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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:

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. 

For the weekend beginning 11 April, here are the films in focus:

The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]

What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.


By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…

The Dhamma Brothers [rating: 8]

(W)hat many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men.


A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging. read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief

Street Kings [rating: 6]

There’s nothing new about crooked cops taking their suspect agenda out on unseemly street types for the sake of a morally ambiguous ends. Even more derivative is the double cross that ends up pitting police against each other in a surreal game of whose the most desperate and/or professionally bankruptcy. Coming from the pen of James Ellroy, who created the crackerjack L.A. Confidential, we have a Matrix-less Keanu Reeves as Detective Todd Ludlow, doing a decent job as an alcoholic hotshot who rights-violating past is coming back to haunt him. As an ex-partner prepares to rat him out to Internal Affairs, a gangland style assassination saves our hero’s reputation. But as he investigates the shooters, he stumbles upon a convoluted corruption storyline, complete with easily turned allies, unlikely suspects, and more oddball casting choices than a David Lynch drama. Training Day writer David Ayers delivers just enough moxie both behind and in front of the camera to keep us interested, and there are times when he even transcends the tired movie mechanics being employed. But Street Kings is not crime thriller royalty. Instead, it frequently plays like a perfunctory pretender to the throne.

A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging.

Into this unstable fray, a world where law and order don’t mix as much as mitigate each others’ existence, comes the Vipassana, a rigorous 10 day course of meditation and self discovery. It’s one of the toughest disciplines in all of enlightenment. For the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in the very rural South, the chance to apply the teachings of Buddha provides some optimism for their otherwise hopeless lives. For the residents surrounding the imposing facility, including the conservative Christian community, such Eastern promise smacks of leniency - something these convicts don’t require.

An intriguing film about the practice from three first time documentarians, The Dhamma Brothers, delves deep into the battle of wills between hardened criminals, a reluctant administration, an uncaring society, and a pair of wide-eyed teachers whose only desire is to see men change through individual illumination. In some ways, the story is simple. We quickly learn that the secret of Vipassana is the acceptance of personal responsibility. During the ordeal, where for nine days the prisoners cannot speak to or communicate with each other, their crimes and catastrophic past become burdens they have to acknowledge and manage through quiet contemplation and chanting.

For the basic bleeding heart, it’s a humane way of dealing with the long considered barely human. For the jingoistic jail proponent, it’s all part of the “fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality of inmate con jobbing. There’s an incredible sequence about a third of the way in where locals are given a chance to comment on the prison’s decision. One calls Buddhism “witchcraft”, while another stresses that these men lost any chance at compassion when they killed/robbed/raped who they did. It’s both sides of a single compelling argument, one that The Dhamma Brothers never fully addresses, or puts to rest. 

This is especially true when the mandatory denouement occurs. It’s not a case of recidivism or criminal chicanery. Instead, the State of Alabama listens to the pleas of several concerned religious organizations, and determines that the Vipassana, as well as the ability for these inmates to meet on a daily basis for medication, constitutes a “preaching” of a particular belief system. As such, it violates the long established “Go with Jesus” gerrymander. It’s a stupid sentiment, but it works. By the time the program returns four years later, its original removal is chalked up to politics played as usual.

While the personal angle really sells the film, these outer issues really are important to understanding The Dhamma Brothers’ dilemma. We see that the process really does provide some manner of rehabilitation for even the most unapologetic lifer, but to argue that it violates religious freedom when the Courts have constantly held such a preference quasi-Constitutional paints Alabama in a bad light. At least the directors - Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein - don’t demonize the prison staff. Everyone, from the warden to the guards, is given a chance to question the practice…and then offer their indirect apologies when the convicts disprove their apprehension. 

Still, what many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men. Grady Bankhead, inside for murder, tells of how his mother took he and his brother to an abandoned farmhouse when they were very young, kissed them on the forehead, told them to be good, and simply left them there to die. It’s a astonishing revelation, as are many of the personal stories and memories offered. Perhaps even more stunning is how open and honest these men eventually become. Vipassana has forced them to confront their darkest fears and recollections. The act of mental attrition, of drawing into oneself and meditating on the horrors within, has emboldened each and every one.

It’s a feeling that flows even through the more stereotypical aspects of the narrative. As a talking heads piece, the actual Buddhist rituals requiring isolation (and therefore, no filming) to be effective, we get little insight into the process. It would be nice to see some hidden camera footage of the men interacting, of how a typical day plays out for them. Much of the Vipassana is left unexplained, as if the teachers want the technique protected out of reverence - or maybe something more mercenary. Yet it’s hard to imply anything truly sinister to what we see here. There is so much good being done that finding fault is next to impossible.

The Dhamma Brothers does, however, lack one element that’s mandatory for a great documentary. Call it an entertainment epiphany, or a moment of cinematic transcendence, but we never feel lifted outside the experience at Donaldson to see a bigger cosmic, or karmic, picture. Instead, stories play out, men learn from the experience, and while some slip, others like Bankhead or confirmed convert Rick Smith successfully pitch and preach. In the end, we recognize the value and vital importance of such a program, and we wonder why other institutions haven’t employed the technique instead of simply using captivity for their collection of ‘animals’.

If anything, Vipassana suggests that, once a man gets to truly know himself, and has the opportunity to regularly explore such a domain, he’ll find his place within the civilized social order. It may not forgive him for what he’s done, and oddly enough, few feel the need for such clemency. Instead, all they want is the chance to investigate themselves further, to use the techniques taught to moderate internally what they couldn’t while out in the world. The sooner the penal system accepts that, the quicker collections like The Dhamma Brothers can spring up around the country. It seems like the only sensible solution in a realm replete with tired old tendencies - and abject failures.

By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.

When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.

There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.

It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.

In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.

A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.

Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.

Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.

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