There’s a fine line between making reference to something and ripping something off. First-time director Jacob Medjuck’s film, “Summerhood,” manages to save itself from becoming one of those vacuous “Epic Movie”-type films that are slapped together and delivered to multiplexes all over the country every few months. However, the film is constantly engaging in a tug-of-war with itself, unsure if it wants to deliver a heart-warming message about childhood or if it is content just to send up every summer camp cliché ever put to screen. This makes for an adequately funny yet frustrating film-going experience, and an especially odd one among the typically drier, more refined films that so often make up a festival lineup.
“Summerhood” occupies territory similar to 2005’s “Bad News Bears” remake, which is to say that while its main characters are a rambunctious bunch of 10-year-olds embodying various “wacky” archetypes, it’s not exactly fun for the whole family. Who, exactly, does a film about kids at summer camp that involves both cloying life lessons and adolescent lesbian fantasy sequences appeal to? My mind immediately jumped to the appeal of wildly popular male fantasy-type comedies by Judd Apatow over the last few years, an influence that filmmaker Jacob Medjuck confirmed in a Q&A session after a screening of the film.
“Summerhood” may feature characters who are younger than Apatow’s previous protagonists, but the idea is basically the same. The film’s group of 11-year-old boys don’t act – or speak, for that matter – all that differently than Seth Rogen and his posse of lazy stoner goofballs in “Knocked Up.” Not to mention the fact that there’s not really a fully developed female character in sight. While it’s a bit disarming to see kids onscreen dropping F-bombs and chanting “Hand job! Hand job! Hand job!,” anybody who’s been in fourth grade knows just how early kids learn these sorts of things, whether they understand what they’re saying or not. The comedy that resonates in this film is funny because it’s true, and because it’s delivered so well by Medjuck’s likable and natural cast of child actors.
The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know how to mix comedy and drama the way Apatow did so brilliantly with his cast of high school kids on the short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” For instance, John Cusack’s earnest and wistful voice-over narration alone would have been enough to balance out the film’s crass sense of humor, but the director’s turn as a affable and horny camp counselor who’s able to dispense all the right advice to his young campers seems misplaced and more than a bit over the top, as does the presence of uber-villain character actor Christopher McDonald, who portrays the ubiquitous fun-crushing camp director role Ben Stiller bludgeoned to death in “Heavyweights.”
Still, the film could potentially become a hit, fitting in nicely somewhere between other R-rated comedies about kids but aimed at adults, with its nostalgic ’80s soundtrack, “Wet Hot American Summer” sort of vibe and risqué musical finale… That sequence had the audience roaring in horror and delight.
“My Way,” Spanish director J.A. Salgot’s second film in 30 years, has two main threads of action that slowly become unavoidably linked: a thriller about a struggling small-time drug dealer named Marco who must pay off his debt in order to escape the business and live a normal life, and a family drama about a rotten relationship between Marco and his father Alberto. The film moves back and forth in time to develop the film’s mysteries, shown at first in fragments that eventually coalesce into one central story that explores the duality of good and evil and the strange, inexplicable sense of duty and personal responsibility one has toward one’s family members.
It’s fairly obvious from the beginning of the film that Marco is, in some way, a criminal. Shown at first in a scene at his mother’s funeral, where he leaves to answer a shady cell phone call, his involvement in something illegal is established, though it is not revealed until later that Marco’s dilemma involves his trying to escape from the dangerous life he’s been leading. Marco’s motives for taking in his father seem questionable for a good portion of the film, but his actions toward his father turn out to be more of a personal struggle to forgive him than anything more sinister.
Ultimately, Marco turns out to be the film’s most sympathetic figure, as he alone is the only thing standing in his brother’s way from selling his father’s home. Marco becomes increasingly more paranoid and haggard throughout the film, as it becomes clear that his family’s lives are becoming more and more endangered by his activities. Eventually, Alberto is kidnapped by Marco’s former associates, forcing Marco to make the ultimate moral choice.
As a thriller, I didn’t find “My Way” to be completely engaging or believable, but as a story about a guilt-stricken son who takes care of his Alzheimer-afflicted father after his mother dies, the film is much more engrossing. Marco (Ariel Casas) wants to hate his father, initially, but as the film wears on, and his father’s life is put in danger by Marco’s work associates, Marco becomes his father’s only protector. Veteran actor Joan Dalmau turns in a heartbreaking performance as Alberto, the ailing father, communicating the childlike innocence and frailty of a helpless man Marco realizes is not the same distant and demanding figure who raised him and deserves his hatred. This makes the film’s semi-ambiguous ending all the more jolting.
Though the film, the first of a reported trilogy, may invite comparisons to other films like last year’s “The Savages” or “Away From Her,” which both feature families trying to adjust to a relative’s Alzheimer’s, one of the more apt comparisons to be made could be to the powerful, seldom-seen Sidney Lumet film released last year, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” which features similar family dynamics and equally disturbing violence that spirals out of control, forcing a son to choose between himself and his family.
“The Mourning Forest”
While Japanese writer/director Naomi Kawase’s ninth film, “The Mourning Forest,” is a slowly unfolding and often meandering, confusing film, viewers who stick with the poetic film throughout its duration will be rewarded by the film’s beautiful, almost surreal finale. However, the critics who decried the film’s win of the Grand Prix at Cannes last year weren’t remiss in stating that the film is unable to sustain its 97-minute running time.
Set in the mountains of rural Japan, “The Mourning Forest” is a visual expression of the Buddhist beliefs about what lies beyond death, as its two central characters, 70-year-old Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) and 27-year-old Machiko (Machiko Ono) embark serendipitously on a mystical trip through nature to the site of Shigeki’s wife’s tomb. Although you’d never know it given their performances, both characters are played by actors who have little formal experience in front of the camera.
Machiko is a newly hired young nurse working at a secluded retirement home who slowly forges a special bond with Shigeki, an old man suffering from dementia who has been grieving for the death of his wife, who died 33 years earlier. In a confusing flashback sequence, it is revealed that Machiko too is stuck in a period of mourning, after losing her young son, a loss she blames herself for. The two forge an unlikely connection, highlighted in one of the film’s most poignant and revelatory scenes where the two play hide-and-seek in a field.
Embarking on a trip through the country in celebration of Shigeki’s birthday, car troubles strand the two on the side of the road. Confusingly, we do not see why or how it happens. As Machiko goes to look for help, Shigeki gets out of the van and wanders into the forest, forcing Machiko to wander in after him. How a man as frail and senile as Shigeki would be able to remember the way to his wife’s grave is yet another loose end the film never provides the audience with an explanation for.
The forest itself plays an enormous role in the film, as its title would suggest, and is captured beautifully by the film’s cinematographer, emphasizing the link between human drama and nature that is characteristic of many Japanese films. However, the film’s use of its handheld camera becomes a bit dizzying and unnecessarily jerky at times.
The film ends on an ambiguous note, as Machiko and Shigeki arrive at the site and the viewer is left to wonder whether what has occurred is meant to be taken literally or figuratively. For those who hadn’t been put to sleep by the film’s pacing or all-too-comforting images of nature, the film’s ending provides an open-ended moment of contemplation of the grieving process. Kawase’s film refuses to provide the viewer with any concrete answers or tidy resolution, allowing for a thought-provoking and meditating viewing experience that won’t be for everyone.