Bad Boys for Life
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When asked how he would like to re-enter the Hollywood workforce, Harrison Ford sat pensively on his agent's black leather casting couch before bellowing, "I think in my younger days I really killed it doing disinterested narration voiceovers." A frantic memo was sent to the Disney hivemind - execute :Operation Jack London: we have our codger - . Suddenly, as if called forth from the Skynet compound itself, casting directors, production assistants, and CG animators emerged from their frost-dusted ice lockers with the fine-tuned vision and coldly calculated compulsion of an A.I. cavalry.
*beep-boop* make the 1890's Yukon mailman a Jamaic-I mean-French Black guy for token diversity *beep-boop* all human antagonists are ugly or have mustaches *beep-boop* main character is a good boy fren who is doin me a frighten *beep-boop* shoehorn preachy theme about the shortsightedness of greed despite production originating from one of the world's highest grossing media conglomerates *beep-boop* convey all emotional intentions through invasive score *beep-boop* drinking is sort of bad *beep-boop* dog is not gay *beep-boop*
Thanks to the magic of modern CG animation, in just a few months we have been given awful-looking cat humans and, now, stupid-looking human dogs. What will we see next on the Disneys? Yes, I already forgot the five new Disney remake/reboot/franchise trailers that preceded THIS ADAPTATION OFA BELOVED AND CLASSIC PIECE OF LITERATURE THAT HAPPENS TO BE IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN UTILIZED AS A PRIMER FOR HARRISON FORD'S UNNECESSARY AND UNWANTED RETURN TO THE INDIANA JONES FRANCHISE.
After hitting the big time playing Frodo in Peter Jackson's seminal LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, most will have only caught Elijah Wood playing bit parts in movies like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and SIN CITY since then. He's had the fortune of cashing in big on acting early in life and moving into production (MANDY, THE GREASY STRANGLER) while raising the profile of smaller, indie productions (MANIAC, I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE). Mr. Wood is a talented actor with good taste and fervor for outsider film, but in the plethora of independent productions that come out every year, they can't all be zingers. COME TO DADDY is by no means a terrible film, but it's nothing to call home to mother about. Director Ant Timpson is noted for producing THE GREASY STRANGLER and TURBO KID, both films that juggle humor and violence to different tonal ends. Inspired by witnessing the passing of his father, Timpson wanted to pay homage to his dad's memory with this story of a father and son's ill-fated attempt at reconnecting after an estrangement many years prior.
Wood plays a Skrillex knockoff hipster invited out to his father's remote beach house. There he is greeted by an antagonistic drunkard, played as grisly and poker-faced as could be hoped for by the always intimidating Stephen McHattie. After a very PARASITE-esque second act rug-pull, we are strung along through a series of bizarre and violent interactions, and there is where the fabric of the film begins to tear. While first seeming to be a skewering of shock gore genre conventions, the film starts to wallow in it, and it's not just viscerally unpleasant, the whole tone becomes much more darker and almost mean-spirited. I was reminded of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS in that the violence portrayed is so "edgy" that only an adolescent boy could really appreciate it. It's crass and largely functions as a poor placeholder for plot and characterization for the last half of the film. Any mystery is briefly dispelled by exposition without any impact, and we're rushed on to the next bit of shock/schlock. So when the cartoonish brutality comes back around to this intended sentimentality, this fond farewell to a father from his son feels like shoving a Snickers bar in a knife wound - neither aspect is enjoyable.
With that said, COME TO DADDY still delivers an entertaining time if not solely for Wood and McHattie's anti-chemistry. Despite the association with THE GREASY STRANGLER, the film is not nearly as grotesque or obnoxious, and for however little sense the plot makes, it eventually gets somewhere. Timpson and Wood said outright at the premiere that the movie is for a niche audience, and that is undeniable. I can appreciate that it's the director's debut, and he clearly had good intentions. I just wish that he would have workshopped the film a bit more as it tries to do many things but only fully succeeds at being unpleasant.
This year marks the first time I've made the effort to watch all of the Academy Award nominated feature length documentaries. Of the five nominees, FOR SAMA looks to be an assured winner, more so than any other movie in their respective categories. It should be noted that both FOR SAMA and its complementary competitor THE CAVE concern the relentless assault of the Assad regime and the Russian military on the citizens of Syria as they try to cobble together makeshift hospitals to combat the wave of death and violence that is decimating their homes and way of life. Both documentaries are gut wrenching at times, evoke deep feelings of empathy for the Syrian people, and come highly recommended, but FOR SAMA manages to craft the horrors of the last several years of the Syrian civil war into director/subject Waad Al-Kateab's personal journey of hope and despair as she starts a family in a time and place where families are literally being torn apart.
Her husband Hamza, a doctor and rebel activist, is usually the subject of the camera, and we follow their relationship from its start as Waad began filming for this documentary at the beginning of the Arab spring in 2011. Indeed, their coming together was a by-product of the war, and any sense of normalcy in their burgeoning marriage was marred and distorted by the air strikes that desolated the city of Aleppo over the course of several years. As one would expect, it's a powerful look at the difference a few dedicated people can make in the face of brutal oppression, but it is also a testament to the horrors of war and, sadly, a global apathy and antipathy towards the dispossessed. These are all the most surface level observations one can glean from the documentary, but it took me several weeks to process some of the broader implications from the film concerning the greater socio-political reality that Syria and the rest of the world face.
We, as a species, have created an industrial mechanism that has reached a bleak homeostasis with how we inflict hatred and violence on ourselves. The gist of recent Syrian history consists of Bashar al-Assad refusing to relinquish his ruling power in the face of true democratic will then turning the full force of his and his ally Russia's military might on his own citizens, including chemical warfare. After years of this assault, the country's major cities have been reduced to rubble and the populace lives in extreme poverty, which leads me to the question: what the hell is there left for him to preside over? Is he committing genocide and inarguably the worst war crimes perpetrated on civilians since Nazi Germany for anything but the principle of power? It certainly can't be for economic prosperity as the country has spiraled into a wartime economy of human trafficking and black market trade. I'm sure all of those "defense" contractors and manufacturers must be doing well. Selling bombs and sarin gas is big money.
Then there are the other entities whose involvement complicated matters or came too late. Daesh co-opted portions of the rebellion, stepping in with militant aid for the rebels and providing the Assad regime with some much needed plausible deniability of democratic legitimacy. Obviously a 20-something female documentary film maker who seeks government accountability isn't going to benefit much from an Islamic caliphate. What FOR SAMA really hammers home, however, is that even with a bevy of on-the-ground footage of children being mangled and murdered in these air raids, the U.N. and other western powers were still incredibly reticent about intervening in any way as if this was an evenly matched civil war and not some horrifying massacre by a crazed despot. After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, I guess Syria just didn't have the economic incentives to make it worth our benevolent intervention. We sure did pull a 180 degree turn when chemical warfare came into the picture, but I imagine the estimated 400,000 casualties and the 6.5 million internally displaced refugees of Syria would have said "too little, too late" if they had a voice at all.
But such is the way of the world now. Cartoonishly villainous men who get off on the relentless pursuit of power spread austerity and death over their land and people. This violence that perpetuates itself over the span of decades leaves broken people seeking refuge anywhere someone isn't blatantly trying to kill them. Those people are blamed for disrupting this or that way of life, taking what they don't deserve, and labeled a threat to people just like them who would have done the exact same thing in their situation. Then those cartoonishly villainous men are lionized and emboldened by the subsequent collective unrest as they claim to bring unification against the encroachment of their own consequences. No wonder we live in a state of permanent political trauma and desensitization as it's easier to put a bullet in someone than instill them with a sense of compassion. Anyway, I'm sure a golden statue at a prestigious industry awards ceremony will gloss over the traumatic images of the depths of human suffering, so congrats Waad and Hamza on your movie.
Devotees of famed art house director Terrence Malick will find a renewed faith in the filmmaker's often touted genius after three feature-length meditative marathons on the beauty and ennui of rich, white people amidst decadent problems. TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and SONG TO SONG sure did look good, but they didn't add up to what most folks would consider a satisfying cinematic experience - more like a triathlon in tedium without much of a discernible plot and a lot, I mean a metric crap-ton of people mumbling and/or spinning around. I think it's still safe to say that if you couldn't stand THE TREE OF LIFE, you'll be having difficulties accessing A HIDDEN LIFE as well, but if you're like me and like to immerse yourself in three hours of majestic emotional grandeur this might just be your long, slow cup of joe.
Set in the first half of WWII, the film is based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who defied his conscription to the Third Reich and was imprisoned as a conscientious objector and traitor. You can easily guess what happens to him as the film doesn't really make it past 1943, so the tragedy and travesty of his situation should come as no surprise to any casual purveyors of history. Here Malick's elliptical and naturalistic style of editing mixes with Jorg Widmers keen Emmanuel Lubezki inspired camera work to complement instead of obfuscate the subjects of the film. This method fits the tone and flow much better than in Malick's last three outings because it lends intimacy and confrontation instead of finger-gagging you into unremitting apathy. Don't get me wrong, I like all of Malick's output, but A HIDDEN LIFE is truly something special and will probably rank up there with his best works, not to mention his more accessible. At conclusion, I sat in the theater until the credits ended with about five other strangers as we slowly collected ourselves and let our tears dry. It was a good cry.
This year's equivalent to EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is an auditory and visual hallucination of child soldiers somewhere in the Colombian jungle. The elliptical method of storytelling is strong with this one, and we aren't really given much context for why there are child soldiers out in the jungle holding an American doctor as prisoner, but the overt references to "Lord of the Flies" and "Heart of Darkness" make it fairly apparent there's some sort of war going on. Ascertaining who with or why purposfully frustrates the viewer, so we are left to focus on the characters themselves and their actions. There's a whole lot of intended metaphorical substance behind this sensory experience to do with the self-socialization and with Latin American history in general, but I'll let you sift through that yourself since I'm still unpacking it as well.
Perhaps even more enticing than the gorgeous visuals, chaotic beauty of the mountainous jungle, and skin crawling body fascination from all the mud and fire is the method of casting development they started months before shooting. Evidently they took about 20-30 Colombian kids to location and set up camp. They received acting lessons and military training each day until they were whittled down "Survivor"-style to the core cast of eight. Their methodized acting translates impeccably well to the screen as, aside from the artifice of presentation, it's somewhere between Come and See and a "Kony 2012" documentary. Add on Mica Levi's (UNDER THE SKIN, JACKIE, MARJORIE PRIME) minimalist score to the fracas and it is nothing short of a psychedelic experience. Also, it's a compelling commentary on the desperate scenarios that fuel the global migrant crisis, if you're into that sort of thing.