As you may have noticed from the giant 50-megaton tentpole movie hitting theaters today, summer movie season is in full swing. Thankfully, a robust release slate in the hotter months isn’t solely a studio pursuit; this month’s lineup of independent releases is one of the best in recent memory, with a four-star mix of foreign pictures, oddities, genre flicks, and documentaries. Here are a few to put on your radar:
Far From Men
Release Date: May 1 (limited release and on demand) Director: David Oelhoffen Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb, Djemel Barek
Algeria, 1954. A French schoolteacher (a French-speaking Viggo Mortensen, totally convincing) is sent on a mission to deliver a killer to a remote village, and to his death. The journey progresses about as expected, with Oelhoffen’s script gradually and organically revealing more about these enigmatic men, who come to form a trusting bond — but this is not a film that wants to shock us with its plot. It’s about how it feels to be on that journey: the intensity, the monotony, and how that monotony is punctuated by bursts of physicality and fear. The score is spare but effective and the compositions are frequently stunning, but it’s the picture’s unexpected and earnest spirituality that ultimately makes it so very special.
Release Date: May 1 (limited release and on demand) Director: Quetin Dupieux Cast: Alain Chabat, Jon Heder, Eric Wareheim, John Glover
Look, Quetin Dupieux is either your brand of vodka or he isn’t, and he’s certainly not going to talk you into anything at this point. His latest is a particularly bizarre intermingling of strange characters and peculiar situations, constantly reframing itself as Dupieux toggles between dream, reality, nightmare, and fiction within fiction, frequently intermingling his planes and characters. Dream movies are usually annoying because they end up obliterating their own narrative credibility; no such worries here, because he’s less telling a story than creating a cinematic Russian nesting doll, an Inception by way of Buñuel. His brand of obtuse absurdism is off-putting to some, but I found myself giggling at its audacity and nonsense logic.
The Ladies of the House
Release Date: May 1 (on demand) Director: John Stuart Wildman Cast: Farah White, Melodie Sisk, Brina Palencia
Giddily disreputable and deliriously trashy, this grindhouse-loving cannibal lesbian stripper opus is a sleazy gore-fest with a feminist slant. Director Wildman’s got a gift for creating atmosphere and dread, and while there’s some oogy business here, the picture never takes itself too seriously (any movie that intercuts its hot girl-on-girl action with a man eating dog food off the floor is messing with us, and knows it). It overstays its welcome a bit, and Wildman occasionally overplays his hand, but for the most part, it’s a twisted, perverse hoot of a movie.
Release Date: May 8 (limited release and on demand) Director: Henry Hobson Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
Henry Hobson’s feature debut is an unlikely fusion of zombie horror thriller and familial melodrama — two very different speeds that shouldn’t play together, yet somehow do. There’s a mournful, elegiac tone that reverberates throughout the picture, and it’s one of those occasions where the human element adds real stakes to the horror stuff (which is sparse, but well executed). The headline, of course, isn’t that stuff, but the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the leading role of a Midwestern farmer trying to do right by the teenage daughter who’s been infected and is on the verge of “turning.” It’s the closest thing he’s done to a serious dramatic performance, and he does it well, crafting the kind of taciturn, quietly resolved work that Eastwood or Wayne did in their later years. (It doesn’t hurt to share your scenes with the likes of Abigail Breslin and Joely Richardson.) Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography is gorgeous and David Wingo’s score is quietly urgent; this is a fine film, and an interesting new direction for a star who needs the juice.
The D Train
Release Date: May 8 Director: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn
The presence of Mike White in a supporting role of this often uneasy comedy/drama is telling; the film it most reminded me of was his tricky 2000 comedy/drama Chuck and Buck, another exploration of the thin line between cool-guy idolization and outright obsession (with some of the same psychosexual overtones). Black is outstanding as a schlubby average Joe heading up his high school reunion committee and still feeling hopelessly uncool; he gets the bright idea of getting the class’s coolest dude (Marsden), now living in California and turning up on occasional TV commercials, to RSVP yes. In doing so, he constructs an elaborate series of lies and deceptions that spin progressively further out of his control. Hahn lends excellent support as his patient wife, and Marsden is just right as the dude he’d want to be, but the picture’s main achievement is its funny and honest perspective on the too-often unacknowledged fluidity of human sexuality. It’s a tricky movie, and a rewarding one.
The Seven Five
Release Date: May 8 Director: Tiller Russell Cast: Documentary
As previously confessed, I’ve got a real weakness for cinematic snapshots of New York in its scuzzier, grittier era, so I’m sort of the target audience for Tiller Russell’s documentary account of a crew of deeply corrupt cops working out of Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct in the late 1980s. It’s a great story, but the telling is particularly striking: framed by the sociopathic ringleader Micheal Dowd’s chillingly candid testimony to a city commission, the fast-paced cutting (filled with pop music, snazzy B-roll, and well-placed freeze frames) makes the picture into something of a documentary Goodfellas. And the contemporary interviews are fascinating — particularly those of Dowd, who still seems to enjoy telling his tales of theft and graft, bragging and showboating, a gunslinger printing his own legend. As twisty and dramatic as the best dirty-cop narratives, this is truly riveting filmmaking.
Release Date: May 15 (in limited release and on demand; available now on DirecTV) Director: John Maclean Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn
The title is a bit off-putting (perhaps deliberately), but don’t let it fool you; while there’s a stillness at the center of this elegiac Western, it’s tense, odd, gorgeous, and surprisingly funny. Michael Fassbender is pitch-perfect as a masked bandit chaperoning a young Scotsman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to find his lady love, and Ben Mendelsohn can do no wrong as a scraggly-faced, furry coat-clad, absinthe-swilling outlaw. Maclean has an eye for peculiar, vivid images, and invests the picture with a compelling eccentricity. By the time killers are popping up out of wheat fields and gunshots are echoing through the valley, there’s little doubt you’re in the hands of a born filmmaker.
Release Date: May 15 Director: Cédric Jimenez Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette
“Loosely based on real events,” this crime thriller from director/co-writer Jimenez concerns the pursuit of the Marseilles-based crime ring at the center of the similarly titled French Connection, but from the other side of the world. As a late-‘70s crime movie, the mustache and sideburn game is appropriately strong and the music is expectedly vibrant, while the montages of criminal and police logistics are snappily Scorsesean. But the main influence here is Michael Mann, from the cool aesthetics to the pop soundtrack to the cop/crook relationship at its center. Jean Dujardin is terrific as the cop half of that equation, playing a French magistrate who eventually gets hooked on his own righteousness, and while the picture drags a touch and indulges in a few too many clichés (I for one could’ve done without the nagging wife he ignores), it’s an energetic procedural that glides and pops on its way to a tough, unexpected conclusion.
Every Secret Thing
Release Date: May 15 Director: Amy Berg Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, Nate Parker, Common
Documentarian Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, An Open Secret ) makes an impressive transition to fiction with this adaptation of Laura Lippman’s book, scripted by Nicole Holofcener (herself working well out of her usual genre). On the surface, it’s a kidnapping story and police procedural, but the emotional stakes are exponentially higher; Berg is exploring how human personalities are set and locked early on, and how those definitions affect the transactions between the past and the present. At its essence, it’s a horror movie, filled with uneasy dread and everyday terror, crisply told and emotionally gutting.
Release Date: May 29 Director: Andrew Bujalski Cast: Cobie Smulders, Guy Pearce, Kevin Corrigan
Cobie Smulders has got move-star moxie to spare and Guy Pearce is charming as hell, but Kevin Corrigan steals the show with a delightfully batty performance as a new-money — and I mean new — millionaire in this peculiar but enjoyable rom-com from director Bujalski ( Computer Chess ). He’s kind of the last director you’d expect to helm a star-driven rom-com, but here we are, and what he comes up with is a nice fusion of his idiosyncratic style and mainstream norms; it hits the expected emotional beats and the supporting characters are wacky (Giovanni Ribisi is particularly good), but Bujalski is such an off-the-grid filmmaker that the picture frequently doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. And that’s exactly what’s sorely missing in romantic comedy today, so bravo.
Heaven Knows What
Release Date: May 29 (in limited release) Director: Ben and Joshua Safdie Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Eleonore Hendricks
Josh and Benny Safdie’s breakthrough film Daddy Long-Legs was legitimately reminiscent of Cassavetes; their latest, the story of desperate junkies hustling on the streets of New York, has more of a Panic in Needle Park influence, reiterating how some stories just stay the same. Tracking a few days in the life of a homeless heroin addict (Holmes, in a role based on herself), the Safdies are less interested in telling a story than capturing the day-to-day, minute-to-minute realities of this life: hustling, “spanging,” begging for Metrocard swipes, mail-lifting, shoplifting and reselling. But beyond immersion, they’re looking at routines, patterns, and cycles that repeat themselves, over and over. And their attitude towards their protagonist is refreshing: they’re not gonna make you like her, they’re not going to fix her, and they’re not going to redeem her. Raw, honest, powerful.