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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).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.