Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cinema 2012: Escape from Tehran

“Argo” may not be a blockbuster or seminal film, but this 2012 movie from actor/director Ben Affleck succeeds in creating the feel of a grand epic.

"Argo" depicts a declassified episode on the fringes of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. While the main group of 52 Americans remained prisoners of armed Iranian students and revolutionaries for 444 days, six embassy workers were able to flee during the takeover. They hid in Tehran with assistance from the Canadian ambassador. “Argo” is based on the true story of their exfiltration by the CIA. But this is not some gung-ho Rambo rescue fantasy. The spirit here is praiseworthy as the film throughout shows Tehran to be a diverse and bustling capital, of course, one where ruthless revolutionaries have carried the day.

A bearded Affleck plays Tony, a CIA exfiltration specialist. In his portrayal, Affleck is markedly reserved but still wears his hero’s integrity on his sleeve. He gives his character a quiet panache and it is fun to watch Tony interact with upper echelon flunkies of State, Tinseltown and the Iranian Revolution, helped along no doubt by the snappy dialog in Chris Terrio’s script.

In this day of over the top Hollywood FX, you got to love a film where less is more. Although the movie uses archived news footage to summarize the events of the crisis, “Argo” basically recreates the historical era with little more than a few outmoded eyeglass frames and the intermittent sampling of back-in-the-day pop tunes.

While “Argo” pokes fun at Hollywood, the premise of the operation emphasizes the longstanding worldwide influence of the American moviemaking machine, even vis–à–vis nascent militant Islamism.

Among the movie's supporting cast, a nicely coiffed Bryan Cranston wins over the audience as Tony’s CIA boss. But it is Alan Arkin who truly delights as erstwhile Hollywood big shot Lester Siegel, a producer who over a long career in pictures has not lost sight of the big picture. Siegel throws in with Tony and the CIA’s “guy in Hollywood,” a cynical make-up artist played by John Goodman. In a poignant scene, the image of a blindfolded American hostage reminds Siegel of what is truly important: human dignity and freedom. Arkin brings relish to his role, stealing scenes and providing comic relief throughout a movie where the tension doesn’t relent until one of the greatest airplane take-off scenes since “Casablanca.”

Moderate applause greeted the final credits in the theater where I saw “Argo.” It seems an appropriate reaction. Clearly the circumstances of these six Americans, shown in the film helping the Canadian ambassador empty his wine cellar during their ordeal, are quite at odds with the dire situation of the 52 hostages being abused and tormented by their Iranian captors. But this CIA-engineered escape owes it success nonetheless to the bravery and dedication of a government agent who risked everything and by the efforts of a civilian from an industry so often dismissed as profit-obsessed and self-absorbed. As such it is laudable and a reason for pride.

But before I get all weepy about fellow Americans who defend our way of life, let me call to mind the ironic tagline Tony, Siegel & Co. used during the exfil op to help keep on keeping on: “Argo fuck yourself.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cinema 2008: Waiting for Brad Pitt

What is curious about the 2008 film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" are many of the odd choices made by screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher in adapting to celluloid this idea from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Apart from Brad Pitt, there really is not much to recommend the movie. For many, Pitt of course is more than enough, but those fans will have to remain patient through the first half of the movie until Pitt's role, Benjamin Button, born an old man and aging backward, finally matures on screen into the youthful Adonis they expect. We know exactly when that happens because Button's lover (played by Cate Blanchett) blurts in amazement, "Look at you. You're perfect."

But then, this is a movie where the filmmakers believe they must tell the audience everything in so many words, as if it were not clear enough looking at a smiling Pitt on the big screen. Amazingly, the actor, who was 46 when he made this film, still convinces in the role of a man 20 years younger, or did that scene use outtakes from Pitt's early career?

Most of the words telling us what we are seeing and what it means are spoken by Pitt in soothing voice-over -- a drawled commentary that conveys a rare equanimity, perhaps rooted in wisdom garnered from Button's unique take on the human comedy. That narration, which rarely waxes poetic, aims to keep alive our interest in a series of wooden vignettes about a freakish life. In addition we are spoon-fed vacuous truisms and homespun mottos the likes of "you never know what's coming at you." (“Life is like a box of chocolates” was already taken.)

It should be noted that only the script's title was actually penned by Fitzgerald. While writer Roth is probably familiar with the original short story -- in his script he drops the names John Wilkes Booth and Teddy Roosevelt, both of which appear on Fitzgerald’s pages -- any logical link to those historical figures has been broken by the fact the movie relocates the main action by 1,000 miles and sets it in an era decades later than the original story.

As for Scotty Fitz, the great American writer said he based his story on a remark by Mark Twain that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst at the end. Alas, neither the beautiful expression nor the wit of those prominent literary forebears is in evidence throughout this overlong cinematic adaptation.

For comic relief, there are cheap jokes at the expense of a revivalist preacher, among others, and a running gag about a guy repeatedly hit by lightning. Once again, don't look for that anywhere in Fitzgerald's tale. Maybe look instead to "Uncle Buck."

There is one literary reference in the movie although it goes uncredited. “Benjamin Button” is clumsily bookended by scenes involving a backwards-running clock. The clockmaker built it as a form of protest against all the young men being killed in war. A scene showing soldiers mowed down by enemy fire as they charge with bayonets is played backward so that the fallen leap from the battleground and run backward away from death.

In his seminal work, "Slaughterhouse Five," American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about a better way to watch war movies, namely, backward, so that we see instead the soldiers take the bullets out of their weapons, see men and ordnance shipped out of theater and back to the factories where workers dismantle the weapons and finally we see miners take the metal ore used in weapons making and hide it deep underground. Thanks Kurt.

"Button" tries to pass itself off as wide-ranging, but backlot forays to Paris and Murmansk are bereft of any feel for place. On stage at the Paris opera we don't even glimpse Garnier's world famous chandelier, while all we see of Russia's Hero City is a seedy hotel.

The musical score is hauntingly melodramatic, but sounds more like a thin echo when compared to original music from Claude Lelouch's 1995 movie "Les Misérables," for example.

But the worst betrayal of Fitzgerald's bagatelle is the final conceit of the film. Button has now grown into an infant and is reaching the end of his backward life. In the arms of an old woman who used to be his lover, the baby looks up. "He looked at me as if he knew," she tells herself.

But Fitzgerald knew better in 1922 when he penned the story, which ends: "He did not remember. ... And then he remembered nothing. ...

"Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind."

I guess that ain't happy end enough for Hollywood.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blue air

We hiked to the top of la Vouise,
leaving the charms of the French town below,
the farmers market where the wrinkled woman
wrings the chicken’s neck
and hands it to you to pluck,
harsh-lit cafes lined with linoleum,
and a girl you used to love.

We set out through cobblestone alleys,
onto a dirt road along a fallow field,
upward through the dry streambed --
a three-hour dusty scramble over rocks and thick brush,
no view except the anticipated one,
carried in memory from the last time.

The highest point is atop a rusted tower
where stands the copper statue of Our Lady.
But we avoided its spiral stair and graffiti,
sought instead the clear precipice
where limestone kisses wind.

We shared cheese, bread, mustard in a tube.
We drank red wine cut with water.
When a tired leg slipped its perch
your heart hiccupped into high gear
and you shifted your center of gravity
backward, into the mountain.
Stones set free by your fatigue
leapfrogged into the blue, blue air.

Below, the afternoon traffic was a foggy rumble,
the narrow streets unseen,
the girl lost.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cinema 2010: Can a hitman grow a heart of gold?

It is part symbolic tale, "The American" from 2010 with George Clooney in the title role, and part vehicle for one of Hollywood's top leading men.

"The American" is also a crime thriller, but not so much one constrained by the usual conventions of the genre. It may be best to watch this film in a mindset to simply enjoy the cinematography, soundtrack, and characters — plotlines be somewhat damned.

Clooney is Jack, the American, introduced as a cold creature even by professional killer standards. The action opens in a rustic house in Scandinavia. Jack is already up from the shared bed, staring away from his female companion. Soon he will be on the lam, not to mention on the lookout for a new lover.

Jack hides out in a small, medieval-looking village in Italy. He keeps in shape, takes his pleasure at the local bordello and accepts a job building an assassin's rifle. The pace is purposeful. Viewers have ample opportunity to examine the often charmless lifestyle of hiding out. The musical score is minimal but combines with ambient sound to render a potent accompaniment to the loneliness of the paid assassin.

Fans of Clooney are rewarded with fullscreen close-ups and scenes where the heart throb, who was 49 when he made this movie, further tones his torso with an old-school regimen of calisthenics. The star's backside even puts in a fleeting partial, however the human posterior is far better represented in scenes throughout the film by Jack's romantic interests and by a female client.

The female nudity is languorous but the altogether here is not altogether gratuitous. Instead those scenes cue viewers to Jack's attitude toward women, which can be aptly expressed in a common three-word phrase that rhymes with crass. What else would you expect from a paid assassin and part-time psychopath? But those sensual experiences also awaken a deeper yearning in Jack, who is called Mr. Butterfly by some because of a crude tattoo between his shoulders.

That tatt at first seems an odd symbol for the man. It is unlike the colorful butterfly sported by Steve McQueen's title character in the 1973 flick "Papillon." Whereas Papillon wore on his chest an emblem of his desire to be free, Jack's body art brings to mind more of a clockwork butterfly. Viewed this way it could indeed be an apt coat of arms for a cold-blooded gunman. I just wish director Anton Corbijn would have created a design with more style than a hurried graffiti tag.

Still the ink captures the curiosity of the beautiful prostitute Clara, who does not see things clearly. Although much younger than Jack, her favorite john, Clara is seduced by his ardor or perhaps merely by the performance of a man whose profession demands he be in complete control of himself.

The longer Jack is in hiding, the larger looms the possibility of his reinvention, if not redemption. "You think you can escape history," the village monsignor chides his new American pal. The worldly-wise cleric even questions Jack's cover story as a magazine photographer, advising him that "Journalism cannot make you a rich man," then suspecting what every movie-goer already knows: "Maybe you are already rich …"

Indeed, Clooney's persona has intruded on his character from the film's beginning. Nothing Jack does can turn us against this character played by the star actor. We root for Jack to outsmart his pursuers. We yearn for the happy end — in this we are wonderfully manipulated by the film. Will Jack win those dual keys to a cynic's earthly paradise — the love of a beautiful woman and envelopes full of walk-away cash? Maybe the monsignor knows.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Interlocutors Anonymous

Patrick sat down and ordered a superficial conversation. The woman behind the bar went to work.

“Wonder when that rain will ever stop,” she sighed.
“Been drizzling all day, and last night, too,” Patrick mumbled. Already he was feeling the warmth in his gut.
“Why not take off your coat. It’s wet,” she said.
“No, I really got to be going. Just ducked in for a quick one. But could you also give me an answer before I leave?”
“Sure, what’ll it be?”
“Just a short one.”
“What’s your question?”
“Uh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Wait, I know, what was the final score?”
“Two zip,” she fired back with no hesitation.
The news was harsh but Patrick took it in stride. “Thanks, I needed that,” he said and got up. Patrick left a 10 on the bar and walked out without saying goodbye.
On the street those few words braced him against the lousy weather. Still, he worried.

He knew it was not healthy for him to frequent that scene, especially so early in the day. Whenever Patrick began to have human contact, even just some off-the-cuff conversation, he would feel his will weaken. He knew he could never quench his desires.

Patrick couldn’t just gab socially. Chewing the fat might sound harmless to you or me but for a chronic conversationalist like Patrick, it easily could lead to a dialog overdose. Patrick on more than one occasion had passed out from pure parlance, so susceptible was he to the spoken word.

It was a hard fact of life. Patrick knew he had a problem. He couldn’t let it go at small talk. He had to face it. His vow of silence was not working. There were no two ways about it, he was addicted to dialog and was having one hell of a time staying on the wagon.

Photo courtesy of Scottamus

Cinema 2005: Children escape adult world, build better future

In his 2005 cinematic adaptation of author C. S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," filmmaker Andrew Adamson created a graceful and visually stunning world of childhood desires and demands.

Following a well-balanced screenplay co-written with Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Adamson captures for the screen the sense of wonder present in
the original novel. Computer generated images serve the creation of a world characterized by a child's innocent sense of wonderment -- a kingdom where goodness and love are inherent human traits.

The key to this film's success is that it focuses on the human characters who are at the center of the tale, namely, the four siblings who have been plunged into the real life nightmare of the London Blitz.

At the film’s outset we, too, are plunged into this terror during scenes where Luftwaffe bombers drop ordnance onto the children’s north London neighborhood of Finchley. The partial destruction of their house brings home the war their father is off fighting, a war their country is losing.

After this harrowing episode, Mom wastes no time in whisking her brood off to the English countryside to live with an eccentric professor on his sprawling estate out of range of the Nazis. The English countryside itself might as well be Narnia, so much does its bucolic tranquility contrast with the chaotic killing in the British capital.

It is through the unpretentious portal of a walk-in closet, or wardrobe, in the professor’s country house that the children find their way into Narnia. Who cannot recall hiding as a child in a similar dark closet, happy to dream of the world as it should be, and reluctant to return to the incomprehensible cruelty of grown-up reality.

The children are by no means portrayed as perfect angels, but their individual personalities have been influenced greatly by the world of grown ups. Even the betrayal by Edmund (Skandar Keynes) can be traced to this world of adults. As the younger son, Edmund suffers more greatly from the absence of his father, and misses his father’s direction more deeply, while jealously resisting guidance from his elder brother Peter (William Moseley). Meanwhile Edmund’s inexperience in artifice leaves him more vulnerable to the treachery of Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

Peter’s greater maturity and closer ties to an absent father prepare him for the responsibility that he will be called upon to assume, and which is the hallmark of growing up.

When the witch is finally defeated, and the children's escapist kingdom is liberated, they are free to mature into loving and respectful adults in a world full of goodness with all its childlike wonder intact.

The supporting cast of characters is vast, as befits an epic, and includes such mythical creatures as centaurs, gryphons, a flame-throwing phoenix and a unicorn. There are dwarves and even Father Christmas makes a cameo to underscore the important role of hope in our lives, and to bestow meaningful gifts upon the children. Some animals can speak, for example the lion Aslan, voiced by Liam Neeson.

Despite Aslan's mostly “non-allegorical” depiction in the film, he can be interpreted narrowly as an allegory for Christ, a fact that stirred some silly controversy when the film was released. Adamson’s film does not proselytize on behalf of any religion and it would be a shame to prevent children of any age from enjoying this marvelous spectacle due to an unwarranted concern about religious propaganda.

“Narnia,” rather, can be viewed simply as a parable about the inherent goodness of humankind and the need to nurture this goodness in children. The land of Narnia provides both an imaginative escape for the “children interrupted” by the cruel adult world at war, as well as a place for them to practice the adult values of self-sacrifice, loyalty to friends in need and love of family.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cinema 2012: Eerie moments don't add up

A lot of scary stuff happens in the dark. But at some point in a movie you got to shine a light on it.

In 2012's "Sinister" by writer/director Scott Derrickson, just about the only thing spotlighted is a blatant jockeying to supplant those aging horror franchises that are in perennial reprise. Are sequels to “Sinister” already in the works? That truly would be a scary prospect.

“Sinister” tells the story of true crime author Ellison (Ethan Hawke), who moves with his wife and two young children into a “crime scene” house for a book he is working on and finds a cache of 8 millimeter home movies and, luckily, a film projector, too. The change of venue is actually the desperate play of a writer who is chasing past success. As the family unpacks we are introduced to Ellison’s wife and kids. Derrickson even gives us that warm and fuzzy trope, the family breakfast scene, complete with food-sparring siblings. But Ellison’s wife and kids are just foils in this narrative, although Juliet Rylance is utterly convincing in the sparse supporting role of wife Tracy. “Sinister” may be best remembered as a stalled Ethan Hawke vehicle rather than a story about a family in danger.

The exposition of the film suffers from its prolonged focus on a static and solitary Ellison. Whereas darkness may be considered a fitting metaphor for the writer’s work process, ideally these scenes would also be scary. But despite infrequent nuggets of shock, the terrible crimes that are at the heart of this mystery are detached stylistically from the action of the film since we see them only as projected images. The repeated showing of these passive murders of drugged victims actually dilutes the initial horror they evoked and eventually debunks the eerie quality of those images.

Ellison is in tune with the things that go bump in the night. And while he may not be a boxer à la Hemingway, this writer is no poltroon. Ellison grabs his Louisville Slugger and investigates. But turn on some lights for heaven’s sake! Derrickson is not scaring us in the dark; perhaps a brightly lit scene might.

One scene that does stand out appears to have been filmed with an I-phone as the sole source of light, a great realistic touch. Kudos to cinematographer Chris Norr for pushing that envelope and following in the trailblazing footsteps of Andrew Laszlo, director of photography on “First Blood,” who 30 years ago filmed the scenes of the Sylvester Stallone character in an abandoned mine using only the light from John Rambo’s improvised torch.

When Ellison finally decides to put family first we wonder about the consequences. But since the film had already turned its back on Ellison’s family – ironically we last see helpless Tracy from behind – the passing uncertainty of their fate is hardly poignant.

The musical score by Nicholas Triarchos, Judgehydrogen, and others is edgy and original except for a couple instances when Derrickson abuses the music as a falling rim shot to punctuate startling action on screen.

Fred Dalton Thompson plays a southern sheriff in this film but sadly he is more believable hawking reverse mortgages on TV than squandering his luscious baritone here.

(For the paragon of the southern sheriff, watch the late James Dickey in “Deliverance.” John Boorman made that movie 40 years ago but the performance by Dickey, who wrote the book and is shown here in the role of Sheriff Bullard, epitomizes to this day the often stereotyped Georgia sheriff.)

“Sinister” would also mine a trite and true source of Hollywood horror, namely, the spooky child who wreaks unholy terror. But this dodge doesn’t work well without some hinting at the motivation for such horror. In “Sinister” it has something to do with a shadowy, evil Pied Piper called Mr. Boogie. But after 110 minutes watching Hawke stumble around a dark house and dull script, viewers deserve more than an abrupt visual tease of the putative mastermind if they are expected to return for a Sinister 2.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Last day in France

Art courtesy of Brigitte Monerie

At the sidewalk café
you call the waiter
with a detached s'il vous plaît,
order your Ricard, for her a Coke.
You don't watch the waiter
weave through chairs and tables.
"Why do you drink that stuff
anyway? It's bad for your stomach."
She smiles her j'aime ça smile
as if you were taking a photograph.

This is France on a Sunday afternoon,
nothing to do but digest your food.
It's the French way of life except
you're thinking there's a plane to catch
and don't notice the waiter.
Voilà, monsieur.
You drink your Ricard and
read the words on her Coke glass,
Buvez Coca-Cola.
She smiles her je t'aime smile.
There are some euros on the table
and you're 10 hours from home.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cinema 2006: Best Picture is haunting indictment of society

Filmmaker Matin Scorsese won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2006 with "The Departed," the film that also earned an Oscar for Best Picture.

“The Departed” is set in South Boston instead of Manhattan, and the bad guys are big time, but other than that the streets are just as mean as in Scorsese's breakout film from 1973. Apparently there is not much room for human progress within the criminal element.

In "The Departed" we are shown a venal world populated by unimaginative sociopaths, including crime boss Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson. Although Jack is fun to watch, the Hollywood legend here is content to riff off his previous work, including as Batman's nemesis, as an urbane werewolf, and even as a “horny little devil.” Unfortunately, such reprises lack the genuineness that moved us the first time around.

While Jack is less than stellar, and Mark Wahlberg was nominated for an Oscar for his role here, it is Leonardo DiCaprio who positively explodes off the screen and takes the movie by storm, whether he’s streetfighting, seething, kung-fuing his own conscience, or tongue-lashing a government psychiatrist. By comparison, Matt Damon, who plays the golden boy of the Massachusetts State Police, comes across as wan and stuck in second gear.

DiCaprio’s character, Costigan, has also made it into the state police, becoming a righteous cop despite a hood's pedigree. Costigan is given a death sentence of a detail: an elaborate and psychologically pummeling deep cover.

Damon’s Sullivan, on the other hand, is a dirty detective sergeant despite all appearances, working for the very crime boss whose inner circle Costigan is assigned to infiltrate. The psychology of these two characters – negative images of each other – keeps the film balanced in mid-air even after the narrative has stalled.

Scorsese paints a violent society where priests are bon vivant sex offenders, nuns are whores, and adult life boils down to the twin pursuits of money and sex, although describing it in those terms is too polite for these selfish scumbags.

Despite dialog sprinkled with esoteric quotes from the likes of James Joyce and Nathaniel Hawthorne – more of a screenwriter's conceit than an insight into the characters – these bad guys are brutes with less brains than a boiled potato.

While some viewers may look superficially on these violent men as heroes and even envy their gangster lifestyle, the mean streets here are all dead ends. Scorsese is showing us an increasingly marginalized demographic that is being dumped on by the dead hand of history. These tough guys lack the true machismo needed to improve their lot.

Nor should viewers be swayed by Costello's materialist malarkey, that when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun it doesn’t matter whether you’re a cop or a criminal.

"The Departed" is steeped in a cynical inexorability that calls into question our ability as a nation to recreate ourselves to meet new challenges. Is America over the hill? Are we past rejuvenating a once great society?

When the final showdown can no longer be postponed, "The Departed" resolves itself like a spaghetti western, with Scorsese owing viewers an apology for not having ordered enough coffins.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

gimme horn

Driving over to Starbucks in desperate need of caffeine, I readied my camera. For what, I didn't know, perhaps a landscape of the vast Westfield Mall. Usually I spy something of interest as I captain my Corolla around the not so mean streets of West Toledo.

In fact, a picturesque bearded old guy was sitting on the wooden bus stop bench in front of a deserted section of mall parking lot. Meanwhile, a solitary passer-by was, uhh, passing by and stopped to speak with the seated man. Perhaps picturesque guy was not about the bus but about a handout because I saw the passer-by dig into a pocket. Alas, although I was cruising cautiously, I missed that photo op.

O well, I was certain there would be others on this gorgeous fall Sunday. I drove on and another Kodak moment quickly presented itself. At the corner of Talmadge where a new store is under construction I saw a small cluster of people facing the intersection. I readied my camera. It could be union members, I thought, since I had seen the inflatable and inflated rat at this corner some weeks back. I snapped a picture as I pulled up to a red light. There I saw four persons protesting the war or war in general. Their signs said bring home our troops and stop drone strikes. One woman was holding a sign with an image of Jesus Christ on it. Jesus Christ, I muttered.

The guy closest to my passenger side window held a sign that said to honk if you were for peace. I pointed my camera but it wouldn’t shoot. Sometimes I have to fiddle with the on/off switch to get it to work. That’s what I was doing when the light turned green. On cue, the guy behind me honked. Was he declaring his solidarity with this scruffy gang of street corner peaceniks? No, I’m pretty sure he just wished I would step on it. I got the camera working and snapped a picture. Ready to proceed, I waved to the pacifists and added my own beep-beep to what by now had grown into a smattering of horns behind me. Of course, I also took a moment at the expense of those impatient motorists to enjoy the irony, before putting the Corolla in gear.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Zappa rides again

I imagine Frank Zappa
on a motorcycle
zigzagging through traffic.
Worn boots,
no sissy bar,
leather fringes flying.
He leans left
to pass a minivan
in the granny lane,
slips between the soccer mom
and a joker doing 70
in the sandwich lane,
kicks it and erupts
out of the blindspot
like vomit.
The colors on his jacket
read: Mothers of Invention.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cinema 2007: Remake of 1980s thriller needs shlock absorbers

Perhaps no actor can be expected to equal the idiosyncratic intensity of Rutger Hauer in the 1986 road thriller cult classic "The Hitcher.” After all, by the mid-1980s Hauer's performances had already made him a favorite feared bad guy and pop culture icon.

Certainly Sean Bean’s work in the 2007 remake, directed by Dave Meyers, falls short of that benchmark. Bean’s hitcher remains an unshaven, boring blank of a sociopath.

This remake’s lack of horror is the direct result of its failure to capture our imagination. John Ryder may be a twisted killer with a death wish, but he rarely reveals any personality – the key to instilling fear and panic in the ticket-buying public.

Actor Neal McDonough’s Lt. Esteridge may be more memorable here, if only for his incongruous baby face,

Instead of horror, Meyers delivers shlock. O moviegoer, how to shlock thee? Let me count the ways in this remake: dream scene shlock, slowly turning doorknob shlock, spurting blood shlock, incompetent cops shlock, car ramming shlock, seedy motel room shlock, incredible marksmanship by amateurs with handguns in speeding cars shlock and, of course, inbred locals shlock.

The movie begins innocently enough on campus. But when young Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush) leave the civilized confines of academe in order to partake of Spring Break, they run the murderous gauntlet of “the real world” in the form of an interstate through New Mexico.

Jim and Grace quickly meet up with the eponymous vagabond and a series of clashes and showdowns ensues. This hitchhiker sure gets around, but it is when he finds himself in police handcuffs that his talented thumb really comes in handy – he dislocates it in order to escape.

The film’s early pacing does manage to keep you off balance, although those scenes where the kids are framed for murders committed by the hitcher are so weak as to be nonsensical.

The best part of this “Hitcher" remake is the growth of Grace, from one stereotype to another. She starts out as a tardy traveler with an overactive bladder, the antithesis of boyfriend Jim, whose muscle car marks him as road ready. But as Grace’s arc ascends toward shotgun-blasting super sister, Jim’s arc descends until he is but half the man he was before meeting the hitcher. For all his scruffy sensitivity, Jim’s best move is using bottled water to clean his windshield at 70 mph.

When Grace, in mini skirt and boots, leaps from burning wreckage to save what’s left of the day, the mean spirit guiding the movie recasts our leggy heroine as a cold-blooded executioner. Grace might be the baddest babe this side of Albuquerque, but the final scenes diminish her humanity.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dave's True Story*

Inspired by Maria dumping Dave for a Catholic priest

Screaming Venus Knockout
Drops Electric Dave:
Sunshine Blind,
Sheer Terror,
Brain Delay,
The Wake.

Haze & Shuffle,
Nudeswirl psychic orgy,
Life in a Blender,
Soul at Zero.
Maria Ex Communikata.

*This "pome," including title, consists exclusively of names of bands playing New York City venues the second week of February 1994.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cinema 2006: Fatal action won't die

"Final Destination 3" from 2006 was made with cult film aspirations but only TV production values. Still as the film unspools it manages to gather a winning rhythm. But fans of Scythe-Shoulderer schlock will be disappointed that some of the scenes building up to destruction and death are oddly without excruciation, not to mention too complicated even for Rube Goldberg.

“FD3” opens as Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) celebrates with members of her graduating high school class at an amusement park. Sitting in a roller coaster waiting for the ride to begin, she has an intense vision of disaster, causing her to panic. She takes herself off the ride before it starts, and is led away -- along with some friends who disembarked to calm her -- by an uncaring adult who accuses her of being on drugs. Not so, mister! Wendy’s vision soon turns real.

The seven grads who escape "roller coaster death" thanks to Wendy's clairvoyance are living on borrowed time. Wendy discovers they are scheduled to die in the order they originally boarded the ill-fated ride, as if Death were methodically rectifying the last-second screw-up caused by Wendy’s vision. Photos from the night at the amusement park hold clues to the "do-over" deaths of the kids who got away. Our mission, should we decide to watch this movie, is to try to figure out the means Death will use to put its books in order, and exactly when the make-up mortality will take place.

On one level, Wendy spends the rest of the film trying to save her friends. On another level she is trying to recapture a happier past by solving the mystery that left her life a psychotic ruin. Wendy is dismissed by the police like some pestering pulp fiction private eye. She must rely on her deductive reasoning to attempt to divine the future, something she had been able to intuit at the amusement park.

Wendy is a brooding heroine. She graduated high school only to be thrown violently into that adult world from which her storybook namesake fled on the coattails of Peter Pan. She begins to care more about solving the mystery than the lives it claims. Eventually she is consumed by her own impending doom, which forces out all other considerations.

Director James Wong actually succeeds in making it fun to tag along with Wendy as she tries to save her friends and herself. Along the way, two shallow girls pursuing the consumer ideal of beauty suffer a gruesome end. The demise of these "hotties" is not without its irony. We also see the quick-tempered football star, played by Texas Battle, strengthening every muscle but the one between his ears. Could this omission become a vulnerability? Disturbed rebel Ian spouts science, but believes in nothing. And there is no avoiding Frankie (Sam Easton), a legend in his own groin, and too full of himself to attract any fans, except perhaps one.

There is plenty of gore and splatter, but surprisingly little philosophizing about the meaning of life. Perhaps that's the key to the success of “Final Destination 3.”

Oddly, some dialog in the script, penned by Wong with experienced TV screenwriter Glen Morgan, misrepresents colloquial American English. For instance, when Wendy hangs back during a funeral, preferring to stand apart from the gathered mourners, fellow survivor Kevin (Ryan Merriman) asks her why she is in the "nose-bleeds." He uses it as a synonym for “far away,” but the term derives its meaning from the height of a stadium's cheap seats. At the same funeral, Easton’s tasty character claims he regrets having treated women as "fun bags," misusing a slang that first appeared in print 46 years ago (in Playboy, where else).

While the film provides laughs for the depraved, it also educates. We learn there are deadly hazards all around us, from not so fast food drive-thrus to litterbugs on a sugar high. "FD 3" isn't so much a real movie as a kind of running visual gag in the form of a movie. As such it holds our interest, gets us worrying 'bout Wendy and, despite a poorly staged climax, is actually kind of fun.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cinema 2005: Cancer shtick

“Thank You For Smoking” from 2005 lampoons sundry corners of contemporary America. It’s a funny film but it lets its targets off the hook. The satire here is strictly catch and release.

The opening credit sequence sets the tone with that finger-snapping oldie “Smoke That Cigarette,” as performed by Tex Williams and the Western Caravan. The story starts off strong, mocking the IQ of daytime TV audiences. But tobacco’s super lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is never called upon in this film to square off against an A-list opponent.

Naylor’s precocious son (Cameron Bright) attends Catholic school, which serves as the facile butt of one of the movie’s many gags. But the comedy fails to mount a coherent critique of the state of education in the U.S., arguably a major reason why the sloppy logic of silver-tongued lobbyists and TV blowhards sways the public in the first place. Young Naylor eventually wins a school debate contest, but we can safely assume it is not of the Lincoln-Douglas variety. There are no real debates in this film. All arguments are sleight of mouth. The glib conquer with sexy sound bytes, while the well-meaning fumble, forever flummoxed.

Despite Naylor’s tender parenting scenes, he teaches his son, “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Perhaps this reflects a national philosophy in a land of litigators. And maybe it is more practical than Buddhism’s “Nothing is more useless than clever words.” But where does it leave the moral compass?

Naylor also teaches his kid the value of money, namely, you’re crazy not to grab it, even if it means selling your dignity. Naylor boils it all down to “paying the mortgage,” and any means is justified. Despite it all, we actually feel sorry for Naylor when the charming cad is down and out. But as he rebounds, we are reminded that this lobbyist is a shyster and his job is to “keep secrets and spin the truth.”

But nowhere does the film truly poke a righteous finger in the eye of Big Tobacco. Instead it sends up “the Captain” (Robert Duvall), a Carolina tobacco tycoon who reminds us more of a Kentucky Colonel than a robber baron of the broadleaf. Duvall, of course, is his consummate self, waxing wistful over war stories. Similarly, when Hollywood is derided, it is in the person of an eccentric egomaniac, played with snubbing poise by Rob Lowe. Never are we shown anything realistic, like vice presidents in suits on dozens of executive boards unscrupulously strategizing ways to earn money for shareholders, regardless of collateral cultural damage, in the case of Hollywood, or real human costs in the case of cigarettes.

The movie does give us a glimpse of how agenda-driven demagogues can skew a debate, if they are “moderating” it on their own TV show. A self-contented Dennis Miller plays himself in one such scene, apparently unaware of the inherent irony of this bit of casting by director Jason Reitman.

“Thank You” eventually grows muddled when it cannot find its way out of its own jokes. Along the way, Sam Elliot, as the original “Marlboro Man,” disintegrates before our very eyes as he goes from the defiant one to a disarmed and dying dude, done in as much by a briefcase of C-notes as a lifetime of smoking. It is a small role but performed to perfection. On the other hand, William H. Macy is never believable as the crusading U.S. Senator, even if he is only supposed to represent maple syrup maniacs and cheddar cheese-heads.

“Thank You For Smoking” amuses, but its nonchalant deprecation does a disservice. Despite the grim statistics cited by Naylor in a bout of one-upmanship with lobbyists for booze and firearms, the movie’s silly mood downplays one of the brutal legacies in the annals of big business, still impacting Americans and millions more people all over the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Curosity's second coming

I took her to the latest flick,
now she's laughing with her clique.
They're more into jabbering like teens
than discussing what it means.

She embellishes our shared world,
never using first person plural,
but makes them smile, her bunch of bots,
everyone powered by her giggle-watts.

The laughter wanes when I approach
those smiling faces in the corner.
It's like they've all been coached
to view me as a foreigner.

Hasn't she known me in a slouch,
sprawled across our threadbare couch,
ruining my eyes on an old edition,
reading for the truth in fiction?

When will she realize there's a book
behind the flick, and where to look
to understand, and where to find
the author, and the man?

Friday, October 12, 2012

coffin creatures

Media stories have reported on the rising cost of housepet burials in the New York metropolitan area in recent years.

Basic interment at area pet cemeteries is said to cost upwards of about $1,500. However, big sticker mausoleums have also been built to provide ostentatious eternal rest for those housebroken animals with deep pockets.

When I was a child growing up in Ohio, our beloved pet cat died. We buried it behind the garage. Memory alone marked the gravesite, for me a hallowed ground that naturally faded as I got older.

But today there is a trend toward mortuary visitations for the deceased dog, cat, budgie, or iguana. It is described without irony as a loss leader for funeral homes, which reportedly charge a couple hundred dollars for a tasteful service as morticians scramble to incorporate the pet hereafter into their line.

I love animals and know our lives are enriched by pets. Still, a lavish funeral service for man's best friend strikes me as eccentric and out of line.

With global population at about seven billion people, and rising, we could one day be forced to forfeit the option of human boneyards, let alone crypts for pets. Overpopulation threatens to coerce mankind to think outside the coffin, so to speak, and adopt other, less land-intensive means of disposing of the deceased.

I was talking with an American friend who was born in Paris. He confided he would prefer to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over the Atlantic so he could "swim back" to France. In a devilish mood I told him, if I'm still around I'd be happy to see he gets back. Would even skip the cremation. Haul his dead hide direct to Montauk and toss him in the drink. Let the fishies help him find his final resting place. My friend seemed startled by the offer but deep down I'm sure he appreciated my solicitude.

Still my personal favorite is something called sky burial or giving alms to birds, a tradition in Tibet where burial in the ground is not always practical. Family members bring their deceased to a charnel grounds where Buddhist monks, for a fee of about five bucks, chop the cadaver into beak-size pieces for the buzzards, which flock together nearby in anticipation. When the monks have finished, the vultures swoop down and devour the human morsels. Within 30 minutes all is devoured. Oh those kooky Tibetans. I guess you could say the dead don't dally in the domain of the Dalai Lama.

Still, most Westerners seem determined in death to stave off the birds or the fishes or even the worms for as long as possible. While some green cemeteries suggest cardboard coffins, we typically still bury our loved ones in elaborate sarcophagi, often encased in thick concrete. Sky burial on the other hand guarantees a much swifter recycling of our star dust. From goner to guano in a half hour. And it's a lot cheaper.

Well, maybe this sums it all up. Courtesy of supremecourtjester

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cinema 2012: Trouble with the Curve is a feel good flick

“Trouble with the Curve” from 2012 is high-grade schmaltz, well-crafted as one would only expect from a project starring veteran actor Clint Eastwood.

Here Eastwood plays Gus, a widower who despite being a legendary baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves is decidedly behind the curve when it comes to computers and the “Interweb.” Instead, Gus still peers at box scores, albeit through a magnifying glass, relying on the dinosaur media that served him so well during his prime, long past. His anachronistic approach earns Gus the scorn of the organization’s young hard charger Phil, played with perfect pitch by Matthew Lillard.

Of course, Gus also does the leg work, attending high school ball games where he listens for the clank of the aluminum bat and evaluates the look in the eyes of players going through a slump. Meanwhile, Phil is too busy speeding along the technology highway to see the wisdom of working his job’s interpersonal side of the street.

Gus, with his future in the Braves organization on the line, is sent to North Carolina to scout a possible first round draft pick. There he reluctantly accepts the help of his estranged daughter Mickey, played by Amy Adams. Mickey has issues, thanks to dad, but she loves her father and is nostalgic for parts of a childhood spent with him around the game of baseball.

By now we should be used to seeing Eastwood in the role of troubled curmudgeon. Here, besides raging against the dying of his eyesight, Eastwood’s character is given a barroom brawl scene, a gratuitous nod to the persona of one of Hollywood's icons. But mostly Gus struggles with driving his car and walking up stairs. His biggest problem is communicating with his daughter.

“Trouble with the Curve” lacks the depth of emotion of other late-career films from Eastwood like “Gran Torino” or “Million Dollar Baby.” It contents itself with caricatures, including Bo, the young prospect whose in-your-face immaturity and strident selfishness make him easy to root against. One difference between the movie's sentimental shtick and reality is that in the real world there are plenty of jerks who can hit a big league curveball.

Still the story is well conceived and has enough moving parts to stay interesting to the end, an end that is never really in doubt. The viewer’s pleasure comes from gorging on all the corn. The sentimentality here includes many wonderful images of rural and small town America where baseball is played with big passion, if not for big paychecks.

But those scenes in their own way also form a tribute not only to every sandlot shortstop who ever dared to dream of making it to the Bigs, but also to the local bleacher creatures whose love of the game is grounded in family not celebrity, and to the hardworking members of those small communities, from diner waitresses to motel maids, whose daily struggles strengthen the moral fabric.

And then there is baseball itself, with apologies to Clint, America’s pastime is the biggest star in this movie, even if it is mostly the aluminum bat variety. Baseball has a magical quality that lends itself to fairy tales and fairy tale endings. It is that quality, engrained in American culture, which makes this story work.

Despite the character arcs and happy ending, “Trouble with the Curve” never completely resolves the estranged father-daughter relationship at the center of the story. Perhaps there is realism here after all.

Monday, October 8, 2012

God bless you

Out of work, I boarded the 66 bus early one morning to ride to the state labor office in Riverhead. Near the county courts I was distracted from reading Steinbeck by a harsh voice coming from behind me.

A woman was talking and laughing too loud for the inside of a bus. She was proudly reporting that her husband had been facing 25 years to life, then got the sentence reduced to 16 years to life. His crime was robbing a Boston Market -- three times. She said the judge on this day finally sentenced her man to seven years in prison.

"He'll be all right once he gets upstate," she said. She laughed into a Nextel walkie-talkie phone, her harsh voice alternating with the phone's annoying chirp. She couldn't possibly have known how raspy her voice sounded. Her laugh seemed to have been a forced response for meeting the world, practiced so long it was effortless but still did not sound brave or dignified.

Later on as I was walking in downtown Riverhead I came across a young black dude with long hair. He was leaning against a utility pole near the curb and he smiled at me as I crossed Main Street. "God bless you," he said. I nodded. The bells of the big church were chiming beautifully. The sky was blue and the cool air lovely.

But the state labor office on the other side of the street was vacant. There were paper signs taped to its windows: "Closed! Go To Patchogue!"

The dude was still leaning against the pole when I recrossed the street about 10 minutes later, walking like a lost soul on the wide sidewalk. I heard him "God bless" another passer-by. He stared at me and "God blessed" me again. I looked him in the eyes and smiled. Something passed between us.

At the time I thought it meant I was at peace, maybe even enlightened. It was only much later that I came to realize it was nothing like that at all. What I saw flash in the dude's eyes was his keen awareness that I was a man drowning in the blue air. He believed his blessings might stick, might even save me. He knew it was a long shot but it was all he could do, and he did it. "God bless you." He would have said it 50 times if I had kept recrossing that street.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Stretching your legs in America

You hike to the store some three miles
to buy bread, milk, and the Daily News.
It's locomotion of a personal style,
an old school way to cruise.

Thrill to the mundane, come to know the bliss,
the rise in the road speeders don't notice,
the Zen of yet another hard mile
and the junker marked "4 sale."

Breeze by banes without consequence:
the beast which barks behind a fence,
the motorist who, as if to test, abruptly swerves.
In the here and now, show no nerves
but gesture from the shoulder:

a nod to the towed four-door,
a finger flipped in anger
at drivers who endanger,
and a Christlike palm of the hand
to bless each yielding wheelman.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cinema 2006: Casino Royale

Director Martin Campbell‘s 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale” is not your father’s Bond. British actor Daniel Craig here embodies a no-nonsense, self-aware psychopath of a spy, a man who is always in touch with his animal ferocity and often a slave to it.

While the opening credits describe a stylish kaleidoscope of pop art reminiscent of the psychedelic era during which the first adaptations of novelist Ian Fleming’s alter ego made it to the big screen, “Casino Royale” grabs you early with a ne plus ultra chase scene that is easily the most three-dimensional, two-footed pursuit ever filmed. The action opens in the dark heart of a burgeoning Africa, where legions of building cranes rise above widespread poverty. Our Bond is king of this particular jungle (in real life Craig’s father worked a stint as an ironworker), pursuing his prey as unrelentingly as a Terminator, and with about as much sympathy. Perhaps the bomber Bond is chasing should have remained in the bush -- he might have fared better and it might have mattered less. But amid the hydraulic machinery of modern construction, the bad guy loses any native advantage and seemingly gives his tyro spy-tracker something extra to prove. The unorthodoxy and “devil may care” attitude of this inexperienced Bond combine to seal the fate of the bomber and cause that fearsome bureaucratic fallout known as an international incident.

Dame Judi Dench returns as “M” but she isn’t sipping Wild Turkey with our new 007, although this Bond’s “cheek” must surely send her character to the liquor cabinet off screen.

“Casino Royale” is a stylish film with the high production values one associates with a Bond feature, but significantly, there is also plenty of grit here. That grit reminds viewers of the reality of spy vs. spy violence in a way earlier Bond films had tended to forget. Those gritty scenes also help counterbalance the more unbelievable chases, a poisoning and fights no human could sustain.

There is also a chewy romantic center to this crunchy action film. After Bond has been broken completely by sadistic torture and a series of betrayals, he is seemingly reborn as a lover not a fighter, wisely choosing the lady and repudiating the tiger in himself. The audience cannot blame their action hero for falling for the beautiful and vulnerable Vesper (Eva Green), and while Bond, who has emailed M with his resignation from Her Majesty’s Secret Service, de-stresses at the lido in Venice with Vesper, we are teased by a glimpse of what a domesticated 007 might look like.

Of course, the next plot twist spoils Bond’s early retirement and romantic idyll. The chase and fight scene in Venice is another example of heart-pounding cinematography that bursts with symbolism even as it helps resolve the plot. Bond’s ferocity is compared to the elemental fury of rushing water, with the result that when unleashed upon civilization itself, as embodied by a historic structure in Venice, everything comes crashing down.

When Bond is confronted with a drowned love, he administers CPR perfunctorily, failing to demonstrate the tenacity that characterized his fighting and clawing when his own life was at stake.

Finally, M is glad her protégé learns the hard way not to trust anyone outside the organization. She even tells him she needs him and is glad to have him back. Fans of action movies will share in this sentiment.

The 64-year-old character actor Giancarlo Giannini, with his mellow voice and lined visage, adds inimitable charm and immediately recognizable professionalism to the project in his ambiguous role of Mathis.

Finally, the original Bond theme by Monty Norman has rarely been used so effectively as here, where the arrangements combine nostalgic resonance with a hip sound. And the song “You Know My Name,” written and performed by Chris Cornell for this film, is arguably the best Bond song since “Live and Let Die.”

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cinema 2012: Looper stupor

What is it about time travel that attracts filmmakers? And what is it about time travel movies that nearly always makes them break down before the final reel?

You have to give a nod to the concept of "Looper," namely, senior hit men being sent 30 years back in time to be whacked by their younger selves. Unfortunately, the movie from 2012 that writer/director Rian Johnson cobbled together around this one-liner of a concept does not hold up.

To his credit Johnson uses his concept as the premise for a morality tale about mankind's vicious circle of violence. But Johnson wrongly develops a back-story device into a weighty subplot that sinks the movie just when it begins to rise. Instead of giving us more of a time-displaced hitman on the lam from his one generation-younger doppelganger, and the possibilities it presents for portraying the paradox of free will, we are subjected to the tantrums of a supporting character: a telekinetic brat.

Emily Blunt muddles about in melodrama as Sara, the brat's single mother and brave-faced country gal who does her best to counter her son's incipient evil with a mother's love. In Blunt's defense, it is an impossibly silly role she has taken on.

Of course there are good nuggets here as well. Bruce Willis, as veteran killer Old Joe, brings to the screen his well worn persona, a veritable comfort for the moviegoer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt rocks as Joe, the Willis character's junior by 30 years. Gordon-Levitt nails a minimalist impression of Willis by capturing the cinema icon's tight-lipped expressions, partial head turns and that coiled understatement Willis has developed over a career that includes many other, much better action flicks. Gordon-Levitt's scenes with Willis are the best part of "Looper."

In a supporting role, Jeff Daniels plays Abe, a crime boss. Oddly, Abe berates Joe for not dressing originally. But there is not much of anything original in this movie. Abe, having seen the future, also advises Joe to retire to China instead of France. It's a funny line but really? Is that the newsflash Abe has brought with him from the 2070s, that China is on the rise? Makes you wonder how long this script has been gathering dust on some Hollywood shelf.

In one late scene Sara pleads with Joe to spare her son because the boy could yet grow up to be good. But when it comes to this enfant terrible, the hit man is not inclined to spare the "rod," that is, until his higher self chooses a more altruistic answer.

Still, it is hard to construe Joe's ultimate cop-out as heroic because we don't quite buy the "hit man with a heart of gold" storyline. Joe's solution is arguably "a far, far better thing" than he has ever done before but it smacks more of abdication than altruism. The life experience that might have led Joe to a selfless solution does not belong to him yet -- it belongs to Old Joe, who late in life has known a redemptive love. Yet Old Joe is bent on out-Heroding Herod, in total denial of the lessons true love might have taught him.

After nearly two hours of real time in the cineplex, "Looper" faded to black. But audience members seemed reluctant to exit the theater. It was as if they were expecting something more. I know how they felt.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Obama's nightmare

The first presidential debate was a 90-minute nightmare for Barack Obama. Republican Mitt Romney came out swinging and stayed on the offensive during the entire tete a tete. As a matter of fact, Obama looked like he had been gut-punched in the wings just prior to taking the stage.

Apparently, it was Obama's wedding anniversary and he mentioned Michelle at the outset. It seemed a ham-handed attempt at humanizing at best, at worst some pathetic form of procrastination by someone unwillig to enter the fray. Either way, Obama's popular spouse was no talisman on this night in Denver.

The President never recovered from Romney's high-energy onslaught. Obama did not challenge the challenger's statements. Obama merely meandered rhetorically. He never appeared to warm to the task. He certainly was not having fun on that stage. Skinny never zinged Mitt. The debate seemed to pass Obama by as he stood looking less than presidential and more like an annoyed recluse forced to face a pestering world.

The Obama that his supporters know -- upbeat and confident, a campaign rally rock star, never showed.

Afterward, some talking heads offered excuses for the President's poor performance. Current events, they said, prevented the leader of the free world from prepping as much as his challenger. Well sure, we expect our presidents to be busy guys and it is true the debates are set pieces, still it is hard to blame Obama's lackluster effort on inadequate cramming. Hell, Obama didn't give the impression of a man consumed by affairs of state so much as a man in over his head. I don't believe he is in over his head, but that is the impression he made.

No matter how you spin it, the first debate was an unmitigated disaster for Obama.

For artist Barry Blitt's take on the debate, view his drawing "One on One" that appears on the Oct. 15 cover of the New Yorker.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bebop Beach

Jazz in the morning
gives me a Feeling.
Yes, capital F.
The day is gray sky,
impending rain,
but I'm walking on
the sunny side of my brain.
The shadow man has been
blanched out of existence,
a lost love recedes like the tide
that ebbs to the horizon,
leaving smooth mud
for my footprints
and heavy big toe.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cinema 2009: Trouble in Paradise

Beautiful people and an awe-inspiring landscape set the stage for this darn good action flick from 2009. "A Perfect Getaway" is a lean, 98-minute thriller where characters discuss writing for the movies and second-reel plot twists while kayaking with a secret killer and hiking alongside homicidal maniacs.

There is plenty of good cinematography here, including arty camera work, gutsy images and a sequence of bleached black-and-white scenes midway that writer/director David Twohy employs to set the record straight. For in this tale of honeymooners stalked by bloodthirsty murderers, all is not what it appears to be.

Is the silly behavior of young lovers just bliss or a symptom of a deeper psychopathology? Does a naked woman in the middle of a Hawaiian Eden signify original sin or only mean she has nothing to hide? Should you fear a brain-injured Iraqi war vet for his killer instincts or embrace him for sacrificing to protect our way of life?

Twohy doesn't break the inner logic of his tale in order to keep from prematurely revealing the identity of the bad guys, but he comes close. At the point the killers finally do become known, Twohy has his audience more than ready for bad things to happen and the film shifts into high gear. When the main characters get bloodied, and believe me they all do, the activity gets furious.

Incisive camera work sets this film apart and makes it a pleasure to watch. When Nick (Steve Zahn) stops his Jeep for Kale (Chris Hemsworth) and Cleo (Marley Shelton), a pair of hitchhikers, the scene is filmed at an angle from within the car that blocks from our view the top half of Kale's face. We see only his bearded jaw and muscular torso; the words "do not revive" are tattooed in gothic letters across his left chest. Talk about sinister.

Kiele Sanchez plays Gina, the fiancee of special forces vet Nick (Timothy Olyphant). Gina is a tough cutie, equally at ease choosing a diamond as field dressing a boar.

Milla Jovovich mesmerizes as newlywed Cydney, a fresh-faced, dark-haired beauty whose dazzling eyes, often shown in close-up, reflect traces of the terror that defines her. Near the end of the film, when a police SWAT team is trying to resolve the unpleasantness, Cydney delivers a laconic epigram that becomes an instant classic.

With hints of fatalism and exhaustion, Cydney confirms the cop got it right by uttering the ultimate dismissal, "Yeah, him."

Monday, October 1, 2012

South China Sea

"Blue bangka" courtesy of Benson Kua

Drinking San Miguel beneath a porcelain sky
while the coral works.
The divers paddle their bangka to the reef,
its greens and blues streaking, and red.

South China Sea, surrounded by the sun,
your water body temp is 72 degrees.
Jellyfish dart, spastic and 3D.
A sea urchin bluffs at my knife blade.
There is no cause for alarm,
sharks won't swim in that coral.

Later, bangka beached rudely
beneath twisted coconut palms,
the sun submerges and the divers smile,
drinking San Miguel, brewed in Manila.

Tempus fugit (Time flies)

The 19th century French symbolist poet and hashish eater Charles Baudelaire is said to have been so obsessed with the inexorable passage of time that he broke off the hands on a clock in his Paris digs and wrote the words "It's later than you think" on the clock face.

Years ago when I was a student, we used to quote Chas. B., adding what at that time was for us in our undergrad vernacular a ubiquitous coda: "Jack!"

"It's later than you think, Jack!" we would shout at each other, whether apropos a term paper coming due or the start of Sunday night's 10 cent beer promotion at "Some Other Place," a student hangout in my college town. The name of that bar lent itself to our prankster mentality. Friends would call up and ask for a roommate. "Not here." "Do you know where he is?" "Sure. He went to Some Other Place." But that is probably another story.

Of course, the actual words Baudelaire wrote on that clock face were not "It's later than you think," although he could have, since he knew English well enough to translate Baltimore's troubled poet Edgar Poe into French. No, Chucky B. wrote instead, "Il est plus tard que tu ne penses."

So I, who had dabbled in that language, would alternately yell those French words at my roommate Gary, just back from a stint with the U.S. Army in former French Indochina. Gary's family was French on his mother's side. Upon hearing my Gallic exhortation his eyes would twinkle and he would punctuate the phrase with an emphatic "Jacques!"

Visiting my old school in recent weeks for the first time in several decades has reminded me once more that old Baudelaire, obsessed as he might have been, was sure right about the passage of time.

He also knew something about the worst monster to have ever bedeviled man or woman. He named that creature Boredom, and it is the same devil that robs us of those precious hours, minutes and seconds, whenever we think along the lines of "I can't wait for the weekend" or "I wish this semester was already over."

But whether we spend our lives achieving our goals or waxing nostalgic, whether we are sitting impatiently in traffic or daydreaming in a classroom, whether we are having an epiphany or simply reading another blogpost, no matter, time marches on — Jack!