The Dungeon Masters – DVD Review

The Dungeon Masters is a highly entertaining look at the personal and “professional” lives of a trio of tabletop role-playing game enthusiasts. Director Keven McAlester has created the perfect companion piece to one of my favorite documentaries, Darkon — a film about live action role players.

While McAlester doesn’t quite have the same tender respect for his subjects as Darkon directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel had — he’s not above going for the cheap joke at the expense of his interviewees — the film does offer a mostly even-handed examination of the triumphs and tragedies of a group of people whose imaginations are as thick as their self-confidence.

The film follows three dungeon masters, RPG players who set the rules and build the games of which others participate, throughout the course of a year.  As McAlester follows the three around, audiences get a glimpse of the type of dysfunction that permeates the lives of a group of people who are used to controlling every aspect of their fictional games.

Richard is an Air Force reservist whose wife limits him to one game a month. Scott is a part-time apartment manager who hopes to use his experience as a dungeon master to write a fantasy novel. Elizabeth is a young woman who dresses up as a dark-skinned elf and struggles to find love among geeks. Between his three subjects, McAlester has plenty of material to keep his documentary interesting and entertaining to watch. And entertaining it is — perhaps, though, for the wrong reasons.

Richard is a guy who’s hard to pin-down and second-guess. Besides RPGs, his interests include nudism and starting fights with his fellow D&D players. Despite his jolly temperament, Richard has been involved in two separate Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that ultimately fell apart due to bickering and complaints about Richard’s fairness.

Elizabeth, the film’s resident girl geek, has struggled in her young life to enter into a healthy relationship. As she says at one point in the film, guys date her because of what she’s into (comic books, video games, etc.) instead of dating her because of who she is. The audience doesn’t really see Elizabeth participate too much in tabletop gaming — instead she spends a lot of time involved with live action role-playing and World of Warcraft.

The fact is, the movie is mostly devoid of scenes in which the characters actually play D&D and other RPGs. While Darkon brought these bouts of imagination to life with extravagantly shot fantasy scenes, The Dungeon Masters, wisely, chooses to concentrate on the chaos that exists in the characters’ personal lives.

Scott seems to be the film’s central character, as the movie follows his struggles the closest. Besides his fantasy novel, Scott is also attempting to create a public access cable television show — one that would feature him as an out-of-work super villain who has a Pee Wee’s Play House type of show.

Lethargic in nature, Scott lives in a cramped apartment with his wife and son — every ounce of their home crammed with proof of his geekdom. While he struggles finding the energy for his interests and his part-time job, his wife patiently puts up with him — though shots of her growing exasperation shows her patience may be wearing thin.

Besides seemingly being the film’s star, Scott, who shares a fashion sensibility with Internet icon Harry Knowles, also seems to be the butt of the film’s jokes more often than not.

I’m willing to admit that I may be seeing fire where there is none but when there are scenes in which the director shows Scott struggling with casual exercise or when he edits seemingly out-of-place comments about Scott’s cravings for McDonald’s fast food, there seem to be more laughs at Scott than with him.

In fact, McAlester seems to paint his slickly produced documentary more as a comedy than anything else. When audiences are introduced to Elizabeth’s habit for covering herself in full black body make-up, the scene seems to be right out of an episode of Arrested Development during the season when Tobias Funke (David Cross’ therapist character) was auditioning for the Blue Man Group.

While McAlester seems to be all too willing to mine laughs from the lives of his documentary subjects, I still enjoyed the film — but than again, I’m not a very good person.

The film is presented in 1:78:1 widescreen aspect ratio with a 2.0 English soundtrack. While there is occasional pixilation, the image is mostly crisp and clear. All together, not a bad presentation — considering the film’s low-budget origins.

Trailer — The film’s theatrical trailer is included

Outtakes — Deleted sub-plots from the film’s characters

Not Outtakes, Exactly — Audition footage from the documentary’s initial planning sessions

I can see how Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts could find The Dungeon Masters to be an unfair and exploitative movie — it’s more Trekies than a loving tribute to a group of fans’ passion.

Seeing how I have avoided D&D and other RPGs for fear of falling into a geek chasm I could not climb out of, I found The Dungeon Masters to be a hilarious film and as much of a cautionary tale as any appearance of the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons.

FilmBuff presents The Dungeon Masters. Directed by: Keven McAlester. Starring: Elizabeth Reesman, Scott Andrew Corum and Richard Meeks. Running time: 87 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: August 3, 2010.

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