Hi, can you stop trying to find Pikachu for, like, four minutes? I’ll be quick. Thanks. Soooo … It’s been a cruel summer for blockbuster movies. (That’s a Bananarama pun. Eh, never mind.) But here’s a ray of sunshine: It’s still possible to take in some highly original, immensely entertaining and not-even-remotely CGI’ed films at your local highbrow cinema. Put it this way: These movies all accomplish what Tarzan, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Conjouring 2, Jason Bourne, Warcraft, Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad and [insert disappointing tent-pole movie here] could not. Check out the worthy gems while the air is still so heavy and dry:
Hell or High Water (out in L.A. and NYC on August 12; out everywhere August 19)
3 stars (out of 4)
Chris Pine’s most impressive role this summer is the antithesis of Captain Kirk. He plays a sneering, smarter-than-he-looks Texan who, along with his loose-cannon brother (Ben Foster), robs branches of the local bank responsible for foreclosing on the family land. A wily ranger (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail, but no matter: These blue-collar crooks can’t and they won’t and they don’t stop. This crackerjack of a neo-Western puts an intriguing twist on a basic good vs. evil morality tale. The tension and anger practically radiate off the screen.
Florence Foster Jenkins (in theaters August 12)
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Guess who’s headed for another Oscar nod. Meryl Streep is the wonderful high note as an ailing New York City socialite who, in 1944, longs to sing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. The snag: Her falsetto sounds like the shrieks of a dying animal. She gets her wish, of course, but not before enduring cruel insults from her friends and the media. (Even her husband, played with tenderness by Hugh Grant, openly cheats on her.) In a comedy, we want to laugh with the plucky heroine — not at her. Streep's latest fierce performance should not be missed, though.
Gleason (now in theaters)
4 stars (out of 4)
You don’t need to know Steve Gleason’s name to be enraptured by his extraordinary story. In 2011, the 33-year-old father-to-be and former NFL star was diagnosed with the degenerative disease known as ALS. Scared but undeterred, he recorded video diaries for his baby son until his voice gave out, then used a machine to learn how to communicate. This documentary uses unfettered family access to chronicle his battle, as he and his equally amazing wife, Michel, forge ahead in their new-normal life. Don’t cry too much for him — Gleason is too busy and optimistic to consider himself a victim.
Captain Fantastic (now in theaters)
3.5 stars (out of 4)
He bears the nickname of a comic book hero, the brains of a scholar, the soul of a rebel. And his story is a richly rewarding film experience. Deep in the Pacific Northwest, Ben (Viggo Mortensen, outstanding) and his wife have raised their six kids in Lord of the Flies–style isolation. When the matriarch dies (not a spoiler), he decides to take the kids on a bus to New Mexico for the funeral. Their immersion into society is both amusing and fascinating: In a standout scene, the kids rattle off the Bill of Rights next to their slack-jawed, video game–obsessed cousins. Yet as Ben’s unorthodox parenting skills come under fire, he begins to doubt himself. The dramedy excels at illustrating both sides of the argument while never wavering from the heart of the matter: A strong family is the best superpower of them all.
Don’t Think Twice (now in theaters)
The most biting comedy of the season has nothing to do with talking pets. For the members of a popular New York improv troupe, teamwork is the key to crowd-pleasing success — that is, until two members (played by Keegan Michael-Key and Gillian Jacobs) get the golden call to audition for an iconic Saturday Night Live–like sketch show. The group’s camaraderie suddenly gives way to all-too-relatable insecurity and jealousy. Meanwhile, the two breakout stars learn to be careful what they wish for. Star-writer-director Mike Birbiglia (Trainwreck) shows no mercy in pulling back the curtain on the cutthroat comedy scene: When Ben Stiller drops by the gang’s regular dive bar after taking in their show, these quick-witted adults make fools out of themselves trying to impress him. (A Reality Bites reference still holds up!) What sublime stuff.
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