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Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Sometimes, a monster merely happens. You can argue all the FBI profile material, and trace a killer’s lineage back to days vivisecting his (or on rare occasions, her) pets, but the truth is that evil doesn’t necessarily need a clinical explanation. If we are to believe the dogma and the organized ritualization of same, it is a constant within our ethical purview, and battles constantly with good for domination over our soul. So do we really need to clarify why bad things happen, or why individuals forsake morality for something more mean-spirited and sinister – even when the entity in question is a maniacal medico who likes to cannibalize his victims with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?


Hannibal Lecter, especially as personified by actor Anthony Hopkins in three separate films – The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon – remains a stalwart cinematic sicko, a fiend formed out of everyone’s own internal horror hierarchy and imagination. Some see him as horror humanized. Others tend to treat him like the granddaddy of death, the far more eloquent bunkmate of figures as fiendish as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger. He doesn’t demand elucidation – he readily infers his foulness. So what’s the best way to destroy said demon, to undermine his already potent noxious nature? Why, give him a rationale for being so repugnant, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Hannibal Rising does.


While not the worst prequel ever made, this might just be the most pointless. It draws on luxuriant imagery and old world charms to try and defend the insane actions of a future madman. It provides excuses instead of scares, psychological underpinnings where a couple of good gore sequences would have sufficed. Unlike the previous pieces in the Lecter legacy, Rising isn’t really about police procedure or burrowing into the mind of a serial killer. No, this is your standard revenge flick, Michael Myers and his growing slice and dice dementia moved half a world away and several decades into the past. Here, we meet the mighty Lecter clan, wealthy Lithuanian land owners who are naturally caught up in the middle of the Nazi/Russian flare-ups of late World War II. Hoping to avoid the fate of many of their fellow countrymen (including several singled-out Jews), the entire clan flees to the country. There, a pre-pubescent Hannibal and his beloved younger sister Mischa can become instant orphans and take turns starving.


The narrative catalyst that will come to guide the rest of the storyline – and by inference, the rest of our psycho’s despondent life – arrives in the pretense of some jaundiced German sympathizers led by the god-awful, grotesque Grutas (a barely recognizable Rhys Ifans). Along with his four flunkies, this misguided mercenary has been changing allegiance and looting the countryside, all in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When they see the Lecter little ones, they automatically think ‘bargaining chips’. But as the war drags on, and rotten potatoes and scrapbook leather become scarce, little Hannibal and his precocious sibling start looking like lunch. Before you can say “pre-schooler soup’s on!”, an atrocity occurs, and our title terror is left to die in the woods. Thankfully, he is rescued and sent to a Russian orphanage. The rest, as they say, is half-baked history.


From the minute we meet Gaspard Ulliel as the adolescent Lecter, we start to sense where the rest of this tale will be taking us. In his adult years, our villain is portrayed as an intellectualized façade housing an animalistic viciousness. As he’s eating the meat off another human’s cheek, he’s simultaneously rationalizing and relishing it. Here, Ulliel is given a different task all together. He is supposed to be youth corrupted by circumstances, naiveté obliterated by the horrors one human can inflict on another. As he escapes his institutionalized captivity, he leaves the orphanage bully scarred and scared. When he arrives in France (to hook up with his Samurai loving Japanese Aunt – don’t ask), he embraces chivalry to a fatal fault. All the while, our actor resembles a reject from an Armani ad, high cheekbones and chiseled jawline making him the most sinister supermodel on the planet.


Up until this time, we’ve been patient with Hannibal Rising. We’ve accepted the overlong warfare footage (expanded, if only a little, on the new Unrated DVD released by Genius Productions) and snickered ever so slightly at all the feudal Asian claptrap. Gong Li is wasted as Hannibal’s arch relative. Frequently dispossessed of her only means of support or shelter, she still manages to act and dress like a character carved out of Memoirs of a Geisha. There is supposed to be some connection to her sword and sandal traditions and Hannibal’s eventual descent into death dealing, but we never see it. Perhaps it was something that screenwriter (and novel author) Thomas Harris left for readers to discover. The final piece of the puzzle is a shot of sodium pentothal. It helps our troubled anti-hero find some clarity, and before you know it, he’s traipsing around Europe exacting retribution on the men who made Mischa-bobs out of his kin.


It’s too bad that we’ve stopped caring. You see, the inherent problem with Hannibal Rising is not its exterior make-up. Ms. Li aside, the performances are fine, and Ulliel is diabolical and dapper. We don’t even mind the war criminal crusading police officer, or the less than effective henchmen who surround Ifan’s indelible antagonist. In fact, if we didn’t realize that this entire narrative is building up to the creation of that master of corrupt quid pro quo, this would be a well made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. We’d even forgive the last act’s sudden shift into slasher film territory, Hannibal creating cleverer and cleverer ways to exact his wounded revenge. But the prequel specter hangs heavy over this entire production, leaving one feeling disoriented and angry. Two plus two does not equal four in Hannibal Rising. No, this is a movie that wants to question the existence of addition before even getting down to the brass tacks of finding said sum.


Indeed, the two concepts of Hannibal just don’t gel. The cold blooding killing is there, as is the unhealthy appetite for corporeal foodstuffs, but when you view this newest version of the character alongside the one well established over the last two decades, it’s like seeing a bad Turkish knockoff. There’s a basic recognizability, but the pieces aren’t quite fitting together. Forget the attempted nods to Hopkins characterization – this Lecter is light years away from his eventual self. In fact, one could easily argue that this entire film is merely the opening salvo in a series of Hannibal prequels where we learn – over time and many body parts – how a cruel kid from Lithuania turned into the bane of Will Graham and Clarice Starling’s existence. It’s not that Hannibal Rising lacks justification. It’s more that these descriptions just aren’t good enough. Lecter is larger than life, a freakish combination of dozens of other famous mass murderers filtered through one man’s incredibly inventive mind. But here, Harris is resorting to tabloid basics. As a result, we spend most of the time wondering when young Hannibal will stop sulking and start carving up his hamsters.


Showing the same deftness for period flare as he did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber acquits himself quite well. He doesn’t understand the first elements of suspense or thriller pacing, but he can offer up a nicely evocative abandoned cottage. He does rely a little too heavily on chaos-creating montages and quick cuts meant to hide most of the hideousness, but he delivers the dramatics with practical aplomb. It’s a shame then that he’s left holding the Lecter mythos bag. Had this been any other lunatic, Webber would be welcomed as the newest member in the macabre makers fan club. As it stands, he sits lording over the shattered remains of a once viable film franchise. At least he has a co-conspirator. Thomas Harris was thought of as the gold standard of horror literature. But thanks to this unappealing prequel, he’s now a sell-out shill. And that’s more terrifying than anything present in Hannibal Rising


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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


If big screen comedy has an assigned savior, it just might be Judd Apatow. With the beloved 40 Year Old Virgin fresh in everyone’s minds, and his producer’s imprint on other humor hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, this is one comic genius who is definitely on a roll. Need further proof? Well, look no further than his most recent masterpiece of mirth Knocked Up. Not only is it the funniest film in decades, but its easily one of 2007’s best efforts. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, endearing and just a wee bit evil in how it depicts the rigors of adult responsibility, and the inherent human desire to shirk same. Instead of presenting the standard Hollywood party line about biology being the balm for all individual issues, Apatow shows procreation for what it really is—a physical act that leads to seismic psychological shifts.


The interpersonal earthquake here occurs when E! Entertainment producer Alison Scott (an amazing Katherine Heigl) learns she’s been picked to be an on-air personality. Desperate to celebrate the promotion, she gets her married sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to join her for a night of drinks and dancing at a local hot spot. There, Alison meets the bumbling Ben Stone (a brilliant Seth Rogen). Endearing in a shaggy dog sort of way, he’s a wannabe Internet entrepreneur who hopes to start a website database of famous film nude scenes. The two take an alcohol fueled liking to each other, and after a protection free one night stand, the pair have a potential pregnancy to deal with. Support is shaky from both sides. Alison’s family fluctuates between flabbergasted and favorable. Ben’s bevy of slacker roommates can only think in terms of sexual conquests and scoring.


It requires someone of substantial cinematic ability to balance this clever career girl catastrophe with the Beavis and Butthead viewpoint of Ben’s buddies, but Apatow manages remarkably well. The movie never misses a beat and finds infinitely imaginative ways to brilliantly highlight both the sacred and profane. Unlike other R rated efforts that trade gratuity for genuine wit, Knocked Up is crude, obscene, crass…and utterly charming. Apatow’s characters talk like real people talk, including all the off color craziness and foul mouthed philosophizing that comes with hanging out. Thanks to some equally inventive running jokes (Ben’s friend Martin finds himself the butt of dozens of hirsute-oriented slams when he decides to grow his hair for a bet) and a unique knowledge of when and where to push the gross out gags (always right to the edge of repugnancy), the comedy covers all aspects of the genre.


But there is more to what Apatow is doing than simply larding on the laughs. His moviemaking ideal is a throwback to the days when people, not plotpoints, drove the delirium dynamic. It’s nothing overly complicated. In fact, his secret is something very simple—he lets the characters play out organically, developing along legitimate logistical lines while occasionally tweaking the situational elements to accent their advancement. By the end, we are not only invested in the individuals suffering at the center of the narrative, but we can’t wait to see how the ancillary players pull their weight and supplement the story. When done right, the result is something entertaining and engaging. In Apatow’s case, his accomplishment far exceeds expectations. What he delivers is something close to definitive.


Of course, his actors help out tremendously. Rogen, a longtime comic collaborator, is the perfect sad sack hero. He’s not solidly self-deprecating, nor is he cravenly cocky. He exists right in the middle of both emotional extremes, and when you add in his solid sense of sarcasm, he becomes someone we can instantly identify with. Heigl, on the other hand, has the much harder role. She has to play TV personality perkiness without becoming an irritating shrew, and the moments where she has to act selfish and superior never come across as harsh or horrible. Of course, this couple will have more than its fair share of ups and downs – compatibility is not high on their initial meet-cute conceit. But as they grow, as Apatow allows them to flower and fail, we find ourselves lost in their developing love story. Soon, all we care about is how destiny will determine the pair’s possibilities. The penis and vagina jokes are just a wondrous addition to the emotional mix.


By contrast, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real life wife) and Paul Rudd (as Debbie’s beleaguered husband Pete) are a fascinating study of responsibility ruining an individual’s hope and compassion. With two precocious daughters determining their every move, the film appears to be setting them up as the cautionary example to guide Alison and Ben. We are supposed to see how marriage and maturity undermine one’s personality to create a kind of composite shell of one’s former self. But Apatow adds layers that indicate something much stronger than that. Indeed, Knocked Up‘s entire raison d’etra appears to be acknowledging that the arriving adventures in child rearing can be just as life affirming as the old habits we so desperately hold onto. But he’s clear to show that there’s no bed of roses at the end of the reproductive rainbow.


Thanks to a remarkable ensemble made up of pals from Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks days (Jason Segel, Martin Starr), a few freaky star turns (Ryan Seacrest and Spider-Man‘s James Franco are wonderful) and some surprising cameos (SCTV’s Harold Ramis as Ben’s dad, Joanna Kerns as Alison’s mom), Knocked Up becomes a surprise a minute sensation, a film that never lets on where it’s going next, or how it will foster its next line of laughter. Make no mistake about it – this is one incredibly funny film, the kind of gasping for air joviality that hasn’t been seen since Trey Parker and Matt Stone delivered their manic musical South Park movie.  In an era when the big screen comedy has been reduced to either an exercise in insular irony or bad taste level ludicrousness, it’s refreshing to find a film that actually earns every second of side splitting splendor.


It is clear that, come December, Knocked Up will remain a member of 2007’s hit hierarchy. If it doesn’t become a big time blockbuster, earning ample accolades on top of its barrelful of greenbacks, there is something wrong with the post-millennial movie going public. Reaching across demographic designs to endear itself to oldsters and adolescents alike, and achieving that legitimate rarity in rib-tickling—that is, comedy that actually has something profound to say about the human condition—this is what pure popcorn entertainment is all about. Hollywood should scuttle its subjective sequels and ridiculous remakes and study Apatow for his take on things. Cinema would definitely be a more joyful artform because of it.



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Monday, May 28, 2007


Ouch! It’s a bad week for first run DVD product. Wanna know just how awful it is? After sifting through several lists, SE&L had to suggest two titles on the current Tuesday breakdown that it knows, for sure, are absolute cinematic dogs. Naturally, they’re both half-baked horror movies, one of which purports to explain how a certain cannibalistic doctor became a flesh feasting madman. Right, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning successfully did the same thing for some guy in a skin mask. In truth, there are a couple of tantalizing choices here – a chopsocky epic based on an idea from kung fu icon Bruce Lee, a double dose of Asian adolescent atrocities, and an insightful look at one of the UK’s most infamous artists. But with summer officially starting and the local Cineplex rocking with popcorn possibilities, home theater has no hope of keeping up – not as long as they keep their release schedule as underwhelming as the one for 29 May:


Hannibal Rising


Let’s settle this once and for all – prequels DO NOT WORK! Ask Butch and Sundance. Ask Leatherface and his brood. Heck, ask the king of craptacular prologues, George Lucas. There is just something inherently impossible about matching a previously well known character’s present persona with the manner in which it was formulated. Now Thomas Harris destroys all lingering literary prestige (what little he had) with this undeniably awful Lecter illogic. Helmed with a lack of filmmaking flair by Peter Webber, we learn early on that this will not be our standard slasher endeavor. Trying desperately to make young Hannibal’s lot mirror the devastation of Europe at the hands of the Nazis, this self-important slop can’t decide if it’s a character study or a craven carve up. The answer is obvious. It’s neither. It’s the continued milking of an already tapped out horror movie franchise. How this concept went from Oscar to ungodly stands as a clear case of Hollywood hubris.

Other Titles of Interest


Battle Royale I & II


No other nation expresses its inner fears and sense of social confusion better than the Japanese. Here, out of control teens are placed on a deserted island and given a simple mandate – kill each other via any means necessary. Bloody, brave and quite brash, this clear commentary on the death of tradition stands as one of Kinji Fukasaka’s best cinematic statements.

Circle of Iron


Before his untimely death at age 33, Bruce Lee dreamed of bringing this epic meditation on Zen and the Art of Butt Kicking to the big screen. Five years posthumous, friends and well wishers more or less realized his goals. Those used to the lightning fast concepts of post-Matrix wire-fu may be unimpressed by the martial artistry on display, but there is more to this movie than flying fists and roundhouse kicks.

Heavy Petting: Special Edition


Back before DVD made such items of interest available to the general public, comic compilations like these brought the world of weird educational films to wistful film fans everywhere. The focus this time is on sex and personal hygiene, elements that go together to confuse and corrupt the youth of a nation. With guest commentators like ex-Talking Head David Byrne and musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson.

The Katharine Hepburn Collection


Not exactly the greatest compilation of this actresses’ fine work, you’ll still find a couple of concrete gems (Morning Glory, Sylvia Scarlett) amongst the other unknown entities present. The real rarity, however, is Ms. Hepburn’s 1979 TV turn as a determined teacher in The Corn is Green. It argued for the voracious viability of this legend’s terrific talent, even some 60 years after her initial start in show business

The Naked Civil Servant


John Hurt is Quentin Crisp, the famed gay writer and ebullient bon vivant in this, the author’s own eccentric autobiography. Though never fully appreciated in his lifetime, the elder statesman of British homosexuality consistently challenged convention as he tried to navigate his way through a world filled with prejudice and intolerance. This is a funny, sad, and very moving film. 


And Now for Something Completely Different
Drive Thru


Fast Food may indeed be the work of the Devil, but once you’ve sat through Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn’s ode to refusing fries with that, you’ll definitely reconsider your trans-fat tendencies. Apparently, the owner of a local California snack shack franchise known as Hella-Burger has a problem on his hands – his goofball mascot, something called “Horny the Clown”, has turned into a sinister serial killer. Oddly enough, he is targeting the offspring of the ‘70s teens who accidentally murdered his son. Sound familiar? That’s because our filmmakers shot their wad on making Horny into something truly terrifying. As a result, they had to borrow plot points from better movie macabre. This makes everything else here seem redundant and ridiculous. Unless you need to experience every variation on the slice and dice genre ever conceived, your best bet is to skip this unhappy meal.

 


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Sunday, May 27, 2007


In nod to Memorial Day, Turner Classic Movies has aptly scheduled a bevy of John Wayne movies for the next few days, in commemoration of The Duke’s 100th birthday. In between all the patriotic grit and bluster of favorites, They Were Expendable (1945), The Flying Tigers (1942), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), try to catch a screening of what is probably one of the most telling and most ambiguous war movies ever made, The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957). If you miss the movie, and you hunger for the pageantry and old-fashioned thrill of a historical epic, as well as the cerebral pacing and sense of rhythm so rarely seen in films anymore, by all means, rent it.


And try not to let that damn whistling tune get in the way. Bridge, like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, tends to be swallowed up in the pop culture kitsch of its own theme music. But David Lean’s first major Hollywood production is the remarkable piece of filmmaking - grand, sweeping, and intimate at the same time.


Most war movies made before the ‘70s are either clearly for, or subtly against wars. Bridge is one of the few that focuses not only on the power of ideologies that drag us into conflict, but on the individuals who are made to suffer because of them. The incessant whistling of the bedraggled British POWs, Col. Nicholson’s (Alec Guinness) fierce adherence to the Geneva Code and the gentlemanly rules of European warfare, as well as his men’s diligence in building a bridge that will enable the Japanese to transport supplies and reinforcements, are all grim attempts of coping, of holding onto sanity.


Nicholson’s battle of wills with the Japanese commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) over officers performing manual labor on the bridge, (Saito wants to humble the uppity officers, while Nicholson believes that the officers will be better utilized as mechanical engineers rather than as laborers) results in Nicholson’s month-long solitary confinement, (one of the film’s best-known sequence), in ``the Oven’’ - a corrugated iron hut that stands in the sun. Nicholson would rather die than bend on his principles, and when he finally wins, after Saito realizes that the Brits will only take orders from their own colonel, he is hoisted onto his men’s shoulders and paraded as a hero for weakening the enemy’s resolve as Saito sobs, humiliated, inside his bungalow.


But the real heroes of the movie are unclear. Is the champion really Nicholson? Is his burning obsession to build a bridge better than his Japanese captors an act of courage in ameliorating the living conditions of his men, or merely an act of folly in helping the enemy? Or is the real hero Maj. Shears (William Holden), the requisite cynical American G.I. (the film apparently had to have one, or Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures wouldn’t finance the picture), a rakish hedonist who disdains the blind commitment Nicholson and his men have to their rules, and follows his own code of common sense?


The portrayal of stoic British heroism that both Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins made popular comes across as a bit dated now. Their uniformed machismo and Edwardian condescension at times seems painfully colonial, especially when, after the war, it is clear the protagonists plan to take up the reigns of Empire over India, China and the Far East. But the performances are some of the most thoughtfully rendered, nuanced pieces of acting, a stirring image of men from that time. Moments like Alec Guinness’ beleaguered walk after weeks of confinement from “the Oven” to Saito’s bungalow, chin high, physically struggling to march while his men salute him, or the sequence near the end of the film where Nicholson smugly inspects of the finished bridge, are masterpieces of characterization.


Nicholson, like Lean’s depiction of T.E. Lawrence, is a military man whose hubris blurred his sense of reality. “One day,” he muses to the skeptical army doctor, “the war will be over, and I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it.’’ Noble as his motives are, the bridge will help defeat the Allies.  In his obsession to outdo the Japanese and prove the superiority of British engineering and efficiency, Nicholson forgets that there’s a war going on.


The last seven minutes of the movies lay out a complex interplay of characters’ motives and disastrous consequences, as the demolition team led by Shears and Warden (Hawkins) are poised to blow up the bridge. Lean had learned from William Wyler that the key to creating a suspenseful sequence is to bore the audience for several minutes before you thrust the surprise. The cuts between Nicholson’s misguided scrutinizing of the bridge and the demolition team’s desperation is harrowing, and the epiphany at the end is almost Shakespearean in its realization.


Epic spectacles in the past few years, with a handful of exceptions, have become associated with commercially viable B movies—easily digested, easily forgotten. Watching Bridge, you realize that an epic movie is not only about the grand production values, but the scope of the filmmakers’ vision and intelligence. The movie wavers between exhilarating thrills, explosions, jungle fights, and haunting losses, the unexplicable waste of human life that war demands. Made over forty years ago, its as resonant today as it was then.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007


Reality TV really doesn’t need help making fun of itself, what with the preening man whores and street beat skanks of shows like I Love New York and Bad Girls, respectively. Like a satiric version of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the limits of plausibility has caused the medium to manipulate the product into more and more perplexing – and preposterous – positions. At one time, all we cared about was survival and self reliance. Now, it’s a combination of egomaniacal exaggerations of excellence meshed with worthless wish fulfillment. So if someone told you that the latest exercises in televised authenticity will revolve around finding the best pirate, the newest superhero, or the most talented handicapped person, you probably wouldn’t flinch. Oddly enough, two of those three are actually on their way to a boob tube near you. The third forms the foundation for one of the funniest, most critical comedies about the business of show ever conceived.


Like Lollilove before, Special Needs is an amazing new mock documentary by the multitalented Isaak James. Centering on a TV wunderkind named Warren Piece (James) and his American Idol like cast of critical cohorts – former A-lister Laura Wilcox (Eva James) and confused corrections officer David Smith (Michael C. Kricfalusi) – we are thrown into a world that, at first, looks shockingly familiar. Piece and his posse are self-centered schmoes, each one working through their own set of aggressively inconsiderate issues. Smith wants to be taken seriously as part of the entertainment industry. Wilcox is working off a ‘fat actress’ reputation. And Piece needs to make up for a previous reality show disaster. When desperate network CNT puts a newbie in charge of production, the trio thinks they’ve found a friendly ear. All that’s left is to pitch their latest project.


And it’s a dozy. Piece wants to find a group of photogenic, engaging ‘retards, psychos, and freaks’ to star in his latest reality brainstorm – Handicaps. That’s right, He plans on picking individuals with differing physical and/or mental issues and force them to live together in a swanky Addams Family-like Victorian house of humors. Then he can monitor their behavior and manipulate the playback in order to discover what it’s really like when mongoloids and misfits stop being polite, and start being…well, he hasn’t quite gotten that far yet. Noted for his outrageous ideas and Simon Cowell on steroids critiques, Piece has to find a hook to keep audiences intrigued, and with the help of some stoned production assistants, the final facet is put in place – TALENT!


Now all he needs are the weirdoes. At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy spoofery. James – who wrote, directed, stars and probably prepared the craft services – appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us uncomfortable and antsy. We expect the thwarting of convention, the tweaking of PC paradigms, and some good old fashioned vulgar funny business at the expense of someone else’s predicament. Yes, it will all be in bad taste, but the current envelope pushing conceit of motion picture comedy readily supports such obvious offensiveness. Just ask the Farrelly Brothers.


But this is not where James and his clever cast actually go. Not at all. Instead, we are wrapped up in an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, cockeyed creativity, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. Special Needs does employ the services of several handi-capable individuals, and all of them single-handedly steal the show. During an open audition for potential participants, we are introduced to a paranoid schizophrenic lounge singer, a determined deaf actor, a genial blind man, a wheelchair bond vixen, and a no bullshit dwarf. Initially, they remain on the fringes. But once the callbacks come, James gives each individual their three dimensional setpiece moment to shine. 


The clear breakout star here is someone called Killer P. A bad ass gansta rapper with cerebral palsy, if he’s not the future of urban culture, no one is. Using an aggressive thug life stance to shelter criticism over his obvious physical limitations, he’s a foul mouthed masterwork, a tripwire Tupac locked in an equally potent personal fortress. He’s a classic character (or a great find) and almost instantly demands the making of a solo feature all his own. Every moment he’s on screen is worth savoring and repeating. He’s gutbustingly great. He also illustrates part of Special Needs’ motion picture mystery. If he was discovered by James and brought to the project, then this filmmaker has a clear eye for flawless idiosyncratic talent. On the other hand, if he’s merely a handicapped actor putting on a front, then James is a genius for creating such a character, and P (real name, Keith Jones) is equally brilliant at bringing him to life. For this one element alone, Special Needs deserves unlimited praise.


But there is more to what’s going on here than outlandish personalities and a sly spoof of reality TV. In fact, it’s safe to say that this film really isn’t ‘about’ a potential series centering on the handicapped. Instead, it’s about the individuals involved, from Piece’s high-strung hubris to Laura Wilcox’s self loathing meanness. While the entire team behind Handicaps comes across as vain, angry, bitter and unlikable, James takes his time and opens up each and every character. We learn enough about each one to care (if only a little), and by the end we’re almost happy that the show appears to be a winner. And it’s not just the players that get fleshed out. The story is solid with an amazing amount of social commentary and depth.  Scenes are densely packed with multilayered material and James manages to find meaning in even the most scatological scene (as when the P.A.s lace the stars’ lattes with laxative).


Yet none of this touches on what really makes Special Needs shine – its brave sense of humor. Allowing the handicapped actors onscreen to hold their own, to be both the brunt and providers of many of the jokes, keeps the comedy fresh and honorable. Even when Killer P is hit with the N-word, his hilarious reactions take the sting out of the sentiment. In fact, that’s this film’s major motion picture contribution. In recent years, off balance disasters like The Ringer have tried to temper the mentally and physically challenged with something akin to soiled saintliness. Sure, they’re crude and rude, but they also have a built-in buttress against such standard human behavior that gives them a moralistic pass. Here, James simply let’s them be people. They are not defined by their malady anymore than Piece is hindered by his closet gayness, or as Laura is trapped in a shame cycle of body image issues.


This makes Special Needs a certified cinematic home run, an instant candidate for independent comedy of the year, and another terrific title in Troma’s growing collection of outsider gems (the company will release their DVD version sometime this year). Those expecting a mean-spirited marginalizing of the disabled will be greatly disappointed, while others wanting the mindless purveyors of reality rot to really get theirs will be doubled over in sidesplitting delight. That he managed to salvage something that could have been a disaster is not Isaak James’ greatest accomplishment here. No, the real revelation is his ability to thwart convention while carefully walking across all the formulaic necessities mandated to make a clever motion picture. Along with proving yet again that mainstream moviemakers have completely forgotten how to handle humor, Special Needs argues that the future of film lies somewhere beyond the fringe. Any cinephile who visits there will be wonderfully rewarded. 


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