Sunday, March 20, 2016

Less-Than-Ideal Fathers: Papa and The Confirmation

Not exactly a planned double-feature theme do much as one that came about because work compressed the two indie-ish movies that came out this weekend together: I wound up staying late on Friday because I really wanted to get an audit of... stuff... done before the weekend (it is tough to describe my work without making it boring or worrying about spilling inside information), even though much of Sunday would be taken from me so that I could fly out to Texas for a week-long training session. So I stacked movies up on Saturday, coming pretty close to the entire space in between was spent on the T because they weren't all playing in one place. It arguably became a themed triple feature, since I went from The Confirmation to The Witch, and the father in that movie doesn't exactly set a great example.

One interesting note: Two of the three previews before Papa were for movies centered around Asian-American characters, which is a bit unusual; they're a part of the population that can be nearly invisible in theaters. Kind of fitting given the plot of that movie, even if it was mostly a movie about a Chinese guy in America.

Luo shan ji dao dan ji hua (Papa)

* * 1/4 (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

There's always something a bit off about movies like Papa - though they are set in America and surround their (in this case) Chinese star with local actors, the filmmakers don't quite know how everyday English sounds or the finer details of the culture, so what seems perfectly reasonable when the movie is shown in Beijing gnaw at am American viewer a bit. Sure, that's kind of background noise for a movie that fuses "unprepared parent" and "green-card marriage" genres and doesn't exactly reinvent either, but it also highlights their issues.

In this case, the poor sap at the middle of everything is Huang Bolun (Xia Yu), a talent agent who came to Los Angeles to find Nina Wang (Yang Zi), a client who went AWOL with Bolun's assistant Jason Chen (Dennis Joseph O'Neil) several months ago, leaving Bolun in deep trouble with Boss Du (David Wu). With Bolun's via about to expire, his friend Ye Qiang (Brother Sway) arranges a green-card marriage to Gao Yunshu (Jiang Shan). Not only is she not exactly what Bolun expected from her picture, but their Vegas wedding and "honeymoon" ends in disaster. That's when Bolun learns that not only does Yunshu have a fifteen-year-old daughter in Coco (Song Zuer), but four other adopted children besides. And while Coco is willing to play along to keep her family from being broken up, ICE agent Alicia Sterling (Macy Gray) smells a rat.

The credits make reference to this being a remake, although even if it weren't, portions certainly play out entirely as expected, right down to Bolun having to balance responsibilities and ambitions when it turns out that Coco is every bit the natural talent that Nina is. Often, both the script and director Zheng Xiao seem to feel as intimidated by the English/Mandarin language barrier as the characters are, never really seizing the chance to build a fast-paced, funny sequence out of the dozens of misunderstandings and bits of culture shock that this situation should produce, often being satisfied to just check the things one expects from this storyline off. The desperation that motivated the sham marriage on both sides never seems evident later on, and pieces like the return of one child's birth mother don't write fit. Right down to an epilogue that seems like a big leap from the scene that immediately precedes it, Papa often feels like the outline of a movie as much as the finished product.

Full review on EFC.

The Confirmation

* * 3/4 (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2016 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #8 (first-run, digital)

The title of The Confirmation doesn't do it a lot of favors, unless the misadventures that is characters go through parallel that particular Catholic ritual in ways that aren't particularly obvious to those of us who don't share their faith. Heck, it implies enough religious material to trigger bad associations with more genuinely faith-based films rather than one that puts that material on the edges of a fairly entertaining, if occasionally worried, father-son piece.

First communion and confirmation is coming up for Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher), although he seems to be in pretty good shape, frustrating Father Lyons (Stephen Tobolowsky) with his lack of sins to confess. Mother Bonnie (Maria Bello) isn't quite as settled, going on an overnight retreat with Anthony's stepfather to work out some issues, leaving Anthony in the hands of Walt (Clive Owen), the boy's father, an alcoholic, chronically-unemployed carpenter. He does have a job coming up, at least until his specialized tools are stolen from the back of his truck. That means the pair are going to have to spend much of the weekend hunting them down, hoping that the various rogues that occupy the local carpentry community are more eccentric than dangerous.

Filmmaker Bob Nelson is making his directorial debut here, although the material isn't necessarily that far off from the work he's likely best-known for; shift the father-son relationship up a generation and make the quest a bit more quixotic, and you've got the bones of Nebraska. This particular sorry may take place in the Pacific Northwest rather than the Heartland, but it's still at home in a small town that has seen better times. Nelson uses that skeleton to a similar end, giving Anthony the chance to discover where he comes from, although having Walt be an active participant rather than just the catalyst is a big boost - he may not consciously be trying to discover or remake himself, but he's certainly on a path regardless.

Full review on EFC.

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