Summer is upon us, and there sure are a lot of options! And many of them do not look very good! “Summer counter-programming” really is the oldest trick in the book, but it works; if you’re maybe not that into another superhero movie, soulless music biopic, or Godzilla flick, well, here are a few smaller titles that are well worth your time.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
RELEASE DATE: June 7 DIRECTOR: Joe Talbot CAST: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover
Every once in a while, you encounter a film where you can just feel a new-ish director pushing themselves in every direction, challenging themselves and their audience with provocative ideas, elegant compositions, graceful camera blocking, and sui generis energy. This is one of those movies. Co-writer/director Joe Talbot finds, in his Bay Area setting, the same gonzo vibrancy that powered last year’s Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting; in stars Fails and Majors, he introduces a post-modern Laurel and Hardy, laid-back schemer/dreamers whose wild scheme is powered by their deep affection for one another. And like those films, it’s a valentine to the Bay, best summed up by the exasperated “What a city!” that’s voiced, late in the film, by a fully nude man at a bus stop. But despite all these echoes and contemporaries, this is a distinctive, unique piece of work, from a filmmaker and cast I expect we’ll hear much more from in the future.
RELEASE DATE: June 7 DIRECTOR: Nisha Ganatra CAST: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow
This story of a long-running talk show host (Thompson) and the young woman (Kaling) who punctures her all-white, all-male writers room may be a longer and more sincere 30 Rock, but it’s not like fast-paced inside-show-biz comedies aren’twelcome on the big screen too. What’s more, Kaling’s screenplay gets into some pretty heady territory regarding “diversity hires” and workplace inequality in what has always been and remains a very straight-white-male-ccentric world; she knows how to address these issues without turning the movie into a polemic, how to touch on this stuff but still get the laugh. (Full review here.)
Framing John DeLorean
RELEASE DATE: June 7 DIRECTORS: Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce CAST: Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles
The story of John DeLorean – the visionary car manufacturer who walked into an FBI cocaine sting to finance his troubled company – is absolute gold for documentarians Argott and Joyce, full of crackerjack archival footage, awkward internal videos and TV commercials, and riveting wiretaps and surveillance videos. But these filmmakers go further, viewing his story through the prism of the many failed attempts to dramatize it on film, and contributing to that tradition themselves with reenactments starring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean. (I know, I know, but he’s pretty good.) The framework is surprisingly effective, particularly when DeLorean’s surviving and unsurprisingly unhappy children explain how such a story is typically told, and the dishonesty therein. And the insight of the actors is valuable as well; Baldwin explains, late in the film, “Every day, I think about, who is he? And I have a different answer.” That’s the kind of complexity that’s typically lost in a biopic, but not in this one.
The Dead Don’t Die
RELEASE DATE: June 14 DIRECTOR: Jim Jarmusch CAST: Bill Murray, Adam Driver,Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi
So here’s a real head-fake, assembling a loaded cast around the delicious notion of a Jim Jarmusch zombie movie, and giving us the expected deadpan humor and hipster gore – but within his most overtly political movie to date, a picture that harnesses the desperation of the current social moment and takes the baby step into outright nihilism. The pacing is a little punchy (even by Jarmusch’s standards), and the in-jokes get a touch precious. But there’s a lot to root through here, big laughs and odd moments and copious blood and guts, brought to a conclusion that feels, in a way it might not have before, both inevitable and honest.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
RELEASE DATE: June 14 DIRECTOR: Sophie Huber CAST: Documentary
Launched by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label, with a roster featuring such legends as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Sophie Huber’s affectionate documentary gives us the expected history, illustrated with rare footage, old photos, session notebooks, and studio recordings – but she’s just as interested in the label’s present (and future) as its past. So we’re treated to current artists working and recording, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the art; we hear how Blue Note’s break beats contributed to early hip-hop, and how the music influenced some of that genre’s giants. Beyond the Notes is a bit stodgy and traditional at times (particularly given the norm-breaking of its subject), but it’s compelling viewing nonetheless.
Paris is Burning
RELEASE DATE: June 14 DIRECTOR: Jennie Livingston CAST: Documentary
This 1990 documentary was a breakthrough moment for LGBTQ representation, capturing the Harlem drag ball scene of the late 1980s (and all of its vogueing, shade, mopping, and more) and bringing it to a mainstream audience that still can’t get enough. Fresh from a new digital restoration, it returns to theaters just in time for Pride Month – one for the ages, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising – and if you get a chance to see it on a big screen, you should do that, honey.
RELEASE DATE: June 21 DIRECTORS: Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg CAST:Documentary
Also returning to theaters for Stonewall’s fiftieth, this 1984 documentary is titled quite literally – it ends with the uprising, and spends the bulk of its running time on the decades of baby steps leading up to it, the slooooooow-burning fuse that led to that explosion. So we see how the gay rights movement took its inspiration from the concurrent pushes for African-American and women’s rights, the uphill battles of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis,the tentative demonstrations in “proper” suits and dresses. It’s a fascinating history, and a well-made film.
RELEASE DATE: June 21 DIRECTOR: Tom Harper CAST: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo
As soon as she’s out of the joint, Rose-Lynn (Buckley) announces she’s going to get to Nashville, whatever it takes. “There’s nothin’ here for me,” she says. “It’s the only thing I’m good at!” Tom Hooper’s music-tinged drama is of the same stew of working-class desperation and show-biz proximity (or lack thereof) that fueled The Full Monty, and delivers in a similar, small-scale yet crowd-pleasing way, offsetting its predictable story beats with fully-formed characters and marvelous supporting performances (Walters is especially good as Rose-Lynn’s impatient mother). But this is Buckey’s show, and she’s a force of nature: funny and heartbreaking, with a great voice and a keen ability to work a crowd. Good luck not rooting for her, or welling up by the end of her story.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
RELEASE DATE: June 21 DIRECTOR: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders CAST: Documentary
The interviews with Ms. Morrison that populate this American Masters production have an unusual directness – they’re genuinely like we’re having a conversation with a remarkable woman with a tale to tell. And it’s quite a tale, a long, twisty story of both her life and her work, and how they intertwined. Bio-documentaries come a dime a dozen these days, too often leaning on the easy formula of talking heads and archival footage, but there’s real depth here; Greenfield-Sanders examines the influence, themes, and ramifications of Morrison’s writing, so much so that it becomes a similarly potent commentary on race and representation. And it’s not all schoolwork either, since Morris is so brilliant and warm and funny (“I like the Nobel Prize, because they know how to give a party”).
RELEASE DATE: June 28 DIRECTOR: Alex Holmes CAST:Documentary
The story of the first all-female crew to sail around the world is so cinematic – underdogs, triumphs and failures, media scrutiny, sexual politics – that frankly, I’m surprised no one’s dramatized it. But this is a first-rate documentary exploration of how Tracy Edwards and her team rallied the world behind them (after some initial resistance, of course) in the 1989 Whitbread Challenge. Director Holmes makes the specifics of the sport clear (without getting bogged down in them), crisply edits the archival footage and new, intimate, into-camera interviews, building to a conclusion that’s emotionally overwhelming. It’s very much a story about not taking no for an answer, and we’ll take all of those we can get right now.