Summer, as defined by Hollywood, seems to come earlier every year. No matter that the kids are still in school and there is an inch of snow on the gas grill, once the costumes come out and monsters start destroying American cities, the summer movie season has arrived. Not everybody is thrilled. Cinephiles, or those just seeking movies without talking robots or men defined with an X, usually have to seek other forms of entertainment or, if they must, participate in outdoor activities. It need not be so. There are cinematic alternatives aplenty; here are examples of just five movies that can take more sophisticated audiences beyond the multiplex.
James Grey’s The Immigrant is a lushly produced, melodramatic period piece that feels like its been released at the wrong time of the year. Normally a story about a Russian immigrant struggling in 1920’s New York to be reunited with her sister is the type of film to come out around award season in December. But in an interesting attempt to counter-program Godzilla, The Immigrant has made its way through the film festival circuit and on to the May calendar. For the most part, critics have given the production and its top talent Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Renner, top marks.
Opening at the end of May, Palo Alto is a story of teen-aged, suburban, ennui centered around a group of California high school students trying to pass the time in various mentally and physically unhealthy ways. The film-making pedigree behind the movie is stellar; James Franco wrote the series of short stories the film is based on and Gia Coppola, taking her place next to grandfather Francis Ford and aunt Sofia, makes her directing debut. The film is getting praise for its honest depiction of teen life, although the film is likely to primarily appeal to people in their 20’s who remember their high school experiences all too well.
Anyone who saw Australian director David Michod’s remarkable debut, Animal Kingdom, knows he is a huge talent. In terms of subject matter, so far his films are also as brutal as they come. Staring a grimy Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, The Rover looks like Mad Max crossed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a story set in a bleak near-future where vicious gangs roam the Outback destroying anything in their path. The film looks like a solid alternative to the typical summer action movie, but its tone and foreign pedigree will push it far beyond the typical suburban multiplex. The Rover will bleakly make its way to theaters in mid-June.
If The Rover is the darkest of the five films, Snowpiercer is by far the strangest. The setup: a global-warming experiment gone wrong has forced a number of survivors to live on a train that perpetually circles the globe. The train’s occupants are kept in strictly segregated compartments and among the lower castes, rebellion is brewing. Science fiction at its most high concept, the film is based on a French graphic novel, stars British and American actors, and was produced in the Czech Republic by the legendary South Korean director of the The Host, Joon-Ho Bong. The movie has already opened in South Korea and has had its troubles getting stateside as the American distributors wanted re-edits. The filmmakers would have none of it and the movie will happily open in late June completely intact.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, more than any other independent movie this summer, has the best chance of becoming a mainstream success. The premise is simple: the film chronicles the experiences of a boy as he grows from 5 to 18 years old. What is remarkable is that it was shot over 12 years with the same cast, meaning the audience will watch the main characters literally grow up. Linklater has already had a run of critical hits in the past few years including Bernie and Before Midnight, and Boyhood looks to keep it going as it already getting the kind of buzz that will get it noticed far beyond the art house theaters.
The five movies are just some of the alternatives filmgoers will have this summer. Other notables include Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s God’s Pocket, the environmental thriller Night Moves, Zack Braff’s Wish I Was Here, and Begin Again staring Keira Knightley. There are more, but finding them requires audiences to do their homework. They have to stop choosing films based solely on television commercials, venture beyond the multiplex, and give movies a chance to be great (or even fail) instead of settling for guaranteed mediocrity. The big studios know most will not. Hopefully enough will to keep the independent movies rolling next summer.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein