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Move over, superheroes: Lots of other summer films impressed us too

Move over, superheroes: Lots of other summer films impressed us too
A sampling of summer goodies include "Diary of Teenage Girl," "Straight Outta Compton," "Inside Out," and "Trainwreck."

They call summer the season of "popcorn movies" for a reason — they may not be the most nutritious fare, but they're great to munch on. Certainly summer 2015 gave us a large order of popcorn movies such as "Jurassic World" and "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation," but there was surprising variety in there too — some of it actually good for you. It was a season of surprises – for example, smart, tough and funny female characters flourished on screen, while at least one comic book movie crashed and burned. And a powerful film about a seminal hip-hop group became a late summer crossover hit. Movie writers and critics Rebecca Keegan and Mark Olsen spent a lot of their summer at the movies; here, they share their experiences.

Rebecca Keegan: It felt like most of the juiciest talk about movies this summer had to do with groups that have been stuck on margins in previous years.

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Summer is traditionally the season of the superhero at the box office, but it seems significant that many of the movies that made the biggest impression on me this year emerged from outside the comic-book genre. Event movies — Hollywood's term for films with a built-in fan base that get a bullish marketing push — are diversifying, and that's a welcome change.

I found "Pitch Perfect 2," Elizabeth Banks' comedy about an all-girls college a cappella group, a particularly heartening example. Watching Rebel Wilson belt out a Pat Benatar song satisfies me in the same kind of primal way that watching the Hulk punch Thor seems to satisfy many other people, but I've always assumed I belonged to a relatively modest group of fans of the 2012 original. So way back in February, when Universal Pictures bought a pricey Super Bowl ad for its sequel, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the studio had made the calculation that "Pitch Perfect 2" was a summer event movie, with all the jazz hands marketing that implies.

Something similar is happening with "Straight Outta Compton," another Universal release that built on an audience large studio movies traditionally neglect — this time the primarily African American fans of the band N.W.A. As with "Pitch Perfect 2," that core audience turned out along with a lot of other people who wanted to be part of the conversation about the film.

Mark Olsen: When I think about this summer's movies my mind immediately flashes to the image of Charlize Theron as warrior freedom fighter Imperator Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road." It's a perfect match of character and performer, and as Furiosa made her way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and back again she became instantly iconic. (I expect many Halloween costumes come October.) And Paul Feig's "Spy" and Judd Apatow's "Trainwreck" also made for films that were in their own way challenging to the status quo of Hollywood filmmaking, overturning genres and traditional character dynamics while also highlighting just how much room is left for growth.

I am always reluctant to reduce things to winners and losers, but for me what's exciting about the success of movies like "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Straight Outta Compton" alongside more traditional summer fare like "Mission: Impossible" is the way in which they seem to clearly show that the new, true mainstream of American culture can be a diverse and exciting place. And as the seemingly endless stream of studies on the subject of representation in film continues to show, the idea of the mainstream being put forth by much of Hollywood is no longer functioning as a reflection of the culture at large. The idea that even our summer movies can present a broader portrait is a hopeful thing.

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RK: I can't wait to see the Furiosa costumes! She's one summer movie character who will be lingering, I hope, into the fall awards discussions. I loved all three of those women-driven movies, Mark, down to my toes, but they were all rated R. One place where Hollywood left money on the table this summer was in movies families could see together. There was a fabulously inventive one — "Inside Out" — and another that satisfied the intergenerational taste for spectacle, "Jurassic World."

But weekend after weekend, I got emails from readers wondering if the R-rated movie I was reviewing might be suitable for their kids. I could not recommend the gross-out "Vacation" reboot, nor the beautiful but thematically adult drama "Diary of a Teenage Girl" to families with young kids. And some movies that played quite young, like the teen drama "Paper Towns" or the "Despicable Me" spinoff "Minions," had precious little to offer Mom and Dad. I do wish more people had seen Aardman Animations' "Shaun the Sheep," which is as sophisticated as it is cute. Give sheep a chance, America!

MO: The bracing "Diary of a Teenage Girl" would certainly make for a different kind of family outing at the movies. (Though it could be a useful conversation starter if you have older teens.) That movie is also just one of a series of films from this year's Sundance Film Festival — also including "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "Dope," "The End of the Tour," "Tangerine" and others — that were met with great acclaim in January, strong media response all along and relative disappointment when it came time to actually meet audiences.

And yet I remain hopeful that audiences for these films — and it's a diverse group of films and filmmakers that are admittedly each done a disservice by talking about them as a collective — are out there. The challenge is cutting through the noise of more expensive promotional campaigns so that people can know these options exist.

RK: We've made it this far without talking about comic book movies. Does that mean we're snobs or does it say something about the genre, which drew an enormous audience for Joss Whedon's "Avengers II: Age of Ultron" in the same summer that one of the comic book world's biggest duds landed, Josh Trank's troubled "Fantastic Four" reboot? With untold Marvel movies and a new stream of DC movies on the way, is this summer any indication that the superhero genre is running out of steam? Is it wrong to pray for that?

MO: For myself, it's the behemoth aspect of so many of these comic-book movies that have made them a real turn-off. To me they've just become oppressive and seeing them some sort of obligation. More specifically, it's not just the scale of the productions and their resulting publicity campaigns but just the relentless nature of there always being another movie in the same small universe somewhere around the corner.

I think that's why "Ant-Man," Peyton Reed's handling of a project begun under Edgar Wright, seemed like such a relief. The movie had a caper/heist plot and a performance by star Paul Rudd that seemed breezy in relation to the world-ending stakes of so many comic-book adaptations. By going small — pardon the pun — Reed, Rudd and Co. were able to make something that largely felt fresh.

RK: We go to summer movies in part to be part of a crowd, hooting and hollering and enjoying each other's company. So it was sad that as the summer movie season winds down Regal Cinemas, the nation's largest theater chain, has announced an unfortunate new policy of checking theatergoers' bags and backpacks. The policy — which comes in the wake of recent theater shootings — feels like yet another reason for many moviegoers to stay home. As someone who relishes the experience of seeing a movie on the biggest screen possible, with the largest group possible, that's a shame.

The best moviegoing experiences I had this summer were on giant screens — seeing "Mad Max: Fury Road" in IMAX 3D at the TCL Chinese Theater, watching Cinespia's presentation of the 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" projected on the side of a mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and attending the premiere of "Straight Outta Compton" at L.A. Live's Microsoft Theater seated in front of a guy who knew every lyric to every song. In each case, sharing the experience with hundreds of strangers in the dark was a crucial part of the visceral thrill of seeing the movie.

MO: I'm most energized by seeing movies with committed crowds, such as at the Sundance Next Fest downtown or the eclectic surprises presented by the Cinefamily. But there's fun to be had at the local cineplex too. Earlier this year I was planning on catching up to a movie at one and was hoping to make an evening of it with some nice wine.

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I asked the hive-mind of Twitter what the preferred methods were for sneaking wine into movie theaters and you can imagine my surprise when I received a very impassioned message from comedian and actress Amy Schumer. She suggested using an emptied-out coconut water box. You can imagine my even greater surprise when I saw "Trainwreck," starring and written by Schumer, soon after and it featured a scene of her sneaking wine into a movie.

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This is an odd and singular example, of course, but even in the disconnected media-scape of 2015, the movies still have a distinct power to bring people together both in-person and on-line for a shared experience, to spark conversation, to expand points of view, entertain and dazzle.

Even while competing against television, video games and the like, the movies are still an art form capable of being all at once intimate and shared, real and imagined, deeply personal and reaching for something universal. With air conditioning, snacks and the pleasure of collective experience, the summer season gives everything that makes moviegoing such a continued treasure, a certain sunshine glow, along with a slight heat-stroke daffiness.

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