The Bottom Half of my 2015 Cinematic Viewing (The Better Half):
16. Bridge of Spies dir. Stephen Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Scott Shepherd, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda-A visually beautiful film and a nice compliment to Spielberg’s filmography. I’m happy with this film earning a Best Picture nomination as it was an interesting contrast to the other seven choices and this is superior to that subgenre of bland period piece that is made to win these kinds of awards (looking at you “The Queen”). That said, I felt like knocking it down a few notches because the historic character seemed tweaked a bit to fit the standard Tom Hanks persona so it wasn’t as much of an acting challenge. I also feel like the film could have been more kinetic even though the film’s fans say that is a complaint of the ADD generation.
17. Ant Man, co-written by Edgar Wright, starring Paul Rudd, Corey Stoll, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale, w/small doses of Judy Greer-I’ve pretty much reached my saturation point with superhero films but you can’t deny the originality about a superhero who goes microscopic. Some of the stuff (i.e. “I’m in a tight spot, time to go subatomic!”) seemingly comes straight out of a 1950’s B-movie (or at least the version that was gently parodied on that one episode of “Star Trek Voyager”), but hey, the film has a lot of built-in novelty with the special effects and action scenes. There’s a fair amount of going through the motions with the action scenes but the principals are game enough to carry the material and, hello, microscopic action scenes!
18. Jurassic World, dir. Colin Trevorrow, prod. Steven Spielberg, starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent Denofrio, Irrfran Khan, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus-Was I wrong in expecting a Spielberg-produced film to have more of a pro-nature leaning? Spielberg’s past films that featured monstrous animals (i.e. the original “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, the Spielberg-produced “Super 8”) never really posit the beast as the villain but rather uses them as a metaphor for fear of the unknown. But Jurassic World’s baddie is cartoonishly amoral and it’s a mildly disturbing creative direction to take the series. Other than that, I didn’t find the kids as annoying as most critics did, I liked Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s chemistry, and Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson played admirable comic relief. The Lapkus-Johnson non-romance (she has a boyfriend, ouch! oh wait, there's an awkward hug, awww) is the best lampshading of romantic conventions I’ve seen from a film in a while.
19. Pitch Perfect 2 dir. Elizabeth Banks, starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Skyler Austin, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Katey Segal, Adam Devine, Keegan-Michael Key- Not a bad film. Points are docked for originality, of course, but as sequels go, it fulfills its destiny pretty well by knowing the original’s sweet spots and expanding upon them. Plot credibility, of course, flies out the window here to keep the cast in tact: A senior intentionally flunks three times just to stay in an a capella group, somehow the guy who ditched the group to sing back-up for John Mayer is back, etc.
20. Chappie, dir. Neill Blokamp, starring Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and the voice of Sharlito Copely-Not sure why the critics are hating on Blokamp here, but I found this to possess that same kind of regional cinema charm as District 9. It’s a moderately thought-provoking sci-fi concept about whether one can truly become sentient and if it falls short of answering that question, it’s because there really isn’t a satisfactory answer anyway (I’ve always had the same complaint of Data on “Star Trek: TNG”). The film has some wickedly funny moments that are funnier than the film has any right to be and, for me at least, it worked.
21. Home, voiced by Rhianna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin-These three were so adorable as an odd triplet of sorts on the press rounds that I gave in and watched this on Netflix. It’s about as good or as bad as you’d expect: A passable level of charm, some multi-level humor, and mildly impressive visuals.
22. No Way Out, starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan-Times really have changed that critics and the vocal subset of movie goers who voice their opinions online no longer tolerate anything that’s politically incorrect. Hey, as long as you don’t retroactively move to revoke the Best Picture nomination for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, I’m ok with highlighting the faults of something this ridiculous. At the same time, this was a year in which I saw a lot of politically correct films that are terrible in other ways, so this film is still pretty far from the bottom. It’s actually a narratively interesting film in the manner of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” or “Gravity” in which the outside world is painted through the periphery of a single character’s journey. Also, the action is pretty intense in a good way.
23. McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratt-A sincere and well-shot film but one that’s ultimately forgettable. That it was released in cinema’s graveyard season (January-April) is a good indication that it wasn’t particularly good but I had to see it for myself because I was an avid cross-country runner in high school. The efforts by the film to turn cross-country into an action sport come off more like Terrence Malick than an ESPN-driven style and (while there’s merit in the former), perhaps the latter might have made the film a bit more memorable. Marginally worth watching if you run. Oh and there are white people and Hispanics getting along and learning about each other's cultures (in other words, a very tacked-on atttempt at thematic racial harmony).
24. Terminator: Genysis, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Courtney Jai, Jason Clarke, JK Simmons-Although I didn’t experience Terminator until I was in my 20s, this was my most anticipated film of the summer. Even the bad reviews couldn’t steer me away because the franchise has such a great pedigree (intricate time travel scenarios, cat-and-mouse games with an indestructible robot, etc) but somehow the film found a way to mangle a can’t-lose situation. How? By attempting to tie into the plot continuity of the series while simultaneously erasing everything that came before it. I could listen to a defense of whether the new storyline makes sense but the film’s reasoning is just surface-level dumb. This is one of those situations where the only way to salvage a chance at an enjoyable viewing experience is to turn your brain off which is shame considering this is such a thought-provoking series.
25. Hunger Games IV: Mocking Jay Part II dir. by someone other than Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Helmsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson-To be fair, I went into the film (more like dragged) thinking it should be ashamed of its existence. Aside from the fact that splitting up the last part of the trilogy strikes me as the low road, The Hunger Games seems like a perfectly self-contained story. One could make the argument that Katniss and her empty gaze as she looks out the train towards an uncertain future is a poignant way to end a serviceable adaptation of a very good book. Why do we need to know all the details of what comes next? I still more or less maintain that the film would have been better off not existing, but if it HAD to exist, it wasn’t terrible (only moderately disappointing) but better stories have been told about dystopic politics. The special effects were certainly innovative.
26. Rikki and the Flash, dir. Jonathan Demme, starring Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield-I still haven’t forgiven Demme for scaring the hell out of me when I watched ”Silence of the Lambs” as a kid. I’ve enjoyed some of his films since, but his problem is the opposite here: This film is completely and utterly boring. Demme uses a similar style to 2008 critical hit “Rachel Getting Married” but repeating the framework of the last film verbatim is like trying to use the same magic trick twice on the same audience: It doesn’t feel like this film has anything to say that hasn’t been said more profoundly with Jenny Lumet’s screenplay in RGM.
27. Staten Island Summer, written by Colin Jost, starring Graham Williams, Zach Perlman, Ashley Johnson, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, Mike O’Brien-You would think that the increased prestige of the home market that people would be doing innovative things with direct-to-video movies. So far, the stuff I’ve watched (I saw Coffeetown in 2013, Camp Takota in 2014, and this) has been equivalent to the stuff you’d see in the $3 bin at Target. In other words, the new class of direct-to-video movies seems about a s good as the old class of direct-to-video films. Written by that SNL Weekend Update anchor who has been roundly criticized for lacking in personality, this film isn’t much of a step up for him. It aims low (which isn’t a good thing) and moderately delivers on that low mark, but considering the degree of difficulty is so low to start with, why bother?
28. Tomorrowland, dir. Brad Bird, starring Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy-One of my goals in writing about film is to argue that the state of moviedom would be better if we collectively acknowledged that George Clooney is overplayed. And yet, I am guilty of occasionally buying a ticket to a George Clooney film on my own volition because there’s a catch to trying to avoid a star you don’t like: The man works with some of the best directors in Hollywood in projects so promising, that even his unwanted presence can’t bring down a film to the point where I wouldn’t want to see it. The premise of a film about the future based on the world’s fair exhibits with Brad Bird at the helm seemed too good to resist, but I wish I made more effort. This is an incoherent mess with simultaneously little and too much interest in investing the viewer in what little coherence there is. And did I mention that the main relationship is with a grown man and his unrequited love for a robot who still looks nine years old?
29. San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Paul Giamatti-This falls to the bottom of the list because the film’s reason for existence is just so paper thin. I might have been satisfied if the film didn’t pretend it was about anything more than things going kaboom, but devoting precious minutes to a B-plot in which Paul Giamatti plays a doctor of geology trying to exposition away something that makes no sense is a ridiculous gambit to try to turn exposition into meaningful drama. It would be the equivalent of adding a dramatic subplot to "The Fast and Furious" involving the guy who designed the fuel mix. Not that the A-plot has any meaningful characterization. I’m thrilled to see Alexandra Daddario and Carla Gugino get gainful employment in movies but their chemistry with Dwayne Johnson is utterly unconvincing as a nuclear family. The only way I’d make an exception for a film this shallow is if it were directed by Roland Emmerich whose entire skill set as a director is restricted to blowing up cities in style. I can marginally tolerate Emmerich exploiting the same cinematic blueprint in marginally different scenarios but filmdom doesn’t have room for Emmerich and a no-name emulating Emmerich’s style.
30. Pixels, dir. by some guy who basically did whatever Adam Sandler told him to do, starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage-I was intrigued by the video game concept but silly me for not taking into account the squandering of a good thing by the black hole known as Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Production Company. Twenty years after his departure from SNL, Sandler’s comic career is a prime example of what happens to a comic if a lack of studio interference and a steady (but not great) box office following inhibits a comic’s growth. I would argue that Sandler’s 8-year-old-in-a-grown-man’s-body shtick never held that much appeal but the rest of the public seemed to like him when he first broke out and even those supporters now agree his star wattage seems to be fading.