Indie Game: The Movie (8/16/12)

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Three independent video game developers share their stories before, after, and during development of the titles in Indie Game: The Movie.

Indie Game: The Movie follows Jonathan Blow, creator of hugely successful Braid, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, creators of Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish, creator of Fez. Blow reflects on Braid, the only game to have already been released at the time of the documentary and as far as indie game successes go, it is the current water mark. McMillen and Refenes (aka Team Meat) and Phil Fish are both currently in development of their respectful projects. The documentary covers the long, sleepless nights, the worrying, the financial struggle, the passion of games, and the eventual successes these independent developers face in an industry where the growing trend is “bigger is better”.

Video games have been a major component of my life literally for as long as I can remember. I got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1987 when I was five, and haven’t looked back. Even before my NES I was playing my sister’s Atari and our Commodore 64. I bring this up because it would be easy to assume that Indie Game: The Movie is only for hardcore gaming nerds, like myself. This is not the case, but it certainly helps.

All three games that are covered in Indie Game: The Movie are available for purchase, you may have even already own them. The stories do not require playing the games, but you will glean an extra appreciation for them. Super Meat Boy, a game that flew off the rails in terms of financial success was literally created by two guys in around two years. If that isn’t an underdog story, video games or not, I don’t know what is. The gaming industry has evolved (some may say “devolved”) into a state where every major game has to be the equivalent of a Michael Bay action-epic. Lots of money, lots of people involved, lots of eye-candy. These independent developers hearken back to a time when video games had a simple objective and were merely fun.

From a technical aspect, Indie Game: The Movie is incredibly well-produced. The flow between the stories is great, and also has some interviews with people in the industry. Production of the documentary is much like the games being covered, it’s small but polished and most of all, it’s fun to watch. Obviously, it will be most interesting to fans of the video games being covered, or video games in general, but Indie Game: The Movie is an interesting tale from this generation’s art form.

I give it 5 Phil Fish in the bars out of 5.

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Goon (8/12/12)

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In Goon, a nightclub bouncer becomes a hockey star by fighting his way into the sport.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is the nicest bouncer around, apologizing to a man who he was being “bounced” from the bar as Doug was hitting him in the face. His hockey-loving friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), takes him to a hockey game and when one of the players makes his way into the stands to fight Pat, Doug steps in to fight and becomes the star attraction. Doug is offered to play for a local team acting as a bouncer for the players on the ice and has to learn to skate. Doug is then promoted to a better team to guard their star player and becomes the target for veteran hockey thug, and Doug’s personal hero, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber).

Goon is the perfect example of “don’t call it a sports movie”. Yes, the film centers around hockey, but all you really need to know about hockey is that they skate on the ice, they shoot a puck into the net to score, and occasionally they fight. Goon is really about a somewhat dimwitted guy trying to find himself and he stumbles upon something he’s good at and tries to make his parents proud. I will concede that the film follows a familiar pattern that many sports movies have laid out, but at least Goon is different.

Seann William Scott is an actor that may turn some people off of Goon before even watching it, but Scott is very subdued and actually does a good job as Doug. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jay Baruchel, who is a constant shrieking of douchebaggery every second he is on screen. I kind of just cringed and hope he would pass. Still, Scott’s humor was subdued and effective here, I laughed more than a few times but I wouldn’t quite call Goon a comedy, but it is comedic.

While Goon may not be a classic film, it sets out to tell a story and it does so effectively and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I found a lot to like, and was always a bit surprised whenever I would read positive press, but now I can fully see why and Goon deserves it. If you have been put off by Goon being a sports movie, it’s not, and if you were put off by Seann William Scott, don’t be.

I give it 4 penalty boxes out of 5.

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Slaughterhouse-Five (8/11/12)

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Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a man who serves in World War II and then is abducted by aliens and becomes “unstuck” in time, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.

Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is a soldier during World War II and survives the fire bombings in Dresden. After the war, he marries Valencia (Sharon Gans) and becomes a successful eye doctor. Sometime later, he is abducted by aliens from Tralfamadore and kept in an exhibit with a beautiful celebrity, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine). The Tralfamadorians do not have the same concept of time that we do, and Billy learns to time travel through his entire life at any point. Due to this, the film jumps back and forth between events in Billy’s life after World War II.

Recently, I finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and firmly decided to see the film version. As far as book adaptations go, Slaughterhouse-Five is very fair to the source material in many ways, but the small touches are lost. Sometimes the small touches go a long way, for instance, every time someone dies in the novel, Billy remarks “so it goes”. That line isn’t spoken once in the film, despite numerous mentions in the novel. As a result, the film, if viewed as its own entity, does not have the charm or identity the novel has.

I was surprised at how well Slaughterhouse-Five translated to the screen, I was having a hard time picturing how a film where time travel is so frequent could be anything but a confusing mess, but the cuts in the film between periods are well thought out. I never had any question as to when Billy was or even where he was, but that could be attributed to my knowledge of the plot from the novel. The actors playing the characters were all as I imagined them and they all perform quite well.

Standing on its own, I would have a hard time recommending the film version of Slaughterhouse-Five. Conversely, I would easily (and wholeheartedly) recommend the novel version of Slaughterhouse-Five. Both are strange and satirical, but the film is simply missing that intangible *something* that makes the novel so special. If you’re a fan of the novel already, I think you’ll still enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five as much as I did, though.

I give it 4 Tralfamadorian exhibits out of 5.

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The Simpsons Movie (8/11/12)

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The Simpsons Movie takes the long-running television series to the big screen for the first time.

The opening scene has the band Green Day performing on Lake Springfield when the pollution eats away at their floating stage. During a memorial church service, Grandpa Simpson has a vision of the town’s demise. Homer Simpson gets a pet pig and dumps a silo full of its feces into the lake, causing the EPA, led by a crazed man named Cargill, to put a dome over the entire town of Springfield. When the town finds out that Homer is to blame for this mess, the Simpson family escapes the dome and travels to Alaska. Back at home, the residents of Springfield begin to destroy the dome and Homer has a vision that he must save the town before Cargill destroys it.

After nearly 20 years on the air (now up to their 24th season), The Simpsons has been the animated comedy show to topple and it has had stiff competition over the years. I have been a fan of the show since the beginning and, for me, comedic television doesn’t get much better than the 4th and 5th seasons of The Simpsons. The show had been in decline for years before The Simpsons Movie came out and I was cautiously optimistic at the time of its release that it would revive The Simpsons and bring them back into my life. Luckily, The Simpsons Movie is largely a success in restoring The Simpsons brand.

My usual complaint with TV shows billed as full-length movies is that they are usually just a three part episode of the show with no commercial breaks. The Simpsons Movie feels like one single thought instead of one thought chopped into three ~22 minute segments, like it was truly written as a movie first. The runtime is under 90 minutes and the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome but the pacing isn’t frantic either. As with all comedies, the humor is subjective, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of The Simpsons, you know what you’re in for here. The laughs keep coming even if you aren’t a die-hard fan of the show.

The production values for The Simpsons Movie are pretty amazing, the animation itself in particular. It’s weird to think that just a few years ago all animation was actually done cel by cel by hand, but now it’s all accomplished digitally. The Simpson family and Springfield has never looked better, and the blu-ray is actually spectacularly done.

While The Simpsons Movie didn’t herald in a complete resurgence of The Simpsons I remember, it did bring the franchise back above water. When the show’s run finally comes to a close it will be strange, but in addition to the mountain of DVDs I have of the series, I will still have The Simpsons Movie too.

I give it 4 Spider-Pigs out of 5.

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Sorcerer (8/10/12)

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In Sorcerer, four men are coerced into transporting volatile sticks of dynamite across rugged terrain for a fair sum of money if they can make it.

In a politically tumultuous Nicaraguan town dependent on a big oil company, four separate criminals/outcasts, Jackie (Roy Scheider), Victor (Bruno Cremer), Nilo (Francisco Rabal), and Kassem (Amidou), are offered a substantial amount of money and citizenship to transport sticks of unstable dynamite. Having no real choice, the men take two separate trucks, named Sorcerer and Lazaro, to make the harrowing journey through the jungle with the dynamite sticks.

A remake of Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is fairly different from the original, in some good ways and other not so good. The tension and thrilling nature of the entire second half of the original heartily outpaces Sorcerer, but Sorcerer comes back with scenes of enormous tension and a fantastic sound design. Instead of having the tension snap taut early on and never relenting, Sorcerer‘s tension rises and falls a bit.

Personally, I had little interest in the setting or characters this time around. The film seems to be in no rush to set things up and even though I knew the gist of what would happen, having just watched Wages of Fear, I was not invested in learning the new differences. I could blame that on watching the remake too soon after the original, however. On a whole, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer feels like a vastly different film, largely due to the electronic soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

Perhaps the most interesting things about Sorcerer are about the movie’s history. Opening right around Star Wars, the film was received well by critics but absolutely ignored by movie-goers in favor of the sci-fi juggernaut. The budget of the film was over $20 million and the film was fraught with setbacks and delays, so it is widely regarded as a failure. Perhaps the nebulous title threw people off too, but the film differs enough from Wages of Fear to merit its own title. Steve McQueen was going to star in the film but dropped out, leading to Scheider’s casting. McQueen’s star power might have saved the film from relative obscurity at the time of Sorcerer’s release, hopefully a studio like Criterion will give the film new life on home video.

Sorcerer is a remake, but it’s a unique film in many ways, despite my weighing disappointment. When compared directly to Wages of Fear (which, unfortunately I was not able to get around the outright comparisons) it is mostly inferior, but it is not an entirely fair comparison. Sorcerer is a good movie that should have been great. I will need to revisit it again once the freshness of Wages of Fear has dulled and I can judge Sorcerer on its own merits.

I give it 4 spectacular bridge scenes out of 5.
(Possible spoiler warning)

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The Incredibles (8/8/12)

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Two former superheroes forced into retirement are called back into action with the whole family in The Incredibles.

Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter) Parr, also known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are former Supers now living as civilians to hide their identity. They have three children, Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack. When Bob and friend Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Frozone start getting back into the Superhero game at night, they are approached for actual Super missions again by a woman named Mirage. One mission on an island ends up being a trap, masterminded by former Mr. Incredible fan and wannabe sidekick Buddy (Jason Lee), now known as Syndrome. When Mr. Incredible is in trouble, it’s up to his Super family to come to his aid and together they must save the day.

It’s films like The Incredibles that make a studio like Pixar special. It’s a film that could have easily been a cheap thrill with no heart just to push toy sales but it is really something special when you give it a closer look. The conflict of a restricted superhero working a lousy day job and having to hide his secret identity is simple genius. The fact that Bob sees his actual identity more as Mr. Incredible than Mr. Parr is also handled with great care and heart. The family situation of Supers is also simple but it works so well that it’s easy to gloss over just how perfect it works here.

Brad Bird, who was also the creative force behind the also amazing Iron Giant, has a real knack for setting up a story that seems so simple but is made remarkable by the tangible things like the characters, the story, and the art/animation but what identifies his films as masterpieces is the more esoteric “soul” of the film that instantly connects you with the characters and plot. We don’t need origin stories here, we just need to know superheroes exist. We relate with the issues that the Parrs have to deal with even though we aren’t Supers. Heck, we even understand why someone like Syndrome would go to such lengths to act like a Super, and his means aren’t necessarily evil so much as misguided. The Incredibles does all of this and makes it look easy.

To match the level of the film itself, the blu-ray presentation blew me away. I had long owned the DVD version and enjoyed it, but the blu-ray looks and sounds 10 times better than I remembered. The Incredibles isn’t a film that I could see myself watching too often, it’s the type of film that I regard as a special treat every few months. Long enough between viewings so that the experience is fresh and that rush of excitement is almost new each time. The Incredibles should be the film that Pixar is remembered for.

I give it 5 classic Mr. Incredible posters out of 5.
(I prefer his blue suit, actually)

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Wages of Fear (8/6/12)

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A group of men are hired by an oil company to transport truckloads of nitroglycerin across rough terrain in The Wages of Fear.

In Las Piedras, a sleepy town in South America, work is hard to come by outside of the Southern Oil Company (SOC), which looms eerily in the background of the desolate town. After Mr. Jo (Charles Vanel) rolls into town, acting like a bigshot, Mario (Yves Montand) develops a close bond with his fellow Frenchman. Mr. Jo rubs the rest of the inhabitants the wrong way with his arrogance and attitude, including Mario’s former roommate, Luigi (Folco Lucci), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck). After an explosion at an SOC site several hundred miles away, the company decides to send trucks loaded with nitroglycerin to extinguish the fire. It’s too dangerous for unionized workers, so they gather up the best men from Las Piedras to make the harrowing journey for $2,000 apiece.

To call The Wages of Fear anything less than exhilarating and tense would be an understatement. From the moment Mr. Jo arrives, the tension begins to build. First, between the folks in town and then they set off for a journey none of the men expect to come back from. Be prepared because once those trucks full of the highly combustible material leave the SOC, the tension will likely make you sweat.

I had long heard of The Wages of Fear but had doubted the impact that it would have on me. A group of men driving trucks slowly across the South American landscape didn’t seem all that interesting or tense to me but the way that Clouzot sets up the story and characters is truly amazing. There are no “good guys” here, the men chosen have some likable traits but are, for the most part, jerks. They have become stuck in Las Piedras despite their differing nationalities and the money would go a long way for them.

The Wages of Fear also has an interesting censorship history outside of France. In several countries (the US included), the film was mauled by censors who deemed much of the film to be anti-American and even parts of the film were admonished for glorifying homosexuality. It should be noted that I picked up on neither of those themes throughout the film. The Criterion release of The Wages of Fear has some extras that detail the cuts made and the history behind this. They offer the film uncut as it was meant to be seen, and the release is amazing, as expected.

Few films have kept me on the edge of my seat the way that The Wages of Fear has, and it manages to keep the viewer firmly gripped by suspense for the entire second half of the film. This is a film I wish I had watched much sooner so I could keep revisiting it. Luckily, I will be reviewing The Wages of Fear‘s remake, Sorcerer, shortly.

I give it 5 loaded trucks on a rotting wooden platform out of 5.

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