Friday, July 24, 10:40 a.m.-ish: It's been so long since my last quadruple-feature - a miraculous six months plus! - that I'm only mildly dreading today's, and only then because I know it's ending with Adam Sandler. It's beginning, however, with Mr. Holmes, and while I can't imagine the world needing yet another showcase for Arthur Conan Doyle's literary sleuth, I'm psyched knowing this latest iteration will reunite director Bill Condon with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen and Kinsey co-star Laura Linney. Most of the movie consists of McKellen's 93-year-old Sherlock, in 1947, contending with failing memory and the haunting case that forced his retirement, while Linney's Irish housekeeper Mrs. Munro cooks and tidies up. But while several mysteries arise and are duly resolved in the film, I am distracted throughout by two unresolved questions. (1) Who is this little kid Milo Parker who plays Sherock's protégé (and Mrs. Munro's son) Roger? And (2) How is this boy giving a performance that might be topping those of the excellent McKellen and Linney?
Solid, even impressive portrayals by youths aren't unusual in modern movies. (Work of this caliber winds up evident in all three of my day's subsequent screenings.) But Parker, at least in Mr. Holmes, has more than talent. He has presence, and a focus that stings, and displays what appears to be a keen understanding of how his readings and reactions will mesh with Condon's and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher's grand design. Whether gently assisting Sherlock with his beekeeping or, in a wrenching scene, castigating his mother for her illiteracy, Parker makes a true emotional connection with his fellow actors, and manages to do so through wholly naturalistic, un-showy means. Given its less demanding parameters, I consider Parker's performance on a par with Haley Joel Osment's in The Sixth Sense and Anna Paquin's in The Piano, and my audience, happily, seemed keenly aware of just how good this British newbie was. (With the help of a brilliantly timed cut by editor Virginia Katz, he even snared a big, scene-capping laugh merely by grinning.) Parker, the gloriously textured and just-hammy-enough McKellen, and the soulful and cagey Linney are reasons enough for the movie to exist; the movie itself is quietly wonderful. Less a series of mysteries than a sweet, meditative lament for missed opportunities, Condon's and Hatcher's outing offers up a no-bullshit Sherlock who gradually learns to appreciate fiction, and you can handily ignore its contrivances and somewhat clunky flashback structure for the pleasures of its smooth pacing, period handsomeness, and moments of genuine surprise. (Condon's control is so assured that he elicits a gasp merely though the unexpected reveal of a business card.) All told, it's a spectacular way to start my day, especially because I never dreamed of a day in which Ian McKellen would be out-acted by someone still in school. And not just any school. Elementary.
1:10 p.m.-ish: Time now for Southpaw, director Antoine Fuqua's melodrama in which a light heavyweight champion has it all, then loses it all, then fights to get it all back. At one point in the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, John Cena's character is razzed for looking like Mark Wahlberg, and the brawny, bristling Cena replies, "I look like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg!" In Southpaw, star Jake Gyllenhaal looks like Jake Gyllenhaal ate Jake Gyllenhaal. Playing undefeated champ Billy "The Great" Hope (a name that, I'm sure, isn't meant to echo the Tony-winning boxing drama The Great White Hope at all), the actor, with his 12-pack abs and complete lack of body fat, is a newly startling physical presence, and the lunatic pop of his eyes all but detonates with murderous rage. Adding his Brando mumble, his hip-hop cadences, and his hunched, meandering shuffle outside the ring - a gait suggesting a man slowly morphing into early man - Gyllenhaal's performance is certainly something to see. But as with Nightcrawler, I left this latest Gyllenhaal endeavor similarly underwhelmed, partly because the performer's strenuous shape-shifting is really the only thing to see. The beyond-buff, beyond-ferocious, and, when called to be here, beyond-sentimental Gyllenhaal is doing so much capitalized Acting that he can't help but annihilate his own star vehicle - not that, given screenwriter Kurt Sutter's two-hour compendium of piddly clichés, it was ever going to be a fair fight.
This is particularly disappointing because I can't think of another genre in which it's so easy to forgive clichés. The hangdog underdog, the fretful yet supportive wife, the grizzled trainer, the wide-eyed kid, the hateful rival, the workout-regimen montage, the climactic grudge match, the color commentary helpfully providing exposition and themes ... . Even casual moviegoers know all of these boxing-flick tenets by heart, and we can still watch Rocky through Rocky Whatever-the-Hell with total (if sometimes guilty-pleasure) enjoyment. But despite Gyllenhaal's one-man band and Eminem on the soundtrack, Southpaw feels turgid and exhausted from minute one, as though Fuqua couldn't fully invest in his boxing tearjerker knowing he'd have to simultaneously deliver a custody-battle tearjerker. After a series of misfortunes land Billy's grade-school daughter (Oona Laurence's Leila) in foster care, Fuqua and Sutter dial the shamelessness and manipulation up to 11, and still the film plods along without honesty or passion, leaving us yawning and Gyllenhaal's overshadowed castmates Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, and 50 Cent in the dust. (The movie also engenders more mysteries than Mr. Holmes. How can Billy be 43 and 0 and still so clueless about defense? Why is little Leila brought into the courtroom for the foster-care ruling, and then not allowed to hug her daddy goodbye?) To Southpaw's credit, I wasn't sure whether Billy's final bout would end in victory. To the movie's detriment, I also didn't care.
4:40-ish: Very little in life makes me feel older or more irrelevant than heading off to a film version of some YA-lit behemoth I never knew existed, especially when I realize - as happened with Paper Towns - that the film is being shown in the Davenport cineplex's biggest non-IMAX auditorium. Seriously? Even given Pixels and Southpaw and the second weekend of Ant-Man? Paper Towns is that much of a phenomenon? I'm consequently relieved to find only a few dozen patrons in attendance for the 4:40 screening, but based on the reactions of those few dozen - the timbre of whose squeals and shrieks suggested viewers in their mid-to-late tweens - I'd say this tale by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green is that much of a phenomenon. When characters said things such as "What?" and "Uh huh," these young patrons giggled with "Oh, that's so like him!" recognition. When the pretty girl asked the nerdy guy to prom, they "Aw-w-w!"ed and "Oh-h-h!"ed as if encountering a sad-eyed, three-legged puppy. And when Fault in Our Stars hottie Ansel Elgort made an unexpected cameo, you'd have thought theater seats were lined with joy buzzers. So yeah, those girls seemed to love the movie, God bless 'em.
Here's the movie I saw. Quentin, a teenager with zero personality (and somehow played by Nat Wolff with even less personality), is obsessed with his neighbor and fellow high-schooler Margo (Cara Delevingne). One night, she bewitches him into helping her commit a series of morally questionable, frequently illegal acts. The next morning, Margo vanishes, and stays gone for several days, leaving her parents and a detective puzzled, and Quentin left to sort out the apparent clues she left regarding her whereabouts. Finding this beautiful girl charmingly eccentric, and not the sad, sick, damaged goods her behavior clearly suggests, Quentin embarks on a "romantic" road trip from Orlando to New York state, with a quartet of besties tagging along to help find her. And all throughout director Jake Scheier's offering, I seethed at the maddening egotism and entitlement of these affluent twerps, for whom parental concern isn't an issue, money isn't an issue, missing school isn't an issue, and Margo's self-destructive and criminal narcissism are not only seen as attributes to be admired, but wholeheartedly endorsed. (She denigrates Quentin, that sell-out, for his desire to go to law school and eventually raise a family.) I have no idea what it's like in book form, but this Paper Towns seems to be everything adults hate about teenagers compressed into a convenient two-hour package, and even the smart readings of co-stars Justice Smith, Halston Sage, and Jaz Sinclair can't make this script by Fault in Our Stars adapters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber play as anything but noxiously bogus. That's me, though. I'm old. I would've sent the whole damned movie to bed without supper.
7:15-ish: Well, there's no point delaying the inevitable - let's get Pixels over and done with. In fairness, its premise is moderately clever: Intercepting a 1982 time capsule filled with examples of video-game mayhem, an alien race interprets high-scoring Galaga, Centipede, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong feats as a declaration of war, and decides to attack in kind. A few middle-aged video-game champs are consequently recruited to vanquish the enemy via their arcade skills, with one of those former teen dweebs being Adam Sandler's Brenner, a sad-sack home-electronics tech and, luckily for Earth, best friend to the president of the United States. (I was less astounded by Kevin James' casting as the prez than Jane Krakowski's as the First Lady, a woman who, apparently, holds a concurrent career as a pastry chef.) In short, it's Happy Madison time all over again, yet if you've sat through enough of that production company's output, it won't take long to recognize something atypical about Pixels: It looks like an actual movie. It even looks like an expensive movie. Chris Columbus may never be accused of being a strong director, but he's certainly the best director Happy Madison has ever had, and he lends this film the same sheen of blockbuster respectability he brought to the first couple of Harry Potters (if also the same spine-cracking "hilarity" of his Home Alone). The pixelated - or, more accurately, voxelated - effects when the Taj Mahal is destroyed and Centipede terrorizes London's Hyde Park have a zippy, thrilling immediacy, and the climax that finds Washington, D.C. besieged by Frogger and Space Invaders and the like is a visual feast, with the crumbling of buildings Tetris-style a particular wonder.
If only the movie were funnier! All this choreographed chaos is manic, to be sure, and it holds your attention, but it's preciously low on jokes - or rather, good jokes. And when the aliens aren't marauding, it's hard to tell who the film's target audience is, because most of the slapstick is of Happy Madison's sub-juvenile standard, yet most of the Gen X visual gags, and there are tons of them, will sail right over kids' heads. (Will anyone under the age of 20 even recognize Max Headroom? Or, for that matter, 1982 Madonna?) Still, there's a lot to be grateful for. Brian Cox made me laugh out loud a couple times, as did Peter Dinklage's ferally committed Billy Mitchell parody, and Josh Gad tells a JFK joke so thematically perfect, and yet so tasteless, that I'm still a bit in shock. Michelle Monaghan is treated slightly better than most of Sandler's female co-stars; she at least gets to jump around and shoot things. And as for the star himself, Sandler seems moderately more energized than he's been of late, and by the finale, it almost looked like he was having fun. I almost was, too. I'll say this for Pixels: I'd much rather watch Adam Sandler leap over barrels than yet again scrape the bottom of one.
9:15-ish: Upon leaving the cineplex, I consider texting a friend who expected Pixels to be unbearably lame to tell him it wasn't half-bad. I opt against it, because I don't want to cause a heart attack. He's old like me.