Going to the cinema is a less-than-optimal experience for me. Rude audience members, sticky floors, cell phone bleeps and ringtones, and neighboring theater boom-boom-bleed-through make the experience rather … challenging … for a purist. Last week, however, I took a couple of days off for our anniversary and, since Seattle is currently suffering under a heat wave and we’re both a couple of heat-wimps, we opted for midday movies at the cinema. First showings on a weekday mitigate the downsides of the cinematic experience while leaving the upsides (massive screen, surround sound, that distinctive popcorn smell) intact.
We saw two movies in the theater and watched one at home and they were — as this post’s title suggests — excellent, good, and great.
First, the excellent.
Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen in the title role, is really a piece of big-budget fan fiction. It imagines the iconic detective in the years after his exploits with Dr. Watson. The year is 1947, Holmes is 93 years old, and senility is creeping up on him. Holmes has just returned from a trip to Japan where he sought a purported cure for his growing dementia, and he is now writing an account of his last case — some thirty years prior — the outcome of which was so disturbing to Holmes that he decided afterward to retire from his adopted profession. The problem? He can’t remember what happened.
The three interwoven timelines — Sussex, in 1947; Hiroshima, in 1946; and London, in 1916 — might be somewhat confusing to the inattentive (and frankly, the whole Japan timeline seemed to be there only to set up a bit at the end) so structurally the movie is a bit overwrought. What raises this movie to the level of “excellent,” though, is McKellen’s subtle portrayal of an elderly man in three phases of agedness: vital senior, failing elder, and dotard. Holmes’ struggle with his dementia is poignant and sharp, and of all the techniques he employs to combat it, the best turns out to be his interaction with the son of his housekeeper. It’s a strong, moving performance that far outshines the film’s (relatively minor) flaws.
Next, the good.
As we sat down in the theater to see Mad Max: Fury Road, we noted that my wife was one of only four women in the audience. There were a lot of single fathers with young sons, a collection of “bros” out on guy-dates, and four male/female couples, one (inexplicably) with a toddler. I turned to my wife and thanked her in advance for putting up with what was most likely going to be a two-hour petrol-fueled testosterone-fest. Her wan smile told me all I needed to know.
While George Miller’s latest recapitulation of his own icon is, indeed, a full-on, head-banging glorification of internal combustion power (complete with a skull-faced metal head, bound by bungee cords to a tractor-trailer war rig backed by a ten-foot wall of amplifiers, playing acid-head riffs on a flame-throwing double-neck guitar), it is definitely more than that. The acting, primarily provided by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, is minimal, as is the script. A big disappointment is that Hardy (as Max) spends the first third of the film wearing a face-obscuring grill/mask that reduces his mostly non-verbal performance to a simple matter of whether or not he hits his mark (shades of “Bane” in The Dark Night Rises) — Hardy is such a capable actor that I don’t understand it when directors shackle him (literally and figuratively) in this way. Theron’s performance as the one-armed, guts-of-steel liberator Imperator Furiosa is powerful, especially in the sections without dialogue. Primarily, though, the star of the movie is Miller’s direction, his world-building, and the cinematography. This is a visual tour-de-force, using minimal CGI, incredible stunt work, expansive location shots, and a depth of detail that effectively extends the storyline far into the past whilst careening full-throttle toward its climax.
And finally, the great.
This one was a total surprise. During the past month we’ve been screening Simon Pegg movies, most notably the last installment in the “Cornetto Trilogy” (The World’s End) and his E.T. spoof, Paul, so when we noticed an unfamiliar Simon Pegg title available on Netflix, we queued it up.
Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) pairs Pegg with his World’s End co-star Rosamund Pike, but this is not a spoof of any sort. While comedic in tone, told in a style that is equal parts James Thurber and Walter Mitty, this movie has a lot of heart and emotional depth. Hector (Pegg) is a London psychiatrist who decides to go on a round-the-world junket to study what it is that makes people happy. The film is essentially a collection of short stories set in disparate locations like Shanghai, Tibet, Johannesburg, and Los Angeles, all linked into a anthological whole. Each story comes not only with its own insight and lesson, but also with cameos from excellent actors such as Stellan Skarsgård, Togo Igawa, Jean Reno, Christopher Plummer, and Toni Collette.
The reason I think this is a great movie is the writing (adapted from a novel by François Lelord). Each character — from stars Pegg and Pike to each of the main supporting roles — undergoes a transformation, affected by interactions that change the arc of their lives. Hector influences others as they influence him: he learns about their ideas of happiness and they rethink their own positions on the subject in the face of his simple, straightforward questions.
The acme of it all, though, is that this movie really is about the search for happiness, and presents what I think are some truly insightful ideas about what happiness is, in all its myriad forms. While the outcome may be a bit cliché (hey, it’s a movie about the search for happiness, so … duh!), it’s the journey, both introspective and physical, that makes the trip so enjoyable.
So, if you can’t make it to the theater, queue this one up. It’ll put a smile on your face.