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by Bill Gibron

15 Apr 2008


Once upon a time, in a freaked-out future that’s already a decade past, the entire planet is in the grip of BIM. You can’t go anywhere without experiencing the magic that is…well, that is BIM. BIM is a pop song. BIM is a mass-marketed body sticker. BIM is a tall triangular glass and the ruby red joy juice drunk from it. BIM is…you have no idea what BIM is, do you? Guess what, neither does anyone else in the pre-Apocalyptic world of…well, the world.

Yes, the planet is run by the music industry (at least one accurate prediction that even Nostradamus, Alvin Toffler, and Jeane Dixon all missed), and Mr. Boogalow is the business’s chief chart-topper. He pairs up innocuous tone-deaf teens with names like Pandi, Dandi, Bibi, and Alphie, and turns their trite tunes into a regular opiate for the masses. But there is more to the demented Don Kirshner than meets the eye. You see, Mr. Boogalow is…wait for it…the DEVIL! And he is trying to hypnotize the entire world toward the ways of wantonness via that objet d’evil - the hit record.

So when a couple of rubes from the backwater burg of Moose Jaw enter the World Vision Song Contest with the hope that their self-penned anthem “Love: The Universal Melody” will whip up on the overwhelmingly more popular “BIM is the Power,” Boogalow uses the infamous red tape (no, not bureaucracy—an actual crimson cassette) to rig the results (apparently, Jem and the Holograms took third). He then applies the marketing-appropriate mantra, “If you can’t beat ‘em, own ‘em,” and tries to get the couple to sign away their souls…sorry, publishing rights. Soon, Bibi is indentured to this hyper-mega-super-duper conglomerate Boogalow International Music (B…I…M…oh, yeah…like BMI. Now it makes…no, it doesn’t) and it’s up to Alphie to save her from an incendiary afterlife. But it will be hard. After all, she’s had a bite of The Apple literally.

Did you ever wonder what the world would be like if God were a white-leisure-suit-wearing tycoon type who drove his solid gold Rolls down from Heaven to transport a commune of hippies over to a brand new planet? Or if Satan were a fey music mogul who resembled Udo Kier’s interpretation of the role of Carmen Ghia from The Producers? Perchance, what if Adam and Eve - or at least a “babes in the woods” folk-rock and roll interpretation of same - were an Australian idiot boy and the star of Night of the Comet? And let’s just say for the sake of silly argument that the Devil employs a few mediocre minions who are incredibly sad excuses for Roger Daltrey, Nina Simone, and Meshach Taylor. Layer on the worst musical score since Sly Stallone’s brother proved why “Staying Alive” is not necessarily a good thing, and you’ve got The Apple, a gamy glitterdome of outrageous kitsch passing itself off as a futuristic fable.

Resembling a stage show version of the Rapture as interpreted by Disco Tex and his Sex-o-lettes (“Get Dancin’,” y’all!), this aimless allegory about the battle between good (or at least kind of decent) and evil (or as construed by this film, the flamboyantly fashionable) has all the subtlety of a steam-powered enema and reeks just as pungently. If you ever wanted proof of the madness that meanders through the mind of Menahem Golan (famous Cannon Films producer of such classical gas as The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington and Breakin’), look no further than this tale of Mr. Boogalow and his plans for a dictatorial fascist state based in and around the culture of the pop song (and this predates boy bands by a good decade).

The fact that this concept did not work out too well for either Brian DePalma (his Phantom of the Paradise is a noble failure) or 1977’s abortive TV series A Year at the Top (costars Greg “BJ and the Bear” Evigan and Paul “David Letterman” Shaffer never got past the first couple of months of the titular time frame) didn’t stop Golan from pursuing his crappy cinematic concept album. Indeed, it appears that the entire entertainment world in the mid to late 1970s was fixated on two divergent, yet still forced to cohabitate together, themes - mainly, that the future would be a dire, dreary place dominated by Bob Mackie’s designs, and that rock and roll would have to step up to save all of our mortal souls.

From the Bee Gees / Peter Frampton flop based on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the just plain awful Americathon, everyone was predicting that the 1990s would be the time when the population finally paid the piper for lousing things up. Oh, and for making such beat-heavy horsecrap as “Push in the Bush” and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” Grammy Award-winning and popular. And, aside from grunge and the introduction of the mp3, they may have had a point.

The Apple indeed polishes its loopy fruit via this future shock silliness. According to this sci-fi fart, 1994 was to be the temporal space when everyone wore multicolored prism stickers on their faces and caked on more makeup than Boy George after a night at TABOO, and when police give citations for failing to “BIM” (whatever the Hades that anagram really stands for—“Beelzebub’s Irritating Musical,” perhaps?). It will take a group of radicals to stand up to the persecution and provocation of this wah-wah pedal man-goat-backed police state, so you’ll never guess who The Apple pegs for its protectors. Why, the great unwashed, otherwise known as hippies.

That’s right, gang…hippies. Peace, love, and flower power. In the realm of The Apple, when faced with the prospect of Hell on Earth, mankind will turn to a Jerry Garcia clone and his “still somehow relevant” roundup of peaceniks to save the world from eternal damnation at the hands of ersatz Duran Duran (the Barbarella version). Who cares if they live in a cave, avoid soap and water, and warble Moby Grape songs to each other - these are the saviors of the universe!

Worse yet, when all appears lost, Mr. Topps - AKA old Yahweh himself - cruises down the horizon in his sacred stretch limo and decides to send Jerry and his kids to another planet, to start over again without the influence of Boogalow and what he represents (i.e., rock and roll). So the ultimate message of The Apple is that (a) music is bad, (b) the Devil is bad, (c) letting your freak flag fly wins you a ticket to a new cosmic homeland, and (d) producers of B-movie mung should never be allowed to interpret the Good Book via power ballad.

And that’s the main issue here. More important than all the Biblical bull broth is the fact that The Apple is, for want of a better term, a musical. Really, it’s more of a Gilbert and Sullivan light operetta than a rock and roll opus - if, of course, the particular creators you’re thinking of are Gottfried and Annie. Such a spectacular sonic scourge that your tightly honed sensibilities may never recover, the score here is the antithesis of melody and harmony. You name a genre or style - reggae, ‘50s ballad, disco dirge, Broadway-style show tune - and The Apple rapes it like the Sabine women or the swan-serving Leda. With lyrics composed by a random phrase generator, and an old-fashioned Eastern Bloc Iron Curtain interpretation of contemporary accompaniment, the tunes here put us through the aural equivalent of a painful rectal itch.

Lines fail to rhyme, emotions are so spelled out that inbred invertebrates can figure out the meaning, and everything feels like it was produced by Georgio Moroder’s insane brother, Earl. Like a baby watching magic (an actual line from one of the hackneyed horrors here), The Apple‘s musical cues confuse and frighten us - not because of how bad they are, but for how painfully close they come to the Billboard ballyhoo actually arcing across radio dials all over America circa 2008 (add a guest rap or two by 50 Cent or Ludacris, and it would be impossible to tell the difference).

Sadly, The Apple is not a cult classic - unless, of course, you’re referring to the kind of fodder that would actually cause the Branch Davidians to answer their “calling.” It’s not bad/good like Can’t Stop the Music or awful/artful like KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. No, this surreal seminar on the abuse of filmmaking power is in a deranged category all its own. It tends to dwell in the “What the Hell?” or “How Can This Be?” realm of the ridiculous. The film is so unfathomable that you can’t imagine anyone walking away after reading this script and thinking, “Now there’s something sensible.” With an overall design scheme that recalls Blitz kids with leprosy, and a narrative that never really understands the requirements of a parable, The Apple plays more like the fever dream of a deposed priest, an awkward overreaction to the popularity of religiously-based rock musicals (as if we didn’t already have reason to hate Godspell).

Perhaps the best way to watch this film is to turn on the English subtitles and read along with the kindergarten song craft as game performers belt out completely incompetent brain busters. It may be worth a look, and there could be a few who actually tune in, turn on, and drop out - of the gene pool, that is - based on the befuddling film before them. The Apple should be a celebration of all that is camp. Instead, it’s just seriously disturbed.

by Bill Gibron

14 Apr 2008


“Dick Laurent is dead.”

It’s the sentence that both begins and ends the film. It is spoken to and by the same person. The audience clearly hears it twice, yet we’re never quite sure if the one-sided conversation actually happened, or if it was all just some fractured, schizoid dream. David Lynch has been quoted as saying that Lost Highway is an example of a psychogenic fugue, a state of mind often characterized by an abandonment of personality and memories, like amnesia. In their place, another persona emerges. It may be a fantasy version of oneself, or a more idealized concept of one’s inner strengths and/or weaknesses. In this case, a convicted killer named Fred Madison may or may not physically transform into troubled mechanic Pete Dayton. Considering it comes from the mind of America’s premiere auteur, all (or none) of it may be true.

When it finally found its way onto DVD last month, Lost Highway became the finally filled gap in Lynch’s digital career. After self-releasing his short films and Eraserhead, there have been substandard to personally supervised versions of his canon. As a filmmaker, his scope is breathtaking. He’s tackled the avant-garde and heavy melodrama (The Elephant Man), provoked science fiction fans with his unique take on Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, delivered the ultimate small town crime spree spin with Blue Velvet, and deconstructed myth through his devastating revision of the Wizard of Oz (Wild at Heart) and Tinsel Town itself (Mulholland Dr. ). And no one is soon to forget his forays into television, both the masterful (Twin Peaks) and the misinterpreted (On the Air).

Yet it’s Lost Highway that remains the crucial turning point in his oeuvre, the meaningful moment of aesthetic “I don’t give a shit” when the filmmaker allowed hallucinogenic visions to forever merge into his very definition of Lumierian language. It stands in sharp contrast to even his most complicated efforts, purposefully insular and manipulated like a mobius strip. It resembles a creative purgative, every idea the man has ever had regurgitated onto celluloid and structured like an infected night terror. It is erotic, aggravating, endearing, unidentifiable, genre-bending, genre-embracing, loaded with recognizability and as indecipherable as an ancient alien dialect. The end result may not fulfill the promise of its nasty neo-noir leanings, but like any attempt at something great, it succeeds more than a million other examples of the sort.

The story is purposefully divided into two (much of the movie uses bifurcation and duality as an easy symbol). We begin with the tale of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) - noise jazz musician by night, nervous husband by day. His knockout of a wife, Renee (played with Viagra-like arousal by a never better Patricia Arquette), has a past that remains unspoken between them, yet it’s clear it has something to do with shady characters and sexual sleaze. One day, a package arrives at their door. It turns out to be a videotape of the house. The next day, another cassette arrives. This time, the tour wanders inside and into their bedroom. At an uncomfortable party where Renee’s hinted-at history slams into her present, Fred faces off with a white faced reveler (Robert Blake). The next day, a far more disturbing VHS arrives.

Events best left unspoken play out, leading to Fred’s arrest and incarceration. One night, via inference and literal smoke and mirrors, our hero turns into troubled youth Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty)…maybe. Released from jail and sent home with his parents, our oddly out of place protagonist returns to his life as an auto mechanic. One of his best customers is local mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). The police know him as…Dick Laurent. As Pete starts a torrid affair with the Mafioso’s mistress, Alice (played again by an equally enticing Arquette), the trap is baited. Our femme fatale wants her boy toy to rob a skuzzy smut peddler. She sets him up - all he has to do is show up on time and commit the crime. It’s Double Indemnity meets outtakes from Trent Reznor’s private snuff films.

As riddled with secrets as it is obvious in its obsessions, you can completely gauge Lynch’s fetishes while watching Lost Highway. The open road is definitely one of them. As he did with the title fabric in Blue Velvet, the director turns a nighttime drive along a deserted yellow-streaked blacktop into an exercise in unnerving suspense. The female form is another one. Like Laura Dern in Heart, Arquette’s dual role requires her to get topless quite often, and the languid shots of her undulated breasts will have male members of the audience ‘standing’ at attention. Speed is also an element in the film. Several sequences appear over-cranked, using the frenetic pace and visual hyperactivity to suggest everything from impending doom or highly charged eroticism.

And then there’s Lynch’s main fixation - death. It even wears a clever kabuki mask here, and is played in a perfect example of comedic cosmic foreshadowing by Robert Blake. Call his character the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Destruction with an available video camera, or the voyeuristic nature of our own internal anguish, but the diminutive actor with the fireplug physique disappears into Lynch’s lunatic fringe, and the transformation is terrific. When the white faced demon confronts Fred at the party, he plays it so cool as to cause frostbite. Yet the exchange becomes so heated that the fires of Hell literally leap from Blake’s eyes. During the last act, when Getty goes for Arquette’s convoluted plot, the figure returns. Yet strangely enough, it’s not the visage of Pete he confronts, but Fred once again.

There are several ways to interpret this. One is that Blake represents our hero’s inner horror, the tormented level of envy, jealousy, anger, or outright distrust that drives Fred to kill. The mystery man does show up right before the last videotape, and before Dick Laurent meets his first/last line fate. Similarly, his camera can be viewed as the preparations for the murder. Like someone premeditating and plotting, we first see the house…then the set-up…and finally, the abominable act itself. Last but not least, Blake could also be a retarded red herring. Lost Highway is literally overloaded with the kind of subjective, incomplete symbolism that drove many a fan of Twin Peaks to toss their remote at the TV. From unexplained tattoos to sentences that seem spoken as the punchlines to untold jokes, our video vamp may just be a really cool idea that Lynch doesn’t know how to fully explain.

If one had to venture a guess as to what all this splatter and speculation means, if forced to find a bottom line to what can frequently feel like a disjointed collection of cinematic scraps, the best interpretation of Lost Highway is this: after killing his wife in a fit of envious rage, unbalanced musician Fred Madison spends his prison time locked in an elaborate fantasy. He imagines he is Pete Dayton, and concocts for the fictional character a fractured home life, a pleading and needy girlfriend (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner) and a slightly sexy job as a glorified grease monkey. Into this false front arrives the men he hates - Dick Laurent (who we learn was once associated with Renee) and pathetic pimp Andy. Naturally, our hero deals with them both. Just as he’s about to be executed, he envisions an escape and a comeuppance for everyone who ever wronged him. The lost highway literally becomes his personal leap into the acceptance of destiny.

Of course, there are several logic leaps contained in such a conclusion. The police investigate Andy’s “accident” and reveal that Pete’s - not Fred’s - fingerprints are everywhere. Our mechanic’s parents also indicate that Mr. Eddy, or the Mystery Man (it is not clear) accompanied him on the night when he took Fred’s ‘place’. Lynch literalizes the transformations, showing open skulls covered in grue pouring/consuming smoke and clamor, and we are supposed to believe that Alice is merely Renee re-envisioned, yet the two act decidedly different, even down to speech patterns and sexual prowess. In fact, it’s clear that very little in Lost Highway lends itself to easy explanations or clear cut conclusions. In some ways, Lynch has fashioned the first crime drama where the specifics of ‘what’ happened are always overshadowed by the other five categories of inquiry.

Yet for many, it remains the director’s most outstanding artistic statement, a true template of his talent and temperament. Ask anyone to name their favorite Lynch film, and few may mention Highway. But ask them for the movie that more resembles what he stands for as a filmmaker, and this will come in a close second (to Eraserhead, usually). Indeed, this could be the story of Henry Spencer spun into a James M. Cain tall tale, a moody and atmospheric swipe at the traditions laid down by decades of classic cinema. The acting is uniformly good, with several performances changing our perspective of otherwise unexceptional (Pullman, Arquette, Loggia) talents. Yet the true star of this amazing movie is the man behind the camera. Like a great dictator enveloped by his own idealism, Lost Highway reflects who and what David Lynch truly is.

That’s why, for all its artifice and pretense, its unfathomable complexity and celluloid lyricism, this movie more than any other replicates the mind of its maker. It takes everything he’s touched, everything he’s learned, everything he’s gained, and everything he hopes to earn and tosses it into a breeze blowing away from the mainstream and into an absurdist surrealism all its own. Many will find it maddening. Others will call it indulgent and overly ambitious. Some may even decry its value all together. But for those who sync up to Lynch’s freaked out fugue state, complete with unanswered questions and discontinued details, the results are resplendent. Lost Highway may be a maze from which there is no escape, but few will complain about getting consumed by its peculiar parameters. Besides, it’s quite a ride! Just ask Dick Laurent.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2008


It’s never a good idea to piss off a possible demographic - especially when that potential audience pool is over one billion strong. But that’s exactly what former SNL-er/current Shrek Mike Myers did when the trailer for his return to live action comedy, The Love Guru, appeared last month. In the upcoming summer release, the artist formerly known as Wayne Campbell plays an American Born, India raised man who returns to the US. Overnight, he becomes a self-help and spirituality superstar. Just call him Geek-pak Chopra.

Taking the low brow tone of the entire Austin Powers series, and setting its sites on specific Hindu philosophies and practices, The Love Guru proposes to be a comic clash of cultures. The trailer can testify that, when it comes to sensitivity and pro-PC protections, Myers and crew knows no limits. Some have supported the film, claiming that the comedian’s twisted turn here is no more offensive than Peter Sellers’ performance as Hrundi V. Bakshi in Blake Edwards’ dated ‘60s farce The Party. Yet the notion of a non-native using another country and religion’s foundation for funny business smacks of a strange, almost surreal tactlessness.

Forty years ago, when that famed former Goon put on the brown face and ratcheted up his New Delhi dialect several skittish notches, there was much less concern about defaming race. True, the already turbulent black/white dynamic dividing the US was treated with some amount of respect (shockingly, minstrel shows had still been popular as recently as the ‘50s), but picking on other ethnicities - no matter how light or lovingly - was viewed as fair game. The British particularly enjoyed this practice. It was perhaps part of their reaction to the post-colonial collapse and conquered country independence, some sloppy satire as shuttled through a stiff upper lip, perhaps.

It’s no surprise then that Myers, as UK-ccentric as they get, would wander into such suspect territory. His turns in the unfathomably popular Powers films have always been based in the most hackneyed slams and social insensitivity. This is a man who plays fat as a fallacy, Scottish as stupid, and his beloved British as a bad toothed, thick headed horn-dogs forever stuck in the Carnady Street ‘60s. It may have seemed funny the first time around, but Myers has already proven that he can take the most unusual of premises (the actor as a live action version of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat?) and pervert it to suit his own idea of wit.

Of course, the minute the Indian community caught wind of the performance, they started complaining and piling on. The nonsensical trailer, made up of blithering buzzwords and watercolor friendly phraseology, was barely out of the YouTube gate and Hindu leaders suggested a boycott. They had every right to, from what one could see, but it’s never good to jump onto a bad mouthing bandwagon before the final fiasco has unreeled. In this case, there’s much more to the narrative than Myers playing the goony guru for laughs. There’s a hockey subplot, and something to do with romances mended and relationships guided. Still, the particular powers that be wanted to see the final result before castigating the comic further.

Paramount, hoping to avoid scandal, obliged. If one looks across the Internet rumor mill, it seems that appeasement was not the final result. Indeed, what most fear is something already inherent in The Love Guru‘s release. Put it another way, Westerners know very little about the ways of the East. Most information comes in the form of flashy travelogues, Discovery Channel dissertations, and the occasional interaction with members of the since immigrated citizenry. Perception is typically borne out of experience, and the more entertaining and repetitive the better. Now, the more learned in the crowd might not fall for Myers as a representation of everything Hindi. But amongst the popcorn and Pinkberry members of the adolescent audience, he’s a first - and very flawed - frame of reference.

Hollywood has always been pegged with the isolated insensitivity tag. Back in the ‘80s, Cuban émigrés were livid that Tony Montana of Scarface fame might be the only example of the members of the Mariel Boat Lift to a country already reeling from the political and policy consequences. Similarly, more mainstream ethnicities like Italians and Arabs have long argued that film falsifies the truth about their people’s heritage and heart. Not every Mediterranean is in the Mafia, they argue, and not every Middle Eastern wants to terrorize the innocent. Yet America is an innately insular nation, and therefore narrow-minded. Show them an actor putting on a cutesy curried brogue and they’re bound to believe it’s the truth.

Film has that kind of influence. Unlike other forms of media, which tend to traverse their subjects without a similar level of staying power, a motion picture can rewrite history and revise awareness. Oliver Stone’s JFK did just that. So did Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It may not be fair to pigeonhole The Love Guru among these famed historical dramas, but if Myers plays his character as a kind of quick witted quip machine, using his background and speaking style as a means of malapropism-prone humor, there will be those who believe all Indians similarly stricken. If his teachings come across like Zen meshed with a more eccentric Tony Robbins, this is the impression most people will have of the Hindus.

Naturally, no one is asking Myers to be perfectly faithful to the religious and cultural situations at hand. He’s creating comedy, and free speech protects even the most ludicrous of lampoons. But there is something to the Indian’s complaints. While they remain a vital and virtually impossible to ignore faction of modern America, not much is known about the country aside from its cuisine. Why The Love Guru had to tap into this particular aspect of the world will always be suspect. After all, the character Myers plays - Pitka - didn’t have to come from an Eastern Ashram. Any number of new age California quasi-EST belief systems could have worked. Clearly, the man likes working in accents - thus, the move to a more Madras-oriented identity.

And Bollywood’s been no help. As the largest film industry in the world, Indian cinema is notorious for dealing in caricature, stereotypes, and outright individual insult. Sure, it is always done within the context of a consenting community (kind of like Caucasians and Larry the Cable Guy) but that’s still no excuse for dealing in debasing imagery. Myers may not be going so far as to cast aspersion on certain elements of Eastern society, but one cannot forget that he’s following in a long line of less than sympathetic representations. Apparently, as long as they are home grown, they’re perfectly OK.

As the groundswell against the film continues, as more and more members of the Hindu faith and Indian community come out against what Myers is attempting, Paramount has its work cut out for it. Selling this movie will not be hard at all. Simply show the amiable A-lister, remind everyone of his connection to a big green ogre and a goofball UK spy, and hope that the protesters get the post-commercials middle story slot on Extra. You’re average teenage moviegoer, unfettered by controversy or matters of moralizing, won’t care anyway. They’ll line up to give Myers their money, hoping he delivers another punchline powered popcorn time at the Cineplex. Who cares if on 20 June the rest of the world views us as the ugly Americans that we truly are. It was some Canadian’s fault, after all.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 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:

by Bill Gibron

12 Apr 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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