Staring into the Abyss

August 04, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I have always found there to be something mournful about August. Temperature-wise, it's my second favorite month of the year (behind July), but it always feels more like an ending than a beginning. Perhaps it's the shortening of daylight hours. Perhaps it's the way the nighttime cooling feels more permanent. Perhaps it's the lengthening midday shadows as the sun no longer soars quite so high in the sky. Yes, it's still warm outside and my grass is still burned in places, but there's no mistaking the inexorable approach of autumn and winter. Long, cold days loom on the horizon and I feel like I'm staring into the abyss.

For movie-goers, the season has changed. With last week's release of the third Mummy film, summer ended with more of a whimper than a bang. There are still some good movies to come between now and Labor Day, but none are blockbuster types. The bread and butter of the summer movie season is gone. Now, we enter the lull that exists between Dark Knight mania and the late-year holiday/Oscar season. For those who love popcorn on the screen as well as all over the theater floor and in a tub on their laps, the best months of the year are May, June, and July. For those who love movies, the best is yet to come. When the weather is at its worst, often the movies are at their best.

August is not a great month for movies for two reasons. First, it's vacation season. More families in the United States take vacations during the first two weeks of August than during any other period in the year. Summer vacations favor outdoor activities and, for the most part, that doesn't include movies. (Unless you count drive-ins or novelty evening beach screenings, where patrons sit with their backs to the waves and watch a movie unfold on a giant screen.) Then there's the whole back-to-school thing. As September 1 draws nigh, children and teens think less about multiplexes and more about notebooks (either of the portable computer variety or the old-fashioned spiral kind). Kids are the lifeblood of the summer movie season. Distributors are unwilling to release something targeted at them when they might be distracted. Hence, the last "viable" time for opening a blockbuster is the first weekend in August. This year, it will be interesting to see how strong The Dark Knight remains once it enters such unfavorable waters.

This has been a better summer than any in recent memory. In addition to The Dark Knight, there were Iron Man and WALL-E, all of which were bigger, stronger, and better than one has a right to expect from big-name, big-budget summer entertainment. Before 2008 is over, I will have Blu-Ray copies of all three. Plus, there have been some excellent small movies to come out: The Edge of Heaven, the upcoming Elegy, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. That's one 4-star movie and five 3 1/2-star movies in the middle of the summer. Not unprecedented, but close. After having the life sucked out of me by a dismal January-April, I have been revived.

Late August, September, and October represent the great unknown. There have been past years when the mediocrity of those months has been sprinkled with greatness. (The Departed came out in October, for example.) Things get cranking again in November, with a smattering of big-budget arrivals alongside those that seek the glitter of Oscar gold. Between now and then, it's a crapshoot. September is usually a bad month, but I see 30 movies in Toronto, so I don't really notice. For me, the hardest part of the year starts on January 1 and doesn't end until the calendar turns to May. So, the abyss lurks, but there are good times coming before we plunge over the edge.