental illness and coping with the violent death of a loved one.

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

The title of the movie “Mass” can have a double meeting. On the one hand, the movie, which takes entirely at or near an Episcopal church, can refer to the religious ceremony called a mass. On the other hand, it could refer to the deadly mass shooting that has directly affected two men and two women, who have gathered at an Episcopal church in an unnamed U.S. city to have a difficult meeting about this tragedy. (The movie was actually filmed in Hailey, Idaho, but almost all of the scenes in the take place indoors.) Fran Kanz, who is known as an actor in the 2012 horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods” and the sci-fi TV series “JourneyQuest,” makes an impressive debut as a feature-film director in “Mass,” a movie which he also wrote. “Mass” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

“Mass” is a very well-written and intense film that relies entirely on the actors to make or break the authenticity in this gripping story. The movie centers on four people who have a painful discussion about a tragedy that has left them emotionally broken and damaged. Before these four people meet at the church, the story unfolds in layers, as viewers see a church office manager named Judy (played by Breeda Wool) nervously preparing for these visitors to gather in a room that has been reserved specifically for this meeting.

Judy asks a college-age assistant named Anthony (played by Kagen Albright) to help her get the room ready. Soon, a woman named Kendra (played by Michelle N. Carter) arrives to inspect the room and make sure that it’s appropriate for the meeting. Kendra seems to have been the one to choose the church as a meeting place. Judy is eager to please Kendra, who looks over the room in a business-like and no-nonsense manner.

The first clue that this meeting is about a traumatic, violent incident is when Kendra notices some stained-glass hanging decorations on the windows. Red is one of the decorations’ main colors. And from a distance, the red could look like bloodstains. Judy notices it too, and anxiously explains to Kendra that these stained-class decorations were made by some of the church kids. Judy says that the decorations could be removed before the visitors for the meeting get there. Kendra says it isn’t necessary.

Kendra is obviously the meeting’s facilitator, but she tells Judy that she will not be in the room during the meeting, in order to give the people in the meeting their privacy. It’s another clue that the meeting is of a very sensitive and confidential nature. Is Kendra a social worker? A counselor? Someone else? It’s never really made clear what her occupation is, but in the brief time that she’s on screen, Kendra seems to have the role of someone who is supposed to remain neutral in something that seems to be controversial.

Who are the people who will be participating in this tension-filled meeting? The married couple that viewers see first are Gail and Jay Perry, who drove down from an unnamed city for this gathering. Gail (played by Martha Plimpton) and Jay (played by Jason Isaacs), who are in their 50s, drive up to the church and park their car outside. However, Gail gets nervous and tells Jay to drive away so she can have more time to brace herself for this meeting.

They park near a fenced field that has a red ribbon tied to the fence. The camera lingers on the ribbon. It’s an obvious sign that this was the site of a makeshift memorial. Who died and why are these four people meeting? All the clues are there: A violent death, a makeshift memorial, two couples having an emotional discussion together for the very first time.

Gail feels ready to go back to the church. And when Gail and Jay go back to the church, they are greeted warmly by Judy and Kendra. Based on Judy’s comments, she’s not so eager to meet the other two people who arrive next, although when they do arrive she has a forced, polite smile. The other two visitors are a divorced couple in their 60s. It’s obvious that they’re no longer together when they arrive separately and aren’t seen wearing wedding rings.

Former spouses Richard (played by Reed Birney) and Linda (played by Ann Dowd) haven’t seen each other in a while. Richard no longer lives in the area, because he said that he traveled by plane for this somber occasion, and later he says he won’t be staying in the area for the rest of the day. Richard gives the impression that he’s a busy businessman, while the career backgrounds of Gail, Jay and Linda are never revealed. At one point in the story, Richard says that he isn’t religious, so meeting in a church is outside of his comfort zone.

Linda has brought a bouquet of wild flowers, which she offers to Gail as a gift. Gail declines to take the flowers but later changes her mind in order to not create any further tension. It’s another clue about where the hard feelings are between these four people. After some awkward small talk is exchanged, Kendra and Judy show Gail, Jay, Linda and Richard to the meeting room and leave the four visitors there to talk. Kendra says before she leaves them together, “I’m hopeful that we think this was a good thing to do by the time we leave here today.”

And that’s when the movie starts to peel back the layers of turmoil and trauma that have led to this excruciating meeting. It won’t be revealed in this review who died and who committed the mass murder. But it’s enough to say that those details come out in bits and pieces. And then the floodgates open with the blame, anger, sadness and confusion over how the murders could have been prevented.

What makes “Mass” so outstanding is that there isn’t a single line of dialogue or action that looks or sounds phony. Because 80% of the movie takes place in this one room, “Mass” could very much be a play. It’s not an easy film to watch for anyone who is very sensitive to the topic of mass murder. However, “Mass” presents an excellent story that looks at this type of tragedy from various perspectives of loved ones who are left behind.

All four of the main actors give stellar performances. However, Plimpton and Dowd shine the most because their characters Gail and Linda express their emotions more freely than the men do. “Mass” is also a raw look at different ways that people grieve and try to make sense of a senseless crime. And it’s also a realistic portrayal of survivor guilt and how people who didn’t cause the crime can still feel responsible for it.

Kanz’s directing style is as minimalist as his writing style is rich with naturalistic language. It’s a combination that works for the movie’s setting. And the movie greatly benefits from being well-cast with actors who never strike a false note with their characters. “Mass” is a movie that will linger in people’s memories long after they watch it. And it will be a story that will come to mind when people think about how mass murders cause untold traumas that don’t necessarily make headlines.

Review: ‘Scoob!,’ starring Will Forte, Frank Welker, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez and Jason Isaacs

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daphne (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez), Shaggy (voiced by Will Forte), Fred (voiced by Zac Efron) and Scooby-Doo (voiced by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Scoob!”

Directed by Tony Cervone

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California’s Venice Beach and other parts of the universe, the animated film “Scoob!” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A villain is out to kidnap Scooby-Doo, the lovable, talking Great Dane that’s the best friend of one of the four young people who’ve started a detective agency called Mystery Inc.

Culture Audience: “Scoob!” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Scooby Doo” TV cartoon series and to people who are looking for lightweight animation for entertainment.

Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs) and Scooby-Doo (voiced  by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

People who loved the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series should brace themselves if they see the animated film “Scoob!,” because the uncomplicated charm of the TV show has been turned into a overly busy, often-mediocre film that has a serious identity crisis. The “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series was essentially a detective show, with each mystery solved at the end of each episode. The “Scoob!” movie tries to be too many things at once—a comedy, a mystery, a superhero story, a supernatural horror movie and a sci-fi adventure. But the worst change in the “Scoob!” movie is that Scooby-Doo and the four young detectives at the heart of the “Scooby-Doo” series are split up for most of the “Scoob!” movie.

“Scoob!” begins with showing how the talking Great Dane known as Scooby-Doo ended up with his best friend Shaggy. In the bohemian beach city of Venice, California, a homeless Great Dane puppy is being chased by a bicycle cop and hides out in a mound of sand on the beach. It just so happens that a lonely boy named Norville “Shaggy” Rogers (who’s about 9 or 10 years old) is nearby on the same beach and discovers the dog.

Shaggy names the dog Scooby Dooby Doo. And when the bicycle cop catches up to the dog, Shaggy convinces the cop that he’s the dog’s rightful owner. Shaggy takes Scooby home with him, and they become fast friends. As a token of their friendship, Shaggy gives Scooby a dog collar with a tag engraved with the initials “SD” on it.

Shaggy’s favorite superhero is Blue Falcon, who has a canine sidekick named Dynomutt. Shaggy keeps action figures and pictures of them in his room. Shaggy is such a fan that, for Halloween, he dresses up as Blue Falcon and Scooby as Dynomutt. While they’re out trick-or-treating, some kid bullies steal Shaggy’s candy and knock him  and Scooby down on the sidewalk as they run away.

It’s here that Shaggy and Scooby first meet the three young people who will become their close friends: brawny Fred, compassionate Daphne and brainy Velma. For their Halloween costumes, Fred is dressed as a knight in armor, Daphne is dressed as Wonder Woman and Daphne is dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Shaggy mistakes Daphne for trying to be someone in a “Harry Potter” movie.

Fred, Daphne and Velma offer to help Shaggy after seeing him get knocked down, but he says the only things that are bruised are his “ego and tailfeathers.” (This line is one of the many signs that this movie was written by adults who can’t write realistic kids’ dialogue.) As soon as Scooby and this quartet of new friends start to bond, they encounter their first big mystery together, as they enter what’s rumored to be a haunted house.

They’re immediately terrorized by a menacing ghost in the house. Instead of running away (which is always Shaggy’s inclination), they band together to fight the ghost, which turns out not to be ghost, but a thief who has kept a houseful of stolen electronics and appliances stashed there. And, of course, when he’s arrested, he snarls that he would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s the first real mystery solved by the four friends and Scooby.

Fast forward about 10 years later, and the four friends are now in their late teens/early 20s. They’ve started a detective agency named Mystery Inc., and are trying to figure out how to raise money to keep the business going. While they have a meeting at a diner, Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) thinks that they should find investors.

And lo and behold, Simon Cowell (voiced by the real Cowell) randomly shows up unannounced at the diner, sits down at the table, and says that he’s willing to invest in the detective agency—but only if they get rid of Shaggy and Scooby, since Cowell thinks they’re useless. Cowell cynically adds, “When you get in trouble, friendship won’t save the day.”

Shaggy and Scooby are so insulted, that they don’t wait around to hear how Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), Daphne (voiced Amanda Seyfried) and Velma react to Cowell’s ultimatum to get rid of Shaggy and Scooby. Leaving in a huff, Shaggy and Scooby end up at a bowling alley, where they encounter bowling balls and bowling pins that turn into minion-like robots with chainsaws for hands.

The robots chase Shaggy and Scooby around a bowling alley. Just then, a blue light beams down. It’s the Falcon Fury spaceship owned by Blue Falcon (voiced by Mark Wahlberg) and navigated by pilot Dee Dee Skyes (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), who rescue Shaggy and Scooby from the robots. Dee Dee tells Shaggy and Scooby that the robots are from a villain called Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs).

While on the ship, Shaggy meets his hero Blue Falcon. The superhero is really a guy named Brian who’s taken over the Blue Falcon superhero persona from his retired father, and he hides his insecurity by putting up a blustery brave front. Dynomutt (voiced by Ken Jeong) has the power to extend his neck to great lengths and he’s a loyal and enthusiastic sidekick to Blue Falcon.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Velma has found out through research that Dick Dastardly is wanted by authorities for stealing archeological artifacts from Peru (including a giant skull of a dog) and for taking genealogical records of dogs from the Global Kennel Club. It’s pretty easy to figure out at this point that Scooby is the target of Dick Dastardly’s evil plans. But why? The movie answers that question, but there’s a lot of filler action, as the movie zigzags from genre to genre the way that the characters zig zig from Earth to outer space.

“Scoob!” has four screenwriters—Adam Sztykiel, Jack C. Donaldson, Derek Elliott and Matt Lieberman—and the whole movie gives the impression that the screenplay had “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It tries to be a comedy, but the jokes aren’t very good. When one of the characters calls athletic Fred “a poor man’s Hemsworth,” Fred asks, “Chris or Liam?” And the “mystery” in the movie is very easy to solve, even for young children who might be watching.

As for the animation, when there are Pixar movies in the world, many other animated films look inferior in comparison. The best action sequences in “Scoob!” are with the fearsome Cerberus (the three-headed hound of Hades), which has to do with the supernatural horror aspect of this messy film. There’s a chase scene through an abandoned amusement park that ramps up the action, but nothing in this movie is awards-worthy.

Although the actors do a good job with the screenplay that they’ve been given, it seems as if the Blue Falcon character was added to the world of Scooby-Doo just to jump on the bandwagon of superhero movies and to create a possible cinematic universe with various Hanna-Barbera characters. And the celebrity cameo from Cowell just seems weird and out of place. Cowell’s son Eric even has a voice role in the movie. (Did someone on the “Scoob!” filmmaking team owe Simon Cowell a favor?) Tracy Morgan has a cameo as Captain Caveman on Mystery Island, but his wacky character is very under-used in a script that needed more originality instead of a derivative superhero subplot.

And since Shaggy and Scooby are separated from Fred, Daphne and Velma during most of the movie, this estrangement ruins the original appeal of the “Scooby-Doo” series, which is all about the teamwork and camaraderie between this lovable dog and his four human friends. Another travesty: Mystery Inc.’s 1970s-style van the Mystery Machine is literally destroyed in the movie, which is an apt metaphor for how this movie wrecks the spirit of the original “Scooby-Doo” series. If “Scoob!” had stuck to a well-crafted story about a good mystery that needed solving—instead of trying to be too many things to too many people—then it would have turned out to be a much better movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Scoob!” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.