REVIEW: “Video Games: The Movie” (2014)

VIDEO GAMES POSTER

Can a documentary on the history and evolution of video games appeal to those without a care or connection to the industry? It’s a reasonable question and one that was swirling around in my head as I sat down to watch Jeremy Snead’s Kickstarter-funded new film. The blandly titled “Video Games: The Movie” seeks to tell a CliffsNotes history of video games while also promoting them as an art form and showing how far they have come since their early incarnations. For gamers this is cool stuff, but what about for others?

Let me start by admitting an important bit of information. I am a die-hard gamer and have been since Santa Claus surprised me with an Atari 2600 on Christmas of 1980. Since that time all the way to today I’ve had 16 different consoles. I was also a huge fan of the arcade culture during its lucrative heyday. I tell you all of this because, without a doubt, my personal history with gaming influenced my experience with this documentary. I have a connection with the history, the evolution, and the artistry of games as well as the pioneers and current developers who play a prominent part in the film. Therefore I have to admit that my viewpoint may be a bit influenced by nostalgia and my unflinching gamer geek status.

VIDEO GAMES 1

That’s an important consideration because in many ways “Video Games: The Movie” is a celebration. It has its target set on the gaming community who should really enjoy this film. But as I scoured through a host of harsh reviews I noticed that many critics viewed this as a film only intended to “preach to the choir” and some go as far as calling Snead a “salesman”. In one sense I do see what they are saying because there is a lot of pro-gaming passion and exuberance throughout the film. But I also think some of these critics are the same people who the film seeks to disprove. People who perceive the video game industry as inconsequential and who dismiss it on an assortment of flimsy grounds. Yes the film promotes video games, but it also seeks to prove their creativity and importance within the entertainment space.

Sean Astin narrates the documentary which features a wide assortment of interviews. Snead talks to several video game luminaries such as Nolan Bushnell, current accomplished game developers like Cliff Bleszinski and Hideo Kojima, and even television celebs such as Wil Wheaton and Zach Braff. Some give a fascinating look into the origins of video games. Some give keen insight into where games are now. Others give personal testimonies of how games have effected their lives. But the movie doesn’t shy away from some of gaming’s hot button issues. It talks about the video game crash of 1983 and the self-inflicted causes behind the industry’s near demise. It talks about the scrutiny over increased violence in games and the measures the industry was rightly forced to take. It’s compelling stuff.

I really liked “Video Games:The Movie”, but as a documentary the film does have flaws. The biggest problems lie with its structure and storytelling technique. To be honest it’s pretty messy at times. There is no single established time line and the film is constantly jumping back and forth with no real sense of direction. I remember at one point being dumfounded by the material that was being skipped only to be pulled back to it later in the film. Snead seems more interested in talking about topics which is great, but it’s at the expense of a needed fluidity. Then there are moments where the film suddenly transitions to topics which seem out of sync with the more interesting elements of the picture. A brief but clunky explanation of pixels. A sudden divergence into modern game technologies. These things slow the film down and take the focus off of what I was really enjoying.

PAC2

“Video Games: The Movie” is scattered and unfocused and at times it can be a bit frustrating. But I think it’s also a passion-fueled examination of an entertainment form that has passed both movies and television in terms of worldwide revenue and popularity. Video games have been dismissed in many regards but their evolution is astounding. This film seeks to show them as far more than the simple run-jump-shoot children’s experience that many think of. They have become legitimate escapist entertainment featuring intelligent storytelling and amazing artistry (when done right of course). This film promotes that thought and shows the history behind it.

So I return to my original question. Is this a documentary that can appeal to those without any care or connection to video games? Personally I think it can. It offers a ton of facts and insight about the industry that many folks may not know or realize. At the same time it offers loads of fun and entertainment for the community of which I happily proclaim being a part of. But who knows, maybe that is why the film worked so well for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Veronica Mars”

VERONICA

It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what stirred my interest in the recent television-to-big screen movie “Veronica Mars”. I have never watched a second of the UPN and later CW television series. In fact I had no idea what the show was about or who Veronica Mars was. I had also heard practically nothing about the movie itself, how it ties into the series, and if a prior knowledge of the show was essential to understanding the film. So what on earth was it that drew me to see “Veronica Mars”?

I finally concluded that one of my attractions to the project was the perky and infectious Kristen Bell. She is certainly not what you would call a top-tier actress and she has made her share of stinker films. Yet there has always been something about her that I find fun. I was also attracted to the story behind how the film was eventually made. Some six years after the show was cancelled, show creator Rob Thomas and Bell started a fundraiser via Kickstarter in hopes of bringing “Veronica Mars” to the big screen. After a month the campaign had earned over $5.7 million from donors and Warner Brothers picked it up for distribution.

Veronica1

The film starts out with a brief narrated summary of the series mainly intended for newbies like me. Nine years have passed and Veronica (Bell) has moved out of Neptune, California. She lives in New York City, has a great boyfriend, and is on the verge of landing a prominent job at a prestigious law firm. But then she hears the news that a former classmate and current self-destructive rock star has been murdered and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) has been accused of committing the crime. Veronica agrees to go back to Neptune to help Logan select the best council for the upcoming trials.

But of course if that is all there was this would be one boring movie. While back in Neptune Veronica runs into many of the same headaches and conflicts as before – the people who made her high school life miserable, the high society arrogance, and the unbridled corruption of the local sheriff’s department. On the good side she gets to spend time with her private detective father (Enrico Colantoni) and reconnect with few good friends she left behind. There is clearly a lot of connections that make these relationships meaningful – connections that saw their genesis in the television series. But writer and director Rob Thomas does a good job of giving us the general idea of who these people are.

And then there is the murder case. Soon Veronica finds herself drawn into the mystery and the revelations of small clues are just enough to keep her in Neptune a little longer. Well, the clues and Logan. I know nothing about their past relationship and their reconnection is one of the aspects of the film that suffered (from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the original material). They do have a nice chemistry and you genuinely get the sense that Veronica wants to help this old friend. There are also a number of other characters that pop up as well as an assortment of cameos.

VERONICA2

“Veronica Mars” is definitely a budget film. Everything about it feels like a television show and it never rises above standard television production value. The camera work, the dialogue, the story structure – it all feels like it could have melded right in with the TV series. But is that automatically a bad thing? Considering the budget constraints and its television roots, “Veronica Mars” actually feels right at home. More importantly it tells a good and intriguing story. There are momentary contrivances and the occasional strained dialogue, but ultimately the movie works.

Do you have to be knowledgeble of the TV series to enjoy “Veronica Mars”? Thankfully no, but there were plenty of times where I felt out of the loop (I still don’t know what marshmallows have to do with anything). It certainly doesn’t lean on cinematic grandeur nor is the script without a few bumps. But “Veronica Mars” does deliver where it counts. It’s entertaining, Bell is fantastic, and I was engaged with it from the start. It’s clear that a lot of heart was behind the project and I tip my hat to the filmmakers, the stars, and the fans who had the passion to make a movie like this happen. And don’t worry, the pieces were definitely put in place for yet another trip to Neptune.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “V for Vendetta”

V POSTER BABY

“Remember, remember the 5th of November”. These are the first words mentioned in the 2005 thriller “V for Vendetta”. It’s a phrase referencing the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This failed attempt to blow up The House of Lords has oddly become a celebrated event and it serves as the inspiration for this movie’s masked vigilante known as V. This is a film based on a comic book written by Alan Moore which was distributed by Vertigo, a brand of DC comics. The screenplay was written by the then Wachowski brothers which instantly caused concern for me. I’ve had a hard time latching on to their other work but I entered this with an open mind hoping they would avoid the traps they normally fall into.

The movie starts off on a good note introducing us to its fascist dystopian near-future world. It also introduces us to V, an underground resistance fighter sporting a cool Guy Fawkes mask and a belt full of blades. He’s played eloquently by the fluid-tongued Hugo Weaving. He rescues a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) from three alley thugs and then goes on to reveal to her his plans to spark a revolution. His methods (which could understandably be called terrorism) disturbs Evey but she also finds herself mesmerized by the words and reason of the mysterious V.

V poster

Hugo Weaving as V

At first the oppressive and tyrannical world we are thrown into is fascinating. The government has gained supreme power and High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is pulling all the strings. The government controls the flow of information and Sutler ultimately decides what’s acceptable in every facet of the people’s lives. The citizenry sit in front of their TVs in an almost hypnotic state while the government filters and alters the “news” and “entertainment”. The totalitarian rule is realized in a variety of alarming ways which makes V’s passion and cause more sympathetic.

But as with most of the Wachowski’s other work they don’t know when to stop. After drawing us into this disturbing yet entrancing world they created, they don’t focus on unwrapping the story within it. Instead they bombard us with contrived and heavy-handed political sermonettes and pop shots. They throw out a crazy amount of soapbox issues and irrational comparisons which they have every right to do. The problem is they become so obviously forced and they do nothing to help the greater story. The social issues, the Bush bashing, the ‘blame America’ nonsense, the selective religious critique, rendition, blah, blah, blah. The second half of the film is filled with these injections that make it feel like a left-wing political propaganda piece, something the movie is supposedly speaking against.

These things mixed with the sometimes bloated dialogue ultimately made “V for Venetta” an almost laborious experience. That’s a shame because there are things the movie does well particularly in the first half. I mentioned the fantastic early impressions of the world and Weaving’s brilliant performance even during some of the Wachowski’s more blabber-heavy scenes. But the excess crap eventually weighs the thing down and at over 130 minutes it was a tad tough to endure. Director James McTeigue does the movie no favors either. There are all kinds of pacing issues and his dull camera tempered the film which seemed to be screaming for a bit of style. And he never develops enough tension and intrigue past the first act – a problem we also get in his most recent film “The Raven”. Visually the movie underwhelms and, aside from a couple of impressive explosions, it resembles a TV production. All these things left me wanting more.

V movie

Natalie Portman

The most frustrating thing about “V for Vendetta” was that it had me during the first half. Despite its technical shortcomings I was wrapped up in the story and I found myself anxious for Hugo Weaving’s next scene. But when things come unglued I was just anxious for the ending. The Wachowskis don’t seem to understand when they’ve created a good thing. Here they take the great message built around an oppressive government and squash it with their own preachy hard-left politics. There’s nothing wrong with that in the hands of more capable writers and filmmakers, but here the latter politics don’t propel the movie. Instead they feel far more self-serving.

I know this movie has its share of followers but for me it’s a case of squandering a good thing. It goes off the rails and leaves nothing of any substance. There is a good message hidden somewhere under the clunky and peremptory politics but I lost my grasp of it halfway through. That’s unfortunate because I really wanted to like this movie. But in the end I can see why Alan Moore disassociated himself from it even if his overall problems with it were a little different than mine.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“THE VOW” – 1 1/2 STARS

Some movies are released that really leaves me scratching my head. I ask myself “How on Earth did this movie get made?” Such was the case with “The Vow”, yet another poorly acted and poorly written entry in the hurting romantic comedy genre. I was honestly dumbfounded that “The Vow” saw the light of day. But after seeing the movie rake in almost $200 million worldwide, I was reminded that there is an audience for this type of shallow and unoriginal storytelling.

“The Vow” offers nothing original. It almost comes across as a slightly better looking mid-day soap opera. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are a happy young married couple. While heading home after a movie the two are involved in a car accident. Paige is thrown from the car and experiences severe head trauma. As she recovers, Leo stays by her side waiting for her to regain consciousness. When she does, as you can probably guess, she has amnesia and doesn’t recognize Leo. Yes, they really went there.

Things are complicated when her parents enter the mix. In pre-amnesia times, Paige’s relationship with her parents was nonexistent. They use her memory loss as an opportunity to jump back into her life. This pits them against Leo in an attempt to win her affection while she struggles to remember her old life. Throw in Scott Speedman as Jeremy, her ex-fiancee who she split up with prior to meeting Leo. Of course he wants back in her life and sees Paige’s memory loss as his ticket in.

Most of problems with “The Vow” can be traced back the shoddy writing. There’s not one single character mentioned above that feels authentic. They are all paper-thin versions of characters we’ve seen so many times before. The movie hinges upon the love between Paige and Leo. Unfortunately I never bought into them as a couple. Their dialogue is so silly and tripe and neither of the performers are believable. A lot of people like Channing Tatum as an actor but I’m still not sold on him. He delivers so many flat, stone-faced lines and I often found myself laughing at scenes not intended to be funny. McAdams tries her best but the material she is given is so incredibly slight and superficial.

There are instances where “The Vow” teases you into thinking it’s going in a more unconventional directions. But that’s never the case. Sure the ending isn’t the straightforward run-of-the-mill mush that we usually see, but it’s also not enough to save the film which labors from start to finish. Weak material and Tatum’s poor lead performance end up killing the movie before it even gets going. So I find myself again lamenting the status of the romantic comedy, a genre that I actually like but that is bombarded with poor movie after poor movie. But I guess as long as people keep paying money to see them, this is what we can expect.

“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and but now sees a chance to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles and he finds his only destructive solace at the bottom of a bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story with Frank running into one complication after another. Add to it his personal and emotional fragility and you have the ingredients for a top-notch story.

David Mamet’s screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the movie isn’t the most detailed and cohesive courtroom drama. But Mamet doesn’t use the courtroom as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing. Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet and Mamet’s work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own. It’s an emotionally charged drama with a redemptive subtext that worked for me on so many levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen in what is arguably his greatest performance.

REVIEW: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Many critics touted “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as Woody Allen’s return to quality filmmaking after a few clear misses. I have to say I was with them, at least for the first half of the film. But that’s when Allen’s story started to undo everything I had bought into. His sharp locational eye beautifully captures the Spanish architecture and countryside and his good-looking characters lay the groundwork for a promising story. But the movie is never as funny or as clever as it tries to be and it ultimately falls apart in its nonsensical third act.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a romantic comedy that takes a rather cynical look at romance. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky holds what you might call a more traditional look at relationships. She is grounded, sure of what she wants, and engaged to a preppy young business man back home. Cristina is somewhat of a free spirit, prone to dive into love and life headfirst regardless of the consequences. One of the more compelling things about the friends is that they are so opposite at first. Hall and Johansson have some great moments together bouncing their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies off each other. They start off as genuinely interesting and believable best friends.

VICKY 1

Their summer takes an interesting turn when they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a struggling artist who invites the girls to spend the weekend with him in the city of Oviedo. Vicky is against the idea but Cristina sees it as intriguing. The stronger spirit wins out and the three take off. Over the weekend the relationships between the three grow more complex. But things go from complex to nutty when Juan Antonio’s neurotic ex-wife María Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture. All four of the main stars are fantastic. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, gives the movie some energy just as it was starting to lag. But even she is undermined by Allen’s off-the-wall final act which seems to make everything earlier feel disingenuous.

VICKY 2

For me the biggest casualty of Allen’s uneven story is the unique difference between Vicky and Cristina. By the end of the film I didn’t feel that were that unique at all. Even when Cristina becomes involved in an absurd love triangle, the Vicky character, who I thought was more grounded and level-headed, responds in a way that seemed inconsistent with who she has been. Some may attribute that to an evolution of her character but I think the movie goes on to show that she isn’t as deep of a character as she appears to be at first. I also didn’t find the film nearly as funny as others. Sure it has a few dry quirky moments, but it’s real attempt at humor falls flat particularly in the second half of the film. This truly is a tale of two movies in one.

Some have felt the movie promotes the pursuit of love and happiness and the idea that romance may be fleeting but it’s worth the effort. I feel it looks at love through a very pessimistic and sometimes skewed lens. There’s no denying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a beautiful movie. The gorgeous Barcelona sights and sounds and the attention to the culture creates the perfect environment for what could have been. For me “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t the summer to remember. Although it might have been if the second half of the film was as good as the first.

VERDICT – 2 STARS