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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 28 – August 30.
Because the apocalypse doesn't always have to look like The Walking Dead…
Z for Zachariah (2015)
Director: Craig Zobel
Stars: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Z for Zachariah breathes new life into the downtrodden and overly visited "post-apocalyptic" film set-up. In Compliance writer-director Craig Zobel's latest, the world’s gone to crap thanks to widespread radiation, a civilization-crushing eco nightmare that’s contaminated the water and killed millions of people off with its transmitted sicknesses. Miraculously, young farm girl Ann (played by Margot Robbie) has been able to survive free of illness by staying put on her family's land, which has somehow built up a physical immunity to the devastation. While hunting for food with her beloved dog, Pharaoh, Ann befriends John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a former research engineer, and invites him back to her home. Their Adam-and-Eve-like bond is a mutual lifesaver until a dirty and potentially menacing stranger, Caleb (Chris Pine), shows up on their property.
The minimalist Z for Zachariah is an atypically quiet and anti-action apocalyptic genre film, but the grip of its tension is often vice-like. With the complications that arise from the characters' "three’s a crowd" romance dynamic, Zobel illustrates the ways in which human nature never changes, no matter how extreme or dire life’s circumstances become. Physical attractions remain, and jealousy doesn’t subside, just because the world’s practically over. And in Ejiofor and Pine, Zobel has two strong actors giving their best, showing the alternate sides of a man’s desire—Ejiofor with the silent restraint, and Pine with the more carnal brutishness. They’re two wildly different actors, yet they’re perfectly cast. They’re also both revisiting familiar ground, with Ejiofor tapping back into the internalized emotions of 12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northup and Pine subtly channeling his Captain Kirk cool-guy demeanor.
Z for Zachariah’s wild card, though, is Robbie. Until now, she’s given camera-owning performances as glamorously sexualized love interests with formidable confidence and the ability to wrap men around their diamond-studded fingers. What’s amazing about Robbie’s Z for Zachariah performance is how antithetical it is to everything audiences and Suicide Squad trailer re-watchers have seen from her. Unlike her enormously alluring characters in The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, Z for Zachariah’s Ann is girl-next-door beautiful, clad in flannel button-ups, trucker hats and baggy denim pants. Hinting at sexual inexperience and a lack of self-esteem, Robbie plays Ann with a delicateness that’s tender, vulnerable and undeniably lovable.
It's the kind of muted performance that won't necessarily get Academy members or the Golden Globes brass in a tizzy, but it’s certainly an eye-opener for anyone who’s pinned Robbie as nothing more than screen-friendly eye candy. Z for Zachariah proves that she could be the next Julia Roberts or Jessica Chastain, not Jessica Biel with a Marty Scorsese credit. Her best moment in the film is wordless: after a drunken night with Ejiofor’s John, she unconfidently disrobes and offers herself to him, but he balks at the opportunity, lest he makes their situation awkward post-intercourse. Robbie’s Ann is confused, and hurt, thinking there’s something wrong with her—she acts like the kind of The Wolf of Wall Street's Naomi would laugh at. It’s a heartbreaker.
Where to see it: City Cinemas Village East, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:45 a.m., 2:10 p.m., 4:35 p.m., 7:10 p.m., 9:50 p.m.
If you thought Elisabeth Moss was great on Mad Men, wait until you see…
Queen of Earth (2015)
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Kentucker Audley, Patrick Fugit, Kate Lyn Sheil
Watching Z for Zachariah, one gets the impression that Robbie might have absorbed Holly Hunter's work in Jane Campion's The Piano (1993). In Brooklyn-bred writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, on the other hand, star Elisabeth Moss has clearly freebased the psychological madness of Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). Having previously worked with Moss in his 2014 indie darling Listen Up Philip, Perry smartly handpicked the Mad Men fan-favorite to lead his stripped-down ode to Ingmar Bergman and the aforementioned Polanski. Akin to how Robbie goes against type in Zobel's film, Moss taps into new dimensions of her already multi-faceted skill set, elevating what could’ve been a cold 90-minute dose of inaccessible cynicism into a terrific look at the dark side of privilege.
Moss plays Catherine, a woman on the edge who's going through a disabling rough patch. Her father, an esteemed artist who employed her, recently passed away, and the man she loves, James (Kentucker Audley), dumped her not too long after that. In the midst of a serious downward bender, Catherine retreats to her friend Virginia’s (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston) lakeside house for some much-needed and secluded R&R, which, unfortunately for her, ultimately stands for "revulsion and repugnance." Everyone around her, particularly the mostly unsympathetic Virginia, are more confrontational than consoling, and it doesn’t take long for Catherine to descend into a depressive state of irreparable sadness compounded by freaky hallucinations. In its creepiest scene, Perry morphs a seemingly innocent hipster house party into a surrealistic homage to Herk Harvey’s cult horror classic Carnival of Souls (1962).
Queen of Earth is a bare-bones exercise in genre formalism. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island but on an infinitely smaller scale, it's Perry's chance to indulge in quasi-horror style, mood and visuals, and he’s a talented enough filmmaker to never let that potentially one-dimensional playfulness lose its underlying impact. Which is why Moss is so crucial to Queen of Earth; in a lesser actor’s control, her Catherine character would’ve been played over-the-top, a kind of lo-fi Norma Desmond without Gloria Swanson’s command. But Moss keeps her humanity in check throughout, avoiding overly theatrical hysterics and effectively conveying the slightest bit of please-help-me desperation.
Where to see it: IFC Center, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 12:25 p.m., 4:10 p.m., 6:15 p.m., 8:20 p.m., 10:20 p.m.
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center, Friday at 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m., 3:15 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 7:05 p.m., 9:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m., 3:15 p.m., 5:05 p.m., 7:05 p.m., 9:05 p.m.
Werewolf horror cinema finally has an excellent new movie to call its own…
When Animals Dream (2015)
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Stars: Sonia Suhl, Lars Mikkelsen, Jakob Oftebro, Sonja Richter
A hit on the genre festival circuit last year, the Danish horror film When Animals Dream is an easy sell—it's Let the Right One In crossed with Teen Wolf, its quality and overall mood hewing closer to the former. Still need more convincing, genre lovers? Okay, try this: When Animals Dream is the best werewolf movie since 2000’s Ginger Snaps.
Though, be warned: it's heavier on drama than gory scares. But there’s definitely plenty of creepiness. When Animals Dream follows Marie (Sonia Suhl), a quiet teenager who’s coming to terms with her sexuality while also trying to figure out why she has a hideous rash across her chest. The skin abnormality’s only making her socially crippling insecurity worse, and when she meets a nice guy, she’s afraid of giving him too much of herself—especially since, as she quickly learns, that rash is the byproduct of a longstanding family curse. She comes from a line of hairy, bloodthirsty lycanthropes.
When Animals Dream is a beautiful little coming-of-age story wrapped inside an unsettling creepshow that’d make Lon "The Wolf Man" Chaney, Jr. proud.
Where to see it: City Cinemas Village East, Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11:00 a.m., 1:10 p.m., 3:20 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 7:40 p.m., 9:50 p.m.
Because, if anything, here's an excuse to schedule a John Wick-including double feature…
The Matrix (1999)
Directors: The Wachowski Brothers
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
By summer’s end, it’d be easy to swear off big-budget spectacles and demand character-driven dramas or intimate comedies—anything other than more CGI-driven nonsense like Fantastic Four and Terminator Genisys, right? Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with revisiting Hollywood’s best past examples of grandeur done right. And it’d be "mission: impossible," no Rogue Nation, to find a cooler vintage action extravaganza than The Matrix, which redefined sci-fi cinematic enormity in 1999 and, to its credit, still holds up 16 years later.
Now back on genre fans' good sides thanks to last year’s unexpectedly great action flick John Wick, Keanu Reeves is at his strangely robotic best as Neo, a vanilla computer hacker who’s recruited into a technologically advanced netherworld and turned into a supremely badass freedom fighter. That’s really all the narrative set-up one should need to want to watch The Matrix on the big screen again, or even for the first time. Its plot is secondary to the Wachowksi siblings' next-level—in 1999, at least—visual effects, including the then-revolutionary "bullet time" camera trickery that’s been endlessly repurposed and imitated in the years since.
Which would you rather see this weekend: Owen Wilson in a xenophobic Taken knockoff or Keanu Reeves doing this? (Yup, the decision’s a hell of a lot easier than red pill vs. blue pill.)
Where to see it: Nitehawk Cinema, Saturday and Sunday at 11:10 a.m.
End the summer with a little song, dance and romance…
West Side Story (1961)
Directors: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Stars: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakris, Russ Tamblyn
Between Z for Zachariah and Queen of Earth, this weekend's new releases aren’t exactly positive affirmations about guy-and-girl relationships. In one, the fate of humanity rests on a woman who’s stuck between two deeply flawed men; in the other, a woman is near suicide after her boyfriend drops her like a bad habit. To not lose all hope in heartfelt human connections, moviegoers will have to travel back in time by heading to Lincoln Center, where they’ll "feel pretty" and want to tear up the nearest dancefloor.
Co-hosted by the Metropolitan Opera, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen the classic musical West Side Story on Friday night, in crisp-looking digitial HD projection. Adding to the event’s cache is the fact that the story of good girl Maria's (Natalie Wood) whirlwind romance with gang member Tony (Richard Brenner) takes place where Lincoln Center now stands. Unsubtly inspired by Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story is the quintessential New York City love tale. Not to mention, it’s perhaps the only movie where a gang of street toughs can sing a tune to a cop and not look softer than Coney Island cotton candy.
Where to see it: Film Society of Lincoln Center, Josie Robertson Plaza, Friday at 8:00 p.m.