11 Lessons Learned From Seeing 50 New Movies This Summer

11 Lessons Learned From Seeing 50 New Movies This Summer

With the weather cooling off, September on the horizon, and summer movie season 2015 stumbling to the finish line (Hitman: Agent 47 or We Are Your Friends, anyone?), I figured it was high time to take stock of what went down in theaters this summer.  Back in April, there was so much potential and excitement surrounding the summer releases.  But, now that the hype is gone and the public has had a chance to decide for themselves, what did we learn?  What can we take away from this summer?  What movies will we remember years from now, and why?  Is Miles Teller really a dick?  Can you really outrun a T-Rex in high heels?  Why does Meryl Streep's Ricki hate Obama?  Would Amy Pascal have been fired for Sony's performance even if she hadn't already been let go?  And, are we destined to a future where every other movie stars the Minions?  I don't know all the answers, but after seeing 50 new releases this summer, here's what I do know:

1. REVIEWS FINALLY MATTERED.

For me, this is the summer where it finally became evident that critics' reviews and sites like Rotten Tomatoes actually do matter and can affect a movie's bottom line, for better or worse.  We have so many entertainment choices these days, and I think moviegoers are finally getting wise with their money.  People are more selective about what they will go to see in theaters.  With theatrical windows shortening by the day and VOD becoming a hugely attractive incentive to just wait to watch at home, nobody wants to waste their time and money seeing something crappy.  Granted, this seems to apply more to original films than those with a built-in awareness, but I do think that distinction is dwindling.

Just look at the box office returns for movies like Tomorrowland, Aloha, Pixels, Fantastic Four, and Terminator: Genisys.  At the start of summer, before the reviews came out, I predicted that Tomorrowland and Fantastic Four would be among the 10 highest grossers of the summer.  If they had been good, that might have happened.  As it turned out though, Tomorrowland - an original concept lost in a sea of sequels and superheroes - received middling reviews (currently batting 50% on RT), sidelined George Clooney, and was just okay, in my opinion (the third act is really problematic).  With Brad Bird directing, it should have been great.  It wasn't.  So audiences stayed away.  Fantastic Four - a gritty reboot of a popular comic book - faced hugely negative buzz and ended up being downright creamed by critics (9% on RT).  It won't even crack $60 million.  In fact, none of the movies I mentioned will clear $100 million, and all but Aloha should have been sure bets for that club.  Poor Aloha - I was really hoping Cameron Crowe would redeem himself with that one, but it ended up being his worst movie yet.

I believe the negative reviews cost these movies anywhere from $20-$60 million in box office returns.  There was no Transformers-style critic-proof hit this summer.  The closest we came to one is Minions (54% on RT), but kids don't read reviews and there's no chance in hell that any parent was going to be able to avoid taking their kids to that this summer.  On the flip side, positive reviews helped goose some films' bottom line.  Mad Max: Fury Road, The Gift, and Inside Out over-performed to varying degrees, in part because the reviews were so strong for all three.  I think Mad Max is a particularly great example of that.  Here was a genre film that played to a geek crowd and to older folks with fond memories of the original trilogy.  How many times have we seen that kind of movie fail?  Prometheus springs immediately to mind, and that petered out around $120 million domestic.  Yet, the reviews for Fury Road were so strong that it ended up making over $150 million domestically and much more overseas.

It pays to make good movies.  Let's do more of that please, Hollywood.

2. '90s NOSTALGIA IS DOPE.

Raise your hands - who could have predicted that Jurassic World would have made over $640 million domestically this summer and become the third highest-grossing movie of ALL TIME?  If anybody called that one, congrats, you're a genius.  I think most of us were blindsided by that one.  I, for one, totally underestimated the millennial nostalgia factor.  Yes, the time was right for Jurassic World.  Enough years had passed since Jurassic Park III received a shrug from audiences and temporarily ended the franchise.  The reviews were good enough.  Chris Pratt was hot off of Guardians of the Galaxy.  But, I think the real reason it clicked is this: '90s nostalgia has taken over the world.  Jurassic World mined that nostalgia like a pro - the repeated callbacks to Spielberg's Jurassic Park and John Williams' score gave us goosebumps.  Moviegoers who were kids back in '93 are now adults with kids, and Jurassic World gave them the perfect opportunity for a family movie night out.  Expect to see this kind of thing again when The Force Awakens opens in December.

One of the major soundtrack highlights of the summer, and one of the higher grossing indie movies to boot, was the Sundance favorite, Dope.  That film's characters have a fondness for, and identify with, '90s hip hop culture and the movie is full of '90s music, clothing, and attitude.  The soundtrack featured artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, and it's a cohesive collection of now-classic tunes, the best of its kind since Guardians of the Galaxy's "Awesome Mix Vol. 1."  As a side note, my favorite soundtrack of summer was Paper Towns (even though the movie annoyed the heck out of me).

Then, as if to put an exclamation point on the whole '90s nostalgia theory, Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. musical biopic, came out and smashed August records with a $60 million debut, again to the "surprise" of everybody.  That film relies heavily on your fondness and memories of the era, back when Dr. Dre met Snoop Dogg, and Tupac was an up-and-coming superstar.  Even when the movie sort of just checks off the boxes by paying lip service to key events, as most biopics do, the audience goes with it because of that nostalgia factor.

The time is right for a Bad Boys III.  Don't count out that Point Break remake coming out in December just yet.

3. '80s REBOOTS AREN'T AS RIGHTEOUS AS THEY USED TO BE.

If '90s nostalgia is all the rage, that must mean the '80s nostalgia craze is officially over.  And, based on the lackluster box office receipts of Terminator: Genisys and the remakes/reboots of Poltergeist and Vacation, I'd say that's probably true.  Terminator was a giant swing-and-a-miss, despite the welcome return of Arnold in his iconic role.  The overseas box office returns are decent, but the big question coming out of Genisys: is this the end of the Terminator franchise?  Poltergeist and Vacation were fine, nothing special, but they both suffered from the inevitable comparisons to the far superior This doesn't bode well for upcoming rumored flicks like Beverly Hills Cop IV or Top Gun 2.  The one exception is Mad Max: Fury Road, but again, the strong reviews helped that one jump over the '80s hurdle.

That Jem and the Holograms movie might have been made a few years too late.

4. TOM CRUISE IS A NATIONAL TREASURE.

There were a lot of think pieces done this summer about Tom Cruise: re-examinations of his filmography, why it's "okay" to like him again, etc.  The thing is, I've never stopped liking him.  The man makes consistently excellent film choices, and works with the best directors.  He's hugely underrated as an actor, does most of his own stunts, and goes to great lengths to entertain his audience.  He is one of our last true movie stars.  And, though I don't think it's fair that he had to hang himself out of a plane to make everyone realize it, I am glad that everyone is finally on the same page again.  Cruise just has IT.  You can't manufacture what he has.  And, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation proved that he's still relevant and still making great movies.  My love for the Mission: Impossible franchise is well-documented.  Hell, M:I-3 is my favorite movie, so I'm in the bag for Rogue Nation.  It helps that I legitimately love it and have seen it 4 times now.  The M:I series is remarkable because Cruise basically created his own franchise and it's still going stronger than ever 19 years later - the first came out all the way back in 1996 (more '90s nostalgia!).  I just can't imagine anyone else taking over for Cruise (remember when Jeremy Renner was rumored to do so?), and there are no other actors like him.

I mean, just look at another spy thriller, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  That movie has been in development hell for years now, and it finally got made after Guy Ritchie came on board.  Cruise was set to star at one point, but he dropped out to pursue other projects.  Who'd we get instead?  Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.  Both are good actors.  Both are good looking.  Neither of them are movie stars.  Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan are both fantastic and destined for bigger things.  But, Fantastic Four used and abused them, and neither came out of it smelling like roses.  They may still attain Cruise-like status, but they're nowhere near that yet.  Zac Efron is a promising young actor and potential movie star, but nobody went to see him in We Are Your Friends, so he doesn't have much pull.  And, Hollywood - please.  Stop trying to make Jai Courtney a leading man.

There's one younger actor who may still prove to be a major movie star and that's Chris Pratt.  The one-two punch of Guardians and Jurassic makes a pretty strong case for him, but those are big movies that only benefit from his presence, and don't necessarily rely on it.  That's a far cry from Cruise's filmography, where the major selling point of many of those films is Cruise himself.  Compare Pratt to someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, whose tastes run a little more outside the mainstream.  He may not be a box office draw, but he's turning into one of our finest actors.  Gyllenhaal has been on a hell of a roll lately, after Prisoners, Enemy, and Nightcrawler.  And, though the movie was just okay, there's no denying that Gyllenhaal was fantastic in Southpaw.  Still, as a pure movie star, he's no Tom Cruise.

It's not only okay to like Tom Cruise, it's required.

5. AN ENGAGING SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE CAN PUT BUTTS IN SEATS.

Some of the biggest hits this summer were fueled by social media-savvy actors and directors, who mobilize their fanbase to get their butts in theaters through a winning combination of humor, hard work, honesty, and enthusiasm.  The Rock is one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram.  Dude's work ethic in and outside of the gym is just remarkable, and he self-marketed San Andreas like hell to anyone and everyone, without ever getting annoying.  Sure, people love disaster movies but they also love The Rock.  And, when you have millions of followers who like you, they'll support what you're doing.  That turned out to be true for San Andreas, which was a surprise hit in my book, making over $150 million in the U.S. alone.

I've talked about Chris Pratt before, and I'll do it again here.  He embarked on his Jurassic World media tour, with tongue firmly in-cheek, apologizing in advance for all the media faux pas he would eventually make along the way.  Then he took the LEGO minifigure of his Owen character from the film, and took photos of it in various locations.  He also let fans design his Facebook cover photo, which led to some crazy, fun concepts.  Pratt is doing everything right these days, and there's no doubt that Jurassic World reaped some benefit.

Anna Kendrick is the same as Pratt.  Posts lots of pictures, makes funny throwaway lines on Twitter.  Her sense of humor shines through when she uses social media.  She's likeable, and she helped sell Pitch Perfect 2 as a fun flick to her fans.

Finally, to a lesser extent, director Judd Apatow is a constant presence on Twitter.  He interacts with fans, answers their questions, and makes a lot of his opinions known.  You know exactly where that guy stands on Bill Cosby.  He's as much a draw as Amy Schumer is, and Trainwreck was partially sold on his name.  That's another film that did well this summer, making $104 million and counting.  I thought it would make more, but that's rock solid for a romantic comedy these days.  Schumer herself is an engaging media presence, with a strong following based on her TV show and stand-up appearances.  She is refreshingly candid in interviews and, in my opinion, more likeable off screen than her character was in Trainwreck.

Celebrities: get on Twitter and Instagram.  If you use it, they will follow.

6. WE MAY HAVE ALREADY SEEN THE BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR.

I know, I know.  The fall months are ahead of us, and studios are saving their Oscar-worthy films for this time of year.  Oscar movies aren't released in summer!  Well, director George Miller threw the gauntlet down back in May with Mad Max: Fury Road.  It may not win any screenplay awards, but I think the Academy will be hard-pressed to find a better movie.  It has more visual craft and ingenuity in one shot than most movies do in their whole running time.  It may not win Best Picture, but it certainly deserves a nomination, and Miller should walk away with the Best Director trophy.  The scope, challenge, and audacity of the project is matched only by its greatness and Miller's brilliance behind the camera.

Time to start talking about Mad Max: Fury Road for Best Picture, and not stop until it actually happens.

7. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE WOMEN.

People were shocked (SHOCKED) when Pitch Perfect 2 opened to $70 million on its way to $180+ million.  Not me.  I knew how much people loved the first film, and everyone I talked to seemed genuinely excited to see it.  Pitch 2 was an event movie that nobody treated as an event, except Universal.  Young girls flocked to it.  Older women went with them.  Who cares if it wasn't as good as the first?  Nowhere near as good, in fact.  I just like that Pitch Perfect is now a franchise.  Elizabeth Banks directed the sequel and now we have another female director who has a high-grossing flick on her resume, which will hopefully get her other, better work.  Melissa McCarthy's Spy cleared $100 million.  So did Trainwreck.  Hollywood is best served by a diversity of product.  Universal's track record this year (Fifty Shades, Furious 7, Pitch 2, Minions, Jurassic, Compton) is proof positive of that.  I just wish it would stop being a surprise when these kinds of movies do well.

Even the best entries in the more male-dominated action genre, Mad Max and M:I-Rogue Nation, featured strong women characters who dominated the proceedings and were major selling points for those films.  Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa will inspire countless Halloween imitators in October, and hopefully Theron will return for any sequel.  Rogue Nation's Rebecca Ferguson came out of nowhere to steal every scene she was in, and now finds herself with a very promising career, including her follow-up project, an adaptation of the best-selling book, The Girl on the Train.

Still, the worst movie I saw all summer was one aimed right at women: the noisy, painfully unfunny Hot Pursuit, starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.  It tanked at the box office, and deservedly so.  Why?  Because it got terrible reviews.  See?  I told you reviews mattered!

Put it in the bank: the all-lady Ghostbusters reboot is going to make mad money.

8. SUMMER 2012 WAS BETTER.

If you looked at the release schedule for this summer and got deja vu about 2012, there's probably a reason for that.  Summer 2012 was dominated by the likes of Marvel's The Avengers, Ted, and Magic Mike.  Here we are three years later, and we got Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ted 2, and Magic Mike XXL.  I liked Age of Ultron on the whole, but it definitely had issues and was a bit overstuffed.  I certainly walked out of the theater without the same high I got from seeing the first film.  Ted 2 was a prototypical substandard sequel that pretty much tanked any audience goodwill from the first movie.  All that being said, I did like Magic Mike XXL more than its predecessor.  I missed Matthew McConaughey's presence, sure, but I think the filmmakers perfected the formula this time around.  It's less serious than than the first.  XXL is just a good-time movie with a great cast, some funny bits, and clever dance sequences.  It's not a huge improvement though, so it doesn't tip the scales for this year over 2012.  I just wish guys would understand that it's okay for them to see the Magic Mike films.  They'll probably end up liking XXL just as much as the women!

Second verse is not always as good as the first.  Unless you're Magic Mike, then yes, it is.

9. I DON'T CARE HOW THEY SPIN IT, JOSH TRANK WAS FIRED FROM STAR WARS.

I attended the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, CA back in April.  One of the big featured guests that weekend was Josh Trank who, along with Gareth Edwards, was going to be on a panel to discuss the two Star Wars spin-off films that they would be directing.  Trank's appearance was widely promoted, and his panel was one of the more anticipated events at the Celebration.  Yet, when the panel started, it was just Edwards up there on stage.  Trank was nowhere to be seen.  In the days that followed, we learned that Trank had been "sick," and that he really wanted to be there but was just too sick to make it.  Then, a few weeks later, Lucasfilm announced that Trank would no longer be directing a spin-off film (which was rumored to be a Boba Fett origin story).  Trank later came out and said it was a mutual decision, and that he wanted to focus on smaller projects instead.  Sure, the negative buzz surrounding Trank's reboot of Fantastic Four was rumored to be a factor.  But, neither Lucasfilm nor Trank would confirm that.  So, okay, fine.  Maybe Trank chose to leave, and wasn't fired from Star Wars.

Having now seen Fantastic Four, however, the idea that Trank wasn't fired is complete and utter bullshit.  There's been a lot written about Fantastic Four in recent weeks - it's a flop, a fiasco, a failure, an epic flame-out, and other f-words.  Believe everything you've heard.  The movie is garbage.  It doesn't work at all and was misconceived and executed on nearly every level.  It's almost hard to believe Fox would even release it.  Are there worse superhero films out there?  For sure.  But, the Ryan Reynolds-starring Green Lantern got a ton of flack, and it's way better than this Fantastic Four, so take that for what it's worth.  I say all this because it's clear to me that Lucasfilm heard the stories about Trank's on-set behavior and saw a cut of his Fantastic Four, and quickly realized they had made a mistake in hiring him and went about to correct that immediately.  As if to confirm the legitimacy of Lucasfilm's actions, Trank did something nobody in Hollywood does: he disowned his movie on Twitter on the Friday of its release.  That's just crazy.  He set up his own movie to fail.  If you're going to disown a movie, wait 2-3 years, so everybody will have already had a chance to make their money back.  That's just common sense.

Trank may be persona non grata in Hollywood now.  I mean, he directed Chronicle, which was fine and actually did show some promise in him as a filmmaker, but who's going to want to work with him now?  No studio is going to give him the keys to any big franchise.  He's barely 30 years-old and his meteoric rise may just be a classic case of too young, too soon.  Will he recover?  Hard to say.  Is Fox equally to blame for Fantastic Four's failures?  Probably.  The best thing that could come out of all this is a Fantastic Four documentary chronicling the behind-the-scenes turmoil.  I would definitely pay to see that, and it would be way more entertaining than the actual movie.

Yup, Trank was definitely fired from Star Wars because of Fantastic Four.

10. ADAM SANDLER SHOULD RETIRE.

Look, I'm as big a fan of Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, and The Wedding Singer as anybody.  I love Punch Drunk Love.  And, based on the early trailers and the involvement of director Chris Columbus, I initially thought Pixels could have been a breakout hit of summer.  The concept was kinda awesome.  Aliens discover video games and mimic the technology to stage an attack on us, featuring our favorite arcade characters of the '80s.  It could have been a new-fashioned Ghostbusters.  But, as its release crept closer, something horrible happened.  We learned that rather than an exciting, high-concept sci-fi action-comedy, Pixels was just a typical late-period Adam Sandler vehicle with the same type of chauvinistic attitude, outdated humor, and sophomoric production values as something like Jack & Jill.  How disappointing.  Probably didn't help that it traded on '80s nostalgia rather than '90s nostalgia.

Even more disappointing was the fact that Sandler was, yet again, phoning it in completely.  His lack of commitment and enthusiasm are on full display in Pixels.  He looks bored to be up there on screen, so it's easy for us as an audience to become bored with him.  He shows up as his typical slacker character in baggy shirt and shorts, and he just drags down the movie.  Sandler's box office returns have diminished in the last few years and he is no longer the draw he once was.  The humor in his movies feels like a relic that hasn't been properly updated to reflect the times.  Maybe that's why he's heading to Netflix, which is where his next four movies will premiere.  Sure seems like Netflix got the raw end of that deal.

Mr. Sandler, you are no Tom Cruise, sir.

11. BETTER TO RUN WITHOUT HIGH HEELS THAN WITH THEM.

One of the great crowd-pleasing moments of summer (the callback to "Bye, Felicia" in Straight Outta Compton is another) was in M:I-Rogue Nation, when Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust is escaping from the Vienna Opera with Cruise's Ethan Hunt and takes the time to remove her heels.  It's a small moment in the film, but it stands out after having seen Jurassic World.  That movie earned its fair share of notoriety earlier in the summer because Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire keeps her high heels on THE ENTIRE MOVIE.  Even when she's fleeing a T-Rex, the high heels stay on.  It's a very distracting and annoying character decision, and though I usually hate to nitpick about stuff like that, I think that in the case of Jurassic World, it genuinely hurts the movie.  For some people, that's all they can talk about after seeing it.

I don't think the Rogue Nation sequence was a direct response to Jurassic or anything - how could it be?  The two movies were filming at the same time.  Still, as much as I liked Jurassic World (and I did like it), it just goes to show that the better movie (that would be Rogue Nation) put a little more thought into its characters and action beats.

All this serves as another reminder that functional often trumps fashionable.

* * *

Well, there you have it, folks.  11 lessons.  50 movies.  Hope your summer at the movies was equally educational.  Oh, and for those who are curious, here are all 50 movies I saw this summer, ranked from best to worst:

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (*****)
  2. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (****1/2)
  3. Amy (****1/2)
  4. Inside Out (****1/2)
  5. Jurassic World (****)
  6. Magic Mike XXL (****)
  7. The Gift (****)
  8. Ant-Man (****)
  9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (****)
  10. Shaun the Sheep (****)
  11. Straight Outta Compton (***1/2)
  12. Dope (***1/2)
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (***1/2)
  14. The End of the Tour (***1/2)
  15. Love & Mercy (***1/2)
  16. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (***)
  17. Spy (***)
  18. Tomorrowland (***)
  19. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (***)
  20. I Am Big Bird (***)
  21. Ricki and the Flash (***)
  22. Welcome to Me (***)
  23. Southpaw (***)
  24. A LEGO Brickumentary (***)
  25. I Am Chris Farley (***)
  26. No Escape (***)
  27. The Wolfpack (***)
  28. Insidious Chapter 3 (***)
  29. Trainwreck (**1/2)
  30. Slow West (**1/2)
  31. Poltergeist (**1/2)
  32. San Andreas (**1/2)
  33. Vacation (**1/2)
  34. The Overnight (**1/2)
  35. Pitch Perfect 2 (**1/2)
  36. Maggie (**1/2)
  37. Chronic-Con Episode 420: A New Dope (**1/2)
  38. Terminator Genisys (**)
  39. Paper Towns (**)
  40. Minions (**)
  41. Mr. Holmes (**)
  42. Pixels (**)
  43. Entourage (**)
  44. We Are Your Friends (**)
  45. Ted 2 (**)
  46. American Ultra (**)
  47. Aloha (*1/2)
  48. Fantastic Four (*1/2)
  49. Hitman: Agent 47 (*)
  50. Hot Pursuit (*)

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