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Movie Review: The Story of Josh

Drawing of a Chinese food takeout container

Between his live action mini-epic Baggs: The Movie and now his animated ode to video arcades, The Story of Josh, it’s safe to say that Jon Clark is the greatest ’80s director working today. The way he beautifully apes what has become a “lost” genre — the sleazy ’80s teenage quickie — to create successful, post-modern retro-comedies is no less than anything genius.

Not that Clark’s films are “sleazy” in the least, but he is able to perfectly capture the good-natured, goofy fun of those cheapo flicks, which was always the real charm of them — and thus the charm of his own films. This time Clark takes on the video game subgenre, of which you can include wholesome films like WarGames and The Wizard. A big inspiration here, though, comes from a flick called Hollywood Zap. Clark appropriates some of the dialogue from this trash fest that’s so obscure that original producer/distributor Troma has never even put it out on DVD.

The Story of Josh is actually a misnomer here. Although narrated by a character named Josh, the film is more about Josh’s emotionally troubled brother Zap, who is a video game prodigy, and their dad, a battle-scarred Vietnam vet who also provides some narration. Zap is a legend at a strip mall arcade where unsavory types bet on his playing prowess. His father, who fixes video games for a living, has no idea what his sons are up to and they keep busy keeping their extracurricular activities under his radar. The film is also filled with all sorts of other nutty subplots that always seem to clutter up films of this nature, including a possible Communist plot being cooked up by the strip mall’s Russian owners and the proprietors of a Chinese restaurant where Josh works.

Clark gets all the ’80s details down pat here that if done in live action would have required a significant budget. Instead, Clark employs a very crude animation style that really works towards the story’s strengths. I’m not exactly sure the technique used for the film, but it has the appearance of being paper cutouts that requires little animation, e.g. swapping out different mouth and eye-blinking cutouts and limited limb movements. The background drawings, especially in the arcade sequences, is all extremely detailed. Although there are mostly made-up arcade games, it’s especially fun when Clark animates a real classic game, such as he does with Joust.

The film does a really great job of bringing back a classic time, as both an homage to a lost genre, as well as really capturing what it was like to hang out in ’80s video arcades. The one I remember hanging out at in the mall wasn’t nearly as dingy and trashy as the one Clark animates, but the film is a total nostalgia trip all the same.

Also, The Story of Josh is another quality product put out on DVD by the fine folks of Alarming Press and the disc comes with a couple of fun features, including some animation outtakes, a short film by Clark and the notorious Pizza Time Theatre music video with music by Maniac Mansion, the band Clark drums for.