2014 Summer Movie Madness: July’s Indie Offerings

By on July 5, 2014
Begin Again

Blockbusters and star vehicles not your thing? You’re hardly alone.

There’s a genuine craving for movies that manage to be something special without all the big budgets and big-name stars. Although there’s admittedly something endearing about a film that manages to snag a name star without the sort of financial backing such actors are used to. When that happens, it tends to be a win-win, even if the film itself isn’t up to snuff, simply because it draws attention to a filmmaker that might not ordinarily get it, which could possibly lead to bigger- if not necessarily better- things.

One such film that’s already garnering a busload of critical acclaim is the latest from John Carney, who charmed the pants off of everyone with his endearing musical “Once,” which ended up winning an Oscar for one of its songs in 2007, despite the film’s lack of a name star. In “Begin Again,” that won’t be the case, as Carney landed some pretty big names, including Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), Mark Ruffalo (“The Avengers”), Catherine Keener (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) and erstwhile “The Voice” judges Cee-Lo Green and Adam Levine, of Maroon 5 fame.

It’s about a singer-songwriter couple (Knightley and Levine), who hit the big time when the latter lands a record deal and they move to New York City to pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, success goes to Levine’s head- imagine that! – and he leaves Knightley in the dust for greener pastures, or so he thinks. Doing her best to pick up the pieces and move on, she’s performing in a dive bar when she catches the eye of a record-label exec (Ruffalo), who asks to mentor her. Things go from there, with, one assumes, some romantic entanglement involved.

I’m not a big musical fan, but I don’t mind it when it happens organically, i.e. when the musical aspect makes sense, as in its recorded in a studio or on a stage, as opposed to while walking down the street or out of nowhere in a public place. If the captivating “Once” was any indication, this should be one of those types of musicals, so I’m game, even though Knightley is a decidedly unproven commodity as a singer before now. The film has already opened elsewhere, but will go wide in July, so keep an eye out for it.

Life ItselfSpeaking of critics, “Life Itself” is the story of renowned critic Roger Ebert, one of the people most responsible for making critics into household names, along with his partner Gene Siskel. The film was based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name and was given the blessings of Ebert himself before he passed last year. With crowd-funding via Indiegogo, the film was finished and has already received rapturous reviews from critics, garnering a whopping 96% “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Can’t imagine why that happened!

In all seriousness, Ebert did live a fascinating life, and was indeed the first critic I was aware of, along with Siskel, on their pioneering “At the Movies” syndicated review series, the first such show of its kind. He used to be a screenwriter for the notorious director Russ Meyer, of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” fame (which is Ebert’s best-known script), which if you haven’t seen, is pretty out there.

While Ebert’s scriptwriting skills might have been a little on the florid side, he fared much better on the small screen, with his near-non-stop weekly critiques of films, starting in 1975 and continuing on until 2010. To be sure, he ruffled some feathers over the years- including this fellow critic’s- but his life was a compelling one, and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more about it.

One genre Ebert wasn’t too fond of happens to be one of my favorites, horror, and writer/director Larry Brand has done his fair share of the genre, including “Paranoia” and an adaptation of Poe classic tale, “The Masque of Red Death.” His latest, “The Girl on the Train” features “Lost”-vet Henry Ian Cusick, former “Supernatural” demon Nikki Aycox, and current “Salem” evil preacher Stephen Lang.

It’s about a documentary filmmaker who has a chance encounter with a woman that leads him down a very different path than he expected, which subsequently works its way into his film. Sounds intriguing, and if you’re a fan of any of the above names, I’m sure you’ll want to check it out for yourself, too.

Ethan Hawke plays a father to two kids over a twelve-year period in "Boyhood," from acclaimed director Richard Linklater. Courtesy of imdb.com

Ethan Hawke plays a father to two kids over a twelve-year period in “Boyhood,” from acclaimed director Richard Linklater.
Courtesy of imdb.com

One filmmaker I’ve always greatly admired is Richard Linklater, of “Dazed & Confused” and the “Before” trilogy (“Sunrise,” Midnight,” “Sunset”). He’s known for his conversational style, and occasionally unorthodox approach, i.e. the oddball “rotoscoped” animation of “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” His latest, “Boyhood,” certainly fits that bill, and is notable for having been filmed over the course of a whopping 12 years, with the same cast!

Ellar Coltrane, who previously starred in Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation,” stars, with RL-regular Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as his parents, and RL’s own daughter Lorelei as the boy’s sister. It was all the rage at the South by Southwest Film Festival, which granted, is held in the director’s stomping grounds of Texas, but it still sounds fascinating and unique. It should make for some compelling viewing, I should think, given that premise.

“A Long Way Down” is the latest adaption of a novel by Nick Hornsby, best-known for “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity.” Like those films, this one features an impressive cast that includes former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), Sam Neill (“Jurassic Park”) and Imogen Poots (“28 Weeks Later”).

It’s about four disparate people spending New Year’s Eve alone who meet randomly and help each other through difficult times. It’s from the acclaimed French director Pascal Chaumeil, of “Heartbreaker” and “A Perfect Plan” fame, so it should be worth checking out, given that impressive pedigree all around. Emphasis on the “should,” because, you know, “Fever Pitch,” a less-than-rapturously-received previous Hornsby adaptation. We’ll see how this one fares in comparison to other adaptations.

Talented Writer/Director/Actor Zach Braff ("Scrubs") took the crowd-sourcing route via Kickstarter for his latest, "Wish I Was Here."  Courtesy of imdb.com

Talented Writer/Director/Actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs”) took the crowd-sourcing route via Kickstarter for his latest, “Wish I Was Here.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

“Wish I Was Here” caused a bit of a stir online, when former “Scrubs”-star Zack Braff went the Kickstarter route to help fund his labor-of-love follow-up to the well-received “Garden State.” Many felt that it was a crass move, as Braff is exactly the kind of person that shouldn’t have to use such a service to get a movie made, but sometimes desperate movies require desperate measures. Besides, “Garden” was made a decade ago, and “Scrubs” has been off the air for some time, so I can buy that he might have needed a little help, especially as that movie got fairly mixed reviews, if I recall correctly.

As with that film, Braff writes, directs, and stars, as a man at a crossroads in life, who is forced to make some tough decisions in regards to his family and career. Also as with that film, he’s assembled an impressive cast to help him tell the story at hand, including Kate Hudson (“Glee”) as his wife; Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”), Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”), Josh Gad (“Frozen”), and Ashley Greene (the “Twilight” films).

Appearing as one of his kids is the talented Joey King, of “The Conjuring” and TV’s “Fargo” notability. I have mixed feelings about Braff himself, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, based on the strength of the cast and my affection for “Garden State,” though I suspect that may have more to do with the presence of Natalie Portman than Braff. I guess I’ll find out.

One of the films I’m most looking forward to seeing, indie movie-wise, is “I Origins,” writer/director Mike Cahill’s follow-up to the excellent “Another Earth.” As with that film, this one starts the luminous beauty Brit Marling, of “The East” and “The Sound of My Voice,” two of my favorite indie films of the decade so far. It concerns a biologist (Michael Pitt, of “Boardwalk Empire”) and his partner (Marling), who uncover scientific evidence with the power to change life as we know it- and our spirituality.

Brit Marling ("The East"), Michael Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire"), and Steven Yeun ("The Walking Dead") search for the answers in the intriguing-looking "I Origins." Courtesy of imdb.com

Brit Marling (“The East”), Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”), and Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) search for the answers in the intriguing-looking “I Origins.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

I don’t know much more about the film than that, and don’t have to. I loved “Earth,” and I adore Marling, so I’m in. The film also took home a top prize at Sundance, so the early buzz is even more positive than “Earth,” which admittedly divided some critics. I like films that really make you think about life and our existence and place in the universe, and this seems to fit that bill perfectly. The trailer is mesmerizing, and the look of the film is gorgeous. Honestly, where do I sign?

Another filmmaker I’m quite fond of is Michel Gondry, of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep” fame. Okay, so he also did “The Green Hornet,” but that’s what happens when some indie filmmakers who should have stayed that way go big budget. Whatever the case, he’s back to doing what he does best: quirky indies, with “Mood Indigo.” This one, like “I Origins,” has scientific leanings, as a wealthy man seeks to find a cure for his girlfriend’s odd illness, which involves a flower growing inside her!

Sounds like Gondry is back to his oddball self once again, so I’m in. Not hurting matters is the presence of the star of one of my all-time favorite indies, “Amélie,” actress Audrey Tautou, of “The Da Vinci Code” fame. Not sure about that plotline, but then the other films I mentioned had left-of-center plots, too, so it should be fine. Expect some eye-catching visuals and bizarre set-pieces, if this is anything like his other stuff. If you Google his name on YouTube, he’s got some fantastic music videos as well, including ones for Björk, Daft Punk, Beck, The Chemical Brothers, and The White Stripes (the one with Legos).

Emma Stone gets her psychic on in Woody Allen's latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," featuring Hamish Linklater ("The Newsroom"), Colin Firth ("The King's Speech") and Marcia Gay Harden ("The Mist"). Courtesy of imdb.com

Emma Stone gets her psychic on in Woody Allen’s latest, “Magic in the Moonlight,” featuring Hamish Linklater (“The Newsroom”), Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) and Marcia Gay Harden (“The Mist”).
Courtesy of imdb.com

Next up is “Magic in the Moonlight,” the latest from celebrated writer/director Woody Allen (“Blue Jasmine”). As ever, Allen has assembled a noteworthy cast, including newcomer-to-the-fold, Emma Stone. Colin Firth plays a magician/illusionist brought in to contend with a possible swindler spiritualist (Stone) on behalf of a member of a wealthy family circa the Roaring 20’s in the French Rivera. Complications arise because, you know, Emma Stone. Who can resist her considerable charms?

As a rule, in my experience, the better Allen films nowadays are the ones in which he doesn’t appear, so this one should be okay, as that is indeed the case. The premise is novel, and the supporting cast includes Hamish Linklater (“The Newsroom”), Marcia Gay Harden (“Mystic River”), and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”), so it should be a fun watch…unless it isn’t. Let’s face it, Allen can be pretty hit or miss these days, so you never know what you’re going to get, but Stone’s presence is an undeniable plus for me personally. We shall see.

It might be a little bit ahead of the curve, but “Happy Christmas” is the latest from the endearingly offbeat Joe Swanberg, of “Drinking Buddies,” “Nights and Weekends” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” some of the better, more noteworthy indies of the last decade. This one stars his “Buddies” leading lady, Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), who plays aimless twenty-something Jenny, who comes to stay with her brother (Swanberg himself) and his family-including wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, “Two and ½ Men”) – and stirs things up in short order.

"Happy Christmas" comes early this year in the latest from "Drinking Buddies" writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg, starring Lena Dunham ("Girls") and Anna Kendrick ("Pitch Perfect"). Courtesy of imdb.com

“Happy Christmas” comes early this year in the latest from “Drinking Buddies” writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg, starring Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”).
Courtesy of imdb.com

Lena Dunham (“Girls”) plays her pal Carson, while Mark Webber (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) plays the family’s babysitter/drug dealer, which is quite a combo, and a potential love interest for Kendrick’s character. Swanberg’s stuff is known for being largely improv, a la Judd Apatow’s, but his work is less of the “bro” movie variety. If this is half as endearing as “Buddies,” it should be a lot of fun, and Kendrick is adorable in everything, so it’s got that going for it. It will also be interesting to see if Dunham can manage to keep her clothes on for once. (I kid!)

“Very Good Girls” is one of those coming-of-age films in which friends make a pact to lose their virginity in a specific amount of time, in this case, over the summer. However, this one has the novel twist of it being two girls, and them both falling for the same guy. Obviously, the title is meant to be ironic, but that’s indie movies for you in a nutshell. Everything’s a little ironic in independent films, right? Okay, maybe not all of them, but you know what I mean.

The cast is indie film manna from heaven, though. We’re talking Elizabeth Olsen (“Godzilla”) and Dakota Fanning (the “Twilight” saga) as the girls, plus turns from Peter Sarsgaard (“The Killing”), Demi Moore (“G.I. Jane”), Richard Dreyfuss (“Jaws”), Clark Gregg (“The Avengers”), Ellen Barkin (“The New Normal”) and talented “Mad Men”-star Kiernan Shipka, aka Don Draper’s daughter. The film was written and directed by Naomi Foner, of “Losing Isaiah” fame, in her directorial debut. With a female director at the helm, that means it shouldn’t be on the exploitive side, despite that premise. At the very least, with that cast, this should be imminently watchable, one would hope.

"Very Good Girls" marks the directorial debut of famed screenwriter Naomi Foner ("Losing Isaiah"), and stars Elizabeth Olsen ("Oldboy"), Dakota Fanning ("The Runaways") and Boyd Holbrook ("Out of the Furnace"). Courtesy of imdb.com

“Very Good Girls” marks the directorial debut of famed screenwriter Naomi Foner (“Losing Isaiah”), and stars Elizabeth Olsen (“Oldboy”), Dakota Fanning (“The Runaways”) and Boyd Holbrook (“Out of the Furnace”).
Courtesy of imdb.com

Last but not least, we have “A Most Wanted Man,” the latest adaptation of a novel by John Le Carré, of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardner” fame. Le Carré was a former spy for British Intelligence and his work tends to revolve around that world. The film is directed by another respected music video director, Anton Corbijn, who did work for such notable acts as U2, Metallica and Depeche Mode, as well as the superlative docudrama about cult favorites Joy Division, “Control,” and the George Clooney vehicle “The American.”

This particular film is notable for being one of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last projects before his untimely death earlier this year. Appropriately enough, he plays a hard-living man who runs an anti-terrorist group in post-9/11 era Hamburg, Germany, where those attacks were planned. The supporting cast includes Robin Wright (“House of Cards”), Willem Dafoe (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), Rachel McAdams (“Mean Girls”), and Daniel Brühl (“Rush”), so this could be a winner, if of the sleeper variety- which also seems appropriate, given the subject matter. I’m in for Hoffman alone, but that supporting cast and Le Carré’s formidable pedigree doesn’t hurt matters, to be sure.

Well, that about does it for July at the movies in the independent film world. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my other article, previewing the more high-profile films opening this month. See you in August!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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