Politics at the Movies

First of all, this is a busy week at theaters with at least six openings in the Sacramento area. I haven’t had a chance to see either “Monsters University” (due to press screening conflicts) or “Bling Ring” (which wasn’t screened for press in Sacramento) but here are four other opinions on opening films. And the best of the bunch is the smallest, most easily overlooked.


The Kings of Summer
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

So let’s cut to the chase – this is the best film of the week. It won’t be the box office winner, or even close to it. It has no A-list actors and probably had less of a budget than the futile reshoots on “World War Z.” It’s also remarkable in that it allows three young relatively unfamiliar (at least on the big screen) actors to carry the material and to receive top billing – which is a rarity in this industry. Although the content is quite different, the tone is somewhat similar to classics like “Stand by Me.”


Joe and Patrick are best friends who’ve just finished their freshman year in high school. They’ve grown up together and the latest experience they’re sharing is complete frustration with their respective home lives. That is, until Joe has the crazy idea of getting their own place – or rather building their own place in the form of a house in the woods, built of scavenged and unlikely materials. Joined, for unknown reasons, by Biaggio, the weird kid in school, they embark on a summer of adventures and life-changing experiences.


This is a wonderful little film and one that will sadly be missed by most – not just because of the “blockbusters” surrounding it at the multiplexes but because of the R rating it received from the ludicrous ratings system we have in this country. Also opening this week, “World War Z” focuses on the deaths of millions, with gory scenes that will cause many to cringe or turn away from the screen, and carries a PG-13 rating. Meanwhile, “The Kings of Summer” is about a group of 15 year olds bonding in the woods, has no sexual content and virtually no violence, and gets slapped with an R. The reasoning is that it contains some crude language and shows teenagers drinking. So we’re officially at the point where watching half the world die is friendlier towards kids than showing them images of their peers with a beer in hand. Seriously, if you have kids over the age of about 12 (maybe younger), there’s nothing here that’s likely to offend you or warp their fragile brains.


The acting here is good and the adult characters are used well for effective comic relief as they continue to display their cluelessness regarding their kids’ thought processes, even as they go missing for weeks on end. There are a few slightly whacky directorial moments as, for example, when Joe imagines people around him as characters in a video game, but it’s never taken to excess and is always in keeping with the rest of the content. There’s enough here for most ages to enjoy – just ignore the rating and have a good time.


World War Z
Directed by Marc Foster

As referenced above, “World War Z” reportedly burned through approximately 20 million dollars in reshoots to the ending – which is hard to appreciate when you see the film and find yourself pondering how bad the ending must have been originally in order for it to be better now.


Brad Pitt plays retired UN Special Envoy (whatever that means – because it’s never explained) Gerry Lane – who was apparently so good at doing whatever it was that he did, that when hell and handbaskets come along in copious quantities, there’s still nobody better to undertake a non-specific continent-hopping task. There’s a beginning here and even a middle as the zombie apocalypse blazes its way across the world faster than mono at band camp – but there’s little enough of an end that I hope the Executive Producers kept their receipt for the reshoots.


Some of the individual scenes are well done, although the zombies move at a pace that seems to have been selected so as to negate the need for any great detail in their actions. But, even if one accepts Gerry’s competence and former authority, there are some moments that are quite head-scratching as people continue to defer to the idea of what he once represented, even in the face of apparent total societal collapse. You might impress me with UN credentials today but if we’re both standing in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie massacre and it seems like virtually nothing is left, that ID isn’t going to open my steel-reinforced bunker door.


“World War Z” reminds me a little of “Unbreakable,” in that both set up a character and a situation and then leave hints of more to come – and both feel more like the two-hour pilot to a one-hour 1980’s action oriented TV show than a stand-alone movie. The few interesting ideas here can’t carry the movie any more than the solid elements could make “Man of Steel” successful. Avoid the crowds and the lines at these big budget letdowns.


Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Joss Whedon

The likeliness of liking “Much Ado About Nothing” is probably directly related to the extent to which you even like the premise: A Shakespeare play set in modern times but preserving the original language and characters. I don’t like the premise and didn’t enjoy the film – despite liking much of what Joss Whedon has done previously and even though I liked specific scenes and some of the manner in which he has adapted the story. I’ll even go so far as to say that I admire the attempt without liking the overall outcome.


I’ve had a beef with Shakespeare and his plays, or at least with the way they’re taught to schoolkids, since the first time they were taught to me as a schoolkid. To all intents and purposes, Shakespearean English is like a quasi-foreign language to people raised today. Sure, there’s enough that’s familiar to figure out what’s being said, but it’s a chore much of the time – like visiting a neighboring country with a different dialect. And it’s not like it was high brow literature in its day – it was penny theater for illiterate audiences. For example, there’s a tendency to telegraph the action that will take place several scenes in advance. So, at a time when writers and directors tend to like to keep their audiences guessing, sometimes annoyingly so, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a film in which characters say “I’m going to do X to Y with Z effect” and then proceed to do X to Y with Z effect. Some of the original play’s plots and story structures are neat, but those can be appreciated in modern language and without so much being given away ahead of time.


Let me put my reaction to this film another way. If you knew a neat story set in France and told in French that French audiences enjoyed, you might want to try and tell that same story to an American audience in a manner they’d appreciate. You could simply present the original version and let them cope, or perhaps show it with subtitles. You could re-tell the story, still set in France, but with English dialog. You could also re-tell the story, transferred to an American setting, and told with English dialog. But you’d be very unlikely to re-make the story in an American setting but keep the French dialog. And that’s why the idea of Shakespeare adapted to the present day but with original language seems like the least appealing of the various possible permutations, at least to me.


That said, if you like the premise – there are aspects of the adaptation that are funny, bordering on well done slapstick at times, and it does demonstrate the humor in the writing. And I’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention that many people at the screening I attended seemed to dig it. But there were also several walkouts during the film. Expect opinions to be divided with little middle ground.


The East
Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The East” is that it’s co-written by lead Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, the same team that made “Sound of My Voice.” And that Brit Marling previously co-wrote “Another Earth” with that film’s director Mike Cahill. Most audience members who recognize her as an actor probably don’t realize that she’s often acting in her own stories.


As a group, they’re stories that are probably more consistently thought provoking than always entertaining to watch in the moment. These are films that would be good conversation starters for a group of smart friends, of varying political persuasions, about to go out for dinner.


In “The East,” Marling plays an operative for a secretive company that contracts with the kinds of large corporate clients that have secrets to keeps and/or who fear industrial espionage or eco-terrorism. The title of the film refers to just such an eco-terrorist group that has attacked multiple targets accused of environmental offenses. Marling’s Sarah goes undercover to infiltrate The East with the intent of determining their next targets.


It’s well acted and directed and, as before, it’s an interesting setup. And there seems to be a commonality with “Sound of My Voice” in terms of a fascination with cult-like group dynamics. But it’s also frustrating at times as it delves into counter culture in such an overtly “counter-culture” way. The eco-terrorists here are also dumpster diving, freight train hopping, total dropouts from a materialistic society they despise. One of the appeals in stories like the recent “The Company You Keep” is how remarkably ordinary the “villains” are. But then the relative “sameness” of criminals is another good topic for that dinner conversation….


Other film news

As mentioned in the last two columns, the Sacramento French Film Festival opens today and runs for the next two weekends. It’s always a great event and well worth the time. Details at sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org.


It’s a long way off, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing debut “Don Jon” will hit theaters in late September or October. I had a chance to watch it this week and it’s a remarkable film – an unflinching and gritty charcater study about a young man who is addicted to pornography. It’s likely to upset some people, including some who won’t even watch it before expressing their outrage, but it’s a fine piece of work that bodes well for his career behind the camera as well as his already successful career in front of it. The trailer is online and it’s worth checking out and looking forward to.


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