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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Summer Blockbuster 2015 Report Card

            Another summer season ends, another school year begins.  And we all know what that means- REPORT CARD TIME! 

            Yes, after another round of studio and corporate pandering, it is time to assess whether any of the big-budget eye-spectacles we were forced to watch in 3D over the past few months lived up to the hype.  A proper blockbuster promises daring visual thrills, gut-wrenching chases, and seat-of-your-pants sci-fi/fantasy/comic-book action, plus enough zingers and one-liners to give the internet another winter’s worth of gifs and memes.  So today, we seek to assess which of 2015’s bloated cinematic miscreants are most worthy of the title “Summer Blockbuster Classic.”  And yes, I completely made that title up. 

            From here on in, a spoiler warning is officially in effect. 

Mad Max: Fury Road- A+

            Not only was Mad Max easily the best action film of the summer by far, in my book it still ranks as the best overall FILM that’s yet come out in 2015.  True, we still have four months’ worth of Oscar bait “prestige” pictures ahead of us (I am particularly excited to see Werner Herzog’s take on the life of Gertrude Bell), but all newcomers will have a tough time of it getting out from under this one’s shadow. 

            Given how insatiably exposition-heavy both the Marvel offerings and most other major action flicks of past years have gotten, Mad Max’s reliance on basic, clear, and precise visual design and cinematography to tell us everything we need to know in the first 15 minutes is something of a miracle to behold.   Tom Hardy carries himself with an incredible presence as Max, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is a new gold standard for proper non-male action heroes, and the score is already on the shortlist for my Year’s Best list come awards season.  Plus, more than any other film on this year’s scorecard, Mad Max achieved the ultimate height of being just plain cool.  Cool to experience, cool to replay your mind afterwards, cool to see again, and cool to quote incessantly with your friends afterwards.  I mean, what else could you possibly want from the film? 

            Oh right.  That

Jupiter Ascending- A- (the “fun” version)

            Oh Jupiter Ascending.  What can I say?  It might be a bit unoriginal in its genre-mashing, but my God, what colors there are to behold here.  This movie not only has all the wheeling anime references we’re used to getting from the Wachowskis, it ALSO has one of the funniest shout-outs I’ve ever seen to Terry Gilliam’s 1985 classic, Brazil.  From start to finished, there is never a dull moment to be had here, from a hilariously outlandish airfight through downtown Chicago, to a swarm of royalty-smelling bees, to the wonderfully designed power station inside Jupiter itself, to…..Eddie Redmayne.  Oh dear, darling Eddie.  I thought we had learned our lesson after the Silver Linings/J-Law debacle, but our human memories truly do fail us, for we have once again awarded someone Oscar gold for the wrong performance.  That malleable face of yours has taught us a whole new level of joy, and we are forever in your debt. 

Avengers: Age of Ultron- B+

            Even though it does strain itself a bit too much by the end, and whether or not the franchise can move on from the original cast remains to be seen, there are still more than enough highs in this second Avengers go-around that I was quite glad I saw it.  Most of this can be credited to James Spader, whose salvaging of some shifty writing with his vocal work has provided us with easily the best, most fun single-movie villain we’ve gotten in one of these.  Its third act is a repetition of the NYC battle in the overall-better first one, but there are so many great moments to be had getting there that this was well worth the time spent by fans of the franchise. 

Tomorrowland- B

            Out of all the films on this list, Tomorrowland was easily the biggest personal disappointment for me.  I adore Brad Bird- I consider The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille to be among the greatest animated works produced in the last 20 years (and yes, I am counting Ghibli films when I say that)- so there truly is no proper way to express how exuberantly happy I was when the trailers for his first original live-action work started making the internet rounds.   Which only compounded by faint disappointment when the movie itself turned out to be…well, quite good, and vastly more interested than something churned by a Studio Committee, but a far cry from the transcendent visual experience I had been expecting. 

            Which is a real shame, because the movie still has some genuine high-flying moments when it hits its stride; the first jet-pack ride in a Tomorrowland still under construction, the Eiffel Tower liftoff sequence, a robot attack on George Clooney’s home, and a vibrant, emotionally powerful final sequence acting as a broad call to greater civic engagement all stand out as moments of genius that deserve to endure.  Sadly, most of the character arcs and motivations make little to no sense, the plot meanders after a solid first half, and what should have been a grand final battle end up feeling a little rushed, and too reminiscent of the less-interesting stylistic designs of the later Spy Kids movies.  It succeeds in most areas though, so any Bird fan at the very least should check it out at some point.  Brad is the kind of filmmaker who, even when he falls short, still gives us something fascinating to experience. 

Jurassic World- B

            Ah, the literal and figurative monster of the summer.  Jurassic World has already secured its place as one of the most wildly successful and profitable movies to date, and nothing I say for or against the film will alter that fact in any way, although it has not been without its controversies.  I can understand a lot of the complaints surrounding Bryce Dallas Howard’s character and how the story uses (or doesn’t use) her, although I have also seen plenty of strong arguments in her favor.  And yes, Chris Pratt is a far cry here from his scenery-chewing performance in last summer’s Guardians.  And yet, there is a nice reverence to the overall feel of the picture (my issues with the movie completely melted away any time they hearkened back to the original John Williams score), and the main action beats, when they do occur, are phenomenally breath-taking.  On the whole, it balanced out into a fun time at the movies.  Which is all I ask of these sorts of films. 

Ant-Man- B-

            I must confess- I am finding it harder and harder to write about Marvel movies.  Even at their best (Ironman 1, Avengers 1, Captain America 2), there is absolutely no deviation from story formula or character archetypes, and while that by no means makes them all bad, it does mean there’s a ceiling to how funny, original, or truly great any of them can get.  At least for now. 
            That said, while there is a lot speculation as to whether or not one of these films truly bombing, or at least not functioning well within the ‘Verse, could bring down the whole house of cards being built, Ant-Man defied the cries of doom by Edgar Wright fans and turned out….pretty okay, really.  It was fun, and has its moments of brilliance; being the man-child raised on Shining Time Station that I am, I may have squealed a bit at the use of Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the final battle sequence.  On the other hand, the story and main character arc do not deviate from The Formula in the slightest, the side characters barely register, and the bad guy/evil plan combo is…..kind of terrible, now that I think about it.

            Plus, in a strange coincidence that I am still at a loss to explain, Evangeline Lilly’s character wears the same type of outfit, has the same haircut, is the same type of no-nonsense hardass, AND gets the same phoned-in romance subplot arbitrarily tossed in at the very end of the film as Bryce Dallas Howard from Jurassic World!  They look and are written so similar, I actually thought for the entire running time of Ant-Man that it was the exact same actress.  Seriously, look!  Blink and they are one!  

            Those critical points aside, as with all Marvel movies, I certainly don’t regret seeing it, but, as well as with most Marvel movies, I have no plans to revisit it again.   

Jupiter Ascending- D (the “serious” version)

            Oh Jupiter Ascending.  What can I say?  I had such high hopes for you.  I knew I was going to get a lot of bombastic over-the-topness (it IS the Wachowskis, after all), but given how much effort they usually put into making their fictional worlds make some form of metaphysical sense, I did expect at least SOME narrative cohesion.  After years of being able to digest the fallout from the Matrix trilogy, I would have thought they might have taken some lessons to heart on the importance of having your lead actors come across as at least partially human, or if not, at least having some of the side characters fleshed-out enough to pick up the slack.  There are rumors that whole chunks of the film, including some world-building and character development, got left on the cutting room floor, and while that would make me interested in seeing a director’s cut, I can’t use it as a justification to excuse the terrific flaws that tear this theatrical film apart, glorious design by glorious design. 

            And of course, there’s Eddie Redmayne.  Good God, we gave an Oscar to THAT?  How much lower are your standards going to sink, Academy? 

            Wait….shit, don’t answer that.  I forgot David O. Russell has a new movie coming out this year.  Lord save u…I mean, all hail the Russell! 

            All in all, this was hardly a summer of note, especially when compared to last year’s crop of great offerings.  Ah well.  At least we avoided the apocalyptic fate that would have awaited us had the release of Batman v. Superman not been delayed, which would have given us a year with Avengers, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, AND Batman/Superman duking it out for box office dominance.  Sometimes, it’s the little blessings in life that count. 

-Noah Franc 

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