Tuesday July 28, 2015

Pixels

The Happy Madison/Columbia Pictures big-budget, big-screen remake of the brilliant short film "Pixels," by Patrick Jean, could never be as brilliant or cool as the short was. I wanted to see it anyway, and I went in knowing that I was in for 110 minutes of Adam Sandler's "loser makes good" schtick.
 
My low expectations helped! Also useful: my sons, both avid gamers, were really enthusiastic about seeing the movie, and they weren't at all jaded about the performers (in part because I'm a good parent, so they don't have a dozen hours of Adam Sandler dumped into long-term memory.)
 
But most surprisingly of all, the film delivered fun video game references without showering us in raunchy Sandlerisms. His character was genuinely likable, and the comedy actually worked.
 
The movie lays down its ground rules early in Act One: this is a universe in which a goofball played by Kevin James can become president, and will invite his underachieving, TV-installer childhood friend over to the White House regularly enough that security recognizes him. A proper action movie would spend the first two acts building up to that possibility. Pixels tells us to accept it early on, so that our Suspenders of Disbelief won't be strained later in the film. Which, to continue the metaphor, probably means that the first act steals our pants, ensuring that there's no work for the suspenders to do at all.
 
It's a good thing, too. If you spend any amount of time asking questions that begin with "wait, wouldn't they just..." you will almost certainly lose whatever opportunity you may have had to enjoy the film. It's a precarious position for a film to take, I know. But there it is.
 
I get upset when people tell me "just turn your brain off." That's a pointless thing to say after the movie is over, and if that disclaimer is actually required before the movie starts, something has gone wrong. Pixels invites you to shut down some of the logic circuits during Act I, which is how movies that need you to turn your brain off should be handling it: up front.
 
Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not defending Pixels as great art (Patrick Jean's "Pixels" yes, Happy Madison's Pixels no.) It could have been a much better movie had different decisions been made early on, but once your green light is locked into a feature-length story of video game attackers pixelating targets on Earth, numerous "great art" paths are closed to you, and you do the best you can. Even so, Pixels could have done better. The movie's energy bled away pretty quickly when we didn't have pixelated action on screen, which suggests a pacing problem, which in turn suggests okay I have no idea what that actually suggests since I write stories but I do not make movies. All I know is that some of the parts just didn't work for me. Everything else is Armchair Eberting.
 
Pixels enters my 2015 "fun" rankings at #14. It missed the Threshold of Awesome by a wide margin, but it did not disappoint. And my sons loved it.
 
(Note: Patrick Jean, who created the original short, was given credit among the writing team for the big-budget Pixels. This makes me happy.)
 
(cross-posted from howardtayler.com)

Ant-Man

This is a comic book movie in some of my favorite ways.  It's full of references to Marvel canon that you don't have to catch, it strikes the right "reluctant hero" notes for me, and it's funny. The sequence of posters starting here on IMDB works really well for me.
 
It does not clear the high bar set by The Avengers, however. Also, it invokes comic-book physics, but fails to invoke them consistently. The rules change in ways that seem like they should be pretty important, and which are blindingly obvious, but the inconsistency is NOT a story point, so paying attention is just distracting.
 
Here's the problem in a nutshell: We are told, and even shown, that shrunken Ant-Man can hit like a hundred-and-fifty pound ball-bearing. In ant-mode he dents cars and cracks tile. Perfect! He didn't lose any mass. Just volume. The science behind the "Pym particle" is all kinds of ridiculous, but the initial explanation, which says that atomic distances are decreased, serves the movie just fine.
 
But for comedy, we need to have Ant-Man riding Thomas the Tank Engine, or getting swatted out of the air with a wave of the hand. Oh, and for about half the action to work, Ant-Man needs to be able to ride on ants.  That's not something a one-hundred-and-fifty pound ball-bearing can do.
 
"Which is it?" I kept asking myself. "Tiny and heavy, or just tiny and cool?"
 
The fix, obviously, is for the Pym particle to be able to variably effect the expression of mass by affected matter. Sometimes Ant-Man is heavy, sometimes he's not. But if they'd invoked THAT, then there are a host of other abilities he could have used, and should have used, starting with flying high above his target on the back of a flying ant before dropping fifty feet through the skull of the enemy goon, and then expanding to full size in a shower of gore. And, well, this isn't that kind of movie.
 
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. It doesn't come anywhere near being my favorite film of the year, entering my list at #8, but it did clear the Threshold of Awesome, and was a much more enjoyable movie than I expected it to be.

Minions

Minions crossed my Threshold of Disappointment, which is quite an accomplishment considering the fact that I really didn't expect much from it.
 
I think the core problem was that I didn't care. Nothing seemed to be at stake. Sure, there were some funny moments, and the animation was brilliant, but ultimately the film failed to connect with me anywhere.
 
Like Penguins of Madagascar, Minions attempts to take hilarious side characters and extend the hilarity to a feature film. Minions was hobbled by one of the key rules of the setting: the Minions themselves must never speak intelligibly.
 
Remember WALL-E? Imagine the first act of that story with a narrator interpreting it all for us.
 
That is exactly what happened for the opening scenes of Minions. I don't mind having a narrator set the tone, and Geoffrey Rush was great at that, but when the narrator must tell me what a character is thinking, feeling, and saying, something has gone terribly wrong.
 
Minions enters my list at #16. If you've got kids who are begging to see this, my advice is to take the money you would have spent on that, and buy something cool for them with it. Then rent this when it comes out on DVD.
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