PIXELS **1/2

Adam Sandler, the venerable former Saturday Night Live comedian, who, like Peter Pan, never seems to grow up, is at his worst when playing to his infantile adult audience in disgusting fratboy nostalgia pieces like Grown Ups, or even more disgusting satirical nightmares like Eight Crazy Nights, where he continually resurrects ugly sorts of locker-room humor at the expense of women, ethnic groups, and minorities like he still thinks society finds that kind of stuff funny (watch out for his next film, The Ridiculous 6, a spoof of Westerns ala The Magnificent 7, where his entire cast of Native Americans recently walked off the set because of what they felt were patronizing, insulting portrayals of their culture in the script).

Conversely, he’s at his best when he’s doing wildly imaginative family pieces or lower-key romantic comedies where harmless silliness is combined with a genuine wit, charm, and a reminder to today’s youth that there was a certain good in his generation’s “good ole days” that will be lost forever if they don’t find ways to keep it alive in an increasingly detached society.

Thankfully, the latter is the case in Pixels, a raucous homage to the early days of arcade video games and, at the same time, a subtle nudge to the new generation of game-players that playing those old games in that crazy, old-fashioned way (going to the arcade rather than just staring at a screen while lounging on the couch) had value that went far beyond just punching buttons, scoring points, and gaining levels.

Sandler plays a former video game ace, who, with his nerdy buddies help, had the first national arcade game championship within his grasp back in 1982 until psyched out by eventual winner Fire Blaster, a stuck-on-himself Donkey Kong wiz.  Sam’s convinced he’s a failure, and when we catch up with him decades later, that’s still about where he’s at, ambling through life anonymously while paying the bills installing audio/video equipment in people’s homes.  His friend’s paths have also diverged; game ace Ludlow (Josh Gad) is now a full-time conspiracy theorist, Fire Blaster (deliciously played by Peter Dinklage) has used his talent to land himself in prison for a myriad of white-collar crimes, and Will Cooper, Sam’s best friend (Kevin James), has (lo and behold) become President of the United States.

So when President Cooper is trying to figure why a US military base on Guam has been literally pixelated by unknown assailants using a pattern he finds vaguely familiar, he calls in best bud Sam to get his opinion.  Sam, in turn, calls in the obnoxiously manic Ludlow, who recognizes it instantly as the same used in one of the old video games they used to play.  Turns out that the invaders are aliens who received a time-capsule message from Earth containing footage of that first video game tournament that Sam lost, and assume that Earth is challenging them to a winner-take-all battle for the planet.  And Earth has already lost Round One.

With giant-size 80’s video game characters crushing landmarks like the Taj Mahal and pixelating humans as hostages,  Sam and crew are deputized to halt the destruction at the aliens’ next target, London, and they do once the military is moved out of the way and, in the words of President Cooper, the “nerds take over.”  But nothing is really settled until Sam’s “arcaders” take on a Godzilla-like Pac-Man in New York and Sam must once again face his old nemesis, Donkey Kong, in a climactic showdown.

The silliness of all this is actually quite hilarious.  Sandler and Dinklage are obviously having a good time, James can barely manage to stay “presidential” (and sometimes doesn’t), Michelle Monaghan as a top Defense Department analyst spars delightfully with Sandler, who becomes a genial love interest, and cameos by Brian Cox and Sean Bean as military jarheads are hysterical.  The big-screen video game effects are remarkable, particularly the pixelation-style destruction which turns innumerable buildings and other objects into giant piles of small cubes.  If we could just get Josh Gad to tone down his loud-mouthed Ludlow just a tad, the film’s execution would have been darn near flawless.  The belly laughs and giggles were coming fast and furious from every corner of the theater. I was never (and am not now) a “gamer,” but I did mess around enough with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and others with students back in the day to be able to get at least some of the myriad inside jokes and hoot-inducing visuals.  It really was a kick!

This is one of those fun, funny man-child Adam Sandler flicks like Bedtime Stories or even Deeds, that takes you back to an earlier time and helps you remember some of what made it so enjoyable–and tantalizes today’s generation with the rather startling reality that sometimes, taking a few steps back to the past might be a good formula for living a richer, more fun future.  “Safe” for kids of most any age (seriously–Sandler has learned to pull himself back from the weird tirades that induce cringes in others of his more family-friendly shows), this is a dumb-on-purpose romp that you’d be kind of dumb to skip if you’re looking for some fun, family entertainment.

 

ANT-MAN ***

This newest addition to Marvel’s increasingly tiresome Cinematic Universe of Superheroes follows the same old storylines as all the rest (with minor variations, of course), but is spared a la-dee-da two-star rating by its smaller, more personal scope, a bit of catchy writing, and the strong performance of one of its more unlikely stars.

Unfortunately, that strong performances doesn’t come from lead actor Paul Rudd, who gives a yeoman’s effort in his cardboard-cutout role as Scott Lang, an ex-con trying to go straight and patch things up with his ex-wife and daughter (an irresistible Abby Ryder Fortson), finds the deck stacked against him, so takes the plunge back into his criminal past in order to make child support payments.  This links him up with his former heist-mates, a trio of doofaces led by Luis, played with hilarious goofiness by Michael Pena.  Too bad the once-in-a-while snappy writing gives Pena all the good lines and hysterical flashback voice-overs and the kid all the cuteness.  Rudd, with his by-the-numbers role, “glows” like a burnt marshmallow in comparison.

His star dims even further when his latest escapade with Luis and company leads him to an ancient safe not filled with money, but with a curious suit that he tries on, and accidentally shrinks himself to ant-size in it, and is soon on the run from bathtub water, a curious mouse, a vacuum cleaner, and other horrors.  Though the action is fun, the lines are just more yadda-yadda, and when Scott again accidentally re-sizes himself to normal, he’s caught by the cops and thrown in jail.

There, he meets his “lawyer,” who is actually Hank Pym, the disgraced scientist who created the suit in the first place (and the tech behind it) and is now out to stop his usurper (another cardboard-cutout), bad guy Cross (Cory Stoll), from using his shrinking secret to create a mercenary army of mini-super soldiers.  Though Pym’s character isn’t much more interesting than any other in this tale, he’s elevated to a level far above all the other cutouts by a seriously superior performance by none other than the venerable Michael Douglas.

Douglas may be aging, but his dominating screen presence hasn’t faded in the slightest.  From his first moments on-screen in a portentous prologue, the “man” of the cast strolls through his scenes like a king among his adoring subjects, his mere presence lifting everybody’s game around him.  While he can’t do anything about the ho-hum story and script, his exquisitely nuanced delivery deftly brings out the deep-down good in Scott, the insidious bad in Cross, and both the bold and the beautiful in his daughter Hope (cleverly played by rising action star Evangeline Lilly).  A “supporting role” hasn’t been played so dominantly in mainstream movies in a long time, perhaps not even since Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow stole the show in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film.  While one might wonder what an Academy Award-winner is doing in such a painfully average, run-of-the-mill Marvel superhero romp, Douglas wrings every last drop out of the opportunity, literally putting the film on his shoulders and carrying it to a level way beyond where it normally would be.

And, despite the rather annoying references to The Avengers and the appearance of a couple of them in brief cameos, it was nice (for once) that the fate of the planet wasn’t at stake here.  The bombastic arrogance of Marvel’s movies has become increasingly nauseous to me, and it was nice, for once, to see the stakes of the story revolving more around a good man’s attempt to overcome his past and recapture the admiration of his daughter rather than save the world from imminent destruction in some gargantuan, effects-driven climax.  Don’t get me wrong–there’s still an effects-driven climax (what superhero movie could exist without one…), but it’s just so pleasantly smaller and less “you can’t be serious”-inspiring than so many of the other ones.

So, while Ant-Man is in many ways among the most mundane of today’s increasingly mundane superhero flicks, it gets a big boost from the incomparable Douglas, and sparkles with a number of sweet and humorous touches that make it well worth at least a matinee with the family, of whom most all that are beyond the babes-in-strollers stage will find something to enjoy in it.

MY FAIRY GODMOTHER – Doing Double-Time!

My feature script My Fairy Godmother; The Quantum Conspiracy got two big boosts in two days recently.  And of course, it all happened while I was on vacation (kind of an inside joke for those that know…).  First, I was informed by the staff of the Capital Fund Screenplay Competition,  a new screenwriting contest where scripts are read and judged directly by private equity and film fund managers, that my script was a winner and they wanted to arrange my one-on-one call with a studio-level financier, which was the prize for my winning.  So I checked the contest website, and sure enough, MFG:TQC had been selected as the winner of the Family Film category!  Woo-hoo!  This will afford me an excellent chance to not only educate myself about film finance, but also possibly expand my network into film financiers, the “money” people who everyone from indie producers to studio heads have to go to before they can make their movies.  And nice to be selected a winner too–I’m sure the competition was tough.

And then today, after hiking all day among Ancient Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains of eastern CA (and by ancient, we’re talking thousands of years old…), I returned to discover that the same script had made the first two cuts and is once again a quarterfinalist in the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, one of the industry’s largest and most prestigious screenplay competitions (over 6200 entries this year).  It made it this far last year, but I’ve tweaked it a bit using new info gained in Screenwriting U’s Master of Screenwriting Certificate program that I’m currently in, and I hope it will proceed farther this year.

In the lonely and often mind-bogglingly frustrating business of trying to get a screenplay even looked at by those who can make it into a movie, much less actually get it produced, it’s little pats on the back like this and toenails in the doors of Hollywood that keep us screenwriters’ heads from exploding at times.  Much appreciation to both contest groups, to my network of friends, colleagues, and screenwriting buddies for their constant support (that’s you especially, Cyndie and Ron V.), Hal and Cheryl Croasmun for putting together such great classes that help me learn the biz, and especially Sam Alexander, former Director of Development at The Wolper Organization, who first believed in this script, helped me elevate its quality immensely, and was largely responsible for how it is today.  My thanks to you all, and let’s hope good things continue.  Much appreciated.

Terminator Genisys ***

For action fans, there probably isn’t anything more irresistible than a revisit to the venerable Terminator franchise created by James Cameron over a decade before he became Hollywood’s billion-dollar box-office meister and that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name, including his signature moniker “I’ll be back!”  Since then, there have been two other sequels starring Arnold, a prequel starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington, and a TV series, The Sara Connor Chronicles, which introduced Lena Heady to the world prior to her scheming and plotting as Circe Lannister in Game of Thrones.

And since all the afore-mentioned projects were a success of at least some magnitude, why not another “reboot” of the franchise, especially since Arnold hasn’t been able to find his action-star footing again since his “Governator” days save doing parodies of himself in the Expendables franchise?

And so this week we have Terminator; Genisys, and like the other more successful outings of this franchise, it’s at its best when its tongue is in its cheek and the screen is exploding with ridiculously over-the-top action set pieces.  Aside from Arnold, the stars are all new, and the story is the familiar mash-up of time-bending sic-fi speculation centered on preventing “Judgement Day” and machine-on-machine mayhem not unlike what takes up most of the 2-plus hours of every Transformers movie you’ve ever seen.  The difference is that in the Terminator films, you actually care about the characters, which is refreshing.

John Connor (Jason Clarke) is all grown up in this version of the tale, which picks up in the future.  Seems just as total victory over the machines has been achieved, the machines have activated their ace-in-the-hole; they’ve sent the original T-101 (rip-offs of footage from the 1984 film) back to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mom, and now, one of the human soldiers must be sent back to save Sarah from this menace.  In other words, we see the “genesis” if you will, of the original Terminator film from the other side of the looking glass.  And so John’s best buddy Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney doing at least as good a job as Michael Biehn did in the original) goes through the time portal, finds the bum in the alley, and we’re back to the original story, right?

Wrong!  Arnold’s original T-101 character offs the punk-head bozos and grabs their clothes, but then runs into an aged version of himself, who announces that “I’ve been waiting for you” and summarily dispatches him.  Meanwhile, Reese runs from cops with barely any clothes on and is found by Sarah Connor (smartly played by Emilia Clarke; Danyres Targarian for you Game of Thrones fans), but there’s a twist–she already knows who he is, and she’s no terrorized waitress either.

And with that intro, I won’t even attempt to explain all the other time-warped transcendencies that constitute the remainder of the plot.  You can have fun figuring it all out while you watch the mayhem and get re-introduced to the shape-shifting T-1000 terminator, and even a farther advanced model, the T-8000, as the show goes along.

Through it all, the writers and cast have a great time poking fun at the franchise’s iconic phrases and images (I think Arnold parodies his “I’ll be back” line in some form or other at least a half-dozen times), and the action is outrageous to the point of being laughable, which is a good thing in this show, because underneath it all, there’s still the essential human elements that have  been the engine that made all the other silliness work; a brave soldier who protects a young woman of destiny, a boy/man who will one day save the world, and an “old, but not obsolete” machine that, against all odds, keeps them all safe from the nefarious monsters sent to destroy them.

For fans of the franchise, this is like coming back home for a while.  For newbies, it’s worth jumping in.  You’ll most likely enjoy, and head to Netflix or Target to watch the previous installments.  For kids, tons of fun as long as you’re older than pre-teen age and enjoy action films.  Terminator Genisys is summer movie fun at its better-than-average best.