By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Those of us who plan our annual schedules according to film festival start dates have learned one thing this year: Zooey Deschanel—who's had multiple movies in every fest in 2007, including two here—is the new Parker Posey. Does that sound cranky? Well, you must excuse the weariness; we're still groggy and hung over from the 25-plus movies upon which we gorged ourselves at South by Southwest in Austin only last week, which wasn't even an eighth of what was available to ravenous cinephiles lining up at the buffet table. But never mind us, not when there's a good chance you'll bump into Lauren Bacall or David Lynch or Morgan Freeman or Ron Livingston or Bill Paxton wandering Victory Park or the Magnolia or, like, even a Target this week and next.
Dallas's AFI fest promises 190 screenings (features and shorts) spread across nearly a dozen venues, a charitable amount of shindigs populated by famous faces, some high-profile previews of upcoming openings (Hot Fuzz and Fido among them) and a few inevitable instructional panels intended to educate and entertain the would-bes and wannabes. This is a big festival with big money behind it ($3 mil's the budget, with some 800 thou of that going to the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute in franchising and consulting fees). If the AFI's red-and-white color scheme makes you want to pick up some shampoo and toilet paper at Target, well, the fest's lead sponsor will be more than pleased to hear that.
Dallas has become a film-fest town, between such veterans as the USA Film Festival (which commences in mere days, oy) and the Dallas Video Festival, not to mention the more specialized fests catering to fans of gay and Asian and Jewish movies. (One day, and Christmas Eve seems like as good a time as any, there will be a fest screening movies intended only for gay Asian Jews.) We may get movies a little later than New York or Los Angeles, where David Lynch's Inland Empireand Brad Silberling's 10 Items or Lesshave already opened and closed, but we now miss nothing. To think, folks worried there wouldn't be enough product to fill the art houses just a few years ago, when the Angelika and Magnolia theaters opened within a few months and a few miles of each other.
There are some exceptional films on the AFI's schedule, no matter their points of origin—like, for instance, director Katherine Dieckmann's Diggersand David Wain's The Ten, both of which were written by and star Ken Marino, formerly of The State comedy troupe. The latter offers a wry, surreal and often just silly take on the Ten Commandments; imagine The Meaning of Life in which Winona Ryder takes up with a ventriloquist's dummy or a doctor refers to intentionally leaving surgical instruments in his patients' bodies as "a goof." Diggersis far more substantive, Breaking Awayrecast as an homage to Marino's clam-digging dad. Indeed, Diggersis not only set in the 1970s but looks like it could have been shot in the 1970s, and Paul Rudd (who's also in The Ten) fronts an astounding cast that also features Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton, Lauren Ambrose and Marino sporting the grooviest mustache outside of porn.
Diggers is great; director Seth Gordon's video-game doc King of Kong, which bowed at SXSW, is even better. (If it's the best film at AFI, it's only because it's one of the best movies of 2007.) Ostensibly about Billy Mitchell, who held the world's highest Donkey Kongscore for almost 25 years beginning in 1982, King of Kongis as much about the perils of hubris and the price of heartbreak. Mitchell's been the champ since he was a kid and piled up nearly 900,000 points on the arcade machine; since then, no one's come within 300,000 points of his record. He has spent the last 25 years growing a chicken-wing sauce business, primping his mullet and pimping his fame as the so-called "Videogame Player of the Century," under the banner of Twin Galaxies—the "official" score-keeping franchise for all arcade world records, for which Mitchell's also a judge.
Only one man emerges in all that time to challenge Mitchell: Steve Wiebe (pronounced "Wee-bee"), a husband and father of two whose life thus far has been defined by his failures and disappointments—his inability to pitch The Big Game in high school, his losing The Big Job his father once held, his failing to live up to his potential and his family's hopes. All he's got going for him: a patient and forgiving wife, a Donkey Kong machine in the basement and the ability to figure out how to beat every flaming barrel Kong throws his way.
In time, the challenger becomes champion: Wiebe unseats Mitchell, for whom losing is unfathomable and unacceptable—to the point where Mitchell and his Twin Galaxies cronies essentially conspire to disallow Wiebe's million-point mark. How they do it and to what level they're willing to stoop are at the core of The King of Kong, which would play like dark comedy were there not such honest-to-God cruelty at its core. (Mitchell is thoroughly unlikable—a small-timer who fulfills the role of big-screen villain with so little effort.)
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