Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and¬† another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:¬†Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval

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Mystic River


Sean Penn finds out there's a paparazzi convention in town.

Sean Penn finds out there’s a paparazzi convention in town.

(2003) Drama (Warner Brothers) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Adam Nelson, Tori Davis, Ari Graynor. Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Al Green’s R&B masterpiece “Take Me to the River,” he uses the river as a metaphor for redemption, for forgetfulness. In Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, it is a place where sins are buried forever in the eternal non-judgmental current that washes them to sea.

Three young boys growing up in a blue-collar Irish neighborhood in Boston are marked for life when one of them is abducted by a pedophile posing as a police officer and held for four days before escaping. The victim is scarred, having invented a different personality for himself in order to survive the ordeal. The other two are guilt-ridden, each wondering what their lives would have been like if they had gotten into the pedophile’s car instead of their cohort.

Years later, they have drifted apart, although not far. Jimmy Markum (Penn) is an ex-con who has reformed, and runs the corner store. Katie (Rossum), his daughter from his first marriage, is the apple of his eye, an eye trained steadily on her and a neighborhood friend Brendan (Guiry), whom he mistrusts. Sean Devine (Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife abruptly left him six months earlier and who periodically calls him and says nothing, waiting for Sean to speak, but Sean doesn’t know what to say. Finally Dave Boyle (Robbins), the pedophile’s victim, shuffles around like he’s in one of the vampire movies he loves to watch, and tries to make sense of the skewed perceptions his damaged mind takes in.

The three men see each other periodically, but are not friends the same way they were as children, although they remain drawn to their neighborhood and in fact the events that so marked them those years ago.

When Katie is brutally murdered, the three are drawn back together again, particularly as Sean is assigned the case. Dave reconnects with Jimmy, especially since Dave’s wife Celeste (Harden) is cousin to Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth (Linney). But as the men are drawn together, it becomes clear they are heading for an explosion. Dave arrives home the night Katie is killed covered in blood and with an implausible story. Celeste suspects that he is not telling her everything, but fears to connect the dots. Jimmy is a raging inferno, trying to reconcile his turbulent emotions but keeping it together externally; you literally expect him to have some of his internal organs pop out of his skin several times during the course of the movie. And while Sean’s partner Whitey (Fishburne in a most un-Morpheus-like role) trains his suspicions on Dave, Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend, who endured so much; the psychology is wrong, and Sean’s survivor guilt is becoming an impediment.

When Celeste finally breaks down and tells Jimmy her suspicions, the chain of events becomes inevitable. You get the sense that Katie’s tomb is actually a vortex, sucking the three men into a unavoidable collision. When it comes, you half-expect the film’s very celluloid to combust.

Eastwood knows how to let a story tell itself at its own pace. At times, Mystic River is languid and slow-moving, but that is only because the characters must have their chance to develop; without that, the movie would collapse. At other times, the movie feels like it is rushing viewers along in a riptide. Eastwood also is a master of establishing mood; at no point do you ever doubt the reality of the neighborhood and the people.

There are some great performances here. Penn is masterful as the tortured father of a murdered 19-year-old daughter. It resonates from the moment he realizes that she’s been murdered to the end of the movie and obviously resonated with the Academy – he garnered his first Best Actor Oscar for the role. He is a violent man, although that violence is kept below the surface; you spend every moment wondering when he will erupt; yet he never goes over the top. His actions all are consistent with the character, and Penn’s emotional performance makes Jimmy Markum real. Penn was so underrated as an actor at the time this was made; in time, he has become considered with the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman in the elite cinematic pantheon. His performance here is the chief reason you should see this movie.

Bacon and Robbins are solid in their roles; Robbins has a more difficult task in trying to humanize and make relatable a man who has been through something most of us cannot imagine. He is successful most of the time, but such an effort is made to make him appear guilty (when the majority of the audience will probably realize that he is not) that it robs him of his credibility. However, his portrayal of a damaged, tortured soul was enough to win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bacon is more restrained in his performance, but doesn’t really convey as much emotionally as the incendiary Penn, and thus his work pales next to his co-star.

The supporting cast is for the most part solid, although Harden as the weak, emotionally dependent Celeste is at times cloying but what do I know – she was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Much has been made of the ending, which is (I think) deliberately ambiguous, especially regarding how the survivors react. The ending badly disrupts the flow of the movie. Mystic River is a good movie that could have been better, had the ending not been so badly botched.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-winning performances and a compelling story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending completely ruins the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of violence, some of it implied of a sexual nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In a scene set in the morgue where Jimmy is alone with Katie’s body and emotionally promising revenge, the corpse burst into tears because actress Emmy Rossum was so moved by Penn’s performance.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some interviews from “The Charlie Rose Show” of Bacon, Robbins and Eastwood. The 3-Disc Deluxe DVD edition includes the soundtrack from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

DENNIS LAHANE LOVERS: The author of the book the movie was based on makes a cameo appearance during the parade sequence in which he can be spotted waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life