Summer Movie Preview: Kids, Theft, The Apocalypse, And Joss Whedon

May 28, 2013

Trending, trending. M Night Shyamalan sees dead people. I see trends.

This will be a summer of Adolescents Triumphant, with kids overcoming parental units specifically to tame a hostile environment, be it a planet (Shyamalan's After Earth) a woodsy suburban clearing (Kings of Summer), or a waterpark (The Way Way Back). It's also the Summer of the Steal, what with Now You See Me (thieving magicians), Bling Ring (thieving valley girls), and the docs We Steal Secrets: the Story of Wikileaks and Smash & Grab (about stealing the Pink Panther diamonds). And there's an odd plethora of Comic Apocalypses — where but the multiplex could there be more than one? — with the world as we know it ending in pratfalls (The World's End, This is the End, and Rapturepalooza).

But as I was drawing up my summer preview piece for All Things Considered, I kept coming back to a pair of one-off originals that seemed more intriguing. One offers perhaps the oddest odd-coupling of the summer — Joss Whedon and Shakespeare — while the other finds a bizarrely showbizzy way to explore one of recent history's great tragedies.

Start with the Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing directed by the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Whedon had some down-time after making The Avengers last year, and where another filmmaker might have headed to Waikiki for a well-earned vacation, he prospected for Elizabethan laughs in his L.A. living room with some actor buddies — including Angel's Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the Bard's warring wits, Beatrice and Benedick, and The Avengers' Clark Gregg as the uncle who tries to bring them "into a mountain of affection." In twelve days, for a budget that probably wouldn't have covered the catering on most of Whedon's projects, he made a black-and-white, modern-dress, startlingly hip Much Ado. Will it appeal to the Buffy and Avengers crowds? Well, odder things have happened.

And one of those odder things is the subject of the summer's most unorthodox documentary, The Act of Killing. Filmmaker Josh Oppenheimer wanted to tell the story of the death squads that killed more than a million Indonesians after the overthrow of the of the country's first non-colonial government in 1965. The military had never been called to account for the barbarism that brought it to power — in fact, with the right wing death squad leaders now regarded as heroes, it didn't really recognize the need for any sort of reckoning. So when he asked them to appear on camera, they said yes, noting that movies had inspired them in their sadism.

Their idea of appearing in a film, though, wasn't quite what the director initially had in mind: They didn't want to be talking heads, they wanted to star in the sort of picture with which they were more familiar. So he challenged them to re-enact their crimes in whatever form they chose. They chose westerns, action flicks and even musicals, and Oppenheimer ended up with footage that raised both hackles and hosannahs when The Act of Killing premiered at Telluride. It's hard to imagine it won't be controversial on its commercial release as well.

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