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« Women & Women Fear No Glass Art »

Column Fri Nov 05 2010

Due Date, For Colored Girls, Megamind, Fair Game & The Island Inside

Due Date

When I was leaving the screening of Todd Phillips' (Road Trip; Old School; Starsky & Hutch; The Hangover) latest comedy opus Due Date, I heard a fellow audience member utter the immortal and highly quotable statement, "It had its moments." I concur...only I think that person's comment was meant as more of a ho-hum evaluation than if I had said it. Truth be told, Due Date has quite a collection of moments that are at times tasteless, hysterical, shocking and occasionally moving. And while the episodic nature of the film (whose screenplay is credited to Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel and Phillips) results in big laughs and even bigger groans at times, I'm not sure Due Date really holds together as a cohesive unit. What it reminds me of is the difference between a stand-up comic who tells joke after joke after joke versus one who tells very funny stories. This movie is like two guys roasting each other, as opposed to a Patton Oswalt or Louis C.K. doing what they do best on stage. One isn't necessarily funnier than the other, but at the end of the latter, you feel a little more satisfied as a human being.

There's no getting around the fact that with last year's The Hangover, Phillips was crowned the king of this type of comedy film, and I think I may have laughed even more at Due Date, which takes its cues from previous opposites-repulse, road-trip movies like Midnight Run and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter Highman, an L.A. architect hurrying back from Atlanta to be home for the birth of his first child with wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan). From the second he arrives at the airport, his life repeatedly intersects with that of would-be actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), traveling to LA for the first time to try and find work. He carries with him the ashes of his recently deceased father in a coffee can, so you can kind of see those jokes coming a mile away.

Due to a series of misunderstandings originating largely from Ethan being an idiot, both men get tossed off their plane and are forced to rent a car together to drive across country. In many respects, we know where this is going. The two men will have some adventures, find things to love and hate about each other, but eventually they'll grow to like and even care about one another as they survive ordeal after ordeal. That's the formula, and just because it's a formula doesn't mean it's bad, especially when you have better-than-average actors in the lead and supporting parts.

Downey hasn't had a chance to be this kind of funny in quite a while. He does cocky very well (Iron Man; Sherlock Holmes) and he does ridiculous like a king (Tropic Thunder), but in Due Date he's right down the middle. And for most of the film, I bought Peter's level of rage and blood-boiling hatred of Ethan. If anything, Ethan is a little too deplorable in the beginning, but Galifianakis has a secret -- the dude can act. See his less-comedic work like It's A Funny Kind of Story or the masterful Visioneers; he does the dopey stoner quite convincingly, but he also plays the scenes in which he's grieving over his father's death remarkably well.

Due Date also features a mixed bag of supporting players, including the riotous Danny McBride as a Western Union clerk (I will say no more about his awesome scene), Juliette Lewis as a pot dealer; RZA as a TSA agent; and Jamie Foxx as one of Peter's best friends. Foxx gives one of the film's weakest performances, as if he thought he didn't have to give his all because he wasn't the lead. But Due Date isn't really about these other people; it's about the slow, painful process (much like childbirth itself) of these two men growing fond of each other. Let me correct that, because really Ethan doesn't change that much during the course of the plot. It's Peter who is convinced that he has a stick up his bum that is in desperate need of removal.

When the history books are written about Due Date (and trust me, volumes will be written), the scene that it will best be remembered for involves a dog that has taken the cue from his master that masturbating before bedtime is the best idea, even if there's a relative stranger nearby. There was a guy (a fellow critic, I believe) who laughed at this site gag for about five straight minutes. He almost went into convulsions with laughter, and there's no getting around the fact that it was the film's funniest moment. But if that gag grosses you out more than it makes you laugh, you're in for a long night at the movies. If you have a case of the giggles at the very thought of this gag, you'll be just fine. I think Due Date is damn hilarious, even if it's largely insubstantial. The level of the performances makes any shortcomings the movie may have utterly forgivable. You don't have to lower your expectations, but you do kind of have to let yourself go.

For Colored Girls

This film affords me the opportunity to do something I've never once done: review a Tyler Perry-directed film. (I'd also one day love to interview the man because I think his life and career are fascinating.) As difficult as it may be to believe, I've seen every single Perry joint since his 2005 big-screen debut Diary of a Mad Black Woman (which he didn't actually direct), and it seems that about every six to nine months, the man drops another film that either tackles some seriously silly material or a heightened drama or an unstable combination of the two. I've actually liked a couple of his films outright, but more often than not what I enjoy are certain sections of each film. Pretty much anything featuring Perry's female alter-ego Madea, I can't stand. It just isn't that funny. And while some critics who have reviewed his films in the past tend to take the position that Perry isn't a big fan of black men (who seem to be the villains in 100 percent of his films), I choose to think he just expects more of them than society seems to.

With this in mind, it seems that the 1974 Tony-winning play from Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, would be right up Perry's alley in terms of its focus on the struggles of black women. The play was a series of poetic monologues spoken by one of nine women, but Perry has done something kind of remarkable with For Colored Girls and turned that format into a series of interweaving stories, but with many of the monologues still very much in place. He's updated a couple of the characters' worlds (Perry introduces HIV into one of the women's lives), and he's turned the monologues into these rhythmic injections of a self-discovery and self-awareness that brought out some very deep emotions in this white male audience member.

Played by some of the most gifted black actresses of our time (Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Tessa Thompson and Kerry Washington), these women are put through some awful tests of endurance -- rape, physical abuse, the death of children, the absence of self respect, back-alley abortions, personal heartbreak, and the list goes on. What For Colored Girls emphasizes to perfection is not that people can make it through such tragedies through inner strength, but that often inner strength comes from a communal experience and relying on others to carry you through the toughest times. This isn't a story about prayer or God, in fact the religious woman (Goldberg) is treated with a great deal of disdain. Instead, this is a call for women to unify around their shared experiences at the hands of men. (Sorry, dudes. While there are certainly a couple of nice guys in this movie, most of the men in this film are still the oppressors.)

While all of the actresses in For Colored Girls are quite good, I want to single out a couple who are doing things I've simply never seen before. Kimberly Elise (Beloved, John Q, The Manchurian Candidate, Diary of a Man Black Woman) is a goddess here as Crystal, a woman whose children are taken from her quite cruelly in a sequence that will haunt me for years to come. But even before that, she's endured years of physical abuse by a mentally unstable boyfriend (Michael Ealy) and mental abuse by her boss, a fashion magazine editor (Jackson). When Crystal finally collapses, Elise sells it so solidly that I don't know how either of them crawled back out of that hole. Her performance will quite simply destroy you and, eventually, fortify you. Another tremendous effort comes from Anika Nomi Rose (Dreamgirls) as Yasmine, who must find the strength to pull her life back together after a graphic sexual assault. The scenes of her cowering in her apartment are painful to watch.

I was also most impressed with Rashad's work as Gilda in For Colored Girls. Rashad has pretty much owned the stage since her time opposite Bill Cosby. She plays the soothing voice of reason in an apartment building where a few of the characters live or visit frequently. I just look at her, and I feel a little bit better about the world. The monologues are handled quite nicely. Characters slip in and out of delivering them almost like they had fallen asleep (or perhaps finally woken up) and are someplace where poetry is the language of the time and place. (It's not that different than watching a musical where characters move from speaking to singing and back.) And the words... my goodness, those words are something powerful. Rose's speech about rape is traumatic. Thandie Newton's Tangie delivers a harsh poem about channeling the hatred she feels toward her mother (Goldberg) into an uncontrolled succession of sexual conquests, bringing home a different man every night. A lot of For Colored Girls is going to make you very uncomfortable, and every once and while that's probably an okay thing to happen.

I saw this film in a roomful of critics, many of whom were visibly shaken by its power (me included), some even cried. But I'd really love to see this film again with a paying crowd. It doesn't happen nearly enough that I get to share that unhindered emotional experience at any kind of movie, and I can only imagine what the outpouring of pure feeling would be like at For Colored Girls. For those who think Perry is strictly an amateur-hour filmmaker, this work should at least temporarily silence that crowd. Clearly a passion project for Perry, one he took his time piecing together, For Colored Girls takes the shortest and most painful way into your soul and rides it out until you're a quaking mess of pure liquid emotion. Yes ultimately, the film leaves us lifted and ready to face life head on thanks to these remarkable women. Don't be afraid of this one; step into the light and be a little bit reborn.

To read my exclusive interview with For Colored Girls star Thandie Newton, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Megamind

I think I was supposed to get more out of Megamind than I actually did. Maybe I've just grown weary of these meta superhero movies that examine what makes up the hero-villain mythology. While a film like Kick-Ass actually populated its story with extremely interesting characters, Megamind seems to toy with the idea that, by presenting the cliche hero and villain, it's being clever by simply rattling off a series of safe jokes and a plot that's about as transparent as The Invisible Girl/Woman. I liked the way this film opened, with a look at Megamind's history growing up the outcast. It's a lot like the story of the Wicked Witch seen through the filter of the musical Wicked. These aren't bad people, just folks who were were shunned their whole lives and grew to resent society.

After landing on Earth after his parents jettisoned him from his dying home world, the young boy who would grow to be the world's greatest villain Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) way always made to look worse by his classmate and later mortal enemy Metro Man (Brad Pitt), also from another world. Metro Man is the basically a stand in for Superman, and frankly, I think Pitt does a terrible job injecting any personality into the character. He selects a lower octave in his voice and makes every sentence out of his mouth sound like an announcement. As with any superhero story, there's a love interest. In Megamind, the woman is Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), probably the most interesting element in this movie. Roxanne is often the victim of Megamind's nefarious plans to draw Metro Man out into the open so Megamind can kill him, but it never works, and everyone is bored with the game. But one day, almost by accident, while a museum in Metro Man's honor is being unveiled, Megamind stumbles upon his nemesis' vulnerability and ends up defeating him quite soundly. The town of Metro City is devastated and a wave of evil sweeps over the land... sort of.

If there's a lesson in Megamind, it is that heroism is all about timing and opportunity. And when Roxanne's geeky cameraman (voiced by Jonah Hill) is turned into a super-villain named Tighten, suddenly the city needs a new hero and Megamind is allowed to fulfill his dream the way he has wanted to since he was a child. And that's pretty much it. Sure, there are a couple of interesting voice talents on hand, such as David Cross as Megamind's right-hand fish Minion, Ben Stiller as Megamind's dad, and J.K. Simmons as the warden at the prison where Megamind spends a lot of time. But basically, Megamind turns the villain into the hero in an only slightly different (and not nearly as effective) way as Despicable Me did over the summer. Granted, the brands of evil in the two films is different, but it's basically the same premise executed differently.

By the time I got home from watching Megamind, most of the details had already escaped my brain. Some of the jokes work; most of them are obvious and barely worthy of a smirk. In the end, the film didn't work for me because I don't think it added anything to the superhero conversation. And in the current sea of hero flicks, anything new kind of needs to at this point. I will give credit where credit is due. The use of 3D in Megamind is really stunning, as it tends to be with animated fare. But that basically means that I would have enjoyed the film almost as much if they'd turned the sound off. There's a great deal of effort from Tom McGrath, director of the two Madagascar films, but Megamind simply doesn't give the payoff it should.

Fair Game

I was wracking my brain trying to think of films where Naomi Watts' presence actually made the film better. She's fine actress, I accept that. But it's only in the hands of some really powerful directors where she really gets inspired to rise above her beauty and above-average talent to really soar. One of those times was opposite Sean Penn in Alejandro González Iñárritu's 1993 film 21 Grams (she also did good work with Penn in the little-seen The Assassination of Richard Nixon a year later). In later works with David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Michael Haneke (Funny Games), she's also impressed me more than she usually does, but so often she feels like a beautiful, capable placeholder. In her third collaboration with Penn, director Doug Liman's Fair Game, Watts plays real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose role as a spy was revealed in 2003 by a vengeful Bush administration who was out to discredit her husband Joseph Wilson (Penn). Wilson was among the first to call bullshit (with evidence to support him) on the administration's position that going into Iraq was necessarily because of an alleged nuclear program going on in that nation.

What Liman (Swingers, Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity) does extraordinarily well is establish just how valuable Plame's role in the CIA really was before she was unceremoniously excised from the organization when her identity was leaked in a story in The Wall Street Journal. Some news outlets were fed stories (thanks to Karl Rove's smear troopers) that Plame was a non-essential agent or simply a secretary in the agency, neither of which were true. Plame was a major investigator into the presence of WMD, and her husband was asked to consult about the possibility that Iraq was bringing in bomb components through Africa (his area of expertise). And when the President announced the nation was going to war anyway, Plame did her duty and kept her mouth shut; Wilson did not.

The second half of Fair Game is a little less focused, but no less compelling. Plame keeps her mouth shut while her reputation and that of her husband is trashed, because that's what she was taught to do in her job. Arguments erupt between the couple as the strain gets more pronounced. At times it seems that Penn is almost overcompensating in his performance for Watts' more dialed-back portrayal of Plame, but it's tough to find fault with Sean Penn as an actor, so you just sit back and watch him gesture and scream a lot. Plame seeks advice from her stoic father (Sam Shepard), and eventually the never-ending media attention wears her down, and she decides to take action.

The film, perhaps too succinctly, makes Scooter Libby (played by David Andrews) the scapegoat for all Bush administration's bad behavior, but I suppose that's pretty much what the White House did to the guy and it's why he got convicted ultimately (only to have his jail time commuted by Bush). But as it should be, the focus of Fair Game remains on Plame, Wilson and their family. There are perhaps a few too many speeches and declarations of loyalty to each other at the end of the movie, but by that point, a heartbreaking story has already been told. In the end, our hearts go out to Plame, a patriotic government worker who wanted to gather the best intelligence and assist her country however she could. The film ends with video of the real Valerie Plame testifying during a Congressional investigation concerning her ordeal, and it's wise and necessary to hear from from the victim at this point, and remember that this all happened to a real person.

Fair Game tends to wander a bit too often from Plame's story to Wilson, but since the mud slinging hit both of them, there's not really a way around that. There's just something that struck me as a bit more tragic about Plame's situation, and Watts steps up once again to capture her desperation to keep both her family and reputation intact. This is solid word from everyone involved. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Island Inside

I'm not familiar with the Spanish writing-directing team of Dunia Ayaso and Felix Sabroso (who were once married, as well), but apparently they're best known for their broad comedies, such as Rated R and Chill Out!, as well as Spanish sitcoms. But even those who know them from their previous work probably won't be prepared for their latest work, the far more serious exercise The Island Inside, which I suppose could be seen as a pitch-black comedy, but it struck me as something deeply haunting. As the film opens, three grown siblings come together at an airport after their elderly father has been seriously hurt after a fall. It's clear that each of the siblings is loaded with emotion, tension, and buckets full of bitterness concerning the father's condition.

Once the premise is established, the story jumps back three days, so we can see the emotional origins of the two sisters and one brother. Once it is established that the father, Juan (Celso Bugallo) has a history of mental illness, we begin to notice things about the siblings. For one thing, each has a less-than-solid grip of reality when it comes to relationships they say they're in. The brother, Martin (Alberto San Juan) is the most outwardly damaged and can barely make it through the day without getting stuck behind his own words and comprehension. He's a literature professor at a local college and becomes fixated on one of his students, telling his family they are dating and considering a vacation to Paris. The other who has stayed close to home in the Canary Islands, Coral (Candela Peña), is a housekeeper for a rich family; she happens to be having an affair with the husband. The other sister, Gracia (Cristina Marcos) got out of town and is a fairly successful actress on a television series. She has stopped taking her antipsychotic meds and believes that the relationship she has on the show with one of the other characters is real. She begins "improvising" dialogue on the show, which the writers love without realizing she thinks she's talking to her lover. Gracia has also just learned that she's pregnant by this same actor, who has already moved on to his next conquest. The family matriarch, Victoria, is played by the legendary Geraldine Chaplin, who rules the home and manages the family secrets with an increasing degree of difficulty as the film goes on and her husband's unstable condition worsens.

The Island Inside is an exercise in awkward and uncomfortable moments that you simply can't take your eyes off of. I was particularly drawn into the world of the two sisters, who seem to gather strength and some sanity from each other when they talk, but also don't get along all the time, so these moments of clarity don't tend to last and they spiral into some truly self-destructive patterns for long stretches. The psychological damage (both hereditary and newly acquired) on display is ghastly at times, but it also results in some fascinating and tremendous acting. To watch these performances is to witness a series of unraveling psyches and lives on the brink. Some come back; some don't. The Island Inside certainly doesn't end on a traditionally "happy" note, but there is a degree of hope for some of the characters at least. Things are not tied up neatly for any of the characters, and that makes the whole experience of watching this movie hit just a little bit harder than it was already well on its way to doing. Ayaso and Sabroso have created high drama at its finest. Check this one out.

Playing as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's "Festival of New Spanish Cinema," the movies screens at the Film Center on Saturday, November 6 at 3pm, and Monday, November 8 at 6pm.

 
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