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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008


There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.


The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.


The movie begins with inspired images of Washington State - cold, autumnal, as beautiful as it is bleak. It’s Twin Peaks without the surreal soap operatics. Without even one direct portrait of the man or his now classic flannel shirt persona, landscapes and city blocks paint the picture. Schnack purposefully avoids making Cobain’s own words a support for such documentary standards. There are no old yearbook photos, no John Mellancamp like trips down Polaroid memory lane. Instead, we see Aberdeen and Olympia as they are now, reflections of the changes that Nirvana and the entire early ‘90s music revolution had on the region. The bohemia Cobain references is illustrated by current musicians and artists, some working the very same venues and spaces that, more than a decade ago, literally defined an entire cultural shift. Indeed, About a Son is as much about one man and his family as one symbol and the medium he mastered.


For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.



Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.


The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.


In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.



It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.


 


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Monday, Mar 17, 2008


South Park has always been a show about contrasts. On the one hand, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have loved to wallow in the infantile juvenilia that make a series about foul mouthed grade schoolers so much fun. It’s a combination of toilet humor and gross out gratuity that these men have truly mastered. But there is also the savvy, satiric side to their work, a clear cut social commentary conceit that often cuts to the very funny bone of otherwise sensitive, hot button issues. It’s why, unlike Seth McFarlane and other Family Guy pretenders, Parker and Stone remains solid comic geniuses. Clear proof of this exists in the three-part trilogy from Season 11 entitled Imaginationland. Turned into a direct-to-DVD “movie” by Paramount to capitalize on Park‘s continued success, it stands as one of the best things this animated anarchy has ever accomplished.


When fussy Eric Cartman bets cynical Kyle Broflovski that leprechauns do exist, the stakes are rather severe. If Cartman loses, he owes his nemesis $10. If Kyle loses, he must suck Eric’s balls - literally. When a mission into the local woods turns up one of the Irish imps, it looks like the wager is won. But the leprechaun was supposed to warn far off Imaginationland of a terrorist attack, and when he fails to arrive, Al-Qaida starts kicking fictional character ass. Unfortunately, the mayor of the whimsical region has just brought Park boys Stan Marsh, Jimmy Volmer, and Leopold “Butters” Storch for a visit. As Cartman continues his efforts to get Kyle to “pay up”, everyone but Butters escapes. He is used by the terrorists as a tool to open up the gates of the evil side of Imaginationland. In the meantime, the government gets a Stargate style idea to infiltrate the pretend place and put a nuke directly in the Islamic extremist’s way.


For anyone who wonders why, after 12 seasons, South Park remains the best animated show on television, something like Imaginationland is all the proof any defender requires. Drop dead brilliant from beginning to end, and successfully applying the patented production approach of meshing the retarded with the regal, this hour long expanded episode stands as a shining moment for all involved. Parker and Stone have been flawless before, bringing their strangled, surreal sensibility to their big screen First Amendment romp Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and delivering definitive episodes (“Timmy 2000”, “It Hits the Fan”) throughout the course of their decade long run. But nothing can prepare you for the epic scope and sense of fun found here. Digging through a list of fictional characters that everyone recognizes (Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse) is one thing. To include religious icons and social symbols pushes everything one step closer to a full fledged masterpiece.


The premise is just as transcendent. The notion that terrorists have “infiltrated our imagination” and that, as a result of their actions, our “imaginations have run wild” resonates as so provocative and profound that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before. The added element of the evil entities provides a solid subtext, as it makes the viewer wonder, what’s worse - a suicide bomber or an unleashed Freddy Krueger. Al Gore gets another Manbearpig moment, and everyone’s favorite Satanic wildlife, the wicked Woodland Critters, show up to soil everything with their amoral attitude. Indeed, it is during these moments, the times when fuzzy little squirrels and cuddly little bunnies are suggesting abominable acts that Parker and Stone really shine.



The bawdy “B” story is equally redolent. Cartman’s obsession with his genitals may seem sick, but as the creators note on the almost full length audio commentary (the longest they’ve ever done, by their own admission), there is nothing sexual here. Instead, it’s all about power and humiliation. Even when our portly provocateur goes to great lengths to double entendre his way through a discussion of Kyle’s contractual obligation, he’s not out for jollies. Instead, it’s a moment of schoolyard triumph - undeniably severe, but like a Momma joke taken to a mouth to scrotum extreme. Parker and Stone want to shock. By doing so, they lay the perfect foundation for their more meaningful ideas.


And Imaginationland is chock full of them. From the government’s over the top reaction to the terrorist attack, to the conspiratorial plan that is supposed to save the day (even if underlings can’t stop giving away its secrets), we see a sensational slam on current US policy throughout. Everything in 2007/2008 is about reaction and armed response. Military lingo and rules of engagement dictate all of our diplomatic positions. When former Vice President Al Gore’s worst nightmare shows up, the baffled generals can only fall back on the atomic remedy. It’s a classic send-up, showing how out of touch with the rest of the world America really is. Even in a fictional domain, it can do little except pick a fight and bring in the big guns. Avoiding the heavy handed approach that most of their contemporaries take, Parker and Stone continue to be some of the best political satirists working today.


But that doesn’t mean Imaginationland lacks the requisite amount of animated awe. The battle scenes between the good and bad characters are excellent, especially when unexpected icons from the past (the Hawaiian Punch pitchman, He Man’s floating wizard buddy Orko) show up to tussle. Blood and cartoon body parts fly! This is the kind of experience one can revisit again and again, seeing something new in each and every viewing. Even better, the provided commentary traces the show’s origins, answers questions about its structure, and suggests that Parker and Stone are equally adept at producing great work both under intense deadlines and when they have plenty of time on their hands. Paramount even tosses in a couple of complementary episodes (“Manbearpig” and “Woodland Critter Christmas”) to make the presentation complete.



With Season 12 just underway, and the series signed up through 2011, here’s hoping our duo has more amazing installments like Imaginationland up their sleeves. As they’ve said in the past, they love to play with the show’s format, finding equal time to let their characters be kids while tackling the major issues of the day. As a pristine example of this mindset, the three part extravaganza stands as one of South Park‘s best. For something that no one thought would or could last this long, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are proving that, just like a certain yellow skinned family from Springfield, the boys of a certain backwater Colorado town could be around for a very, very long time.


 


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Sunday, Mar 16, 2008


It’s said that confession is good for the soul. Of course, this assumes one has a conscience worth redeeming. It’s clear that not everyone would benefit from such acknowledgments or affirmations. To do so would reveal their own inner weakness and sense of corrupt complicity. Such an individual is Briony Tallis. For almost 80 years, she has hid the secret of her atrocious actions, of a decent man wrongly accused, a heartsick girl horribly hurt, and a love unable to fully flower. She’s finally decided to write about it - her last novel. She calls it Atonement, for that’s what it’s meant to do. But even in the act of contrition, she can’t allow the truth to dampen the forced fanciful mood.


You see, back before Hitler invaded Europe, the Tallis clan lived a life of privilege. While son Leon hobnobbed with his school chums in London, daughters Cecilia and Briony spent the summer heat in the country. While Briony, the youngest, entertains herself with writing and secret passions, Cecilia appears directionless - that is, until those moments when servant’s son Robbie Turner shows up. He’s been favored by the family, sent to school on their good graces (and money) and welcomed in their home as a quasi-equal. He adores Cecilia. She’s just realizing her own emotional and physical attachment. A scandalous note, the arrival of a young chocolate merchant, and a night of horrific sexual misunderstandings lands Robbie in jail, Cecilia devastated, and Briony defiant. War only deepens the already substantial wounds.


Once you’ve gotten past the Hallmark greeting card pronouncements, the post-modern Merchant Ivory archness, and that all important ‘twist’ ending, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s famed tome - also called Atonement - is a very good film. It has a lot to say about perspective, the mind of the writer, the way life and art co-mingle and cloud each other, and how point of view plays with our interpretation of the facts. This is definitely a film that needs to be seen more than once. The initial viewing is required to get all the tricks and ambitions out of the way. Subsequent screenings then unlock the real value here - in performance, in period, and in predicament.

In the story of the Tallis family, McEwan (via Christopher Hampton’s masterful screenplay) gives us the standard British class struggle stained by accusations of rape and the rising tide of World War II. As usual within the genre, smallish events play out amidst one of the grandest of backdrops. There is an epic quality to Atonement, something director Wright strives for in his shot selection, compositions, and showboating cinematic flights of fancy. While a single continuous take of the beach at Dunkirk is meant, in the filmmaker’s words, to show the pointless loss in combat, it’s also there to argue for the situations unreality and the man’s lens skill. We would never get a chance to see such a panorama from our normal vantage point. Indeed, Wright appears obsessed with the big picture all throughout the film.


On the newly released DVD version of the film (containing deleted scenes, minor Making-ofs, and a wonderful audio commentary), the director explains that there is a lot of such motion picture sleight of hand present. He admits that many of the story’s key narrative moments -  Briony’s confession to the police, her later trip to visit Cecilia - have enough pragmatic questions and logistical plot holes to trip up his tale. It’s not because of McEwan’s book. It’s just that audiences are so accustomed to such sordid situations in our proto-progressive life that we just don’t buy into things the way Brits of the late ‘30s do. Yet thanks to technique and other directorial skills, Wright believes he’s overcome such flaws.



For the most part, he’s correct. We don’t really mind that the factual situation cannot possibly place Robbie at the scene of the supposed crime. We also don’t question why the victim, teen Lola Quincey, would feel so easily shamed by what happens. She does come across as practically begging for such physical attention during the opening scenes. Robbie also is a rather inactive accused. He seems resigned to the fate of stable boy railroaded by the hoi polloi. There is bitterness later on, but it seems centered as much on his own inability to save himself more than actual anger at those who clearly wronged him.


And then there is Briony. Like the Bad Seed mixed with society mandated meanness, this horrible little villainess remains one of Atonement‘s strongest sticking points. When we first meet her, she appears spoiled and sullen. When Robbie gives her the fabled note, her manic instinct is to violate its privacy and read it. When she catches her sister in a physically passionate embrace, she turns even more dour and determined. Finally, when circumstances show up and offer her a chance to play judge and jury, she easily condemns, doing so without a lick of ethos, or remorse. It’s all friendly finger pointing and pleasantly destroyed lives. As she grows, none of this nastiness moderates. Instead, the older versions of Briony appear like victims, wondering why the rest of the world can’t forgive their otherwise unfathomable motives.


But she’s not the only one stumbling block in this otherwise efficient film. The last act denouement, the plot point moment of clarity that many completely involved in the story have been waiting for, arrives with a whimper, not a scream. With proper SPOILER ALERT warnings in place, we discover that Robbie died of an infection while waiting to leave Dunkirk, and Cecilia dies during the Blitz. It’s a depressing way to end their tale, something our narrator, Briony, admits. So she cleans things up, gives them the justice the audience believes they deserve and colors the tragedy with hints of daydream world accessorizing. During these scenes, Wright argues for the movie’s main perspective - that of a guilty party trying to pretty up their path toward damnation. But since we don’t like Briony to begin with, her attempt at redemption falls flat.


So do some of the director’s more ambitious accents. Water is a strong subtext in the film - from Cecilia’s fountain dive to save a cherished piece of porcelain to her last act fate in the London underground. It’s where Robbie believes Briony’s motives lie (he remembers a fake drowning that supposedly proves the young girl’s jealous crush) and the distance between himself and his love and salvation. Yet Wright is too obvious in his imagery. We get the point long before he’s finished making it. And then there are the oddball dream sequences and sections of camera manipulation. Robbie’s battlefield vision seems pointless, and a middle act trip into fantasy (he hallucinates his mother washing his feet) is just superfluous. While it might create tone or mood, it seems to drag us away from the main action.



Again, on a second viewing, one can clearly forgive these indulgences. Atonement becomes something different when given a second chance. Knowing what happens, we can watch how Wright sets it up, how he hints and prepares us for what’s to come without giving everything away. The acting also stands out more clearly, especially James McAvoy’s turn as Robbie and Keira Knightley’s work as Cecilia. The first time through, we are still getting a handle on these characters, trying to figure out their motivations and their position. Subsequent involvements provide the passion and the complexities that appeared to be missing. In some ways, such a statement sums up Atonement quite well. It’s a good movie given over to initial bouts of incompleteness.


Of course, Briony never does pay. Her confession is half hearted, her desire for a happy ending she could not personally provide a combination of selfishness and subterfuge. We never once get the impression that she cares about what she did to Robbie and Cecelia, and even in her weakened, enfeebled state, she comes across as defiant in her decision. It may seem like a brave move to champion such an irreproachable shrew, to give her the last word and the way it’s to be presented, but that’s how Atonement works. By finally confessing what she did, we are supposed to see Briony as human and humble. But unless you give this film a second (or third, or fourth…) go round, you may miss that message all together - if it’s there at all.


 


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Saturday, Mar 15, 2008


The aesthetic life of an artist has long been a cinematic source for stirring characterization. The connection between the gifted and the disturbed, the obsessive and the purely passionate has fueled many a motion picture portrait. From printers to sculptures, singers to writers, the ways of the skilled and special tend to juxtapose the socially acceptable with the personally profound. The result is a story centered in individual conceits, but decided via universal facets and germane generalization.


The gorgeous, luxuriant silent classic The Dragon Painter (new to DVD from Milestone Film and Video) wants to tell the tale of an eccentric wild man, a true master of form and shape who cannot break from his own internal strife. Vigilantly seeking a princess who he believes transformed into a mythic beast, we soon learn that it’s sorrow and desperation, not love and happiness, that fuels his most stunning, original work.


When we meet Tatsu, played by renowned early era Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, he is a dervish, a man literally lost in the wilderness and frantic to find the woman of his dreams. The locals all consider him crazy, talented but far too unstable. When a surveyor runs across the artist’s work, he knows just what to do. Seems noted master illustrator Kano Indara is looking for an apprentice to carry on his name. Until Tatsu, no one was capable of taking up said mantle.



After a rocky introduction, the two become teacher and student. Tatsu even falls for and marries Indara’s daughter, Ume Ko, believing she is his missing paramour. But happiness starts to stifle our hero. He can no longer paint, and has the urge to do little or nothing. Heartsick, Ko decides that drastic steps are in order. To save her husband, she may have to sacrifice herself.


Shot in the glory of a turn of the century Yosemite National Park and featuring a humanized, non-stereotypical portrayal of Asians, The Dragon Painter is a stunning visual and emotional achievement. A mere fragment of the justifiably legendary work done by Hayakawa during the early part of the past decade (he was one of the first Japanese performers to control his image and his output in Hollywood), this concise deconstruction of muse and the many ways it can be crushed/cured stands as something rare indeed. Beyond its humanistic approach and use of location, aside from the subtler acting and sporadic special effects, this is one of the most tender, telling depictions of affection ever captured onscreen. The minute our hero sees Ume Ko, the look in his eyes says everything.


Indeed, what one has to remember about The Dragon Painter is that it was made in an era when refinement and delicacy were far from motion picture mandates. Performances were still pitched right to the rafters, the result of so many theatre types entering the industry. Even worse, minorities were still mocked, relegated to humiliating places as racially insensitive comic relief or outright ethnic criminals. Here, under the insightful direction of William Worthington, the mainly Japanese cast (only master Kano Indara is played by Englishman Edward Peil Sr.) shows great restraint and even greater cultural compliance. There’s no buck toothed bigotry involved. In fact, many have called Hayakawa the Asian Valentino for his slow burn and smolder in films like this.



Such a magnetism is indeed present in every frame of The Dragon Painter. The story is purposefully simple, the better to allow our lead to shine. There are tinges of Barrymore and Fairbanks in Hayakawa, a suave and debonair demeanor that hides a turbulent inner fire. During the opening sequences, when Tatsu is running around the mountainside scribbling feverishly and acting unhinged, we see the method behind the actor’s purposeful madness. Our hero is not really insane, just heartsick. He so loves his lost princess that it turns his existence into the singular service of creation.


There is just as much power in the moments when Tatsu is no longer capable of painting. Watching the look on Hayakawa’s face, the devastating loss of power and skill is depressing. It’s a testament to his talent that we feel his waywardness and disillusion. The performance never oversells or overdoes the drama. Instead, director Worthington keeps the takes short and sweet. This allows these moments to resonate with an intensity that comes from the work onscreen, not the essential language of film. In the end, when the denouement is delivered and we see the purpose of Tatsu’s pain, we feel the same sort of epic uplift the movie depicts. It’s part of The Dragon Painter‘s profound magic.



It’s a shame then that Hayakawa is not as well known as his silent superstar brethren. If Milestone has anything to say about it, this dynamic digital package will change all that. Along with a nicely restored Painter, the company also includes another of the actor’s more accomplished works. The Wrath of the Gods, is a 60 minute movie from 1914 that offers an old Japanese parable with some intriguing miniature work. Subtitled The Destruction of Sakura-Jima, this tall tale of a cursed family, an old volcano, and the interracial marriage that could mean the death of everyone, has it all - old school melodrama, lynch mobs, and a literal fire and brimstone ending. Hayakawa is Lord Yamaki, almost unrecognizable underneath pounds of heavy make-up. Yet his presence helps propel this film along, helping a modern viewer appreciate the otherwise overwrought narrative.


Similarly, there are a series of DVD-Rom extras (essays, explanations) which help highlight Hayakawa’s significance. One of the easiest to get a handle on is the five minute short featuring Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray. Here, our star is reduced to playing a stereotype - in this case, what appears to be a Chinese railroad worker. While there is much dignity in the dopey interplay between the actors, this is the kind of role that actors of his ethnicity were frequently relegated to. Sometimes, it was all that they had. That Hayakawa overcame such intolerant typecasting (he eventually had his own company making his own movies) suggests how important he is to the history of Asians in Hollywood.


During the middle section of the movie, when Indara is questioning Tatsu about his work, the subject of the title creatures comes up. Looking over one of the many landscapes he creates, the master is curious. “Where is the dragon here?” Indara asks, pointing to a charcoal sketch of a lake. “There.” Tatsu argues, “He’s sleeping under the water.” As with all art, interpretation is clearly in the eye of the beholder. But what goes on inside the artist is equally important, and it’s this note that drives The Dragon Painter. A life in service of specialness - be it to a canvas or a camera - can often be clichéd and cruel. But thanks to the amazing work of Hayakawa and the rest of the silent film community, it’s not formulaic or flat. Here, it’s a revelation.


 


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Friday, Mar 14, 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 Beloved.com, 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.


 


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