Hello there, moviegoers, and hasn’t this summer been a bit of a slog? The appropriately overcooked and instantly forgettable The Amazing Spider-Man 2 dropped only in May, but it’s seemed like an eternity since we were giggling at Electrified Jamie Foxx™; now it’s August, and the fall — aka “good movie season” — is just around the corner. Though this month offers little to look forward to from the studios (another Step Up, another Expendables, a Twister rip-off, and God help us, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot), here are some four-star indies to get you through to September.
Calvary Release date: August 1 Director: John Michael McDonagh Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen
Any illusions that John Michael McDonagh would follow up his wickedly funny (and wildly underrated) The Guard with another wise-cracking action/comedy are quickly laid to rest in Calvary‘s opening scene, where a goodhearted priest (Brendan Gleeson, excellent as ever) is informed by the sexual abuse victim in his confessional that he’s going to be killed in a week — not because he’s guilty of the crime, but because he’s innocent. McDonagh then follows his protagonist for that week, utilizing a vignette structure where scenes vary wildly in tone, yet somehow fit together. It’s a bleak and difficult picture, yet McDonagh’s sharp, vernacular dialogue, multi-leveled writing, and rapier wit keep it from turning into a slog.
About Alex Release Date: August 8 Director: Jesse Zwick Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter, Max Greenfield, Maggie Grace, Nate Parker, Max Minghella
A group of college friends reunite in a remote location, prompted by the suicide of a friend, to reestablish old connections and reopen old wounds. Sound familiar? Though the participants are younger and the occasion is merely an attempted suicide, Jesse Zwick’s debut film is fully aware of the connection to The Big Chill, as well as that picture’s television stepchild thirtysomething (Zwick’s father, Edward, co-created that show and is credited here as executive producer). But once you’re done playing connect-the-dots, About Alex works on its own terms. The characters’ unspoken tensions and emotional backstory are revealed gradually and smoothly, and Zwick has something insightful to say about the concerns and interactions of millennials. Most importantly, his ensemble cast is aces: Jason Ritter plays the suicidal one without overplaying the pathos; Aubrey Plaza is soulful and sexy and just plain good; and Max Greenfield, bearded and disheveled and bitter, steals just about every scene he strolls and snarks through.
What If Release date: August 8 Director: Michael Dowse Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis
The premise is a kind of When Millennial Harry Met Sally, with heartbroken Radcliffe and committed Kazan taking a shot at being “just friends,” and it’s served up with the expected complications: misunderstandings, jealousy, old girlfriends, current boyfriends, possible side flings. You can predict the turns of this one with a stopwatch, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, handsomely produced, and well acted; these two have got chemistry to burn, and the smart screenplay honors the stickiness and complexity of these relationships. What If doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Dowse rolls it pretty well for an entertaining couple of hours.
Keep On Keepin’ On Release date: August 8 Director: Alan Hicks
We get our first glimpse of jazz legend Clark Terry as he’s bedridden, an oxygen tube to his nose, humming melodies. “I’m 89, but I’m gonna keep doin’ it till I get it right,” he insists, and Alan Hicks’ documentary takes a look at his long career, as one of the foremost jazz trumpet players, to his current station as an instructor and booster, providing the kind of guidance to young musicians that the old timers in his day rarely gave. Hicks also focuses on Justin Kauflin, a young, blind jazz piano player who “CT” takes under his wing; the older man gets sicker, but the mentorship helps keep his head in the game. Hicks’ style is intimate and unassuming, capturing the struggles of musicians young and old, and the common bond shared between them (not just Terry and Kauflin, but the genuine affection between Terry and Quincy Jones, who exec-produces). Wanders a little, but a warm and engaging picture, filled — no surprise — with great music.
Life After Beth Release date: August 15 Director: Jeff Baena Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick
If her sci-fi infused comedy Safety Not Guaranteed showed a warmth and vulnerability behind Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan persona, her new zombie comedy/romance indicates that she’s pretty much equipped to take over the world. Writer/director Jeff Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees, which is enough of an endorsement for me) fumbles the landing a bit, and the picture occasionally veers out of his control. But for the most part, he intermingles comedy, tragedy, blood, and sweetness with real panache. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are terrific as parents doing their best under very difficult circumstances, while Anna Kendrick shines in a brief but vital role. It’s a bananas little picture with a cockeyed sense of humor — a genuine original. (Full review here.)
Frank Release date: August 15 Director: Leonard Abrahamson Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Expectation is no small influence on the moviegoing experience, and perhaps it is to Frank’s advantage that it sounds, going in, so insufferable: the story of a bizarre band making peculiar music under the guidance of the titular frontman, who never removes his giant plastic mascot head. But tone is key, and Frank isn’t overly enamored with its own hipness; it’s a little daft and a lot of fun, with a well-proportioned dusting of serious undertones. Michael Fassbender (seemingly dead-set on proving he’s more than a pretty face) gives an inspired physical and vocal performance as the guy under the fake head, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderfully brittle and more than a little broken. Endearingly deadpan and approachably absurd, it’s a weird, big-hearted treat.
The Trip to Italy Release date: August 15 Director: Michael Winterbottom Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for the follow-up to their uproariously funny travelogue series-turned-film The Trip, and deliver more of the same: hilarious (and mostly improvised) riffs on history, food, travel, and pop culture; mouth-watering cuisine; gorgeous scenery; and a portrait of a love/hate relationship between two comics who are as much rivals as friends. As before, the result is off-the-cuff, witty, playful, and occasionally uncomfortable — the template worked before, so if sunnier locations are the only real alteration, there’s an argument to be made for not fixing what isn’t broken. (Full review here.)
Love Is Strange Release date: August 22 Director: Ira Sachs Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson
The two men dress quietly, muttering to themselves and each other, and head out the door. Though they’re nattily attired, you might not guess from their low-key manner that they’re getting married. Their matter-of-fact approach mirrors the homey, unfussy style of Ira Sachs’ Keep the Light On follow-up, which is less about gay marriage than it is about the woes of New York real estate and the burdens of family. The storytelling is trim and the drama isn’t overdone; it’s a movie where everyone is trying be kind and accommodating, and in doing so, they discover what their limits are. Sachs dishes up wit and sadness in equal measure, and stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are convincingly comfortable, sharing a wonderful chemistry and easygoing tenderness that warms the center of this modest tale.
To Be Takei Release date: August 22 Director: Jennifer M. Kroot
Director Jennifer M. Kroot’s bio-doc is a bit on the fluffy side, but it’s an entertainingly good time, capturing the unlikely rise of George Takei from sci-fi has-been to ubiquitous professional celeb and Facebook presence. Along the way, she hopscotches through his fascinating story and captures, with little varnish, the slightly dysfunctional relationship between Takei and his husband Brad. A little fleeting, but a lot of fun. (More here.)
The Last of Robin Hood Release date: August 29 Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland Cast: Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Kline, Max Casella
This dramatization of the affair between screen legend Errol Flynn and his last (underage) lover Beverly Aadland bears the brand of two peculiarly matched production companies: Lifetime Films, the theatrical offshoot of the Lifetime network, and Killer Films, the Christine Vachon-led outfit behind great indies like I Shot Andy Warhol, Boys Don’t Cry, and the films of Todd Haynes (who exec-produces). But the movie itself really does seem a match of their sensibilities — it’s got the impeccable design, sharp acting, and nuanced characters of a Killer film, mixed with the soapy, gossipy melodrama you’d expect from the makers of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? Fanning continues to impress as Aadland (he long, sad car ride home after their initial sexual encounter puts a face on the entertainment industry’s casual exploitation of young women), while Sarandon finds some interesting angles on the complicity of her character, Aadland’s mother. And Kline is simply perfect as the once-dashing Flynn, particularly in a marvelous scene where he and Sarandon have a drink and share some secrets.