The Mountain Men: Q&A with MERU’s Conrad Anker & Jimmy Chin

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Meru - 2Conrad Anker is one of the greatest mountain climbers on his generation, someone who has scaled peaks from Alaska to Antarctica. In 1999, as part of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition to Mount Everest, he found George Mallory’s body 75 years after the pioneering mountaineer vanished during an attempted ascent. Jimmy Chin is a photographer, skier, and climber whose accomplishments have included first ascents in Asia’s Karakoram mountain range and skiing down Everest. Longtime climbing partners, the pair and their friend Renan Ozturk, dreamed of being the first to conquer a peak that has bested many a climber, the Shark’s Fin, a peak on Mount Meru in India, 21,000 feet above the Ganges River. Meru, a breathtaking and intense documentary, directed by Chin and his wife, E. Chai Vasarhelyi, and shot by Chin and Ozturk, spins the tale of two expeditions undertaken by the trio in 2008 and 2011 along with their compelling backstories.

The film, the documentary audience award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is in theaters now where its awe-inspiring images deserve to be seen. Chin and Anker visited San Francisco recently in support of Meru. They are an amiable pair, which isn’t surprising. The film is as much a record of a friendship as it is breathtaking achievement. Their natural habitat may be a precarious alpine perch, but four years after the second expedition and eight months since they started talking about the film at Sundance, they are happy to sit in the confines of a small office and chat about it some more.

Q: How does it feel to be down on the ground again? Or, I guess I should say, how does it feel when you are down on the ground?

Jimmy Chin: I think we both prefer not be on the ground, normally. We like to be climbing. Your senses are a little bit more firing when you’re climbing. But when we first got down after 2008—I think that feeling’s always very similar. There’s just this tension that, which we love, but after a very sustained amount of time, there’s a big sense of relief. I think the best moment is when we drop the harnesses off and you let them hit the ground. You haven’t been able to drop anything in two weeks. All of the sudden, there’s this moment where you can drop stuff on the ground and it’s almost amusing that you’re not going to lose it forever.

Conrad Anker: Climbing has a nautical background. The word “belay” comes from maritime. Carabiners were adapted from the maritime. All these things, there’s this connection. The metaphor we like to look at it is we are sort of sailors in the sea of gravity. So when you’re out at sea, if you go over the edge of your boat, you’re going to drown or get really cold—it’s not going to be good unless someone rescues you pretty quick. Here, the metaphorical sea is gravity. If we let go of the equipment or drop the rope, we’re going to be stranded there, on this wall. So there’s that same similarity. It’s like when you come back to land, if you’ve been at sea two or three days, the first five minutes you’re walking on land, ‘Is it still the swaying of the boat?’ ‘Are we back down?’

Q: What was the first climb you two did together?

Conrad Anker: We climbed in Tuolumne Meadows probably 15 or 16 years ago. Then we did a trip to the Palisades range in the Sierras here. Then Pakistan, Tibet, yeah, we’ve been—Jimmy’s my main man.

Q: When you are starting a new climbing partnership, how do you do know it’s right? You’re going up with someone you’ve never climbed with before. That takes a great amount of trust.

Conrad Anker: We get to get to know each other on a local cliff and shorter climbs, but I’ll know within 15 minutes if I’m going to spend time with a person. That’s how I survive the mountains, because I’m assessing the situation and things like that…Some climbers are completely scattered and some climbers are accident-prone. Some climbers are full of themselves. I don’t want to go do a climb with them.

Jimmy Chin: Obviously, for me, there was no question about his legacy and his history as a climber. He was clearly one of the great climbers of his generation. The bigger risk was me for him, because I was this kid that just showed up and didn’t have much of a history.

Q: You begin with a shot of the top of Meru and then a shot of your portaledge suspended below the summit. It looks so precarious and really brings home just how vulnerable you are when you’re climbing and exactly what kind of risks you’re taking.

Jimmy Chin: Yeah. The weather conditions up there, if it gets bad, and you’re stuck up high, it’s like a tempest. You are very exposed. You’re in one of the most exposed places in the world. It keeps it interesting.

Q: What kind of extra challenge does it place on you to be filming? And what kind of difference has the advent of lightweight camera made for you?

Jimmy Chin: I think this film is really made possible by the DSLR revolution that happened. The Canon 5D came out and all of the sudden—I’m a still photographer, too—I had this tool that I could shoot both stills and much more cinematic footage that wasn’t possible before. Renan and I would trade cameras. He would shoot when I was climbing and I would shoot when he was climbing. You could shoot this type of material before, but it wouldn’t look the way it does now. That changed, the quality of the footage.

In terms of the extra challenge of shooting, it’s a matter of bandwidth. You’ve got a certain amount of bandwidth and a certain of energy and a certain amount of daylight. You have to parse that out between the climbing and the shooting. On a climb like this, you’re always a climber first. In a way, you have to be hyper-efficient, because it’s through your efficiencies that you can find the bandwidth, the time and moments, to shoot.

Q: At what point, did you realize that you had an extraordinarily dramatic story? Because this movie isn’t just about trying to conquer this apparently unconquerable mountain, all three of you have incredible backstories that makes the film that much more intense.

Jimmy Chin: Probably not fully until 2011, after the second climb. I was pretty much focused on surviving…I did know that I wanted to shoot this in the best possible way. Really, because in 2008 we got this footage and we shot a little bit, mostly for posterity, and we looked at and just like the climb, I was like, ‘Oh man, we could do this so much better.’ I started thinking about it as a shooter, as well as a climber. We thought about the climb the second time, ‘How can we do it better? What can we do with less of? How can we trim this down and create a tighter program?’ It was the same with the shooting. I got motivated to shoot it a lot better, but I wasn’t thinking so much about shooting it a lot better for the sake of a film. I thought of it more as shooting it better for the sake of shooting it better. The idea of putting it all together in a narrative and structurally was beyond the scope of what I was even capable of thinking at the time. I was thinking about too many other things.

Q: What you guys did with these climbs is just so special. There are so few places on the planet that offer the kind of opportunity that Meru did.

Jimmy Chin: Well, it’s just special to get out of a place where there’s cell service now, where you can’t check your social media. That’s become special. We fight really hard to get to those places at this point in our lives, because that’s where we can be calm. Being on the side of a mountain with a lot of exposure, that’s fine. Dealing with the day-to-day stuff…

Q: Looking at this film, you can’t but think about life and how people choose to live their lives.

Jimmy Chin: That’s verbatim what we talk about, Chai and I and Conrad, that the film is about how you choose to live your life, what life you choose to live. But also how complex those decisions are. The thing is, people are always, ‘You’re a climber. You’re one of those crazy climbers!’ Actually, the most successful, the best climbers that I know are hyper-calculated, understand risk at a level that very few people do, and have the capacity to make real complex, logistical decisions—they’re the furthest thing from crazy reckless.

Q: With what you do, you so have to trust and depend on your partner. It’s almost like the level of a relationship that most of us don’t experience, because we’re never in that kind of hyper-intense situation.

Conrad Anker: I started out in sports. I was a hyperactive kid. I played baseball, football, and this was when coaches were tough. I remember when I was in seventh grade, I was, ‘OK, I’m out of football. I’m not into it.’ The coach was like, ‘I knew you never had it in you!’ Encouraging me to come back to the team. Being nice to me didn’t work, so his next thing was just to beat me down so much and fill me with shame that I had to come back to it. But then I got into scouting. I had a great scoutmaster. So when Jimmy and I do a climb, or the three of us if you were to join us, our goal would be to climb El Cap. The adversaries are gravity, the weather, the intensity of the rock, but we’re not trying to outperform each individual. So if you make a mistake, we all pay the consequences, so it’s my goal to make you not make a mistake, whereas if we were to play tennis, my goal is to make you make a mistake, so I get that point. Then I win. It like, ‘Go ego!’

Q: What’s up next for the both of you?

Conrad Anker: I’ve got a trip to Nepal on October 24th. Nepal after the earthquake, see how those folk are doing. It’s always a great place to go. They’re such kind people and resourceful people.

Jimmy Chinn: I’m focused on the release of the film and I’m in development on another project. But I’m ready for another trip, basically. I’ve got to find to an excuse to go somewhere with Conrad, because I’m starting to get antsy. The last serious trip was in 2011. I’ve been to the Bugaboos and I’ve been to Yosemite and done some other climbing, but a real trip where I lose 15 pounds…

Conrad Anker: And come back with some wisdom.

Jimmy Chin: Yeah, I’m ready for something good. It’s like a purge. I’m sure it’s the same for people who need to go on a yoga retreat or go on one of those retreats where you don’t speak for 10 days. It’s like that. They’re so meaningful and they reset the priorities for you. You appreciate food again. You appreciate your friends. There’s a lot of things you get out of it.

Pastoral thriller: TOM AT THE FARM

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08-TOM-AT-THE-FARMA young man reeling after his lover dies travels to a remote farm to pay his respects to the family and finds himself in a twilight zone of anger, grief, and denial, and seemingly powerless to leave, in Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm. Made between Laurence Anyways and Mommy, this adaptation of a play by Michel Marc Bouchard with a screenplay by Dolan and Bouchard, is a compact, terrifically creepy psychological thriller made all the more disturbing by Tom’s passivity and its seemingly serene bucolic setting.

Tom (a bleached blond Dolan) is in for a couple of shocks when he arrives at the farm. The first is that apparently his lover, Guillaume, never told his mother Agathe (Lise Roy) that he was gay. Instead, she rails against the absent Sarah, the woman she believes to be her son’s girlfriend. The second is Francis (Pierre Yves-Cardinal), the brother Guillaume never told Tom he had, a glowering brute that, as becomes apparent at the funeral, the entire town avoids. The relationship between Francis and Tom is dangerous from the start. Intimidating and terrorizing others are as natural to Francis as breathing, and Tom is his special project. That there really is a Sarah (Orphan Black’s Evelyne Brochu) further complicates matters.

Why Tom puts up with what Francis dishes out is part of the mystery. There is little hint to his and Guillaume’s backstory, beyond the fact that at least one of them was good at keeping secrets, and little to indicate what Tom is like in his daily life in Montreal when his judgment is not clouded by grief. For now, he is rooted to the spot. He could flee from Francis’ bullying and brutality, but it is almost as if he is mesmerized by the man’s cruelty. And despite Francis’ evident homophobia, there is an erotic charge between the hulking farmer and the petite city slicker that makes the situation that much more combustible.

Despite opening the play up to encompass the entire property (including a cornfield where the withered plants’ leaves are razor-sharp) and forays into town, the overriding feeling of Tom at the Farm is one of claustrophobia, which only amps up the tension as Tom becomes more and more ensnared into this unhealthy household. Dolan sets a dolorous tone from the opening scene as Tom drives to the farm and an a capella version of Michel Legrand’s “Les moulins de mon cœur” (better known to English-speaking audiences as “The Windmills of Your Mind”) plays on the car stereo, while Gabriel Yared’s evocative score continually amps the tension. Ray, who originated the role of Agathe on the stage, and Brochu are both terrific, but the drama hinges on the relationship between the two men. Yves-Cardinal strikes the right note of danger as the unsettling, possibly unhinged Francis, and Dolan did not cast himself purely out vanity or economic necessity. He’s pitch-perfect as a man out of sorts and out of balance seemingly reacting to his situation out of pure, if faulty, instinct.

Like Joel Edgerton’s recent The Gift, Tom at the Farm is a corker of a thriller that extracts chills from the collision of personalities and the machinations of an unstable individual. These are dramas of the everyday, the mundane, and all the more distressing for it. What happens to Tom could happen to anybody.—Pam Grady

Stylish, shiny, and pointless: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. reboot

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Guy Ritchie should pay his production designer, cinematographer, and art and costume departments boatloads of money. They make his films look so great. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a case in point. Look at it too closely and it’s possible to convince yourself that when Shakespeare wrote those immortal words in Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he was anticipating Ritchie. There’s a lot of action, but not much point to the director’s reboot of the 50-year-old TV series, but it looks dazzling. It’s the movie equivalent of presents sitting under a Christmas tree, the gorgeous wrapping promising so much and delivering…socks.

In this origin tale, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, wrestling mightily and not always successfully with a thick Russian accent) meet cute when Kuryakin trails Solo to a meeting with East German mechanic Gaby (It Girl of the moment Alicia Vikander), who Solo plans to get over the Berlin Wall. Solo is a spy, but only because he’s been blackmailed into service after being caught out as a black marketeer after World War II. (Does this mean that Solo is really The Third Man’s Harry Lime?) Kuryakin is a whiz at planting bugs, but he’s a hitter who is most comfortable in hand-to-hand combat. The two men hate each other—clearly the start of a beautiful friendship as their respective handlers insist they partner up and work with Gaby to bring down a conspiracy involving Nazis, rich Italians, a nuclear bomb, a computer disc, and Gaby’s atomic scientist dad.

Vikander is the best thing going in the movie. Given the chance to demonstrate her comic chops, she steals every scene she’s in, particularly one where she tries to drunkenly seduce Kuryakin. Cavill does what he can with a character that is all style and no substance, but at least he’s not stuck like poor Hammer playing someone who substitutes feats of strength for a personality. Hugh Grant makes a welcome appearance as Waverly, a man who is a complete mystery to Solo and Kuryakin, but not to anyone who has seen the original TV series. Expect to see much more of him if sequels ensue.

If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should beget a franchise, maybe Ritchie should invest in hiring better screenwriters. The script he collaborated on with producer Lionel Wigram is a collection of spy movie clichés. There is a lot of action, a lot of chases, a touch of romance, plenty of double-dealing, and the obligatory torture scene and not a frame of it is original. It is pretty and pretty empty. The cast—and movie audiences—deserve better than this empty exercise in style.—Pam Grady

Jemaine Clement nurses broken heart in PEOPLE PLACES THINGS

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When last seen on American screens, Jemaine Clement was gleefully ripping into flesh as a Kiwi vampire in What We Do in the Shadows. That character’s razor-sharp incisors would have come in handy for his new role as a heartbroken comic-book artist and single dad in James C. Strouse’s comedy drama People Places Things who is too accommodating by half in accepting whatever fate (or his ex-wife) throws at him. This is a guy who could use a little bite.

But destiny isn’t done with Clement’s Will Henry yet. A year after his marriage to Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) imploded on their twin daughters’ fifth birthday, she’s moved on, ensconced with her portly monologist lover Gary (Michael Chernus) and finding herself through improv classes. But Will is spinning his wheels, still mourning the loss of his settled family life; working as a teacher as well as an artist; stuck in a crappy apartment in Astoria, Queens; perpetually short on funds; and missing daily contact with his little girls. One of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams), identifying his loneliness, sets him up on a date with her mother, Columbia American lit professor Diane (Regina Hall), an awkward evening to add to his sense of futility.

Strouse previously made the John Cusack vehicle Grace is Gone, a road movie that similarly dealt with a husband and father of daughters shocked to find himself suddenly a single dad. People Places Things is a lighter affair, buoyed by Will’s basic decency and the sense of humor that never quite deserts him even at the worst of times. Clement delivers a warm, affable performance as the beleaguered Will, and he receives great support from Williams, Hall, and the adorable kids playing his daughters, Gia and Aundrea Gadsby. Composer Mark Orton’s (Nebraska) score adds one layer of whimsy, while cartoon panels that reflect Will’s predicament adds another. People Places Things is a small film, but it’s one with immense heart.—Pam Grady

Sony Classics unveils first pic of Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams

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Tom Hiddleston certainly looks every inch the part in this still, the first Sony Pictures Classics has released from I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic. Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell plays Williams’ dad Elonzo. More importantly, Crowell is also the film’s executive music producer and the person charged with transforming the Brit actor into an American legend. They were in the process of that when Hiddleston joined Crowell on stage last September at the Wheatland Music Festival to sing “Move It on Over” in a performance that augers well for a film that ought to have a lot of people seeing the light.

First look: Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

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Here’s a first peek of Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who served time in prison for contempt of Congress at the dawn of the Cold War after refusing to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee during its original fishing expedition seeking information about communist influence in Hollywood. After prison came the blacklist that kept him offically unemployable through the 1950s, although that didn’t stop Trumbo from writing the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck romantic comedy Roman Holiday (for which credit was given to Trumbo’s “front,” Ian McLellan Hunter), or the Oscar-winning story for the 1956 drama about a young boy trying to saving his pet bull from slaughter, The Brave One (under the pseudonym Robert Rich).

Joining Cranston in Jay Roach’s drama are Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., Stephen Root, John Goodman, and in what is sure to be a highlight, Helen Mirren as one of the superstar (and vicious) gossip columnists of the era, Hedda Hopper. —Pam Grady

FANTASTIC Bore

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Fantastic Four has a thoroughbred cast—Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, and Kata Mara as Sue Storm—but they are saddled with a script worthy only of nags. The latest reboot of the Marvel franchise is an origins story that is practically stillborn, a tale that spends more time with the construction of a teleporting machine than it does giving the quartet anything “fantastic” to do.

This is an adventure story in search of an adventure, which it only finds well into its third act, long after it is possible to care about the characters or what happens to them. At that point, angered that government suit Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) wants to take their toy and give it to NASA, Reed, Johnny, and arrogant cohort Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), with Reed’s childhood BFF Ben in tow, suit up and make a drunken journey to the far-off world their lab monkey so recently visited. Depending on one’s viewpoint about body-altering superpowers, the trip is a disaster, particularly for poor Ben who becomes the rock creature The Thing. Billy Elliot will never dance again.

Naturally, the government sees the military potential for a big rock man who can smash whole battalions to pieces in a matter of minutes; generate fire as Johnny now can; make like a human Stretch Armstrong like Reed; and become invisible and create force fields like Sue. And naturally, Victor, thought dead, isn’t. He reappears with the greatest superpower of them all—a really bad attitude. At last, some action! Too little, too late. Aside from the endless set-up, there are too many not-so-special-effects, and way too much bad dialogue:

Reed: “You were my best friend.”

Ben: “Look at me. I’m not your friend. You turned me into something else.”

Reed: “Yes. Now, you’re my pet rock.”

OK, that last line is made up, but those are the kinds of things that get jotted down in the dark when the promised action movie turns out to be something far drearier. Fantastic Four isn’t a Marvel movie. An anti-Marvel movie is more like it, a cynical exercise to cash in on a beloved franchise.—Pam Grady

RICKI AND THE FLASH: Great bar band in search of a better script

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Poor Rick Springfield. He must have thought he struck gold when he was cast in Ricki and The Flash opposite the doyenne of American movies, Meryl Streep, in a film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Diablo Cody, Oscar winners all. For the frosting on the cake, the supporting cast includes Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, and Broadway diva Audra McDonald. This should have been another high point to Springfield’s career, at least as satisfying for him as his soap stardom on General Hospital and his 1981 number one, Grammy-winning hit, “Jessie’s Girl.” With all of the talent involved, Ricki must have seemed like a can’t-miss. But, man, does it ever.

Springfield has nothing to be ashamed of. He is one of the best parts of the film, delivering an effective performance and providing the movie with a sorely needed dose of charisma. He plays Greg to Streep’s Ricki, her guitar player and lover that she takes for granted both on stage and off. Once upon a time, she was apparently an upper-middle-class wife and mother in Indiana, but gave it all up to pursue rock stardom in California. Now 60-something, she’s estranged from her kids and ekes out a bare-bones income as a grocery cashier and lives for the nights when she sings covers at the bar where she and the Flash are the house band.

Despite the fact that her kids can’t stand her, her ex-husband Pete (Kline) gets the bright idea to fly her out to Indiana to deal with their daughter, Julie (Gummer), who has moved back home and sunk into depression after the break-up of her marriage. His wife, Maureen (McDonald), is away and he doesn’t feel equipped to handle Julie. That brings Ricki back into her family’s orbit and eventually to her son Joshua’s (Sebastian Stan) wedding. And none of it seems real. Not the manufactured family relationships or the ersatz family trauma or character behavior at odds with the real world. (Greg asking if the drinks are free at Joshua’s nuptials is one small example. Surely, even an aging, down-market rocker is familiar with the concept of an open bar. He’s been to weddings. He’s probably played a few and been a groom himself a time or two.) Most of the time, Ricki and The Flash plays like an overlong sitcom of the type that undercuts its tacky humor with sentimentality.

Perhaps predictably, for a movie coming from Demme and named for a band, the movie’s most engaging moments are when Ricki is on stage. The director whose oeuvre includes The Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, several collaborations with Neil Young, and other music docs, is an ace at shooting performance and he captures the excitement and joy of musicians going about their business. The songs—that range from classics like “Drift Away,” the ballad made famous by Dobie Gray that becomes a duet for Ricki and Greg, to newer material like Pink’s “Get the Party Started,” performed to appeal to the bar’s younger drinkers—are well-chosen. Streep sings well and learned to play guitar for the film. Best of all, Demme surrounds her with ringers that include, in addition to Springfield, drummer Joe Vitale, keyboard player Bernie Worrell, and late bassist Rick Rosas. If Ricki was a real person, she would not be able to believe her luck at such at outfit. When The Flash is on stage, the movie is enchanting. They aren’t on stage often enough. –Pam Grady

THE END OF THE TOUR: Epic conversation makes for riveting drama

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You have to wonder what David Foster Wallace was thinking when he consented to have Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky following him for five days in 1996 as he wrapped up his Infinite Jest book tour. Of course, it was a different world then. The internet was just starting to make inroads to world domination. Print was still king and Lipsky’s employer was a player. Whatever the reason, Wallace agreed to the epic interview. It never appeared in the magazine, but after Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Lipsky turned it into a book, Although OF Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. It is that book that serves as the basis of Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt’s riveting new drama The End of the Tour.

Jason Segel is perfectly cast as Wallace, enjoying and enduring the kind of success most writers never experience. Infinite Jest was one of those books that only comes along only once or twice in a generation, one that doesn’t just make an impact on critics and readers, but also on other writers. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) understands that. It’s one of the reasons he pitches the interview to his editor (Ron Livingston). But he is also both in awe and jealous of Wallace’s achievement. Lipsky himself has just published a novel, The Art Fair, to good reviews but little fanfare. Both men are whip-smart and competitive. Wallace is a little freaked out by the enormity of his success, counting the days until the tour ends, and now he has to deal with a reporter coming at him with the dogged determination of a zealous puppy nipping at his ankles. (Whatever the size differential between Wallace and Lipsky might have been in real life, the fact that Segel towers over the diminutive Eisenberg adds another layer of complication to the relationship that develops between the two men.)

Directing his Yale playwriting teacher Donald Margulies’ screenplay, Ponsoldt sets the stage as close to reality as possible, right down to shooting in northern Michigan in the frigid winter of 2014 mirroring the conditions of the 1996 interview. Just looking at the screen in some scenes can raise goosebumps. And with that stage set, Ponsoldt lets his actors loose. Under other circumstances, the two Davids might have become friends. They have enough in common, but between Lipsky’s barely concealed envy, Wallace’s wariness, and the differences in their stations in life, that just isn’t the cards. For five days, they make do with sometimes brilliant banter. The actors are both spot-on in their performances, but this is Segel’s movie and he delivers an outstanding performance as a complex man navigating the unfamiliar territory of sudden fame. Both he and the drama are pitch-perfect in a film that pays homage not just to a great writer but to the art of conversation. –Pam Grady

PIXELS vs. PIXELS

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This is Pixels, the feature: It stars Adam Sandler, an actor—to borrow a phrase from Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band—who doesn’t have charm. He has counter-charm. It also stars Kevin James as Paul Blart, Mall Cop gets a promotion to president of the United States. Sandler plays a one-time arcade-style video game whiz who now installs electronic equipment for a living. (The movie presents him as a loser because of his job, but screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling might have stopped to consider that not everyone can grow up to write terrible screenplays.) These two, along with Josh Gad as a conspiracy nut and Peter Dinklage as a scammer-turned-jailbird, are what stands between the world and total annihilation when aliens in the form of beloved videogame characters attack. It has a few things going for it, namely Dinklage, who is clearly having a blast playing a jerk; a sly insertion of “jiggery-pokery;” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on the soundtrack not once, but twice; and a prologue that evokes summer days gone by back when nearly all American kids were free-range kids. But it is also at least 20 minutes too long (with a tacked on last act that merely serves to pad out the running time) and just feels too much like the usual summer bombastic apocalypse. Also, there is a missed opportunity here: Why did it not occur to anyone to recruit Jason Alexander to pay homage to the classic Seinfeld “Frogger” episode?

What inspired director Chris Columbus’ bid for big, dumb summer fun is something altogether more modest: Patrick Jean’s 2010 short Pixels. Less than three minutes long, there are no heroes, only aliens in the guise of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other classic game characters invading New York. It’s sly and smart and full of more imagination in its tiny running time than anything in the feature. It’s a jewel. To watch it after seeing its new bloated companion is to be aware that just because you can make something bigger doesn’t mean that you should. When it comes to Pixels vs. Pixels, smaller is better.—Pam Grady

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