If you’ve been worn out by the summer blockbusters, now’s a good time to check out three low-budget films dropping in our multiplexes this weekend. None of them are masterpieces, but they’re all rewarding in small ways.
Spike Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, seems like it was made on a dare. Lee has clashed publicly with fellow African-American filmmaker Tyler Perry on philosophical grounds, objecting to the stock characters and preachy moralizing in Perry’s financially successful films. This movie seems like Lee’s attempt to show that he can make a movie that treats Christianity respectfully and do it better than Perry can. Lee succeeds at that task, though his coming-of-age flick is in many ways just as flawed as any of Perry’s efforts.
The main character is 14-year-old Silas “Flik” Royale (Jules Brown), a boy whose mother (De’Adre Aziza) has left him for the summer in the care of his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), a preacher at a tiny church in Brooklyn. Used to a middle-class life in Atlanta, Flik initially hates living in New York and sleeping in a tiny room. He hates his grandfather’s rules of the house even more, being required to wear a collared white shirt and attend church while forbidden from watching TV and eating junk food. Yet eventually, the iPad-toting Flik becomes caught up in documenting the spiritual and secular life of this close-knit environment.
The now-gentrifying neighborhood of Red Hook is the same one in which Lee’s Do the Right Thing took place, and the director encourages us to recall his 1989 masterpiece by using harshly overexposed photography and color-coded costumes. Lee himself appears onscreen to briefly reprise his character from Do the Right Thing — “Mister Mookie” is still delivering pizzas 23 years later, which is both sad and logical. The lengthy scenes in the sweltering, run-down church are seen from Flik’s viewpoint as a watchful observer, and they take in the congregation’s religious fervor and the church choir’s high-energy musical performances with proper reverence. This, and a terrific performance from Peters as a man committed (occasionally too much so) to doing good in the world, carry the movie through much of its running time.
However, the movie runs badly aground with the revelation of why the bishop left the South. Not only does the late plot twist come from nowhere, it’s hackneyed, too, and it raises far more issues than the movie can resolve in the running time it has left. Moreover, the re-enactment of the bishop’s past disgrace is unnecessary. There’s enough plot to this movie without this development. Like quite a few other Spike Lee films, Red Hook Summer tries to do too much but finds some unique insights blossoming amid the overgrowth.
The period thriller Lawless comes to us from director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, the same Australian filmmaking team that gave us the 2006 Western The Proposition. (And yes, Cave’s the same guy who enjoys a fruitful career as a musician.) Their current movie is a stronger piece of work, though it owes more to its actors’ contributions than its filmmakers’.
Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel mythologizing his own family, The Wettest County in the World, the story is set during Prohibition in the Virginia backwoods and narrated by Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf). Jack is the youngest of three brothers renowned for their fine bootleg liquor in a county overflowing with the stuff. When a new assistant D.A. from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes in determined to take over the moonshiners’ business, Jack’s older brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) becomes equally determined to resist. Having already survived World War I and the influenza epidemic, Forrest thinks himself indestructible. The war between the Bondurant boys and the crooked lawman starts in earnest when Rakes nabs Jack during a bust and methodically beats the living crap out of the kid.
This is only the start of the extreme levels of violence here; people are variously shot, stabbed, strangled, brained, castrated, and dipped into boiling tar. Much of this is lovingly described in Bondurant’s novel, so you can see why the material appealed to the filmmakers of The Proposition. Hillcoat and Cave do justice to the violence and prevent the story’s momentum from flagging, but they mishandle the dull romantic subplots involving Mia Wasikowska as a girl from a religious community and Jessica Chastain as a big-city refugee. Even more objectionable is the cardboard villain Rakes, a citified hypocrite who frequents prostitutes and sneers openly at the “hicks” whom he’s extorting kickbacks from. The deck is firmly stacked against this bad guy, what with Pearce’s overacting and a makeup job that lends a good-looking actor as ugly an appearance as possible.
Better stuff comes from LaBeouf and Hardy, a well-matched set of opposites here. LaBeouf’s boyish features and trembling upper lip suit him well to a character who’s not cut out for the violent life embraced by his brothers. Meanwhile, Hardy does amazing work as a laconic guy whose grunts communicate a whole palette of emotions ranging from “You’re a trusted member of our team” to “I’m going to break your knees when I get a chance.” Watching him play this character with a minimum of words is far more entertaining than it should be. As for the movie around him, it’s modestly more entertaining than it should be.
If gruesome violence or weighty dramatic issues are a turn-off for you, maybe the raunchy jokes in For a Good Time, Call … are more your speed. This comedy about two nice Jewish girls and their not-so-nice exploits is part of an incipient post-Bridesmaids wave of scatological female humor, something that has for too long taken a back seat to its male counterpart in movies. This sort of thing is powerfully funny when it works and merely squalid when it doesn’t. This movie is the latter for too much of the early going, but it finds a groove before it gets too late in the game.
Skinny, straitlaced Lauren (Lauren Anne Miller) is an aspiring book editor from a wealthy family who has just been dumped by both her boyfriend and her employer. Fun-loving, zaftig Katie (Ari Graynor) comes from a hardscrabble background and is about to be evicted from her huge, no-longer-rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. The two loathe each other because of an unpleasant encounter they had at college 10 years ago, but they agree to room together to avoid homelessness. Their relationship starts to thaw when Katie is revealed to be working as a phone sex operator, given away by the loud orgasmic moaning coming from her room even when no one else is in there.
The script by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon is weak at the outset. The flashback to Lauren and Katie’s collegiate encounter is predictable down to the second, as are the jokes about masturbation and various lady parts. A subplot with the women taking on some unreliable hired help goes nowhere. The first half of the movie is largely propped up by Justin Long’s scene-stealing turn as their swishy gay mutual friend.
Lauren takes over the business end of Katie’s operation and makes her more profitable, but the laughs pick up only when Lauren becomes an operator herself. A great comic set piece ensues when a client (Seth Rogen, Miller’s boyfriend in real life) requests an aural three-way with Lauren and Katie, a scene that veers in an unexpected direction that moves the plot forward. Some intriguing depths of character come to light, too, beginning with the look of hesitation on Graynor’s face when a lonely, nerdy client (Mark Webber) asks to meet Katie in person. Graynor’s performance is zesty and game, and the climactic scene with the two women reconciling over the phone (using phrases that their clients might say) is pretty clever. The story never builds much momentum; the ending is particularly rushed, and you sense that the whole setup would have been better for a comedy web series than a film. Still, the modest but real complement of laughs makes For a Good Time, Call … a nice diversion.
Red Hook Summer
Starring Jules Brown and Clarke Peters. Written and directed by Spike Lee. Rated R.
Starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Nick Cave, based on Matt Bondurant’s novel. Rated R.
For a Good Time, Call …
Starring Lauren Anne Miller and Ari Graynor. Directed by Jamie Travis. Written by Lauren Anne Miller and Katie Anne Naylon. Rated R.