August used to be the month that studios dumped all the films that had failure written all over them or the month when indie films and docs with niche audience potential were slotted. But our good neighbor on Bank street Harvey Weinstein upended that cinema game plan when he made a new template called March Towards the Oscars and began holding the films he wanted nominated until October-December. When Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love won Oscars, every other studio and the indie distributors jumped on board.
Oscar’s eligibility rules require a narrative film to have a theatrical run of no less than one week in NYC and Los Angeles, so it began raining quality films almost on a daily basis here and in LA. The calendar is so crowded that first September and now August have become targets. Although August is still dicey in voters’ memories as Weinstein’s The Butler was dropped into an August slot and practically forgotten, not at box office, but by Academy nominators.
This year, the avalanche of movies in August is almost reaching tidal wave proportions. Sixty-five films will be in theaters in NYC this month. Readers know I do not normally review here movies that have major campaigns behind them—unless like Spy they are better than expected. I prefer instead to highlight indie features, documentaries and foreign films of merit that could get lost.
Let’s Go To the Movies:
The End of the Tour director James Ponsoldt
This film is based on the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and the award winning novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). It takes place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, Infinite Jest.
Wallace was considered a genius with mental health issues. Critically acclaimed and awarded a MacArthur Fellowship at thirty-seven, he wrote widely—including Rolling Stone after this interview was published. To most people Wallace would have seemed odd and somewhat of a recluse. He loved dogs, had a wife, played tennis and made music. And he was on serious anti-depression drugs.
Segel, best known for How I Met Your Mother and as director/writer of The Muppets brings alive this complicated, troubled but productive writer and reveals a depth of character development not required on TV. Jesse Eisenberg is able to balance the arrogant ego of a Rolling Stone reporter on assignment who knows he is smart and skilled at interviews (although used to interviewing musicians, usually inarticulate and suspicious around journalists) with his intuitive sensitivity to a shy author.
It is fascinating to watch as they go back and forth with Eisenberg always in control while letting the author think he is. We see the tension in Segel’s portrayal of Wallace’s depression and, most importantly, the side effects the psychotropic drugs have on the creative brain.
Ponsoldt never tips his hand nor does the Oscar caliber script by New York playwright Donald Margulies. The End of the Tour, along with Tangerine show that—despite Hollywood’s attempt to co-op indie productions into their system—there still exist films of merit whose only goal is to authentically tell a story in a bold, honest cinematic manner. Ponsoldt achieves this goal and the two actors and writer deserve award recognition be it Spirit, Sag or Oscar.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller
Sundance’s breakout critical hit and festival circuit favorite The Diary of a Teenage Girl is set in 1970’s permissive San Francisco where divorced mom (Kristen Wiig in one more captivating and complicated performance) and her fifteen-year-old daughter Minnie live. It is a coming of age story about the sexual awakening of Minnie (Bel Powley). The diary is actually what we today would call a graphic novel.
In a home where boundaries have no meaning, Minnie observes her mom and her friends’ self-indulgent behavior lubricated by pot and cocaine right in front of her. It is a film about hormones and crushes and sexual freedom that riot girls would have a definite opinion on, but they were not born until the early ‘90s.
In this major mother-daughter movie, we watch this smart, observant teenager navigate herself and sexual desire while rejecting the adults she sees as failed role models—complete with a sexy predator (Alexander Skarsgard, playing the mother’s boyfriend) who responds to Minnie’s flirtations with sexual seduction. She has her first experience of how insensitive a handsome hunk can be.
What sets Diary apart from so many teenage girls films, be they Disney or indie, is the authenticity of Minnie as both written and performed by Bel Powley. Heller is so full of promise, I look forward to what she writes or directs next. I just hope she doesn’t have to wait ten years to raise the money like so many promising female film makers have to do.
Best of Enemies directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon
Oh Boy, it is 1968 and to beef up interest in the Republican and Democratic conventions ABC hires two of the smartest and TV savvy public intellectuals to debate the issues of the conventions. William F. Buckley, Patrician Editor of the conservative National Review and Gore Vidal—author, Hollywood screenwriter, guest on Playboy After Dark and cousin of Jackie Kennedy—engage in a crossfire discussion that sometimes looks like a the finals at Wimbledon.
They sound, at least in the beginning, like gentlemanly University debaters on political ideas. It soon becomes clear the two men do not like each or each other’s politics but both thoroughly enjoy the verbal and intellectual fencing. Until the line is crossed and Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” for defending the Chicago police who are rioting in the Chicago streets as the Democratic convention goes on.
Buckley loses his cool. In debate terms, Vidal wins when Buckley starts to rise out of his chair and says to Vidal “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” And suddenly one realizes the seed for hate radio and Fox news analysis has been birthed.
It is a must see if for no other reason than to watch how two major debaters parry and one-up each other. Politically, the very ideas they are discussing are in essence the same as the ones today: war, military, race, religion and greed. Oh—and as serious as it is, it is also hilarious.
Trainwreck director Judd Apatow
Amy Schumer’s funny, well written comedy is rescued from being just sexist crap by Schumer’s sheer intelligence, Bill Hader’s irresistible comic sense and Apatow’s command of craft. What does a modern woman who is sexually free and not bound by old fashioned rules of monogamy do when she meets the right guy? I know it has Tilda Swinton, but the film is, in fact, inconsequential. Like a glass of ice tea on hot summer day at the beach—feels good but leaves you still sticky and most likely hungry. The poster says it all in one look. Frame it.
Irrational Man director Woody Allen
Allen continues with his short story telling in a narrative film form. Irrational Man is a summer mystery that charms as it baffles. In it, a college professor incapable of being either authentic or empathetic wants to plan a perfect murder.
Narcissism collides with pathology in the film, and Woody seems to be trying to say something very serious underneath the sugar-free frosting on this pastry of a film. Emma Stone is the new Kim Novak. She fills each frame she is in with cinematic magic as light pours off her face. Her energy level reaches off the screen and scoops you up and plays with you. Yes—Parker Posey, Queen of US Indies, shows up and Joaquin Phoenix again proves to be the best younger US actor in films today. Irrational Man is like a cup of expensive sorbet that tastes good until it is gone.
Listen to Me Marlon director Stevan Riley
Is there life after death? Well yes, if you are clever enough (and Riley is) to take audio recordings from Marlon Brando’s personal archive and make a first person narration of the dead Brando’s thoughts about almost everything. Showtime’s Listen to Me Marlon is being released in theaters first so it will be eligible for an Oscar.
It is unlike any other documentary I have seen. A portrait of Brando that is riveting because the Brando we are listening to as if alive is the dead Brando. And the digital mask of Brando we are watching and listening to is the same head created for Superman. I wonder—are we inside Brando’s head or are we just hearing what he said out loud? Fascinating, as is Brando.
Back on Board: Greg Louganis director Cheryl Furjanic
HBO airs a documentary on the four time Olympic gold medal winner and how homophobia—internalized and in the world outside—and an HIV+ diagnosis impacted the life of one of America’s greatest Olympians.
(cc) Jim Fouratt jimfourattsreeldealmovies.blogspot.com firstname.lastname@example.org