It Might Get Loud

It Might Get LoudA few years ago director Davis Guggenheim set out to create a documentary about one of the most iconic instruments in music, and the driving force behind the entire rock and roll scene since its inception:  the guitar.  His way of doing so was to get the perspective of three musicians, each in some way the driving force behind a particular brand of rock music.  Jimmy Page, the guitarist from Led Zeppelin; The Edge, the genius behind the unique and experimental sound of worldwide rock sensation U2; and…Jack White from The White Stripes.  Guggenheim essentially films a conversation between the three men as they sit with their guitars in the middle of a warehouse, talking about their personal stories, influences, creative visions, and thoughts on the history of rock music.  It’s a daring concept to be sure, and one that is inherently fraught with musical controversy:  ask any guitarist to name their three heroes in the genre, and it’s doubtful Page, Edge, and White would all be mentioned in the same sentence.  The three are masters of their craft, but how many hundreds or thousands of brilliant, influential guitarists (Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or modern virtuosos like Buckethead, John Petrucci, or even Mark Tremonti) were left off the list?  Why these three specifically?  The answer, it turns out, doesn’t really matter.  This isn’t a movie about the best, or most influential, or most popular, or most innovative, or hardest-shredding guitarists.  It’s just a movie about three dudes who are masters of their craft and offer their perspective–take it or leave it.

It Might Get Loud: Jack White, The Edge, Jimmy Page

Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page. Two out of three ain't bad, I guess.

Beyond just filming a conversation, Guggenheim offers a much richer experience than just watching three dudes wax nostalgic about their geetars.  He offers glimpses into the creative processes each musician has gone though to lead them to where they are.  From Page’s humble beginnings as a studio musician and then playing backup for the Yardbirds, to the streets of Detroit where White, the youngest of 10 children, spent his days working in an upholstery shop and playing music with his boss in the evenings.  Even The Edge, who practically sleeps and bathes with a full set of pedals and FX boards, takes a trip back to the high school where he and his friends practiced music in their teacher’s classroom after the bell rang.

On some levels the movie succeeds quite well, and it’s fascinating to see how each of these men have taken the guitar and made it their own.  The most captivating is Page, who having achieved the pinnacle of rock and roll stardom, and been there/done that by any definition of the phrase, is just as enthusiastic as ever about the guitar.  Like watching a child utterly captivated by the simple pleasure of a rubber ball or toy car, Page jams away to classic Zeppelin tunes like Ramble On, exuding joy from every pore.  Watching him play air guitar as he listens to his early influences like Link Wray’s classic instrumental Rumble is the standalone highlight of the entire documentary, as his infectious affectation for the molasses-thick riffs practically oozes through the screen.

It Might Get Loud: Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page, rambling on with no regrets.

In stark contrast to Page and Edge, Jack White spends much of the film brooding over the sad state of over-produced music today, and strumming out harsh contrivances on old dusty guitars as if trying to make some kind of point about keeping the soul of music pure. It’s rare that he smiles, even when sitting inches away from Page and Edge, and watching him play the piano while encouraging his son (with whom he shares a scarily identical wardrobe of slacks, vest, and dour scowl) to simply bang on a guitar with his foot, as if the nonsensical rubbish were some kind of expression of musical purity, was actually a tad frightening.

Seeing the bombed-out haunts of Edge’s childhood in conflict-ravaged Dublin, the cavernous Headley Grange mansion where Zeppelin recorded IV, and the dirty streets of Detroit where the White family struggled to make ends meet is all very interesting, but the trouble is there’s just not much substance in the movie to go along with the powerful imagery.  It Might Get Loud seems like an extended trailer for what would make three very interesting biographies, and by merely touching on the primal elements from which some of the greatest tunes in recent history were born, it feels like so much more could have been explored that time just did not allow for.  It Might Get Loud is an interesting curiosity, though it lacks a true punch or even a real message.  So the guitar is a cool instrument–whether it’s a basic acoustic setup or a high-tech magical wand at a U2 show.  We already knew that.  And seeing these three men talk about it, while watching bits of their personal biographies, comes across like the impromptu jam session they find themselves in near the end:  curious but more than a little awkward.

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Second Skin

Second SkinLet me get this out of the way right off the bat:  Second Skin is outstanding.  It is a documentary that does what it should:  document.  There’s very little in the way of agenda or self-aggrandizing.  There’s no narrator, no artificial plot or conflict created by the director, and some loose ends are purposely left hanging and questions left unanswered.  What we have, then, is a thoroughly compelling, entirely engrossing exploration of online games and the people who play them.  Director Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza follows several individuals from a variety of walks of life who all happen to play some form of online role-playing game such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft.  Through the course of the film we see how these online games affect the lives of the individuals–for better or for worse–and also hear thoughts and insights about online games from game developers and other industry insiders.  And while online gaming might seen like a strange subject for a documentary, it’s the way in which these games affect the subjects of the film that transforms the film from a mere curiosity to a must-see for anyone who either plays online games or know someone who plays them.  And there’s a lot more than you might think.

The individuals that Pineiro-Escoriaza uses as the subject of his documentary are fairly normal people:  they have jobs, significant others, and social lives.  But the one thread they all share is their love of online gaming.  And I don’t mean love, like one might say “I love cookies.”  These people game (yes, it is a verb) for six, eight, even twelve or more hours a day.  Online gaming has, in many cases, supplanted reality as the preferred method of social interaction for these individuals–and in some cases for very good reasons.  As is pointed out through interviews with the gamers as well as developers and academics, online games and their social communities can be a place where looks, cultural background, talent, and past failures are entirely erased.  In essence, the first time anyone logs on to World of Warcraft or any one of the hundreds of online games available, he or she is free to create a dopplegänger that can literally be anyone he or she wants it to be.  In a world where people are so often judged by looks, clothes, social status, and myriad other factors that belie the true character of the individual, online games offer a refuge in which people are free to live out alternate lives free of the prejudices and trappings of reality.  And within the massive constructs offered by these worlds, people are free to pursue goals, gain new skills, meet friends, even join secret societies and elite clubs like The Syndicate.  A compelling alternate-reality existence indeed.

Second Skin: Kevin Keel

Kevin Keel, an online gamer who found what he hopes is true love through EverQuest II.

Careful to not gloss over the complications of living this type of life, Pineiro-Escoriaza shows the good and bad sides of how this passion (some would call addiction) affects the subjects of his film.  Andy Belford is a man who moves to Indiana to live with three other men he met online, and the four of them form a friendship that is deep and fulfilling both in real life and online.  Kevin Keel moves from Texas to Florida to be with Heather Cowan, a woman he met on EverQuest.  And Andrew Monkelban, an individual severely crippled by cerebral palsy, is able to life a fulfilling virtual life within the confines of his computer screen, meeting people, forming relationships, and enjoying simple activities like walking in a park that are beyond his reach in reality.  Liz Wooley, a woman whose son committed suicide after becoming so engrossed in World of Warcraft that he lost touch with reality and took his own life, is now committed to helping gamers with their online addictions and even provides a safe house and a 12-step program.  But with all the positive ways in which online games affect the individuals of the documentary, there are plenty of downsides too.  Keel and Cowan have incredible difficulty relating to each at times, and are forced to deal with the many struggles inherent in merging lives in the real world.  Belford and his friends drift apart after marriages and children begin to take over, and encounter an entirely new set of difficulties when they try to balance their love of (addiction to?) online games with newfound responsibilities in real life.  And Dan Bustard, a healthy and prosperous man in real life, becomes so entrenched in playing World of Warcraft that he loses his friends, job, girlfriend, and even thinks of taking his own life.

Second Skin: Andy Belford

Faced with the birth of twins, Andy Belford is forced to balance real-world responsibilities and maintaining a Level 70 WoW character.

Interspersed throughout the stories told in Second Skin are a number of interviews with couples who have found each other online, brief investigations into the shady practice of Gold Farming, history lessons on online gaming, as well as the aforementioned interviews and comments from actual game developers (though, curiously, none of the individuals behind WoW, EverQuest, or any of the other online games which are the subject of the film).  In fact, more than most documentaries I have seen, Second Skin succeeds because it accomplishes the goal of the medium:  it documents.  And while there is always more to the story than what is shown onscreen, it doesn’t really push one particular viewpoint over another.  Is online gaming good or healthy for people?  How much online gaming is too much?  Is is normal for people to take sick days off work just to play a World of Warcraft expansion pack?  Such questions are raised but not answered, and instead left for the viewers to decide.  And while the film does leave some loose ends, it does offer as much conclusion as possible on some of the storylines.  But beyond the basic interviewing and reporting, Second Skin is a thoroughly engrossing and often entertaining look at a subset of a subset of our culture that is actually a lot bigger than most people realize.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is Bustard, who eventually kicks his gaming habit not through the help of Wooley and her program, but through sheer will and determination.  In the end he regains his health, trims his waistline, and decides that even a solitary walk around town on a snowy evening is far better and more satisfying than any excursion in an online gaming.

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Friday Night Lights

The faithful reader might remember a piece I posted last fall on Glory Road. Thad H. posted a comment on that piece suggesting that I might enjoy Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian “Mojo” Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in their bid for their 6th State Championship.

If you like high school football you’ll love this movie. It takes place in small-town Texas (Odessa, to be exact), where football is a religion and the high school players are hailed as much as NFL stars. Director Peter Berg serves up plenty of bone-bruising hits, body-bending catches, and tackles that have to involve a trampoline just off camera.

Odessa is a blue collar, nearly impoverished town, and there are two kinds of boys: those who might make it out of this town, and those who won’t. Those who might play their hearts out on the field in hopes of getting an NCAA scholarship. Those who won’t play their hearts out on the field because this is all they’ll ever have.

Beginning of the season.

All this creates an intense environment to grow up in. Gaines is threatened with termination if he doesn’t win State, and after one loss, comes home to find “for sale” signs all over his yard. One of his players, Don Billingsly (Gerrett Hedlund), is cursed to be the son of a local football legend, and not have his ability. For several painful scenes, Chuck Billingsly (Tim McGraw) verbally abuses Don and grinds him down for cut-ups on the field. The Panthers win most of their games, but people flagellate them for every mistake. All of this spills onto the field, of course, and Berg makes the action nasty enough that you wonder if this is a sports movie or the teen version of  Braveheart. If you enjoy watching young men get their noses smashed and fingers broken, this is the movie for you.

FNLdoes keep the audience involved. I kept backing it up to revisit what happened. The pacing is a little off, though. In a couple of close games, for example, Mojo is getting killed for awhile, Gaines yells a lot, and then suddenly they have some big plays, and end up winning or making it close. The film never builds your anticipation or shows what they changed on the field to get that result. A good sports movie would at least have some kind of inspirational speech that turns things around.

But why complain? This is a movie made for sports nuts, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a real game. There was only one thing about this film I really didn’t like. (Spoiler alert: you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

Target audience of "Friday Night Lights."

For the championship game, Mojo goes up against Dallas Carter, a team full of 300-pounders that hardly seem to belong in high school. As a matter of fact, in reality, D.C. was later stripped of its title for playing an ineligible player.

End of the season.

 No one expects Mojo to give D.C. any trouble. After being down as much as 21 points, Mojo comes back to close the gap to six, and then falls inches short of a TD at the last second. We then see a lot of slow motion walking across the field. One person walking is Don Billingsly. Chuck comes out of the stands and gives him a hug – which Don actually accepts! WTF?? Now that he’s fought overwhelming odds, covered himself in bruises and sprained every joint in his body, he’s good enough for acknowledgement from the man who’s treated him like dirt all his life, and he takes it?? I wanted him to push dad aside and congratulate his team, or kiss his girlfriend, or something.

A lot of guys love to talk about how football produces the best kind of men, and this movie was made for them. I tend to think the success of ex-players has less to do with qualities the game instills than the fact that having played for the local high school is a golden ticket into the local country club. It gets a little old having to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guys that played football. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy the drama that comes with sports, however. FNL succeeds at what it sets out to do, and for that I give it

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Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price

Reviewing a documentary can be a bit tricky, since it’s not always easy to divorce oneself from the subject matter of the movie and do an objective writeup.  So in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably get a few things out of the way off the bat regarding my relationship with America’s largest retailer.

Historically, my taste for Walmart has swung from nonchalance to animosity and back to somewhere between the two.  I have never had a particular affinity for the store, but there have been a few periods of time during which I stood on a rather feeble soapbox and carried out lowly one-man boycotts of it.  In college I went through a period of a few years during which I didn’t set foot into a Walmart, but now I shop there once every other week or so for a few things–as well as the local grocery store and other places too.

Had I watched this movie during my college years I would have been cheering it on for its exposé of Walmart’s shady business practices, somewhat disdainful treatment of women and minorities, shady environmental practices, and the like.  But I would have also failed to notice the movie’s decidedly one-sided treatment of these issues, and much like the director Robert Greenwald, I would have probably been first in line to condemn the Walton family for eternity.  Things are a bit different now, though…

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let’s step back and look at how this movie functions as a documentary, and I must say, it handles its subject matter pretty well–up to a certain point, anyway.  Not content to focus on one aspect of Walmart, Greenwald examines myriad ways in which the retailer is not as wholesome as its smiley-faced logo would have the public believe.  His thesis (Walmart = evil) is supported by several vignettes, each of which serves to highlight a particular way in which Walmart is a abomination unto mankind.  He of course launches into the requisite run-the-small-guys-out-of-business complaint, choosing to focus on a hardware store owner whose 40+ year family business was done in by the construction of a nearby Walmart.  Charges of racism are brought to light through interviews with a management trainee who was allegedly told by her manager that she was ultimately denied the position because she was a black female.

The films climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

The film's climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

Similar accusations of malfeasance are brought forth via interviews with employees from all over the Walmart food chain (entry-level cashiers to former multi-decade managerial types) as well as people on the periphery, such as conservationist experts and even Chinese factory workers.  In fact, one of the most poignant segments involves a young Chinese girl who works in a factory making products for Walmart.  When word gets around that an inspector is going to be coming to the factory to investigate working conditions, the girl explains that she and her coworkers were taught specifically how to lie in order to cover up their deplorable work environment.  However, one of the weakest points made by Greenwald is in the area of environmental concern, where his entire argument is supported with only one interview with a public environmental worker who had a great deal of trouble getting one particular Walmart store to properly cover up some palettes of fertilizer.  Not much ammunition for the accusation that the entire company is environmentally irresponsible.

Intercut through all these individual stories, though, is footage of the company CEO, Lee Scott, specifically making claims that Walmart is *not* evil.  He states at a company meeting that Walmart is a great place to work, while Greenwald rolls interview footage with employees who decry just the opposite.  Scott claims that Walmart will work together with communities, while Greenwald shows how they specifically try to choke local businesses and build outside city boundaries in order to avoid paying taxes that would benefit the community.  It’s this type of point-counterpoint style that sets High Cost of Low Price apart from other documentaries, and serves to do a great deal in order to bolster Greenwald’s claim of Walmart’s inherent infamy.

Lee Scott, the president of Walmart.

Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart.

However, where I take issue with the film, and thus where it ultimately fails as a documentary and becomes more of a propaganda piece, is the fact that it completely ignores any argument that Walmart might *not* be evil.  Greenwald never interviews low-income families who are able to get clothes because of Walmart’s low prices.  He never talks with seniors who benefit from Walmart’s cheap generic prescription drugs.  He steers wide of any employee who does happen to enjoy his or her job at Walmart and only focuses on those who have been wronged.  It’s a classic case of the blind men and the elephant; there is much more to the story that is entirely ignored here.

A quote on the poster at the top of this article compares High Cost of Low Price to Morgan Spurlock’s famous documentary about McDonald’s, Super Size Me.  Ultimately both movies fail to be truly convincing because they ignore one crucial point:  if you don’t like something, don’t buy it.  The real indictment here should be the people who support Walmart, just as the problem with fast food isn’t entirely the fault of McDonald’s, it’s the fault of those who choose to eat at McDonald’s. While Walmart certainly could clean up their act, they do a lot of good for various communities too–and again, I’m trying hard to stay away from judging the thesis of the movie.  I just think High Cost of Low Price fails to be truly convincing, and thus fails to be effective as a documentary, because it is so one-sided and brazenly biased.

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American Movie

The first time I saw American Movie was sort of like the first time I saw This Is Spinal Tap.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t see the humor, I didn’t understand the point, and I was just plain ol’ bored.  I remember renting it with my brother Andy and cousin Jeremy clear back in high school and after an hour or so we gave up and watched Terminator instead.  And for a while I thought nothing of it, but noticed that American Movie would show up on various “Top Movies” lists put out by various print and online publications from time to time.  I found this curious, but little more, and it wasn’t until I stumbled across Rotten Tomatoe’s 50 Movies for 50 States list that I decided to give American Movie another try.  Was it worth it?  Yes and no.

Ostensibly, American Movie is a documentary that chronicles would-be director (and beer-swilling Wisconsin thoroughbred) Mark Borchardt as he struggles to complete his horror film Northwestern.  Due to a severe lack of funds, though, Borchardt decides to finish another film he had been working on called Coven instead.  His plan is to sell 3,000 copies of Coven, at $14.95 each, which would give him enough financial wherewithal to accomplish his goal of completing Northwestern.  Documentarian Chris Smith thus follows the filming of Coven for over three years, and in doing so, creates what is essentially a Spinal Tap for low-budget indie flicks (one of the jokes being that American Movie is itself a low-budget indie flick).

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the dynamic duo of Milwaukee filmmaking

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the dynamic duo of Milwaukee filmmaking

The hero, or perhaps simply the protagonist, of American Movie is Borchardt, a guy in his upper 20’s with a dream of becoming a filmmaker.  He has almost no means by which to accomplish his dream, though, and instead whiles away his days by drifting from one odd job to another (one day he’s delivering papers, the next he’s a cemetery custodian), occasionally parenting his children, trying to make a relationship with his girlfriend work, and also get in some shots for Coven.  Helping him out is his longtime friend and movie-making buddy Mike, a burnout with a penchant for playing the guitar and barely enough motivation to even get out of bed in the morning.  Rounding things out is Mike’s uncle Bill, a miserly, crotchety, bitingly sarcastic retiree who lends money to Mark even though he’s not entirely sure why.

No one can fault Borchardt for a lack of vision, though, and despite all common sense he dutifully forges ahead with the filming of Coven, oblivious to a fault to just how badly the odds are stacked against him.  He has grand visions of what he wants to accomplish, but things never seem to work out quite right.  Actors (read: locals who responded to “casting call” flyers in grocery store windows) don’t show up for filming, equipment breaks down, footage is lost, and money is virtually nonexistent.  Nevertheless, Borchardt continually forges ahead with Coven, often at the expense of family and friends, not to mention a relationship with his own children.

The cynical, sarcastic, and profoundly hilarious Uncle Bill

The cynical, sarcastic, and profoundly hilarious Uncle Bill

And this is where American Movie becomes more than a simple documentary about a guy who wants to make a movie.  It’s a deeply profound insight into the plight of the American Dream as it exists today.  Beneath that is also an indictment of the grade-school creedo that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.  Borchardt has to face the harsh realities that span the gulf between dream and realization, but one thing that stands in his way more than anything else is his refusal to take stock of his situation and realize that he could possibly change things if he wanted to.  Better planning, a clearer line of communication between him and his (albeit somewhat limited) support staff, some community college courses in film production…any number of things could have been done by this aspiring director to lift himself, and his projects, to the heights he dreams for them.  He really does want to make movies, and he really does set his mind to it, but he seems condemned to wander the path of mediocrity.

But something about Borchard’s story is very interesting, engrossing, and often flat-out entertaining.  Watching him interact with Uncle Bill is often downright hilarious, and one priceless scene involves Borchardt trying to get his uncle to say what is supposed to be the opening line of the movie–a very simple recording process that just doesn’t quite work out.  Another highlight of the film is a scene in which a man’s head is shoved through a cabinet.  Borchard knows what he wants to happen, but he and his “crew” just can’t get it right:  the cabinet door doesn’t break like it’s supposed to, the cameras aren’t positioned correctly, and when they finally get the man’s head through, he is seriously injured and lays on the floor bleeding.  A microcosm of the movie as a whole, really, that also showcases Borchard’s odd sort of dedication to his craft:  he is so concerned with wanting to be a good director that he doesn’t just be a director.  Smith also includes a host of clips from interviews with Borchard’s family, friends, and people around town who have heard of him through the grapevine.  In the end we get a very intimate portrait of a dedicated but somewhat misguided man (his fumbling camerawork often comes at the expense of even having a good relationship with his children), and yet, we are never asked to gawk like distracted commuters passing an interstate accident.  We are instead shown the portrait of a man with myriad personal faults who chases his cinematic windmills with such aplomb that it’s perhaps even a bit inspiring.

And so I leave American Movie with some confused semi-admiration for its subject, wondering if I witnessed something deeply profound, profoundly sad, or confoundingly entertaining.  Maybe in another ten years I’ll give it another shot and see what happens.

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Welcome to Macintosh

Full disclosure:  I’m a longtime Apple fan.  We got our first computer, a Mac 512K-E, in 1987 when I was seven years old.  Since then I have gone through several Macs with my family, and since moving out when I was in college I have purchased a G3 iMac, G4 eMac, and Intel iMac.  I use a PC at work, and while I am fully capable of transitioning between the two types of computers, I feel much more at home on a Mac.

I thought this documentary, which claims to be “The documentary for the rest of us” (riffing on Apple’s “the computer for the rest of us” slogan from the early 1990’s), would be a nice exploration of the computer company of which I am rather fond, along with the creative minds behind their signature product.  And it’s not that the documentary was bad, or even poorly made, it’s that I went away from it feeling as though there was so much untapped potential, so much brilliant source material, that was left entirely untouched by the filmmakers.

The movie is mostly a series of interviews with people central to the culture of the Macintosh computer, along with a few individuals who helped bring the computer about in its early days and shepherd it along to the well-established niche market it enjoys today.  These people range from software developers to design architects, columnists to analysts, and even the owner of the very first Apple retail outlet (which is two blocks from where my wife used to live near downtown Minneapolis).  There’s even a trip to a Macintosh archive of sorts–several thousand square feet of storage owned by a very devoted Apple fan, who has multiple versions of nearly every computer Apple has ever produced.  All this serves to shed some light on the eccentric culture of Mac-heads, and probably gives the uninitiated a bit of insight, if a little skewed at times, into the culture of Mac owners.

Guy Kawasaki, the highlight interview of the movie.

Guy Kawasaki, the highlight interview of the movie.

Certainly the meat of the documentary is the extensive interview footage with Guy Kawasaki, an early Apple employee who has spent the past few decades working closely with Apple as well as writing several books about the company and other computer subjects.  His thoughts on Apple’s rise in the 1980s, fall from grace throughout the 1990s, and recent return to prominence, are funny, enlightening, heartwarming, and very down-to-earth.  It’s clear that Kawasaki is not blindly waving the Apple banner, and he has several valid criticisms of the company and its leaders, but his place in Apple history affords him the luxury of being imminently qualified to offer his opinion in a way that few others can do.

Careful readers of this review will note a particular absence of names, though:  Jobs, Wozniak, Schiller, Ive, Scully, Amelio, even Gates…the people at the very heart of Apple, who have had immeasurable influence on the company since its founding over 30 years ago.  While I applaud the filmmakers for cobbling together a decent chronicle of Apple, the fact that it is missing the most key players makes the entire project feel hollow.

FirstTech, the original Apple Store, in Minneapolis.

FirstTech, the original Apple Store, in Minneapolis.

Along with the lack of key interview subjects, entire chunks of Apple’s history are either ignored or skimmed over so quickly that they might as well not even be included.  In a stunning move, the entire period following the return of Steve Jobs to the helm of the company (arguably the most important chapter in the company’s history) is presented in a matter of minutes.  iPods, iMacs, iPhones, and other such monumental achievements flash by as a series of images and are subsequently all but ignored.

Rather than spending several minutes discussing product serial numbers with retail store owners, or digging through a collection of Apple ][ machines in a storage shed, or interviewing a bitter ex-Apple employee who still can’t let bygones be bygones, it would have been good to see a documentary that really is for the rest of us.

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King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Some subjects are just not what people would think of as being fruitful grounds for a documentary.  Take the premise of King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.  It’s about a guy named Steve Wiebe, a regular dude who is a little down on his luck and decides to go for a high score on Donkey Kong.  Yes, that Donkey Kong.  Turns out he has a knack for the game, and decides that he wants to be at the current record holder, a hot sauce and restaurant entrepreneur named Billy Mitchell who has held the top score since the mid-80’s.

Not exactly Oscar-worthy source material.

What makes this documentary not only work, but shine, is its unrelenting focus not on video games, but on video gamers.  Specifically the odd, quirky subset of video game players who continually try to best each others’ high scores on classic 8-bit video games.  We’re talking about people with wives and kids and real jobs who spend their time playing games like Galaga, Breakout, and Donkey Kong for hours and hours at a time just to get a higher score than someone else.  And in the middle of it all is Walter Day, a former oil executive who now spends his days keeping track of official video game high scores.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

As we follow Steve Wiebe on his quest to beat the Donkey Kong high score (just writing that seems a little odd) we get to know several of these peoples, and come to respect and even admire their devotion to games that few people in the world even play anymore.  Mitchel, whose self-confidence is so over-the-top he reminds me of a real-life White Goodman, soon gets word of a challenge to his high score and makes it his personal mission to make sure he remains the record holder at any cost.

Does all this sound just a little weird to you?

Yes, this man can kick your butt at video games.

Yes, this man can kick your butt at video games.

If so, that’s kind of the point.  But far from being exploitative or demeaning, King of Kong treats these competitive video gamers as if they were Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.  Wiebe is as dedicated as any professional athlete, and displays concentration and stamina that could rival any Olympic athlete in the pursuit of his goal.  And when he arrives at the actual Twin Galaxies arcade to play Donkey Kong for a live audience to prove his skills to an unbelieving community of competitive gamers (Mitchell’s record had not been broken for almost 20 years, so one can understand their skepticism), and a tape sent by Mitchell is unveiled that shows him beating his own high score is unveiled, the injustice of it all is almost too much to bear.

Billy Mitchell: 8-bit video game chapion and homemade hot sauce salesman.

Billy Mitchell: 8-bit video game champion and homemade hot sauce salesman.

And that is exactly why this documentary is a success:  it draws the viewer into this very strange subset of video gaming culture so deeply, and involves us on such an emotional level with the key players involved, that it might as well be the story of an underdog NFL team on its way to the Super Bowl.  Though like many documentaries, facts were somewhat blurred to accomplish this type of audience empathy.  A rivalry between Wiebe and Mitchell that is shown onscreen is actually far from the truth, and the two men have repeatedly stated that they are friends and were always on much better terms than what was shown in the movie.  And sometimes director Seth Gordan movie does cross the line a little bit with Wiebe’s family.  Footage and interviews with his wife and kids at times seems a little too much like tabloid TV than investigative documentary, and I have to wonder how much the interviews with his wife were selectively manipulated to show a lack of confidence in her husband that may or may not have been real.

Still, I highly recommend this fun, quirky, and very entertaining documentary, whether blocky, outdated video games are your thing or not.  Wiebe’s persistence is inspiring, and the glimpse into competitive video gaming is so compelling one can’t help but watch.

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Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

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