Capsule reviews: documentary edition

Hobbies are strange things, aren’t they? I mean, there’s a broad range of possible involvement in some hobbies. You could just enjoy watching a movie every now and then, or you could decide to write a blog about them. There’s running for fun and exercise, and then there’s signing up for a half-marathon. We recently watched two documentaries that were very similar, in that they both focus on activities that are typically hobbies, but that can also become professions or (in some cases) all-consuming obsessions.

Wordplay (2006)

I am a pretty religious New York Times crossword solver, but I have nothing on these people. Wordplay talks about the NYT crossword puzzle, its fans (Jon Stewart! Bill Clinton!) and current editor Will Shortz, but mainly follows various contestants of the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Yep, every year, a bunch of (admittedly pretty geeky) people all get together at a big hotel and spend the weekend solving puzzles. From the official website: “Solvers tackle eight original crosswords created and edited specially for this event. Scoring is based on accuracy and speed.” The dramatic final rounds sees the top three finishers on a stage, each wearing noise-canceling headphones and solving the puzzle on a big whiteboard in front of them. Each of the contestants tells us a little about their history with the tournament, their strategies for solving, and what they do when they’re not solving crosswords. A lot of the footage takes place at the tournament itself, which is obviously a beloved tradition for these puzzle solvers. On Saturday night there’s a talent show. It’s a chance for a bunch of random folks to get together and have fun, and over the years friendships have developed and evolved. I think the filmmakers got into the spirit of things; they really present the whole experience as something fun and meaningful, without it getting too serious or …weird, I guess. A couple of the people featured were a little bit on the odd side, but for the most part, these are just smarter-than-average folks with day jobs and other passions. As with anything that involves personal experience and competition, you definitely end up rooting for favorites, and the final showdown doesn’t disappoint at all. This is a fun and enjoyable documentary, particularly if you’re a fan of crosswords, but even if you don’t get what all the fuss is about. I’d definitely recommend it, if only for the chance to watch Jon Stewart talk some trash and do his puzzle in Sharpie.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Unlike Wordplay, The King of Kong presents its subjects in a slightly less-flattering light. The film focuses on the strange world of arcade video game enthusiasts, and specifically on the subject of the World Record Score for the game of Donkey Kong. Previous to the events of the movie, the record was a score of 957,300, achieved in 2004 by Billy Mitchell. Naturally, a challenger (named Steve Weibe) emerges to attempt a higher score. Having videotaped himself playing Kong in his garage and outscoring Mitchell, Weibe sends the videotape to Twin Galaxies, an organization that judges, verifies, and maintains record video game scores. What follows is a ridiculous back-and-forth in which Weibe consistently appears to outscore Mitchell, only to be denied the title of champion for one reason or another. Meanwhile, Mitchell, who is himself an “official” with Twin Galaxies (which hardly seems appropriate) refuses to face off against Weibe, even as he touts the importance of achieving record scores in person. The final showdown-that-isn’t happens in Hollywood, Florida (practically in Mitchell’s backyard), where scores are being gathered for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. Once again, Mitchell refuses to engage, going so far as to show up to the event and never touch a game. This is a truly bizarre movie, documenting a truly bizarre world. The people showcased here (aside from Weibe, who seems like a pretty nice guy) are every inch what you might expect them to be: a little bit divorced from reality. Billy Mitchell is the most impressive villain masquerading as a normal person I have ever seen. He even has minions! Juxtaposed with Wordplay, The King of Kong seems much more designed to bring to light an arcane world with a questionable governing body than to showcase a community and an event that people might not know much about. Instead of offering up a choice of characters to root for, we are given a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, but at the end of it all, the audience mostly ends up questioning whether or not these people ought to let go of the joystick and go outside and toss a frisbee around instead. It’s still entertaining and worth a watch, but also kind of mind-boggling. I think I preferred Wordplay, although The King of Kong is somewhat more dramatic in nature.

So, if you’re looking for a documentary to watch, but like your subject matter a little on the light side, you should definitely check out one of these. You know, in your spare time.

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5 responses to “Capsule reviews: documentary edition

  1. Good choices! These are two of my favorites. i think I may have even seen them both in the theater. I also prefer Wordplay, but man oh man that Billy Mitchell. I will never forget him 🙂

    • I liked Wordplay a lot…it reminded me of Spellbound, which would also be a good pairing.

      Seriously, I think if I saw that guy on the street I would be sorely tempted to punch him in the face. He needs it.

  2. The wordplay one sounds intriguing, I don’t mind a ‘light’ documentary instead of the really bleak subject matter like bullying, etc.

    Btw, I nominated you for Liebster, hope you’ll do it! http://flixchatter.net/2012/08/08/award-season-is-upon-us-7×7-liebster-blog-awards-that-is

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