The 4TH ANNUAL CHICAGO CRITICS FILM FESTIVAL took place May 20-26, 2016 at the beautiful Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I managed to catch a few films at the Festival over the opening weekend that are worth looking out for when they are released later this year.
WAR ON EVERYONE
Occupying tricky tonal territory that falls somewhere between mocking ’70s cop shows like Starsky and Hutch, serving as homage to the ’80s buddy-cop action/comedies penned by Shane Black, and acting as a funhouse mirror reflection of David Ayer’s more repellent crooked cop dramas, WAR ON EVERYONE is not always the most graceful of beasts, but it is consistently entertaining.
Bob (Michael Peña) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) are corrupt police detectives in Albuquerque, NM. Breezily introduced hitting a mime with their car to rip him off of a backpack full of cocaine, they are comfortable with their corruption. It is a refreshing change-of-pace that neither character ever expresses a crisis of conscience over the way they ignore their duties in favor of ripping off criminals and shaking down everyone they come into contact with. Immoral, perhaps, but refreshing.
After finishing a suspension for beating up a fellow cop who used a racial slur about Bob’s Mexican-American heritage, the duo immediately get to work investigating a planned heist via information provided by their favorite snitch, Reggie (Malcolm Barrett). Bob and Terry are not interested in stopping the heist or arresting the criminals behind it, they simply want to be there when it happens so they can steal the money from the robbers.
Of course, things do not go as planned for several reasons. The main problem is Lord James Mangan (Theo James), the hedonistic mastermind behind the heist. Strung out on heroin and arrogance, Mangan is reckless and impervious to Bob and Terry’s usual tactics of using their badges to intimidate people. Further gumming up the works is Jackie (Tessa Thompson), the ex-girlfriend of one of the low-level criminals involved in the heist, and Danny (Zion Rain Leyba), the adolescent son of another of the criminals. To Bob’s chagrin, Terry gets involved in both Jackie and Danny’s lives, revealing a soft spot that cuts through his alcoholic nihilism.
In all honesty, the plot is not important. It is simply an excuse for writer/director John Michael McDonagh to craft a hangout movie with bursts of cops-and-robbers violence. Like the best hang out movies, WAR ON EVERYONE provides two layered, entertaining leads for the audience to enjoy.
The interplay between Bob and Terry is the heart of the film and McDonagh gives them great dialogue and details to play off each other. Bob is a family man given to debating philosophy with himself and dropping random factoids into conversations. Terry is a bachelor who is rarely seen without a drink in his hand and resides in an opulent, empty house. Never finding a topic too dark to crack a joke about and finishing each other’s sentences, they seem to act as two halves of the same person. But as the film goes on and the demons that Terry is keeping at bay through booze become clearer, it is obvious that he is doing everything he can—from dressing in three-piece suits to assembling a surrogate family with Jackie and Danny—to emulate Bob’s happier, more stable life. It is both sad and one of the movie’s better jokes that Terry is in such a bad place in his life that he needs to pattern his life after his arguably more corrupt partner.
As what plot there is unfolds, McDonagh slowly peels away Bob and Terry’s aloof remove from the botched heist and its fallout. While they never exactly become good guys, Mangan reveals himself to be such a disgusting villain that even the low flame that constitutes Bob and Terry’s version of a conscience is stoked.
Where the film runs into trouble is with the character of Mangan. James does a credible job of playing the villain as a bored rich kid who turns to a life of crime that goes to dark places. But the character is really nothing more than a bland amalgam of the more repugnant villains from the ’80s cop movies from which McDonagh takes inspiration. Far more interesting as a bad guy is Russell Birdwell (an unrecognizable Caleb Landry Jones), Mangan’s dandyish sidekick. Simultaneously twitchy, pathetic, and outlandish with his hair frizzed out like he stuck his finger in a light socket, Jones is impossible to ignore in his brief screentime and does a better job of creating a villain that gets under Terry and Bob’s skin.
Despite a climax that feels a little rushed and a villain that leaves something to be desired, WAR ON EVERYONE is a really fun and occasionally challenging crime comedy. Peña and Skarsgård have great chemistry and terrific deadpan deliveries. Helped along by a kitschy, yet propulsive score by Lorne Balfe and a fun supporting cast, it is a misanthropic blast of fresh air.
I am not entirely sure how to write about ANOTHER EVIL without giving too much away about its changes in tone, and the eventual twists the story takes. Feeling a little bit like a lo-fi remake of BEETLEJUICE told from the perspective of Jeffrey Jones’ character, the film is a ghost story, but is more interested in the personal ghosts of regrets and possible mental illness.
Dan (Steve Zissis) is a successful artist who likes to retreat with his wife, Mary (Jennifer Irwin), and their son, Jazz (Dax Flame) to his vacation home in the mountains to paint. On their latest visit to the house, the family encounters a frightening looking ghost. In the first of many tonally strange moments, after the initial shock and fear that Dan feels from the encounter, he treats this unusual circumstance as just another headache that comes with being a homeowner and gets on with the business of looking into how to get rid of the ghost.
Dan brings in an “expert” named Joey Lee (Dan Bakkedahl) who goes through the house and reports back the good news that there are two ghosts, but they are friendly and simply wanted to make contact. When Dan asks how to get rid of the ghosts, Joey advises against it. His advice is to leave well enough alone since the ghosts are not hurting anyone and it would border on cruel to expel them from their home.
But Dan lets the problem eat at him and—going against Mary’s wishes that they listen to Joey—gets a second opinion from a different expert named Os (Mark Proksch). Described by another character as a “straight-up ghost assassin”, Os is seemingly what Dan is looking for: he is aggressive, has a reputation as a badass in his field, and backs up Dan’s feeling that no ghost can be a good ghost. But as the two men spend the week together, alone in the secluded house, the realization slowly sets in that Os is—unsurprisingly—not the world’s most stable individual.
Dressed in black jeans, a black turtleneck, a black leather duster, and—of course—a black cowboy hat, Os is clearly overcompensating for his milquetoast looks and a personality that grows needier by the minute. As Os goes from sharing with Dan the news that his wife is in the process of divorcing him to revealing troubling anecdotes about his past, he stops being a contractor hired to do a job and becomes an unwanted houseguest who just won’t leave.
On the one hand, Os is pitiable. He clearly needs to work things out in his personal life and his personality is not one that makes it easy to find friends. But on the other hand, as Dan learns not long after hiring him, he is annoying as hell. While that trait works for the film as an exercise in squirm comedy, by the halfway point, Os was actively annoying me as much as he was Dan.
And that is the eventual rub with most squirm comedies. Occasionally the genre can break through with a film like GREENBERG or BUZZARD that manages to both elicit uncomfortable laughter from an audience and gives you characters who are interesting or sympathetic enough to make you care as you follow through to the end of their journey. But more often than not, the annoyance that the “straight” characters feel toward those who are making their lives miserable is also felt by the audience. Writer/director Carson D. Mell never solves the issue of how to make Os an annoying and interesting character.
It is too bad that Mell cannot find the magic formula because the first half of ANOTHER EVIL is very entertaining and has the neat twist of Os potentially being correct in his belief that the ghosts may not be as gentle as Joey proclaimed. If only the rest of the film was as successful at maintaining the oddball humor at the same time that it took Os to potentially dark extremes.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi was the co-writer/co-director (with Jemaine Clement) of one of my favorite films from last year in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. That film was a high-concept, smart-ass mockumentary that still managed to hold affection for its characters and provided some pathos amidst the fast-flying jokes. Even with the sympathy he showed his cartoonish characters in that film, I was still shocked by how openly sincere HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is.
I want to clarify that by saying the film is sincere, I do not mean that as “cheesy,” “corny,” “sappy,” or any other derogative term with which you may be able to come up. I mean it as an absolute compliment. Waititi never goes the route of making fun of his characters (with the exception of a goofy antagonist) and still scores big laughs while successfully tugging on audience heartstrings.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a 12-year-old orphan who has been shuttled from one foster home to the next. Described by Paula (Rachel House), his social worker, as a “real bad egg,” she is only too happy to run down the list of offenses that Ricky has amassed in his lifetime. These offenses include: “kicking things,” “spitting,” “loitering,” “graffiti-ing,” and numerous other minor infractions that she obviously considers the signs of a budding menace to society.
As the film begins, Ricky is being dropped off with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector “Hec” Faulkner (Sam Neill), his latest foster family. Bella is enthusiastic and warm, encouraging the sullen Ricky to call her “auntie.” When she says that he can refer to Hec as “uncle,” Hec’s response is telling: “No, he can’t.”
Bella and Hec have a farm far out in the countryside, bordering the forest that Bella and Hec refer to as “the bush.” Having grown up in urban areas of New Zealand where he was heavily influenced by American pop culture (he is introduced wearing an “All Eyes on Me” jacket and names his dog Tupac), Ricky is far from enthused by his new isolated home.
Despite some half-hearted attempts to run away, Ricky quickly warms to Bella and her kind nature. He reveals himself to be less a troubled child and more a kid who simply has been ignored his whole life. Once he starts talking, he becomes nearly impossible to shut up, explaining himself through haiku (a practice he picked up from a therapist), asking a ton of questions, and slowly getting on Hec’s good side (or at least, his less than grumpy side).
Tragedy strikes when Bella falls dead (it’s never stated, but I assume she was supposed to have a heart attack). Hec, weighed down by heavy grief, does his best to look after Ricky, but he is not surprised when he receives a letter from social services alerting him that—due to Bella’s passing—they will be at the farm within the week to collect Ricky and transport him back to the city to await placement somewhere new. In no emotional state to fight the news, Hec silently agrees, even though Ricky is sure that he will be sent to juvenile detention.
The next night, Ricky runs off into the bush. It takes him only a day to run out of the food he took and get lost. Hec quickly catches up to him, but fractures his ankle in a fall. Forced to camp out for a few weeks until Hec’s ankle heals, the duo have no clue that the overzealous Paula assumes that they have run off together and is putting together a massive manhunt to find them.
When Hec and Ricky learn of the manhunt and the wild assumptions made of Hec (that he is insane or possibly something much, much worse), they actually do run off into the bush. As an ex-con, Hec does not see any way that the authorities would believe him. Ricky simply wants to live the life of an outlaw and Hec is the closest thing he has ever had to a family, so he is not about to give up and return to a society that had all but given up on him.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE was adapted by Waititi from the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. Waititi maintains a literary structure for the film, breaking it down into ten chapters with individual titles that hint at what is to come in that segment. Not surprisingly, each chapter develops and deepens the bond between the taciturn Hec and the increasingly outgoing Ricky. But if you think that sounds like the film becomes a saccharine tale of forced emotion, you would be very wrong.
While the story beats may be familiar, the film’s overall tone of sincerity mixed with deadpan humor and flat-out weirdness keeps the audience on its toes. Anchored by Neill’s predictably solid, dryly funny turn, Waititi follows any number of tangents that seem like they are going nowhere before paying off with another bit of character building for Hec and Ricky or just simply a great visual punch line (an extended car chase that seems inspired by THELMA & LOUISE, a cameo by Rhys Darby as a survivalist kook who is disappointed to find out he has not become a folk legend). The only misstep in this approach is Waititi’s cameo as the annoyed Minister at Bella’s funeral. While his angrily-delivered mangling of metaphors would be funny if taken out of context, the character seems out of place in the film when immediately following the heartbreaking scene of Hec sobbing over Bella’s body.
One flawed scene is hardly a deal-breaker. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is a lovely surprise. A funny, moving tale of how people mourn for the loved ones they lose and cannot help but reach out to others, it is clear-eyed about human nature but miraculously avoids cynicism. It is a film worth celebrating.