It’s that time of year. School is mere weeks away from starting up again, the biggest blockbusters have had their bows, and the studio releases are transitioning to the distribution equivalent of tossing an old couch on the curb to make room for the new one. May, June and July (and let’s be honest, now April) bring the big crowd pleasers. The last two weeks of summer herald the arrival of the “Everything Must Go” Sales before fall sends us into Oscar bait prestige pictures.
Don’t believe me? The slate for the next two weeks includes Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, a sequel that’s arriving at least five years too late; Are You Here, the directorial debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that garnered early reviews in the exact opposite tone of his acclaimed show; Jessabelle, a release from the Blumhouse factory that’s not getting a plum horror spot, so you know it’s good; and The November Man, an entry in the very neglected genre of CIA agents dragged back into the game because “this time it’s personal!”
It’s generally an accepted fact that if a movie is set for the dog days of August, the studio has less confidence in it than Taylor Swift’s latest beau does of being the one guy she dates who doesn’t end up inspiring a song.
But every now and then, conventions are made to be broken.
Going back through the last fifteen years of releases, I have come up with five films released in the last half of August that could be considered modern gems, presented here in reverse chronological order.
The World’s End
Release date: August 23, 2013
Let’s get this one out of the way. When it comes to Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy, I’m the weirdo who favors Hot Fuzz. (Two words: Timothy Dalton.) I recognize that the concluding chapter of the series is the reigning fan favorite, possibly because it’s got the most out-there premise while having the most emotionally resonant themes.
The film takes a harsh look at those clinging to the past, dramatized through Gary King’s (Pegg) determination to round up his old school friends to complete the 12-pub crawl they never finished in high school, “The Golden Mile.” What starts off as a story about a sad sack dragging along his friends to relive glory days takes a bizarre turn when much of the town turns out to have been replaced by androids, and then it only gets weirder from there. It’s the most ambitious film from this group of collaborators, particularly with how the film’s premise starts off grounded and gradually gets more and more bizarre as the alien invasion is uncovered.
Release date: August 17, 2007
Wow, really? In context, it makes sense this might have been an obvious candidate for the dumping ground. In 2007, Michael Cera was just “the kid from Arrested Development” and Jonah Hill was the heavy third-banana in Knocked Up, the second banana in Accepted, and probably off the bushel in 40 Year-Old Virgin. Even Seth Rogan once admitted the film has “the worst logline ever,” being about two teens trying to get beer so they can impress girls at a party.
This was the Apatow production that really proved a simple idea could carry a film so long as it was explored well and really dug into the characters. The two Apatow films that preceded this had somewhat high-concept ideas that boiled down to character-based loglines. Superbad, on its face, should just be a generic teen comedy that opened and closed in two weeks. It defied that fate by serving up great characters and mixing in relatable moments and emotions amid the more outrageous scenes with the cops. Cera and Hill have real chemistry that feeds off of the tension that arises when going off to college might mean having to leave part of your past behind.
But mostly it’s just a lot of fun, is quotable as hell and introduced the world to “McLovin.”
The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Released August 19, 2005
I bet you forgot this was a late-August dump too. As with Superbad, you can understand the logic. Star Steve Carell had only been a supporting player on the big screen and The Office was only six episodes old at this point. (It had yet to hit its stride and the writers credited this film with not only drawing viewers to their show but also with giving them a primer on how to better utilize their star.)
This is film is an object lesson in the value of unique characters. It manages to explore the loneliness and anxiety of Carell’s Andy with both sensitivity and humor. It’s a tricky thing to make a 40 year-old man’s virginity funny without making him the joke. Writer-director Judd Apatow’s mantra seems to be “character-first” and that’s a philosophy that serves Andy as well as all the supporting players. If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again and be amazed by all the talented actors you probably forgot were in this film together: Jane Lynch, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, Kat Dennings, Romany Malco, Elizabeth Banks and of course Catherine Keener.
Yes, some of the “Know how I know you’re gay” gags age poorly, but it’s helped that there’s little malice behind the joke and the characters themselves are held up as immature. This is the film that made Steve Carell a star and launched Apatow to the next level, well-deserved on both counts.
Released August 16, 2002
I’m guessing there’s some resistance to this one, but I’m willing to make a case for this film’s virtues beyond three very attractive ladies in bathing suits. This film is far better and more entertaining than it has any right to be, due in large part to the absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Sure, some of the CG-aided shots are even more obvious now, but there’s something to be said for some of the shots where the camera starts above the surface and goes into the wave to film in the deep.
The plot? Yes it’s somewhat formulaic, a typical underdog story about a lower-class girl named Anne-Marie trying to prove she can conquer her fears and win a surfing competition after a setback that nearly ended her career. There’s a subplot about Anne-Marie looking after her younger sister that feels like one too many elements piled on. Her romance with a football player isn’t the most compelling romance in film, but it’s kind of nice to see a female-dominated movie where the guy gets to be the blandly-supportive love interest.
Kate Bosworth is charming as the lead and most of the rest of the cast proves to be an amiable bunch. The real scene-stealer is the rotund Faizon Love, a big guy with a big personality to match. A number of cameos by real surfers helps add some authenticity.
Blue Crush might not be a great movie, but it looks great and probably deserved a better fate than the consignment bin of a release date it got. Discover it on DVD.
Bring It On
Released August 25, 2000
People who call this a guilty pleasure are wrong. This is legitimately a great movie that no one should have to qualify their love for. It was one of the sharpest comedies of its day, with more wit packed into its screenplay than most other releases that summer. It’s rather flabbergasting that the film was dumped where it was, as if Universal couldn’t figure out how to market a film that boasted hot cheerleaders and a bikini car wash to teens. In spite of that, it earned over $68 million domestically on a budget of $28 million.
The hook: new Toros cheer squad leader Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) learns that for years, their squad’s wining moves have been appropriated from the East Compton Clovers. Most of the rest of the girls are content to use the purloined choreography, but when the other team humiliates them on their own football field, the Toros agree to learn a new routine before Regionals so they’ll be able to overmatch the Clovers in the finals.
As a Buffy fan, it was Eliza Dushku who got me in the theatre for this, but it’s Jessica Bendinger’s script that gets me to rewatch this somewhat regularly. Militant choreographer Sparky Polastri is one of the truly great comic creations in cinema. In a different era, his portrayer Ian Roberts might have been rewarded with a spinoff movie of his own two summers hence.
I’ll go out on a limb and call it the wittiest teen comedy since the much-beloved Clueless (and yes, I am aware that period encompasses American Pie.) The best gag in the subsequent cheerleader film Fired Up is based around just how quotable this movie is. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to work “It’s not a democracy, it’s a cheer-ocracy” into casual conversation? Director Peyton Reed has been getting a lot of scorn for being the guy to take up the vacated Ant-Man directing chair, so why not rewatch this and remind yourself of how good he can be.
Bring it On is a modern classic. I’ll take on anyone who says different.