Friday, September 21, 2007

I've been gone awhile, but now I'm back.

Today (I hope) this site will finally begin in earnest. At the encouragement of my friend who will remain nameless (although her name rhymes with Smirginia), I will post reviews of movies I have seen recently or older movies on DVD or just basic observations on things cinema and beyond (like how Najeh Davenport is totally vulturing touchdowns from my starting fantasy football back Willie Parker!) So here are two reviews for movies currently out in limited release.

The 800 lb. Gorilla

We are a culture obsessed with statistics and records. Aaron's 755, Maris's 61, DiMaggio's 56, Wilt's 100, Ripken's 2131. Add to that, Mitchell's 874,300. Yes, 874,300. It was the world record set in 1982 by Billy Mitchell in Donkey Kong. Yes, Donkey Kong.

And so begins Seth Gordon's ridiculously entertaining new documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Mitchell himself is the king of Kong. Add to that the king of other classic arcade games such as Pac-Man, Centipede, and Burger Time. (What Burger Time is I don't know. I have a feeling it may be like Hungry, Hungry Hippos, only not a board game and possibly without the large, water-dwelling mammals.) Mitchell, being king and all, has a slight messianic complex--complete with greasy, stringy, long brown hair and a goatee. In a way it's tough to blame him. Those in the gaming community worship him and Twin Galaxies, the "worldwide Authority on Player Rankings, Gaming Statistics and Championship Tournaments" have unofficially elected him as a sort of figurehead--the Jordan, Ruth, and Ali of their "sport" all rolled into one. He is, in this world, the celebrity.

The film takes place current-day and Mitchell himself seems to have stepped away from gaming as a player and now acts as an ambassador for the community, promoting gaming at large, Twin Galaxies, and, oh, himself. Somehow, Mitchell has parlayed the requisite talents for arcade supremacy into the skills necessary to be a good businessman, as he is impresario of a successful sauce company based out of Hollywood, Florida.

But that's only one part to this story. On the other side of the country, in Redmond, Washington is Steve Wiebe, a husband, father of two, and a pretty good Kong-er in his own right. It's here, through Wiebe, that the film sets its dramatic trajectory. And the brilliance of the film is that it does truly play more like a well-crafted narrative feature than necessarily a documentary.

The film tracks a course inevitably towards a kong-frontation (sorry!) between Mitchell and Wiebe. But a funny thing happened on the way to FunSpot--Mitchell doesn't show up. And when Wiebe, of course, breaks Mitchell's long-standing record (to the shock and awe of the gallery), Mitchell shows up, er, let's say by proxy in a way that so glaringly screams of petty one-upsmanship and ultimately hypocrisy. That the Twin Galaxies community all blindly side with Mitchell in this move shows the power of his cult.

Wiebe's own personal life is both tragic and redemptive. He's not an unflawed hero. He's certainly as competitive as Mitchell and highly self-critical, especially from his jock days back in high school. And when Kong comes into his life, it consumes him, marginalizing even his own family. In a home video, we can overhear Wiebe's son crying to him, pleading with him to wipe his ass and stop playing the game. The long hours of Wiebe's playing even wears out his wife. But in the end, they support him, traveling to Florida with him on his quest for the record. Contrast this with Mitchell's wife, who has never once seen him play Donkey Kong. Even Twin Galaxies comes around, acknowledging Wiebe as a world-class Kong player.

But what's fascinating about the film isn't so much the record--Wiebe's quest for it and Mitchell's underhanded defense of it. It's really an interesting exploration of ego: how on one hand it is driven by power and arrogance; and, on the other, by failure and self-doubt. It's straight out of Shakespeare, or for these guys, maybe Star Wars.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (dir: Seth Gordon; running time 79 minutes)

Found in Translation

If the The King of Kong plays more like a fictional narrative than a documentary, then 2 Days in Paris plays somewhat like an intimate piece of cinema-verite. Actress Julie Delpy's second feature is like a Woody Allen film through the eyes of the French New Wave.

The film follows a thirty-something couple, Marion and Jack, who make a short stop in the city of love near the end of their vacation through Europe. The thing is, Marion is French, grew up in Paris, and has a lot of family and friends to meet. Jack, on the other hand, is a Jewish-American and doesn't speak a lick of French. "Je-egh t'aime," he says, practicing his French. "Why do you put a 'hegh'? It's so ugly. It's not German!" she complains.

While there the two stay in a tiny studio apartment she occupies for two months during the year in the building where her parents also live. When her beautiful sister Rose stops by as well for lunch, their animated discussions (in French of course) make Jack feel like he is the butt of every smile and cackle. Later, when they make their way around town, every man they encounter seems to be one of Marion's exes. In response to Jack's growing jealousy, Marion quickly diffuses it by saying it was nothing: "I may have given him a blowjob once."

There is a particularly delicate balance Delpy finds here. Adam Goldberg's Jack is himself like a younger, more physically imposing Woody Allen character. The examination of a neurotic, dysfunctional romantic relationship is also typical Allen. What's atypical of Allen--and of the French New Wave pictures this is reminiscent of as well--is its focus on the female lead's perspective. Godard once said--and I'm probably paraphrasing here--that the history of cinema is the history of men looking at women. Delpy complicates that here though by, at once, standing behind the camera and essentially turning it on herself. Godard also said, "Film is like a personal diary, a notebook or a monologue by someone who tries to justify himself before a camera." Marion is a photographer professionally, Jack an amateur one on this trip, and there are times here the film simply catalogues their vacation pictorially, while Delpy's voice-over carries the narration. During these moments, the film seems more like a documentary, like some kind of personal autobiographical travelogue instead of a polished feature.

But Delpy flips that first quote by Godard in another way. Her cinema here is that of a woman behind the camera looking at a man. Delpy's camera and screenplay deconstructs the male psyche of her lead character, strips bare his masculinity, exposing it (literally), mocking it, and certainly even empathizing with it. Her exploration of Jack's fear and insecurity and also his humor and social intellect isn't at all trite; in fact, it rings quite honestly.

Saying all this is not to say that 2 Days in Paris is completely serious. It's actually quite funny, laugh-out-loud so sometimes. Goldberg has that classic movie comedian (dare I say, Jewish) way of somehow being in a funny situation and also distancing himself from it, commenting as an aside a line of dialogue or a joke to which only he (and of course the audience) is privy. That Delpy allows Goldberg to steal the show as an actor is a testament to her as an actress as well as a director.

The previous European romance in which Delpy starred and co-scripted was 2004's Before Sunset. Like that one, 2 Days in Paris ends with the two main characters upstairs alone in a room and Marion's voice-over monologue is as perfect as the dialogue was in the previous film. The relationship isn't perfect. How could it? It's messy in the way these things tend to be. The film doesn't pretend to have the answers, Marion and Jack simply do the best they can. And really that's all we can ask.

2 Days in Paris (dir: Julie Delpy; running time: 96 minutes)