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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New Releases for the Week of October 10, 2014


Dracula UntoldDRACULA UNTOLD

(Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Diarmaid Murtagh, Samantha Barks, Charles Dance, Noah Huntley. Directed by Gary Shore

The historical figure of Vlad Tsepes, also known as Dracula, is mixed with fantasy as his origin story is given a re-imagining. A Transylvanian warlord attempts to protect his family and his people from an Ottoman sultan who threatens them. He is willing to go to any lengths to save them, including making the ultimate sacrifice – his soul. This has been announced to be the first movie in the shared Movie Monster cinematic universe that Universal is undertaking.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images and some sensuality)

Addicted

(Lionsgate/CODEBLACK) Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe, Tyson Beckford, William Levy. Zoe seems to have the perfect life; a handsome and loving husband, great kids and a business that she has built into a big success. However, Zoe hides a dark secret – a compulsion for sex that threatens to destroy everything she’s built. Based on the novel by Zane.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and brief drug use)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

(Disney) Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Megan Mullally. 11-year-old Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair and things go downhill from there. Getting little sympathy from the rest of the family, he begins to wonder if terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen only to him until they begin to experience their own terrible, horrible…oh, you get the idea.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Comedy

Rating: PG (for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language)

The Devil’s Hand

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Carpenter, Rufus Sewell, Alycia Debnam Carey, Adelaide Kane. Six girls are born to six different mothers on June 6th in a small, devout Amish-like town thereby setting in motion an ancient prophecy that on their 18th birthday, one of these girls will become the Devil’s Hand. As the day approaches and the girls begin to disappear, the town lives in terror that the prophecy might just be coming true.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing and violent material, some partial nudity and thematic content)

The Guest

(Picturehouse) Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley. The grieving family of a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan welcome one of his friends from his unit into their home. The teenage sister of the dead soldier starts to get suspicious when people in town start turning up dead and she believes that their seemingly polite and perfect guest might be responsible.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality) 

The Judge

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga. Returning home for his mother’s funeral, a high-priced defense lawyer discovers his estranged father, in the early stages of dementia, has been accused of murder. He decides to represent him even though the two don’t get along at all in a last ditch effort to repair the breach that separates them both.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama (opens Thursday)

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Kill the Messenger

(Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia. San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb digs into a story that links the epidemic of crack cocaine, the CIA and arm sales to Contra rebels. He would ultimately win a Pulitzer Prize for the story but would also put his own reputation, his career, his family and his safety on the line to do it.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R  (for language and drug content)

The Man on Her Mind

(Paladin) Amy McAllister, Georgia Mackenzie, Shane Attwooll, Samuel James. A girl dreams about the perfect man. A boy dreams about the perfect woman. But when those dreams begin to become reality, what will it really mean for the two of them?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

Meet the Mormons

(Purdie) Jeffrey R. Holland, Gail Halvorsen, Bishnu Adhikari, David Archuleta. A look at the people and the tenets of the Mormon faith, which some believe has been given a raw deal by the mainstream media.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

Pride

(CBS) Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine. In the era of Margaret Thatcher, the National Union of Mineworkers goes on strike, prompting a showdown in the corridors of power between the working class and the upper class. In London, a group of gay and lesbian advocates, seeing the struggle of the mineworkers, decides to support the strike. At first the mineworkers don’t want their aid but eventually come to see that together they are far stronger and can accomplish far more.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexual content)

Tracks

(Weinstein) Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Jessica Tovey, Emma Booth. An Australian city girl decides to make a 2,000 mile trek across the Australian desert accompanied only by her dog and four somewhat unpredictable camels. Along the way she meets a National Geographic photographer who decides to document her epic journey.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language)

African Cats


African Cats

These African Cats are just a bunch of cheetahs.

(2011) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Nature can be a harsh mother, one whose life lessons are sometimes cruel and at other times beautiful. The world that the predator cats of Africa exist in is one that is exacting, but one in which the devotion of a mother is as fierce and beautiful as it is in the civilized world.

Layla is an aging lioness, a fierce hunter and mother to Mara, a female cub. She lives on the South bank of a river as part of the River Pride, presided over by its only male, Fang. Like Layla, Fang is a battle-scarred warrior who is beginning to show the signs of his age.

Sita is a fearless cheetah, one who is bringing up five cubs alone, as is the nature of cheetahs. They live on the Northern bank of the river. She is trying to teach her children the necessities of survival, something that is not always easy with children, especially when she has to contend with hyenas, a sometimes scarce food supply and also the lions of the region.

Kali is the father of three strapping young male lions. He rules the Northern bank of the river and now seeks to expand his territory south. He must bide his time during the rainy season as the river is crocodile-infested, but as the summer arrives and the waters recede, he moves south to take on Fang. At stake are the lives of the cubs, all of whom will be killed should Kali take over; he will then father new cubs with the lionesses. The battle for survival has begun.

As with the annual Earth Day DisneyNature documentaries, the animals are heavily anthropomorphized, the most of any of these documentaries yet. Jackson, in his spirited narration tells us what the cat moms are thinking, feeling and planning, giving them human responses to situations that might not mirror what a big cat is thinking, feeling or planning. Some of these emotions and thoughts that are ascribed to the felines can be extrapolated from their actions but others are most certainly all invention. I find that bothersome somehow, as if we’re being lied to – which is probably over-sensitivity on my part but still I can’t help feeling a little bit uncomfortable with it.

Certainly their maternal instincts are highly honed and when cubs are missing, they become obviously distraught; when the cubs are threatened, they fight like berserkers, claws and teeth savaging their opponents.

Like all of the DisneyNature documentaries, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Aerial shots of the vast savannah, the river winding through it like a muddy ribbon, thousands of wildebeests migrating through the territory like ants. The close-up shots of the lions and cheetahs going about their business are nothing short of amazing – watching Sita at full speed, her muscles straining for every bit of speed is something any viewer is going to remember for a very long time. It is a kind of savage beauty that serves to further amaze us at the diversity of life on this big blue marble.

However, the harshness of life on the plains makes for a fairly depressing movie. Lions and cubs are horribly injured and killed; they shiver in the rain and bake in the sun. Some become little more than skin and bones as they slowly starve to death.

The temptation to compare this to National Geographic’s documentary The Last Lions is hard to resist. Both movies focus on lionesses struggling to protect their cubs and both feature amazing footage of lions (and in the case of African Cats, cheetahs as well) in the savannah. However, the Nat-Geo film seems to be more concerned with calling attention to the dwindling numbers of wild lions in Africa while African Cats seems more disposed towards telling a kid-friendly story, so you have to give a nod to the other film on that score.

However, I found the Kenya-filmed footage in African Cats more compelling and more spectacular thanks to Fothergill’s well-honed sense of scope. He has also filmed the documentaries Deep Blue and Earth and may very well be the best nature documentarian alive. It kind of winds up as a push.

Disney’s heart is in the right place, using Earth Day to release films about our natural environment and tell stories that are played out in it every day. I don’t really love their need to turn these beautiful creatures into characters as if they should be talking and singing in one of their animated features; the narration should be kept to a minimum in my humble opinion because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures like these are worth infinitely more, and those in charge of these wonderful documentaries would do well to remember that.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography of the majestic African plains and its inhabitants.

REASONS TO STAY: The storyline was too anthropomorphized and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES: There really isn’t anything that would cause a parent to give pause in allowing their children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An original song by “American Idol” Season Six winner Jordin Sparks, “The World I Knew” is played over the closing credits, as the various animals that appear in the movie are identified in a humorous way.

HOME OR THEATER: The big African vistas should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mercy (2009)

The Last Lions


The Last Lions

This lion just ain't gonna take no bull...umm, well if you look at it from a certain point of view, they actually ARE.

(2011) Nature Documentary (National Geographic) Jeremy Irons (narration). Directed by Dereck Joubert

Fifty years ago, there were nearly half a million lions in the wild. That number is down to somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand, depending on whose estimates you believe. Current estimates have the wild lion population disappearing, possibly within the lifetime of children currently living.

They are being driven out of their natural habitats by the movement of human expansion on the African continent. They are being hunted by farmers trying to protect their cattle from attacks by the big cats; they are also being crowded into places where their food supply is dwindling and where they are competing with other ferocious predators for game.

Irons’ narration tells the tale of Ma di Tau (translated as Mother of Lions in the local language), a wild lioness in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. She is a single mother of three adorable cubs. Her territory has been invaded by a pride from the North, moving down due to human incursion. She and her mate are attacked; her mate is grievously injured and the mother and her cubs are forced to cross a crocodile-infested stream to get to Duba Island, a large grassy atoll in the river. In rainy season it can be wet and marshy; in the summers the river slows down to a trickle, inviting other predators to visit.

There’s also a largish herd of water buffalo that are the size of VW Beetles and twice as ornery. One in particular, the herd leader who is marked with a noticeable scar across his face, fears nothing or no lion. His horns are nightmarishly lethal, and without a pride to help her in the hunt, Ma di Tau is reduced to nearly suicidal frontal assaults before devising tactics made from desperation; she desperately needs the meat to feed her cubs and if she doesn’t feed them soon, they’ll starve.

Director Joubert and his producer/partner/wife Beverly live on Duba Island and have been naturalist documentarians for a quarter of a century – in fact, Disney used footage they shot to help guide their animators for The Lion King.

Their footage is phenomenal. We get as up close to lions so much so that we become part of their pride, privy to their daily routines and lives. Nature documentaries have a tendency to anthropomorphize their subjects – give them human qualities and traits. This one doesn’t quite resist the temptation, often musing on what Ma di Tau is thinking and feeling through Irons’ solid narration. However some of the prose he’s given to recite is a little bit on the purple side.

There is no sentimentality here. Lions act like lions and when their territory is invaded, a struggle to the death ensues and it is a bloody and savage one. Cubs, unable to fend for themselves, are put in danger and don’t always escape it unscathed. Lightning ignites grass fires; things are eaten by crocodiles or gored by water buffalo. In short, life on the savannah is a harsh one.

But there is also love and affection and while not as much of that is shown in the eagerness of Joubert to make his point about the dwindling population of the magnificent beasts it is nonetheless present, particularly in Ma di Tau’s fierce devotion to her cubs and her willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them. The playfulness is rarely glimpsed but it is glimpsed.

There is definitely a message here and it’s a somber one – the kings of the jungle are disappearing from the face of the earth. It is happening slowly, but when you consider that it only took half a century to kill off nearly 90% of the lion population in the wild, the urgency of their protection becomes clear. The film provides websites and text numbers for donations to an organization dedicated to protecting these big cats, and hopefully you’ll take advantage of them as well (you can get info on their website which you can access by clicking on the picture above).

As documentaries go, this is a solid one. It lacks the grandeur of DisneyNature’s Earth or the humor of March of the Penguins but it tells its story simply and effectively. It also sends its message clearly and that is all you can ask of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and narrated. Some of the up-close shots of the lions are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie pulls no punches in describing that it’s a jungle out there, even in the savannah; the faint of heart be warned.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of animals mauling and killing one another which might get the kiddies a little upset.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeremy Irons voiced the villainous Scar in Disney’s The Lion King.

HOME OR THEATER: Gorgeously photographed African savannah worth seeing in all its glory on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hop