Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: July 2014

The meaning of what constitutes an “indie film” is hotly contested among the film community (although I think we can all agree that Transformers doesn’t qualify). I don’t claim to be an authority on the term, but as an avid moviegoer I do find myself often seeking out the smaller, lower-scale productions that haven’t spent 80% of their budgets on marketing. Amidst the commercial cash cows, yuppie romcoms, and superhero franchises that regularly hog the theaters, I urge you to consider the bounty of relatively below-the-radar films slipping onto screens in between their behemoth counterparts.  

Read on for my picks of must-see indie releases this July!

Begin Again
Release Date: July 4
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Cordon, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine, Mos Def

What’s the story? When singer-songwriter Gretta—newly dumped by the boyfriend she moved to New York with—sparks the interest of downtrodden record label executive Dan, the two decide to merge talents in a new partnership, setting the stage for unique and life-changing experiences.

My take:  It’s not just the impressive names on its marquee—including Mark Ruffalo in that signature “pitiful screw-up” role that only he can pull off endearingly—that make this film an appealing choice at the cinema this weekend. With an addictive (in a guilty-pleasure kind of way) soundtrack on which Keira Knightley croons some of the tunes herself, plus some quintessential Manhattan backdrops that just scream “summer,” there’s an irresistible feel-good aura to Begin Again.  I’ve already purchased my ticket.

Release Date: July 11
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

What’s the story? Director Richard Linklater (of Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight fame) clouds the lines between fiction and reality in this story documenting moments of a young boy’s life as he goes from 5 to 18 years old over the course of the film, thus literally coming of age both on and off-screen.

My take: It may not have been on my radar for the whopping 12 years it took to make, but I’ve long anticipated Boyhood nonetheless. Linklater’s gift for organic storytelling, and extracting humor as well as wisdom from the mundane is bound to reach new heights as he follows his subject navigating the pains and pleasures of growing up. From the few clips I was shown during a live Q&A event with Linklater himself a few weeks ago, Boyhood promises to be an unprecedented portrait of childhood. I’m trying not to read the rave reviews already pouring in from those lucky pre-screeners; to say I’m looking forward to this would be such a gross understatement, it would border on dishonesty.

Life Itself
Release Date: July 11
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel

What’s the story? While it’s not technically an indie, my list would be incomplete without mention of this nonfiction documentary of one of the most iconic modern-day enthusiasts, authorities, and educators on film.

My take: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I want to be like Roger Ebert when I grow up. Say what you will about movie critics or the inevitable bias of documentaries, there’s no denying that Ebert was, for many, the definitive voice of film journalism. As someone who grew up on and was greatly influenced by the approachable nature of his reviews, yet has little insight into his own story, it’s a particularly personal connection that draws me to this deeper look behind the man who made film criticism accessible while keeping it an art.

Wish I Was Here
Release Date: July 18
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin

What’s the story? When a struggling actor, flailing family man, and all-around aimless human is forced to home school his children, he finds his life thrown under a revelatory magnifying glass and learns some of his own lessons along the way.

My take: Just when I had concluded that Zach Braff peaked when he wore a garbage bag and screamed from the top of a tractor in 2004, his newest writing/directing venture, in which he’s all grown up as a 35-year old father of two, gives me a glimmer of hope not to dismiss him as a has-been just yet. The film’s lighthearted yet poignant and reflective approach to life’s crossroads shows lingering strains from Garden State, but I’m curious for Braff’s perspective now that he’s a decade older and (presumably) wiser.

A Most Wanted Man
Release Date: July 25
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright

What’s the story? The film adaptation of spy novelist John Le Carre’s story about the murky identity and loyalties of a Russian/Chechen immigrant in Hamburg.

My take: On a regular basis, spy thrillers aren’t my cup of chai. But the intriguing combination of actors here, coupled with the fact that John Le Carre is known to write a pretty captivating page-turner, and most importantly, the sad truth that there are few more opportunities to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman work his magic on the big screen after this…it would simply feel wrong to pass A Most Wanted Man up. If there’s anyone who can make this genre palatable even to me, it’s Hoffman. I must pay my respects.

Magic in the Moonlight
Release Date: July 25
Starring: Emma Stone, Colin Firth

What’s the story? When a questionable clairvoyant has a family of socialites under her spell, an English magician is enlisted to investigate whether she’s bogus or bona fide.

My take: Another film that perches precariously on the periphery of the indie category, but since you can’t exactly call Woody Allen mainstream either, I’m leaving him here as the final release of the month. That also works out well because I can then say that I saved the absolute best for last. Whimsical, nostalgic, positively brimming with Cote d’Azur charm…Magic in the Moonlight has in spades all the ingredients that worked so well in favor for Allen’s other films in recent years. Whether those elements can once again create a magical story or not remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure that with Emma Stone and Colin Firth sharing a frame, we’re already guaranteed an enchanting experience.

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