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by Bill Gibron

17 Mar 2009

Imagine if, right after A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven took a directorial detour and started making animated sci-fi video game adaptations. Or what if Dario Argento, sick of stylized giallos and fever dream frightmares, decided to give up on macabre and instead make slick sex comedies. That’s what it was like back in 1992, when after helming the third Evil Dead film (Army of Darkness), a certain fright film icon named Sam Raimi decided to branch out beyond the scary movie arena. With a western (The Quick and the Dead), a thriller (A Simple Plan), and an ode to baseball (For the Love of the Game) under his belt, it looked like Raimi would never come back to terror. Even 2000’s quasi-chiller The Gift seemed to signify the end of his direct association with dread.

Of course, he’s never really left, even if he has spent the last nine years moving a certain webslinger around his vast comic book superhero canvas. As a producer, Raimi was responsible for cementing J-horror’s fandom West with his Grudge remake. He also used his Ghost House production and distribution label to bring more independent and b-movie style fear to the big screen. But with Spider-man taking up most of his time, it looked like Raimi would never return to the balls-out in your face freak show repulsion of his earlier, scarier films. Now he’s back - at least temporarily - to the artform that made his legend, and all indications are that his May release - Drag Me to Hell - is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em return to form.

The recently released trailer couldn’t be more timely. Alison Lohman plays an account executive at a small bank, making loans and other money oriented decisions. When a lack of cut throat careering threatens her chances at a key promotion, she doubles up and denies an extension on an old gypsy’s refinanced mortgage. As they say in the action ads, B…I…G…M…I…S…T…A…K…E. Lohman is cursed by the crazy old coot, forever to be haunted by a Terminator-like demon with only one goal - to drag the young woman right down to the very bowels of Satan himself. With bubbly boyfriend Justin Long providing the necessary skeptics perspective, and a whole lot of creepy, atmospheric set-ups, this could be something really special. Early word from a recent Midnight screening at SXSW seems to indicate as much.

And that’s great news for us certified Raimaniacs. Ever since Bruce Campbell woke up in the post-apocalyptic future, the victim of his own inability to remember the Necronomicon‘s vital magic words (AoD fans know what I’m talking about, right?), we’ve been praying for something, anything that would remind us of the visceral thrill and sidewinder chill of the original Evil Dead. We’d even accept some of the masterful, shivers meets slapstick lunacy of the re-sequel-boot Evil Dead 2. But with Plan and Gift offering little in the way of true terror, it seemed like the fright facet of the Raimi career arc was dead and buried. Even the man himself poo-poo’ed the notion of returning to the genre, consistently arguing against ideas like Evil Dead 4 (though he’s apparently producing a remake).

Still, this begs the question about expectations and box office returns. As with any niche audience, Raimaniacs can only bring so much dosh to the cinematic coffers, and when you look at the director’s career in totality, more fans probably know him from his work on Spidey than anything else. Remember, he’s been out of traditional horror since 1992. That means, a 17 year old lover of all things Marvel might not know that Raimi even made fright flicks. Even worse, the true demo for something like Drag Me to Hell - 15 to 25, weren’t even BORN when Evil Dead (1981) came out. On the plus side, cable channels like Sci-Fi and AMC have made a mint off of endless repeats of the Dead‘s third Medieval monster mash-up. Additionally, Anchor Bay has revamped and re-released the first two films so many times on DVD that most admirers have had a chance to catch up.

Yet it’s not clear whether any or all of this will lead to twisting turnstiles and butts in seats. It’s one thing to proclaim your love of all things Raimi on a messageboard (or film blog). It’s another to have that affection translate into a more mainstream acceptance. And considering that horror is consistently described as the bastard stepchild of celluloid circles, the critical community won’t be helping much. Even those of us who appreciate a well-made experiment in terror can’t compete against a biased backlash that never gives macabre a decent break. One assumes there will be the typical geek love letters to Raimi and Drag Me to Hell‘s hyper-happenings. But even with universal praise, a Summer season scary movie is still a tough sell.

Of course, the perfect postscript for all this celebrating is Raimi’s recent announcement that Spider-man 4 is indeed a go. Just when you thought all big budget blockbuster aspirations had been cast aside, just when you thought that The Dark Knight and Watchmen redefined the superhero spectacle forever, just when you thought the wonky third installment in the series had circumvented the franchise, it’s time for more radioactive bug to boy goodness. It’s kind of a shame that Raimi is reverting back to the comic book movie form. True, he helped generate the massive interest in the genre. It would be nice if he could go off and be a true maverick again. After all, this is the man who made Crimewave, co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy, and acted as mastermind for the TV titans Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess. There is much more to him than Peter Parker.

The same could be said for horror. Indeed, there are probably some in the readership wondering why Raimi would go back to his roots after being away from the fear fray for so long (and being hugely successful in the process). In fact, one could argue that it indicates a real limitation on the man’s part that, instead of going off on another cinematic tangent, he’s back doing the gory grindhouse stuff. Naturally, Raimi himself would argue that you should stick with what you love, and with Drag Me to Hell, he’s doing just that. Perhaps one day he’ll drop the pretense and do nothing but nasty, dark things. Maybe he’ll make a musical. No matter what, Raimaniacs will be there in full force. Let’s hope the rest of the moviegoing masses can find it in their frame of reference to agree.

by Sean Murphy

17 Mar 2009

This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, (and can’t get around to acquiring all of); but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story.

The subject is Death, and here’s the story, from Sunday’s New York Times.

Wow. This is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, The Ramones before The Ramones. Punk before punk, as Mike Rubin opines in his excellent NYT article.

It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarassment (I say this as an intrepid advocate for that band), because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death (three brothers, literally and figuratively, from Detroit) was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least. 

It doesn’t get any better than this.

But it does: if the legend is true, rock impresario Clive Davis dug what he heard, but couldn’t get past the band’s name. Change it, and I’ll back you, he said. Fuck that, Death said. And the rest is, until now, three decades and change of unwritten (and almost unrecorded) history.

It gets better, still: this would be a wonderful story, a readymade movie even, regardless of the actual quality of the music. But check it out: the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians in My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.

Here’s hoping Death lives in 2009, and cashes in some heavy and overdue karma to become the best story of the year: 1975 and now. Do what you have to do: MySpace.

by Thomas Britt

17 Mar 2009

Adam Buxton’s innovative MeeBOX was never given a proper chance by BBC3, which aired only the pilot last year and then decided the show didn’t fit the prized 16-24 demographic. At the time, Buxton—one half of the legendary comedy duo Adam & Joe—wrote on his blog, “The kind of stuff I produce is not particularly in synch with the world of Lily Allen and Gavin & Stacey... but I hoped there might be room for a diversity of shows on BBC3.”

Buxton’s statement now seems especially prescient, as BBC3 has gone precisely in the Lily Allen and Gavin & Stacey direction with new show Horne & Corden, in which Mathew Horne and James Corden—both from Gavin & Stacey—attempt to take up the male comedy duo mantle. The show invites comparison to the now-faltering Little Britain more than it does to the work of Adam & Joe or Bob & David or even Tim & Eric. However the show has just begun, and Kathy Burke is directing, so the verdict is still out. If only MeeBOX had received the same opportunity to grow.

by Terry Sawyer

17 Mar 2009

Say My Name works on so many levels, that it’s ultimately a minor disappointment when it loses direction, doesn’t cohere, and ends in a positivity crescendo that feels like a holiday inappropriate card bought from a convenience store. But Director Nirit Peled falters mostly for her amazing ambition. As a documentary, Say My Name attempts to do several things. It’s an anecdote-driven history of women in hip-hop, it’s the hardscrabble stories of just making it to the microphone, and it’s intermittently a commentary on the issues that arise with women in hip-hop. 

Only the last effort makes the movie a fitful experience. We hear conflicting voices about whether it’s “hard” for women in rap, but it’s not really addressed beyond a few ripples. There’s a pulling away from confrontation that simply doesn’t make sense for this kind of documentary—one that aims to get the story, the whole story. 

Issues emerge in an ebbing way, but the movie could have used some people with intellectual distance or a director that forced the issues into more than passing panel clips that looked like bad episodes of Crossfire. Do rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, who trade more in costume sexuality than mic skills, hurt the cause of women in hip-hop? Do women in hip-hop even owe anything to each other as a community? Controversial statements were usually just dropped. With no follow up, Remy Ma and Jean Grae’s statements about being happy for women who get to shake their asses in videos for cash sounds thoughtlessly contrarian? I understand why historically oppressed communities hide their divisions so that a common enemy might not use them as ammunition. But can any of the conflicts compellingly portrayed by these gifted and struggling artists really be addressed without breaking a few toes? Perhaps this documentary suffers from the categorical disintegration that comes when words localize, mutate, and go global. Every history is partial, changing, and redefining itself.

To call this movie a failure would be to deny its enormous pleasures. Remy Ma and Roxanne Shante have spontaneous and quick-witted ways of giving an insider story of outsiders. The freestyle segments are sweet treats that set an overall rhythm for the film that’s fleet and kinetic. There’s no lack of joy in seeing Say My Name, just a hunger for more and a desire for a deeper range of questions. It’s the perfect tease hopefully leading Nirit Peled to expand her scope bigger, bolder, and salted with the same swagger that her subjects here display gloriously.

 

by L.B. Jeffries

16 Mar 2009

A while back I posted an essay on how a video game placed in a relevant setting would be able to raise awareness of important issues. Since then, a little digging has revealed that there are already several games covering that ground. Although there is nothing quite on the scale of an FPS set in a real world conflict, there are now many groups on the internet that are trying to raise awareness by using the medium of video games. The results are often mixed depending on how much they actually utilize the strengths of the medium. As Ian Bogost explains thoroughly in his work with Persuasive Games, a properly designed setting and appropriate means of interaction is able to induce a mental response in the player. If you’re able to create a game design where the player needs to collect information to win, they are going to pick up on whatever that information is presenting while they pursue the goal of winning. If the player must participate in an unpleasant activity to win, they are going to maintain serious doubts about the merits of such an activity in the real world. And if you give the player the choice of trying to win in an inherently corrupt system, you might actually communicate something in a way that only video games can. Here are a couple of examples of hits and misses with these goals.

First up is the controversial PETA parody of the Cooking Mama series, Mama Kills Animals. As with PETA’s other protest games, the production values are really impressive while the actual game design revolves more around parody than actual communication. It relies on the conventions of the Cooking Mama series to coerce the player into participating in disgusting activities. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner the player must pluck feathers, remove vital organs, and stuff the Turkey while blood and squishing noises make the entire experience thoroughly uncomfortable. Intermixed with these sessions are videos depicting the horrible treatment of turkeys in farms. It’s an interesting protest game because it makes the decision to aim low in terms of getting a message across to the player. Given that PETA’s goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals, they may have missed the mark somewhat by making the turkey so disgusting that they don’t really generate empathy for the creature.  It just makes me want to not eat turkey, which is certainly a much simpler goal that still accomplishes PETA’s agenda. This is a flash game, and the designers are presuming that you’re only going to be playing for about five minutes. Generating the kinds of emotions that would involve the player questioning society’s treatment of animals would involve a playtime that’s probably unreasonable. They grab your attention with the outrageous parody, they get you to play long enough to absorb their point, and you walk away with the unshakable knowledge that the turkey industry is not exactly a wholesome affair.

The website Global Conflicts has a flash game about the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-American border. The game that I played was just a demo of the full version but the setup was interesting. You have a finite amount of time to interview people in the area before the main interview with the manager of the factory. The majority of the game then involves manipulating a resource management dialogue tree with each question taking 5 minutes of your time while the clock ticks. Specific angles must be explored, questions must be left unanswered, and the resounding chime of discovering an incriminating fact hard codes information into your memory. The player ticks through lists of info like a scavenger hunt: factories often pollute without any concern for environmental laws, they abandon native workers for those in countries that pay lower wages, or they have no interest in the community. You learn all of this because you have to click through all of it, study the information, and decide whether or not it is strategically relevant. The only flaw of the game is the excessive amounts of text it throws at you. You don’t have to make everything about shooting evil aliens, but it helps to remember that there’s more than one way to communicate your message than just blocks of text. Images, game design, mission variety, and countless other options allow the player to collect information in different ways. Telling me that the maquiladoras are bad for the community is one thing, letting me see it or even better, letting me suffer consequences because of it is far more effective.

The best protest game to this day is still the McDonald’s Video Game and its success comes on several levels. The game creates a satirical business simulation because in order to succeed you must eventually compromise your own morals. It’s perfectly possible for you to run your franchise in a legitimate manner that helps the employees and doesn’t damage the third world countries that you rely on for food. But, you don’t make any money when you play this way. In order to succeed at the game, you have to turn a profit and keep the shareholders happy, which means maybe paying a bribe to government officials so you can cut corners on the meat production or slashing the salary of employees so that you can get a few points ahead. Of all the protest games that I played, this one was by far the most effective because it didn’t just communicate something as simple as PETA’s “Turkey farms are bad” or Global Conflicts’ countless rattling off of facts. It made me comprehend the dilemma on a very personal and empathetic level. Playing this game makes you realize that the people who run McDonalds aren’t evil, instead the entire system encourages corruption as the only viable way to run a corporation. It’s subversive in a way that none of the other games even bother to attempt because it communicates its message through choice. What better way to make a person realize that an entire system is corrupt than by making them realize that they would do the exact same thing if they were running a company? It’s not a question of how receptive or smart your audience is. The game uses cute graphics and an easy interface to rapidly engage any unsuspecting player. As with their later game Oiligarchy, the point is not to offend the player for becoming corrupt. The point is to make them comprehend how corruption works and why it happens.

 

Each of these games succeeds at their basic objective. PETA’s Mama Kills Animals was a massive experiment for the group that relies on satire to slip their message between the cracks. The Global Conflicts game on the maquiladoras creates a game where the player must pay attention to information in order to progress. We’re reading the information because we’re looking for the clue that will let us beat the factory manager, and it is not until after the game is over that we realize we’ve just learned a great deal. Yet I think the last one may still be the most effective of the trio because it communicates its message through the player rather than just barking it at them. There’s no arguing with their critique of Fast Food Corporations because there is no argument to be made in the face of the experience provided. I played the game, destroyed third world countries, ripped off my employees, and realized that by winning I had just made myself complicit in the entire system. Whether or not the player is bothered by this conduct is irrelevant, they now know that anytime they are dealing with a fast food franchise that the business must always face the temptation to operate in the most corrupt manner possible to gain a profit. They know it because it’s the same experience that they had experienced firsthand. Choice is what makes video games powerful, not the fact that lots of people play them or that you can trick people into absorbing information while they’re playing. If your cause is so righteous and true, then let the experience of that injustice speak for itself.

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