Andy Bockelman: 10 summer movies you should have seen but probably didn’t
September 20, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Another summer movie season has come and gone, and with it an array of blockbusters big on budget and, in many cases, short on story.
This year, we've seen a sex-obsessed talking teddy bear, superheroes and sequels galore and an absolutely appalling portrayal of the 16th president of the United States, to name a few of the biggest flicks of the last few months.
While it's easy to dip your toes in the mainstream, sometimes it can be more satisfying to find something offbeat and less hyped. Amid the giants of the box office, some smaller features held their own, and while bigger can be better, here are some of the more minor films of summer you might have missed:
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits"
Released before the official beginning of the summer season, this stop-motion feature from Aardman Animations, the studio that brought you "Wallace & Gromit," "Chicken Run" and "Arthur Christmas," was quickly overshadowed by "Brave," "Madagascar 3" and other American-made cartoons. Even so, the adaptation of the first of Gideon Defoe's novels proved to be one of the funniest movies of the year, with a ludicrous "Monty Python" approach to kids entertainment and a great British voice cast fearlessly led by Hugh Grant as the Captain, complete with a luxuriant beard; supporting characters like Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen); and Imelda Staunton's booming presence as the tyrannical Victoria, depicted as an ill-tempered tub of lard.
Historical figures of the day like Jane Austen and The Elephant Man — neither of whom were actually alive in the movie's setting of 1837 — add to the fun, but of course any pirate will tell you only one thing when asked what the best thing is about their job: Hooray for Ham Night!
Sweet-natured funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a beloved fixture of 1990s Carthage, Texas, able to befriend virtually anyone from any walk of life. Naturally, he's the only person in town who can make a connection with wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), whose venomous personality has alienated her from everyone around her.
Their May-December relationship takes an ugly turn when Bernie tires of his older companion's negativity, shoots her in a burst of rage, hides her body and proceeds to use her finances for good deeds around town with nobody the wiser for months.
Black's usual boundless energy serves him well as the ultimate nice guy who, with one obvious exception, wouldn't hurt a fly. Likewise, Matthew McConaughey is put to good use as the good ol' boy district attorney tasked with building a case against Bernie, only to find most folks in Carthage thought the victim — nicely played by MacLaine — had it coming.
The movie's basis in true events is obscured by the documentary-style interviews with a handful of people involved in the incident, most of whom base their judgments purely on gossip. The title character remains somewhat of an enigma in his motives and identity as a result, but a likable one.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
Life is not what it once was for a subset of British citizens entering their golden years. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is deep in debt thanks to her late husband's lack of responsibility, Muriel (Maggie Smith) is confined to a wheelchair in need of a hip replacement, and married couple Jean and Doug (Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy) can barely afford retirement.
What draws all these strangers and more together is the promise of a fresh start in India at a hotel that caters to people their age. The ramshackle building with minimal amenities is far less than the dream any of them had in mind, but the enthusiasm of the property's young owner (Dev Patel) entices them to take a leap of faith in starting over.
The story functions as a good showcase for some of the best English actors today, such as Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as mismatched chronic daters who help each other run interference while trying to avoid feelings for each other, and Tom Wilkinson as a judge who grew up on the subcontinent and has unfinished business there. Smith fares the best as a miserable racist who finds her perspective changed in her new surroundings, but everyone has their own unique experiences.
In 1880 London, medical science is changing every day, yet forward-thinking physician Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) can't seem to retain employment at hospitals because of his "radical" ideas, like preventing the spread of germs and doing away with treatments like leeches. The struggling doctor manages to secure a position with a respected female specialist (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice focuses on curbing hysteria — sex drive — in upper-class women.
Granville is immediately smitten with his new boss's genteel daughter (Felicity Jones), yet he is vexed by his simultaneous attraction to her rebellious, outspoken sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Despite the potentially ribald material, this period piece remains remarkably low-key in its interpretation of female empowerment in an age full of hang-ups, which may delight some viewers, while others may be disappointed that the climax — insert rim shot here — isn't all it should be.
There's not a thing out of place aesthetically in filmmaker Wes Anderson's adolescent romance, packed to the brim with the kind of kooky set pieces and costumes for which he is known. However, Anderson finally recaptures the same kind of character development he's been missing in his work for nearly 10 years.
The two young stars, both complete acting novices, are irresistible as troubled foster kid Sam and unhappy Suzy, a misfit who's prone to mood swings to attract the attention of her ever-bickering mom and dad. The entire cast functions at their best, with Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman meshing with newcomers like Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel.
Mix in Alexandre Desplat's musical score and selections of Benjamin Britten's operatic "Noye's Fludd" and the entire affair is a delight for the eyes and ears alike.
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"
With a massive meteor headed directly for Earth and an interception mission failed, humanity is officially doomed. It makes little difference to Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell), who gave up hope for his life years ago. As people around him react to their impending deaths in varying ways — indulging their deepest desires, breaking every law possible, suicide — Dodge doesn't know what to do with his final days. That is, until he learns the woman he's always loved is keen on getting back together, leading him on a quest to find her, accompanied by his sunny neighbor (Keira Knightley) and a deserted dog named Sorry.
Carell's mopey mug and Knightley's free spirit sustain a story that plays like "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact" as a comedy. There are many good moments, even if the script gives shows only a fraction of the potential that could come from such a premise, including a theme restaurant converted into a 24/7 orgy and parents who feel free to tell their kids they hate them.
"To Rome with Love"
Over the years, Rome has seen millions of people, and with its multitudes of residents and visitors come plenty of stories. Among the romances happening these days in The Eternal City are an American tourist (Alison Pill) who becomes engaged to an idealistic Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti); a young architect (Jesse Eisenberg) drawn to his girlfriend's (Greta Gerwig) flighty gal pal (Ellen Page); and a pair of newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) whose paths diverge greatly on the first day of their honeymoon.
The only real connection any of these narratives have is the metropolis in which they're set, but individually, they're not without their charm, especially a fourth story involving Roberto Benigni as a middle class nobody who becomes a celebrity for no reason. The talent in the supporting cast helps the most — Alec Baldwin sticks out as a personal idol of Eisenberg who becomes his conscience, and Penélope Cruz is amusing as a coy prostitute who winds up posing as Tiberi's wife.
The best of the bunch is writer/director Woody Allen returning to the front of the camera for the first time in years as Pill's constantly kvetching father.
Allen's recent love affair with Europe brought us gems like "Match Point," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and last year's Oscar winning "Midnight in Paris," and while the magic isn't as prevalent in his latest, the auteur's touch is still notable.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Imaginative 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) knows nothing of life outside The Bathtub, an island in the gulf region separated from the mainland with a culture all its own. When a storm strikes the only home she knows, Hushpuppy and her father (Dwight Henry) struggle to survive, though the situation is worse than she knows, as her daddy is slowly dying.
Though the young heroine is often confusing in what she says and does, a charismatically amateur Wallis navigates muddy waters expertly with deft direction from first-timer Benh Zeitlin, who's already been short-listed for Best Director, Best Picture and more nominations at next year's Academy Awards for his screen adaptation of Lucy Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious" co-written with Alibar.
After achieving success as a highly celebrated writer at a young age, Calvin (Paul Dano) can barely function, not just in his career but in his day-to-day life and his poor attempts to find true love. A writing exercise assigned to him by his therapist (Elliott Gould) helps him overcome his writer's block as he crafts the girl of his dreams in a whole new novel.
His fantasy soon comes to life when he awakens one morning to find a flesh and blood manifestation of his character, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), who behaves as if they were already a couple, which he is more than happy to oblige. The relationship between Calvin and Ruby starts out strong, but before long, her interests go beyond their life together, leading Calvin to realize that if he created Ruby, he can write her personality however he wants.
This quirky little romantic comedy was written by Kazan — granddaughter of Hollywood legend Elia Kazan — specifically for herself and real-life boyfriend Dano, and the personal touch is apparent with all the nuances put into the eponymous pixie, adorable from the top of her flaming auburn hair to the toes of her violet tights.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever"
While they were married, Celeste and Jesse (Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg) had more problems than they could list. Now that they're separated and preparing for divorce, all the pressure is off and their bond has never been greater; a fact that confounds their friends, who insist it's not natural.
Truth be told, Jesse still holds out hope they can patch things up and get on with their marriage, but when Celeste makes it clear that's not in their future, no one is more surprised than she when her soon-to-be ex actually moves on with his life, leaving her with a hole in her existence.
Both the leads have primarily acted in second-tier roles, but to see both of them as three-dimensional people with hurts and desires is a thing of beauty in a script co-written by Jones that allows for humor and sadness. Not every movie couple can get away with flashing their initials like gang signs, but these two pull it off with ease.
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.
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