THE MARTIAN – Matt Damon’s Neither Little or Green ***

What he is is the one left behind when a monstrous Martian windstorm threatens to topple a NASA expedition’s ride back to their orbiting base, and Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) aborts it.  Feisty Mark Watney (Damon) disagrees with the decision, dawdles while getting back to the escape rocket (called a MAV), and gets knocked out when a communications dish gets blown away and clonks him on the head.  Try as they might, Lewis and her crew, including Beth (Kate Mara) and Rick (Michael Pena), can’t find Watney in the blinding sand.  Lewis reluctantly calls everyone back in, and they ditch the base, dock with their orbiting mother ship, and head out on their 4-month journey back to Earth.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Watney wakes up later to find himself alone and abandoned.  He staggers back into the base compound, and, after handling the immediate problem of the metal rod stuck in his gut, sits down to contemplate his situation, recording everything on what we would probably call his personal video blog.  What follows is an account of Watney’s genius and resourcefulness as he finds ways to manufacture oxygen, grow his own food, rig the base’s battery-powered vehicle with solar panels to give it unlimited range, and even dig up the old NASA unmanned probe Pathfinder to rig up a way to potentially communicate with Mission Control back on Earth.

Meanwhile, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (a deadpan Jeff Daniels) has long since declared Watney dead and Lewis and her crew are over halfway home.  So it’s quite a shock when they hear transmissions coming from the long-defunct probe announcing that Watney is indeed not only alive, but also has made provision to survive all the way until the next NASA manned mission arrives three and a half years later at a site some 2000 miles from Watney’s base.

Things become more urgent, though, when Watney returns to his base, an airlock explosion nearly kills him, and destroys his food-growing system.  Now with only enough food to last roughly another year, Watney abandons his fractured base with what food and supplies he can hook up to his vehicle, and heads out in a doomed effort to make it to the site of NASA’S next landing, where another MAV stands, though there will be no mother ship out in orbit for it to dock with.

Back on Earth, Sanders nixes any attempt to mount a special rescue mission, but more humane (and ingenious) friends, both on the ground, in Watney’s crew, and even in China conspire behind Sander’s back to make such a mission happen, at their own peril.

As wonderfully cast, directed, and shot that this film is, there’s something a bit off about it for me, and I think it’s in the writing.  It’s a tough enough challenge to make a story which basically comes down to being Castaway in space (the Robert Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks) seem interesting despite things like the long passages of time involved and the fact that the main character is essentially able to talk only to himself.  But when you’re asked to make all this, plus everything else that happens in the film, look, feel, and sound like a real NASA mission, complete with its intentionally emotionless dialogue, much of what feeling that might be expressed between the characters is pretty much sucked out of the story.  And ironically, despite his impossible situation, things always seem to work out pretty much according to plan for Watney, and even his crew, and the folks on the ground.  Unlike another similar movie, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where every trial seems fraught with error, here, aside from a couple of notable glitches, things just kind of hum along for our heroes.   Only at one point after the initial tragedy did I ever feel like anyone was in any real, mortal danger.

So, while there’s a lot to like in this film and a lot done well by Director Ridley Scott and crew, in the end, the result is a film that perhaps should be a bit more riveting than it actually is, at least for me.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN – Family Films Lead the Way at your Local Metroplex

Happily, it’s actually the family films that are getting the biggest nods of approval from both critics and audiences this season, which can be truly frightful at this time of year (and that’s a good thing).  Here’s some short reviews of films you might want to consider taking the whole fam to see when you celebrate, as well as a sentence or two about a couple others of note that might be worthwhile for the olders of your brood.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 *** – This is the sequel to Adam Sandler’s pleasantly unexpected hit from two years ago about the benevolent Count Drac (Sandler) who has created a haven for misunderstood monsters in his haunted hotel, then things get a shake-up when a “slacker” hippie throwback Jonathan (Andy Samberg) happens by and is taken to by Drac’s daughter Mavis, who’s about to celebrate her 118th birthday.

This time around, Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan have enjoyed several years of wedded bliss at the hotel haunts (much to Jonathan’s parents chagrin) and Mavis is expecting their first child.  When the blessed event happens though, Grandpa Drac is a bit disturbed that, as little Dennis grows, he’s increasingly human-like and doesn’t seem to be developing vampire fangs like a “normal” vamp kid would.  At the same time, Mavis wonders if a motel full of monsters is the best place to raise her hybrid boy.  So, while she goes with Jonathan back to his surfer-dude stomping grounds in Santa Cruz, CA to check out life with humans, Drac and his monster buddies take little “Dennisovich” out on a hilarious crash course in monstering as they visit the places where good ole Gramps grew up.

As with the original, this animated film is filled to the brim with spooky-cutie monsters that little kids will adore and  spooky-goofy one-liners, site-gags, and even songs that will have the parents and older kids continually cracking up.  Whether you’ve seen it already or not, this would be a safe and fun way to celebrate the season either before, after, or instead of the traditional trick-or-treating, especially if your little monsters–er, kids–happen to be on the younger side.

 

GOOSEBUMPS *** – And just as entertaining for families whose little monsters aren’t so little anymore is this new film from Sony based on the wildly popular kids’ books by R.L. Stine that have been a staple of school and/or classroom library reading material since the early 90’s.  Designed to be a kiddie alternative to Stine’s more teen-orientated horror series Fear Street, the Goosebumps series went on to make Stine USA Today’s number one-selling author in the country for three straight years in the 90’s (even selling more books than fellow horror writer Stephen King, as the movie jokingly points out), and by 2008 had sold over 400 million copies.  Hollywood’s been trying to think of a way to make Stine’s myriad of Goosebumps books and spinoffs into a film for nearly the same duration, and finally has come up with a solution that works surprisingly well.

Jack Black is perfectly cast as Stine, an eccentric author who hides from the rest of the world and requires the same of his teenage daughter Hannah (the alluring Odeya Rush).  When reluctant “new kid” Zach Cooper (fresh-faced Dylan Minnet) shows up next door, his newly widowed mom having moved out of New York to help both her and Zach cope with their loss, Zach sees new hope in a budding friendship with Hannah.  That is, until Daddy Stine crushes it just as it gets going, chastising Hannah in frightening fashion for even considering it.

Fearing the worst, Zach and Champ, his impossibly nerdy–and only–friend from school (a hilarious Ryan Lee) creep into the Stine house to investigate, only to set into motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a torrent of monsters being unleashed on their little town when the locks on Stine’s original manuscripts are opened, spewing them forth.  The resulting mayhem and our heroes’ efforts to set things to right lie somewhere between Ghostbusters and a sequel to a Scooby-Doo movie in tone as the edgy, effects-driven horror is effectively blunted by both belly-laughing humor, sheer silliness, and a pleasantly surprising touch of sweetness.

It all makes for a very winning mix, one that is a fitting tribute to Stine and his work (he actually has a cameo in the show, as a school teacher with the ironic name of “Mr. Black”) and will serve up lively, spooky entertainment both for fans of the stories as well as newcomers like me (can you believe it–a teacher like me, never read a Goosebumps book???  For shame!!!).  While a bit intense possibly for the 8 and unders in your fam, this would make both frightful and fun fare for most any family’s Halloween festivities.

 

And for the adults and older teens who like a more serious “creeping out” as part of their Halloween, cinemas will also be featuring…

The Last Witch-Hunter – Vin Diesel heads an all-star cast (Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie, etc.) in a big-budget supernatural thriller that someone (probably mistakenly) thinks is going launch a new genre franchise ala Underworld or Blade.  It’s about an immortal ass-kicker of evil who, well, hunts witches.  It only managed #4 ($11 M) in its opening weekend.  Not a good sign.

Crimson Peak – A classic, gothic haunted house tale with a touch of class lent by its strong cast (Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tim “Loki” Hiddleston, etc.) and illustrious director (Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro).  Some feel this is truly creepy, others that it’s also too predictable.  You can decide for yourself, as I’d probably just be hiding under the seat the whole time in something like this.

The Ghost Dimension – I believe this is supposed to be the last in the Paranormal Activity franchise that made a household name out of Jason Blum, Hollywood’s king of “low-budget horror.”  Here, the big secret of the whole series is supposed to be revealed, but in its opening weekend, it could only manage 6th at the box office with an underwhelming $8.2 M.  Sounds like this is pretty much a meh for most movie-goers, and, more alarmingly for Blum, even for fans of the once-venerable franchise.

EVEREST – Superb Portrayal of a Tragedy of Errors ***

Everest is the latest film to feature the world’s most prodigious mountain and mankind’s continuing efforts to conquer it.  Based on the true accounts of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and writings and interviews of other participants, this Everest film centers itself on the 1996 climbing season of the mountain (a narrow window of a few weeks in May when weather on the mountain is traditionally the least inclement), one in which a “perfect storm” of human arrogance, error, and nature’s unexpected fury came together with epic results.

The film begins with a brief synopsis of the history of men on the mountain, noting that it was first conquered by Englishman Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tensing Norgay back in 1954, and in the subsequent 40 years before this story begins, had only been assaulted by a few thousand professional climbers, 25% of whom had died in the attempt.  But in 1991, a company called Adventure Consultants, headed by climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of New Zealand, had devised a way to “safely” guide amateur climbers up the mighty slopes–for a price, of course–and since then numerous other companies led by other professional climbers and been formed.

Consequently, the story really kicks into gear with an ironic scene that Hillary and Norgay would have found laughably insane had they been around to see it–over a dozen professional mountaineers, each leading groups of essentially tourist climbers (one including an IMAX film crew, another a noted outdoor journalist), discussing the ominous (or perhaps ludicrous?) possibility of a traffic jam of people developing as the various groups attempt their final ascents of the mountain.  Compromises are eventually worked out, with two of the largest groups, Hall’s Adventure Consultants and daredevil climber Scott Fisher’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness, agreeing to work together and pool their resources.

Meanwhile, journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly) sits amongst the “climbers” trying to get a feel for just why each one would literally risk their lives on what is, essentially, a very self-absorbed adventure.  After all, no one’s making them do it, and, as Hall had ominously warned, “human life was not meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747 airliner” while describing the mountain’s infamous Death Zone (the last 2000 feet of the climb).  A Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) wants to be the oldest woman to climb the highest peaks on every continent (“the Seven”).  Doug (John Hawkes), who’s failed on two other attempts, wants to show schoolchildren back home that “if an ordinary guy like me can reach the top of the world, they should be able to accomplish anything if they work hard and don’t quit.”  And veteran climber Buck (Josh Brolin) just wants to “feel alive” again compared to how he feels in his normal life back home, where his wife has threatened to divorce him if he climbs another mountain.  It’s evident that none of these folks, despite their brave words and noble (or not so noble) intentions, really has any idea what they’re getting themselves into.

But onward they go, through “practice runs” that take them up to various camps and back to the over-populated base camp, ending in the final assault which will go all the way to the 29,002 ft. summit.  It’s on that ascent that things for Hall’s and Fisher’s parties begin to go awry.  Like rusty joints beginning to give way on an old bridge, one error leads to another slip-up and to another mistake, amateur climbers begin to whither as they face perils that even professionals struggle to conquer, guides who want desperately for their clients to reach their dreams must make life-and-death decisions, and then Mother Nature throws in a curve ball that sends the whole, delicately-balanced structure crumbling to ruins, with predictable results.  The action is tense, the drama even more so, and all is brilliantly filmed with a jaw-dropping reality that should be remembered in Oscar’s more technical awards categories.  Performances by the all-star ensemble cast are uniformly brilliant, with special kudos to Clarke (Terminator Genysis), who’s portrayal of Hall is simply gut-wrenching.

While some might call Everest one of those “triumph of the human spirit” films that such stories usually are lumped into, I would call it, perhaps, a step beyond that, a sort of post-human triumph film; one in which the human spirit arrogantly drives a person just a few steps too far, its myth of invincibility clouds the person’s reason, and all too suddenly, reality sets in, and like Icarus with his wax wings, the person realizes what he or she really is; frail, faulted, hopelessly in over their head, and ultimately clinging to whatever might be of comfort as they drift into oblivion.  And of course that kind of film has its own moniker–the “disaster film.”

You can make your own judgement about Everest when you see it.

 

Maze Runner: THE SCORCH TRIALS

This is the second in Fox’s adaptation of the dystopian YA book series by best-selling author James Dashner that began with The Maze Runner last year about this time.  Though I was not a big fan of the first film, this one broke with sequel tradition and was, for me at least, a lot more enjoyable film than the first, a pleasant surprise.

The story picks up right where last year’s film left off, with Thomas (Dylan O’Bryan) and his motley crew of escapees from The Maze spirited away to safety by the mysterious Janson, played deliciously by Aiden Gillen, a duplicitous savior nearly as slippery as Gillen’s more recognizable character, the conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  Thomas and friends are brought into one of those “too good to be true” compounds where all is happiness and light–except that their female companion Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is separated from them and no one will tell Thomas where she is.  And a smallish gutter-snipe (literally) named Aris (Jacob Lofland) pops up into Thomas’s room one night and takes him to Janson’s secret lab where Thomas discovers what’s really up in this “perfect” little world (note; always beware of perfect little worlds in dystopian YA fiction).

So the crew is on the run again, this time out into the Scorch, mankind’s name for what’s left of the Earth, and a very apropos name it is.  Their aim is to meet up with a group of rebels in the far-off mountains whose goal is to take down the Maze-based establishment run by the snow-white clad leader Ava (Patricia Clarkson–note; beware of snow-white clad leaders of the establishment in dystopian YA fiction), which they do after many trials (thus the name…) and tribulations, only to find they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, who leads Ava straight to them that results in a battle royale that sets up things nicely for the last film of this trilogy.  I think it was the sense of movement and the strong performances of both O’Bryan and his entire crew of cohorts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores) along with newcomer Rosa Salazar as Brenda, one of the mountain clan, and Giancarlo Esposito as her father (a role nearly as slippery as his more recognizable character; snake-like Major Tom Neville in NBC’s sadly canceled sic-fi series Revolution) that made this so much more fun for me than the first film.  Nice to be out in the wide open spaces, and have action that involves more than just running around endless walls of hedges.

With the final film in this series slated to come out in 2017, and the final episodes of The Hunger Games and The Divergent Trilogy to come out by then or before, we’ll finally ring up the end to Hollywood’s waning love affair with YA dystopian novels, a teen trend that has long since stopped “trending.”  While the gross box office for each series is already in the billions for Lionsgate/Summit, who produced both Hunger Games and Divergent and might just make it to a billion for Fox, and launched the adult careers of several bona fide stars who could well dominate the Hollywood A-list for decades (O’Bryan, Jennifer Lawrence, Shalene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Josh Hutchinson, Jai Courtney, Ansel Elgort, and others…), hundreds of millions more were lost and many more fine young actors relegated to the back burners as each of the various studios ran through YA book series after book series describing every grim dystopia imaginable in desperate pursuit of “the next Hunger Games” only to find the target audience as fickle as teens and young adults always are.  The Hollywood gods should have known better.

Perhaps a lesson has been learned–that searching for the next NEW thing (which is how The Hunger Games was found) would be far more profitable than searching for the next imitation of what is already an old thing.  And if that’s the case, then maybe, just maybe, all the carnage of the YA dystopian book series adaptation era will have been worth it.

We can always hope so, anyway…

WAR ROOM; Powerful Preaching–to the Choir *** (less if not a “believer”)

Here’s another well-written and excellently produced faith-based film from the Kendrick Brothers production company (Fireproof, Courageous, et al) that’s made by evangelical Christians specifically for the evangelical Christian audience.  But, as with other genre films like R-rated horror or hard sic-fi, those who aren’t fans will probably find little to like here, and perhaps even something offensive.

And most people in the faith-based audience; evangelical church-goers who avoid mainstream movies because of their overt amorality, violence, and depictions of social issues that are largely offensive to them, are just fine with that.  So is Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose Affirm Films finances projects for the Kendricks, and usually makes a tidy sum because the Kendricks’ Faithstep Films only needs a couple million to produce their movies ($3 M in this case), which then return eye-popping profits as millions of the evangelical faithful flock to multiplexes to see one of “their” films (War Room took in $64 M at the box office for a staggering 2133% return on investment–a $150 M Marvel superhero film would have to gross over $3.2 BILLION at the box office to equal such a profit margin).  And so everybody’s happy–at least if you’re an evangelical Christian, an evangelical Christian filmmaker, or an exec at Sony.

If there is a problem here, it’s that “evangelical” Christians, by definition, are supposed to be out in the world bringing the unchurched to salvation, yet “their” movies would be as incomprehensible and blah-seise to “non-Christians” as a lecture on quantum physics would be to a crowd at a Comic-con.  War Room is no exception, with all its lead and supporting characters being evangelical Christians who, for the most part, at least attempt to walk the walk, and definitely talk the talk, which unfortunately is a lingo that leaves most “unchurched” scratching their heads.  Though well-written and wonderfully acted by an entirely no-name cast, the story is all about believers and their struggles to live out those beliefs, which will thrill the evangelicals, but largely confuse those that they’re supposedly evangelizing.

And, to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.  There are genre movies and “cult” films for just about every stripe of movie-goer, and why shouldn’t evangelical Christians have theirs, too?

But at times I do wonder why these people, who profess to have a mission to “evangelize” a world they see as lost and in desperate need of their Savior, are so comfortable spending–and making–millions producing movies that not only are solely for their own enjoyment, but largely turn away the very people they profess they want to reach, in the one venue where their message could reach literally millions–if anyone besides evangelical Christians could actually figure out what’s going on.  Is it possible that one day, faith-based, “evangelical” filmmakers might make movies that would actually “evangelize?”

MINIONS; a modern-day, animated “Three Stooges” ***

Illumination Studios, the animation wizards who created the “Despicable Me” franchise for Universal, has opted this year for a spinoff of the films that star the zany little yellow sycophants of criminal mastermind Gru, his “minions.”  Here, we delve into the origin of the Minions, and discover how they eventually became connected to Gru, their not-so-evil master of the previous two films.

Minions, it turns out, are actually creatures from prehistoric times that seem to have everlasting lives, and whose purpose is to find the baddest guy/girl/creature in the world at the time and mindlessly serve him/her/it.  But as time has passed, the Minions have run out of T-rexes and cave men and other notorious types and are now stuck in Antarctica on the verge of complete hopelessness.  And so three brave Minions (or maybe just stupid ones?) set forth into the now-modern world to find the most evil person for their compatriots to serve, and thus save their race from extinction-by-boredom.

What follows is a trip to Orlando’s Villain-Con and a meeting with its worst-of-the-worst, Scarlett Overkill (voiced rather blandly by Sandra Bullock).  The three brave Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob, see her as their salvation, and she sees them as the perfect thieves to snatch the Crown Jewels from a young Queen Elizabeth (it’s the 60’s after all).  The ensuing journey to London to carry out the heist is filled with enough slapstick and sight gags to fill two or three Marx Brothers movies and a whole week of Three Stooges episodes.  And the poking fun at British-isms is never-ending, and often hilarious.

What’s missing, though, is any semblance of the heart-felt stories of the first two films.  Rather than giving us a diabolical doer of evil who discovers, through his encounters with three mischievous orphan girls, that he’s not so “bad” after all, the filmmakers here dish out a “plot” filled with little more than endless goofiness, and, just like those Marx Brothers and Three Stooges shows’ schtick wears pretty thin after a while, so it does here as well.  Not much heart-tugging in a silly adventure to save a race of yellow puff-balls from dying of boredom in Antarctica.

So, while you’ll be chuckling nonstop through this and once in a while even getting a good belly-laugh, you won’t get the peaceful satisfaction of enjoying a well-told story with theme and heart along with it.  Like newly hatched chicks, Minions are cute, yellow, and funny, but sorely lacking in meat.  Most of the film’s target audience, though (families, particularly those with very young children) probably won’t care about that too much.  Thus the 3 stars rather than 2 and a half, and here’s to theaters-full of giggling 7 and 8 year-olds and their mildly entertained parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or big brothers and sisters.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – Rogue Nation ***

This newest of Tom Cruise’s IMF franchise, based on the old 60’s- 70’s era TV spy show, is, in most ways, just a lot more of what audiences have come to expect in these films; Ethan Hunt’s IMF team in an impossible situation that gets more  “impossible” as things move along, Tom Cruise’s smile, Tom Cruise running around half-naked showing off his still-impressive-at-age 53 physique, Tom Cruise driving fast cars and even faster motorcycles, Ethan Hunt schmoozing with some ass-kicking woman, lots of wry banter with team members, etc. etc.  And that is, for the most part, all good.

The plot here picks up some time after the doings in the previous IMF film, Ghost Protocol, where Cruise and crew were involved in blowing up the Kremlin, throwing a spy out of a 130th floor window of the world’s tallest building in Dubia, chasing another through the streets of said city in the middle of a haboob (the actual meteorological term for a dust storm), and disarming a nuclear missile as it clipped the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco, all completely unauthorized by the US government.  For these sins and more, the new CIA director (Alec Baldwin) wants to completely dissolve the IMF, believing that Hunt (Cruise’s character) has become obsessed with an imaginary crime superpower he calls The Syndicate, and will continue to waste precious time, technology, and lives in his mad pursuit of the phantom organization.  The Congressional oversight committee for counter-intelligence couldn’t agree more.  And so, just as in Ghost Protocol, the IMF is shut down.

But of course, that doesn’t stop Hunt and his team, nerdy Benji (Simon Pegg), headstrong but dependable Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and, back for his first appearance in a couple IMF films, Luther (Ving Rhames).  Annoyingly, Jane (Paula Patton) from Ghost Protocol, has been dispatched from the team with no explanation whatsoever, so one assumes that it’s probably because Cruise wanted a new babe to hustle with.  That person is supplied by the very likable (and also lethal) Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, a British agent who may or may not be working with Hunt’s team.

Together, they once again set out on their completely unauthorized and unsupported mission, this time to prove the existence of The Syndicate so that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 will finally eliminate them.  And once again, the plot is as delightfully twisty and full of fits and starts as any roller-coaster ride can be as Hunt and crew go about their super-secret work and Hunt gets it on, in more ways than one, with Ilsa Faust.  And all’s well in the end and set up for the next IMF foray if anyone cares to keep making them.

Though lacking in sincerity or much of any character development, my friend and I found this to be a ton of fun and maybe even a bit better than advertised, with so many gee-wiz action set pieces and stunts that one quickly loses count.  Yes, it does tick me off that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (and obviously the film’s producers) take a “Bond girl” approach to their female leads, changing them out like race-car tires with each new franchise installment, but I still find enormous popcorn-style movie entertainment in the IMF films, and this one is no exception.  The sometimes abrupt (though largely bloodless) violence and sophistication of the plot will confuse younger viewers, but most kids above age 11 or so should grasp things enough and enjoy the non-stop action enough to find this worthwhile along with the older members of the fam.  So strap in everyone and head to the metroplex ready for another wild ride courtesy of Tom Cruise in this, the 5th of the Ethan Hunt Mission Impossible feature franchise films.

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.

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.