With the nation’s fourth largest city in its second weekend of assessing damage after Hurricane Harvey and a series of relatively low wattage recent movie releases, it’s no surprise that the summer box office season is limping to a close this holiday weekend with the slowest Labor Day performance since 2000. Picking a movie at the moment is not so much about going to the must-see film that everybody’s raving about as it is about picking the wheat from the chaff of the summer harvest. That said, for those willing to dig a little and who like to see films while they’re still on the big screen, the latest crop is quite varied and surprisingly rewarding.
One of the oddest releases of the summer is a costume drama which feels more like a late fall release that lost favor. “Tulip Fever” has a cast that seems like an award season darling, but fails to deliver on any of that promise. Alicia Vikander plays the young wife to Christoph Waltz’s older, wealthy merchant, in 17th Century Amsterdam. He’s desperate for an heir and she has the double misfortune of not being able to become pregnant and falling for another man, the much younger and more passionate artist (Dane DeHaan) he commissions to paint their double portrait.
Meanwhile, the city is wrapped up in speculative investing in tulips, with single bulbs of rare strains selling for a fortune. There’s commentary here about the recurring and still present tendency towards financial bubbles in unsustainable markets, with flowers taking the place of credit default swaps and dotcoms, while the less adventurous merchant (Waltz) invests in more reliable and more tangible products.
Aside from the leads, “Tulip Fever” is littered with recognizable faces. Judi Dench and Tom Hollander at least have small but meaningful roles, but multiple others barely have any screen time, including Zach Galafianakis, Cara Delavingne, and Matthew Morrison. At times it feels as though the intent was to mimic the dynamics of a film like “Shakespeare in Love,” with that film’s co-writer (Tom Stoppard) collaborating with the novelist (Deborah Moggach) who also wrote the book behind “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” But this is a film that doesn’t have an ounce of the humor of either of those far better experiences – and even a little Judi Dench can’t save it and it feels a little abandoned in the late summer doldrums.
The best of three current crime/action films is “Wind River,” with Jeremy Renner as a ranger and expert tracker who’s asked to help an inexperienced young FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) solve a murder on a Native American reservation. This is his home turf and he happened across the body while searching for a problem mountain lion, whereas she’s almost as lost in the socio-economic blight of the reservation as she is out of her element in the snow and cold.
It’s a neat film that relies more on solid performances and dark human drama than on surprises. Renner and Olsen make a good team from both an onscreen chemistry and narrative perspective, without the film resorting to an out of place romance. She needs him in these circumstances but she’s also a good agent and a strong person and either of these characters would be worth watching more of, with or without the other.
Which is more than can be said about “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” Not that it’s a bad pairing of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson – they actually work very well together onscreen, better than I had expected. But the film suffers from the curse of the good buddy dynamic – the problem of what to do when the two leads are apart. There’s so much invested here in the way they play together, that the film loses its way a little in the extended periods during which their paths diverge, albeit just enough for them to be on the same street but not in the same frame.
As the title might suggest, Reynolds is a down on his luck bodyguard, brought in by a desperate Interpol agent to escort Jackson’s international assassin to The Hague, to testify in a trial. So it’s basically just a giant chase movie, with Reynolds and Jackson riffing off each other as they take down an unlikely number of henchmen set on stopping Reynolds from appearing in the courtroom. It’s good fun but it might have been better if they had been handcuffed together.
Doing better in the eyes of most reviewers is Steven Soderbergh’s return to film, “Logan Lucky.” This is the kind of high concept heist caper that ought to be firing on all cylinders in every scene, but which never quite rose to that level for me. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, it just missed that bar.
Soderbergh is back with his “Magic Mike” lead Channing Tatum in what seems like an attempt at an “Ocean’s Nascar” type of project, as Tatum and Adam Driver star as two (genetically unlikely) brothers who attempt to throw off the presumed family curse of bad luck by robbing a local racetrack in an intricately timed but decidedly more lowbrow scheme. This necessitates the involvement of an inconveniently incarcerated safe cracker, broadly played by Daniel Craig.
What I found more interesting than the film itself was Soderbergh’s approach to making and distributing it. He followed a similar model to Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” albeit on a smaller scale, by pre-selling the film to various markets. But he also chose to work with independent distributor Bleecker Street Media for the US theatrical release, retaining control of his own marketing content such as the right to edit film previews. “Logan Lucky” is the kind of film I’d normally enjoy but which didn’t quite work for me this time around, but if this is a model that makes Soderbergh comfortable making films again, away from studio oversight and control, that’s still a big win.
In “The Only Living Boy in New York,” the second (after “Baby Driver”) recent film titled after a Paul Simon song, Callum Turner plays a young aspiring writer who falls for his father’s (Pierce Brosnan) mistress (Kate Beckinsale) while taking life advice from his new and slightly shabby neighbor (Jeff bridges).
It’s a highly satisfying, small film that relies on smart dialog and well-formed characters, much like the very differently themed “Wind River.” But it’s also a film that takes a little warming up to, as that smart dialog initially feels a little too smart and too literary, as though everyone involved has had the same summer reading list. But that resolves itself as it becomes apparent that the characters are all genuinely this literary and it ends up feeling simply smart and appropriate, and genuinely, humanly messy.
Which brings me to the last of the current crop of releases I’ve seen, the delightful and quirky “Patti Cake$,” about a young white woman in suburban New Jersey who longs to be a rapper with all the accoutrements of fame and fortune. Danielle MacDonald is wonderful in the lead, as a character dismissed by everybody around her (including her own mother) except her best friend and fellow star in his own mind played by Siddarth Dhananjay.
Theirs are the music and lyrics of experience and downtrodden adversity, and occasionally ill-fated rap battles on the mean streets of their home town. But they’re an unlikely duo and missing the necessary beats until they stumble upon an even less popular figure in the form of a hermit-like, quasi-satanic musician played by Mamoudou Athie.
All three are supported by two memorable performances by Bridget Everett as Patti’s mother and Cathy Moriarty as her grandmother and the unlikeliest member of the band. This is loud, raw, infectious fun.
Still in theaters and previously reviewed by Sacramento Press:
Atomic Blonde, Kidnap, The Glass Castle
Dunkirk, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Spiderman: Homecoming, Baby Driver