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“The King of Kong.”

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"It's absolute brutality."
If a whole universe of meaning and countless reams of undergrad theses can spring from a novel that tracks one day of the meanderings of a man in 1904 Dublin, then, in theory, there’s no reason why a documentary about crossword puzzles or Double Dutch can’t offer the same. But most of the films that have followed in the footsteps of "Spellbound," which found nail-biting suspense and a revealing cross-section of America in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, skate by on the preciousness of their subject matter, offering peeks into pockets of subculture that are almost uniformly entertaining if lightweight, innocuous enough that only the most grumpy of critics would grumble about them.


Seth Gordon‘s "The King of Kong" is set in the world of competitive classic video gaming, and it could have been another example of the quirkumentary, if Gordon hadn’t stumbled onto a struggle between two men that can only be described as epic. The battlefield is Donkey Kong, which we’re assured by a series of talking heads is among the most difficult 80s arcade games, the prize is the record for high score, and the competitors are so good they defy fiction (though they’ll get their chance at that, as Gordon is now attached to direct a narrative version of his film). On one side, there’s Billy Mitchell, the "Video Game Player of the Century" and classic gamers’ big celebrity/demigod. He set his first high score at Donkey Kong at a 1982 Life Magazine shoot, when he decided to punish a pretender to the throne (Steve Sanders, who becomes one of Mitchell’s best friends) by publicly challenging him and obliterating his score. The heavy-browed Mitchell has shoulder-length locks, a remarkably well-endowed wife who’s a sight gag unto herself, and a hot sauce empire. He is comically and fantastically villainous, holed up in Hollywood, FL, where he conducts the war to protect his record via covert phone calls and packages dispatched by minions.

His challenger is Steve Wiebe, a Seattle-area failed musician turned fired Boeing employee, a vague, good-natured family man who resembles a blurry Nathan Fillion, who has never distinguished himself at anything in his life, and who decided to work toward the Donkey Kong record during his unemployment to create some kind of goal in his nebulous day-to-day existence. Practicing in his garage while his children clamor around him, he records himself breaking Mitchell’s record and sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies, the Ottumwa, IA-based hall of video game records, calling down a small-scale firestorm of gamer drama and the roundabout opposition of Mitchell himself.

There are other memorable characters, among them Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, who acknowledges that he’s running the organization now more out of sense of obligation to its small but dedicated community than out of any personal enjoyment. There’s Robert Mruczek, the put-upon referee who screens hours of tapes of people playing in order to confirm scores. And there’s our personal favorite, Roy Shildt, an agitator who goes by "Mr. Awesome" and who still harbors a grudge over an unacknowledged ’80s achievement at Missile Command.

Packaged with era-appropriate graphics, "The King of Kong" kicks off with a quick trip through the backgrounds of its two adversaries and of Twin Galaxies, but settles in to something less obtrusive as its story unfolds, with the exception of some funny but ham-handed music choices (including "You’re the Best"). What truly separates "The King of Kong" from films like it, and what makes it almost exceptional, is that it circumvents the tired homily recited by so many other doc directors getting a chuckle at the expense of their subjects — laughing with, not at, et cetera. There is never a question of or an apology for the imminent importance of gaming in the lives of these people, a fixation that, as one tells the camera, has nothing to do with enjoyment and everything to do with having one’s name on that record board. Gordon is unfailingly gentle with his subjects, even, in a way, with Mitchell, who comes across as a right bastard, but also as someone well aware of his role as the community’s larger than life superhero, the one who makes money, the one who got the girl. In challenging him, Wiebe posed a threat to entire fiercely protective group that bristled at the arrival of a self-taught ringer from out on the West Coast, someone they’d never heard of, someone who wasn’t one of them.

On his way out to Florida to prove himself in a tournament and hopefully face down his Kong nemesis, Wiebe is asked innocently by his young daughter about why people are willing to destroy themselves to get in the Guinness Book of World Records. There’s no reply — it is, on a larger scale, no lofty goal. But Wiebe, hunched over his arcade cabinet on a stool for hours, is a curiously noble figure, one who’s struggled against unlikely odds and long-haired adversaries to prove that there is something in his life at which he’s the best.

"The King of Kong" opens in limited release on August 17th.

+ "The King of Kong" (Picturehouse)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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