With the summer movie season winding down, we’re seeing more and more of what’s usually dubbed “counter-programming” — both at the multiplex and on indie screens. Our dozen recommendations for the later are, as usual, an eclectic bunch: personality documentaries, B-movie homages, relationship comedy/dramas, and some of the best roles for women we’ve seen this year.
Release Date: August 4 (on demand) Director: Dave Carroll Cast: Documentary
Forty-three-year-old New Yorker Chris Schoeck is introverted, withdrawn — anti-social, even. But he’s got a skill: in spite of his average (almost scrawny) size, he’s wicked strong, and uses that skill to bend steel bars, horseshoes, and wrenches. He aims to make a name for himself as an old-fashioned strongman down on Coney Island (“What’s Coney Island without a strong man?” he asks, not unreasonably). Schoek’s a bit of a lug, but he’s got a good heart, and you feel for him; this gentle documentary shows how he finds a community and family among his fellow strongmen, and generates real tension and concern by its conclusion, which smells like manipulation but works nonetheless.
Release Date: August 7 (limited) Director: Jon Watts Cast: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hayes Wellford, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Two young boys, wandering through the woods and practicing their swearwords, discover an abandoned cop car with the keys in the ignition and decide to take it for a ride. Jon Watts’ lean, no-nonsense thriller makes the discovery as they do, adopting their gee-whiz POV initially without explanation—then goes back and fills in the blanks, intercutting their harmless horsing around with the real dirt that a bad cop (Kevin Bacon, pulling off the grizzled psychopath thing) is doing. Director/co-writer Jon Watts — who is, incongruently enough, the next poor soul to take a crack at the Spider-Man franchise — exhibits a B-movie ruthlessness and efficiency, telling the tale as a concise coming-of-age story, with unbearably tense scenes where the real world’s danger is visited upon boys who still say things like “We’re gonna let you out, but you gotta promise not to tell on us.” Crackerjack genre filmmaking, with a terrifying late-reel Shea Whigham performance that swings in and takes over the picture.
Call Me Lucky
Release Date: August 7 (limited) Director: Bobcat Goldthwait Cast: Documentary
Barry Crimmins was one of the best stand-up comedians you probably never heard of, the Godfather of Boston’s fertile comedy scene, doing hard-edged political commentary in an era where strip-mall, brick-wall comedy clubs were mostly housing vanilla hacks and their airplane food/lost sock bits. Friend and fellow comic Bobcat Goldthwait helms this documentary portrait (proving himself as adept at non-fiction filmmaking as narrative), which would be interesting enough if it were just a snapshot of that era and Crimmins’ place in it. But Goldthwait pushes further, into the personal tragedy that turned Crimmins from a comedian and commentator to an activist and advocate. It’s an unpredictable and invigorating film, both rabble-rousing and moving.
Release Date: August 14 (limited) Director: Noah Baumbach Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind
“In one instant, her behaviors turned from charming to borderline psychotic.” So notes Tracy (Kirke) of Brooke (Gerwig), the title character of Noah Baumbach’s latest chronicle of the bohemian facades and generational navigation in New York City. Free of much of the cynicism but none of the bite of last spring’s While We’re Young, Baumbach and co-writer Gerwig’s screwball treat beautifully captures the way a slightly older, seemingly together mentor-type figure can first seem to be everything you hope to be, and then, the deeper you peer, everything you must avoid. It captures the feeling of being young and not quite fitting in with aching poignancy, while giving Gerwig her juiciest roles since, well, Frances Ha. And it’s funny as hell.
Release Date: August 14 (limited/on demand) Directors: Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers Cast: Bridey Elliott, Clare McNulty, Neil Casey
Small-scale yet scathing, this story of a day in the life of two young Williamsburg women trying to get to the beach is a merciless poke in the eye of Brooklyn bohemia, filled with sharply-drawn characters, dialogue that’s just a half-spin towards satire (“This place is awesome, it’s such a piece of shit”) and spot-on touches (part of getting their apartment “sex-ready” is leaving out a copy of Infinite Jest). Writer/directors Bliss and Rogers have a knack for brutally passive-aggressive dialogue, for the way people of a certain age and disposition communicate in verbal subtweets, while Elliott and McNulty miraculously transcend caricature without doing anything as dull as softening their whiny, entitled characters. It’s a funny movie, and often a harrowingly uncomfortable one, landing the punches that even something like Girls tends to pull.
People Places Things
Release Date: August 14 (limted/on demand) Director: Jim Strouse Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne
Flight of the Conchords star Clement is warmly charismatic as an Everyman dad who discovers his wife (Allynne) is having an affair—at their twin girls’ fifth birthday party, no less. A year later, he still can’t shake the break-up, but when a student (Williams, winning) sets him up with her mom (the wonderful Hall), things start looking up. Though battling occasional bouts of twee—I mean, y’know, he’s a graphic novelist—and burdened by the predictable third-act entanglements, People glides on the skill of its performers. Hall is introduced with a borderline stream-of-consciousness monologue that’s absolutely priceless, and the heartbreaking honesty of her “Don’t bullshit me” after their affection reveals itself cuts like a knife. And Allynee (prominently featured in the Tig documentary) gives real dimension and complexity to what could’ve easily been played as a cardboard shrew. It’s a fairly predictable movie, but engaging nonetheless.
Release Date: August 21 Director: Paul Weitz Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott
Lily Tomlin hasn’t had a leading role in a movie in nearly 30 years, and maybe that’s a commentary on the state of the work available to Women of a Certain Age—or maybe she was just waiting for a role as good as this one. As a once “marginally well-known” poet trying to help her granddaughter dig up a few hundred bucks for an abortion, Tomlin is spiky, funny, and slightly poignant (without ever playing for sympathy). Writer/director Weitz builds a frisky, shaggy picture around her, as this monetary search becomes something of a journey through her past. An A+ supporting cast shines; this one is mellow, playful, and just plain good.
Digging for Fire
Release Date: August 21 Director: Joe Swanberg Cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Livingston, Orlando Bloom, Jenny Slate, Judith Light, Sam Elliott
It takes a while to tune in to the frequency of Swanberg’s latest, which seems at first glance to be a meandering compilation of half-overheard conversations (even by Swanberg’s standards). But it soon becomes clear that he’s not looking for straight-ahead narrative but a collection of moments, of small truths and realizations, and the film works best within that framework. The cast is vast and impressive (and occasionally wasted), but Jake Johnson continues to carve out a place as an excellent indie Everyman, while Rosemarie DeWitt’s putting together a body of work that’s more than just good acting; it’s a vibrant reflection of 21st century motherhood and femininity.
Release Date: August 21 (NY); August 28 (LA) Director: John Magary Cast: Josh Lucas, Mickey Sumner, Austin Pendelton
John McGarry’s debut feature requires some patience—it has no earthly idea when or how to end, and does quite a bit of meandering on its way there. But it does so charmingly, telling the story of two brothers (Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas) whose lives are sort of falling apart at the same time in a New York apartment that’s in barely better shape. McGarry’s got a cockeye storytelling style, but the picture’s looseness is much of its appeal; he has a good ear for conversational dialogue, plus a real knack for creating a lived-in vibe and just hanging out there for a while.
Release Date: August 21 (limited/on demand) Director: Daniel Junge Cast: Documentary
Our first archival clip of Evel Knievel finds him swaggering out on The Tonight Show, sporting a fur coat and a cane, fully living up to interviewee/producer Johnny Knoxville’s proclamation that “Evel Knievel was the ‘70s.” A con man, storyteller, risk-taker, and hustler, Kneivel was the self-proclaimed “last of the daredevils,” jumping his motorcycle over cars, busses, fountains, and canyons, often without any certainty that he could actually pull the jumps off—and he often didn’t. “Nobody wants to see me die,” he once said, “but they don’t wanna miss it if I do.” The story of his fast rise and predictable fall (thanks to fame, excess, ego, and womanizing) is executed fairly conventionally—this is, after all, a History Channel production—but the goofy old clips are a hoot, and the story has enough weird dips and crashes to sustain our curiosity (much like the jumps themselves).
Queen of Earth
Release Date: August 26 Director: Alex Ross Perry Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit
“I could do without the attitude, the whole ‘Catherine is crazy’ attitude,” snaps Catherine (Moss) at her friend Ginny (Waterston), in the midst of one of their many hostile interactions in this uneasy and often powerful psychological drama from writer/director Perry. They’re prickly to each other through most of Catherine’s stay at Ginny’s country house, an “exile” while her ex moves out of their apartment; they’re prickly to each other in a very different way in the intercut snapshots of their time there the summer before. The dialogue between those timeframes—during which, as Ginny predicts, they “trade places” emotionally—keeps Perry’s film from falling into familiar patterns, even as it unfurls Catherine’s carefully modulated descent into madness (one foreshadowed by the moody, scary score, which the picture slowly catches up with). More than anything, it’s a showcase for the considerable gifts of Moss, who has several unforgettable moments; your mileage may very, but I’m having trouble shaking the way she nods at the insults and cruelty of Ginny’s boyfriend (Fugit). It’s a brilliant performance, in a stark, prickly, and overwhelming movie.
7 Chinese Brothers
Release Date: August 28 Director: Bob Byington Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Root
Wry writer/director Byington’s previous film, Somebody Up There Likes Me , proved something of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition; if you were in the latter camp, his new picture isn’t going to change your mind. But I like his cock-eyed style and absurdist bent, here again manifested in a short, sharp movie without much in the way of plot. And seriously, who needs a busy plot when you’ve got a bemused Jason Schwartzman as a shrugging, ne’er-do-well working guy?