“Press Start” Review

A long time ago, in an era we’ll call “mostly between 2000 and 2005 but especially 2002″, an elite race of geeks was making fanfilms. Largely out of holding out hope that the next Star Wars prequel wouldn’t suck, people filmed their own space adventures, ranging from serious attempts at in-universe stories to goofy parodies, from ten-minute shorts to seventy-minute features, all the time knowing that they would never receive a profit. Like any big movement, the Golden Age of Fanfilms had its fair share of entries that sucked, but even so there was something pure about them, as long as they were being made for the love of it and not for the attention. Films like “The Formula“, “The Empire Strikes Backyard” (and its later sequel, “The Emperor’s New Clones“), “Revelations” and more were the result of passion, dedication, and the desire to make a feature-length movie with lightsabers. The stories weren’t always airtight, the acting wasn’t always stellar, and some of the effects left a lot to be desired, but the one thing that made every great fanfilm stand out was the passion.

Then YouTube showed up. Suddenly, amateur video production was no longer a thing that only the most devoted geeks did; it was available to EVERYBODY, and it was (relatively) easy. There were still fan projects, but mostly in the form of short parody sketches, rarely longer than five minutes. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brevity, a shorter and simpler piece shot for fifty bucks is much easier to do, and as a result, rarely demonstrates the same devotion as a 75-minute epic shot for a hundred or so.

Enter Ed Glaser’s Dark Maze Productions, with their first feature, “Press Start“.

“Press Start” is being sold on DVD instead of offered as a free download. That’s the ONLY difference between it and an entry from the Golden Age of Fanfilms. Released in 2007 after nearly two years in production, “Press Start” is an affectionate parody of just about every video game trope you can think of, focusing on the 8-bit and 16-bit days. You know, the ones we grew up with, back before These Kids Today had their PlayStations and their X-Boxes and their Jonas Bretheren. (Yes, I’m a 22-year-old curmudgeon. Heck, I’ve been a curmudgeon since I was 11.)

I discovered Ed Glaser through his contributions to That Guy WIth The Glasses, one of my favorite sites. He showed up in a number of the group events, such as the second charity drive, and his crew has made contributions to Atop the Fourth Wall and The Spoony Experiment. More recently, his authorized English dub of Rampage, the Turkish ripoff of Rambo, has been subjected to a DVD-only episode of The Nostalgia Critic (I haven’t seen Turkish Rambo or the TGWTG DVD yet; I can only afford to purchase so many DVDs made by internet personalities at a time!) From everything I could see, Ed looked like my kind of guy: a guy who liked making movies despite his limited means. The promo and behind the scenes material for “Press Start” made it look like the kind of movie my friends and I would make, except that it was actually released. So as soon as I had a job, I ordered the DVD, and watched it. And watched it again. And watched the commentaries. I had that much fun with this movie.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, Dave,” you’re thinking, “it sure sounds cute, but I’m not sold yet. For starters, these video games have been around for decades, and have already been parodied countless times. If I want to watch a Zelda spoof, I can just go to YouTube and be done in five minutes!”

Your internal monologue has an excellent point. The fact of the matter is, there will probably be some jokes in “Press Start” that you’ve heard variations of before, like the neighbor who always repeats the same dialogue. But the movie is more than just a string of jokes and references; there’s a plot and characters. Perhaps not the most original plot or characters, but they’re there, and they give the jokes more power.

Okay, there are also plenty of lines that aren’t really jokes, just references and direct quotes from games–almost right off the bat, we get “war is beginning” and “it’s dangerous to go alone”. But unlike certain Hollywood spoof flicks, the references don’t distract from the plot, and most importantly, they aren’t over-explained. I’m sure there were several references I wouldn’t get that I didn’t even notice, and for the ones I did get, I enjoyed seeing which one would come next and how it would be worked in. (Without spoiling too much, “Now I’m playing with power” managed to be simultaneously hilarious and intimidating, making it possibly the single coolest moment in the entire film.)

The film does have its weaknesses, of course. Some of the fight scenes drag on a little long. Much of the acting is about what you’d expect from friends making a movie. The camerawork has basically no setting between “locked-down tripod shot” and “birthday party shot handheld by Drunk Uncle Louie”, causing me to think Glaser should invest in some sort of steadicam. Still, these minor flaws don’t get too far in the way, and for some may even add to the charm. (And, hey, my work is still guilty of basically all of these flaws, so who am I to judge?)

As stated, I enjoyed a lot of things about this film, but two things stood out as highlights. The first is a gag involving LIn-Ku and…let’s just say, his choice of interaction with a certain NPC. You’ll know it when you see it. I had to pause the movie due to laughter.

The second, of course, is Mr. Peter Davis as Count Nefarious Vile, the overwhelmed, easily irritated, and perhaps borderline senile evil overlord. Much like Darren Scales as Palpatine in TENCLO, Vile vents his frustration on his equally-stressed (but far more competent) assistant Johnson, and is often seen partaking in activities far more childish than evil. But when the stakes rise, his true wicked nature is revealed, and he actually becomes somewhat scary, while still remaining endlessly hilarious.

In fact, to me, the final showdown was one of the most intense action climaxes I had ever seen in a movie. Not because the effects or stunts were particularly impressive, but because it actually felt like a video game boss fight. The editing and pacing brought back memories of scrambling to defeat many an enemy before they regenerated and killed me. As such, I felt the frustration of the trio as they tried to find Vile’s weaknesses, and occasionally had to subconsciously remind myself not to worry; I wouldn’t need to restart from my last checkpoint.

The DVD itself also demonstrates the amount of passion Glaser and co. have for the project, with as many bonus features as they could fit on the disc. In addition to the requisite behind-the-scenes interviews, there are THREE audio commentaries: one with the crew, one with (some of) the cast, and one just dedicated to the music. Each one of these is very informative and entertaining. I think one of the best things a low-budget filmmaker can do for inspiration is listen to how other people with limited means accomplished their flicks.

If you’re still not convinced about buying the DVD, you can check out the animated spinoff, “Press Start Adventures“, which should give you an idea of the tone and humor of the flick. Season one leads up to the events of the movie, with seasons two and three coming afterward (and thus including a few spoilers about the ending, but very little you couldn’t have guessed on your own). I think some of the episodes are classics in and of themselves–the Sephiroth parody in particular had me laughing out loud. Dark Maze also has another webseries, “RoboGirl“, a straight-faced homage to cheesy eighties and nineties action flicks. If you don’t enjoy either of these shows, you’ll probably want to pass on the DVD, but if you do, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the flick.

A sequel to “Press Start” is on the way; the brilliantly-titled “Press Start 2: Continue“. I’ll most definitely be checking it out as soon as it’s available, because even if it’s not the most hilarious spoof ever made, I know from watching Dark Maze’s other stuff that the unrivaled passion will make it undeniably fun.

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