Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Angry Video Game Nerd movie

We all know that when we make donations to a project via something like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, we don't know what we're going to get.  There's a chance that those asking for donations may never even produce a final product at all, and even if they do, there's no guarantee that it will be any good.  So I want to say right off the bat that this isn't me complaining that I was ripped off.  But still, I can't help but put this in perspective - I paid $100 toward the Indiegogo campaign for the Angry Video Game Nerd movie, and I paid an additional $10 to purchase the film, as a copy was not included in the rewards for the campaign.  I gave the original amount because I wanted to help James Rolfe achieve his dream of making a full length feature film.  I don't regret that.  But it's also hard to not be disappointed when the film itself was downright painful at points to get through.

The last time I wrote about James Rolfe, I was ridiculously giddy and full of happiness.  My thoughts on him as a person haven't changed.  Shortly after that trip, I sent him an email, wanting to say thank you to him for being an inspiration to me, because at the time I didn't get to say any of that.  Despite the fact that he gets so many emails he has to have other people filter through them, he took the time to reply to me, thank me again for the doll, and wish me luck in fulfilling my own dreams.  He was a couple days away from heading out the door in Philadelphia to make a trek across country to L.A. to film this movie, and yet he still did that.  That and other things I've seen with him leave me with the impression that this is a guy who has not let his success go to his head and who definitely appreciates the people who got him where he is now.

Between that time and now, I have to admit that my enthusiasm for his work has dwindled.  Because the majority of his time since then has been spent on the film, a lot of his free content has been much lower effort.  There's a strong emphasis on unscripted videos and he clearly no longer takes the time to research things like he would often do for older reviews.  I would also make the guess that while videos may have originally gotten multiple passes through editing, the number of passes were now greatly reduced.  So you would end up with episodes where he had clearly just let the guest star improvise and go wild for most of it, and he himself didn't take his usual well tuned eye for proper pacing to them and they would just drag.  Or ridiculous glaring mistakes, like a video on TMNT games where he says he can't get the Commodore 64 version to work - when all he needed to do was google the proper command string to type into the computer.  He also let his friend Mike take over producing a lot of content, and Mike is the kind of guy who jumps on every chance to say the word "tits" among other such poor taste jokes.

There's also the simple fact that I'm getting older.  Cursing, no matter how inventively worded, doesn't strike me as automatic funny or cool anymore.  At times, depending on how it's done, it's more like the opposite.  James is a little less than a year older than me, but it's become clear that the fan base he is so appreciative of is always affecting his ability to make a product that's true to himself.  So while the poop jokes are gone, I've noticed that in a lot of the recent AVGN videos, he's trying to recreate the curse filled rants that were present in his early videos and then went away for a while.  Because he would go to cons and everyone would ask him to do those, would badger him again and again asking why he wasn't so angry anymore and he felt like he had to keep them happy.  This happens a lot with people who produce for the internet, where you see them repeating themselves rather than trying something new, no doubt because they are afraid of losing that ad revenue on which they primarily make their living.

Another thing possibly worth considering is that James has been sitting on this script for a long time.  The original draft of it was done in 2007.  Of course, that's both an excuse and it isn't.  Because if you've got something for that long, you've also got a lot of time to do re-writes and revisions, more time to notice things that are clunky, illogical, or just too childish.  You could polish it and make it the best it can be, or you can pull a Southland Tales and make it even more of a mess than it was before.

I'm afraid this is a Southland Tales.*

The movie revolves around the idea that the E.T. Atari game is the Angry Video Game Nerd's most requested review of all time, because it has the reputation of being the worst video game of all time.  A game studio called (sigh) Cockburn Industries is coming out with a sequel to the game that promises to be even worse, because bad is the new good and if the Nerd reviews a game, his fans will go out and buy it.  The Nerd only agrees to review the game if they will go to Alamagordo, New Mexico and dig up the landfill where Atari supposedly buried hundreds of copies of the original game after the video game crash of 1983.  Along the way they also reveal the secret of Area 51 and why that alien crashed at Roswell all those years ago.

So far, not too bad, right?  You've got two urban legends that center in New Mexico that are both at least tangentially related to aliens.  Linking the two is a fairly logical move, and  the way he does so is clever.  The problem is that it seems like he and co-writer/director and friend Kevin Finn also seemed to decide to throw in as many other things that they love as possible.  I love horror movies, let's throw in a scene where the Nerd is chased by zombies!  Aren't dai kaiju movies great?  Let's throw a giant metal monster into the mix!  And then of course there are fans all asking if Mike, the Guitar Guy, the Nostalgia Critic, Pat the NES Punk or other popular internet reviewers will have a cameo, so we better find a way to put them in here too!

Some of these elements work well, and others don't.  The zombies, for instance, come in a very clever dream sequence that serves the plot pretty well.  Most of the cameos aren't too bad, but a lot of them end up padding out moments that otherwise could have been quicker and cleaner if the film had only contained a couple examples rather than trying to shove in as many of people's favorites as possible.  The kaiju is by far the worst of it though.  It is introduced in a scene that completely interrupts the narrative flow and leaves you shaking your head and wondering what that was all about; and then suddenly pops up again for the climax and is eliminated by literal hand waving.

Unfortunately, the convoluted plot isn't the only problem.  There's also the fact that most of the characters are primarily one dimensional and uninspired.  The bad guys are angry and curse a lot.  The good guys are cookie cutter characters at best, and flat and uninteresting at their worst.  Jeremy Suarez, originally a child actor with a decent amount of experience in acting, gives a good performance as the Nerd's sidekick but the problem is that he has so little to do.  I suppose the idea is that they felt like the Nerd should have someone to bounce off of at all times, but by the time the other characters start interacting with the Nerd, he largely becomes irrelevant.

Sarah Glendening is the female "love interest" and co-lead, and her role is far more unfortunate.  She starts off as literally a fake gamer girl - she works for Cockburn and dons fake glasses and pretends to love video games for the sake of getting on the Nerd's good side.  Now I don't think James meant any real harm with this.  One of the things about him that is also obvious if you see any Q&As is that he lives very much outside of internet culture.  It seems hard to believe for someone who makes their living through it, but it's true.  I once saw someone ask him "What do you think of the slash art people have done of you and the Nostalgia Critic?" and he had no idea what slash was.  He admits his confusion and then asks "Do you mean the fan art people did of us after we made the video together?  That was really cool."  So I don't think this decision was more along the lines of a statement of "fake geek girls are real!" as it was coming from his own limited experiences and not knowing many girls personally who are into video games.  Now you would think that doing what he does now, meeting girls like me (and many others who were in that line with me to meet him) that he would know we do.  But I suppose it's possible he's under the impression that we just think the videos are entertaining regardless of whether we play the games?  Ultimately, this character in the film is taking on the classic role of the one who works for the bad guys but hangs out with the good guys long enough that she sides with them and joins them.  She plays a lot of games and seems to enjoy them, and ultimately tells the Nerd that he doesn't have to review the game if he doesn't want to.  But even if James was ignorant of the fake geek girl controversy, it's a little hard to believe that no one involved with this production tapped him on the shoulder and let him know that this might look super bad to a part of his target audience.

Of course, once you factor in that there's a female bad guy ultimately for the sole excuse to see the two women fight each other at the end (seriously, they break the fourth wall to tell you that the fight is just fan service), maybe I'm just making too many allowances here. As he's now a man with a newborn daughter, I would hope that any future films of his don't come out with such childish, narrow views about women.

One thing that's really more of just a minor annoyance, is that the film makes a lot of changes for the sake of avoiding lawsuits or having to pay licensing fees.  So he's not reviewing E.T., it's Eee Tee and Eee Tee 2, and the alien featured on the cover is not the brown big eyed creature we all recognize but a more generalized green alien.  Footage of the original game plays the same, but the graphics were changed/recreated so that there's technically nothing there under someone else's copyright.  It's understandable, but I can't help but feel it takes away from the film to have such inaccurate representations of Atari and NES games shown.  The graphics and sprite movement are a little too smooth for that era of games.

Ultimately, as sloppy as the film is, it's pretty clear that it's meant to be a tribute to the fans of the series and a thank you to everyone who has made the character popular.  He also seems to be trying to have it both ways, and spends a good ten minutes at the beginning of the film both explaining what kind of character the Nerd is and using many, many clips from fans saying how much they love the show and how much he means to them.  On one hand, it's very touching, and on the other it goes on so long that if I hadn't once met that extremely humble guy, I'd think this was someone repeatedly patting themselves on the back for being so awesome.  It happens again later in the film, when you see fans flocking to Alamagordo just to see him and hear what he thinks about the game.   While he has the bad guy say "it's not your hatred for these games but your love for your fans that drives you" to help drive the point home that the feeling is mutual and he appreciates these people, I can't help but wonder if this angle was truly necessary.  The Nerd character is the most entertaining living in his own little world and getting ridiculously upset about video games.  Adding in a kind of meta level that blurs the lines between fiction and reality just doesn't really work.  Do another video and thank your fans personally, don't incorporate it into your movie.
There are various short form videos Rolfe has created, for AVGN and other series, that show he's a competent director.  Technically speaking, there's certainly nothing wrong with the film.  I didn't expect much from this film in terms of quality, but I had hoped there would be enough there to help him properly launch his film career.  He's already talking about making a proper film, he just needs to decide what story to go with.  Unfortunately, I don't think showing anyone in the industry this film is going to do him any favors in terms of financing.  Maybe he'll turn to his fans again for donations, and I have no doubt that many will support him once again.  Unfortunately  I don't think I have enough faith anymore to give much myself.

* It figures that, the evening after I post this review,  I get my copy of the script I was due thanks to the Indiegogo campaign, along with a 22 minute video of James Rolfe and Kevin Finn talking about it and some of the changes they made.  So here are some details and my thoughts based on what they said.
  • Finn said that the script went through a total of 85 drafts, according to Final Draft software. In earlier versions, they went more for a Revenge of the Nerds style plot, with a jock villain.  They didn't really explain why they chose to change it.  When he says 85 drafts he may just mean that they saved changes 85 times, but it does sound like they were tweaking it a lot.  They also mentioned that they would only work on it while together or occasionally through Skype, because they lived across the country from each other.  Working on it only two hours at a time with months in between may also play a part in hurting the quality of the script.  They of course call it a bonus, as it forced them to look at the script again each time.  I disagree.
  • Considering that during the script commentary video Kevin Finn made such poor jokes as "I'd like to put Mandi in a bag, if you know what I mean" along with getting all excited about a deleted scene with a female nymphomaniac and the woman who wants her breasts signed, I think we can blame him for the representation of women in the picture. Of course James could have vetoed that stuff so he's not entirely blameless, but it seems for his part he mostly was going for the 80s style nerd who is just doesn't know how to talk to girls. It also basically says to me that Cooper is an insert for Finn himself, who perhaps wasn't comfortable taking on such a major role in the film (he has a cameo as a Roswell scientist instead) or had to be the director behind the camera while James was on screen.
  • They say that the character of Zandor was originally supposed to be Howard Scott Warshaw (the guy who designed the game) but Warshaw preferred to have a much smaller role in the film.  I pretty much assumed this without seeing their video, as much of what Zandor does fits better as a guy who was a game designer who also happened to work at Area 51.
  • Reading the script made me realize that Cooper claims the giant mech kaiju lives under Mt. Fuji. The Atari logo was designed to look like Mt. Fuji. Later, the crazed military guy decides to destroy Mt. Fuji because it's the symbol of "that company the gamers loves so much" thereby waking up the kaiju. So they were trying to build connective threads there, but I do still think it's handled poorly.  The way they convince the monster to go away still makes no sense in the script.
  • There are a handful of mentions in the script where Kyle Justin aka the Guitar Guy, is mentioned shown on the side of the road or otherwise almost off frame playing songs that soundtrack the film.  I imagine this was rejected when Bear McCreary signed on to do the soundtrack.  Considering that Kyle's only appearance in the film is an obvious green screen moment with Mike Matei most likely filmed in Philadelphia, I imagine he also couldn't make it out to the locations required to be shown that often.
  • The script makes references to specific real games throughout the narrative, which makes me wonder if they only realized later on they wouldn't be allowed to use the footage, and that's why the fake games look way too modern - they were rushed.  There's also a Wilhelm scream joke that may have been dropped because of rights issues (the joke is about how it's overused, so I don't think that would have been the reason to remove it.)
  • There are other minor changes, like avoiding a poor taste joke about Asian tourists, but for the most part the version they are providing is very close to the film.
  • At the end of the commentary video, James expresses concern about the humor, saying you never know if anyone else is truly going to think it's funny.  He uses the reactions they've been getting at limited screenings to say he's relieved to find out it was.  But I don't think a bunch of die hard fans all packed together in one room is really a good indication for that.  Laughter is infectious, and people who are devoted to you will often laugh even if something isn't that funny.  But if this movie was truly for the fans, and most of them are happy, I guess that's all that truly matters to him.

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