We're halfway through 2015 - and so it's time to rank the Best and Worst Movies of 2015 so far. A few notes to begin:
- "Paddington", which opened in the US on January 16, was released overseas in 2014 and is copyrighted as a 2014 film. It was also nominated for two BAFTA Awards (the British version of the Oscars). Therefore, it will not be on my Best List, though it's clearly one of the best films I've seen this year.
- "Mad Max: Fury Road": I STILL haven't seen it! I'll take care of that this week, and will let you know if it makes either list.
1. "CINDERELLA" - Disney's live-action version of their animated classic is a sweeping, sweet and surprisingly serious adaptation. Credit goes to director Kenneth Branagh. Lily James is an excellent Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett makes a terrific evil stepmother.
2. "TED 2" - I laughed so hard and so often watching this all-star comedy sequel to the 2012 hit. Director, star and co-writer Seth MacFarlane throws so much at the screen and nearly all of it works. Yes a lot of it is vulgar, but no more than any of the other recent raunchy comedies - and this one is actually funny.
3. "EX MACHINA" - This sci-fi thriller from writer/director Alex Garland ("28 Days Later") is unique and bold, with the year's smarter script. Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") gives a standout performance.
4. "SAN ANDREAS" - This disaster film about a catastrophic earthquake mixes fun action and serious themes extremely well. Dwayne Johnson and Paul Giamatti are great, and the visuals are Oscar nomination-worthy.
5. "THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER" - It's not as funny as it should've been, but the second big screen adventure starring TV's animated titan is unpredictable, daring, completely wacky and, most importantly, entertaining.
Honorable Mention: "ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST" - Based on the life of ruthless drug lord Pablo Escobar. Benicio Del Toro is captivating as Escobar and John Hutcherson gives a career-best perfomance as a Canadian surfer who gets drawn to the dark side.
1. "GET HARD" - A Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy should've been gold. Instead, this film (which feels like it didn't have a script) often doesn't even try to be funny.
2. "MORTDECAI" - Another disaster for Johnny Depp, this time as a bumbling Brit who gets caught-up in a poorly-constructed and executed caper.
3. "JUPITER ASCENDING" - Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis make a terrible pair. And It's fortunate this film didn't cause co-star Eddie Redmayne to lose the Best Actor Oscar for "The Theory of Everything".
4. "CHAPPIE" - A sci-fi A.I. flick that's both sappy and really crappy.
5. "HOT PURSUIT" - Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara's over-the-top action comedy is a hot mess.
Honorable Mention: "BIG GAME" - Samuel L. Jackson plays the President saved by a kid in this cornball action film from Finland. At least, like the hero, it's really short.
Six months after their release of "American Sniper", Warner Bros. is out with a family-friendly war-themed (of sorts) film, as a Marine service dog returns from battle and has trouble adjusting to homelife in "Max". As the opening credits reveal, K-9s have been used in the military since WWI.
Max, a Malinois Shepherd, was the companion of Marine Kyle Wincott. While on a tour in Afghanistan, Kyle is killed in a firefight. Max can't cope without his dear friend, so he's given to the Wincott family - father and former Marine Ray (played by Thomas Haden Church), mother Pamela (Lauren Graham) and Kyle's younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), who Max takes a liking to. Justin normally spends his time playing war video games (and sells bootleg copies), but that now changes as he decides to take care of Max and become his new human companion.
Justin's stereotypical best friend Chuy and his equally annoying cousin Carmen assist Justin in training Max. Many of these scenes play-out in cyclic fashion without much point or advancing of the story. The focus of "Max" early on is about Justin and his parents grieving over the loss of Kyle and the growing bond between Justin and Max. But the tone changes drastically in the second hour when the plot turns into a doggie version of "Mission: Impossible", complete with chase scenes, kidnappings, arms deals and Max having to fight a pair of evil Pit Bulls. Unfortunately, all of this is too predictable and far-"fetched" to be effective.
Wiggins is solid, and it's nice that veterans Church and Graham don't phone-in their performances. We learn at the end of the film that more than two dozen military service dogs and their handlers have been killed in the line of duty since 2003. At times within the story, director Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans") does a nice job honoring service men, women and animals. This isn't Hallmark Hall of Fame-level corny. However, an edgier, more compelling script would have helped "Max" rise about its level of "Mediocre in Show".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Max" gets a C.
On Friday, November 15, 2013, San Francisco was transformed into Gotham City as five-year-old leukemia patient Miles Scott became Batkid for the day. He and Batman saved citizens from danger and defeated their arch-enemies The Riddler and The Penguin. The day, which began as a simple request to The Make-A-Wish Foundation, turned into one of the biggest events in that organization's history, truly going above and beyond in making Miles' wish of becoming his all-time favorite superhero come true.
As the documentary "Batkid Begins" details, 21st century word-of-mouth, a.k.a. social media, played a major part in this becoming one of the most inspiring and memorable stories of 2013. Thousands of people poured into SF that day from all over the world to help make this day as special as possible for Miles and his family. And millions, including Hollywood celebrities, actors who have played Batman over the years, and President Obama, joined via Twitter and Facebook.
In the first half of "Batkid Begins" (which is being distributed Warner Bros., the studio behind the big screen Batman franchise) focuses on all the efforts it took to make Batkid Day a reality. It's presented in a TV news special style, including interviews with officials of Make-A-Wish, the SF police department, the mayor's office, and the key people who would play the characters in this elaborate real-life action story. Credit goes to those smart enough to capture all of this on camera at the time it was happening. Without this footage an effective documentary would have been impossible. We also learn a little about Miles' parents, who, like everyone else, quickly become overwhelmed by the explosion of publicity their son is generating.
Everything presented involving the build-up to the big day is interesting, including how "Dark Knight" composer Hans Zimmer lended a hand, writing Batkid theme music. Sadly, the facts, details and snipits of dialogue from all those involved come at us in such rapid-fire fashion that, often, I wished the pacing would slow way down, allowing the filmmakers to spend more time delving deeper into certain important and interesting aspects of this unique story.
The second half of the film chronicleis the day itself, with footage of all of Miles' amazing adventures. There are moments that will surprise you, make you smile, and tear-up as it all comes together in a remarkable way. Again, the authentic video in crucial, and we get every angle and clear audio from young Miles and all the participants, including actual news media footage and interviews and shots of the tremendous crowds of strangers who packed the streets and venues to show their suppoprt for this young cancer victim. We see that it took so many superheroes to make Miles dream come true.
The ending of "Batkid Begins" does present some questions, especially after hearing a few candid comments. How did this day really impact Miles? Did it mean more to the city of San Francisco? Did Make-A-Wish go too far? A potential financial controversy is swept away rather quickly. I would've been fine with sitting through another 20 minutes or so and having these issues analyzed and disected, but that isn't the movie director Dana Nachman wanted to make. This is simply designed to be a "feel good" film about a little Caped Crusader who inspired the world to come together for one, special day.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Batkid Begins" gets a B.
Julia Roberts is producing and plans on starring in a fictionalized, Hollywood version of the Batkid story, which will reportedly focus on events following Batkid Day. Since we learn late in "Batkid Begins" that Miles' parents shut-down the media circus and their son's appearances shortly after his big day, it'll be interesting to see what Roberts can do to advance this story and top this very effective, if overly simple, documentary.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the film adaptation of the popular YA novel. The movie won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Clearly, those voting groups were made up of diehard indie lovers who easily embrace quirky. However, when you look at "Me and Earl" as a movie and not a demonstration of low budget, arthouse filmmaking, it comes off as an all-too cliche and cookie-cutter summer dramedy.
Thomas Mann (who co-starred with Victoria Justice in the worst movie of 2012 - "Fun Size") plays Greg. He's a high school senior looking to finish-out his high school career doing what he's always done - flying under the radar, staying out of trouble, and getting along with, but not getting close to, every stereotypical group of students. The only friend (or "co-worker" as Greg puts it because he doesn't want to admit he has a legitimate friend) is Earl. Their "thing" is making film parodies of classsic Hollywood's movies, though they do it in secret and don't show their films to anyone.
Greg's life changes when he learns a girl in his school named Rachel has been diagnosed with Leukemia. Greg and Rachel hardly know each other, but Greg's mother insists that Greg visit Rachel so she has some company during this difficult time (Greg is far too selfish to think of doing this himself). A friendship forms between the two, but as narrator Greg informs us on multiple occasions, this is far from a typical romance and they are not boyfriend and girlfriend. In the Hollywood version, these teens fall for each other and learn lessons about life and love until she dies.
Thankfully this story avoids that predicatable path. But sadly, it goes in a different, but equally disappointing direction. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon bluntly borrows from indie king Wes Anderson throughout the entire film, particularly in the quirky heavy first half, packing "Me and Earl" with weird camera angles, snipits of stop-motion animation and on the screen titles. This movie suffers from "Too Cute for its Own Good Indie Disease." Gomez-Rejon also forces way too many attempts at humor into the story, especially from over-the-top supporting cast members Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon.
Greg and Earl's movies (including knock-offs of "A Clockwork Orange" and "Midnight Cowboy") got me thinking of Michel Gondry's 2008 indie comedy "Be Kind Rewind", in which Jack Black and Mos Def made their own versions of such classics as "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Ghostbusters". The parodies actually had more purpose and relevance in that film. Here they're simply a plot device.
"Me and Earl" is a difficult film to enjoy mainly because, for the first 95% of the movie, Greg is a really unlikable character. It's his story, but it's impossible to feel anything for him. And as Rachel deals with her chemo treatments, it's impossible not to feel sorry for her. But the script provides no emotional suprises or impact. Cancer is a touchy subject to tackle on film, and there are a few very appropraitely serious scenes that deal with the challenges and frustrations of the disease. These are really the only effective moments of "Me and Earl", which lacks the power and insight of last year's entry in the Teen Dying of Cancer genre - "The Fault in Our Stars".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" gets a C-.
“Ted” was “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane’s first feature film, co-writing and directing the tale of a foul-mouthed teddy bear who comes to life. Saying the film was a success is an understatement, so it’s no surprise that - 3 years later - we have “Ted 2”. What is surprising is that this sequel is so much funnier than the original.
MacFarlane jumps right into “Ted 2” with the wedding of Ted and grocery store co-worker Tami-Lynn. This is followed-up with an elaborate opening credits Busby-Berkeley musical production number that sets the tone - and put the biggest smile on my face. The story then flashes forward about a year, and Ted and Tami-Lynn are struggling with their marriage. They decide that the only way it can be saved is by having a baby.
Now, obviously, Ted cannot be the biological father to a child, and efforts to find a donor to fill that role don’t exactly go smoothly, so the couple turns to adoption. However, those plans hit a roadblock when Ted is determined by the state of Massachusetts NOT to be a real person, but rather “property”. So Ted and best friend Johnny (Mark Wahlberg returns) decide to sue the government for the bear’s civil rights, and rookie lawyer Samantha Jackson (played by Amanda Seyfried) is picked to take the case.
“Ted 2” is easily one of the top five comedies I’ve ever seen. In fact it’s really two movies: The legitimate story, filled with clever dialogue and nice tie-ins to the original. And then there are dozens of brief comedy bits that MacFarlane inserts throughout the film that are consistently outrageous and hysterical. SO MUCH is thrown at the screen and nearly all of it works. Yes, most of the jokes and scenes are offensive and filled with drug use and f-bombs, but together, the random references, props, insults and physical gags, raise “Ted 2” to the level of ridiculously entertaining.
The courtroom scenes are hilarious and the escapade at a fertility clinic may have you in tears from laughing so hard. Tack on appearances by some A-list stars, including the great Morgan Freeman - and what can you say? There are also unforgettable celebrity cameos and vignettes, again many that have absolutely nothing to do with the core story, but it doesn’t matter. This is one of those films that, 20-years from now, people will be recreating scenes and quoting lines. There’s Ted and John’s version of the “Law & Order” theme song, a trip they take to a comedy club, a “Jurassic Park” tribute, and I’ll never be able to hear the name “F. Scott Fitzgerald” again without laughing. In fact, I can’t remember the last comedy that made me laugh this hard and this often.
MacFarlane proves, once again, that he can pretty much get away with anything as long as audiences think it’s funny. If you thought “Ted” was wild, “Ted 2” tops it in every way. This is clearly the frontrunner for funniest film of 2015.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Ted 2” gets an A-.