Remember when July was going to be the month when everything would be back to normal? Tenet and Mulan would play theaters, summer movie season would be in full swing, and we could start to put this whole COVID-19 catastrophe behind us? [Cue laughter that quickly turns into sobbing] Sadly, that hasn’t been the case — and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that no release date is set in stone. That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be plenty to watch before Labor Day weekend. Like, for example, a new Seth Rogen comedy, a revisionist take on a literary classic, an ambitious new horror series, a comic take on a familiar science fiction universe and, of course, the annual celebration of toothy predators we call “Shark Week.” Here are your best bets, viewing-wise, for the month.
An American Pickle (HBO Max, Aug. 6th)
When Polish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) dreamed of finding a better life in America circa 1920, it didn’t involve falling into a vat of pickle brine and awakening 100 years later. Based on a novella by Simon Rich, this HBO Max comedy follows Herschel as he explores the strange new world and connects with his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen). Never mind that the younger Greenbaum is a meek Brooklyn loner — he also might be, in Herschel’s eyes, his last chance of fulfilling his promise of making the family name synonymous with greatness.
Antebellum (In theaters, Aug. 21st)
Exploring a different sort of collision between the past and the present, this horror movie from the producers of Get Out stars Janelle Monáe as a bestselling author who inexplicably finds herself drawn back into the past. Specifically, she finds herself in the antebellum South, forced to work as a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation (a premise reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s 1979 classic Kindred, though the vague trailers suggests the film will offer some twists on that set-up). Originally slated for release in April, it’s instead arriving in the middle of a renewed, and heated, discussion about the still-unhealed wounds of America’s past.
Boys State (Apple TV+, Aug. 14th)
Every year, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxillary sponsor a series of civic-minded high schoolers form representative governments that mirror the governments of their host states — and, in theory at least, function as well or better than the systems they imitate. A hit at this year’s Sundance, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary follows a group of Texas kids participating in the week-long program as they engage in a heated mock-gubernatorial race — a competition with its share of whisper campaigns, dirty tricks and more than a few parallels to our current divisive, highly partisan political climate.
The Go-Go’s (Showtime, Aug. 1st)
Sometimes a rock documentary doesn’t need anything fancier than its subject’s name to make it a must-see. One of the most successful American new wave bands, the Go-Go’s battled sexism, addiction, and personality conflicts while sending hit after hit up the charts in the early 1980’s. The group’s sunny image contrasted sharply with its behind-the-scenes tumult, which makes them the perfect fodder for a feature-length documentary — particularly one in which all the members of the group tell their side of the story. Director Alison Ellwood’s credits include the revelatory The History of the Eagles, so she has a track record of getting good stories directly from the source. (Editor’s note: Showtime is apparently so eager to get the film out in the world it moved the debut up a day from August 1st to July 31st.)
Lovecraft Country (HBO, Aug. 16th)
Mixing literal monsters with the metaphorical variety, HBO’s latest bid for must-see-fantasy prestige TV reimagines Jim Crow-era America as a time plagued both by racist violence and unspeakable cosmic horrors. The 10-episode first season series follows Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) on a journey into dangerous territory as he looks for his father while dodging supernatural threats with the help of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Showrunner Misha Green (Underground) has been tight-lipped about the details of the plot but, as with the Matt Ruff novel it adapts, the set-up should provide ample opportunity to explore some of darkest corners of American history and turn the racist subtext (and sometimes just text) of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories on their head.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (In theaters, Aug. 28th)
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield has been adapted to film and television many times over the years — so extra credit to Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) for reinventing the classic from the ground up, starting with colorblind casting that brings Dev Patel into play the lead. Patel’s joined by everyone from Iannucci regulars like Peter Capaldi to Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Hugh Laurie and Gwendoline Christie on a journey that takes him from the upper echelons to the lowest depths of Victorian England on a twist-filled coming-of-age journey.
Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe (Disney+, Aug. 30th)
A delightful mix of winning characters, clever references, and catchy songs, the Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb was one of those rare kids’ shows that held as much appeal for parents as their little ones. We haven’t heard much from the city of Danville — home to the clever eponymous brothers, evil geniuses and secret agent platypuses — since the show went off the air in 2015. But that’s about change with this new movie, which puts the spotlight on Phineas and Ferb’s high-strung teenaged sister Candace (voiced by Ashley Tisdale), who’s undoubtedly spent the last five years unsuccessfully trying to rat out her brothers to no avail. Regardless, if it’s her vs. the universe, we’re pulling for Candace.
Project Power (Netflix, Aug. 14th)
What if you could have superpowers, but only for five minutes at a time? But wait, there’s more: What if you had to take a drug to activate those powers and you had no idea what form they’d take? That’s the dangerous world that Art (Jamie Foxx) finds himself in as he searches for his missing daughter with some help from Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Whether the Catfish team of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost can pull off this off is anyone’s guess, but between this movie and The Old Guard, Netflix is slowly cornering the market on original films with comic book-friendly premises — which is making the pandemic-induced drought of big-screen superhero movies a bit easier to handle.
Shark Week (Discovery, Aug. 9th-16th)
There are some traditions even COVID-19 can disrupt, however. Since 1988, Discovery Channel has devoted a week of programming to all things shark-y, via a mix of documentaries on those predators of the deep and “documentaries” like Lair of the Mega Shark, seemingly designed to annoy marine biologists and other experts. Discovery has yet to release many details about this year’s incarnation, but it’ll likely be the perfect antidote for anyone wishing they could spend time at the beach instead of staying cooped up inside.
She Dies Tomorrow (VOD, Aug. 7th)
Writer/director Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine) certainly didn’t plan to release a film about a group of people gripped by a vague but unshakable sense of impending doom to arrive just as so many of us are experiencing the same. But hey, sometimes history makes films timely in ways that couldn’t have been intended. Kate Lyn Shel (Kate Plays Christine) stars as Amy, a woman who becomes convinced she’s destined to die the next day — a conviction that then travels from one character to another (via a cast that includes Michelle Rodriguez, Tunde Adebimpe, Chris Messina and other familiar faces).
Star Trek: Lower Decks (CBS All Access, Aug. 6th)
It’s not all about exploring strange worlds and new civilizations in the Star Trek universe. After all, someone has to do the grunt work. This animated addition to the venerable sci-fi franchise explores life aboard the less-than-glamorous USS Cerritos, where a group of ensigns (voiced by Tawny Newsome, Jack Quaid and others) try to figure out how they fit into Starfleet. Creator Mike McMahan’s past work on Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites promises a lighter, if no less nerdy, take on the whole “space…the final frontier” notion.
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+, Aug. 14th)
Sure, most series based around characters created for ad campaigns don’t have a great track record (see Cavemen) — but that’s not reason enough to write off a fish-out-of-water comedy co-created by the promising team of Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) and Jason Sudeikis. The former SNL stalwart stars as a well-meaning but naive American football coach recruited to take charge of an English football team, only to discover that the games might share a name but have little else in common, from the rules on the field to the culture surrounding them. Yes, there will be jokes about how horrible breakfast tea is and how people drive on the wrong side of the road, etc.