Here we are in August, with summer winding to a close, and empty blockbusters gradually parting the ways for prestigious Oscar hopefuls. As you’ll see, the next three weeks have plenty of both.
Why see it: Another month, another post-apocalyptic dystopia. This one confronts economic inequality, envisioning a 22nd century in which the privileged rich luxuriate in a “perfect,” warless planet called Elysium, and the rest of us suffer in a bleak, mechanized police state of helpless obedience called Earth. Matt Damon is the hero seeking to attack Elysium, and Jodie Foster is the witch protecting the One Percent. I have high hopes for this, given that it’s written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the mastermind between another smart, sci-fi polemic, “District 9.”
Why skip it: The trailer can’t help but fill nearly every second with an expensive, gluttonous action sequence, and I’m afraid this film’s potent message may be buried under the excessive helpings of CGI. Let’s hope that unlike Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”), Blomkamp knows what the word “restraint” means.
Why see it: I have seen this one, and it’s a quality departure from Woody Allen’s recent, fantasy-based work. This time, he explores America’s economic recession and two sisters caught on sides that were once opposite: Cate Blanchett’s once-spoiled, now-penniless widow of a suicidal Wall Street pyramid-schemer, and her sister (Sally Hawkins), who lives in a modest San Francisco housing project with her uncouth boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). “Blue Jasmine” is funny in spots, but it’s mostly a sobering comedown and a wrenching psychological study, featuring the director’s most cutting screenplay in many years.
Why skip it: If you despise Woody Allen with every fiber of your being, “Blue Jasmine” is probably not enough of a departure to dispel your preconception, and it has a few contrived moments. But do give it a shot.
Why see it: Amanda Seyfried stars as Linda Lovelace, the star of the crossover porn hit “Deep Throat;” this sentence alone will be enough to drive a sizable audience to this new drama by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have a talent for telling offbeat stories of important counterculture icons like Lovelace (their previous titles include “Howl,” about Allen Ginsberg, and “The Times of Harvey Milk” documentary). The film chronicles Lovelace’s precipitous rise and crushing fall in an industry that abused and humiliated her. Expect a hard R in more ways than one, but the directors would do best to tamp down the film’s lurid potential and focus on the humanity, or lack thereof, in the porn business.
Why skip it: For a movie that examines the truth and morality of Lovelace, her filmography and her legacy, it’s tough to beat the excellent 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat.” Early reviews of “Lovelace” have been awfully divided, with some suggesting that it lacks the necessary depth.
Why see it: Aaron Taylor-Johnson returns for another go-round as the titular, everyboy superhero, fighting crime on city streets despite the noticeable absence of superpower. This time around, with his top sidekick sidelined (Chloe Grace-Moretz’s Hit Girl), a new band of wannabe superheroes led by none other than Jim Carrey’s Colonel Stars and Stripes joins Kick-Ass to defeat the refurbished Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). This looks like a great film for viewers who like hyphenated names.
Why skip it: The first “Kick-Ass” was majorly overrated and, frankly, set a dangerous precedent: In Chicago recently, I saw a real-life Kick-Ass, complete with costume, scouring the streets for criminal activity. Something tells me when he will meet his nemeses, the action won’t go down like an elegantly choreographed buddy comedy. At any rate, Nicolas Cage was the only reason to see the original, and he’s not in this one.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Why see it: “The Butler” looks like the “Forrest Gump” for the black civil rights movement, focusing on an uneducated butler (Forest Whitaker) who takes a menial job at the White House, only to stay on for five presidents and 34 years of national tumult. This sweeping epic is the epitome of prestigious Oscar bait, and it features more stars than the night sky: among them Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terence Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus Robin Williams (as Eisenhower), John Cusack (as Nixon), Alan Rickman (as Reagan) and Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan). This picture is Important, with a capital I.
Why skip it: Forgive me if I didn’t really like “Forrest Gump,” with its naive filter of history through the eyes of a man in the shadows. Moreover, it’s hard to sit through even the didactic trailer of “The Butler” without feeling lectured. And don’t get me started on directors that insist on placing their names before the title.
Why see it: “Paranoia” is an appropriate title for a timely drama about the world of unlimited surveillance. Liam Hemsworth plays a young tech genius swept up in the vagaries of this technology when a corporate billionaire from the computer industry (Gary Oldman) enlists him to pose as a new hire for his rival (Harrison Ford), thus stealing the older man’s secrets. He soon learns that everything he does is being tracked; cue the reversals and twists in a story that feels ripped from the headlines.
Why skip it: Whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer – it gives away the entire film in three minutes, and then you’ll want to skip it … otherwise, I would gladly invest 10 bucks in this, despite the sketchy track record of director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde” has been his only picture of merit).
Why see it: It’s hard to resist a biopic about the person who deserves the most responsibility for changing the world we live in – and in the form of an original screenplay, no less (though let’s hope writer Matt Whitely took a few cues from Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs.”) “Jobs” charts the Apple founder’s humble beginnings through his tyrannical lordship of the company, his unceremonious ouster and, one assumes, his return and subsequent physical decline. Steve Jobs had such a compelling life that it’s pretty hard for even Hollywood to screw it up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar gravitates toward this one too.
Why skip it: But do we have to sit through two-plus hours of Ashton Kutcher, as the tech genius? The 35-year-old teenager who ruined “Two and a Half Men?” If “Jobs” works, it will do so despite its obnoxious star.
Why see it: The biopics keep coming this month; this one focuses on the famous German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Arendt, who originated the meme “the banality of evil” in her controversial reporting of the trial of ex-Nazi Adolph Eichmann. The director is the accomplished German auteur Margarethe Von Trotta, who is no stranger to films with powerful political messages, and “Hannah Arendt” looks like a vital defense of the Fourth Estate – which, these days, is frequently under attack by the same sort of corporate interests that threatened to torpedo Arendt’s career.
Why skip it: Don’t skip it, quite simply. Even the subtitle-phobic among you have no excuse; much of the dialogue is in English.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Why see it: With the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises having run their course, tweens across America can celebrate with the long-awaited first film adapted from another successful young adult literature franchise, Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments.” This first installment introduces the young, Brooklyn-based “shadowhunters” – part-angel, part-human warriors – who must save a precious cup from falling into the wrong hands.
Why skip it: “City of Bones” may be sufficiently dark enough to appeal to adults as well, and it’s kind of refreshing to see a Hollywood product without a single movie star. But this also leaves viewers not already familiar with the source material without much to rely on. I would drop the teens off at this one and move on to “Hannah Arendt.”
The World’s End
Why see it: With so many films about End Times, it’s hard to keep track of them all. This is the most comedic example since “This is the End,” following five buddies who reunite to complete an epic pub crawl they failed to finish 20 years earlier: a 12-pub journey climaxing at the ominously titled watering hole The World’s End. In the process they realize the town has actually been overtaken by … wait for it … robots, this time – sophisticated cyborgs who have mastered human speech, until the five drunken half-wits find them out. Edgar Wright, who directed the cult favorites “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” returns for another gross-out comedy with many of the same cast members, plus Pearce Brosnan. The trailer reminded me of a lightweight “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and it sounds like a lot of fun.
Why skip it: Then again, I never really stayed on the “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz” bandwagon. The humor of Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg can come off a bit juvenile at times – a bit undercooked and half-thought-out. Blasphemy, I know.
In a World …
Why see it: Here’s a novel way to explore sexism in this country: through the exceedingly male community of Hollywood voice-over artists, with their booming, baritone intonations often beginning with the doom-laden “in a world…” Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed this Sundance award-winning film, plays a voice-over artist trying to win jobs from her male counterparts, including the industry’s most fearsome figure: her own father, played by the hilarious character actor Fred Melamed. Some of the best names in alternative comedy round out the cast, including Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro.
Why skip it: If your taste in comedy is more suited to “Kick-Ass 2,” or “The Heat,” you might find the humor here a bit on the self-gratifying, esoteric side. But I’m predicting this will be one of the year’s funniest, and best, comedies.