Tim here. August is upon us, the unloved bastard child of the summer movie season: understanding that the last three months have largely bled the audience dry, and knowing that it’s time for families to start getting ready for the upcoming school season, studios tend to leave this as a month for dumping all their projects that are too costly and high-profile to end up in the darkest hole the calendar has to offer, in January, but aren’t nearly polished enough to compete with the big expensive tentpoles of May and June. This means, in turn, that the wide release movies of August tend not to be as fussed-over and market ready as their big siblings, and while this means, far more often than not, that they are chintzy and unlovely things, it’s almost always the case that at least one or two releases every single year end up being one of the most unique and enjoyable films of the season, simply because a little bit of personality is actually able to sneak out through the test-market filters.
With this month serving as the last chance to redeem a bleary summer (my pick to hope and dream about: The World’s End), I wanted to visit some recent Ghosts of Augusts Past, films that linger in the memory far more than the more posh, A-list movies that preceded them to theaters.
August 2003 – Freaky Friday
A true surprise, of the best sort: Disney remaking a ‘70s film to vastly improved effect, with Lindsay Lohan in the entirely terrific performance that set her on the map as one of our most promising young stars before… you know… all that happened, and Jamie Lee Curtis in the last great role of her career as the businesslike mom whose body is invaded by a rebellious teen. And yes, I did say “great role”, for part of what makes this Freaky Friday so much better than it had the least right to be was that the filmmakers and performers never talk down to the material or treat it with any kind of cynicism or contempt. It is, quite possibly, the all-time masterpiece of the generally questionable “body swap” genre, with a profound sense of fun and zaniness of the most likeably high-spirited sort.
August 2005 – Red Eye
There was, in 2005, no reason to have any sort of expectation from director Wes Craven, an icon in the horror genre who hadn’t made a more than tolerable film in almost a decade (unless you see more to like in the plonking Music of the Heart than Meryl Streep), Cillian Murphy hadn’t really made any kind of impression on mainstream filmgoers until just the month prior, with Batman Begins, where he was hardly the draw, and while those of us in the know had Rachel McAdams on our radar thanks to Mean Girls, the muscles she was flexing there were hardly well-suited to appearing in a genre film. And yet this threesome cranked out one of the most wonderful thrillers of the 21st Century, a sinewy beast with an outstandingly effective false first act, a bone-chilling middle that includes some of the most tension I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater, and a finale that pretty much deflated everything else and sucked.
But still! It’s basically just a beach read in cinematic form, and that giddy ride for the first three-quarters of the film is an absolutely terrific beach read, and in a no-nonsense 85 minute package, too.
August 2010 – Step Up 3D
Oh, stop it. I see that look. It’s the most absurdly fun kind of stupid trash, and no film since then has done a better job of using 3D in grandly expressive, playfully gimmicky ways. Which is about 180 degrees away from anything that any of us would identify as great cinema, but if you can’t get pleasure from the loopy “spitting slushies into the air” scene, I don’t know why you’d bother with summer movies at all.
August 2012 – ParaNorman
Beautifully mixing old-school technology – hand-made stop-motion animation – with bleeding-edge computer animation advances that the puppet animation of yore could never have imagined, the ghost story-comedy-adventure hybrid would be worth praising as one of the best family films of 2013 for its aesthetics alone. But that’s arguably not even the best part of a movie that treats the lives of its under-18 cast with considerable dignity and maturity, recognizing that modern kids are far more aware of what goes on in the world than modern adults are prone to admitting, unless it’s in the form of one of those grisly “quipping adults in child-size” precocious side characters. Nobody in ParaNorman is precocious, and that’s what makes its level, thoroughly grown-up storytelling so wonderful: here is a family movie that trusts its audience to be smart, to care about artistry, and to have an interest in engaging with the world. In addition to being a fun zombie attack movie, because kids, at least, haven't gotten tired of zombies yet.
Have any favorite late-summer movies? Share them in the comments!