Review: Disappointing ‘Pixels’ falls apart before it begins

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pixels': Film Review.

Sure, we get that “Pixels” is largely about nostalgia. Before “Pixels” became the latest critically-derided movie on Adam Sandler’s filmography, it was something very different: a two-and-a-half minute short with a clever concept and impressive execution.“Pixels,” the action/comedy in which Adam Sandler leads a team of former arcade-game champions to save the world from an invasion of 1980s video-game characters, wants badly to be “Ghostbusters.” Except it doesn’t want to be “Ghostbusters” quite badly enough to make much of an effort, and the end result is an inexpensive-looking, cheerfully lazy semi-adventure.When intergalactic aliens receive a time capsule launched into outer space by NASA, they interpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war.This is an official order handed down by President Cooper (Kevin James) during an alien invasion that finds Earth being attacked by extraterrestrial life in the form of 1980s arcade games.

There’s nothing coy about the movie’s marketing, from posters of a monolithic Pac-Man gobbling up the Golden Gate to trailers with Adam Sandler taking on an arcade’s worth of vintage video games come to life. And Sandler is not Bill Murray, to put it mildly. (Now that I think of it: Both Sandler and Murray could be described as performers in similar terms — effortless, deadpan, a trademark persona. In “Pixels,” directed by Chris Columbus, the 40-something self-described losers who spent too much time at the arcade are the ones who will inherit the Earth — led by their benevolent leader, Adam Sandler, of course. At isolated moments a tolerably amusing send-up of alien-invasion disaster movies in which the attackers are video arcade–era renegades arrived to gobble up as many famous landmarks as possible, this one-note comedy runs out of gas within an hour (it is based on a short film) and should have been trimmed to a neat 90 minutes. It’s just that Murray’s apparent lack of effort — or, perhaps, the amount of effort he puts into looking like he isn’t trying, or maybe just his naturally funny charisma — adds up to something compelling.

This disappointing comedy falls apart before it begins because no one would behave the way its characters do, and their ridiculous choices drive the action. Although ostensibly aimed at 40-somethings who grew up on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and all the other games revered by first-generation players, this mildly suggestive PG-13-rated romp may well play best with the veterans’ little kids, who will find Frogger and Q*bert oh so cute. Pac-Man gobbles up all the subway stops along the 6 Train and Donkey Kong throws barrels from a skyscraper; Tetris pieces fill in the spaces on stepped buildings, destroying levels at a time, and Pong balls transform the Brooklyn Bridge into a pile of pixels.

Sandler’s regular-dude-who-happened-to-wander-onto-a-film-set shtick is less so.) Anyway, here we have Sandler bringing his usual level of energy to the role of Sam Brenner, a regular guy and home-video installer who happens to be best friends with the president of the United States (Kevin James). President, Will Cooper, played by Kevin James – you read that right — calls on a childhood friend, one Sam Brenner, played by Sandler, who was a video game phenom in the 1980s to rescue the country from the disaster of an extraterrestrial onslaught. For those adults without any deep emotional investment in the early totems of modern geekdom, the most intriguing aspect of Chris Columbus’ first directorial outing since Percy Jackson & the Olympians five years ago is the opportunity to sample a potential Chris Christie presidency via Kevin James. Aside from bursts of 8-bit quaintness rendered in cutting-edge 3-D, there’s little else here that’s clever or lively enough to hold your attention.

The supporting cast is led by Michelle Monaghan as Lieutenant Violet van Patten, a weapons developer and single-mom romantic involvement for Sandler; Josh Gad as conspiracy theorist and all-around oddball Ludlow Lamonsoff; and Peter Dinklage as Eddie Plant, Brenner’s former video game-playing nemesis, a guy who calls himself the “Fire Blaster” and will stop at nothing to come out on top in any kind of competition. Even if the comparison stems from nothing more than their both being plus-sized gents, the fact of the matter is that we haven’t had a roly-poly president since William Howard Taft more than a century ago, so the mere sight of a a chief executive with button-busting girth is sufficiently novel to provoke an ongoing double-take. This is a big-budget spectacle about 1980s nostalgia aimed at kids who have no emotional connection to the decade. “Pixels” is also insanely sexist, culminating with the winning male characters each rewarded with a woman. To fight and destroy them, Brenner is joined by the president, old gaming pal Ludlow (Josh Gad), old gaming nemesis Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and requisite Sole Woman In The Movie With More Than Three Lines, Lt.

In a surprisingly late first foray into high-concept action-comedy, Sandler plays Sam Brenner, whose gift for gaming as a teen somehow never translated into big things. But while this severely flawed enterprise is going for childlike, what it ends up seeming is childish, as if its principals were youngsters playing dress-up. The only ones who can combat this invasion are the arcaders — Sam, Ludlow and former nemesis Firecracker (Peter Dinklage), sprung from the clink for the occasion. “Pixels” is a blast of energetic fun, though it doesn’t attempt to stray outside the lines or reflect on its “Godzilla”-style formula. As a kid, James’ Will Cooper was the best friend of Sandler’s Sam Brenner, which explains why the latter, a sad sack, life’s-passed-him-by home video system installer, gets called to the White House in an emergency. Part of the problem is that the technical gimmick that made the short film work so well begged for considerable fleshing out, as opposed to just an increase in the running time, as it was being converted into a full-length narrative.

The president remembers Sam’s one brush with greatness back in 1982, when the kid’s brilliance at recognizing patterns in video games made him legendary in Pac-Man circles and earned him second place (behind Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant) in the Donkey Kong championships. While Dinklage shows his comic side with a wild mullet and bizarre accent, Gad is the real standout, giving an effervescently full-bodied performance as the paranoid, passionate Ludlow. While the military is clueless as to the source of the pulsating, glowing cubes raining down on Guam and eating away at soldiers, Sam knows the perfect Sherlock for this case: fellow childhood nerd and full-time conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), who recognizes the source at once: Galaga, the beloved ’80s intergalactic shooting game.

Turns out these space invaders watched a videotape of Sam and other championship gamers that was included in a NASA probe’s cultural sampler and mistook it for a challenge. But the third act nearly abandons the emphasis on comedy and becomes an action vehicle highlighted by the extravagant – and overdone – special effects. When conventional methods prove ineffective, the portly president commands, “Let the nerds take over!” (apparently unaware that they already have), to the dismay of a macho British commando leader (Sean Bean) and a trigger-happy U.S. admiral (Brian Cox), who don’t understand that pixels will withstand a nuke much better than will people. But since Sandler seemed so genuinely excited about the movie, Sony seemed like the best choice if Jean ever wanted to see an adaptation of his movie on the big screen. With a broadly humorous, PG-13 tone, it feels like a kids film, but niche references to ’80s ephemera like “Fantasy Island,” and Max Headroom will hit only with the Gen-Xers in the audience.

And it worked. “Pixels” opens this weekend, albeit with a very different feel from the short (although the fantastic Tetris set piece is copied pretty much frame for frame). There’s quite a bit of “back in my day” grumbling and arguing that arcade games are inherently better than today’s video games, a message that feels stuffy and backward.

But the predictable city grid provides an ideal playing field for jumbo Pac-Men to move block by city block, chomping obstructions like so many pac-dots. He launches a kids’ reading programme to boost his sagging approval ratings, but he can’t pronounce the multi-syllabic words in a children’s book. Chances are that, by this point, most grown-ups will feel they’ve indulged in enough nostalgia for youthful hours frittered away in arcades, at least for one evening. Ultimately, these underscripted characters are no Ghostbusters, particularly as Columbus chucks the balance between visual oooh and visual overkill in the late going. James is a talented comic performer, but he is so woefully miscast here, he might as well be wearing a DON’T TAKE ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS SERIOUSLY sign.

Poor Ashley Benson plays a literal trophy who doesn’t have a single line, while Michelle Monaghan is forced into a sexy scientist stereotype far below her talents. But since 60 minutes doesn’t quite qualify as a feature-length running time, screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling needed to pad things out with a lengthy state dinner that serves two purposes: to allow Sam and lovely army officer/White House insider Violet (Michelle Monaghan) some non-stressed time together after a marathon of sparring, and to provide big-talking little guy Fire Blaster with his dream: a date with Serena Williams. Forget the elite military and special services — Will calls up Sam, the one-time video game championship runner up, hoping he might spot some arcade-inspired pattern in the airborne attack.

Jean hoped that the feature would be an action comedy for the whole family, along the lines of “Ghostbusters” or “The Last Starfighter” — “those movies that made you feel good in the ’80s and that we kind of lost now,” he said. Gamers finally grasp their moment of glory at the climactic Washington, D.C., showdown, during which agitators currently arguing for the defacement or destruction of certain honorific monuments will no doubt feel a charge of excitement.

Despite these unfortunate shortcomings, “Pixels” has its funny and fresh moments, thanks in large part to the supporting comic actors and inventive special effects. For everyone else, including President Christ— … er, Cooper, their misspent youths are suddenly vindicated and rewarded, while the nation can rest easy until the next wave of aliens, monsters and/or giant creatures arises like another ghost from a machine.

An anemic theme about Sam’s lack of confidence doesn’t help, and neither does another, wistfully lamenting how the brainteasing patterns and skill-honing of classic games have given way to the mindless violence and too-easy reset buttons of today. With the exception of Monaghan, who seems like a beautiful member of some other species amid this ragtag bunch of comics and slumming character actors, everyone here is doing shtick they’ve long since mastered, underplaying in Sandler’s case, to sometimes mildly amusing effect, and charging ahead like bulls where James and Gad are concerned. Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Affion Crockett, Ashley Benson, Matt Lintz, Lainie Kazan, Denis Akiyama, Thomas McCarthy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart Executive producers: Patrick Jean, Benjamin Darras, Johnny Alves, Matias Boucard, Seth Gordon, Ben Waisbren, La Peikang, Jack Giarraputo, Steve Koren, Heather Parry, Barry Bernardi, Michael Barnathan When she rejects him but ends up driving behind him on the street, he declares to no one: “She went from zero to psycho in 3.4 seconds.” Because women are crazy, get it?!

Much of the film was shot at night, on a schedule that had everyone working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to Jean, and Sandler “was there every day working hard.” “Personally, I loved the work that has been done on the feature in terms of visual effects,” he said. “I think [the movie] is not perfect, but I think it has a heart and I like it. It’s riffing that makes us feel like we’re having some real fun between effects shots, and getting something more than “Wreck-It Ralph” novelty without the character development. An Emmy-nominated comedy actress, she’s given few lines here — none funny — and is left with nothing to do but gaze adoringly at the goofy president.

Too bad they couldn’t get their digital hands on this script. “Pixels,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and suggestive comments.” Running time: 106 minutes.

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