There's a thin line between bravery and stupidity when it comes to releasing modest, independently produced movies. Especially on holiday weekends when blockbusters hoard moviegoers' attention. • A single noble cinematic effort opening in theaters is troublesome enough. Two at once is cutthroat counterprogramming, and any more than that is box office mass suicide. • This Memorial Day weekend five — count 'em — five such movies debut around Tampa Bay, throwing themselves on hand grenades, a.k.a. new movies starring X-Men and Adam Sandler. • These movies' comparably small audience isn't likely to squeeze in more than one or two screenings. Their hopes hinge on the possibility that popcorn-chomping moviegoers confuse them with the kinds of movies they aren't.
'Only Lovers Left Alive'
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (R) has the best chance of fooling moviegoers since it's about vampires, although not the shallow Twilight type. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, sophisticated post-punk blood sippers growing bored with immortality. Humans have polluted their blood supply and crippled creativity, leaving them nostalgic for sharing bon mots with Lord Byron and jonesing for "the good stuff" supplied on the black market.
Jarmusch mines unexpected humor from Adam and Eve's ennui, thanks to two perfectly measured lead performances and fun support from John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska. Only Lovers Left Alive is dreamily conceived and wickedly executed, Jarmusch's most accessible movie in years. A- (Sundial 20 in St. Petersburg, Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar)
Tom Hardy's name toplining Locke (R) may attract fans of The Dark Knight Rises and Inception but this enigmatic movie isn't them. Hardy is the lone actor on screen throughout, driving to London while juggling personal and professional destinies in Bluetooth conversations with disembodied voices. No physical action but Hardy's performance is a knockout.
The plot is as minimal as writer-director Steven Knight's technique, so practically any details about those conversations might be spoilers. And playing close to the vest in that regard shouldn't suggest the plot is especially deep. Let's just say that two lessons learned from Locke are that blood is thicker than concrete, and Hardy is developing into the most exciting actor of his generation. (Tampa Theatre) B+
Fanboys know Jon Favreau as a director and co-star of Iron Man movies, so Chef (R) could be a Marvel superhero with culinary powers, right? No, but he mightily strains to return to his Swingers roots, a pleasantly flawed palate cleanser, after selling out hard.
Favreau plays Carl Casper, a former kitchen wonder now dishing out surf and turf standards, stifling his creativity. A scalding review by a food critic (Oliver Platt) causes a meltdown ruining Carl's career, leading to his culinary revival as a food truck king. The entire movie, even the predictably happy ending, depends upon falsehoods about how reputable food critics operate; dining anonymously and unannounced, not making personal attacks in reviews.
Then again, this is a movie making Favreau irresistible to both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara, two high-powered pals (along with Robert Downey Jr. and Dustin Hoffman) briefly showing up for scale-wage support. Chef includes some nice moments of father-son bonding, a kicking Cuban-flavored soundtrack and fewer mouth-watering dishes than usual in such movies. (Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar, Veterans 24 and Westshore 14 in Tampa) B-
A star-making performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is almost reason enough to see Belle (PG), an otherwise uneven blend of corset-and-crumpet romance and historical relevance. Mbatha-Raw plays the title character (although mostly called Dido), a mixed-race orphan left in the custody of a wealthy uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who's a chief justice ruling on a case involving insurance claims on possibly murdered slaves.
Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) spend their portions of the movie in Jane Austen mode, awaiting gentlemen of proper upbringing to sweep them away in marriage. Dido's blackness, of course, makes her either exotic or scandalous, in a changing landscape of racial tolerance. The judicial side of Belle is more interesting, with Wilkinson again proving he's watchable in anything, even powdered wigs. (Various theaters) C+
'The Love Punch'
Finally, there is The Love Punch (PG-13) an unpreviewed comedy starring Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson as a divorced couple reuniting to steal a diamond from the corporate jerk who ruined their retirement fund. This one has an unofficial AARP seal of approval written all over it. But it feels like a movie that could actually make Adam Sandler appear funny by comparison. (Various theaters)
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.