Call it a guilty pleasure, but I love me a good high school coming-of-age dramedy, especially if it ends in prom. And Paper Towns, opening this week at the Village 8, hits all the marks and even manages to slide some intelligence and resonance up into that standard teen-flick formula.
Nat Wolff (Palo Alto, The Fault In Our Stars) stars as Quentin, the quiet wallflower madly in love with Margot, the beautiful and popular girl next door played by Cara Delevingne (Anna Karenina, Suicide Squad) as a modern-era Haulden Caufield type with even more suburban disillusionment.
After taking "Q" on the night of his life, a revenge-fueled romp of prankery and warnings about the fakers of the world (paper people living in their paper towns), Margot up and disappears the next day. Q gathers the usual suspects (sex-crazed buddy, well-adjusted buddy with girlfriend, the girlfriend, and a hot-but-smart, don't-hate-me-cause-I'm beautiful friend). What follows is a mystery/road trip remix with a teen-perfect message about how love, and life, are ephemeral and not always what they seem.
Paper Towns is based on a novel by John Green, whose other book saw a hugely successful film adaptation with The Fault In Our Stars. This movie is less cloying, though, and more fun, and the screenwriters were also responsible for the excellent 500 Days of Summer a few years back. This one doesn't reinvent teen angst or but it's a solid entry into the subgenre.
Also opening this week, Southpaw stars Jake Gyllenhaal in what looks like a rah-rah boxing film with enough underdog family drama and street-cred hip hop to appeal to as many audiences a possible without impressing any of them.
I've only seen the teaser but it looks like a mindless Yankee Doodle melodrama disguised as an inspirational way to give the common working-class American hope that his country isn't sliding into an economic/racial war zone. If southpaw boxer Jakey can find redemption, maybe we all can... yeah, right.
But that's just my first impression. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, as are co-stars Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams (the jury is still out, literally, on 50 Cent) and director Antoine Fuqua can make entertaining fare with a certain visual panache.
That said, the sad reality is one can only go so far thematically with a boxing picture and Rocky and Raging Bull already took us there. Southpaw looks like a visual injection of escapist testosterone for the MMA set. The acting will save it but the take-home meaning here is the blind leading the tired into a search for redemption through violence. And if that's what you're looking for, download Tom Hardy in Warrior instead.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pixels also opens with no pre-screenings (bad sign) and Adam Sandler in the starring role as the leader of a group of raised-in-the-'80s adults forced to save the world from alien life forms that resemble the arcade-game villains of their youth. It's a cute concept and the good news is Sandler co-writes and '80s legend Chris Columbus directs. Columbus wrote Gremlins, The Lost Boys and Goonies, and directed Home Alone and Adventures in Babysitting, so at least we know he understands how to have fun and make an iconic film.
Safe to say this one is no Goonies but it will be interesting to see if it picks up steam with the young kids, who are likely unfamiliar with Pacman and Donkey Kong. The demographic seems to be 40-year-old dads who want to take their kid to a movie and are sick to effing death of things like The Minions and similar spin-off, sequel crap. Sign me up.
The download of the week is Ex Machina, a stunning, subtle and super creepy take on artificial intelligence written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd). Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) stars as the genius who may have cracked the A.I. riddle with hot-ass robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Domhnall Gleeson (True Grit) is the poor sucker enlisted to find out.
Both engaging and fascinating, Garland's film also keeps us entertained and surprised. Reminiscent of a 1970s sci-fi horror called Demon Seed (a must-see), this is what sci-fi looks like at its best.