J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

PDXFF ’16: Wizard Mode

You might think pinball machines are veritable museum pieces, but they are still cranking out new machines, often licensing hit films and TV series, like Avatar, 24, and Game of Thrones (you know that one must have a special place in GRRM’s hacienda). It would be fascinating to learn the economics of this apparently still viable industry, but sorry, you are in for some feel-good moral uplift instead. Jeff Petry & Nathan Drillot follow Robert E. Gagno, a high-functioning, highly ranked autistic competitive pinball player in Wizard Mode (trailer here), the opening film of the 2016 Portland Film Festival.

If the only thing you can think of right now is The Who’s Tommy, you are not alone. Petry & Drillot will duly play a cover of “Pinball Wizard” over the closing credits, but they scrupulously avoid all references until then. As fr they are concerned, this is strictly Gagno’s show. Fortunately, for the filmmakers and everyone watching their finished product, Gagno is rather sociable and sympathetic. Granted, he is somewhat socially awkward, but keep in mind, he is Canadian. You know, they have long winters up there and few people. One could argue he is doing rather well, all things considered.

For that, Gagno and his supportive parents credit pinball. It was one of the few things Gagno could lock-in on during his childhood years and he now considers it the key to his socialization. However, viewers might have a more ambiguous judgment on pinball as they watch him struggle under the pressure of championship match play.

Gagno is a nice young man working to find his place in the world, but we get the essence of his story early on. Frankly, most viewers will be more seduced by the flashing lights and old school gaming terms, like “multi-ball,” “wizard mode,” and the dreaded “tilt.” The history and scrappy survival of pinball machine development could well be the stuff of a terrific feature-length documentary—and many will wish this had been that.

However, if first and foremost you are looking for niceness than Petry & Drillot have you covered multiple times over. We really could have done without the long conversations regarding hugging. Still, once you get past those, most viewers will agree, the Gagnos truly look like super-parents and REG (as they call him) deserves credit for becoming a gainfully employed, productive member of society. That is more than three-quarters of the residents of our nation’s capital could say for themselves. Earning a mild recommendation (perhaps partly to avoid looking mean), Wizard Mode screens this coming Tuesday (8/30) and Friday (9/2) during this year’s Portland Film Festival.

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