The 2007 Golden Stake Awards- Individual Scene Awards

My personal year end awards are to be announced this week.  Today I’m announcing the awards for individual scenes.  Tomorrow I’ll hand out technical awards, Tuesday I’ll reveal the acting awards, Wednesday it will be writing awards, Thursday it’s genre awards, and Friday I’ll announce my top ten of the year. 

Fight of the Year

Here we begin the action scene trio: fight, shootout, and chase.  Clearly gunfights are not allowed here, only melee based fights are allowed.  Additionally, I’m not going to try too hard to be outside the box here, you won’t for example see “fight of wills” or something, no, this is about people who are simply trying to kill each other using melee weapons only.

 “Beowulf vs. Grendal,” Beowulf: The epic poem Beowulf is based on has often been described as a series of three fights.  Interestingly, Hollywood actually dropped one of these fights leaving just two: Beowulf vs. Grendal and Beowulf vs. a Dragon.  Of the two, I choose the fight against Grendal for the list.  The Grendal character is a creepy presence and the fight is really primal.  It was also part of a very bizarre trend of fight scenes involving uncomfortable male nudity.

“Jason Bourne vs. Desh Bouksani,” The Bourne Ultimatum: Throughout the entire Bourne series, Jason Bourne was able to handle everything that came to him with ease.  Almost every  time he ran into cops/enemy agents he was usually able to take them all out with a single punch.  Sure he ran into super-agents in both the prior installments, but none of them were really major threats.  Then, midway through Ultimaum he encountered an assassin who was a cut above the rest.  What followed was a kickass fight that has been dubbed “the book fight.”

“Nikolai Luzhin vs. Some Assassins,” Eastern Promises: This was the first fight scene of the year to involve uncomfortable male nudity, but not the last.  Many have compared it to the shower scene in Psycho, that’s a bit much, but this is still a hell of a fight.  But let’s not forget that this is a Croneberg scene, and the final kill in it is a classic.

“Stunt Girls vs. Stuntman Mike,” Gindhouse: Possibly the highlight of Quentin Tarentino’s superior half of the Grindhouse experience.  After a wild car chase scene, the stunt girl squad took on Stuntman Mike with a vengeance.  Less a fight than it is a scene of Kurt Russel getting his ass handed to him by a set of girls. 

“Peter Parker vs. Harry Osborne,” Spider-Man 3: Notice that this isn’t called Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin.  Sam Raimi’s third entry into the Spider-Man franchise was disappointing on many levels, but I maintain that the action scenes were pretty cool, the highlight was this clever aerial fight between an uncostumed Peter Parker and his former friend turned enemy.

 The Golden Stake goes to… Eastern Promises

I was really tempted to give this one to Jason Bourne, but ultimately the crazyness of the Eastern Promises bathhouse fight won me over.  This movie was marketed as a pretty standard thriller; as a Cronenberg fan I of course knew better, but I doubt most of the middle aged audience didn’t.  If you want to pull a good prank next Christmas buy this DVD for your grandmother and watch her reaction to the part where Viggo Mortenson stabs someone in the eye at the end of this scene.

Shootout of the Year

Melee fights are all well and good, but in this modern age they don’t really come up that much.  Now the weapon of choices is the firearm.  In this category we look at fights that play out with multiple assailants and multiple weapons.

 “Contention Shootout,” 3:10 to Yuma: Westerns have long been the place to go for big shootouts, and 3:10 to Yuma doesn’t end with a simple one on one showdown.  Mangold ends his film with the entire town of Contention, Arizona is set against Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as they try to board the titular train.  This was a well choreographed and chaotic gunfight that kept me on the edge of my seat.

“Projects Shootout,” American Gangster: Toward the end of his gangster epic, American Gangster, Ridley Scott took a page from his brother Tony to create a fast, yet not wildly ambitious gunfight on the top floor of a housing project.  The lack of ambition helps this scene, had it turned into a wildly large action scene it would have take the audience out of the reality of the film.  As it stands, the scene is exciting, but not ridiculous.

“Gun-Leg shootings,” Grindhouse: While the rest of the shootings here mainly involved run of the mill assult rifles and pistols, this is a gunfight that was defined by the main character’s weapon of choice.  It took a really obsurred sense of humor to attach an M-16 to the amputated leg of a women, but I’m glad Rodriguez was able to dream that up.  Rose McGowan standing on one leg spraying a room with bullet is one of the most memorable moments of the year.

“This Mindless Violence,” Hot Fuzz:  The action movie parody, Hot Fuzz, was never quite able to live up to the absurdity of Jerry Bruckheimer action films but it came real close in the climactic action scene that began with Simon Pegg riding into town on a horse and ended with Timothy Dalton’s face impaled on the steeple of a miniature church.

Riyadh Shootout,” The Kingdom: The Kingdom was a retarded action movie pretending to be a political thriller, and the deeply inappropriate finale was a big part of why.  Yet, if I’m willing to ignore the way the film loses any believability and intelligence with this scene it can be appreciated out of context.  The bullets here feel like they fly off the screen, there is a Michael Mann style intensity on display here wasted in a context where it makes no logical sense.

 The Golden Stake goes to… Hot Fuzz

This was one of the more underwhelming of the awards.  All of the nominees seemed to have some real flaws that seemed to disqualify them.  The scene that seemed to keep coming back to me was the comedic shootout at the end of Hot Fuzz.  The highlight of this scene was when a bad guy was killed and falls into a freezer.  Pegg seems to forget to say a cheesy one-liner only to be corrected by Nick frost who was disappointed Pegg hadn’t told the evil doer to “chill out.”

Chase Scene of the Year

The final of these specific action scene awards will go to the chase scene of the year.  These chases can be on any type of vehicle or on foot. This year the vehicle of choice were mainly cars.

“Run for Your Life,” 28 Weeks Later…: This is the only foot chase nominated here, but it’s a real doozey.  The film seems to open on a relatively quite moment, before all hell suddenly breaks loose.  What follows is a frantic chase to reach a motorboat. And its not all excitement, this scene is also important to the plot as a decision Robert Carlyle comes back to haunt him.

“New York Super Chase,” The Bourne Ultimatum: The entirety of The Bourne Ultimatum could be seen as an extended chase scene, but it is the final car chase in New York that best exemplifies what this category is all about.  While both of the previous “Bourne” films had great chases, neither of those scenes had the sheer size that is on display here.

“Ship’s Mast,” Grindhouse: Rightly or wrongly, Quentin Tarentino’s half of Grindhouse mainly be remembered for its car chase.  This duel between a 1970 Dodge Challenger and a 1969 Dodge Charger was made even more spectacular by tying a stuntwomen to the hood of the Challenger.  Even Death Proof’s biggest haters seem to be able to admit this scene was a highlight of the Grindhouse experience.

“Motorcycle in a Snow Globe,” The Simpson’s Movie: When the chase scenes were on this year, they were really on,, but I had trouble coming up with the last two nominees; frankly this scene was only here by default.  But that’s not to say there isn’t a charm to this scene, there’s something about Homer Simpson riding a motorcycle around a glass dome in a literal race against a clock that amuses me, and it ends with a really cool inside joke.

“Highway Chase,” Transformers: Michael Bay’s Transformers was a noisey mess of a movie, one of the worst in this infamous director’s notorious cannon.  However, there was some real mojo in a few places, and this all too brief scene was one of them.  The idea of an all out car chase in which cars that could transform was cool.  Had they taken this approach for an extended finale the film would have been better off.  Instead they reached L.A. in record time in one of the film’s many plot holes.

 The Golden Stake goes to…Grindhouse

This should come as no surprise to anyone who had the Grindhouse experience last April.  This homage to carsploitation was leading up to a car chase throughout, and the finale didn’t disappoint.  This was an edge of your seat action scene that lived up to all the great chases of seventies exploitation cinema.

 Set Piece of the Year

Consider this to be a miscellaneous scene category.  Anything large, not necessarily action oriented scene that wasn’t a chase, fight, or shootout was eligible.

“The Dunkirk One-Shot,” Atonement: The “single extended shot” trick seemed to have reached its peak in last year’s Children of Men, but Atonement proved that directors can still do wonders with it.  This is more of a steady shot than the handheld work in that film, but it’s not just showing off.  This shot perfectly sets up the emotional impact and chaos of the evacuation.

“Waterloo Station,” The Bourne Ultimatum: This cat and mouse chase is the perfect example of why the Bourne films were so great.  This combines hand to hand fighting, technological spycraft, a sniper rifle, and the sheer genius of Paul Greengrass to make one of the most exciting sequences of the year.

“Hotel Room Stalking,” No Country for Old Men: Easily the most suspenseful scene of the year.  With this sequence the Josh Brolin character is finally allowed to confront the assassin that has been stalking him, but isn’t going down without a fight.  The Coens manage to create brilliant tention by simply having a “cat” and a “mouse” of two sides of a door and the results lead all the way out to the streets below.

“Oil Fire,” There Will Be Blood: Probably the most original of the set pieces here, the oil fire is the perfect example of how set pieces can do more than entertain, but also develop the characters.  Technically it is a hell of a spectacle and also really suspenseful.  Johnny Greenwood’s experimental score amps up the excitement for this scene, which is the turning point for Daniel Plainview, both financially and psychologically.

“The Opening Murder Scene,” Zodiac: Fincher’s Zodiac opened with a hell of a bang.  On a night in the late sixties a couple in a car watches fireworks go off as they listen to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” on the radio.  Suddenly a man dressed in black approaches, and both their lives are changed forever.  No single part of this scene really stands out but all these elements really come together. 

The Golden Stake goes to…The Bourne Ultimatum

It’s interesting that The Bourne Ultimatum has been such a presence in the individual scene awards.  The film is set around three major set pieces that were each better than anything that had been seen before in there series, and each one of them delivered like gangbusters.  Any other year this film could have just as easily won the best fight or best chase award, but it’s just as well that this brilliant set piece won as it seems to truly encompass everything this series and this director are all about.

Best Musical Performance

This is the first of two music based scene category, and its specifically meant for scenes involving musical performances.  That means the song must be performed onscreen by a character, diegeticly.  The film does not need to be a musical, or even music related, although the nominees will more likely than not will be.  Bear in mind that the scene as a whole is considered for this, not necessarily the song or the quality of the performance (though both of those criteria will be taken into account). 

“Stack-O-Lee,” Black Snake Moan:  Like any self respecting movie about “The Blues,” Black Snake Moan has some great music.  The absolute standout though is a scene toward the end where Samuel L. Jackson plays an absolutely scorching cover of “Stagger Lee” at a packed bar, while Christina Ricci Dances in slow motion with the crowd.   

“Ballad of a Thin Man,” I’m Not There: Musically, I’m Not There’s finest hour occurs during the much talked about Cate Blanchet sequence.  Here Todd Hayne’s treats us to a really great cerebral montage set to the tune of the famous Dylan track. It that literalizes the lyrics, but it also advances the plot, as the antagonist Mr. Jones begins his plans to bring the main character down. 

“Anyone Else But You,” Juno: It makes sense that a film that everyone and their mother thinks is the most lovable thing since sliced bread, should have an ending that really drive home how lovable its characters are.  This static shot of Ellen Page and Michael Cera playing guitars and singing this Moldy Peaches song (badly) really gives the film closure.  I could have done without the joggers making another appearance but otherwise this is a great example of how a musical performance that isn’t conventionally good can be so perfect. 

“Falling Slowly,” Once: Ultimately, I think “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is a much better song from Once, but it is the “Falling Slowly” duet that is the better scene.  Like most of the rest of the movie this scene allows the viewer to see this couple fall slowly (pun intended) in love, and do it through music.  Here we see the couple explore each other’s collective musical personalities and their personal compatibility, and its all done to a really well written song. 

“My Friends,” Sweeny Todd: There were a lot of good songs from Sweeny Todd, but this is the one that really stuck with me.  The scene, which involved Depp serenading a razorblade, was fairly hokey.  As such this scene was largely nominated on the basis of the song and Depp’s performance singing it on screen.  There’s a reason this is the song the studio is using to show the world Depp’s singing in the movie, he really delivers this song. 

The Golden Stake goes to… Black Snake Moan

The song in this scene, “Stagger Lee,” is a violent blues standard that goes back to the 1930s, it’s the perfect fit for this movie and exactly what you’d want from Samuel L. Jackson singing the Blues.  This scene, more than the rest managed a perfect mix of song, performance, context, and visuals.  The scene is filled with cool moments like when Jackson points his guitar out like a gun during the songs dramatic peak. 

Best scene accompaniment, Pre-existing Pop

Another scene based category related to music, but rather than focusing on live onscreen performances, this is about films that use songs from other sources to accentuate the onscreen action. Again the focus is less on the song than the way it is used in the film.

“Playing With Fire” by The Rolling Stones, featured in The Darjeeling Limited: Wes Anderson has always been a master of using British invasion music to underscore his films.  This early Stones song, brings a real angst to some of the most memorable moments in this less than memorable film.

“Chick Habit” by April March, Featured in Grindhouse: It’s no secret that Quentin Tarentino is a master of pop music accompaniment and has been since the beginning of his career.  What’s particularly special about his use of “Chick Habit” in Grindhouse is how it completely transforms the film almost out of nowhere.  What seemed like a car movie is completely transformed into a Russ Meyer style female empowerment film simply with the use of one song.

“Love Hurts” by Nazareth, featured in Halloween: As a fan of Rob Zombie’s previous film, The Devil’s Rejects, I was sorely disappointed by his remake of Halloween.  Though the film was loathsome, there were some interesting things going on in the soundtrack, chiefly among them being this use of the Nazareth classic “Love Hurts” played during Sheri Moon Zombie’s strip scene, which is intercut with Michael Myers the night he first kills.

“Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G., featured in Superbad: This gangsta classic is featured in the soon to be classic scene from Superbad where Jonah Hill dances with hot, drunk, older, girl and begins feeling like the night will finally start going his way.  Of course this isn’t to be.  This party track is the perfect choice to build up the character’s ego before completely deflating it in one of the most memorable gross-out gags since There’s Something About Mary.

“Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, featured in Zodiac: The opening scene of Zodiac has come up a lot in these awards, and for good reason, it’s a perfect little diamond of an opening.  A big part of what helps that opening is the use of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”  This song establishes a time and place without drawing too much attention to itself, and really blends in with the onscreen visuals.

The Golden Stake goes to… Superbad

This is probably not the conventional choice, and in many ways I think all the above mentioned track are rather evenly matched, but this is the one song here I really yearned to listen to when I got home.  No one in their right mind would ever mistake Jonah Hill for a “true playa’” but for about two minutes he thought he was, and it’s all because of this song.

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DVD Catch Up: This is England(2/12/2008)

 

            This is England is a film that rests on its ability to recreate a time and place.  In this case that setting is the town of Nottingham, England during the early eighties.  Times are bad in the UK, Margret Thatcher is in power, the economy is in trouble, and the Falkland war is raging. It is not these things that the film focuses on, but rather the emergence of the skinhead sub-culture and how it rapidly turned from a relatively harmless style choice into a disturbing racist movement that continues to this day. 

            This story is told from the perspective of a twelve year old boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who’s new to the area and whose father has recently been killed in the Falkland war.  Ostracized by his fellow students, Shaun finds himself falling in with a group of skinheads lead by the charismatic teenager named Woody (Joseph Gilgun).  These skinheads are nothing like the violent racists seen in films like American History X, rather they seem like a clique with a unified style not unlike the punk scene.  The group wares dock Martens, suspenders, and have shaved heads but they are not racist; in fact the members is a black Jamaican named Milky (Andrew Shim).  This harmonious nature comes to a screeching halt when an old friend of Woody’s named Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from jail and brings with him every negative trait skinheads are now known for.  Shaun finds himself having to choose between the racist and non racist sects of the movement.

            Deep down this film is less about skinheads or racism than it is about the coming of age of the Shaun character.  The film has a lot in common with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and includes an unmistakable reference to that new wave classic at the end.  Like that film, This is England places a shockingly young kid in a very rough environment.  The original clique Shaun joins isn’t racist, but it certainly isn’t what one would call wholesome, and when he falls in with Combo his future really begins to look grim.  Turgoose’s performance is key to the film’s success, bad child actors can easily ruin a movie, but fortunately Turgoose manages to pull off a very good performance here.

            Even more impressive are the performances of Joseph Gilgun and Stephen Graham.  Both of these actors have the challenge of being believable role models for Shaun despite the unsavory aspects of their characters.  Gilgum manages to seem like a very likable and charismatic person even though he has a shaved head and looks like he’s wearing a Clockwork Orange outfit.  He has to make the audience believe that he could attract Shaun into this world, and at the same time he has to make sure he doesn’t appear menacing.  Graham has an even bigger challenge in that he has to play someone who will attract Shaun into an even more unsavory group.  Furthermore, Graham must feel like a charismatic and persuasive personality, while acting like a raving maniac.  This is a brilliant performance that reminds the viewer of Edward Norton’s powerful work in American History X.

            A big challenge the film has is that it tries to do more than simply criticize racism; it also tries to explain how people become racists.  The characters here are living in a flawed society and they have a number of things to be legitimately mad about.  Unfortunately they choose to focus their rage in terrible ways and at innocent scapegoats.  The film really makes you believe that Shaun could fall into this crowd and shows how the initially positive skinhead movement could become so perverted.  It’s a fascinating look at a strange and often dark sub-culture I knew little about before I saw it.  Visually, the film isn’t overly impressive.  The film’s look is competent throughout, but rarely rises above the level of average throughout.  Still the power of this story and these performances is enough for me to strongly recommend the film to those looking for a challenging film about race, sub-cultures, and a coming of age story.

***1/2

DVD Catch Up: Paprika(2/10/2008)

            Like many people, I found myself digging Anime in the late 90s.  This unique form of mostly adult oriented animation from Japan was like something I hadn’t seen before.  However, anime has recently gone on the back burner for me and many others, and for mostly good reason.  Unlike other types of foreign film, distributors tended not to filter what anime content found its way stateside.  Essentially, every anime program that specialty distributors could get their hands on found their way onto store shelves, and as such it became increasingly hard to separate the cream from the milk.  Of course some quality anime programs, like the works of Hayao Miyazaki, were able to find an audience; but for the most part anime programs tend to look like a whole lot of the same.  Luckily other solid anime works do tend to emerge, and Paprika is one such quality work.

            Paprika’s title comes not from that delicious spice, but from the name of one of the characters.  The film’s sci-fi story is set in a future in which there is a new invention called a DC Mini exists.  This invention allows people to view other people’s dreams to explore their sub conscious thoughts.  Before the invention is ready for mass production, one is stolen and used to enter people’s dreams without their permission.  At the center of it all seems to be an elucive dream figure going by the name Paprika.

            That plot may sound complicated, but in reality the film’s plot is significantly more confusing and impenetrable than that highly simplified summery would have you believe.  However, this confusion is rarely frustrating, after a little while I found myself deciding to just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Furthermore, I got the general idea that this story would be able to stand up to further study if it were watched by someone more inclined to fully comprehend it than I was.

            Part of why I eventually abandoned the film’s story line was that I was too intrigued by the film’s visual style to focus my attention on the complicated storyline.  Technically, the animation here is nothing special.  The movement here isn’t nearly as fluid as it is in something like Spirited Away, and computer generated elements are added in a rather awkward fashion.  What’s really appealing about the animation here is its artistic design.  There are some really cool images and moments throughout the film.  The film allows characters to enter dreams, and this setting gives Satoshi Kon a seemingly limitless environment to bring creative elements to the screen. 

            Because of the dream sequences, many would compare this to the work of David Lynch.  However, I think it has more in common with the work of David Cronenberg.  The film has a very Cronenbergian view of sexuality; there are sexual images here that don’t necessarily show sex.  For example there is one part where a man feels up a woman in a dream and his hand seems to sink into the flesh of her breast.  The film also has a few moments that could be called body horror, like when the side of one character’s body transforms into some kind of tentacles.  The movie doesn’t dwell on this sort of material, but it is their and its one of the film’s most compelling aspects. 

            It’s a shame that quality anime like this doesn’t really get the kind of recognition it deserves, or a wide theatrical release.  This is a very creative, very interesting movie, definitely worth a look for adventurous film goers.

***1/2 out of four

DVD Catch Up: Sicko(2/6/2008)

            Michael Moore is like the Steven Spielberg of documentary film.  Moore’s documentaries have had unprecedented success at the box office; his last film, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned over two hundred million dollars at the box office, a number no other documentary has even come close to achieving.  In gaining this popularity Moore has also become one of the most polarizing figures in politics.  The army of Moore critics have come forward with some legitimate complaints as well as a load of stupid complaints.  An annoyingly prominent talking point among Moore’s critics is that he’s overweight.  Many of these critics also try to claim his movies aren’t documentaries simply because they are biased; were this critique valid, there would be very few films on the planet that could claim the title of documentary.

            I for one have long enjoyed the film’s of Michael Moore for what they are: fun and irreverent explorations that are ultimately trying to make a point.  I would never mistake one of Moore’s films as a solid academic argument, or as the definitive word on anything, but they are fun entry points into important and often ignored issues.  My personal favorite of Moore’s films is probably his 2002 exploration into American Gun culture Bowling For Columbine, the film was expertly edited and filled with a lot of typical Moore fun.  As a Bush hater it’s hard for me to admit that Moore’s follow-up, Fahrenheit 9/11, is probably my least favorite Moore film in that it was probably his least entertaining.  I found that film contained less of Moore’s entertaining personality then is previous works and was generally more of a polemic.  I could understand why Moore wanted to put less of himself into Fahrenheit, but for the most part it turned the film into a regular documentary and kept him from doing what he does best: making complicated issues easy to understand.

            At its best moments, Moore’s newest film Sicko combines the best of both Columbine and Fahrenheit. The film features Moore’s trademark wit and also maintains its focus on the issue at hand: America’s broken healthcare system.

            The film works best during the first act, in which Moore establishes the problems with the current system.  Moore reports that he received thousands of e-mails telling him about their healthcare horror stories.  Among the stories he reports are that of a man forced to choose between one of two fingers, a young woman whose cancer spread to the rest of her body after his insurance company refused to give her chemotherapy, and a man who died after his insurance company refused to pay for a bone marrow transplant he needed.  This evidence may be anecdotal, but it’s damning none the less. 

            We are also treated to a number of other nice Moore tricks like a Star Wars style scroll showing the ailments that can lead to one being denied health insurance benefits and a great satirical indictment about the so called communist nature of national health care, pointing out that organizations like the police department are every bit as “socialized.”  This first third of the movie is wildly successful at establishing a major problem in the system; one can’t help but demand a better way.

            It’s during the second act that the film begins to run into problems.  During this portion of the film Moore begins to examine the existing national health insurance in countries like Canada, England, France, and Cuba.  Moore’s depiction of these systems is so perfect and so flawless that it challenges common sense.  I certainly believe these systems can be much better than the mess that is American healthcare, but I simply do not believe any world bureaucracy is going to not be filled with problems.  Perfect systems simply do not fit in my view of human nature, and I really wish Moore had addressed these problems simply so his audience can have a better look at the pros and cons of these systems. 

            Filmmaking-wise the film dips in this area as well.  Moore finds himself depicting these areas as some sort of paradises, utopias without flaw.  This wouldn’t be a problem if Moore was better able to establish the link between these living conditions and the healthcare systems of these nations, but he doesn’t.  At times he seems to be filming these locations like they were tourism advertisements, showing only the nicest areas and ignoring places that don’t live up to the utopia vision Moore presents. 

            Other problems arise as well, Moore fails to explain how these systems will affect taxation, which is a major problem as that is the main critique enemies of systems like this will cite.  Moore’s inability to bring this question up if only to refute it, makes it look like he has something to hide, which ultimately hurts the credibility of the whole film.  It’s also around this time that Moore’s sarcastic voiceover really began to annoy me.  Moore always sarcastically acts shocked when people describe these foreign healthcare systems, when they are only telling him things he clearly already knows. 

            Fortunately the film rebounds in its last third, when the political stuntman we all know and love (I do anyway) returns and Moore embarks to bring 9/11 rescue workers to be treated at Guantanamo Bay.  At this point the film the initial momentum from the first act returns, and I began to be fully engaged in the message again. 

            As usual, this is not a perfect film from Michael Moore.  The man is a bit too ambitious and a bit too passionate to ever make an air-tight argument, but this is a good combination for a filmmaker to have.  If nothing else, the film made me see the healthcare issue for what it is: a matter of life and death.

*** out of four

DVD Catch Up: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters(2/1/2007)

 

The documentary film is a genre that recently has become somewhat redundant.  Most successful documentaries tend to fall into one of two categories: political and chronicles in weirdness.  The first is the political piece, these films made popular by Michael Moore explore major issues in our time, often with a satirical twist.  The other category involves examining the life and times of weirdo who often have weird hobbies.  This category of documentary probably goes back to the great Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb.  Recently this documentary style has turned to a trend of examining bizarre under worlds that obsess over seemingly banal hobbies like Spelling (Spellbound), crossword puzzles (Wordplay), and scrabble (Word Wars). The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters, fits directly into that final sub genre, as it chronicles people and their obsession with the classic video game “Donkey Kong.”

The film documents the rivalry between champion Donkey Kong players Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.  Mitchell, has had a world record Donkey Kong score dating back to 1982, which had stood unchallenged for decades.  That is until Steve Wiebe sent a tape of himself beating that score in to Twingalaxies.com.  In a controversial move that score was denied because his machine had a motherboard that had been tampered with by a lunatic named Roy Shildt.  Determined to beat Mitchell’s record, Wiebe travels out to Florida in order to beat the score in front of a live audience thus becoming the undisputed Donkey Kong champion.

  I’ve played many a game of Donkey Kong over the course of my life, its really fun, but it boggles my mind as to why anyone in their right mind would spend so much of their time playing this archaic videogame.  My knowledge of the game was the start of what raised some of my suspicions about this documentary.  Early on the film hypes the game up as some kind of wildly challenging puzzle, requiring superhuman hand eye coordination, and this is at best an exaggeration.  The game isn’t easy, and getting hundreds of thousands of points the way these guys do is hard, but the game isn’t half as hard as they make it out to be.  I’m also not quite sure why the film consistently seemed to ignore the second and fourth levels.

In the long run what really annoyed me was its simplistic outlook on the events its documenting.  The film goes to great lengths to make Steve Wiebe into a lovable underdog and to make Billy Mitchell look like a jealous douchebag.  Director Seth Gordon makes no attempt to hide his allegiances in the film, he goes so far as to use the Karate Kid theme song “You’re the Best” by  Joe Esposito as a leitmotif for Steve Wiebe and accompany his training with the famous Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger.”  Juxtapose this feel good 80s nostalgia with the menacing Leonard Cohen song that’s used as Billy Mitchell’s theme and you’ll get a pretty good feel for how even handed this film is.  The film is also marred by a false ending coda that can only be called extremely tacky.  

Watching the film I was consistently more interested in Billy Mitchell than the appointed hero.  I wanted to know what made Mitchell tick, I wanted to know how he was feeling as the record he was so proud of was about to be taken away.  Unfortunately Seth Godon shares none of this curiosity, and instead sticks with the simplistic slob vs. snob storyline that he’s manufactured. 

This manipulation that I had suspected was confirmed shortly after my viewing of the film when I did some research and found a statement made by Twin Galaxies explaining that Wiebe actually already had the record score when the film began, and after his 2003 score was rejected the record reverted back to his own score reached in 2000 rather than Billy Mitchell’s 1982 score.  Additionally Mitchell and Wiebe had met and played together numerous times before the filming of the documentary.  I’m a firm believer that Documentaries should be taken as pieces of work unto themselves that shouldn’t have to stand up to outside research in order to be fun films unto themselves, but they should at least feel above suspicion while you’re watching it, and this didn’t live up to that test.

Don’t get me wrong, this underdog versus champion storyline can be fun if you’re willing to ignore the manipulation, and this was a fairly nice watch from beginning to end, but it doesn’t deserve the acclaim many are placing on it because of its novelty subject matter and it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been.  I’m definitely glad I waited to watch this on DVD.

**1/2 out of four