Monday, July 28, 2014

My Review of The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Of all the pop-culture celebrations going on in San Diego last week, the premiere of James Rolfe's comedic epic was one of the easiest to miss.  A huge line was gathered outside the Reading Theater, but some of them were there to see the Hercules premiere, while others came for Mazerunner.  It was only when I talked to people in line that I found a good portion were there for the Nerd, and some of them, too, were worried whether they got the wrong location.  There were absolutely no signs for it outside the theater; only one inside.  I had known James Rolfe would be there, but what I did not expect was that I would see him right inside the room where the movie was shown, chatting with people individually and directing them to their seats.  It definitely felt like a very niche, indie affair.

I mention all of this, because in The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, the emphasis is definitely on the portion before the colon.  It is feature length, and, I would say, more ambitious than any of the films Channel Awesome put out every year, but it still feels very much like the web series in a lot of regards.  Its production values alternate between delightfully; at least in part intentionally cheesy, and just a bit too much so.  I won't spoil the specifics, but there is a joke with a completely obvious hoaxed action shot, and it's funny...less so when it's repeated several more times in a short period.  Then there's an issue with its use (or lack thereof) of certain trademarks, which again, I won't spoil, but you can't miss it.  Fight scenes frequently seem..."off", in some way or another.  The movie, like the series, is also almost exclusively a comedy, and while this year's surprise hit, the The Lego Movie, managed some very touching scenes, despite being very surreal, nerdy, and gag-ridden, here any scene that might have come across as sentimental generally comes off instead as a parody of sentimental scenes.

Yet even if it's something of a one-note running joke, within those limits, The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie delights.  The story of the Nerd, having become famous for reviewing games in a hyperbolically caustic manner, caving in to peer pressure to review ET, inadvertently setting him up in a date with destiny, spans through more comedic potential than anyone would expect.  There's some nice satire of the self-destructive ironic fandom in hipster subculture, and the laughably transparent attempts of big business to cater to such subculture, and the film never misses an opportunity to throw in some slapstick, sight gags, and humorous subversion of action movie conventions.  The extreme scatological conventions that the Nerd was infamous for at their height are thankfully in moderation here.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is not that this movie is full of original characters, but how well they work.  Almost immediately, the Nerd is coexisting with his new trainee fanboy, and a sweet, if manipulative corporate mole, looking to use their quest to sell her own game, and soon a whole crew of cliched but hilarious military hotheads (think Beavis and Butthead Do America) join the farce, but instead of seeming like unwelcome diversions in what we expect to be the Nerd's movie, every character serves to strengthen the others.  You can tell James Rolfe is every bit the film buff he claims to be, because the acting and directing in this film are generally brilliant, with people's timing and tone in reaction to each other being airtight.  Particularly funny are James' interchanges with his costar, the former's stubborn, analytical nerd dueling with the latter's wild-eyed, fringe-minded goofball to mock both sides' extremes.  Meanwhile, the villain, an increasingly crippled and grumpy old warhorse, is practically a comedy act unto himself.

It all comes together brilliantly as the Nerd's decision to debunk an old gaming legend, or else reap the punishment of doubting it, sets him on an inadvertent collision course with the agenda of skunkworks military projects.  What initially seems like a misunderstanding (the military hears Rolfe's documenting of an alleged "E.T."-related thing happening some time ago in the New Mexico desert, which can be taken as referencing the Roswell Incident), soon proves to be much more, and soon, after a near fatal run-in with the military, the heroes fall in with an eccentric Bob Lazar expy turned video game-themed survivalist, who enlists them in his secret war against Area 51.  Things just get crazier from there; perhaps a bit too meta, but you'll be laughing too much to care, and it all makes for the sort of silliness that James's fans have come to expect.  And then, at the end of it all, people do, in fact, get the E.T. review they waited for; in the Nerd's signature angry, yet insightful way.

For the average moviegoer, this film will be somewhat funny, but a great deal will probably be lost on them.  It's delving into subjects that are a bit too "nerdy", which is practically the point.  But everyone who's familiar with James's prior work and likes it, will consider this worth the wait.  Among those of us who consider ourselves nerds, there are few better feelings than that of being in a room full of people who are laughing at the same things as we are, and this delivered that in a way that rivals even The Avengers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

REAL Lego Games Return

Well-over a decade now, Lego, according to some detractors, sold its soul.  Up until that point, the toy had featured entirely original, and often intentionally vague, sets; relying on its reputation as a toy about imagination and building for sales, but in 1999, Lego began taking on famous licenses, and making sets of them.  I was never among the people who objected to this.  The toys were still about the building; we just got some new, cool pieces to use.  I can elaborate on why I like this, and plan to in a future post.  We didn't evens stop getting original themes; indeed, new themes like Bionicle and Ninjago had a wider reach than any themes before them.

There was, however, one tragic casualty to license-driven business practices, and that was in the form of video games.  As Lego was just beginning to take on licenses, a unique video game came out celebrating many of its past, original brands, along with the creative spirit that had driven the toy's image up to that point.  This game was Lego Racers, and it not only let you build a car of  your own design out of virtual Lego pieces, what you build would also affect how it handled.  It wasn't a perfect game, but it was a wonderful step towards a future where more games would entail building things out of Lego pieces, with more advanced mechanics to make them work.  Yet barring a sequel released soon after, Lego never took any more steps.  As licensed brands began to dominate Lego's image, some people in the brass must have realized that these brands alone could sell Lego video games, so construction fell by the wayside.  Most characteristic in those games made by Traveler's Tales, the modern breed of Lego games seems to spam to death Donkey Kong 64 tropes, wherein it is necessary to use different characters to do different things throughout the level, and also to collect plot coupons along the way.  Building, in general, is limited to automated construction done by pushing a button to build a specific model in a specific place to do a specific thing.  I've always been a huge critic of these games, and yearned for this madness to end so someone had a chance to make a Racers-style game again, but for a long time it seemed there was no end in site.

Yet out of the blue, the winds changed again.  The release of The Lego Movie; a widespread success, has altered popular culture in a favorable way.  Not only is Lego "cool" again, but, thanks to the heavy stressing it got in the movie, designing and building things out of Lego is cool again.  To the relatable blank slate that was Emmet Brickowski and to audiences everywhere, Wyldstyle and Vitruvius glamorized the idea of saving the world through slick, plastic MacGyvering. 

Hip again,for the first time in decades.

Initially, I didn't know if Lego video games would live up to this ideal; the game based on the movie itself didn't manage to achieve any gameplay worthy of the film's improvisational theme.  Yet Lego seems to have decided to ride the wave of success to a new, cool idea: Lego Fusion.  These games grace us with a desirable new premise: Instead of having real and virtual Lego pieces compete for time, the two are now one and the same.  People will build things of their design out of real parts, and then scan them with a tablet; on which they can play four games, which incorporate their designs.

My enthusiasm has its limits, naturally.  These games are only on tablets, which I do not own.  At least two of them seem a bit too simple, whatwith the inability to build actual 3D models. (They build facades, which are given depth by the program.  The fact that one of them involves racing is wonderfully nostalgic, but there's not yet enough information to conclude, that it will be as deep as the old Lego Racers games. 

Yet hopefully, this time it's not a fluke.  Hopefully, the Fusion idea will be enough of a success for Lego to decide that it should be expanded to other platforms, and with better mechanics.  Then, perhaps, we'll finally get to the point we should have gotten to a decade and a half ago.  Perhaps, soon, everything will be awesome.