Friday, November 30, 2012

Cinema 2010: You gotta heart Crazy Heart

If you are a mature romantic with a soft spot for regular Americans struggling with their demons, divorces, and cash flows, and especially if you dig the bluesy music at the root of today's popular country western genre, director Scott Cooper’s "Crazy Heart" is for you. The movie won two Oscars in 2010, including for Best Song for the Ryan Bingham/T-Bone Burnett tune "Weary Kind." The title of this gritty and pretty film comes from the lyrics.

Jeff Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Bad Blake, a has-been country music star known as much for his golden oldies as for his favorite bourbon. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a divorced mother working as a reporter who begins a romance with Bad. Gyllenhaal was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and would have deserved the statuette had she won, so textured and instinctive is her performance.

First-time director Cooper lights Gyllenhaal in sunshine to convey the brightness of Jean's soul. Those rays also accentuate an alluring angularity that, while appealing, also foreshadows the hard edge Bad will inevitably bump up against.

Blake, by contrast, inhabits dark restaurants and dingy motel rooms where he can gulp booze and chain smoke between lurches to the toilet or the next barroom stage. Bad is pretty bad the first time we hear him gig. But soon his renditions improve as he responds to good sidemen and in particular to having Jean in his life.

Eventually Bad begins to recapture some lost glory and breaks through a long period of writer's block. But even if a songwriter can find inspiration in a bottle it is never a sound bet the booze will propel him to the top of the charts. Bad does finally confront his alcoholism, but the scare that sobered him has also pushed Jean away.

A clean Bad confronts Jean in a brief doorjamb reunion in one of the film's best scenes, in which one man's emotional inertia is pitted against a loving single mom's bottom line. In the process Cooper creates a wrenching reality check on the contemporary human condition.

Cooper — and cinematographer Barry Markowitz — offer inspiring landscapes along the blue highways out west and contrast those grand images with the mundane charm of bowling alleys and out-of-the-way outposts of Americana.

Clearly those beat-down environs demand real character from their denizens. To establish his protagonist's current circumstances Cooper contrasts Bad's brown '78 Suburban with the gleaming tour buses of headliners. But Cooper also conjures the sublime core of the man when, in a minimalist scene, a reclining Bad composes music on the acoustic guitar.

Robert Duvall, in a minor role as Wayne, a bar manager, takes over like a quiet force for love and wonderment, as if the entire cast and crew just naturally deferred to the great veteran actor. Duvall's performance is an anchor of serenity. Wayne takes Bad fishing in a grace-filled scene of visual symmetry that makes you wish there were room for you in that boat.

"Crazy Heart" also speaks to, and in its own way advances, a theme that has been stuck in its tracks in many recent films, namely, the prodigal parent who after years of neglect attempts to reconnect with his estranged family.

"Crazy Heart" may be a modest picture in terms of its budget and themes, but Scott Cooper — who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Thomas Cobb — tells the story with a cinematic flourish rarely seen in today's Hollywood. For his efforts Cooper also deserved to have been nominated for the Oscar.

Cinema 2005: Sophomoric season's greetings

"Just Friends" comes at you loud and over the top. Scores of high-pitched screams puncture the soundtrack while low frequency sound effects accompany every groin shot and pratfall, of which there are plenty. Subtlety is definitely not director Roger Kumble’s strong suit. Nor is wit the forte of screenwriter Tex Davis.

The movie opens in New Jersey with caricatured high school students who are almost as ruthless as the real thing, but lack the humanity present in even the jerkiest of real teenagers. Protagonist Chris (Ryan Reynolds) is an overweight boy with an orthodontic retainer. He is “best friends” with Jamie (Amy Smart), the hot ditz who dates the football team yet remains unaware of the desires her playful wrestling awakens in forlorn Chris.

After the painful initial set-up, 10 years pass before we rejoin Chris, now a svelte master of the MTV universe living in L.A. The movie conveniently omits any reference to college, presumably because that would alienate its target audience. By now Chris has learned how to use others before or while being used by them, certainly a worthy skill on either coast, but nothing that would make his character sympathetic.

The cast members perform as if they had skipped the SNL skit acting seminar. Unfortunately, there is a yawning chasm between aimless shtick and comedic character acting, with the emphasis here on yawning. Chris does have a few darned good lines, but Reynolds delivers them as if he is too embarrassed to try to salvage something from this tripe.

Chris makes it home for Christmas for the first time since graduation – purely by accident and in the midst of a most improbable business trip. Notwithstanding its original release date and any holiday scenery, “Just Friends” does not qualify as a Christmas flick – heck, it barely qualifies as a flick. Oh yes, did I mention that Chris arrives with the country's hottest teen female pop star, Samantha James (Anna Faris) hanging on his arm and poking at his crotch? Faris does a grand job of making us cringe at her lack of musical talent while she tantalizes more like a terrorist than a temptress.

The movie ostensibly creates comedy around the issue of fulfillment. Is real success a mindless career in a faraway city – portrayed as a faraway career in a mindless city – or does true happiness follow from more modest joys, like a homelife with one’s high school crush, in Chris’s case Jamie.

Chris decides to extend his emergency layover in New Jersey because Jamie is now impressed with his trim torso and appliance-free smile. He feels he deserves to "boink" his old buddy, to employ the film’s vernacular.

But our nouveau Kalifornicator has woefully lost touch with his roots and can’t seem to hit his stride in the Garden State. Whereas Chris’s scourge of yore, a crude jock with a mean streak, has fallen hopelessly into male pattern beer drinking, another scorned suitor from back in the day, Dustin (Chris Klein) appears to be more than a match for our Left Coast professional brown-noser. Dustin has reinvented himself as the ultimate woman pleaser: a sensitive stud. His sincerity is the one weapon Chris cannot match, until a twist occurs in the story, which doesn't merit being called a plot.

After all the noise "Just Friends" ends with a whimper. Still, I would have felt better about the whole silly business had Chris ultimately given Jamie the boot in favor of boogying with and boinking Samantha.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cinema 2005: Group portrait with evil

Woody Allen's "Match Point" from 2005 offers breathtaking views of London and the country estates of its super rich, but the movie itself remains a dark tale of the moral bankruptcy of contemporary affluent society.

A washed-up professional tennis player, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), has chucked the Grand Slam circuit in favor of the "big fish in a little pond" lifestyle of a tennis pro at a series of posh resorts. At the story's beginning he sits knees together, an apparently obeisant supplicant in a job interview for a spot at an exclusive London country club. His subdued appearance betrays no vestige of the alpha-male pro athlete.

Chris gets the job and befriends a wealthy young member, Tom Hewrtt (Matthew Goode). Soon Chris is enjoying nights at the opera and weekends at the Hewett family's bucolic country estate, where shooting clay pigeons and drinking are the preferred activities. Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who is portrayed as sweet and singularly awkward among this high-class race of smooth operators, falls for the former tennis star, who accepts her attentions with the same polite enthusiasm he displays for opera tickets. He beds her in his shabby London flat, where he otherwise spends his time reading Dostoevsky and listening to "serious music," as if exposure to high culture could inoculate him against his baser origins.

When he meets Tom's serious squeeze Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Chris immediately shows signs of ruthless desire, revealing his truer, primitive self. Nola is an American from a broken home, an aspiring actress specializing in lousy auditions, and like Chris, who came from Irish poverty, she is out of place in the drawing rooms of the rich Brits. Eventually, when even a downpour fails to drown the animal attraction between them, Chris and Nola have a roll in the alfalfa.

The Hewitts and their hangers-on seem to glide through their conspicuously consumptive lives. But for Nola and Chris, both born sans silver spoon, the sojourn among those rich dawdlers threatens to be a fleeting proposition.

Chris punches his own ticket by marrying Chloe, taking a job in her father’s business and climbing the corporate ladder, buoyed by his father-in-law’s imprimatur and a natural facility for bossing secretaries and abusing expense accounts. Still, newlywed Chris is determined to have his cheesecake and eat it, too, and he pursues Nola, who has been dumped by Tom in favor of a blue-blooded bride.

The pressures, which Chris’s clandestine affair inflicts on this working-class parvenu in the rarefied air of London's highest social strata, bring him to the verge of a crack up. Now the pace of the film accelerates, as we watch Chris’s high society shell hatch a heinous Mr. Hyde in order to untrammel his illicit romance. Later Chris has a good cry and slips back into the routine of his well paid sinecure and saccharine family life.

The police procedural scenes near the film’s end are truly the saddest of the movie, now that the dreamy lifestyle has been destroyed. The submissive attitude Chris assumes vis-à-vis London’s finest is reminiscent of his job interview at the movie’s beginning. We wonder if Chris’s lucky streak will hold.

The snappy jazz soundtracks that have been an Allen staple are replaced in “Match Point” by an elegiac operatic score which takes on an additional dimension as the story unfolds.

Woody Allen never appears in front of the camera in “Match Point,” but his screenplay earned the prolific writer/director a 2006 Oscar nomination. Also absent here is Allen’s signature intellectual dialog. When Chris and his in-laws come together, it is whisky, not wit, which sets their tongues wagging.

At the film’s end, the happy Hewetts celebrate their family’s newest arrival: Chloe’s and Chris’s baby. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the couple’s flat with glorious ambient light and provide a spectacular view of London and the Thames. Through this happy diarama, one somber figure shuffles: Chris, dressed in a dark suit, is like an inexpiable sin on the soul of this high society.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

the old neighborhood

Driving around the old neighborhood on a recent Saturday morning with the whole town still asleep I felt sad that the place looked down at the heels, small, tired -- like the survivor of a protracted struggle that might succumb at any moment to accumulated exhaustion.

When I was a boy our big front lawn seemed a chore to mow. It has shrunk to a narrow patch of turf crowded on two sides by concrete driveways.

For a boy raised in a strict family, raking was a job that came with the pay-off of being trusted with matches. We would rake the leaves into a large pile on the apron of the driveway and burn them just one foot away from the busy thoroughfare that Berdan Avenue was in the 1960s.

I remember when the city came through and cut down the towering elms that lined our block. In place of those old friends were planted 10-foot high saplings with leaves that were supposed to shrivel in the autumn before falling. Those re-plantings now overarch my old block between Roanoke and Bellevue just west of the railroad tracks. Except that the railroad tracks -- there used to be dual tracks -- have long since been torn up.

You know you are old when you can remember when these trees were planted as saplings.

As a boy lying in my darkened bedroom at night awaiting sleep I would watch the automobile headlights play across the walls of the room from the road below as the cars drove over the mound made by that railway crossing.

I would listen for the mysterious and forlorn train whistle. Eventually that sound in the night comforted me. It became a part of my world. The train was wishing me sweet dreams as it barreled past our house on its way to Detroit, Chicago, or maybe St. Louis.

This rise on Berdan Avenue just west of Bellevue used to be a railroad crossing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

stumbling along memory lane with Eddy Manet

It is all part of the cultural mosaic, baby.

Edouard Manet has been called the Father of Impressionism. The Toledo Museum of Art, which boasts a famous Manet work in its permanent collection, the portrait of Antonin Proust, is currently showcasing a few dozen more of this 19th century French Daddy-O’s portraits from collections around the world in what is billed as a major exhibition running through the end of the year.

There was plenty of foot traffic in gallery 32 earlier this week for “Manet: Portraying Life” and perhaps that is why the exhibition space seemed cramped. Or maybe museums these days no longer have the luxury of abundant space that I became accustomed to in my own heyday as an art museum rat on the Old Continent.

Indeed gazing on those impressionist portraits as well as several sketches of Manet himself by others that are included in this exhibition took me back to the early 1970s when I studied l’histoire de l’art at the Institut de Touraine in France. It was part of a curriculum designed to teach me French language and culture. I supplemented those classes at the venerable institute with a crash course in café conversations and locker room lingo as a part-time right wing for the St. Pierre-les-Corps soccer team. Sadly, my poor soccer skills never benefitted from the international exposure. Still, I got in some good evening workouts on that all-dirt pitch in the Tours banlieue. When I would get too gassed to go on I used to look up at the constellations, consider my fortune at being able to live in Europe, and push on past fatigue.

On the other hand, considering the lamentable level of my French knowledge upon arriving in France for that year of study abroad, the upshot was a success. I acquired a basic fluency.

In the exhibition's gift shop there is for sale, irony of ironies, a tee sporting Manet's stylish portrait of his longtime friend Antonin Proust. Of course, there ain't nothing ironic about ringing up 30 bucks for one of these V-necks.

Our art history prof was a Monsieur Girard, if I remember correctly. He was a middle-aged man with that French beefiness that accumulates from decades of the moderate intake of red wine and butter-fried horseflesh. M. Girard’s disheveled appearance, his worn blue suit and rakish silk scarf, the ragged clutch of papers he carried under his arm, his thick and longish black hair held in check by the requisite black beret, all belied a rigorous approach to his material. He instructed according to a well hewn syllabus but it was obvious the man’s knowledge of the history of art was wide-ranging and filled with inexhaustible details. Besides being a scholar he was certainly an artist in his own right although his dedication to his students never permitted him to talk about his own work. But he would draw voluminously each day in class to illustrate and explain the lessons and he demanded his students do likewise in their notes.

Initially this seemed an interesting challenge for me. When I was younger my father used to sketch and was very good at it. I hoped I might have inherited some of his talent. But I hadn't. Soon Monsieur G’s emphasis on drawing – those notes constituted a major portion of the final grade – became a deal breaker for me.

I did not fare well in art history class. But some 40 years later I still remember the way M. Girard explained Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s classic arrangement of figures in such masterpieces as "La Liberté guidant le peuple." And I still see the passionate M. Girard twist his fist in an unintended riff on le bras d’honneur and hear his throaty tenor exhorting us to observe la torsion in a particular work of the Baroque period.

See the Manet exhibition for the inspiration of it all. The Toledo Museum of Art is the only place in North America where the exhibition can be viewed. If you miss "Manet: Portraying Life" in Toledo you would have to travel to London to see it at the Royal Academy of Arts beginning in late January.

So for me, the trip to TMA’s major exhibition was well worth the price of admission. The experience nudged me to unearth some college memories and with them some of the humanism that characterizes learning at its core and is a good thing. And like the protagonist in Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption” says: “…no good thing ever dies.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

family, gratitude, and good food

"Thanks God," is how a Turkish-American friend phrases that common English-language expression of gratitude.

No matter how you say it, we should all thank the Lord for our blessings during this holiday season and in particular on Thanksgiving, the only day of the year when Americans eat better than the French, as the late syndicated columnist Art Buchwald wrote in an often republished piece.

Indeed, it seems annually on Turkey Day most Americans are predisposed to a grateful frame of mind, but I don't think it is all due to the cooked bird, the green bean casserole, Mom's tomato pudding or those many sweets and dessert pies that traditionally top off the holiday feast.

There is another, beautiful reason to be thankful and I was reminded of it recently while driving to work. On that morning a radio personality on a country music station was inspired by a movie about the end of the world to ask listeners what they would do if they knew the world was going to end — tomorrow.

As for me, driving on Long Island, I told myself I would keep driving west all the way to Ohio to be with my family. Would I really? I thought for a minute about some clichéed debauchery in New York City involving that storied triumvirate of wine, women, and song. But no, not even Le Bernadin, a Victoria's Secret angel or Carnegie Hall could cause me to detour — although there is room for a pair of wings on the passenger seat. Earthly pleasures pale if there is no earth around.

Still, one could sense some trepidation on the radio personality's part, what kind of answers might his listeners come up with? Caller after caller repeated a common theme: they would spend those final hours with family. Some callers added they would cook for their family. But family was the unanimous sentiment. What else would you expect from country music fans? And it warmed my heart to listen to those everyday Americans admit, in that hypothetical way, their deep love of family.

I believe Americans are truly grateful on Thanksgiving, because most of us — the fortunate ones — spend the day with family.

My advice to those unable to be with loved ones: get your Mom's tomato pudding recipe or whatever you family's signature dish may be, and try to conjure family by preparing it yourself.

It likely won't taste quite as good, but it's still something to make you feel close. And you will "Thanks God" for that.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cinema 2006: The heart of the heart of the country

If you are looking for a different favorite holiday season family movie, Robert Altman’s love-filled flick “A Prairie Home Companion” from 2006 might be just the thing, that is, if you can stand corny jokes, if you like musical performances (all the actors did their own singing before a live audience), and if you treasure disappearing Americana.

This PG-13 movie takes its name from the weekly hootenanny that has aired for decades on National Public Radio. You have probably heard of it and of Garrison Keillor, the radio show’s creator and host. Altman, a prolific American film auteur, died the same year “A Prairie Home Companion” was released; it was the last movie he directed.

Altman’s swan song is a heart-warming gem of a film that includes schmaltz and the sublime. From a screenplay by Keillor, it delivers a kaleidoscope of America's homespun cultural heritage, while showcasing toe-tapping traditional music and humorous vignettes that reflect the oral tradition.

Some critics panned the movie when it was released, aping the initially negative attitude of one of its characters, Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan), the bored teen, whose mom (Meryl Streep) and aunt (Lily Tomlin) both sing on the show, which is performed before a live audience. Lola sulks backstage, but is eventually won over by the healing magic of a loving and loquacious family, not to mention a whole lot of banjo and mandolin music too wonderful for even a jaded teen (in a musical family) to resist. By the time the movie, and the live radio show that is its subject, end, Lola has come on stage to bring down the house with a lyrically butchered but tuneful rendition of “Frankie and Johnny.” Not since Ella mangled “Mack the Knife” in Berlin in 1960 has a song lyric suffered so much for our entertainment.

In “A Prairie Home Companion” Altman often uses extreme close-ups of his stars in the tradition of an earlier era in American cinema. He also films many scenes in deep focus, lending them the visual quality of a live stage performance. The overlapping dialog and throw-away lines heighten the auditory sense of realism and point to the potential tragedy of losing the lore that has come down through the generations.

Streep’s role is one of a survivor, a veteran third-string talent well past her glory days. The New Jersey-born actress, who was 56 years old when she made this movie, nonetheless embodies the role with the freshness of an ingenue.

Be advised an undercurrent of melancholy runs through the film – the story tells of the last performance of the long-running show that is being canceled, and how each member of the troupe deals with the end or doesn’t. There is also a death from old age. Halfway through the film, the story threatens to sink into bathos, but the characters never succumb to sadness and neither will you.

There are plenty of pratfalls, courtesy of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the house detective at the Fitzgerald Theater where the show is performed and broadcast over the radio to all corners of the nation. Many aspects of American popular culture are represented, including Noir’s aptly named shamus (whose on-screen incarnation by Kline owes more to Maxwell Smart than Mike Hammer), and a couple of heterosexual cowboys played with unshaven élan by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson. There is even a dining car greasy spoon, Mickey’s Diner (“Free Parking”), where the opening and closing scenes take place.

A mysterious “Woman in White” (Virginia Madsen) moves through the movie as if she were looking for a different soundstage, and Kline’s slapstick is unnecessary, but these quirks cannot detract from a company of performers led by a man who wears red socks. Keillor is present-day America’s great storyteller, with a voice like a favorite chair, well worn and relaxing.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is a movie about people being strong when faced with the commonplace adversity and daily disappointments we call life. It is a movie about family. And it is a movie full of personal spirituality.

One character in the movie laments that after the show is taken off the air there will be nothing left on the radio but “people yelling at you and computers playing music.” To grab 105 minutes of respite from that, watch “A Prairie Home Companion” with your family this holiday season. You might just start a new tradition.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


It was a wet afternoon. It had been raining since early morning and the forecast called for rain the rest of the day and through the night. Anamary's restaurant on Main Street in Upper Port Jefferson was crowded and the ambience lively with no trace of the damp cold that was outside.

About a dozen bronze-skinned, dark-haired men sat at the few tables across from the counter where hot food simmered in steamer trays behind glass. The men were cheerful, drinking sodas and the occasional cerveza. Many were landscapers given an impromptu holiday by the wet weather. To reach the lunch counter a few steps to the rear, I had to push past a couple of the men who suddenly jumped up from their wooden chairs and rushed to the jukebox that hangs on the wall. An upbeat Mexican tune with soulful lyrics about a chica who is linda already filled the air, and the men picked more songs. At the counter, I found an empty stool. The place was clean. A landscaper with a winning smile was enjoying the idle afternoon. He is from Honduras, a bit south of Tegucigalpa, he said, and has been in this country for eight years.

Raquel handed me a colorful, laminated menu en español. I was not surprised at how much I understood, for although I never took Spanish in school, the language is all around us.

Later I noticed brief English translations on the menu. Raquel suggested the chicken stew with rice and beans. She brought a generous portion of tasty and tender chicken, and placed a red plastic bottle of hot sauce on the counter in front of me. Lunch was great: home cooking with a Spanish accent. The Telemundo channel was airing a Spanish-language soap opera on the flat screen TV behind the counter. A second monitor on the back wall displayed digital images from a series of security cameras.

When I tried my Spanish out on Tomasina, the other woman behind the counter, she immediately began addressing me in her native tongue. I hastened to stress that I spoke poco, but that only seemed to encourage her. We communicated, and we both smiled when comprehension stalled. After eating, I asked for la cuenta and she called back to me from the register telling me in Spanish how much I owed. I paid and asked if they had coffee. I wanted a cup to go, but here my limited Spanish failed completely. Tomasina thought I wanted decaf and I understood her to say they did not serve that option. Café colombiano she said with pride. Finally, when Tomasina asked if I took sugar, I only said no, my Spanish not nearly good enough for that corny line men have been flattering waitresses with for decades: If you pour it, it'll be sweet enough for me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cinema 2012: A stirring and poignant opus

“Cloud Atlas” from 2012 is a compelling film that explores the human condition by combining a handful of colorful tales set in the past, present, and the future in places around the globe and beyond.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the film is clearly bolstered by the author’s exquisite language and his treatment of life, love, and death. But make no mistake, “Cloud Atlas” as adapted for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski, is pure and glorious cinema.

Members of an ensemble cast recombine to portray a smorgasbord of characters in these far-flung parables. The film splashes the screen with startling images of primitive lands and seas, comforts us with the genteel English countryside, adds a tale of noirish intrigue, and mesmerizes with scenes from a surreal, choreographed dystopia. But never is cinematic attention to detail overlooked. The tragedy of a selfish life is summed up by the dull sterility of an empty bath tub. The connection between all men is conveyed in an instant by the pleading eyes of a slave under the lash.

There are also farcical scenes, over-the-top car chases, and science-fiction shoot outs here. Perhaps the latter action sequences are intended to broaden audience appeal. They might not add substance but they cannot detract from the overwhelming inspiration the film delivers. “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others. Past and present.” Those lines, spoken by a character in the film, encapsulate the overriding theme of “Cloud Atlas.” The sublime poignancy here far outweighs any tacked-on blockbuster bravado.

“Cloud Atlas” depicts how survival often demands our courage and that caring for another human being can awaken that courage. Cowardice on the other hand is a kind of selfishness. The broad scope of this film creates an overarching perspective that promotes the understanding of these ideas. When the individual looks beyond his own life, he may see that what matters is to live courageously, which means to embrace the truth.

Another line from the film explains that the “nature of our immortal lives” lies “in the consequences of our words and deeds.” When the vulnerable ones exhibit courage they acquire a sense of empowerment which by its very nature begins to alter the world. Meanwhile defenders of “the natural order,” desperate to hold on to power and privilege, must end up on the wrong side of history.

In one of the stories, set in 22nd century South Korea, the needs of consumers are served by government-issue clones called fabricants. These DNA-sharing, wide-eyed waifs are considered subhuman. They are indoctrinated as inferior to the “pure bloods” and kept in line by a strict catechism and a false promise. In the film this warped social order is pierced in the same way prejudices are often knocked down in real life, that is, by focusing on the individual. Here fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) comes to the realization that “we are all pure bloods.” She goes on the lam and falls in love. In perhaps the most profound example of selfless courage in the film, Sonmi-451 transcends her own newly realized humanity in order to “teach people the truth.”

In addition to Bae, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry deliver outstanding performances in “Cloud Atlas.” In this wide-ranging cinematic opus, Hanks and Berry project a genuine human quality, while their on-screen interaction is serenely stirring like gazing on a beloved relative.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cinema 2006: Firewall keeps out the entertainment

"Firewall" from 2006 opens with scenes of family bustle. Computer security chief Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) prepares for his morning commute to the bank. Inside his house, which balances atop a forlorn precipice overlooking the water in Seattle (but is in range of a pizza delivery guy), Jack, wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and their two children are at breakfast.

Around the table, the multitasking siblings question each other's I.Q., apparently with unerring insight since neither kid has school for the rest of the week and should, according to all available data, be sleeping until noon. It is Hollywood's trite portrayal of American home life: wise parents indulge spoiled children in the first reel but just you wait, when faced with mortal danger the family bands together to defeat evil.

At the bank Stanfield has a supportive colleague played by Robert Forster and an understanding boss played by Alan Arkin. A merger is under way and Robert Patrick plays Stanfield's counterpart in the takeover company. Wow! What a great supporting cast! Alone the voices of these veteran actors are a joy. Unfortunately, the pros are not given many lines. Instead the filmmakers soon jettison this fantastic triumvirate of supporting players, to the great detriment of the movie.

As for the bad guys, they are a prosaic lot. Ringleader Cox (Paul Bettany) is suave and sociopathic. He has collected a coterie of cookie-cutter criminals, who despite a SWAT-team-type takeover of the family home, contribute little in the way of excitement or tension to the tale.

The villains are high-tech hustlers who outfit Stanfield with remote video and audio in order to track his every move at work, where they are coercing him to transfer massive bank funds to their off-shore account. But when complications thwart Plan A, the high-tech option is unceremoniously ditched in favor of old school: Cox simply shadows Stanfield, sort of a “bring your family’s kidnapper to work” day.

“Firewall” fails to live up to the promise of a high stakes computerized bank caper. The narrative actually pivots on a contraption worthy of McGiver and a "delete all" computer command.

As for Ford, the big star never becomes his character in "Firewall." His gruff, minimalist acting style does not convince. In ths film he seems to be replaying the same role from a number of earlier films.

Of course Stanfield eventually turns the tables on the bad guys and finally defeats them in a decidedly low-tech showdown, complete with disproportionate explosion. But the denouement occurs in a completely different setting, seemingly plucked at random, as if screenwriter Joe Forte was suffering from attention deficit syndrome.

The codex governing Hollywood's dispatching of villains dictates that the main bad guy dies last, horribly, and in such a way that he realizes real-time his own demise. By the end of "Firewall," Cox definitely knows he has "picked" the wrong guy to fraud with.

The family unit's post-trauma hug scene with sunset is embarrassingly cheesy

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cinema 2005: Europe as sick playground

With yet another “Hostel” due for release in 2013, I offer a scathing review of the original 2005 film that started a cult franchise.

The premise of writer/director Eli Roth's "Hostel" from 2005 is the European party tour of two All-American college boys, beginning in Amsterdam, where they get high but not happy.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) is a law school grad with no qualms about paying for whatever the market offers, which in Amsterdam covers a lot. He tries to cheer up his friend Josh (Derek Richardson), an aspiring author, by reminding him that "life experience" is grist for the writer's mill. Josh wants badly to hook up with exotic women, but his sensibilities won't permit him to patronize the world’s oldest profession, unlike his coarser compadre. Resulting frustration fuels Josh’s "ugly American" ethos of entitlement and hamstrings his chick-cruising moves.

Enter Alex, who gives the Americans one of those tips that must be urban legend by now: a hostel full of loose ladies in a country squirming with lonely beautiful women who are turned on by the American accent. How perfect is that? All a guy has to do is speak, what he says is not important.

The young Americans leave for Bratislava, in a Slovakia which, according to Alex, is bereft of men because of "the war." Of course there has not been a war in that region since the Cold War ended with the falling of the Iron Curtain 15 years before the movie was made. As it is, they disembark at Poricany, a town in the middle of the Czech Republic, closer to Prague than Bratislava, where our college educated youth fall victim to their own blinkered view of the world. Seeking frivolity in foreign streets, they end up being exploited to an unimaginable extreme and on a level that is unbelievable even in today’s real world of sex tourism, pirates and child predators.

The mindset that permits you to act however you like when you are away from home may work as a slogan for Las Vegas, but in this era of globalism it becomes increasingly hard to refute the moral bankruptcy of such a philosophy.

Still, Paxton doesn’t care about anything except making memories to sustain him through the upcoming busy months of cramming for the bar exam. Perhaps there is a global perception that his selfish attitudes are especially emblematic of Americans, and that is why, in "Hostel," freelance torturers pay more to vivisect bearers of our passport than persons of any other nationality.

When the boys finally enter the hostel midway through the film, a small TV in the lobby is showing an overdubbed version of "Pulp Fiction," the breakout film directed by “Hostel” producer Quentin Tarantino. The claustrophobic tension in that film added excruciating horror to the anticipated violence. Whereas in "Hostel" much of the violence is so non sequitur that you never quite believe in these silly butchers or their cadre of bored chauffeurs. The upshot is much less horror, more disgust and, one can only hope, no sick arousal.

When a victim does cry out "Why?" he might be speaking for the audience: Why make this movie? And when the pay-as-you-torture psychos pause to bare their souls to their bound and bleeding victims, “Hostel” visits real torture upon moviegoers in the form of pathetic acting and dumb dialog.

In this movie sadists have ceded their place to wealthy psychopaths, especially German-speaking men, who pay to "get their medieval freak on," if by definition one can get medieval with a chainsaw or an acetylene torch. During an uninspired escape attempt sequence, Paxton is cornered by an American businessman (Rick Hoffman), whose years of global sex tourism have left him unsatisfied and obviously insane. He is now ready to graduate to torture and murder in order to gratify his libido.

Judging by "Hostel," there certainly is a surfeit of silicone in this surrogate Slovakia. We are shown plenty of gratuitous female nudity, but only between rounds of bloodletting: Roth carefully segregates titillation from torture.

What’s in a name? Throughout this film "Josh" never quite appreciates the jokes while "Pax" never finds the peace that comes from exorcising one's own demons -- he just cuts his vacation short, so to speak.

One can only hope that the success of “Hostel” and its sequels is simply due to the popularity of the slasher genre and not because there exists an audience of Americans willing to exchange their ignorance of Europe for the warped fantasy offered here: a Sybaris for bored backpackers, where women resemble lingerie models, preschoolers gang bang, and the occasional ex-Nazi still hobbles about his same unspeakable errands, if more circumspect in his depravity than six decades earlier.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cinema 2012: Wooing Bond fans old and new

“Skyfall” is a worthy addition to the canon of James Bond cinema. This movie from 2012 builds upon and cements Bond tradition, based of course on author Ian Fleming's literary creation. It adds intimate backstory nuggets while resurrecting perhaps the franchise’s most iconic prop. Indeed, in one scene Bond (Daniel Craig) quips that his hobby is “resurrection.”

Director Sam Mendes never falters, except perhaps for one scene, if only a “quickie,” when we are reintroduced to a brooding Bond who was thought to have been killed in action. Jaded James is of course alive. He is busy channeling his libido and putting service to Queen and country out of his mind. It is a sullen portrait of a battle-scarred and guilt-ridden 007 trying to come to grips with the ugly side of the spy game where brothers in arms are indeed left behind.

When MI6 offices in England are bombed by terrorists, Bond abandons his hedonistic jag, where he has been wowing the tiki bar crowd with his sangfroid and sacrée descente. Reawakened patriotism drives his efforts to regain his earlier prowess. Bond must struggle to overcome serious wounds and the pernicious effects of age. Here the 44-year-old Craig does a fine job of carrying the torch for all of us who have outgrown our “spots,” thanks to the actor’s impressive physique and the intelligent dialog in a script that probes issues of aging, whether of persons, civilizations, or movie franchises – this one is 50 years old.

Behind the attacks in London is former British agent Silva (Javier Bardem), who did not overcome his own bout of bitterness and self-pity. Instead Silva launched a junior jihad against ex-boss M (Dame Judi Dench). A Goldilocked Bardem hams it up in the trite role of the fey yet brutal evil genius. Silva’s lair is a private island full of crumbling tenements and colossal computer power, a thought-provoking contrast that foreshadows Silva’s warped ambitions and also serves as metaphor for the bad guy’s broken brain.

“Skyfall” is thoroughly entertaining and visually brilliant, a testament both to Mendes and to that most amazing of veteran cinematographers, Roger Deakins. The plot, however, does not hold up to logical scrutiny. No problem. This thriller barrels ahead without leaving viewers much opportunity to scratch their heads about how an evil genius, for example, is able during London rush hour to find an empty commuter train to derail. England’s capital city, by the way, comes off as positively provincial and worn at the heels following images of Shanghai that spotlight the modernity of that vast and vertical Chinese metropolis.

After Silva’s savagery erupts a second time in the halls of government, the narrative simplifies matters by kidnapping the action to the deserted moors of Scotland for a final showdown. It is for this detour of a denouement that Bond’s classic ride and riffs from the signature musical score are taken out of storage. The music gives the action a beloved boost and builds anticipation for a quintessential Bond showdown. As concerns the car, sadly, the ejector button serves only as comic relief, while the Aston Martin’s awesome firepower tellingly only erupts while the classic ride is parked with its motor off.

The powerful, empty landscape of the moors serves as an essential counterbalance to the teeming locales of earlier scenes in world cities.

After Bond’s motley team repels an initial assault using an unlikely array of improvised weaponry, the showdown breaks down into a more elemental struggle. Finally, the villain, whose ability to kill and destroy was predicated on his computer hacking skills, is ultimately dispatched old school.

“Skyfall” is bookended with collateral damage. The death of one of Bond’s colleagues in the opening scenes and Bond’s own travails fuel his deep disgust for MI6 in the first reel and explain his overproof soul searching. By the final credits, fans might not be driven to drink but will no doubt be inclined to contemplate a loss as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cinema 2005: Enigmatic thriller leaves you guessing

Everybody’s getting his -- whether it’s a bottle of booze and a flop on sis’s sofa or stolen swag and a promotion to detective first grade.

Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” from 2006 starts out fine with its depiction of police procedures, showing how a diverse NYPD operates, from the observant cop on the beat to negotiatiors and S.W.A.T teams. Except, that is, for one major, narrative-wrecking omission: the cops fail to employ a K-9 unit when searching a large building for hidden bad guys. Oops.

Denzel Washington plays Detective Frazier, a caustic cop who is suspected of being on the take. Jodie Foster is Madeleine White, some kind of man-eating powerbroker living by sharpened wits, instead of sharpened teeth, but no less a cannibal for that. “You’re a good cop,” White tells Frazier, “the city needs you.” White recognizes the usefulness of a driven detective who cuts corners and she knows it would be a shame if Frazier were to follow his more altruistic motives and end up jeopardizing the cozy positions of several exposed big shots. Besides, she would rather leave Frazier compromised in her wake, if not completely in her stable.

White earns her lavish lifestyle by making the unscrupulous look classy; she walks through walls to pull strings for the powerful. As bloodless as a white-knuckle, she doesn't flash leg, she flexes leg muscle. But Foster's portrayal does not reveal White's psychology and ultimately falls flat.

Christopher Plummer plays a rich banker whose dark secret is at the center of the heist. Plummer bites into his role like a bon vivant and lets the juice run down his face. Unfortunately, his character's personal crisis never rings true.

Willem Dafoe recreates himself here as an Emergency Services Unit Police commander. Dafoe is so convincing you feel as if he really is a 20-year veteran of the job.

The script, by Russell Gewirtz, dares to reference Shakespeare. But even in the Bard's farcical scenes human motivation drives the plot. “Inside Man” is not interested in the whys and wherefores. Instead the "bank robber” (Clive Owen) looks into the camera, warns us to pay attention because he never repeats himself and then asks rhetorically why he is robbing this bank. “Because I can” is his useless, catchphraee answer. And of course, Owen’s character does in fact repeat himself.

Still it's wonderful when Spike Lee films life in the Big Apple. Here the vibrant rhythms of the City lend energy and chutzpah to this quizzical thriller, while Washington's ambitious and ambiguous hero gives it human layers. The pace of the movie is spot on but the caper is all wrong. As a whole, the movie resembles too closely an exercise in futility. “Inside Man” does not deliver the answers an audience expects at the conclusion of a thriller. Perhaps it is just as well "Inside Man 2" did not get made.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New day

Through closed lids she sensed
the narcotic of Spring as it pressed
a smile on sleep's last vestige.
Outside, a drowsy clattering
of horses' hooves on the street.

She tried to recall ever before
waking to this sound.
Far off? Long ago? A different life?

She opened her eyes
to harsh winter pushing its light
into the minutiae of her room.
Awake, exposed, she lay alone.
Outside, branches shuddered without sap.
No noble hoofprints in the snow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cinema 2006: Da Vinci disappoints

For a movie filmed in part in the City of Light, director Ron Howard’s "The Da Vinci Code" is cataract cinema; many scenes are so dark you wonder if the director is trying to keep the poor performances of his actors in the shadows.

Apart from a few scene-setting panoramas of Paris and London, this much ballyhooed film from 2006 doesn't have much to offer visually. Sure, there are those infamous scenes of Silas (Paul Bettany), the melanin-challenged villain and mentally deluded psycho, flagellating himself. Unfortunately, Bettany’s acting here in general is so annoying you want to grab the lash yourself and have at him.

Audrey Tautou is uneven in her portrayal of a French detective. Tattou does come alive in one scene where she interrogates Silas, whom she suspects of murdering her grandfather. But for the most part, she keeps a tight lid on any emoting. Nor does Tom Hanks in the lead role of Harvard prof Robert Langdon, make any effort to bring his character to life.

Langdon is in Paris promoting his book when he is drawn into a murder investigation. Hanks’s Langdon is devoid of charisma. Had the movie allowed Langdon a rakish side -- he is after all on the lam with a handcuff-toting French hottie -- it could only have contributed some entertainment value, a commodity conspicuous here by its absence.

Jean Reno is instantly credible as a French homicide detective, and the movie exposes his character's ruthlessness, subtly at first, and always smoothly. And if you don't already know the s-word in French, this movie will teach it to you. The versatile vocable is spoken repeatedly by a number of different characters in different situations and that is, believe me, a realistic touch. We also get a street-savvy Parisian's tour of the French capital, including the Louvre -- complete with de rigueur disparagement of Pei's pyramid -- and the Bois de Boulogne park, home to needle-users and kneeling losers.

There is plenty of French spoken in this film, and it's the authentic, beautifully gutteral street variety. There is also enough Latin spoken here to call into question its dead language status. Unfortunately, what this film needs is less Latin, and more puer amat puellam.

“Da Vinci Code” is dragged down by the weight of explanation -- about Knights Templar, Opus Dei, crusades, French etymology, gnostic gospels and secret societies within the Church. Attempts at comic relief fall flat, while at least two flashbacks that are intended to be serious come across like sick jokes.

Sir Leigh Teabing is played with relish by Ian McKellen. Not only does Teabing’s jet and secret agenda advance the narrative, McKellen’s playfulness refreshes. Teabing uses his wealth to hide the fact that he’s a few beads shy of a rosary. Besides, never trust a man whose chessboard is set up incorrectly, the sign of a charlatan!

Maybe if the audience were given the chance to solve the arcane puzzles and silly riddles that are substituted here for plot, the film would come across as engaging. Instead, we are outpaced by our hero who, emoting wheels-turning cerebration, solves everything with alacrity, jets off on a superficial scavenger hunt and then has the nerve to spout professorially on the meaning of life to a person we learn is directly descended from J.C. himself.

Et puis, merde!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Get your kicks on Eleven Six

Of the people, for the people, by the people.

So you do your part.

Cuz cousin, Uncle wants
to vote,

Cinema 2005: One commuter’s cautionary tale

The 2005 thriller "Derailed" presents its opening credits over an ominous device: an anonymous man in prison is writing in a notebook while Clive Owen’s main character Charles Schine begins voice-over narration. Director Mikael Håfström might be trying with this film noir tease to keep the audience off-balance, but soon enough viewers should be able to get "one step ahead" of the screenplay, based on James Siegel's novel.

Schine has it all: a beautiful two-income family, a house in the Chicago burbs. But on this particular morning our family man boards his train for work without a ticket and without the coin to purchase one. But Schine's predicament produces an improbable benefactrice: the leggy, all-sex-in-a-business-suit Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), who pays Schine’s fare despite sitting half a train car away. Subsequently a grateful Schine takes a shine to Lucinda.

At the office later that morning, Schine is booted off his biggest account without even a heads up from a boss whom he confuses for a friend. Schine is in a permanent state of confusion and the movie eventually becomes the story of the scales falling from his eyes. But before that learning curve can be climbed, Schine confuses coworker Winston Boyko (RZA) for the stone-cold backup he needs to get himself out of a jam. Schine’s first blunder that fateful day was of course to mistake a high-heeled fallen angel for a lonely kindred spirit.

Schine is eager to wine and dine Lucinda. They arrange to meet at a bar where they throw back shots like a pair of undergrads. But the fumbling, self-proclaimed first-time adulterers both struggle when the moment of truth approaches. Lucinda has her reasons for hesitating but they remain hidden from the audience until it is too late to care. Nor does that flaw in the script excuse Aniston’s flat performance as a scowling seductress.

Owen attacks his role subtly, using the most of the film to gradually unfold a visceral change in his character. Early on he is helpless to the point of not being able to take charge when it comes to the affair. He has no answers for his curious wife and can’t even command a cabbie as the cheaters careen toward a destiny neither could foresee. Later, when Schine has figured out the complexity of the web he has helped weave, something the audience will have suspected from the beginning, he begins to take charge. But before this can happen, he needs repeated wake-up calls, learning more each time about the deception and ruthlessness that are at the heart of this game.

Owens’ transformation from docile family man into self-reliant vigilante also proceeds too slowly. The silver lining is that RZA is able to steal scenes and create an original persona, quite a feat in this day of ripped-off and recombined characters.

The main villain, LaRoche, is played with sneering panache by Vince Casell, but his character is cut from the same cloth as many heavies before him. LaRoche is vicious, yet coldly debonair, using his native French to charm Schine's wife and daughter, while allowing himself a crude joke at their expense, certain these Midwesterners won’t understand his Parisian idiom.

LaRoche’s flunky is Dexter (Xzibit), a boring thug even if he does pack the biggest gun since Dirty Harry. Dexter’s best scene, where he muscles Schine into the bad guys’ lair while proposing Schine help get him the break he needs to have his rap music used in commercials, is too reminiscent of Travolta’s Chili Palmer beating up the very stunt man he admires in “Get Shorty.”

Giancarlo Esposito adds a much needed dose of the police procedural to the film with his spot-on rendering of a veteran big city police detective. But his scenes are too few and Chi-town itself is never given the chance to stamp its personality on this film. Still, "Derailed" deserves a screening, if only for its film noir bookends and some of the best last words a villain has ever heard.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Swim in my nude

If I could stop the spin
on those legacy twins
Mothers Nature & Earth,
what would that be worth?

If you break the vase --
rhymes not with Lamaze --
will you save face
under the new laws?

Dare any of us ignore the anthologized odes?
Can tabby snooze blasé beneath the goldfish bowl?

My knowledge of history derives
from reading your obituary lives
and tracing dated photographs.
No immediate family survives.

I knew a woman once whose smile
flashed the pearly teeth of a child.
Somehow a heart, eager for peace
and dulled by its beating,
sought only surcease,
no matter how fleeting.

Now I brew my tea strong
to drown the final song,
tenacious as the hangover
at the hour of dawn.

I will swim in my nude,
study the shapes of trees,
rejoice at the red tailed hawk,
wince still at the crow’s squawk.

Too phlegmatic to drool,
I will swim in my nude.

Four years ago: Remembering election night 2008

Four years ago on election night 2008 I was sent to the Crown Plaza Long Island hotel in Holtsville, where the Suffolk County Republican Party was gathering. My job was to report on the outcome of the local races for a North Shore weekly newspaper.

I showed up just after 9 p.m., too early for results, so I sat down in the newly refurbished sports bar and restaurant and stared up at a stunning plasma TV displaying a high-definition map of blue and red states and a constant stream of percentages and electoral vote totals.

As history flashed across that TV and others, waitresses in striped referee shirts, worn one size too small, scurried around the room carrying trays of drinks. Some of us may have been slightly distracted by the cleavage and small-of-the-back tatts of the service staff, however most of those gathered seemed to be in shock from the televised images of Obamapalooza — 100,000 people cheering for the candidate in the Chicago night.

One forlorn TV was showing a hockey game. All these Republicans in their sport coats and red ties pretending to be into the National Hockey League, I thought. Of course, no one will be watching the NHL this year as the season has been canceled, not to mention pundits are predicting Election Night 2012 will be a real nail biter that could have Americans waiting late into the night before a winner is declared.

On that historic night four years ago, a guy on my left began an angry commentary on Obama. "Nobody knows this effin' guy. I'd rather see Hillary. Hillary would have beat McCain easily." I pointed out to him that Obama seemed to be doing just that. For what it is worth, that angry man predicted a dire four years.

With the TVs showing a huge crowd gathered in Times Square, the dude on my right said in a scornful voice, "They're handing out $10 bills, everybody shows." What can you say to that? I remained silent.

When ABC predicted New Mexico for Obama, a woman behind me said, "I don't like that boy." I turned to look at her. She was African-American.

I left the restaurant to go inside the ballroom. The suit-jacketed conservatives were thick and chaotic. Three guys came at me in overdrive. The short one had some kind of modern haircut — all angles. He was hyperventilating and saying to his buddy, "You looked like you were gonna beat the shit out of Shari Einhorn," referring to a local TV news reporter. They swerved past me, heading for the front desk.

I recognized a local candidate and asked for comment. He was losing big time. "See me after all the votes are counted," he said. I couldn't blame the guy. Later, he was gone.

It was barely 10 p.m. but incredibly one of the networks was already predicting the outcome for Obama. Back at the bar the crowd was growing desperate. Men and women wearing Republican campaign buttons began spilling booze and elbowing each other in the quadrennial melee.

I squeezed in next to a guy who said his name was Mike. "He's the Anti-Christ," Mike said and pointed at Obama's image on the TV screen. "If you read Revelations."

"I do," I told him.

"It's no longer the White House," Mike said and nodded at me conspiratorially.

The woman with Mike said, "He's not a man to run the country." She looked back at the TV and exclaimed, "Oh my God, what did we do." Mike said, "The Anti-Christ will be of Muslim background."

I assured him Obama was not Muslim. "No, no," Mike told me, "He was raised a Muslim in Indonesia," then added cryptically, "A person that has blinders on. So how did he put the blinders on the whole United States..." Mike was searching for the correct formulation. Finally he said, "He will fool us as if we had blinders on," and seemed satisfied with that phrase. That's when Mike asked me what I was doing there.

"I'm with the liberal media," I said.

His woman squealed, but Mike got a kick out of the announcement and told her, "That's good. I like that he is writing it all down. He is OK."

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Get your kicks on November 6

It's the stupid economy.
Stupid me, I mean
it's the economy, stupid.

Oh, just make sure you vote.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dog whisperer tells all

More and more often one reads about dogs being tasered by police in the Midwest or by overworked animal shelter employees in New York. I couldn’t help but wonder what cumulative effects this tasing trend could be having on canine culture. So I consulted Dr. Harry Hunderfluster, a renowned animal analyst.

Dr. Hunderfluster makes a good living treating the issues of man's best friend. He is what is known in the business as a dog whisperer. Dr. Hunderfluster told me he has noticed a sharp decline in his cur clientele's conventional psychological complaints, such as fleas, mail carriers and deforestation. Instead, Dr. Hunderfluster said he is observing a marked rise in symptoms of acute stress among growing numbers of piqued pooches. The gravity of the situation convinced him to remain muzzled no more. Dr. Hunderfluster goes on the record here for the first time, unleashing the sordid quotes that follow.

Horst [not his real name] is a 6-year-old German shepherd. When shown an amorphous Rorschach, Horst began compulsively snapping his teeth, and growled that the ink blot resembled a dog catcher. When I suggested the more politically correct term, "animal control officer," Horst let out a long bark that ended in a threatening growl. Time's up I deftly informed him.

A mature toy poodle, I'll call her Carla B., would not even get up on the couch. Instead she circled the room incessantly, finally yelping in an almost feline fashion, "Mon dieu! What eef I should fall into zee hands of zose taser brutes!"

An adolescent boxer, brindle, came to his session even more excitable than usual and pranced with his head held high. He repeatedly shook his muzzle violently from side to side throwing long frothy strings of saliva about my office. "Bring it on," he snarled repeatedly through clenched jaws.

I was in over my head, and so sought advice from several serious dog stars of canine pop culture. Jed Clampett's hound, Duke, just howled. Scooby Doo perked his animated head and woofed, "Rut-roh." The Taco Bell chihuahua was useless -- turns out the miniature is stone deaf from having worked too close to that bell for too long. On the sidelines during a recent University of Georgia football game, Uga just stared blankly at me. Clearly, the Bulldogs’ mascot was not surprised to hear about Yankees acting in such an ungentlemanly fashion.

Let's face it, despite that unfeeling 18th century definition by Gottfried Leibniz, namely, "the dog is an organism, inhabited by fleas, which barks," no dog, whether lap, watch, attack or junkyard, ever wants to be tazed. And you don’t have to be an expert in pup psychology to know that.

Cinema 2006: “The Sentinel” offers Secret Service intrigue

“The Sentinel” from 2006 uses images of the memorials and monuments in our nation’s capital to serve as backdrop for what is a tepid thriller.

Still, director Clark Johnson does hand us an all-access pass to the White House where we see the complicated world of modern intrigue and the safeguards required to protect our leaders. We get it all from the viewpoint of a Secret Service bristling with sleek surveillance and communications technology.

“The Sentinel” is grounded in reality, opening with news footage of the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life. Agent Peter Garrison (Michael Douglas) took a bullet in that one, according to the movie. Garrison still works at the White House, but now, 25 years removed from his heroics, is detailed to protect a subsequent First Lady (Kim Basinger). These days, Garrison is less about taking a bullet for his boss than taking clandestine liberties with the President’s wife. In this, he gives new meaning to the term secret service.

When a plot to assassinate the president is uncovered, no-nonsense Agent Breckenridge (Kiefer Sutherland) is detailed to investigate a mole in the service. Breckenridge takes rookie Jill Marin (Eva Longoria) on as his assistant, not because she’s a hottie, but because she has yet to be corrupted. OK, but if you were in law enforcement, would you really want to go through a door with her? We are never shown that she has anything more substantial than the moxie to verbally insult an ogling coworker or the self-assurance to quote chapter and verse from the training manual.

As for Garrsion, we know he’s got game; he already took a bullet. Meanwhile, Douglas is perfectly cast. His star power and checkered on-screen persona keep us off-balance. As for Breckinridge, he is a straight arrow with an ax to grind. He believes, namely, that Garrison (this guy gets around) had an affair with his wife.

As the narrative advances, the most enjoyable scenes deal with the human aspects, often weaknesses, of these otherwise automaton-like secret service agents, who move like clockwork, respond to commands in their earpieces, and appear not unlike Hollywood cyborgs -- half flesh, half Kevlar.

Kim Basinger, 52 when she made this film, looks gaunt but brings to the role of First Lady an intelligent grace seldom seen in Hollywood or for that matter, prior to 2009, in Washington D.C . On the other hand, David Rasche delivers a nondescript performance as the President, although his character is depicted making decisions without a chief of staff or even a Veep anywhere to be seen.

Gabriel Berinstain’s cinematography shows fine attention to important detail, which helps tell the story in images. But the top-heavy plot cannot in the end sustain its own resolution, and after 90 minutes of supposed global intrigue the movie peters out in a pedestrian stairwell shootout among a few good guys and bad guys.

And speaking of bad guys, who are these evil doers? The main bad guys are easy to spot: one grimaces like he owned stock in GM, while the other sports black eyeglass frames in lieu of a black hat. They are Russian holdovers from the Cold War, who apparently mount an assassination plot just for old times’ sake.

And why does a Secret Service agent sell out his country in this post 9/11 world? It has something to do with the KGB, which keeps political relevance out of a good story. Still the plot holds our interest, with the help of a pounding musical score that subsequently no doubt found its way into the club scene.

It is a shame that the final shootout is staged without attempting to parallel the news footage used at the opening of the film. Instead, realism is jettisoned in favor of the unbelievable and the boring. The aftermath of Reagan’s assassination attempt revealed to the world that the Secret Service had a lot more firepower hidden beneath their trench coats than we suspected. But in the conclusion of “The Sentinel” the body-armored bad guys with assault rifles are defeated by Secret Service agents using nothing more than handguns and advanced tactics: “You aim low, I’ll aim high.”