Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie Review "Unicorn City" by David Pretty

This movie sucked.

Thanks for comin' out, folks!

Seriously, I have no idea who Unicorn City was supposed to be aimed at.  Non-gamers will either be bored to tears, hopelessly perplexed or have all of their worst preconceived notions about gamers confirmed.  Actual gamers, on the the other hand, will be grievously insulted.  At least they should be, assuming that their grasp on reality isn't as tenuous as the writers of this shit storm.  

Anyway, here's the movie's promising trailer, which makes the whole thing look kinda sweet, sorta like a LARP-y combination of Napoleon Dynamite and Be Kind, Rewind.

Devin McGinn plays Voss, a witless, chronically-unemployed munchkin who is unhealthily preoccupied with escapism.  Chafing under his brother's iron rule, Voss sets his eye on a dream job with mega game publisher Warlocks of the Beach (geddit?!? No?  Um...okay, then).   Unfortunately, they aren't willing to hire him unless he can fulfill the script's stupid premise and exhibit a spark of real-world leadership.  

This comes along in the form of another moronic story convenience that anyone can see coming from a catapult's throw away.  After Voss leads a rebellion against the tyrannical game-master Shadowhawk (Jon Gries), he comes up with the brilliant idea of creating a gamer's utopia out in the middle of the wilderness.  As you might imagine, this works out about as well as you'd expect.

This is pretty much the entire plot that the film is forced to sustain over the course of one hundred and three wince-inducing minutes.  Perhaps the most insulting thing is how story / screenwriters Cameron Dayton and Adrian and Bryan Lefler treat gamers and their hobby.  At every turn these people are depicted as unaware, socially-maladjusted weirdos who have only a passing concept of reality.  Speaking as someone who's been playing games like this for close to thirty years now, I've found the exact opposite to be true.

I also can't help but wonder if the writers knew anything about what they were making fun of.  Voss gets his escapism fix down at the ol' FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) playing in a tabletop fantasy role-playing game which bears as much similarity to a real RPG as Taylor Swift does to a singer-songwriter.  Although I think gamers and their past-times are just as ripe for parody as anything else, all I ask is that it's done with a kernel of wit, respect, truth and sincerity.  In fact, I'd urge you to skip Unicorn City and just watch the "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" episode of Community.   

There, I just saved about an hour of your precious time.   

Although I personally don't think I could engage in Live Action Role-Playing, or LARPing for short, a helluva lot of people do.  In fact, in Denmark, it's the third most popular past-time behind soccer and handball (?).  If any demographic deserves to get pissed off at Unicorn City, it should be the LARPers.  According to the film's producers, LARPers and tabletop role-players are one and the same and acting like an emotionally-stunted, man-child is a prerequisite for both pursuits.  Frankly I think it's kinda two-faced for a film to make fun of the supposed inability of gamers to distinguish fantasy from reality when the screenwriters didn't even bother to give half of their characters real names.   

Not only are the film's characters hideously one-dimensional but the casting and performances don't do a lot to improve things.  Although I assume we're meant to sympathize with Voss, we're given precious little incentive to do so.  As written, the character is arrogant, hot-tempered, delusional, violent, oblivious and socially retarded.  When Voss Excaliburs the "guild's" game table after a particularly heated exchange with Shadowhawk, he's deservedly banned from the store.  Sooooo, are we actually supposed to feel sorry for this dickhead?  

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a crazed weasel in a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, actor Devin McGinn doesn't seem to know what to do with the role.  When he isn't standing around, slack-jawed staring vacantly off-camera he looks as if he's smelling something unpleasant.  Given that Voss always looks as if he could use a quick dip in Javex, I can't help but wonder if McGinn is a method actor and spent days on set smelling ripe.  Honestly, once the character declares "I'm a bardladin, okay?  Slaying and singing is what I do!" there's really no coming back from something so supremely lame.    

I actually like Jon Gries quite a bit but the character of Shadowhawk is more infuriating and creepy then threatening.  The script has a bit of fun depicting him as a pompous and pretentious theater director who's only interest in gaming is to subject a captive audience to his own slavishly immutable "narrative".  At least the film's writers know that the quickest route to player rebellion is to have a monologing Game Master who's only interested in keeping his own story on the rails.

Unfortunately the writing in these early game store scenes is so heavy handed that Shadowhawk's behavior borders on megalomania.  If these sad people are supposed to be looking for escapism, this isn't it.  Since the ability to referee a role-playing game isn't conferred at birth, why don't they just tell Shadowhawk to go pound sand and then set up their own game?  Oh, right, it's because we need this piece of shit movie to run for another one hour and thirty minutes.

When Shadowhawk hears about Unicron, er...Unicorn City, he decides to crash it in an effort to oust his hated rival.  We soon learn, however, that his real motivation is to discredit Voss in the eyes of the lovely Marsha (Jaclyn Hales) who is inexplicably smitten with the "bardladin".  Since Voss has done nothing but treat Marsha like an Unseen Servant, this supposedly villainous plot almost comes across as noble.  For just a second there, I actually felt a twinge of support for Shadowhawk's campaign to win Marsha over.  But then he lures her into his wingless space shuttle /  tour bus / mobile geek command center and subjects her to an uber-creepy foot massage.  By the end of it, this sequence was really baiting my gag reflex.   

This left me wondering about the role of Marsha and how it was cast.  I can just picture the producers, sounding suspiciously like the Robot Chicken nerd, all huddled around saying things like "Alright guys, we need a sweet and sensitive girl who's also shy, nerdy and utterly devoid of self-confidence.  Oh, I got it, let's find the hottest chick on the face of the earth and put a pair of glasses on her!"  Indeed, Jaclyn Hales is so drop-dead gorgeous that the very concept of her being forlorn in love is utterly laughable.  The fact that Voss is not only oblivious to her presence but is blissfully cruel to her at times makes me despise his character even more.

The funny thing is, Jaclyn rises to the occasion and does a great job portraying Marsha as a black hole of self esteem.  She's so good in the role that she very nearly banishes all charges of being miscast.  Indeed, of all the denizens of Unicorn City, Marsha is one of the few character who actually generates a modicum of sympathy.  Unfortunately, as soon as she's shot in breathtaking close up I suddenly felt as if her "plight" was nothing but the false construct of some creatively lazy film-makers who were merely  indulging in some geeky wish fulfillment.  

Evidence of creative fatigue abounds.  Although Matt Mattson tries to engender some empathy for Voss's rotund younger brother Clancy, the character is such a spineless milksop that he ends up being irritating.  Sorry, but the sight of a grubby-looking heavy-set dude wearing cat ears rolling around in the woods made me feel as if I was watching the geek equivalent of June Shannon.  Eventually I began to empathize more and more with their acerbic and randomly violent older brother Jeff, played with gleefully cruel abandon by Kevin Weisman.  Indeed, Voss and Clancy are both so gratingly annoying that Jeff's abuse almost feels like tough love.

The minor characters are also a mixed bag.  Steve Berg and Missy Hill are diverting as snog buddies Pat the Wizard and Angie the Halfling but their characters are also pretty one-note.  Niklaas Duncan's German Elf is nothing but an uber-dork constructed from about a half-dozen nerd cliches.  Emily Burnworth is gleefully diverting as the sexually-aggressive succubi Tearsumina.  Colleen Baum and Tom Markus are shamefully one-dimensional as a pair of yahoo cops named Cooley and Hamwater (?).  And although Clint Vanderlinden seems like the last person on earth to dress up as a mohawked centaur with a vending cart for an ass, he does succeed at becoming one of the film's few bright spots.

The really frustrating thing is, the film isn't poorly made.  Director Bryan Lefler and his cinematographer Brandon Christensen actually produced a decent-looking final product with some lively set ups, a good arsenal of camera movement and an almost lurid color palate.  Editors Jared Cook and Bryan Lefler manage to keep things moving while punching up the infrequent intervals of awkward humor thanks to some tight cuts.

It's a shame that Unicorn City was a wasted opportunity.  With some inspired casting and a script infused with respect, wit and insight, the movie could have entertained gamers with in-jokes and broadened the opinion of the non-gamers at the same time.  

Tilt: down.  

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