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“The King of Kong”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Steve Wiebe in “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” Picturehouse, 2007]

“Video games aren’t meant to be fun,” intones one of the subjects of the riveting new documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” This is utter nonsense, but not to the man speaking it, who believe it completely. To these guys who devote their lives to classic arcade games, the pursuit isn’t recreation; it’s validation. Their self-images are wrapped up in these oversized cabinets, and they take them very seriously. Which, of course, makes what they do and the extreme lengths they will go to to protect their records and discourage others from surpassing them, completely fascinating and altogether hilarious.

Though “The King of Kong” gives a nice portrait of the entire classic gaming subculture, the movie is primarily a battle of wits, smarts and nerve between two fundamentally different men: Billy Mitchell, the so-called “gamer of the century,” and Steve Wiebe, an average joe living in the ‘burbs. Back in the early ’80s when being a great gamer was like being a rock star, Billy was gaming’s Mick Jagger: frontman and spokesperson with the big hair and a bigger attitude. He made a lot of money playing games, with which he started a profitable hot sauce empire. Billy reasons that he’s been so lucky in life that there has to be somebody out there who’s got it as bad as he’s got it good.

Cut to Steve. Back in the early ’80s, Steve was a nobody. He certainly wasn’t Mick Jagger — hell, he wasn’t even Ron Wood — despite the fact that Steve actually played music in bands around Seattle for years. But they never really went anywhere, and he floundered from job to job. One of his good buddies notes that he’s never seen anyone cry quite as much as Steve.

The two couldn’t be more different. Their only common ground is the old arcade game Donkey Kong; the two are, without question, the best players in the entire world. What is in doubt is who is better than the other. “The King of Kong” watches Steve’s assault on Billy’s record and Billy’s extensive attempts to stack the deck against his opponent. When Steve tapes his record-breaking round, Billy, who sits on the governing board of the organization that officiates classic arcade games, sends some of his cronies to take the machine apart and examine it for inconsistencies. Though they find none, he still refuses to acknowledge Steve’s score until he does it in a public arcade on an officially recognized machine. So Steve travels across the country, beats the record again, only to see the spotlight yanked away once again when a tape suddenly surfaces from Billy setting an even higher score. And so on.

Billy Mitchell — who, by the way, is almost exclusively referred to by both his first and last names, even by his parents! — is one of the great villains of the movies. Totally full of himself and draped in the colors of the American flag, this phantom menace never engages his enemy directly, playing long-distance head games with Steve from his home in the meaning-soaked town of Hollywood, Florida. The tension surrounding whether Billy and Steve will finally actually face-off against one another becomes so great that I audibly gasped the first time the two appeared in the same room.

Director Seth Gordon had no choice about the subject of his characters’ obsessions, but he couldn’t have picked a more perfect metaphor for Steve’s quest to defeat Billy than Donkey Kong. In Kong, you play as Mario as he tries to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of a giant ape by scaling a construction site while the gorilla showers you with barrels and fire and other pitfalls. If you do manage to reach the top of the screen (a feat I was unable to accomplish even once when I played the game recently), Kong grabs the girl and climbs to the next level; cruelly, no matter how many boards you clear, you will never rescue your lady. The ultimate success in “Kong” comes by reaching “The Kill Screen,” so named because the game literally murders you for no reason at all. Without spoiling too much, “The King of Kong” is much the same, an endless chase for an unattainable goal. Steve and Mario think they’ve reached the end, but Billy and Kong yank the prize just a little bit further out of reach.

Gordon has stumbled onto one of the most compelling nonfiction stories I have ever seen, and he has captured it beautifully. This movie has just about everything you could conceivably want: outrageous characters (and an amazing villain, of course), big conflict and an endless supply of plot twists. The epilogue of “The King of Kong” brings of flurry of updates that have happened since the movie ended, and I suspect there are more developments to come in time for the DVD. There is no end to Donkey Kong and there isn’t one yet for this battle. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” opens in limited release on August 17th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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