Summer Blockbusted 2020: Now Playing…July 31 (FILM FUN/VIDEO)

Blockbusters, Prestige Oscar Contenders, an unqualified Masterpiece, and one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.

Welcome to The Final Week of Summer Blockbusted 2020.

Due to unforeseen but necessary shifts in my personal calendar (which caused me to miss my entry for this series last week), I’m needing to cut short this curated alt-Summer Movie season sooner than I’d originally planned on, by one full month.

This will be the final post about some of the best (or, at least, most interesting) titles from Summer Movie Seasons past, selected from years during the blockbuster era that began in 1975 with Jaws then all the way up to the present.

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

This week: films that were released over the last weekend of July or first weekend of August. My REC OF THE WEEK is a Best Picture nominee that is exactly the kind of uplifting Americana we all need right now.

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 from the Summer Blockbusted 2020 series at the end of this article.)

NOW PLAYING…JULY 31, 2020

  • REC OF THE WEEK: Seabiscuit (July 25, 2003) 140 min; Rated PG-13
    Streaming on Netflix beginning August 1

    • Wow, watching this movie again for the first time in forever did my soul some good, much more than I was expecting and at a level that genuinely surprised me. For whatever reason, Seabiscuit is a movie that I really needed right now. Much of it must be rooted in how inspiring it is as an American portrait, one of grit and heart. It’s a stark contrast to the divisive, politically polarizing times we find ourselves in now, not to mention the questioning by some about if our country is inherently bad and corrupt at its root.
      d
      I love the United States of America. I believe in it. Seabiscuit is a beautiful articulation as to why.
      d
      Based on the New York Times bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand that became a national literary phenomenon, Seabiscuit is the dramatized account of the greatest underdog story in horse racing history. Or, more accurately, the four greatest underdogs: the horse, and the three broken men (played by Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper) that Fate brought together. The disparate life paths of these three men are given purpose and redemption (individually and collectively) through this failed, ornery, rejected, majestic, unorthodox, miracle of a horse.
      d
      It’s the most assured work from writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Pleasantville). A filmmaker not exactly known for restraint, he confidently employs it here in precise, tender ways, leavening nostalgia with melancholy and grief. He also displays a clear vision of how to present this true story in mythic strokes, the kind that choke you up and give you chills, from John Schwartzman’s lush cinematography to Randy Newman’s Americana score, and perhaps especially in how he uses historian David McCullough to narrate key passages of Hillenbrand’s prose in Ken Burns style.
      d
      This Best Picture nominee is genuinely special. It reminds us of what America can be, what it’s meant to be; a place where risk and work make dreams possible. We’re who make it that way – through sacrifice, grace, humanity and faith – and we never do it alone.
      d
      There’s an impulse in our nation right now to throw away what (and who) is broken. In hard-earned contrast, Seabiscuit shows us how contrary that is to the spiritual core of America’s character. We are not a cancel culture; we believe in giving people another chance.
      d
      (Final numbers: $120.2 million domestic; $148.3 million worldwide.)
  • Harrison Ford Double-Feature: Presumed Innocent and The Fugitive
    • Presumed Innocent (July 27, 1990) 127 min; Rated R 30th Anniversary
      Streaming on HBO Max
    • The Fugitive (August 6, 1993) 130 min Rated PG-13
    • With sincere respect to the legacy that John Grisham leaves to the world of literary legal drama (and the film adaptations that have followed), the genre standard that Scott Turrow set with Presumed Innocent is the high bar that Grisham has been spending his entire career striving to reach. Having his novel adapted to the screen by director Alan J. Pakula, one of the greats from The 1970s New Hollywood (All The President’s Men, The Parallax View, Klute), made for a perfect marriage of auteur and material.
      d
      Presumed Innocent isn’t only about what appears to be an open-and-shut murder case, but it’s a procedural that reveals the legal process with a insider’s accuracy to detail, often defying genre tropes and expectations. As a drama, it also subverts and deepens its characters, defining them past our initial impressions of them, especially in the female roles, from Greta Scacchi’s murder victim (who’s as amoral personally as she is righteous in her role as a county prosecutor) to Bonnie Bedelia who takes the stock role of supportive wife and subtly brings out the layers that the material provides.
      d
      At the center, though, is Harrison Ford in one of his best, most complicated performances, and Raul Julia who brings intelligent restraint to the role of a defense attorney (a virtue that applies to the court scenes as well). Forgive the hyperbole but, in all sincerity, this has to be one of the best legal dramas ever made. It’s that smart and that good.
      d
      Less surprising is to heap the same praise on The Fugitive, possibly Ford’s biggest non-franchise film success ever, a blockbuster thriller that rebooted an old TV show premise all the way to a Best Picture nomination. It, too, is anchored by one of Ford’s best ever performances, one that arguably includes his single-best scene of acting ever (the early interrogation scene at the police station). Add Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar-winning performance and you have a movie that still works at its core (even if some of its stylistic flourishes feel forced and dated now, like cheap TV genre techniques).
      d
      It’s worth noting that I stopped short of making this a Harrison Ford triple feature, which I could have with the end-of-July actioner Air Force One. But oy, that “Die Hard on the President’s plane” potboiler does not hold up well, despite the best efforts of Ford, Glenn Close, and Gary Oldman.
      d
    • Presumed Innocent (Final numbers: $86.3 million domestic; $221.3 million worldwide.)
    • The Fugitive (Final numbers: $183.8 million domestic; $368.8 million worldwide.)
  • M. Night Shyamalan Double-Feature: The Sixth Sense and Signs
    • The Sixth Sense (August 6, 1999) 107 min; Rated PG-13
      Streaming on Showtime
    • Signs (August 2, 2002) 106 min; Rated PG-13
      Streaming on HBO Max
    • The Sixth Sense quickly became known as the scary thriller with the big twist ending in 1999 (a trait with mixed blessings that still defines its writer/director M. Night Shyamalan to this day), but it wasn’t that twist alone that made the movie an unexpected breakout phenomenon. If the movie didn’t hold up on its own terms until that blindside in the last five minutes, then people wouldn’t have kept coming back again and again. But they did because it did.
      d
      Twist aside, The Sixth Sense is a deeply moving multi-character ensemble, each with their own rich, affecting arc, from a kid (Haley Joel Osment, in one of the best child performances ever) trying to reconcile what to do with his ability to see dead people to his single mother (Toni Collette) struggling to help her son with a problem she can’t even comprehend to the child psychologist (Bruce Willis) looking for some personal redemption through helping this kid while also struggling to save his deteriorating marriage. All of these character threads and how they intersect and affect each other stand up in their own right, as does the patient, chilling mastery of Shyamalan’s craft that goes for intelligent, stylish scares rather than easy jump ones.
      d
      In short, the film works even if the twist never happened, but the twist is that brilliant kicker that not only causes you to rethink everything you saw but, more importantly, it enriches everything that the film had been about and elevates it to a whole other level. It’s why The Sixth Sense went on to earn a Best Picture nomination at a time when those slots were still limited to five.
      d
      I could heap equal praise on 2002’s Signs, the third film in Shyamalan’s meteoric rise and fall as “The Next Spielberg” over a three year period (that saw Unbreakable sandwiched between these two). Looking back on that streak now, there’s no denying that this was Night at his filmmaking peak, but the other virtue that these movies had that his subsequent ones haven’t is an overt spirituality – especially in Signs, in which a former Christian minister (Mel Gibson) whose faith died along with his wife must grapple with that hopeless nihilism while trying to protect his family during a global alien invasion that, in part, is marked by crop circles in his rural Pennsylvania cornfield. If Night wants to fully recapture his magic, I think it has to be marked by a return to this sincere spiritual introspection. Or to appropriate a Jewish term, his movies need to become Midrashes again.
      d
      Like the two Shyamalan films that preceded it, Signs takes a focused, minimalist, realistic approach to a pulpy genre, here acting as the polar opposite to Independence Day by being something more akin to a chamber piece of live theatre. Yet with Hitchockian panache (including a James Newton Howard score that wields inspiration from Psycho and North by Northwest), Night makes it the kind of mesmerizing pop culture entertainment that legitimately earned him the “Next Spielberg” moniker.
      d
      (And if you’re reluctant to revisit anything with Mel Gibson, then at least come back for Joaquin Phoenix, theatre great Cherry Jones, and two other superb kid performances from Rory Culkin and a very-young Abigail Breslin.)
      d
    • The Sixth Sense (Final numbers: $293.5 million domestic; $672.8 million worldwide.)
    • Signs (Final numbers: $228 million domestic; $408.2 million worldwide.)
  • Unforgiven (August 7, 1992) 130 min; Rated R
    Streaming on HBO Max

    • Unforgiven is a masterpiece, yes, but not just as cinema. It’s literature, poetry, ballad and myth, too, all wrapped up in one.
      d
      Clint Eastwood’s defining work deconstructs the very genre that defined him, but that deconstruction isn’t meant to subvert. It’s used to get past the myth while also acknowledging why it’s there in the first place, and to eulogize the complicated, sometimes tragic lives of 19th Century Americans – whether brave, lawless, or a combination of the two – who were too often either idealized or villainized with little gray in-between. Unforgiven takes the piss out of every Western archetype there is, but does so to make them more real and more complicated and more compelling than a century-plus of lionizing ever could.
      d
      It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed contradiction, a movie that demythologizes the myth of the American Cowboy yet does so on a mythic scale. It’s a flawless paradox, too, something that only great art can achieve, a quintessential epitome of its form while also making a profound critique and commentary on it. And in both the yin and the yang of that duality, there is equal, abiding affection. It’s an approach that we’d do well to examine our country as a whole – honestly, even brutally, but very reticent to do so with judgment.
      d
      Simply put, Best Picture Oscar winner Unforgiven is the greatest Western ever made. Sorry, The Searchers, you’ll have to settle for second.
      d
      (Final numbers: $101.1 million domestic; $159.1 million worldwide.)
      d
  • Babe (August 4, 1995) 92 min; Rated G 25th Anniversary
    Streaming on HBO Max

    • Speaking of Oscar contenders, few have ever been as big of a surprise than Babe, a small Australian family film in which the main characters are talking animals. How does something like that end up garnering 7 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director? The fact that it did suggests just how much (and how well) it defied genre expectations.
      d
      Director Chris Noonan (working with producer and co-writer George Miller of the Mad Max series) takes a concept common to cheap live-action Disney throwaways — the kind that pander with cheap laughs and schmaltz — and, instead, crafts a legitimate fable instead. The genre’s familiar (and often cute) trappings remain, but they’re put into a storybook fable come to life, including darker, more foreboding tones that aren’t afraid to consider deep, even existential themes like “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?”, and challenging notions of conformity, all while still providing plenty of laughs and a warm, sweet heart.
      d
      It looks like a fable, too, with realistic settings that are exaggerated in design, and colorful. The performers could be described in the same way, in this story of an orphan piglet who becomes a farmer’s sheep dog.
      d
      Decades before the VFX innovations we see today (most notably the live-action remake of The Lion King), the animals in Babe were anthropomorphized through an Oscar-winning combination of full animatronics plus simple digital animation on the mouths of real animals. While the blending of those techniques isn’t exactly seamless (you can tell what’s real and what isn’t), it’s surprisingly effective and credible – much more so, I’d argue, than the too-perfect gloss of the latest in digital photo-realism.
      d
      Though produced on a small scale, Babe was shot with the lush eye of a major effort from Hollywood’s Golden Age. And yet, even with those big aesthetic ambitions, Babe never loses sight of its raison d’être: a heartwarming story of a young pig, the farm dog that takes him under her paw, and their farm owner (James Cromwell, in an Oscar-nominated performance) who, together, defy societal conventions and expectations to do something truly special.
      d
      Suffice it to say, the “That’ll do, Pig” finale of this underpig story – one that maintains a virtue of innocence and purity at its core – will leave me in a puddle of sentimental tears every time, and it’s a sniffling mess that I will always welcome.
      d
      (Final numbers: $63.6 million domestic; $254.1 million worldwide.)
      d
  • Mission: Impossible Double-Feature: Rogue Nation and Fallout
    • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015) 131 min; Rated PG-13
    • Mission: Impossible – Fallout (July 25, 2018) 147 min; Rated PG-13
      Streaming on Amazon Prime
    • It’s the two best films from the 21st Century’s best Hollywood franchise. I can’t imagine a better incentive than that to revisit the fifth and sixth films from the Mission: Impossible series (and also the two most recent).
      d
      Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) maximizes the thrill-seeking actor/producer Tom Cruise like no one ever has, and their partnership shows just how more electric old school, live action stunt work can be in an age of mass digital effects. The fact that McQuarrie knows how to craft a serpentine spy narrative makes it all the more rich, rewarding, and entertaining. We’re lucky that these guys have signed up for at least two more.
      d
      (To my ranking of the full Mission: Impossible series, click here.)
    • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Final numbers: $195 million domestic; $682.7 million worldwide.)
    • Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Final numbers: $220 million domestic; $799.6 million worldwide.)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (July 29, 1983) 97 min; Rated R
    Streaming on HBO Max

    • Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is an average suburban dad who, by today’s jargon, was absolutely determined to have the Pinterest version of the classic cross-country road trip American family vacation. Instead, what he got was the sarcastic “Nailed It!” meme version of that vacation. (An early script by John Hughes provided the comic foundation, and Groundhog Day / Caddyshack director Harold Ramis had the perfect instincts to balance absurdity with relatability.)
      d
      Even with some of the outdated moments of this 1983 R-rated comedy that might make some sensitive modern sensibilities cringe (from the misogyny of cheap, gratuitous boob shots to depicting crime-ridden urban neighborhoods with minority stereotypes), the reason that National Lampoon’s Vacation was a hit then and still holds up as a classic now is because everyone identifies with Clark’s desperation to have something actually work out as it should, especially something as precious as a vacation where family bonds and memories are made. The fact that it all goes so disastrously wrong is, therefore, hilarious but also sympathetic.
      d
      (Final numbers: $61.3 million domestic and worldwide.)
  • The Mask (July 29, 1994) 101 min; Rated PG-13
    • Based on a Dark Horse comic, The Mask is a fantasy about an old relic that displays some spectacular powers. That’s essentially what The Mask is, in a meta sense, as a movie. Playing like a quintessential 90s blockbuster in many ways (its aesthetic dated, especially with its color-saturated music video style, plus having mafioso hoods as the heavies), feels like something dug up from the past. But its Jim Carrey who, then and now, makes it stand out, and along with a smokin’ Cameron Diaz in her film debut that duo makes it worthwhile. (So does his dog, Milo.)
      d
      Carrey’s big assist, of course, were the visual effects. They still work effectively, but what’s vital to consider when watching The Mask now is just how revolutionary they were then. Only a year after Jurassic Park had made digital animation a thing a full year-and-a-half before the first feature-length animated movie would even be released (Toy Story), let alone successful, this kind of cartoonish VFX animation had never been seen before. It’s why people kept flocking back to it to make The Mask a huge hit.
      d
      But of course it was ultimately Jim Carrey, not the VFX in-and-of themselves, that made this work. It’s hard to imagine any other actor from that era (even Robin Williams) being able to pull off what this film needed. The animation needed a live action cartoon to play off of, and that’s exactly what Carrey could be – and was, not once but three time in 1994, his breakout year that began with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and ended with Dumb & Dumber.
      d
      Between those two was this. The plot is thin and so are the characters, with logic and credulity being stretched even for something as patently ridiculous as this (set in a Tim Burton Gotham-ripoff world), but Carrey, Diaz, and the VFX artists used it as their playground, one that’s still fun to play in, especially with the scrappy, loyal Milo in the mix.
      d
      (Final numbers: $120 million domestic; $351.6 million worldwide.)
  • Emma (August 2, 1996) 120 min; Rated PG
    Streaming on HBO Max

    • Something that guys should take note of regarding Jane Austen stories: perhaps the primary reason for their enduring appeal among women is that the stakes of each plot invariably hinge on men being gentlemen, especially when others are not. That may be especially true in Emma, in which the titular heroine creates problems despite her best intentions, but due to her own biases, pride, and even class-based prejudices.
      d
      The recent theatrical remake from earlier this year takes a more satirical and opulent approach with modern implications (that reaps its own rewards), but this version is to be equally admired and enjoyed, one that works more as exactly what you’d expect from an Austen adaptation (with all its prim and proper propriety  leavened with suppressed girlish-giddiness and unrequited star-crossed romances) but is all the better for doing so, and even assured.
      d
      If you have a period piece craving, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma will most certainly satisfy it.
      d
      (Final numbers: $22.2 million domestic and worldwide.)
    • Siskel & Ebert’s review of Emma is not available on YouTube, but you can view it here at this link beginning at 7:50 into the episode. https://siskelebert.org/?p=2641
      d
  • Waterworld (July 28, 1995) 135 min; Rated PG-13 25th Anniversary
    • Waterworld, the first $200 million budget movie that became one of the most notorious bombs in movie history, is such a fascinating, compelling disaster, in part because it’s better than its reputation. Tonally it’s off, with an entire cast acting like they’re in a big post-apocalyptic genre Hollywood movie rather than an actual realm of reality that’s legitimate to them, and the only one that kind of over-the-top excess works for is villain Dennis Hopper; he knows exactly how to calibrate it.
      d
      Kevin Costner, on the other hand, is never fully comfortable as the quasi-antihero, in large part because as an actor who should never do accents he fails awkwardly at another needless one. The little girl character is underwritten and poorly performed, too, with an obnoxiously simply map tattooed on her back; she’s there in the story simply to inspire some humanity in Costner’s rugged Mariner, but only in perfunctory ways. Jeanne Tripplehorn is the lone standout, an actor who actually takes her character, her world, and their circumstances seriously rather than simply as someone getting to play in big, elaborate set pieces.Honestly, if the cast had ditched the genre shtick, this same exact movie would’ve worked much better and likely been more well-received.
      d
      All that to say, Waterworld is definitely worth watching at least once, even if you end up hating it. It’s hard to dismiss or shrug off, though, because many of the action sequences are spectacular. A big part of what sells them is the absolutely insane choice to actually film them all out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When you compare Waterworld‘s bravura to much of the garish, excessive digital VFX trash we often get today, this action movie is actually kind of refreshing.
      d
      On-set dysfunction aside, I love (and respect) Costner’s ambition as an actor and producer, and the chutzpah of director Kevin Reynolds to even give it all a good old college try, despite the fact that he has no sense whatsoever for good acting or dramatics (see also: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Several sequences are legitimately thrilling, if also a bit raggedly constructed (again — see also: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
      d
      Simultaneously a brilliant concept and ill-conceived, Waterworld has its big budget virtues, including one of the better non-John Williams adventure scores in the blockbuster era (by composer James Newton Howard). Regardless of how polarizing it is, Waterworld is yet another great example of how Tripplehorn deserved a better career than she got (although the HBO series Big Lovewas a worthy showcase).
      d
      Film journo Matt Singer offers a great look back in this 25th Anniversary retrospective at ScreenCrush, and Yahoo News offers this interesting Spielberg perspective that also delves into the details of the ill-fated production out in the Pacific Ocean.
      d
      (Final numbers: $88.2 million domestic; $264.2 million worldwide.)
    • Siskel & Ebert’s original review for Waterworld is not available on YouTube, but this clip provides some commentary from their “Worst of 95” episode.

Other weeks from Summer Blockbusted 2020:

Leave a Reply