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by Bill Gibron

14 Mar 2008

What would you do for unconscionable wealth? How desperate would you have to be, financially, to face your past and all the humiliations and pain within it? That’s the question posed to recently unemployed musical instrument salesman Pruchit. Drowning in debt and unable to support his family’s growing needs, it seems like life is constantly kicking this hard working if harried soul. Into his miserable existence steps 13, a website which - unbeknownst to him - offers an online reality game show featuring fabulous cash prizes. All our hero has to do is complete an unlucky number of tasks, and he will be handsomely rewarded to the tune of 100 million baht.

Of course, there’s a catch. Instead of standard stunts, Chit is required to sink deeper and deeper into the bowels of amoral activity. His first few goals are menial - kill a fly, eat said insect, make three children cry, etc. But when he reaches the fourth stage, and sees a dinner plate of feces awaiting him, both our lead and the audience know that things are only going to get worse - much worse. Indeed, as Chit plays along, he is challenged to both save and end lives, cause and prevent harm, and come face to face with his mixed ethnicity past, the father who abused him, and the horrible feelings of inadequacy and shame that such a situation fostered.

Overloaded with good intentions and definitely overreaching at the end, 13: Game of Death (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Group’s Dimension Extreme label) is a very ‘70s post-millennial movie. It gets a great deal of its clockwork thrills right. It also stumbles in significant ways while rushing toward the end. At nearly two hours, there is way too much material here, and director Chukiat Sakveerakul could have definitely cut out a subplot here and there. Since it’s based on a comic book, one must imagine the filmmaker feeling a debt of completist gratitude toward the source (co-screenwriter Eakasit Thairstana crafted the original Thai graphic novel). But the computer geek intern who sympathizes with Chit, along with the surreal storyline featuring the most uncaring family in the world, really don’t work. Even the flashbacks to our hero’s childhood feel superfluous until the end.

One thing Sakveerakul definitely knows is suspense and cinematic strategy. He is keenly aware that the inherent narrative drive - read: the 13 tasks - will keep even the most disassociated viewer glued to the screen. As long as he can deliver intriguing tricks and quests, we’ll follow along. At first, it appears the errands will be tame, following a standard formula of humiliation and taboo busting. But Game of Death defies many expectations, and when Chit must rescue a rotting corpse from an in-house well, we see there is much more to this movie besides challenges and choices. Sakveerakul’s attempts at humor are more or less effective, as are his violent set pieces. One semi-decapitated victim definitely leaves a lasting impression.

But there are also times when we fail to sympathize with Chit. He often comes across as purposefully ineffectual and weak, showing no backbone and even less will to change. Some may see the different confronts as a way of shaking him out of his shell, to stand up and be counted among the many making their way in the world. Yet there is a fatalistic feel to everything that happens to our lead. It’s as if the cosmos is convinced that Chit is a loser and is looking for ways to prove it time and time again. Thanks to the intrinsic nature of where the story is going, we continue to be invested. But Chit’s attitude tends to countermand such cinematic awareness.

And then there is the whole slightly surreal element that comes from the Thailand setting. Unlike other Asian horror or genre efforts, there is very little of the ghostly superstition or traditional terrors here. Sakveerakul keeps everything centered well within the real world, the better to make his occasional bouts of social commentary stand out. If you look carefully, you see slams against neglecting the elderly, police corruption, cyberspace anonymity and criminality, as well as slightly more goofy statements regarding cell phones and laundry lines. Clearly, 13 Game of Death is more interested in fear than focusing on major Thai concerns. But there are some subtle jabs intertwined with the dread.

That’s why we recognize how readily the movie harkens back to the more meaning-laced offerings of the Me Decade. Sakveerakul wants his ideas to resonate beyond the simple gore and torture porn many will infer into this film. Yet aside from a couple of blood soaked shots, the grue is relatively tame and the brutality centered on main character Chit. In fact, it’s safe to say that 13: Game of Death is one of the more unusual efforts to be associated with the post-Saw/Hostel world. While it reflects the mindset that made those films, it also argues for a differing, more unique approach to such subjects. It’s something that Sakveerakul discusses in the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an 18 minute Making-of featurette.

Still, the story remains all too familiar - a desperate man doing unspeakable acts for the sake of some strings-attached coin. The cabal-oriented conclusion feels tacked on and the major plot twist is telegraphed a good five minutes before it happens. Yet 13: Game of Death is a good little thriller. It keeps you occupied and finds a way to work, even in spite of itself. While it probably won’t change the world’s perspective on Thai horror, it will definitely delight the adventurous fright fan. And with a message about money and its roots of all evil front and center, it has something to say as well.


by Mehan Jayasuriya

14 Mar 2008

Photos and Text: Mehan Jayasuriya

A good half hour before Clipse hit the stage at the Mowhawk to close out the Rhapsody party, the air in the outside venue filled with the scent of a certain recreational herb. “It smellin’ good out here!” Sandman would later declare upon hitting the stage. The fact of the matter is that anticipation was high for the Virginia Beach duo and they certainly didn’t disappoint, delivering both Clipse and Re-Up Gang tracks with the ferocity and focus that their fans have come to expect. Sure, they might have just been yelling over backing vocal tracks most of the time but you wouldn’t know it from the way the kids were dancing in the front row. About a third of the way through the set, Pusha-T and Malice were joined on stage by Sandman and Ab-Liva—thereby forming the Re-Up Gang—and proceeded to play tracks from the band’s much-loved We Got It For Cheap mixtape series. At the end of the set, Pusha-T and Malice jumped off the stage with nary a word to the crowd—it was quite clear that there was nothing more to be said.

by Mike Schiller

14 Mar 2008

“Friends are helpful not only because they will listen to us, but because they will laugh at us; Through them we learn a little objectivity, a little modesty, a little courtesy; We learn the rules of life and become better players of the game.”
—Will Durant, from The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny

Welcome to Moving Pixels, the PopMatters Multimedia blog!

It has been over four years now since PopMatters started writing about games and other multimedia endeavors, a time that has seen the rise of casual gaming, a full console generation’s turnover, and the re-entry of the debate on violence in gaming into mainstream conversation. We have seen a format war fought and won, and we have seen the answer to the question of whether games can also be art shift from “maybe sometimes” to “often, yes”. Perhaps most importantly, we have seen the discussion of such questions expanded into an ongoing international dialogue via the increased prevalence of blogs and message boards as communicative vessels.

The multimedia writers of PopMatters would like to join in the discussion.

The aim of Moving Pixels is to analyze gaming in ways that go beyond the product reviews that our multimedia coverage has until now been limited to. This may include commentary on recent news stories, it may include write-ups on the latest flash games or particularly interesting websites, or it may delve into the state of the industry via the discussion of hot topics. We may even be inclined to provide alternate points of view on whatever game is being reviewed on a given day, or post a video that one of us found hilarious.

Our intent is not to take the place of the venues for gaming and internet discussion that already exist; our hope, rather, is to expand that discussion. Gaming is a part of our world, our culture, the culture of our parents and the culture of our children. A discussion of gaming does not have to exist in an insular world, it can infiltrate our books, our movies, our music. A web site can be an artistic venture, or it can serve to augment one. Most exciting of all, one gets the sense that we have only scratched the surface of possibilities in the realm of interactive entertainment and expression.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl has invaded my home in a big way, and I would be remiss if I were to suggest that, while playing it, I’m thinking of anything broader than disconnected thoughts; a typical Smash session might consist of “Runrunrun / SMASH FORWARD! / SMASH FORWARD! / jump OVER the Bob-omb / down-special / block / block / dodge / SMASH UP! / sayonara, Kirby.” Still, just because a typical game of Smash might not inspire poetry, exactly, doesn’t mean that the Smash Bros. series doesn’t shed light on interesting issues like the goodwill afforded by fanservice or humanity’s need for and gravitation toward competition. These are the types of discussions we hope to start here on Moving Pixels.

Thanks for coming by. Let us know what you think.

by Bill Gibron

13 Mar 2008

Like getting smacked in the face? Of course not - no one does. Aside from the physical pain and assault, there’s the demoralizing effect on one’s dignity and pride. Such an attack is a psychological affront, a meta- and physical reminder of every bad time you’ve ever had, every bad thought you’ve ever harbored. Yet this is the exact sensation one gets after suffering through the pointless ‘revisionist’ thriller Funny Games. While Austrian director Michael Haneke may be doing little except revamping his 1997 foreign language film for US distribution, this shot for shot retelling of a family vacation gone gangrenous is actually an outright assail on audiences.

You see, Haneke dislikes America. He specifically hates our love affair with violence. He believes - and perhaps, rightfully so - that we are obsessed with it. He thinks we get a vicarious, even erotic charge out of seeing individuals suffer on screen. He’s stunned by the brutality leveled in the name of entertainment and he thinks that such a sickening bloodlust needs a direct and slightly sarcastic denunciation. The result? Funny Games. In the serial killer playing mind games narrative, the filmmaker fiddles with genre expectations. Actions happen off screen or in long, laborious takes. Murder is undercut with cruel humor. Our heroes are weak and our villains smug. And above all, all sense of right and wrong is retrofitted into an ambiguous, grossly dissatisfying cinematic arrogance.

It’s clear that this director would love the above scribed dressing down. He sees similar criticism as the proper effect of his film. He wants viewers to question the logic and logistical set-ups. He begs that we fall for the formulas and champion the stereotypes. He wants to peak our inherent sense of vigilante justice and bemoan the lack of true criminal comeuppance. In part, this is aggravation as overly intellectualized confrontation - like creating a monster movie only to filter it through a partygoer’s everpresent camera POV. But the disastrous element of Funny Games is this blatant obviousness. Instead of trying to fool you with the preplanned perspective, it simply stands there and sucker punches you - again, and again, and again.

It’s the main facet of the film, and one that has both intrigued and repelled critics. Some have praised Haneke as taking a brave, even bravura tactic. By making the audience’s own reaction as important as that of the characters onscreen, Funny Games breaks down the fabled Fourth Wall and turns the viewer into a participant in the pain as well. Their distress and unease is all part of the maker’s intention. But this begs a significant question - does a filmgoer really want to be made uncomfortable? Now, we are not talking about the intrinsic reaction that comes with most genres - comedy/laughter, horror/fear, melodrama/sadness. Funny Games is not working in free association. It’s about rubbing your nose in your own morbid curiosity and enjoying the sour smell.

Again - is that a viable element of the motion picture artform? When rape is depicted as part of a director’s vision, some find it powerful. Others feel it’s provocative. And there are those who see it as exploitative, unnecessary, and gratuitous. Haneke seems to be suggesting that murder - one of Funny Games and the movies in general most fervent pastimes - be treated the same way. Of course, our cultural love affair with violence means that we have to be tricked into taking notice - thus his “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” approach. By busting through convention, this director wants you to acknowledge it. By thwarting your anticipated reactions, he hopes to undermine you appreciation of dread.

Yet all of this fails to address the initial premise - is it something cinema should do? Is something that is essentially amusing supposed to trip up our sensibilities so? The answer appears to be generational. Those raised on traditional ideals despise this kind of grandstanding self-centeredness. A filmmaker should never call direct attention to himself or his style - unless your name is Hitchcock. It’s like explaining the joke before you’ve told the set-up and/or punchline. But the younger demographic of movie lovers, the ones raised on hours in front of the VCR and endless premium cable reruns dig this new breed of brazenness. They will mistake a con job for con artistry and scream for more, more, more.

These are the Funny Games apologists, the ones reading way more into the movie than probably exists. They don’t mind the tension breaking asides directed to the audience, or the moment when a remote control literally rewinds the action to benefit the bad guys. To them, it’s all manipulation with a purpose, a full disclosure dance between the old guard and the fresh faces. But there is a flaw in this reasoning, something that stems directly from what Haneke wants to do. When a child suffers a horrendous shotgun blast, his viscera strewn around the living room set like so much Leatherface graphic design, Haneke keeps the event offscreen. Yet we still see the gore, the insinuation as nasty as seeing the act itself.

Then there’s the other brutality. Legs are broken, women defiled (if only psychologically), and animals are rendered into lifeless heaps. Haneke never once avoids a single one of these senseless shocker moments. Sure, we may have to experience the majority of the mayhem indirectly, but seeing a gaping wound or canine corpse remains standard scary movie procedure. To really give us the goose, Haneke would have kept everything out of sight - the body blows, the asexual strip tease. A dead child would have been a sonic cue only, a last act drowning a mere mention between murderers. But that’s not good enough for Funny Games, and the reason why stands as the film’s final undoing.

Haneke is not making this movie for free. He’s not selling his celluloid sermon via a self-run website and a homemade DV-R dynamic. No, he’s got a top flight Western cast (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts), a major studio (Warners Independent) push, and a great deal of ‘then and now’ comparative publicity. While he may claim his movie is all about the message, the truth is it’s all about the money. You don’t cast Dawson’s Creek level actors like Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet unless you’re trying to trade on their youth appeal, and you don’t stress the “darkly comic” edge of the story in ads to try and trap the over 40 crowd. In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.

Besides, the movie is reprehensible, obvious, polarizing, uninvolving, and in the end, a waste of talent and time. And even with all that being true, there will be those who stand back and praise such problems. It’s one thing to take a strong statement against violence and its cultural commercialization and translate it into an equally powerful work. It’s another to take the symbolic stance and have the audience do the majority of the heavy lifting. Funny Games is a farce and Michael Haneke is the fully clothed foreign film emperor. Unfortunately, the blood staining such threads is not insightful. It’s insidious. 

by Nikki Tranter

13 Mar 2008

The new Horton ‘toon may be state of the art. But it’s great virtue isn’t the 3-D animation. It’s the good Doctor, whose writing about Whos never goes out of style.

The good news: Horton Hears a Who is a keeper. At least, Roger Moore thinks it is. And after Mr. Moore’s recent pounding of Ben Stein’s Expelled, I’m inclined to believe him just because he’s just so very cool right now. Moore’s view is such that while the animation in the new film, and its performances from Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, are first-rate, the film works best because it keeps Seuss’s facts vs, faith themes:

It’s as if Seuss, the late Theodor Geisel, was straddling two sides of the “faith vs. facts” debate, and coming down against willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness in general.

Travis Nichols at the Seattle P-I liked the film, too, though his summation of the themes within is a lot simpler: It’s about standing up for what you believe in. The Washington Post are fans, but Desson Thomson wonders if Seuss’s message has been too watered down:

In the McCarthy era in which the book was written, people saw pointed commentary in its depiction of the fascistic qualities in the people of Who-ville (who refuse to believe there is a world beyond the mini speck of dust on which they live), and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) made clear his displeasure over the antiabortion movement’s canny politicization of the book’s best-known phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” In a subtle but effective way, the movie sounds a central message: We shouldn’t be tone deaf to other people’s realities.

He ends up referring to the film as sweet, but guileless.

More vocal in their displeasure, the Canadian Press appreciated the whimsy, but felt it was far too drawn out:

There was barely material enough for the 1970 half-hour TV version of Horton Hears a Who! so imagine the stretching and stuffing that went into this. Everything Horton does drags on rather tediously.

So, Moore’s love is not unanimous, but, at the same time, few reviews I’ve come across are out and out Grinch-style pannings. Even the bad reviews note just how much this new film tries to make its point; tries, you might say, to eradicate The Grinch from our memories by actually having a point at all.

Check out Freep‘s look back at past Seuss adaptations. And while you’re at it, go here to check out five things you didn’t know about Dr. Seuss. My favourite? Did you know Dr. Seuss invented the word “nerd”?

I’ll report on my Who experience when the film opens in Australia later this month.

//Mixed media

Robert DeLong Upgraded for 'In the Cards' (Rough Trade Photos + Tour Dates)

// Notes from the Road

"Robert DeLong ups his musical game with his new album In the Cards and his live show gets a boost too.

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