CCFF 2016: Joshy, War on Everyone & Into the Forest
Day 2 of the Chicago Critics Film Festival found me sitting at the Music Box Theatre taking in three decidedly different films, which is one of many reasons you attend a film festival. Among them was my introduction to the work of American writer/director Jeff Baena, as well as the much-anticipated latest from English-Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh and writer/director Patricia Rozema from Canada. Oddly enough, two of the films had a common thread in the form of actor Paul Reiser, something that I’m sure was pure coincidental on the part of the board members of the Chicago Film Critics Association. Guest appearances for these films included Chicago-born actor Michael Peña attending in support of “We Are Everyone” and Rozema on hand for “Into the Forest”, both of whom introduced and participated in a Q&A that preceded and followed the screenings of their respective films.Below are my min-reviews of the films I viewed on Day 2….
Something happened to thirtysomething Joshy (Thomas Middleditch) and now what would’ve been a bachelor party weekend has turned into a bro weekend with his friends in the picturesque hills of Ojai, California. I won’t say what happened since there’s a legitimately surprising opening that shouldn’t be spoiled in writer/director Jeff Baena’s follow-up to “Life After Beth”. Although this is a comedy consisting of Joshy and his pals – married stoner pal, Ari (Adam Pally), nerdy Adam (Alex Ross Perry) and party-planner Eric (Nick Kroll) along with his pal, Greg (Brett Gelman) – there’s unexplored potential here to examine the underlying loss that has brought these stunted men together. However, in the flurry of booze, pot, cocaine and role-playing board games, the meandering focus settles for hangout quirks and laughs in a mostly improvised dialogue that seems to be the norm for these kind of ‘boys will be boys’ indie comedies (“Digging for Fire” and “Drinking Buddies” come to mind). The comedy is injected with some needed female talent when Jenny Slate thankfully shows up, as well as Aubrie Plaza and a ridiculous character played by Lauren Weedman. The movie feels like everyone in the cast are pals and they just wanted to hook up and make a movie on the fly about hanging out, partying and, well, hooking up on the fly – with much of the acting becoming unnecessarily hysterical, such as parents played by Paul Reiser and Lisa Edelstein. Add a cameo by Jake Johnson and the Swanberg family and you got the whole mumblecore scene present and accounted for (minus the Duplass brothers) – but, for what? Not Much. The more characters Baena adds to the picture, the more ridiculous and hysterical it gets and the further away from its initial potential.
WAR ON EVERYONE
The crazy humor and blatantly offensive action comedy of “War on Everyone” may seem like a departure for writer/director John Michael McDonagh, but if you look back at “The Guard” and “Calvary” you’ll find Brendan Gleeson playing anti-authority figures. Granted Gleeson’s roles weren’t as overt as the corrupt New Mexico cops played by Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña here, but there’s certainly a reoccurring theme that McDonagh revisits. The movie definitely has a retro buddy cop feel to it (think a mashup of Shane Black and Coen Bros. and you’ll be close to the vibe McDonagh is going for) and it shows its irreverent tone immediately. McDonagh is focusing on characterization over plot though and once you’re on board with that and the humorous tone, you’ll be able to go along with Skarsgård and Peña’s cops accepting bribes, planting evidence and doing very little actual police work. The movie falters a bit going into its third act when the cops are going after the bad guys (absurdly and delightfully played by Caleb Landry Jones and Theo James), despite very little evidence to go on. Sure, they haven’t relied on any real indicting proof against any previous criminals, but it would’ve helped support their motivation if the movie was a bit more revealing about what they were going up against. That may seem a little vague, but I’m deliberately withholding a specific key plot point. Overall, I had a lot of fun with this movie, primarily due to the winning interaction between the two leads, who are also supported with some nice turns from Tessa Thompson and Paul Reiser (him again), but I’ll admit it would’ve been cool to see these two cops turn the tables on the bad guys by using actual police work.
INTO THE FOREST
Based on the 1998 Jean Hegland novel of the same name that’s described as a feminist dystopian tale revolving around two sisters, Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood play two young sisters who wind up fending for themselves in their remote Northern California woods home after a continental power outage leaves them isolated. Writer/director Patricia Rozema offers a strong character study that’ll find viewers pondering how prepared they are for such an event and also decided what would take priority. Relying only on hopeful rumors, the sisters bond closer than ever as they resource what limited food and gas they have, but after two significant life-altering events take place, they are forced to do whatever it takes to survive. Two out of the three supporting male roles (Max Minghella, Callum Keith Rennie and Michael Edlund) portray men who are supportive and helpful, but there is one that poses an expected threat to the girls. Although that character was a bit predictable and stereotypical, it’s also offers quite a pivotal moment for the two lead characters. Unlike most post-apocalyptic films (and there’s been a ton of them lately), Rozema (“Mansfield Park” and “Kitt Kittridge: An American Girl”) provides a considerably sharply-honed character study, that allows opportunity for Page and Wood to deliver some superb work here. Rozema’s British Columbia locations are lush and transportive, immersing viewers into the ancient forest, leaving us to question how much we rely on technology and how well we are connected to our natural surroundings.
“Joshy” is scheduled to receive a theatrical release on August 12, 2016. Look for “War on Everyone” to hit theaters this fall. “Into the Forest” will be in theaters on July 22, 2016.