two hard-to-write-about movies

7 November 2009, 1:22 pm

Two more from the Fall 2009 Eye-Opener at The Brattle (. . . and my wonderful fiancée already ably covered American Casino, our most recent screening.)

I didn’t hate Summerhood, Jacob Medjuck’s distillation of summer camp experiences, and I didn’t think it was terrible, but so many aspects of it were seriously flawed that it’s difficult to describe it without feeling a bit mean. Most critically, I think Summerhood needs to better define its audience. If it’s intended for an audience the same age as its characters, then the sexual references need to be toned down and/or the stated age of the characters needs to be increased at least 2 or 3 years. I get the sense that writer/co-director/co-star Jacob Medjuck was uninterested in taking the film in a creepy/squirmy Todd Solondz sort of direction, which is certainly fine, but if the film is intended for adult audiences, the script needs to be more subtle and the characters need to be more fully realized to avoid cliché.

The script has major structural problems. The character Fetus is represented both by the actor Lucian Maisal and by voiceover narration looking back from an indeterminate future (John Cusack provides the latter, in a delivery that I found hard not to compare unfavorably to Jean Shepherd in A Christmas Story). Most of the dialogue is naturalistic, but sometimes the characters will step out of their kid selves to make pronouncements like “regret causes cancer.” I found this jarring and arguably one distancing device too many.

The film has several plot threads vying for the viewer’s attention — there’s really no single central plot arc. The various conflicts resolve serially, so the final quarter of the film is full of what feel like ending beats — and as a result it winds up feeling much longer than its modest 96 minutes. And there are ill-explained plot points so arbitrary and unlikely-seeming (mysterious regulations about when campers can cross a bridge; a day when the camp counselors abdicate and leave the oldest kids in charge of the camp) that I suspect they were drawn from Medjuck’s real-life experience — which doesn’t mean that the script doesn’t need to better justify or explain them.

The film is also plagued with technical sound problems that make some of the dialogue nearly unintelligible. I couldn’t help but feel that the money spent on the fancy digital composite title sequence would have better been applied to some ADR.

There were some definite positives. The kids are mostly good in their roles, and Joe Flaherty is fun in a small part as the camp director. If the script sometimes lapses into preachiness, it also has lots of natural feeling dialogue and some funny moments. And Medjuck managed to get his film made in the first place, which demonstrates considerable drive. Hopefully this is the film everyone is looking at in a dozen years or so, looking for early signs of his later artistic brilliance.

I have a very different problem describing The Good Solider. I expected it to be an endurance contest, and was shocked by how much I liked it and how moving I found it. The Good Solider is a conventionally structured documentary (predominantly talking heads and archival footage) that examines what it means to be a “good soldier” from the perspective of five veterans from four different wars — from the second World War through the current Iraq conflict. The question “what makes a good soldier?” is answered implicitly rather than asked literally, and maybe one reason I wound up liking the film so much is that it’s ambiguous what the titular “good” means — “effective,” “moral,” or something else entirely. The editing of the interview clips and the historical footage seemed accomplished with uncommon delicacy. Mostly I think it’s effective because the stories of the five interviewees are so unexpectedly compelling (and in a very gradual reveal, united by an unexpected commonality). The Vietnam conflict is represented by two veterans, and the Korean by none; I wondered if there might possibly have been a Korean War veteran whose story (and film presence) was less involving. With a slim running time of 80 minutes The Good Soldier seems likely bound for cable at some point (although for those in the Boston area, The Brattle has a special Veteran’s Day engagement coming up). Either way, I recommend it, even — or especially — if it sounds like a film you wouldn’t be interested in.


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