It hasn’t been the best summer for movies. There, I said it. Sure, there have been some great ones peppered throughout the season, which now stretches as far back as April and lasts into September, but I can count on one hand the number of films that I felt truly pumped to see. Fortunately, August seems poised to become the new July, with a crop of anticipated flicks scheduled for release in the coming weeks.
Until then, you’ll have to settle for this! #MovieWatcherProblems
Captain America: Winter Soldier: A vast improvement over its predecessor, this Captain America–under the watchful eyes of the Russo brothers–brims with slam-bang action sequences and a pervading sense of fun. But what makes this such an integral entry in the Marvel pantheon is the game-changing development (I won’t spoil it here) about S.H.I.E.L.D., an inventive twist that will have serious repercussions moving forward. If nothing else, it’s a development that proves the Marvel franchise is not afraid to shake things up, and it’s a welcome revelation. Sure, the otherwise paper-thin plot hinges on a chase for a MacGuffin and bungles its too-obvious subtext, but Chris Evans makes it mostly work thanks to his charismatic performance. Bring on the third! Grade: B+
Neighbors: I expected the big laughs from a movie starring Seth Rogen and directed by Nicholas Stoller, but Zac Efron and Rose Byrne emerged as huge comedic presences in this film; along with Dave Franco and The Mindy Project‘s Ike Barinholtz, this cast took an otherwise hackneyed premise (which, if we’re being honest, isn’t possessed of a shred of originality) and elevated it to impressive comedic heights in mixing prurient ribaldry and fish-out-of-water awkwardness. Throw in a few nods to our hesitant relinquishment of youth, and you’ve got a comedy that’s way better than it has any right to be. I can’t wait to watch it again. Grade: B+
The Fault In Our Stars: This screen adaptation of John Greene’s uber-popular teen novel of the same name works as well as it does due to the uniformly excellent performances, most notably a star-making turn from Ansel Elgort (he of the Carrie remake) as Augustus Waters. It should not surprise you in the least that Shailene Woodley, of course, nails it as Hazel Grace, but Sam Trammell and Laura Dern prove equally up to the task as Hazel’s beleaguered parents. I’m not a huge fan of disease-driven fiction, but the film–like the novel–manages to breathe life into it thanks to an observant attention to character. Sure, the ending will be of absolutely no surprise to anyone over the age of twelve, and you won’t completely shake the fact that you’ve been emotionally manipulated for two hours, but hey, that’s life. Grab a tissue and enjoy the ride. Grade: B
22 Jump Street: If you liked the first, you’ll like the sequel, which goes out of its way to lampoon the very notion of franchising, particularly in the hilarious sequence that plays over the end credits. Either the comic chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill is your thing or it isn’t, simple as that. For me, I found this movie consistently hilarious if inevitably lacking the original’s bite–but a blast nonetheless. Grade: B
Obvious Child: Jenny Slate’s deft performance as twentysomething comedienne Donna Stern anchors this excellent little indie. After Donna’s one night stand with The Office‘ s Jake Lacy culminates in an unwanted pregnancy, she decides to go through with an abortion. That a film with such a premise can plumb the comedic depths it manages serves as a testament to all involved, but its quietly defiant nature turns this into such a galvanizing film. Donna’s decision is the right one for her at this point in her life, but the film also smartly acknowledges the emotional weight of such an act. Paradoxically, when Obvious Child goes out of its way to keep this red-button issue confined to this particular story, its specificity creates a universality that speaks to the topic better than six million politicians could ever manage. Funny, wise, warm, and insightful, this is one of the best films of the year. Grade: A
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A Shakespearean drama that happens to feature apes rendered in some of the most staggering visual effects you’ve ever seen. Plus, apes on horseback double fisting machine guns because yes. Grade: A-
Life Itself: Any fan of movies–whether ardent or casual–needs to seek out this documentary about the life and contributions of the late and great film critic Roger Ebert. It doesn’t shy away from the rougher edges of Ebert’s at-times prickly demeanor, and it is because this spellbinding documentary refuses to pander to the man’s mythic influence that we grow to love and appreciate him more as the film progresses. You’ll laugh at the behind the scenes bickering between Siskel and Ebert, and you’ll choke up as you watch a voiceless Roger struggle in physical therapy following his latest surgery; in short, you’ll celebrate a life fully lived, and movies and criticism will never be the same again. Two thumbs up. Grade: A
The Purge: Anarchy: In expanding on the scant original’s failure to explore the sociopolitical ramifications of The Purge, this horror sequel improves on its progenitor in virtually every imaginable way. This movie won’t win any awards and isn’t as lean, mean, and scary as last summer’s The Conjuring, but its vision of a not-so-distant future America still disturbs. Grade: B-
Guardians of the Galaxy: The latest Marvel gamble turns out to be the movie event of the summer. I’m not sure what took Hollywood so long to put Chris Pratt front and center in his own vehicle, but the guy nails every facet of Star Lord in a performance sure to pique the interest of blockbuster producers everywhere. Funny, weird, and altogether entertaining as hell, Guardians emerges as (controversy warning) my favorite Marvel outing ever. If you see one movie in theaters this summer, it had better be this one. Or as Groot would say: “I am Groot.” Grade: A
Thanks for reading! Part II out by summer’s end!