Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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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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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.


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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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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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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Sometimes, a sequel just shouldn’t bother. No matter what the project thinks it has to offer that’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’, no matter what novel twist it wants to put on the same old storylines, it is almost always destined to fail. Of course, there are exceptions (Godfather Part II and Spider-Man 2 instantly come to mind), but more times than not, what we end up with is something dull (Fly II), derivative (Halloween II), or a startlingly sour combination of the two (any of the Jaws follow-ups). And it gets even worse when you start stringing out a flimsy foundation into some kind of series. The more Roman numerals on the end, the more potential for pointlessness. Such is the case with Shrek the Third. This is the kind of sloppy, generic follow-up that will have you wondering why anyone found the first movie the least bit entertaining.


It all begins with our large green hero wrapped in a quandary. He must make a very important decision – accept the throne from the dying frog King Harold, or head out to Worcestershire and find Arthur, the next in line to inherit the empire. As part and parcel of this franchise’s meta-mannerisms, we are of course talking about the legendary owner of the mythic round table here, except he’s depicted as an awkward loser. Even more confusing, our adolescent ruler-to-be attends a Harry Potter like school where magic makes up most of the curriculum. So, while Shrek is off trying to convince Master Pendragon that the land of Far Far Away needs him, and his sweetie Fiona is preparing to bring a few ogre offspring into the world, the disposed Prince Charming – whose been relegated to doing lame dinner theater for a living – plots to retake the crown that the storyline from Shrek II stole from him. Gathering together all the known villains in the fairytale universe (including Capt. Hook and Rupelstiltskin), he plots a full blown fictional character coup.


Though it sounds compelling and intricate, the truth is that Shrek the Third‘s narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but aside from two stellar moments (Shrek imagines life as a father, and the Gingerbread Man literally sees his life flash before his eyes), the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, jokes that seemed to work the first two times (lame rap lingo, prevalent pop culture references) now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices (Ian McShane as Hook, Justin Timberlake as Arthur) looking to enliven things.


It has to be said though that Eric Idle, who arrives late in the second act as a blithely blitzed out Merlin, does bring a great deal of madcap amusement to his twisted take on the old wizard, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still sparkle as Donkey and Puss in Boots, respectively. But Mike Myers’ Scottish shtick has grown grating and unappealing. Instead of making Shrek sound continental and crafty, the character is now bordering on the ethnically insensitive. He’s like Groundskeeper Willie without Matt Groening and the gang’s sense of satiric edge. But at least he’s still given something to do. Cameron Diaz is delegated to a substrata supporting role, her Fiona required to do little else than pine for her monster-man and remain vigilant. Now that’s some gutbusting cleverness, huh?


Indeed, most of Shrek the Third plays like missed opportunities purposefully planned out that way. It’s a film so afraid of letting down the demographic that it never ventures beyond the safe. Actually, if you could merely jerryrig the first two films into some manner of comic collage, injecting Charming’s take-over bid somewhere in towards the middle, you would have this tre-quel’s entire creative conceit. It’s just shocking that after three years, an open checkbook, and a studio more than willing to let the animators take this franchise wherever they want, the result is this lackadaisical and unfinished. The motivation for our character’s concerns is left unexplored, the events in the story appearing to occur as if part of some planned animation autopilot. Even the big showdown at the end is anticlimactic, playing more like a cop out than a rousing conclusion.


Still, this movie will probably make scads of money. It offers all the standard CGI stereotyping that has come to define the genre. Where once we had a quasi-clever take on fairytales and fantasy archetypes, the twisting of well known characters into anxiety ridden entities with dimensions beyond their pen and ink particulars, now we have expertly rendered stand-up comics, each one waiting for their moment to drop another onerous one liner. We even get the mandatory musical number over the credits, Murphy’s ditzy Donkey going all Sly and the Family Stone on us as Shrek’s stumpy children make goofy “goo-goo” noises. In fact, the real reason this movie feels so familiar isn’t just its debt to the first two films. No, the Shrek schema has been adopted by so many other derivative 3D disasters (Barnyard, Robots, any Ice Age film) that there can’t help but be a little backsplash.


With Shrek 4 already greenlit, and a healthy return at the box office for this latest release, it is clear that audiences don’t mind these increasingly dreary offerings. As long as they stay as true to their past particulars as possible, turnstiles will be spinning. This means we can expect more Puss in Boots suave sensuality, more dizzying Donkey dorkiness, lots more of Arthur’s gee-whiz boy band blandness, and supplementary silliness by the barrelful. Again, this latest installment in the already stale series will give the wee ones something to obsess over once the DVD arrives, and there’s no denying the increase in artistic approach and design. Many of the sequences razzle with plenty of bitrate dazzle. But filmmakers have yet to learn that any animated feature needs something more than pretty pictures to solidify its significance. Shrek the Third is nothing more than a previous pastiche with very little if anything new to add.


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