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Amid action films, some smarter, meatier fare in summer

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play an expectant couple who travel in search of the perfect place to raise their child.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play an expectant couple who travel in search of the perfect place to raise their child.

LOS ANGELES – It’s the time of year when most films go “bang” and “crash” and “zoom” and “snap,” when the multiplexes are packed on multiple screens with animated movies and blockbusters and animated blockbusters.

But if you look carefully enough, you’ll find some smarter, more challenging pictures that aim to make you think and feel, not just dazzle you with high-tech visuals or tickle your funny bone.

Call it counter-programming, movies for grown-ups, whatever. Regardless of the label, serious movies have done seriously well come summertime.

M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” came out in August 1999 and rode its buzzed-about plot twist to nearly $300 million in domestic box office alone. More recently, we’ve seen smaller movies like “Garden State” (July 2004), “Little Miss Sunshine” (July 2006), “Once” (May 2007) and “Frozen River” (August 2008) enjoy critical acclaim and awards success.

This summer, there’s a smorgasbord of meatier fare to choose from, including “Julia,” starring Tilda Swinton as a middle-aged alcoholic who makes a desperate decision; “Away We Go” from director Sam Mendes, starring John Krasinksi and Maya Rudolph as an expectant couple searching the country for a place to call home; and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” about an elite Army bomb squad in Iraq, which earned Jeremy Renner a lead-actor nomination at this year’s Spirit Awards.

Independent films, which usually have smaller budgets and less money to spend on advertising, especially get a fighting chance this time of year.

“Summer’s always great because there are more people going to movies in general – not just regular movies, although the behemoths are there – but people have more leisure time in the summer so they have more time to go to the movies,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, whose company’s films this summer include “Julia,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” the dark comedy “Humpday” and the documentary “Food, Inc.”

“I’ve always found counter-programming to be great. The movies that are out in the summer are not the high-end, Oscar-winning type of things that appeal to the adult audience we cater to,” he says. “Anybody looking for a smarter film in the summertime, there’s not as much competition from the studios for what we can do.”

Last summer, Bowles released “Man on Wire,” which went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary feature. He says he realized this was prime time for his kind of fare when he was head of distribution at the Samuel Goldwyn Co., where he had the lesbian drama “Go Fish.” He released it in July 1994 and it went on to make about $2.4 million, which is a strong showing for a smaller film – especially one made for a budget of about $15,000.

“Everybody said I was crazy,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why are we avoiding the summer?’ Since then, I don’t think there’s any prejudice against the summer now. In the independent world, everybody realizes it’s a good time to release films.”

But the studios also have serious movies with big stars to offer in between the action pics and the comedies. Among them is “My Sister’s Keeper,” based on the Jodi Picoult novel about a young girl (Abigail Breslin) who decides she no longer wants to help her ill sister by undergoing medical procedures for her. Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin and Jason Patric co-star.

The director, Nick Cassavetes, has already had success with a heavier movie this time of year with “The Notebook,” starring a then little- known Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. It came out in June 2004 and made about $81 million.

“The expectations for ‘The Notebook’ were very small. We were a movie that was a love story with basically no cast and so nobody expected it to do much. We all hoped it would do well. I was just happy the movie was coming out!” Cassavetes says. “On this film, I just make them. I think Warner Bros. knows what they’re doing. It’s a very tough movie with serious subject matter. Because the movie’s good, I think we’ve got a chance. But I don’t know too much about what the right time is or how you should position a movie. . . .

“I think there are all sorts of movies. I like ‘Harry Potter.’ I like ‘Star Trek.’ I hope people see movies that interest them. You hear that – counter-programming – I swear to God, I’ve never gone into a movie (thinking), ‘What is against the grain here?’ I just go see movies I’m interested in.”

Siblings Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) and Anna (Abigail Breslin) have a strained relationship due to cancer in

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