Summer Blockbusted 2020: Now Playing…July 17 (FILM FUN/VIDEO)

Nolan Blockbusters, Christmas in July, and much more.

Welcome to Week 12 of Summer Blockbusted 2020.

Through the end of August, I am curating a weekly slate of movies from summers past, ranging from big blockbusters to small counter-programming indies, and dramas and comedies in-between. With the multiplexes still closed, these are classics you can enjoy again or discover for the first time in the safety of your home theater.

Every single Friday. All summer long.

(To read more about how each week’s slate is determined, click here.)

This week: films that were released over the third weekend of July. My REC OF THE WEEK is an action-packed adventure that stages every one of its impressive, entertaining thrills without CGI.

When possible, I’ve included archived video reviews from Siskel & Ebert, whether I agree with them or not.

Also included when possible: links to streaming services where these movies can be seen. (If a link isn’t provided, you can rent the film on most VOD platforms.)

(Find links to other weeks at the end of this article.)


  • REC OF THE WEEK: The Mask of Zorro (July 17, 1998) 136 min; Rated PG-13
    Streaming FREE on IMDbTV via Amazon Prime

    • The Mask of Zorro embraced the spirit of the old serialized adventure better than any movie had since Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet did so without trying to copy Spielberg’s blockbuster in any way (unlike other Indy ripoffs and wannabes have).
      Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) mounts a swashbuckler of the first order, with large scale action and stunt-driven spectacle that is entirely real rather than digitally-enhanced or faked. Also, the Best Sound Oscar nomination it garnered was well-earned; The Mask of Zorro is a great choice to show off a high-end home theater surround system.
      The core trio of Antonio Banderas (the new Zorro), Anthony Hopkins (the old Zorro-turned-mentor) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who is, pardon the objectifying, a jaw-dropping beauty of perfection here along with being a strong, spirited presence) are magnificent, and Stuart Wilson’s main villain is formidable, but it’s the clever, inventive, and character-rich script they’re all given that makes this something special.
      The lead trio takes that material and infuses the relationships with genuine emotion, depth, and stakes as we become sincerely invested in them and their outcome, all while having a blast along the way.
      A sequel followed in 2005, The Legend of Zorro, one that apparently made so little an impact during its release that I have no memory of it even existing (reader Brian Wilson had to remind me of it), nor can I recall having ever seen it appear on television in syndication. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that original screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio had since moved on to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and were channeling their best swashbuckling ideas there. (Final numbers: $94 million domestic; $250.2 million worldwide.)
  • The Frisco Kid (July 13, 1979) 119 min; Rated PG
    • This box office comedy flop has, over the years, garnered a cult following, one I count myself among. Delivering consistent belly laughs while engendering sentiment, Gene Wilder stars as Avram, a Rabbi from Poland who comes to America with a sacred Torah in tow. He’s headed for a Jewish community in San Francisco that he will lead. Harrison Ford plays the bank robbing cowboy who helps Avram make it across the wild west in one piece; comedy and action ensue.
      The key to why this whole thing works is rooted in how deeply pious Wilder’s Avram is. It’s in that piety – which is always played with reverence, not slapstick – that everything that works in the movie springs from: the film’s comedy, its conflict, as well as Avram’s courage and tenderness. If he simply would’ve been a bumbling foreigner with a funny accent, The Frisco Kid would’ve deserved its flop status. Instead, it deserves to be re-discovered.
      Also, Harrison Ford.
      Wilder’s turn here is one of his best. It may not quite match the unique inspiration of his Willy Wonka or Dr. Frankenstein, but it remains my personal favorite. As Avram, we see how good of a comic and an actor that Wilder truly was.
      To the degree that Siskel and Ebert dismiss The Frisco Kid as a tonal mess in the video review below, I wholeheartedly disagree and embrace it for being a movie that delivers way more than the one-dimensional “fish out of water” buddy movie it so easily could’ve been reduced to. This is Mel Brooks-level good, but without being a genre parody and offering way more emotional payoff. (Final numbers: $9.3 million domestic and worldwide.)
  • Clueless (July 21, 1995) 97 min Rated PG-13 25th Anniversary
    Streaming on Netflix

    • The 1990s couldn’t quite match the 1980s Golden Age of Teen Comedies, so it should come as no surprise that Amy Heckerling, the director of one of the 80s best (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), would end up delivering the best teen comedy of the decade that followed.
      As smart and insightful as Fast Times was about average suburban teenagers, Clueless is equally so as a SoCal social satire of an entirely different sort. This time the uber-rich popular kids are the targets, led by Alicia Silverstone’s Cher (a high school version of Jane Austen’s Emma, as is the loosely-inspired story here), but Heckerling (who also wrote the script) never makes it mean-spirited. There’s a lot of affection for the characters even as the satire is pointed and occasionally merciless, but that candor is what makes Clueless both funny and human.
      And like Fast Times, Heckerling assembled an absolutely perfect cast from top to bottom, one where even adults like teacher lovebirds Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan or Cher’s dad Dan Hedaya aren’t doofus foils but rather characters that we have affection for (and Cher does, too).
      Plus, the late Brittany Murphy is so adorable and charming here that it’s easy to see why so many people became instant fans of hers for life, and why they where devastated by her untimely passing in 2009.
      Like the best teen comedies, Clueless is at once a time capsule of its era (so perfectly mid-90s) while also resonating as a timeless and entertaining teenage portrait, and one I’m still totally buggin for. (Final numbers: $56.6 million domestic; $60.9 million worldwide.)
  • Aliens (July 18, 1986) 137 min Rated R
    Streaming on HBO Max (also offered in an extended version, with 15 additional minutes padded in)

    • When it comes to who is the second-best blockbuster director ever behind Steven Spielberg I’d probably have to go with Christopher Nolan if there were a gun to my head, but a movie like Aliens makes a serious case for James Cameron (as have many others since).
      Perfectly conceived and executed in both its broad strokes and brilliant details, Aliens is a sequel that improves upon its original in every way (which is saying something, given how groundbreaking Ridley Scott’s Alien was). Rather than being satisfied with simply riding Scott’s coattails, Cameron (in his first big post-Terminator effort) actually expands the Alien mythos in riveting ways, in part by deepening Ripley’s character with a maternal drive.
      Sigourney Weaver is more than up to the task for everything that Cameron has for her (indeed, this feels like the role she was born to play) and, together, it’s here that they make Ripley the action movie icon that she became and remains.
      Cameron writes and casts a great motley crew of military mercenaries, too, highlighted by Bill Paxton’s hilarious turn that goes from goofy machismo to total meltdown in record time. And as far as adrenaline-driven action movie-making goes, Cameron’s Aliens still stands as a brilliant landmark of genre perfection. (Final numbers: $85.1 million domestic; $131.3 million worldwide.)
  • Nolan Batman Double-Feature: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises
    • The Dark Knight (July 16, 2008) 152 min Rated PG-13
      Streaming on Hulu
    • The Dark Knight Rises (July 19, 2012) 164 min Rated PG-13
    • The Dark Knight isn’t only the best superhero movie ever made (although if someone wants to make a case for The Black Panther, I’m listening), it’s one of the best crime dramas ever made.
      Towering as both a fully-realized comic book world and a realistic one that eerily mirrors our own, Christopher Nolan used his Batman Begins sequels to examine the existential crisis of their time: how does a society fight terrorism without becoming the very enemy it hates, especially when that enemy simply wants to watch the world burn?
      The Dark Knight Rises extends that examination in fascinating ways while also finding a noble conclusion to the Bruce Wayne arc. The critical takes on Rises were more mixed than the universal acclaim that The Dark Knight received, but mine has never been among them.
    • The Dark Knight (Final numbers: $535.2 million domestic; $1.1 billion worldwide.)
    • The Dark Knight Rises (Final numbers: $448.1 million domestic; $1.1 billion worldwide.)
  • Nolan Mind-Bender Double-Feature: Inception and Dunkirk
    • Inception (July 15, 2010) 148 min Rated PG-13 10th Anniversary
    • Dunkirk (July 19, 2017) 106 min Rated PG-13
    • Whether it’s messing with our minds (literally) and our perception of reality in Inception or with our perception of time (a recurring preoccupation of Nolan’s) in Dunkirk, these two massive undertakings of narrative and conceptual vision are of such a bold, audacious grandeur that Christopher Nolan has rightly taken his place alongside Spielberg and Hitchcock as one of the few populist filmmakers to also reach that rarified status of auteur.
      Of the two films, Inception is especially worth the revisit. Why? Because its mind-blowing complexity and ingenuity stands as the best example as to why Nolan remains the only current director who has the creativity and clout to make a $200 million movie based solely on an original idea that he came up with rather than needing a pre-existing (and popular) property to warrant that kind of budget. With Christopher Nolan, he is the brand.
    • Inception (Final numbers: $292.5 million domestic; $829.9 million worldwide.)
    • Dunkirk (Final numbers: $189.7 million domestic; $526.9 million worldwide.)
  • Christmas In July Double-Feature: Die Hard and When Harry Met Sally…
    • Die Hard (July 15, 1988) 132 min Rated R
      Streaming on HBO Max
    • When Harry Met Sally… (July 14, 1989) 95 min Rated R
      Streaming on HBO Max
    • People have been forcing the “It’s a Christmas movie!” label on Die Hard and When Harry Met Sally… for quite some time now (Die Hard especially, which simply doesn’t warrant it, other than the studio’s desire to create annual holiday-driven revenue). Even so, you couldn’t ask for two better “Christmas in July” options, ones that were released right in the heart of the summer (and over the exact same July weekend on two consecutive years, no less) that are holiday-adjacent enough to give you a nice Christmas fix.
      Each film comes from two classic summer counter-programming genres — the action movie and the rom-com — and both went on to become landmarks in their genres while delivering solid summer-movie satisfaction.
      Die Hard’s screenplay remains a quintessential example of a perfect action-movie construct (which is why it spawned so many clones, of which Speed was the most successful), and while When Harry Met Sally… may itself be a bit of an Annie Hall clone, its singular Nora Ephron voice and specific, superb chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan make it an all-timer in its own right. The fact that it triggered the 90s Golden Age of Rom-Coms speaks, more than anything, to the movie’s enduring legacy.
    • Die Hard (Final numbers: $83.5 million domestic; $141.4 million worldwide.)
    • When Harry Met Sally… (Final numbers: $93 million domestic and worldwide.)
  • Mrs. Brown (July 18, 1997) 101 min; Rated PG
    • Come for the Oscar-nominated performance from Judi Dench, stay for the one that also should’ve been from Billy Connolly. Based on the true 19th Century story of the grieving Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown tells of how Mr. John Brown came to aid the Queen following the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert. Since John was an old friend of Albert’s, Victoria summoned him to join her court staff as the stable master, in part to surround herself with trusted attendants during her time of grief.
      What evolves, however, is how Brown’s stern (yet reverent) candor draws the grief-stricken Queen out of her mourning. As it does, Brown’s influence grows on the Queen, so much so that a strong attachment between the two forms, one so obvious that it creates a scandal in the kingdom, labeling Her Majesty as “Mrs. Brown”.
      Indeed, there’s truth to the gossip as Victoria is falling in love with Brown, and he in return, but the brilliance of director John Madden‘s film (or, at least, one of many) is how real and credible it all is. The “romance” is never played as such because there’s something else going on within it as well, something more complex and raw and real. The deep affections are all unrequited, of course, given the context of the woman being Her Royal Highness and the man being a Scottish servant, yet it’s all there and palpable (and in direct relation to the class barrier between the two).
      Dench is simply superb, particularly as a woman who’s emotionally fragile in the wake of her inconsolable loss, but then, too, as a woman who blossoms anew under Brown’s loving candor — something she desperately needs and that no one else is equipped with the disposition to provide. Brown, in return, only strengthens his resolve and sense of duty as his own sentiment for the Queen grows, and its hard to imagine any actor imbuing the role with more conviction that Connolly does here. My goodness, it’s so deeply moving.
      The movie would put Dench on the American map, in a role that stands as a clear example of what makes her a global treasure  in the world of the performance arts. It’s no surprise that it lead to Dench’s first Oscar nomination, but it would be her next collaboration with director John Madden that would finally bring her Oscar glory: Shakespeare in Love, an Oscar underdog that would also garner Madden a Best Picture win over the expected favorite Saving Private Ryan.
      Mrs. Brown is an absolute must for any Judi Dench fan (and honestly, who isn’t one?) as well as for any Anglophile. If you don’t believe me, listen to Gene Siskel rave in the review below. I share his unbridled enthusiasm and respect. (Final numbers: $9.2 million domestic and worldwide.)
  • A Fish Called Wanda (July 15, 1988) 108 min; Rated R
    Streaming on HBO Max

    • If you want to hear people talk about how smart and sophisticated the comedy of A Fish Called Wanda is — even in its puerile and/or bawdy moments — then watch the Siskel and Ebert clip below. I largely concur, yet feel compelled to take this opportunity to comment on how odd it is to watch this movie’s depiction of sexuality, consensual though it may be, especially now in the context of our #MeToo times.I should start by saying that, as I’ve been indulging in a lot of movies this summer from the 1980s and 90s, A Fish Called Wanda is hardly the first movie to spark this uncomfortable reaction or, for that matter, even the worst offender. It does serve as a good reference, though, given how cavalier it is with objectifying (and even fondling) Jamie Lee Curtis — who, it should be stressed, is in peak form here as an actress and comedienne.
      Most importantly, Curtis appears to be entirely onboard with the objectifying. Nothing feels forced upon her as she consensually embraces the role’s conniving manipulation of men, including the use of her sexuality to do it. (Spoiler alert: she’s the title character.) One senses that, for Wanda, using sex as “necessary” tool for these jewel thieves to get what they want is one of the perks.
      I think that what we see here, as well as what we see in so many movies from the era, is the result of Baby Boomers finally coming into prominence in the industry. In the 70s, 80s and 90s they were the people making the movies. With that came their cavalier free-loving mores from the Sexual Revolution, ones that appear a bit too free (and misogynistically lopsided) by today’s standards.
      Trust me, even with my own personal values (which are more conservative than the norm), I’m not sitting here in judgment of the cast and director who made A Fish Called Wanda (written by co-lead John Cleese, whose barrister is essentially a less-broad Basil Fawlty) or any of the movies from that era that could fit into this conversation. Even as change is necessary and welcome, I’m reluctant to look back in Pharisaical self-righteousness on another generation’s agreed-upon values (even to whatever degree I don’t share them). It’s just, well, interesting is all, and worthy to consider as we currently view our own times and what the broader culture now defines as “doing right”.
      The important takeaway is this: things that look progressive and free and appropriate to us now will, someday, inevitably be viewed differently and suspect by future generations. Given that, we should be gracious to past generations — even when they make us cringe.
      (Final numbers: $62.8 million domestic; $178 million worldwide.)

Other weeks from Summer Blockbusted 2020:

6 thoughts on “Summer Blockbusted 2020: Now Playing…July 17 (FILM FUN/VIDEO)

  1. There was the Legend of Zorro. Wasn’t nearly as good as the first, but it was a attempt at a sequel.

    1. It’s extremely rare that I have no recollection of a major movie release. In fact, this may be the first time. I read your comment and honestly had no idea what you were referring to. I went to IMDB, found it there, and was completely perplexed by what I was looking at. How did this sequel pass me by so completely? I can’t even remember ever seeing it pop up on cable or in syndication. I’m intrigued, to say the least, though my expectations are muted. Thanks for the correction!

      1. Wow, and here I thought you were discreetly ignoring the existence of that sequel. 🙂

  2. I do remember being really let down by the film. Everything was there for a good follow up! Missed opportunity.

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