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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

Tuesday
Nov262013

Frozen

It’s hard not to love Disney animation. For many decades now, they’ve captivated the hearts and minds of all ages with sweeping musical numbers, beautiful visuals and endless imagination. With heart and wit always seemingly at the center of each tale, their movies are timeless and will continue to be watched for many more generations to come. Their latest, “Frozen,” rests comfortably alongside the rest of Disney’s collection, even if it doesn’t quite reach the wonder of those that have come before.

Anna (Kristen Bell) is a spunky girl. She was always close to her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), as a child, but in their older years they’ve grown apart. This is because Elsa has powers of ice that she can’t control and when they were young, she accidentally harmed Anna, an event Anna no longer remembers. By distancing herself from her sister, she ensures she’ll never harm her again. However, Elsa is about to be made queen of her kingdom, which forces her to open up the castle doors to the people. This leads to a circumstance that reveals her powers, frightening the people and forcing her to rush off into the mountains. Determined to get her back, Anna jumps on horseback and rides away to find her, eventually enlisting the help of common man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his deer, Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

Just in terms of visuals, “Frozen” is a marvel. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a childlike imagination that mixes exaggerated views of reality with magic. With our technological advancements in animation, it has never been a better time to revert back to your childhood and enjoy an animated movie and this works as a perfect example of that. Its songs, too, are wonderful, echoing Disney’s 2010 hit, “Tangled.” Sung beautifully and written with care (with a few jokes thrown in the lyrics for good measure), combining them with the pleasing sights are sure to bring goose bumps to all but the hardest of cynics. In these ways and more, “Frozen” is a Disney movie in all the best ways.

Perhaps uncharacteristically of a Disney movie, however, is its surprisingly uneven story. The story itself is grand with neat ideas and real emotion (the opening, in particular, packs more emotional punches than most movies do in their entirety), but it breaks the cardinal sin of storytelling: it doesn’t follow its own rules. The most egregious example comes shortly after Elsa flees the kingdom. Her whole life, she has been unable to control her powers, isolating herself so as not to harm anyone else. Her bedroom is covered from the floor to the ceiling in ice and when she picks something up with her bare hands, it immediately freezes over. It’s this lack of control that creates the primary conflict for the film’s main story arc, but the first thing Elsa does when she reaches the mountains is build an elaborate ice palace, complete with spiraling staircases and giant swinging doors.

This moment doesn’t necessarily leave a huge stain on the story as a whole, but it’s a contrived set-up, existing as a means to give the other characters a location to reach and making moot the film’s previous rules. One late movie twist, that I unfortunately won’t be able to talk about in depth, only adds to the perplexing inconsistencies of a movie that would have been fantastic otherwise. After the true motivation of a certain character is revealed, it calls into question nearly all of the events that led to it. Writers, above all, need to ensure their characters do things that make sense and that they follow their own established set of rules. In these regards, “Frozen” fails miserably.

But there’s so much more to the film than those admittedly glaring blunders. Olaf, in particular, is a treat. With energetic voice work by the underappreciated Josh Gad, he shows up just in the nick of time, picking the movie up from its midway slump. He’s ever the optimist, smiles incessantly and never misses the opportunity to make a joke. He’s one of the most charming and hilarious Disney characters in quite some time. If that doesn’t sell it for you, “Frozen” is opened by a spectacular Mickey Mouse short that cleverly blends old school 2D black and white animation with the new colorful 3D visuals we’re accustomed to today. It alone is worth the price of admission, but the good news is that the movie that follows, while not a new Disney classic, is a pleasant experience in and of itself.

Frozen receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jul132012

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Never before has a series been more average than Ice Age. That’s meant neither as a compliment or a criticism, mind you. It’s simply an observation. None of the entries do anything offensively bad, but none of them do anything particularly amazing either. Each installment’s quality is so close to the ones prior that the difference is negligible. The newest entry in one of the blandest franchises ever, Ice Age: Continental Drift, brings more of what we expect: hit-and-miss comedy and action that somehow manages to be both exciting and uninteresting at the same time. It’s impossible to feel anything other than ambivalence towards it, as it does nothing worthy of anger or cheer. It simply plays out before you, ends and life goes on.

Ice Age: Continental Drift once again follows the unruly herd of animals we’ve grown to somewhat enjoy, including mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah), sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) and saber-toothed tiger Diego (Dennis Leary), this time as they live through the shifting of the continents. Since the last time we saw them, Manny and Ellie have had a daughter named Peaches (Keke Palmer) who is now a teenager and crushing on Ethan (Drake). When she goes to a dangerous area to see Ethan, Peaches and Manny get in a fight. Soon after, they are separated due to the shifting continents, but vow to find each other again so that the last words they exchange aren’t from a fight. But while Peaches and her mother only need to walk away from the moving mountains, Manny is stranded at sea on a block of ice with his two buddies and Granny (Wanda Sykes), Sid’s grandmother. Eventually, they run into a sea pirate named Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), foil him and steal his ship, to which Gutt vows revenge, following Manny and the gang on their journey home.

Once again, the story revolves around two or more characters being separated from each other and journeying to reunite. Each movie is the same as the last and it’s tiresome. Nearly all of the freshness from this franchise evaporated with the credits of the original Ice Age. Since then, every facet of every movie has felt outdated and overdone, with the sole exception of the Scrat character. Though the most silent of all the characters, he’s by far the most interesting and is instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen an animated movie in the theater over the last 10 years. The lovable squirrel who is always after that elusive acorn is the only thing in the entire franchise that has stood the test of time and still manages to delight while everything around him bores. However, Ice Age: Continental Drift severely limits new screen time for the little guy. I specify “new” because Scrat’s first two segments, including the opening that sparks the entire movie, have been seen before as shorts prior to other films. The filmmakers, in one of the most boneheaded moves I’ve seen in a long time, reused those shorts rather than create new material and much of the joy from seeing Scrat is sucked away in the process. The following Scrat segments don’t bring much to the table either because they’re far too short to be interesting, much shorter than the previous movies.

And just like the previous movies, the action is routine and the comedy fairly standard, aside from one hilarious joke about how the previous movie, where the characters found themselves in an underground dinosaur utopia hidden beneath the ice, didn’t make any sense. But as simple as these movies are, it’s amazing how the smallest things are overlooked. In Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Diego was suffering from a sickness, or old age, or something like that. It wasn’t really explained, even as his vision blurred and breathing grew increasingly heavy. Continental Drift similarly ignores that set-up, never minding the fact that 10 years have passed since we were first introduced to the gang and that many of them should be on a health decline.

There are also some annoying pop culture references in the film as well that, just like the other films, don’t fit into the Ice Age setting, a setting that doesn’t provide a lot of leeway for story development in the first place. But even with all those problems, Ice Age: Continental Drift and, indeed, the rest of the series, doesn’t do anything harmful—it teaches valuable lessons about family, love and friendship and it’s hard to deride it for that—yet it’s so spectacularly unspectacular that it’s hard to muster up anything more than an ambiguous shrug when someone asks about its quality. In a time when animated movies have eclipsed the whole notion of “being just for kids,” Ice Age: Continental Drift has no place.

Ice Age: Continental Drift receives 2/5

Wednesday
Nov242010

Love & Other Drugs

Love & Other Drugs is a movie that goes to show how important casting is. Without the star power of Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, the film would fall into obscurity never to be heard from again. Their natural charisma and good looks take an otherwise formulaic romantic comedy and make it transcendent.

Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a fast talking, womanizing salesman at a local electronics store. After being caught having sex with the boss’s girlfriend in the backroom, he is fired and ends up grabbing a job as a pharmaceutical rep at Pfizer right before the company had its breakthrough with Viagra in 1998. As a way to work his drugs into the doctor’s office, he bribes his way into an internship with Dr. Knight, played by Hank Azaria. There he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a beautiful 26 year old with Parkinson’s disease, but when he tries to pick her up, as he has countless women before, she calls him out for the game he’s playing. It turns out she can play it too and, despite agreeing to keep their relationship at the casual sex level, Jamie starts to fall for her.

Love & Other Drugs, like most romantic comedies, is predictable. While the smooth dialogue felt fresh, the plot turns did not. You’ll see where the movie is heading from the get go, having mapped it all out in your head well before it ends, but it’s still believable. Their relationship may unfold in a typical fashion, but it’s sweet and you’ll feel the appropriate range of emotions—sadness, happiness, depression, loneliness, fear—because the actors are that good at bringing them forth.

Also like most romantic comedies, Love & Other Drugs is full of contrivances that lead to misunderstandings and arguments that otherwise would have never occurred. Prior to one late scene, Jamie had never questioned the hardships that may come in the future from being with a woman who has Parkinson’s disease. It isn’t until a man at a random Parkinson’s convention details them to him in as grisly a fashion as possible that he starts to wonder.

There are also some romantic comedy clichés, including a late movie race to catch up to a loved one that is followed by a long, overemotional speech, but there’s something about it that works. It takes about half the movie for the sweetness to role in, but when it does it never lets up and it will grab hold of you. To sit here and tell you I didn’t choke up at certain moments in the movie would be a lie. It affected me despite its trifecta of romantic comedy downfalls.

With a supporting cast that includes Oliver Platt, Judy Greer, the aforementioned Hank Azaria and a hilarious performance by Josh Gad as Jamie’s brother, there isn’t a moment where charm isn’t seeping through, but this is still Gyllenhaal’s and Hathaway’s movie. They are in the spotlight and despite noble attempts from its talented supporting cast, it’s never stolen from them. Gyllenhaal is warm and funny while Hathaway is radiant. Their chemistry is magnificent.

While Love & Other Drugs can’t be considered one of the best of the year, it can be considered one of the best in its respective genre. It hits similar pratfalls as its romantic comedy brethren, but it’s funny and heartfelt and in a year lacking movies with similar traits, that is all I could ask for.

Love & Other Drugs receives 4/5