My 2015 movie summer (part 2)

Last time I ran down my picks for the 11th through 7th best films of the summer. Conveniently enough, you could group those films as “the bad and the ugly”. Even if I kinda liked parts of them, they are all movies that have questionable construction. None of them deserve to be on anyone’s best-of lists at the end of the year.

For the remaining films, they are mostly good to great. 6th place is borderline.

6. Ant-Man

So, on one hand, Ant-Man has a lot of questionable choices in its production. On the other, I really had a fun time watching it. Do I lean toward “why the hell did they do this” or toward “this is a good movie-going experience”? In the end, it’s a bit of both.

Like, never in the context of the film was there a satisfying reason for why Hope wasn’t the hero instead of Scott. Even when they tried to give a reason, it fell flat. And given the business and schedule for Marvel films, it seems unlikely we’ll see a sequel with Hope in the costume anytime soon.

And why, oh WHY, does Marvel do such a consistently terrible job with its villains. Outside of Loki, none of them are great. I’ve honestly forgotten what the bad guy’s non-Yellowjacket name is here. He was so bland and uninspired. He’s also dead, which is pretty much what Marvel does.

But still, the cast is pretty great, the jokes click, and there’s some pretty good action. Even with the problems, I’d mark it as an upper-level Marvel effort. It’s the second best of the Phase Two films, easily.

It really would have been nice to see Edgar Wright’s version, though.

5. The Man from UNCLE

There’s style and then there’s STYLE. If nothing else, Guy Ritchie’s films deliver on the latter. UNCLE is no exception. It positively oozes style from the stylish pores of its very stylish actors. It has style like it’s, well, going out of style.

Which, in a sense, it kind of is. I have to feel bad for stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They feel like actors who are working in the wrong decade. They both a stoic, understated demeanor that is coupled with unearthly good looks, and that doesn’t seem to be an appreciated combination. Audiences seem to want their actors beautiful, yes, but they also want the humor and action to be very overstated. So if you watch The Lone Ranger or Man of Steel, their performances feel a bit out of time.

Still, slot them in a period piece, and it clicks together almost perfectly. The humor is easy-going. The action is fun without being overbearing. Everyone, yes EVERYONE, is pretty to look at. Sure, the plot’s a little light, but the breeziness helps make UNCLE a pretty perfect late summer movie.

One particular point of amusement: just about everyone isn’t using their normal access. Cavill (English) is playing American, as is Jared Hess (also English). Hammer (American) is playing Russian. Alicia Vikander (Swedish) goes German. And Elizabeth Debicki (Australia) is an Italian. The only exception is Hugh Grant who is playing, well, Hugh Grant.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

After Ghost Protocol, there was probably some question as to where the Mission Impossible franchise would go. It’s always been a bit of an odd beast, just trucking along and doing what it does very well. While there are other, older franchises that are currently relevant, Mission Impossible has been around for close to twenty years without any sort of hiatus. Perhaps the trend of taking 4-6 years to develop a film (about twice as long as most other ongoing series) each time means that it always remains somewhat fresh.

Still, after Ghost Protocol, where would it go? The Dubai sequence in that film is legendary, and if you’re going to make a sequel, you need to go bigger or just not even bother, right?

Rogue Nation didn’t hide the fact that it was going to have a big set piece in the advertising. Tom Cruise, hanging off the side of a plane! It’s the logical step up.

And then it throws a curveball. You sit down to watch it and it’s like Cruise and writer/director McQuarrie tell you “yes, we know you’re here for this action sequence, well here it is.” Boom, done in five minutes. It might be risky for a film to blow its wad so early, but it makes a lot of sense. You get the spectacle, but you also don’t feel like the advertising spoiled anything.

From there, it rockets along at a great clip, with all the fun, action, and intrigue we’ve come to expect. But then Rogue Nation does something pretty amazing.: it actually nails the third act.

Previous Mission Impossibles can be justifiably criticized for not really coming together in the end. Notably for the second film (which is two very entertaining acts followed by a bunch of WTF), but all except the first are pretty flabby at the conclusion.

Not so here. McQuarrie has crafted a great conclusion that brings the whole arc of the film back to a neat, satisfying close.

It’s not a stretch to say that Rogue Nation is the best in the series.

3. SPY

For all the recent talk about the overwhelming presence of superhero movies, it’s actually the spy genre that’s been omnipresent this year. Along with the aforementioned UNCLE and Rogue Nation, there was also Kingsman back in February. And then there’s the latest in the granddaddy of all spy franchises this holiday season, with Spectre.

Somewhere in all this, Melissa McCarthy’s latest endeavor to set herself as THE go-to name in comedy came out. And it’s a spy movie. Now, it’s a comedy, but it’s not a spoof. The film tweaks with conventions, with hilarious results, but it doesn’t ridicule them.

The comedy here is a bit of a slow burn. For the first act or so, I was smiling and nodding along, but it was like funny and enjoyable, not gut-busting. And then it just clicked. I’m not sure what the moment was exactly. It might have been Rose Byrne delivering a perfect upper crust obscenity. It might have been the moment when it was suddenly clear exactly what Jason Statham’s character was like. Regardless, at a moment, SPY went from a fun romp to a comedy great.

The cast is perfect. Each member can deliver the funny, but does so in different ways. Statham and Byrne are standouts, but McCarthy continues her quest to establish one of the best comedic resumes in history. And supporting efforts from Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and Miranda Hart round things out. Several times I had a thought of “I hate this character” followed by “but they’re so funny!”

In addition to McCarthy, director Paul Feig has been delivering a consistent string of hits after cutting his teeth on TV work. So far, he hasn’t been a standout technically, but his efforts are solid and with SPY and The Heat, he’s shown he has a good eye to blend action and comedy.

McCarthy and Feig team up again with Ghostbusters next year. Personally, I can’t wait.

2. Inside Out

Pete Docter is the best director working in animation today. He’s one of the core people in Pixar’s brain trust, and among them all he’s remained as the stalwart at the studio. John Lasseter is now in charge of all Disney creative endeavors, and he always struck me as better on the production rather than directing side. Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are both fine directors, but they’ve taken forays into live action that have not been entirely successful. Both have returned to Pixar.

But Docter has remained throughout the entire history of the studio. And in so doing he’s delivered three of the best animated films of all time. While discussions can be heated when you talk about the output of a studio that has as high bar for quality as Pixar, Inside Out is arguably up there for best Pixar film ever.

For all the doubts levied against Pixar’s recent output, Inside Out shows that the studio can still deliver on its strengths. And Docter’s storytelling choices are probably the most perfectly suited to Pixar. He makes his films funny and exciting, but he also has an ability to home in on the heartfelt expression that makes Pixar stand out.

Tears are not an uncommon feature of his films. And personally, none of the other Pixar films hit quite so hard as Docter’s. And even Inside Out is a step above the rest, with three huge gut-punch moments.

Ultimately, what Inside Out and Docter deliver is a commodity so few films truly deliver: satisfaction. At the end, we’re given a film so complete that it’s profound. And then we realize how rare that feeling is, so we want to see it again.

Well, I’ve gone on for about 1500 words this time. I think I’ll cap it there and then I can really go long next time while I talk about my favorite film of the summer.

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