*After the mixed-bag of While we’re Young, the delightful Mistress America is a return to top form for director Noah Baumbach, featuring a towering, all-the-awards-worthy performance from his co-writer Greta Gerwig.
*The crackling chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in The End of the Tour is essential for a film that finds all its action in conversation.
*Also starring Jesse Eisenberg, the stoner superspy action comedy American Ultra is just as unfocused, hazy and nihilistic as its hero, which is a good thing, until it isn’t.
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and the Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol in Sebastopol.
Nope, not the Zac Efron goes EDM drama. Darwin’s Nightmare director Hubert Sauper writes, directs and edits this rambling, sneakily effective documentary about modern-day colonialism in Sudan. This adventurous Frenchman also pilots an ultralight plane of his own design – the aerial shots of the oil fields are breathtaking – and appears to serve as a one-man movie crew here, capturing the cultural and environmental decimation with a powerful immediacy. We Come as Friends coalesces slowly, weighed down by some strained attempts at narrative poetry, and it could have easily lost ten to fifteen minutes of Sudanese natives goofing on Sauper’s camera, but eventually the film hits its stride. Sauper comes to Sudan on the eve of a referendum to split oil- and mineral-rich South Sudan from the genocidal government of the north, arriving at the intersection of corporate, religious and nationalist interests. After achieving independence, South Sudan becomes a Christian nation, and a new set of starry-eyed missionaries show up with some very 17th-century views on African culture, while Chinese and American corporate P.R. teams compete for the most unctuous soundbite. The film is not above scoring easy points, like the sly cutaway to an African woman emptying garbage while U.N. peacekeepers party in the next room, but it works as an on-the-ground diary of democratic devastation in action.
After the entertaining but unfocused mixed bag of While we’re Young, Noah Baumbach gets back to top form with the utterly charming Mistress America, co-written with and starring Greta Gerwig. She gives a towering, all-the-awards-worthy performance as Brooke, an ambitious, pretentious, blindly outgoing and borderline bipolar free spirit who draws her prospective sister-in-law Tracy (Lola Kirke, also excellent as this lonely and impressionable college student) into her tractor beam of self-delusion. As played by Gerwig, Brooke is a hipster Holly Golightly for the Twitter age with the theatrical bluster of Auntie Mame and the fashion sense of Annie Hall – anyone who doesn’t find her absolutely delightful here can go fly a kite. Mistress America combines the millennial narcissism of Frances Ha with the jaundiced observation of Greenberg and pitches it at the speed of screwball comedy, resulting in a sharp, funny film about female friendship dynamics, with maybe more quotable lines per second than any American movie since Anchorman. Also: Hot Chocolate!
*Opens today at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
“I can’t stand German songs anymore.” A left-field smash last year at TIFF, Christian Petzold’s quietly mournful post-WWII elegy Phoenix whispers infinite thematic and narrative echoes of Vertigo, but the film’s cold-blooded aloofness failed to fully captivate me. As the war comes to a close, a horribly burned woman named Nelly (Nina Hoss, very good) is smuggled across the German border and into a medical clinic, where the doctor offers her a new face – the old ones are “out of fashion,” after all. Nelly insists on keeping as much of her old face as possible, and despite the protestations of her pro-Israel savior Lene (“I can’t forget so easily.”), she returns to Berlin to reconnect with Johnny, the husband who betrayed her to the Nazis and left her for dead. When Nelly finally finds Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her, but instead recruits her into a scheme to impersonate his presumed dead wife and collect on the inheritance. Phoenix is the name of a creepo nightclub in the American sector where Nelly finds Johnny (it never fails to impress me when destitute movie towns are able to support a thriving surrealist nightclub scene), but Nelly is also a literal phoenix, rising from her own scorched ashes to live anew, with help from her own betrayer – “He’s made me back into Nelly again.” Petzold slowly and deliberately sketches out a world struck dumb by self-imposed amnesia, and it ends at a wallop of a destination, but that doesn’t fully excuse the bumpy journey.
*Jason Segel does great work in an atypical role as writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, resisting the temptation of impersonation in order to cut at something deeper and more personal—he’s a lot more than a bandanna and a scraggly wig.
*Despite a high level of craft and a cast of dead ringers, the all-too-conventional biopic Straight Outta Compton offers a winners’ history of the gangsta rap glory days.
*Cop Car is a marginally effective speck of a thriller, with a script that feels like a placeholder that no one remembered to eventually write.
*A breezy but didactic documentary about the decades-long rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Best of Enemies undermines its own compelling period footage by enlisting an armada of talking heads to explain it to you.
*The praise heaped upon Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is utterly baffling – Cache comparisons? Guys…no. – but I would have to spoil the film’s ending in order to fully explain why I hate it so much.
Fort Tilden (2015; Dir.: Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco. Also premieres tomorrow on VOD services.
“We fucked up summer.” The existential crises of the young, privileged, bored, white, female, and loathsome are blisteringly sent up in this freakin’ hilarious, stubbornly unsentimental NYC-set comedy. Fort Tilden follows roommates/emotionally abusive besties Harper and Allie (Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty, both ridiculously good), a two-woman wrecking crew in rompers, as they journey from the unfriendly confines of hipster paradise Williamsburg into the heart of “deep Brooklyn” in search of some late-summer snogging. Their destination: the beach by the abandoned Fort Tilden, where they’ve made plans to meet a cute boy that they both like, but the short daytrip quickly becomes a Sisyphean task, with the helpless heroines getting all-too-easily distracted by discount clothes, brazen bike thieves, flavored macaroons, Molly dealers, undrinkable iced coffees, and “the perfect umbrella barrel.” Harper and Allie are polar opposites – Harper is the “So go then.” dominant living off of her evil industrialist father, while Allie is the comparatively responsible yet equally shallow submissive who’s joining the Peace Corps so that she can talk about joining the Peace Corps – but they’re just two insecure sides of the same passive-aggressive coin. These characters are uniformly egomaniacal and insincere and irresponsible and poison-tongued (yet strangely soulful and fully realized at the same time), and while that’s certainly not for all comedic tastes, in the hands of writer-directors Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers it makes for an insanely quotable film, almost rivaling next week’s Noah Baumbach joint Mistress America.