SCREEN GRABS Late August, when the kids are nearly back in school and the summer blockbusters are gradually winding down at the box office, is a time when a lot of less overtly commercial, more idiosyncratic movies sneak into theaters. (So is January, after the major studios have finished unleashing all their big Xmas releases and year-end Oscar bait.) If you’re looking for yet another Marvel superhero standoff or something equally populist, you’ll probably have to make do with whatever recent titles you and several million teenagers have already seen two or three times already. However, if you’re in the market for something likely—even guaranteed—to fly under the radar of just such viewers, it’s actually a good time of the year to be scanning those listings for unfamiliar, under-promoted new films.
This week offers a fine array of movies in that category. Among those opening Friday are a handful of major releases, notably two action-comedies—Ryan Reynolds/Samuel L. Jackson buddy caper The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which is reportedly like a live-action cartoon (for better or worse), and Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (see below). But even those are considered fairly risky by current major-studio standards, neither being CGI-dominated fantasies with franchise potential directed largely at subadults. Other moderately high-profile arrivals include the Safdie Brothers’ acclaimed crime drama Good Time with Robert Pattinson, and The Trip to Spain, the latest exercise in repartee, scenery and culinary adventure for stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
But there’s plenty more that might well pass you by if you’re not paying attention (don’t expect most of them to stick around long), all opening at SF theaters August 18:
Ingrid Goes West
Though she doesn’t seem to have a political thought in her head, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) shares something with our current POTUS—she can’t stay off social media, to the point where it severely inhibits her ability to recognize and interact with the tangible reality around her. After spectacularly burning a bridge to one object of online obsession, she promptly fixates on another: Perky, ever-Instagramming L.A. scenester Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Having just inherited some money, and having no impulse control whatsoever, Ingrid then simply moves to “La La Land” in order to commence infiltrating the life of her new BFF.
This is not destined to end well—particularly once Ingrid is crowded out by the arrival of Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen), a nasty little prick quite happy to call out a stalker when he sees one. Starting out as a bright black comedy, then gradually shading into something more serious (but still caustic), writer-director Matt Spicer’s debut feature is a clever commentary on pressing millennial mental health issues. It’s also a fine showcase for the estimable Plaza, who gets to show more emotional range than usual via a character who has our sympathy even if she isn’t exactly likable…or sane.
Likewise chasing pathology for astringent laughs is Janicza Bravo, whose own striking debut feature has a bracing aesthetic rigor that reflects (among other things) her background as a costume designer. Mirthless protagonist Isaac (co-scenarist Brett Gelman) is a 40-ish L.A. acting teacher who takes his many professional and other frustrations out on students—though not on the fatuous class “star” (Michael Cera) he’s a little too fawning toward. At home, Isaac is on the verge of being left by a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) who justifiably complains “I deserve to be with a man who wants me.”
The roots of his furtive, needy, ungiving emotional life are fully exposed in a Passover visit to the family (led by bullying patriarch Fred Melamed and pincushion mum Rhea Perlman) who are themselves a minefield of passive-aggressive behaviors. Amidst his spiral of depression, anxiety and possible closet panic, Issac manages to start a tentative relationship with a grounded, giving woman (Nia Long’s Cleo)—though god knows what she sees in him. Lemon may for some recall Woody Allen’s acid takes on Jewish family ties, as well as Todd Solondz’s more overt cruel domestic comedies But it has its own, singular, absurdist, defiantly odd vision. Whether you’ll actually enjoy this sour fruit—I did—is TBD, but there’s no doubt that it’s one of the more original films of the year. It opens Friday at the Roxie in SF.
Dave Made a Maze
Also opening at the Roxie is Bill Watterson’s directorial debut, which has comedian Nick Thune in the title role. In his perpetual evasion of conventional responsibilities, Dave has indeed built a maze, out of cardboard, in his Manhattan apartment living room. When girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home, he’s in it—and he can’t get out. “It’s bigger on the inside” he calls, sounding inches away. But once Annie and all their friends crawl inside (despite Dave’s pleas), they discover he isn’t kidding. His homemade labyrinth is vast, magical, and potentially fatal, with perils including an actual Minotaur and a “giant growing lady part.”
This unique whimsy utilizing a lot of established comedy talent purportedly deployed more than 30,000 square feet of donated scrap cardboard to create its DIY fantasy world. The concept and humor may stretch a little thin eventually, but the design elements—which also include puppetry and animation—are a resourceful delight.
Also conceptually waaaaay off the beaten track is the reliably idiosyncratic Michael Almereyda’s (Experimenter) latest, a feature-length Hollywood footnote in the form of verbal anecdotes accompanied by a visual collage. All tell the story of Hampton Fancher, an L.A. wild child who stumbled into a moderately successful acting career (starting out as a zombie in 1958’s sci-fi horror The Brain Eaters), dated umpteen starlets, and saw his career begin to peter out as his looks began to fade after a couple decades. But he’s best known for his first, subsequent behind-the-camera credit: As scenarist for 1982’s Blade Runner, adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (He’s also one of the writers on its imminent sequel, Blade Runner 2049.)
Now nearly 80, Fancher is an entertaining storyteller, like so many people who’ve largely glided through life on looks and charm. But the joy of Escapes isn’t so much its autobiographical aspect as the ingeniousness with which Almereyda uses vintage movie and TV clips (many from the subject’s own filmography) to “illustrate” this breezy personal history. En route, he reveals the infinite interconnectivity of the popular entertainment world, like a “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game played out like complex mathematical theorems whose symbols are replaced by excerpted screen credits.
Hare Krishna!: The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All
Let us turn the clock to that distant past in which our shores welcomed exotic religious practices whose goals were peace, love and tranquility—as opposed to the power-mongering, censorious legislation and outright terrorism that seems to lie behind so much highly public “faith” today. In 1965, 70-year-old Swami Prabhuapada arrived in NYC from Calcutta, seeking to “make everyone happy” through the rejection of materialistic society known as “Krishna consciousness.” He would soon gain boosters as influential as George Harrison and Allen Ginsberg, while seeing his movement become a worldwide phenomenon—as well as something of a joke, with yellow-robed devotees famously dogging travelers at airports the cliche of counterculture questing.
That cultural imprint has greatly shrunk in decades since, and a more even-handed documentary than John Griesser and Lauren Ross’ hagiographic one might have provided greater insight into why. Instead, there’s no critical perspective here, no inclusion of unflattering moments associated with the Krishnas due to a few less-than-upstanding acolytes who arose in Prabhuapada’s wake. Everyone interviewed here is an admirer, if not an outright devotee. Still, the mountain of archival footage tapped provides a colorful nostalgic reminder that this singular offshoot of Hinduism was once a major presence on the global religious stage.
Last but not least is our sole wide release—but a goofy, endearing one, with Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as luckless working-class brothers who devise a scheme to rob a stadium’s concession cash during a NASCAR event. Their willing accomplices include sister Riley Keough, an inconveniently imprisoned explosives expert conveniently named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and the latter’s own born-again dim-bulb siblings (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson). Unknowingly involved are a wide range of authorities, patsies and others played by Dwight Yoakum, Hilary Swank, Sebastian Stan, Seth McFarlane, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston.
Soderbergh’s first directorial feature in four years (I guess he isn’t retiring forever after all, becoming yet another filmmaker to make that announcement prematurely) is an old-school caper comedy that only aims to entertain. But it’s so offhandedly funny and light-on-its-feet that it easily outshines a lot of this year’s blockbuster behemoths. It’s a redneck movie with brains, one that doesn’t condescend to the characters whose very Southern idiosyncrasies it nonetheless revels in. This is pure fun that won’t actually lower your IQ, for a change.