Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE BEST SURPRISES & BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE 2015 SUMMER


It’s the last gasp of August and the nip of fall is already in the air, so it seems like a good time to take a look back on the summer movies from 2015 and determine what was hot and what was not. There were a lot of worthy sequels (PITCH PERFECT 2 and FURIOUS 7) and reboots that were spectacularly good (MAD MAX FURY ROAD), but for every decent MAGIC MIKE XXL there was a misbegotten TERMINATOR: GENISYS marring the world of return visits. The superhero entries veered from the so cool (Yay, ANT-MAN!) to the so-so (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON). There were some excellent all-family features (INSIDE OUT and MINIONS) and some indies that were refreshing adult fare (LOVE & MERCY and ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL). All in all, good stuff for discerning audiences, by and large, and the movies made money too.

Rather than go over some of the movies I’ve already written about here, I thought I’d share my thoughts on five movies that truly surprised me by being so terrific. And of course, you can’t have the yin without the yang, so I’ll also share my five biggest disappointments too. Let’s start with the good stuff, shall we?



MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION

Nobody had really high expectations for this movie. After all, this was the fifth movie into a franchise that started way back in the 90’s. And its star Tom Cruise wasn’t exactly a box office favorite these days. Plus, God knows the HBO documentary GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF certainly didn’t endear him to anyone. And yet, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION and Cruise really delivered the goods. It had four truly amazing set pieces - the opening plane hijacking, the opera crossfire, the multiple motorcycle chase, and the underwater break-in. The script and direction was tight, witty and easy to track. (Thank you, Christopher McQuarrie!) And it had Cruise’s venerable secret agent man Ethan Hunt who was now older, a little bit wiser, and certainly wearier. And his vulnerabilities (He died in that underwater sequence before they resuscitated him!) made us love him anew. I’m ready for the sixth in the series. How about you?



AMERICAN ULTRA

Kristen Stewart can be a terrific actress, despite (ahem) rather lifeless performances in some of the early TWILIGHT movies. This year, she gave two wonderful performances. First, she played shrewd and knowing in the arthouse sleeper CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA as Juliette Binoche’s world weary manager. (Don’t be surprised if she gets an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.) And then, in the last weeks of summer, she gave a fun and funny performance opposite a sly and surprisingly physical Jesse Eisenberg in the action comedy AMERICAN ULTRA. It’s basically Jason Bourne crossed with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but the whole thing works incredibly well. It was deftly written, succinctly directed, and well-acted by everyone. Topher Grace, Connie Britton and John Leguizamo were hilarious as the supporting cast. I laughed more at this movie than many of the official comedies out there this summer. (I'm referring to VACATION, which I'll cover a few paragraphs from now.) Too bad this movie didn't open earlier in the season where it might have been more noticed and done better box office. Its teen audience was already back in school when it opened last weekend. But it's worth finding now, while it's still in theaters, or when it's available on VOD.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Ian McKellen as MR. HOLMES (copyright 2015).

MR. HOLMES

I’m a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve already got many favorite versions of Holmes, starting with Jeremy Brett in the 1980’s British TV series, Benedict Cumberbatch from the current BBC show SHERLOCK, and Christopher Plummer’s star turn in the 1979 big screen effort MURDER BY DECREE. Now, I’ve got a fourth fave. Ian McKellen makes the role something wholly his own in MR. HOLMES. Bill Condon’s film about the sleuth in the winter of his years is a lovely character study about a man struggling with his age and his past. The greatest mystery Holmes faces here concerns how confounding it is to rapidly lose those exquisite powers of deduction he once could count on. MR. HOLMES was truly grown-up entertainment placed in a sea of popcorn this summer. What a special film this is. And here’s hoping it is remembered come awards season.



THE GIFT

Joel Edgerton has been a big deal in movies for the past few years. He’s impressed in everything from WARRIOR to ZERO DARK THIRTY to EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, he's getting even bigger. Here, he not only starred in the film, but he wrote and directed it as well. This is an intimate and tension-filled three-hander costarring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. They give great performances, and Edgerton clearly knows how to direct actors. He shows great skill as a writer too as his script is taut, lean and turns a lot of horror tropes on their ear. His direction is deftly focused and unfussy too, and his skill at creating thrills and chills never plays as heavy-handed. THE GIFT turned out to be one of the best horror movies of the year. It joins IT FOLLOWS as superb frighteners that are sure to be remembered when critics make their year-end 10 Best Lists. And here's hoping Edgerton continues to write and direct as well as act so sublimely.





TRAINWRECK

Is anyone having a better year than Amy Schumer? Her Comedy Central show will likely win a batch of Emmys this September, and deservedly so. She also happens to be the hottest standup comic right now. And on the big screen this summer, she proved to be a terrific leading lady and screenwriter with the hit romantic comedy TRAINWRECK. Not only was this the most satisfying laugh-fest of the summer, but it was also incredibly touching too. Who saw that coming? Schumer’s party girl character in the movie uses sex and sarcasm to keep out a world that had been a little too cruel along the way. But when she finally meets a great guy (Bill Hader), she doesn’t know how to deal with a good thing and almost ruins it. Schumer aced all of it, including the pathos. (So did Hader, by the way.) I can’t wait to what the amazing Amy will do next. Drama? A musical? A period piece? The world's her oyster.

Now, onto those that truly disappointed me. It won’t be pretty but it has to be done.




SINISTER 2

The original SINISTER from 2012 was a sly and scary thriller that had a marvelously empathetic performance by Ethan Hawke at the center of it. His horror at the home movie snuff his character witness was exactly what we were feeling in the audience. Because of such skill, the first one did well at the box office and that led to a sequel of course. Unfortunately, this once is misconceived at every turn, starting with the decision to put the doofus deputy character from the first movie at the center of this one. Sadly, SINISTER 2 also fails to be particularly scary, smart or clever. It also lacks that crucial character empathy. Most everyone in this film is irritating and unlikable. And none of the new cast can hold a spooky floating candle to what Hawke did in the original. This film is so bad it even bungles the use of ghost children. Spooky kids in horror always scare, but not here. SINISTER 2 makes them too omnipresent and chatty to boot. Whoever said “Children should be seen and not heard” would have been able to justify their prejudice here.




SOUTHPAW

I love Jake Gyllenhaal and thought he deserved an Oscar for his star turn in NIGHTCRAWLER last year. But despite getting in great shape to look like a boxer, he never wholly convinces as a pugilist in SOUTHPAW. It’s a movie that is way too melodramatic and overwrought by half, and the script is chock full of hoary, boxing movie clichés. Of course the fighter has to lose everything. Of course he has to show up at a ratty gym to get trained. Of course the only guy who will do it is a tortured, reluctant geezer. And so on, and so on. I hope whatever Gyllenhaal does next will be more in the vein of the fascinating three-dimensional characters he created in movies like NIGHTCRAWLER, as well as 2013's PRISONERS and ENEMY. This is a glitch in an otherwise sterling string of successes in the last few years. 



THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Despite a suave turn from Henry Cavill, and an appearance late in the picture by the hilariously droll Hugh Grant as the head of U.N.C.L.E., this movie doesn’t quite pass muster as the clever spy caper it wants to be. It should have wonderful, but it's just okay. Granted, it has lovely 1960’s period details, and female lead Alicia Vikander is just as lush and sexy. There are even some good laughs too, like when the two male leads argue pettily without realizing that a villain is being electrocuted in the background. If there was more bite like that, this would have been a very clever and darkly comedic thriller, but instead it misses the mark in too many instances starting with poor Armie Hammer being tasked with playing a totally clichéd of Cold War Russian. Why director Guy Ritchie seems to be aping the directorial style and choices of Quentin Tarantino throughout, I do not know, but it seems to be a huge miscalculation. If you’ve ever seen SNATCH or ROCKNROLLA, you know Ritchie’s one of the most distinctive helmers working today, so what’s going on here? Was the suave style of that classic TV show too much outside his comfort zone? He’s used to thugs, Cockney accents, and comic violence, so perhaps this sophisticated spy story left him flummoxed. No matter what the reason, this film doesn't soar. It's not terrible, just disappointing. Really, really disappointing.




VACATION

The original NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION from 1983 was full of raucous, gross-out scenes that made audiences hoot and holler. Remember the dog urine-soaked sandwiches? Or Imogene Coco’s dead old bag strapped to the roof of the station wagon? Still, even with such overt moments, the John Hughes’ penned classic remained grounded in a relatively relatable narrative. And it had a sweetness to it. Sure, Chevy Chase’s dad was a bit of a doofus, but he meant well. But here in VACATION, Ed Helms plays the grown-up son of Chase, and he’s such a complete dunderhead that you don’t like him or much of anything else in the movie. Every scene, every gag, each bit of funny business is delivered so big, broad and unbelievable, that it grates more than ingratiates. The filmmakers keep trying, often going for outrageously dirty or profane jokes, but none of it is particularly engaging. The movie strands talented people like Helms, Christina Applegate and Chris Hemsworth with too many one-note comic bits that don't go anywhere. This should have been a riotous and searing commentary about the state of the American family, but instead, it’s just trying to be another outrageous comedy like THE HANGOVER. Yawn.



JURASSIC WORLD

The biggest hit of the year is one film that I truly disliked. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but we’ll see if JURASSIC WORLD stands the test of time. I think it won't stand the test of six months. True, Chris Pratt handled the action and the comedy with equal aplomb, but he was the only admirable part of this big, dumb, special effects laden egg. Loud and garish do not excitement make. And boy, was a lot of the CGI unconvincing. Its genuine scare count was very low. The park ideas didn't make much sense. (A petting zoo with baby dinosaurs? Really? That would be good for six-year-olds?) And the corporate character that Bryce Dallas Howard played set action ingénues back 20 years. (Damn those ridiculous heels they made her wear throughout!) The original JURASSIC PARK from 1993 remains one of the best horror films of all time. And frankly, I wish they had quit there. All of the sequels, including this one, were diminishing returns.


That’s my take on the summer. Tell me what amazed you, or bummed you out. Autumn and winter at the Cineplex sound pretty good this year with the likes of CAROL, a plethora of screen bios, and a new STAR WARS movie all heading our way. I'm excited. Bring on the cooler weather and even cooler movies!

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