Wand-wielding wizards could not reverse the curse of Summer Blockbusterdom. Know what happens to the handful of low-budget films that dare brave the pirate-filled summer waters? They die … hard. Whether annihilated by giant toys, crushed by Homer Simpson’s four-fingered fist or shoved between a rock and a hard place by the demands of Matt Damon’s “Ultimatum,” these Sundance prizewinners and Focus features all meet the same fate in the end: rotting at the bottom of the box-office totals.
Face it: If you’re an indie film with a release date anywhere between the months of May and August, either (a) you are stupid or (b) you’ve got balls. No surprise, then, that this summer’s non-blockbusters fall neatly into those two categories. Here they are – four stupid, six brave films that, at world’s end, either sink or swim .
Lajos Koltai, “Evening.” How very disappointing that a film whose cast includes Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Claire Danes and Glenn Close, decides to be — instead of a classic — a sappy, self-indulgent, sorrowfully slipshod piece of melodrama. Ill-adapted from Susan Minot’s superior novel about a dying woman’s bedridden recollection of lost love, “Evening” crawls through 117 minutes of painfully endured, if beautifully rendered, scenes of emotional torment.
Olivier Dahan, “La Vie en Rose.” For a French film — with French actors, including Gerard Depardieu and Marion Cotillard — about French icon Edith Piaf, this biopic is embarrassingly American. “Rose” struggles to tell of Piaf’s blossoming into, and subsequent withering from, fame, but its conventional techniques like musically backed montages and flashy death scenes are thorns in all our sides.
Julian Jarrold, “Becoming Jane.” Is it so hard to believe a great novelist’s life was actually really boring that someone feels compelled to make up a love story out of whole cloth? Anne Hathaway plays young, proud, never-to-be-married Jane Austen in this unimaginative film about her brief acquaintance with dashing and amiable Tom Lefoy (James McAvoy).
David Wain, “The Ten.” Winona Ryder as a young newlywed obsessed with a ventriloquist dummy is this film’s only redeemable virtue. Featuring ten vignettes, each one tied to one of the Old Testament’s ten commandments, “The Ten” scores almost zero laughs with its witless shtick.
Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress.” Mmmmm … pie. Keri Russell makes a lot of pie — and a batch of trouble — as adulterous diner waitress Jenna in this sweet little film, written and directed by the late Shelly. Shelly, who also plays a supporting role in “Waitress,” was murdered in her Manhattan apartment last year, and knowledge of her untimely death provides an added ingredient of tragedy and foresight into an already fate-conscious film.
Bruce A. Evans, “Mr. Brooks.” Kevin Costner’s sadistic serial killer goes up against Demi Moore’s ball-busting detective in this creepy psychological thriller, with effects that might best be described as “nostalgic early-90s wish fulfillment .” Cast members Dane Cook and William Hurt add to the fun.
Sarah Polley, “Away From Her.” Little-seen and little-talked about, “Away From Her” won’t have much of a chance come Oscar season, but it’s one of the most mature and tender films in recent memory. Based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the film allows an aging Julie Christie to defy Hollywood standards as a sexy Alzheimer’s patient.
John Carney, “Once.” The soundtrack of this Irish-made musical hits you like a rush of blood to the head ( as does the dizzying, “Blair Witch”-like camera work ). But beauty ultimately triumphs over ugliness in a heartbreaking story about a musician bloke and an immigrant girl who inconveniently fall in love.
Danny Boyle, “Sunshine.” When the sun threatens to die, a team of fearless astronauts travel across space to deliver a payload that will re-energize it. While the film – a marketing nightmare whose release date was pushed back several times – cannot decide if it wants to be an existential hyperbole or a nail-biting monster flick, it at least demonstrates strong aptitude for both.
Werner Herzog, “Rescue Dawn.” Hands down, the best film of the summer. Christian Bale and Steve Zahn as American POW’s during the early years of the Vietnam conflict each epitomize the “courageous performance.” Bale eats maggots and grabs a live snake while Steve Zahn nearly starves to death in this devastating, yet deft, masterpiece. Herzog’s work is usually clever, always original and far more stunning than any “Stupefy!” charm.