Not every film will be a masterpiece. I’m sure there are plenty of filmmakers who know full well, what they’ve been given to work with (a wonky script, actors already attached, too small of a budget, meddling producers) is going to result in mediocre films. I’ve heard filmmakers say they make “one for the studio, one for the art” and plenty of passion projects end up a train wreck. Yet sometimes, there are films that showcase a director at the top of their game or allows us to see the promising talent of a new filmmaker.
This summer there’ve been a few whooly original works by talented filmmakers. Here are a few that I’ve appreciated.
B. J. Novak is an actor/writer/director/comedian that many will recognize from the American version of “The Office”. “Vengeance” is his feature directorial debut based on his original screenplay. Novak also stars in the film and he’s done a lot of press and talk show promotion. His work as a standup comedian has come in handy for this task.
Focus Features lucked out to find a summer weekend not packed with new releases. “Vengeance” is a smart look at the ways coastal elites feel superior to their midwest counterparts. A smarmy Brooklyn journalist finds himself drawn into a small town Texas family’s grief. Planning to mine the situation for material for a podcast, he discovers that he actually cares about these people and their tragedy. The film tries to subvert some stereotypes while also pandering to others. It’s not a great film but it has a lot of heart…and a great part for Ashton Kustcher. The soundtrack is nice and the pacing is assured. It makes me excited to see what other films Novak will direct.
One big budget summer film that likely did take audiences away from “Vengeance” was the third film directed by Jordan Peele. Now in it’s second week, “Nope” continues to be at the top of the box office. Well-known for his smart comedy work with Keegan-Michael Key on his “Key and Peele” comedy show, Peele has become an award-winning filmmaker with his own production company. Even if you didn’t see “Get Out” or “Us”, you’ve likely heard conversations about the intersection of race, identity and horror that have sprung up around Peele’s work.
His much-antipated feature had a blockbuster-size budget, was filmed in IMAX and features special effects and built-from-scratch sets. Peele still manages to work in themes of race, our need for spectacle, and the way humans disregard and disrespect nature. It’s a summer blockbuster alien film hiding more than a spaceship in the clouds; it’s social commentary served with a big helping of jump scares.
I was all in for the comedic elements and great acting by stars Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, and Brandon Perea. The horror elements like the Gordy Show devastation and people consumed by an alien feeding tube/wind pipe…not so much. There’s a great soundtrack, some cool special effects (best scene in IMAX, I’m sure) and an ending that feels both triumphant and also puzzling. A rare summer film that begs for discussion. I’m glad Peele was given a big budget to allow him to stretch his filmmaking muscles.
Another original film was created on a much smaller budget and just re-released to movie theaters. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” has now surpassed $100 million in box office. The directors, referred to as The Daniels, crafted a tender family drama and wrapped it in a multiverse of crazy creative fight scenes, clever costumes, fantastic casting, and fast-paced action. Michelle Yeoh is brilliant and her fellow castmates surround her with knock-out performances. This is a film that must be seen on a big screen.
One smaller film that didn’t get it’s chance to shine on the big screen was my favorite so far this year. “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande“, an original script by Katy Brand, directed by Sophie Hyde, is a frank look at sexuality. Starring one of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson with a nuanced performance by Daryl McCormack, this is a small film that feels much like an intimate play. I hope more people will discover it on HULU and recommend it to others.
There are still some big blockbuster films to come this summer and maybe a few will also serve us a creative vision. I’m looking forward to “Bullet Train” due in a few weeks. And we can look forward to lots of arthouse fare rolling out after the big Fall Film Festivals. Hurrah for Cinema and the filmmakers who fight to get their visions on screens big and small.
Drinks with Films ratings:
“Vengeance”–2 1/2 Solo cups of Texan beer (out of 5)
“Nope”–3 1/2 Bourbons guzzled in trepidation (out of 5)
“Everything Everywhere All At Once”–4 Bubble Tea w/swirly straw, from another dimension (out of 5)
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”–5 glasses of champagne to screw up your courage…(out of 5)