Sunday, November 23, 2008

Seth Gordon, "The King of Kong" (2007). Juan Antonio Bayona, "El Orfanato" (2007).

Every once in awhile it's good to change things up a bit. So last Friday night when a few friends and I decided to stay in and watch movies, I was open to new suggestions. Since I was visiting someone else's house, I quickly assented to seeing two films I had no part in picking out. Our host had gotten them through Netflix, and he wanted to screen them so that he could exchange them for new ones. I had selected the pool to choose from the two previous times that we got together, and I supposed it was only fair to let someone else set the tone for the evening. It's quite honestly a bit of a novelty for me to have my viewing experience dictated externally, but the situation wasn't as bad as it might have been.

The two flicks on our schedule were both titles I had considered buying pre-viewed. I figured that it was a boon to have the opportunity to save the money and discover their value without having to track them down myself. Whereas I might have put up a fight if the offerings were ones I had no interest in, it was easy for me to sit back and relax with what was on hand. We agreed to start with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007). Directed by relative newcomer Seth Gordon, the documentary traces the world of competitive classic video gamers. Like virtually any other marginal amusement activity in America, there is an entire subculture built up around 1980's-era stand-up games like Donkey Kong, Centipede and Q-bert.

You can probably imagine what these folks are like- they are nerdy, pasty and socially awkward. Yet they take their hobby very, very seriously. One player (a suburban everyman named Steve Wiebe) is so caught up in chasing the record score on DK that he regularly sheds tears when he is bested. The man usually delivering the smack-downs is "celebrity" player Billy Mitchell. In the world of the video arcade, this guy is the smoothest of the geeks. Gordon sets up an epic battle, pitching Mitchell as the dark knight going up against the clean-cut sincerity of Wiebe. There are plenty of laughs to be had along the way, but we couldn't help thinking the entire milieu was a bit pathetic. By the end we were all hoping for the very real tragedy of suicide.

After the comic pathos of The King of Kong, we were ready for some unadulterated bleakness. Our follow-up was El Orfanato (2007, US title- The Orphanage). Produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos, Hellboy) and directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona, it tells the story of a couple that has decided to open up a school for "special children" along an isolated stretch of the Spanish coastline. It just so happens that Laura (Belén Rueda) was once housed at this location as an orphaned child herself. Perhaps that is why she adopted Simón (Roger Príncep), a young boy with HIV. Laura and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have not told their child that he is afflicted with the deadly disease, nor that he is not their natural child.

Despite the family secrets, young Simón knows the deal. He's being advised by what his parents believe are his "imaginary friends". While Laura at first believes that these consorts are simply the product of a kid's fanciful imagination, she soon suspects that her new living environs harbor some eerie forces. When Simón disappears without a trace, his mother dedicates herself to unlocking the mysteries of the house and its storied history. There are certainly some deftly horrific shots and sequences in El Orfanato. A particular highlight is a creepy costume party that Laura hosts for the arrival of her new wards. However, the narrative is encumbered by a score weighed down by cliché and an ending that is just too sentimentalized for its own good. It's an interesting diversion, but not necessary for your collection.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous grasshopper said...

Billy Mitchell is the ideal video game villain, nappy facial hair and everything

12:17 AM  

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