Saturday, May 24, 2014

Movie Reviews: About Last Night, Rage, Devil's Due

About Last Night
directed by Steve Pink
This is a remake of a 1986 film of the same name that had a predominantly white cast. This film has a predominantly black cast. Each film was based on a David Mamet play. There was a recent interesting discussion at The Atlantic about the need to make more non-white and/or non-male people the center of story lines instead of just being at best the sassy best friend. Judging by some of the comments by self-identified whites you would have thought that the writer was suggesting harvesting women's ovaries to sell for cheap in Eastern Europe. It was sort of depressing but also quite predictable how many people not only accepted but defended the idea that they wanted no black characters in their books or movies, not a one. They thought that cinematic and literary monochromatic depictions were not only normal and realistic but preferred. Similarly although this remake was directed and written by white people, the writer talks of the ugly, skeptical, and horribly racist reactions she received from some white people in so-called liberal Hollywood when it became known that her film would have a predominantly black cast. "I heard some very interesting reactions to the casting, specifically from white people who work in the movie industry. While I was doing the rewrite, I got dozens of really mean jokes, most of which I don’t feel comfortable putting into writing here because they were sometimes racist and always hurtful. The most clever one (still lame) was: "How’s your David Blamet script going?" It was like my script was suddenly not as good or less than or just plain not cool because of the casting. Whatever. Those people suck."
I would say that the writer, Leslye Headland (who also wrote the Bachelorette film), and director Steven Pink (who wrote High Fidelity and directed Hot Tub Time Machine) did a good job at creating a funny romantic comedy. It's only occasionally harsh but is always very honest. Hopefully much like Bill O'Reilly's surprise when he visited a Harlem restaurant and learned that black people weren't actually cursing each other out or shooting each other, perhaps some white people who might otherwise dismiss this as a "black" film will give it a shot. To dip into cliche for a moment, the story and themes are universal. They aren't made any less so because the lead characters are black. Lastly if I recall correctly this film had no racial caricatures. Specifically there were no morbidly obese or masculine black women, no thugs and no drugs, and no black best friend of either gender who only exists to help the white character along his or her journey to love and happiness with someone else. In other words this film was a breath of fresh air. When I was very young it was not uncommon for my relatives to call people on the phone to let them know "Black people were on TV!". It didn't matter what the black people were doing, just being on TV was sufficient. That had started to dissipate by the time I was in second grade as black politicians and other movers and shakers became more common. Still I want to give a virtual shout of "Black people in a movie!" in a nod to those long gone days.

Ok. Enough with the social commentary already. What's this film about? Well as mentioned it is an acerbic romantic comedy which has four lead roles. There's Danny (Michael Ealy) and Bernie (Kevin Hart), good friends who work as salesmen/distributors in the Los Angeles restaurant supply business. Bernie is a confirmed player (and he gets the lion's share of the film's funny lines) who doesn't really believe in love. He thinks that his hopelessly romantic friend Danny needs to stop moping around about being dumped by the love of his life Alison (Paula Patton-man that is one sexy lady) and get back in the game. To this end he has invited Danny along on his date with Joan (Regina Hall), a sexy and occasionally over the top dentist. Joan has asked her roommate, Debbie (Joy Bryant), a telecom exec, to tag along. In a recurring theme throughout the film Bernie and Joan are more down to the earth than their friends and often (occasionally hysterically wrongly) think that they know what's best for Danny and Debbie. Unsurprisingly Bernie and Joan hook up. Somewhat more surprisingly so do Danny and Debbie, after Debbie is impressed with how Danny is not threatened by her prior relationship with Terrell Owens (playing himself). It's been a while for both Danny and Debbie. Debbie is looking for a gentleman and Danny seems to be just such a man. 
Now it wouldn't be a romantic comedy if there weren't some conflict. This film delivers on that front. It makes some very funny and true to life observations about the challenges couples face in meeting each other's friends and family, moving in together, accepting or rejecting each other's quirks and flaws, dealing with the reality that you probably weren't your lover's one and only, being honest about the emotional vulnerability that saying "I love you" brings, and learning how to handle conflict with your significant other. That last could mean that you shut up and smile or become willing to respectfully but passionately fight on an issue that's important to you. In a modest subplot Danny doesn't like his job very much, especially since it brings him in conflict with his deceased father's best friend Casey (Christopher McDonald) a tavern owner who is chronically unable to pay his debts or update with the times. But Danny is concerned that quitting his job will lose him Debbie's respect since as he ruefully tells Bernie "There's a good chance she makes more than I do". In what seems like a tip of the hat to (500) Days of Summer, this film occasionally uses animated sketches that morph into real life sets. There is some blink and you'll miss it toplessness from Joy Bryant and extended (though not full frontal) nude scene from Michael Ealy. Again although EVERYONE did a great job in this flick special note must go to Kevin Hart. His character's manic behavior and utter pragmatism really drove the humor.
Interview with Headland

directed by Paco Cabezas
Rage stars Nicolas Cage. There are some people who will automatically not watch the film just because of that fact. A lot of times Cage seems to act as if he is zoned out on Quaaludes. And in the instances where that's not the case he's often incredibly frantic, looking or sounding as if he's pumped up on speed. Well that's the impression I often get anyway. I can't recall too many recent movies where he wasn't at one polarity or the other. Well that's also the case with this film but in a bit of a surprise it actually fits the character and his situation. The issue with this film was that there really wasn't a strong second actor or actress role for Cage to well..rage against. Rachel Nichols has a toned down/desexed role as Cage's wife. Danny Glover has a small part as a cop who may or may not be trying to help Cage. But the bad guys lack a little panache, a little style a little badness. Paul Maguire (Nicolas Cage) is a businessman. He appears to be a developer and real estate investor. He has a pretty younger wife Vanessa (Nichols) and a cute teen daughter Caitlin (Aubrey Peeples). Paul also has a large home, nice clothes and everything else that one would expect a middle aged man of means and substance to have in this great country of ours. His daughter is the apple of his eye. He dotes on her. Her mother died years ago. Like many fathers in that situation, Paul holds on fiercely to his little girl because she's the only reminder of his deceased wife. She's growing up quickly though. The boys are starting to come around. Although Paul is accepting of this fact as all men must become some day I suppose, he is still protective. 

When Paul and Vanessa go out for a political/business dinner, Paul somewhat reluctantly allows Caitlin to stay home and study with two of her high school classmates. Ahem. Both classmates happen to be boys which certainly is not the sort of thing my parents would have tolerated but this is 2014, yes? Times have changed. Before he leaves Paul gives one of the boys a friendly fatherly warning. But he also tells him that Caitlyn is fond of him and the next move is up to him. But in his absence things go wrong. There is a home invasion. As Detective St. John (Danny Glover) informs Paul and Vanessa, someone has kidnapped Caitlyn. The two boys were beaten up but not killed. There's no ransom note. No one has contacted Paul. Time is running out. Distraught, Paul tries to console his wife and think about where his daughter could be. However, Paul is not a man without resources. You see Paul has been law abiding for the past fifteen years or so. But before that he was one of the Irish Mob's most feared and deadly enforcers. Paul went straight upon Caitlin's mother's death, wanting to be around to raise Caitlin. But he'll be dammed if anyone kidnaps his daughter and gets away with it. He and his two closest old crew members, Danny (Michael McGrady) and Kane (Max Ryan), roam the city asking questions. And sometimes they don't ask so nice. Both Detective St. John and Paul's old boss Francis (Peter Stomare) try to get him to back off but he doesn't listen. Would you? Paul thinks he's found a link to his past that explains what happened.

At this point you might be thinking of Taken or Ransom or Four Brothers. Yeah. This movies is like a low rent version of those films. It has a nice little twist but it takes a tad too long to play out. There are times when you may pump your fist when some baddie gets his but the film's primary emotion is sadness. There are also a few too many flashbacks. Definitely not in the top tier of classic woman-in-peril/vigilante movies, Rage is okay but not something that will stay with you. I just wish Cage had been given more to work with here. McGrady gives a nice performance as the trio musclehead. He's been waiting for a chance to hurt someone. It's what he does. Be glad if he's on your side. Be worried if he's not. There is obviously the normal amount of violence and female toplessness/skimpy clothing, though this latter unfortunately does not include Nichols. This has a made for TV look in some aspects.

Devil's Due
directed by Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin
This is the movie that the evil devil baby skit in NYC was used to promote.
I don't think I would call this exactly a remake of Rosemary's Baby but it is something that is very very close.  It's perhaps a homage? We know very soon that something is going wrong but the couple doesn't. The only time the film tries to give an explanation about what might be happening was when the requisite Catholic priest babbles on about old church doctrines and heretics. The movie never goes anywhere with that. The characters do not do not make frantic calls to the Vatican or spend a night ensconced in the library, reading a Bible in Aramaic and discovering some secret conspiracy hidden in the text. Those things are virtually required in this genre. To not have them is like having a revenge movie where the lead actor doesn't lose someone close. I thought the lead actor lacked a little charisma but that might just have been the writing. I found him a tad passive. So if you've seen Rosemary's Baby and liked that film I would probably advise you to skip this movie. It would just irritate you. On the other hand if you haven't seen Rosemary's Baby and are intrigued by the miracle of pregnancy and/or frightened/irritated/fascinated by all the physical and emotional changes a mother's body undergoes this might be okay for you. Unfortunately the film uses the found footage trope, which not only doesn't work for this story but is just getting a little played out at this point in time.

Zach McCall (Zach Gilford) and Samantha (Allison Miller) have just gotten married. For their honeymoon they have decided to vacation in Santo Domingo. After a night of parties with other expatriates and a weird encounter with a creepy fortune teller who is disturbed by Samantha they decide to return to their hotel. But they're lost. Amazingly enough they run into a friendly if somewhat insistent cabbie who agrees to take them back to the hotel free of charge because of their newlywed status. But first he says he must take them to a special party which he knows that they will love. Zach fails his first test as husband by not putting his foot down and getting his wife safely home. The couple goes to this new party which becomes progressively weirder. Eventually they wake up in their hotel room with little to no memory of the party or how they got home. Chalking it up to the alcohol they return home to the states where soon afterwards, much to her chagrin, Samantha discovers that she's pregnant. Although, like most newlyweds they couldn't keep their hands off each other, Samantha used birth control religiously. She is confused and not super excited to learn she's going to be a mother.  Motherhood was not something she thought she was ready for. Zach is just prideful that one of his boys slipped past the goalie. He's very happy to be an expectant father.
It's no spoiler to reveal that the pregnancy is not an easy one for the couple. I'm not just talking about the normal to semi-normal things like routine nausea, sudden anger/tears, weight gain and calcium loss. Strange events start to happen. Zach sees people watching the house. The vegetarian Samantha starts craving raw meat. The couple's initial friendly female obstetrician is suddenly replaced by a more clinically detached male doctor, who ignores Samantha's worries. And that doctor's callousness is really symbolic of the film's shortcomings in my view. We never really get a chance to see Zach and Samantha as people so we don't really care about them as such. There are the usual body horror tropes of watching Samantha's stomach suddenly bulge and expand as she sleeps, letting us know that her "child" is neither Zach's nor is it human. But other than learning that Samantha is sweet and Zach is earnest, we know nothing about this couple. The flashbacks to happier times, which are intended to elicit empathy, generally don't. It's amazing that Rob Zombie could use the exact same technique in The Devil's Rejects and make them work for much worse characters. Devil's Due had some frights but nothing you haven't seen before if you watch a lot of horror movies. My take away from this film was to avoid attending basement parties in the Dominican Republic.
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