Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 25, 2007


For those unfamiliar with geek lore, yesterday, 25 May, 2007, was a true nerd milestone. On said date, 30 years ago, an unknown sci-fi spectacle with very little advance buzz opened on movie screens across America. It starred nobody famous, was created by a filmmaker best known for his nostalgic nod to the 1950s, and confused critics with its jumbled genre crossing designs. Granted, the new fangled special effects looked mighty cool, but would audiences really queue up to see a bunch of basic eye candy wrapped around an obviously allegorical narrative? After all, three of the main characters were a pair of bumbling robots and an interstellar first mate who looked like Bigfoot. How could this possibly succeed?


Well, two sequels, three god-awful prequels, and umpteen billions of dollars later, its eventual conquest is now a glorified given. Indeed, Star Wars has come to mean more than just a novel 1977 popcorn flick that carried its creator George Lucas to both the zenith and nadir of fan obsession. It’s a corporate tag, a merchandising behemoth, a licensing label that has expanded across all marketing paradigms to prove its value as a type, a logo and a motion picture mission statement. Anyone who sat in the theaters some three decades past and thought they would see characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader mythologized into fictional keepers of the science fiction faith would have been declared insane. But thanks to rampant fandom, the rise of recordable home video, and the arrival of the Internet as a new form of implied community, all speculative fiction now finds itself compared to the worlds of Wars.


Granted, there was nothing wrong with Lucas’ lucky lament. Upon a first viewing, the original Star Wars was like a stick of imagination imploding TNT. As you sat in your seat, whisked away to planetoids never dreamed of, with characters you couldn’t have conceived, the cinematic scales fell from your eyes. In their place remained indelible images that still stand strong today – the figure of our hero, Luke Skywalker, standing against the backdrop of a multi-mooned sky; the devious orb of destruction known as the Death Star; the black hooded Darth Vader commanding respect from his easily replaceable crew; Han Solo saving the day, blaster blazing away in a flurry of laser light glory. From the initial space shot to the final interstellar dogfight, Star Wars stands a singular work of inspired genius. Like all exceptional art, it taps into many elements at once, combining to easily transcend and transform them all.


The sequels remain the first step in ruining all that. No matter how great you think Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are, they destroyed the initial aesthetic generated by Lucas and their team. They took what was probably a one-off experiment (though Georgie constantly disagrees with such claims) and expanded it far beyond anyone’s ability to control. No longer a personal or private vision, the new films had to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a blockbuster craving public. Thankfully, Lucas understood his own lame limits and turned the projects over to others (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) to fulfill their newly compromised promise. He went on to make fledgling F/X house Industrial Light and Magic a definitive dream machine. The hope was to provide an outlet to secure any and all filmmaker’s wildest vision. And as said business plan resoundingly succeeded, Star Wars continued to become more and more culturally relevant.


This didn’t mean it mattered cinematically or artistically. Instead of finding a way of making his spin-offs feel organic and original, Lucas continually rehashed the same old storylines (Skywalker’s in trouble, Vader is mad, Solo is suave, Leah is lost) and accessorizing their similarities with new characters (Yoda, Jabba the Hut) and ever expanding vistas. What he had initially was something very special, something that spoke to a generation eager to experience imagery and imagination unbridled and unfettered. In it’s place, Lucas simply created a cottage industry (and, eventually, a major motion picture force), one that forgot that fun was also part of the motion picture mix. Near the end of Jedi, with familial connections revealed, loyalties tested and tried, and every last manipulated emotion employed, our filmmaker let his cuddly duddly Ewok characters announce last call. Slightly satisfied, the crowds disbanded and went on their way.


It’s important to note that all of this occurred in an era with no reliable home theater construct. VCRs had been around since the early ‘70s, but few owned them and studios basically balked at the idea of releasing first run films onto a magnetic tape format (they had just caved on cable a couple of years previous). When movies finally started arriving on both Beta and VHS, they were incredibly expensive (well over $100 dollars) and limited in their reproduction quality. So for most of us, memory – and the occasional revival at the local arthouse – was all we had. And inside such wistful thoughts, Star Wars became something much more than its inauspicious origins. It became a phenomenon, a rite of passage, a part of everyone’s collective memory and any other lame metaphysical cliché you can clamp to it. Reality remained far off in the distance. In its place was the new religion – with new cathedrals built to its amusement immortality.


The first church eventually evolved from said videocassette. When Lucas finally put his War films out on the market, they were pan and scan shadows of their former big screen selves. Holding back as long as he arrogantly could, he turned each and every release into an epiphany. When the devoted demanded widescreen versions, mimicking the larger than life theatrical experience, he eventually complied. Soon, the digital technology that ILM helped found was firm enough to allow Lucas to tinker with his titles. The outrage was, initially, overwhelming, but with the promise of additional sequences and improved interstellar opulence, the whiners soon quieted. All three original movies were tweaked, and 1997 saw a 20th anniversary celebration of all things spacey. And like new prophecies from up on high, the faithful drank them in and learned their slightly different dogma.


The next logistical place of worship was the Internet. While continuously stereotyped as a place where freaks and dweebs tend to meet and greet, there is no denying the support group mentality inside the Information Superhighway. There, individuals who believe their obsessions are wholly and completely their own learn that others exist outside their sphere of experience and – believe it or not – their fetishism was the same as everyone else’s. It was here where Lucas’s sovereign state went nuclear. Fellow Warlords used bulletin boards, free Geocities webpages, and college computer lab time to outline their defense of the subtext strewn Skywalker realm. They opined on minutia, imagined plotlines of their own, and coalesced the entire Lucas empire (books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, trading cards) into a doctrine drenched in exaggerated meaning and overhyped worth.


Naturally, their loose canon L. Ron had to respond, and Lucas solidified the sorry state of Star Wars’ artistic merits by delivering three of the stupidest space operas ever. The perfunctory prequels – movies predating the events in the original trilogy – did an amazing job of hallowing out everything that had come before. Darth Vader, an icon of imposing evil, was turned into a pitter-patter bratling with a tendency to express his joy in diaper wetting shouts. Even worse, as the films moved along, adolescence found the future Sith sulking like a paperboy who just been bitten by a teacup Chihuahua. By the end of the turgid third film, a lava-pruned Vader was reduced to an archetype – that is, a love lorn loser whose emotional depth is, again, reduced to monosyllabic shouts.


Failing to see how he pissed on perspective, Lucas did what any self-determined god does, and declared his works to be “good”. Then, he went on to deliver his final Soviet state revisionist sentence. The original Star Wars, he said, was never to exist again. Instead, it would only be available in the CGI revamped Special Edition. Those who didn’t like the decision needed to get with the times, he insisted, and stop living in the past. The problem was, the past was decidedly better. Forgetting the dated look of the fantasy for a moment, the spirit imbued throughout the original film was lost in a gloss of fake fictional creatures and overdone sci-fi cityscapes. Sure, the story remained the same – sort of (No, the whole Greedo episode will not be discussed here), but the heart of the narrative had been ripped out and replaced by something that looked like shameless self-promotion.


There is a bigger picture problem involved here as well. By purposefully thwarting art’s inherent element of timelessness, Lucas and others open up the entire category to unnecessary interference. For example, an owner of Picasso’s “Guernica” who believes it would look better in full color, or a studio convinced that a movie’s box office appeal was limited by a director’s choice of subplot are now supported in their frequently misguided notions of reconfiguration. And before you toss out the typical “they’re his films” mantra, remember two things. One day, they won’t be (no one lives forever) and Lucas didn’t make these movies just for himself. He put them out into the marketplace to be accepted and/or rejected. Once taken, a creative contract is implied. He can pragmatically retrieve and rewrite the original entertainment agreement, but by doing so, he opens himself to claims of fraud and falsehood. It may not hold up legally, but it sure stinks ethically.


And the worst was yet to come. Last year, among much hoopla and hand wringing, Lucas reneged on his ‘no original versions’ dicta and provided long suffering fans with a chance to own the initial ‘70s standards canoodling free. Of course, there was a catch, and DVD lovers soon learned that these transfers would be non-anamorphic and non-remastered. Amid rumors of a 30th Anniversary HD release, the shilling appeared shameless. Yet even this latest laugh in the face of the fanbase couldn’t dampen Star Wars’ freakish faithful. Many lined up this week to sit through all six films in this over-inflated franchise, and here’s hoping that mental health officials were standing by to treat the traumatized. To anyone who stood for hours to see the 1977 original – sometimes more than once – the irony is caustic. Today, there are dozens of ways to enjoy Lucas’ lumbering legacy. Back then, there was only the Bijou. We had no choice but to wait. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Star worn today.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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)

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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. 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.