Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Blog Full of Quarters: THE KING OF KONG Reviewed, and MORE

What's up? Back again from a 3-day weekend that was nice and relaxing, with the only asterik being that it was about one million degrees hot here in LA, specifically in Burbank where it was a freaking inferno all weekend. Yes, the temperatures went well past triple-digits in the Valley, and man, being on the second floor of an outdoor apartment complex ... well, there's only so much a small wall-unit A/C can do to combat the blistering heat. Luckily, I got out and went on a number of mini-adventures this weekend, including a trip to Pasadena on Friday with the G-Man to see King of the Kong, a Santa Monica pier / beach / promenade escapade on Saturday tduring which I got to hang out with Abby W for the first time in a long while, and a mini-movie-marathon with the Kaiser Roll and his crew on Sunday. So, good times. Gotta love Mondays with no work.

Meanwhile, what else is going on? Well, work has been nuts, as you might expect if you keep up on entertainment / technology news. If you haven't heard about all the NBCU-Apple stuff, look on Google and see what the fuss is about and why this week will probably be a bit crazy for me.

How's that badly-sprained ankle I suffered the other week? Well, thanks for asking ... It's doing okay, better than last week, without a doubt. Still, it's pretty swollen and sensitive even after 3 weeks - hoping it will be more fully recovered by this week's end. At least my right foot is no longer purple ...

Also, never had a chance to file a report on last Thursday, when I participated in a BU Young Alumni panel over at BU HQ, aka Park LaBrea in LA. I really enjoyed the panel, and it was pretty interesting to hear the other panelists' stories (many of them of the horror variety). To be honest, it was pretty jarring to hear some of them try to sound oh-so-Hollywood, with "insider" accounts of celebrity and executive behavior and advice that centered more around LA's party scene than the actual ins and outs of making it in the industry (I guess for some, "making it" just means getting invited to some cool parties ...?). So during the panel, I of all people was kind of the down-to-earth, voice of reason. But afterwords, I got a number of positive comments from the students and have since gotten a few nice emails, which really helped to make the experience worthwhile (well that, and the complimentary food from the Cheesecake Factory). There is hope for the future, it's more the present that I worry about ...

In all seriousness though, thanks to Michael G and Katie P at BU for getting me onto the panel -it was a great time, and very informative and enjoyable.

- Saw a few Spring / Early Summer movies this weekend that I had missed out on the first time around. I caught DISTURBIA, which I thought was extremely cheesy and overall pretty lacking. There was some decent humor, but zero mystery or real sense of tension, and I remain pretty clueless as to why this movie actually did well at the box office. I also saw the Korean import that was a modest hit a few months back in the US. I'm talkin' bout THE HOST, which had to be one of the oddest and most bizarre movies I've ever seen, and that's even in comparison to other similarly-quirky Asian imports. This modern monster-movie played like a bizarro update of Godzilla, with a totally out-there mix of humor, action, and sheer insanity. The art-direction and cinematography was utterly amazing, but the plot was so all-over-the-place that its quirkiness eventually overshadowed its story and characters. Recommended, but be prepared for weirdness.

- Anyways, I am dying to talk about a movie I saw on Friday, that I haven't stopped thinking about since ... so without further ado:


There are some stories out there in the world that are so good, they could only be true, because man, you just couldn't write this stuff. I mean, finding humor in the obscure world of competetive niche sports is all the rage in movies these days. Ice skating in Blades of Glory, ping pong in Balls of Fury, and dodgeball in, well, Dodgeball. But prior to seeing King of Kong, what aspiring screenwriter would have dared to dream of a movie that featured the heroes and villains, the heartbreak and drama, the sheer testicular fortitude - that embodies the competitive world of vintage arcade gaming? In THE KING OF KONG, it must be said that director Seth Gordon has crafted not just a movie about Donkey Kong, but a movie that embodies the spirit of films like Rocky - it's a film about one man trying to prove something to the world, trying to buck the odds, trying to show himself and everyone else that The Dream to be The Man is never fully out of reach. So what if our hero, Steve Wiebe, has made beating the all-time high score on Donkey Kong his pursuit of choice? Seth Gordon transforms this man's tale into a human-interest story of epic proportions. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be standing up and cheering for Wiebe as if his race for a high score came with an Olympic gold medal on the line.

In short, this is one of the finest, funniest, and most interesting documentaries I've seen, and surely one of the must-see movies of the year thus far.

The most amazing thing about KONG is the memorable cast of characters, each proving more fascinating than the next. Let me provide some background:

In 1982, LIFE Magazine did a story on the emerging world of videogames, profiling some of the arcades' best players. At this time, at the dawn of the golden age of arcade gaming, some players took their games a little more seriously than most, and the ability to attain high scores on games like Q*Bert, Pacman, Missle Command, and Asteroids became not just a badge of honor, but a status symbol that was the videogame equivalent of being a World's Heavyweight Champion. However, amongst all the games that emerged at this time, perhaps the most notoriously difficult and hardcore was the oddly-named Japanese title Donkey Kong, the first game to feature that lovable plumber known as Mario from a then-fledgling publisher called Nintendo. In 1982, when LIFE did it's story on the world's best gamers, one man - Billy Mitchell - was heralded as the King of Kong, the man with the all-time best Donkey Kong score, and the guy who was widely considered the world's best arcade-game player.

Fast forward to 2007. Since 1982, no one had even come CLOSE to beating Billy Mitchell's old Donkey Kong record. Mitchell went on to become a quasi-celebrity in the world of gaming, doing numerous appearances and becoming the public face for Twin Galaxies, an organization devoted to monitoring competitive gaming and giving official recognition to the top score-holders. Meanwhile, Mitchell opened his own restaurant chain, and lived in Florida where he sat atop a rarely-challenged throne of arcade-game supremecy. Mitchell is an absoultely fascinating character. He is egotistical, the king of the nerds, obsessed with preserving his outdated rep as the Best in the World, and a shameless self-promoter. He sports a vintage 1980's mullet alongside a well-trimmed beard, and wears too-tight all-black ensembles given color by an assortment of patriotic ties. He compares himself to George W. Bush, struts around with a siliconed-out trophy wife, and enters his initials as "USA" whenever he achieves a new high score. I'm telling you, you could not make this stuff up.

Enter Steve Wiebe. Wiebe is a quiet family man, married and with two cute kids. Wiebe had a potentially-promising baseball career ahead of him until he injured his arm, and he then went on to take a job at Boeing, where his dad had worked before him. Wiebe was also something of a musical and artistic prodigy - skilled on the drums and a talented artist. But there is a sadness about Wiebe - a sense that he is a decent, average guy who always dreamed of being more than decent and average. One day, after being layed off from his job at Boeing, Wiebe took up playing Donkey Kong, and found that his almost savant-like mind made him a natural at it. Soon, he realized that the scores he was racking up would likely be worthy of a world-record. So Wiebe videotaped his games and sent them in to Twin Galaxies to be looked at. And suddenly, the world of vintage gaming is turned upside down. Without realizing it, Wiebe has broken Billy Mitchell's old-record, and upset the status quo in a videogaming clique that was not used to an outsider coming in and stirring the pot.

What follows is absolutely captivating stuff, as the rivalry that forms between Billy and Steve is seriously like something that Vince McMahon might have dreamed up for one of his wrestling feuds. We have Steve - the honest, earnest family man, vs. Billy - the cocky, paranoid former champ clinging to his long-past glory days. Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat might not have anything on Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. Mitchell even has his own posse, a 4 Horsemen of sorts, that follow him around like a group of high school lackeys who will do anything for their fearless leader.

Again, the characters here fly off the screen. One of the most oddball is Brian Kuh, who is Billy Mitchell's right-hand man. Himself a top player (but never on Billy's level), Brian acts as if he were a cartoon henchman, scheming on how best to help out his idol Billy and foil the rise of the up-and-coming Steve Wiebe. Also in Billy's clique is Steve Sanders, a guy who idolized Billy since he was soundly beaten by him in the 80's. Steve starts to be won over by Wiebe's mild-mannered ways, but watching Sanders balance his loyalty to Billy and his emerging respect for Wiebe is pretty fascinating. Then there's Roy Schildt - a longtime rival of Billy's who seeks to be kind of a manager to Steve. Unfortunately for Wiebe, Schildt is borderline crazy, and his hatred of Billy, though possibly justified, has earned him a reputation as an unsavory character (well that, and his involvement in the porn industry).

Meanwhile, as we follow Wiebe's quest for Donkey Kong supremacy, there is the whole other aspect of the film that kind of brings us into this whole kooky, mixed-up, insulated world of competitive gaming. We learn about the formation and operation of Twin Galaxies, and meet one of the movie's most fascinating characters - Walter Day. Walter is just this amazing guy, he's like a wandering hippie who saw it as his calling from on high to become the world's first official Videogame Referee. When he's not strumming his guitar and writing folk music, Walter dons a black and white referee shirt and presides over all of gaming's biggest competitions, and without his official word, a high score cannot be recognized as valid by Day's group, Twin Galaxies, which over the course of Kong we see become the Guinness Book of World Records' official source for high-score keeping. Day has, over the years, embraced Billy Mitchell as his group's figurehead, so he's slow to accept this newcomer Steve Wiebe into the fold. But Day's wizened take on the emerging rivalry, and mix of zen-like calm with over-the-top showmanship is sheer entertainment. I've also got to mention Robert Mruczek, I mean, what a character! With his disheveled look and thick Brooklyn accent, Robert looks like the quintissential NYC cab driver. But on his own, for free, Robert is a high-score evaluator for Twin Galaxies, with his New York apartment stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of video tape submissions for him to review. With twitching eyes behind double-thick glasses, Robert spends hours upon hours watching tapes, hours in length, of people playing Donkey Kong or Asteroids, making sure that there's nothing fishy and that all scores have been achieved fairly and without tampering. Talk about hardcore!

All of this adds up to a movie that is thoroughly hilarious, yet surprisingly heartfelt. Billy Mitchell and his cronies, as well as the motley crew over at Twin Galaxies, provide plenty of laughs with their unique lifestyles and outlooks. Billy Mitchell himself is a villain for the ages. Who knows if he's really all bad in real life, but the movie brilliantly sets him up as an iconic antagonist - arrogant, hilariously self-righteous, afraid of confrontation, and comedically stuck in the past - at one point we see his machinations brilliantly set to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." Simiarly, Steve Wiebe is a hero that everyone watching the movie will find themselves rallying around. In my theater, I saw people who seemed to have gone into the movie disintereted pumping their fists as Wiebe closes in on Billy's high scores. The King of Kong is a laugh-riot, but it's also a movie that gets your heart-pumping, that gets you rooting for the every-man to win out over the establishment. The movie makes you care about a little game called Donkey Kong, with its random barrels and kill-screens and catchy 8-bit audio, in a way I never thought possible when I played the game as a kid while waiting for my turn at the dentist, struggling just to defeat that first treacherous level. But most of all, this is simply a great story about one man's struggle to be the best at something, anything. If this is playing at a theater near you, grab a hammer, jump over a barrel, and bring plenty of quarters - you've got to see the King.

My Grade: A

- Alright, that's what I've got for today. Congrats on making it through this back-to-work Tuesday. And: stay tuned for the Best Movies of the Summer and the Must-See Returning TV of the Fall!

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