The summer movie season now lasts from May until September and is generally wearying unless you have a bottomless desire for things blowing up, being shot up, driven fast or fought over by brawny comic book dopes, who despite their superpowers can only solve problems by punching each other. The only exception was Gal Gadot’s humane superhuman in “Wonder Woman.”
Now comes Oscar season which often brings its own flood of cliches — throbbing, sentimental melodramas, suffering minorities or other outsiders, and terminally ill or badly damaged heroes or heroines. Nevertheless, among the copious dross a few nuggets of gold do turn up. From the last few months I can recommend the following.
“Blade Runner 2049” seemed like a fool’s errand since living up to the original was going to be nearly impossible. Ryan Gosling certainly doesn’t bring to his Blade Runner the cynical world-weariness of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, but since he is a replicant-hunting replicant, he is probably not programmed for that.
However, like its predecessor, the film is cleverly plotted, beautifully shot and art directed, and asks tricky questions about what makes a person human. It even has the geriatric Ford on hand for a last dance with dystopia.
“Wind River” concerns murder on a snowy Indian Reservation. It’s a bit schematic in plot and predicatable in its reliance on fossil fuel villainy, but is redeemed by a soulful performance by Jeremy Renner, with solid support from Graham Greene.
“Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” is an Oscar-bait starring vehicle for Frances McDormand who plays the mother of a murdered daughter with furious relish. She is consumed with rage at the local cops’ inability to find the killer. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell may also get supporting actor notice if this little Indie movie manages to get the attention it deserves. It combine bitterness and grief with black comic energy.
In 2013, Steven Soderbergh said he was fed up with how difficult it is to get a movie made and said he was kissing it all good bye to become a painter. That didn’t last long. Within months he was directing a TV series, then another, helping cut another director’s film, and working on a stage project. So it was hardly a surprise when he returned to film with “Logan Lucky.”
The film was made by Soderbergh without a studio’s involvement, which may help account for its pleasantly handmade feel. It’s also a hoot, frequently described as a redneck “Oceans Eleven,” though it owes at least as much to “Out of Sight.” Channing Tatum has lost his construction job and is about to lose custody of his daughter. Money would help, and the heist of a Nascar venue is the intricate solution he hits on.
Tatum is the brains of the outfit, but a demolition genius is required. Since he is already in prison it will be necessary to spring him and then smuggle him back into stir for the plot to succeed. Daniel Craig is fabulously unexpected playing an Appalachian pyrotechnician complete with yokel accent, and the rest of the supporting cast is a comic rogues’ gallery.
“Lady Bird,” is a funny, charming story of a strong-willed girl who outgrows her awkwardness and gets her way. It stars Saoirse Ronan as a Catholic high school senior in Sacramento who yearns to escape her class conscious home town, her parents and their parochial plans for her and to flee across the continent to a college they can’t afford.
Her sweet, but down-sized and shame-faced father and her anxious, controlling mother are played to perfection by old pros Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf. It’s a film cut from the same cloth as “20th Century Women” and “The Edge of Seventeen.” If you liked those, I suspect you will like “Lady Bird” even more.
Finally, after years of hearing extravagant praise for Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, who directed his first film in 1927 and his last in 1962, I finally watched a pair of them — “Late Spring” from 1949 and 1953’s “Tokyo Story.” These are quiet, intimate stories of family life shot in long takes that often concentrate on emotions fitting across a face. Nothing much happens, except life itself.
In one, a 27-year-old daughter lives with her professorial, widowed father contentedly, until he is warned that she will never marry unless he persuades her to accept the attentions of a suitor by pretending he is about to remarry. He goes along wth the scheme. And he ends up alone and lonely, and she unsatisfactorily married and missing her old life.
In the second, an aging couple leave their small village to visit their children in the big city.They soon begin to feel, however, that they have worn out their unwelcome and are intruding on the busy urban lives of the young. In each case, trivial domestic misunderstandings have huge effects on those involved. This is humane, beautiful, moving film art created, as the novelist Henry Green once said of his own narratives, out of “a gathering web of insinuations.”
I encourage you to seek out these gems and warn you to avoid “The Florida Project,” which is depressingly predictable and slack, and “Mudbound,” which starts as a tale of interracial friendship and degenerates into Southern Gothic so lacking in subtlety that you fail to feel the emotions it is trying so hard to provoke.