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!
Sunday, July 12, 2015
The claustrophobic, found-footage, horror chiller "The Gallows" (* OUT OF ****) keeps you hanging for almost 8o minutes with nothing that might either shock or scare you. The few ominous moments when the filmmakers actually frighten us are quickly forgotten. Most of the time, we see images of feet trampling floors, epileptic hand-held cameras prowling eerie hallways, and dramatic lapses when the characters deliberately avert their cameras from their devious endeavors. Sadly, "The Gallows" provides little that would alarm you enough to make you scream until you couldn’t scream. Clearly, rookie co-writer and directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing have drawn most of their inspiration for their woebegone tale from classics such as "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), "Candy Man" (1992), and "Carrie" (2013). The film follows three mischievous pranksters as they break into their own high school after hours to destroy the set of theatrical play scheduled to open the next day. Idiotically, they bring along both video cameras and smart-phones to document their mayhem. First, Cluff and Lofing must have enjoyed "The Blair Witch Project" with its frantic hand-held photography. Unfortunately, shooting the events from a first person perspective does little to heighten the horror, and found-footage films have long since exhausted their novelty. Second, you can endanger yourself in "The Gallows" by uttering a dead man's name three or more times. Obviously, Cluff and Lofing appropriated this trope from "Candyman" and its sequels where invoking the bogyman's name three times served to summon the supernatural fiend. Third, the pranks may remind you of the depraved teens in "Carrie" that sabotaged the beauty pageant. Cluff and Lofing go to painful lengths to maintain an eerie atmosphere, but they never pay-off this white-knuckled frenzy with palatable hysteria. Mind you, good horror movies boast intimidating villains. The bogyman in "The Gallows'" amounts to little more than an anonymous apparition without a menacing musical motif to enhance its malevolence. Comparably, Cluff and Lofing have tried to clone him in the mold of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Candyman. Basically, this puzzling predator with a noose never rattles your nerves. Furthermore, "The Gallows" neglects to adequately reveal either the evildoer’s identity or its motive for behaving like an omniscient force of annihilation.
"The Gallows" unfolds in 1993 at Beatrice High School somewhere in Nebraska. A parent with a camcorder is taping a costume play that resembles Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." A character is sentenced to swing from a gallows. Suddenly, everything goes horribly wrong when an implausible prop malfunction occurs. The actor with a noose around his neck strangles to death before anybody can save him. The premise about a high school play gone horribly wrong is provocative, but it is wholly preposterous. Imagine high school administrators allowing their theater students to stage a play with a fully operational gallows? Such material itself would constitute dire poor taste. Incredibly, some twenty years afterward this tragedy, the same Nebraska high school decides to commemorate the tragedy with a new production of the same play. Had "The Gallows" been set in an off-campus little theater, the premise might have been credible. Anyway, the night before the play opens, a trio of students vandalizes the set. One of them is the actor scheduled to put his head in the noose. A high school football player, Reese (Reese Mishler), has been persecuted without mercy by his gridiron classmate, Ryan (Ryan Shoos), into participating in this notorious prank. Ryan has convinced Reese that Reese lacks the most basic acting skills. Furthermore, Ryan contends that Reese will succeed only in making a buffoon out of himself in front of the whole school. Essentially, Ryan has coerced a reluctant Reese into participating because if they smash up the sets, the play will be canceled, and Reese will not have to expose himself to ridicule. Ryan's haughty cheerleader girlfriend, Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), tags along for laughs. The trio wind up trapped inextricably in the school. Improbably enough, neither their smart-phones nor the land lines in the school will function since cosmetic evil permeates the premises. Doors which shouldn't lock mysteriously lock, and an ancient analog television rebroadcasts the tragic news report from the past about the hanging. Nothing that these terrified teens do serves to deliver them from this labyrinth where a humorless, supernatural spirit decked out in a hangman's mask stalks them with a noose. Complications ensue when another student, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), catches them in the act. She is the drama queen who spearheaded the play's revival and doesn't understand why they want to interfere with the premier.
Meantime, accompanying stupid teenagers through a maze of halls rapidly degenerates into monotony rather than melodrama. These cretins lack the common sense to wedge doors open so those doors don't slam shut behind them. Characterization remains sketchy, and nothing about these nitwits engenders charisma. None of them emerge as entirely sympathetic, so we really don't care when the hangman slings his rope around their throats. "The Gallows" relies on a largely unknown cast, but these amateurs acquit themselves admirably. As the obnoxious jock, Ryan Shoos is perfectly cast. You will hate this dastard from the moment you meet him. He deserves the noose that the villain snaps around his neck. Reese Mishler plays the only character with a shred of sympathy, and he seems to be channeling Tom Cruise. Reese is undoubtedly the most interesting and disturbed character. Frank and Kathie Lee's daughter Cassidy Gifford plays a repellent cheerleader. The production values are strong, and the high school really seems like a spooky labyrinth. Cluff and Lofing had a promising idea, but they never generate adequate thrills, chills, and spills. Subsequently, the atmospheric horror induces yawns more than yells. They don't make their monstrous villain into a larger-than-life nemesis like Freddy and his competitors. The scenes after the play when the police show up to arrest the culprits seem awfully predictable, too. Far-fetched and formulaic, "The Gallows “recycles standard-issue horror clichés without traces of either originality or spontaneity.
"Great Expectations" director David Lean made what qualifies as the greatest World War II movie of all-time. I saw this fantastic film when Columbia Pictures released it, and the spectacle of an actual bridge being blown to smithereens with a real locomotive and freight cars on it captivated me at the tender age of four, and I have never forgotten it. I've seen "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (**** OUT OF ****) more times than I can remember, and this movie has never lost its allure for me. This stirring epic is based on Pierre Boulle's award-winning 1952 novel, but director David Lean and scenarists Michael Wilson of "A Place in the Sun" and Carl Foreman of "High Noon" took several liberties with the storyline. First, Boulle didn't obliterate the bridge. The British commandos were able to derail the train, but the bridge remained intact. Second, Colonel Nicholson discovered the sabotage, but he didn’t collapse on the plunger and blow-up the bridge. Third, no Americans, specifically the character of Shears, appeared in the novel. Fourth, although there was a Shears, he was a British commando, but he tried to cross the river during the finale to kill Nicholson. Fifth, the British said that they had to send in commandos because the RAF couldn’t fly the distance to bomb the bridge. In Boulle’s novel, the British don’t send in bombers because they felt the Japanese could repair any damage from bombing raids and have the bridge back in action. Nevertheless, this memorable film brims with irony and answers all the questions about life. This movie also immortalized the whistling march theme "Colonel Bogey March." Interestingly, former British POWs hated the movie and wanted to lambaste it, but they kept their silence for fear that their protests would provide more publicity for a movie that they felt deserved nothing in the way of publicity. Nevertheless, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Photography, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Music, and Best Editing. This is a beautiful movie and the cast is stupendous. Although Alec Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor, I believe that the incomparable William Holden as the only American prisoner of war steals the movie hands down. Holden made a specialty of playing anti-heroic roles. As Shears, he is at his anti-heroic best. Sadly, Sessue Hayakawa did not win for Best Supporting Actor, but he makes a terrific adversary.
Essentially, David Lean's masterpiece is a drama about a clash of wills in the middle of the jungle during World War II. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness of "Star Wars") and his British officers and enlisted men surviv a grueling march through the jungle to a Japanese labor camp where camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa)orders them to erect a bridge across the River Kwai. Saito stipulates in no uncertain terms that British officers will work alongside their men, but Colonel Nicholson refuses to abide by these terms. He cites the rules of the Geneva Convention. Saito’s reaction is incredulity, “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of “cricket!” Saito puts him in a sweat box and the intense heat very nearly kills Nicholson. Nonetheless, Nicholson refuses to give in to Saito's demands. Meanwhile, construction work on the bridge commences, but the Japanese make virtually no headway. At the same time, Shears engineers an escape from the camp and nearly dies in the process. The two British soldiers that accompany him die in the attempt. Natives find the destitute Shears washed up on the shores of their villages. They nurse Shears back to life, furnish him with supplies, and send him on his way. Eventually, he reaches British lines. Back at the Kwai camp, Saito loses the battle of wills and releases Nicholson and agrees that the British officers do not have to work.
Ironically, Nicholson decides to embrace the bridge construction so as to occupy his men and prove to the Japanese that the British soldier is the best soldier in the world. When Nicholson's chief medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald of "The Great Escape") suggests that helping the Japanese erect a bridge could qualify as treason, Nicholson reminds him that they were ordered to surrender to the enemy. Nicholson goes on to say, “If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your job or would you let him die?Would you have it be said that our chaps can't do a better job? You're a fine doctor, Clipton, but you've a lot to learn about the army.” Nicholson and his officers devise a way of building a suitable bridge and one of Nicholson's engineers tells him that a similar bridge built of wood survived 300 years. Nicholson becomes so obsessed with the project that he eventually has his own officer pitch in and finish it.
The British dispatch a team of commandos led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins of "Shalako") to destroy the bridge. Warden convinces a reluctant Shears to lead them to it since he knows the way. Shears explains that he cannot because he isn’t really an officer. It seems that when his ship sank, he swam ashore, appropriated an officer’s insignia and impersonated an officer, erroneously believing he would receive better treatment than an enlisted man. Such was not the case. Warden informs him that they knew about his masquerade. He also gives Shears the simulated rank of major for the mission. Reluctantly, Shears agrees to lead Force 316 through the jungle to the bridge. They bail out over enemy territory and then they have to take an entirely different route because the route that Shears took is swarming now with Japanese. Our heroes have to make a forced march through swamps with leeches, across mountains, and eventually they reach the bridge.
Altogether, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" simply ranks as the greatest movie ever made.