As a special added feature to my blog, Arcades Rising From the Ashes, enjoy these great arcade-related scenes from the Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), Wargames (1983), The Karate Kid (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984). If you lived through the eighties, this will probably remind you of how omni-present arcades were in the lives of many American teens.
There's scene in Tron Legacy where Sam Flynn (played by Garrett Hedlund), on a quest for his long missing father, ends up on the doorstep of the video arcade which was the focal point for the first movie and the location from where his father first got sucked into the digital world of malicious programs, light-cycles and radioactive frisbees. As Sam enters the arcade, he finds a forgotten wasteland of old-school arcade machines wrapped in dusty plastic. He flicks a breaker and everything roars to life. The rest of the scene isn't quite a 1980s-style music montage, although the juke box does start blaring the insanely righteous "Separate Ways" by Journey.
Okay, even back in the 1980s I thought Tron was a ridiculous movie and Tron Legacy was only slightly better (see my review here). But if you're from my generation – meaning you were raised during the 1970s and 80s – this scene may have struck a chord as this was the aptly-named "Golden Age of Video Games." This was when the video arcade would've been a keystone to your young existence, as much as today's coffee bar or hookah lounge. It was a place to entertain yourself, but also engage in a little social networking before pocket-sized smart devices made that into a both routine and strangely solitary process. Regardless of gender, background or which school clique you were lumped into, the arcade was the great equalizer. The star athlete might suck at a game where the outcast was brilliant. A boy might've smoked a girl at Galaga, then had his ass handed to him when he challenged her to knock-hockey. I remember plenty of times as a teenager where I played video games alongside schoolmates who otherwise would've had nothing to do with me.
With the rise of home gaming, arcades became less popular and all but vanished from our cultural landscape. The last true arcade I can recall from my hometown was the megalithic Game Works – but even it vanished over a decade ago. Yet amazingly, arcades are making a comeback, appealing not only to tech-savvy young people but to the nostalgic older set who are probably less concerned with video game domination, more with just reliving some fond memories from their sophomore year in high school.
My friend David and I recently drove to Portland to check out one of these arcades, after it was lauded by King of the Geeks, Wil Wheaton. Called Ground Kontrol (no doubt after the iconic "Major Tom" songs by David Bowie and Peter Schilling), the arcade is located in Portland's Chinatown and has the classic arcade atmosphere down pat. Located in a nondescript two-story building (arcades always seemed to have a penchant for taking over old auto supply stores and empty banks), it includes a nice bar/lounge area and a cool balcony filled with pinball machines. Ground Kontrol allows in minors up until 5 p.m., but after that it's adults only. The interior is appropriately dark, highlighted with soft blue lighting and a futuristic chandelier borrowed straight from Disneyland's Voyage to Mars attraction, circa 1977. Everything's priced at a quarter or fifty cents, which is much closer to the traditional fee for video games. (Should I mention that in my hometown there were actually plenty of arcades that only cost a nickel? Nah, maybe not...)
David and I stayed for a couple hours and, as I did when I was 16, reluctantly went home when my money was depleted, still surprised by how these venerable games could be both addictive and frustrating to play. It was also nice to see that the arcade is still a gathering place for people of all kinds. Some were younger than us, a few were clearly on their lunch break from white-collar jobs. Some had piercings and green hair, while others rocked their business casual wear. But, as it was in the 1980s, everyone was equal among the glitter and noise of the arcade.
If you're in the Portland area, I'd recommended you check out Ground Kontrol. It's only a few minutes walk from the city's other relic-from-another-area, the amazing book-opolis known as Powells. Grab lunch at one of the numerous Chinese restaurants in between and you can make a day of it.
Related Information: Images of Ground Kontrol on my Tumblr page.
I've been writing a lot about animated films. It started with my admittedly unflattering review of Ice Age: Continental Drift and ever since I seem to be thinking about the beautifully rendered but dramatically deficient animated movies the viewing public is being offered right now. Now great animated movies have always been a rare thing, but it seems like the studios aren't even trying anymore. Lacking in the most common qualities of drama – compelling themes, engaging characters, a good plot, witty dialogue – these films are computer-generated trifle which hope to distract us with all the noise and bother.
In some ways it's our fault. We've taught the animation film industry that no matter what it is, if it contains talking animals or objects, we'll dole out big bucks to see it. By rewarding mediocrity with money, we ensure that films like The Smurfs and Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs actually get sequels. Sequels, people! Come on!
But I don't want to turn this blog into another rant. Instead, I figured I would highlight a studio which is providing something fresh and innovative – Laika Studios located in Hillsboro, Oregon. The studio doesn't have much of a portfolio yet, only the critically-acclaimed Coraline (2009) and last year's Paranorman, but it's enough to impress. I'm going to use Paranorman as an example of what I think Laika's doing right in animation.
I admit I didn't see the film when it was out in theaters last summer. Although the theme is one I would normally gravitate towards, I didn't find the previews or overall marketing campaign to be very engaging and dismissed it as another been-there, done-that film. And honestly, it didn't help that it was being advertised alongside Hotel Transylvania (truly a been-there, done-that film) and I began to equate the two in my mind. My bad for being a narrow-minded shill of corporate advertising campaigns. Regardless, when I did get around to watching it on Netflix I was delighted by what I found.
Not only was the animation exceptional – a combination of stop-motion with CGI innovations – but the plot and themes addressed had an appeal for both young people and older audiences. To be clear, when I say young people I don't mean children. I'd be hard-pressed to describe it as a kids' film, so don't fall into the old assumption that if something's animated it's automatically appropriate for the elementary school set. This is a film about about a middle school-aged boy who can see dead people. Well, not just see them. Hold conversations and build relationships with them. The weird ability has made poor Norman an outcast in his own family, school and town... But even outcasts can have their place when it falls on Norman's slender shoulders to stop a spell which will raise the dead from their graves. The culprit behind all this is a 17th century Puritan girl who was persecuted and murdered for being a witch. Quite a difference from Ice Age: Continental Drift where the overriding theme seemed to be "dads and daughters just don't get each other sometimes."
Yes, that's right, homicide is at the heart of Paranorman and it doesn't shy away from it. Nor doesn't shy away from the adjacent moral questions such as religious bigotry, revenge, mob rule and paranoia. The dialogue is witty and the characterizations are unique, and it's all propelled forward by a strong theme about how we're all outcasts in our own way. There are some problems with Paranorman, at times it gets a little too preachy and highfalutin, but let's give them props for shooting for a message lofty enough that it requires some extra exposition.
Aside from the care they put into their storytelling, Laika also crafted an visually stunning film. The studio took three years to produce Paranorman. You can see why in the final product. The stop-motion animation means the boy's world was finely crafted down to the last detail. The sets don't exist in a computer algorithm, but were real miniatures someone had to craft, paint, and light by hand. Take a look at the short video below and you'll get some idea of the painstaking artistry which went into this film.
Now if you just want a mindless 90-minute romp at the theater, there are still plenty of offerings out there for you. But also, please, take the time to search out the really good ones like Paranorman... those rare little gems that not only move you, but will have you thinking about the experience for days to come.