Entertainment & Arts

Counterprogramming: Alternatives to regular summer movie fare

Summer brings no shortage of popcorn movies but some films this season are more like a fully satisfying meal. Consider these offerings — with casts young and old, settings foreign and home-grown, stories contemporary and period — which will linger in your memory long after the lights come up.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Lovers of “Downton Abbey"will be thrilled to see Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton together again, playing for laughs as well as drama in this coming-of-older-age film. Costarring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson as a group of British retirees seeking adventure in a run-down hotel in India, “Marigold” was shot in and around Jaipur. “Some of the actors for sure didn’t know what they were getting into, but it’s an impossible place not to have a reaction to,” says director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”). Madden estimates he has worked with at least half the cast before and that they have all worked with each other at one point, but the feeling on set wasn’t one of complacency. “I found it very relaxing because they’re all so skilled at what they do, but they are also thinking, ‘This could be the one where I fall down,’” says the director. “Even they never lose that sense of being on a high wire.” (May 4)


An unlikely romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator set against the prim backdrop of Victorian England, “Hysteria” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Hugh Dancy and Felicity Jones. Directed by Tanya Wexler (“Relative Evil”), “Hysteria” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Gyllenhaal first saw the film. “I was surprised at how we were all a little hysterical in the orgasm/vibrator scenes, even with the heightened, tasteful way in which they were done,” she says. “Talking about orgasms is intimate, and it’s not usually something you do with strangers.” Despite the subject matter, Gyllenhaal’s relationship with onscreen love interest Dancy was a meeting of serious minds. “If you have a lover in a movie you have to figure out what your connection is with the real person, how you are going to have chemistry, " she says, “and ours was definitely an intellectual connection.” (May 18)

Moonrise Kingdom

“This has nothing to do with my life. It’s totally a fantasy,” says co-writer and director Wes Anderson of his film about two misfit 12-year-olds who, pledging eternal love, run away to a small, New England island. “But I remember the experience of being a fifth-grader, and how powerful the feeling of being in love was at that age, and how important a fantasy world is.” The disillusioned grown-ups are played by Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Bruce Willis and Tilda Swinton, but their star power didn’t earn them any cossetted treatment on location in Rhode Island. With no dressing rooms, they were asked to come to set “camera ready,” which Anderson says helps move filming along. “When people are in the theater they take care of themselves,” he points out. “I mean, sometimes someone doesn’t want to walk through their hotel lobby in a police uniform but Bruce Willis” — who plays a cop — “wasn’t staying in a hotel, so that wasn’t a problem.” (May 25)

Your Sister’s Sister

This Toronto and Sundance favorite, written and directed by Lynn Shelton (“Humpday”), is the result of a 12-day shoot in which Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt worked from what the filmmaker calls a “scriptment.” The premise: Blunt sends her best friend (Duplass), who is grieving the death of his brother, to her vacation cabin where her sister is in residence; when Blunt appears, three’s a chaos. The premise of the film came from Duplass, who called Shelton and pitched the movie he wanted to star in, but not direct. “He said, ‘The guy is in a bad place because he’s lost his brother and his best girlfriend sends him away, and then he gets up there and there’s this hot mother,’” Shelton remembers. “I said, ‘Sounds great, but, um, can we make it an older sister?’” (June 15)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, “Beasts” is the fable-like tale of Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old whose life on a southern Delta island is threatened by a Katrina-like storm and the ensuing ecological disaster. Despite scenes with prehistoric creatures called aurochs, “for me it’s not magical realism at all, it’s the world as you know when you are young,” says co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin. “I remember at that age there was no real separation between your emotions, your imagination and your actual experience.” Reality was driven home with the British Petroleum oil spill, which occurred the first week of filming. “We had to negotiate with BP to get past their rigs to get to some of our locations,” says Zeitlin, “But they were in such a public relations nightmare they were incredibly cooperative. They were like, ‘You’re making a film about the environment? Go for it!’” (June 27)

Take This Waltz

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams are a couple whose marriage is threatened by her passion for the proverbial neighbor in Sarah Polley’s drama, which costars Sarah Silverman. “I became obsessed with the idea of our feeling of emptiness, in the Buddhist sense, and that the most obvious way of filling it is with relationships,” says Polley, who also wrote the film. “I think we aren’t culturally comfortable not filling it, so we decide it’s about our relationship. I wanted to make a movie that was about that emptiness, but also about desire, and our desire to fill it.” (June 29)

Hope Springs

Determined to put passion back into her 30-year marriage, Meryl Streep strong-arms her cantankerous husband (Tommy Lee Jones) into attending an intensive therapy retreat in Maine. While the film has comedic moments, they for once don’t belong to Steve Carell, who plays the sage and compassionate counselor urging the couple to reunite emotionally and sexually. “Tommy wrote to me afterwards saying it was his favorite professional experience,” says director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”). “You wish you had a truffle hunter to find projects like this. But people do write them” — in this case, “Game of Thrones”’ Vanessa Taylor — “and once in a while studios are brave enough to make them.” (Aug. 10)

Get our daily Entertainment newsletter

Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.