Diamonds in the Rough: Summer indies to seek out

By Karsten Burgstahler

Every summer Hollywood inundates theaters with blockbusters. This year box office receipts are up 10.2 percent from last year, not accounting for inflation; overall attendance is up 6.6 percent. However, the season was frontloaded; the highest grossing film of the summer, “Iron Man 3,” was also the first film of the summer.

And in the summer of successes like “Iron Man 3” and “Despicable Me 2,” little releases tend to fly under the radar. But audiences who seek out indie films are likely to be much more satisfied than those who settled for “White House Down” and “Pacific Rim.” The specialty box office was filled with great movies this summer; even though they may be a bit harder to find than “Star Trek Into Darkness,” here are a few that you should seek out, whether on DVD or in their last weeks at the theater:

“The East”


(On DVD Sept. 17)

Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard led a great cast in this eco-thriller, which never came to the Carbondale area but will soon be on DVD. The film follows Sarah (Brit Marling), an undercover operative working for security firm focused on protecting the interests of its rich clients. Sarah infiltrates The East, an eco-terrorist group bent on making industrialists pay for their crimes against the environment. But as Sarah digs deeper, she finds herself drawn in to the group’s mindset.

From time to time, “The East” can be preachy, especially during the climax, and the movie does drag during its second act. For the most part though the film is an involving thriller with some stellar performances. It’s the thriller summer deserves, but its limited release kept it from being in the public eye too long.

“The Bling Ring”

(On DVD Sept. 17)

This true-crime story concerns the title group, several teenagers who, over the course of a few months, broke into the homes of some of Hollywood’s richest celebrities, including Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom. They didn’t have to case the joint; they simply paid attention to when their targets were out of town using social media and made themselves at home. Emma Watson plays one of the teenagers, and she nails the narcissistic “gimme” attitude these kids sported.

Director Sofia Coppola could have made a simple black comedy about these kids; instead, she uses the true story as a meditation on our celebrity-obsessed culture. These kids weren’t simply satisfied with the thousands of dollars in merchandise they took — they were in love with the fact that they were so close to these untouchable stars. They were desperate to be famous. Coppola lucked out that this story was available as a cautionary tale of what happens when teens have unlimited access to info and very little control from any authority figure.


“The Way, Way Back”

(Now Playing at the University Place 8)

In a column a few weeks ago, I said critics use too much hyperbole, naming movies “The best film of the summer” with two months left to go. But now that summer is over, I feel I can now accurately make this statement: “The Way, Way Back” is the best film of the summer.

“Way” follows Duncan (Liam James), a teenager who visits his mom’s boyfriend’s (Steve Carell) beach house for the summer. At first he has no connection to the small town; eventually he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner of Water Wizz, a small water park on the outskirts of town. Owen gives Duncan a job and becomes the father figure Carell’s character Trent could never be.

“Way” hits comedic notes and dramatic notes perfectly without becoming sappy. The teenage actors only let their angst simmer; nothing is over the top. The scenes at the water park are gold — Rockwell steals the show and gives a performance worthy of at least an Oscar nomination; Carell plays the jerk, a different role for him. Yet he does a great job stepping out of his comfort zone.

This is still playing here in town. My advice? Put down your Weekender and go see it now. Well, finish reading. Then go see it.

Fruitvale Station

(On DVD This Winter)

Oscar buzz began this summer with this drama, based on true events involving Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), who was shot by a policeman at the Fruitvale BART station in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 2008 soon after midnight. Oscar was pulled off a train and detained by cops after an altercation on board the train; the cop testified that he mistook his real gun for his stun gun. The cop’s trial led to protests in the San Francisco streets.

“Fruitvale” purports to follow Grant’s last day as he unknowingly talks to his girlfriend and child for the last time. Because this is more of a slice-of-life piece rather than a strict narrative, with the train station sequence serving as the climax, it relies on performances to make an impact, and Jordan does an impressive job as Grant. He plays off his family members well; however, I thought Octavia Spencer actually gave a better performance than Jordan as Oscar’s mom. But everyone gives their all to the debut feature film from 27-year-old Ryan Coogler.

The Spectacular Now

(Now playing in select theaters; opens wide in September)

Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) and Miles Teller (“Project X”) are two high school seniors on different paths in this drama. Teller plays Sutter, a slacker who is focused more on partying than any sort of future; Woodley plays Aimee, an introvert who dedicates her life to her family and is willing to sacrifice her future to take care of them. The two meet one morning after Sutter ends up on a lawn after a night of binge drinking; they strike up a relationship. The movie follows the two as they learn from each other and grow in their relationships with their families.

“Now” does occasionally suffer from being overly sentimental; luckily, the performances are so on key that they make up for the occasional weaknesses. Teller proves he can play serious, whereas “Project X” and “21 and Over” didn’t really give him that opportunity. Woodley is a great actress who is picking great roles — she did a great job in “The Descendants” and has a chance to flesh out her character more here. The film never pretends that high school will be the best years of these character’s lives; they both recognize their weaknesses and the need to change. “Now” delivers something we rarely see on screen: a thought-provoking look at some of the most difficult years of our lives.