Summer movie season is upon as, as you could tell from last weekend’s very loud landing of a very big Marvel movie, and if you like sequels and remakes and reimaginings, you’ll have plenty to see for the next few months. But if you’d like to take some chances in your movie-going as well, here are a few worth the trouble.
Knock Down the House
RELEASE DATE: Out now (in theaters and on Netflix) DIRECTOR: Rachel Lears CAST: Documentary
“We’re not running to make a statement, we’re not running to pressure the incumbent to the left,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains early in this right-place-at-the-right-time documentary. “We’re running to win.” And the greatest value of this account of the historic 2016 mid-term election is how much of it is about the process of running for office, all the stuff AOC and her fellow disrupters were doing before anyone was paying attention to them: knocking on doors, gathering signatures, making fundraising calls, and above all, selling themselves. (And then going to their day jobs.) And it’s not just about Ocasio-Cortez, or even the three other primary challengers Lears follows; it’s about the support networks that these grassroots campaigns require, the heartbreak when they come up short, and (especially) how a victory for one feels like a victory for all.
RELEASE DATE: May 3 DIRECTOR: Olivier Assayas CAST: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne
“Writing makes people hysterical,” announces one of the protagonists of Olivier Assayas’s latest, early in this smart, sharp observation of publishing, politics, and entertainment, and it’s a thesis that’s proven over and over by the events that follow. It’s full of blisteringly intelligent people who are full of informed opinions about their industries, technology, and the world, but they also have no boundaries and know exactly how to take each other apart. Assayas’s script is filled with quotable dialogue and ingenious running gags – it’s like a contemporary counterpart to a vintage drawing-room comedy – and he gets another of Binoche’s wonderful self-reflections on aging and acting, inside a performance of her customary verve. This is a very funny movie, with a lot on its mind.
RELEASE DATE: May 3 DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou CAST: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai
The latest from director Zhang Yimou (Hero, The Great Wall) is a mixture of martial arts, mysticism, and gobsmacking images that I’d put among his best works. It showcases a beautifully, fully realized vision: he tells his story in the blacks and whites of traditional ink drawings, in sharp contrast to the sumptuous saturation of something like Curse of the Golden Flower. Of course, those blacks and whites are offset in the back half by the copious splashes of scarlet blood, which he also yields less like a fight choreographer than a visual artist — the battles are as much about patterns on the “page” as they are about hits and bruises, as much about aesthetics as they are about acrobatics. It’s a beautiful blast.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
RELEASE DATE: May 3 (in theaters and on Netflix) DIRECTOR: Joe Berlinger CAST: Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan
There was this whole cottage industry, back in the 2000s, of straight-to-video (mostly fictional) “biopics” of famous serial killers; there was even one called Ted Bundy, from Freeway director Matthew Bright. The exploitative approach of those true-story slasher movies is markedly different from the one Joe Berlinger takes in this Bundy dramatization – in fact, he pointedly doesn’t show Bundy raping and killing, at least until the long-time girlfriend (Lily Collins) at the story’s center can see them herself. Collins does wonders with her uneven role, and Efron is startlingly effective. Even when he’s being a “good guy,” being the Dr. Jekyll, he still smiles just a little too brightly, and his eyes shine a little too intensely; Efron tunes it up just enough to let you know it’s an effort, and that he’s more at ease in the rare but telling moments when he loses control.
RELEASE DATE: May 3 DIRECTORS: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer CAST: Documentary
Early in this documentary profile of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the USSR recalls something this father once told him: “We fought until we ran out of life. That’s how you must live.” Sounds like the old man and Herzog would’ve gotten on just fine. This fusion of Herzog’s new interviews with the eighty-something Gorbachev and archival footage from his political life is informative and affecting (those images of the Berlin Wall falling still pack a wallop). And being the kind of filmmaker he is, Herzog also digs out lesser-known and equally fascinating tidbits; witness the footage of Gorbachev simply refusing to go along with the televised spectacle of his resignation (“Absolutely not. I’m simply going to sign it now and that’s that.”) Herzog clearly admires his subject; by the film’s conclusion, you most likely will as well.
Decade of Fire
RELEASE DATE: May 3 DIRECTORS: Gretchen Hildebran, Vivian Vazquez CAST: Documentary
Co-director/narrator Vazquez was born and raised in the South Bronx – and a survivor of the turbulent period in the 1970s when that section of the borough seemed perpetually ablaze. It was the result of years of neglect by landlords, cuts to city services, and general malaise, a scorching metaphor for the decay of the city; this informative documentary lays out exactly how the neighborhood came to that point, and how its residents took it upon themselves to dig their way out. Some of the material veers into personal essay territory, and is markedly less compelling. But this is one hell of a story, full of valuable counter-narratives, jarring juxtapositions, and powerful (and often infuriating) archival footage.
RELEASE DATE: May 10 DIRECTOR: Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude CAST: Documentary
General Magic was an early-Nineties Apple offshoot, tasked with developing what became the tech (to say nothing of the aesthetics and the ethos) of the smartphone. They were something of a Silicon Valley legend, then and now, and directors Kerrish and Maude capturetheir hyped-up rise and equally noisy fall by stylishly combining long-forgotten footage from the company’s idealistic early days with archival clips and interviews both old and new. Come for the history; stay to have your mind blown by the key players’ startlingly accurate predictions of our current landscape.
RELEASE DATE: May 10 DIRECTOR: Mary Harron CAST: Hannah Murray, Marianne Rendón, Sosie Bacon, Merritt Wever
Director Harron reunites with her American Psycho/ Notorious Bettie Page co-writer Guinevere Turner for one of several concurrent Charles Manson movies, though this one makes its own space by focusing on the three women who went to prison for participating in the Tate/LaBianca murders. And thus, as the work of two women, it peers past the sensationalist nature of the “Family” and their activities at the Spahn Movie Ranch, drilling down on the psychology of Manson – how he got these women, and how he kept them – while drawing out the importance of humiliation and manipulation in that setting. Matt Smith doesn’t really work as Manson, and the screenplay’s structure is the kind of thing that probably read well but plays clunkily. Yet the singularity of its perspective and the performances surrounding Smith make it worth seeking out.
RELEASE DATE: May 17 DIRECTOR: Joanna Hogg CAST: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Many of us have been in toxic relationships, and everyone’s probably been close to one, but I’ve rarely seen one captured onscreen with the depth and detail of this quiet character drama from writer/director Hogg. Her focus is Julie (Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker who takes up with Anthony (Burke), who first seems merely complicated and fascinating, and then proves… more. Hogg works in an elliptical storytelling style, with key scenes joined in progress, and sometimes skipped all together. But it all makes emotional sense, and there’s a blunt effectiveness to the moments she allows us to access; they let us see why Julie shouldn’t trust him, and why she does anyway. It’s emotionally wrenching, but deeply felt and magnificently played.
Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
RELEASE DATE: May 24 (NYC) / June 7 (Los Angeles) DIRECTOR: Barak Goodman CAST: Documentary
Even on the fiftieth anniversary, it’s worth asking what this documentary of the 1969 music festival could add to Woodstock, the contemporaneous (and definitive) music and event documentary. So director Goodman wisely seizes on the cuckoo-bananas logistics of the vent, conveying what a seat-of-their-pants endeavor this was, and how it just barely came together it all. That material might’ve dampened the good vibes of the earlier film, but here they help crystalize what a miracle that weekend was, and make the viewer feel like more of a participant. The concert doc puts you in the audience; this one puts you backstage. It’s enlightening, and, in its own way, thrilling.