I first noticed it back in 1999. While working as a film critic during what became an extraordinary year for movies, there was one month in which everything started to suck. Movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Brokedown Palace, Outside Providence, Mickey Blue Eyes, In Too Deep, The Astronaut's Wife, A Dog of Flanders and Chill Factor appeared one after another, leading a colleague and myself to brand the phenomenon as the "August Dumping Ground."
Indeed, this name has proven apt: Movies that open in August are the ones that studios don't really know what to do with. Sometimes they've been shelved for a couple of years and the studios simply shuttle them out as a kind of house cleaning. Last year we had John Dahl's dud war movie The Great Raid and Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, in which it was obvious (to put it lightly) that Gilliam did not receive final cut. Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo also graced American screens during this period. In 2004, Spike Lee's awful She Hate Me and the butchered, Renny Harlin version of Exorcist: The Beginning opened. 2003 gave us the infamous Gigli.
But studios don't always know what they're doing. The most famous recent example came in 2004 when Miramax released the two year-old martial arts classic Hero in August, convinced that they had a flop on their hands -- a Crouching Tiger retread. It made a fortune, placed on several critics' ten best lists (including mine) and has now eclipsed Crouching Tiger as a pinnacle of the genre.
Even more famously, Warner Brothers released something called Unforgiven in August of 1992, probably under the impression that no one would want to see a Western. Likewise Kevin Costner's excellent Open Range opened in August of 2003. (Studios sometimes do learn their lessons. Twelve years later, Warners didn't know how to handle another Clint Eastwood picture, Million Dollar Baby, and decided to roll the dice by releasing it in December.)
August of 2006 was really no better or no worse than any other August. But, sadly, it played out much like the rest of the year: a few disasters, one or two good films, and many, many middling, mediocre movies.
It could be that Warner Brothers assumed Oliver Stone's World Trade Center would flop as badly as had his Alexander (2004) when they stuck it with an August 9 release date. Instead it surprised everyone with its restraint and good taste; it's still playing on more than 2000 screens and doing brisk business. Likewise, Little Miss Sunshine, a very good comedy with word of mouth strong enough to place it as a very serious Oscar contender. (Some of the other, more interesting August openers, like Talladega Nights and Snakes on a Plane, are still hovering above 400 screens.)
I saw one great film in August, not from Hollywood, but a thriller made by someone who studied Hollywood films. Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid, currently on two screens and doing pathetic business, is his best movie in years, with a beautifully unfolding story arc and a palpable sense of sexual tension.
Neil Marshall's The Descent (256 screens) opened August 4. It's not one of the greatest horror films I've ever seen, but it's one of the most frightening recent films I've watched. And, unlike most of this year's other horror films, it screened for the press.
On the other hand, Michael Mann's Miami Vice (316 screens) opened the last week of July, but it should have been an August opener. Like all of Mann's films, it's beautiful -- not just to look at but to physically experience. It has an astonishing sensation of warm air with just a little ocean spray, as well as some of the most dazzling light and cloud formations ever filmed. But, and this is the case with many of Mann's films as well, it slogs through one of the worst, most pedestrian screenplays of the year. Clearly this was merely an attempt at box office; no one really seems to have cared about making this one.
The month's biggest turkey is still up for grabs. Zoom did not screen for the press, and I have not seen Beerfest, which is still gracing more than 1900 screens. I did see the wretched Barnyard (2500 screens), which is inexplicably doing bonzo business while the immeasurably superior The Ant Bully (271 screens) flopped.
But the biggest August dud below 400 screens has to be Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man (195 screens). Starting with the most meaningless title of the year, it proceeds with random, touristy shots of New York, inserted without rhyme or reason, just to prove it was shot there. Then we get to our four "creative" characters (writers and actors), whose creations all sound the same, and not very good at that. This is another sad case of an actress, Julianne Moore, marrying an untalented director, and getting stuck in bad movies till death do they part (see also Kate Beckinsale, Geena Davis and Madonna). And why does David Duchovny keep playing characters addicted to porn?
Thankfully September has arrived.