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.