Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler


The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

(2015) Documentary (Playland) Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard, Tom Asaki, Walter Day, Enrico Zanetti, Joshua Berman, Rick Fothergill, Mark Hoff, Joshua Berman, Mary Richard, Glen Thomas, Gene Lewin, Rick Carter, John Jaugilas, Patrick O’Malley, Todd Whitsel, Brendan Becker, Mike Currence, Billy Mitchell, Richie Knucklez, Tina McVey, Sylvia Zanetti Eryn Rea, Tiana Whitley. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are those who through luck, determination or what have you manage to accomplish something impressive early on in their lives. That is truly awesome – but then what is left for the rest of your life?

Tim McVey was just an ordinary Iowa teen in Ottumwa back in 1983. Ottumwa’s claim to fame was at the time the Twin Galaxies arcade, one of the most prestigious in the world. In the vast number of arcade games that Twin Galaxies had to offer was an obscure game called Nibbler. Based roughly on the early computer game Snake, Nibbler basically was about navigating a snake through a maze, consuming jewels as you go along. With each jewel the snake consumes, it gets bigger. The trick is to consume all the jewels in the maze without running the snake into itself.

Nibbler’s claim to fame was that it was the first arcade game to flip over at a billion points, allowing gamers to score hitherto unachievable scores. However, getting to a billion was no joke; it would take roughly two days of continuous game play to do it. Part of the strategy is to build up enough extra lives to allow bathroom breaks and refreshment breaks, but the longer the gamer goes without sleep the slower the reflexes become, the foggier the mind becomes and the harder it is overall to maintain the pace that got them close to the mark.

No other gamer in no other game had achieved a billion points – but Tim McVey did it in 1983 at the age of 17. Even competitive gamers, a sport which was just in its embryonic stage at the time, hadn’t done it, largely because Nibbler wasn’t all that popular a game. So when an unassuming Iowa kid did what no other gamer in history had done, it was a big deal. McVey got the key to the city, a Tim McVey day in Ottumwa and a Nibbler arcade game to bring home of his very own.

Years went by. McVey moved on and got married, getting a job as a machinist for a farm machinery manufacturer. It seemed very much like his biggest claim to fame was behind him. Then came the news that Enrico Zanetti, an Italian gamer, claimed to have broken McVey’s all time high score eight months after McVey had established it. While the feat hadn’t been confirmed, to McVey’s mind his single biggest accomplishment in life had been challenged. He had to go back to Nibbler and take it on again, and not just break the billion but set a new high score that would stand for all time.

As it turned out, McVey wasn’t the only one after that high mark. Dwayne Richard, a Canadian gamer, had the same intention. Richard, something of a bad boy, became McVey’s friendly competition. While the two had mutual respect, both McVey and Richard were hardcore competitors who both wanted the ultimate title for themselves. A grudge match was set for MAGfest in Alexandria, Virginia. But the story wouldn’t end there.

While the eight bit graphics that make up the opening sequence and the animations that serve as flashbacks throughout the movie have their charm, it’s the story of McVey that is the heart and soul of this movie. He is a genuinely sweet guy who you root for instinctively from the get-go. Even Richard, who is ostensibly the antagonist here, isn’t really a bad guy; while he is all bravado and bluster, there is enough decency about him that means he gets to keep his Canadian citizenship. I mean, I understand that being an arsehole can get your Canadian citizenship revoked.

Unlike a lot of modern documentaries which seem to be about cramming as many interviews in as they can, this is more centered around footage that the filmmakers shot during McVey’s quest to regain his record, even though he technically still held it. McVey was forced to confront the reality that he was no longer a teen and the stamina to stand and work a joystick for thirty plus hours was simply not as easy to come by anymore. There is a tendency to dismiss gamers as couch potatoes with overdeveloped thumb muscles, but for this kind of gaming, there is a certain amount of physical stamina needed to put up with the demands necessary. Who knew that gaming required that kind of endurance, particularly when there’s no pause button.

There’s plenty to like here; many critics (and viewers no doubt) have compared it to Seth Gordon’s seminal videogame documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I’m not sure it’s at quite that level of entertainment but Gordon’s opus has the advantage of having been first, but also of having a much more familiar game for most viewers. Although McVey grouses that people continually look at him weird when he mentions the name of the game, there is the reality that not many arcades carried it even back in the day. Mine certainly didn’t. To my knowledge, I’ve never played it whereas most gamers who are old enough to drink can say they’ve played some version of Donkey Kong.

The movie does go on for a little longer than I would have liked; the whole MAGfest sequence could easily have been summed up in a thirty second animation for example and was somewhat anti-climactic. Still, the movie does make you leave the final credits with a good feeling and not many movies can truly say that. Generally, any movie in which the underdog does something nobody else has ever done is going to be a welcome addition to my viewing list.

REASONS TO GO: Nice wry tone throughout. Graphics and animation both suit subject matter well.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MAGfest stands for Music and Gaming Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Donald Cried

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Butter


Butter

Jennifer Garner’s limo isn’t what it used to be.

(2012) Comedy (Radius) Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Phyllis Smith, Dodie Brown, Joe Chrest, Shelli Fox. Directed by Jim Field Smith

We are all of us good at something. Some of us are good writers, others good at sports. Still others are trivia whizzes while others can sing like an angel. However, it is only a select few who excel at butter carving.

Of course the first question is how do you find out that you’re good at that, but apparently Bob Pickler (Burrell) did, and he is so good that he has won the championship of Butter sculpting at the Iowa State Fair 15 years running. He is so good that those who run the competition have asked him to retire so as to let other people win, which seems pretty un-American to me – did David Stern ask Michael Jordan to retire so that other guys could be the best basketball player in the world?

This does not fit into the plans of his wife Laura (Garner) who was looking to use her husband’s fame and…well, not fortune but fame anyway – to catapult him into a political career and now is left scrambling to figure out some other way to do it.

She determines to enter the contest herself. Bob himself is a bit put out over the turn of events. He finds himself at a strip club where he propositions Brooke (Wilde), a somewhat volatile stripper, for sex in his van. This ends abruptly when Laura t-bones his van with her SUV.

This doesn’t sit well with Brooke, especially since Bob ran out on her without paying. Now she wants the $600 he owes her – yes, apparently that’s one thing that’s really expensive in Iowa. She decides to enter the contest to spite Laura, and to further cement her contempt she has sex with Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Greene).

Destiny (Shahidi) is an 11-year-old African-American girl who has been shuttled in and out of foster homes most of her life. She is starting out anew with Ethan Emmett (Corddry) and his wife Julie (Silverstone)  They are decent people who become caught up in Destiny’s little hobby – butter carving. She caught the bug when she’d gone to the State Fair the previous year and been taken by Bob’s carving of Michelangelo’s Last Supper (which the Des Moines Register proclaimed as “better than the original” – BWAHAHAHAHAW!) Now she wants to try her hand at it, which her new foster parents enthusiastically encourage.

Destiny and Laura both have real talent. Both want to win for different reasons. Laura, on the one hand, will do anything to win – including seducing an ex-boyfriend (Jackman) into doing her dirty work for her. Still, when Destiny discovers the truth about her birth mother, she is moved into creating a carving that threatens everything Laura is trying to build. Laura will be left with the prospect that she may not be good enough to beat the 11-year-old girl.

There is a very dry, Midwestern sense of humor here, more like the love child of the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor. That appeals to me, although not everyone might get it. There were parts I might have laughed out loud more had I been in a theater (we saw this on VOD) but there were a few I did anyway. That’s always a good day for a comedy.

The cast is impressive. Not everyone in it is a household name but all are terrific comic actors. Burrell here continues his impressive work as seen on TV’s “Modern Family.” He’s not exactly the same guy but he is a very flawed but basically good man who makes one gigantic mistake and winds up paying for it. Wilde has done a number of different roles, like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), medical dramas (“House M.D.”) and horror (Turistas). She has done some comedic roles before but none as memorable as this one. I’m beginning to become a big fan of her versatility as an actress.

The biggest surprise is Shahidi. She’s a new talent and if her performance here is any indication she’s got a bright future ahead of her. She is compelling and holds the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen. It’s a shame her part was written to be a little too perfect – no 11-year-old is that poised, that sweet and that talented all in one package, at least not so many that any of us would know one. A tantrum or two might have been more realistic.

There are definite political overtones here. While some have compared Laura to Sarah Palin (and she does copy some of the former governor’s mannerisms and speech patterns), I thought of her more as a Hillary Clinton type – a super-ambitious wife cuckolded and frustrated. I could be wrong though.

Like a lot of films that have hitherto played only in limited release, the studio has seen fit to put it on VOD to allow viewers who don’t live near the handful of theaters that will be playing it theatrically to get a chance to see it without having to wait a year for it to come out on home video and cable. Most of you can take the opportunity to see it there or, if you want to spend less money, wait for it to make its home video release. Either way, this is a solid comedy that is smartly written and quirky enough to be different but not so quirky that it becomes just another indie comedy.

REASONS TO GO: Dry Midwestern humor that is laugh out loud funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters in one place. Destiny is a little TOO perfect.

FAMILY VALUES: Well, the language is bad in places; there is some sexuality and a moment in which drug use is depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Iowa, it was mostly filmed in Louisiana for tax purposes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews have been weak.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cedar Rapids

JFK ASSASSINATION LOVERS: Laura’s run-off entry into the butter carving contest is a depiction of the open limo at the moment of the killing, complete with the President’s head exploding.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frankenweenie

Lucky


Lucky

The happy couple - how lucky!

(2011) Comedy (Phase 4) Colin Hanks, Ari Graynor, Ann-Margaret, Jeffrey Tambor, Mimi Rogers, Adam J. Harrington, Allison Mackie, Tom Amandes, Michelle Davidson, Olivia Sather, Heather Marie Marsden, Sean Modica, Jill Carr, Elizabeth Uhl. Directed by Gil Cates Jr.

 

Love and marriage can be a killer. Compromise and understanding are keys to any relationship, but especially in any marriage, particularly in new ones. Getting to understand your partner in any relationship is the key to making it work.

Ben Keller (Hanks) is a bit of a noodle. He is a quiet, shy sort who works as an accountant. He seems generally nice although a bit socially awkward. He has a crush on the receptionist, Lucy St. Martin (Graynor) and has had since school but has never acted on it, not really. She’s aware of his affections but she is much more pragmatic; she has her eye casting about for men in a different economic strata. Ben is beneath her notice, frankly.

That is, until Ben wins the Iowa State Lotto and over $38 million. Overnight he’s a millionaire and Lucy suddenly sees him as husband material. Soon they are dating and before long, they are married, much to the satisfaction of Pauline (Ann-Margaret), Ben’s mom who had despaired of her shy son ever finding a match.

Lucy may be all about the money and Ben doesn’t seem to be too shy about spending it on her – from building her a dream home to an expensive Hawaiian honeymoon. It is in fact while in Hawaii that Lucy discovers that Ben has been keeping a secret from her and it’s a doozy – mild-mannered Ben is a serial killer and as Lucy looks a little more deeply into this, she discovers that his victims bear a more than passing resemblance to herself.

The director is the son of a Hollywood producer (best known for producing the Oscar telecasts) who is directing the son of an acting legend (Hanks, son of Tom). That really is neither here nor there but it is some interesting trivia. The premise here sounds tailor made for a black comedy directed by the likes of the Coen brothers but Cates comes off as a bit inexperienced here.

This kind of material needs a deft touch, one that is light where it needs to be but unfortunately the direction is mostly heavy-handed. We are hit in the face with an anvil rather than tickled gently with a feather. While the former gets our attention initially, it gets old quickly and eventually leaves us numb. The latter may not necessarily be as attention-getting at first but it stays with us longer for far more pleasant reasons.

Hanks is rapidly getting a reputation for playing nice guys with a dark side (as he does in “Mad Men”) and this might be his quintessential role. He resembles his father in many ways but he is much more of a sad sack than Daddy ever was. He isn’t quite the indelible lead man his father is but he has the DNA for it, not to mention that he adds his own stamp.

Graynor is kind of a cut-rate Renee Zellweger in a lot of ways, particularly in her delivery. She’s kind of a skinny Bridget Jones without the accent here. I get the sense she’s emulating the screwball comedies of the ’30s in the way she makes her character sassy and plucky. It’s not really original in any way but she at least captures the essence of the character nicely.

Veteran character actor Tambor plays a detective who is investigating the disappearance of several young girls. Tambor’s laconic delivery is perfect for the role and he always seems to deliver the goods no matter how small the role (and this one is small but memorable indeed). Ann-Margaret is also a welcome addition. In fact, the cast is pretty solid.

The filmmakers seem to be caught between making a screwball comedy and a black comedy and wind up with neither. There are some great moments (as when Lucy has a frank conversation with Ben’s victims) as well as some that could have been. Unfortunately, this is a movie where it felt like each turn it could have made could have gone better if they’d taken a different direction. Chalk it up to inexperience and hope the next one is better.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances from Graynor and Tambor. Competent black comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language, a bit of violence, some sexuality and a couple of gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hawaii-themed restaurant scene was actually filmed at a zoo exhibit in Omaha.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video by David Choi singing “I Choose Happiness” from the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,564 on an unreported production budget; no way this made any money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Thin Ice

Cedar Rapids


Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. carry a precious cargo - Anne Heche.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Seth Morris, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Miguel Arteta

There is something disarming about the Midwestern version of naiveté. Hollywood, ever the sophisticate, tends to ridicule these sorts of people. I’ve found some of these people to be the salt of the earth and well worth more respect than Hollywood seems to give them.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He is in his mid-30s but he hasn’t had a lot of life experience. He is having an affair with his first grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver). He thinks he is living the dream; being an insurance agent is an opportunity to help people when they need it the most. Remember what I said about naiveté?

When Roger Lemke (Lennon), the agency’s most successful agent dies abruptly, Bill Krogstad (Root), the boss of BrownStar Insurance, is forced to send Tim to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids where Roger had won three straight Two Diamonds Awards, the most prestigious award in the industry and as Bill darkly tells Tim, he needs to win again to keep the company afloat.

In Cedar Rapids (which Tim arrives at taking his first plane ride ever), Tim is set to room with Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), the first African-American man he’s probably ever seen but perhaps the whitest black man ever. Also in the hotel room is Dean Ziegler (Reilly), an insurance agent who really knows how to live it up; drunken debauchery is Dean’s middle name and he is the one person at the conference that Tim was warned to stay away from.

Also part of the group is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a married mother of two who uses the convention as an opportunity to cut loose and looks at Tim as her ticket to ecstasy. There is also Bree (Shawkat), a hooker working the convention whom Tim assumes is just a very friendly person.

Tim is set to make a presentation to the regional chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), whose Christian values are the centerpiece of the Two Diamonds award. However, Tim has fallen in with Dean who has introduced Tim to the wonders of cocktails and crashing Lesbian weddings (which are legal in Iowa by the way). Tim is not equipped to handle the debaucheries of the big city that is Cedar Rapids; corruption, Iowa-style.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here. Okay, a lot of irony. Most people would never think of Cedar Rapids as a den of iniquity but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective; someone who’s never ventured from a small Midwestern town might see it that way. Wait’ll they get a load of Vegas.

Ed Helms has proven himself a great second banana not only in “The Office” but also in the Hangover movies. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to shoulder the load in a movie until this one, but he does so admirably. He plays the character irony-free, giving him genuine joy at the simple things like an atrium pool, the smell of chlorine, key cards and an extra bag of honey-roasted peanuts on the plane. Super awesome!

Reilly might just be the best second banana in the business. The reason for that is that he has the good sense to allow the leads to do what they’re best at and play the foil to them. He’s done that with Will Ferrell and he does it here with Helms. Still, Reilly manages to craft a memorable character of his own, one who might seem to be the absolute devil to a man like Tim but turns out to be as loyal a friend as you can ask for. Both Whitlock and Heche give solid performances, with Heche’s being particularly poignant and Whitlock’s more comedic.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Arteta weaves here, the world he creates. It’s a simpler place in a lot of ways  and to be honest, I kind of like that. Towards the end it gets kind of dark as Tim discovers harder drugs and so forth and that isn’t as funny in my view as the first part of the movie as we meet Tim – he seems to go outside the parameters he sets for himself and while I know that does happen in real life, it feels a little false here.

The humor works most of the time however – in fact, far more often than most comedies. This is one of those movies that got a little bit overlooked during its release – it went out in limited release and only had a few screens in some places and none at all in others. It is however worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family” – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Helms proves himself to be an able comic lead.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plumbs darker waters towards the end. Sometimes a little too over-the-top for what is billed as a light comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be pretty foul and there’s a good deal of sexual content, along with some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitlock references the HBO series “The Wire,” which he was a cast member in – although not as Omar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and a bit on Mike O’Malley’s “urban clogging” bit, as well as a fake commercial for the insurance agency that Tim Lippe works at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9 on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint John of Las Vegas

Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche

The Crazies (2010)


The Crazies (2010)

Radha Mitchell finds that working in a horror remake is a scream.

(2010) Horror (Overture) Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson, Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, John Aylward, Preston Bailey, Joe Reegan, Glenn Morshower, Larry Cedar, Mike Hickman. Directed by Breck Eisner

It is one thing to live in the perfect small town. It is another to live in a small town full of homicidal maniacs. It is absolutely unsettling to watch one turn into the other.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is one such perfect small town. Its springtime, the first day of the baseball season and the local team is playing one from a neighboring town. In the stands cheering away are Sheriff David Dutten (Olyphant) and his trusted right hand man Deputy Russell Clank (Anderson). What could be a better situation than that?

That’s when Rory Hamill (Hickman), the town drunk, steps onto the playing field with a loaded shotgun. Rory has never been a particularly violent man so it is something of a surprise. Then when he brings it up to bear, Sheriff Dutten is forced to shoot Rory dead.

Things go from bad to worse. Other people in town are beginning to show signs of strange behavior. Sheriff Dave’s wife Judy (Mitchell), the town doctor, can’t find anything wrong with anybody, they’re just acting robotic. Then they go crazy – violently crazy. One of her patients, Bill Farnum (Rickaby) sets his own house on fire – with his wife and son locked inside of it.

Sheriff Dave calls for help and gets it, but not the kind he expects. The army comes in and cordons off the town. Nobody can enter or leave. Those that attempt to escape are shot dead. Those inside the town who exhibit signs of a fever (as Judy does since she’s pregnant) are separated from the rest of the population. The fevered few all start to go crazy. Dave and Russell, both feeling fine, affect a rescue of Judy just as crazed townspeople storm the gates. In amidst the chaos and frenzy of crazed townspeople killing one another, Dave and Russell free Judy and her receptionist Becca (Panabaker) and try to find a way out of the stricken town – while outside, the military makes its own ominous plans.

This is based on a 1973 movie by horror legend George A. Romero. That movie was much less slick, much sparer in its design and in many ways, much more disturbing. The new one is chock full of scares and works more as a traditional horror movie while the original was a bit of an allegory about Vietnam war-era paranoia and general distrust of anything that resembled what we think of as normal. Romero was all about sticking it to “The Man.”

Eisner, whose last film was the box office bomb Sahara, shows a surprisingly deft hand here, keeping the horror coming at a breathtaking speed once things really get out of hand. Much of the horror doesn’t derive from the gore and the vein-y faces of the infected but from the situations where parents kill children, children kills parents and everyone hates the doctor.

Olyphant is one of those leading men who always seems like he should be getting much better roles than he does but for whatever reason hasn’t connected with an audience quite yet. This probably isn’t the role for him to break out with – the character is a by-the-numbers horror hero who in most regards doesn’t have a whole lot that’s special about him. Veteran genre performer Mitchell (Pitch Black) does solidly in her role as the town doctor but Anderson plays the twitchy Russell very memorably. He is the character that you’ll most likely remember with the most clarity.

This is a solid horror movie with nice scares delivered well. Eisner, who seemed over his head for much of Sahara, seems much more comfortable here. To my way of thinking, this is one of the better horror remakes of the recent rash of them to date and if Eisner wants to do more along this vein, I say let him. He’s certainly got the right touch for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice build-up and some really disturbing images. Olyphant, Mitchell and Anderson all do bang-up jobs.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are a few too many horror clichés here and could have used a little more attention to character.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, plenty of love and appropriately foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lynn Lowery, who co-starred in the 1973 version, cameos as an infected local riding a bicycle through the deserted center of town.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a motion comic summarizing events prior to the movie, as well as a nice little feature on George A. Romero, director of the 1973 version, and his effect on movie horror.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $54.6M on a $20M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sorority Row

Sugar


Sugar

In baseball there is always fireworks.

(Sony Classics) Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jamie Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Dreams are a very personal thing. We all have them – some sort of goal that we yearn to achieve, be it a career, a relationship or a life goal. Sometimes, our dreams turn out to be very different in reality than they are in our minds.

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is more than a sport; it’s a ticket out of the abject poverty that blankets much of the country. For Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a pitcher with raw talent, that ticket is about to be cashed. He attends the camp of the Kansas City Knights, a Major League Baseball team with a talent camp in the Dominican.

Sugar’s talent nets him a minor league contract and he reports to the Quad City Swing, a team located in the middle of Iowa. Sugar is sent to live with the Higgins family; motherly Helen (Whitney) and curmudgeonly Earl (Bull). This is farm country and it’s as alien from Sugar’s circumstances as you could possibly get.

The Higgins’ granddaughter Anne (Porterfield) takes a shine to Sugar, but she like her grandparents are Evangelical Christians and as much as she likes him, it’s his soul she’s more concerned with. Sugar also has friends on the ballclub, fellow Dominican Jorge (Rufino) and Brad (Holland), a whiz-bang prospect who already has grad school at Stanford lined up if baseball doesn’t work out for him.

Sugar has no such prospects; it’s either baseball or nothing. At first, he tears up the league but as the summer wears on, Sugar begins to fall prey to the physical toll of the game. As his frustration mounts, he begins to wonder if his major league dream is just the fantasy of a naïve young man or truly his destiny to achieve.

This sounds a lot like every other sports underdog movie you’ll ever see, but almost immediately you’ll begin to discover it’s not anything like that. For one thing, this isn’t about baseball; it’s about life. One of the coaches tells Sugar early on “life gives you many opportunities; baseball gives you just one” and he’s right about that. This is a move about opportunity and what you do with them.

This is the first major role for Soto and he makes the most of it. You get the impression that this might very well be the role he’s remembered for and if that’s the case it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind. Sugar is quiet and sweet-natured but he has a breaking point. He gets angry, frustrated and weak. He makes mistakes and he does things he knows he shouldn’t do, but like most of us, does them anyway.

I’m told that the nuts and bolts of the story are very accurate; camps like the one depicted here are commonplace in the Dominican and the portrayal of the minor league system is just as correct.

Again, this isn’t about baseball. It’s about making choices. It’s about making the most about opportunities. It’s about friendships and rivalries and romances and mentoring. It’s about life, and that’s a movie worth seeing always.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic and moving look at the dreams and aspirations of a Dominican baseball player.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and a little sexuality. Nothing more gratuitous than you might find on the average HBO show.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kansas City Knights aren’t a real major league baseball team (the Kansas City Royals are the name of the MLB team); the nickname is a nod to The Natural in which Roy Hobbs played for the New York Knights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on baseball in the Dominican.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Losers