“Iron Man,” “The Hulk” and “Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” will score big blockbuster gold this summer. But 2008’s hot, small-budget summer flicks prove that size isn’t everything.
Hidden amidst the mega-million marvels like “Iron Man “and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is an impressive new crop of small, independently made movies filled with quirky plots, big laughs and breakout performances. These low-budget long shots won’t make billions at the box office. But these alternatives to blockbuster madness should not be missed says Canada AM movie critic Richard Crouse.
“It all comes down to strategy,” says Crouse. With as many as 10 movies opening each weekend, smaller movies are often released against bigger Hollywood fare. It’s a counterprogramming tactic that lures in audiences looking for something different. In some rare cases it can even turn an obscure “art house” drama or documentary into a summer sleeper hit.
“Every year it costs more money to make movies and promote them. That’s not a problem for ‘Indiana Jones.’ But it is for smaller films,” says Crouse.
“When you’ve got an ‘Iron Man’ to contend with, which made more than $100 million in its opening weekend, good little movies can easily get lost in the shuffle,” says Crouse. “It’s a little too early to tell how they’ll do this season. But hopefully we’ll get some really interesting smaller movies opening against the big loud ones.”
‘My Winnipeg‘ (Late July/early August)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Topping Crouse’s small flick pick list is this gem from Canadian director Guy Maddin. Done as a “docu-fantasia,” Maddin pays tribute to his hometown but in a way that pushes traditional documentary boundaries.
“‘My Winnipeg’ is one of those films that fans might think they won’t care about much. But I guarantee they will. After seeing it you’re going to have a lot of new ideas about Guy Maddin and Winnipeg,” says Crouse.
Filled with a singular visual style that has set apart “The Saddest Music in the World” director, Maddin skillfully uses his eye and his heart to capture the essence of Winnipeg and reinvent the documentary form along the way.
“Nobody makes movies like Maddin. They’re incredibly unique and look like nothing else,” says Crouse. “This film is extremely personal and very funny. But it’s also an engaging look at Winnipeg. I hope that people find their way to it because ‘My Winnipeg’ is worth it.”
‘Son of Rambow‘ (May 9, Toronto; May 16, Vancouver and Montreal; May 23, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg)
Directed by Garth Jennings
Former school weenies of all ages will find this heartfelt tale a real summer charmer
Set in England of the early 1980s, a sheltered little boy who has never seen a movie hooks up with the school bully. After his new playmate shows him a pirated copy of “First Blood,” the first Rambo movie, the pair set out to make a home movie tribute to their favourite action hero.
“This is such a cool, sweet little movie,” says Crouse. “Even Sly Stallone gave the movie his blessing.”
Don’t be confused. “Son of Rambow” is not a Rambo sequel. But Garth Jennings’ film wields a weighty punch because of its young stars Will Poulter and Bill Milner, its poignant lesson about friendship, and its funny take on the perils of school life.
As Crouse says, “A lot of people gravitated towards this movie when it did the festival circuit last year. It’s one of those gems that could easily be overlooked during blockbuster season. But don’t miss it.”
‘The Foot Fist Way‘ (May)
Directed by Jody Hill
Blending insane humour with heartfelt spirit “The Foot Fist Way” could be the sleeper summer hit of 2008.
In it a gleefully inept Tae Kwon Do instructor runs a training centre in a small town strip mall. His blissful mood changes, however, after he attacks the man who slept with his wife. Desperate to get his master instructor mojo back, this endearing loser heads on a pilgrimage to see his hero Chuck “The Truck” Wallace, the greatest martial artist of all time.
“The trailer to this movie makes me laugh like crazy,” says Crouse. Shot in 2006 this kooky confection played a couple of festivals including Sundance, where Will Ferrell saw it. “He was knocked out by it,” says Crouse. In fact, Ferrell was so smitten by this hilarious little gem that the Hollywood A-lister pulled some strings to secure a release date for it.
Ironically the batty story sounds like something Ferrell could have starred in. But as Crouse says, “We many not know director Jody Hill and the film’s star Danny McBride yet. But that could all change by the end of the summer.”
‘The Babysitters‘ (May)
Directed by David Ross
Now here’s a film about a high school student with initiative.
In it we find Shirley Lyner (Katherine Waterston), a nice, attractive teen who makes good money babysitting for parents in her neighbourhood. Then one day a client (John Leguizamo) kisses this working girl as he gives her a ride home. The kiss scores the teen a bigger tip on top of her pay. She quickly learns just how well married men will pay to fool around with her. In fact, it’s a revelation that morphs this average adolescent into a call girl baroness who happily pimps out her teen pals to other dads in need of a “babysitter.”
“This is a very dark drama and the subject will probably disturb most parents,” says Crouse. “But John Leguizamo gives a good performance in it as does Katherine Waterston. It should do well as a summer blockbuster alternative.”
‘American Teen’ (June)
Directed by Nanette Burstein
For those who think high school teens’ lives are boring these days the new documentary “American Teen” will change that opinion.
“It’s not like a John Hughes film and it’s certainly not like a lot of the ‘American Pie’ movies we’ve seen lately,” says Crouse. Yet in it director Nanette Burstein keeps serves up a riveting portrait of what it’s really like to be an adolescent in today’s crazy world.
Focusing on a group of Indiana seniors and their cliques, the universality of these kids’ never-ending drama and lip-glossy backstabbing will resonate with audiences across North America.
“Here’s a film that takes is a real, bull’s eye look at what it’s like to be in high school and the good and bad that goes along with it,” says Crouse. “It’s interesting. It’s eye-opening. I recommend this one highly.”
‘Lou Reed’s Berlin‘ (July)
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel’s deft hand as a director scored him an Oscar nomination last year and the Best Director prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Only time will tell if “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” Schnabel’s musical follow-up, will do as well.
Filmed over five nights at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y, Schnabel’s documentary captures the essence of the influential American musician who came to prominence in the mid-1960s as the guitarist and principal singer-songwriter of The Velvet Underground.
“Reed’s album ‘Berlin’ is known far and wide as the singularly most depressing album ever made,” says Crouse. “That said, Schnabel gives us a remarkable performance piece which documents Reed’s creative process as well as his delivery of the entire record.”
‘The Mother of Tears‘ (Late June/early July)
Directed by Dario Argento
A tour-de-force gore-fest filled with lesbian psychics, orgy-crazed witches and stylish disemboweling, “The Mother of Tears” is everything you won’t find in “Kung Fu Panda.” But for cult fans of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, this graphic bone chiller will be the summer’s horror highlight.
“Summer blockbusters always try to appeal to as many people as possible. But often in the process hardcore horror fans get ignored,” says Crouse. That’s not the case in this bit of Argento gold. The third part of a trilogy that started with 1977’s “Suspiria” and its 1980 follow-up “Inferno,” “The Mother of Tears” is a return to form for the famed director says Crouse.
In it a young American student unwittingly opens an ancient urn that is found in a cemetery outside Rome. It triggers a series of violent crimes throughout the city, all of which signal the return of Mater Lacrimarum, the last in a centuries-old triumvirate of evil-wielding witches.
“This film is not for everybody and it probably won’t be talked about very much since its release falls right around the same time as ‘The Dark Knight’ and the new ‘X-Files’ movie,” says Crouse. “But for anyone who loves Argento’s movies this one is a must-see.”
‘Choke‘ (Late July/early August)
Directed by Clark Gregg
Fans who loved 1999’s “Fight Club” will find the same kind of quirky punch in “Choke,” a film based on another Chuck Palahniuk novel.
Its premise is a wild one. A medical-school dropout who works as a historical animator at a theme park devises a clever scam to pay for the care of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. Cruising the city’s best restaurants during his down time from sexual addiction recovery workshops, this hustler pretends to choke on food that he eats. He then allows himself to be “saved” by shaken fellow patrons who go on to send this conniving loser sizeable cheques for his recovery.
“The film stars Sam Rockwell, who is really one of the best and most underrated actors working today,” says Crouse. “Given the quirkiness of the story, if anybody can pull this one off, Rockwell can.”
‘Trumbo‘ (Late July/early August)
Directed by Peter Askin
Peter Askin’s documentary about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter of the late 1940s and 1950s, was a huge hit at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
“Anyone who has an interest in film history should have a look at this one,” says Crouse.
In it, actors Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen and other actors read from Trumbo’s acerbic letters written during the time of his infamous exile from Hollywood. The best of these moments is Nathan Lane reading Trumbo’s letter to his son on the subject of masturbation.
“I remember talking to Donald Sutherland about this movie because he knew Dalton Trumbo,” says Crouse. “This film is really something. It will open a lot of peoples’ eyes to how Trumbo and the other blacklisted screenwriters in that infamous group called the Hollywood Ten suffered.”
‘Hell Ride‘ (August)
Directed by Larry Bishop
Aging motorcycle dudes and testosterone-fuelled antics could make “Hell Ride,” the new film from director Larry Bishop, a summer winner with nostalgic “biker film” lovers.
“If this movie had been made in 1969 it would have been a huge hit. Now I don’t really know,” says Crouse. “But anyone who feels an affinity for those times and the stories of the Hell’s Angels will be drawn to this movie.”
In it, badass bikers, among them Michael Madsen, Dennis Hopper and David Carradine, get wrapped up in a convoluted plot to squash mutinous rivals and seek bloody justice. In some instances these hog masters seem more like rejects from a Sergio Leone western than modern crusaders out for vengeance. But that’s part of the small flick’s charm.
As Crouse says, “Guys like Hopper were Hollywood’s original film bikers. They were the counterculture guys in movies like ‘Easy Rider.’ I don’t know if ‘Hell Ride’ can beat that but it’s definitely one worth watching.”
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