Summer Movies: Some Tips on Worthy Films Beyond the Blockbusters

At the Movies - July 2019

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Cate Blanchett stars in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Photo: Wilson Webb, courtesy Annapurna Pictures, LLC

“Summer Movies” means predictable fare for predictable audiences, mainly families, adolescents, and young adults with time on their hands to consume entertainment about which they need not think too much. It means action flicks, super hero sagas, cute animation, and especially, sequels and reworkings of all of the above.

“Summer” came a little early this year with the April release of the blockbuster “The Avengers: Endgame,” the sequel to end 20 other sequels which wrapped up the most bumptious of Hollywood serials. Yet there are other repeats for the kids to savor. There is another “Men in Black,” with two new leads, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth. There is yet another “Shaft,” with Samuel L. Jackson trolling Harlem again (with Richard Roundtree). There is another “Child’s Play” (the eighth), another “Secret Life of Pets,” another “Angry Birds Movie”, another “Godzilla,” another “Spiderman (Far from Home),” among others.

Disney-Pixar, the reigning studio champion, will not be idle either. The company is currently rummaging through its vault of animated classics to re-boot them as live-action features, with “Dumbo” and “Aladdin” already released. Mid-summer sees their redo of “The Lion King” (opens July 19), with hot young star Donald Glover as the lead voice of Simba. Even more anticipated might be Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” (June 21) which updates the toy crew from its last iteration in 2010. Several new playthings are introduced, and Bo Peep, an old colleague of Woody (Tom Hanks), rejoins the fold.

Distinctive Offerings
For more discerning filmgoers, there are other summer options that hold out the promise of quality acting and directing in narratives of more adult interest. Take, for example, Cate Blanchett, who graces almost every project she undertakes. She shows up in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (August 16) directed by the Texas master Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). Bernadette is a renowned Seattle architect, and an agoraphobe, who gives up her promising career to tend to her family of husband (Billy Crudup) and teen-aged daughter. Suddenly, she disappears from that family, who must seek out why and where she has gone. Based on a best-selling novel of 2012, this comedy-mystery also stars Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, and Laurence Fishburne.

For the suspense crowd, this summer offers “Official Secrets” (August 30), a true-life drama starring Keira Knightly as the real-life Katharine Gun, a translator at a British intelligence agency who becomes a major whistleblower when she leaks classified information about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to blackmail UN Security Council members to ensure a vote on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The film is in good thriller hands with director Gavin Hood, the South African who turned up the tension well in his last opus, “Eye in the Sky.”

Himesh Patel strolling on Abbey Road in “Yesterday, ” from Universal Pictures.

Another British film of a very different flavor is “Yesterday” (June 28), a musical comedy with an outlandish premise: provincial musician Jack awakes from a freak bus accident and a global blackout to learn that no one—anywhere—has ever heard of the Beatles and their music. So Jack appropriates their catalogue and becomes a star. Jack is played by newcomer Himesh Patel, and the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who has made a string of distinct and memorable films over 25 years from “Slumdog Millionaire” to “Steve Jobs.” The picture is written by Richard Curtis, famous for rom-com hits such as “Love Actually,” and “Notting Hill.” Lily James and Kate McKinnon also appear.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is another (June 14) indie on a topic rarely treated in feature films: gentrification. Heralded at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and directed by first-timer Joe Talbot, the film introduces Jimmie Fails (playing himself), who dreams of reclaiming the classic “Painted Lady” Victorian home his grandfather (Danny Glover) built years ago in the city by the Bay. Jimmie and his best friend Mont re-discover the house in a search for their place in a rapidly-changing city that seems to have left them and their people behind. Talbot’s aim is a poignant meditation on whether we can, indeed, go home again.

Toni Morrison is the subject of the bio-pic “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Serious documentaries have entered the big screen mainstream, and this summer sees a couple of pictures about enduring American icons. “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” traces the life of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, told in interviews with its subject and a parade of literary talking heads discussing the range and importance of her work (June 28). A major aim of the director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is to underline the importance of Morrison’s stellar career to both black and female writers over the last decades. Greenfield-Sanders, an important American photographer, here adds to a legacy of documentaries featuring African-American, Latino, and LGBT figures over the years.

Another notable film biography is “Mike Wallace is Here” (July 26), an examination of the late “60 Minutes” reporter known for his “killer” interviews over 37 years. Using archive footage from his entire career, Israeli director Avi Belkin covers Wallace from his early days as an announcer, actor, and newscaster with Dumont TV and ABC to his presence as one of the original members of the landmark CBS news magazine in 1968. The movie, in reviewing Wallace’s career, also muses on changes in television journalism over his span and how much he contributed to the practice of investigative journalism.

Among foreign language films, look for “The Fall of the American Empire” (June 7) by the French-Canadian Denys Arcand, a writer/director active since the 1960’s. He surfaced for American filmgoers with “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986) and solidified his reputation 17 years later with “The Barbarian Invasions,” winner of an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the title, his latest is not a sequel to the earlier work but instead a sardonic heist film involving an-overeducated schlub coming upon bags of cash, then agonizing about what to do with them while trying to avoid getting rubbed out by the original thieves. It is the lefty Arcand’s latest (humorous) take on the pitfalls of contemporary capitalism.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.