Monday, 4 April 2016

Movie Review: Press Start (2007)



We’ve talked before about movies based on video games, and even movies that just happen to revolve around video games, but I don’t think we’ve discussed the matter of making fun of video games before. Sure, the tropes of the format open themselves up for easy jokes, to the point where even children’s films about Noah’s Ark feature a few digs at gaming… for reasons that continue to elude me. But what about making an entire film devoted to parodying video games? Well, then we have today’s subject, directed by Neon Harbour head honcho Ed Glaser. Yeah, this might be a bit of a stretch in a month meant to be dedicated to critics and reviewers, but considering Ed’s own series Deja View and his intensely satirical edge between this and works like Ninja The Mission Force, I’m counting it. But, how is the film itself? Is it a jewel in the murk that is video game-related cinema, or is it just another of the pack? This is Press Start.


The plot: Zack Nimbus (Joshua Stafford) is a kid in the suburbs who, on a whim, encounters ninja Lin-Ku (Al Morrison) and space soldier Sam (Lauren Chambers), both members of the Resistance against Count Nefarious Vile (Peter A. Davis). They believe that Zack is part of an ancient prophecy and will be the warrior will finally be able to take down Vile’s regime. Together, they trek out to recover the magic relics that will allow them passage into Vile’s lair, so they can put an end to his reign.

The cast here are all Dark Maze regulars and a handful of them didn’t do much else aside from the Press Start franchise. I’d make a joke about how you can tell that these people have done little ‘acting’ before or since, but the actors are actually pretty decent. Stafford fits into his complete blank slate of a main character well enough, possibly too well since he can feel a little too bland at times but, for the most part, he checks out. Chambers is serviceable as Sam, but doesn’t go much further than that. Then again, her character is pretty much relegated to all of two jokes involving her relationship with Zack and the outfit she spends the third act of the film in, and neither joke ever lands. Morrison is probably the most consistently good actor in the film, who plays up his character’s bloodthirst appropriately and seems the one least affected by writing quirks. Davis, to put it simply, is playing this cartoonish villain in pretty much the only way that can expected in a role, or even a film, like this: Having all the fun in the world playing the slimy bad guy. We also have Dan and Carlos Pesina of Mortal Kombat fame as masters Sasori and lei Gong, but it really just comes across as fanservice given how little screen time they get. Outside of the DM regulars, the only other credit of note is Arin Hanson AKA Egoraptor and, quite frankly, a talking tree who weeps over people throwing his dead children at him is exactly the kind of character I picture him voicing in a film.

I’m just gonna say this here and now: You have any real problem with referential humour or jokes that rely on knowing about X detail of pop culture, you will hate this film. Pretty much all of the dialogue and action beats here, in one way or another, reference something in gaming culture. Whether it’s the urban legends surrounding them, the cheat codes, the movies based on them, or just the games themselves, this script is positively soaked in gamer in-jokes. Now, I would question this kind of high concentration of gamer jokes, which even for a gag film such as this seems pretty heavy, but I can’t help but marvel how much this film just flies past and touches so many bloody facets of the culture. A lot of it involves deconstruction and actively questioning the odd Moon Logic that makes a person think that eating meat found behind a wall in a castle is good to eat. However, there’s a lot of humour to be found in just the simple notion that all of these game characters and worlds exist in the same universe. Sure, the budget constraints and copyrighting issues that would be involved mean that we don’t get to see too much of these worlds colliding, but I give credit that the actors are capable of saying where these games connect with each other and making it funny. Especially when it comes from Count Vile, like with his ‘conversation’ with a Luigi stand-in.

And yet, as much as I applaud this kind of all + kitchen sink approach to its comedy, I really do think they dropped the ball in one key aspect: Consistency. I don’t mean consistency in terms of humour, as the film thankfully keeps a pretty good stability with its jokes through its 100 minute running time (seriously, it runs for exactly 100 minutes). This time, I mean consistency in terms of which characters are making the jokes in a given scene. The general idea of self-aware video game characters is given a solid enough foundation to work with, even including stuff like acknowledgement of audio clues when someone is low on health or just plain dead. However, from scene to scene, it will vary who exactly knows about the tropes of their environment and who doesn’t. In one scene, Zack will appear to be the one most aware of how convoluted the rules of the world are, and in the next he’ll just follow along with them and completely ignore the fact that he is trying to eat a med kit. Even Count Vile, who is directly marketed as an inept villain, will often lose the idiot stick to Zack at certain points in the film. In all the ways that Deadpool and how most writers utilize his own version of fourth-wall breaking, this film seems to have gone in the other direction, straight into a tree.

I’m going off of the original version of the film, as I bought my copy before the newer remastered cut was released, but even considering that I don’t have that many hang-ups when it comes to this film’s production quality. It has a certain Shot On Shitteo sheen to it, and it most definitely looks like it was made for pizza rolls, but I’ve always been willing to forgive wonky production aspects if the filmmakers can turn into a visual aesthetic for the film, and Glaser and co. did just that. Knowing the projects and series that Dark Maze and later Neon Harbour would be involved in, it’s clear that Glaser has an affinity for B-grade cinema and that comes across here without completely stepping into the area of “Are you kidding me?” brand of cheap. That said, my only proper complaint regarding this film technically would be its sound design. The foley work and occasional ADR really feels like it wasn’t mixed right and, for a while, it can get a bit distracting. Of course, that also blends into the film’s overall feel before too long so it doesn’t stay distracting. It could also be an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers, possibly as a means to poke fun on the repetitive and punchy sound bites from the NES/Genesis games that this film just loves reminiscing about. I’d normally call such a prospect a bit of a stretch but, given the rest of the dedication shown for old-school gaming ephemera, I wouldn’t put it past them.

All in all, yeah this film’s got problems but so what? It’s kitschy, bits of it are seriously inconsistent and the constant onslaught of in-jokes can be a bit testing at points, but that’s all part of the fun of the thing. It’s a video game spoof movie that not only manages to be funny for its entire running time, justifying its own existence outside of possibly being relegated to a few YouTube shorts, it most assuredly knows its background history. If nothing else, it’s a solid test for the more hardcore gamers out there to see just how many references you get. However, that’s also its biggest weakness: Unless you are a fairly substantial gamer, chances are you won’t get as much out of this film as others. Still, it’s on sale at their site right now for $10; honestly, I could think of a million worse ways to spend it.
Well, since we’re already talking about something that takes the piss out of everything in range, next time we’re going to go into the output of a troll somewhere west of England.

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