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Arts Film Review

New films: Monkey Kingdom, Child 44, and True Story

A moviebriefs roundup of three newly opened films.

I wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or cringe when “Monkey Kingdom,” the latest Disney live action wildlife “documentary” started with “The Monkees Theme.” I grew up with David Attenborough narrated nature documentaries that had more blood and sex than anything else on TV. And now kids are getting these scripted, relatively sanitized docudramas – this time narrated by Tina Fey – that pull so many punches you’d need another movie about storks to explain where the baby monkey came from. Which is odd because the rest of entertainment has become so much cruder and more violent. But this is nature for seven year olds and, while the content is carefully limited, it’s also very cute. The cinematography is beautiful and the film delivers several laughs – with a surprising amount of politics in this story of the haves and have nots in an extended family of Sri Lankan macaques. So if you want to entertain the little ones, without them seeing anything too disturbing, while having the perfect opportunity to terrify them completely with a frank discussion about socioeconomic disparities, this is the film to see.

My favorite new film this week is certainly not child-friendly. “Child 44” is a narrative drama about a Soviet security agent who stumbles across a series of gruesome murders. Agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is primarily engaged in discovering and hunting down known or suspected traitors. It’s an odd job, being an investigator in a country that doesn’t recognize the existence of most crimes – with murder considered to be a diseased outcome of Western, capitalist cultures. This creates an inherently compelling dynamic, with the idea of a criminal investigation in the absence of acknowledged crimes. It’s a story that’s based on an actual series of murders in the Soviet Union and it’s well acted and well produced. However, it suffers somewhat by focusing more on the internal politics of the security agency, particularly the backstabbing among present and former colleagues, rather than on the serial killer and his victims. It may be that we’ve become so familiar with crime scene forensics and psychological profiling that their absence seems more notable – but this is really more about Demidov and his wife (Noomi Rapace) than about the case. It’s an adaptation of the first book in a trilogy about these characters and it feels almost like the pilot movie for a television drama series – or something one might binge watch for a weekend on Netflix. I enjoyed it and found the characters interesting, but I would have enjoyed it more with a little more complexity.

True Story” is another story about multiple murders that focuses less on the crime than the people associated with it. James Franco plays Christian Longo who was tried for murdering his family. When he was caught, he was using the name and identity of New York Times writer Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill, on whose book the film is based. Finkel had lost his job at the Times for partially fabricating a story in which he associated the experiences of multiple people into a single character in a story about modern day slavery in Africa. When he found out that Longo had been using his name, he started talking to him, eventually being drawn into the story of the murders. The end result is an intriguing, multi-layered story about a writer who cared more about a story than about the truth, getting caught in the middle of a different situation where he can’t quite untangle the same two elements. Hill has proven his ability to switch between comedy and drama and it’s nice to see Franco in a more substantial role than his last few mainstream projects. “True Story” is, at its heart, an extended mea culpa from Finkel – the problem being that Finkel is the least interesting person in the story.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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