2014 August Film Releases, Part 2: Indie Edition

By on August 10, 2014
Life After Beth

Earlier this week, I assessed the films with big budgets and big names, but what of the independent film scene? The smaller, more intimate ones that might not have the famous actors, but make up for it with ingenuity, great ideas and execution, plus style to spare. Although, some indie films do get lucky enough to cast stars willing to check their egos at the door and trade a big paycheck for a meaty role, lest you think these films are completely without star appeal.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always more impressed by people who manage to make a great film under the worst of conditions, where time really is money, and wasting it could well mean the end of the film altogether. What’s more impressive: making a movie with near-unlimited funds and star power, or making a film on a shoestring budget with no stars to speak of, managing to reap critical acclaim and awarding buzz without any major backing? I’d have to go with the latter.

Join me in taking a look at the latest crop of such films, and be sure and keep in mind that opening dates may vary, which means that some of these films may not make it to our neck of the woods until next month- if they do at all. Be sure to click on the hyperlinks for more info! Let’s get started!

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan do the meet-cute thing in "What If." Courtesy of imdb.com

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan do the meet-cute thing in “What If.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

First up, there’s the latest from someone who knows a thing or two about big budget film-making:  “Harry Potter”-star Daniel Radcliffe. In “What If,” Radcliffe takes a stab at being a leading man in a romantic comedy, with the current go-to manic pixie dream girl Zoe Kazan as his leading lady, what with Zooey Deschanel busy doing the same duties on TV on “New Girl.” Hey, it’s a perky job, but someone has to do it. Besides, Kazan is better suited than most, having done a bang-up job deconstructing the archetype in “Ruby Sparks,” which she also wrote.

“What If” is an adaptation of a stage play, which makes sense, given that’s where Radcliffe has been buttering his bread more often than not these days. Michael Dowse, of the moderately entertaining 80’s throwback “Take Me Home Tonight,” handles the directing. The supporting cast includes “Girls” leading man Adam Driver and “Halt and Catch Fire” tech geek Mackenzie Davis. This film is about Wallace (Radcliffe), a loser in love, who falls for his BFF girl friend Chantry (Kazan)- only she already has a long-term boyfriend that she loves very much and who doesn’t take too kindly to some guy spending all this time with his girlfriend. Will Wallace get the girl or get his heart broken? I guess you’ll have to see the film to find out.

The cast of "About Alex" look to update "The Big Chill for their generation. From left: Max Greenfield, Nate Parker, Maggie Grace, Jason Ritter, Aubrey Plaza, Max Mingella, and Jane Levy. Courtesy of imdb.com

The cast of “About Alex” look to update “The Big Chill for their generation. From left: Max Greenfield, Nate Parker, Maggie Grace, Jason Ritter, Aubrey Plaza, Max Mingella, and Jane Levy.
Courtesy of imdb.com

Looking to be this generation’s “The Big Chill” is “About Alex,” concerning a group of friends who meet up in the wake of a shared friend’s attempted suicide to catch up and hopefully help their down-and-out pal.

As with the former film, this one features a great cast of young Hollywood talent, including Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Max Greenfield (“New Girl”), Maggie Grace (the “Taken” films), Max Mingella (“The Social Network”), Jason Ritter (“Gravity Falls”), Jane Levy (“Evil Dead”) and Nate Parker (“Red Tails”).

Newcomer Jesse Zwick, in his motion picture directorial debut,  and the producers were also responsible for the seminal TV-series “My So-Called Life.” Though the premise seems recycled, the cast is strong enough that this might be worth giving Zwick and company the benefit of the doubt.

Those of you who loved the movie and subsequent TV series “The Trip,” from writer/director Michael Winterbottom are in for a treat with “The Trip to Italy.” This is a  big-screen follow-up to the original movie, which, as with previous installments, features the dream team of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who were likewise in “Party People.”

It’s sort of like a funnier, looser “My Dinner with Andre,” only with more exotic locales. This one obviously focuses exclusively on Italy, with the trip making its way to Liguria, Tuscany, Capri, Amalfi, and, of course, Rome. If you like any of the above- and you know who you are- you’ll love this, and be sure and check out the original “The Trip,” if you haven’t already, and watch out for the excellent impersonations!

"Frank" (Michael Fassbender) is in da house!  Courtesy of imdb.com

“Frank” (Michael Fassbender) is in da house!
Courtesy of imdb.com

“Frank” tells the story of the titular man, played by Magneto, actor Michael Fassbender, who’s a wacked-out singer in a rock band. When new recruit Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, “About Time”) joins, he gets a little more than he signed up for due to Frank’s excessively weird behavior. Did I mention that he wears a giant fake paper-Mache-style head over his own at all times? Will Jon tough it out, or will Frank’s band have to seek out yet another replacement? Joining in the fun is Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight”) and Scoot McNairy (“Halt and Catch Fire”), who seems to crop up just as much as Fassbender lately, including alongside the man himself in “12 Years a Slave.”

Writer Peter Straughan is responsible for some of the more interesting indies of the decade, including a personal favorite of mine, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” as well as the critically-acclaimed “The Debt” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Here, he re-teams with writer Jon Ronson, with whom he previously collaborated on “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” an oddball black comedy that wasn’t entirely successful but was at least interesting, concept-wise. This one sounds along those lines, with multi-award winning Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (“Garage”) – who once directed a feature-length film in a single day! – at the helm. If this one flies in the States, Hollywood is gonna love this guy, to be sure.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but damn if Aubrey Plaza doesn't look rough in the morning! Dane DeHaan plays her wary BF in the quirky rom-zom-com "Life After Beth." Courtesy of imdb.com

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but damn if Aubrey Plaza doesn’t look rough in the morning! Dane DeHaan plays her wary BF in the quirky rom-zom-com “Life After Beth.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

The latest zom-rom-com (after the surprisingly entertaining “Warm Bodies”), “Life After Beth” features the ubiquitous Aubrey Plaza as Beth, a girl who dies from a snake bite on a camping trip, leaving her boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), a complete wreck. Bonding with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) in the face of tragedy, he’s hurt when they cut off ties with him and goes to talk to them when he discovers that Beth is, in fact, not dead after all. But how?

Her strange new attitude also seems a bit off, and Zach can’t help but notice others in town beginning to act a little strangely- what the what is going on? Could it be Beth is a zombie? And is she infecting others? You’ll just have to see the movie to find out, but being as it’s billed as a zom-rom-com in the first place by the filmmakers and stars, that would seem to be a safe bet.

The supporting cast is also great, including Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”), Matthew Gray Gubler (“Criminal Minds”), Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and Paul Reiser (“Mad About You”). With quirky first-time director Jeff Baena at the helm, who also wrote the underrated cult classic “I Heart Huckabees,” this should be better and smarter than the average romantic comedy, much less the average zom-rom-com, which is apparently now a thing.

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play an estranged married couple in the intriguing-looking  "The One I Love." Courtesy of imdb.com

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play an estranged married couple in the intriguing-looking “The One I Love.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

Next up is a rom-com-dram, “The One I Love”- only with a twist. The latest from writer/director/actor Mark Duplass, perhaps best known for his work as an actor on TV’s “The Mindy Project” and “The League.”  In “The One I Love,” he’s strictly serving in an acting capacity, but from the looks of things, the film is firmly in keeping with his past indie efforts.

It’s about a struggling married couple (Duplass and “Mad Men”-star Elisabeth Moss) that decides to take a vacation out-of-town together, in hopes of rekindling what brought them together in the first place. While there, something unexpected happens that takes the film in an unusual direction. Just what that is, I can’t say, having not seen the film yet, but reportedly, it made the film much-buzzed about at various film festivals and really instilled a “no tell” policy when it came to discussing the film to keep the twist a secret.

I really don’t know that much more about it, and don’t want to. With trailers giving away so much these days, I’d rather just wait for the element of surprise, and I must admit, this has my interest piqued. I like the idea of a romantic comedy-drama with an unusual twist, as so many of them are so predictable. The very fact that there is buzz about a movie like this gives me hope that it will be better than the average rom-com. Let’s hope.

Mireille Enos and Chloë Grace Moretz do the Halloween thing in "If I Stay." Courtesy of imdb.com

Mireille Enos and Chloë Grace Moretz do the Halloween thing in “If I Stay.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

The twists don’t stop there, as “If I Stay” also comes complete with an out of left-of-center plot device as well. Based on the enormously popular young adult novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, the film stars the incredibly gifted young actress Chloë Grace Moretz, aka “Hit Girl,” from the “Kick-Ass” movies and the titular “Carrie” in the recent remake.

She plays a cellist on the fast track to Julliard, meets and falls in love with the charming Adam (Jamie Blackley, “Snow White and the Huntsman”), and must make a choice whether to stay with him or pursue her dreams. Only, she never gets the chance to make that decision, as a car wreck happens on a family excursion and she finds herself floating between life and death. Will she fight, or will she let go?

“If I Stay” follows the somewhat odd new trend in Y/A literature and TV shows of dealing with life or death scenarios in an unusual way, i.e. “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Chasing Life.” Only here, it isn’t cancer the protagonist has to deal with, but death itself.

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a gay couple who finally get married after nearly forty years together in "Love is Strange." Courtesy of imdb.com

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a gay couple who finally get married after nearly forty years together in “Love is Strange.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

The film has had a somewhat troubled trip to the screen, with several directors (including “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke) and stars (including Dakota Fanning and Emily Browning) rotating in and out of the film. Ultimately, the job went to R.J. Cutler, a director best-known for documentaries (“The War Room,” “The September Issue”) and Moretz, decisions that were not without controversy amongst the book’s hardcore fans.

Hopefully, the end result will pass muster, a la “Fault,” which was surprisingly successful at the box office. I think Moretz is one of the finest actresses of her generation, so I’ll probably be seeing it on the strength of her past work alone. Count on fans of the book to do the same, though it remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

One film that likely won’t have the same problem is the near-universally acclaimed “Love is Strange,” which was the talk of this year’s Sundance Festival. At the time of this writing, it has a near-unheard of 100% fresh rating on “Rotten Tomatoes,” the website which averages out critical reception, along with a more general audience reception.

It revolves around a same-sex couple, Ben (John Lithgow, “3rd Rock From the Sun”) and George (Alfred Molina, “The Normal Heart”), who finally get married after nearly forty years together. Unfortunately, word gets around to George’s employers at a Catholic school, and he’s fired.

This forces the couple to have to move in with friends and family, which in turn separates them for the first extended period of time in ages. Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”) co-stars as one of the relatives Ben moves in with. It certainly sounds like an original premise and a timely one as well, and that critical acclaim doesn’t hurt matters, to be sure.

Robin Wright gets animated in the loopy "The Congress." Courtesy of imdb.com

Robin Wright gets animated in the loopy “The Congress.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

Speaking of unique premises, they don’t get more oddball that the one in “The Congress,” in which Robin Wright (“Forest Gump,” “The Princess Bride”) plays herself as a cranky, lazy flaky actress that no one wants to work with, but who is highly successful at the box office. So the studio makes her an offer she can’t refuse: let them scan her likeness and use her image for a sizable fee, and she’ll never have to technically work again, since they can just CGI her in instead. Sounds like most actors’ worst nightmare: being replaced by what amounts to a hologram!

Things take a turn for the even-more surreal when Wright is frozen alive after having second thoughts about the deal when her CGI doppelganger is more successful than she was. When she’s thawed out, at this point the world becomes literally animated, as does the film itself! Together with an animator, who worked on using her likeness in many films after she signed the rights away, she tries to find her way back to her son, who was ill at the time she originally signed the deal. The end result sounds like a combination of “S1m0ne” (aka “Simone”) and “Waking Life,” with a little meta-style quirk, a la “Being John Malkovich.”

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, including Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”), Harvey Keitel (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”) as Wright’s son. But the real draw is that wacky premise, to be sure. I love meta-stuff like this, and I also love that Wright saw fit to send up her image in this way, not to mention the fact that the movie is partly animated, which sounds kind of like the best of both worlds to me. I’m in.

A group of explorers run afoul of what lurks "As Above, As Below." Courtesy of imdb.com

A group of explorers run afoul of what lurks “As Above, As Below.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

That said, my favorite genre has always been horror as long as I can remember. This has not been a great year for it, though “Deliver Us From Evil” was pretty entertaining. Still, by this time last year, we’d already had some of the better horror flicks in ages, including “The Conjuring,” “You’re Next” and “Insidious 2.” Not to mention one of the most profitable years for horror ever, which makes the fact that the genre’s offerings this year are such a letdown doubly infuriating.

Hoping to change that is “As Above, As Below,” an intriguing-looking indie about what happens when a group of explorers decide to poke around in the underground catacombs of Paris. Granted, there was another movie with a similar premise (2007’s “Catacombs,” with rocker Pink), but this one looks a lot more inspired, despite the lesser-known cast and seemingly-recycled premise. Helping to instill confidence is the presence of writer/director John Erick Dowdle, of “Quarantine” and “Devil” fame, and a spooky trailer. After the sorry year horror’s had thus far, let’s hope it doesn’t suck.

Jennifer Anniston gets more than she bargained for in "Life of Crime." Courtesy of imdb.com

Jennifer Anniston gets more than she bargained for in “Life of Crime.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

Last but hopefully not least is “Life of Crime,” the latest adaptation of a novel by the late, great Elmore Leonard, of “Jackie Brown” and “Get Shorty” fame. Based on “The Switch,” the film stars Jennifer Anniston as Mickey, a wife who’s kidnapped by a gang of thugs, who hold her for ransom- which her husband (Tim Robbins) then refuses to pay!

It seems the couple was already troubled and headed for divorce, and with a mistress (Isla Fisher, “Now You See Me”) in play as well, the kidnappers inadvertently handed the husband the perfect way out of a messy- and potentially expensive- divorce.

If this sounds familiar, plot-wise, then you probably saw the similarly-themed “Ruthless People,” with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler a while back. In fact, it was just this similarity which kept the film from being made for so long, but enough time has passed for another stab at it, and Leonard is hard to screw up- though “The Big Bounce” gave it a run for the money. I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, thanks at a cast that also includes Will Forte, John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”), and Mos Def, incidentally playing the same role Samuel L. Jackson played in “Jackie Brown.”

Well, that about does it. Be sure to check out my other August preview for the more higher-budgeted August offerings if you haven’t already, and thanks for reading!

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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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