Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Pixels” (2015) Review

Yeah … you are better off saving up your quarters, kids. 

By: Jimbo X

“Pixels” has such a tremendous premise that it’s hard to not get just a wee bit enthusiastic about its potential. Imagine “Ghostbusters” meets “The Last Starfighter,” featuring scores of officially licensed old-school video game characters -- how could an idea like that possibly falter?

Well, I can explain how in two words, folks: Adam Sandler.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sandler, but I’ve never really hated his films, either. Even as a middle-schooler, however, I knew “The Waterboy” and “Billy Madison” were pandering, juvenile, paint-by-numbers comedies. As a world-weary high school student, I saw “Mr. Deeds” and “Anger Management” as nothing more than unrepentant studio tax write-offs and product-placement-strewn Trojan horses. Meanwhile, his more recent work -- “Click” and “Blended” and all that stuff -- just seems unabashedly formulaic, to the point where you can almost set your watch to the next predictable Happy Madison productions trope.

Even as a high-concept film on par with “Space Jam,” the latest Sandler vehicle feels astonishingly (and frustratingly) indistinguishable from his last dozen or so movies. Once again, he plays a self-deprecating everyman, whose deadpan humor is buttressed by hoarse shouting and the occasional goo-goo-ga-ga nonsense. Once again, his love interest is a temperamental bombshell way out of his league, whose initial disgust towards his character quickly -- and almost inexplicably -- transforms into incomprehensible lust. Flanking the central character are two chubby foils, still playing the Chris Farley and Norm MacDonald typecast Rosencratzes and Guildensteins to Sandler’s Hamlet. Outside of the appearance by Peter Dinklage as a Billy Mitchell-inspired pro video game champion, the film is more or less Sandler stock character-a-palooza, with the 8-bit intergalactic invasion serving as little more than a slight change in background scenery.

The film begins with Sandler’s adolescent character frantically peddling his way to the local arcade, to the dulcimer tones of Cheap Trick. There, he wows his peers with his impressive “Missile Command” skills, while his conspiracy-theory-loving best bud ogles a fictitious arcade vixen named “Lady Lisa.” Meanwhile, Sandler’s other best pal retrieves a Chewbacca mask from one of those claw machines -- a plot point that we just KNOW is going to be recycled at some point in the picture. Later, Sandler goes toe-to-toe with the afore-mentioned Billy Mitchell analogue, who -- for some bizarre reason -- no one ever acknowledges as being a midget. Oh, and the championship affair, hosted by Dan Akroyd, no less? It’s being recorded by NASA, so they can send it into space along with videos of Tammy Faye Bakker to let hypothetical extra-terrestrial life know what the 1980s were like.

…and flash forward to Washington, D.C., current day. Adam Sandler is a jaded Geek Squad technician (never called that by name, unfortunately -- I suppose some companies would be hesitant to lend their logo to a film that fundamentally describes your employees as lifeless losers) and his claw-machine wunderkind amigo? Well, he grew up to be Kevin James, who -- as fate would have it -- is also the President of the United States. We meet Sandler’s love interest -- a wishy-washy DARPA executive played by Michelle Monaghan whose husband left her for a 19-year-old Pilates instructor -- and soon learn that something horrible has happened to a military installation in Guam; namely, the fact that it was attacked by what appears to be the rhythmic bombardiers from “Galaga.”

Of course, James calls in his old video-game virtuoso pal to verify the obvious. Later, Sandler’s other childhood pal (played by the guy who voiced Olaf in “Frozen”) takes him back to his basement apartment to show him a mysterious alien signal he recorded during an episode of “One Tree Hill.” Unbelievably, a higher life form intercepted the NASA recording of the video game championship from 1982 and believes it to be a challenge for alien warfare. Why the aliens decide to use an outmoded form of antenna broadcasting to inform humanity of this -- nor the reason why they decide to use facsimiles of Hall and Oates and Max Headroom to relay the information to the masses, or even WHY they are using the goddamn video game avatars to attack humanity instead of other weapons -- is never given a second thought.

Thankfully, Sandler’s DARPA squeeze has been hard at work on an experimental laser ray weapon, which seems to be the only thing on earth that can stop the onslaught of “Centipede” and “Joust” invaders. Springing Dinklage’s character out of the pokey, he decides to join the motley crew only after he’s granted both a generous tax break AND a menage-a-trois with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.

Unfortunately, they deleted the scene with K.C. Munchkin
actually attacking Kansas City. 
Following an admittedly entertaining game of “Pac-Man” on the streets of NYC, the movie slowly cruises towards its Apocalypse porn denoument, in which the eponymous “Paperboy,” the chef from “Burger Time” and a whole bunch of generic pixelized ninjas go cuckoo-bananas in our nation’s capitol. Inevitably, this concludes with the fate of humanity hinging on a live-action game of “Donkey Kong” -- a rather interesting development, since the film itself was actually released by Nintendo arch-rival Sony. Oh, and there’s also a subplot in there about a man having sex with Q*Bert, but trust me, the less said about that, the better.

“Pixels” clearly owes a lot to two films -- “Wreck-It Ralph” and “The LEGO Movie.” Alas, while those two films were utterly fantastic crossover fiction works, the video game dynamic never really gels together in this flick. Hardly any of the video game invaders have lines of dialogue, and some of the action sequences -- especially the “Galaga” Pearl Harbor scene -- fail to generate any excitement at all. Worst of all, there are LONG doldrums in between battle sequences, with a nearly twenty-minute stretch of nothing connecting the “Pac-Man” battle with the big finale.

In terms of general special effects, they are decent, but nothing truly impressive. Considering the pedigree of director Chris Columbus -- the same man who directed "Home Alone" and the first couple of "Harry Potter" movies, in addition to co-producing "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" -- that cannot be considered anything other than a major celluloid disappointment.

As far as laughs, don’t expect much here. You get your usual low-key soft “homophobia” jokes en masse -- mostly, via Josh Gad’s groan-inducing interaction with an elite crew of military men -- and a lot of political humor that just doesn’t seem to fit in with any type of film context, such as when a rescued soldier tells the Prez about his admiration of Obama. Unless you think the idea of a deaf English lady interacting with the dog from “Duck Hunt” is hilarious, you probably won’t be guffawing at any point in “Pixels.”

Really, the problem with the film is its PG-13 rating. Had it been a PG movie, the subplots would have been excised for more video game-themed action, and had it gone for an R (as unlikely as that would have been), the more risqué humor would have been much more effective. Alike the film’s characters in a pivotal Hyde Park showdown with a gaggle of insectoid vector graphics, there are just too many targets for “Pixels” to hit, and it winds up missing almost all of them.

On the whole, “Pixels” isn’t an atrocious film, but its certainly a disappointing one. With such an outstanding concept, a really, really great popcorn film could have emerged. Unfortunately, Sandler and company have left us with a watered-down, unforgivably boring “event” picture that completely squanders its vast potential.

Looking for nostalgic, arcade fun? Frankly, you’re better off spending two hours with the ancient “Ms. Pac-Man” machine in the theater lobby than you are this film, I am afraid.

My Score:

Two Tofu Dogs out of Four

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