Thursday, July 30, 2015


Combine “Independence Day” with “Ghostbusters” and then insert Adam Sandler in another of his immature man-child roles as the hero, and you’ve got the premise of “Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus’ predictable but palatable “Pixels” (** of ****), a nostalgic science-fiction fantasy about the bygone video game arcade era.  Initially, you might think Columbus and "Mr. Deeds" writer Tim Herlihy and "Just Go with It" scribe Timothy Dowling have done little more than synthesize elements of “Independence Day” and “Ghostbusters” for the former “Saturday Night Live” alumnus.  Actually, the filmmakers have adapted French director Patrick Jean’s ephemeral, two minute short “Pixels” (2010) about extraterrestrial space invaders that masquerade as vintage video game characters.  Sadly, everything about Columbus’ “Pixels” adaptation is wholesome and lukewarm rather than imaginative and mischievous.  Since he slipped into middle-age, the 48-year old Sandler hasn’t made anything as audacious as his early, lowest-common-denominator farces: “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “The Waterboy” (1998), “Big Daddy” (1999), and “Little Nicky” (2000).  Later, Sandler appeared in comedies with a slightly higher IQ such as his critically acclaimed “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), “Anger Management” (2003) with Jack Nicholson, “50 First Dates” (2004) with Drew Barrymore, “Click” (2006) with Christopher Walken, and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” (2007) with Kevin James.  Just as he explored new facets with his image in “Punch Drunk Love,” Sandler ventured even farther afield with Judd Apatow’s heavyweight “Funny People” (2009) as a comedian stricken with cancer. Sadly, he doesn't turn any corners in "Pixels."

Sandler’s recent big screen efforts have overshadowed neither “Punch Drunk Love” nor “Funny Business.”  Indeed, “Pixels” is just as desultory as “Just Go for It” (2011), “Grown-Ups” (2010), its sequel “Grown-Ups 2” along with his two obnoxious farces “Jack and Jill” (2011) and “That’s My Boy” (2012).  Although nothing about “Pixels” is likely to affront or alienate anybody like “Jack and Jill” or “That’s My Boy,” Sandler’s shenanigans as a video gamer wronged in his youth comes off as strictly superficial.  Nevertheless, Columbus has fashioned a straightforward but humorless escapade with some amusing characters that are eclipsed by impressive CGI renderings of several 8-bit video characters, including “PAC-MAN,” “Donkey Kong,” “Galaga,” “Centipede,” and “Space Invaders.” 

“Pixels” unfolds in 1982 as 13-year old Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and his best friend Will Cooper (Jared Riley) swing astride their banana-seat bikes and spin off to the first video game arcade to open in their town.  Not only does Sam discover he possesses a knack for defeating Pac-Man and Centipede, but Cooper and he make friends with lonely 8-year-old Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jacob Shinder) whose only friend is his grandmother.  Eventually, Sam takes his gift for predicting video games patterns to a Donkey Kong Championship.  Unfortunately, he comes in second place to his chief adversary, self-centered 13-year-old Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), who dubs himself ‘The Fire Blaster.’  Interestingly enough, NASA seals up competition footage in a time capsule and blasts it off into space aboard a rocket. Optimistically, NASA wanted to establish peaceful contact with any alien civilization. Like the best laid plans, NASA's efforts prove futile. Meantime, since Eddie trounced him, Sam has turned into a perennial slacker. Basically, Sam has lived a low-profile life.  He got married, but his wife cheated on him with their pediatrician.  Now, he installs home entertainment systems for a living.  Basically, Sam is a loser who has accepted his place in society. Actually, Sandler looks clownish in his bright orange Nerds company outfit that resembles the UPS drivers' summer outfit.  Unfortunately, Sam is nowhere near as colorful as his outfit. Meantime, Sam’s obese buddy Will plunged into politics and now sits in the Oval Office at the White House as our President.  Nevertheless, Will has an appalling habit of putting his foot in his mouth whenever he ventures out into the public eye.  His latest debacle involved reprimanding a Girl Scout during a reading initiative at a kindergarten when the child corrected his pronunciation.  Their friend Ludlow (Josh Gad of “The Wedding Ringer”) has turned into a conspiracy theorist who covers his walls with crazy newspaper stories.

Suddenly, one night at a U.S. Airbase in Guam, a mysterious force attacks, leaves the base in a shambles of millions of cubes, and abducts a security guard.  The President assembles his advisors and summons Sam for his input.  One of the President’s advisors is Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan of “Source Code”) who has just separated from her philandering husband.  Violet’s hubby cheated on her with his 19-year old Pilates instructor.  Before they race each other to the White House, Sam and Violet meet at her house after he arrived to install a home entertainment system.  The home entertainment center is a farewell gift from Violet's husband to his son. Violet and Sam sit in her closet and swap sentimental stories so Violet’s son Matty (Matt Lintz of “The Crazies”) won’t see her grieve. Anyway, an enigmatic alien race has acquired the NASA footage, but it has misconstrued it as a challenge to fight to the death.  Miraculously, Sam’s superb video game skills once again make him a highly sought-off individual, and President Cooper assigns both Sam and Ludlow to teach Navy SEALS how to fight these aliens.  Lieutenant Colonel Van Patten has analyzed the cube debris from the Guam base and has created light-blasting ray guns that shatter the aliens.  Incredibly, this is one of the few instances where a woman is allowed to compete with men and actually help them! President Cooper refuses to act quickly enough to prevent another attack, and the aliens destroy the Taj Mahal.  Imagine a disaster movie where no architectural icons aren't obliterated. At least, "Pixels" plays for high stakes.  

Later, to heighten the suspense, the aliens abduct Matty, but his life doesn't hang in the balance.   Predictably, our heroes whip the aliens with indifferent nonchalance in this PG-13 rated hokum.  The showdowns with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong generate the greatest suspense, and the special effects look terrific.  The funniest scene occurs when the fictional creator of PAC-MAN, Professor Iwatani (Denis Akiyama of “Johnny Mnemonic”), tries to reason with a gargantuan replica of his computer-generated son and gets his forearm eaten off.  Columbus borrowed the scene from the original Howard Hawks’ chiller “The Thing from Another World.”  Not even diminutive Peter Dinklage as the adult version of Eddie can imbue any spontaneity to this attractive but anemic laffer.  Altogether, “Pixels” qualifies as one of Sandler’s least memorable movies. 


The Marvel Comics Universe keeps getting bigger and more spectacular with each appearance of “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” “The Fantastic Four,” “X-Men,” “Wolverine,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” Consequently, it comes with a sigh of relief that the latest newcomer, “Ant-Man” (**** OUT OF ****), shrinks from such apocalyptic pretensions.  “Bring It On” director Peyton Reed, who replaced British writer & director Edgar Wright, has helmed what could possibly be the most imaginative as well as the atypical superhero saga of the summer. Miniaturization is the cornerstone of this clever little yarn.   Mind you, nobody can completely appreciate “Ant-Man” who hasn’t seen director Jack Arnold’s seminal science-fiction feature “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957) where an unfortunate fellow--through no fault of his own--found himself reduced to the size of a toothpick and tangled with predatory house cats while taking refuge in a child’s doll house.  Similarly, the next major movie to magnify shrinkage, director Richard Fleischer’s “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), scaled down scientists to microscopic dimensions and injected them into a comatose scientist’s bloodstream to save him from a lethal blood clot.  Appropriately, television capitalized on all things minuscule with Irwin Allen’s “Land of the Giants” (1968-1970) where the crew and passengers of the Spindrift, a commercial sub-orbital transport spaceship, traveled into treacherous outer space turbulence and then crashed on an unknown planet.  Everything loomed twelve times larger on this peculiar planet than anything on Earth making for 51 exciting episodes.  Of course, other honorable mentions include the Dennis Quaid comedy “Innerspace” (1987) and the Rick Moranis farce “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989).

“Ant-Man” opens in 1989. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hands Howard Stark (John Slattery of “Iron Man 2”) his resignation and leaves the espionage, law-enforcement, and counterterrorism agency SHIELD.  Naturally, Stark regrets Pym’s departure.  Pym exits because SHIELD went behind his back and endeavored to duplicate the Pym Particle with his Ant-Man shrinking-suit technology.  Pym lost his wife while during his experiments with that technology, and he deems it is far too dangerous for anybody to trifle with.  "As long as I am alive,” proclaims Pym, “nobody is ever going to get that formula." This early scene fascinates because the filmmakers have given actor Michael Douglas an incredible, computerized, makeover so he appears twenty years or younger.  For the record, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby created Ant-man in “Tales to Astonish #27” back in January 1962.  Similarly, Hollywood altered some of the Marvel Comics canon. In the comics, Pym—not Tony Stark and Bruce Banner—originally created the villainous Ultron, who menaced our heroic quintet in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Happily, none of this matters unless you are a hardcore Marvel fanatic (nothing wrong with this kind of fanaticism) because the fun of it all lies in the variations that make everything memorable. Meanwhile, the years have not kind to Dr. Pym.  After he exited SHIELD, he formed his own company, Pym Technologies. Sadly, Pym’s evil protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll of “The Bourne Legacy”), has seized control and feverishly schemes to replicate the prized Pym Particle. Ironically enough, Hank’s estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly of “Lost”), appears to be working in league with the treacherous Cross.

Meantime, idealistic thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) leaves San Quentin after serving a three-year stretch for burglary.  Actually, Scott qualifies as the most sympathetic ex-con in cinematic history. Since he divorced his wife Maggie (Judy Greer of “Jurassic World”) but hasn’t paid a penny of child support, Scott cannot visit his adorable daughter, Cassie (newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson), who misses him as much as he misses her.  Not only does Maggie stonewall Scott, so does her smarmy fiancé, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale of “Spy”), who happens to be a cop.  Reluctantly, Scott boards with his former cellmate, Luis (a scene-stealing Michael Peña of “Fury”), who lures him back into a life of crime.  Scott struggled to go straight, even landed a job at Baskin-Robbins, but his boss learned about this prison record and fired him.  Desperate to make child support money, Scott resorts to his burglary skills.  He breaks into none other than Hank Pym’s house and steals an exotic helmet and suit.  Later, he discovers the outfit enables him to shrink to ant size and enhance his fighting prowess. “Second chances don't come around all that often," Pym warns Scott. "This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter's eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are."  Scott joins Hank in an outlandish plan to prevent the megalomaniacal Cross from selling the Pym Particle to SHIELD’s nemesis HYDRA. Silly, superficial, and preposterous, “Ant-Man” delivers scores of hilarious, but suspenseful shenanigans.

Until Marvel/Disney released “Ant-Man,” Hollywood had ignored all things petite in pursuit of the big, the bigger, and the biggest in its blockbusters.  Meantime, the ever creative intellects at Marvel had been planning an “Ant-Man” movie since “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright had embarked on the project about a decade ago.  Creative differences forced Wright out, and Reed took over the helm. Now, “Ant-Man” has emerged as the revelation of the summer, rather like the goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy” did last summer. From concept to casting, everything about this mighty mite of a movie is nothing short of brilliant.  Consistently entertaining on all levels, “Ant-Man” plumbs new depths in the superhero genre and provides former superstar Michael Douglas with his best role since director David Fincher’s 1997 thriller “The Game.”  Romantic comedy leading man Paul Rudd of “Role Models” is the last guy you’d imagine as the diminutive Marvel hero.  Nevertheless, the self-deprecatory Rudd succeeds with a combination of panache and charisma.  He is a funny guy who doesn’t try to be funny and comes off being even funnier.  Like the eponymous creepy-crawlies that can tote ten times their body weight, “Ant-Man” delivers ten times more entertainment than most superhero sagas despite its downsized spectacle.  Not surprisingly, this origins opus covers the roughly same ground that “Iron Man” did, but it does so with greater creativity on a considerably smaller scale.  Clearly, those pests that habitually ruin your picnics have undergone a massive publicity campaign that places them as well as formulaic superheroes in an entirely different perspective.

Altogether, “Ant-Man” is antastic!