Forget football in the fall or baseball in the spring. The best action can pretty much always be found during summer movie season. While not all summer movie seasons are equal (I’d argue that 2008’s summer lineup of WALL-E, The Dark Knight and Iron Man is the best we’ve had in a while), there are a few things we’ve learned to expect from our annual three-month-plus run of blockbusters—spectacle, bombast, thrills and action. And increasingly, for better or worse, franchises and/or comic book movies. Whereas last summer that meant the fun of The Avengers and the finality of The Dark Knight Rises, this year we’ve been dealt the unnecessary Iron Man 3 and the surprisingly boring Man of Steel. I’d argue that so far the only 2013 summer blockbuster worth its admission price has been Star Trek Into Darkness. So why not give the multiplex a break and check out some of the non-blockbusters you’ll find on tap at the Violet Crown, Regal Arbor or the Alamo Drafthouses. (Before Midnight is not included below because I wrote about it during SXSW, but if you haven’t seen this charming and affecting meditation on long-term relationships yet, check it out on the big screen at one of these theaters.)
Mud: isn’t just the best movie you’ll see this summer; it might be the best movie you’ll see all year. From former Austinite Jeff Nichols, the auteur behind Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, comes this deceptively simple story of two Arkansas boys who find a boat in a tree and then meet the man who lives in it. What unfolds is a coming-of-age story as the teen protagonists learn about love, truth, friendship and family. Before you roll your eyes at the idea of watching kid actors for two hours, let me assure you that the two young actors who play Ellis and Neckbone are impressively natural and unaffected. And after this and last year’s Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey, as the titular Mud, has started delivering work so powerful and unglamorous that you can almost pretend his last decade of crappy rom-coms didn’t happen. Mud also stars Sam Shepherd, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon and (because this is Jeff Nichols) the wonderful Michael Shannon.
Much Ado About Nothing: It makes me tired to even think about calculating the number of hours I waited in line for this film’s three screenings during SXSW only to strike out all three times, so of course I bought a ticket to see it when it finally opened theatrically in Austin. And by my throth, I now can swear that Joss Whedon’s lo-fi Much Ado About Nothing was well worth the wait. Famously shot in Whedon’s home just after he finished work on The Avengers, this adaptation of the Shakespeare classic keeps the Bard’s language intact but updates the setting and costumes to create a modern noir look (with a healthy dose of ’30s screwball comedy) that complements this story of sex, intrigue, scheming and banter. As much as I love Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaption, it’s such heady fun to watch a full cast of Whedon regulars (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion) seemingly drink their way through Shakespeare’s best romantic comedy that you’ll likely feel a bit tipsy yourself.
Frances Ha: I’ll admit it: I went into Frances Ha completely prepared to be throttled by tweeness and quirk. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s debut, Kicking and Screaming, is one of my favorite 1990s movies, but I’ve had a hard time connecting with a lot of his other films. So it was with surprise that I found myself sympathizing with Greta Gerwig’s Frances as her life unravelled. Her character had just enough self-awareness so that your frustration with her choices as you watched her freefall through her late 20s held firmly toward the endearing side without reaching the obnoxious want-to-slap-her side. Like Much Ado, Frances Ha also was shot in black and white, in what I was worried would be a half-ass homage to Woody Allen’s B&W masterpiece Manhattan but actually works really nicely with the movie’s DIY aesthetic.
However you feel about writer/director Sofia Coppola’s films, it’s undeniable that she has a gift for finding the right music to convey the mood of a movie, whether it’s Air in The Virgin Suicides, The Jesus and Mary Chain in Lost in Translation or New Order in Marie Antoinette. She taps into that again in her latest film, The Bling Ring, by blaring MIA, Rihanna and Kanye West from the car stereos of the materialistic, bored, celebrity-obsessed teens who perpetrate a string of burglaries in celebrity homes in the Hollywood Hills. Overall, I think the original Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” offers a more compelling look at the so-called Bling Ring, including the in-fighting in the group that began as soon as the arrest warrants and subsequent indictments were handed down. The movie sadly glosses over this, and gloss is in fact what the film does best, from slow-motion shots to shopping montages to the celebrity home interiors (and by the way, that is Paris Hilton’s real home that they shot inside). Emma Watson gives all traces of Hermoine the slip with a pitch-perfect LA girl accent, but what sticks with you longest after the movie is the empty entitlement of these kids and the audaciousness of the burglaries.
Now You See Me: Of all these picks, Now You See Me is the only one that seems intentionally positioned as a summer movie. It’s far from perfect, but this heist/caper flick that centers on a quartet of magicians (dubbed The Four Horsemen and played by Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) is relentlessly fun and offers just enough mystery to make it more engaging than the empty setpieces of Fast and Furious 6. Whereas most summer movies feel like they’re aimed with laserpoint precision at 13-year-old boys, this felt more like summer movie escapism for adults.
Have you seen any of these picks? What did you think? What other summer movies are you looking forward to?