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How ‘The Wizard’ failed Nintendo

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Although e-sports have reportedly been a part of video game culture since the early ’70s, competitions saw a large surge in popularity in 1989 when Universal Pictures produced The Wizard, about a trio of kids who make their way to a national Nintendo video game championship (Video Armageddon) for a grand prize of $50,000. The charismatic and rising star of television’s Wonder Years, Fred Savage, stars as Corey, a boy who escorts his deeply traumatized younger half-brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) away from a group home and sets off on a cross-country trek, chased by their father (Beau Bridges), their older brother (Christian Slater), and a child-finder, hired by their mother to bring him back home. Along the way, they meet Haley (Jenny Lewis) and discover that Jimmy is a real prodigy when it comes to video games. They make a stop off in Reno, hustle at some arcades, gamble at a casino and do whatever it takes to get to their destination on time. There’s a ridiculous comic subplot involving the child detective maliciously trying to stop Bridges from finding his sons and a secondary side-story about a competitive gamer named Lucas Barton, always getting in the way.

The Wizard Movie Review 1989

Nintendo didn’t really need a boost in advertising back in 1989. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the best-selling gaming console of its time and helped revitalize the US video game industry following the video game crash of 1983. With the NES, Nintendo introduced a now-standard business model of licensing third-party developers and authorizing them to produce and distribute titles for Nintendo’s platform. More importantly, they placed a priority on their exclusive titles making the likes of Zelda, Link, Mario and Luigi household names. Nintendo was everywhere. Kids had lunch boxes, watches, t-shirts; even magnets on their refrigerators. The next logical step was the big screen and Nintendo’s plan was to use The Wizard as a catalyst to publicize the release of Super Mario Brothers 3 and the Powerglove. Arguably the most famous scene in the entire movie involves the Power Glove controller, and the infamous line reading: “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad”. What’s more, this section of the story culminates in a video game tournament that shows the first footage of Super Mario Brothers 3 before the actual release of the game.

The Wizard

The Wizard became one of the first movies to explore commercial advertising opportunities targeted at gamers within a film and ironically for a film that has an awful lot to do with interactive entertainment, director Todd Holland wasn’t a huge fan of the medium. Super Mario Bros. 3 went on to become one of the best selling games in history and there wasn’t a gamer who watched The Wizard that didn’t want the Powerglove. The movie, however, was a box office flop and was panned by critics nationwide who called it nothing but a giant promotional tool. But the truth is, Nintendo was refreshingly hands-off with the film-making process; it wasn’t even their idea to put the Powerglove into the film. Sure Nintendo sought to profit from the project, but if anyone is to blame for the poor quality of the picture, it isn’t them.

The Wizard 1989 Movie REview

 

The Wizard is not only poorly scripted, acted and directed, but a blatant knockoff of the Oscar-nominated Rain Man, released a year earlier, with an added touch of Tommy (minus the music). If the borrowed plot sounds like the most unforgivable thing about The Wizard, think again. From a critical standpoint, it’s one of the most shameless films ever made. It’s not so much a movie, as it is an infomercial – but an infomercial for what exactly?

Despite the premise and repeated scenes of characters playing video games, this isn’t a 100-minute video game commercial for the Japanese multinational consumer electronics company. Universal Pictures milked The Wizard for all they could be promoting a bevy of partner brands, including Hostess, Cosmopolitan, Vision Street Wear, the music of New Kids on the Block, and Universal Studios (The last part of this Universal film takes place at Universal Studios in California, and amounts to an extended advertisement for the studio tour). Nintendo isn’t responsible for how disappointing The Wizard is; Universal Pictures is.

The Wizard is hackneyed and shallow and whatever merits it has, clash against the gross commercialism.

The Wizard is also one of those strange 80’s family films that you just can’t make these days, featuring gambling, death, violence, and mental health issues. The runaways’ actions provide anything but responsible role models for the children who make up the film’s target audience and the trek to California is accomplished primarily by illegal activities and a series of violent encounters between the kids’ father and the bounty hunter. WarGames was a massive hit at the time, and Tron and The Last Starfighter enjoyed modest success, but Universal Pictures never truly had faith in their premise. They were given a chance to revolutionize the video-game movie, just as Nintendo revolutionized the home-console market – and instead, they completely failed.

Wizard movie Review

All that said; while the film is poor in many respects, it’s difficult to hate. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about watching the kids play Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ninja Gaiden, both on the NES console and at the arcade. Sure The Wizard is full of 80s cheese, but for gamers, it’s also a perfect escape to a much simpler time when gamers grew up on old 8-bit Nintendo games that seemed impossible to beat without subscribing to Nintendo Power, as opposed to multi-platform deals whose secrets can easily be found while surfing the World Wide Web. Years before silver screen adaptations of Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Pokemon, and Super Mario Bros., it was extremely rare to see video games featured in the film, much less mentioned. The Wizard didn’t do much to change this fact, nor did it go down as a timeless, cinematic classic, but it did develop an understandable cult following as the years went on, and it’s easy to understand why.

– Ricky D

The Wizard 1989

Trivia:

There was a reunion with the cast and director in 2008 at the Alamo Draft House. There, Todd Holland revealed that an hour of footage was cut from the movie — which explains many of the plot holes.

Sadly, the film wasn’t the massive financial success that Universal had hoped for. It cost $6M to make, but only made $13M at the box office.

Many NES games appear in the arcade scenes. Contrary to popular belief, this was possible since Nintendo had an arcade cabinet called Play Choice Ten. These machines would let the gamer choose between a number of NES games and alternate freely between them until time ran out, at which time the gamer would have to insert another coin.

The sounds made by Lucas’ Power Glove as he punches its keys are the famous five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

The version of Double Dragon (1987) that Jimmy is playing at the bus station is not in fact the arcade version of the game, but rather the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Double Dragon.

Participating theaters would distribute issues of “Pocket Power” a pocket-sized version of “Nintendo Power” magazine.

When Jimmy, Corey & Haley are hustling the teenagers at the restaurant, it shows the game Jimmy is playing as F-1 Dream but the actual game Jimmy is playing is Top Speed (1987).

Tobey Maguire makes a cameo as one of Lucas’s henchmen. It was his first acting role.



Games that are featured in The Wizard:

  • Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
  • China Gate
  • Contra
  • Dr. Chaos
  • Double Dragon
  • F-1 Dream
  • Mega Man 2
  • Metroid
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • PlayChoice-10
  • R.C. Pro-Am
  • Rad Racer
  • Rampage
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Full Throttle/Top Speed
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Wizard

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Drew

    October 17, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    Two corrections to the article:

    > watching the kids play Double Dragon, Turtles in Time and

    Turtles in Time didn’t come out until ’91 in the arcades, ’92 for the SNES. The game was just “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, only released on the NES. (Other games also share that title, but the NES version was it’s own thing, not a port.)

    > There was a reunion with the cast and director in 2008 at the Alamo Draft House. There, Tom Holland

    Todd Holland. Though I suspect the author (Ricky) had Spider-man on the brain with the Tobey Maguire deleted scene video, so it’s totally understandable. 😉

    Great writeup!!

  2. Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

    October 17, 2019 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks for the correction. I guess I had Tom Holland on my mind when writing that last bit of trivia. I did get his name write in the review at least. 🙂

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Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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