Latest Reviews
Thursday
Jul232015

Pixels

If there’s one actor working today that is hated by seemingly every moviegoer and critic across the globe, it’s Adam Sandler. There’s a good reason for that, as he pukes out a new film every year, each one seemingly worse than the last. After the train wrecks that were “Jack and Jill” and “Grown Ups 2,” which are easily two of the most mind-numbing, soul crushing, rage inducing, insipid cinematic abortions of the last few years, it would be easy to write off his newest, “Pixels,” as more of the same, but that would be unfair. While it still succumbs to many of the problems most Adam Sandler movies do, there was some genuine effort put into this one and while it won’t blow anyone away, it’s unlikely to be the subject of derision among those willing to give it a shot.

Sandler plays Brenner, an electronics expert at a Geek Squad-esque retail company, and his best friend, Cooper (Kevin James), has overshadowed him in their adulthood and has worked his way up to the highest office in the country, residing as the President of the United States. As kids, Brenner was a video game expert, competing in the 1982 Worldwide Video Arcade Championships and falling short to only one other competitor, Eddie (Peter Dinklage). As part of an initiative to find potential life in the universe and introduce our customs to them, NASA sent video feeds of this tournament out into space. Over 20 years later, it’s learned that we did indeed stumble upon aliens, but they have misinterpreted those video feeds as a declaration of war. Using intense bundles of energy disguised as classic games such as Galaga, Pac-Man, Centipede and more, they begin their attack and the only way to save the world is to abide by the rules of the games and defeat them. After the world’s militaries struggle in battle, the President figures, who better to defeat the aliens than the best arcade gamers in the world?

As someone who grew up with classic video games, has an affinity for them and still enjoys them to this day, I approached “Pixels” with trepidation, fearful that they may take some of the most beloved pop culture icons of all time and ruin them with a plethora of bodily fluid and fat jokes, as Sandler and James movies are wont to do; “I guarantee Kevin James will attempt to eat a Pac-Man fruit at some point in the movie,” I joked to a co-worker prior to the film’s pre-screening. However, “Pixels” shows a surprising amount of restraint; aside from one quip from Dinklage to James, the jokes rarely took the low road with slapstick and fat jokes. More importantly, it treats these classic games with the respect they deserve. It could be argued that not enough was done with them to justify their inclusion—games like “Paperboy” and “Frogger” show up for no other reason than for viewers to acknowledge that they’re there—and such an argument wouldn’t be wrong; “Pixels,” for all of its potential, is decidedly lacking in imagination.

But while it doesn’t fully utilize these games to the extent it could, nor does it abuse them. There is a clear love for these games that shines onscreen and the very nature of the story only proves this fact, as the characters discuss classic gaming strategies and the mechanical patterns those old arcade games were known for. While gaming today is more randomized, games of old were meticulously programmed and, with some effort, the entire game could be memorized and beaten by following a pattern and “Pixels” revels in that. At times, certain gaming mainstays are forced into the proceedings, particularly one scene involving a cheat code that makes absolutely no sense, but the affection is there. So if you’re worried your memories of your time with these classic games may be tarnished, fear not. “Pixels” treats them with respect.

Still, “Pixels” stumbles heavily with a weak story and a forced in romance—evidently, Sandler can’t go through an entire movie without kissing a pretty girl, this time played by Michelle Monaghan, in a surprisingly more intelligent role than most female fodder in Sandler’s movies as a military weapons specialist. Most egregious, however, is Sandler’s continued insistence to pack as many noticeable faces into his films as he possibly can, including cameos from Dan Patrick, Sean Bean and a nothing role for Jane Krakowski as Cooper’s just-for-show wife. It also plays into the worst gamer stereotypes—you know the ones: they’re lazy, they don’t have friends or socialize, they live in their parents’ basements—but it also celebrates gamers, as it’s ultimately the gamer geeks who have to save the day.

With all that said, “Pixels” remains both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment, as it’s largely a give-and-take affair. It doesn’t feel like your typical inane Sandler movie, but it doesn’t do anything to stand out from the crowd. The humor is amusing, but it’s never truly funny. The action is competent, but overall underwhelming, as the film never capitalizes on the inherent abilities of the very games and characters it portrays. But it does just enough to work. Perhaps low expectations contributed to my overall enjoyment of it—an understandable state of mind given recent Kevin James and Adam Sandler films—and it may be slight, but “Pixels” is admittedly fun.

Pixels receives 3/5

Thursday
Jul162015

Ant-Man

Travel back to 2008 with me for a moment. Remember when “Iron Man” was released? Back then, Iron Man wasn’t considered a top tier superhero. Among the non-comic fans, at least, there was Batman, Superman, Spiderman and only a select few others that were well known and highly lauded. But then the Jon Favreau directed action film hit theaters and Iron Man shot from a bottom rung superhero to the top of the Marvel universe, becoming arguably the most recognizable one in their whole canon. This is why I went into “Ant-Man,” a film whose superhero is even more obscure and backed by a supremely silly concept, with cautious optimism. Besides, Marvel has rarely stumbled since they began shaping their cinematic universe, so surely they could make “Ant-Man” enjoyable, right? I’m happy to say the answer is a resounding “yes.” It’s not going to make waves like “Iron Man” did and, frankly, it seems pretty slight compared to Marvel’s best films, but it’s nevertheless a fun, lighthearted superhero romp that is guaranteed to please the Marvel faithful.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently paroled convict. He’s a good man at heart, having done his time for a non-violent crime, but his record makes it hard for him to keep a job. The problem is that he has a young daughter whom he wants to care for, but has no income to do so. To compensate, he reluctantly agrees to take on a job with a ragtag group of guys, led by Luis (Michael Peña), to steal the contents of a safe at Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) house. However, after cracking into it, he finds only a suit, one that can shrink him down to the size of an ant. It turns out Pym has let him break in to test his determination and willpower because he needs his help in stopping his former company from potentially destroying the world.

As you can tell, the story is fairly standard superhero stuff, following the tried-and-true formula of “Hero needs to stop Bad Guy to prevent Evil Plot.” The screenwriters merely pulled a fill-in-the-blank, as they replaced the generic descriptors with a few specifics. It works on a basic level, but perhaps it comes as no surprise that the stakes are never raised particularly high, especially after the previous Marvel movies have done so much. “Ant-Man” is your standard go-through-the-motions superhero film, so it’s a bit difficult to truly care, but it’s elevated by a terrific cast and a few standout moments.

Paul Rudd may not seem like an ideal candidate for a superhero, given his smaller build and comedic history, but he fits the role perfectly. Ant-Man, while certainly a strong hero, depends more on agility and flexibility to get by, as he shrinks and grows at will, bullets whizzing by and missing by centimeters. Rudd, whose smaller build fits appropriately with the film’s literal smaller scale, pulls it off remarkably well, crafting a believable character and downplaying his usual big screen antics. In films like “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “I Love You, Man,” he broke character often, laughing during takes that he should have been stone-faced in, but he barely smiles here. Those who feared he may shtick the movie up needn’t worry; he’s all business and a delight to watch.

The film’s biggest stumbles come from an uneven story that never quite finds the correct flow, as it shoehorns in numerous connections to the overall “Avengers” universe. References meant to be humorous feel out of place and one scene midway through is hardly organic to the story, serving more as way to deviate from its story focus with action and dramatically introduce a noticeable character. Similarly, its drama falls flat. While I would hardly consider divulging the fate of the hundreds of ants that accompany Ant-Man on his mission a spoiler, I’ll refrain, but it must be said one particular late moment, seemingly played straight, was far and away the funniest part of the entire movie.

“Ant-Man” both succeeds and fails on those moments too. It’s far too goofy to take its drama seriously, but it’s far too fun to entirely criticize that goofiness. I’m not entirely convinced the character will mix well into the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe when he inevitably starts to crossover into other superhero films, but as a standalone adventure, “Ant-Man” is undeniably entertaining.

Ant-Man receives 3.5/5

Thursday
Jun112015

Jurassic World

Remember years ago when rumors were circulating that the fourth “Jurassic Park” film would feature dinosaurs with laser beams attached to their heads, as if Dr. Evil himself had written the screenplay? Pretty dumb idea, right? But at the same time, there was that little voice in the back of your head saying, “I would totally watch that.” While the idea has been tweaked and new ideas have been implemented, the same thought process exists for “Jurassic World,” the actual fourth entry in the dinosaurs-running-rampant franchise. There are certain ideas, shots and lines of dialogue that one would expect more from one of those straight-to-video “mockbuster” Asylum releases than a big budget franchise refresher, but it’s still strangely entertaining. Is “Jurassic World” dumb? Absolutely. Is it unwatchable? Absolutely not.

More than 20 years after the events on Isla Nublar, when Jurassic Park’s dinosaur inhabitants escaped from captivity and wreaked havoc on the island’s unfortunate dwellers, a new park has opened, dubbed Jurassic World. However, attendance is down because people have become desensitized to dinosaurs and are looking for something new, so the park’s scientists genetically engineer a new hybrid dinosaur called the Indominus Rex, one with a different genetic make-up than has been seen before that mixes many different creatures into one. However, the creation was almost too good, as it shows a high level of intelligence and eventually, as before, escapes from captivity. With a park full of people now in harm’s way, including young Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) who are there visiting their aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), it’s up to raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) to save the day.

You read that right. One of the park’s employees trains raptors, creatures with minimal intelligence and a primal urge to hunt and kill. To make the human-raptor relationship even more ridiculous, the film introduces Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), a man hell bent on using the raptors as a tool for war. Naturally, Owen is having none of that; that is until he does, as late in the movie (and featured prominently in the trailer) he rides along on a motorcycle with his raptor pack on a search for the Indominus, as they follow his commands and chase the beast’s scent like police dogs.

And it only gets better as the dinosaurs start talking to each other—who knew they had a discernible language?—and start to shift allegiances. It’s all so ridiculous that it’s actually kind of funny. I was rolling my eyes and laughing in equal amounts, especially when the film tries to pretend like it’s a serious, dramatic piece of work. “Jurassic World” is so utterly unaware of its own absurdity that it actually one-ups those aforementioned Asylum films by being unintentionally stupid.

One could further mention the plot holes and unexplored plot threads, like when Gray mentions that his parents are getting divorced, a line of dialogue that comes up unexpectedly and is dropped so quickly it reminds of the “breast cancer” line in Tommy Wiseau’s infamous “The Room,” or how the characters complain about dwindling revenue due to the public’s lack of interest in dinosaurs despite having a completely packed park, but such mentions are missing the point. “Jurassic World” is fun and, in fact, it’s these obvious oversights from its inane script that make it as entertaining as it is.

You see, every time the film starts to bore, it introduces another silly plot turn, further derailing it to the point of hilarity. Increasing the hilarity is the seriousness of the actors involved, who don’t seem to realize what they’re starring in, though that could be considered a detriment given how charming Pratt can be. Why not let him flex his sillier side? Still, the dinosaurs—not including the genetically modified Indominus, who isn’t as interesting as the real, historical things—make up for such shortsightedness and are a sight to behold, as they still manage to wonder and captivate just as much as they did in 1993’s “Jurassic Park.” When the Tyrannosaurus Rex inevitably makes its entrance, there won’t be a single person in the audience without a big, goofy smile on their faces.

And such a goofy smile fits pretty snugly into a movie that is little more than two-plus hours of goofy shenanigans. There are two ways to watch “Jurassic World”: not think too hard and enjoy the action or analyze it completely and tear it apart afterwards in a fun conversation with friends. If you approach it with one of those two methods in mind, you’ll surely enjoy it. But if you’re expecting it to reboot a once loved franchise with the magic we first witnessed over 20 years ago, you’ll surely be disappointed.

Jurassic World receives 2.5/5

Thursday
May142015

Mad Max: Fury Road

It has been exactly 30 years since George Miller brought us the seemingly final entry in the “Mad Max” trilogy with “Beyond Thunderdome.” With action movies having evolved since then, the original movies, especially the first one, now look dated. Although stylish for the 80s, they lack much of the pizzazz modern day action movies possess. The newest installment, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” looks to reinvigorate the franchise with the same level of over-the-top excitement we see in cinemas today and it succeeds. Unfortunately, it retains most of the problems from the original films, as it focuses more on chases and explosions than it does story or character development. Like other movies of this ilk, “Mad Max: Fury Road” rings pretty hollow, but it’s fun while it lasts.

The story is simple, nigh inconsequential, as it exists solely as a means to lead to action. All you need to know is that Max (Tom Hardy) is on a cross-desert trek with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping female captives known as the Five Wives escape from a ruthless clan leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Pretty much everything before and after this part-way through set-up is narratively irrelevant. Sure, lots of things happen, but like the other “Mad Max” movies, nothing really happens.

At its best, though, “Fury Road” is a mesmerizing action movie, with enough impressive stunts to keep any filmgoer entertained. It begins and ends without doing or accomplishing much of anything besides mindless action, but that action is something to behold. Suicide leaps, fisticuffs atop moving vehicles, crumbling landscapes and more give the action an edge few other action films have. Even at the age of 70, director George Miller hasn’t lost a step. One could easily scoff at a man whose last three films were “Babe: Pig in the City” and both “Happy Feet” movies for trying to provide what many other directors have already seemingly perfected, but he has, in fact, surpassed those people, as he delivers some of the most impressive action put to screen in many years despite having not touched the genre in three decades.

Even better, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an absolute beauty, one of the most gorgeously shot action movies I’ve ever seen, to the point where it should be given serious cinematography Oscar considerations. Couple that with terrific art direction and costume design, where the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world sport chapped lips and scarred skin due to an overbearing sun and lack of resources, and you have a film that is a sight to behold. Pure chaos and destruction has never been captured onscreen so beautifully.

If only such praise could be given to the other facets of its production. In a welcome surprise, Theron owns this movie and is even given the expected payoff at the end, but it nevertheless comes as a disappointment that Hardy is so underutilized. A terrific actor in his own right, he is given almost nothing to do except grunt and groan and stand broodingly. His scenes of dialogue are so few and far between that you start to wonder if poor Max somehow became a mute in the time period between this movie and its predecessors. While you can certainly develop a character without dialogue, the attempt here is poor and his lack of speech doesn’t do much to help. He is still emotionally suffering from the loss of his family (though they don’t contextualize it in any meaningful way for those who haven’t seen the first film), but instead of exploring it through character, they give him a few sudden flashbacks and hallucinations in a lame attempt to give his journey meaning.

The movie also suffers from the questionable decision to speed things up, a move done in the previous films to, one can assume, mask budget constraints. Here, it’s completely unnecessary. This world is so vividly realized and the action so stunningly choreographed that it comes as a disappointment that the film so often doesn’t give us enough time to truly appreciate it, as it instead cuts to the next explosion or gunshot. It doesn’t help either when the narrative can legitimately be compared to the frowned upon practice of backtracking in video games, as it gets them from point A to point B only to turn them around and send them back to point A again.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is simultaneously a disappointment and an absolute blast. It’s hard to argue against its visual quality and exciting action, but it’s also easy to destroy its thinner than thin narrative and lack of substance. It’s one of those movies you’ll watch once in the theater and then never watch again, but during that one viewing, boy, is it something.

Mad Max: Fury Road receives 3/5

Thursday
May142015

Pitch Perfect 2

Depending on the genre, it’s easy to make a sequel from a successful first entry. All you have to do for an action movie, for example, is do exactly what made the first one so fun and make the action bigger, louder and more explosive. It’s a formula that has worked hundreds of times for action movies, from “Rambo” to “The Avengers,” but it hasn’t always translated well to other genres. While “Pitch Perfect” was indeed a surprisingly fun, funny, toe tapping good time, how do you take a cappella to the next level? The answer is that you can’t, at least you can’t as evidenced by “Pitch Perfect 2.” It’s still entertaining and worth seeing, but the magic captured in the first film is mostly gone this time, as the musical numbers have to do all the heavy lifting while the story around them stumbles along.

We meet the girls back at Barden University a few years after the events of the first film. Barden Bella members have come and gone, but the core group remains the same, including Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). Also joining the group as a “legacy” member, thanks to her mom who used to be a Barden Bella herself, is newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld). After an embarrassing performance in front of the President that had Fat Amy exposing herself, the Bellas are suspended from performing in the American a cappella circuit. This, naturally, doesn’t include the upcoming World A Cappella Championship in Copenhagen, which they decide to take part in. However, an American team has never won it, so it is agreed upon that if they can pull off the seemingly impossible task, their suspension will be lifted.

It’s a contrived set-up, one that even the most passive viewers will realize makes no sense. An embarrassing mistake during a performance, even one as surprising as the one that happened to the Bellas, would never result in such a harsh punishment, but it’s indicative of the narrative as a whole. None of the plot turns do much to elicit responses, as they feel like they’re merely going through the motions instead of crafting something viewers can latch onto. Even its narrative conflict, the backbone of any story as anyone who has taken storytelling 101 will tell you, accomplishes nothing, as it’s barely brought up and resolved before any actual conflict happens.

This is something the first film didn’t suffer from, primarily because it had room to work with its characters. Beca was a loner in the original, someone who was perpetually unhappy and didn’t even really know why. It took a ragtag a cappella group to show her that and, as the film went on, she had emotional breakthroughs that brought her arc around to a satisfying conclusion. The closest “Pitch Perfect 2” comes to that is in the budding romance between Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam DeVine), but it’s somewhat amusing at best and completely unnecessary at worst. To put it simply, from a character or narrative viewpoint, there’s nothing truly at stake.

It has other problems, like shameful product placement for things like Volkswagen and Pantene Pro-V, but luckily, “Pitch Perfect 2” retains the musical verve that made the first film so great. Like its predecessor, it cleverly mashes up old and new tunes into something that sounds fresh, that gives certain songs most haven’t heard in many years new life. To top it off, the film introduces a completely original song, deviating from the very nature of a cappella, and it’s arguably the best song in the whole thing. If you’re on the fence leading up to the conclusion of the film, the song that caps it off will sway you to recommendation.

It did for me, at least. It’s a good thing too, because nearly every other facet of the film pales in comparison to the original. It’s more mildly humorous than flat out funny and it lacks the style and intelligence that made its predecessor so special. It’s worth seeing, but in its attempt to emulate those things, “Pitch Perfect 2” shows its weakness.

Pitch Perfect 2 receives 3/5