Sunday, September 30, 2012

A room with a brew #3: Blondiage bye-bye?

This is the third in a Sunday serial. Read the first and the second.

The day after Blondiage was publicly crying in her tequila because of the shabby way The Mustache had treated her, she was back at the bar brandishing a brochure for a new Pontiac she said she was buying. In other words, too bad for you, Mustache. See what you will never ride in.

As usual she had the blue trivia game console on the bar in front of her. And also as usual she called to me for help, in this case, with the answering of a round of “match the artist with the art form” questions involving the likes of Henry Moore, Thomas Mann, and Anna Pavlova.

Blondiage had no clue as to the correct answers. She had never heard of those people, which doesn't make her a bad person. But as soon as the game confirmed the right answers I had given her, Blondiage claimed she would have come up with those answers herself, given a bit more time to think. Yeah right. How does that work? If you don't already associate monumental nudes with Moore, haven't read "Magic Mountain," and have never been inside an opera house, how is more time going to help you figure out the right answers?

But Blondiage insisted loudly she had known all that stuff. I rolled my eyes and shrugged. Nobody else even cared or was listening. Poor Blondiage. She was was the type of woman who attracted lost drunks and stray animals. And what drew them to her was her nonjudgmental openness. No one expected Blondiage to be a wealth of cultural knowledge. But the more vodka tonics she drank, the greater her need to break out of that mold. Perhaps in that regard she was just like the rest of us.

Anyway, as it turned out, Blondiage was moving away. She had recently returned from a vacation to Key West, a much publicized trip through her own word of mouth and even more so through jealous gossip. Now she was moving down there for good, she said. I had to admit she was a perfect fit for Duval Street, sexy and thirsty and no worse yet for wear.

Of course, Blondiage had also found in Key West her dreamboat as well as a dream job. According to her, and despite Jojo's long demographic odds, which she had acknowledged as fact, namely, seven babes for every hunk, Blondiage told us she had a new beau waiting for her in the Keys. And a good job, an actual career. And don’t forget the new wheels. Yep, I guess the message was pretty clear: Eat your hearts out, losers.

Well, take 'er easy, Blondiage. I never tried to make you, but you never wanted anything from me anyway except the right answers to questions that didn't really matter, a trivia game. Why should I miss you? You never even thanked me once for helping you win all those games or for making your scores look respectable so others wouldn't think you were a complete ditz. You tumbled for The Stache and for Jojo. You never thought about trying with me. You knew you could count on my answers but you couldn't see me in any other light. Hey, wasn't I a regular, too? Sometimes sitting at the bar right next to you. Well, if you didn't want to know, forget it.

Blondiage wasn't mean, just self-absorbed. And after all, wasn't she just like all of us, that is to say, lost in one way or the other but unable to see precisely where we have gone astray.

So maybe I will be eating my heart out -- just a little.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Black Prez

The first time I voted for an African-American for president was 32 years ago.

In the fall of 1980 I was in graduate school in Bowling Green, Ohio, earning a small stipend as an assistant in the German Department. I roomed alone in a small apartment in a private house a mile or so off campus.

I had three rooms in the modest structure, the rest of which was vacant. Behind the house was a large fenced-in yard that I never used.

At one point a 30-something divorcee bought the house and moved in. She was beautiful, blond and buxom. I thought I had won the trifecta. She also owned a huge, slobbering St. Bernhard who was given the run of the yard.

As the presidential election drew near, I decorated a wall of my apartment with campaign posters — I no longer remember how I got them — of Andrew Pulley for president, and his female running mate, Matilde Zimmerman for vice president. Their party affiliation was Socialist Workers of America. Pulley was a black man.

At the time my thinking was why vote for a major party candidate when they both appeared to be different sides of the same coin and both primarily represented moneyed interests. I owned no capital, didn't have a car or TV. My most impressive possessions were an old 10-speed bike and a bunch of books in different languages.

But I also was not afraid of the s-word. I knew socialism was not totalitarianism, and that it could never lead to communism in America. In addition, I had lived in Western Europe and had observed that social democracy does not destroy such shared ideals like individualism and liberty.

I also completely failed to understand the thinking of so many of my fellow grad students, who used to say they were going to vote for Ronald Reagan "because he was sure to win." Did they care only about post-election bragging rights? Did voting for the eventual winner somehow make the voter right, smart, or a winner, too?

One day around election time my hottie of a landlady came into my apartment. Our living quarters were separated by an inside door that only locked from her side. She saw the posters and it made her laugh. She couldn’t believe I would really vote for a -- and here she used the n-word. She did not comment on the veep but returned to her side of the house.

After that I don't remember her coming by to hang out much. Mostly I saw my landlady when she had work around the house for me to do in return for reduced rent. I am sure I pined all winter for my fantasy trifecta.

The following Spring, returning from campus one unseasonably hot afternoon I found my lovely landlady lying on a towel behind her house catching rays. She was wearing a small white bikini and large dark sunglasses. She called me over, and as I made my way for the first time through the backyard I realized the entire lawn was covered with dog feces, much of it weeks and months old. There wasn't a square foot of sod that did not boast at least one pile of St. Bernhard poop. Obviously, she had never scooped up after her dog since moving in. And, in the midst of all that manure, my nearly naked landlady was tanning.

She propped herself on an elbow and said she would pay me to clean up the yard. Staring down at all that fair skin, I agreed to take on that disgusting job. It was the moment my beautiful and bigoted landlady ceased being an object of desire.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cinema 2012: End of Watch

By about halfway through “End of Watch,” when both cops enter a burning house to save the children inside, it has become clear that Officer Zavala, played by Michael Pena, is the true hero of David Ayer’s latest flick, and not Zavala’s partner Officer Taylor, a more calculating character, who is given the insouciant swagger of the uncommitted by top-billed Jake Gyllenhaal.

Both cops are decorated for their bravery but Taylor admits he only entered the inferno because his partner had gone in before him. Zavala never hesitated. He embodies the man of action whose motivation is grounded in his absolute acceptance of his role within his own culture, in this case Mexican. Zavala married his high school sweetheart and became a cop to provide for the family he will father. He is proud he fits into this tradition, a pride that heightens his sense of righteousness.

Taylor on the other hand seems to constantly scan the horizon for what lies beyond. He is preoccupied with video-recording what happens “on the job” for a course in journalism he has enrolled in. This plot device gives Ayer a source of point-of-view images to bolster the movie’s “real feel” while also painting Taylor as more of an outsider, in contrast to Zavala who acts out of respect for family and the thin blue line. Taylor, an ex-marine, shares respect for the latter and acquires respect for the former over the arc of the story.

Through Taylor’s camera lens we see deliberate close-ups of the weapons and ammunition used by the cops. These details are meant to ground the action in reality. “End of Watch” sounds real, too. The politically incorrect banter inside the patrol car is fresh. Zavala mocks his partner for “enjoying your white people shit,” while Taylor reduces his partner’s heritage to an unending series of quinceañera parties.

The contrast between the officers’ wise-ass put downs and the cold-blooded violence happening on the streets is poignant.

"End of Watch" is well paced. The cops grow personally in ways that humanize them, even as the danger of their job escalates. There is plenty of violence but it serves the story, whether introducing us to supporting characters or reinforcing our heroes’ personalities. For example, when hot blooded Zavala with his strong sense of personal honor allows himself to be baited into a brawl with a bad guy, Taylor calmly remains on the sidelines. That also lays the groundwork for a later scene, in which Taylor cuffs an ultra-brutal attacker when deadly force instead might have been used with impunity.

“End of Watch” boasts strong cinematography. The fire rescue scene is surreal as it meshes life-and-death intensity with heroic exhilaration.

In the supporting role of Taylor's fiancée, Anna Kendrick delivers an intuitive, scene-stealing performance.

There is visual variety here as well, including a hip wedding reception that provides a real respite from the evil of the gangs, that is, until a blubbering veteran cop blurts his most painful war story. Here filmmaker Ayer nudges viewers to connect the parable with the film’s narrative, a subtle segue back to the violence and one that foreshadows the movie’s climax and ultimate take away.

Ayers briefly trips up near the end when he seemingly channels "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But the filmmaker regains his balance and, with a nod to Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," pulls off his bloody bait and switch and serves up a more meaningful conclusion than the traditional Hollywood happy ending would permit.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Obama comes to BGSU

All too often when someone calls President Obama a good orator, the remark comes off less as a sincere compliment than the begrudged allowance of a politically valuable skill. Sometimes it even sounds more like an accusation, as in the implication Obama has hoodwinked the American public with his silver tongue.

I saw the President speak at the rally at Bowling Green State University yesterday and I will say that when the man gets riled he can speechify with the best of them. And I mean that wholeheartedly as a compliment.

These days a presidential campaign is a quintessential reflection of our pop culture not to mention an event worth reporting on. So I went to the rally in reporter mindset. But there were moments when I was moved to stand and applaud.

When Obama got caught up in contrasting his philosophy of government with the pronouncements of his “opponent,” his heart-felt sincerity came through overwhelmingly, as did his impassioned determination to improve America by extending opportunity to the many rather than cutting breaks for the few.

This is not a political blog but I want to say that I doubt Mr. Obama’s “opponent” could elicit the same response in me. And I am not talking about campaign promises. When Obama in his stump speech promised the creation of one million jobs during the next four years I just listened wondering if it would ever happen. Later when I heard a Romney ad on TV promise 12 million new jobs during the same time period I was really left wondering. Given the current economy, those are bold statements on the part of both men.

Do such promises reflect an honest assessment of what is a possible or even a likely outcome of their respective policies, or do they simply bespeak any campaigning politician's peculiar relationship with the truth?

Bulldozers and heavy trucks were parked along East Wooster Street to barricade the Stroh Center, where Obama spoke. Above: The spirit shop inside the Stroh Center was open for business as thousands thronged the venue. Top: Ticketholders line up to enter the Obama campaign rally.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cinema 2005: Keep the car running at Wolf Creek

Intense is the word for writer/director Greg McLean’s 2005 film "Wolf Creek,” which must have done as much for Australian backpacking tourism as Spielberg’s “Jaws” did for splashing about in the ocean three decades earlier.

"Wolf Creek" tells the tale of three young persons who drive across the wasteland of central Australia, stopping at a meteorite crater to take in the extraterrestrial scars and ponder such mysteries of the universe as "what made the meteor crash...?"

But it is not aliens that terrify in this road movie, where the unhygienic locals encountered along the way could empty a Star Wars bar with a single snaggled-toothed sneer. Then there is Mick Taylor (John Jarrat), a Vietnam Vet and unemployed so-called “head shooter,” or vermin killer, who no longer has a societally acceptable outlet for his sociopathy. Jarrat brings an uncanny realism to his role, such that one can only hope the actor is never out of work for long for fear of what pastimes he may turn to.

The film opens on the Australian coast, where we are treated to sun-filled close-ups of two young Brits, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and her friend Kristy (Kestie Morassi), as they wait for an Ausie bloke, Ben (Nathan Phillips), who has agreed to drive them across country. Ben is busy taking care of a small detail at a used car lot, while the girls buy provisions and try to figure out which of them has caught his eye.

As far as we know, they are a partying yet sweet trio. Meanwhile, it is the grown-up world, if you will, that is obsessed with the obscene, like the used car salesman, who pumps an unreceptive Ben for sleazy details about his imminent mobile ménage à trois.

Our trio travels through a properly desolate landscape, dotted with quirky campsites. When Liz stops for gas at an eerie outpost, we are already on edge. Then Ben is caught goofing on the backwardness of this unlikely oasis, and although he makes a good recovery, we wonder if the damage has already been done. Are the locals insulted? Will they retaliate? Inside a primitive cafe, some Ausie-style "Delivrance" types voice their libidinous desires for the girls. Ben hustles the “sheilas” out of there, but tension continues to mount. And Ben's apparent insouciance is foreboding.

McLean is a fine filmmaker, as his deft character development demonstrates. By now we have come to like our young travelers, as we await the worst. At Wolf Creek, the site of the ancient crater, our heroes stop for a “three-hour tour” of the impact site and are promptly marooned in a moonscape that throws into sharp relief their utter vulnerability. Here, watches stop inexplicably; the car engine won't start; and Ben's amorousness sputters without ignition.

The musical score is as haunting as the landscape and just as impressive.

By the time Mick arrives to offer a tow, the group has already begun to break apart. Now the tale becomes one of survival: every woman for herself. Laughs are replaced by screams and Ben has vanished.

The violence is as stark as the earlier images were sunshiny and overexposed. And like any good scary movie, viewer imagination adds tenfold to the terror.
The movie's ending strives for ambiguity, insinuating doubt into the existence of Mick who, we are informed, was never found by police in the actual case the film claims to be based on.

Is Ben just a nice guy who was lucky to survive a hellish ordeal? Or does Ben’s story about a psycho-killer serve to hide demons inside the boy himself? Did Ben have sinister reasons for guiding two girls who were too far from home into a place that has attracted disaster for thousands of years?

In good conscience, I cannot recommend this film because of its sickening portrayal of gruesome violence against the helpless. Still, if you are a hopeless aficionado of the genre be warned that "Wolf Creek" rates three and a half razor-sharp, ketchup-coated stars.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Scream Cuisine

inspired by a B movie from the '80s

The zombie is hungry.
The careless scientist becomes breakfast.
The kind loner looks like lunch.
The zombie is still hungry.
The greedy gangster goes for the gusto and gets gulped.
The zombie is feeling peckish.
The zombie's stomach may be growling.
Listen for it amid the screams. Listen for
a clue to Hollywood's maniacal mirror.

Observe the living dead, never self-conscious
as they do the living-dead shuffle with
masses of hanging flesh, exposed cartilage,
and bloody blood.
But none need orthodonture;
they're able instead to bite through
the security guard's skull in a single chomp!
Look on as zombies slay a slow-footed John Q. Public,
who emotes paralysis by terror,
or is Jacky Q. P. festooned by an awkward script,
mesmerized by all the make-up?

When the brain biters return,
the nightmare confronts teenage love:
Ms. Zombie, concealing her rigor mortis behind
large, still supple breasts and pierced nipples,
makes big eyes at her beau, who ain't dead yet.
On the other hand, breaking up is so hard to do
that the horny adolescent tries his hand
at necrophilia with his lil necrophagous nymph,
thereby risking his own neck,
and gray matter for that matter,
but what matter because what is love without trust,
and besides, viewers might posit, Ms. Zombie could get
more brains out of a pistachio.

Finally, fire, the great cleanser,
offers our celluloid-etched lovers,
now both of the zombie persuasion,
a suicide-pact ending.
Exhibiting a free will
rarely observed among North American zombies,
the young couple strolls dialog-free,
hand in stunt double's hand,
into the Hollywoodian barbeque.
Aghast, the authority figure gapes at such waste,
all arguably created by his own
sick, war-pig experiments.
The End. Roll credits.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sunflower Secret

for Mom on her birthday

I offer you this humble Sonnenblum',
ancient dispeller of autumn gloom.

Look not with scorn upon its thin form.
It struggles in soil built without worms,
endures storms that bring no rain in tow,
and has yet to taste a drop of Miracle-Gro.

I implore you, despite all its warts,
take this tournesol into your heart.
Give it your love, if only out of pity,
until it blossoms into a thing of beauty.

Friends in moods sweet or sour
may remark, "How lame a flower."
Indeed, not everyone believes
in the spiritual beauty you perceive.

Today and going forward may you find
joy all around you, and in kind,
let your inner sunflower thrive
on the love that keeps us all alive.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Atlantis 2

When I lie in my waterbed
I am like an island
in a sea of dreams.
My limbs shape the shoreline.
My opposable thumb is a jetty.
I can spread my legs and give birth to a bay.
The covers are like a warm fog
over my beachhead.
If I lie still,
empty my Rushmore of dreams,
kicking out the Crusoes,
the Swiss Families Robinson,
commanding Nemo to embark
his Nautilus from my nether regions,
leaving me bereft of nuclear technology
and alone,
I can become
a desert isle, uninhabited,
home to neither Old nor New World monkeys,
revert to some Eden before the Fall,
and sink deeper into the folds of my waterbed.

A room with a brew #2: Jojo the fox hunter

This is the second in a Sunday series. The first installment was posted one week ago and is called A room with a brew #1: Here's Jojo.

Normally your seat at the bar represents a refuge from the cruel world outside, a haven from lawyers and telemarketers, a retreat from familial obligations and shoptalk. But not when there’s a guy like Jojo next to you who never learned how to sit quietly in thought.

Jojo was usually easier to take from the opposite end of the bar. You could wave and smile and raise a glass, but remain mercifully out of earshot and untrammelled by that heavy arm around your shoulder holding you in place while he yapped like some teen back from the mall after his first visit to the food court. Jojo could talk a subject to death – any subject – and its death would not even slow him down. In his favor was the strange circumstance, itself perhaps a sign of his psychosis, that he never repeated himself.

There is nothing you can do about a talker like Jojo. You might try to change the subject with a loud and brazen rhetorical, "Guess who I saw today at the grocery store?" It doesn't stand a chance of success, since your interlocutor, your judge and jury, doesn't give one aspirate syllable about your day – he just wants to heap excitement upon it by verbalizing his own real or imagined melodrama and in the process provide you with the chance of a vicarious lifetime.

All you can do is pray for some friends to stroll in, so you can buy them drinks and remove yourself from the boor. It will cost you money, but at least the evening won't be a total hell. Even the old sympathy dodge is doomed to fail. "Gee, I'm sorry if I'm not a good listener tonight, you see I just lost my job and health benefits and my doctor says I've got Mad Cow disease." This never works because the drunken plot twister will sidestep your palavered ploy like a champion matador toying with a two-legged bull.

For example, his pary might begin: "That ain't nuthin. Why, just this morning I noticed my dog was limping and I found three deer ticks on him. Boy you shoulda seen me pluck and mash them sons of bitches..."

Now you've done it. Instead of having to listen to the interminable conclusion of a saga honed as fine as Homer's Illiad by no fewer retellings, you are subjected to a hastily constructed inanity built upon the passion of one-up-manship, and driven by the inebriated superego of a voice machine with performance anxiety. In other words, from the fried brain pan into the fire of a drunk’s delirium.

Jojo could really spin a yarn, especially if he felt it would serve the cause, which invariably was trying to bed some drunken wench. One evening at the pub I ran into MacTurk, who was well into his night and cups. He was consoling Blondiage who had been dumped by The Mustache. MacTurk more or less forced me into the chair next to the on-the-rebound Blondiage. I knew he felt he was doing us both a favor. I made a mental note to tell him I would never touch hand me downs from The Stache. Matter of personal pride. Anyway, I was sitting next to her: a diminutive blond with a pretty tight body, considering. But mentally screwed up, as I was about to begin to learn.

Blondiage had been playing NTN trivia next to Sherri and together they were being defeated by Buster, the publican himself, who was seated at the far end of the bar. I ordered my poison and the bartender brought me a trivia playmaker with my pint.

"You gotta help me beat Buster." Blondiage was pestering me nonstop like I was her husband. Meanwhile two stools to my left, Sherri sat swirling her vodka tonic with the red plastic stir, pinky raised. "They're cheating," Sherri muttered between sips.

"They're cheating," Blondiage repeated. "And I want to win," she said with pie-eyed petulance.

I had a vision of Blondiage as the Uma Thurmann character in Pulp Fiction, telling Vincent Vega she wanted to win the twist trophy at Jackrabbit Slim’s. But Blondiage’s demeanor lacked any hint of friendly conspiracy. She was acting downright crazy.

"You can't cheat in this game," I told her. "You answer what you know, you guess, you get lucky, you overhear an answer. Anything goes."

"No, I want to win. I am serious. I am going to win. I will show them, Buster and the girls he's with. He abandoned us – me and Sherri – and went down to that end of the bar because those young girls came in."

"No," I tried to tell her, "He always plays down there, right in front of the TV."

So I tried to enjoy a beer and play some trivia, but next to me drunken Blondiage was constantly asking for the answers and complaining she was cold. About halfway through the game Jojo walked in and flanked her on the right. He had latched onto her the night she had been dumped by The Mustache. Jojo was wearing a leather coat with fur around the collar. It looked like a vintage item, perhaps from Europe. Jojo was Portuguese, but told all the girls he was French, assuming I suppose, that faux Gallic charm would advance his schemes further than any genuine Iberian cachet could.

Soon Jojo was putting his coat around Blondiage's shoulders to keep her warm "You know why this fur is especially warm," he floated rhetorically. "It's fox. I shot it myself, upstate."

Now that has to be one of the most outrageous lines ever used in the art of barstool seduction. Instant classic bullshit and I was there to witness it!

It got better. Jojo claimed he used a rifle, although he had started to say shotgun, but questioned me with a glance that said he was not sure which weapon would be more plausible. Jojo said he didn't know what kind of rifle he had used. He did not know what calibre his supposed ammunition had been. When I interrogated him on the subject, Blondiage rushed to his defense, claiming to know about just such an uncalibrated fox-hunting weapon.

I dropped the subject. I was outnumbered and surrounded by idiots and prevaricators. On a subsequent occasion I tried to wise up Blondiage with regard to Jojo's tall tales, but she was already on his wavelength. For example, when I mentioned Jojo's crackpot belief in a 7:1 ratio of women to men on our planet, Blondiage said she agreed with the approximate accuracy of those numbers, incapable of realizing the consequences of such a lopsided state of affairs for society and for the species, not to mention her own personal rebound chances.

Who are these people? I dunno, but they belong together. I better tell MacTurk to let them sit together.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Re-enact this

Members of a northwestern Ohio historical society plan to re-enact a 200-year-old battle from a "forgotten" war this weekend, according to a recent story in the Toledo Blade. The re-enacters will strive to make it all as historically accurate as possible for the benefit of spectators. Forty-eight lives were lost in that battle two centuries ago, according to the news story, including 40 Native Americans, who found themelves on the wrong side of history when they sided with the British.

Intellectually, I am a big fan of history. I encourage everybody who knows how to read to turn off the History Channel, aka the Hitler Channel, and open a book by Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Ulysses Grant, Churchill, Bill Shirer, Toynbee. You can skip von Clausewitz.

Emotionally, I agree with the guy who, talking about Civil War re-enacters, said he loved them but only wished they would use live ammunition.

If we have forgotten the War of 1812, so be it. It is well documented. It is taught in our schools. There are monuments and memorials across the region. To paraphrase Shakespeare, do we need to thrust it back into our consciousness?

Adding insult to lack of injury -- alas, no live ammo is to be used this weekend -- is the fact that the Ohio Humanities Council wrote the re-enacters a check for $1,500 to help foot the bill for their costume party. What happened to the war on government waste? Bow your heads in a moment of silence to the fallen of the War of 1812 if you must, but if you want to re-enact something important, re-enact a battle in the war against unnecessary government spending.

Pictured above is the statue of Toledo Civil War hero General James Blair Steedman. It stands in a city park named after actor Jamie Farr, a more recent Toledoan, who played Klinger, the cross-dressing Korean War conscript on the award-winning TV series MASH.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cinema 2012: “Resident Evil: Retribution” is a vicarious video game

A 40-something dude leaving the cineplex behind me was telling his friends the movie he had just watched, “Resident Evil: Retribution,” did not make sense. I silently sympathized with the man, who was obviously used to more conventional on-screen narratives. Indeed, this latest Milla Jovovich vehicle is more vicarious video game than traditional film.

The movie no doubt caters to fans of the franchise and to anyone smitten by Milla J.’s evocative beauty. Never has a skinny fashion model been so masterfully retooled into a kickass killing machine. As Project Alice, MJ is both animalistic, moving in agile silhouette like a hungry panther, and maternal as she clings to the daughter who represents the very idea of a daughter. There is no doubt that the camera loves Milla and so does filmmaker Paul W. S. Anderson, who gives us screen-filling close-ups and who splashes, literally, her lithe figure across the screen.

The storyline here basically has been reduced to characters fighting their way through enclosed replicas of major world cities -- like different levels in a video game. These simulated environments were built by the evil Umbrella Corp. to test its bio weapons breakthroughs. No major metropolises were harmed during the making of this movie. While the shoot ‘em up scenes are over the top, let’s face it, they are basically boring because this stuff has all been done before.

But there is no denying the visual wonder of much of the cinematography. A battered and naked Alice wakes in a luminous, futuristic holding cell, her white skin showing the bruises and abrasions of her most recent ordeal. It is a searing image of vulnerability that serves to humanize a heroine who is about to don black leather and dispense wholesale death in her fight to save herself and humanity. Her nemesis is the Red Queen, a malevolent supercomputer whose avatar resembles a petulant little girl.

There is also Becky, an extremely well behaved little girl, considering. Becky accompanies Alice during much of the bloody havoc, depending on her for deliverance. The mother-daughter dynamic emphasizes the underlying decency driving our vengeful Alice. It is of course a tried and true trope, think of Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley in “Aliens.” Besides reminding us of the softer side of the weaker sex, this particular mother and daughter reunion mirrors the savagery of such bonds in the animal kingdom. Don’t mess with momma bear's little cub.

Alice and the young girl, played by hearing-impaired actress Aryana Engineer, communicate in American Sign Language and those gestures add sublime visual poignancy to their expressions of love and loyalty. Along the way the astute viewer might observe Milla making a brief homage to Bruce Lee, but the many other movie references come off as just so many cribbed cliches.

The relentless musical soundtrack by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn serves the action well and also pushes haunting motifs, including one riff that harks back to the shower scene in “Psycho.”

Sadly, the exposition lacks drama and fails to mesh with the action and effects that comprise the obvious point of the whole enterprise. That disconnect with the narrative prevents “Resident Evil: Retribution” from achieving the synthesis needed to make it work as a whole. In retrospect, I should have seen it in 3D.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dickel for a nickel

"Tarbender" in training
Ashley lays down
George Dickel Tennessee
sour mash whisky
for five cents a shot
at Nick & Jimmy's in Toledo
in celebration of the establishment's 33 years
in business.

Way to go, Nick!

Cinema 2008: “Taken,” with a grain of salt, is action hit

With filmmakers soon to release "Taken 2," here is my review of the original.

When will those foreign bad guys ever learn? You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't pull the mask off the Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with — Mills, Liam Neeson's ultra tough guy role in the 2008 film "Taken."

Mills is ex-CIA. He has retired at the top of his spy game to spend quality time with his teenage daughter Kim, a spoiled kid who lives with her vapid mom and mom's millionaire second husband in, where else, sunny California. Stepdaddy’s money can buy the teenager a pony on her 17th birthday but it hasn’t given her any horse sense.

When Kim and her blonde party doll of a girlfriend go to Paris for a four-star frolic, they manage to get kidnapped even before the jet lag wears off. That's when Mills begins to put to use his special "skill set" to get Kimmy back.

What is Neeson doing in this role? Could he be trying to grab market share for his own licensed killer franchise, like Daniel Craig and Matt Damon before him? The fight scenes in "Taken" certainly attempt to ape the highly accelerated style in the new Bond films and the Bourne trilogy. That style conveys greater realism than the more overtly choreographed fisticuffs of a previous era, as long as the scenes are not extended beyond belief.

But many of the fights and City of Light car chases in "Taken" are built on quick close-ups of the action edited into a fast-paced Hollywood inkblot that viewers are left to interpret. By contrast, "Bourne Identity," for example, did it right with wider angle, longer takes that actually put plenty of unblinking action on the screen. Nor does "Taken" give us much of a feel for the French capital and its famous sights and dangerous alleyways.

Still, as entertainment for action aficionados, "Taken" rarely falters. It is fun to watch Neeson's white knight, in black jeans and black leather, appear throughout the film with the immutability of the monolith in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the inexorability of Edgar Poe's raven, making sure that scumbags who sell girls into sexual slavery, do it "nevermore."

Mills is the calm eye in the center of a brutal storm. He upshifts from a low-key, middle-aged father to a Terminator, just slightly less human than those famous Cyberdyne Systems cyborgs.

While those around him go into hysterics at the news of his daughter's kidnapping by sex slavers, Mills' training allows him to focus on saving his lil' Kim. Mills calls in favors and gets some intel. He learns he probably has a 96-hour window to retrieve his daughter or never hear from her again. That starts the clock ticking, a useful and well known device in such films. We understand Mills has no time to waste on such social amenities as "maim before kill." Besides, he is no shaolin. He goes after Kim alone, a rogue among rogues.

This is a movie where the audience cheers when the bad guys are dispatched with coldhearted vengeance. Nominally, the film spotlights the abuse of young women sold into prostitution. But there is no serious didactic here, it might bog down the beautiful brutality.

Mills manages to save an unknown girl and treat her addiction as long as she is useful to him. But her ultimate fate remains a mystery. Mills also tracks down his daughter's traveling companion, but I wouldn't bet a baguette that scriptwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen could focus long enough to have written a double rescue.

When Mills tortures a ringleader to extract information, he does not enjoy his task like some sick sadist. Still, his complete indifference and premeditated course of action seem to bespeak a single-minded sociopath.

The Hollywoodian hyperbole of a high stakes sex slave auction, where elite evil doers slurp expensive bubbly while bidding electronically on young girls on behalf of super-rich sheiks, is sophomoric.

In the final rescue scene director Pierre Morel, or his film editor, had insight enough to add a two-beat caesura after the ultimate violence and before Kim, relinquished by a lifeless pasha, begins consoling in daddy’s arms.

Monday, September 17, 2012

the last kommisar

before the fall

brewing the tea
just got the call
working it out

cash in my wall
blood on my lip
the hood in accord

the sky is falling
pray to the Lord
advisories come down

Old Glory still rides
praise Him on high
and the boys overseas

for your decent reasons
and a foreign legion

crime time

a man needs a spy
so you hit the bricks
past the curtain of iron

vodka makes you sick
siberia hysteria
did the chief really lie

cover your face
nose doesn't feel right
fear is the tattoo

regardless its hue
whatever you do
take a crook's advice

wood on the fave
in the big race

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A room with a brew #1: Here's Jojo

This post is the beginning of a series. Look for the continuation each Sunday under the title "A room with a brew."

The pub has long been a profitable place to observe humanity and its manifold foibles.

Slouched on a barstool close to the Guinness tap, you not only meet the different types who populate our crumbling society, but you can also listen as these specimens tell their tales of woe and watch their pathetic attempts at interaction with the opposite sex. You also get to gawk with satisfaction as upstanding citizens stride purposefully up to the innkeeper to quench their thirst only to begin a gradual deterioration from dignified exemplars of American life to slurring sacks of mind-numbing triteness.

And then there are the real characters. Regular customers you come to know as friends and who are often as annoying and eventually as beloved as family. Take Jojo, for instance.

Jojo was the kind of guy who repeatedly put the First Amendment to a rigorous test. He often would loudly proclaim the most asinine of opinions. And if his crackpot views met with the least bit of incredulity on the part of any interlocutor, even a slightly arched eyebrow or barely audible snort, Jojo would immediately back up his bubbleheaded baloney by betting – anything from the classic cold drink bet to a “put your money where your mouth is” hundred buck challenge.

This usually took place late in the night. Earlier, Jojo would have been easy enough to ignore since he probably would have been trying to talk his way into a naive or tipsy babe's frillies. But if indeed it was late in the evening that usually meant Jojo had not scored and was perhaps a bit frustrated, while we were just that much more into our cups and our socializing ways and were less in the mood to put up with the know-it-all nonsense of a nattering numbskull. It was then that Jojo’s outrageous claims most often met with conversation-killing call outs.

Once Jojo claimed that the ratio of women to men worldwide was 7:1. Humble reason was no match against the obdurate one, nor could a preponderance of easily observed anecdotal data make him readjust his skewed view of human demography. One bartender even printed out information from the Internet to show Jojo. Of course Jojo ignored it.

On subsequent occasions, if the topic of a supposed surfeit of the sleeker sex came up, Jojo would repeat his lopsided notion and even claim he had been the one who had brought in the data from the Internet and that it had only reinforced his assertion of an overwhelming worldwide female numerical superiority.

Occasionally, Jojo might buy you a bottle of beer, but like a corporation that never admits wrongdoing when settling a lawsuit, Jojo would never concede he lost a beer on a wager. As for those famous $100 bets, we soon learned that was pie in the sky. Still, many of us held onto napkins with scribbled details of the wild assertions that were the subject of the wagering – for example, that the historic city of Troy is really located in present-day England – on the off chance that Jojo would strike it rich one day and be overcome by a swoon of generosity and a desire to settle all gambling debts. Who knew, maybe he would land the proverbial wealthy widow. Others merely kept these notes as mementos of a lunacy hard to grasp without forensics.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cinema 2005: Kong is long but still, uh, falls short

The 2005 remake of "King Kong" (1933) is so long it cries out for a film editor with floor space. But despite its length, director Peter Jackson has for the most part succeeded in putting together a well-paced moving picture, or two.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) survives the savage jungle on Skull Island with her lipstick unsmeared, exhibiting more skills along the way than a memoir-writing geisha.

The problem is that Jackson’s computer-generated gorilla looks like a buddha and acts like Shrek. King Kong in this film is an anthropoid with aspirations, longing human-like for beauty and transcendence. You expect to see cave drawings in the big guy's lair.

Kong is also a surly and spoiled audience of one, who is a sucker for a pretty face, and Darrow captivates him with her ‘tude and vaudevillian shtick. Before long this campy couple is sharing a sunset together, spoiled only by the girl’s insistence at verbalizing the moment. In an excess that goes beyond camp, Beauty teaches Beast to sign.

Even though credit must go to Jackson for the superb job he does juggling computer-generated images with scenes featuring more pedestrian talent, i.e., actors, the emphasis put on the monsters eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. And what is diminished is the human aspect of the story; the big truth that Watts’s character is first to realize.

For all the praise given the film's New York City set, viewers can be grateful Hollywood's gargantua wastes little time sightseeing. Instead, Kong cherche la femme, and anyone--man, woman or primate--who has been disappointed in a relationship can surely identify with the gorilla’s reaction when he discovers there is more than one blonde on Broadway.

One strong point is the fantastic musical score, which combines Max Steiner’s original music with new compositions by James Newton Howard. Oddly, the poignant irony of Al Jolson's "On Top of the World," heard in the opening sequence, is parodied at the film's end. Darrow, in denial of both monkey love and vertigo, stands atop what's left of the "Gorilla Building," cleaving to Jake (Adrien Brody), the man she crushed on before her forced fling with King Kong.

Meanwhile, 102 stories below, Denham (Jack Black), the man responsible for capturing Kong, surveys the creature’s corpse and briefly suffers gawkers before pronouncing the movie’s terse, and in this remake, much anticipated epilogue.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bombs away

In the middle of his first term, the president made public the number of bombs the United States keeps in its nuclear arsenal — talk about full disclosure.

Look, I love America and I am in favor of a strong military to defend our country and our way of life. But I'm not convinced we need every one of our 5,113 atomic bombs in order to accomplish that.

So exactly how many bombs do we need? Well, that is hard for me to say off the top of my head. So bear with me.

Every day we see what a crazy and unpredictable and dangerous place the wide world is. What we don't see is diplomacy or cooperation keeping pace with the madness, meanness and medieval mindsets menacing us and our precious national interests. Sure, it's downright horrific to imagine, but suppose we find ourselves at wits' end and feel we really need to push the button and wipe out an enemy nation. Iran comes to mind. Maybe North Korea. OK, for the sake of discussion let's say both. I figure three dozen nukes should be more than enough to calm the ayatollahs. As for the North Koreans, better send them six dozen. They might have some of their own and we want to be sure to hit all those targets.

Now that still leaves us with 5,005 nuclear bombs.

Oh, but now I'm thinking those paranoids over in Russia and China are going to try to preempt us if we start nuking other nuisances. So we should really start with them. Always punch the biggest bully first, my old man taught me. Now the Soviet Union exists no more, but to be on the safe side we better blanket all its former Asian republics and we might as well hit Serbia while we're at it. It's a tall order but 600 atomic bombs should pretty much pulverize those Russkies, plus four more for Serbia. OK. 4,401 nukes left.

Gee, this is like trying to spend a Megamillions jackpot. But wait, I almost forgot Red China, excuse me, I mean the People's Republic of China. That country has really grown in recent decades. There are probably at least 100 major cities over there that would have to be smashed — say two bombs apiece — plus a baker's dozen for the Beijing area. Maybe drop another on that big dam to really scramble their infrastructure. Down to 4,187 bombs.

Let's not forget the Taliban. How many nukes to flatten those mountains in Afghanistan? About 250 mounted on drones should really blast apart all those caves and steep valleys. Down to 3,937 bombs.

Of course, that might rile Pakistan so we might need to vaporize that place, too. Big country. Another 88 bombs should do it. Down to 3,849 bombs.

Now maybe if the winds are right we could get away with tossing a few on ol' Chavez in Venezuela — say 10 in the interests of overkill. And if we ever close Gitmo we could also detonate a few, that's three more, over Cuba, as long as we evac the Florida Keys first. Down to 3,836 bombs.

Of course, there seems to be plenty of trouble brewing in Africa these days, what with the confluence of chronic civil wars, recent revolutions and old school colonels killing to hang on to their dictatorships. We may not quite be at the tipping point but we ought to build a special stockpile nonetheless to light up the Dark Continent, should it become absolutely our only option. Figure maybe 520 bombs for that eventuality. OK, only 3,316 bombs left.

Now we may have to divert an asteroid from outer space some day. You know like the one that zipped by Earth this week within 1.8 million miles. Sixteen nuclear candles should be more than enough to do the trick, if Hollywood screenwriters know anything.

Down to 3,300 bombs. Kind of ironic don't you think, using nukes to prevent an earth extinction event? On second thought, better double that number to 32 just in case. After all you don't want the future of your species depending on Hollywood screenwriters, do you? Down to 3,284 bombs.

"Doomtown VII: Mushroom Cloud in Glitter Gulch" courtesy of artist Doug Waterfield

Then we really should save a few A-bombs in case we are ever forced to deal decisively with dangerous sleeper cells inside our own nation. I know that sounds dire, but remember we used to test nukes ourselves in the Nevada desert. Who knows, maybe fallout in Vegas stays in Vegas. Anyway wouldn't it be better to be a partial United States than to let the terrorists win? I think we must earmark at least 100 nukes for eventual use on our own territory — if it means saving the republic — anything less might be scoffed at as less than a credible deterrent. Down to 3,184 bombs.

Here's where smarter folks than I would add some redundancy, you know, extras to offset any duds that might fail to deliver that radioactive punch we're looking for here. Given quality control in American manufacturing, those smart folks might calculate an additional 10 percent just to be on the safe side. I say when it comes to Armageddon why skimp? Make that 20 percent. OK, rounding upward, that still leaves us with 2,798 extra atomic bombs.

Finally, I guess we owe it to posterity, if there is a posterity, to bestow the museums. What would the Smithsonian be after all without a nuclear bomb on display? And I guess it's only fair to stick one in Truman's presidential library. Then figure another for the Plutonium Hall Of Fame and one for the Slim Pickens Memorial Traveling Rodeo. And we might as well give one to that Sticky Lips BBQ joint in Rochester, New York, that serves up its own "atomic bomb challenge" and another for the lobby display in the Stanley Kubrick Arts Cinemaplex. And last but not least, why not let Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the Mushroom Capital of the World, have one to show off on cloudy days in Chester County? There, we're down to 2,791 bombs.

That should about do it. Wait a minute. The older I get, the more I forget. So we better toss another, say, 300 onto the stockpile for stuff I haven't thought of. That leaves a surplus of 2,491 bombs.

But how do you dispose of nearly 2,500 nukes? Too bad you can't just scrap metal them at today's rates. And dismantling so many weapons of mass destruction is a job I couldn't in good conscience saddle anybody with, not even organized labor. What to do? Wait a minute. I got it: Shower all those leftover bombs on Bikini atoll! After all, that place should be used to it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cinema 2005: Welcome to the Suck

“Jarhead” from 2005 is not a war movie in the accepted sense, even though it follows the adventures of its lead character from Camp Pendleton to the Saudi desert and into Iraq as part of Desert Storm in 1991. Instead, director Sam Mendes has created perhaps the first post-Vietnam film of war without heroes.

The movie is the story of one man’s descent into hell. That man is U. S. Marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), who realizes his mistake when he is assigned to a company of screw-ups. His fellow marines, namely, welcome him “to the suck,” jargon for their otherwise beloved Corps, by pretending to burn a crude USMC brand into his leg.

Swofford recovers but remains a chronic slacker. While sitting in the head reading the existentialist masterpiece “The Stranger,” Swoff, trapped by destiny, is confronted by his Staff Sergeant (Jamie Foxx). Sgt. Sykes uses artifice to rekindle Swoff’s interest in the Corps, and replaces Camus with a sniper rifle.

“Jarhead” steals its most rousing war scenes from Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which it quotes in a film-within-a-film scene, with the marines being shown that Vietnam war classic at their base movie theater. As Robert Duvall’s helicopters prepare to unleash rockets on a village, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is just about to reach its crescendo with the marines in the audience humming loudly along, suddenly the lights come up and the projection halts. A voice comes over the loudspeaker advising the soldiers they are shipping out forthwith. It’s a classic case of coitus interruptus, and the only consolation is the tinny voice urging them all to “Get some!”

But these jarheads won’t be seeing real action any time soon. Instead, they stage in the desert, train, and fight only boredom. Meanwhile Swoff is fast-tracking into insanity. Despite Sykes’s reminders that Swoff, now a marine sniper, is part of a team, no esprit de corps is evident. Camaraderie was killed at Camp Pendleton, when a marine was accidentally shot during training, a chilling foreshadowing of more senseless dying to come. Repeatedly, Swofford is filmed apart from his fellow grunts, separated by a tent flap, or venturing alone to parlay with some Arab men in the desert. Swofford speaks some Arabic, but his developed intellect also further isolates him from his fellow marines, many of whom are portrayed here as stupid.

If the viewer has any doubts that hell is the destination, they are swept away when “The Mother of all Battles” finally begins and Swofford’s unit heads into the Iraqi desert to get some. The cinematography of war in the oil fields of Iraq is hauntingly original, with burning oil wells, soot-covered sand, and even an oil-soaked Arabian steed.

In one scene, Swoff wanders off and finds the burnt body of an Iraqi, with whom he sits, assuring the charred corpse that they both have had a rough day. Swofford accepts his situation with the existentialism of the hero of “The Stranger,” Meursault, who kills one more Arab in Camus’ book than Swoff does during Desert Storm.

When Swofford and his sniper teammate return from a mission and discover their unit celebrating insanely in the desert night, we are given an homage to Coppola's inspiration for “Apocalypse Now,” namely, Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," and shown a visceral vision of the breakdown of civilization. These half-naked marines dancing wildly in the firelight could, for all their apparent savagery, be the very cannibals of the Congo described in Conrad's book.

After the war, Swofford returns to civilian life and loses the high and tight Marine haircut, the style that spawned the term jarhead. But Swoff can’t lose the suck, that stays with him.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

a time to rededicate

Today is the 11th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center. That planned attack was often referred to in the media in the days and weeks after September 11, 2011, as the "tragedy" of 9/11, even though the word "attack" would have been quite accurate. It was as if people were reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the aggression and its ramifications for us all.

In a Long Island classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001, after the towers had fallen, a teacher told his students that he loved them. The teacher also told the class the world had changed and his students would have to be better students. And he would have to be a better teacher.

Today's sad anniversary marks an appropriate occasion to rededicate oneself to that goal of being better, no matter what role we fulfill in a nation whose way of life and very existence can only be guaranteed by the sincerity of our efforts.

In the words of George Washington, words inscribed on the Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village, New York City: "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God."

We must strive to be better, to make our nation better. Better in the face of attack or tragedy.

that old day of mourning

in memory of Vincent Kane, FDNY

I cannot grieve
sob by sob,
but choke on the space around me.

Look, I slouch there
in the dark corner
of my poker face,
hot and impotent,
lost to humanity.

Photo of the World Trade Center from the air, circa 1988.

Monday, September 10, 2012

bad day

I thought I was having a bad day. I lost some of the money I had worked so hard to win the day before in the same poker room. I lost because I played poorly. That was basically it. No suck outs really. Just me braying. So rather than compound my folly I walked out of the poker room with the few red chips I had left and what I thought was a serious thirst. I should have known no amount of rum could have slaked the particular dryness I was experiencing.

Business was slow at my local watering hole. The brunette bartender had her hair down and was looking pretty. She asked if I wanted my usual draft beer and I told her I was way beyond that. “I figured you might be,” she said, flashing wisdom with her smile.

I ordered Myers and pineapple juice. Now “they” say alcohol kills vitamin C but I never fact-checked. I figure let the alcohol and the C fight it out if they must. It tastes good and the pineapple juice comes in these tiny cans so it’s always fresh and unadulterated. The rum, well, is the rum. Dark, flavorful, not overly distilled like those much ballyhooed white varieties.

I told the pretty bartender my tale of woe and in the interests of fair play asked about her weekend. She showed me pics of her kids. Adorable. When some customers showed up she headed to the other end of the bar.

Sitting alone, I replayed in my head my most egregious mistake from earlier at the poker table: heads up against a weak player I folded to his lesser hand, giving away about 50 bucks. I almost reraised but hesitated for no good reason except a doubt which I could not substantiate. In such a case you must trust your primo hand, ness pah? Ness pah.

Now the pineapple juice was taking hold and I was no longer interested in poker post mortems. I told myself, “Ahh screw this,” in silent mimicry of the cop in “Die Hard” who thinks he has been sent to Nakatomi Plaza on a wild goose chase.

Buoyed by the vitamin C, I gave the greeting of the day to the cook and other staff as they went about their business. When T. came up to the waitress station to grab drinks for one of her tables I asked how she was.

She was having a bad day, she said. Her best friend had been murdered. T. told me the horrible tale of a 24-year-old woman killed by her husband, who then committed suicide. She was crying. We embraced. I wished I could console her. It was a terrible and sad story. Sadly, it is not an original story. How many times does this kind of murder play out? What is wrong with a man who would kill a defenseless person, let alone the woman he supposedly loved?

T. brought the drinks to her table. Later she returned and spoke of her friend’s two small children so brutally orphaned. I told her she was beautiful and asked if she had ever done modeling. It is true that T. has the angular features of the stunningly beautiful. But my comment was not meant as a creepy come-on, just a desperate attempt to shift the mood, maybe win a thin smile. “No,” she said.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cinema 2006: Life in hell

As we approach the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, I post this film review for your consideration.

The wondrous pre-dawn of that fateful September day 11 years ago is where Oliver Stone begins his movie “World Trade Center,” released in 2006.

Port Authority police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) awakes one minute before his alarm clock is set to buzz. Now that is training. As McLoughlin readies for work, Stone gives us glimpses of his ordered world, cars parked within the painted rectangles of their allotted spaces, and sketches the tableau of familial love that makes it all worthwhile with a shot of children sleeping in their beds. Soon, however, as we all know, terrorists will shatter this mundane urban American idyll and others like it.

“World Trade Center” is by no means a martial movie. Nor can anyone accuse director Oliver Stone of polemicizing the subject matter. There is precious little politics in this movie.

On the contrary, the film recounts the actual rescue of two Port Authority police officers and is a case study in public service, the opposite mindset of terrorists who kill random innocents and themselves, ostensibly in the name of Allah or to right a particular political injustice.

Stone’s dilemma as director is how to pace the film and make it visually interesting when during much of it both major protagonists, McLoughlin and William Jimeno (Michael Pena), are buried beneath a pile of monochromatic debris, especially when that pile, sadly, is the mother of all debris piles.

To his credit Stone uses dream sequences and flashbacks sparingly, since too many such contrivances would weaken the immediacy of the event, which he successfully conveys. Stone also mixes in scenes from the parallel narratives of the rescuers and relatives of McLoughlin and Jimeno, but the resulting composition doesn’t always satisfy and a number of the scenes are surprisingly trite, that is, until the actual rescue gets under way. Don’t get me wrong. You will be wiping away tears throughout most of the film. At times “World Trade Center” is so powerful emotionally that it will pull audible sobs from within you. The film might even make you laugh unexpectedly — although not often.

I laud Stone for making an emotionally honest film that delivers first and foremost the vibe of love and, if not forgiveness, then at least the selfless caring for others. War and vengeance play only a tangential role here. And the characters in the movie who give voice to those baser yet normal human emotions have not been touched by the loss of an immediate family member in the attacks. There is scant time or inclination for revenge among those consumed with caring for their fellow human beings.

“World Trade Center” is about humans struggling in a hellish world to rescue those less fortunate and in so doing preserve their civilized way of life where families come together to support each other.

Sure the movie is about 9/11, but its focus is on the human tragedy that is at the center of all terrorist acts. It is a film for all who have suffered terrorist or random violence, whether in New York City on 9/11 or anywhere men choose to destroy and murder instead of working to solve the problems of our all-too-human world.

“World Trade Center” is a film about family, work and contributing to society. While McLoughlin and Jimeno are trapped, they talk about the job, their colleagues, and the important things in their lives that they fear they have already lost: their families. The trapped Jimeno compares his situation to “being alive in hell.” Considering that acts of terrorism continue with no end in sight, the epigram “alive in hell” applies to all our post-9/11 lives. And that’s a damned shame.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cinema 2006: "Scoop" provides laughs without scatology

A 1990s Webster’s college dictionary of mine lists 15 definitions for “scoop.” The title of the 2006 Woody Allen film refers of course to a news story revealed in one newspaper before all others. But the two schoolboys, goldbricking through their summer job at the multiplex where I saw “Scoop,” were densely unaware of the meaning of the one-word title. One hopes that kids at least can associate the term with ice cream.

As it happened, those dullards dragged their brooms and wrestled a garbage can on wheels while busying themselves with wagers on the alacrity with which Allen’s perfect crime mystery would disappear from their lenient employer’s marquee because “no one would be able to figure out what the title meant.” I was in the lobby at the time trying to avoid the numbing assault of previews, but the behavior of zombie teens and grade schoolers on cell phones soon sent me scurrying for a seat.

Granted “Scoop” is not a blockbuster, nor does it pretend to deal with the weighty issues of our times; it is instead what novelist Graham Greene might have termed “an entertainment.” As such, I see no reason why it should not demonstrate surprising staying power in movie theaters across the country.

After all, in these lousy times what better diversion than a well crafted murder mystery comedy full of Woody Allen zingers!?

In “Scoop” Woody is on screen as “Splendini,” a small-time magician whose tricks wow unsophisticated children while making eager audiences laugh nervously. Off-stage, Splendini carries that old Allen anxiety around with him like Pigpen’s dust cloud in the Peanuts comic strip.

The plot features more than a little whimsy. Allen’s character teams up with Scarlett Johansson’s Sondra/Jade, a self-proclaimed “ambitious” journalism student on vacation in London thanks to posh British friends. Allen’s Splendini perpetrates a charade as father to Jade to assist her as she stalks a Peer named Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) in an effort to expose him as a serial murderer and score a journalistic coup for herself in the process.

Some might find it a little creepy to watch Woody play daddy to 21-year-old Scarlett Johannson, but the whimsical nature of the story and Allen’s well established film persona overcome any lasting recriminations one might still harbor from the director’s soap opera of a personal life. Although my initial reaction was to laugh out loud when Allen’s character refers to his divorce and the reasons for it, when my conscience caught up with my funny bone, I felt uneasy, as if Allen had elicited that laugh specifically to rehabilitate himself and I had unwittingly played along.

At any rate, “Scoop” elicits quite a few laughs throughout its compact narrative. Just seeing Woody Allen at a poker table is hilarious, and the director leaves it to us to imagine what playing against his character must be like. However, some of the jokes are surprisingly stale, and while most of the dialog is as hysterical as real life, there are a number of scenes where the lines sound as if they are being delivered. It makes one wonder if Allen couldn’t budget for the needed additional takes or worse yet, if his razor-sharp wit could be dulling?

This is the second film in a row by Allen to be set in London and the surrounding English countryside. Unfortunately, we aren’t shown much of the British capital.

As for Johannson, the Allen favorite eventually warms to her role. The movie itself sputters at the beginning before hitting its stride. But despite bringing to the screen a somewhat hammy amalgam of voluptuousness and vulnerability, Johannsen here never quite delivers the presence or sincerity of the classic Allen heroine, say, Mia Farrow or Mariel Hemingway.

Jackman gets by on his pedigree and good looks, not unlike the cartoonish, upper class suspected killer and proven cad he plays in the film. As for Lyman’s seduction of young Jade, we are unable to fault the landed gentry in his case, since Lyman observes the social decorum of the dating ritual. It’s that old story: nubility attracts nobility, and feminine wiles can upgrade lifestyles. Besides, Jade’s girl talk with British friend Vivian (Romola Garai) reveals the mercenary mindset of these modern young women in affairs of the heart, so-called.

Allen deserves credit for making good use of a number of classical scores for his background music, and most impressively for recognizing the potential of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg as a catchy and suspense-building musical theme.

“Scoop” is a modest movie that delivers light entertainment built on wit in place of shit. It is a rare comedy these days that doesn’t step in scatology for its yucks. If I may paraphrase Splendini, “Scoop" is "a credit to its genre, and I say that in all sincerity and of course with the deepest respect from the bottom of my heart.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

@ Starbucks: the soul monger

After some good writing at StarBs I have to move close to a wall outlet. So I sit at an empty table. The table next to me is taken but the person is gone for the moment, outside smoking it turns out.

He returns. A big dude, wiry, hair squared away high and tight, early 30s, worn face. Smokes Bugle tobacco, roll-your-owns. Wears camo. Desperately strikes up a conversation about my earbuds. We chitchat as I am plugging in. He launches into missionary mode: all Christ all the time. I tell him he’s got the wrong guy, giving him a haughty, know-it-all smile. Oh no, he says, in that case he has precisely the right guy.

So I tell him Starbucks has a no solicitation policy. He counters with God has no such policy. I relate how the other day two kids came in to sell chocolate to raise money for an athletic team and were thrown out. He says he doesn’t see any connection. I tell him it occurred to me the two cases are analogous. He refutes that.

I go back to my computer. He tries to laugh at me. He is a strange kind of proselytizer: crude, threatening, mean-looking, spoiling for a fight. A crusader throwback perhaps. He gathers his stuff, wasting plenty of motions, and on his way out makes a point to say goodbye to several dudes dispersed around the café. Fellow travelers or recent marks? Don’t know. Don’t care. Bon débarras.

Cinema 2009: "Milk" biopic transcends gay issues

Gays are in your face from the initial scenes of "Milk" to the ill-conceived apotheosis at its conclusion, and it is not something your average hetero moviegoer is necessarily comfortable watching.

But "Milk," the biopic of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California politics, who was assassinated at Frisco city hall in 1978, builds a compelling narrative that ultimately succeeds in transcending the gay rights issue. The movie evinces a street vitality and down-to-earth production values that push past its weaker moments, especially some contrived, artsy images, including a shallow operatic vision that culminates an otherwise honest treatment of Milk's violent demise.

Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his intense and layered portrayal of Harvey Milk. Penn achieves a tour de force with his depiction of a savvy politico with a lust for life and a no fear 'tude. The movie succeeds because Penn concentrates throughout on the quintessentially human aspects of the role, warts and all. His Harvey Milk is a tribute to the human spirit, all the more endearing for the weaknesses of the man it reveals.

The film of course also owes its success to the nature of the man whose life it chronicles. Milk is shown to evolve into a determined sort who knew he could change the world by changing his immediate neighborhood.

The movie begins in the early 1970s with Milk on his 40th birthday cruising for a date in the New York City subway, an apt image for the underground lifestyle forced upon the closeted gays by the repressive corporate and institutional culture of that era.

Soon thereafter Milk moves to San Francisco and comes out of the closet. He also comes out of his civic shell, gradually emerging as a political force.

Domestic bliss is the price of professional success for Milk, just as it is with so many, more conventional, Hollywood heroes.

By dint of his perseverance, Milk goes from being the guy people threaten to call the police on, to an ally of the mayor and the man the cops rely on to defuse potential riots. At one point, Milk realizes his political success depends on being able to convince the "normal majority" to give a damn about the minority he represents. By this point in the film, Penn has done just that for the audience through his compassionate portrayal of the man. Milk's private escapades are a strong leitmotif but are handled with such forthrightness by Penn and director Gus Van Zant, that they eventually fade in significance as Milk's public accomplishments gain momentum.

While the movie does not seem to romanticize the gay lifestyle, it does stress a gamut of gay martyrdom that spans public scorn to partners prone to hysterics, hissy fits, and suicide.

But Penn makes us believers in Milk's crusade even as we might wince at the character's romantic romps. Most of the love scenes, however, are set up as outrageously silly, as if they were a form of comic relief. One is left to wonder if Van Zant is trying to soften any sinister visions the heterosexual majority might harbor when it comes to the consummation of gay love.

In a supporting role, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Josh Brolin plays to perfection Dan White, the Irish Catholic ex-cop elected city supervisor and a colleague of Milk's. White is made to look like a beefy schoolboy scared by the first day of class. He wears suit jackets one size too small, with big knotted ties choking his neck. So dressed, White visually bursts with repressed issues. When White's demons finally take over, the man's utter vulnerability is conveyed by showing him alone in his darkened living room, squirming on the couch in only his underwear, peeking through the blinds. The scene gives us a haunting tableau of a total breakdown.

The final candlelight march is a powerful image but falls short of eliciting the emotional response a movie like "Milk" ultimately strives to achieve, despite its success at the most personal level, thanks to the brilliant work of Sean Penn.

Much more inspiring is the final series of actual photos of the persons played by the actors. While the abstract image of 30,000 anonymous marchers is too conventional a coda, those individual faces give the audience a hopeful send-off: to leave knowing the courage and humanity brought to life on the screen was not just Hollywood hype but was instead, at one time, some 500 miles north of those motion picture studios, a red-blooded reality.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cinema 2005: Capturing the Creative Process Chez Capote

The emotional effects of the 2005 movie "Capote" don't easily wear off. They may not stick with you for seven years but then that might just be a reason for another screening. The film tells how Truman Capote came to write his seminal work "In Cold Blood," which deals with the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959.

The film succeeds by virtue of its unerring exposition. Along the way, “Capote” offers fascinating, if thin, recreations of the Cool Jazz-fueled cocktail circuit of the early 1960s brownstone intelligentsia in New York City, as well as an outsider's view of the more grounded yet aspiring "wheatfield soul" of rural Kansas (played here by Manitoba province in Canada).

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work here, reveals a Capote whose vulnerability has made him tough. Capote’s vibrant, fey demeanor comes across at first as off-putting. But soon he is accepted by dint of his consistency and the gifted intellect he brings to bear upon his subject. Capote is resolute in his struggle to make sense out of a senseless aspect of human existence. It is not always a pretty sight. In order to produce his book Capote manipulates his subjects and the people in his private circle.

Lured out of the halls of The New Yorker by the killings in Kansas, Capote crash lands in an alien sensibility. His fame is his credential, but he demurs in the face of the local sheriff (played with restraint by Chris Cooper), who tells him fiercely, "I care," referring to the capture of the killers. Here are lawmen faced with bringing brutal murderers to justice. Art may be eternal, however, as Capote senses and the sheriff knows for sure, life is short. At the press conference, a duly subdued Capote stands, silent, in the back of the room. He is beginning to assimilate—the first step to getting the real story.

When Capote calls his publisher in New York to ask for more money and for "Dick" Avedon to take pictures of the captured killers, it is the ego of the artist taking over. Without this selfish force, the book could not be created, but it remains a selfish drive to the end, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Capote remains a cruel cut-up. This is his defense mechanism, to keep others from knowing his insecurities, from guessing at his depression. The writing process turns Capote inside out, and there is no way he wants to share that with anyone.

Instead, Capote regales his adulating listeners with name-dropping tales of boozy moments in exotic locales alongside cultural icons. More poignantly, he glibly deprecates the killers he has been cozying up to. Yet Capote’s sincerity is apparent as he attempts to understand their story, which will become his book, and to help their cause as long as it dovetails with his opus.

A "necktie party" is how killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) refers to his own impending execution; in 1965 Kansas still hanged its capital murderers “from a rope until dead.” Does anything emphasize more strongly the link to the Old West, especially as viewed by an arriviste member of the nation’s cultural elite? Capote cleaves to his New York cachet; earlier he had denied that the subtle landscape of Kansas reminded him at all of his youth in the Deep South. He would rather see himself as a product of northeastern intellectualism than a bayou baby brought up in Alabama. But his work on “In Cold Blood” forces him to reconsider his self-image.

We are never truly moved to pity Smith, despite first seeing the accused in a humanizing environment: a kitchen serving as an emergency detention cell. Subsequently, director Bennett Miller alienates the audience from the convicted killer, whom we see behind cell bars, on death row or in the hangman’s harness. The peculiarity of the outbuilding that houses the scaffold, to which the condemned are chauffeured, distracts us from focussing completely on Smith in his most helpless and final hour.

In days of yore, a hangman might shake the condemned man's hand to judge his weight before adjusting the noose. In "Capote," Smith shakes the sheriff's hand before climbing the gallows. The scene reminds us of the sad truth, that it is ultimately a weak man who would, as Smith’s older sister told Capote in an earlier scene, “just as soon kill you as shake your hand.”

Capote came to view murderer Perry Smith as a brother in spirit, and he confided this profound emotional tie to Nelle (Catherine Keener), his friend since childhood. After justice has been meted out in the Kansas barn, it is Nelle who refutes Capote’s personal revisionism that he had tried to stay the execution.

While the victims of the murders are not the focus of “Capote,” the sheer brutality of the crimes is directly depicted in an abrupt flashback, lest we forget why those murderers have been ordered to forfeit their lives.

Monday, September 3, 2012

don't be a jukebox hero

It's a dive bar in West Toledo. That's just the way it is. But the clientele is well enough behaved and at times even downright friendly to a self-described writer from New York. There's cheap pizza late at night. The beers and drinks are also a pretty good bargain. And if you do shots you'll not get short poured. There is even a mystery shot called the blue shot. In color and from the hangover it delivers, it is indistinguishable from Windex. By taste you can usually tell the difference between the two.

"Don't play that one again, Sam (or whatever your name is)."

In the bar stands a jukebox. It is stocked with great songs, including classic rock, country & western, pop, even some 1980s tunes, well nothing is perfect. You get three plays for a buck. Says so right on the machine next to the slot for your dollar bill. The writer from New York plays the jukebox a lot. He figures, what the heck, give the people some tunage. He even lets others pick some of the songs if they want. He is not trying out for a job as deejay. Has no interest in monopolizing the music. He just likes to have it in the air. After a couple weeks of hanging out, drinking cheap beer and playing tunes, the bartender one night shoots a brief look of pity in the direction of the New York dude. Now you should also undestand there is a sign on the wall behind the bar that pretty much sums up the innkeeper's philosophy on the hospitality industry:

I can only please one person per day.
Today is not your day.
Tomorrow doesn't look good either.

But on this particular night the bartender comes out from behind the bar to meet the writer at the jukebox.
"Watch," he tells the writer and pulls a handful of change from his pocket.
"Yeah, what's going on," the New York guy says. He has no idea he is about to be given some valuable information, about to be offered a free lesson in the idiosyncratic economics of this particular jukebox. Yeah, it's true the guy is a little slow on the uptake.

The bartender asks for the writer's dollar, pockets it and flicks two quarters into the change slot. He points to the display. "What's it say?" the bartender asks the New York guy.
"Two plays."
"You saw what I put in?"
"So don't use a dollar bill. But pick your two songs before putting in another two quarters and that way you'll be getting four songs for a dollar." He hands the New York guy two more quarters.
"Nice. Hey thanks, brother," the writer says.
The bartender begins to walk back behind the bar.
"Hey, you're just telling me this now," the New York guy calls out. "I been coming here for three weeks."
The bartender turns back toward the jukebox and the New York guy. He takes a couple steps. He has a sheepish grin and shrugs his shoulders. "Look, just keep this to yourself. OK?"
Now the writer forgets his staged indignation and is once more brimming with gratitude and the good feeling of being 'in the know.'"
"Sure thing."

A couple days later the writer returns to the bar on a weekday afternoon, takes a seat and orders a Bud Light. Next to him is an old guy with a dirty face and beard wearing a Navy Vietnam Vet cap and drinking the perennial beer of the month, Busch cans for one dollar. The vet is thin and seems like he has smoked and drunk for decades. The writer from New York barely speaks to the guy. Everyone at the bar is staring at the big screen TV, which is blaring some cops reality show. A couple of beers later the vet gets up and walks to the jukebox, taking with him a dollar bill from the pile of change on the bar next to his can of Busch. The writer considers telling the vet about the jukebox secret. The night bartender didn’t want him spreading the word around but this is still the day shift. Besides, the writer has since realized that quite a number of regulars are already in on the deal.

Now the New York guy begins to consider the deeper philosophical and, yes, moral ramifications of not sharing his insider jukebox knowledge with the vet. If too many people learn of the deal, he wonders, will the jukebox vendor fix that glitsch and then will everybody have to pay more for the music? On the other hand (the writer is hopelessly ambidextrous), is it not morally wrong to keep silent and allow this man, even though he is a stranger, to spend more money for the same number of songs than others who are in the know?

Before the writer can resolve his dilemma, beer hall philosophy can be a tedious dialectic, he is distracted from his moral ruminations by the TV, now airing a more salacious program called Lawless Ladies, comprised of police chases, prison riots, and surveillance videos of crimes involving women only. The writer is dismayed by such programming but is caught up in the show. He thinks a better name for the program would be "Badass Babes."

Now the man in the vet's cap has returned from the jukebox and sits back down next to the writer. The first song he played comes on and the selection quite frankly takes the New York guy by surprise. From the speaker a vocalist exhorts with the lyrics:

Young man there's no need to feel down
I said young man pick yourself off the ground
I said young man 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy

It’s the YMCA song. That's an odd selection for this crusty old war vet, the writer thinks. Surely the old guy meant to play some Bob Seeger or Toby Keith or even Willie Nelson.

Isn't the YMCA song considered a gay anthem, the New York guy is wondering. Then he feels the vet blowing on right his hand, which has been hugging the edge of the bar. The writer looks at the man, who turns toward his Busch beer. Now the writer looks back in front of himself but cannot repress a smile. Is this old guy really busting a move on him? Is this really a gay bar? The writer ignores the old man and drinks the Bud Light. The next two songs are also of the fey disco genre, if you will. Now the writer even laughs a little out loud, imagining the wrong signal he would have sent had he joined the old vet at the jukebox to pass on the money-saving tip. The guy probably would have followed him into the john out of appreciation.

It's just one more instance where the old New York street wisdom of "don't get involved" pays off, the writer realizes. He leaves the day bartender a tip and walks out the back door into the alley. Exiting the bar with him, because there is nothing he can do now to prevent it, are the words of that first song still echoing in his head: Young man there's no need to feel down...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cinema 2009: Brad Pitt the Nazi Slayer

For a romp through Nazi-occupied France, albeit one subject to intermittent ultraviolence, check out Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" from 2009.

Brad Pitt plays American Army officer "Apache" Aldo, the leader of a band of bloodthirsty brothers — Jewish G.I.'s on a Nazi-killing mission behind enemy lines three years before D-Day. The movie's conceit is that a backwoodsman with a Bowie knife can derail the Nazi war machine.

"Inglourious Basterds" opens to the soundtrack of a spaghetti Western on steroids. Repeatedly throughout the movie Tarantino emphasizes the musical score by cranking up the volume or extending the music after a dramatic point has been made. It's a way of camping up a movie whose content — the Holocaust, a pair of G.I. suicide bombers — if taken too seriously by audiences might be expected to reduce box office.

Still movie violence here cannot be considered gratuitous, given the historical legacy of those jackbooted fascists. At the same time, Tarantino's film never takes itself too seriously, which allows some comic relief along the way, and plenty of just plain relief at the sight of dead or maimed Nazis.

Most of the main characters border on caricature, Aldo is a hilljack from Tennessee who is viscerally outraged by Nazis, although you have to wonder how big that demographic was in 1941. Christoph Waltz, an accomplished Austrian actor, won the Oscar for his portrayal of SS Col. Landa, sent to France by order of the Fuehrer to hunt Jews. Landa typifies the aristocratic sadist. Daniel Brühl plays young Zoller, the virginal Nazi hero. Zoller's wrongheaded enthusiasm is as pathetic as it is common throughout history.

In the film's most dramatic role, Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna, a French Jew hiding in occupied Paris under an assumed name and operating a local movie house.

Worth of mention is Sylvester Groth's portrayal of Goebbels, Hitler's second-in-command, and a first-rate template for a piece of garbage. Groth captures the sycophantic/egotistical dynamic of the Nazi propaganda minister.

Tarantino includes brilliant cinematic flourishes to convey the evil of the Nazis. In one particularly evocative scene, Tarantino gives us close-ups of Landa's practiced hand movements as the SS officer refills a fountain pen before recording the names and ages of a Jewish family he is set to destroy. On the surface it is an image one would associate with enlightenment and education — here it highlights calculated barbarity. In one interrogation scene, laden with sexual subtext, Landa loses his cool and pounces on his female victim in a classic example of the impotent sadist's subconscious switch from sex to violence.

A similar scene occurs when Zoller's attention to Shosanna threatens to derail her plot to kill Nazi leaders. The young Nazi war hero drops sweet pretense and reveals his piggish character. Shosanna pretends to give in to his desires, but in the end Zoller — proclaimed as the pride of the Nazis — is just another limp meanie with nothing more than a Lueger in his trousers.

Tarantino also creates images in the expressionistic tradition. When Shosanna readies herself for the climactic showdown, she completes her ensemble by arranging the veil from a hat over her face, caught up as she is in a combined web of fate and will.

There is plenty of great dialog throughout the movie, including the Tarantino trademark of digressive discourse — at one point Aldo schools a German soldier on the real meaning of a Mexican standoff.

Much of the film is in German or French, spoken by native speakers instead of speech-coached American actors, which pleased this polyglot. German actress Diane Kruger, well known for starring opposite Nick Cage in the National Treasure movies, plays a German movie star and spy who supports the Allies. In one scene as Aldo's men scramble to come up with a Plan B, Kruger’s character asks them, "Can you Americans speak any other languages?" They reply with typical Yankee exaggeration, laying false claim to some Italian, which sets up one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Finally, the story has more than enough plot to keep it interesting and you can count on Tarantino to make it all converge with "inglourious" symmetry.