Pixels – 2015 Film

Pixels Pac Man Cars

Having a hobby that the world has villainized for over three decades, I can’t help but react to the slightest bit of recognition thrown at video games. Fortunately, Hollywood has given us exactly that: the slightest bit…that recognizes thirty-year-old games..with an Adam Sandler movie. This validation couldn’t get any smaller if they had hired a team of nuclear physicists to assemble it by smashing protons together in a particle accelerator. Actually, I kid, but having grown up in the nineties, I have a confession to make, which they tell me is the first step toward recovery; I actually like Adam Sandler. Billy Madison? Hilarious. Happy Gilmore? You couldn’t make a better sports movie if you recast the Mighty Ducks with the Playboy Bunnies. And honestly, after Wreck-it-Ralph decided fans of classic video games would love to watch the inbred love-child of Mario Kart and Candyland, I actually appreciated a movie that got the classics right.

Mr. Sandler, this is Mr. Kong, and I believe he's not happy about spending $13 on Spanglish.

Mr. Sandler, this is Mr. Kong, and I believe he’s not happy about spending $13 on Spanglish.

The film follows an over-mature man child–no, not like Big Daddy. He’s a character who acts like a child–no, not like Billy Madison. He’s actually an unlikely prodigy–but not like Happy Gilmore. He’s kind of socially awkward–no, not like Little Nicky or Anger Management–and tries to win over a girl who is unbelievably hot–but not like 50 First Dates–and…you know what? Why don’t I just start over.

One of them built a career on a notoriously foul mouth, and the other on Happy Gilmore. I hear they do a great duet of "Ode to my Car."

One of them built a career on a notoriously foul mouth, and the other on Happy Gilmore. I hear they do a great duet of “Ode to my Car.”

Pixels follows four friends–Happy Gilmore, Paul Blart Mall Cop, Tyrion Lannister, and the snowman from Frozen–who won their fifteen minutes of fame by the age of twelve setting record high scores for Galaga, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and other silver-screen era arcade games. Beldar Conehead took the footage from the competition and blasted it into space, whereupon aliens mistook it for a declaration of war, and they emulate the forms of the games they see in order to invade. Apparently nothing makes an invasion strategy look stronger than footage of adolescent boys systematically dismantling it with apparent ease. Fast forward thirty years, and United States President Blart Mall Cop has to pull the country together to stave off this invasion. Naturally he turns to his long time friend, who now installs home theatre systems in the D.C. area. Because the skills required to hit buttons while standing in front of an arcade cabinet easily translate to heavy weapons proficiency in a first-person, physical environment. In the end, Sandler hooks up with the insanely hot Lieutenant Colonel, which is not a spoiler for an Adam Sandler movie, and Olaf the Snowman fucks Q-Bert, which I unfortunately did not exaggerate in any way.

See, boys and girls? If you practice writing and get real good at it, you too can create parts for yourself that require making out with the most attractive people on the planet.

See, boys and girls? If you practice writing and get real good at it, you too can create parts for yourself that require making out with the most attractive people on the planet.

Generally, any audience will accept coincidence more readily at the beginning of a story, but Pixels asks us to take quite a bit on faith. When we see the president as a self-absorbed bastard with a flair for indulgence in sex, drugs, and partying, we get that. In fact, he surprisingly bridges the ideological differences between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But suggesting that he comes from a background that enables him to know any blue collar workers, let alone still associate with them, seems a bit of a stretch. And the fact that both of them had a personal hand in starting the invasion that they both personally help repel…well, a religion based on the sixty-five-year-old writings of a washed up sci-fi author who asks celebrities for exorbitant subscription fees starts sounding pretty reasonable by comparison. Then we have to follow that the insanely hot, Sandlerishly milfish (she has to have a kid because Sandler needs an early-adolescent boy in all his films to connect with on an intellectual level) Lieutenant Colonel just so happened to call President Mall Cop’s drinking buddy for her son’s PS4 installation, that people exist who both need help with that and who provide professional services for that, that her husband left her based on physical appearance, and that she gave birth to a son–presumably at the age of twelve, based on how old she looks–without any noticeable change in her figure.

Pixels creates a world about as realistic as an M.C. Escher drawing, but with an elegance more on par with a self-shot sex tape after knocking the camera off the nightstand. Sandler plays the same character as always: that kid who scored major cool points in middle school because he had older brothers who taught him dirty words and let him take their Playboys, and then graduated to high school and couldn’t understand why his eat-anything-on-a-dare routine didn’t impress people anymore. The dialogue has all the wit and humor of that thing your buddy said while drunk and you later posted to Facebook. But I don’t want to give the impression that the film is worthless.

A Lannister busy paying his debts.

A Lannister busy paying his debts.

First off, Peter Dinklage has been hailed by prophecy as the anti-Sandler, he who will be born unto the world every thousand years to blight other actors with the realization that acting means completely playing pretend, not just being a slightly different version of yourself in every movie. Dinklage created his character from the ground up, and it comes off as fully enjoyable to the point where you wish he had a bigger part…uh…no pun intended. It’s good to see him get roles based on his talent, rather than every other dwarf actor who shows up when a director needs a short character, and then gets stuffed back into a closet or a duffle bag, or an overhead compartment on a cessna.

Second, this movie has figured out something–likely 100% accidentally–that no other video game movie to date seems to have realized: gameplay. Barring well-written stories in games like Final Fantasy or Silent Hill, people watch these movies because they like the way the game plays. Pixels doesn’t try to give an origin story to Pac Man, a tragic plot arc to Centipede, or some crazy MacGuffin to explain why the tetrominoes have such a beef against horizontal lines. None of that shit! Donkey Kong chucks a barrel at Sandler’s head? Sandler climbs up the scaffolding to kick his monkey ass! Big-ass centipede dropping out of the sky? Sandler grabs a gun and shoots for the head. Tetrominoes filling up the streets, making the buildings disappear? Sandler…well he doesn’t really do anything about that, but the point is that’s what happens in the game.

And before you harp on me about praising the film's details...yes I know they're supposed to use magic wands against the centipede.

And before you harp on me about praising the film’s details…yes I know they’re supposed to use magic wands against the centipede.

The film has details. Lots of details. Scenes where fans of arcade classics can scan the crowd and recognize the bloke riding an ostrich, the frog hopping in front of cars, or the bipedal fried egg running around as though it would actually be menacing in real life. And these aren’t any tongue-in-cheek references either. No ha-ha-they-call-him-Ralph-but-that-game-looks-like-Donkey-Kong attempts at satire. These are actually the games we played thirty years ago, come back to seek revenge for when we ran out of quarters to feed them. You could watch this half a dozen times and probably catch new details on each viewing.

If, you know, it wasn’t a generic disposable comedy, filmed to view once and then discard like a used condom: an awesome idea the first time, but after using it you don’t really want people to see it sitting on your shelf. Much like the condom, if you get the opportunity, I’d say go for it; it’ll be fun. I did say earlier that I like Adam Sandler (just not in that way), despite the common criticisms…some of which I’ve conveyed here, myself…and the movie has its moments. However, if you have trouble with staying power, good news; it turns out this film was based on a 2010 short film of the same name, and–much like your experiences with the condom–it’s over after two and a half minutes.

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Super Mario Bros. – 1993 Movie

Out of all the decisions this movie made that I don't like, I actually agree with their choice of tagline.

Out of all the decisions this movie made that I don’t like, I actually agree with their choice of tagline.

Not many people respected video games in 1993. I had spent the better part of four years obsessed with the idea, though, and after begging and pleading for my parents to let me buy a used Nintendo and a hoard of crappy sports games from one of my dad’s students, I finally got my wish and had my very own box of magic entertainment—which they promptly made me sell if I wanted to buy the Super Nintendo. Needless to say, I often felt treated like a leper for basically wanting to entertain myself. My community of friends at school extended about half the distance of a normal nine-year-old, so I had a great deal of trouble seeking out like-minded individuals to discuss the finer points of proper Mega Man boss order, how to make Link’s tools from scrap wood lying around the house, and whether or not a power-up mushroom would jump back out of the lava and let you grow to nearly the size of the screen (Note: It never happened…until the New Super Mario Bros. I think Nintendo had spies listening in on our playground conversations).

King Koopa: Fearless, terrible, all-powerful, and obsessive germophobe

King Koopa: Fearless, terrible, all-powerful, and obsessive germophobe

Captain N: The Game Master and the Super Mario Bros. Super Show aired irregularly and infrequently, so when they announced a live action film version of the game, I just about had a nine-year-old aneurysm from over-stimulation. A video game movie! How did God approve that one? Did the grown ups know about this? Fuck yeah, they knew. They just didn’t care—as evident by the movie itself. See, I recently looked up this milestone film for old time’s sake…then shut it off halfway through. But then I obtained the rifftrax file to sync up with the movie and then…then! I could get through the film without vomiting out of my ears from the horror.

The keen observer may notice several subtly placed allusions to the Super Mario Bros video game series. To examine the effort they put into making this movie, I want you to read the excerpt from the NES instruction manual (I assume from the movie’s title that they decided to skip Donkey Kong and Mario Bros and go straight to Mario’s upgrade to Super):

“One day the kingdom of the peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horsehair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin. The only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves is the Princess Toadstool, the daughter of the Mushroom King. Unfortunately, she is presently in the hands of the great Koopa turtle king. Mario, the hero of the story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People. You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of Koopa!”

We all know about Mario's predeliction for sea food...no jokes about Bertha swallowing him whole, though.

We all know about Mario’s predeliction for sea food…no jokes about Bertha swallowing him whole, though.

Excellent! A single eighth of a page of source material, and the screenwriters have plenty of information to work with. The first sentence alone provides us with a premise, a setting, a victim, description of the villain and a pretty strong clue as to their methods. As a writer myself, I know exactly where I could go with mushroom kingdom and black-magic wielding turtles—obviously to mammalian, humanoid evolutions of dinosaurs in modern day Brooklyn. Perfect match!

Seriously, if you need compelling evidence that the free market economy does not follow natural rules that inevitably leave customers with the highest-quality product that will satisfy them, look no further than this movie (although any other video game movie offers pretty good support to this thesis). I imagine they met with the screenwriter and said, “So we have a simple premise. A plumber…”

“Yeah yeah. Whatever. Mario rides that Yoshi guy my kid won’t shut up about, right? Some story about dinosaurs. Got it, got it. Now leave me alone.”

I have to credit the writers with creativity, though. For those of you who know the premise of the game…well, forget it because it will only confuse you. A mysterious narrator who only appears for the film’s opening explains that the meteor at the end of the Cretaceous period didn’t kill the dinosaurs, but split them off into a parallel dimension where they evolved in a way that eliminated the need for hiring a costume design team. Koopa, in the only fraction of the film that resembles the game in any way (kinda), turned the King into a fungus using his…magical?…de-evolution machine and set himself up as an Orwellian despot, keen on invading neighboring dimensions for lack of any actual neighbors to invade. Although Princess…uh, Daisy (really? The one from the game boy? Okay then…), while not possessing a mushroom’s sack worth of power to challenge Koopa, happens to have a fragment of the meteor that somehow can unite the two dimensions, sort of like a cyberpunk Dark Crystal. Except her mother abandoned her in Brooklyn, where she grew up and fell in love with…uh, Luigi? Really? What, did the director really feel that fans would respond better to Mario dating someone out of My Cousin Vinnie than the Mushroom Princess?

Who could forget the loveable, chestnut-mushroom...hulking ape-lizards that...dance?

Who could forget the loveable, chestnut-mushroom…hulking ape-lizards that…dance?

Meh. Forget the story. If you really want to understand how badly these guys missed the mark, they cast Dennis Hopper as Koopa. Dennis. Fricken. Hopper. Why not just hire Quentin Tarantino to write the script and hand it to Martin Scorsese to direct? Silence of the Lambs came out only two years earlier…I think Anthony Hopkins could have done an excellent job as Mario, don’t you think? Who casts Dennis Hopper in a light-hearted fantasy about mushroom people? And they didn’t stop themselves with turning Koopa into a calculating, predatory monster. Nope. Goombas (and I think koopa troopas?) became towering, 8-foot tall behemoths. Big Bertha became a bad-ass gangster woman who outweighs Mario and Luigi put together. Toad appears as a folk singer. A folk singer! I rather enjoy folk music, but when the source material describes his job as “Mushroom Retainer,” I expect him to pick up his sword and stoically fight off Koopa’s minions to his last feudalistic breath, not sparking up a doobie and serenading us about the evils of anti-union robber barons. The harmonica doesn’t quite have the same power to change the course of politics as a claymore to the skull.

Oh, God! Dennis! Keep that thing to yourself. You already make us feel uncomfortable.

Oh, God! Dennis! Keep that thing to yourself. You already make us feel uncomfortable.

Let’s run down a list of game elements that may potentially remind Mario lovers why they wanted to see this movie. Mushrooms? Nope. Castles? Nope. Fire flowers? A few enemies use flame throwers, but I think those found themselves in the film by accident. Jumping—you know, Mario’s original name? Accomplished once or twice—sorta—via rocket-powered shoes. Koopa Kids? Turned into Koopa’s cousins (well, one of them, at least), but bear a stronger resemblance to Dumb and Dumber than anything else. Yoshi? Looks like either an emaciated velociraptor or a baby skeksis who might die under the weight of a saddle. Turtles of any kind? They didn’t even spring for used costumes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Going through pipes? Maybe once, I think. They didn’t even have the decency to make anything in the movie out of bricks.

“Well, you got anything from the game?”

“Mario uses a bob-omb.”

“What? No catches?”

“Well, it wears Reeboks.”

“Perfect. They’ll love it!”

Over twenty years have passed since people started making movies based on video games, and no one has yet figured out that these movies wouldn’t epitomize the finest points of turtle shit if they bothered to write a script actually based on the games. I’d like to make an offer, and since most google searches that lead to my blog involve the terms “bdsm pc game,” I can reasonably expect plenty of viewers from Hollywood; I will, free of charge, write you a good script based on a video game. Absolutely free. I guarantee I know how to do it better than anyone who has ever written a video game movie. I only demand that if people actually like it, you have to do every video game movie the same way.

Mamma mia! Did we a-just make-a this piece-a of shit?

Mamma mia! Did we a-just make-a this piece-a of shit?

I’d love for a chance to re-make Resident Evil into a horror film, or write a Silent Hill script that follow’s James Sunderland’s crippling guilt. I wish I didn’t have to point out to Square Enix how they screwed up Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within by making it sci-fi instead of fantasy, setting it in New York instead of Midgar, leaving out swords, moogles, chocobos, airships, summoned monsters and everything else that actually makes it a Final Fantasy storyline. At least they haven’t gotten their meat hooks into Metroid or Castlevania.

And Hollywood, if you don’t take my offer…at least give us the Mario Bros remake with Hopkins, Tarantino and Scorsese. Now that I’ve had a chance to think it over, I’d actually like to see that.