Garbage smells even worse in the heat, and between Warcraft and the Independence Day sequel and the Purge sequel and the Alice in Wonderland sequel and Free State of Jones , mainstream movies have been a pretty sorry lot, even for this season. So it’s a relief to report that the July art-house release schedule is so fully packed, with enough indies, documentaries, and foreign films to get you through ‘till fall.
Microbe and Gasoline
Release date: July 1 Director: Michel Gondry Cast: Ange Dargent, Théophile Baquet, Diane Besnier, Audrey Tautou
The latest from director Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is fairly simple and familiar, as far as storytelling goes: two school-aged outcasts, bullied and ignored, form a friendship that becomes an alliance against a world that doesn’t understand them. What’s fresh here is the immediacy of the characters and the moments – this is a film that remembers the sheer joy of an overnight with a new friend, the fear of talking to a girl you like, the way an offhand remark can threaten to dismantle an entire friendship, and the ease with which such blow-ups are forgotten. And in “Gasoline,” Gondry crafts a type of recognizable teen that seldom shows up in these movies; unquestionably obnoxious, but in a very specific and almost likable brainy teenager way. He gets on your nerves, but you can’t help but feel for him, and Microbe and Gasoline is filled that kind of vivid identification and warmth.
Roseanne for President!
Release date: July 1 Director: Eric Weinrib Cast: Documentary
Presumably held for the current election season for commercial reasons (and its message unfortunately undone somewhat by the subject’s commentary on said season), this rollicking documentary from director Weinrib tracks comedian Roseanne Barr’s unsuccessful 2012 Green Party bid and ultimate campaign for the Peace and Freedom Party. Weinrib impressively merges political documentary – the Barr platform was legitimately progressive, addressing single-payer healthcare, income inequality, and marijuana legalization – and celebrity biography, weaving in her still fascinating backstory like flashbacks. The film softballs some of her flaws (she’s credited as executive producer), but nonetheless, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking take on modern politics and the troubles of the two-party system.
Release date: July 8 Director: Alex Gibney Cast: Documentary
Director Gibney follows up Taxi to the Dark Side and We Steal Secrets with another exposé of our shady government and what they’re keeping from us. The subject this time is the Stuxnet worm, a devastatingly effective computer virus allegedly developed by the U.S. and Israel to slow Iran’s nuclear program, and if your eyes are already glazing over, no worries; Gibney not only investigates but clarifies, digging deep into the virus’s development and implementation while keeping his story crystal-clear thanks to straight-talking interviews, helpful graphics, and a style that speaks in the visual and aural language of a snappy techno-thriller. But make no mistake – the stakes are higher than in your typical summer entertainment, and the implications are far more chilling.
Release date: July 8 Director: Roger Rees Williams Cast: Documentary
When autistic Owen Suskind was a child, his parents were certain he was, in their words, “still in there.” They finally discovered how to get through to him: via the Disney movies he watched non-stop and knew by heart, and whose ideas, characters, stories, and dialogue allowed him to make sense of the world. Those movies are common currency, so it’s easy to understand how they gave him that much-needed window – but Owen is 23 now, and things like break-ups and sex and independent living are noticeably absent from the Disney template. Oscar winner Williams’s kind and often heartbreaking documentary tells Owen’s story with sensitivity but not without complication; this is a moving film, but, to its credit, not an easy one.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Release date: July 8 Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady Cast: Documentary
Late in this documentary portrait of the television groundbreaker (from Jesus Camp directors Ewing and Grady), Amy Poehler explains his particular genius: that the shows he created and developed in the mid-1970s (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman Mary Hartman) tackled big issues, got big laughs, and earned big ratings. That’s hard to do – “so hard that people don’t even do it anymore,” she notes. And that’s the real takeaway from this fine documentary; it wasn’t just that Lear did something that hadn’t been done before, but that he did something that’s rarely been done since. Interviewing friends, colleagues, and (most engagingly) the man himself, with the backing of clips, old behind-the-scenes footage, and inventive original footage, Ewing and Grady lay out the risks Lear took, the friction he created (on and off-screen), and how his politics not only guided his career, but guided him away from it. Lear, now in his ‘90s and as feisty as ever, also lets his melancholy side show; it’s a fast-paced and funny documentary, but its emotional pauses sneak up on you.
Men Go to Battle
Release date: July 8 Directors: Zachary Treitz Cast: Tim Morton, David Maloney, Rachel Korine
The hipster comedy of awkwardness meets the Civil War drama – yes, you read that right – in this shambling, impressionistic, and absurdly funny film from director Treitz (and co-writer Kate Lyn Sheil, currently burning up the festival circuit with her starring role in Kate Plays Christine). Treitz’s style is almost off-putting in its obliqueness, eschewing a conventional narrative build for something looser and more vignette-based, frequently switching gears and focus but never its specific, peculiar tone. The result is an odd but invigorating movie, and an intoxicatingly gutsy and personal take on historical fiction.
Release date: July 8 Director: Matt Ross Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn
Mortensen stars as Ben, an avowed Chomskyite survivalist raising six children off the grid – teaching them to fight, to hunt, to live off the land, and to “be philosopher-kings.” But the death of their mother throws their half-peculiar, half-idyllic existence all out of balance, with the trip to her funeral – and their tragicomic encounters with the family they left behind – providing the spine of writer/director Ross’s comedy/drama. It sounds more formulaic than it is; Ross is well aware of what we’re expecting, and sometimes delivers, while occasionally considering our expectations and throwing a curveball. Best of all, he’s refreshingly divided on its protagonist, and that complexity keeps gives the picture an extra spark.
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
Release date: July 13 Director: Laura Israel Cast: Documentary
Asked for advice on how to take a good picture, Robert Frank responds wryly, “Make sure they’re smiling. Say cheese!” He’s taking the piss; in a more serious mood, he admits that the key is finding people off-guard, because “when someone’s aware of the camera, it becomes a different picture.” Laura Israel’s documentary portrait looks at his influences, his films, and his life, but it’s funkier, more loose-limbed and free-form than the norm — she slips in and out of time frames, stone-skipping through his career, matching his story and images to music and vibes. The clips from his films are remarkable and the archival footage is a hoot (particularly when comparing the laid-back elder statesman he’s become with his prickly younger self). But most of all, it’s propelled by his images, which maintain their considerable power after decades of analysis and imitation.
Release date: July 15 Director: Drake Doremus Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Bel Powley, Kate Lyn Sheil, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver
Lest you ever wonder if Kristen Stewart is self-aware, I direct you to this five-minutes-into-the-future story from director Doremus (Like Crazy), which casts the actress, frequently (and inaccurately) dismissed as dull and flat, as a member of a society in which emotions are expressly forbidden. Thus the force when her coldness cracks is electrifying, and when she breaks down, it packs an extra punch – because it’s her. The rest of the movie works pretty well too; it takes itself a touch too seriously (even considering the premise), and the pacing is, shall we say, deliberate. But the stakes are genuine, the style is stellar, and Nathan Parker’s script takes some straight-up solid sci-fi turns.
Don’t Think Twice
Release date: July 22 Director: Mike Birbiglia Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillan Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci
Mike Birbiglia’s second feature (after the remarkable Sleepwalk With Me) is set in the world of New York improv comedy, and vibrates with authenticity of the scene: the shitty day jobs, the cramped living quarters, the dead-broke existence, the friends and acquaintances passing you by, and the nights of making people laugh, which somehow make all the other shit worth it. It’s worth wondering if those not involved or interested in that scene will find much to latch on to here, but no matter; the broad themes he’s exploring – particularly of the separation and acknowledgment of your dreams from your reality – are fairly universal, the performers are charismatic, and it’s very, very funny.
The Childhood of a Leader
Release date: July 22 Director: Brady Corbett Cast: Liam Cunningham, Bérénice Bejo, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin
For long stretches of actor Brady Corbett’s directorial debut, it’s hard to figure the exact direction he’s meandering in; an American diplomat (Cunningham) and his French wife (Bejo) are having some trouble getting their young son under control (the story is organized via the chapter headings of his “tantrums”), and Corbett masterfully captures the very specific way strong-willed children will test (and test, and test) their parents. His long takes, wide shots, and slow pace give the impression that not much is happening on the surface – but underneath, watch out. And the final sequences, in which the simmering tensions and resentments boil over, are difficult, painful, and powerful.
Release date: July 29 Director: Steven Caple Jr. Cast: Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, Erykah Badu, Machine Gun Kelly
Steven Caple Jr.’s feature debut is stylish – he sees the urban rot of Cleveland through a series of inventive angles, tilted frames, and dreamlike hazes – but it’s not flashy; this is a filmmaker with patience, letting his scenes and characters live and breathe. The broad strokes of the story are more than familiar (four teenagers can’t see past the dead ends of their surroundings, and turn to a life of crime as a possible way out), but the avatars are new, from the feared drug boss who’s a farmer’s market-dwelling white woman to the protagonist who spends every moment of every day trying to get back on his skateboard. Energetic and well-observed, thrilling and a little heartbreaking.
Miss Sharon Jones!
Release date: July 29 Director: Barbara Kopple Cast: Documentary
Documentary legend Kopple (Harlan County USA) trains her camera on Jones, the Dap-Kings leader (often, and accurately, described as “the female James Brown”) for a few tough months in late 2013 and early 2014, when she had to put her career on hold to battle stage 2 pancreatic cancer. It’s a shock when Kopple hard-cuts from Jones tearing it up on stage to sitting still in bed, patiently explaining her busy TV-watching schedule – but this is no tear-jerker, and the subject’s good humor and fighting spirit keep the energy up. On the side, we get a fascinating peek at the nuts and bolts of these untraditional jobs, and the tricky dynamics of relationships within the band. But it’s mostly a story of rejuvenation and recovery, and when Jones is back on stage, struggling to remember her lyrics and apologizing for being “a little short-winded,” you’re right there with her, pulling for her, certain that she’ll triumph.
Release date: July 29 Director: Sian Heder Cast: Ellen Page, Alison Janney, Tammy Blanchard
“Isn’t she just the coolest, littlest, weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?” asks Tallulah (Page) of her baby daughter, to the girl’s grandmother (Janney) and it’s a lovely moment, one that any new parent will recognize. And it’s all a lie. Tallulah’s a newer parent than she’s letting on; she kidnapped this baby girl from a mother who didn’t deserve her, and has turned to her ex-boyfriend’s mother with a story about their abandonment. Such a situation could either be played as human comedy or kidnapping drama (or, as the title, co-stars, and baby-ccentric premise indicate, a stealth Juno sequel); writer/director Heder apparently decided to split the difference, so the narrative leaps and tonal shifts are occasionally hard to keep pace with. But it’s so undeniably moving and sensitively acted that you might not mind; this is gentle, modest storytelling in the Holofcener mold, with Page and Janney keying in on a handful of splendid moments, and baking entire backstories into them. Kind of a mess, but powerful all the same.