Monday, July 27, 2015

'Pixels' review

I know that Pixels is a bad movie. I know that I should pan this movie to death. Pixels is cliched, poorly structured and paced, and is filled with some truly lackluster performances. It is utterly tone deaf and it shifts so much that it's clear that Adam Sandler and director Chris Columbus really didn't know what to go for with this concept. But despite all of the juvenile humor, the cheesy references, the over-the-top turns by Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, and the overall nature of the product, I truly enjoyed much of Pixels. Maybe something got into me as I watched Sandler's latest critical disaster, but I was consistently surprised by how much fun I was having with this film. Pixels, for me, works as a guilty pleasure film- I shook my head every few minutes as the film moved along, even though each action scene and silly comedic beat brought me right back in. I can't possibly tell you that you're in for a good piece of cinema but for a quick bit of fun, Pixels is a pretty solid choice.

The idea behind Pixels is brilliant- essentially, America sent a bunch of videos of humans playing classic video games into space, some aliens found it, took it as a war message and decided to challenge us for our planet using lifelike versions of those classic games. As setups for summer blockbusters go, that's pretty good. Throw in Adam Sandler, Kevin James as the President of the United States (let that sink in for a second) and an atrociously goofy screenplay, and that premise gets worn down a little bit. In the film, Sandler and James play Sam Brenner and Cooper, two gaming buddies in the 1980s who went down separate career paths- Brenner pretty much became a member of the Best Buy Geek Squad (although it's called the Nerd Brigade or something like that in the movie), while Cooper became the President of the United States.

In the 80s, Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Eddie (Peter Dinklage) were also video game champs, and rivals of Brenner. By the time the present day rolls around, Ludlow is living with his mother while Eddie is in prison. But all four of them will be reunited when Galaga attacks an Air Force base, prompting President Cooper to recruit the team of experts to lead the counter-attack against the aliens, who lead an assault with Pac-Man, Centipede and Space Invaders, along with a bevy of other classic characters. If Brenner and the squad lose too many times, it's game over for them- and for the whole planet.

Pixels is not Wreck-It Ralph. It's not Ghostbusters either, which many have cited as its biggest influence. But in its own weird, sophomoric way, it simply works as a classic piece of summer blockbuster movie-making. Admittedly, it feels more like a movie that would have fit best in the 90s, during the heyday of both Sandler and high-concept alien invasion movies, but it will suffice fine now in the era of 1980s nostalgia. However, it's not all fun and games- Gad, Dinklage and poor Michelle Monaghan have never been worse, the story is so loosely and flimsily constructed that the film seems on the verge of collapse every minute and ultimately, Pixels suffers from a blunt lack of cleverness that seems to seep into every Sandler production. And yet the movie sets every scene with this stupid, overly idiotic glee that I couldn't help but laugh. I feel like I'm going out of my way to justify it, but it's undeniable- I enjoyed Pixels quite a bit.

The charm of Pixels is that it is pure, 100% dumb fun. There's nothing too preachy or deep about it. This is just a movie about middle-aged guys fighting video game characters with the help of the US army. Going in, you have to know that the humor will be lowbrow. I mean, this is a movie where one of the running jokes is that a certain character wants to have a three-way with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams. If you buy a ticket for Pixels, that's the movie you're getting into. It's not all about the nostalgia or the video games. Sandler manages to inject his typical brand of humor into this flick, and that does make the movie worse off sometimes.

The good thing with Pixels is that for every bad joke that made me groan and roll my eyes, there was a fun and inventive action scene that was a blast of well-shot cinematic energy. Whether it's a duel through New York City with Pac-Man, a field battle with Centipede or a major city battle between humans and video game characters, the action scenes in this movie have an entertainment value that simply can't be denied. Despite the occasionally idiotic script. Chris Columbus is still an adept director who knows how to stage a fun action scene, even when the movie has't properly set up the stakes of the scene.

Beyond the undeniable fun factor, I know that Pixels isn't necessarily a good film. The characters are lazily written, the stakes are never properly set and the action scenes, while fun, have zero weight or gravity. The acting is mostly bad- Sandler and James are their usual selves, but Gad and Dinklage surprised me with their awfulness. These are two gifted and smart performers who are left to work with pathetic roles where they either speak with dumb accents (Dinklage) or spout off embarrassingly nonsensical dialogue (Gad). It's pretty sad to watch and the talents of these two men were definitely wasted in this film.

It's a shame, honestly, when I go back and think about how great Pixels could have been in the hands of another group of people. Ghostbusters is a classic because Ivan Reitman knew what to do with the concept and used the actors well. Wreck-It Ralph is a great homage to video games because the filmmakers set up a convincing world where video game characters lived and breathed like actual people. Pixels isn't that good because it's just a series of fun, but inconsequential action scenes with some Sandler jokes thrown in for good measure. With some script re-tooling, I have a feeling that we would be having a very different conversation in regards to this film.

Although I think Pixels didn't really deserve the critical drubbing it received, I perfectly understand why people despised this film. Pixels isn't complex or interesting- just set your expectations low and you'll probably enjoy yourself. I know that is the faintest of faint praise, but it's simply true. Sandler and James aren't exactly aiming for the sky here and for what it is, Pixels is decent. Simultaneously one of the best and one of the most incredibly awful movies of the summer, Pixels falls into the area of cinematic McDonald's- you know that it's terrible for you, you cry at how horrible it is, but somehow, you just can't stop eating it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.6/10)

Image Credits: MovieWeb, Wired, Huffington Post, IGN

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