Last weekend, Transformers: Age of Extinction — Michael Bay’s latest, nearly-three-hour love letter to shit blowing up, orange women in short shorts, and editorial incoherence — grossed $300 million worldwide. In one weekend. If that information, and what it means for the ongoing dumbing-down and sequel-ization of mainstream moviemaking, isn’t enough to get you to the art house this month out of sheer principle, here are a few indie movies worth making the trek for as well.
Begin Again RELEASE DATE: Out now DIRECTOR: John Carney CAST: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Yasiin Bey, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee-Lo Green
Once director John Carney clearly adopted an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach for his latest, which is basically a bigger-budget, higher-gloss take on his breakthrough film, transplanted from Dublin to New York City. That’s the grumbly part; he manages to recapture much of the likability and charm of the earlier picture (particularly its joy of performance and its unpredictable, maybe/maybe-not romantic dynamic), while trying out some inventive experiments with style and structure. It’s a lightweight effort, but in the best possible sense of the word.
Bound By Flesh RELEASE DATE: Out now (limited release and on demand) DIRECTOR: Leslie Zemeckis CAST: Documentary
Zemeckis (yes, Robert’s wife) infuses this bio-documentary with the style, spirit, and pace of an exploitation movie — appropriately, since she’s telling the story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, from their horrifying childhood to their celebrity heyday between the two World Wars, including their emancipation, scandals, love lives, and various marriages. Some of the filmmaking is a touch amateurish (don’t get me started on those iMovie-style, page-turn transitions), but the content is fascinating, with Zemeckis using their story as an opportunity to journey through 20th-century American fringe entertainment, from sideshows to vaudeville to burlesque to the drive-in.
Premature RELEASE DATE: July 2 DIRECTOR: Dan Beers CAST: John Karna, Craig Roberts, Katie Findlay, Alan Tudyk
When your film editor saw this one at SXSW, I described it as “Groundhog Day meets American Pie,” and apparently I wasn’t the only one; they’re actually using that Player-like logline in publicity materials. But it fits the premise: a horny teenager having the most stressful day of his life tries to lose his virginity, but, well, you can guess what happens from the title — after which he wakes up at the beginning of the day, and has to keep living it over and over until he gets it right. The variations on the premise are fairly ingenious, even if they start to get a little random and desperate as the second half takes some unfortunate turns into scatological humor and casual xenophobia. And the moment you lay your eyes on the Joey Potter-style beautiful BFF (The Killing’s Katie Findlay, very good) that he just can’t see because of the blonde sex bomb girl-of-his-dreams, you can pretty safely guess how the whole thing’s gonna turn out. Still, it’s got a snappy visual sense and (basically) a good heart, and if there’s an abundance of easy laughs, there are plenty of genuine ones as well.
Life Itself RELEASE DATE: July 4 DIRECTOR: Steve James CAST: Documentary
Hoop Dreams director Steve James constructs this documentary profile of film critic Roger Ebert in much the same spirit as the memoir whose title it shares — as a series of good stories, warm memories, and cinematic valentines. He’s covering a lot of ground here, but the picture never feels rushed or superficial; it’s full of tributes, dialectics, fascinating archival material, and remarkable footage shot by James during Ebert’s final months. A treat for cinephiles, but they’re not the only audience; it is the moving story of a bright man who found fame and love and, in the face of illness, tremendous bravery. (Full review here.)
Boyhood RELEASE DATE: July 11 DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater CAST: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Richard Linklater and his cast shot this chronicle of a young man’s life in bits and pieces over 12 years, a narrative feat all but unparalleled in modern cinema. But the great pleasure of Boyhood is how its tremendous ambition is belied by the picture’s charming modesty; in its pacing and approach, it is very much in the shambling vein of Slacker or Dazed and Confused. It also shares those films’ verbosity, their love for searching conversations about the meaning of life (particularly once its protagonist reaches pot-smoking age). Yet Linklater punctures such surface philosophical navel-gazing by leaving much unsaid about maturity and the passage of time — themes that are, in fact, organic to his unique approach. A rich, warm, lovely film. (Full review here.)
Mood Indigo RELEASE DATE: July 18 DIRECTOR: Michel Gondry CAST: Roman Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aïssa Maïga
The latest from the great Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) opens with a quote from Boris Vian: “The story is entirely true, because I imagined it from one end to the other.” It feels that thoroughly pulled from Gondry’s active imagination; he creates his own world, with its own look, rules, and even physics. It’s at the service of a charming story about a young man (Roman Duris) who demands to fall in love (mostly because all of his friends are), and meets a lovely young woman (Audrey Tautou) who puts him at ease: “If we screw up the moment, we try the next,” she tells him on their first date. “We have our whole lives to get it right.” It’s a sweet and cheery movie that takes a turn toward melancholy in its third act — which is probably for the best, since Gondry’s style can get a bit exhausting, and you can only watch a spinning top for so long. But if you go along with it, Mood Indigo offers plenty of pleasures, not least among them the joy Gondry seems to have playing in his big sandbox.
Happy Christmas RELEASE DATE: July 25 (available now on demand) DIRECTOR: Joe Swanberg CAST: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber
Joe Swanberg’s latest sneaks up on you — its early passages seem to go nowhere in particular, but he and his actors (who improvise their dialogue from an outline) are taking characters and relationships in vibrant and interesting directions, and the picture has a lived-in warmth that seems almost secondhand. Anna Kendrick shines, as usual, but the film’s real star is Melanie Lynskey, who beautifully captures the complexities and contradictions of motherhood. (Full review here.)
The Kill Team RELEASE DATE: July 25 DIRECTOR: Dan Krauss CAST: Documentary
Director Krauss crafts a chilling, unforgiving, and vividly effective documentary account of a platoon of soldiers murdering Afghans for sport, mutilating corpses, and engaging in other ghastly activity in the name of “combat.” Motivated by resentment, blood lust, or (worst of all) sheer boredom, the “kill team” took graphic video and pictures as shocking as anything at Abu Ghraib, and nearly got away with it. Krauss focuses on the trial of Spc. Adam Winfield, who tried to blow the whistle and failed; his helplessness grounds the tale, while Krauss and editor Lawrence Lerew’s sharp-edged cutting keeps the storytelling hard and jarring. Excellent documentary filmmaking, and infuriating viewing.
Very Good Girls RELEASE DATE: July 25 (available now on demand) DIRECTOR: Naomi Foner CAST: Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Olsen, Boyd Holbrook, Peter Sargaard, Ellen Barkin, Clark Gregg, Richard Dreyfuss, Demi Moore
The directorial debut of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Foner (Running on Empty) finds Fanning and Olsen spinning their wheels in New York City during the summer before college, hoping and praying to finally dispense with their virginity. What sounds like a giggly sex comedy is made into a moody, evocative, low-key drama by Foner and her first-rate cast; it’s a rare film that acknowledges, and wrestles with, female sexuality, and Foner’s script impressively captures the end-of-the-world intensity of one’s first physical relationship. Predictable to a beat, but keenly observed and admirably heartfelt.