Pixels: Game over

There’s a potentially funny movie in Pixels, but unfortunately it’s not the one on the screen.

In short, aliens presume Earth is preparing to wage war, having intercepted satellites over the years and seen clips of ‘80s video games – Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q*bert, etc. Thus, they’ve launched their own offensive using those very video-game characters to carry out their nefarious scheme.

In desperation (clearly), the U.S. Government, under the direction of the President (Kevin James) – himself a former video-game junkie – assembles a team of “experts” to combat this extra-terrestrial menace, and who better than video-game champions of the 1980s?

It’s an amusing conceit that the aliens would use re-dubbed TV clips and music videos to deliver their threat, and the visual puns of Pixels are more inspired than the verbal ones found in Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling’s lazy, lackluster script. Even the idea that Kevin James would play the President is tossed away, as if the actual notion is side-splitting enough in itself. (It isn’t.)

The heroic contingent of all-American gamesters includes Adam Sandler (also a producer), Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan, the latter most fetching in her military uniform and providing an obligatory if uninspired romantic interest for Sandler.

It’s nice to see such pros as Brian Cox, Dan Aykroyd, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Laine Kazan, Affion Crockett and Serena Williams, but it would be even nicer if any of them had something – anything – to do, except wait for the next barrage of special effects.

Director Chris Columbus may have several blockbusters under his belt (the first two Home Alones and first two Harry Potters), yet even the man whose career was launched with the scripts for Gremlins (1984) and Goonies (1985) can’t bring much energy to the party. What could have been a hi-tech hoot in the spirit of Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and The Lego Movie (2013) – each of whose box-office success undoubtedly encouraged this project – is instead a pallid, wearying knock-off of Ghostbusters (1984). Pixels isn’t a missed opportunity, it’s a blown one. !

Southpaw down for the count

Employing seemingly every boxing-movie cliché since movies started talking, Southpaw boasts a buff Jake Gyllenhaal as the pugilist protagonist, yet even he is laid low by a punch-drunk script penned by smallscreen veteran Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy,” “The Shield”).

Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (subtle), who grew up an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen but has fought his way to the top as the lightheavyweight boxing champ (!), boasting a record of 43-0 (!). But when his beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is shot dead after a press conference, his world comes crashing down.

In quick succession, the bereaved Billy loses his championship belt, his mansion, his money, custody of their daughter (talented youngster Oona Laurence), and his self-respect.

Thus, this overlong and overwritten melodrama slogs into utter formula, leading to a climactic re-match with Escobar (Miguel Gomez), the trash-talking punk who took his title. No points for guessing who wins, whether the fight goes the distance, whether Billy regains custody and his selfrespect.

Director Antoine Fuqua manages to bring a little energy to the boxing sequences, but otherwise Southpaw is strictly by the numbers. Forest Whitaker, sporting a glass eye and a vintage Member’s Only jacket, plays the crusty but wise fight trainer, and 50 Cent plays Billy’s patently untrustworthy promoter. Given the rapper/actor’s recent, wellpublicized money woes, the scenes of him giving financial advice come across as unintentionally comic.

The film never even bothers to address the matter of Maureen’s death. Announcers repeatedly refer to her “untimely death” during the Big Fight – even though it could easily be construed as a homicide (albeit accidental). That the authorities never seem to follow up on the incident lends a note of incredulity to the proceedings, to say nothing of ineptitude. !

Vacation isn’t

It makes no difference whether or not Vacation is related to the earlier films, begun 32 years ago with National Lampoon’s Vacation. If this is the attempt to resurrect the franchise, the new film succeeds only in burying it further – although it does put National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) and Vegas Vacation (1997) in a more positive light.

Ed Helms plays the grown-up Rusty Griswold, who decides to recapture the magic of his youth – but certainly not the original film – by taking wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their bickering boys (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) on a cross-country drive to everyone’s favorite amusement part, Walley World.

Despite the refrain of Lindsey Buckingham’s catchy “Holiday Road” from the original film, this Vacation’s on a road to nowhere almost from the get-go. The road trip is merely a flimsy thread upon which screenwriters and first-time directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein hang a succession of gags and jokes, many scatological and most driven right into the ground whether they were funny to begin with or not. This film riffs on the original without ever respecting it.

There are visits to sister Audrey (an underused Leslie Mann) and her hunky husband (an over-endowed Chris Hemsworth) and to Mom and Dad in San Francisco, which gives an excuse to bring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo into the picture, although to little effect.

Norman Reedus, Ron Livingston, Regina Hall, Michael Pena, Colin Hanks, and David Clennon also turn up, but the film’s only genuine highlight comes courtesy Charlie Day (with an assist from Harry Nilsson), as a rafting guide whose girlfriend has just dumped him. For a few minutes, at least, Vacation is funny. The rest of the time, it’s not. !

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