Here’s the sad fact: the more $200 million blockbusters make their money back, the less we see studios willing to spend $20 million, or $10 million, or even a lousy $1 million on a smarter movie that’s aimed at a smaller audience.
Thus, the independent’s revenge. If smaller, smarter movies want to be made, they essentially have to make themselves, without an assist from the billion-dollar conglomerates that will greenlight Transformers and Avengers movies until giant robots from space really do come down and annihilate the human race. It’s summer now, which means Godzilla and Ninja Turtles and X-Men; but it also means indies that tempt the more selective of us with shrewd counter-programming, pulling those Sundance darlings out of the freezer to cool us off in these creatively dry summer months.
My revenge? To see most of these smaller movies, and not many of the big ones. It’s not much, but it’s all I can do.
One of these early summer releases is Blue Ruin, which made something of a splash at Sundance this year. It’s about revenge — a subject studio films have explored often — but instead of following the crafty, implausible hijinks of a martial arts superstar or a gun aficionado, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin centers on a homeless man named Dwight (Macon Blair) who has never committed an act of violence in his life. (Until he does.)
Blue Ruin is essentially the tale of what would have happened to Bruce Wayne if he hadn’t inherited millions from his deceased parents after their murder. If there was no kindly old butler named Alfred to watch after him. Instead, he’s got only his estranged sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), spending his days digging food out of trash cans and sneaking into empty homes to take showers, living out of a very beat up car. Dwight is no Batman. But when he learns the man who went jail for killing his parents has been released years later, it’s enough to spark him to hunt the guy down, following him into a bar as he celebrates his release, all in the name of justice.
But in Blue Ruin, revenge isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come without consequence. Many revenge movies would save this first kill for the climax, but vengeance is only the first of many violent problems Dwight will contend with as he opens up Pandora’s very bloody box. Because when one criminal falls, you can bet there are plenty more where he came from. Blue Ruin takes us through the motions — how would a homeless man obtain a murder weapon in the first place? Where would he hide after? What if he got injured in the process? It all feels a lot more real-world than your average man-on-a-mission thriller.
Blue Ruin doesn’t say anything terribly novel about revenge, except that it’s harder than it looks in the movies. Dwight isn’t a total idiot, but he makes a number of crucial mistakes throughout the course of this story, and we often cringe at things he does that only make his situation worse. Like it or not, it’s probably closer to the way we’d behave in the same situation than anything in Payback, The Brave One, or Kill Bill. We’ve seen plenty of stories that intend to tell us that vengeance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but that message tends to get muddled when there’s a bad ass action hero at the center. In Blue Ruin, revenge is a dish best served not at all, because it’s going to dish itself right back with some powerful indigestion.
The film is often tense and occasionally gruesome, but also takes time out for more off-the-beaten-path moments, like Dwight’s emotive confession to Sam, or his reunion with the high school buddy (Devin Ratray) who ends up helping him out quite necessarily. The final act is quietly suspenseful in a rather masterful way, with an empty house that couldn’t be more foreboding. As Dwight contends with the family of the man who torn his own family apart — including Jan Brady herself, Eve Plumb (!) — well, let’s just say it doesn’t end with hugs and a learned lesson.If Blue Ruin takes great pains to make a revenge story plausible, then another smallish thriller from 2014, Grand Piano, does the very opposite, reveling in absurdity. Grand Piano is like Die Hard in a concert hall, Speed goes to the symphony. And if that sounds like a ridiculous idea for a movie, well… it is. Truly.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a piano wunderkind who flamed out five years ago during a concert when he flubbed the near-impossible “La Cinquette,” composed by his recently deceased mentor. Tonight he’s making his grand return to the grand piano, playing on the very instrument once owned by his millionaire maestro.
After a slow-building first act which sees Tom grow increasingly uneasy about his upcoming performance, Tom sits down to play… and discovers an ominous note written in his sheet music: “Play one wrong note and you die!” Tom soon discovers that a mysterious figure in the balcony seats has a gun trained on him and his famous actress wife (Kerry Bishe), which means he has no choice but to play “La Cinquette” flawlessly — or die trying.Obviously, this is a ludicrous premise for a movie. And even if you buy it, the script adds a number of loopy twists that might have had us tearing our hair out — if we hadn’t already checked our heads at the door. (Anything involving the killer’s “assistant,” or Tom’s hapless drunk friends in the audience, is particularly looney.) These phony developments could bring down a thriller that took itself more seriously, but Grand Piano is so baldly silly that it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy it, the way you might take in a good classical concert. This is the kind of movie where a man sends a text message under his sheet music while performing for an audience of hundreds; where a major fight breaks out in the rafters just above the audience during an emotive performance, and no one hears it. Whatever! When the criminal mastermind’s reason for forcing Tom to perform a note-perfect concert comes into focus, it’s equally senseless — surely there was an easier way to accomplish this! (Or, you know… just smash the piano.) It’s practically a straight-faced spoof of single-location thrillers.
Does Tom prove himself to the snarky detractors who mock him mercilessly for choking? Does he execute “La Cinquetta” without getting himself shot to death? (Do you really have to ask?) Unlike Tom, the screenplay hits a lot of false notes, but it’s hard to stay mad about it. What does work is the cinematography, which is surprisingly expensive-looking for such a contained movie. The camera zooms and swoops along with the classical music, and despite the insane plot twists, the score gives the film a touch of class. (More thrillers these days should be given an entirely classical soundtrack.) Goofily written by Damien Chazelle and elegantly directed by Eugenio Mira, it’s the kind of movie Hitchcock might have made, if maybe a touch more ridiculous.And while we’re on the subject of revenge, let’s put in a few good words for the wide-release comedy Neighbors, which surprised me by receiving good enough word-of-mouth and reviews for me to actually bother seeing it. And you know what? I’m glad I did. Neighbors pits new parents Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne against a cadre of party-hearty frat boys played by Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Zac Efron. The conflict is this: the frat boys want to be loud, and the neighbors want them to be quiet. Enough to hang a summer comedy on? Sure! (We’ve seen movies hung on much less.)
Yes, the only stakes of this comedy are literally whether a baby sleeps or wakes up. That’s what Hollywood movies have come to! And I know this is a big deal to parents of tiny infants, but it’s not likely to leave the rest of us on the edge of our seats for two hours. I guess we should be grateful that it’s not a suspense thriller about whether the baby’s diaper is full or empty?
Anyway, Neighbors manages to get a number of laughs in despite a tepid premise, and the cast fully commits to the silliness. Seth Rogen adds his usual amount of heart to a movie that would mostly be a waste without it, while Zac Efron is (surprisingly?) convincing as a meathead aplha bro. (I’m not a fan of Zac Efron, but he disappears into a somewhat thankless role without doing what many young actors would do, which is wink at the audience to let us know he’s not really a dumb jock douche bag.) The supporting cast is fine, but the movie’s secret weapon is Rose Byrne, who shows off killer comedic timing that proves her hilarious supporting turn in Bridesmaids was no fluke. (It’s about time for Rose Byrne to carry her own comedy, isn’t it?)
Neighbors takes a few weak stabs at, like, having us sympathize with Efron’s Peter Pan complex, which comes as too little, too late in this movie. The frat end of the battle is undercooked, since everyone will root for the sweet, struggling young parents and their uber-cute moppet anyway. The script is a little slapdash, the pacing a little lazy, but nearly all of the jokes work, so whatever, bro. It’s an $18 million movie that unseated The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from the box office throne in the superhero’s second weekend, which feels like sweet revenge for anyone who’s growing tired of mindless summer actioners dominating the battlefield.