2016’s Top 5 Summer Movies.

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In a surprisingly disappointing summer movie season, there were still a select few movies worth recommending. Here are my top 5 summer movies below:

5) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping/Sausage Party – That’s right, a tie! Both Popstar and Sausage Party made great uses of vulgarity, musical numbers, and satirical commentary, making them the smartest (and funniest) comedies of the summer.

4) Hell or High Water – “Why isn’t this higher?!” Some might ask. Hell or High Water is a masterpiece, but not the best summer movie (I’ll explain at #1). However, in a summer full of lackluster action movies and unnecessary sequels, it was refreshing to see a modern-day Western filled with both heart and cynicism.

3) The Nice Guys – This was a flop, given it was released the same weekend as Neighbors 2, and only two weeks after a certain ensemble superhero movie. Too bad because The Nice Guys is a funny and consistently entertaining revival of the buddy comedy genre, benefiting from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s performances.

2) Kubo and the Two Strings – Laika does it again, delivering a beautiful (and emotional) animated film that’s part horror, part melodrama, and part samurai tribute. Move over, Pixar!

1) Captain America: Civil War – You surprised? I named this #1 because it has everything I look for in a summer movie: intelligence, spectacle, epic grand scale, and humor. Civil War manages to improve upon its predecessors in those categories, making it the best of the franchise. With so many disappointing franchise installments this summer, Civil War is the only summer sequel that came out on top.

Honorable mentions: The Conjuring 2Hunt for the Wilderpeople, & Star Trek Beyond.

That’s my thoughts on the summer of 2016. What were your guys’ favorite movies this summer?

 

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“Don’t Breathe”

Don’t breathe. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t steal. Don’t fuck with a blind man.

The movie focuses on a trio of burglars – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). They receive a tip for the perfect job; a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) lives in a rundown neighborhood with few residents and has almost half a million dollars in his house. Sounds easy until they realize he’s not going to let them leave, and he has something sinister in his basement.

“Don’t Breathe” had me sold on its old school premise, a poster reminiscent of 70’s horror movies, and the new twist on the tiresome home invasion genre. It delivers for the most part, but writer/director Fede Alvarez (“Evil Dead” remake) should have quit while he was ahead.

SPOILER TERRITORY FROM HERE ON!

The first act does a great job establishing the setup and the characters. We see that Money is a stereotypical gangster, but he also cares for Rocky enough to sacrifice himself. Alex is hopelessly in love with Rocky, and goes along with the plan to help her. Rocky comes from a dysfunctional family and is determined to steal the Blind Man’s money to leave with her sister.

The second act is masterfully crafted and unbearably tense. Between the minimum dialogue, a David Fincher-style tracking shot,the dog chases, and Lang’s chilling performance as the Blind Man, “Don’t Breathe” is horror movie heaven. Then the final act happens.

The final act features a big plot twist involving the Blind Man’s background and a hostage in his basement. It’s very left field, unrestrained, and disgusting. Luckily, a grotesque turkey baster sequence only lasts a minute, but then we get to the ending.

When Rocky escapes the house, it cuts to black for a moment, which would have been a perfect ending, and made me give the movie a higher grade. But we get an unnecessary epilogue that leaves room open for plot holes and unwanted sequels.

If Alvarez had just focused on the Blind Man’s prisoner without the rape twist, it would have been compelling and disturbing enough to still keep me invested. Rape is a tasteless, cheap horror trope. Alvarez could have easily redeemed himself if he just ended the movie at the fade-to-black, excluding the epilogue.

I’d still recommend “Don’t Breathe” (just barely) for Stephen Lang’s performance, as he’s currently one of the best on-screen villains of the year, in a year with several tame villains. It is well-directed, but not for the faint of heart.

Grade: B-

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

I’m probably being biased since I live in Oregon, but Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” just gave Disney a run for its money. It’s the best animated film of the year, and you know how much I loved “Zootopia.”

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy in an Ancient Japanese village, who makes money by telling mythological stories with his shamisen (it’s best you watch the movie to understand).  Kubo is supposed to be home before dark, but when stays out too late, he finds himself hunted by his evil grandfather (a chameleon Ralph Fiennes) and witch aunts (both voiced creepily by Rooney Mara).

With the help of a warrior monkey (Charlize Theron) and a dimwitted samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must find a sword and armor to face his grandfather.

The film opens with a voice over narrative saying, “If you must blink, do it now…” and Kubo’s right to instruct this. Start to finish, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is loaded with beautiful imagery and technically impressive stop motion effects.

The screenwriters confidently write a story that appeals to everyone. It’s a coming-of-age movie, a family movie, a Japanese mythology, a samurai film tribute, and even a horror movie (this is the same studio behind “ParaNorman”). The result of its genre combination is a thrilling, but moving adventure that will make you appreciate your family.

Acting-wise, everyone delivers. Parkinson (Rikan in “Game of Thrones”) is terrific and sounds like a kid, rather than a Hollywood kid. Theron voices the Monkey with sass and maternal love. McConaughey is comic relief, but he kills it.

The diegetic samisen sequences play an important part of the film’s narrative and blend well with Dario Marianelli’s beautiful non-diegetic score. Regina Spektor also provides an impressive cover of The Beetles’ “While My Guitar Gently Wheeps” that suits the movie’s magic. The music is the star of “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

If I go on talking about “Kubo and the Two Strings,” I’m risking spoilers here, so I’ll simply say this, see the damn movie.

Grade: A+

“Hell or High Water”

It’s always nice to see a Western that’s a refreshing take on the genre. This year’s “Hell or High Water” is a modern-day Western that wasn’t well-advertised, but I’m here to tell you to see the film. It’s the best of 2016 so far.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are estranged brothers, Toby and Tanner. The film opens with them clumsily robbing three banks in one day, and we learn that they’re trying to save their family farm. Toby is the mastermind while Tanner is his mentor at armed robbery.

Meanwhile, a soon-to-retire Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) learns of the brothers’ spree and knows that they have a goal in mind. He’s tailing them, knowing it’s his last ride as a ranger before he turns in his badge and gun.

“Hell or High Water” opens with a bang when Toby and Tanner rob a bank early in the morning. We see graffiti on the wall regarding the bank’s greed and extreme wide-shots of rundown buildings, establishing the film as a cynical Western about poverty and greed.

Toby and Tanner are well-established in the first act of the movie. Toby wants to provide for his kids while Tanner is helping him out of both the thrill and unconditional love. Hamilton is a foil to both brothers, being as calculating as Toby and as thrill-seeking as Tanner.

“Hell or High Water” is restrained, quirky, and well-paced with a lot to say about death and financial hardships. It’s a slow burn thriller that focuses more on the characters and dialogue instead of dreadful violence. There are a couple of bloody shootouts, but this doesn’t occur until the climax.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster both deliver expressive and charismatic performances as the troubled siblings. We know they’re flawed, but we love them anyway. Bridges is great as always, and will likely secure an Oscar nomination.

Taylor Sheridan of “Sicario” penned the script for “Hell or High Water” and once again mashes his love for Westerns with a topical, poetic narrative. If you’re craving a smaller, character-driven film over the standard Blockbusters we’ve gotten this summer, see “Hell or High Water.” You won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

“Sausage Party”

I know people don’t like Seth Rogen as a comedian, but have you paid attention to his writing in “Pineapple Express,” “Superbad,” “This is the End,” and most recently, “Sausage Party?” The man is a genius.

“Sausage Party” is an R-rated 3D-animated comedy that focuses on food. Much like “Toy Story,” the inanimate objects come to life when humans aren’t around (food in this case).

Hot dog Frank (Seth Rogen) and his friends Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera) are excited to pair with a package of buns, which includes Brenda (Kristen Wiig). However, they realize that their so-called “Gods” want to cook and eat them, so they must find a way to warn the rest of the food in the grocery store.

“Sausage Party” opens with a brilliantly vulgar musical number, featuring foods singing about the gods choosing them to go to heaven. I realized “Sausage Party” was more of a satire than advertised at this point, and I was totally fine with that. The movie satirizes religion, politics, and relationships as told through the foods.

Sour kraut wants to exterminate the juice (sound familiar?), the hot dogs want to fuck, fuck, and fuck while the buns want to talk and cuddle, and a bagel (Edward Norton) and a lavash (David Krumboltz) have cultural differences. The satirical points are the highlights of “Sausage Party.”

We also see in great horror what cooking food looks like through their points of view. Potatoes are skinned and boiled, lettuce is ripped in half, cheese is shredded on top of a plate of chips before microwaved, and we even see a used condom traumatized from its use. These scenes are darkly funny, but surprisingly nightmarish to watch.

The cast of “Sausage Party” excels with their voice acting. Cera is perfect as a socially awkward hot dog who seizes the day, Norton does a great Woody Allen impression through his bagel and delivers some of the sharpest lines, and Nick Kroll steals every scene as an antagonistic douche.

We also get wonderful moments from a liquor bottle (Bill Hader), a sexy taco (Selma Hayek), and a bath salt-addicted human (James Franco). They’re great, but Wiig is the standout, thanks to her awkward line deliveries and random moments of singing.

“Sausage Party” drags in the middle since foul-mouthed food gets old after a while, but thankfully it picks up steam in the last 20 minutes. The last 20 minutes are too good to spoil, but it’s the craziest and foulest climax I’ve seen in any cartoon. But who said animated movies can’t be foul?

“Sausage Party” isn’t for everyone, but for Rogen fans, food lovers, and people who love a good R-rated comedy, you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A-

 

“Nine Lives”

A little note about the writer – Austin Maggs hadn’t ever walked out of a movie halfway through. This changed after he saw “Nine Lives.”

“Nine Lives” follows Kevin Spacey as Tom Brand, a workaholic tycoon with a much younger wife Lara (Jennifer Garner) and a loving daughter Rebecca (Malina Weissman). When Rebecca asks Tom for a cat, he rudely adopts one from an eccentric pet store owner (Christopher Walken) and then finds that he’s now trapped inside the cat.

One of my biggest pet peeves in film is a movie that’s marketed as a kids movie when it’s clearly not. “Nine Lives” belongs in the 90s when false kids movies like “First Kid,” “Jingle All the Way,” and “Milk Money” were a trend.

SPOILERS AHEAD! BUT DO YOU EVEN CARE IF I SPOIL THIS CRAP FEST?

In the 45 minutes of “Nine Lives” that I watched, this movie had more aesthetics and narrative tropes of both a bad Lifetime drama and a TV comedy. This includes:

-Tom treating his grown son like an employee and insulting his masculinity.

-Lara befriending Tom’s unlikable ex-wife (Cheryl Hines) without any explanation as to why.

-The ex-wife’s snooty daughter having an annoying frenemy relationship with Rebecca.

-Lara revealing her extramarital affair.

-Tom’s disgruntled vice president trying to kill him.

-At least five boring business meetings filled with exposition and scotch. Those scenes alone belong in “Mad Men.”

Barry Sonnenfeld (the “Men in Black” trilogy) directed this disasterpiece, and the mighty has fallen. His overuse of whip pans, quick zooms, and bad CG make me wonder if the budget was actually thirty million dollars. Imdb and Wikipedia say it is, but I still don’t believe it.

I know I shouldn’t review this movie since I didn’t even finish it, but I saw enough of “Nine Lives” to determine this is the worst movie of 2016. And 2016 isn’t even over!

Grade: F

“Suicide Squad”

Props to the trailer editors of “Suicide Squad” for getting me pumped enough to see it on opening weekend. Props to the producers for screwing up “Suicide Squad” with their interference.

“Suicide Squad” takes place in the DC universe and government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a group of criminal meta-humans together for Black Ops missions. She enlists expert hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), The Joker’s (Jared Leto) main squeeze Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a hooligan-type thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a crocodile/human hybrid named Killer Croc (Adwele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), master climber Slipknot (Adam Beach), and a fire-powered gangster named El Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

They’re led by a hot shot special forces operative named Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and his swordswoman body guard, Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Meanwhile, The Joker has his own plan, and there’s a witch named Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who wants world domination!

When writer/director David Ayer (“End of Watch,” “Fury”) announced he was directing “Suicide Squad,” I was excited because Ayer writes compelling anti-heroes and directs visceral action sequences. His writing flare is present in the first 20 minutes with some entertaining character introductions and solid development for Deadshot. Then it fades away once the characters are recruited.

There are moments throughout “Suicide Squad” where Ayer wants to make a hardcore violent dark comedy, but then there are overly serious and formulaic scenes that lack Ayer’s passion. I don’t blame Ayer, specifically. I blame the producers’ interference.

“Suicide Squad” underwent serious reshoots/re-edits six months before the film’s release to make it “more fun” after fans responded positively to the “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer. The reshoots aren’t well-covered because certain scenes don’t flow well together.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

In the first act, Waller and Flagg recruit their team and Flagg seems willing to go along with the plan. After recruiting Deadshot, the next scene shows Flagg arguing with Waller over recruiting the Suicide Squad. The argument scene should have either been before the recruitments or not in it at all.

In the bar scene from the trailer where the team drinks together, this scene is no longer the charmingly funny scene. It’s instead a dramatic self-reflection; none of the humorous moments are present in this scene. In fact, the movie is nearly humorless *after* the first act.

The film’s tone is wildly uneven, and presents itself at times as a dark comedy, and a mindless Michael Bay-style action movie at other times. The action is lackluster and features CGI on par with Sci-Fi channel movies, and last year’s “Fant4stic.” With the exception of the first battle, the action is underwhelming.

Ayer also seems too focused on Deadshot and didn’t bother developing his other characters. Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang are comic relief, Enchantress has no development to make her a compelling villain, and sadly, neither does The Joker.

The Joker is primarily in “Suicide Squad” as part of Harley’s arc. She has to choose between him and helping the Suicide Squad. That’s fine, but it would have been far more compelling if Joker was the main villain and not just a secondary antagonist.

Acting wise, everyone is fine. Will Smith is charismatic and fun as always, Margot Robbie is a blast to watch as Harley Quinn (even if her story is redundant), Viola Davis is a badass, Jai Courtney is surprisingly fun as Captain Boomerang, and Leto is fun as The Joker. The actors are the best part of “Suicide Squad.”

I was hating on “Batman v. Superman” hardcore last March, but “Suicide Squad” makes that look like a masterpiece. I may have not agreed with the dark tone, but I at least knew what it was trying to be. “Suicide Squad” was simply lost in translation due to an overstuffed script and a lack of vision.

Grade: D+