‘Pixels’: Film Review

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pixels’ review: A terrible, tone-deaf attempt at ‘Ghostbusters’ with video games.

Have a sneaking nostalgic love for old games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man? An adorable life-sized version of Q*bert is easily the most engaging character in “Pixels,” a dimwitted ’80s nostalgia trip best appreciated by those who have waited years for Adam Sandler’s fine-grained intelligence and Chris Columbus’ filmmaking mastery to finally converge.Comedian Kevin James, who parlayed early success on TV’s King of Queens into the Paul Blart: Mall Cop series, is set to join frequent on-screen collaborator Adam Sandler in this week’s sci-fi comedy Pixels. Some of that is outside the control of director Chris Columbus, who despite all his years as a competent Hollywood craftsman and a résumé that includes not one but two major landmarks of popular entertainment (“Home Alone” and the first Harry Potter movie) is stuck here making an Adam Sandler vehicle that features Kevin James as the president. (No, not the president of the PTA or the service workers’ union or the Hair Club for Men.

Take the basic premise from Galaxy Quest but swap out Star Trek with retro video games, throw in some nifty special effects and what could possibly go wrong? A third entry into the Grown Ups franchise is a possibility, James says. “I think the fans want one,” he says. “But that’s a question for Sandler.” “We have a very cool cast of misfits to battle the bad guys,” James tells Postmedia Network from Miami. “But I get to play the president, which is a big deal for me.” The villains — who turn out to be ’80s video game characters such as Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Space Invaders, Galaga and more — added to the fun, James says. “It’s a crazy idea,” James continues. “Back in the ’80s, the government shot a big capsule into space that has items from our culture, video games being one of them. Commercially, the somewhat novel combination of Sandler’s bro-comedy antics and an unexpected dose of geek appeal should help Sony’s July 24 Stateside release enjoy a few late-summer bonus rounds at the box office, aided by strong awareness and 3D ticket premiums. Aliens discover the capsule and take that as a declaration of war and they come back and try to fight us in the form of ’80s video games,” he says with a laugh. “It was a blast being there,” he says. “Toronto is unique in its own way, and it can double for anything from New York to Boston to L.A. to Paris. Sandler films have predictable scripts: In two hours or less, he’ll transform from loser to hero, often tacking on an improbable girlfriend, and often without transforming at all. (An Oscar for the first costume designer who gets him to wear a shirt that fits.) Instead, it’s everyone else in the cast who must about-face and appreciate him.

That wildly inventive cartoon is not, however, to be confused with the new “Pixels,” an extremely loud, live-action mess starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James and currently invading theaters. That’s a somewhat appropriate reference for a movie in which aliens contact us by way of the “Where’s the Beef?” lady, the Hall & Oates video for “She’s Gone,” the “Lucky Star”-era, jewelry-bedecked Madonna and other antique cultural signifiers most of the audience probably won’t recognize. Commercial returns should remain steady even if word-of-mouth reactions fail to rise much above the level of “Well, at least that was better than ‘Grown Ups 2.’” Which “Pixels” probably is, insofar as its highly marketable gaming elements and ostensibly kid-friendly appeal have diluted some of the more offensive aspects of Sandler’s comic signature. The idea behind this chuckleheaded comedy is that more than 30 years ago, film of a video-arcade gaming contest was sent into space, along with other modern pop-cultural artifacts, in hopes that it would be discovered and watched by some alien civilization.

For that, you need a sense of humor as atrophied as King Tut’s little finger and a firm conviction that 12-year-old boys are the pinnacle of human development. Those random absurdities are by far the funniest things about “Pixels,” along with the supporting performances by Peter Dinklage as an arrogant and unscrupulous video-game wizard named Fireblaster and Josh Gad as a deranged conspiracy nut about two micrometers shy of full-on psychosis. There is, alas, more than a little residual misogyny in the insulting development of the movie’s female characters (if that’s the word), and in this case the sexism feels not just reflexive but almost obligatory, given the male-dominated videogame culture being celebrated in the high-concept, low-ambition screenplay by Tim Herlihy (“Grown Ups 2,” “Big Daddy”) and Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It”).

In other words, it’ll probably be a hit. “Pixels” is based on a short film from a few years back, and there’s more wit in its two-and-a-half-minutes than in this entire feature. It begins with a formative moment at the 1982 arcade-game world championships, where 13-year-old gaming enthusiast Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) narrowly loses first place to a mullet-wearing smartass named Eddie “the Fire Blaster” Plant (Andrew Bambridge) after an ill-fated game of “Donkey Kong.” Some 30 years later, Sam (now played by Sandler) works a dead-end job installing home-entertainment systems in Washington, D.C. As the high concept is gaining momentum on one end (aliens from space misinterpreting our gaming classics as a call to war!) Sandler is hogging the screen with his humiliatingly unfunny self-confidence conflict and love interest arc. Conveniently, POTUS winds up turning to Sam and their other pal, Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), after a series of mysterious attacks by what appear to be characters from ancient videogame templates. He gets older, but his inner dork stays the same age. , directed by King of the Kiddos Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting), freezes Sandler as pre-teen video game legend Sam Brenner, whose life peaked when he placed second in a Donkey Kong championship.

An egomaniac named Eddie (Peter Dinklage, channeling Billy Mitchell in the superior doc King of Kong) took first, crushing Sam’s dreams with a barrel. When a NASA tape containing video game footage gets misinterpreted by some E.T.’s who are about as gullible as this film’s target market, London is beset by digitized Centipedes and New York’s streets become a Pac-Man maze. Early in the movie, Sandler’s character, an orange-jumpsuited tech installer named Sam Brenner, finds himself in the closet – I know, I know, that’s funny, but it’s an actual closet! If you’ve followed Sandler’s insensitive misadventures on the set of his cowboys-and-Indians spoof The Ridiculous 6, the good news is Pixels doesn’t make a single joke about Dinklage’s height.

James’ idiocy is far from endearing, and Sandler never drops his smirk – even as he’s wooing the out-of-his-league Michelle Monaghan. (Who, of course, falls for him anyway – stuff like that always seems to happen in Sandler movies, especially when he’s producing.) Supporting actors Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage do at least bring some commitment, and comedy, to the proceedings as two other eccentric gamers; Dinklage, sporting a groovy hair-metal look, is particularly funny as a preening lothario. I’m sure Dinklage wanted to do something wacky and light in between all his “Game of Thrones” moping about, but showing up here is just embarrassing for us all. (He does get to share a scene with Sean Bean, which is kind of neat.) Sandler seems intent on his one-man quest to make nerds uncool again, not to mention homophobic, chauvinistic and sexually stunted. Oh yeah, so there’s Sam, inside a big walk-in closet with a hot divorcée played by Michelle Monaghan, who is crying because her ex-husband is about to marry a 19-year-old Pilates instructor named Sinnamon, with an S. (That sly touch must have gotten a high-five in the writers’ room, because it comes up over and over again.) It’s a mediocre meet-cute at best, and then Sam bogarts the whole scene by complaining about his failed marriage, and how his ex-wife’s fertility doctor got her pregnant without bothering to use a turkey baster, if you catch his drift. Happily, Sam and Ludlow wind up proving themselves early on (and shaming the overgrown military jocks played by Brian Cox and Sean Bean) by clobbering the aliens in a few rounds of “Centipede.” Next, they manage to track down their old nemesis Eddie (now Peter Dinklage) for a rowdy game of “Pac-Man,” a car-chase sequence in which the beloved yellow dot-gobbler has been reborn as a villainous giant sphere munching his way through the streets of New York. (Denis Akiyama turns up as original “Pac-Man” creator Toru Iwatani, while the real-life Iwatani makes a brief appearance elsewhere.) It’s here that Columbus’ past experience with f/x-heavy fantasy (on the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson franchises) comes into play.

In bringing these outmoded videogame creations to mammoth, destructive life, the director and his visual-effects team have at once updated their crude, low-resolution look and skillfully integrated them into live-action, the effect amplified somewhat by the film’s 3D conversion (as stated in the press notes, a more accurate title would have been “Voxels”). Sandler’s “love interest” (Michelle Monaghan, who should know better) is a high-level DARPA scientist who nonetheless puts up with being called “snobby” because she prefers men who brush their teeth. As for the movie’s apocalyptic stakes, they’re treated with no more consequence than an air-hockey match, a few smashed-up historic landmarks notwithstanding. Ultimately, the whole thing turns into just a low-grade “Ghostbusters” knock-off, with our heroes running around in matching jumpsuits shooting “light cannons” at CGI menaces (and, unfortunately, nothing nearly as funny as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man to shoot at). Michelle Monaghan’s character ends up being a DARPA bigwig, and she naturally falls in love with our hero for picking up the big light-blaster and saving the day.

There’s a happy ending, one more slightly risqué sex joke, and roll credits. “Game Over,” the movie declares. ‘Pixels’ (PG-13) Sony (105 min.) Directed by Chris Columbus. Every time I sit through one of his movies and marvel once again that millions of apparently normal people find him amusing, I feel like American guys are in worse shape than I thought. While Dinklage is usually an asset, he’s wasted here, delivering all his lines in a bizarre 70s blaxploitation manner that’s bound to rub some people the wrong way. (It’s not so much offensive as it’s merely lame.) What Galaxy Quest did so well was draw the great character moments out through action within the far-out concept. Pop-cultural nostalgia, of course, practically constitutes its own genre by this point, and “Pixels” is hardly the first feature-length valentine to our fondly remembered mass-entertainment touchstones. Pixels has some fun game-heavy moments, like a Centipede battle, then throws cold water over everything with unnecessary scenes of Sandler and Gad clowning around like morons.

If only the movie in front of us actually fit that description, or truly conveyed the addictive pleasures of gaming, rather than serving up another barrage of witless one-liners, strained reaction shots and aggressively inane celebrity cameos. (Serena Williams, turning up randomly at a soiree: “They promised me an island if I did this.”) Really, the viewer would be better off spending 98 minutes browsing old “Bomberman” walk-throughs on YouTube than trying to care what happens to Lt. But Columbus includes a familiar classroom scene of President Cooper bumbling through a children’s book to remind us that morons can succeed — just fifteen years ago, real-life voters made it happen. (And, god forbid, might again.) Outside the school, citizens vilify their commander-in-chief. In “Grown Ups,” perhaps the most egregious Sandler film of them all (although that’s a high bar), it was a long-ago basketball game won by the dirtbag locals over Sandler’s character and his cool friends. It’s amusing to see how all these game properties (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong) are visualized in the “real world.” (Less amusing is distributor Sony dropping references to their Playstation 4, Smurfs franchise and smooching the butt of Ghostbusters kingpin Dan Aykroyd -– both he and his dumb vodka get a cameo.) Also, that old orange doofus Q*bert ends up becoming part of the team.

The aliens invade Earth with weapons they believe we’ll understand: Galaga drones, giant Centipedes, skyscraper-gobbling Tetris blocks, and angry-pickle escapees from Burger Time. (In the movie’s best joke, they also use Eighties celebs to communicate: Reagan, Tammy Faye, and, offscreen, the “Where’s the Beef?” granny.) If Sam, Eddie, and buddy Ludlow (Josh Gad) can’t best the Volulans two out of three, the Earth is lost. When a pixel exists in three dimensions, adding volume to height and length, it’s known as a “voxel.” So, sorry guys, but your movie has the wrong name. Here’s a dating tip, fellas: Announcing that you’re a decent and sensitive guy and then launching into a monologue about your pain and loneliness sends kind of a weird signal. Still, Monaghan might as well be playing Medea next to Ashley Benson, who gives a wordless eye-candy performance as Lady Lisa, the scantily clad, sword-wielding fantasy heroine of Ludlow’s dreams.

But the cheap cynicism of the whole project shines brightest in the final scene, when one of our heroes flashes a “live long and prosper” hand sign to an adoring crowd. When Michelle Monaghan’s lieutenant colonel, Sam’s love interest, asks if the government should place all its trust in him, Sam whines, “I don’t know if I wanna do it now — she’s being kind of mean.” To Sandler, this is flirting.

Literally the only tack Sam takes in this conversation is to praise this hardass, sheath-skirted lieutenant colonel for her beauty, ridicule her ex and goad her into dishing dirt on the aforementioned Sinnamon, specifically her flounder-like eyes. James’ beer-guzzling POTUS is, at the very least, a welcome alternative to Paul Blart, and Dinklage has his usual fun playing a small chap with a big attitude. Gad, who scored a mid-sized hit earlier this year with “The Wedding Ringer,” goes crazily over-the-top as the eccentric nerd-crackpot of the group, standing in sharp contrast to Sandler, who has rarely seemed like such a nonentity onscreen.

Over the years, the actor’s delight in playing the egregiously stupid man-child has slowly calcified into laziness bordering on fatigue; where Sandler once exulted in our outrage (and frequently, our laughter), he now seems barely capable of mustering enough effort to carry a scene, let alone advance to level 255 of “Galaga.” There’s no joy left in his shtick. It’s all perfunctory and embarrassing psychological theater designed to prove that Adam Sandler is way more of a badass than an entire team of Navy Seals put together. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with LStar Capital and China Film Co., of a Happy Madison/1492 Pictures production, in association with Film Croppers Entertainment.

Worse, in Pixels, women are rewards: If the guys save the world, their prize is a beauty — even Eddie’s fantasy of a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. I enjoyed the appearance of Q*bert, an especially beloved and peculiar icon of that era, but as someone who played various iterations of Donkey Kong for many hours when I was supposed to be reading Thucydides or Stendhal, I have to say that the filmmakers have rendered the deeply strange metaphysical universe of that game in dumb and simplistic terms. Executive producers, Barry Bernardi, Michael Barnathan, Jak Giarraputo, Steve Koren, Heather Parry, Patrick Jean, Benjamin Darras, Johnny Alves, Matias Boucard, Seth Gordon, Ben Waisbren. Josh Gad, playing a deeply maladjusted and perhaps dangerous loser who lives with his grandmother in his 40s, seems far more joyful and alive than Sandler’s dead-eyed, faux-cheerful world-redeeming hero.

Q*bert appears, acting as generic as a sassy cartoon dog. (Apparently, his “@!#?@!” translates to a PG-13 approved “Bull crap!”) There’s a glint of pathos when Pac-Man’s inventor (Denis Akiyama) is crushed to see his creation chomping Manhattan. “Deep down, he’s kind, gentle,” whimpers his Dr. If you still want proof that money and fame do not guarantee happiness, consider this dude, who has always made movies about his own desperate quest for affection and acceptance and is now a comedian pushing 50, spinning a fable about how the wasted years of his youth will yield glory at last. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, 3D), Amir Mokri; editor, Hughes Winborne; music, Henry Jackman; production designer, Peter Wenham; art directors, Richard L. There’s an accidental revelation at the dark heart of “Pixels,” a competently executed film with an imaginative premise and a soul-sucking emptiness at its center.

Johnson, Peter Grundy; set decorators, Rosemary Brandenburg, Rosalie Board; costume designer, Christine Wada; sound (Dolby Atmos), Glen Gauthier; supervising sound editor, Steve Slanec; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; re-recording mixers, Boeddeker, Gary Summers; special effects supervisor, Burt Dalton; special effects coordinator, Laird McMurray; visual effects supervisor, Matthew Butler; visual effects producer, Denise Davis; visual effects, Digital Domain 3.0, Trixter, Storm Studios, Atomic Fiction, Pixel Playground; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; stunt coordinator, Bob Brown (U.S.), Layton Morrison (Canada); fight choreographer, Peng Zhang; 3D conversion, Gener8 Digital Media Services; associate producers, Lyn Lucibello-Brancatella, David Witz, K.C. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, Anthony Ippolito, Andrew Bambridge, Matt Lintz. (English, Hindi, Japanese dialogue)

Still, Sandler is following his own rules: Every year, he’s gotta star in an expensive, anti-intellectual gasbag that anoints him the Best Boy in the World.

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