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Thursday, May 24, 2007


It’s another of those infamous long holiday weekends, meaning no one is really thinking about sitting in front of their television screens. Want proof? Look at the lame offerings being premiered this week on the pay cable channels. While one film is from 2005, the other three are lesser entries in 2006’s cinematic sweepstakes. Not quite up to SE&L‘s leisure time liking. If, however, you enjoy half-baked horror, a stilted dance-based drama, and the kind of 3D animation that’s actually killing the genre, then make sure to include Saturday’s selections as part of your three days of rest and relaxation. Of course, many of you can’t care. You will be braving the sell-out crowds to witness the last piece of the Pirates of the Caribbean puzzle. Here’s a hint – wait until next week. If you want to be aggravated while trying to have some motion picture fun, you can sit at home and enjoy any of the irritating entries here, including SE&L‘s reluctant 26 May selection:


Premiere Pick
Over the Hedge


Need further proof that computer animation has more or less run its course after only a decade and a half as a vital cinematic art form? Take a gander at this demographically correct quasi-comedy and decide for yourself. Guilty of each and every cinematic pitfall that currently plagues the genre (stunt voice casting, overly simplistic storyline, far too many puerile pop culture references), this sometimes clever take on suburban sprawl and the many facets of friendship just can’t overcome its highly commercialized gloss. Unlike Pixar films that always seem to find the proper note between precocious and perfection, Hedge (based on a far cleverer comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis) appears designed deliberately to force Moms and Dads to dig deep into their pockets for endless items of tie-in merchandising. While not as bad as Open Season or Barnyard, this CGI candy is decidedly sour. (26 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Final Destination 3


A lot of critics pick on this clever horror franchise, and it’s really unfair. Though they do tend to push the limits of logic and believability, all three films deliver lots of gooey gore goodness – this merely average offering no exception. While theatrical audiences may be growing tired of this series’ tricks, there are dozens of direct to DVD delights still left in this creepshow concept. (26 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Step Up


It’s your typical teen coming of age angst-fest. Nora Clark’s a budding dancer at the Maryland School of the Arts. Bad boy Tyler Gage is a delinquent sent to do some court-ordered community service at the institution. Lust blossoms as snobbery substitutes for storytelling in this star crossed lover’s lament. Toss in some youth oriented street dancing, and you’ve got one dull drama. (26 May, Starz, 9PM EST)


Lord of War


Nicholas Cage has been on a weird career bender as of late. For every oddball acting choice (Ghost Rider, Next, The Wicker Man), he’s shown up in unexpected cinematic places like this. As an arms dealer facing a moral crisis in Andrew Niccol’s (Gattaca) forgotten film, he’s mesmerizing. Our filmmaker is no slouch either, bringing a gutsy authenticity to this spellbinding material. (26 May, Showtime, 11:15PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Filth and the Fury


The Sex Pistols’ saga is a sad one, indeed. It’s a tale about greed and gullibility, ego and excess, infinite possibilities and eventual implosion. The legend is laced with inaccuracies, fan fictions, and several outright lies. It seemed that individuals saddened over the band’s lack of lasting respect would never get the straight story – that is, until longtime associate Julian Temple decided to make a documentary about them. Allowing the remaining members to speak for themselves while contextualizing their rapid rise and unnecessary fall, the results are truly astounding. Temple salvages the sonic significance they still carry, while explaining all the fairytale fables surrounding their myth. In addition, he solidifies the Pistols’ place as one of the all time great rock and roll rebellions. Only meaningless manager Malcolm McLaren comes up short – and when all is said and done, that’s how it should be. (30 May, IFC, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
American Graffiti


Remember the days when George Lucas wasn’t an egomaniacal misfit retrofitting his Star Wars movies with more and more pointless digital effects? Right, neither do we. Maybe this blast from the past, the last legitimate major motion picture the intergalactic geek ever directed, will fresh our memory. It couldn’t hurt – not like the pain he’s been inflicting on us for the last 20 years. (26 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

8½ Women


It used to be, when film fans noted the experimental directors who really mattered, Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) was high on everyone’s list. Now he’s a humorous afterthought, disappearing from the scholarly radar long before this eccentric combination of sex for sale and Fellini’s famous film. It’s worth a look, if only to see how the avant-garde treads wasted opportunity waters.  (29 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Down to the Bone


Back in 2004, everyone at Sundance was talking about this amazing independent drama revolving around a mother desperate to hide her drug habit from her family. Winning awards for Vera Farmiga’s brilliant lead performance, and director Debra Granik’s deft handling, it went on to simply fade away. Now’s your chance to catch up with this lo-fi look at how secrets can literally destroy a person.  (31 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
Once Upon a Time in the West


Here it is – the greatest horse opera of all time. Though many might balk at such a statement, there is no denying the visual power and narrative potency of Sergio Leone’s ultimate spaghetti Western. Featuring Henry Fonda as a cold-eyed killer, Charles Bronson as a well-meaning mercenary, and Claudia Cardinale as the sexiest frontier woman ever, the famed Italian auteur created a masterpiece so mannered and stylized that you could almost count the individual frames used to deliver each decisive moment. Long celebrated for how it deconstructed the mythical American West as well as its strength of story and character, classic filmmaking really doesn’t get any better than this. If you don’t already own the definite two disc DVD of this cinematic landmark, here’s your opportunity to see what you’re missing. (29 May, Turner Classic Movies, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Old Dark House


Skip the repeat of Freaks. Avoid the pointless Mark of the Vampire. Instead, stay up to see James Whale’s definitive take on the haunted house movie. With remarkable turns by Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesinger, there are not a lot of fear factors here. But the mood will more than make up for the lack of legitimate scares. (25 May, Turner Classic Movies, 4:45AM EST)

Bad Moon


Eric Red road the original hype from his screenplay for The Hitcher (1986) to a stint as b-movie’s scribe in residence. After Near Dark and Blue Steel, he finally got a shot behind the camera. The result was this unique take on the werewolf genre. Instead of going strictly for gore, Red attempts something more metaphysical. He almost gets there. (28 May, Encore, 3:30AM EST)

Kiss Me Quick


It’s the birth of the Nudie Cutie as us exploitation fans know (and love) it. Harry Novak’s decision to move bare bodkins from the censorship safe nudist camps and into more comical settings turned the entire industry upside down. Now, thanks to the Great White North’s favorite grindhouse channel, we can re-experience the risqué naiveté all over again. (29 May, Drive In Classics, Canada, 2:45AM EST)

 


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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Benedict Shaw is my new kid-hero: eight years old and he’s managed to read more than 60 books for a library reading challenge. To score a gold medal in his school’s Monster Reading Challenge, Shaw need only have ticked off 24. He’s tripled that and more. Benedict’s mum told the Omskirk Advertiser that her son is a chronic reader, staying up long nights finishing chapter after chapter. Her other son, a chipper four year old, is, she notes, as keen on stories as his older brother.


This got me thinking; reminiscing really, about a reading challenge I participated in yearly when in primary school. I looked forward to the MS Read-a-thon like most kids looked forward to the swimming sports. The read-a-thon worked as a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis, with money raised through individual sponsorship. I’d get about a dollar for every book read, and only from my parents as I wasn’t prone to door-knocking for solicitations like some other kids I knew. For me, though, it was never about the money—I used it as a chance to show off my reading habits, which I thought were way awesome. This was the one time out of every year, you must understand, that reading books was suddenly cool. I filled out my “Books read” form with vigor, proud to record my re-readings of Ralph S. Mouse and The BFG next to the hordes of easy-peasy kiddie books I’d scan just to get the form entirely filled up.


Still, with all that reading, I wouldn’t have come close to Benedict Shaw’s haul. I do secretly wonder, though, how many “Tom has a ball” books he’s flown through to grab those extra gold medals, but that’s the primary school competitor in me talking, who just knew the kids at my school weren’t reading half the books they said they were. I remember Lizzie Wyke, for instance, including Stephen King’s It on her form, but never once telling me in any detail exactly what the book was about. I know she mentioned snakes. Snakes? But I’ll take Benedict’s word for it—I’m not in competition with him, after all. Then again, perhaps I am. I’ve long been a recorder of books read, so I’m well aware 60 books takes me over a year to get through. Sure, there’s less time these days. And with my new full-time job, I’m anticipating less still. I dream about a life like Benedict’s—under the covers with a torch, turning those pages, not worrying about falling asleep in class the next day because those books were a proper education, free of written tests and recess (and swimming). There’s just no hiding in the back room at work to read, and barely enough time before bed to get that last chapter in. Ah—to be eight again.


As it happens, the MS Read-a-thon still exists. A Google search reveals the challenge going strong in Australia and in Canada. The fundraiser, turns out, is over 30 years in existence, and continues as a major event for the MS Foundation worldwide. I hope Benedict discovers it soon.


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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

George Orwell is rolling over in his grave. Wait. Delete that. The spirit of George Orwell is wrestling with The Worms near the withered stones of Sutton Courtenay. Lesson learned.


In his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell forces us to answer these questions: Do foolish thoughts prompt foolish language? Or does foolish language prompt foolish thoughts? What comes first? The thought or the word? Orwell wrote in 1946, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” For Orwell, modern political speech has become so littered with clichés, euphemisms, and other vague mumblings that its meanings are dead. The guiltiest party? Politicians. However, since March 2003, the words and phrases journalists have scribbled while reporting Iraq are beyond slovenly; in fact, they are so irresponsible that journalists are stubbing politicians’ heels in second place.


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Thursday, May 24, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

All this week PopMatters is offering exclusive excerpts from the new Chris Salewicz biography of Joe Strummer, published this week in the U.S. by Faber & Faber.


Thursday [5/24]: Strummer hangs with Warhol; Thatcher comes to power, and after a lot of sweaty work in a shadowy space in the back of a garage, London Calling is unveiled like a gleaming, bad-ass drag racer.  [read article]


Here we offer some of the best videos from The Clash’s Combat Rock and This Is Radio Clash, plus various highlights from the early ‘80s:


The Clash—This is Radio Clash


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.


Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.


In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.


In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.


Luckily, Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.


Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new double disc DVD release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.


All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.


However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.


Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration. 


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