.Pick’em: Bored with blockbusters? Take a look inside the Summer Movie Grab Bag

The two-year-long pandemic drought of new movies has blossomed into a bumper crop of indies in all flavors, shapes and sizes. Genre is king once again, particularly horror and thrillers. As usual, there seems to be some inverse correlation between budget and imagination—in fact, bigger tabs generally indicate less inventiveness and more formulaic production values. Here are five new films from the Summer Movie Grab Bag, casually surveyed but carefully chosen, that generally cannot afford expensive ad campaigns or publicity. None of them is a masterpiece, yet each one offers an alternative to tent pole homogenization. The biggest challenge is to chase them down. Two have screened in theaters; the rest are somewhere out there, in the stream. 

HUMAN FACTORS–Anxiety-packed family portrait from writer-director Ronny Trocker takes a vaguely Michael Haneke-style approach (yet kinder, gentler) to the aggravations of a contemporary urban European couple from Hamburg—both of them in advertising/communication—for whom the world is not the reassuring, welcoming place they would prefer. Their vacation home gets hot-prowled, the ad agency’s political account causes friction away from the office and the family’s bored teenage daughter stays out late. Narrative loops and dueling perspectives add to the tension. On demand.

RONDO AND BOB–Bob Burns was the horror-flick art director of choice in the days of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Re-Animator. Rondo Hatton was a newspaper reporter who developed acromegaly, a rare condition that caused his face, hands and feet to grow out of proportion to the rest of his body. He eventually found work appearing in such Hollywood films as The Jungle Captive and House of Horrors. Burns became obsessed with Hatton and his screen persona, The Creeper, and this quirky pastiche documentary by filmmaker Joe O’Connell takes us all over the map to demonstrate Burns’ devotion—and his own peculiar identity issues—in a blend of talking heads testimony and re-enactments. Sort of a Texas Ed Wood. Streaming. 

WATCHER–Director Chloe Okuno’s stranger-in-a-strange-land thriller sends contemporary American woman Julia (Maika Monroe) to Romania, as the along-for-the-ride wife, when her husband (Karl Glusman) takes a job in Bucharest. Unlike her spouse, Julia doesn’t speak Romanian, and so spends her time eccentrically noodling around town and gazing out her picture window. One night, she spies a sinister-looking face in a window across the street, staring straight at her, and gradually enters her own private Twilight Zone. Shades of Rear Window and half the melodramas Roman Polanski has ever made—is Julia really in danger, or is she losing her mind? This film is like a heaping plate of French fries, crispy and dripping with salt. We know it’s essentially worthless, but it tastes so delicious. Written by Okuno and Zack Ford. In theaters; also streaming from June 21. 

DEEP IN THE FOREST–A small band of frightened political liberals, worried that the U.S. is slipping into fascism, retreats to a secluded cabin in the title location to await… what? Armed intruders in MAGA caps? The apocalypse? The next election? A better screenplay? Writer-director Jeremy Dylan Lanni and his stereotyped “all-American” cast lurch from one warmed-over tense situation to the next, secure in the knowledge that if George Romero could do it, we sure as hell could too. Not the snappiest dialogue. Not unbearably suspenseful. Starring Ursula Brooks as worried mom Nancy. Now streaming. 

LUX ÆTERNA–Argentine-French shockmeister Gaspar Noé’s très-trippy mock-making-of short feature pays tribute, wanly, to Carl Th. Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard, D.W. Griffith and R.W. Fassbinder, while actors Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg strut and fret on the set of a burn-witch-burn movie-within-a-movie, complete with green-screen hell flames and Noé’s beloved strobe lights. Best thing about this are the “sampled” scenes from Häxan and Day of Wrath at the beginning, but Noé doesn’t really try to imitate his idols—he makes his own mistakes, then makes them again. Now streaming.

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