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

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 8, 2008


Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.


Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.



Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.


Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.



Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.


It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Feb 4, 2008


By Wednesday, it will probably all be over. The pundits will be hoarse and the electorate sore and scarred. Eight whole months before the rest of the so-called democracy can actually have their say in who becomes President, Super Tuesday will set a stage that few faltering campaigns can recover from. In a contest that’s seen both fields narrowed down to two questionable contenders, the votes cast this day will determine everything - momentum, money, endorsements, delegates, and perhaps most importantly, public perception. If you’re Mitt Romney, alleged Conservative savior, and you loose to many of those Red State reactionaries, no amount of flip flopping will revive your reverse Reaganism. And for Hillary Clinton, it’s time to put that frontrunner fallacy to the test. If Obama can keep in lockstep, their showdown may have to be solved on the convention floor. It’s all part of the process. It’s all part of politics. 


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years it seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their voice counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.


But wait, you don’t believe that one man/one vote is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is this onerous organism and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.


Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.


Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods locale, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.


It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant playlist of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.


Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.


Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this Super Tuesday cycle.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 1, 2008


It’s the lost ones that always seem to find each other, star crossed or not, planned or accidental. To them, life is an exploration made more manageable by like associations, similar philosophies, and a belief in liberation as both a blessing and a curse. Sex is also a catalyst, binding indifference to affection and making both as addictive as smack. And when reality comes calling, when the truth of the 9 to 5, dollars and cents social structure demands some ritualistic sacrifice, these inseparables manage to dodge the bullets and keep on running. Baby Shoes and Alex are such a couple. She sells her underwear to perverts on the Internet. He plays protector, and when the time is right, green-eyed zelophile. Together they form a union more perfect than that of classical paramours. It’s also clear that they’re barely hanging on.


In his absolutely stunning and undeniably brilliant short film Alex and Her Arse Truck, UK filmmaker Sean Conway creates the kind of character sketch that has you sitting back, slack jawed, in satisfied contemplation. It’s a movie that sticks with you long after the final image has faded away. Similar in style to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, but far more fierce in its unconventional flair, this is a book come bounding to life, a novel’s worth of detail and depth in 15 far too brief minutes. The main narrative is easy to understand - Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers. While there are hints of other stories in all these recognizable references Conway’s work has the overall effect of being wholly original and wildly inventive.



Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived - not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful - and better yet, believable - pair.


Conway is also a true star here, a future filmmaking giant just waiting to have his rock solid aesthetic appreciated by the masses. Thanks to the lovely photography by Lol Crowley and the director’s attention to detail, we find ourselves lost in this carnival like collection of fringe dwellers. Conway also has a satisfying habit of being overly aggressive with his cues. At any given moment, the movie feels like it’s getting away from us, ready to rush forward faster than we are willing to accept. Many times, a scooter riding Young will simply take off out of frame, leaving us behind to contemplate what the emergency is. Clearly, like everything else in this manchild’s frame of reference, the day’s too short to simply sit back and appreciate the details. If you don’t hurry, conservatives and conformity will catch up with you.



There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Sep 8, 2007


It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.


It’s the very reason the spaghetti interpretation of the material made such a splash 40 years ago.  Treating the genre as a combination of considered iconography and classical tragedy, the mannered, manipulated imagery created by these foreign films generated a whole new emblematic appeal. Unlike the Hollywood way of the sagebrush saga, which used character as a catalyst for its bigger right/wrong dynamic, Italian directors like Sergio Leone skipped the personal and went right for the problem. They elevated disputes into wars of karmic calculation, and blurred the lines between villain, victor, and victim. It’s no wonder the western faded away after the influx of the Mediterranean influence. With the exception of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliant El Topo, few could find a way around the contrasting combination of clipped heroics and glimpsed Hell. That is, until now.


To call it genius would be a gross understatement. To label it a homemade homage to an equally endearing artform would also be too simplistic. For filmmakers, musicians, and friends Mike Bruce and Kirkpatrick Thomas, the Once Upon a Fistful fabulousness of the pasta prairie parade is merely a jumping off point for a combination lampoon and love letter to the works that rewired their cinematic sensibilities. The result – the magnificent Legend of God’s Gun, a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”. While it may seem like nothing more than a copycat compilation of Leone, Corbucci, and Barboni riffs, with just a little sidewinding psychedelia thrown in for gonzo measure, the opposite is actually true. What Bruce (director/actor) and Thomas (writer/actor/composer) manage is nothing less than a brilliant distillation of everything the reformulated artform stood for.


The story is devastatingly simple. A one time gunslinger turned Preacher (his woman was murdered by a band of ruthless outlaws right before his eyes) wanders the desolate desert countryside, seeking salvation and revenge. He’s after the scorpion poison drinking desperado, El Sobro. Along with his gang of craven killers, the villain has cut a trail of death and destruction all across the West. Sought by a Bounty Hunter desperate for recognition – and financial returns – these divergent individuals will eventually face off in the small town of Playa Diablo, a place where the Sheriff senses his wife is cheating on him, and the Deputy is the dog doing it behind his back. Of course, there’s some sacred gold involved, and more than one personal vendetta to settle, as gunfights turn into glorifications for everything the winning of the Wild West ever stood for or signified.


Sadly, such a description doesn’t do The Legend of God’s Gun justice. It’s one of the most artistically accomplished and visionary self-made movies since Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut and Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family. Not only does it flaunt our expectations of spaghetti worship, but it takes the era in which the cinematic revolution occurred and channels it through the genre formulas as well. The results rip through your brain and sever your synapses, shredding what you know about film and replacing it with a brand new celluloid language. There are moments here of visual grandeur that top the most accomplished moviemaking recreationist. There are also sequences of significant reinvention that speak to Bruce and Thomas’ talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is not just some celebration of cinema. It’s a bow to all the media this duo dig – comics, the music of Morricone, pop art, action movies, and the always systemic image of a poised gun.



In its mannerism and make-up, The Legend of God’s Gun plays like a series of climaxes waiting for the context to catch up to them. Backstory is hinted at and inferred, while characterization is kept to costuming, quirk, and straightforward sonic signatures. This is not the Penny Dreadful style of shoot ‘em up that monopolized the Western myth for the first 60 years of modern moviemaking. Instead, Legend channels more bizarro attempts at reviving the genre, like the works of Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie), Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks), and the Sams - Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Fuller (Forty Guns), and Raimi (The Quick and the Dead). It also invests in its own naiveté, understanding completely that it can never fully recreate the slow burn significance of the films that came before it. Instead, this is an effort of insinuation, to use a more Madison Avenue approach to the subject matter, meaning it hits the high notes, the recognizable rigors, and then invents its own clever combinations to compensate for the lack of legitimacy.


And it’s not just an internal conceit. As stated before, this is a basic camcorder production, a shot on video version of every other outsider attempt at moviemaking the new science can support. But thanks to the computer, and its ability to tweak colors, create age, provide purposeful defects, and give each frame the full Peter Max dynamic, Bruce and Thomas can indulge their every creative whim. They exploit long forgotten film elements like split screen, freeze framing, multiple exposures, fish eyed lens, kaleidoscope effect, and insert montages. In combination with the astounding score by Thomas’ band Spindrift (so sonically right it’s frightening), the amateur acting from the cast (complete with mandatory ADR voiceover work), the backdrop’s bravura grandeur (it’s ghost town-irrific) and the many little moments of outright gadgetry make for a movie that revives your faith in filmmaking.



Since it is only available directly from the filmmakers (through their production company, Razor Tree Films) and lacks the full blown digital directness of a professionally distributed product, there will be those who dismiss the polish of this project. They will look at the self-helmed hucksterism and argue that it’s no different than dozens of other moviemaking wannabes selling their wares out of the metaphysical back of their van known as the Internet.  But that would be missing the point. Decades ago, Francis Ford Coppola argued that cinema would finally find a populist position, technology allowing anyone with an idea to bring their vision to the otherwise myopic masses (it’s a position supported by such diverse entities as Martin Scorsese and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman). The Legend of God’s Gun is a clear indication of this new media mandate. It’s an explosive, eye popping expression of full blown film geek love measured through an aesthetic sensibility that flawlessly recreates its own insular inspiration.


Not only that, but it’s a nod to the filmic forbearers who had the wisdom and wherewithal to see that the Western wasn’t dead, just in need of a major artistic overhaul. Bruce and Thomas follow the footpath carved out by brilliant, bloody works such as The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West and then invert it all for the socially hip. It’s a blatant doom trip, a droning drive directly into the sand washed mythos of the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the cruel, callous killer. In The Legend of God’s Gun, we are not dealing with law and order, civilization vs. savagery. Instead, this is the amazingly muddled and fertile fields of the genre expressionists, people who propose there existed more going on behind the scenes of any storyline than just upright citizenry, quiet desperation, and wanton wickedness. There was a meaning that reached far beyond humanity to address the very nature of being. Luckily, these filmmakers found a way to guide their vision. It’s now available for all who are interested – and it’s amazing


 


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. 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

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

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.