PIFF best bets for Friday & Saturday, Feb. 26 & 27

The festival's final two After Dark selections are a sly indie thriller and an endearing portrait of a video game champion

And now, the end is near…

The 39th Portland International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and if that leaves you feeling like Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” don’t worry. There will still be plenty of marvelous movies coming our way, and ArtsWatch will be there to help you negotiate them. In the meantime, there are a couple more PIFF picks to draw your attention to. The final entries in the PIFF After Dark sidebar (one of the fest’s highlights, for sure) may not be terribly international, but they’re both mighty entertaining, perhaps serving as a bit of a palate cleanser after a couple of weeks dominated by some dark, depressing flicks. (There are also encore screenings on Sunday and Monday.) Enjoy, and with any luck we’ll still be here to commemorate PIFF’s 40th birthday next year!

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“The Invitation”: There’s a new trend in American independent film, at least according to the adage that three examples equal a trend: the dinner-party-meets-genre movie. Low-budget auteurs have always liked the single setting and ensemble cast aspects of a story that revolves around the inherent drama of people getting together, eating, talking, drinking, and eventually baring their souls.

Now these movies come with a twist. “It’s a Disaster,” a weekend brunch is interrupted by a comical apocalypse. In “Coherence,” a get-together gets weird after a passing comet disrupts quantum reality. And in Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” a reunion of old friends grows tense as it gradually becomes apparent that the hosts are members of a malevolent cult. Or are they?

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi, who shines here and in the upcoming “Miles Ahead”) are driving through the Hollywood Hills on their way to the beautifully appointed home of his ex-wife, who Will hasn’t seen in a couple of years. A startling encounter with local wildlife gets their evening off to an unnerving start, but that’s nothing compared to what lies in store.

The gathering hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) features some faces familiar to Will and some that aren’t, including a mysterious older guy (John Carroll Lynch, who does banal yet foreboding better than almost anyone). As the night progresses, Will’s suspicions mount—or is he just paranoid and unnerved being back in the house he shared with Eden before the death of their young son drove them apart?

Well-acted and effective, this is a nice comeback for Kusama, who had a breakthrough debut with 2000’s “Girlfight” before, like so many female filmmakers in Hollywood, having trouble getting attached to worthy follow-ups. And it has a killer final scene.

(United States, 99 min., in English) Fri., Feb. 26, 11 p.m., Cinema 21.

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“Man vs. Snake”: Not to be confused with “Men and Chicken,” also in PIFF, this offbeat documentary focuses on a battle for arcade video game supremacy. The game in question is “Nibbler,” a less-than-iconic Pac-Man rip-off in which players guide an ever-growing snake through a maze, trying to avoid eating their own tail. What made Nibbler unique in video game lore was that it was the first one to feature a nine-digit score readout, which meant a player could conceivably score one billion points.

The hero of “Man vs. Snake” is Tim McVey (not to be confused with Timothy McVeigh), who did just that as a sixteen-year-old in 1984. McVey grew up just down the road from Twin Galaxies, the arcade in tiny Ottumwa, Iowa that somehow became the repository of gaming’s official records. (The story of Twin Galaxies and its eccentric, obsessed owner, Walter Day, would make a great documentary on its own.)

Twenty-five years later, McVey comes out of retirement after it emerges that some Italian guy may have broken his Nibbler high score. Directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy, who worked together as editors on TV’s “Battlestar Galactica,” follow McVey’s training regimen (he’s not in great physical shape, and breaking a billion points means playing for at least 36 hours straight) and introduce us to his challenger, a punk-rock-loving, dreadlock-sporting Canadian named Dwayne Richard.

If all this calls to mind the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong,” that’s not surprising. (Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell lends expert commentary in “Man vs. Snake.” But the saga of Nibbler has its own rough charm, and you’ll be left shaking your head in admiration and/or befuddlement at the things people do for notoriety.

(United States, 92 min., in English) Sat., Feb. 27, 11 p.m., Cinema 21, with directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy in attendance.


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