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My Name is Earl” kicked off its anticipated second season by pairing two of the show’s most distinctive characters–the eponymous amends-seeking hero, played by Jason Lee and his moustache, and his insufferably white-trash bitch of a wife, played by Jaime Pressly and her six-pack abs. The task: #183 on Earl’s list, “I never took Joy’s side.” Earl decides to support the next decision Joy makes–which, unfortunately, is inspired by an episode of Britney and Kevin’s reality show.

Joy sees that Britney and Kevin have a giant, disappearing TV, and she wants–no, she deserves–one too. So she manages to save up the $3000 and buys one, but it’s too big for her trailer home. She tries to return it, but because the item number on the receipt was ruined, the clerk won’t accept the return. She swears she’s going to get her money back, no matter what she has to do. On her way out of the store, she encounters a delivery truck with the keys in the ignition and steals it with the intent to sell it for her $3000. It falls to Earl to help her sell the truck, which unbeknownst to our flawed protagonists, has a man in the back, effectively making the pair kidnappers as well. Throughout, Joy is unyielding in her beliefs: She is owed her money back, and if she can’t t get it back from the store, the universe/life owes it to her.

In a show already steeped with lessons about the circular nature of karma, this episode additionally highlights the subjective morality of circumstance. If life owes us, to what lengths may we go to attain what should be ours? Is a crime of principle–“like when Rosa Parks stole that bus,” Joy points out–justified if it achieves what is “right?”

Joy also appeals to her ex’s devotion to his list of atonement items, claiming that since he never supported her in the past, he needs to do so now. As the escapade escalates, Earl finally has to admit that he’s supported her as far as he could, and that he is going to opt out of continuing to be an accessory to Joy’s single-minded pursuit of what she considers justice. In her mind, Joy thinks she’s no different from that “Robin Hood, Batman, Jesus stuff.” Earl says he doesn’t know about Jesus and Batman, but that stealing from the rich to help the poor did sound like it was up Robin Hood’s alley.

“Why do bad things always happen to good people?” Joy wonders after the inadvertent hostage runs into a tree, which adds assault to the mounting list of charges against her. But Joy is not a creature of depth and nuance. She is a simpleton, but doesn’t seem to understand that society has rules that she must adhere to.

But when we consider that Joy got into this whole mess because she thought Britney and Kevin were like royalty and the Federlinean lifestyle was worth emulating, we also have to ask ourselves who our role models are and why. The image of having a TV larger than your means and circumstances allow is a salient metaphor for the undue emphasis that we put on place on celebrities and television in general, and provokes us to think about what entertainment makes us think about, while we’re enjoying that very same entertainment. It’s very meta.

Jet Li’s “Fearless,” opening today and based on a true story, is a film about finding yourself. Jet Li’s character, Han Yaunjia, has one goal in life: to be the best fighter. And throughout the first half of the movie you will wonder if there is anything more to his character. You might even wonder if the first half of the movie will work its way to a solid payoff. Hang in there–it will.

The movie starts with Han Yaunjia easily handling three fighters, then flashes back to his childhood, where his need to fight and go undefeated started. The story jumps roughly 25 years into the future, and we see Han Yaunjia, already a master, fighting any and all challengers who are eager to defeat him.

Although some of the effects at times seem weak, the fast-paced martial arts will leave you oohing and ahhing. The fight choreography was done with precision, and two fights stand out in particular.

The first sets up the general arch of the movie, where we see Li’s character fall from his own personal pedestal. In a battle to the death with Master Chin, we watch two men fight, not for personal amusement–as with many of the fights in this film–but for survival. Even though Han Yaunjia survives, his family pays the price in the vendetta. It is the brutal murder of his family that breaks him and changes the person he is.

In truth, though, his family was already a distant thought in his mind. He does not see his daughter or take care of his mother or home. He threw his family to the side for his own personal pride and glory.

What we watch in the second half of the movie is his rebirth. Moved by the compassion of those who find him drifting, he starts a new life. We watch as he changes from who he was to who he becomes.

With his newfound set of values, Han Yaunjia loses the will to fight for the pleasure of winning. He learns from all his past mistakes and works to amend for all his sins. And he works to become a teacher to his disciples.

The movie does not disappoint those who come for a good martial-arts fight. Han Yaunjia may have changed his personality, but he remains a fighter until the end, even if his attitude toward fighting has changed. At this point, he fights not for himself but for all of China and the East.

The final battle is the second memorable fight. Done with grace and class, it shows the beauty of martial arts, with its flowing kicks and some very nice camera work. With a single punch, we watch the culminations of the transformation Li’s character has undergone and see the honor that a fight can convey.

— Posted by David Wittlin

The ever-rising star television series creator and producer J. J. Abrams has done it again: “Six Degrees” (which premieres tonight at 10 on ABC) is riveting, complex, and promises something simple but essential for TV drama: good stories.

Reminiscent of the film “Love Actually” in more ways than one, the pilot opens with scenes from New York City–the subway, people passing on the streets, the skyline–layered with voice-over narration by one of the characters, Carlos. Carlos, a public defender who is single but seeking, reflects about love, relationships, how people meet and why, and most importantly of all, the roles that fate and chance play in the pivotal moments of our lives: when we meet that person who will one day become our spouse, our best friend, or perhaps even our worst enemy.

The storyline plays out from there, cutting back and forth between the daily lives of its six main characters–Carlos, Whitney, Mae, Damian, Steven, and Laura–encouraging viewers to piece together, bit by bit, each of their stories, and enticing us to guess how each character’s story will become connected in some way, as they title implies will surely happen. If you loved or even liked “Love Actually,” “Six Degrees” employs the same format of unraveling and intertwining the lives of a large group of people through relationships–friendships, romances, betrayels, breakups. If relationships in general fascinate you in any way, “Six Degrees” is a must-see.

But why am I calling a show about relationships classic J. J. Abrams? Well, for fans of all things J. J. Abrams, viewers will be pleased to see signatures from his three other hit shows–“Felicity,” “Alias,” and “Lost“–peppered throughout the storyline and casting of “Six Degrees.” I am a longtime Abrams devotee, and in a rather classic J. J. Abrams fashion, simply by chance (or is it fate?), not by intention, caught “Felicity” from the get-go back in my early 20s and watched it faithfully until its final season, before moving on to “Alias,” and more recently, “Lost.”

In some ways, you could say that with “Six Degrees” Abrams has returned to his roots. “Felicity” was driven by the relationships between its characters, but also had a rather magical air of romance and fate as well. The show pivoted on what some would call daring and others foolish–the fact that Felicity, its central character, enrolled in NYU because a boy she didn’t even really know at all in high school, Ben, was her soul-mate, and NYU was the college of his choice. Felicity believed they were “fated” to be together. That provided our introduction to Abram’s fascination with chance, the mystical, the romantic, the religious, the spiritual; there are many things one could call it–the belief that something mysterious draws people together, makes them do things they otherwise wouldn’t, shakes them with fear, drives them to the brink of despair, calls them to believe in some higher power than themselves, or makes them sigh with joy and gratitude. This notion of the “something beyond”–however differently it can be interpreted–is present in everything Abrams does.

The connections between “Six Degrees” and “Felicity” are rather obvious, and with “Alias” and “Lost” a bit less so, but they are still there for fans to find. Viewers will be pleased to find that the name of one character–Mae Anderson–is an alias. She has a secret, and we are not sure if she is on the side of good or evil, though we can’t help but root for good. And most importantly of all, she starts the show a platinum blond and by the end has dyed her hair almost a reddish-brown. Sound familiar?

Then, echoing “Lost,” is the ensemble cast (which includes the fantastic actor Campbell Scott as Steven) whose lives we know not only will be thrown together in multiple ways (though not on a deserted island)–but who also may have a past that connects them as well (as do all the characters on “Lost”). Though Abrams so far does not employ the signature flashbacks of character back-stories, as he does each episode on “Lost,” it’s clear that each character brings baggage to the table that will become important as their relationships evolve and tighten.

All this to say, whether you are new to J. J. Abrams or a longtime fan, “Six Degrees” is yet another fantastic contribution to television drama by the man who can do no wrong (it seems) when it comes to imagining an engaging story. Definitely tune in. I’d say that your horoscope today says its in the cards for you to take a chance on tales of love and friendship.

Innovative jazz musician John Zorn is having a good month–he’s won two prizes, though most people only know about one of them. Even hardcore Zorn fans may not know that the jazz musician and founder/CEO of Tzadik Records took the prize for Best Blend of Jazz and Heritage at the Oyhoo Jewish Music and Culture Festival at the Jewish Music Awards ceremony, held earlier this month in Manhattan. And then, this week Zorn was named a winner of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Coincidence? (Well, since none of the other JMA winners were also MacArthur Fellows, yes, definitely a coincidence.)

The 25 MacArthur Fellows will each receive $500,000 in “no-strings-attached” funds, to be paid over five years by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a private, independent grantmaking institution dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition. While I’ve never had $100,000 a year in no-strings income, I bet that would improve my human condition.

Tzadik Records, which Zorn helms, is a force for the unusual and avant garde in many genres, not just the “adventurous recordings bringing Jewish identity and culture into the 21st century,” which the Hebrew label name–which translates to “Righteous”–evokes. The New Japan division provides “breathtaking, genre-busting music from the new Japanese underground,” while Oracles celebrates “the diversity and creativity of women in experimental music making.” And according to the website, “Tzadik’s Lunatic Fringe series excavates the inner most views from some of the outermost reaches of human creativity, bringing to lightsome of the most intense creative acts of our time.

In addition to the new music that Tzadik produces, it also offers special editions of albums. For example, if you were seeking a special limited edition of Hemophiliac’s self-titled album–and let’s face it, who isn’t?–you’d want to visit Tzadik Records. In their “special editions” section, you’d learn that such an item was available, featuring tracks like “Edema” and “Stretch Marks.” Sadly, such items don’t last. Even though the disc was sold only through two websites–Tzadik and Ipecac Recordings (whose slogan is–I’m not kidding–“Making People Sick Since 1999”), if you don’t already have one, you missed it, since the set is now sold out.

Zorn’s prize did not go unnoticed by Stephen Colbert, who, still smarting from his Emmy loss to Barry Manilow, decried the MacArthur Foundation’s decision on Wednesday’s show. Playing a clip of Zorn’s unique–and, some might say, atonal–music, Colbert pulled out a top hat and cane and pretended to sitting-down-tapdance to it. Clearly Colbert felt shafted, and after his segment, in which he systematically insulted the awardees, stretched his hand out to the camera and said,”Genius Grant, please…” If only it were up to the Colbert Nation, Stephen, if only.