Summer’s nearly here, and that means two things. One: the heat’s going to drive you into any place with air conditioning. Two: movie studios totally know that. Blockbuster season is arriving in earnest, and the summer promises to meet a decent quota of science-fiction shoot-em-ups, but there’s more to see than the Comic-Con tentpoles—there are also plenty of mid-size movies whose quirky casts are bound to carry them and stealth indies that offer something off the beaten path. Here are nine picks, from big-budget spectacles to indie babies, sure to satisfy whatever your summer mood might be.
Blockbuster: Edge of Tomorrow. This mecha-armor battle movie is summer in a nutshell, and it’s nearly here—no waiting! Director Doug Liman skillfully handles the alien-invasion time-loop premise for an incredibly fun two hours of Emily Blunt kicking ass and Tom Cruise donning his usual action-movie lockjaw as a man out to prove he can break his long sci-fi losing streak. (Can’t get enough of the high-octane mind games? Pick up the original novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. It’s got less Cruise than ever!) Small scale: They Came Together. David Wain leaves no trope unturned. Wet Hot American Summer disassembled the summer-camp movie in the hands of a fearlessly over-the-top group of actors. In They Came Together, the gang reunites to take down the romantic comedy. Amy Poehler (as the owner of a boutique candy store) and Paul Rudd (as a candy-emporium interloper) bring their comic chemistry to bear as they play a couple whose courtship quickly veers into obnoxiously-charming whimsy, which sounds about right. Stealth pick: Snowpiercer. It’s been a long time coming; Snowpiercer was released in Korea nearly a year ago, and the Weinstein bothers have been playing their usual hardball with director Bong Joon-ho. But this post-apocalyptic action film is worth the wait. The ensemble cast is stellar, and the concept—a crew of downtrodden folk from the back of an enormous futuristic train staging a coup toward the front—is both a timely exploration of class in times of scarcity and provides a stage for gaspworthy set pieces. Get on board.
Blockbuster: Jupiter Ascending. “Directed by The Wachowskis” can be either good news or bad news, but they’ve pulled out all the stops for this space opera, which marks their first original screenplay since the Matrix movies. Workaday schlub Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is shocked to find out that intergalactic nobility rules over the planets—and that she’s not just the heir to Earth, but she’s being hunted. There’s potential here for a summer mess, but also a sense of pulpy delight that might make all the difference. Small scale: Boyhood. This movie’s gimmick—a smartly low-concept family drama filmed over 12 years, for just a few weeks every year—has a lot of promise. Its director—Richard Linklater—has earned a reputation for the painstaking minutiae that build within relationships over time. We’re in. Stealth pick: Land Ho! In this quiet story, billed as a “bawdy” drama with a healthy dose of travelogue, two retiree ex-brothers-in-law head to Iceland to take in the spellbinding scenery and awkwardly chat up the women. Directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz position this movie to have three stars (two human, one a landscape), and if you can ignore the second thing, the first thing is gorgeous. (Release is extremely limited, though there’s the chance it will appear via Video-on-Demand.)
Blockbuster: Guardians of the Galaxy. If you see only one raccoon-based superhero-team flick this year, it will probably have to be this one. Marvel, coasting on Avengers goodwill (and hoping people still have their big-screen fun money saved up after studiously avoiding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot), is banking on people up for a focus-group-friendly action-adventure time. Small scale: Life of Crime. Sometimes you just want an old-fashioned comedy about crime gone wrong. John Hawkes, Mos Def (aka Yasiin Bey) and Jennifer Aniston lead this awkward-kidnapping yarn based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, in which their target doesn’t want his wife back, but his wife definitely wants a little revenge. An alternate-universe prequel to Jackie Brown, Life of Crime is a lightweight caper that hopes to capture some of the snap of its source material. Stealth pick: The One I Love. In a summer heavy with outer-space action, The One I Love is the perfect palate cleanser, where the stakes are small and the uncanny undertones are doled out in low-budget doses. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as a couple in crisis who head up to a vacation house as a last-ditch fix. Once they get there, things begin to happen that challenge the idea of ever finding a perfect version of your significant other. Though the plot’s largely shrouded in secrecy, the actors alone are enough to justify checking it out.
Pajama-Night Film Festival Introverted? Antisocial? Just fond of your living room? Don’t be ashamed
Video on Demand used to be the domain of hotel rooms—a dry, airplane-TV list of things you watched only because there was nothing else to watch. But VOD distribution is changing fast, and these days, VOD offerings are well worth a second look. Here’s why.
Variety. Rising distribution costs and movie studios’ increasing reliance on blockbuster revenue formulas mean some indie titles never make it past the NY/LA release points, if they get out of the festival circuit at all. VOD is quickly positioning itself as a proving ground for movies that couldn’t get nearly so wide a release otherwise. (Bachelorette’s initial VOD release remains a benchmark for the success of the direct-to-viewer strategy.) You’ll always be able to find theater stand-bys on your menu, but the biggest benefit is your chance to check out low-budget offerings that didn’t make it to theaters. They can take a little digging past the Top-20 list, but VOD is the perfect way to take a chance on something that never hit the wider circuit (say, Brandon Cronenberg’s unsettling Antiviral). It’s a low-risk strategy to see some festival flicks without ever standing in line.
Ease. Obviously no summer’s complete without a little time clocked in the movie theater, and summer blockbusters are built to be experienced on the big screen. But sometimes it’s 2am, and you desperately need to catch up on X-Men before you go see Days of Future Past and your friends realize you’ve never seen the third movie like you’ve been pretending you did. VOD’s here to help. A lot of movies that are only hard-copy on Netflix can be ordered up in only a few clicks, and you’ll be ready to complain about the entire series before the sun comes up.
Control. Let’s be honest: Part of the appeal of Netflix’s successful forays into original TV is that you can watch an entire season in a single shot—in your pajamas, without commercials, rewinding to catch anything you missed and not having to wait for two weeks because the channel’s pre-empted programming for sports. VOD understands exactly how important it’s becoming for viewers to control the experience, and there’s just something to be said for playing hooky on a hot night and watching I, Frankenstein, skipping back through all the parts you’ll miss the first time because you’re laughing too hard. Summer bliss.
Schuylkill Banks Movie Nights. June 12-Aug. 21. Schuylkill Banks, by the Walnut Street Bridge. schuylkillbanks.org
Film al Fresco. June 13, June 27, July 11, July 25. Aviator Park, 20th St. and the Parkway. moore.edu/the-galleries-at-moore/programs/film-al-fresco/film-al-fresco-attend
The Awesome Fest Outdoor Movie Series. June 26, July 3, July 10, July 17, July 24, Aug. 7, Aug. 14. Clark Park, 4398 Chester Ave. http://universitycity.org/awesome-fest-outdoor-film-series
Philly @ The Movies. July 1-2, 9pm. Rittenhouse Square, 18th and Walnut sts. welcomeamerica.com/preview/tuesday-july-1st/
Screening Under the Stars. Thursdays in July and August. The Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing, 101 Columbus Blvd. delawareriverwaterfront.com
Calendar: Sept. 2-9