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Sunday, Apr 13, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Tilly and the Wall
Cacophony [MP3] (from O releasing 17 June on Team Love Records)
     


Beat Control [Video]


Kassin+2
Ya Ya Ya [MP3]
     


Veda Hille
Lucklucky [MP3]
     


Kathleen Edwards
The Cheapest Key [Video]


Tickley Feather
Tonight Is the Night [MP3]
     


Tokyo Police Club
In a Cave [MP3]
     


 


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Sunday, Apr 13, 2008


Among fans of classic animation, there has always been a clear pecking order. At the top was the artistic flower and fluidity of Disney. Almost matching said studio, substituting sarcasm for serenity, was Warner Brothers. And pulling up the rear, not quite capable of matching the two giants in the creative cartooning department was the work of Max and Dave Fleischer. This doesn’t mean that the two Austrian born brothers were not capable of the same aesthetic excellence as Walt and his Harry/Albert/Sam/Jack competitors. In fact, their patented rotoscoping technique gave them a technological advantage over their pen and ink compatriots. It’s just that their feature length efforts - 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels and 1941’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town - never set the public’s imagination on fire.


Mr. Bug was doomed to fail. It opened two days after Pearl Harbor. By the time of its production, Dave and Max were no longer talking to each other. Removed from their positions as head of the company, the two went their separate ways, leaving the film to flounder and then fade away. Aside from occasional TV showings in the ‘60s and ‘70s (usually as part of the Frazier Thomas approved WGN Sunday matinee Family Classics), few remember the insect epic. A new DVD release from Legend Films should have changed all that. Yet instead of bringing a long forgotten animation masterwork back from the dead, it more or less buries the film once and for all.


The narrative centers on the return of Hoppity the Grasshopper to his old city stomping grounds. There he learns that his beleaguered bug pals are beset by humans everyday. Even worse, a new building is planned for their part of the ‘Lowlands’. Hoppity hopes to stop all the chaos. It’s threatening the business of Old Mr. Bumble and his daughter (and our hero’s childhood sweetheart) Honey. Of course, the long legged lead is not the only one interested in the beautiful bee. C. Bagley Beetle wants Honey for himself, and will use henchmen Swat the Fly and Smack the Mosquito to guarantee that no one will stop him. All the while, the new skyscraper looms, bringing its own form of destruction to Hoppity and the gang.


There are two positives and one massive negative about this digital release, elements that constantly battle each other for our appreciation and fuel our obvious apprehension. On the one side, just getting a chance to see Mr. Bug Goes to Town - even under the silly Bugville title - is reason enough to celebrate. This out of print gem is a reminder of the days when cartooning was a wholly creative process, a form of film language that wasn’t solely interested in or guided by marketing, demographics, and maximizing future sell through units. The Fleischer’s believed in a very detail oriented characterization, a tremendous amount of intricacy fleshing out their two dimensional creations. You can see it everywhere in this film - from Beetle’s wrinkled brow villainy to the various New York style cityscapes.


Then there is the surreal sense of seriousness that the Fleischer’s favored. Disney never placed its symbols in serious danger, all threats from wicked witches and anthropomorphized wizards rendered inert by the end of Act III. But Mr. Bug practically percolates with inherent hazards. From a rainstorm that turns into a terrifying flood to the gangland style sentiments of Swat and Smack, there’s a darkness present that definitely undermined the Fleischer films. After all, audiences loved the make believe mayhem and fake death dynamic of the Warners. They appreciated the glossed over glamour of the House of Mouse. They didn’t really want to see cartoons given a sinister, disturbing edge.


Since their approach was very old world European, the Fleischers tend to suffer outside the realm of their original releases. Unless a digital package accurately and painstakingly recreates the full color bloom of their work, things tend to look incredibly dated and mechanical. Yet it’s hard to imagine a worse DVD presentation than the one given here by Legend Films. Clearly collecting a poorly duped VHS quality copy of the film, they simply kept the inaccurate full screen transfer, terrible color differences, and overall bargain basement feeling and plunked it down on an aluminum disc. The results are a crime - not only to fans of the movie, but to the legacy of the already marginalized Fleischers.


Recently, relatively pristine offerings of the duo’s definitive Superman cartoons, as well as an excellent collection of Popeye shorts, show exactly what can be done with old school Fleischer. Certainly, it requires time, effort, and an outlay of cash to bring these defect filled (and edited for television) efforts back to life. Equally important is maintaining the artist’s vision. The duo are probably exhausted from the amount of spinning they’ve been doing in their respective graves. In the world of commercial shame, this particular presentation should hang its flawed format head. It looks bad, and no amount of added content (in this case, three bonus cartoons) can make up for it.


All of which brings us back to the story of the Fleischers and their place in painted cell history. After the failure of Mr. Bug and their ouster from Paramount, they still managed a meaningful career within the medium. While Max struggled to stay relevant by working with the Handy Organization, Dave took over the presidency of Screen Gems at Columbia. As time passed, both of their feature films reached a kind of revered cult status. While Gulliver’s Travels has had an equally spotty DVD reputation, nothing can be as bad as Bugville. Granted, Legend gets some small amount of slack for finally releasing this lost gem on the medium. But how they handle the all important image suggests they shouldn’t have bothered. 


FILM:



DVD:



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Saturday, Apr 12, 2008


Alfred Hitchcock became a legend via his mastery of it. Few outside John Carpenter have equaled said cinematic skill set. The fine art of suspense has long since given way to slapdash splatter, generic shivers, and an oversized reliance on gratuity and gloom. Few fright filmmakers have even dared to replicate Hitch’s stylized dread. Instead, they keep the fear factors obvious, hoping such an unwelcome overkill will inspire the genre. Perhaps this is why Ils, the fantastic film from French directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud, is so arresting. Offered to American DVD (from Dark Sky Films) under the title Them, this is a grand thriller, an edge of your seat embracing of the more subtle sense of scares.


Driving late one night, a mother and daughter are forced off the road by someone unseen. When they investigate, something horrible happens. The next day, a French teacher named Clementine, new to Romania, returns home to her disheveled manor. Her writer boyfriend Lucas greets her with the usual creative ennui. As the night wears on, they settle in. Suddenly, they hear noises in the yard. Someone turns on their car lights, and then makes off with the vehicle. Soon, the electricity goes out, and the floorboards creak. Someone is in the house with them. Who it is, and what they want, will turn a typical evening into a gruesome ordeal in terror.


While it may sound like gushing, one thing is crystal clear - Ils/Them is one of the finest, more ferocious suspense films of the last ten years. It argues for the aptitude of the twosome behind the lens, as well as proving that their bitter Hollywood take on J-Horror’s The Eye was merely a fluke of paycheck cashing proportions. As a motion picture, it’s almost flawless. It provides easily recognizable and slightly complex character sketches. It gives the audience an unseen and yet relentlessly malevolent villainy. There is atmosphere to spare, and an attention to cinematic standards that’s hard to escape.

It’s a callous, claustrophobic experience, a purposeful subversion of expectations set within a well worn slasher backdrop. We know that Clementine and Lucas are doomed, their logistical fate founded on both the rundown nature of their new home and the remoteness of the property. We sense that something evil is going to happen here even before the nocturnal nastiness begins. And then, when the terror strikes, it’s all implied. There is something inherently unsettling about hearing an unknown figure walking through your home, the knowledge that such a private domain has been invaded by a foreign being. In fact, Ils is a primer on putting such a scenario through as many permutations as possible.


Moreau and Palud also use our inherent distrust of the former Iron Curtain as a means of measuring out the anxiety. Films like Hostel have fostered a common notion of Eastern Europe as a hotbed of amoral debauchery. From killing clubs, to roving bands of equally murderous thugs, the Romanian countryside is converted into an ‘anything can happen’ playground for the most perverse, unsettling games. Even better, the house Clementine and Lucas inhabit has its own haunted precept. We see the plastic-sheeted attic and instantly recognize that nothing good will come from this locale.


Yet it’s the human element that really stands out here, with Olivia Bonamy giving an excellent turn as Clementine. She plays both the studied teacher and terrified casualty bit with an equal amount of emotional heft. While given much less to do except suffer early on, Michael Cohen infuses Lucas with a sad, not quite stoic persona. We just know he’s going to be the ‘death’ of this couple in the long run. Granted, the title card “based on true events” denouement throws us off a bit. It’s not just for what it says about the killers’ identity, but for the entire region in general. We just don’t want to believe that poverty along with a sense of pointless liberation would lead to such a diseased reaction.


It all makes Ils the very definition of a classic creep out, a by-the-book illustration of the power inherent in film. Moreau and Palud are not reinventing the wheel here. There’s no novel twist on the title type or jump into smarmy self-effacing satire. Instead, they rely on the formula to feed their fever dream, and it does so dynamically. While we get the distinct impression that some of the facts may have been exaggerated even before Moreau and Palud (who also handled the screenplay duties) fictionalized them further. Still, for anyone who ever felt their spine go cold while an unidentified sound frazzled their nerves, this movie is masterful.


Too bad then that there’s not more done in the digital packaging department. The film’s low budget leanings are kept well hidden by the DVD’s image transfer, but the lack of extensive context really undermines the directors and their efforts. The Making-Of shows how intense the shoot actually was, but there is a puffy, electronic press kit quality to the insights. Similarly, an overview of how Clementine is treated in the film is more of a love letter to Bonamy than a hands-on look at the production. What’s really needed here is a director’s commentary, a chance for this pair to provide the kind of analysis that will help future fright filmmakers avoid the issues currently killing the genre.


Yet it’s a minor quibble when compared to the final film. Ils is the kind of experience where we become vicarious victims, recognizing that Clementine and Lucas are probably headed for one fatalistic fate. Just like Hitchcock’s heart-stopping masterworks, we become so involved in the narrative, so tied - directly and metaphysically - to the events transpiring before us that it all literally becomes too much to bear. If all you know of this dynamic duo is there awkward American debut, push Jessica Alba aside and give Ils a try. It will make even the most hardened horror fan weep with dread-induced delight. 



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Saturday, Apr 12, 2008

It’s easy to pick on Chuck Klosterman.  He has a romantic story, going from earnest Midwesterner to high-flying scribe, which most writers would be jealous of, plus he’s been anointed as a “voice of his generation”.  I’ve met him before and corresponded with him and he’s actually a nice, decent guy.  At the right time, he does write superior articles too (i.e. his Britney profile and his rock death article for Spin).  But his recent article for Esquire about why so many people download for free is long on shaky conjecture and short on common sense.


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Friday, Apr 11, 2008

Editor and Publisher reports on the timing of the Washington Post‘s Pulitzer sweep:


Is it irony or just today’s newspaper reality that The Washington Post won nearly half of the Pulitzer Prize journalism awards on Monday—its most ever—just a week after launching its second buyout in less than two years?


Post Executive Editor, Leonard Downie Jnr., discusses the win, the paper’s downsizing, and what recognition means in his newsroom. He also puts forth some compelling theories about the awards themselves and how his paper came to take home so many.


Editor and Publisher also has this lighthearted look at Post reporter Gene Weingarten’s win for Feature Writing for his piece on Joshua Bell, the subway violinist. 


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While the Post celebrates, Newsday mourns the loss of one of its most celebrated journalists. Robert W. Greene, who led the paper to two Pulitzers for Public Service, died this week in New York, aged 78.


For much of his career, he could outthink, out-hustle, out-report, outeat, outdrink and outwork any other journalist in the country ... But if his excesses were occasionally unbridled, they were driven by his passion to get a good story and root out the bad guys.


 
Newsday writes in its tribute that Greene was “an inspiring, larger-than-life character who saw journalism as a blunt instrument of the public good”. His style is described as “aggressive”. Former Newsday editor Anthony Marro states that the Investigative Reports and Editors organisaztion Greene formed “remains his most important legacy, because he used it to help develop a culture in which public service journalism and investigative reporting became part of the newspaper’s core mission.”


+++


Robert Hass, winner of poetry award for his Time and Materials, tells the San Francisco Chronicle of his plans for the prize money: To buy a new stove.


Winning, Hass notes, has “intensified my desire to simplify my life and get on with my work.”


Hass is also discussed at the Gonzaga Bulletin.


+++


Saul Friedlander

Saul Friedlander


The Jewish Journal has a great piece on Saul Friedlander, winner of the non-fiction prize for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945.


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In Dominican slang, a tiguere is a cat from the streets, a homeboy who makes the most out of the situation at hand and is a master at improvisation. Diaz is that. Under the guise of a streetwise tale about a lovelorn “ghetto-nerd” and a cheating would-be hoodlum, he does nothing less than place us at the center of history.


Carolina González at the New American Media takes a detailed look at “why Wao’s Pulitzer matters”. She notes how Diaz’s book opens doors for American writers who wish to free themselves of particular constraints in their storytelling: [Thanks to Diaz] we can give ourselves permission to tell complex stories about ourselves, unapologetic about our cultural touchstones and historical references, in a language appropriate to our realities.”


Diaz features further at the Guardian, in a piece about the “supernatural shadow” over Latin-American literature; the Cornell Daily Sun, and Dominican Today.


 


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