How to Watch: “Pixels”

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Step 1: Get in the mood. If you want lighthearted, mindless Adam Sandler entertainment and have a nostalgia for ’80s video games, then Pixels is for you.

Step 2: Set the scene. The film centers on Brenner, who as a kid in the ’80s was an arcade gaming champ, able to see patterns in games like Galaga, Pac-Man and Centipede in his head and master them. Brenner’s best friend Cooper always told him he’d amount to something, but now as adults, Brenner (Sandler) is nothing more than a tech repair guy working for a Geek Squad-type company, while Cooper (Kevin James) has become president of the United States. Yeah, quite a jump there. They are still best friends, and when it looks like Earth is being invaded by aliens who are attacking in the form of the same ’80s games they grew up playing (the why and how aren’t really important), Cooper turns to Brenner for help. In order to battle the aliens, Brenner and Cooper also need to find a few other former players. One is Ludlow (Josh Gad), a former arcade whiz kid and conspiracy theorist who thinks the CIA is infiltrating his mind, and the arrogant Eddie (Peter Dinklage), the only guy to beat Brenner in an epic Donkey Kong showdown back in the day but who is now a convict. These four are joined by single mom Violet (Michelle Monaghan), who works in military intelligence and someone Brenner takes a shine to. Together, they have to play the games of their lives to defeat the invaders. You know, the Space Invaders. Get it?

Step 3: Agree… or not. Pixels is being called THE worst movie of the year, but when was the last time a Sandler movie received glowing reviews? Pixels has many, many problems. It’s trite, so very silly and completely devoid of any genuineness, to name a few. Sandler’s usual schlub with a heart of gold drags it down every time he and the wasted Monaghan do the romantic comedy thing, but Sandler has always had a keen sense of the supporting players around him, and lets them shine. Adding Gad and Dinklage to the mix is a mini stroke of genius as they both deliver hilarious performances. It is also more family-friendly than some of Sandler’s past endeavors, so gone is the 12-year-old bathroom humor. Plus, the ’80s throwbacks are perfect, between the arcade games coming to life and the soundtrack. Sandler really loves that era with movies like this and The Wedding Singer. He likes to remember being a teenager, hitting the arcade and jamming to Lover Boy. Good times.

Step 4: Love the special effects. Directed by Chris Columbus, who knows how to give movies broad strokes, Pixels also has a whole bunch of fun with the visuals. Pac-Man devouring NYC is just plain fun, but the Centipede attack sequence in London’s Hyde Park stands out, as the sky fills with mushrooms and the centipede inches down. Being one of my favorite games of yesteryear, I felt myself punching my finger on my leg in unison as Brenner and Ludlow shoot down the bugs.

Step 5: Remember Sandler doesn’t care what you think. He makes these movies to have fun with his friends, and his fans flock to see them in droves. They know full and well what to expect and welcome it. Pixels shouldn’t disappoint them.

How to Watch: ‘Trainwreck’

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Step 1: Applaud the hotter-than-hot Amy Schumer. Trainwreck puts our new favorite person squarely on the movie map, showcasing her exquisite sense of humor in a poignant and sweet romantic comedy.

Step 2: Ask “Is Amy really a trainwreck?” The title of Schumer’s big-screen debut is a little misleading, however, because Schumer’s character, also named Amy, isn’t your traditional idea of a trainwreck. You know, the kind of person who self destructs every chance they get. Sure, Amy drinks and smokes pot a lot and makes a fair amount of bad choices, but she is also really good at her job writing for a raunchy men’s magazine and never gets totally out of control. In fact, Amy’s life is exactly how she wants it to be, and she is not going off the rails.

Step 3: Get to the real point. You see, the only issue Amy has is with monogamy; she doesn’t care for it much. Her dad (Colin Quinn) put the concept “We aren’t meant to be with just one person the rest of our lives” into Amy’s head when she was a young girl, and Amy has pretty much stuck to that way of thinking for most of her adult life. One-night stands are her forte and she fully embraces the idea of kicking the guy out of bed almost immediately after sex. Her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larsen), didn’t buy into their dad’s philosophy and is now married and a mom, something that boggles Amy’s mind. Yet, everything changes when Amy is assigned to do a story on a sports medicine doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), who is probably one of the nicest guys on the planet and who Amy has a fairly immediate connection to. She resists and tries to brush him off, but Aaron is persistent and before she knows it, Amy finds herself falling in love with him. This, too, boggles her mind.

Step 4: Embrace the formula. The rom-com mantra of “will they?” or “won’t they?” or “will Amy bolt because that’s what she always does” is ever present, but because Schumer and Hader are so good together, in many different quirky ways, they sell the staid idea. Hader, in particular, proves himself a very charming leading man, which surprises since we’re so used to him being goofy side players in movies, like the guy who manages the pool or the cop who isn’t very good at his job. Or he’s the wacky voice-over guy. But here, he complements Schumer in so many wonderful ways that we’re hoping they become the next on-screen duo, doing more movies together.

Step 5: Marvel at the non-actors. Most of the supporting players in Trainwreck are also fantastic, including Vanessa Bayer and Randall Park as Amy’s work co-horts and an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Amy’s self-absorbed boss. Swinton actually gets to be glam – no wigs or fake teeth but blown-out hair, makeup and a spray tan – and of course, totally nails it. And in the “who knew they could act?” category, WWE star John Cena cracks you up as one of Amy’s more steady booty calls, while basketball legend LeBron James hilariously shines, playing himself and Aaron’s best friend. James just wants Aaron to find the love he deserves, and he makes sure Amy knows it. We’re pretty sure James won’t give up his day job, but he’s gonna make more movies. Guaranteed.

Step 6: Expect more heart in a raunchy comedy. Schumer penned the script and has said it’s very personal to her, as the story also shows how Amy and her sister deal with their father, who is living in an assisted facility. Quinn does a nice job playing this offensive dad, who has never said the right thing, ever, to his girls, but still tries to love them the best way he can. There are genuine tender moments in Trainwreck, with Schumer showing some surprising acting chops. Maybe the only small issue with the film is Judd Apatow’s direction. Not that he doesn’t understand comedy or know exactly how to bring it out of his actors, but more how he never wants to cut the film up. An Apatow production runs long, as in the case with Trainwreck, but because Schumer and the gang are so fffing hysterical, it’s okay. Honestly, tears will be flowing from both laughter and poignancy. Trainwreck just works, from start to finish.

How to Podcast: ‘Minions’ Mania

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This week on the Joel and Kit Save the Movies podcast, Joel Amos and I discuss Minions, the stand-alone animated film centering on those little yellow dudes from the Despicable Me series. The movie is good fun for the kiddies, who will no doubt want to rush out and buy Minions sheets and birthday cakes, but are these side characters worthy of a whole film?

Plus, we talk about the sci-fi thriller Self/Less, in which Ben Kingsley brain is put into Ryan Reynolds body (not a bad deal). In all seriousness, it’s one of Reynolds’ better performances and a decent thrill-fest. We still could have used more Kingsley.

Follow Joel at TheMovieMensch.com!

How to Podcast: “Ted 2″ and More

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In the first episode of my new podcast — Joel & Kit Save the Movies (and we do) — Joel Amos, Editor-in-Chief of MovieMensch.com, and I talk about Ted 2, comedy sequels, Jurassic World smashing the box office and much more!

Listen!

How to Podcast: “Inside Out” Is a Must-See

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Pixar is back in perfect form with Inside Out. It’s been a few years since they’ve released something this original, heartwarming, hilarious and just plain embraceable. A classic, for sure.

I discuss how wonderful it was with ScreenPicks, plus my thoughts on the indie gem Dope.

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How to Break Box Office Records: “Jurassic Park”

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Step 1:  Bring on the dinosaurs. Jurassic World surpassed all expectations by grossing $208 million in its debut weekend, making it the biggest opening in movie history. It beat previous record holder, Marvel’s The Avengers, which opened with $207 mil in 2012. This just proves people still love them some dinos and what’s not to love? In Jurassic World, the dinosaurs look better than ever, especially the velociraptors and the T-Rex. In fact, when ole Rexie makes his appearance, you cheer because it’s like seeing an old friend. There’s the new baddie, of course, a genetic hybrid they call Indominus rex, who’s scary cunning and ferocious and has a ton of sharp teeth. And the raptors? Well, they are still super smart and apparently willing to be trained, if they like the human who is training them, like Owen (Chris Pratt). One of the best parts of JW  is how these dinosaurs have evolved, and how some actually become the heroes.

Step 2: Get Chris Pratt. Playing the raptor whisperer, Pratt proves that he is not only an action hero, he is a bonafide movie star on par with Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis. When Pratt landed what turned out to be the plum role of Peter Quill aka Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy, many thought he couldn’t break out of his dumpy Parks and Recreations persona. Oh, how wrong they were. Pratt has it all — charm, humor, good looks and a rock hard body to die for. His JW co-star Bryce Dallas Howard also does a nice job playing Claire, the irritating workaholic general manager of the theme park. Although Owen and Claire’s subplot love-hate relationship seems a tad forced, Pratt totally sells it.

Step 3: Add in the kid factor. All of the previous Jurassic movies had kids in jeopardy, and in Jurassic World, we have Claire’s nephews, teenager Zach (Kings of Summer star Nick Robinson) and his little brother Gray (Insidious star Ty Simpkins). You get the classic scene of Indominus rex trying to eat his way through a plexi-glass sphere with the boys inside (it’s kind of a ride). Robinson and Simpkins do well being equally terrified and quick on their feet when they have to. The idea that young people can fight their way through a dino rampage is what makes this appealing to kids of all ages.

Step 4: Hire a director who can (sort of) fill Steven Spielberg’s shoes. Colin Trevorrow, whose only other credit is the quirky and entertaining Safety Not Guaranteed, manages to expertly bring a whole new vision to the Jurassic franchise. Spielberg was an executive producer, so you know he had some good advice to give Trevorrow and you can see some of Steven’s touches, but the newbie director nails it all on his own. Ever since John Hammond told us about the park he envisioned in Jurassic Park, we’ve all secretly wanted to see it come to fruition. And here we are! Jurassic World is freaking amazing, from the T-Rex attraction to the aquatic behemoth the mosasaurs, who eats Great White sharks.

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Step 5: So, build the damn park already! I think there’s a poll out there in which real people were asked if they’d visit a park like Jurassic World, knowing all the risks. The results were unanimous… Hell yes we would! But don’t worry about creating new dinosaurs to impress us. The old ones will do just fine.

How to Podcast: “Entourage,” “Spy” and More!

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The Entourage boys are back in this big-screen adaptation, and it feels like they never left. If you’re a big fan of the show, you shouldn’t be disappointed to see Vince, E, Turtle, Johnny Drama — and of course, Ari Gold — up to their usual shenanigans.

The ScreenPicks crew and I discuss the film, plus the Melissa McCarthy excellent comedy Spy. Just know that Jason Statham will totally surprise you!

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How to Podcast: ‘San Andreas,’ ‘Aloha’ and More

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It’s time for the Big One! San Andreas follows the disaster flick formula pretty closely, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a first responder who has rescue his family when the San Andreas fault finally shifts for the worse, destroying most of San Francisco.

Despite its many faults (get it?), the film is what you’d expect and enjoyable for pure entertainment value. Listen to our discussion about it on the ScreenPicks podcast. Plus, hear what I have to say about how Cameron Crowe’s Aloha went wrong.

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How to Watch: “Teacher of the Year”

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Step 1: Remember teachers are usually underappreciated. Teacher of the Year highlights this point to hilarious and poignant effect.

Step 2: Hand it to the guy. In this mockumentary, we meet Mitch Carter (Matt Letscher), a Californian English teacher who is awarded the national “Teacher of the Year” for his hard work teaching kids at Truman High School. Clearly, he’s better than his thankless job, but he truly loves what he does, and the students — well most of them — know he cares. Carter, however, is faced with a dilemma when his newfound acclaim attracts the attention of education lobbyists in D.C. who want him to join their team to help speak for teachers nationwide… and they are going to pay him a lot of money to do it. Should he take the job or stay to be the best teacher in one school? Hmmm…

Step 3: Recognize some comic standouts.  Funnyguy Michael Keegan-Key, who is just about everywhere these days, slays you as the school’s principal, a bureaucrat who just to be the kids friends but just comes off mostly as a giant idiot. As for Carter’s co-workers, the hysterical Jamie Kaler plays the school’s Robotics teacher, Steve Queeg, who thinks he should have been the one to get the award. As Queeg explains, “English is a dead language. Everyone already knows how to speak it. But robotics, now that’s the future.” Also, there’s the two-man band Queeg formed with fellow teacher Eric Sanders (Karl T. Wright), who both explain that even though Sanders can’t play the guitar or sing, they are excited about performing. Other standouts include college counselors, twin brothers Lowell and Clive Hammer (Jason and Randy Skylar), who just give the worst advice to the kids… the absolutely most hilarious bad advice ever.

Step 4: Applaud for job well done. Filmmaker Jason Strouse aptly combines humor with an honest depiction of what it’s like educating our youth in this country. One of the best sequences is the parent-teacher conference night, from the screaming parents to the complacent ones, and how each teacher handles it. Ultimately, though, it’s Carter’s story, and Letscher brilliantly portrays the angst of an educator of his quality stuck working in the inhibiting bureaucracy of the US school system, but who loves the high of reaching kids who appreciate his efforts to teach them. While making you spit out your drink with laughter, Teacher of the Year also warms your heart and gives hope that there are more teachers like Carter out there.

How to Watch: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

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Step 1: Describe Mad Max: Fury Road in three words: Holy freaking hell! This is one of those rare cases in which a trailer, which completely blows your socks off, is actually only a taste of what you’re going to experience in the theater. This incredible cinematic masterpiece takes you on a high-octane acid trip that gloriously assaults your senses… and yes, if you could just imagine some of the smells, even that sense, too. Mad Max: Fury Road is probably one the best action movies you’ll ever see… EVER.

Step 2: Keep the story tight. Although the title suggests something different, Fury Road is really Imperator Furiosa’s story. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland nightmare she finds herself living in, Furiosa (brilliantly played by Charlize Theron) has one mission: to return to her “green” home after years toiling as a truck-driving flunky to a megalomaniac named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who, if you are a Mad Max connoisseur, is the same actor who played the wacked-out evil dude in the original Mad Max). They reside in a lush place called The Citadel, two tall rock formations that overlook hordes of starving, thirsty desert denizens who just wait for Joe to shower them with water, aka “aqua-cola,” every so often. Furiosa has had enough of Joe and in her quest to escape, decides to rescue his five baby-making “wives,” too.  So, they secretly pile into Furiosa’s rig and on a planned trek to get more “guzz-o-line,” they run. And then they are pursued, in one spectacular chase sequence after another (more on that in a bit).

Step 3: Live up to your name. Now that we know how Furiosa feels about things, where does Mad Max fit in? The iconic reluctant hero, played with quiet ferociousness by Tom Hardy, has been captured by Joe’s men and finds himself an unwitting participant in said chase, eventually helping Furiosa and the girls. Hardy’s Max is a slight change to the character Mel Gibson indelibly implanted in our brains 30 plus years ago, but Max is still a man of few words, loves his car and gets pissed off when you steal it. Hardy aptly shows us this tortured soul, haunted by his past, who truly never wants to get involved but always ends up doing so anyway, grunting in protest.

Paired with Hardy’s subtle performance is Theron’s powerful one. Her Furiosa has seen some shit go down, and all she wants now is peace and as she puts it, “redemption.” As this intense warrior queen, wearing black grease that make her beautiful eyes pop, Theron just pours the determination, kindness –and weariness — into this incredibly kickass character. These two excellent actors only elevate the already superb proceedings.

Step 4: Go along on said acid trip. The supporting cast also does a fine job portraying what it would be like living in this very desolate, dying and strange world. Director George Miller just loves the weird, and in a post-apocalyptic setting, where, famine, dehydration, disease and desperation run rampant, he can paint just about any milieu he wants. There are ghoulish crow people on stilts, a severely deformed Citadel lookout and other characters with names like The Doof Warrior, The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer. There are also these creepy little bald-headed children, painted in white, who grow up to be aggressive young men known as War Boys, who battle at Immortan Joe’s request and scream “VALHALLA” a lot.

Nicholas Hoult plays one these boys, a brainwashed soldier who finally gets a clearer understanding of the world outside the Citadel when he encounters Furiosa and Joe’s wives. Those lovelies are portrayed by Zoe Kravitz, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton, who thankfully bring much-needed beauty to the otherwise bleak surroundings. My favorite, however, is Immortan Joe’s stereo car. Its sole purpose is to provide a running soundtrack as they rush into the chase, with guys playing drums in the back and a horribly disfigured dude in a skull mask in front, wailing on a guitar that spews fire. It cracked me up every time it was on screen.

Step 5: Bow down to George Miller. This Australian auteur has never been properly given his due. Sure, the Oscar win for Happy Feet counts but not like this. It’s time to honor Miller; Fury Road is an unparalleled marvel in filmmaking. Future action directors should learn from this 70-year-old that it’s possible to create action without a ton of CGI. From mind-blowing frenetic action, complete with some unbelievable stunts, to the bleak, orange tones of the desert wasteland, to the weird oddities described above, Miller finally realizes the Mad Max world he’s been living in for these many years. Along with all those elements, you add a score from Junkie XL that sends shock waves and chills through the theater. Then there are the themes in Fury Road: Hope vs. fear, finding redemption, searching for a new normal that doesn’t include despots with boils on their back. And finally, Miller makes a feminist movie to break the bank, never cow towing to any stereotypes but creating these fierce, beautiful women who clearly should be running the show.

Step 6: Time to stop gushing. Okay, I’ll end my Mad Max: Fury Road love fest, but heed this advice: Don’t wait for it to come out on Blu-ray or on some streaming platform. See it in the theaters NOW because Fury Road embodies everything you love about going to the movies.