You're not going to the movies on Labor Day weekend, are you? Hollywood assumes you aren't. Unlike Memorial Day or Independence Day or Christmas or even Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this holiday weekend is perennially stacked with losers, the films that the studios don't want to think about anymore. Labor Day has been the dumping ground for Shark Night 3D, All About Steve, Babylon A.D., A Sound of Thunder, Paparazzi, and an action movie starring Rob Schneider and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
This weekend's Lawless and For a Good Time, Call... are decent enough, but they're historical anomalies. I went through about 30 years of Labor Day releases and found five films I could tolerate.
The American (2010)
One of the greatest Labor Day anomalies, The American featured a big movie star (George Clooney) and a respected up-and-coming art house filmmaker (photographer Anton Corbijn, who previously made Control). This character-driven mood piece got good reviews, and Clooney is terrific in it, but Focus Features decided to sell it as a sexy hitman thriller. Audiences gave it an almost-unprecedented D- on CinemaScore, more than likely because they felt totally tricked by the trailers. Why was Focus thinking it could slot a challenging, thought-provoking drama into that dead zone of a weekend? Probably because of...
The Constant Gardener (2005)
While Academy Award season usually gets into full swing in mid-September, some acclaimed movies open during the summer blockbuster season (The Tree of Life, Winter's Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild), serving as counterprogramming while raising their Oscar profiles. In 2005, Focus Features aimed for the empty space between those quality-film opportunities, with a fairly wide release of The Constant Gardener on the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend. The follow-up film from Fernando Meirelles, after the great City of God, it starred Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz and was full of sad subjects—murdered wives, African poverty. Not only did it perform pretty well, but Weisz ended up winning an Oscar.
Labor Day has become a depository for B-movie genre flicks like The Possession. Every once in a while, though, there's a nutso gem in the studio reject pile. Such was the case with Crank, the Jason Statham vehicle about a guy who's his own personal Speed: If he doesn't keep his heart rate elevated, he'll die. Totally ridiculous and totally fun—and with an awesomely dumb sex scene—Crank was a bad movie done really well. For about seven years now, Statham has been the king of the late-summer, "aw, screw it, let's get goofy" action movie—Transporter 2, War, Death Race, The Expendables—but Crank was probably the high-water mark.
Kalifornia is a whole lot more interesting now than it was when it came out. The feature debut of music-video director Dominic Sena, who would go on to make Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish and other films you don't like much, it was a compelling, if trite, drama about a journalist couple who go on a road trip to research serial killers and bump into—who woulda thunk it?—an actual pair of serial killers. But the casting of Kalifornia makes it a perfect early-'90s time capsule. There's David Duchovny, whose X-Files premiered a week after the film opened, and Brad Pitt, who was still just the hunky young buck from Thelma & Louise and A River Runs Through It. The most established onscreen persona belonged to Juliette Lewis. Her creepy-innocent Adele was right in line with her character from Cape Fear and was merely setting the stage for the following year's performance in Natural Born Killers, which was like Kalifornia with more decapitated heads and angry ranting about What's Wrong With The Media, Man.
The documentary Rebirth is the finest to study the aftereffects of 9/11. The movie chronicles the lives of several people who lost loved ones during the terrorist attacks, and director Jim Whitaker returned to his subjects over a span of years to see how they were coping with the sadness and trauma. What he finds is pretty heartbreaking: Even those who have moved on with their lives still feel a sting, wondering if they're somehow betraying the departed by allowing those wounds to heal. Rebirth is a remarkable document of survival, acceptance and grief, and it played on only one screen over Labor Day weekend in 2011. A lot of bad movies over the years have been buried during that weekend—Rebirth is a great film that needs to be rediscovered.