One of the hottest summers on record in the U.S. is nearing its end, but of course, it being August, there’s still plenty of sweating to do. There’s no better time to slip into a dark, air-conditioned movie theater and enjoy a movie or two. Undoubtedly, you’ll have plenty of intriguing options, even if there’s been a long-held stigma that this month is pretty much dumping ground for weaker studio efforts. Sometimes, that notion holds true (as some of our picks below look like they could be exactly that kind of thing) and other times films have led to many, many millions of box office dollars (see: “Guardians of the Galaxy” just last year).
The blockbuster choices become more slim this time of year, all the better to make room for smaller, off-the-beaten path films for you to seek out in theaters or via VOD. It’s curious how the marketing machine really slows down in August, we noticed a decline in reviews for many of our choices this month. The lack of reviews is its own type of a potentially dangerous signifier: studios may be scared of bad buzz, so they hold tight on their review embargoes until the last possible moment. Fear not, dear readers, we at The Playlist are here to help make your choices easier and clue you into what’s worth your time. You may notice there’s a heavy leaning on directors for the film options below, something we’ve always relied on to help us decide what’s worth seeing. Please let us know if we missed a film you deem worth seeing, and especially if we failed to highlight other noteworthy elements.
Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.
What You Need To Know: Most of the buzz for this superhero reboot (this franchise’s third fresh start, for those keeping track at home) has been on the negative side, focusing on director Josh Trank’s (“Chronicle”) reported “erratic behavior” on set, which lead to his being nixed as director of one of the many upcoming “Star Wars” spinoff movies. Trank eventually responded, saying he dropped that film to instead focus on something original for his next project, and it’s a smart move from the still young and (based off “Chronicle”) clearly talented filmmaker. With “Fantastic Four,” Trank joins Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards as indie-genre darlings who made a speedy, massive leap from small, hyped-up debuts to big league sophomore efforts. However, is it a bad sign that the majority of the press have yet to see the movie? We’ll find out soon enough.
Release Date: August 7
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“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
What You Need To Know: When we caught this “provocative, brutally honest, R-rated” coming-of-ager at Sundance this year, our own Rodrigo Perez noted there aren’t enough stories like this being made for cinemas writing, “[Marielle] Heller’s vividly drawn debut feature certainly delivers in this regard, with a rich and expressively effervescent bildungsroman story.” You may have seen Heller in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “MacGruber” to name a few of her acting credits, but here she takes the leap as writer and director, adapting cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner‘s graphic novels, and deserves credit where it’s due: she looks to have been the right choice. ‘Diary’ has been killing it with us snooty, hard-to-please critic-types ever since the film had its festival debut in January. Hopefully, audiences will agree, and we’ll get to see more from Heller in the near future. Lead Bel Powley stars alongside Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and Christopher Meloni, and there’s a damn good soundtrack too (featuring The Stooges, T-Rex, Heart, Nico, Mott The Hoople).
Release Date: August 7
“Ricki and the Flash”
Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family.
What You Need To Know: If nothing else, the Oscar pedigree runs deep on this late summer bid for adult counterprogramming. Three-time winner (and perpetual nominee) Meryl Streep leads in the titular role; Best Actor winner Kevin Kline is in the mix; the script is from “Juno” writer (and Oscar winner) Diablo Cody; and it’s directed by Jonathan Demme, who of course won Best Director for “Silence of the Lambs.” So yeah, the award force is strong with this film about an aging rocker who has spent more time on the road than at home, who reconnects with her children who are going through various crises. This material is right in the wheelhouse of the writer and director, with music playing a strong part in both their careers (especially Demme, who’s made “Stop Making Sense” and several Neil Young docs). No reviews out there yet, but the trailer is solid and also reminds us that Rick Springfield is involved, and that Streep’s daughter (Mamie Gunnar) plays… wait for it… her daughter in the film. Consider us very curious about this one.
Release Date: August 7
“Tom At the Farm”
Synopsis: A grieving man meets his lover’s family, who were not aware of their son’s sexual orientation.
What You Need To Know: Ah, independent/art-house movie distribution is a crazy, sometimes illogical game that you just can’t win. Thankfully, though, the good folks at Amplify have decided to push this fourth feature from French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan (“Mommy,” “Laurence Anyways”), which debuted at Venice in 2013—where we called it “certainly his best film” (to date, at that time)—only for it to be shelved for years. Soon enough it’ll be in select U.S. theaters (check your local cinema if you have one) and VOD so we can catch up with what looks to be a fascinating departure for Dolan. We hear this one is more twisted, nasty and far-more genre-inflected than his other work. If you’ve seen any of the writer/director’s (and sometimes actor, here he plays the titular character) films, there’s no denying the kid’s got mad talent, and he shows it both in front of the camera, and behind it too. This effort is far, far different than anything you’ve seen from him before.
Release Date: August 14
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Synopsis: In the early 1960s, a CIA agent and KGB operative team up for a mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.
What You Need To Know: This adaptation of the 1964 TV show was supposed to come out in January this year, only for Warner Bros. to shift to this late summer slot, probably banking on it nabbing some late summer escapist dollars (if there are any left over). No reviews out there yet, but word is that it may be a little rough around the edges. But fear not, there’s still plenty to be excited about. First and foremost is Alicia Vikander, who’s already given one of the best performances this year in “Ex Machina,” and all we can do is hope she gets time to shine even though she’s third-billed behind leads Armie Hammer and Superman himself, Henry Cavill. This project has been going in and out of development for a while now, at different times and iterations linked to Quentin Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn and Steven Soderbergh. It’ll be here soon, and though we do wonder who exactly this is for (is this brand recognition really that strong?), it could be good old fashioned light and fun bit of spy entertainment.
Release Date: August 14
“Straight Outta Compton”
Synopsis: The group NWA emerges from the streets of Compton, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes pop culture with their music and tales about life in the hood.
What You Need To Know: The music biopic is a well-worn subgenre, but not enough of them have been made about rappers (except for “Notorious” there’s pretty much nothing else), where there’s plenty of rich material to mine for great stories. Rodrigo Perez mentioned this in his recent review of ‘Compton’, where he gave it a B-, citing a lengthy runtime (2.5 hours) and some unfortunately orthodox concessions in the writing and storytelling. But that review also entices, adding that the film gets the music right, which is the most important aspect here after all. “Lots of little quibbles and problems aside, one suspects audiences will have far less issues… [the] crowd-pleasing formulaic narrative will make it go down smoothly with moviegoers looking to indulge in a nostalgic trip down memory lane that in many ways defined or touched their youth… As a largely proud and vigorous demonstration of African-American artistry, resilience, and impact, that’s certainly something worth championing.”
Release Date: August 14
Synopsis: A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister.
What You Need To Know: New York auteur Noah Baumbach is in the midst of an exciting bout of high productivity. This is his second feature to come out this year, and we certainly hope he can keep up the quality with the pace moving forward. Given the strength of this latest team-up with co-writer/star/partner Greta Gerwig and their previous work “Frances Ha,” along with this year’s indie hit “While We’re Young,” I’d argue he should move this fast on the regular. These three recent films have a real snappiness to them, unencumbered by Baumbach’s tendency to go for the gut with his vicious, difficult characters and scenarios, and instead offering plenty of satirical bite to go with the madcap pacing. We still love his earlier work (“The Squid and the Whale” is still my personal favorite), but a little change of pace has done the man good. Gerwig again stars in another fun performance, but stealing the show is the film’s actual lead, Lola Kirke. We said as much in our Sundance review, where we called it “another fantastic and funny home run (or at least a triple) for the richly considered Baumbach and Gerwig observations about the intricacies of female life, ‘Mistress America’ is at times uproariously funny and is eminently quotable.”
Release Date: August 14
“Digging For Fire”
Synopsis: The discovery of a bone and a gun send a husband and wife on separate adventures over the course of a weekend.
What You Need To Know: Speaking of prolific, perhaps no modern filmmaker better exudes the workmanlike-but-always-interesting-results of working fast and cheap than Chicago director/actor Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas”), who continues to grow as a storyteller with every film. The casts keep getting better and more familiar in his work, with this being the third go-round with Anna Kendrick, and second for Melanie Lynskey, Jane Adams, Ron Livingston and Jake Johnson (who also served as co-writer on ‘Fire’). Add to that stable the always great Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Sam Elliot, Mike Birbiglia and many more, this looks to be another refreshing and left-of-center examination of modern relationships and expectations. Our Sundance review called it a “hazy movie, passing like a breeze on a balmy, boozy California evening, entrancing in the moment and then fleeting the next… talky and low-key, its subtle, easy-going charms make it one of [Swanberg’s] most enjoyable films.”
Release Date: August 21
Synopsis: A self-described misanthrope has her protective bubble burst when her 18-year-old granddaughter shows up needing help, leading to a day-long journey that causes past and future to be reckoned with between them.
What You Need To Know: When our own Katie Walsh saw this road trip dramedy at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, writer/director Paul Weitz (“Admission”) spoke to the audience and said he made this film to spend some quality time with star Lily Tomlin, so he wrote her a movie where she’s in every scene. The result was just that, with Katie writing that there’s “some truly entertaining quality time in the company of this legend. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to have Lily Tomlin as your straight-shooting grandmother, ‘Grandma’ is the fix you need.” Walsh’s A- review was pretty effusive, as most of the reviews have been thus far. “On the surface, [it’s] a simple story, but the script imbues it with deep reserves of emotional depth and meaning that are slowly, organically revealed over the course of the plot. It’s a ‘day in the life’ film that manages to portray a whole life in one day. Weitz had good instincts about his leading lady.”
Release Date: August 21
Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
What You Need To Know: Say what you will about “Pineapple Express” (I, for one, think it’s pretty damn great), its success helped usher in a more progressive era where stoner characters can be freed from the tired comedy and horror movie shackles they’ve been locked in for decades. “American Ultra” looks like a similar dip into action-comedy territory, though this time with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in the leads, with the former playing a Jason Bourne-like sleeper agent who’s secret badass fighting skills are unlocked and lead to all kinds mayhem. All we have are a fun couple of trailers to go on so far, but here’s hoping director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) and writer Max Landis (“Chronicle”) can elevate the material. Any time Eisenberg has dipped his toes into familiar territory (with “Zombieland” and “30 Minutes Or Less”), the results have been entertaining to be sure.
Release Date: August 21
“Queen of Earth”
Synopsis: Two women who grew up together discover they have drifted apart when they retreat to a lake house together.
What You Need To Know: If you missed writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s last film, “Listen Up Philip,” remedy that immediately, especially if you like your comedies not so much tinged with brutal truths and darkness so much as soaked completely to the bone with it. The picture was a massive step up in quality, budget and everything else from “The Color Wheel,” his modest breakout in the indie film scene from 2011. “Queen of Earth” sees him working again with the great Elizabeth Moss, whose non-“Mad Men” career is already littered with interesting, well-made work, and should continue to flourish if she keeps working with gifted directors like Perry. This film is a pretty big left turn for him, even entering into genre territory. The former video store clerk-turned-filmmaker has made no secret of his love for horror movies, and it sounds like we’ll get a taste of his own when this reaches theaters. Our pretty glowing review from Berlin compared it to the work of early Roman Polanski and that’s all we need to know, even if it’s a “cold picture and a little obscure for some audiences… Watching this thrilling new filmmaking step and an auteurial voice grow is exciting stuff to witness.”
Release Date: August 26
“Z For Zachariah”
Synopsis: In the wake of a disaster that wipes out most of civilization, two men and a woman find themselves in an emotionally charged love triangle as the last known survivors.
What You Need To Know: This post-apocalyptic sci-fi indie film premiered at Sundance this year, and almost instantly became a must-see, even if it’s a more “humanistic drama” that uses “what sounds like sci-fi-ish conceits for a story that is anything but. Director Craig Zobel (the comedic “Great Big World Of Sound,” the confrontational “Compliance“) is clearly interested in stories that actively discomfort audiences, but finds news to explore them with varied genres and tones. We called it his “most accomplished work with a self-assured simplicity that marks every frame [cinematography from the great David Gordon Green collaborator Tim Orr]… Its craft can be impressive: Zobel’s film possesses a searing, slow burn tone that’s beautifully controlled.” The film plays out amongst a triumvirate played by Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine, and it looks to be another riff on similar material explored in films like “The Quiet Earth” (a totally underrated little Aussie pic from the 80s) and 1959’s “The World, The Flesh and the Devil.” Though, we’re betting Zobel and co. found their own angle into the material.
Release Date: August 28
Synopsis: A father is accused of a crime he has no memory of committing.
What You Need To Know: Though writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s (“The Others”) 2009 big budget epic “Agora” came and went faster than a speeding bullet, he’s a highly respected filmmaker capable of adding pure genre thrills with intelligence and an artful eye for the cinematic. We’re certainly interested to see this psychological period thriller, which stars Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson. The trailer does a solid job setting it up, and that’s really it in terms of what to expect. So we’ll just say that the cast and director definitely gives off the impression that it’s more than just some standard, forgettable late night cable flick (even though that’s what it sounds like).
Release Date: August 28
(UPDATE: this film has been pulled from its previous August release date. It is now TBD.)
We jumped the gun last month when we added social realist arthouse thriller “Catch Me Daddy” to our list of honorable mentions. Looks like our sources were mistaken, and it’s all set now to come out August 7 in some theaters and VOD, thanks to the good folks at Oscilloscope Laboratories. The film is the feature debut from Daniel Wolfe, who made that pretty damn awesome video for The Shoes where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a serial killer donning a fencing mask (watch that here).
When we caught it at Sundance, we called “Sleeping With Other People” refreshingly funny and romantic, the key being the two leads in Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as they “exhibit the kind of cinematic chemistry that the recently ailing rom-com genre has been lacking for entire years. They’re not just good together, they’re believable, sexy, funny and sweet, and more than a little sad.” (UPDATE: this film has been pulled from its previous August release date. The film will now open September 11.)
Mountain climbing doc “Meru” won the 2015 Sundance Film Festival audience award documentary prize, for good reason. When it appeared on our 20 Best Docs of the year so far list, we didn’t hold back on our enthusiasm for what is the ne plus ultra of this small subgenre: “good luck ever topping ‘Meru,’ which is not only a deeply visceral white knuckler that will keep you exclaiming your disbelief out loud—and perhaps questioning the sanity of everyone involved—but a genuinely moving tale of superhuman perseverance and friendship.”
“Underdogs” might look just ok, but then again, it’s the (rather surprising) animated followup for Oscar winner Juan Jose Campanella, after his arthouse hit “The Secret in Their Eyes” was a crossover success (an English language remake is coming in November, starring Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman).
When we reviewed the 2014 SXSW Dramatic Jury Prize Winner “Fort Tilden” we mentioned it’s like Sofia Coppolla’s version of “After Hours,” which sounds great to me! We called legendary ’70s auteur and film lover Peter Bogdanovich‘s star-studded “She’s Funny That Way” a trifle, “designed to melt in your mouth like candy floss. In fact, it goes out of its way to avoid anything that even faintly smacks of realism or meaningfulness; it just wants you to like it.”
Our review for “Dark Places” was lukewarm, but the cast is much better than the average horror film coming in August (Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Tye Sheridan & Chloe Grace Moretz) so it may be worth your time. The trailer for horror sequel “Sinister 2” looks alright, but I found the first film to be surprisingly effective, so I’m still curious. And finally, “The Gift” trailer looks like fairly standard thriller fare, but with actor Joel Edgerton acting as well as writing and directing, here’s hoping he can make it more inspired the usual (hopefully he’s learned a thing or two from Aussie filmmaking pals like his brother Nash and David Michod).