We’ve got a suggestion for Hollywood studios big and small that they probably won’t listen to, but we’re gonna throw it out there anyway. How about next summer we spread the good movies out throughout the summer and not just August, O.K.? Yes, the movie industry has pulled something of a bait and switch on the media and moviegoers. Usually, the second weekend of August is when the movies that are “almost” dumps start to appear on the release schedule. By the third weekend you’re knee deep in the late summer dump zone with Hollywood discarding movies that didn’t live up to expectations for one reason or another. That doesn’t exactly appear to be the case this year.
There are three movies opening in wide release Friday and each of them has over an 84% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A fourth, CBS Films’ “Hell or High Water,” is debuting in just 30 theaters, but it’s currently at a rare 100% fresh (we’ll see how long it lasts but 56 reviews is significant). Each film of these films also has a positive 67 or higher grade on Metacritic that is pretty close to a thumbs up across the board. This isn’t just strange for mid-August it would be odd for almost any other weekend during the year.
Why the movie gods have delivered these titles all at once is slightly perplexing (would have been nice to see one or two of them in May, June or July), but – surprise – this motley crew may make an impact on the upcoming awards season as well. In fact, throw in next Friday’s LAIKA release and you pretty much have all you need for a not-so early Oscar column. Let’s get to it shall we?
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
Stephen Frears’ latest already charmed audiences in the UK this past spring. Instead of releasing concurrently, Paramount decided to go with the usually reliable Meryl Streep August release date even if her last two summer players, “Hope Floats” and “Ricki and the Flash,” didn’t perform up to expectations. That probably won’t be an issue this time around. The good news is that “Foster Jenkins” is a crowd pleaser that isn’t just for your parents or grandparents. Streep is fantastic as the historically horrific vocalist and makes bad singing seem easier than it is. Hugh Grant is superb as Jenkins’ husband and somehow receiving a bit too much hype to be honest. That’s because the real surprise is Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) who steals every scene he’s in as the opera singer’s pianist. Assuming it has a nice shelf life in theaters (and it should), “Jenkins” is already a lock for a slew of Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Streep), Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Grant) and Best Supporting Actor – Musical or Comedy (Helberg). Streep could also earn more SAG and Oscar nods although the overall Best Actress race will be competitive this year. And depending on the field, Helberg could campaign his way to a Supporting Actor nod (maybe). Best Picture? Let’s see the rest of the field first and then circle back, OK?
What a year for Walt Disney Pictures. The studio’s live action arm already released the surprising blockbuster “The Jungle Book” (a fringe Best Picture player) and its animation division out did Pixar with “Zootopia” (arguably the current frontrunner for the Best Animated Feature Oscar). Again, because of the late summer opening many assumed the studio’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon” didn’t quite work. Well, I, er, we were wrong. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery has finally succeeded in crafting what many filmmakers before him have failed at: a Disney flick with a Sundance sensibility (Robert Redford, who has a supporting role, no doubt recognized what Lowrey was up to). Sure, there are sections that are a wee bit predictable and it owes a big tip of the hat to “How To Train Your Dragon” (especially those flying sequences), but the actors so grounded you believe much more of what’s happening on screen than you should, frankly. Most impressive, however, is the last 20 minutes which features back to back to back tearjerker scenes. Lots of filmmakers try it, but Lowery finds a way to make sure it doesn’t feel forced and it hits you like hammer. “Pete’s Dragon” won’t make lots of top 10 lists and it’s not an awards contender. What it proves is that you can update the Disney formula to the 21st Century and still make everyone in the audience happy.
“Hell or High Water”
I’ve been talking up David Mackenzie’s latest since Cannes, but for some reason I’ve had to remind my friends in the business that they need to see it. You shouldn’t repeat their mistakes. “High Water” is an impressive thriller about two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) who rob local banks in Western Texas for all the right reasons and the soon to be retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who makes tracking them down his last case. The movie ends up having a lot to say about the seething anger of poor, rural white Americans who are barely surviving and are the bedrock of Donald Trump’s support (yep, it’s timely). It also features a truly Oscar worthy turn by Bridges (anyone who says Bridges is just doing Bridges is simply wrong) that hopefully won’t get lost because of the early release date. And, yes, expect to see it on a number of top 10 lists at the end of the year. It’s that good.
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
Laika’s fourth film is the directorial debut of company founder Travis Knight and is arguably its most impressive achievement to date. A breathtaking combination of stop motion and CG animation (although still more of the former), “Kubo” is simply gorgeous. It’s story, however, is sometimes more confusing than it should be which is often par the course for Laika. That said, the visuals, character animation and vocal performances (Charlize Theron, in particular, is fantastic) combine for something special. The Best Animated Feature race appears to be much more competitive than originally thought, but at this point “Kubo” should make the cut. The technique, the imagery is just too impressive.
I’m not even sure where to start. Nothing you’ve seen in the trailers or TV spots can prepare you for what the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg conceived comedy is truly about. It’s perhaps the most unexpected and progressive movie released by a major movie studio this century. To give too much away would spoil the surprises, but let’s be clear its rated R for a reason. This is not an animated movie for little kids. But, if you’re looking for a comedy that might make you think a little bit take the time to see it on the big screen. Oh, and because of much of its content it might be the most shocking Best Animated Feature nominee, but never say never.
Oh, and we haven’t talked about two other great limited releases opening later this month: Sundance breakouts “Morris in America,” “Southside With You.” Plus, “War Dogs” and “Don’t Breathe” are intriguing players in their genres too. Who knew August would be the can’t-miss month at the movies?
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