Summer is winding down, and the big guns have pretty much fired; August and September are usually among the most underwhelming months of the multiplex year. So it’s a good time to catch up on some of those summer sleepers – The Farewell, Sword of Trust, Mike Wallace is Here, and The Art of Self-Defense are probably still playing at a theater near you – and here are a few more to add to your watchlist.
RELEASE DATE: August 2
DIRECTOR: Julius Onah
'CAST: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth
I’ve often noted that there aren’t any American directors making the kind of morality plays that Asghar Farhadi does – and, well, now that’s not true. Julius Onah (writing with J.C. Lee, adapting his play) tells what sounds like a typical story about white liberal goodness and guilt, in which two parents (Watts and Roth) must decide how much they trust their adopted son (Harrison Jr.), and turns it inside out, deftly observing how a single seed of planted doubt can blossom into an infestation, and how we’re so willing to play the roles others have cast us in. Harrison is a revelation (the shadings of his performance are astonishing), and Watts, Roth, and Spencer all give their characters complexity and inner life; hell, even the minor characters are keenly observed and played with verve. It’s one of the best films of the year to date
RELEASE DATE: August 2
DIRECTOR: Jennifer Kent
CAST: Aisling Franciosi, Damon Herriman, Sam Claflin
Writer/director Jennifer Kent follows up The Babadook with a mercilessly grim revenge tale, set in a world of rapists, brutes, and murderers, and all but dares us to look at its parade of ugly, upsetting images. If this sounds like a warning, it is – this is not a film for those with weak stomachs for violence. But beyond the blood and gore lies catharsis, as well as a visceral examination of the day-to-day, minute-to-minute misery of grief and despair. If this all makes you wonder who The Nightingale is for, well, I’m not sure I know either. But there’s no denying that Kent told the story she wanted to tell, and didn’t compromise. That’s admirable – borderline heroic – and there are scenes here that burn with the kind of righteous anger you can’t achieve by playing softball.
'Them That Follow'
RELEASE DATE: August 2
DIRECTORS: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
CAST: Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan
“The serpent will purify you,” announces Pastor Lemuel. “The serpent will cleanse you.” No, the serpent will bite you, which is one of the more valuable lessons in this story of religious fundamentalists in the wilds of Appalachia, from writer/directors Poulton and Savage. It seems fairly irresponsible to have a religion involving so much poisonous snake-waving when you alsodon’t believe in doctors, but these are the contradictions; to Poulton and Savage’s credit, this is sympathetic portraiture, seeking out the humanity and heart of even its most problematic characters. It’s also stellar filmmaking, spotlighting a whole array of first-rate performances from some of our finest character actors.
RELEASE DATE: August 2 (NYC)
DIRECTOR: Joan Tewkesbury
CAST: Talia Shire, Richard Jordan, Keith Carradine, John Belushi
This 1979 drama (newly restored and re-released) is like a forgotten convergence point of ‘70s pop culture: directed by Joan Tewkesbury (who wrote Nashville), written by Leonard and Paul Schrader (the latter penned Taxi Driver), music by David Shire (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), starring The Godfather’s Talia Shire and Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi. Its strange erasure is, upon viewing, not hard to grasp: it’s a fascinating oddity that doesn’t call its shots, and sometimes leaves viewers adrift to figure out what on earth its heroine is up to. Yet it’s frequently captivating, well-observed and sharply played, especially by the deadpan Shire and charming Belushi (as a high-school shoulda-been who now sings ZZ Top tunes while playing cowbell for a cover band in a sparsely-attended Holiday Inn bar). Its best at its prickliest – the ending is a bit of a cop-out – and its risks are even more exhilarating when viewed through contemporary eyes.
'One Child Nation'
RELEASE DATE: August 9
DIRECTORS: Nanfu Wang, Zhang Lynn
“What choice did I have?” they all ask, of the children they gave up, the forced abortions they endured, the horrors they encountered. China’s One-Child Policy, the strictly enforced law of the land for 35 years, is the subject of this Sundance winner from directors Wangand Lynn, but it’s an unimaginably complex story with so many victims, some of whom look back with guilt, some with no regreats at all (“Policy is policy,” they are told). It’s a film of horror stories and haunting images, conveyed in a direct, no-nonsense style – a story of authoritarianism gone amuck, and the human wreckage left in its wake.
'Blinded by the Light'
Blinded by the Light
RELEASE DATE: August 14
DIRECTOR: Gurinder Chadha
CAST: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra
There’s a wonderful scene early in this ‘80s-era musical drama from director Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) when Javed (Kalra) a British-Pakistani teen, hears the music of Bruce Springsteen for the first time. Chadha beautifully illustrates, in the way he listens and the lyrics that surround him, how music can seem to literally speak to you – how it grabs and holds you and keeps your for life. Blinded By the Light is full of moments like that, scenes of quiet truth and peeks into unknown worlds. It’s a touch draggy and plenty predictable (there is even, I swear to god, a late back-of-the-auditorium entrance), but it’s hard to poke holes in a movie this earnest and kind.
'What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?'
RELEASE DATE: August 16
DIRECTOR: Roberto Minervini
Director Minervini brings his observational style and intimate yet gorgeous photography to this big-canvas, multi-strand story of the struggle of African-Americans in contemporary Louisiana. The easy hook is his engagement with the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, his cameras capturing tense confrontations at loaded protests, displays of raw power and brutal pushback; their anger and passion is infectious. But he’s also telling smaller, personal stories here, preventing the picture from veering into polemic – this is a film of vignettes and impressions, and its best scenes are those in which he just lets his subjects talk, torrents of words, painful memories, recollections of trauma, warnings of cycles repeating themselves. The emotional honesty of these interactions is overwhelming. So is the movie.
RELEASE DATE: August 21 (Limited / Netflix)
DIRECTORS: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Masterfully constructed and sharp as a tack, this invigorating documentary from directors Bognar and Reichert explores the politics of manufacturing and unionization with the discerning eye of vintage Barbara Kopple, with a decidedly 21st century dose of times-have-changed hopelessness (“We will never, ever make that type of money again. Those days are over”). What begins as a model project of job importation, with a Chinese auto glass company reinvesting in a closed Ohio GM plant, becomes a struggle for fair wages and quality over quantity. It’s not a simple conflict (these things never are), as even the sympathetic union figures occasionally use language that brushes right up against xenophobia. But the filmmakers include it all; there are no easy heroes, and no easy fixes either.