Noah Baumbach’s films are consumed with the terror of becoming, his characters often clinging to the protective embrace of college like a life preserver in shark-infested waters. In the brilliant Mistress America, which begins on the first day of freshman year as Tracy (Lola Kirke) moves into her Barnard dorm, academia is a place where kids are so worried about what they should become that they hardly have time to be themselves. Like Frances Ha on Adderall, Mistress America finds Baumbach working with a manic screwball energy that has more in common with Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks than it does any of his previous films. Things begin with a running start as Tracy crushes on the first boy she meets (Matthew Shear) and pines for acceptance to a pompous literary society, but it’s not until Brooke (Greta Gerwig) enters the picture that the film takes flight. Tracy’s mom is due to marry Brooke’s dad, and so the two girls are forced into a manufactured but mutually beneficial sisterhood. They’re perfect foils: Tracy is paralyzed by the choices offered by her new life in the big city, and Brooke—a restauranteur-designer-musician–SoulCycle instructor who’s sustained by the sheer inertia of her schemes—has seemingly made all of those choices at once. The siblings-to-be get into a whirlwind of misadventure, and Tracy starts writing a story about Brooke (called “Mistress America”). Eventually the film drops its anchor at a Connecticut mansion, setting the stage for one of the gre
From Jonathan Demme, a director with an impossibly rich résumé of female empowerment (Married to the Mob), musical euphoria (Stop Making Sense) and failed American dreams (Melvin and Howard), comes a movie that lets him do everything he’s terrific at. Throw in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, too, as scruffy bar-band front woman Ricki Randazzo (Meryl Streep) tears into Tom Petty’s jangly “American Girl” with a dead-eyed survivor’s stare. Sarcastic, bitter and chatty, Ricki barely holds onto her corporate grocery checkout job during the daytime, but those liabilities become assets at night, when her local fans howl appreciatively through the hits. Demme’s never been a hater, and even as Meryl Streep flings off weird sparks to her grizzled band mates the Flash, there’s an underlying realness to her that defies glibness. This zesty, defiantly awkward shambles of a film might be called a domestic drama, as it plucks its penniless main character from her beer-soaked California stage and sends her to the Midwest to deal with her wealthy ex-husband (Kevin Kline, playing off Streep as tenderly as in Sophie’s Choice) and their suicidal adult daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life progeny), a victim of Ricki’s long-ago abandonment. Tough stares and words await, very much of a piece with screenwriter Diablo Cody’s earlier credits, especially the underrated Young Adult, to which this feels a similarly arrested cousin. But that hardly does justice to a movie that gives Streep her
Like the black monolith in 2001, late novelist David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest casts a long shadow over the chatty, sharply observed The End of the Tour. The door-stopping 1996 book inspires several running gags: It's more than a thousand pages long, so it must be brilliant. It weighs in at over three pounds and stacks dangerously high. It makes women swoon, alienating them from their jealous writer boyfriends. Paradoxically, though, director James Ponsoldt's brainy comedy is built on the slenderest of spines—an extended interview made up of weaves and dodges—yet still manages to contain a blizzard of heartbreaking insights into loneliness, fame and ambition. Rolling Stone's David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent five days with the quirky Wallace (Jason Segel), recording their back-and-forth over car rides, late-night junk-food feasts and speaking engagements. That real-life conversation resulted in Lipsky's 2010 tragedy-tinged memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, but in the hands of Pulitzer-winning adapting screenwriter Donald Margulies, it becomes a spiky cinematic two-hander that rewards those who lean in. Eisenberg is fully within his neurotic element as Lipsky, skulking through NYC's literary hang KGB Bar, lunging at his doubtful editor for the Wallace gig and arriving in the author's snowy Illinois looking like a wet cat. Ponsoldt structures the film out of Lipsky's lingering reaction shots and you can see a riot of emotions on Eisenberg's face
In the unofficial book of Hollywood double standards, only teenage boys are allowed to fumble heroically into the wilds of sex. Most girls are either virginally waiting for Mr. Right or “slutty” supporting characters. So yay for indie drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which breaks the rules with Lena Dunham levels of brutal honesty (and humor). It’s the story of precocious 15-year-old Minnie (British actor Bel Powley, terrific), growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Her hippie mom (Kristen Wiig), unwilling to set boundaries, lets her daughter join in her boozy, coke-fueled parties. Dangerously bright and curious, Minnie slips into a sexual relationship with her mother’s easygoing boyfriend, Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård (who makes his character likable but never lets you forget that he’s one weak douche bag). At 35, Monroe might actually be less mature than Minnie is. It’s a squirm-inducing idea to build a plot around, but to the movie’s credit, the sex is dealt with incredibly sensitively, always with a female perspective in mind. Directed by first-timer Marielle Heller, Diary is based on the acclaimed hybrid novel by Phoebe Gloeckner that mixes words with comic strips, as does the film. Minnie is trying to work out what kind of woman she wants to be, constructing herself out of drugs, Iggy Pop and random hookups. I can’t think of another film that nails being a 15-year-old girl, when you sometimes wish the ground would swallow you whole, yet also when you feel mor
For Italian filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the cinema has always been linked to their childhood experiences during WWII—the story goes that they wandered into a screening of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan shortly after the fighting stopped and were thunderstruck by how it made sense of their own experiences. With 1982’s beautifully bittersweet The Night of Shooting Stars, the subject of an immaculate new restoration, the Tavianis were able to pay it forward. Framed as a bedtime story that a mother is telling her child, their film reanimates a bloody historical footnote through the eyes of six-year-old Cecilia (Micol Guidelli), someone young enough to find something wonderfully exciting about the madness of war. Set in and around the picturesque Italian town of San Marino during the twilight of its occupation, the Taviani’s episodic tragicomedy begins with a gaggle of citizens being told that the Germans have mined their houses, and that their only recourse is to take shelter in the local cathedral. In reality it was a trap, but the film graciously rewrites the past and allows a rabble of eccentric characters to escape the carnage—an old man named Galvano (Omero Antonutti) is neither trusting nor patient enough to wait for salvation, and so he leads those willing to follow him toward the dangerous hills beyond their home. A kaleidoscope of horrors that never strays far from a sense of childlike mischief, The Night of the Shooting Stars bridges the gap between
Only Aardman Animations—the British creators of Wallace & Gromit and other lovable, moldable claymation characters—could find an irresistible movie to be made about the story of an amnesiac farmer and his flock at loose in the big city. Much of the beauty of this big-hearted, stop-motion caper (a spin-off of an insanely successful BBC kids series) is the entire absence of decipherable language. Instead imagine grunts, mumbles, bleats and screams as Shaun the Sheep tries to engineer a day off from Mossy Bottom Farm but causes his bewildered owner to bang his head and wander off into the unnamed metropolis (which looks a lot like England’s Bristol, where Aardman has its HQ). Amid the chaos, it’s sometimes hard to work out exactly which sheep is Shaun, but that doesn’t matter when there are great slapstick scenes in a hospital, a hair salon, a fancy restaurant and an ominous animal pound. Maybe an hour would have been enough, yet even the slower patches have charm to burn.
Who dares to venture inside the head of Marlon Brando? This ghostly doc recalls the late actor’s life and work and opens with an eerie, lively computer animation of his face. It was digitized by an FX guru in the 1980s, allowing the On the Waterfront actor to return here for one last performance amid this film’s rush of old movie snippets and archival clips. Director Stevan Riley also had access to hours of audiotapes the elderly actor recorded himself, essentially allowing Brando to narrate his own biography, the wisdom of age giving otherwise familiar accounts of making The Godfather a dark, psychologically intriguing edge. “You’ve got to be your own analyst,” says a whispery, aging Brando. The man who emerged as a robust but sensitive star in the 1950s offers much frank introspection, some of it no doubt inspired by the late-life family tragedies with which Riley bookends his film. But it’s not all doom, gloom and personal disasters—the film also offers lucid insights on the links between the man and his movies. “Haven’t you got any pride left?” Brando asks of himself, musing on his 1960s career slump. He’d be proud of this one.
You’ve seen L.A.’s menacing Inglewood before—a hood of bouncing low-riders and uneasy staredowns—but not, we’re guessing, in an indie comedy that totally reinvents the teens-on-a-wacky-misadventure movie. Dope presents a trio of lovable dorks: Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). What do they like doing? Getting good grades, listening to classic ’90s hip-hop, BMX biking and playing in their punk band, Oreo (zing). You know, Malcolm says: “white stuff.” Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa never quite sends his nerdlings to the slaughterhouse, even as they accidentally get involved in a drug deal and the Molly underworld. Instead, he doubles down on an applying-to-Harvard satire that both upends demographic expectations while insisting (at times a bit strenuously) that we all aim a little higher. Dope has thrilling moments and flies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but its caustic intelligence glints fast and furious. Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson loved being nestled in the recording studio, especially, as Love & Mercy suggests, when the other guys were off chasing Barbara Anns in every port. To watch the delicate Paul Dano (a magically right choice with a beautiful voice) steer his ace session band through what would become Pet Sounds is to have a piece of essential rock history recreated right before your eyes. Bobby pins rattle charmingly on piano wires, bicycle bells chime, and “even the happy songs sound sad” (per pissed-off bandmate Mike Love). Wilson, a pop savant, was chasing some kind of dragon, and as the movie toggles years forward to the scared, overmedicated Wilson of the 1980s (John Cusack, absorbingly strange in the tougher part), you sense that the dragon bit back. Half the film moves toward mental breakdown, the other half toward emancipation. Best seen as an L.A. psychodrama that sometimes plays like Boogie Nights or Safe, sometimes like its own beast, Love & Mercy does an exquisite job with the interior spaces: cozy vocal booths, locked-off bedrooms, air-conditioned safety zones. (Not for nothing is a two-minute Wilson masterpiece called “In My Room.”) The script is by Oren Moverman, who performed a kind of jujitsu on Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There—his Wilson story is a lot more traditional, but more moving as well. There are some too-obvious metaphors (i.e., Brian struggling in the deep end of a swimming pool), but you forgive them. As stunning as the two l
Amy Schumer is a comedy superwoman: Her stand-up is funny as hell, she’s a viral sensation, and lately she’s become every feminist’s girl crush. Now she’s the best thing to happen to Hollywood since the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler double act. Schumer’s new autobiographical comedy, Trainwreck, about a commitment-phobic NYC writer, is the funniest film of the summer—outrageous and out to make you think. The posters say “from the guy who brought you Bridesmaids” (meaning superproducer Judd Apatow), but Trainwreck is more of a straightforward rom-com, with one big difference: Schumer plays the traditional “man” role. She’s hard-partying, promiscuous Amy, a writer for a Maxim-esque rag that publishes articles like “How to talk your girlfriend into a three-way.” But when assigned to interview a sports surgeon (Bill Hader, adorable), Amy cracks and gets serious. Trainwreck isn’t perfect. An emotionally weak ending feels like a cop-out. But you can forgive this film a lot. You forget how limited so many movies’ ideas of women are until Schumer launches into an extended tampon joke. It’s a film about everyday sexism and double standards. Schumer is calling this stuff out, but you only realize this when you stop laughing. Wince-inducing in many ways, Trainwreck has its priorities right.
From sidekicks to center-stage superstars, the Minions have busted out of the Despicable Me franchise and gone rogue in this berserk slice of semi-silent slapstick silliness. Little, yellow and essentially useless, the Minions are part of an animated tradition stretching back to the brooms in Fantasia, the Doozers in Fraggle Rock and the aliens in Toy Story. But can they carry an entire film? The answer—surprisingly, pleasingly and resoundingly—is yes. Cut loose from the family-values slushiness of their parent franchise, the Minions are free to indulge their basest, weirdest, most randomly hilarious instincts. The plot is simple and largely irrelevant. Set before Despicable Me in the heady summer of 1968, the film follows three Minions as they search for a new evil master to serve. They fix upon Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), a female supervillain making waves in the global community of evil. The film’s weakest aspect is, perhaps predictably, its human side: Scarlett is little more than a Cruella de Vil clone, though her feckless husband Herb (Jon Hamm) is louchely wonderful. And the geeky idea of a villainous subculture with its own fan conventions feels trite. But the action sequences are wild, the jokes relentlessly dumb-but-smart, and the sheer sense of anything-goes WTF-ness is glorious.
Guy Ritchie’s reboot of the chatty 1960s spy TV series that no one under 50 remembers has a sunny, tongue-in-cheek vibe—this isn't the Cold War so much as a warm one. Its European setting is less about paying homage to its vague influences (Ian Fleming, John le Carré, etc.) and more of an excuse to embrace sharply suited adventure: all pulp and no politics. This U.N.C.L.E. prefers to giggle where the new-school James Bond would grimace and to deliver a hearty backslap where Le Carré would shoot his doomed characters in the back. A familiar story of spies, disloyalty, twists, double-crossing and a nuclear plot to destroy the globe, the movie hops from Berlin to Rome, as Henry Cavill’s American spy and Armie Hammer’s Eastern Bloc stooge team up, with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) in tow. It’s not quite knowing enough to be a spoof—which is lucky, as that can get tired quickly—but it’s not far off. This is a film that’s one step from winking at you midscene. All this charm is a little surprising considering that, on paper, its trio of leads—Cavill, Hammer and Vikander—looks as charismatic as cardboard. As it turns out, the two men have an especially sharp rapport, a dynamic Ritchie previously conjured up between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in his Sherlock Holmes films. You wonder if this is what the director is best at now: period action bromances set in cartoonlike worlds just enough removed from our own so that he doesn’t have to bother with subtlety. He’s still not great
The fourth installment of George Miller’s rambunctious postapocalyptic saga arrives in theaters like a tornado tearing through a tea party. In an age of weightless spectacles that studios whittle down from visions to products, here’s a movie that feels like it was made by kidnapping $150 million of Warner Bros.’ money, absconding with it to the Namibian desert, and sending footage back to Hollywood like the amputated body parts of a ransomed hostage. It’s been 30 years since we last watched Max Rockatansky drift into the horizon, but the road warrior hasn’t aged a day. Instead, he’s been transformed from a reluctantly charismatic Mel Gibson into a terse Tom Hardy, the franchise shedding its skin with the serialized ease of the James Bond films. Much has changed to the wasteland that Max wanders, however. While previous episodes were set amidst the rubble of a ruined world, Fury Road finds us having faded much further into the rear-view mirror, the colorful hypersaturated landscapes locating this story closer to the dawn of a new civilization than the twilight of an old one. Things begin inside the immense mountain stronghold ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ghoulishly inbred monster who lords over a society that guzzles its citizens like fuel. Women are drained for their breast milk, girls are farmed for their wombs, and men like Max are used as human hood ornaments called “bloodbags.” Unsurprisingly, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Joe’s one-armed lieutena
How fitting that the last Studio Ghibli film for the foreseeable future is a tender, elegiac story about a young woman who learns the power of drawing (from) the past. Since 1985, Studio Ghibli has produced the most consistently magical and iconic slate of any movie studio on the planet, its name becoming a globally understood shorthand for the kind of animated entertainment that kids should inherit like a birthright. Chief among the many bittersweet pleasures of When Marnie Was There is that its virtues confirm what Ghibli stood for, and its insufficiencies (however modest) confirm that it’s time to say goodbye. Adapted from a 1967 novel of the same name by late British writer Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There orients us toward memories of a richer time. It’s a gentle seaside melodrama that’s touched with the urgent simplicity of a quintessential final film. (Few movies set on the water have been so focused on their wake.) In true Ghibli fashion, the plot concerns an adolescent girl who’s thrust into a strange new world that challenges her natural solipsism. Anna (Takatsuki) is a 12-year-old orphan who believes she’s a burden on her foster mom, which might explain why she’s always leaving herself out of the impressive sketches she draws of the people around her. After suffering an asthma attack, Anna is sent to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, who live in a small village along the shores of Hokkaido. On her first night there, the girl spies a dilapidated mans
The first ladies of a cappella are back, three years after Pitch Perfect, and they’re again hitting the high notes: This sequel opens as all-girl group the Bellas are branded a national disgrace after an accidental vagina-flashing incident involving Barack Obama. The girls are singing to the President in front of a crowd of thousands when “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson, genius) has a wardrobe malfunction. The TV news coverage is hilarious (“the FBI has ruled out terrorism”). President Nixon had Watergate—this is Muffgate. Nothing in the rest of the film comes close to being as funny, and there’s definitely one song too many. But Pitch Perfect 2 has its Spinal Tap moments: The only way the Bellas can redeem themselves is to win at the a cappella world championships in Holland—an event that’s like Gov Ball for nerds. Standing in their way is the technofierce German group Das Sound Machine (or the Deutsche Bags, as the Bellas call them). Pitch Perfect 2 is totally goofy but very sweet. As with the first film, you’ll love the instantly quotable gems (“What did you say? I don’t speak Loser”) and Wilson herself, who could make a Republican campaign speech riotous.
“Kill that house!” A man draped in furs stands in the middle of an endless wheat field and commands his ragtag posse of killers to lay waste to the only home in sight. What follows is one of the greatest shoot-outs this side of Sergio Leone, violently punctuating a fable about a place so preoccupied with survival that no one in it can afford to take a hand off their holster. An angular Western that sublimates the fading promise of the New World into a fairy tale of unrequited love, Slow West starts with “once upon a time” and ends with this crackle of incredible savagery. Narrated by a cynical Irish bounty hunter called Silas (Michael Fassbender, excellent), the film tells of a 16-year-old boy named Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s sailed across the ocean from Scotland in search of his sweetheart, Rose. The naive Jay is described as a “jackrabbit in a den of wolves”—he might be the only person west of the Mississippi unaware that Rose has a massive bounty on her head. But Silas knows the score when he offers to escort Jay through Colorado. Meanwhile, a gang of unsympathetic vultures has picked up the scent. Like any good Western, Slow West percolates with the constant threat of violence, but debuting feature director John Maclean wrings the genre for its mythic value. Everything in his film is touched by the daydream delusions of its hero, especially Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous cinematography, glazing a brutal chapter of American history with the elusive innocence of young love. Jay