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by Bill Gibron

25 Aug 2008


The late Gene Siskel once said that if filmmakers want to remake a film, they should focus on the junk. Why update a classic, he argued, when there are so many b-movies and unsuccessful schlock efforts to choose from and improve on. He had a point, of course. There’s no need to make another Casablanca, or Citizen Kane - not when there are hundreds of lamentable horror titles and uneven exploitation outcasts to pick through. In a clear case of “be careful what you wish for” however, novice screenwriter Zach Chassler and outsider director Jeremy Kasten have decided to revamp Herschell Gordon Lewis’ neo-classic splatterfest The Wizard of Gore. Unfortunately, the duo completely forgot the reason the original film was so memorable.

By 1970, things were changing quite radically within the grindhouse model. Sexploitation was blurring the line between hard and softcore, and filmmakers were trying to find more rational, realistic ways to incorporate violence into their drive-in fare. One of the last purveyors of unadulterated gore was Lewis, the man responsible for starting the cinematic trend in the first place. In the early part of the ‘60s, his Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) became the benchmark for all arterial spray to come. But by the end of the decade though, he had dissolved his successful partnership with producer David Friedman, and was trying to make it on his own. Hoping a return to serious scares would increase his profile (and profits), he made The Wizard of Gore.

It was kind of a homecoming for Lewis, and not just because he was going back to his straight sluice roots. No, at one time the director actually ran a Grand Guignol style nightclub in Chicago, and the premise for Wizard mimicked his showmanship experiences perfectly. The plot revolved around a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) whose blood drenched act gets the attention of a local TV reporter named Sherry Carson. Along with her boyfriend Jack, they attend Montag’s macabre show. In between tricks, the conjurer calls up young women from the audience, hypnotizes them, and then puts them through all manner of gruesome tortures. After it’s over, the girls seem okay. Later, they end up dying just like they did onstage.

In both its approach and execution, the original Wizard of Gore is a sleazy, surreal treat. It uses a shoestring narrative thread that allows Lewis to indulge in his ever increasing bits of brutality. The splatter set pieces are rather inventive, including a human hole punch and a tasty chainsaw attack. While the mystery of what’s happening to these young girls is part of the plot process, Wizard would rather spend the majority of its time watching Sager overact. A longtime associate of Lewis’, this on-set jack-of-all-trades in gray sprayed hair is pure ham as our perverted prestidigitator. His line delivery would be laughable if the actor wasn’t trying to take it all so sincerely. Together with the red stuff, the 1970 Wizard is some goofy, grotesque fun.

So how do Chassler and Kasten update the material? What do they do to try and breathe new life into an old hat horror show? Why, they create one of the most confusing plots ever presented in a fright film, and then populate the confusion with several quality genre names and a few naked Goth gals. If you look closely you will see Jeffrey Combs as The Geek, Brad Dourif as Dr. Chang, and former child actor Joshua John Miller (Homer from Near Dark) as coroner’s Intern Jinky. The main casting offers Bijou Phillips as a mystery girl, Kip Pardue as the publisher of an underground paper, and the fantastic freakshow that is Crispin Glover as Montag himself.

Doing away with the investigative reporting angle, the updated Wizard uses the seedy and subversive LA fetish scene to fashion a narrative involving Edmund Bigelow, a trust fund baby who uses his considerable cash to live like it’s the 1940s every day of the week. He dresses in period garb and outfits his large loft with era-specific items. He even drives a classic roadster. One night, he takes new gal pal Maggie to see Montag, and both are immediately taken by the magician’s presence and performance art atrocities. Soon, Edmund fears that the “victims” he is seeing each night onstage are winding up dead in real life. He seeks the advice of Dr. Chang, as well as best friend Jinky. He soon learns, however, that things are far more complicated (and corrupt) than he could ever have imagined.

As revamps go, the new Wizard of Gore is not without its charms. The aforementioned actors all do a wonderful job of delivering definitive turns within a very unfocused and often unflattering set-up. Glover is given the most leeway, and his “audience vs. actuality” speeches are delivered with almost Shakespearean verve. He doesn’t quite steal the movie from the others, but there would be little reason to revisit this material had Glover not been sitting at the center. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, with Ms. Phillips and Mr. Miller earning special marks. Pardue, on the other hand, is just so strange as our purported hero Edmund that we can never get a real handle on his potential guilt or outright gullibility. Toss in some decent F/X and you’ve got a chance at some wonderfully wanton thrills.

But the shoddy script by Chassler, or perhaps the scattered interpretation of same by Kasten, lets this remake down time and time again. Stumbling over into spoiler-ville for a moment, we are supposed to understand that Montag is merely an illusion, a symbolic slave to the Geek’s murderous desires. While he’s onstage racking up the bodies, the horrific hobo with a taste for blood is using a hallucinogenic fish toxin to brainwash audiences into seeing something else - the better to go about his splattery serial killing in the back. Edmund’s propensity toward violence has made him the Geek’s latest target - he will replace the old Montag and continue on the duo’s deadly work. Naturally, our hero outsmarts the villain, deciding to take control of the show - and the slaughter - all by himself.

Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with this kind of plot repurposing. In the original Montag was just a madman, using the power of mind control and post hypnotic suggestion to destroy pretty young things. Here, Chassler and Kasten want to overcomplicate things, tossing in scenes blurring fantasy and reality so regularly that we loose track of the timeframe. Bijou Phillips is supposed to be an important catalyst to all that’s happening, and yet she’s introduced in such a clumsy manner that we never understand her overall importance. Even Dourif, who uses reams of exposition to remind us why he’s crucial to the outcome seems adrift in the filmmakers’ fixations. From the 1940s focus (which gets old very quickly) to Edmund’s constant cracking of his neck (a byproduct of the fish toxin) there are repeated elements that will drive viewers to distraction.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new Wizard of Gore is the lack of…well, gore. Of course, the new “Unrated” DVD reportedly solves most of that problem, but at the expense of what, exactly. Why was the original edit so devoid of actual grue? Surely, the MPAA was a concern, but the set up seems more interested in dealing with Edmund’s growing dementia (and addictions), the full frontal nudity of the Suicide Girls, and the on again, off again trips into inner space than blood and body parts. Lewis only used his premise as a means of delivering the disgusting. In The Wizard of Gore 2007, the offal is the least of our concerns, and that’s not the way to approach any old fashioned splatter film.

And so the redux legacy of The Wizard of Gore sits somewhere between old school corner cutting and post-modern meddling. The original version delivers in the vivisection department. The new movie fumbles the all important garroting. In fact, it may be safe to say that, in some fictional film lab, where the best aspects of otherwise incomplete entertainments can be sectioned out and sewn together, a 70/07 Wizard amalgamation could be formed that offers both valid plot points and solid putrescence. Until that time, we are stuck with two competing if competent cinematic claims. One uses blood instead of baffling narrative to win us over. The other decides we care more about the psychological than the slippery. In either case, The Wizard of Gore deserves better. Apparently, Mr. Siskel’s advice has a few unforeseen filmic flaws to be worked out. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Aug 2008


One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.

Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.

It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.

He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions. 

In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.

Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.

While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.

Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.

Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.

Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation

Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.

There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.

In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.

Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2008


Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable. 

The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.

It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.

By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.

It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 

Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.

Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.

Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.

As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.

by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2008


One of the most intriguing media marriages in quite a while has been the uncomfortable creative partnership between videogames and movies. A lot of the relationship comes from the film industry’s lack of artistic options. Whenever they are in need of something story oriented, they look for the nearest narrative shortcut they can find. Similarly, the gaming business has discovered that, the more cinematic you make your console experience, the more likely the demo is to plunk down their dollars. Looking back to where it all began, with one eye in the technology and the other in the toilet, G4’s animated series Code Monkeys exemplifies how the ‘80s started the plug and play revolution, and how film both guided, and gave into, the medium’s many delights.

For the employees of GameAvision, the sale of their company comes as a complete shock. It grows even more disconcerting when they learn that crazy rich man Bob “Big T” Larrity is the new owner. An insane Texan, the new head honcho places his brain dead son Dean in charge. Then, he begins picking through the remaining employees. Between programmers Dave and Jerry, Todd and Mary, it’s hard to find someone serious. Even the other workers in the office - Black Steve the accountant, self-centered Claire the receptionist, and flamboyantly gay game composer Clarence, make it obvious that the lunatics are indeed running the asylum. Eventually, Larrity asserts his command, bringing in underage Korean boy Benny to test all the games. As they try and better competitor Bellecovision with each new game they release, these Code Monkeys set themselves up for fulfilling victory - or agonizing defeat.

Created by one of Adult Swim/Comedy Central’s up and coming talents and utilizing one of the most unusual animation styles ever, Code Monkeys is a joke filled gem for the ADD crowd. It is set up to be a waltz down analog memory lane for anyone who spent time throwing their Nintendo controller against the wall, while reminding us that pop culture - and specifically film culture - drove much of the artform’s early years. Slightly less successful than other television cartoons - including South Park, The Simpsons, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Code Monkeys still succeeds on several levels. It’s not just about characters - it’s about friendship, failure, uncovering personal flaws and foibles, and referencing every movie made during the Reagan era.

Initially, we are taken in by the camaraderie, the continuous back and forth between friends Dave (lead programmer and major party animal, voiced by creator Adam de la Peña) and Jerry (far more concerned with conformity). Then the differing dynamics between uber nerd Todd and ultra-feminist Mary add additional spice. When you toss in the amiable villainy of loose canon Larrity, his buttheaded son, and the ancillary players in this narrative mishmash, we find ourselves oddly won over. As things progress, we start to see the actual nods to the beginning of the entire videogame revolution. Famous names in the community (Nolan Bushnell, Steve Wozniak, Gary Gygax) tweak their own regal reputation, and suddenly the show is more than just slackers acting silly.

It all begins, brazenly one might add, with “The Woz”, featuring the former Apple pioneer. It’s the perfect set up for the show, and leads brilliantly into the very inside (and very funny) “E.T.” The episode reams Atari for creating one of the worst movie tie-in games of all time, and it features a fabulous ending that lashes out at George Lucas as well. The film connections keep coming, as a recognizable Tony Montana type helps Dave and Jerry finance their own business, and between Breakfast Club riffs (in “Todd Loses His Mind”) to the various direct lifts from famous videogames (Super Mario Brothers, Castle Wolfenstein) this is one of the more clever and concrete spoofs out there.

But it goes beyond pure lampoon. What’s clear here is that de la Peña really ‘gets’ the ‘80s. His insights into the decade, either personal, political, and professional are dead on. As is the design. You sometimes forget you are watching an animated series. Instead, you think your Sega Dreamcast has risen from the dead and started programming your TV’s picture tube. The visuals here provide a definite “wow” factor. On the other hand, it’s hard to say if this is laugh out loud hilarious. The jokes come flying so fast and furiously, and the reactions cutting several beats out of the standard satiric type, that you can easily get lost and lose the humor. Still, there are moments that definitely tickle your tendencies - especially if you grew up loving your Intellevision.

As DVDs go, Shout! Factory really doesn’t deliver a definitive set. The fluffy bonus material may be appreciated by those really into the premise, but there’s very little backstage stuff. Even odder, the series never announces the voice cast during the opening and closing credits. It will take a trip to IMDb to discover such treats as Aqua Teen titan Dana Synder doing the voice of the Dungeon and Dragons addicted Todd. Also, without a working knowledge of the medium’s past, it may be hard to appreciate some of the creative cameos that eventually show up. Still, for such an off the beaten path production (G4 isn’t exactly a household name), the packaging here is perfectly fine.

Upon reflection, what is obvious about Code Monkeys is it’s nerdisms. It really does illustrate how geeks and the concerns of celluloid finally came together to wage war against boring entertainment and even more mundane cinema. The minds making the first videogames were lonely obsessives who disappeared inside arcane technology, rarified intelligence, and a shared love of all things fringe - including certain cult films. That two decades later that would become the Tinsel Town production norm is just another facet of Code Monkey‘s indirect appeal. On the outside, this is nothing more than profanity among programmers, Dig a little deeper, and you see our current culture finding its footing - for better and for worse. 

by Bill Gibron

13 Aug 2008


It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.

A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same - and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.

And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety - and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.

This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.

South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.

This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.

Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.

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