Tonight, a certain overworked web slinger will swing into something like 4000 screens across the country, kicking off the summer movie season in an appropriate fashion: with a big, dumb, terrible franchise movie that will gross more money than most of us can even imagine. But don’t worry — contrary to what the ubiquitous marketing campaigns of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and a handful of others might indicate, there are other movies coming out this summer, and here are a few worth seeking out this month.
The Double Release Date: May 9 Director: Richard Ayoade Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn
Actor/director Richard Ayoade (whose first film, Submarine, is one of the best movies you’ve never seen) adapts the Dostoevsky novella into a Gilliam-esque, analog vision of corporate hell. Jesse Eisenberg is very good (and almost doing silent comedy beats) as a nebbish who meets, befriends, and turns against the personification of his long-repressed id; he’s equally strong in the opposite role. Ayoade’s got a witty, cockeyed visual sense, and he keeps things moving at a brisk clip, resisting the urge to linger on each funny/bizarre moment lest he be late for the next. Odd, giddy, and marvelous.
Devil’s Knot Release Date: May 9 Director: Atom Egoyan Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Ryan, Elias Koteas
With four lengthy documentaries and decades of coverage already in view, it hardly seems that the story of the West Memphis Three is crying out to be told yet again in narrative form, unless for the benefit of people who don’t like documentaries. (As someone who’s seen all the earlier films, some more than once, I found myself having peculiar — and probably distressing — thoughts like, Man, that actor has really got Gary Gitchell down cold.) But director Atom Egoyan again shows a proficiency with portraying a small community ripped apart by tragedy (shades of his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter), while his nightmare imagery is harrowing and effective. There’s an awful lot of compression here — the film basically ends at the conclusion of the first Paradise Lost documentary, and those films remain the best source for this story. But screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (Sinister) wisely use Pam Hobbs (well played by Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the victims, as their entry point, tapping powerfully into her grief while configuring her as a protagonist whose arc packs a real punch.
Stage Fright Release Date: May 9 Director: Jerome Sable Cast: Allie MacDonald, Meat Loaf, Minnie Driver
You don’t get a lot of musical horror comedies these days, and this one doesn’t scrimp on any of those scores — it’s gory as hell, while also wickedly funny and full of witty, catchy songs. A rising musical theater star (Minnie Driver) is killed on the opening night of a Phantom of the Opera knock-off; a decade later, her daughter is given the chance to play the same role when the show is mounted at a summer performing arts camp, if she can survive until the final curtain. In other words, it’s a cross between Phantom of the Paradise and Camp, with a healthy splash of Friday the 13th thrown in for good measure, and none of it taken too seriously. The film is occasionally too pleased with its own cleverness (particularly during the third-act bloodbath), but it’s a lot of fun, and should score big with the kinds of moviegoers who’ve dressed up for a midnight show of Rocky Horror. You know who you are.
God’s Pocket Release Date: May 9 Director: John Slattery Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan
John Slattery’s feature directorial debut wears its influences a bit too heavily: a dash of Mean Streets, a cup of American Buffalo, simmered in a broth of Dennis Lehane. And its tonal shifts, from downbeat drama to broad, almost surreal comedy, are often jarring. But Slattery has, unsurprisingly, a sure hand with his actors — including, in one of his final performances, a wonderfully downtrodden Phillip Seymour Hoffman — and while his storytelling (he co-wrote the script, adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel) is undisciplined, you certainly never know quite where he’s going next.
A Short History of Decay Release Date: May 16 Director: Michael Maren Cast: Bryan Greenberg, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Linda Lavin, Harris Yulin, Emmanuelle Chiriqui
Michael Maren’s debut film doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, narratively speaking; it’s about a blocked writer going through a breakup who goes down to Florida to help his aging parents and Learn Some Things About Himself. In other words, it’s a story you’ve heard many times before, but Short History still has its virtues. Maren’s got a good ear for the specific way parents and their grown children drive each other mad (as the elders, Linda Lavin and Harris Yulin play but don’t overplay), and a sharp eye for found oddities (he crisply captures the surrealism of a suburban grocery store). Bryan Greenberg performs capably in the lead, but pretty much gets the picture stolen out from under him by the terrific Kathleen Rose Perkins, who nabs its most memorable moment (a reaction to a reaction to a kiss; trust me, you just have to see it). It’s a modest movie — one that meanders a bit, but charmingly so.
A Night in Old Mexico Release Date: May 16 Director: Emilio Aragón Cast: Robert Duvall, Jeremy Irvine, Angie Cepeda
Robert Duvall is magnificent (but that kinda goes without saying) as a mean, crotchety, semi-suicidal old bastard who’s angry at no less than God — “I’ve had it with you,” he tells the big boy upstairs — that he’s losing the ranch that’s been in his family for generations. When he meets the grandson he never knew he had, he takes the kid down to Mexico for one last blowout before he’s forced to move into a “tin can” trailer. Much of the picture is warm and funny, and it’s always a joy to watch Duvall work (and, in one great sequence, to watch him dance). That said, young co-star Jeremy Irvine is about as bland as they come, and the melodramatics (particularly with regards to the unnecessary ‘80s-style guns/drugs/bag of money subplot) get awfully clunky. But it’s worth the trouble for Duvall’s indelible performance as a coot who’s gonna go down swinging.
Cold in July Release Date: May 23 Director: Jim Mickle Cast: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw
East Texas, 1989. A meek husband and father (a mulleted Michael C. Hall) shoots an intruder in his home, only to find that the deceased man’s father (Sam Shepard) is a career criminal who wants to harm his family in return. Co-writer/director Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) spends the first act setting up a tightly wound, Blood Simple-style neo-noir thriller, and then… well, let’s just say he keeps changing the plays on you, spinning this gripping narrative into all sorts of unexpected (and occasionally horrifying) directions. Mickle’s astonishingly gifted at delineating space and assembling everyday action for maximum tension, but that’s just a warm-up for his bravura climax, which melds the moody atmosphere of what’s come before with the kind of bruising ‘80s action you might find on the shelves of the video store which plays a key role. Hall is terrific in his understated, behavioral way, but the movie belongs to Don Johnson (in a wickedly entertaining good-ol’-boy turn) and Shepard, who does folksy, scary menace like nobody in the business.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Release Date: May 23 Director: Sam Fleischner Cast: Andrea Suarez Paz, Jesus Sanchez-Velez, Azul Zorrilla
This slice-of-life drama, about an autistic New York kid who goes missing on the subway on the eve of Hurricane Sandy, is an utterly accurate and evocative snapshot of NYC at this moment — particularly in the loaded images grabbed (often stolen, it seems) of lives in progress on those trains. These impressionistic scenes are almost the stuff of silent cinema, and pack a real punch, even if director Sam Fleischner stretches his lightweight narrative a bit too thin.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Release Date: May 23 Director: Nicholas Wrathall Cast: Documentary
Director Nicholas Wrathall nimbly assembles decades of archival footage and interviews, including several shot in the months before his subject’s death, to create a tart and entertaining portrait of writer, provocateur, and groundbreaker Gore Vidal. Luckily for the filmmaker, Vidal was more than merely a writer — he was a magnificent storyteller and tireless self-promoter (“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television,” goes the quote) who left a trove of bitingly articulated musings on politics, sex, religion, class, fame, and his largest and most consistent subject: America (specifically, how the republic became an empire). Wrathall ends up telling his story as a kind of alternate history of our nation, and if he soft-pedals some of Vidal’s more controversial views, he still comes up with a rigorous and sobering view of where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
Night Moves Release Date: May 30 Director: Kelly Reichardt Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) brings her signature no-rush pacing and quietly observational style to this tale of three activists-turned-eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) planning and executing the bombing of an Oregon dam. Reichart doesn’t push and doesn’t reach for effects; she triangulates the three well-established characters and tells the story with meticulous detail. It’s tense, but not overbearing, and she doesn’t make any judgments about these people — she merely shows us how it happens, and then what happens after. Bracing, powerful, and unpredictable.