Monday, July 27, 2015

Pixels, Paper Towns, Southpaw, Amy Reviews

Dir. Chris Columbus

Pixels, based on the French animated short film of the same name, seemed like it had the potential to pull Adam Sandler out of the box office quicksand he's currently in. With Sandler vehicles That's My Boy, Jack and Jill, and Blended all bombing both critically and financially, a lot seemed to be riding on this ode to 80's-era arcade games. But at this point, I think audiences are catching onto Sandler's laziness, and Pixels was yet another stinker. With no new films on the horizon (only his controversial new Netflix projects), who knows, maybe this marks the end of Sandler's big-budget Hollywood comedy career. Perhaps that's just wishful thinking though, because Pixels, like those aforementioned Happy Madison productions, is just abysmal.

The plot is ridiculous, but let's go with it: aliens intercept a video feed of classic arcade games from Earth and misinterpret them as a declaration of war. So these aliens (which are never seen) attack the planet using the games as models. To save the day President Will Cooper (Kevin James) recruits his childhood friend and former video game champion Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), a conspiracy theorist (Josh Gad) who's in love - yes in love - with the video game character Lady Lisa, and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), another former video game champ, now in prison, who bested Sam at a Donkey Kong competition when they were kids. Using their knowledge of these antiquated games, they, along with a military specialist (Michelle Monaghan) who acts as the obligatory "hot" love interest for Sandler, must group together and fight their literalized nostalgia.

The movie had the potential to be a Ghostbusters-y fun action movie, but it's just too dimwitted and poorly written to make it anything more than a shiny product to distract children. While I did really enjoy the visuals of the attacking "pixels" (Chris Columbus has always been great at combining real actors with CGI, as seen in the first two Harry Potter movies), it wasn't enough to sustain the entire film. The script is filled with countless lazy conveniences: Sam's best friend just HAPPENS to be the President of the United States, the woman whose TV Sam is repairing at the beginning of the film just HAPPENS to be working on anti-pixel technology, when Pac-Man attacks, there just HAPPENS to be a series of brightly colored mini-Coopers painted the same colors as the ghosts from the game. If there were only a handful of these little moments of disbelief, I'd be fine with it, but the whole movie feels like a stream of first-draft ideas put in without rhyme or reason. The "rules" of the film also change at will, especially at the end (kind of spoilers), when it's totally unclear why when nearly all of the "pixels" are destroyed, the cute sidekick Q*bert is still alive. It's hard to care what's going on because without any internal logic, there's no stakes in the film.

The humor and performances here are also terrible and cringeworthy. Adam Sandler just seems to be sleepwalking through this entire movie (even as the world is literally being destroyed around him), and has zero chemistry with Monaghan. Josh Gad is loud and abrasive, like the most annoying kid at a 5-year-old's birthday party. Peter Dinklage tries to play his character like a heightened version of Billy Mitchell (from The King of Kong), talking smack all the time, but his quips aren't clever, just juvenile; for example when he's let out of prison due to his arcade skillz (with a 'z'), he makes a bunch of impossible demands, like having a three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. Yup, this pretty much caters to the lowest common denominator of moviegoers.

While I used to be a big fan of Sandler (I think naysayers of his comedic ability should go watch Big Daddy or Anger Management), I'm honestly hoping to see him take a break from movies for a while. I'm crossing my fingers that The Ridiculous Six, his Netflix movie, will be enough of a change to rejuvenate Sandler and Co's worst tendencies, but from the set stories that have leaked thus far, it sounds unlikely.

Rating: D

Paper Towns
Dir. Jake Schreier

Last summer, the John Green YA book adaptation The Fault in Our Stars was a surprising hit at the box office, so it makes sense that another of his works, Paper Towns, be brought to the screen, by the same writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The film is a sort of mystery-drama; Quentin (Nat Wolff), a slightly nerdy (but really "movie" nerdy, aka, still pretty hot) high schooler grew up next door to the popular and beautiful Margo (English fashion model Cara Delevingne). One night Margo brings Quentin along on a series of revenge-pranks on friends who have betrayed her. The two have a flirtaceous good time, but the next day Margo goes missing. So Quentin, along with his buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and "Radar" (Justice Smith), the obligatory black friend, go out in search for Margo following "clues" she left behind regarding her whereabouts.

Much like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I found these high school characters to be pretty insufferable. Quentin's voice-over narration and "deep" thoughts regarding his identity moving on after high school is so cliched and forced, and like many of these kinds of faux-indie teen movies, the characters talk more like screenwriters than actual high school kids. The mystery wasn't even very interesting, and stuck on a road trip with a bunch of semi-hot "nerds," Paper Towns did little to hold my interest. Maybe this just isn't my thing (I'm definitely not the target demographic for this), but you look at something like The Spectacular Now, and you see how to make a movie like this work, without the pretentious dialogue or forcibly "quirky" characters (Radar's parents, for no reason, collect black santa figurines). Even the titular "paper town" metaphor presented in the film feels paper thin. In a climate were every year sees this same kind of young romance movie being released, Paper Towns feels completely inconsequential.

Rating: C

Dir. Antoine Fuqua

The most interesting thing about Southpaw is the movie it was originally supposed to be. This generic sports drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a tragedy-sticken boxing champion was planned to be a spiritual sequel to 8 Mile, with rapper Eminem playing the lead role - boxing being a metaphor for his upward battle of a career. That would have been a completely different movie, but as it stands, Southpaw is pretty much entirely a vehicle for Gyllenhaal to show off a transformative performance that no doubt has Harvey Weinstein salivating for an Oscar nomination. But is the performance alone enough to sustain a been-there-done-that narrative that's already been played out to death by the Rocky movies? I'd argue no, it is not.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has an impressive boxing career as the middleweight champion, a loving wife (Rachel McAdams), a cute and wise-beyond-her-years little girl (Oona Laurence), and a lavish lifestyle that would make even Robin Leach do a double take. But when something really bad happens (I won't say what for spoilers sake), Hope's life takes a downward spiral, and due to his anger and money issues, he loses almost everything, including his mansion, his manager (played by rapper 50 Cent), and custody of his daughter. So his life is practically on the line to win his next fight, and with the help of a beaten-down trainer (Forest Whitaker), Hope hooks, jabs, and punches his way back to glory.

Southpaw is like every boxing movie cliche was thrown into a blender. Especially after having just recently worked my way through all the Rocky movies, you can pretty much pinpoint every single plot element in the story as having been done before. Despite some fantastic performances from Gyllenhaal, who's like a wild animal in the ring and a beaten dog outside of it, and Laurence, who gives one of the best "kid" performances this year, the film falls under the weight of its cliches. Southpaw may be slickly produced (it has that "gimme an Oscar" sheen to it) but if you're at all familiar with the boxing genre, this movie holds no surprises for you.

Rating: C+

Dir. Asif Kapadia

After dying at the young age of 27 due to alcohol poisoning, jazz/soul singer Amy Winehouse joined the ranks of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin as major music talents who all, strangely enough, died at the same age. This archival documentary directed by Asif Kapadia takes hundreds of audio interviews from Winehouse and the people who knew her and juxtaposes them against hundreds and hundreds of personal videos, news clips, concerts, studio sessions, and more to paint an intimate portrait of this beloved, yet tortured young woman.

The interesting thing about using this "archival" format, is that you can really get a sense of how Winehouse's life transitioned before and after she became super-famous through the types of footage captured (it starts with lots of home videos and shifts to paparazzi and news bites). But although I really liked the method Kapadia used to bring Winehouse's story to life, this story is not exactly surprising. After a while, I just felt bad watching such a talented human being waste away under the pressures of the media and tabloids, while suffering under destructive relationships and behaviors. Much like Oliver Stone's The Doors, I appreciate the effort, but it just pummels you without much levity, so I found the experience exhausting to sit through. There's not much to gleam from her story other than it's a bummer that Winehouse's talents are lost because of her personal demons. Hearing her music was the only real escape from it all, but me being a nitpicker, I really didn't care for the karaoke-style "follow along" lyrics every time one of her songs would play. Overall, Amy is a solid documentary that really puts you into the mindset of the famous singer, but it's just a mindset I wouldn't want to say in for too long.

Rating: B-

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