Hold on to your butts, gang, summer movie season is here, and hew Jesus is it gonna be a bummer. May alone is like a cornucopia of movies nobody asked for: a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a new take on King Arthur (hope it’s gritty!), and god help us, a Baywatch movie. But never fear – this month’s indie slate is fire, and here a few choice chunks of counter-programming to keep an eye out for.
RELEASE DATE: May 5 DIRECTOR: Azazel Jacobs CAST: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aiden Gillen
This quietly wrecking comedy/drama from writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Terri) works from a delicious premise: a long-married couple, each conducting an affair and whose relationship has been reduced to merely subtext and silence, find something unexpectedly reawakened between them – and wind up cheating on their lovers with each other. And, suddenly, the lies don’t come so easily. Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are tremendous as the couple – he a spot-on avatar of middle-aged desperation, a gulping accumulation of lies, apologies, and insecurity, she a complex mixture of unapologetic sexuality and faltering uncertainty. Jacobs’s script has the humanity, delicacy, and melancholy of a Carver story; people are just disasters, he knows, and knows how to dramatize that without judgment.
RELEASE DATE: May 5 DIRECTOR: Pay Healy CAST: Taylor Schilling, Pat Healy, Alycia Delmore, Jim O’Heir
When the honey-voiced client (Schilling) calls Kidnap Solutions LLC proprietor Ray Moody (Healy) offering big money for her “simulated experience of a high-stakes abduction,” she makes one additional request: “During the simulation, I’d like for you to slap me.” That moment is the first indication that director Healy (working from a script by Mike Makowsky) is going beyond what initially seems a mainstream, high-concept comedy plotline, and into somewhat darker territory. So he delicately leans into the sexual subtext of their subsequent interactions, and plays on the uncertainty of role-playing in general – and then the whole thing goes sideways. Schilling is electrifying as the button-down businesswoman who may not be what she seems, while Healy resists the urge to make him, or play him as, a sly anti-hero. He’s just a small, not too bright guy, and boy does he make a mess of this thing.
RELEASE DATE: May 5 DIRECTOR: Philippe Falardeau CAST: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport
Of course we don’t need another damn boxing movie (this one was even retitled – from The Bleeder – to avoid confusion with another recent boxing movie, Bleed for This ), but this biopic of club-fighter-turned-celeb-contender Chuck Wepner has an edge: it’s about a guy best known for being the inspiration for Rocky, and is mostly about that, so it ends up being a boxing movie that knows it’s a boxing movie, and one of many. It helps that it’s so energetically executed: shot on film, proudly flaunting the grain, and freely intermingling documentary and archival footage (style matching substance w/r/t the blurring of fact and fiction). So the movie looks just right – it wisely feels of the era, rather than merely about it. And the acting is top-notch: Schreiber is credible and likable in the lead (even when he’s fucking up), Watts plays her tricky role with brassy style, and Rapaport is quietly, wonderfully grounded. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done with heart and pizzazz.
Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait
RELEASE DATE: May 5 DIRECTOR: Pappi Corsicato CAST: Documentary
“When I was younger, I just wanted to be an artist,” Julian Schnabel explains at the beginning of this affectionate bio-doc, but because he wasn’t sure what that journey would consist of (“You have no idea what you’re gonna be, or what you’re gonna do”), he ended up doing a lot of improvisation. In telling his story, director Pappi Corsicato adopts a free-flowing, laid-back approach – perhaps taking a cue from his subject, who is interviewed at one point in his jammies – shambling from testimonials and memories of family and friends to home movies from his studios and film sets, bound by Schnabel’s recollections and theories (“If you make a painting outside, it always looks good when you bring it inside”). The result would make a fine double-feature with the recent David Lynch: The Art Life ; both are intimate films that capture the process, drive, and temperament of the artist while (mostly) dodging pretension.
RELEASE DATE: May 5 DIRECTORS: Timothy Marrinan, Richard Dewey CAST: Documentary
Sometimes what someone says is less important than how they say it. Take, for example, the presence of Brian Sewell in this documentary portrait of performance artist Chris Burden; Sewell dismisses performance art in general and Burden in particular with such sniveling, heavily-accented, upper-class twiticism, you can’t imagine Dickens cooking up a more proper villain. Directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, meanwhile, masterfully use moody photos and spectral black and white videotapes, borrowing the artist’s sense of danger and uncertainty (particularly for those of us who don’t know his story) to create a fascinating portrait of a true original – and, Sewell be damned, a true artist.
RELEASE DATE: May 10 DIRECTOR: Julian Rosenfeldt CAST: Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett takes on over a dozen characters and even more voices in this combination of acting tour de force and art theory lesson from director Julian Rosenfeldt. He takes bits and pieces from several noted artists’ manifestos, putting them into Blanchett’s mouth as they plug them into formats and scenarios both logical and incongruent. It’s always a joy to watch Blanchett work, and the depth of her abilities continues to astonish. But she and her collaborator ultimately transcend the gimmickry of the film to bring its inspiring words to life – words of protest, resistance, and artistic responsibility, the kind of thing we really can’t hear enough of at this particular moment.
Hounds of Love
RELEASE DATE: May 12 DIRECTOR: Ben Young CAST: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry
Let me make this plain: it’s hard to imagine wanting to subject yourself to this grim story of an Australian couple who kidnap, rape, and kill teenage girls. But if you’ve got the constitution for it, Hounds is one of the most genuinely effective snapshots of sheer evil this side of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, deploying a scarily effective construction and a cold, hard style (with an emphasis throughout on subjective close-ups – forcing us into the killers’ perspective, and then into the victim’s) to create a stomach-churning experience. And writer/director Ben Young’s script isn’t about empty scares or exploitation; he’s by no means sympathetic to these monsters, but attempts to understand what made them, and kept them, this way. So more time is spent on the dynamics of their twisted relationship (specifically, his fastidiousness and control, against her jealousy and despair) than the gory details of their crimes. Again, it’s a tough sit. But the skill of the filmmaking and the power of the performances cannot be understated.
Folk Hero & Funny Guy
RELEASE DATE: May 12 DIRECTOR: Jeff Grace CAST: Alex Karpofsky, Wyatt Russell, Meredith Hagner, Melanie Lynskey
Late in Jeff Grace’s comedy/drama, the “folk hero” of the title (Wyatt Russell) meets up with a longtime love (the wonderful Melanie Lynskey), and even though it’s a scene you’ve seen before, every note is just right – the sense of history, the offhand mentions of otherwise undiscussed slights, the frustrations that take years to accumulate. The whole movie is like that, a trip through familiar territory that’s nonetheless fresh, thanks to the considerable likability and charisma of its performers, and the little details they bring to life. Alex Karpofsky is, as ever, perfect as the “funny guy” of the equation, a self-loathing stand-up whose insecurities have become inseparable from his personality. And Ms. Hagner is a real find as the girl who finds herself between these two old friends during an impromptu tour/extended airing-out session. It’s low-key almost to the point of inertia, but a charming little item nonetheless.
Paris Can Wait
RELEASE DATE: May 12 DIRECTOR: Eleanor Coppola CAST: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, Arnaud Viard
Eleanor Coppola makes her feature directorial debut with this semi-autobiographical story of a Hollywood producer’s wife (Lane) and the vague acquaintance (Viard) with whom she shares what is supposed to be a seven-hour car ride to Paris. Overall, it’s a bit of a vanilla sorbet – attractive but mild, and mildly forgettable. But Coppola has a good eye for detail and mood, and she accurately captures the slight awkwardness of a man and a woman who are together without their usual buffer. And if there’s a shortage of real momentum, Coppola’s script provides Lane and Viard with some complex and layered moments, and a last beat that’s just priceless.
ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail
RELEASE DATE: May 19 DIRECTOR: Steve James CAST: Documentary
Director James makes his most explicitly issue-based documentary to date, but like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, it’s also about a community taking care of its own. In this case, that community is NYC’s immigrant-based Chinatown, and the Abacus bank that serviced it – and found itself the only U.S. bank in the wake of the 2008 meltdown to be charged with mortgage fraud. James doesn’t soft-soap what happened there; they had a couple of crooks on staff who falsified some documents. But the question of why that bank was targeted, when so many bigger institutions were not, is a compelling one, explored here with attentiveness, intelligence, and a little bit of disbelief.
RELEASE DATE: May 19 DIRECTORS: Tim Golden, Ross McDonnell CAST: Documentary
“You may remember me,” he says, when introducing himself at the beginning of this dense and complicated documentary, “you may not.” His name is Elián Gonzalez, the five-year-old Cuban boy whose discovery off the coast of Miami turned from a heart-warming miracle narrative to a political football match. “It was supposed to be Elián’s story,” the narration tells, us, “but a lot of other people wanted to make it their own.” That notion – of whose story this was, and how its telling varied based both on who was hearing it – gives Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s nuanced account its center, drilling deep into the question of why what looked like a human interest story became the media sensation of the year, and one in which no one came out smelling very good.