Monthly Archives: February 2009

movie log: The King of Kong (2007)

Viewed February 19, 2009 (and then some), The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, directed by Seth Gordon, featuring Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and Walter Day, among others.

This is a documentary about the quest by Steve Wiebe, a mild-mannered science teacher living in Redmond Washington, to secure the highest score in the arcade game “Donkey Kong.” It is also about the man Billy Mitchell, who set the high score back in 1982; that score thought by many to be unbeatable. And it is also about Walter Day, a video game “referee,” and Twin Galaxies, the organization that he founded to keep track of and mediate arcade game records.

Does that sound boring? It’s anything but. The documentary clearly sets up Steve Wiebe (the newcomer and challenger) as a hero, pitted against the supposedly devious and self-centered reigning champion Billy Mitchell and the band of minions who are in his thrall. (I say Wiebe is a newcomer, but if you watch the DVD extras you learn that he performed in the game early in his life, in private, to a level that had thought to have been reached only by Billy Mitchell. But forgive me while I try not to blog down in detail.)

The game play is not the point in this documentary. It’s all about the supposed character of the main subjects (and of some of the secondary ones as well), about how each is treated by the others, about unfortunate associations and alignments, about intrigue and hypocrisy, and even about redemption. While seeing this movie once is a fascinating experience, you really just have to see it again illuminated by what you’ve learned the first time through, not to mention by the DVD extras that give extra insight and detail.

The filmmakers did not set out to make a movie about these three people. In fact they followed a number of arcade game competitors around with the idea that there would be a good film in there somewhere. They also found other documentary teams doing more or less the same thing, and ended up joining forces with at least one of those teams. Somewhere along the line the story turned into the mythic tale that they ended up protraying.

The documentary presents each of the three main subjects as very compelling multifaceted individuals, and it really makes no bones about what you’re supposed to think about them. Steve Wiebe is the gentle man of many talents, who always seems to come up short in his varied endeavors. Billy Mitchell is a manipulative narcissist who has had much success in arcade games and in his career (and he suggests that one has prepared him for the other). Walter Day, the man who is to judge them both, is a complex person of many interests, yet he seems to worship Billy Mitchell. This is the way the documentary sets them up, mind you. At one point when the film is focused on Mitchell, Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” begins to play, and well, everybody knows from that what you’re supposed to think. It’s likely that they (the filmmakers) are largely correct in their viewpoints, yet one does realize that Billy Mitchell is one talented man, that Steve Wiebe has indeed made at least one unfortunate choice in who he associated with to try to get into the competitive society, and that Walter Day does end up doing the right thing as he sees it. And as shown in the DVD extras, one close friend of Billy Mitchell, who helped to promote the documentary at its initial screenings, said something to the effect of “you do have to realize that it’s a movie.”

There are many other people in this film who are interesting in their own right. There’s Doris Self, the 83-year-old woman attempting to regain her Q-Bert title that she first acquired when she was in her 50s (I’ve run across mentions of her in the past as well, for her history in aviation). There’s Robert Mruczek, a Twin Galaxies judge who resigned in protest shortly after one of the pivotal decisions affecting the Donkey Kong score. There’s Brian Kuh, who retired from investment banking at the age of 30 so that he could move near to Funspot in NH to devote all of his time to arcade games, and who has since gone on to some remarkable accomplishments. There’s Steve Wiebe’s young daughter Jillian, who wonders if some people ruin their lives to get into the Guinness record book.

This movie is like a book that you can’t put down. I watched it once, then poured over the extra footage. A few days later I then watched it again. Immediately after that, I watched it with the first commentary track (commentary by Seth Gordon, Ed Cunningham, J. Clay Tweed, and Luis Lopez) and then again with the second commentary track (commentary by Chris Carle and Jon M. Gibson). If there had been more on the DVD, I’d probably still be watching it. Note, though, that the second commentary track was hugely annoying, consisting mostly of the two men trying to out-snide, out-snark, and out-sarcastic each other as if they were doing a bad MST3K performance, always showing off their superiority. Perhaps they did have that superiority, as they did from time to time show off some pretty deep knowledge of the subject area (especially after about the one hour mark).

I’m not really much of an arcade game player. Sure, I loved going to arcades when they were in great abundance, but I was never very good at any that I tried There are many famous games that I’ve never even seen, including Donkey Kong. But I am and have always been fascinated by the nature of skill and accomplishment vs how those things are appreciated. What makes a basketball player worth millions of dollars in this country, whereas a ping-pong player won’t even turn anyone’s heads (so to speak)? If a kalimba player invests as much time honing his skill as does a rock guitarist, why is only one of them appreciated? And does that appreciation even matter to the person with the skill? Is the skill enough?

Much, much more can be said about this film. I appreciate the NH connections; in fact during the lunch break that I took while writing this, I learned that I know someone who appeared briefly in the background. The main thing is, if you’re reading this, see it.

movie log: Chicken Little (2005)

Watched February 14, 2009: Chicken Little, a Disney animated film directed by Mark Dindal and featuring the voices of Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, and others.

Chicken Little, as we know from the childrens’ story, sounds alarms in his community about the sky falling. This movie opens with a retelling of that event, and then moves on. A year later Chicken Little has found a way to redeem himself and remove the black mark from his family’s reputation. But now it seems it might be happening all over again.

This is just a silly movie, aimed mainly at kids. I started watching it with the grandkids one day some time ago; they left the DVD and I figured I’d watch it all before I returned it, and in fact even dragged a couple of other adults into it with me. It has enough humor and enough going on in the background and around the edges that it kept us entertained. There’s also a little trivia game about the contents of the movie that the 5-1/2 year-old enjoyed.

movie log: Angel-A (2005)

Seen February 11, 2009: Angel-A directed by Luc Besson, starring Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. French language film, viewed with English subtitles.

AndrĂ© (Jamel Debbouze) is a small-time operator of some unspecified sort, living in Paris and owing money in all directions. Despairing of coming up with funds in time to prevent the execution of threats on his life, he decides to exit the scene by jumping off of a bridge. Before he can get underway, he sees a tall blonde woman one pillar over jumping off of the same bridge. Naturally (perhaps having seen a moment from “It’s a Wonderful Life”) he jumps off and saves her. Thus begins his adventure with the angel Angela, or Angel-A (played by Rie Rasmussen).

This is essentially a fairy tale for adults – I suppose a crossover between Besson’s adult fare and his childrens’ stories. It’s a comic film, sometimes darkly so, with a romantic overlay. While the story holds its own, it’s overshadowed by the stunning black-and-white photography of Paris scenery and structures.

Highly recommended to anyone out there.

movie log: Gas Food Lodging (1992)

Seen February 7, 2009: Gas Food Lodging directed by Allison Anders, starring Brooke Adams, Ione Sky, and Fairuza Balk, and with a bunch of supporting actors including James Brolin, Robert Knepper, Donovan Leitch (the one who is Sky’s brother, not her father), and others.

Skye and Balk play two teenage sisters, Trudi and Shade Morton, who live in a trailer with their mother Nora (Brooke Adams) in a dry, desert, go-nowhere town in the southwestern US. Shade is fascinated by an actress in a series of Mexican soap-opera-ish movies with fancy costumes and highly dramatic dialog. This diversion apparently provides her some escape from her plain reality. The three women are often at odds, with worries about money, about men and boys, and from being cooped up in close quarters, sometimes crossing boundaries in roles of mother or sister or daughter. Outside of their family circle each has to deal with other individuals from the town, from the past, from outside their immediate environment.

I wanted to see this for the main actors: in particular I’m a fan of Fairuza Balk and Ione Sky. In the end, though, that’s all I got out of it. I found it to be a rough collection of events and episodes and characters, none of which seemed to go anywhere or relate to any other element in the film. I don’t have a problem with slice-of-life films where there’s not much point other than looking at the subject characters. There are such movies that are among my favorites. There doesn’t have to be a point, but there has to be something. A theme, some cohesion, some transition. Maybe something else. Maybe something undefinable – but at any rate something that didn’t hit me in this movie. Nothing seems to click, e.g. Shade’s obsession with the Mexican films seems to have no influence on her or on the story. Everyone and every event passes by without really touching anyone except perhaps in physical ways. Nobody seems worth knowing, or helping. There’s occasional wistful voice-over dialog by Shade’s character that seems completely out of touch with the movie; its only affect was to make me wonder if maybe it was useful in the book on which this movie was based. I dunno, maybe it’s something in my genes. Judging by a brief scan over comments in the IMDB, it’s mostly women that like it, and mostly men that, like me, don’t get it. For that matter, I don’t even get the title.

movie log: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Seen January 31, 2009: Strangers on a Train directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

This is a famously classic Hitchcock suspense movie that begins with an encounter on a train; two men: one, Guy Haines (Granger), a well-known tennis player and the other, Bruno Anthony (Walker), a graspingly adoring fan. Bruno relates a hypothetical plan that he has imagined two strangers could undertake, and as the movie continues and the strangers part ways, it appears that he wasn’t just being frivolous. I’m not going to get into the story more than that, but I will say that this film is highly deserving of its reputation including (both in the reputation and the deserts) the performance by Robert Walker.

Private Lightning strike

The other day I ran across a great find: a new blog — here — by Steve Keith, ex-member of Private Lightning, a Boston-area band from the late 1970s and early 1980s. He’s also made a great collection of their music online (linked from that blog), and suggests that he will not only be adding more but sharing some reminiscences.

Private Lightning was one of my favorite local bands from that era. (It also curiously provided an early point of commonality with a couple of friends that I met at two different software contracting jobs way back then). I’ve long wished that some of their music was available in digital format, and from time to time (say, annually) have gone searching the web for news of same, always to give up and vow to one day digitize what I have on vinyl (those being: their 1980 album release, a 45 single, and a couple of tracks on a “Live at the Metro” LP). The other day, a woot offering of a fairly inexpensive USB turntable prompted me to go another search, apparently on the very day on which Steve started his blog.

What joy! Private Lightning ought, I think, to have had great success. An older posting by Steve that I’ve run across before, here, on a New England Music Scrapbook site, might explain why great fame did not come, as might another posting by Joe Viglione here. Who can say? Those have some sad reflections, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge at this point, and I’m just happy to now be able to hear some of their familiar tunes plus many that are new to me. Thanks, Steve.

movie log: Coney Island (1917)

Viewed January 29, 2009: Coney Island – a short 2-reeler directed by Fatty Arbuckle and starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

This is a simple comedic short about several men, notably the two characters played by Keaton and Arbuckle, on a day trip to Coney Island. They spend the day variously trying to escape from, defend, and impersonate their wives in the pursuit of care-free fun. This film was made before Keaton developed his stone-faced character; it was unusual to see him without it (smiles and all!).

I watched most of this with my 5-1/2 year-old grandson late one evening, though his parents arrived before it ended and he missed the very end. I wondered whether he’d accept it but he seemed to enjoy most of it, even laughing at several of the sight gags (such as when Arbuckle emerged from underwater with a fish in his mouth).

A very entertaining half hour, more so than I expected. Old films like this often give you some peeks into history: I was interested to see some of the contraptions they had, like the bumpercars that were propelled by wave action (flexible flooring that was warped into making huge waves) and to note that one of the carnival prizes was a big cigar.

movie log: Camille (1921)

Watched January 27, 2009: Camille starring Alla Nazimova (aka simply “Nazimova”) and Rudolph Valentino.

There are probably spoilers here, but I can’t imagine they will affect anyone’s appreciation of this story (whether this version or any other). Nevertheless, there’s the warning.

This is the story of a Parisian high-society courtesan Margeurite Gautier (Nazimova) whose hopes for salvation end tragically. Margeurite (called Camille or The Lady of the Camelias after a flower, one that reflects her health or vice versa) is ill: morally and physically. She’s wracked with consumption, and she gives her affections only for money – at least until young student Armand (Valentino) comes along. Armand is the only one who notices her physical illness and who cares for her. They fall in love, while curiously reading a story (shown in the movie via imagined scenes with themselves inserted into the story) of a couple from the past that seem to represent their own lives. Her future is bright: she’ll get well in the country air and sunshine, and will leave her immoral ways behind. But no: Armand’s father catches wind of the relationship and pays a visit to Camille, convincing her that she will only do Armand harm if she stays with him. So she leaves a note for Armand telling him that she’s had her fun with him and is returning to Paris.

Her wicked ways catch up with her. The illness returns. As she lies on her deathbed the creditors begin carting away her possessions, all but the book Armand gave her. She leaves an inscription for him, and he arrives just after her death to learn that she loved him after all.

This is kind of a mish-mash of a movie, with good parts and bad. The bad include an abundance of overacting (or perhaps even bizarro acting) and ludicrous depiction of what goes on when the party moves from the dance hall to the courtesan’s apartment. The good include some of the tender countryside scenes and, in particular, the scene where Armand’s father confronts Camille. Of note (neither good nor bad) are the arty set decorations, e.g. of Camille’s apartment and at least one party setting – they look like something out of a surrealist painting. (The movie opens with a card saying that the story has been updated for modern times- I suppose that’s part of what they meant. I can’t help but mention here a fascinating wall-sized circular window in Camille’s bedroom, roughly 5 feet in diameter. A slider within the wall opens and closes the viewport at the touch of a button, as quickly as a Star Wars doorway. I’d like one of those.) There are a lot of allegorical devices: the story-with-the-story, the fact that it always seems to be raining, snowing, or dark as a backdrop to the party life, while the simple life is in sunshine; the correspondence between Camille’s physical health and her moral choices; the flower that is healthy when she is. Valentino has very little to do, it’s hard to see from this (and from other Valentino movies of the period) how he shot to fame.

I guess the bottom line is: a simple tragic story, acting all over the map from bizarre to good, surrealistic sets, and a lot of layers (even if none of them go very deep). Some if not all of those things make it memorable, and maybe that’s enough.

movie log: Way Down East (1920)

Seen January 25, 2009: Way Down East directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Lilian Gish, Lowell Sherman, and Richard Barthelmess.

If you’re a fan of old silent films, you’ve probably either seen this one or have it high on your want-to-see list. I am such a fan. Most of my silent movie watching these days is courtesy of TCM, which features a semi-regular Silent Sunday Night program as well as a smattering of silents throughout the normal schedule, or on DVD. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a good thing. These days, especially if you have a decent sound and video system, there’s often no clear advantage to watching a movie in a theater or in your home. Or, said differently, there are plusses and minuses for each – I think it’s high time we disabused ourselves of the notion that the theatrical experience is always better.

I’m sure you know that I’m leading up to a “but” – so here it is. But seeing a good quality silent film with live original music in a theater full of fans is a real treat. I saw this one at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, NH, as part of their monthly Sunday Silent Classics series. Live original music is composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is greatly responsible for the series. It was a long movie, but the audience was with it all the way: hissing the bad guy and cheering for the good people.

Way Down East is a movie based on a play; it purports to be a morality tale, but it’s really just a pot-burner of a story involving rich and poor relations, evil men, good folk, fallen women, comic foils, and good old action sequences. The movie opens with a some words about how mankind is gradually progressing from a polygamous animal towards the ideal of one man for one woman, and telling us that this story will show how the order of monogamy must come to pass in order to spare women the kind of fate depicted in it. The setup has a poor family – mother and grown daughter – failing to make ends meet. The daughter Anna (played by Lillian Gish) travels to Boston to beg assistance from rich relations. She is soon wooed by a lecherous cad of a playboy – Lennox Sanderson (played by Lowell Sherman) – who tricks her into a sham marriage; she’s pregnant and back home with her mother before she learns that the marriage is fake. The story goes from there, punctuated with purple-prosed title cards and filled with archetypical characters: judgemental types, forgiving types, helpful and comic types, heroes and villains.

The IMDB lists several running lengths for this film, anywhere from 107 to 165 minutes. This one was apparently the 145 minute version which, I gather, is the de facto issue. Even at this length you can see where there have been some cuts. There is, for example, a matter of a robbery at a small-town post office that was reduced to a couple of off-hand mentions (probably for the better). The film quality was not perfect, but fairly decent, with some parts better than others. The original film featured color tinting and this print did as well, although I was at a loss to figure out what the tinting implied. Just as I thought I figured out when and why the tinting was used, each theory was busted.

Spoiler here – skip this paragraph if you care about such things. This movie is mostly famous for its ice floe sequence near the ending (filmed in and around White River Junction, VT, and perhaps in parts of NH). Lillian Gish was so dedicated to this performance that she sustained an injury from dangling her hand in the frigid water, an injury that lasted the rest of her long life. Some notes on the web suggest that the ice floe sequence was not in the original story, but was added by Griffith for the movie. If so, it was plugged into the movie pretty well: while watching it I felt that it presented an analog to what happened to Anna’s baby earlier in the film (particularly the focus on the cold hand, and the baptism and rebirth of the soul). Rapsis’ music really shone during this sequence, building up an excitement that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

A thoroughly enjoyable film, and well worth the wait (for me) to have seen it presented in this way. Those who aren’t comfortable with or adapted to seeing silent films might be a bit put off by the style (and even for an old silent film, the style is a bit strident) – but don’t let that stop you.