Smart direction, unique storytelling, and great acting make LOVE & MERCY one of the best films of 2015! The film has an unconventional structure for a biopic, but cutting back-and-forth from the ’60s and ’80s to tell Beach Boy musician Brian Wilson’s ordeal with mental illness is seamlessly weaved together by Bill Pohlad’s exact direction and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner’s very good script. Paul Dano and John Cusack both play Wilson (Dano the ’60s Wilson and Cusack the ’80s Wilson) and both give an award-worthy performance. Not to be outdone by Dano and Cusack, Elizabeth Banks demonstrates once again her amazing range as an actress. And Paul Giamatti and Bill Camp (playing Brian’s dad) are legitimately this year’s best bad guys (sorry Ultron).

GRADE: A

SPY is writer/director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third collaboration. Their previous films, BRIDESMAIDS and THE HEAT, are better films, but SPY has more laughs. The film also sports a stellar cast: Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Allison Janney, and Bobby Cannavale. McCarthy, who plays Jude Law’s spy assistant, is excellent as she goes undercover as a spy in order to stop the fantastic Rose Byrne from selling weapons that could lead to a global disaster. The unexpected scene stealer in the film is Statham. His performance as the cocksure, over-the-top agent that doesn’t need  the former desk-jockey (McCarthy) getting in his way, supplies some of the biggest laughs. If there is a fault in the film, it is the third act that seems a to be a bit much compared to the rest of the film.

GRADE: B+

The TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is James Kent’s directorial debut and is adapted from Vera Brittain’s memoir set in England just before and during World War I. Playing Ms. Brittain is Alicia Vikander who is having a breakthrough performance kind-of-year with this film and EX MACHINA. Vikander is perfect as the young feminist who must demonstrate steel-like resilience in a male dominated era of hypocrisy. Kit Harrington, better known as Jon Snow on “Game of Thrones”, is also good as Ms. Brittain’s boyfriend. The film gets high marks for concentrating on the “at home” effects during a war and not the actual war. However, this is one of the film’s flaws that limits any true drama as Ms. Brittain’s men go fight a war. That said, the film is good.

GRADE: B

There are a lot of reviewers referring to Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA as a disaster. I think that assessment is disingenuous. I’ve seen enough films to realize that ALOHA is not a trainwreck. However, I don’t think this is a good film either. It is uneven, at times unfocused, and meandering. But there are some good things about the film, too. There are two scenes between Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski that are just brilliant. Cooper’s numerous interactions with Rachel McAdams character are also good. Emma Stone, who I really like as an actress, gets the short-end here playing a whiz-bang, golly-geez, quasi 1950s spark plug (think Superman’s Jimmy Olsen) that seems a little out of place and limits any potential chemistry between her and Cooper.

GRADE: C

It’d be safe to assume by the way TOMORROWLAND starts that Frank Walker (George Clooney) is the main character, but that’s not the case. Matter of fact, it is this problem of establishing who’s story it really is that renders the entire film mediocre. The film’s main character is Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), and unfortunately for the audience her story doesn’t start until 25-35 minutes into the movie. By then you should be looking for a pillow and blanket for a nappy-poo. The film does get better as we follow Casey, and there are some good moments when she eventually meets Walker. But by then it is too late. Writer/director Brad Bird (THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–GHOST PROTOCAL) is a great storyteller. Sadly, this one is a miss.

GRADE: C+

First-time writer/director John Maclean has crafted one of the best films of 2015–and it’s a Western! You can’t always say that about Westerns. This particular genre has specific rules that just about everyone knows. In order for it to be novel in a sea of films it has to be clever, and Maclean accomplishes this feat with humor, a good dramatic story, and an excellent cast. The film is set in the 19th Century American frontier. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee ), a young Scottish man, travels to the United States and ventures through the midwest to be with his first love. Guiding him is the always amazing Michael Fassbender who plays Silas Selleck, a roguish fella with ulterior motives. Ben Mendelsohn who plays Payne, is the film’s resident bad guy.

GRADE: A-

The MAD MAX: FURY ROAD story is shot out of a canon so fast that there is very little if any first act to this film. This structural deficiency, considered a minor one by the film’s rabid fan base, diminishes an audiences’ emotional connection to the characters. It isn’t until halfway through the film that you start to connect to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her mission. This lack of a first act would usually tank a film, but writer/director George Miller has created such an amazing apocalyptic visual feast with animalistic punk hordes and hyper-realistic action sequences, that the script’s limitations are virtually imperceptible. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a good, fun ride. Don’t wait for Netflix, cable or DVD. This is a film that must be seen on the big screen.

GRADE: A-

The summary on IMDbPro is “Yves Saint Laurent’s life from 1967 to 1976, during which time the famed fashion designer was at the peak of his career.” What the summary doesn’t tell you is that this film is a slog to get through. At 150 minutes a film needs to be dramatic and good, and this film is more depressing and morose. One of the very few saving graces in SAINT LAURENT is the actor Gaspard Ulliel’s performance as Yves Saint Laurent. He seems like he was born to play the part of the melancholic fashion designer. But the film portrays the man as if he never smiled… never had a happy moment. Who wants to spend 150 minutes with that guy? Even Ulliel’s dashing good looks can’t overcome that. This is arthouse wannabe.

GRADE: C-

MAGGIE is being marketed as “not your typical zombie story.” There is some truth in that statement. However, the film is really more akin to dramatic weepies in which one of its characters is suffering from a terminal illness. In this case it is Abigail Breslin who plays Maggie Vogel, a young woman that is infected with a virus that will eventually end with her being a zombie. Her dad, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, must determine how long he lets the disease take its course until he must inevitably euthanize Maggie. This seems like there would be enough dramatic tension to hold an audience for 95 minutes, but there is not. Sadly, the majority of the film is boring, and the ending that seemed inevitable is nothing more than a cop out.

GRADE: C

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON has too many storylines, too many characters, and just tries to do too much in one film. Even with a running time of 141 minutes the film is unable to smoothly incorporate everything it is trying to tell. What the film gets right is the Whedon witty banter and the majority of the Marvel comic characters. Fanboys will definitely not be happy with Clint Barton’s (a.k.a. Hawkeye) departure from the comics and also the way Quicksilver is handled. However, I couldn’t imagine a better Vision (Paul Bettany) or an Ultron voiced by anyone else other than James Spader. The film is good, but suffers from the “World Will End” plotline that is all to common place in these big blockbuster superhero comic book movies.

GRADE: B+

Al Pacino does his best acting in years as an aging legendary rock star trying to reconfigure his life. DANNY COLLINS, loosely based on a true event, has an unexpected genuineness for the first 50 minutes. Then the story takes a turn toward feeling a little too familiar as Pacino’s character attempts to reconcile with his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale). This plot point isn’t bad, but for the first 50 minutes it is great to see Al Pacino as a 74 year-old rock star acting with 85 year-old Christopher Plummer (Collins’ manager); not exactly a story you see everyday on the big screen. Annette Bening and Jennifer Garner also give good supporting performances. And kudos to writer/ director Dan Fogelman who has a nice touch directing the family scenes.

GRADE: B

The biggest problem with THE GUNMAN is that at times the story seems to be working at the highest end of a television soap opera. This over-the-top dramatization at times sinks this well intentioned action thriller. Everything else in the film is okay if not good. Sean Penn is good as an action star at the age of 54. However, I would have loved to have seen him in this role twenty years ago. Javier Bardem, unfortunately, almost single-handedly sinks the film when he telegraphs his character’s intentions and his on-the-nose bad guy performance that is inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film. Jasmine Trinca is also good as the woman that Penn and Bardem fight over, but is too much the “damsel in distress” for my taste.

GRADE: C+

Slow. Meandering. Glum. Disappointing. Four words that perfectly describe KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER. Rinko Kikuchi plays a bored and disturbed Japanese young woman who seeks the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the film FARGO. Interesting, right? No. Besides a few interesting scenes between Kikuchi’s character and the Minnesotans that she meets after she arrives in the U.S.A. from Japan, this film is not interesting and it should go on the large pile of the much beloved “vulture” indies that don’t need to be seen by the general public. Instead of wasting your time watching this film, watch the far superior FARGO. That will be 98 minutes well spent, and it’s 7 minutes shorter than KUMIKO. A win-win.

GRADE: D+

Director Kenneth Branagh does a great job bringing a well known fairy tale to the big screen. Branagh, an actor himself, has assembled a great cast that adds legitimacy to a story that could easily be cartoonish. Casting a young lead can always be tricky, and Branagh was smart to cast Lily James (she looks like a young Jessica Lange) who brings a glow, warmth, and beauty that is necessary for the part. Cate Blanchett (our greatest living actress!) is deliciously evil–in a good character-way–as Cinderella’s devious step-mother. Richard Madden, best known for his turn on “Game of Thrones”, is physically perfect as the bright blue-eyed Prince. And kudos should go to the film’s production designer and three-time Oscar winner, Dante Ferretti, who created a magical world.

GRADE: B+

RUN ALL NIGHT is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson (the previous being NON-STOP and UNKNOWN), and it is perhaps their best. Neeson is solid (as expected) as a guilt-ridden former Irish mob hit-man. Joel Kinnaman is okay as Neeson’s estranged son, but he hits a similar acting note throughout the film. Ed Harris is also good as he attempts to kill Neeson and Kinnanmen’s characters. The tone of the film feels like a 70s throwback; perhaps it is the spectacular car chase scene reminiscent of the FRENCH CONNECTION or the shoot ’em up scenes devoid of Hollywood exaggeration. As good as the film is, it never escapes its own particular genre, but it is one helluva fun ride.

GRADE: B

EVERLY has ninjas, prostitutes, assassins, guns, gratuitous violence, sword play, beheadings, torture, Salma Hayek… basically everything that teenage boys and young men find cool. As unappealing as EVERLY might be for the majority of the film going public, director Joe Lynch does a great job of mining every aspect of this low budget, over-the-top grizzly thriller. Salma Hayek (where have you been?) is also very good as a sex slave trying to not only save her life, but that of her mother’s and daughter’s. However, her character’s ability to dismantle and kill so many would-be assassins defies logic, but it can be easily overlooked because of the film’s cartoonish handling of violence.

GRADE: B-