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While the makers of multimillion dollar films tend not to overthink the politics, there’s usually detectable angst in election year cinema. Not in 2016. The best summer-style film of the year so far, Captain America: Civil Wars took a pass on politics. Rather than make a decision on foreign policy, Cap gets out of America.
Nothing on the summer film roster seems to have the angst of previous election year offerings, such as The Dark Knight (2008) or The Avengers (2012). Yes, the latter was more escapist than the steeped-in-emergency Batman movie, but Agent Colson’s words to Loki—”You’re gonna lose. It’s in your nature. You lack conviction”—still seem the epitaph for Mitt Romney’s $40 million presidential campaign.
Public mourning over the recent death of Darwyn Cooke, a celebrated cartoonist who always sought the light and the playful side of DC’s caped assets, made some wonder if the trend toward adult superheroes had been a dead end. Evidence would be a Batman v. Superman fight that was too cruel and downbeat for many viewers, and the upcoming Dirty Dozen goes to Gotham titled Suicide Squad (Aug. 5) which hopes to be the new Deadpool.
Yet the R-rated animated version of the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke (July 23) demonstrates why it’s a smart idea to take Batman downtown. Author Alan Moore here explained why the idea of Batman persists, while encompassing self-doubts about the hero’s sanity, as well as his fear of murdering The Joker, the nemesis who has been begging for death for years. In this most intelligent of all Batman adventures, Moore linked the two as creatures warped by a moment’s violence. While the animation in the previews for the adaptation lacks the clarity of Brian Bolland’s graphics in the book, this VOD release reunites the best actor ever to play Batman (namely, the voice actor Kevin Conroy) and Mark Hamill’s Joker.
The rest of the summer movies may lack such food for thought. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, brings back the over-enthusiastic, slimy, snot-green shell-backed talking dongs. It’s mean to put it that way, maybe, but then producer Michael Bay’s been celebrating the phallus for years. Ghostbusters‘s (July 15) cast’s sex change has caused some Maria Callas-worthy howls of anguish about these relentlessly PC times, but even if the original was a kid-pleaser, there is much room for improvement from an original vaguely remembered as a comedy classic. Consider the difference between Ernie Hudson then—a dull sidekick—and the smooth, 71-year-old actor on Frankie and Grace.) A new Tarzan (July 1), a remade Ben Hur (Aug 19) and Jason Bourne again (Jul 29) make for a summer of old names and new hype.
The Lobster | May 27
An Ionesco-like absurdist parable. Some smooth yet totalitarian government of a near-future insists on coupling up its citizens. The sad-sack David (Colin Farrell) walls up at a rainy, clinical hotel where the residents get only a short time to find a mate for life. If they don’t, they endure some sort of mysterious reverse Dr. Moreau surgery that will turn them into an animal of their pick. (David chooses a lobster.) Greece’s Yorgos (Dogtooth) Lanthimos assembled an impressive cast for this speculative fiction tale, with Rachel Weisz as the love-object David meets too late, and John C. Reilly (with an Elmer Fudd accent) as another forlorn intern. It’ll be loved and hated, sometimes by the same people. But it’s distinctive. There hasn’t ever been such a sharp film about the endless pressure on singletons to hook up. I suspect the more traditional the culture—the more aunts and grannies you had nagging you to get married—the more incisive and funny The Lobster would seem.
X-Men: Apocalypse | May 27
It’s an alternate version of 1983. From an ancient pyramid arises a god-like destructive force—a blue-skinned deity (Oscar Issacs) who requires his own host of four demons. The angry god augments the powers of a quartet of mutants, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who had tried to make a new life for himself as a steelworker in Communist Poland. Meanwhile Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Xavier school try to figure out a strategy to stop the apparently unstoppable. Favorite mutants come and go, including Wolverine, at this point still known as Weapon X (Hugh Jackman), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), the worm-like Caliban (Tomas Lemarquis) who refers to himself in the third person, the pious Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters, the loosest and least mannered of the actors here) upstaging the mosh pit as he did in this film’s predecessor.
Diary of a Chambermaid | Jun 17
In The Lobster, she was an austere and violent revolutionary leader. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, she was a turquoise-haired upper-class girl with an affection for a fleshy commoner. And in Spectre, she was a disdainful physician whose arc from contempt to affection was accelerated by the speed of living in James Bond’s world. Here Lea Seydoux reunites with director Benoit Jacquot (Farewell My Queen) in an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau novel previously adapted by Jean Renoir (1946) and Luis Bunuel (1963). The beautiful, haughty actress plays a maid in a suffocating provincial household, sexually harassed by the master of the house, and intrigued by a thuggish gardener (Vincent Lindon) who shares her contempt for her bosses. Music by Bruno Coulais.
The Purge 2 | Jul 1
Admittedly, the previews for writer-director James Monaco’s allegorical horror film have been playing too often in theaters—inducing that feeling of “I would even rather see the horrible coming attractions for Angry Birds than this.” Likely someone at the various theaters liked the looks of The Purge 2, and thought that its sour take on an election year could be a draw. And the pop-ups of the masks worn by the murderers on the warpath are pretty unsettling (they look far scarier than the allegedly scary Suicide Squad). This sequel regards The Purge night of 2020, where it’s open season on our fellow citizens … but the front runner for the United States presidency (Elizabeth Mitchell) is promising to do away with the annual free-for-all. And that makes the average citizens out there—the ones who like to maybe put on a mask once a year and blow off a little steam killing their neighbors—angry. To be released on July 1 as counter-programming to Independence Day: Resurgence (this time, the interstellar invaders brought computer virus protection). Unlike the latest Roland Emmerich, we can expect The Purge 2 to have at least a bit of pith.
Star Trek: Beyond | Jul 22
Justin Lin, the Taiwan-born director who revived the Fast and The Furious franchise, gets some far faster vehicles to direct than racing cars doing Tokyo drifts. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto return as Kirk and Spock, whose ship is attacked by a mysterious weapon and destroyed. The Enterprise crew gets marooned at the edge of known space on a planet that looks a lot like British Columbia; it’s alive with angry aliens who want nothing to do with the Federation. Co-star Simon Pegg (as Scotty) is one of the five credited writers. Wanting to watch this is a triumph of hope over experience, considering how slapdash the second Star Trek was. But again, there is Lin behind the camera—the man’s a good enough director to make even Vin Diesel look like a raffish, warm human being.
Nerve | Jul 27
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) direct this flamboyant young-adult novel adaptation. An internet-wide truth or dare game offers you a choice of being a player or a watcher. It’s a good idea to choose the latter: Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Palo Alto’s own Dave Franco) team up and made to jump through increasingly outlandish hoops to please a vast online audience. Rare indeed is the YA novel that doesn’t synopsize into something that sounds like a movie someone made 10 or 15 years back. Nerve isn’t that rare: David Fincher’s least-popular film The Game (1997) went down this road. But the lively stars promise fun, and Michael Simmonds’ neon-bright photography in the trailers seems almost as psychedelic as Benoit Debbie’s work for Gaspar Noe in Enter the Void.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You | Jul
A profile of the producer and writer who transformed television at the cusp of the 1970s and beyond, and who later became a powerbroker in the Democratic party. Lear’s Sanford and Son bleached yet preserved irresistible chitlin-circuit comedy for a global audience. Endless reruns prove that Redd Foxx is as enormously funny in 2016 as he was in 1975. Lear’s All in the Family similarly stands up to the decades well. If the malapropistic Archie Bunker is wrong about women and minorities, he’s certainly wise about the character of his mooching, meat-headed son in law (actor turned director Rob Reiner). Heidi Ewing and Rachel Gray (Jesus Camp) direct this documentary about the producer who remade the sitcom into his own image, making it tangy and politically relevant. Lear (93 years old) is interviewed, as is San Jose’s own Adrienne Barbeau, the co-star of Lear’s TV show Maude.
Hell or High Water | Aug
Overserious movies about the west can be a real sleeping pill. Yet there’s a certain vigor in the trailers for crime story about a pair of brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster—the latter a real vet of the overserious postmodern western, as of 3:10 To Yuma and Ain’ t Those Bodies Saints). Maybe the lure is seeing Pine go authentic-looking Texan, or watching Jeff Bridges’ take on the the standard-aged Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges) on one last case. It’s directed by David MacKenzie (most recently of the prison drama Starred Up) and scripted by Taylor Sheridan, the scriptwriter of Sicario.
Sunset Song | May 27
Agynes Deyn plays a Scottish farm girl who endures—for as long as she can—the erosion of her family in the years before World War I. The director Terence Davies, now 70, bravely never gave up on his plan to film Lewis Grassick Gibbon’s novel, despite constant reversals over the last 20 years. Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) has never been a director for the restless—silences and long takes are his way of evoking Great Britain’s past. This empathetic, clear-eyed retriever of history, whose last film The Deep Blue Sea was one of the best of 2012, has been a spellbinder for decades. And he hasn’t made a film about the agrarian life as such—it’ll be a change of palate and style. If it’s a Davies film, it will be, in a word, beautiful.
The Final Master | Jun
Haofeng Xu (writer of The Grandmaster) wrote and directed this martial arts movie about China between World Wars I and II—so it’s a costumer with gowns, cheong-sams, and straw hats. An aspiring teacher (Chen Shi) must win a series of eight fights with rival schools in order to open his own academy. Blade-work proves essential to this mayhem-filled Chinese hit, which aims for realistic stuntwork instead of green-screen acrobatics.