Hmm…so the math on this was a little off. I traditionally do two months per “preview” article, but if I include August in the “Fall Edition” of this then I have to consider October part of the “Winter Edition” and then I have to figure out how to fit three months into that. I could also just skip August entirely but that feels weird. Especially since at least two August releases are going to be discussed as potential awards contenders.
Ah, well. Better bite the bullet and do a mini-version of one of these pieces closing out the late summer. Starting with…
THE SUICIDE SQUAD – In Theaters and HBO Max August 6
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Margot Robbie, with Idris Elba and John Cena
What is it about? A kinda-sorta-we’d-rather-you-just-forget-about-the-first-one semi-sequel to Suicide Squad, this time the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X are set loose on the remote and dangerous island of Corto Maltese.
How am I feelin’ about this one? The Suicide Squad is the latest in Warner Bros’ weird trend of putting definite articles in front of sequel titles. No, wait, that’s not right… I mean, The Suicide Squad is the direct sequel to… well, not really… kinda? It’s part of the DC Extended Uni… or is it? I don’t even know what’s going on with this awkward once-challenger to Disney’s Marvel juggernaut. Okay, let’s try this one more time…
The Suicide Squad is the kind of semi-sequel that happens when the first film makes a lot of money because the central hook (a bunch of D-list comic book villains team up for a morally sketchy mission with a low chance of survival) is a surefire winner and the aesthetic of its leading lady becomes a fashion icon and sex symbol overnight but the execution was so terrible no one remembers it fondly. You can’t not produce a follow-up, there’s just too much money on the line, but the only way to salvage anything profitable in that follow-up is keep the general lore continuity in the loosest sense while also assuring your target audience that this is nothing like its predecessor in every other way. Viola Davis is back as Amanda Waller, and so is Jai Courtney as fan favorite Captain Boomerang, but most importantly, Margot Robbie has returned to play Harley Quinn (even though, let’s be honest, there is absolutely no logical reason why a secret paramilitary organization would want to recruit a tiny, mentally-ill woman with no superpowers into their ranks in the first place).
But other than that, James Gunn is departing as far as one possibly could from the grim monochromatic tone of David Ayer’s Oscar-winning 2016 film and headlong into the Troma camp he cut his teeth on as an up-and-comer. Over-the-top gore, tongue-in-cheek humor, and vibrant color palettes dominate this one… and it looks like it worked. Early reviews have been not just positive, but outright rapturous. Joey Magidson raved that it was, no kidding, “the best film of 2021 so far and an instant classic.”
Maybe Warner Bros is finally getting its act together with these movies!
FREE GUY – In Theaters August 13
Directed by Shawn Levy
Starring Ryan Reynolds, with Jodie Comer and Joe Keery
What is it about? A bank teller discovers that he’s actually an NPC inside a brutal, open world video game.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Video games have been one of the only nuts that Hollywood has failed to crack in the almost thirty years they have attempted to adapt them into feature films. Most of the time they’re just middling nothings that fade from memory almost instantly, and sometimes they’re such catastrophic failures that they single-handedly shut down studios and ruin careers. The exception to this, of course, being Street Fighter showcasing one of the all-time most delicious slices of ham in the history of screen acting from the late great Raúl Juliá (R.I.P.).
The only genuinely good movies that draw from video games appear to be ones that ape the narrative logic of them without trying to adapt one of their specific properties, like Edge of Tomorrow or Run Lola Run. But now, it seems like we’re at the point when a major studio film assumes (likely correctly) that video games have become enough of a culturally ubiquitous presence that it can invest in a movie poking fun at their most common tropes. In this case, the non-player character, or NPC; who has absolutely no inner life or purpose other than to stand around as a one-note game mechanic or just act as set dressing for the main character’s journey.
Ryan Reynolds, whose screen persona has remained largely unchanged since it made Deadpool a box office hit, is the “Guy” in an open-world action game who somehow achieves self-awareness and goes on a quest to become the hero of the game that relegated him to the background. It’s a clever-ish premise, and I imagine fans of similar open-world games like the Grand Theft Auto series and pretty much every AAA title Ubisoft has put out in the last five years will find plenty of funny callbacks and references. I doubt it will be much more than that, though, since director Shawn Levy has made a career of helming comedies that go right up to the level of “fine” and not one inch further.
Then again, I could be wrong: Steven Prusakowski and Joey Magidson enjoyed this movie a great deal, and both of them praised it for flexing its premise for maximum comedic potential. One more interesting factoid: Free Guy will serve as the first major leading movie role of acclaimed TV actress Jodie Comer, two months before her highly anticipated possible awards play in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. So, that’s something.
RESPECT– In Theaters July 16
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Starring Jennifer Hudson, with Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald
What is it about? The life story of legendary R&B singer and “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin.
How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m about to say something that may get me cancelled by #FilmTwitter. Seriously, this is not going to go over well, so… deep breath… here goes… I don’t think Jennifer Hudson deserved the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Dreamgirls fourteen years ago.
“What?!?!? How dare you say that! Her rendition of ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ was incredible! It stole the whole movie!”
Yes, I agree, that sequence lasting just under five minutes was exceptional, and Hudson has an amazing singing voice and she effectively captured the pain of Effie at the lowest point in her life. Can you recall anything else about the other roughly forty-five minutes she’s onscreen? Any interactions she has with the rest of the ensemble that were particularly memorable? Is she even all that good when she’s speaking and not singing? I would say no, and the fact that the hyperbolic deafening praise of that one song number was able to sustain itself unfettered throughout a year that brought us Emily Blunt’s breakout performance in The Devil Wears Prada and Mia Kirshner giving one of the best performances in a bad movie ever is an unfortunate reflection of how hype can overwhelm any deeper criticisms or discussions of what constitutes genuinely great screen acting.
So with that caveat out of the way, we are looking at Jennifer Hudson’s potentially second Oscar fifteen years after her (probably) landslide victory back in 2007, and this one will be via one of the most reliable plays for Academy Award attention: biopic mimicry. I have made no secret of my disdain for the Academy’s addiction to impersonations of famous people as the ultimate achievement in acting, but it is nice to see a proper movie centered around, no kidding, one of the absolute greatest musical icons of the century. Her tumultuous life is one of perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardship and would appear to be perfect for a movie. However…
Is there a more tiresome subgenre right now than the biopic of a music icon? Is there any point in even making them after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story pretty much nailed down their formula cold? They’re as artistically homogeneous as Marvel movies and rarely rise above the level of a Mel Gibson movie in terms of historical value these days. Judy and Bohemian Rhapsody were especially nadirs for the genre, and the combination of first-time director, cradle-to-the-grave plot synopsis on IMDb, and superfluous original song “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” written solely to compete for the most superfluous Oscar category all give me serious reservations about Respect.
On the other hand, Liesl Tommy is a highly-accomplished stage director and every interview she’s given reflects someone who appears to be genuinely reverential to the subject matter. She may very well achieve the kind of wildly successful stage-to-screen transition that Florian Zeller achieved last year. Here’s hoping.
CODA – In Theaters and Apple TV+ August 13
Directed by Sian Heder
Starring Emilia Jones, with Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur
What is it about? Ruby is a child of deaf adults, or a CODA. When her family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Pretty good, honestly! I always root for Marlee Matlin and our own Joey Magidson adored this movie; still ranking it among the very best films he’s seen so far this year.
If I had to draw some reserves of skepticism, it would mainly be where it started to build up major buzz in the first place: Sundance. This is a film festival that has been, to be generous, hit-or-miss for me as far as their darlings are concerned, since I find myself in a weird roller coaster of raving on some of the big hits from that festival – like Minari, Clemency, and Beasts of the Southern Wild – but more often outright disliking most of their other major award winners: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Whiplash, Fruitvale Station, and Like Crazy were all various degrees of “Not My Bag.”
Apple is betting big on CODA, spending $25 million for the distribution rights and will almost certainly spend a lot more for a full-court advertising press to get this as much attention and recognition as possible. Barring some sort of unexpected public backlash or scandal emerging from the production, I see their gambit paying off.
REMINISCENCE – In Theaters and HBO Max August 20
Directed by Lisa Joy
Starring Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and Thandiwe Newton
What is it about? A scientist discovers a way to relive your past and uses the technology to search for his long lost love.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Reminiscence belongs to a sadly dwindling subgenre of highbrow sci-fi with actual production values, ever since streaming services in general and Netflix in particular have colonized this market and have used it (along with found footage horror movies) to churn out cheaply-produced, disposable pieces of content to keep their subscribers distracted just enough to forget to cancel their memberships before the next billing period.
This is not adapted from a previously-existing story or an older film as far as I can tell, although the premise and tone do give off serious Strange Days vibes, don’t you think? Remember that? It was the last movie Kathryn Bigelow directed in the 90’s and her only feature film collaboration with ex-husband James Cameron. Reminiscence adopts the same general “the future sucks and everyone just wants to escape to the past” dystopia because hey, it looks like we’re basically already there with constant reboots and revivals of pop culture darlings from the 80’s and 90’s as climate change continues to cook the planet.
Here, it’s even more explicit, as Hugh Jackman’s ominous voice in the trailer explains that “when the waters began to rise, and war broke out, nostalgia became a way of life.” Jackman plays the Lenny Nero character, giving clients a chance to relive happy memories as if they were experiencing them for the first time again. And, of course, his cynical existence is derailed when he meets a Mysterious Woman With A Dark Past played by Rebecca Ferguson in what I assume is the Faith role. She disappears, prompting him to use her memories as the key to finding her again, while the now-embracing-her-birth-name Thandiwe Newton will be serving as his primary companion/sounding board/conscience like Mace in wow this movie really is similar to Strange Days, huh?
I am not, let’s be clear, accusing this movie of being a “ripoff” and even if I was, I don’t consider that a negative. If anything, I think it’s fascinating that a science fiction premise that bombed so badly in the 90’s it nearly ruined its director’s career is being revisited twenty-five years later as the feature debut of Emmy-nominated Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy. I have never seen the show myself, but it has attracted a dedicated following from fans praising it for reinventing a pretty mediocre thriller feature from 1973 into a more thoughtful rumination on perception and humanity itself.
Though I doubt it will be a major Oscar player – I mean, if Looper couldn’t even get an Original Screenplay nomination, what hope does any high concept sci-fi release have? – but it may be a huge turning point in the career of a very esteemed storyteller. Also, surprise Oscar-nominee Marina de Tavira from Roma is apparently playing a role in this movie.
THE NIGHT HOUSE – In Theaters August 20
Directed by David Bruckner
Starring Rebecca Hall, with Sarah Goldberg and Stacy Martin
What is it about? A widow begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
How am I feelin’ about this one?I have to admit I’m pretty surprised this “trend” in horror hasn’t burnt out yet or suffered any kind of serious public backlash. The trend I’m referring to is the “arthouse horror” dominance over the last decade, kicking off with arguably Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and producing at least one critical darling per year: Under the Skin, Enemy, The Babadook, The Witch, Under the Shadow, Hereditary, Midsommar,and most recently Saint Maud have all been described as part of this subgenre and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
This is something I would not have predicted, as I assumed the successes of these more cerebral horror movies would eventually be drowned out by the pretenders, especially as cheap horror movies have flooded streaming services. But then again, there was a roughly two decade-long period in America where our conception of American horror was exclusively slashers, so maybe this is something that will dominate the cinematic language of scaring audiences for a long time.
Now it looks like Rebecca Hall is dipping her toes into this trend with her starring role in The Night House, about a widower discovering a sinister supernatural force in her lake house that is almost certainly going to serve as a metaphor for trauma or grief or self-harm or something else. I am skeptical of this movie’s chances of success, at least artistically, because I didn’t care for David Bruckner’s previous movie The Ritual, a bafflingly disjointed folk horror movie assuming a half-baked resolution for its protagonist’s emotional conflict that was in no way earned.
I’m going to keep an open mind, though, and look forward to something that will hopefully be terrifying and memorable and showcasing a terrific lead performance that will be predictably overlooked by the Academy. I’m sure Lupita Nyong’o and Essie Davis will be happy to spot her a drink when she joins that unfortunate club.
FLAG DAY – In Theaters August 20
Directed by Sean Penn
Starring Sean Penn, with Dylan Penn and Katheryn Winnick
What is it about? A father lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Be honest – you forgot this movie existed, didn’t you? You forgot this thing was even part of the Main Competition only a month ago. I mean, I don’t want to be unfair to Sean Penn’s latest directorial effort; after all, it’s hard to tear attention away from the likes of Benedetta and Palme d’Or winner Titane.
Sean Penn, once hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, has struggled to maintain that esteemed reputation over the past few years. His last directorial effort, The Last Face, was practically laughed out of the Cannes Film Festival by critics and barely seen by general audiences. His debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, was the infamous Grandpa Simpson Yelling at a Cloud meme stretched out to 176 pages. It should come as a surprise to anyone that he’s spent the last few years whining about “cancel culture” every chance he gets, like a lot of formerly iconoclastic celebrities who’ve gotten old and rich and out-of-touch.
But put that aside for a minute. Put aside all of the annoying and tiresome habits Penn has gotten into. Judged solely in reference to itself… it’s still hard to get too excited for Flag Day. Its big hook is that Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan Penn are co-starring in a movie about a real-life counterfeiter and the strained relationship between him and his daughter. Gosh, could art be imitating life with this movie? I wonder if this had a profound impact on their actual relationship, and maybe they can bring that up at literally every single press junket?
Look, I understand that nepotism has been part of the film industry for a long time. I’m aware of the fact that the Academy Award Cinderella story of Nomadland earlier this year was directed by a Chinese steel manufacturing and real estate heiress, and that Paul Giamatti’s father was the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and that Nicholas Cage’s birth name was Nicholas Coppola, and J.J. Abrams came from parents who were successful entertainment media moguls, and that in general there is an obscene wealth and networking barrier to getting into the business in the first place. If I were to write off every single successful artist who broke into the business due to who they knew or the monetary safety net they enjoyed when they started out, well… I’d be having to dismiss a lot of amazing artists.
But perhaps it’s not the best idea to put those advantages front-in-center in what you hope will be your breakout role? Maybe audiences can only suspend so much resentment of reminders of the advantages they didn’t have and won’t be interested in whatever daddy issues suffered by the daughter of one of the most acclaimed film performers in Hollywood depicted in front of them? Ask Will Smith and Jaden Smith how well that worked out for them eight years ago. Use your privileges, get that career others can only dream of, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a relatable or compelling narrative. Don’t try to convince us that it was actually really hard to have famous entertainer relatives.
So while I am holding out some hope that this will exceed my expectations (reviews at Cannes were good-ish… at least better than they were for The Last Face) and I wish Dylan Penn well, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t already getting a bad taste in my mouth from Flag Day from the word “Go.”
CANDYMAN – In Theaters August 27
Directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, with Teyonah Parris and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
What is it about? A spiritual sequel to the horror classic returns the legend to the now-gentrified Chicago community where it all began.
How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m going to plant my flag on something and plant it proudly: Candyman is the best slasher movie of the 1990’s.
I’ll say that again: Candyman is the best slasher of the 1990’s. Which, admittedly, is sort of a low bar considering that the 1990’s was the decade the genre effectively died (all of the major slasher franchises sputtered out either just before or right at the start of the decade) and had to be resurrected by one of its founding fathers as one of those “Ha Ha Let’s Ironically Laugh At These Tropes And Clichés We’re Indulging In!” postmodern semi-parodies I’ve never warmed up to. But still, that paucity of competition in that particular era should not diminish what an accomplishment Candyman was and still is twenty-nine years later; cleverly adapting a Clive Barker short story away from the author’s English hometown to an infamous American housing project and crafting a parable about racism with a frankness that was genuinely shocking for a genre film back then. It also boasts two excellent performances from Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, top-notch gore effects, and deeply unsettling music and cinematography making it a true classic of the genre.
With the rise of Black Lives Matter and the current cultural reckoning over systemic racism in general, along with black filmmakers gaining more of a foothold in Hollywood over the course of the 21st century, it was only a matter of time before someone was going to revive this series for a new and more aware audience. Sure enough, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Jordan Peele, his frequent collaborator Win Rosenfeld, and Little Woods director Nia DaCosta have stepped up to the plate to deliver a “spiritual sequel” to the original film… though it’s not clear how directly it will tie into the events of the first movie. It will take place in the now-demolished and gentrified Cabrini Green community and have Tony Todd return as the titular vengeful hook-handed revenant. But it looks like the Candyman’s origin will be completely different, being a victim of police brutality in the more recent past than a former slave punished for the crime of loving a white woman in the late 19th century.
But that might be for the best. Think of the urban legends you grew up with in adolescence. How many of them changed over time or blurred details as they spread or got older? Also worth noting that despite being really the only slasher franchise to boast a significant number of prominent black characters, this upcoming installment will be the first one not to star a white woman as its protagonist. This time, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, best known as Black Manta in the Aquaman movie and, erm, Regina King’s “husband” in the HBO series Watchmen, is now going to be the overeducated and overconfident meddler who awakens the murderous force behind the legend.
It could disappoint – we all know the track record of horror franchises trying to catch a second wind – but I’m having a hard time imagining this turning out flat-out bad, considering the talent, passion, and cultural milieu it’s occupying. There is a good chance that this will be a post-pandemic high water mark for horror fans.
Let me know which August releases you’re excited for in the comments!