Theaters had their share of movie hits and misses this summer. Here’s a look at the five best … and the worst.
5. “Spy” (R): Unlike the overrated “Trainwreck,” this latest teaming of Melissa McCarthy and her “Bridesmaids”/”The Heat” director Paul Feig was by far the summer’s funniest film. After hitting the wall with her obnoxious performance in “Tammy” last summer, McCarthy returned to a character with dimension – a vulnerable sweetheart who can also talk F-bomb-laced smack with the best of them – reminding moviegoers of the very things that had us fall in love with her in the first place. Having a winning cast including Jude Law, Allison Janney, Rose Byrne and an uncharacteristically funny Jason Statham to back McCarthy up didn’t hurt, either. And who says writing, direction and casting isn’t important to a movie?
4. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (PG-13): Tom Cruise continued to ramp up the intensity with more real-life, death-defying stunts in the fifth installment of the “Mission: Impossible” series, which has vastly improved since the underwhelming original. “Rogue Nation” isn’t as good as its predecessor “Ghost Protocol,” but clearly Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie have enough respect for their audiences to give them a twisty, challenging narrative to compliment the film’s exhilarating action scenes. Relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson also brings a kick-ass performance and proper air of mystery to her ambiguous female lead, and Simon Pegg gives his funniest “M:I” performance yet as Benji Dunn, Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) techno-nerd right-hand man.
3. “Love and Mercy” (R): It’s only fitting that the biopic of Beach Boy icon Brian Wilson get a summer release, and one can only hope that it’s not forgotten come awards season in the fall. Director Bill Pohlad expertly tells the riveting story of Wilson during the “Pet Sounds” era (Paul Dano) and later in his career (John Cusack), where the tortured musician endured physical and mental abuse first from his father/manager, Murry (Bill Camp), and in his later years, from manager/psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (a haunting Paul Giamatti). When all is said and done, you can’t help but be affected by the fascinating, behind-the-scenes stories and heartbreaking plight of one of America’s greatest musical geniuses. Dano is brilliant as usual in the role of young Brian, and Cusack gives one of the best performances of his career as the elder composer/musician.
2. “Inside Out” (PG): After a few shaky years for the studio, “Up” Oscar-winning director Pete Docter brings Pixar Animation back to dizzying heights with his ingenious look at the changing emotions of an 11-year-old girl, Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) as she relocates with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Docter keys in on five emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) – and how they become seriously mixed up when they tamper with Riley’s memories. The film works for all ages, although adults – particularly parents – will become weepy when being reminded of their own childhoods and the rites of passage as their own children cross from childhood into adolescence. Beautifully animated with vibrant, iridescent colors, “Inside Out” is Pixar’s best since their 2010 Best Animated Feature Oscar winner “Toy Story 3.”
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (R): Thirty years after his last film in the original “Mad Max” trilogy starring Mel Gibson, writer-director George Miller comes screaming back with his hair on fire to make “Fury Road,” which is easily the most energetic, hyperkinetic, visually whacked-out ride to hit the big screen this year. The film is anchored by a charismatic Tom Hardy as the new Max Rocketansky and bolstered by yet another risky, kick-ass performance by Charlize Theron as female warrior aiding him in a showdown with the skeleton-masked leader (a menacing Hugh Keays-Byrne) of a society of post-apocalyptic crazies. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a brilliant extension of the original “Mad Max” and “Road Warrior” movie experience as it captures the bat-s*** crazy tone that made the original films cult classics. After starting with low budgets with his original films, you can’t help but feel that Miller finally got the chance to realize the vision of the “Mad Max” movie he’s always wanted to make.
And the worst …
“Vacation” (R): While “Tomorrowland” was in the running for the worst movie of the summer with its preachy diatribe about how we’re all to blame for killing our planet, there’s nothing more painful than a smattering of dreadfully unfunny set-ups and pratfalls in a movie that shouldn’t have been remade in the first place. Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, who are generally likable and talented performers, should be embarrassed about ever signing up for this dreck, which feebly attempts to retrace Rusty Griswold’s (Helms) path to Walley World (the famed destination of the classic “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983). Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo sadly show up for cameos near the end of the film, which only make you lament what might have been if maybe they would have been more creatively involved. Any amount would have elevated this “Vacation” out of its comedic hell.
Runners-up for worst summer movie: “Fantastic Four,” “Ted 2” and “Hot Pursuit.”
All engines are not only a go – but completely ablaze – in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” writer-director George Miller’s spectacular update of his original “Mad Max” movie series. In an age of franchise reboots and re-imagined film concepts, Warner Bros. was clearly game to give their full support to Miller to bring his ambitious vision to life; and given the technological resources not available to him 36 years ago with the release of the original film, he takes full advantage of the opportunity. Minus original franchise star Mel Gibson (who’s been replaced by the charismatic and completely capable Tom Hardy), “Fury Road” feels like the “Mad Max” movie Miller has always wanted to make.
“Fury Road” works on almost every level, apart from the occasional garbled dialogue consumed by the fast and furious sights and sounds that surround it. Thankfully, the premise of “Fury Road” is not an complex one – it’s a survival story at its core – so the narrative isn’t entirely difficult to grasp despite its roadblocks.
The set up for “Fury Road” is pretty simple: Max Rocketansky (Hardy), a road-hardened warrior wandering alone through the stark, post-apocalyptic desert landscape while plagued by frightening images of his dead daughter, is captured and enslaved by the vicious thugs serving Immortan Joe (a menacing Hugh Keays-Byrne). A skeleton-masked tyrant who rules with an iron fist over a desert canyon community called the Citadel, Joe who holds sway over people desperate for the precious commodity of water.
Eventually wrangling loose from Joe’s sadistic imprisonment devices and managing an escape, Max reluctantly joins forces with Imperator Furiosa (a bald and beautiful Charlize Theron), who’s just boosted a “War Rig,” a tanker loaded with weapons, from the Citadel. More importantly, Furiosa has stored aboard the rig Joe’s beautiful and precious harem of “breeders,” whom he impregnates to help populate his empire of madness – all in the hopes of finding the promised land Furiosa was torn from as a child.
On the run from Joe and his band of maniacal mercenaries, Max and Furiosa – along with the help of one of Joe’s “warrior boys,” Nux (Nicholas Hoult) – try to defy the harsh desert and other deadly elements until they decide to turn the table on their hunters.
Anchored by Hardy and bolstered by yet another risky, kick-ass performance by Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road” fits snuggly within the “Mad Max” and “Road Warrior” movie experience and easily captures the tone that made the films cult classics. Probably best considered a pseudo-sequel to the first two “Mad Max” films, “Fury Road” contains everything “Mad Max” films could hope for.
Like the “Mad Max” films before it, “Fury Road” takes place in a surreal setting, involves a dizzying road chase by the freaky masked villain and his bizarre soldiers, and has lots of visual pyrotechnics – yet everything is amped up to the nth degree. The great thing is, you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the original movies as “Fury Road” works great as a stand-alone picture.
While diehard fans may have trouble adjusting to a new actor in the role of Max, there’s no question they’ll love the rebirth of Miller’s overall vision: Hyperkinetic throughout, “Fury Road” is, for the lack of better words, bat-s*** crazy, thanks to its breakneck pacing and non-stop action, whacked-out vehicles commandeered by whacked-out characters, acrobatic stunts, a visually arresting landscape, and bombastic, operatic score.
Ultimately, the key to the success of the “Fury Road” – unlike the last “Mad Max” entry, 1985’s PG-13-rated, “Beyond Thunderdome” (starring Gibson and Tina Turner) – is that it disposes of the silly effort to rope in a younger demographic and employs a hard R rating to recapture the ultraviolent murder and mayhem that helped define the first two “Mad Max” films. Forget about crazy-good: “Fury Road” is crazy-great.
“Pitch Perfect 2” (PG-13) 3 stars (out of four)
While it falls far short of the perfection of its 2012 predecessor, “Pitch Perfect 2” still manages to find its groove. Despite all its faults, the movie is still very likable, stacked again with winning cappella performances from the Barden Bellas and several other groups. What “Pitch Perfect 2” lacks in story execution, it definitely makes it up with heart.
“Pitch Perfect 2” begins with the a cappella collegiate champions the Barden Bellas performing in front of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (in what is clearly stock footage), when, suddenly, a perfect performance is ripped to shreds, literally, as Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has revealing wardrobe malfunction in front of president. Embarrassed by the coverage of the incident, the school’s administration suspends the group from further collegiate competition; and the only thing that can make the singers eligible again is if they win the world a cappella championship.
Featuring the directorial debut of actress Elizabeth Banks, the biggest issue facing “Pitch Perfect 2” is the lack of clear direction. In fragments, Banks puts together some pretty dazzling and funny sequences, but instead of focusing on the world championship, the movie spins off into several different directions. On one hand it tracks Becca’s (Anna Kendrick) attempt to break free of the Bellas because college is coming to an end and everybody has to move on; and another we’re treated to the hilarious courtship of Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam Devine).
The movie also introduces Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit,” “Begin Again”) as a legacy member of the Bellas who wants to perform her original songs, which comes into play when Becca suffers a pre-career crisis.
Of course, “Pitch Perfect 2” works best when its actors are singing, whether it’s the sharp performances of the Bellas, or the knock-out numbers performed by the group’s rivals from Germany as the movie heads toward its conclusion. All in all, “Pitch Perfect 2” is an admirable feat considering the monstrous expectations the sleeper success of the first film created. Perhaps the only performers exceeding expectations are Banks and John Michael Higgins, who top their turns in the original “Pitch Perfect” as a pair of misinformed a cappella commentators. Apart from Wilson and Devine, they turn the movie’s most hilarious performances.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11”and various Minnesota radio stations.