August 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

by Alan Rapp on August 31, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

Video games and Hollywood have had a long and disastrous relationship (remember Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon and Doom?).  So what are the odds against one of the best movies of the year being about a video game?  The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an outstanding film and everything I want a documentary to be.  This one racks up a perfect score.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Custom Rating

Here we examine video games and the people who play them, not just for fun, but for recognition, glory, and world records; this is the subject of an outstanding documentary, with perhaps the best title of any film released this year (and the rest of the film ain’t too shabby either).


Director Seth Gordon paints us a surprisingly complex tale of two very different men.  Billy Mitchell is the king of his universe, the world record holder for Donkey Kong, who once played the first perfect game ever recorded on Pac Man, owns his own company, and is a longtime friend and contributor to Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies (an organization which tracks video game records).

Mitchell was once named “the greatest video-game player of all time” and “Gamer of the Century.”  Confident and arrogant to a fault he is the undisputed master of his domain.

Steve Wiebe, a husband and father finding himself unexpectedly unemployed more than 20 years after Mitchell broke the record, decides to do what no one has done before – beat Billy Mitchell and set a new world record on Donkey Kong.  Spending hours in his garage every night playing the game over and over Wiebe would do what many considered impossible and begin a controversy which would take years to settle.

Two men, who except for their shared drive to succeed and be recognized, couldn’t be more different.  It’s a tale of struggle, of winning and losing, and the life lessons which go along as the pair square off to set the high score for the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records.

This film is simply a joy to watch.  The tale of one unassuming man’s quest at greatness is a universal story that all can relate to.  Wiebe’s attempts to earn a place with the video gaming greats is difficult and sometimes heart-breaking.  Including interviews from both men and their friends and families, including Walter Day and Steve Sanders, the film becomes less about a video game and more about one man’s struggle to stand-up for himself, against all odds, and do something no one believed could be done.

Set to the music of the 1980’s (including “You’re the Best” and “Eye of the Tiger”) the film is a toe-tappin’ good time.  You may not believe one of the best films of the year could be about a 20 year-old video game record, but it is.  Here’s a film that the whole family not only could see but should see.  King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters is a winner, on anyone’s scorecard.

The 11th Hour Approaches

by Alan Rapp on August 30, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

Well, it’s not An Inconvenient Truth, let’s get that out of the way first.  This new documentary on the increasing problems with the environment doesn’t have the jau de vive, the heart, or the spirit of Al Gore’s documentary from last year.  Though it may not live up to the Gore standard there is plenty to watch (especially in the film’s second half) and more than a little to discuss.

The 11th Hour
4 Stars

Well, it’s not An Inconvenient Truth (read the review), let’s get that out of the way first.  This new documentary on the increasing problems with the environment doesn’t have the jau de vive, the heart, or the spirit of Al Gore’s documentary from last year.  Though it may not live up to the Gore standard there is plenty to watch (especially in the film’s second half) and more than a little to discuss.

The documentary focuses our attention on the changing climate of the Earth due to a variety of factors including global warming, pollution, over population, and man’s destructive effect on the environment.  Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the film which is filled with interviews from scientists from many fields and countries including Stephen Hawking.

The documentary breaks down into two parts.  The first showcases the increasing dangers and causes and foretells of a dangerous and disastrous future if real change isn’t embraced soon.  This part of the film comes dangerously close to the scare tactics many wanted to, falsely, lay at the feet of An Inconvenient Truth.  This first section of the film comes off as part lecture and part blame instead of the imploring and instruction Al Gore utilized to much better effect.

The second half of the documentary, which works much better in my opinion, focuses on the changes that need to be made and the opportunities available for the future.  The film’s tone shifts dramatically as it becomes hopeful in presenting a possible wondrous future within the grasp of current technology.  Here the film becomes the call to arms and challenge for change that will be needed if we are to continue the farcical history of the human race.

The film jumps from a variety of topics including global warming, pollution, the Industrial Revolution vs. the natural world, and the rise of dangerous climatic changes such as the disappearing arctic and top soil, and the rise of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.  If the film has one message it’s that we are harming our world, and ourselves, in a variety of ways and it will take a new revolution of clean energy based on a recycling model rather than the current wasteful one we have now.

The film’s parts don’t work equally as well, but it is saved by the later half of the film which presents a vision of a better world and a challenge to Americans to change how we treat our world and how we live on this planet.  As the film points out, quite vividly, the time for such change is now as the effects we are causing our environment is reaching a tipping point from which only one thing is certain – the outcome will change the world in which we live in drastic, and perhaps permanent, ways.  This 11th hour is approaching and the responsibility for change rests with us, while there is still time.

Not even Christopher Walken dressed up as Fu Manchu can save this one.  The tale of the secret world of underground ping-pong tournaments isn’t as cool as it sounds (and that should tell you something right there).  It’s not an awful movie, and has a couple good jokes, but it never comes together to amount to much more than a curiosity.

Balls of Fury
2 Stars

“Ping-pong isn’t played for trophies; it’s played in dark alleys for hard cash and ugly women.”

Years ago Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) blew his chance at the 1988 Olympic Games.  Not a washed-up has-been and punchline Fogler is offered a chance by FBI Agent Ernie Rodriquez (George Lopez) to return to glory and avenge the death of his father (Robert Patrick) by entering a secret underground tournament held by the man responsible, the crime lord Feng (Christoper Walken).

The film is filled with predictable dumb and gross-out humor and cheesy cliched training scenes involving a blind ping-pong master (James Hong) and his sexy niece (Maggie Q).  And you know it’s not a comedy without a suppository joke and male sex slaves!  *Sigh*

The acting is okay, at times, and Fogler comes off as a poor man’s Jack Black.  Walken is back to his silly over-the-top performance he gives in films like these, and Maggie Q looks good in short-shorts and Aisha Tyler spends the movie in a leather dominatrix outfit.  Yes, pre-teen males are obviously the target audience here.

One final note, the film is, in some ways, a love story to the English rock band Def Leppard who reached the heights of their popularity in the 1980’s.  Fans of the band may find some nice moments throughout the film including t-shirts, music, and the cast going all karaoke during the closing credits to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Balls of Fury doesn’t really disappoint; it doesn’t really do much of anything.  Other than reminding me that Jason Scott Lee is still alive I can’t come up with a single reason why this film is, in any way, notable.  Unless you’re a huge ping-pong fanatic or still hopelessly in love with Def Leppard than you can wait a couple years for this to show up free on cable.

5 Questions with Steve Sanders

by Alan Rapp on August 30, 2007

in Film News & Trailers

We sat down with Steve Sanders, a longtime friend to Bill Mitchell, and once the unofficial world record holder for Donkey Kong, Joust and Pac Man.  We discussed Donkey Kong, Bill Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, and this outstanding little documentary called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.  Here’s what we found…

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Steve Sanders back in 1982
a former King of Kong

1. How did you become involved in the film?

When the documentarians were looking into the history of competitive gaming they started out with Twin Galaxies in Ottumwa, Iowa.  I’ve been involved there since 1982.  I had the unofficial Donkey Kong record in 1982 and the Kansas City Star did an article called “The King of Kong” about me holding the unofficial record.  I also did a book for Bantam Books around that time entitled The Video Master’s Guide to Donkey Kong.  I am thinking about writing and updating a new version for the Wii with some minor changes.

2. You are a friend of Bill Mitchell.  For those who haven’t seen the film, can you explain how you and Billy met?

Bantam Books told me to contact Walter Day of Twin Galaxies late February 1982 and learned I had the highest scores for Donkey Kong and Pac Man.  Shortly after I learned about Bill Mitchell.  We first spoke to each other in May or June of 1982 and hit it off right away and became quick friends even after the negative things which happened later on, which I brought on myself.  I have been a friend of Bill Mitchell’s for years and I know the feeling is mutual.

3. Has Bill seen the film?  How do you think he like how he comes off on screen?

As far as I know Bill has not seen the film.  I have seen the film twice.  It’s hard to describe Bill to other people.  Recently the best metaphor to use for Billy is the “poppa bear.”  All the people in Twin Galaxies are in the bear’s den.  If you are a bear in the bear’s den he’s your provider and protector and you love him.  And when someone from outside comes in you don’t know them or respect them and you distrust them.  When I found out people on the outside don’t perceive him as I do I was shocked.  He can come across as very aggressive as he protects the integrity of classic arcade games.

4. Do you still play video games?

I had basically put them aside for 20 years.  I have never spent time on any of those new consoles like the XBox or Playstation.  When the documentarians came around they encouraged me to start playing again.  Now I own a Donkey Kong, Ms Pac Man and Joust arcade game.  I don’t play as much as I used to, but recently I set the third highest Joust record in the world, a world record I used to own, and I sure would like to have the world record.  I played doubles with the guy I have been competing with and we obtained the world record for doubles on Joust.

5. What message would you like people to take away from the film?

I think the message of the film is the classic human struggle.  Obviously there’s no question that Steve Wiebe is the protagonist, the underdog, the good everyman who is trying to achieve notoriety and fame.  Just as many humans are trying to become great at something.  Versus the antagonist, which is Bill Mitchell, who has the notoriety and fame that Steve is trying to achieve.  On one level it’s about Donkey Kong, which I’m sure most people would probably not be that interested in.  On another level it touches those classic themes.  It’s about us, ti’s about me, it’s about you, it’s about life.  The movie makers were terrific and I think this film will launch all of their careers.  The director Seth Gordon has already signed on to do a major motion picture with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon.  When I first heard the idea I thought, it’s a documentary about video games; it will be lucky to make cable TV.  But I have been amazed and gratified to see how critics are uniformly praising the film.  I’m not sure the film has brought in new people to Twin Galaxies, except one thing I am certain of – there are more people who are now more aware.

Tube Watch

by Alan Rapp on August 30, 2007

in Television Reviews , Uncategorized

Thanks to AT&T and their new U-verse package I’ve got HBO again.  I didn’t go through much withdrawal when I lost it, but the one show I missed was Real Time With Bill Maher (check out the official site).  The show started its new season last Friday night with guests Tim Robbins, Stephen Hayes, and an interview from Presidential hopeful Gov. Mike Huckabee.  The show airs Friday nights on HBO 11:00/10:00.  Fans of the program should check out Bill’s latest batch of “New Rules” in the Full Diagnosis.

Real Time With Bill Maher


New Rules
August 24, 2007

New Rule: Stop saying Barack Obama isn’t black enough! First, you aren’t sure America was ready for a black president. Now he’s not black enough? “I like his stand on the issues, but can he dunk?” Why are we even talking about him this way? Mitt Romney, now there’s someone who’s not black enough to be president.

New Rule: Victoria Beckham must smile. The last person who arrived in America looking this unhappy came on a slave ship. “Hey, Spice Girl, it’s not spitting rain and ten degrees out there anymore. You’re in Cali, baby! Knows how to party!” Nobody? “Your husband can bend a soccer ball using the muscles in his foot. You could at least bend your lips using the muscles in your face!”

New Rule: Journalists in Iraq must stop celebrating miracle babies rescued by American soldiers. Like when U.S. troops found little Fatima lying in a pile of rubble, and instead of bashing her head in with a rock, they brought her to a hospital. Ooh, what a miracle!! U.S.A. number one! Thanks, CBS, for turning Iraq into a feel-good story for the “Baby Jessica Fell Down a Well” crowd.

And, no offense, Fatima, but the real miracle in Iraq will be if we ever manage to get out. No, please, don’t – don’t tire yourselves out.

New Rule: Stop wearing plastic shoes. It was only a year ago when only preschoolers and mental patients wore these. But, now grownups all over America have gone “Croc” crazy. The latest step in our unending quest to dress as casually as humanly possible. “You know, I used to wear flip-flops, but they’re a little dressy.” “I want clothing I can hose down.” Admit it, we’re a nation of slobs who won’t be happy until we can go to the mall in a diaper.

New Rule: If your winner is a ventriloquist, then “America Hasn’t Got Talent.” Besides, if there’s one thing Americans have had enough of, it’s the guy who puts words in the dummy’s mouth. [photo of Bush and Rove shown] Oh, we kid President Bush. It’s all with love.

And finally, New Rule: If you were surprised that the Chinese don’t care about toy safety, then the child who needs protecting is you. Over the last couple of months, American consumers have been learning a shocking lesson about supply and demand: if you demand products that don’t cost anything, people will make them out of poison, mud and shit. Now, since April, approximately 17 million toys in the United States, all of them made in China, have been recalled. Which is amazing considering that no one in the Department of Justice can recall a thing. Okay.

Now, believe me, I was devastated when Mattel recalled almost everything in my Barbie Dream Closet. Although I had suspected something when Ken discovered a lump on his testicle.

Until recently, I never even worried about being harmed by the Chinese. Unless they were in the left-hand turn lane. I kid. I love the…

But then we found out … that their dog food was deadly and that they were making toothpaste out of antifreeze, and that the Number 62A at the Szechuan Palace is Beef with Bronchitis. They’re the Chinese. They don’t care if your precious little Britney sucks a little lead. Because in China, their kids aren’t playing with the toys. They’re the ones in the factory all day making them.

Now, I know you’re saying, “But, Bill, I don’t have time to ponder whether these $12 jeans are the product of child labor. I just know I’m an American on a budget and our lifestyle is a blessed one. And I want to look nice while I’m standing in line for my iPhone.”

But, there is something to be said for thinking about why these bargains are such bargains. Wal-Mart is the most American thing in the universe, but all it sells is crap from China. Wal-Mart wouldn’t exist without the American consumers’ endless thirst for the cheapest stuff China has to offer. Like $30 DVD players and Jackie Chan.Yeah, you’re right, it was a great movie.

Anyway…in America, there is nothing more sacred than a bargain… And Jackie Chan. And that even includes the war. Yeah, there’s too much lead in the kids’ toys, but not nearly enough on the Humvees in Iraq. “Let’s have a war and cut taxes; what could go wrong?” “Let’s give mortgages to the homeless. Sounds like a plan.” “Let’s buy toys from a Communist police state. You just know they’ll put in a little extra love.”

Speaking of which, you know why today’s modern Chinese capitalist puts lead in the paint that goes on toys? Because it makes colors brighter. You’ve got to love America, a country that’s literally being killed by the stuff that makes objects shiny.

Check out previous New Rules