Olivia Popp’s summer theatrical flick picks

Aug. 14, 2018, 12:34 p.m.

If you don’t subscribe to streaming services like Netflix and HBO, you may not be able to catch up on new acclaimed offerings such as Netflix’s romcom “Set It Up” with Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs or HBO’s haunting “The Tale” with Laura Dern.

However, if you have a theater near you, you might have caught other films with a theatrical release — and if not, you might have a chance to catch them later on another platform.


For a highly inventive and mind-bending thriller: “Searching” (theatrical release: August 24, 2018)
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian
Starring John Cho and Debra Messing

Aneesh Chaganty’s feature film debut is a true marvel of a thriller. David Kim (Cho) plays a single father paired with police detective Rosemary Vick (Messing), and he takes it upon himself to search for his daughter after she mysteriously goes missing — and what he uncovers online is beyond his wildest imagination. The film’s novel form of storytelling has the film take place solely on screens of electronic devices, simulating screen captures of computer screens, phones, news broadcasts, FaceTime videos and more. I still remember the simultaneous audible gasps of the audience when I first saw the film at Sundance, and that feeling of pure suspense that makes you engaged and on your toes is something you won’t forget. It may not be the most narratively unique film (as in don’t expect any Earth-shattering sociopolitical discussion or the most compelling character work you’ve ever seen), but its method of storytelling and the way it plants its reveals at precisely the right moments makes it a shocking thriller unlike any other. At an in-person talkback after the Sundance screening, Chaganty and his team mentioned that they screened the film for friends and anybody who would watch it in order to determine the perfect spots and clues for each part of the thriller — to which I attribute the film’s success. If you get the chance, watch it multiple times to fully grasp all the easter eggs and plants that Chaganty places into the film in preparation for the reveals (I’m certainly going to when it comes out!).


For commentary on current events: “Blindspotting”
Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Written by and starring Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs

On one hand, “Blindspotting” is a buddy comedy, but one the other hand, it smacks you right in the face with its direct commentary on implicit bias through the very personal story of a convicted felon, Collin (Diggs), on his last three days of probation in Oakland. His fight-happy white best friend, Miles (Casal), provides a shocking and revelatory juxtaposition to Collin after the latter witnesses a police shooting of a young black man. It might take you a while to digest this film, but it’s worth it and will rightfully force you to question your own beliefs, behaviors and preconceptions. Casal and Diggs play an inimitable onscreen pair that in one moment will make you bowl over with laughter and in another moment fear for their safety and the outcome of their years-long friendship.


For a glimpse into the weird but true: “Generation Wealth”
Written and directed by Lauren Greenfield

“Generation Wealth” is a documentary, but it doesn’t present a narrative arc like some other documentary films. Rather, Greenfield takes us on a journey through various landscapes and circles of wealth, as she is personally fascinated by ideals of excess and status, having grown up surrounded by wealthy families in Los Angeles. In seeing the sheer amount of money and lengths to which these individuals go to spend and obtain money is absurd, intriguing and bizarrely alluring in a scary way. “Generation Wealth” is a fantastic follow-up to her last documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” which takes a similar angle but follows a family who attempted to build the largest home in America, eventually succumbing to bankruptcy and leaving the home abandoned.


For a different life perspective: “Leave No Trace”
Directed by Debra Granik, written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
Starring Ben Foster and Thomas McKenzie

Based on Peter Rock’s book “My Abandonment,” “Leave No Trace” follows a man with PTSD, Will, (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) as they live, voluntarily unhoused, in the forests of a public park near Portland and are forced to relocate to a house as they are living on public land. Their story takes them all over as Tom is ready to assimilate and have some stability, but Will is still highly unstable and unable to find the help he needs to go back to civilian life. Their story is different from the comfortable lives many of us live and not a pity narrative — rather, it exposes the flaws in our VA support system and provides a new look at experiences and desires of these individuals. “Leave No Trace” a supportive but heartbreaking father-daughter story unlike any other.


For an insightful throwback: “Eighth Grade”
Written and directed by Bo Burnham
Starring Elsie Fisher

“Eighth Grade” is virtually the polar opposite of Burnham’s signature comedic style, but he pulls it off with grace and excellence. The film follows the quiet and somewhat unpopular (but nice!) Kayla (Fisher) as she tries to survive and make the best of her last week of eighth grade. It’ll make you cringe and feel for Kayla, even if you don’t relate to the entirety of the film or Kayla herself — without forcing you to relive those awkward middle school years. Above it all, it’s an impressive debut by Bo Burnham.


For a unique queer young adult narrative: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”
Directed by Desiree Akhavan, written by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele
Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2018 for its 90s tale of a girl, Cameron (Moretz), who is discovered having sex with her female friend and is sent to a gay conversion camp by her highly conservative and religious family. Based on the novel by Emily N. Danforth, it tackles only a sliver of the book but focuses on the experiences of Cameron and her decision to succumb to the efforts of the camp or rebel with her newfound friends, Jane Fonda (yes, her name is Jane Fonda) and Adam Red Eagle. Moretz is a compelling lead and viewers follow her through her experiences with the camp that appears harmless and comforting on the outside, but ultimately has very harmful motives, which Cameron must face and endure.


For classic or experimental cinephiles: “First Reformed”
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried

In “First Reformed,” Hawke plays a troubled reverend, Ernst Toller, who helps a widow (Seyfried) after her husband commits suicide. “First Reformed” utilizes an aspect ratio that is nearly a square, creating an eerie effect that will make you shift in your seat. The coloration of the film is also very bizarre, adding a dreary sort of tone to the film. It’s a film highly worth watching in theaters, as you’ll never truly get the same effect or be fully immersed in the film otherwise, as it doesn’t quite cater to commercial audiences. However, it’s a marvel of a film that takes it slow, being just as grounded in reality as it does in venturing into the abstract and playing with the audience’s minds.

For a mystery-uncovering documentary: 
“Three Identical Strangers”
Directed by Tim Wardle
Featuring Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman

More and more recent documentaries have dove into a form of narrative filmmaking that stretches the boundaries of traditional documentary filmmaking, and “Three Identical Strangers” is one such film. Mixing photos and historical footage with interviews and created content that simulates the events described in the documentary, the film builds a highly suspenseful narrative as the audience discovers the story of identical triplets separated at birth. The film releases information bit by bit, building intrigue until the truth is revealed and the story reaches the present day.


For a heist film: “American Animals”
Written and directed by Bart Layton
Starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson

Not quite a heist film but also not quite a comedy, “American Animals” is another film that turns the traditional documentary film style on its head. Inserting interviews with the real people the characters are based on with fictional content created based on the accounts of the actual people, the film follows the true story of four young men who develop a wild scheme to steal expensive rare books, including those of Darwin and Audubon (hence “American Animals”). It’s wacky but true, and the team effort of the four along with the chemistry between the actors and the bizarre nature of the crime is enough to get the film on its feet. Get ready to hold your breath when the young men decide that the best way to be inconspicuous in a college is to — you probably didn’t guess it — disguise themselves as old men.


For dystopian sociopolitical commentary: “Sorry to Bother You”
Written and directed by Boots Riley
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer

Communist rapper Boots Riley’s cinematic debut is a dystopian, comedic commentary of capitalism and complicity that follows ____ (Stanfield) as he rises to the top of a telemarketing company, ultimately at the detriment of those around him. He meets the CEO (Hammer) of a powerful company that essentially indulges in legal slavery _____ and uncovers a frightening, freaky scheme. Don’t let anyone spoil this film for you if you haven’t seen it yet — it’s worth discovering in real time.


For a heartwarming, wholesome story: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Directed by Morgan Neville
Featuring Fred Rogers

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the love of so many children’s lives, and this documentary highlights the life, influence and impact of Fred Rogers. It gets to so much more beyond the show, framing Rogers as a public figure and educator farther than the reaches of his show. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry — and simply does justice to one of the great creators of children’s programming.


For lovers of dark films: “You Were Never Really Here”
Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Joaquin Phoenix

Phoenix plays a suicidal do-good hitman for hire who rescues girls from sex trafficking, and he soon discovers something very sinister when he’s sent in to find and rescue the daughter of a senator. It’s eerie, haunting and dark, and you may not be able to follow it all given that many aspects take on the mental state of Phoenix’s character, Joe — but ultimately it’s the tonal feel that makes a difference.


For a buddy comedy: “The Spy Who Dumped Me”
Directed by Susanna Fogel, written by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson
Starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” follows two friends, Audrey and Morgan (Kunis and McKinnon, respectively) as they escape a complex network of spies and evil forces after Audrey discovers that her ex-boyfriend is a spy. It’s an action-comedy that ultimately doesn’t live up to the talent and comedic prowess of the cast, but it’s still incredibly funny if you can look past the remarkably convoluted plot that does more harm than good. As long as you take yourself out of trying to actually understand the narrative, you can revel in McKinnon’s hilarious one-liners and the chemistry between the two leads.


For the family: “Incredibles 2”
Written and directed by Brad Bird
Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson

I’ll be shocked if you haven’t heard about “Incredibles II,’ which is the much-awaited sequel to the 2004 film and takes place immediately after the first. The sequel follows the family of superheroes, now focusing on Mrs. Incredible and her attempt to make superheroes legal again — but of course, not without a new big bad, Screenslaver. It’s fun, it’s family friendly, and it’s a sequel that you won’t want to miss (after so many terrible sequels from other films). Make sure you also catch “Bao,” the adorable and touching short beforehand that comments on a mother’s empty nest syndrome.


For a raucous comedy for an adult audience: “Deadpool 2”
Directed by David Leitch, written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin and Morena Baccarin

The follow-up to “Deadpool,” this sequel continues the franchise’s tradition of raunchy and meta humor and breaking the fourth wall. After “Deadpool,” the eponymous character continues his crime-fighting mission and now must either defeat or team up with a time-traveling elite fighter out for revenge, Cable (Brolin). “Deadpool II” also has its share of emotional moments that aren’t really sullied by the comedy, including those with Deadpool’s love interest, Vanessa (Baccarin).


For superheroes: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”
Directed by Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly

The newest Marvel film finally brings equal billing to a female lead, Hope van Dyne/the Wasp (Lilly), as she and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) attempt to rescue Hope’s mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) and evade Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman experimented on by S.H.I.E.L.D. and attempting to find a cure for herself. Although the film doesn’t provide as much action-packed excitement and as high of stakes as the first film, the Wasp/Ant-Man dynamic is as fun as ever and much of the film also takes place in San Francisco, including multiple car chases and an explosive finale.


Other offerings that I haven’t gotten to see yet but have heard much about include the following:

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (written and directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black)
“Crazy Rich Asians” (directed by Jon M. Chu, starring Henry Golding, Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Gemma Chan)
“BlacKkKlansman” (directed by Spike Lee, starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace)

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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