R.P.G.: R.I.P.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1984 children’s action-thriller Cloak & Dagger, has a lot to say about the dangers of fantasy roleplay gaming, but it’s all very confused & self-conflicting. If nothing else, the film seems to be confused about what gaming culture even is, conflating tools like video game cartridges and 12-sided board game dice as if they belonged to the same activity. Additionally, it cannot decide whether it wants to scare parents about the dangers of fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or if it wants to promote the purchase of Atari cartridges like the one that gets its young tyke protagonist into a heap of trouble. Besides the film’s horrific eagerness to put children in life-threatening danger, I’d point to that self-conflicted messaging as one of the film’s major draws. In a key exchange in the first act, a father & son (Dabney Coleman & Henry Thomas) argue about the value of fantasy roleplaying and, in what’s rare for a children’s film from the era, both sides of the divide have a point – the father in pleading with his son to consider the practical realities of the world around him and the son in asking the father to participate in his gaming interests as a way of bonding. That well-balanced approach to the topic of fantasy roleplaying may be smart & nuanced, but it does dampen the novelty of Cloak & Dagger’s larger tendency to function as an alarmist siren to all parents everywhere that roleplay fantasy is corrupting their children’s minds. Thankfully, another early 80s gaming drama picked up the slack with a much less nuanced, raving lunatic screed against the dangers of D&D. And it even starred one of America’s most beloved celebrities.

The 1982 made-for-CBS melodrama Mazes & Monsters is a vision of what Cloak & Dagger would be like without dramatic nuance or tact. Based on a “true crime” novel about a real-life disappearance case where a fanatic D&D player committed suicide, the film deliberately skews logical cause & effect patterns to make RPGs out to be child-endangering killers. Mazes & Monsters opens with a news report explaining what fantasy roleplay gaming is and how it can directly lead to “loss of distinction between reality & fantasy, and possibly the loss of life in the process.” We’re then introduced to four college-age friends, each with deep-seated personal issues, who regular meet to play a fictional RPG called Mazes & Monsters when they should be focusing on their school work. Tom Hanks, in his first leading role, plays the most troubled of the foursome – a likely schizophrenic outsider haunted by the disappearance of his older brother. While the other players in his gaming circle have no trouble using the escapism of Mazes & Monsters to forget their personal issues (romantic, parental, school-related, or otherwise), Hanks’s fraying protagonist struggles with coming back down from the fantasy to return to normal life. He refuses to break character, hallucinates demons from the game in his real-life environment, and eventually runs off to NYC on a suicide mission to jump off The Twin Towers. His friends eventually call for help when they can’t stop him from doing a 9/11 to himself, but in the process feel compelled to lie about their involvement in the game, endangering him even further in their cautious self-preservation. Everything that touches the Mazes & Monsters game only leads to malady & misery.

The amusing thing about Mazes & Monsters is that it contradicts its own message just as much as Cloak & Dagger; it just seems to be entirely unaware that it’s doing so. The film shoots itself in the foot by foolishly swapping around the cause & effect of its alarmist fearmongering. The way the movie frames it, roleplaying games cause a psychological break with reality that generates a series of personal problems in the impressionable, weak-minded youngsters who succumb to their temptations of escapist fantasy. However, it also frames the Mazes & Monsters gamers as already-troubled youths who use the RPG lifestyle as a means of forming comraderie with like-minded peers. Tom Hanks’s troubled youth is already predisposed to schizophrenia & suicidal urges when he arrives to college; the social activity of roleplay gaming merely provides him with a safety net community who can call for proper medical attention when he needs it. Of course, this glorified Afternoon Special about the dangers of gaming misinterprets this dynamic to the opposite extreme and practically characterizes the RPG community as occultist freaks. Late night Mazes & Monsters sessions are candlelit as if they were witchy seances. Dragon-like demons (or at least hallucinations thereof) are summoned in condemned, life-threatening caves. Worst yet, the game is warned to even inspire your kids to run off to New York City, the biggest temple of sin since Sodom & Gomorrah. The depictions of fantasy roleplay gaming start off harmless & true enough – with college age nerds putting off studying for a Physics exam so they can roll 12-sided dice in a cramped dorm room. By the end of the film, however, it’s played with the authenticity & occult-fearing alarmism of a live-action adaptation of a Chick Tract.

As amusing as Mazes & Monsters’s alarmist rants about the otherworldly danger of roleplay fantasy gaming can be, and as adorable as it is to see Tom Hanks find his humble beginnings in a project so embarrassing in its central conceit, the movie is unfortunately too muted & slow-moving to recommend as an over-the-top novelty. It’s interesting as a comparison point to Cloak & Dagger (and the two films’ titles could be swapped with hardly anyone noticing), as it demonstrates what that superior film could have devolved into if it had fully committed to its scolding about the dangers of gaming. Cloak & Dagger‘s dual purpose as an advertisement for the flailing Atari 2600 console added an interesting, self-challenging layer to its anti-gaming moralism missing from Mazes & Monsters. Without it, that made-for- CBS melodrama only challenges its own message by missing the point entirely – advertising for roleplaying games as a source of community & comraderie in a misguided attempt to condemn the harmless activity for its supposed reality-distorting sorcery.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Ladykillers (2004)

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The Ladykillers is about a professor (Tom Hanks) who strategically takes a room in an old woman’s house in order to rob a nearby casino with the help of his zany cast of friends. Or is it about that? It’s kind of hard to tell in a movie that takes so long to establish its point only to change pace and follow a whole other storyline. While that’s a big problem, it’s not the only one.

Usually the Coen brothers juggle ensemble casts and splintering storylines very well, as in the case of this year’s Hail, Cesar!. Their movies are usually meandering, idiosyncratic journeys that fall apart and get tied back together in sometimes messy, sometimes not, satisfying little packages. They’ve developed a reputation for writing not one but multiple iconic characters in any given single film. Except, with The Ladykillers neither of those things happens. You spend virtually no time getting to know any of the characters. You don’t know why they’re there. Tom Hanks’s accent is terrible. Then, you get some weird moral lesson about greed.

It’s also supposed to be a comedy, but the jokes are half formed and not funny. Most of them are based off of racial stereotypes, some of them are bad poop jokes, and an even fewer number of them attempt to be dark comedy. It really feels like watching someone at a party trying to practice their amateur standup routine loudly and awkwardly, while everyone has long since stopped paying attention. Maybe I’m too sensitive to understand the appeal of this humor, but I feel like there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a poop joke.

The Ladykillers is a train wreck. There’s no clear story. The characters are two dimensional. And the poop jokes are bad. I guess everybody, even the Coen brothers, has to make a flop sometime.

-Alli Hobbs

Pop Music Cinema & That Thing You Do! (1996)

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After spilling what most likely already amounts to way too much ink on pro wrestling movies, we here at Swampflix decided to collect all of our reviews & articles about the “sport” on a single page titled Wrestling Cinema. As time has gone on it’s become apparent that we have more than wrestling on our minds. We also like movies about pop music. From Björk to ABBA to KISS, movies about or featuring musicians are apparently a source of fascination for us, so we’re starting a Pop Music Cinema page to give those movies their own home as well. To commemorate the birth of our Pop Music Cinema page, I’d like to revisit one of the most delightful examples of the genre I can remember: 1996’s That Thing You Do!

The first feature film written & directed by America’s goofy uncle, Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do! is remarkable both in its effortless charm and in its perceptive mimicry & satirization of pop music clichés. The only film that’s maybe covered more pop music ground in the twenty years since its release is 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The difference is that Walk Hard, while gust-bustingly funny, is poking fun at the pop music biopic & all of its genre-trappings while That Thing You Do! proudly wears the costume of the pop music biopic, playing some jokes at its expense, but mostly honoring it through homage. It toes a fine line between honoring & making fun, between nostalgia & derision, between parody & the real thing. Tom Hanks wrote & executed a very funny, perceptive script with his first feature, something that he failed to do a second time with his back-to-college midlife crisis comedy Larry Crowne just five years later.

Part of what makes That Thing You Do! work so well is its succinct accuracy. Framed as the biopic of a single American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group, the story is more the biopic of every American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group. It follows the entire birth, rise, and fall life-cycle of the fictional group The (one hit) Wonders. The film opens with the band writing their signature song & trying to agree on a name for their group. They then win a local talent show that leads to a steady gig at a restaurant near the airport where their fan base swells to the point where they decide it’s time to cut a record. An upstart manager takes an interest in the band, gets their song played on the radio, and books touring gigs that eventually lead to them losing touch with the friends, families, and lovers they leave behind in their small town. The band bombs their first major concert, but lands an incredible record deal anyway and begin to tour with much bigger acts, groups they’ve idolized for years. While on tour their hit song climbs the Billboard charts in the inevitable climbing-the-Billboard-charts montage. They land opportunities to appear in movies & television until their popularity reaches a breaking point where their egos are far too oversized for the band to continue. They then dissolve & separate, the band of their dreams now a pleasant, but distant memory as they assume new identities as studio musicians & has-beens. As Tom Hanks himself says in the film, “It’s a very common tale.”

As cynical of a take on pop music as a business as all that sounds, the film is still remarkably celebratory. There’s an infectious nostalgia for the mic’d handclaps, groovy wardrobes, and shoddy Gidget movies of yesteryear. The hit song at center of the film is legitimately enjoyable, which is a great advantage since it plays at least a dozen times throughout the runtime- the same way you’d expect to hear a hit song repetitively on the radio. The cast (which includes Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovani Ribisi and a brief early glimpse of Bryan Cranston) is thoroughly likeable. Even Steve Zahn, who can grate on me in large doses, is nothing but charming as the world’s only lead guitarist who can’t seem to get laid. His brand of smart-ass comedy is the funniest it’s ever been; the way he sells lines like “A man in a really nice camper wants to put our songs on the radio!” are among the best moments of his entire career. It’s as if the entire cast and, by extension, the film itself borrowed Tom Hanks’ likeability as if it were a pair of shoes. The main protagonist, played by Tom Everett Scoott, borrowed so much that he even eerily looks like he could be Hanks’ offspring.

That Thing You Do!‘s central message seems to be encapsulated in the line “Ain’t no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go.” It’s smart to recognize, however, that when a band is in full glory it can be a magical thing. The ecstatic look on girls’ faces as The Wonders play on television, the excitement musicians feel when meeting their idols & living their dreams, and the inevitably sappy true-love conclusion to the story all make the fleeting, somewhat meaningless success of a pop group seem like the most important thing in the world. That Thing You Do! showed me that you can be critical of how a thing works on a fundamental level while still finding a deep appreciation for its benefits. It also taught me that Tom Hanks can be terrifying when he’s acting mean. It’s not the most important film about pop music ever made, but it is an immensely enjoyable one & it’s one that has a lot to say about what the genre means as an art form. I’m sure as time goes on that we’ll cover many films that have a lot to say about the genre as well. The nature of pop music seems to be be an endlessly fascinating subject for both folks behind the camera and the rest of us here in the audience.

-Brandon Ledet