It stands to reason that an audience can expect certain things from the summer movie season. Traditionally, summer is the season of the tentpole, the blockbuster, and while it’s true that major studios have begun to expand the timeframe in which they release their so-called “big” movies, it’s between the months of May and August that the cinema most definitively becomes an arena for raw spectacle.
Even as the summer months contend week after week to wow filmgoers, it’s the sad state of affairs that previous seasons have become woefully monotonous in their bid for maximum excitement. For all the cultural currency that comes with summer bombast, that bombast itself has, as of late, seemed unimpressive in its creative scope. This is not a new criticism, and it does, to a degree, reek of a conservative cynicism, but it’s also part of what has made this summer so exciting. More so than in past years, blockbusters this summer seemed willing to get weird and were often rewarded for having the guts to do so. Even films that stuck close to the traditional summer template appeared alive in a way that many recent blockbusters did not.
As such, here are the good, the bad, and the weird of this past season: three films that succeeded, one that failed, and one wild card that seems to denote a shift in blockbuster attitudes.
“Inside Out:” Even in the wake of “Cars 2,” it seems a relatively fair bet that whatever Pixar releases will be at least enjoyable, whether or not it treads the new ground that the studio is so lauded for exploring. Accordingly, “Inside Out” proved to be one of the production house’s most exciting and inventive films ever, striking with a finely tuned mixture of visual specificity, kinetic exuberance, and genuine, smartly employed emotion. More so than any other Pixar film in recent memory, “Inside Out” dared its audience to grow alongside its narrative, gesturing towards thematic ideas that even so-called grownup films tend to avoid. Much like Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Inside Out” presented viewers with a picture of childhood that is far messier than those most movies tackle.
“Amy:” It’s rare that the conversation around summer movies includes a documentary, but this season’s “Amy,” which deals with the life of musical sensation Amy Winehouse, proved so engrossing it could not be ignored. Even in sincere and well-meaning hands, “Amy” could have been a voyeuristic disaster, falling into lockstep with the frustrating conversation that hounded Winehouse’s image during her life and immediately after her death. In the hands of “Senna” filmmaker Asif Kapadia, however, the film manages to tackle the singer’s life, her demons, and the public discussion of said issues in a measured and compassionate tone. It is unsparing in its view of those who failed Winehouse, but it never plays moralistically or like an indictment. Rather, the film is an elegy, and a reminder of how we all may unconsciously feed off of suffering until it’s far too late.
“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation:” If there was a single film this summer that proved there’s still life in the raw spectacle of the old-fashioned blockbuster, it was Christopher McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation,” which once again pumped life into the “Mission Impossible” franchise in the wake of Brad Bird’s singularly memorable “Ghost Protocol.” “Rogue Nation” is a picture that keenly understands its own machinery, and exploits genre expectations for maximum effect. With its jaw-dropping set pieces and traditional franchise globe-trotting, McQuarrie’s film holds breathlessly onto its audience, serving them what they want without ever seeming complacent or lazy. There’s a unique sort of beauty in a perfectly calibrated machine.
“Ted 2:” It was perhaps too much to expect any sort of quality from the follow-up to Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 stoner romp, but somehow, even with the lowest of expectations, “Ted 2” managed to be a uniquely ugly affair. Whereas some comedies are able to pull off being smart and funny, MacFarlane’s sequel, which appropriates the language of racism and homophobia while simultaneously trying to excuse itself, is content to settle for neither. Not only is “Ted 2” cruel and unfunny, but it is also smug, self-righteous, and self-congratulatory. Posturing itself as a radical enumeration of social justice filtered through dirty bong water, the picture plays like a mean drunk extolling the Geneva Conventions. Convinced that by believing in basic human decency, it can get away with extraordinary tone-deafness, “Ted 2” forgets that it actually has to display some decency in the first place.
“Mad Max: Fury Road:” George Miller’s latest addition to his post-apocalyptic action franchise is a revelation: aggressive, astute, and run through by a sort of visual electricity that is rare in even the best films. “Fury Road” is a spectacle of world-building, stunt work, and allegory, shamelessly laying out its ideas without apology, and flawlessly integrating them into a larger cinematic tapestry. Scene after scene, Miller appropriates the language of traditional action filmmaking, while adding his own eccentricity. Where else can you watch a battered laconic wanderer clean himself with breast milk? Even without its superb grounding messages, “Fury Road” is a kinetic masterpiece, staging sequence after sequence of balletic violence. It’s the most visually stunning action picture in years. That it happens to be one of the smartest and probably the weirdest is the icing on the adrenaline-fueled cake.