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Good news: Your weekend moviegoing needs have been simplified. Every Thursday morning, our What To See guide will highlight the new releases opening in New York City and NYC repertory screenings that are most worth your time.
Here's your guide for the weekend of August 21 – August 23.
Because you slept on Adventureland, and it's time to wake up…
American Ultra (2015)
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale, Bill Pullman
There's an undeniably beating heart tucked underneath all of the gunfire, explosions and blood splatter in American Ultra, an at times cartoonish action romp that’s much more heartfelt than one might anticipate.
In a set-up that was handled much better in last year’s terrific genre-bender The Guest, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a direction-less stoner who loves his girlfriend, Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart), but hates that he, as he sees it, is holding her back in life. Their world gets rocked with bullets and homicide when Mike realizes that his quirky character ticks—mainly paralyzing fear of being too far away from home—stem from past governmental experimentation. His stoner look is just a cover-up for the badass killing machine the C.I.A. programmed him into, and now those law-enforcing handlers want to terminate him.
Directed by Project X helmer Nima Nourizadeh, American Ultra is tonally schizophrenic, and when it’s trying to be a heightened, comedic and gory action ride, something akin to this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, it's too sloppily executed and frantic to hit its mark. But the flipside to the film’s fighter personality is a lover, and that’s where American Ultra works surprisingly well. Continuing the formidable chemistry they first displayed in the underrated coming-of-age flick Adventureland, Eisenberg and Stewart enhance Mike and Phoebe's romance with heartwarming pathos and a natural playfulness. Their performances elevate the otherwise silly American Ultra into one of the summer’s best love stories.
Where to see it: Opening in wide release
Because Joe Swanberg's starriest film yet might also be his best...
Digging for Fire (2015)
Director: Joe Swanberg
Stars: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jane Adams, Mike Birbiglia, Orlando Bloom, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell, Timothy Simons, Jenny Slate
Prolific mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg has been inching closer and closer onto Hollywood’s radar since 2012's Olivia Wilde-starrer Drinking Buddies and the films show it. Visibly bigger budgets, wider indie distribution, and starrier A-list casts are quickly becoming staples of Swanberg’s particular brand of microcinema, even though any director who compiles Jane Adams, Judith Light, and Jenny Slate into his latest extensive ensemble can’t fully be accused of going Hollywood. And, moreover, Swanberg hasn’t dramatically altered his wholly improvised, character-driven, small-scale style of storytelling to accommodate this surging status. Or, at least, he has yet to...
Swanberg’s Digging with Fire tells what is probably his most focused and cohesive narrative to-date: a lax, middle-class L.A. husband (Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the basically script-less feature) finds a bone and a gun in the backyard of an anonymous female movie star whose Hollywood home he and his tightly-wound wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) are staying in for the summer, along with their three-year-old son (Jude Swanberg, the director’s real-life progeny, who’s already appeared in a handful of indies). The couple then splits for the weekend. She heads off to her parents’ (Light and Sam Elliott) and meets a hunky restaurant owner (Orlando Bloom). He throws a raucous, bro-centric get-together with Sam Rockwell and Chris Messina and continues to dig up the backyard, instead of doing the couple’s taxes, as requested. Eventually some coke comes out, the ensemble swells, and the marital drift between our two protagonists begins to broaden.
It’s a fine, freewheeling story that’s aided by the gorgeous, 35mm photography of Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild and Swanberg’s Buddies and Happy Christmas), as well as a terrific ensemble that stretches to include Brie Larson as Johnson’s game digging companion and Mike Birbiglia, doing his amusingly befuddled thing as a concerned killjoy. Johnson and DeWitt each do nimble jobs at delineating a loving but dispassionate marriage with appropriate restraint and relatively little screen time together, but the film is really a testament to Swanberg’s elegantly subtle aims and slowly-growing artistic ambition.
As Johnson’s character determinedly digs around the Hollywood hills for something grander yet evasive, it’s hard not to see the current state of Swanberg’s own career up on screen. His name is certainly growing but he’s not selling out, and even in spite of some hazy, late-breaking epiphanies, Digging with Fire is his most accomplished film yet. It's a worthy spiritual successor to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and other mid-range dramedies by the late writer-director Paul Mazursky, to whom the film is dedicated. Swanberg may have yet to fully reach the creative highs of Mazursky’s best and most thoughtful works, but he’s at least making the effort, and it’s admirably on his own terms. —Matthew Eng
Where to see it: IFC Center, Friday and Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m., 6:25 p.m., 8:25 p.m., 10:25 p.m., 12:10 a.m.; Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m., 6:25 p.m., 8:25 p.m., 10:25 p.m.
Get reacquainted with the debuts of two filmmaking titans…
The Evil Dead (1981) and She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Directors: Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It)
Every world-renowned filmmaker has to start somewhere. For some, like James "Record Breaker" Cameron, it's in schlocky B-movies (see: 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning); for others, like horror master Wes Craven, it’s in, well, trashy skin flicks. Some, though, break onto the scene with critically acclaimed indie darlings that are eventually revered as undeniable classics of their respective genres. That's obviously the ideal route. Two prime examples are Sam Raimi, whose eclectic career reached its money-making peak with the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man movies, and Spike Lee, whose resume needs no explanation.
As part of their nearly over "Indie ’80s" series, BAM’s programmers are saluting Raimi's and Lee’s timeless debuts in glorious 35mm. On Friday, it's Raimi's no-budget splatterfest The Evil Dead, a horror milestone that’s unintentionally funny and adorably cheesy in spots but also consistently insane and full of masterful camera work and impeccably staged action set-pieces. That's followed on Saturday by Lee's black-and-white calling card She’s Gotta Have It, the rare rom-com starring black actors that’s not on par with the low-rent and amateurish movies played on BET during primetime hours; rather, She’s Gotta Have It is a beautifully realized look at a strong, confident woman (played greatly by Tracy Camilla Johns) who's not afraid to challenge taboos. Think of it as the original Trainwreck.
Where to see it: The Evil Dead, BAM Rose Cinemas, Friday at 2:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m.
She's Gotta Have It, BAM Rose Cinemas, Sunday at 7:00 p.m., 9:30 p.m.
Without this film, there'd be no Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)…
Shaolin and Wu-Tang (1983)
Director: Gordon Liu
Stars: Gordon Liu, Adam Cheng, Li Ching, Idy Chan
If you're a Wu-Tang Clan fan, chances are you’ve already heard the audio version of Gordon Liu's Shaolin and Wu-Tang. Hugely passionate fans of martial arts cinema, and particularly Liu’s action-heavy brand of kung-fu moviemaking, Staten Island’s seminal rap crew have interspersed clips from Liu’s films into their albums, a unique and always entertaining tactic done to its greatest effect on Genius/GZA's brilliant 1995 solo record, Liquid Swords. Perhaps the Clan’s biggest martial arts junkie, producer/leader RZA separated himself from hip-hop beat-makers like Dr. Dre and DJ Premier by building tracks around these films’ fight sequences, using grunts and kick impact noises the ways other producers use snares and synthesizers.
But how many Wu-Tang fans have actually watched any of the group’s personal favorite movies? They can begin fixing that this weekend by heading to Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, where Liu’s Shaolin and Wu-Tang, about a war between two rival martial arts schools, will be presented as a beer-friendly, stand-up-and-cheer midnight movie. To prepare for it, just pop in Wu's 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and start from the opening track, "Bring Da Ruckus," which opens with the line, "The Shaolin and Wu-Tang could be dangerous."
Bring it on, indeed.
Where to see it: Nitehawk Cinema, Friday and Saturday at 12:15 a.m.
Because if the almighty Roger Corman is in the building, you should also be there…
A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Director: Roger Corman
What would cinema look like without Roger Corman? Pretty barren, actually. The original B-movie champion, Corman revolutionized the independent film scene back in the 1950s and '60s producing and directing super-low-budget genre flicks without any big-wig studio interferences. With crab monsters and sex-crazed motorcycle bandits, he blazed the trail that modern-day horror producers like Jason Blum—he of Paranormal Activity, Sinister, and Insidious notoriety—have since adopted. He was also a gatekeeper of sorts, giving upstart young filmmakers their first shots, and those upstarts included then-nobodies like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, and Peter Bogdanovich. So, yeah, no big deal.
Through all of his facilitations and behind-the-scenes influencing, though, Corman's skills as a director have often been overlooked. NYC’s Anthology Film Archives has been working to change that, hosting an all-Corman blowout that culminates with this weekend’s two-day celebration, with Roger Corman in attendance. First up is A Bucket of Blood, Corman's first horror-comedy, which stars his go-to actor, and all-around national treasure, Dick Miller as a freaky beatnik who becomes an art scene commodity by killing animals and people and turning their corpses into sculptures. The second feature, The Tomb of Ligeia, is one of Corman's beloved Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, starring Vincent Price as a widower whose new marriage is complicated by his deceased ex's unhappy spirit.
Where to see it: A Bucket of Blood - Anthology Film Archives, Saturday at 7:00 p.m. (with Roger Corman in-person to introduce the movie)
The Tomb of Ligeia - Anthology Film Archives, Sunday at 9:00 p.m. (with Roger Corman and actress Elizabeth "Ligeia" Shepherd in-person for a Q&A)