LOS ANGELES – It’s the time of year when most films go “bang” and “crash” and “zoom” and “snap,” when the multiplexes are packed on multiple screens with animated movies and blockbusters and animated blockbusters.
But if you look carefully enough, you’ll find some smarter, more challenging pictures that aim to make you think and feel, not just dazzle you with high-tech visuals or tickle your funny bone.
Call it counter-programming, movies for grown-ups, whatever. Regardless of the label, serious movies have done seriously well come summertime.
M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” came out in August 1999 and rode its buzzed-about plot twist to nearly US$300 million in domestic box office alone. More recently, we’ve seen smaller movies like “Garden State” (July 2004), “Little Miss Sunshine” (July 2006), “Once” (May 2007) and “Frozen River” (August 2008) enjoy critical acclaim and awards success.
This summer, there’s a smorgasbord of meatier fare to choose from, including “Julia,” starring Tilda Swinton as a middle-aged alcoholic who makes a desperate decision; “Away We Go” from director Sam Mendes, starring John Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph as an expectant couple searching the country for a place to call home; and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” about an elite Army bomb squad in Iraq, which earned Jeremy Renner a lead-actor nomination at this year’s Spirit Awards.
Independent films, which usually have smaller budgets and less money to spend on advertising, especially get a fighting chance this time of year.
“Summer’s always great because there are more people going to movies in general – not just regular movies, although the behemoths are there – but people have more leisure time in the summer so they have more time to go to the movies,” said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures.
His company’s films this summer include “Julia,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” the dark comedy “Humpday” and the documentary “Food, Inc.”
“I’ve always found counter-programming to be great. The movies that are out in the summer are not the high-end, Oscar-winning type of things that appeal to the adult audience we cater to,” he said. “Anybody looking for a smarter film in the summertime, there’s not as much competition from the studios for what we can do.”
Last summer, Bowles released “Man on Wire,” which went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary feature. He said he realized this was prime time for his kind of fare while he the head of distribution at the Samuel Goldwyn Co., where he had the lesbian drama “Go Fish.” He released it in July 1994 and it went on to make about $2.4 million, which is a strong showing for a smaller film – especially one made for a budget of about $15,000.
“Everybody said I was crazy,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why are we avoiding the summer?’ Since then, I don’t think there’s any prejudice against the summer now. In the independent world, everybody realizes it’s a good time to release films.”
But the studios also have serious movies with big stars to offer in between the action pics and the comedies. Among them is “My Sister’s Keeper,” based on the Jodi Picoult novel about a young girl (Abigail Breslin) who decides she no longer wants to help her ill sister by undergoing medical procedures for her. Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin and Jason Patric co-star.
The director, Nick Cassavetes, has already had success with a heavier movie this time of year with “The Notebook,” starring a then little known Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. It came out in June 2004 and made about $81 million.
“The expectations for ‘The Notebook’ were very small. We were a movie that was a love story with basically no cast and so nobody expected it to do much. We all hoped it would do well. I was just happy the movie was coming out!” Cassavetes said.
“On this film, I just make them. I think Warner Bros. knows what they’re doing. It’s a very tough movie with serious subject matter. Because the movie’s good, I think we’ve got a chance. But I don’t know too much about what the right time is or how you should position a movie. . . .
“I think there are all sorts of movies. I like ‘Harry Potter.’ I like ‘Star Trek.’ I hope people see movies that interest them. You hear that – counter-programming – I swear to God, I’ve never gone into a movie (thinking), ‘What is against the grain here?’ I just go see movies I’m interested in.”
Among the other grown-up movies you might be interested in this summer:
-“The Limits of Control”: Director Jim Jarmusch’s latest ensemble drama follows a criminal completing a job in Spain; Swinton, Bill Murray and Gael Garcia Bernal are among the cast.
-“Little Ashes”: A romantic drama about the young lives of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and Federico Garcia Lorca, featuring “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson as Dali.
-“Moon”: Sam Rockwell plays opposite himself in this dreamlike sci-fi thriller about an astronaut living on the moon who starts seeing and hearing things toward the end of his three-year contract.
-“Departures”: Winner of the foreign-language Oscar this year, the drama follows a cellist who loses his job and moves back to his hometown with his wife when his Tokyo orchestra disbands.
-“The Orphan”: A psychological thriller about a couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) who lose their unborn child, only to adopt another child from a local orphanage. Weird goings-on ensue.
-“Taking Woodstock”: A rare comedy from “Brokeback Mountain” director Ang Lee about a man who inadvertently helped organize the Woodstock music festival; featuring Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano and Eugene Levy.