Sunday, September 20, 2015

TIFF 2015, Days 3-4: Got Women?

One of the big talking points of this year’s collective film conversation, and particularly at TIFF, has been women in film. Are women getting good roles in front of the camera, and are they allowed any control behind it? While TIFF is a much more specialized level of industry reality than Hollywood at large, here at least, the answer is yes.

My Saturday began with what is, so far, the best lead actress performance of 2015, Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand is Crisis. Directed by David Gordon Green (whose career has varied from the indie George Washington to the populist Pineapple Express), Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a mildly unhinged American political strategist hired to advise a Presidential campaign in Bolivia. She takes the job (of course she does!) mostly because the opposing candidate’s campaign is being run by her old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). What ensues is basically a Latin American Tom & Jerry episode, with Bullock constantly quoting Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War,” and Thornton gleefully playing the entire movie with the self-satisfied smirk of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain.

Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) do a great job of keeping the action relatively comical and light-hearted, while persistently maintaining an undercurrent that these actions do have actual consequences for an entire country. Occasionally the metaphors are too heavy-handed (the opening credits show Bullock on a potters wheel, literally getting her hands dirty), and the ending features a major tonal switch that simply doesn’t work. But that misfire at the ending doesn’t undo what is a highly entertaining movie, and if anything, serves to reinforce how un-preachy the bulk of the movie is. It also might mean that George Clooney, who produced this, has learned from the bogged down moralizing of his own Ides of March, which covered similar ground four years ago. In that, Ryan Gosling’s campaign strategist began the film an idealist, and ended it jaded and morally broken. Here, Bullock starts the film that way, but ends it somewhere a bit less label-friendly.

What’s especially interesting about Our Brand is Crisis is that it was written for, and based on the true story of, a man. It’s obviously rare in Hollywood for roles originally written for men to end up in the hands of women, but it does happen every once in a while. Angelina Jolie’s Salt is a notable recent example, which at one point was to be a Tom Cruise vehicle. But the key here isn’t just that the film was written for a man, it’s that the true story was about a man—James Carville, who really was hired to advise a Bolivian presidential race. So what does it tell us that a prominent Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) and a prominent Hollywood star/director/producer (Clooney) collectively took the story of a prominent Washington figure (Carville) and gave it to a woman to star in? Dare I say it, but I think we call that progress.

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For as great a female lead role as Our Brand is Crisis is, and as groundbreaking as it may be in terms of its origins, it still doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as every single conversation in the entire film is about the two male presidential candidates. What’s especially hilarious is that neither of the other two movies revolving around strong female characters I saw this weekend—About Ray and Brooklyn—pass the test either. Brooklyn is a film about a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s, and the story is largely centered on her finding a husband. About Ray stars three women—Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon—but the story is about a family dealing with Fanning’s transition to becoming a man, and that’s what every conversation revolves around.

Brooklyn was the better of the two films. It’s an unabashed period piece that doesn’t just take place in the ‘50s, the film nearly convinces you it could have come out then, too. I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a revisionist feminist immigrant story; it adds no contemporary moralizing to the equation. The lovely and talented Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) stars as Eilis, and the gist of the story is about whether she’ll go for the cute Brooklyn Italian boy or the handsome Irishman back home. The story is very simple on the surface, but screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has written two excellent films about a young woman’s emotional journey, An Education and Wild) mines the simplicity for the important human story at its core.

About Ray was a more troubling film, but still works reasonably well if you can reframe your expectations of what it fundamentally is. Watching the trailer, you’d think it’s a film about teenage Ramona (Fanning) undergoing gender reassignment surgery to become Ray, and his family (Watts as his mom, and Sarandon as grandmother) coping with the change. In reality, that isn’t the film we got. This is Naomi Watts’ movie, and it’s the story of a mother—and grandmother, to a lesser extent—dealing with their child’s desire to change gender. We don’t watch Ray transition, we just watch Ray want to transition. Ray is, in a very real and problematic way, just the movie’s MacGuffin. Combine that realization with the title’s obvious association to the famous song by The Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” and you officially enter difficult territory with what this film is conjuring about its transgender character. Is he just a plot device? Is it a shame about Ray?

Luckily, if you can get past those uncomfortable questions, there’s a good movie about parents here, albeit one very different than you might have been expecting. Watts is dynamite (as she often is), and the film’s tone reaches a nice balance of being about a heavy (and timely) subject without ever feeling heavy or preachy. Its characters are well written, and there’s great heart at its center. Yes, the same center where Ray probably should have been, but still.

Maybe it’s a bad sign that a movie headlined by three powerful actresses and no men is still, literally, About Ray, as that’s sort of the point of the Bechdel Test. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The Bechdel Test could be outmoded in that it’s meant to catch movies where women don’t matter to the structure at all. That’s clearly not the case here, but it doesn’t change the fact that these films are still about advising a man, finding a man, and even turning into a man.

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Okay, let’s change the subject and talk about movies that are not only about men, but also star them! I saw three good ones this weekend—Youth, Trumbo, and Beasts of No Nation. Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to 2013’s Oscar-winning foreign language film, The Great Beauty, was the best of the bunch. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, Youth sees the two elderly men, playing a great composer in retirement and a great director in creative stagnation, respectively, meet at a spa in the Swiss Alps and reflect on life. That may sound boring, but nothing ever is with Sorrentino, who can turn seemingly anything into a stunningly vibrant visual composition.

Sorrentino can also turn seemingly anything into a visual manifestation of the mind’s search for beauty, and he does that here, almost to the point that it’s all there is. Yes, Youth is the kind of movie where Michael Caine can be sitting alone overlooking a field of cows, and then imagine conducting a symphony from the cowbells. Youth is also the kind of movie, as are many of Sorrentino’s works, where gratuitous nudity somehow feels utterly essential to the artistic journey the film is on.

There are other elements that drive the plot, such as it is—Paul Dano playing a bad boy actor preparing for a role (and wait until you see what the role is), Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter, and Jane Fonda as, more or less, Jane Fonda. All of them help the story get to its key beats, but those beats remain predominantly about the way things look and feel with Sorrentino’s formalist guiding hand. As with The Great Beauty, they feel lush, elegiac, and quite lovely.

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Youth will come out at the very end of the year, just in time for Fox Searchlight to give it an Oscar qualifying run mainly aimed at Michael Caine. It will find steady business in the art house circuit, and Caine will either just barely miss the nominations cut, or he’ll be the fifth nominee that everyone knows has no chance (my bet is on the former). In either case, we pretty well know what to expect from Youth as regards the box office and awards race. That can’t be said for Trumbo or Beasts of No Nation.

In Trumbo, Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous Hollywood screenwriter, legendary in the industry for being the face of the Hollywood Blacklist, going to jail, winning two Oscars under pseudonyms, then triumphantly writing Spartacus and Exodus under his own name. It’s a decently good movie, but ironically for being about a screenwriter known for his economy of dialogue, this one needed to make a few more cuts. Every scene, on its own, feels well placed and worth keeping in, but by the time you get to the end, you can’t escape the realization that the movie was at least 20 minutes too long, and didn’t flow especially well.

The power of a good story is what keeps things from getting out of hand, and this is one of the best true stories in Hollywood history. It also helps that the minor roles are almost all played by great actors that you love watching—John Goodman as a schlock producer, Helen Mirren as a gossip columnist, Louis C.K. as another blacklisted screenwriter, Diane Lane as Mrs. Trumbo, and Michael Stuhlbarg as blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson.

It’s unclear what to expect with Trumbo. It’s not quite good enough to be an awards season player, but that doesn’t always stop distributers from trying. It also plays a bit more like an HBO movie than a feature film, and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Borat) has already been down that road twice with Recount and Game Change. On the other end of the spectrum, something that doesn’t at all play like a TV movie, Beasts of No Nation, will mostly be watched on one.

When TIFF director Cameron Bailey introduced the premiere screening of Beasts of No Nation, he thanked Netflix for providing TIFF with the film, and then said, “That’s the first time Netflix has ever been thanked at the festival; It will not be the last.” (Indeed it already happened again four days later, with the premiere of Netflix’s Keith Richards documentary, Under the Influence.) Bailey’s comment hinted at a major question Hollywood is asking about this film: Is this the new business model?

Beasts of No Nation will open in theaters on October 16, and will be available on Netflix on the same day. The theatrical run is only happening for the sake of Oscar eligibility, and Netflix stands almost no chance of making back the cost of the film from box office gross. What they’ve really paid for is to be a part of the awards conversation. If a film that comes to Netflix immediately upon release manages to get a Best Picture nomination, it not only changes the perception of Netflix as a provider of original entertainment, but also changes the very nature of theatrical releases. Of course, for that to happen, the movie also has to be good enough.

Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who is most well known as director of the first season of True Detective (another changer of business models), Beasts of No Nation is an African child soldier drama starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. It is, at times, absolutely stunning. A handful of sequences are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and the ending scenes are remarkably powerful and affecting. It’s the connective tissue that’s the problem. Between the very good first twenty minutes, and the great last twenty minutes, is a little over an hour and a half that only leaves fleeting impressions. The tragedy of child soldiers is one that has little nuance or depth to explore. The point comes across quickly, and a little goes a long way. The overly long middle of the film also doesn’t have enough plot to sustain it. As Idris Elba’s Commandant leads his child army from conflict to conflict, village to village, there reaches a point where nothing is being narratively gained anymore. The entire first two hours of the movie exists to drive home the power of the last twenty minutes, but that power wouldn’t be diminished if we got there a bit faster.

How the Academy will treat Beasts of No Nation is, in my eyes, the single most fascinating question of the 2015 awards cycle. With no mitigating factors, nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Attah, who as the child Agu, is really the lead of the film), and Supporting Actor (Elba) should all be possibilities, but I think there’s a real chance of it being shut out of the major nominations. Five or ten years from now, the notion of a film needing a theatrical run for Oscar qualification could feel like an antiquated idea. But in 2015, that’s still how the business model works. If enough of the Academy sees Beasts’ same day drop on Netflix as killing the theatrical element of the film industry and biting the hand that feeds, it could be the subject of a huge backlash. On the other hand, as Anne Thompson pointed out when I asked her this question, the fact that Beasts of No Nation will be available for everyone on Netflix at least means that Academy members will watch it. And as we see every year, sometimes the list of nominees looks heavily determined simply by what the most voters saw.

Coming Next: Susan Sarandon and Brie Larson as two very different kinds of doting mothers, and the best film of TIFF 2015. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TIFF 2015, Days 1-2: Hammer, Chisel, Down with Nazis

When you see so many movies in a short enough time span, it’s inevitable to draw comparisons and find commonalities between them. Sometimes, this is largely fabricated. Other times, less so. The opening days of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival definitely fall in the “less so” category, as three of the first five movies I saw featured antagonists that want me dead. Yes, somehow in my first five films, I managed to see two about neo-Nazis, and a third set in Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was where I began my TIFF ’15, being viscerally walked right to the door of a gas chamber with an invasive single take close-up of a member of the camp’s sonderkommando unit—those Jews assigned to usher prisoners into the gas chambers and then deal with their bodies afterward. The film was Son of Saul, which won the Cannes Grand Prix back in May (sort of the runner-up award), and emerged from the Riviera as the presumptive frontrunner for the Foreign Language Oscar. 

First-time Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes has made a film more uncomfortable than you ever would have thought even a holocaust film could be. The main character, Saul, occupies the center of the frame in virtually every second of the movie, with the camera almost always six inches in front of his face or six inches behind his head, so that the entirety of the holocaust is seen only on the margins of the screen, often out of focus in Saul’s peripheral vision. But the point there isn’t to diminish the impact by hiding it, it’s to show how omnipresent, and therefore depressingly ignorable, everything was. Stacking bodies and scrubbing blood off the floors was the reality; the camera doesn’t focus in on it because you can’t fathom Saul would have either. 

The plot involves Saul trying to arrange in secret a traditional Jewish burial for a young boy who dies in the gas chamber during the film’s opening scene, but that isn’t really the point. Introducing the film, Nemes talked about how every film he’d seen portraying the Holocaust was a story of survival, and that simply wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people in the camps. Like 12 Years a Slave, the major Holocaust films—Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful—all portrayed one of history’s greatest atrocities as a status quo from which one might feasibly exit. Son of Saul has no such pretense. It displays Auschwitz as the place it was: a place where an entire people were being exterminated. The way Nemes turns this into first person, point of view realism is one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had as a filmgoer, but also one I will never be able to forget.

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Luckily, I felt much better later in the evening when I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which depicted a band of neo-Nazis getting killed in every grizzly way imaginable. Saulnier had a surprise critical hit two years ago with the low-budget (and low-dialogue) revenge thriller Blue Ruin, and Green Room exports that degree of realistic graphic violence into this high-concept, post-irony nightmare that can literally (and quite accurately) be described as “punks versus skinheads.”

The gist is a hardcore Portland punk band gets a gig playing a compound in the Orgeon backwoods that turns out to be a neo-Nazi rally, and before they can get out, they witness a murder. Of course shit then gets real, but Saulnier is much too smart to wallow in formula. It’s to Green Room’s credit that a movie which starts with the highest of high concepts quickly makes you forget its absurdity and react to the events on screen as though you’re watching real life. The violence, which is never persistent, always returns just when you’ve let your guard down, and involves the highest degree of visual gore possible without devolving to camp.

One thing that’s quite clever about the film is the almost videogame-like structure Saulnier has applied to it. The punks start in a locked room, and after each escape attempt goes poorly, they return to the locked room to regroup and plan anew, just as a videogame returns you to the start of the level when you die. It’s unclear whether by coincidence or diabolical design that the main hero (Anton Yelchin) and the main villain (Patrick Stewart) are both former officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s definitely by design that no one escapes intact. Including the viewer.

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World premieres in the opening days of TIFF are often a mixed bag, because so much is still playing Telluride and Venice in the days before, and it takes some time for everyone to gather in the Great White North. Some films I saw—a French skinhead character piece called French Blood, and an amusing-but-slight dramedy about a record producer called Len and Company—aren’t really worth spending much time on. The former is an un-engaging retread of American History X, and the latter is one of those movies that feel like each scene is lifted from something else. My favorite was the bring-dad-to-school scene, which was nearly identical to the one in City Slickers, but with a more eccentric vocabulary. The phrase “then it all went tits up” was definitely deployed, to the snickering bemusement of the class (but not the teacher).

We also got a Hank Williams biopic, which is mainly worth discussing due to star Tom Hiddleston, who turned in a career-best performance in a movie that didn’t deserve such an effort. We need to institute an originality clause for music biopics now. The old cliché about VH1’s seminal “Behind the Music” series was that every episode sort of turned into the same story. Why anyone would expect feature film adaptations of these sagas to behave differently is a question devoid of logical answers. And so it is with I Saw the Light.

The three previous major music biopics—Get On Up, Love & Mercy, and Straight Outta Compton—have all found small-yet specific ways to avoid the these-are-all-the-same curse. Straight Outta Compton lucked into an amazing moment of cultural relevancy (if anything about the need for a national awareness about Black Lives Mattering could ever be called lucky), while Love & Mercy relied on two actors and a dual narrative of very specific times and events. Get On Up is a bit trickier to nail down in terms of why it succeeded, beyond just kind of getting everything right—racial relevancy, mixing chronologies, some of the best music ever recorded, and a monumental lead performance. I Saw the Light can only lay claim to the latter. Nothing else really works. Hank Williams’ marriage at the center of the narrative (Elizabeth Olsen plays his wife) only forces up unfavorable Walk the Line comparisons, the music isn’t particularly relevant to where society is right now (at least much less so than songs like “fuck tha Police” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”), and nothing about the narrative particularly works beyond reminding us that Hank Williams lived hard and died young—something he has in common with dozens of other major musical figures.

Tom Hiddleston, who does all his own singing and playing in the film, is the reason this is still worth a look. But director Marc Abraham, whose only previous film, Flash of Genius, was about (no joke) the guy who invented alternating speeds for windshield wipers, just doesn’t know how to make this story more interesting than watching VH1 Classic.

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The best film of TIFF’s opening days, and surprisingly the most optimistic one, was Michael Moore’s first effort since 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. While the cheeky title, Where to Invade Next, makes it seem like Moore has created another elaborate takedown of American problems, it’s actually the opposite—it tries to lift us up. Before it had an official name, Moore’s crew called the film “Mike’s Happy Movie,” and even Moore himself told the crowd that he thinks of it as his “no problems, all solutions movie.”

The structure sees Moore visit nearly a dozen other countries, and spend about ten minutes with each one analyzing something they truly excel at. Italians work far less than Americans, which actually leads to greater productivity and more happiness; Norway has the world’s most humane prison systems; Slovenia has completely free college for everyone, even foreign students (seriously, Moore passed out applications to the crowd at the premiere); Finland has the best educational system, largely because their students spend less time in school and do almost no homework, which keeps them fresh and interested; Iceland has the most women in charge; France has their school cafeterias run by actual chefs, providing fine-dining-level food to all of their students. Then in each case, there’s a brief discussion about how easily America could excel in the same way. In many cases, Moore points out that the ideas these other countries employed actually came from us first, and that America “just needs to visit our lost & found box.”

The real poignancy of the movie, though, arrives in the final sequence, where Moore visits with a friend who was in Berlin when the wall came down. The friend talks about the night when one man started hammering at the wall with a chisel, then a second man joined him, and then suddenly dozens were doing it. “People always say these problems are too complicated to fix,” the friend says, “but you just grab the hammer & chisel and start knocking away at it. And with the Berlin Wall, that’s literally what we did.” The film then ends with that motto: “Hammer. Chisel. Down.”

It’s hard and almost distasteful to try and find fault in a movie this relentlessly optimistic. My only real complaint is that the scope might be too broad, and maybe Moore tries to do too much. But that’s also the film’s charm. It almost can’t help its own giddiness at showing us all of the great things happening in other parts of the world. Part of me wonders if this could have been better served as an HBO series, where Moore spends an hour each week looking more in depth at each one of these issues. But something like that wouldn’t have the narrative arc that the final Berlin sequence requires to work, and that’s too important to the message to leave on the cutting room floor. In some ways, Where to Invade Next feels less educational than Moore’s other films, because the information is so much more cursory. But this is probably Moore’s most theoretically insightful film, and maybe that’s the kind of education we need. Maybe we need to be like Finland, spending a little less time with something so that we can focus on it more powerfully. Hammer, chisel, down.

Coming Next: Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Sandra Bullock as a Bolivian political strategist playing dirty, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel at a Swiss spa, and Netflix's first major movie, Beasts of No Nation

Friday, September 11, 2015

2015 Summer Movie Recap

Hollywood released 24 major movies into the multiplexes this summer, in what feels like a perpetually bigger and more desperate attempt to make a year’s worth of money in 3 ½ months. I refer to summer as Greenlight Season, because the movies released are measured not by the amount of great reviews or awards buzz they generate, but by the number of subsequent movies that get green lit in their wake. I saw 15 of those 24 movies, missing a few because I just didn’t find the time (Terminator: Genisys, The Gift, Spy, and Magic Mike XXL), a few because I just couldn’t justify paying to see them (Vacation and Pixels), and a few because you literally couldn’t have paid me to see them (Hot Pursuit, Ted 2, and San Andreas). But I saw almost all of the major players, so let’s look at how they stacked up in terms of quality. And yes, I know that’s the most irrelevant way to measure them. That’s why it’s fun.

1.  Mad Max: Fury Road (Grade: A)

This was a summer with two all-time classic movies, and choosing which should rank number one was an agonizing task that involved switching places more than once. In the end, I opted against any illusion of objectivity and just went with what I liked better.

Any given generation typically gets just a few action movies that cause people to speak with glowing reverence forever. Die Hard. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Matrix. They don’t happen often, but Mad Max: Fury Road will be is one of those movies.

If 1981’s The Road Warrior (aka: Mad Max 2) set up the Platonic ideal of a Mad Max movie—introduce a bare bones plot in the first half about transporting something important, and then resolve that plot in a second-half-length car chase—then Fury Road is the Platonic ideal of that Platonic ideal. It spends the opening ten minutes setting up a barest bones plot about transporting something, and then gives us a gonzo hour-and-fifty-minute car chase to resolve a plot that barely registered in the first place.

The result is what feels like turning the best two minutes of a Fast & Furious movie into a two-hour post-apocalyptic acid trip covered in sand, leather, and spikes. And in a year where Furious 7 became one of the highest grossing movies ever, Fury Road was both faster and had the audacity to name its lead character Furiosa. The Fast & Furious franchise could (and will!) go another seven movies, and they still won’t create anything this perfect.

2.  Inside Out (Grade: A)

The temptation to put this number one stems not just from how good it is, but from the high likelihood that parents will watch this movie with their children (and pretend not to sob in the background) until the end times.

This is a case where accuracy of facts matters much less than accuracy of feelings. No, the innards of Inside Out probably aren’t a great facsimile of how our heads actually work, but goddamn if it doesn’t feel like the pinnacle of accuracy while you’re watching. Creating that recognition of “Yes! That’s just what that feels like!” is what peak Pixar excels at. The scene in Wall-E where he shows EVA his cool shit (Here’s my eggbeater!) is exactly what it feels like to try and impress a girl you like. The scene in Toy Story 3 where the kid gives up his toys is exactly as unfairly traumatic on the screen as it was in real life. And so it is with Inside Out, where every new brain location immediately looks emotionally recognizable yet visually brand new at the same time.

Arguing about the best Pixar movie is as useless as speculating who would win in one-on-one between LeBron and Jordan. All we know is those are the two guys that belong in the argument. With Inside Out, we know it belongs in the argument.

3.  Ant-Man (Grade: B+)

All three of this summer’s movies based on Marvel comics existed in very different final versions than their creators intended. With Ant-Man, that control feud became so untenable that original director Edgar Wright quit the project that he’d almost single-handedly shepherded into existence. Yet the strength of his vision for the film was so great, and the casting of Paul Rudd so perfect, that it succeeded in spite of itself.

One thing that Marvel does so well with their movies is allow them to be things beyond merely super-hero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy was space-opera, and Captain America: Winter Soldier felt like a ‘70s conspiracy thriller (complete with Robert Redford dutifully showing up in the cast). So it is with Ant-Man, which is essentially a heist flick with super-heroes; It’s Ocean’s ‘15, starring Ant-Man in the role of George Clooney.

We’ll probably never know what Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man would have looked like, or even if it would’ve been that different than eventual director Peyton Reed’s finished product. (By all accounts, Wright’s story remained fairly intact in the finished film.) But regardless of where credit is due, the resultant movie is a testament to how much fun the Marvel Cinematic Universe can continue to be even well into their “B” and “C-lists.”

4.  Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Grade: B+)

Speaking of how much fun something can continue to be despite presumably diminishing returns, there’s 53-year old Tom Cruise, hanging off the side of a plane five minutes into yet another Mission Impossible movie. Managing to stay fresh by adopting the James Bond tactic of constantly changing directors and allowing each movie to be its own entity, while simultaneously avoiding the James Bond rut of mandating each movie follow the same story beats, the Mission Impossible franchise has found a sweet spot that should theoretically last as long as Tom Cruise can walk and remains crazy enough to do his own stunts. And Tom’s craziness level isn’t going down.

5.  Straight Outta Compton (Grade: B)

Ever since I heard Grantland’s Wesley Morris refer to this as “The hip-hop Avengers,” I haven’t been able to get that perfect metaphor out of my head. Like The Avengers, this is all about mythologizing a gathering of heroes. In that regard, it succeeds perfectly. But it’s also a slight disservice, because these were real people, and the relevancy of this story deserved to be told in a more authentic way.

I remember last summer having a conversation with a friend about the James Brown biopic, Get On Up, and how he didn’t want to see it because it was PG-13, and “James Brown didn’t live a PG-13 life.” Despite the limiting rating, Get On Up still figured out how to show James Brown’s life and character in a way that felt true. Straight Outta Compton got the R rating it needed (a single playing of “Fuck tha Police” ensured that), but it somehow ended up the more sugar-coated and neutered of the two movies, pretending that Dr. Dre speeding in a Ferrari was the most controversial thing he ever did.

Those omissions for the sake of commercial safety (or worse, saving face) are so frustrating partially because the movie is otherwise so good. It’s compulsively watchable, doesn’t drag despite it’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, and has a few moments of true greatness. (On the other hand, there are also a few moments that feel like outtakes from the Entourage movie.) If it just cared a bit more about reality than myth building, it could have been the best music biopic ever.

6.  Trainwreck (Grade: B)

This was the summer’s funniest movie—and probably the funniest summer movie since Bridesmaids in 2011—but it doesn’t stand up very well to actual analysis. The elephant in the room with the movie is that the two main characters seem to only be interested in each other because the plot needs them to be. Schumer apparently only likes Hader because he calls her back, and he seemingly only likes her because she put out on the first date. In a way, this is a minor complaint, because most comedies construct vaguely outlandish plots merely as joke delivery systems, but the real problem here is that it’s one of those core parts that shouldn’t have to be outlandish. Their relationship isn’t a set piece; it’s the whole piece.

Beyond that, the movie’s an 80/20 mix of hilarious scenes and scenes that fall completely flat. Sadly, the bad scenes are so bad that they kind of dominate your memory and make it feel more like a 60/40 ratio. The intervention scene with Marv Albert is terrible, and the idea that LeBron plays one-on-one with his doctor only makes sense if you also believe Usain Bolt races his dentist or Ronda Rousey spars with her gardener.

Now, having said all that, what works here (and it mostly does work) is really, really good, and the movie absolutely succeeded in its three most important goals: 1) It launched Amy Schumer to true stardom (regardless of whether she’s hot enough). 2) It revitalized the directing career of Judd Apatow after two very forgettable movies (Funny People and This is 40). And 3) It became the defining comedy of 2015.

7.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Grade: B)

This was actually a really fun spy movie, so it’s unfortunate that no one saw it. But unfortunate and unexpected aren’t the same thing. It’s really unclear what Warner Brothers was thinking here. How many current moviegoers have even heard of this property, let alone were pining for its revival? Other than knowing “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was a ‘60s spy show, I know nothing about it, and I imagine most people know even less than that. What’s even more curious is that the concept, whatever it actually is, is never even used or mentioned in the movie until the final line of dialogue. I saw the movie, and I still couldn’t tell you what the property is. So Warner Brothers essentially paid royalty rights for a title and intellectual property that they didn’t really use, and which actively caused fewer people to see their movie. Really, if you just cut that final line, the movie could have been named Mission Impossible: First Class (Or Mission Impossible: Episode I, Mission Impossible Begins, etc.), and it would have made three times as much money.

Anyway, I recommend people check this out, as it is actually quite fun. Like most of Guy Ritchie’s films, the editing is tremendously exciting and the set pieces are wonderfully conceived, including a really cool climactic raid sequence shot almost entirely in moving and alternating split screens. Henry Cavill plays a better Clark Kent here than he did in Man of Steel, Armie Hammer is surprisingly agile with a Russian accent, and Alicia Vikander continues her title-streak of being the most beautiful person to grace a movie screen. Try and see this if you get a chance, because we’re definitely not getting a sequel.

8.  Jurassic World (Grade: B-)

The middle of the list seems like the right place for a movie that financially conquered the season, but artistically fought against its own existence. I actually quite admire the ballsiness of the anti-studio-thinking approach that writer/director Collin Trevorrow took to the material. He was being asked to make a movie that’s only reason for existence was so a mega-corporation could make a lot of money, so he made a movie about a mega-corporation creating something they shouldn’t have just so they could make a lot of money. Good form.

But just because you’ve been highly successful at arguing why you made something that shouldn’t exist, that doesn’t mean you won the argument. It might actually mean the opposite.

To be fair, debate about how many summer movies have legitimate reason to exist is a depressing path that takes the piss right out of all these things, so let’s try and grade on a curve. This movie was fun. It wasn’t as much fun as the best of the crop, but it was much more fun than most of them. Chris Pratt loudly ended the skepticism that he’s a movie star, the dialogue and story beats were more or less engaging, and it was at least marginally closer in quality to Jurassic Park than it was to Jurassic park III. That’s probably all we could ask for.

9.  Avengers: Age of Ultron (Grade: B-)

A few months back, writer Mark Harris questioned whether shared universe comic book movies—after they check all of the fan-service boxes and include Easter eggs, post-credit scenes, and set-up the next several installments—even have the time and ability to be movies at all. By and large, I don’t agree that this is a major problem, as I think movies like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy have shown. But Avengers: Age of Ultron sure as hell made it feel like Harris’ theory is a full-blown epidemic.

Somewhere within everything was an actual Joss Whedon movie, and at times it resembled a very good one. The sequence with Hawkeye’s wife at their ranch (“You know I’ve always supported your avenging”), much of the snappy patter, and the basic Ultron plot all worked immensely well. But all of that was nearly drowned out by everything Marvel demanded be thrown in on top. A long sequence in the middle with Thor and a magic pond (it’s just as good as it sounds!) is exclusively there to set up future installments and completely distracts from the movie’s narrative, while a long set piece with Iron Man and the Hulk duking it out in an eastern European city isn’t just CGI porn, it’s a full-on fanboy gangbang.

Because of all the obvious “one scene for you, one scene for me” garbage going on between Whedon and Marvel, the most memorable moment of the movie ended up being a not-so-subtle bit of Whedon knocking the business model. In pointing out that Natalie Portman and Gwenyth Paltrow’s characters aren’t present for a party scene (or in the movie at all), Whedon is basically telling us Marvel wouldn’t pay their salaries to get them there. This problem will only get worse.

10.  Tomorrowland (Grade: C)

The most gratuitous violence of the summer movie season was the degree that Tomorrowland tried to bludgeon its message into our collective heads. Had the whole “Don’t lose your sense of wonder” message been deployed subtly, Tomorrowland had the capacity to be a very good movie. It absolutely nailed the wonder part, the production design was gorgeous and imaginative, and the dialogue had a Pixar-y snap to it. But good God, this movie needed to get off its soapbox.

It’ll be interesting to see where Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) goes from here, as this is really his first career misstep. Part of me hopes he takes on a super-hero movie now that this unmitigated financial failure might make it difficult to get funding for his passion projects. That same sense of wonder that got him in trouble here could just kill it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But after that system chewed up and spit out Joss Whedon and Edgar Wright earlier this year, I wouldn’t feel right wishing it upon someone so talented. We’ll see what happens next.

11.  Pitch Perfect 2 (Grade: C-)

Pitch Perfect 2 is to Pitch Perfect as Season 8 of How I Met Your Mother is to Season 1. Instead of bothering with several years of diminishing returns while the characters gradually become nothing more than caricatures of themselves, this franchise just took us there overnight.

As with Avengers: Age of Ultron, this hits all of the beats the fans wanted, but without any illusion of there being something more. It’s Pitch Perfect fan fiction.

12.  Minions (Grade: C-)

This is, without a doubt, the worst missed opportunity of the summer. Minions should have been great, but Universal and its creators apparently took the “people will come anyway” approach, and mailed it in. The term “All Ages” is frequently a misnomer. Minions is not an All Ages movie, it’s a kids movie. Perhaps we should have known that going in, but I really believed we’d be getting a Simpsons/Pixar-like movie that truly was All Ages, which adults and children could enjoy alike. That did not happen. What we got was 90 minutes of three funny looking yellow blobs speaking in funny gibberish. If there was a third joke, I missed it. Also, I fell asleep. Also, I wasn’t tired.

13.  Fantastic Four (Grade: D+)

Fantastic Four actually wasn’t as irredeemable as the critics made it out to be. Yes, it was awful, but if you squinted, you could see the vague blueprint of a decent movie. I still maintain the casting was good, and the decision to focus more on the appetite for wonder was also a wise one. The problem is that this specific version of wonder was languidly non-wondrous. I wish Tomorrowland—a movie which nailed the wonder but little else—could have somehow been combined with Fantastic Four. Then we might have had something. Instead, we got the loud death cry of a possible franchise, which (I guess) was interesting in its own right.

14.  Aloha (Grade: D)

I’d love to call this a train-wreck, but that implies you’d feel compelled to look. It was more like a tricycle crash that made no sound whatsoever. There are fleeting bits that remind you Cameron Crowe can write a great line, or even a great moment of human connection. But those moments have to be grounded in plot and character to have any resonance, and there’s no such thing here. Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are two of the most charismatic actors on the planet right now. That even they can’t sell this material says all you need to know about how bad it is.

15.  Entourage (Grade: F--)

If Pitch Perfect 2 was like the 8th season of How I Met Your Mother, then Entourage was like the 18th season, which thank Christ we never actually got. There’s just nothing good to be said here.