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Review: Summer movies you may have missed

  • Story Highlights
  • "Once" a winning, unusual romantic musical
  • "This Is England" a direct look at skinhead boy in '80s
  • "Rocket Science" not a predictable comedy about teens
  • Next Article in Entertainment »
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- For four months, movie theaters have been dominated by a succession of blockbusters from the usual suspects -- Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Disney, Rowling -- supplemented by a handful of newcomers (Seth Rogen and Shia LaBeouf, welcome to the big time).

Once

"Once" stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as an unlikely romantic -- and singing -- pair.

But spare a thought for some of the estimable smaller films that may have been trampled by summer's herd mentality. The blockbusters' crushing overexposure doesn't allow much breathing room for the kind of original, left-field pictures that require word of mouth to generate some buzz.

Some of these movies have done very nicely, thank you, relative to their production costs -- but they deserve to do better.

Take "Once," for example. The film recently crossed the $7 million mark, peanuts for the Harry Potters of this world (if a tidy return on a budget estimated at just $150,000). Even so, there must be an awful lot of people still to catch up with this little gem. Video Watch why "Once" is special »

In outline a straightforward guy-gets-girl musical, "Once" is about as far from the Broadway tradition as it could get. Glen Hansard, from the Irish rock band the Frames, plays a Dublin busker/vacuum repairman who is befriended by an insistent Eastern European immigrant (Marketa Irglova). She likes his broken-hearted love songs -- or maybe she just wants to get her Hoover fixed cheap. She encourages him to record a demo. He gets her playing the piano again. As the cliche has it, they make beautiful music together.

"Once" works so well by keeping it simple. It's a story we've seen a thousand times before, but never in this register. Writer-director John Carney's masterstroke is to make musicians the heart and soul of the picture; the songs in "Once" really do spring from the characters, and it's thrilling to watch them develop over the course of the movie. Carney's faith in this simple human connection is a gentle but firm rebuke to the bombast and overkill that infects even the best of today's blockbusters.

There's a similar economy at work in "This Is England," the fifth feature from Shane Meadows. At 34, the working-class Meadows is one of the most intriguing talents to have come of age during the Thatcher era.

"This is England," his most autobiographical picture to date, is set in a small midlands town in 1983. Twelve-year-old Shaun (newcomer Thomas Turgoose) is mourning his dad, killed in action in the Falklands.

Shaun is lonely, vulnerable and a ripe target for bullies. At an age when his identity is up for grabs, he latches onto the kindness shown him by Woody (Joe Gilgun) and quickly falls in with him and his skinhead friends. In short order he has the buzz cut, the Doc Martens, the red braces and the Ben Sherman shirt. His mum is appalled -- but Woody and the rest aren't thugs and the uniform doesn't mean he's going to war.

Then Combo crashes the party. Played with seething ferocity by Stephen Graham ("Snatch"), Combo is a different kind of animal -- angry, wounded and ready to lash out. He has the St. George's Cross tattooed between his eyes and a swastika on the back of his head. His influence is immediate, splintering the gang. Woody goes one way, but Shaun gravitates towards the impassioned rhetoric and strength he sees in Combo, a father figure who flatters his sense of injustice and betrayal.

A bit like his compatriot Mike Leigh, Meadows develops his films through a long rehearsal process and improvisation, but "This Is England" is more raw and rough-edged than anything Leigh has produced in a while. It sticks with you, too.

And then there's "Rocket Science," another wry, idiosyncratic teen-angst comedy in the indie mold of "Napoleon Dynamite," "Rushmore" and "The Squid and the Whale" (to name but three).

Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz ("Spellbound") isn't going to win any prizes for originality, even if it's true that this plaintive comedy about a stammerer recruited onto the debate team is based on personal experience.

A sardonic narration voiced by Alec Baldwin injects a Wes Anderson flavor right from the fade-in, and it's carried over into the aspirational preppie grooming (bow ties and blazers), the slyly apropos indie rock score (Clem Snide and Violent Femmes) and Blitz's predilection for deadpan absurdism.

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But if it seems a touch too smooth and familiar at the outset, "Rocket Science" veers unexpectedly off course, throwing a curveball that perfectly encapsulates the angst and befuddlement of adolescent romance and cleverly steers the movie away from the climax we had every right to expect. In its stead, Blitz conjures one of the more poignant and poetic open endings you'll see all year. That is, if you're lucky enough to live within range of the 70 or so theaters across North America that have shown this blissfully civilized cousin to down and dirty "Superbad."

That's not a put-down of "Superbad," by the way. (You can check out my review if you don't believe me.) But movies such as "Rocket Science" deserve some space in the megaplex, too. Demand them, go to them -- or add them to your video queue, because just because they couldn't get wide distribution doesn't mean they should fade like a summer's day. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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