The single mom in peril has become such a staple of modern suspense films that it's almost expected that they will emerge victorious over any number of hit men, abusive boyfriends, or serial killers. Single moms in the movies are scrappy, and street smart, and will scratch and claw to maintain their status quo. We root for them, because they awaken something primal in us, as if we're watching a mother bear protect her cubs. We flatter ourselves by thinking that, yes, we, too, would fight like hell to protect our offspring.
So strong is our identification with single moms that even when the mother would be considered a bit of a loser, as is the mother figure in Tzu Chen's Cold Comes The Night, we still hope she'll come out on top.
The film is a neo-noir, and its blood runs as cold as any of the better noirs of the past 20 or 30 years, including A Simple Plan, and After Dark My Sweet. Ultimately, it's not as good as those films, but it tries. Sure, there are cliches here, but depending on the viewer, you might enjoy the cliches. The mother is Chloe (Alice Eve), a young widow living and working in a sleazy hotel, and sleeping with a married cop who is corrupt on several levels. Chloe has a sweet daughter, but a local social worker correctly deems the hotel environment unfit for raising a child. Chloe has two weeks to find a new place to live, otherwise she'll lose her daughter.
One night two mysterious men check in. One of them brings a prostitute to his room, and their union ends in a bloodbath. The other man, who wears dark glasses and speaks with a Slavic accent, panics when their car is compounded. He had a stash of money tucked behind the dashboard, and was transporting it to a nearby contact. With his driver dead and the money missing, he forces Chloe at gunpoint to help find his car and the loot. She knows where it is - her crooked boyfriend compounded it, and took the money. The Slav, whose name is Topo (Bryan Cranston), needs Chloe's help because behind his dark glasses he's nearly blind. She will be his eyes. They will split the money.
Chloe isn't in the same league as Topo. Even with his failing eyes, he gives the impression that he was once a real bad ass. He can fire at shadows and still hit someone right in the forehead. Chloe, meanwhile, realizes there will probably be a showdown between Topo and her crooked cop boyfriend. The inevitable confrontation turns out to be even uglier than we imagine it will be.
The roles are underwritten, but the performances are all nicely crafted. Eve provides a sympathetic center for the film, as a woman willing to stoop to incredibly low levels to survive. Logan Marshall-Green is watchable, if over the top, as Billy, the loose cannon cop. Cranston, as Topo, is quietly menacing. Chen films him like a block of granite, immovable. I think Chen made a mistake in not making the film about Topo, for a criminal losing his eyesight would be a fascinating character. Still, one of the strengths of Cold Comes The Night is that it plays like an old-fashioned pinball machine, the plot careening all over the place. Even if it ends the way it has to end - the single mom survives, thanks to a lot of dumb luck - the trip to the climax isn't dull.
Single moms in movies can get away with murder. They seem to get a free pass because they do what they do to save their children. It's pretty clear that Chloe will never be mom of the year, but she'll get by. Poor Topo. He can still shoot his way out of most situations, but is too blind to see that Chloe might be the end of him.
We're only 11 days into 2014 and I already have a candidate for strangest, and perhaps dumbest, movie of the year: Raze. This one is about some bizarre secret society that kidnaps women and then forces them to fight to the death. Apparently, the winner gets to be queen for a day, or something. I'm not sure what the point is, but we're treated to a lot of bloody faces and endless fists bashing into mouths, the sound effects for said punches sound like hammers hitting a watermelon. Unfortunately, there are so many fights that we're quickly bored by the violence. Someone should've told director Josh C. Waller that less is more, because once the violence is no longer shocking, all we're left with is the relentlessly dumb story. Waller may have wanted to create something in the tradition of old Roger Corman 'women in cages' type films, but Corman would have taken this same idea and made it sexier and funnier.
Sabrina, the toughest woman of the bunch, is played by Zoe Bell, a likable actress I remember from films like Death Proof and Whip It. She's very good in those movies, and actually, she's very good here, too. She's charismatic, and her background as a Hollywood stunt person means she's athletic enough to succeed in an action role. Granted, not even Bell can overcome some of the dumb stuff in Raze. She has to scream lines like, "How many more people do I have to kill!" and "I'm fighting for my daughter!" (Yes, she's also a single mom, sort of, although she gave her daughter up for adoption years earlier.) But while she's a physical dynamo, it defies logic that after engaging in several consecutive life and death battles, she'd still have the stamina to fight her way past several guards and make her escape. And somehow, throughout the entire movie, her clothes are never torn.
Bell's also listed as one of the producers of Raze. Maybe it had seemed better when she read the script, or maybe she thought this was her chance to show her stuff. I hope she eventually finds her way into better projects. The world is ready for a female James Bond, and Zoe Bell could be the perfect fit.
The single mom saga continues with Shana Betz' Free Ride, a moderately entertaining drama about a single mom (Anna Paquin) who finds herself deep in the Florida drug trade, all in the name of taking care of her two daughters. She's a former stripper who is fleeing her Ohio home because of an abusive boyfriend (watch enough of these movies and you begin to wonder if there are any decent guys left, or if these women would even recognize one if they met him). Once in Florida, a friend hooks her up with a housecleaning job, which leads to her becoming a sort of drug mule. Her duties take her away from her daughters, one of whom is nearly killed in a car accident. It all ends well, though, for mom finally realizes how she's allowed her job to soil her life, rather than enhance it.
The film is based on a true story, and one of the daughters grew up to be Shana Betz, director of the film. Although the film has a low boiling point and isn't particularly dramatic, I liked Betz' style. She's soft-handed in her approach, and nicely captures 1978 Florida. She also coaxes some nice performances out of the girls playing Anna Paquin's daughters, Liana Liberato, and Ava Acres. The movie ends with some clips of the real family, which provides a sigh of relief. It's nice to know the mom in this movie didn't have to kill anybody.