June 30, 2013

At the Movies in Summer 2013 (So Far): Indie Gems Excite, Blockbusters Fizzle

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In a unique summer marked by several significant blockbuster disappointments, the films that seem to be striking a chord with critics and audiences alike are the independent ones. The 2013 season has unusual in its absence of Christopher Nolan spectaculars and quality big-budget popcorn fare. Filling this void are a collection of little indie gems, shot on a relatively cheap budget, with an emphasis on simple, engrossing storytelling.

Of the hundred-million-dollar tentpole releases since the beginning of May, relatively few have been able to deliver the goods. Iron Man 3 opened to fairly positive reviews, but the general consensus from audiences seemed to be that the movie was nothing to write home about, and that the franchise has fizzled. In comparison, last summer’s The Avengers was greeted with a wildly enthusiastic critical response and became the third highest grossing feature of all time, shattering countless box office records. Then, over Memorial Day, the by-the-numbers, clunking exercises in formula The Hangover III and Now You See Me were released. The verdict is out on the former: the series has degenerated into a boring, sloppy, scam for more moviegoer dollars. Now You See Me’s tired, apathetic script manages to make a host of great performers go limp on screen, with corny dialogue and zero character development. Reviews were subsequently poor, and audiences reacted accordingly.

Then there has been the catastrophic behemoth only a director like M. Night Shyamalan could be responsible for. After Earth opened to atrocious reviews, even for a Shyamalan film, and its box office performance was embarrassingly lackluster. Will Smith, one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood, who has starred in perhaps more summer hits than any other actor, could do nothing to reverse its undeniably weak opening. The weak end-of-May release slate was made all the more disappointing for movie buffs like me, considering that throughout the whole month, there had been almost no quality films released. The wholly dissatisfying but audience-embraced entity of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was yet another frustrating nail in the coffin. Many reviewers, myself included, found that several excellent actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan were mangled by a case of a profoundly mismatched project and director.

There seems to be an unbreakable trend this summer of disappointing, low-on-quality, high-on-effects, blockbuster releases. As Man of Steel opens to mediocre reviews and less-than- encouraging early buzz in the middle of June, it seems as if this trend is set to continue. Only one big budget entertainment has managed to break the jinx, as far as I’m concerned, and that would be J.J. Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Said film was a rollicking thrill ride, filled with tons of fun and thoroughly enjoyable acting from Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, and a terrifically villainous Benedict Cumberbatch. Star Trek still stands as the best reviewed popcorn flick of the summer, with a very strong 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audience response has also been highly positive, and the film has grossed nearly $400 million to date.

It’s important to note that summer 2013 is also unique in its lack of reliable tentpoles that studios can count on to capture both the box office and the good reviews. With the exception of Star Trek, no blockbusters this summer have achieved this feat. 2012 brought us The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, which managed spectacular box office and glowing reviews, as did the final Harry Potter installment in 2011. In both cases, said films were the highest grossing movies of the year, and also among the best-reviewed. Such was the case in 2010 with Inception and Toy Story 3, or in 2009 with The Hangover, Half-Blood Prince, and Up. What happened in Hollywood this summer seems to be a rather strange case of poor planning. Or perhaps, poor production.

The good news is that the abyss left by the lack of good blockbusters has been filled by a band of marvelous little indie films. Of the movies I’ve watched this summer, the ones that shine the brightest by far, are the titles like Before Midnight, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, and Frances Ha. These films are all deeply original, unashamedly distinctive, and have each been produced by respected auteurs. None of them have been shot for an exorbitant budget, and each one has received critical praise (82% or better on Rotten Tomatoes). Another shocker: two of them are black-and-white films.

Before Midnight, the third installment in the romantic trilogy directed by Richard Linklater and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is the best of the three. Whereas in the first two films, which took place nine and eighteen years ago, showed us an unabashed love affair, this film offers something very different. In the first film, we watched a romance blossom when two strangers fall in love over the course of a night spent wandering the streets of Vienna. In the second, we saw them meet again by chance, nine years later, in Paris, where it became clear that the two of them were still madly in love, and would have to struggle to find a way to be together. Before Midnight chronicles that very struggle, as we pick up the two of them on vacation in Greece, where they have been together for almost a decade, and now have children. What makes Midnight remarkable is its focus on a truly fascinating, affecting fight between two lovers who deeply want to stay together, without killing each other.

Much Ado About Nothing is without a doubt the most delightful, hilarious film of the summer season, and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater all year. Joss Whedon, in between principal photography and post on The Avengers, took a break for twelve days, shot this film for peanuts, and the result is bewitching. In gorgeous black-and-white, with the humid paradise of southern California serving as his backdrop, Whedon makes his case that he and the Bard are an unlikely perfect match. This is territory that is a 180 degree reversal from superheroes and sonic explosions, and it seems even more suited to Whedon’s sensibilities (I myself found Avengers to be way too excessive). This film, on the other hand, is a scant, slight, wickedly funny modern update of Shakespeare’s comedy, featuring bracing comic turns from a top-notch cast. The film is so sharp and smart, it just might be my favorite of the year.

Finally, the indie scene has us offered Frances Ha and Mud, this season, two dramas with smart, honed writing and full-bodied characters. The former is the latest from Noah Baumbach, whose film Greenberg, which featured Ben Stiller in a downright despicable role, I happen to love. The real star of that film was Greta Gerwig as his love interest, and she takes center stage in Frances Ha, playing a 27 year-old going through a premature midlife crisis of sorts. The dialogue is razor-sharp and humorous, and Gerwig shows off a hitherto unseen talent for physical comedy. Mud, which competed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, has gone on to capture perhaps the best reviews of the year. Like other indie films, it is slight and without any fluff, using precisely the tools it needs to tell a good, captivating Southern-style yarn, and no more. It features the best turn yet in Matthew McConaughey’s series of recent career-reinvigorating performances. Also brilliant in the movie are Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the films lead teenager characters, and Sam Shephard as a griz

zled old timer who eventually comes out swinging. Aside from the acting, Mud is a solid affirmation that Jeff Nichols is a strong new talent in today’s indie cinema, with the films Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter already under his belt.

When it comes to the tickets this summer, many get exceedingly expensive with the ever-increasing presence of 3D at the local multiplex. To acquire more bang for your buck, and a lower price for your ticket, proceed directly to the nearest art house theater, and take in some innovative, truly stunning work from several accomplished writer-directors. This should provide the perfect tonic to a summer where the big popcorn fare, bizarrely enough, fails to pack a satisfying punch.

Original Author: Mark DiStefano