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

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Uma Thurman checks to make sure her new hairstyle is cutting edge; Logan Lerman doesn't think so.

(20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Melina Kanakaredes. Directed by Chris Columbus

According to ancient Greek mythology, the pantheon of Gods were in reality an incredibly horny bunch who spent a goodly amount of time rutting with humans and producing offspring who inherited some of the powers of the Gods as well as the attributes of humans. These were called demigods and many Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, were of this race. But of course we all know the Greek gods were myths…weren’t they?

Percy Jackson (Lerman) is a high school student who is a little bit…he’s not quite…he’s strange, okay? He can hold his breath far longer than most human beings are capable of and he likes to sit at the bottom of the school swimming pool because he likes to think while he’s underwater, freed of the distractions of the world of the New York City high school he goes to. His only real friend is Grover (Jackson), a young man who walks on crutches. Percy is dyslexic and suffers from ADHD which makes him a hyperactive teenager who can’t read well.

At home, things pretty much suck too. Percy’s mom (Keener), a beautiful woman who has been worn down by life and circumstance, lives in a crummy apartment with her boyfriend Gabe Ugliano (Pantoliano), a foul-smelling pig who treats his mother like dirt. Percy would love to kick Gabe out of his life, but his mother incomprehensibly refuses.

On a school field trip led by the wheelchair-confined Mr. Brunner (Brosnan), Percy is pulled aside by a substitute teacher (Maria Olsen) who turns into this hideous winged monster that Percy later learns is called a Fury and is attacked by the shrieking creature, who demands that Percy turn over “the lightning bolt” to her. Percy has no idea what this means, but the arrival of Mr. Brunner and Grover chase the Fury off.

Of course, Percy is confused about what’s happening but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. Grover, who calls himself “Percy’s protector” accompanies the boy back to his home where Percy’s mom is in the middle of serving a group of Gabe’s poker buddies. Grover tells her that they need to leave and right now. Strangely, she follows his instructions without question, which doesn’t sit well with Gabe who needs someone to fetch the beer. Grover dispatches him with his crutches and the trio gets out of Dodge.

They head for a place known only as “the camp” and almost reach the confines of it when they are attacked by a hideous gigantic bull-like monster called a Minotaur. The boys survive the attack but the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mom, who disappears in flame and smoke.

As it turns out, Percy’s teacher Mr. Brunner runs the camp and as it turns out, he’s actually a centaur named Chiron (the wheelchair was an illusion meant to mask Chiron’s plentitude of horse’s backside). As it also turns out, all the kids in this camp are the human offspring of Gods and humans, and Percy himself is the son of Poseidon (McKidd). The Gods were forbidden contact with their human offspring after they turn six months old, and so deserted their human partners. Gods as deadbeat dads…kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

The big problem is that the lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe, has been stolen and its owner, Zeus (Bean) thinks Percy is responsible for reasons never explained. Zeus gives Percy 14 days to find the weapon and return it to Zeus at Mt. Olympus or else the Gods would go to war, a war which would devastate the earth and the humans living on it.

Chris Columbus, the man who kicked off the Harry Potter film franchise, is attempting to do the same with the popular young adult book series from Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that this will pull in Potter-like numbers, not is it as good a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was.

The writers of the movie made the unilateral decision to make some wholesale changes from the book. Some of these changes were minor but several were fundamental. One of the reasons I think the Potter film franchise did so well is because the filmmakers didn’t make many changes at the insistence of author J.K. Rowling. I can understand skewing the movie to an older audience (more profitable y’see) but much of the charm and the wonder of the book has been cut out as well.

That leaves lavish action sequences and hideous monsters for the most part and these are executed well. Certainly there’s plenty of spectacle here, from the scenes in Hades and Olympus to more earthly locations like Vegas, New York City and the camp. There are plenty of well-known actors showing up here, from Uma Thurman as Medusa (and she does as good a job as anyone with a tangle of hissing digital snakes on her head) to Melissa Kanakaredes as Athena. The odd casting choice was comedian Steve Coogan as Hades – one would think Hades to be a not particularly funny character and in fact he isn’t.

The three leads have to absolutely click for this to succeed and while in some ways they do, they don’t to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint did in Potter. Following the Potter formula of two guys and one girl at the forefront, Lerman as Percy is a bit bland. Jackson does a fairly good turn as the jive-talking African-American second banana, but the part seems a bit cliché; I would have appreciated him being a little less smart-mouthed and a little more smart. Not mentioned in my synopsis is Daddario as Annabeth, Athena’s daughter who doesn’t show up until the camp sequence. She is a brilliant strategizer and formidable warrior and is there essentially to be Percy’s love interest.

You’ll learn a lot of Greek mythology here and they use it fairly accurately and update it nicely (although in the stories, Medusa was killed by Perseus but appears here quite alive). I liked the Mt. Olympus set especially; it looked a lot like I imagined it. In fact, nearly all of the special effects sequences work magnificently.

The problem is with the script, I think. Lots of plot points are never explained or supported and some just flat-out don’t make any sense. For example, the big one is why is Percy accused of the theft in the first place? According to Zeus’ own law he isn’t aware of his divine parentage; why would he want to steal something that he has no idea of its existence?

All in all, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s not a great movie either. As for kick-starting a major tentpole film franchise, I really am skeptical of the future of further Percy Jackson films. I hope I’m wrong, but they’ll need some better writing to really punch it into the popular consciousness. Until then, future Percy Jackson movies seem to be as much myth as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: A very clever use of Greek mythology in a modern setting. The special effects sequences are top notch.  

REASONS TO STAY: There are many plot holes that cause you to wonder if wholesale parts of the script were edited out. Not sure if the trio of young actors playing the leads have what it takes to sustain interest through a multi-movie series.

FAMILY VALUES: The monsters are way too frightening for younger children – you know, the core audience for the books. One family walked out of the theater we were in when their little one became upset at the Fury, and that was only the first monster encountered.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original book, Percy Jackson is 12 years old. In the movie he is depicted as 17 years old.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely some of the big battle scenes and effects sequences should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Coraline