Sunday, December 30, 2012

say what?

The good folks at Lake Superior State University each year publish a list of words they claim should be banished due to overuse.

In July on this blog I reprised a newspaper column I first published in February 2010 bashing what I perceived back then as the rampant overuse of the word amazing. As it turns out, amazing tops LSSU's 2012 list of verbi non grata.

A spokesperson for LSSU on CNN recently admitted the list is more about drawing attention to overuse rather than actually removing vocabulary, which is good since no matter how hackneyed, profane, or silly a word is, there may indeed be occasions when it alone seems appropriate to the speaker. In such cases I can only echo that other well trodden verbal path and urge the person with the floor to "go for it."

Living languages, by definition, are constantly evolving. The aggregate of speakers of English will at some point let démodé expressions fall into disuse while embracing the latest neologisms, at least that has been the historical paradigm. It is a pruning process traditionally spearheaded by each generation's articulati, if you will.

Clearly in this modern era, discerning practitioners of our so-called standard American idiom appear in diminishing supply. Still, I have faith in the ever etymological triage that shapes a language. Despite a perceived skewing of our changing vulgate due to a spreading acceptance of familiar yet often inexact words, and the disproportionate emphasis awarded suspect coinages in the media and on the Web, our language survives and thrives in all its blunt power and delicate nuance. Inanity may nibble at the fringes of our contemporary usage, but it will not compromise the essence of human communication.

As I have often explained to language students and teachers alike, it is all one language. That is to say, German, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Ukrainian, and yep, even American English, as well as all the other languages of the world are parts of one big language -- like fingers on a hand. Call it the Human language, for it is in the broadest sense the verbal expression of mankind's common existence on this planet.

Artwork courtesy of Bridget Gaynor

Talk may be cheap but language is paramount. As we forge ahead in 2013, let us pledge "Excelsior."

Friday, December 28, 2012

e pluribus unum

Driving across Pennsylvania recently on my way back to Ohio from Long Island, I stopped for a Big Mac and fries. I am not a frequent flyer when it comes to the Golden Arches. But on long road trips that great, greasy fast food, which took our nation by storm during my adolescence, is a favorite indulgence.

It was dark in the no man’s land of western PA when I exited Interstate 80 at Mercer and pulled into the local McDonald’s parking lot. The Mercer McDonald’s was nearly empty. I can report that it is a clean store. The walls above the booths are decorated with a number of framed nature scenes lovingly depicting regional fauna.

On the wall to the left of the counter is a map of the United States. The map was stuck with probably more than two hundred colorful pushpins, each marking the hometown of a recent customer. The manager told me he has to replace the map twice a year because it becomes overpopulated with pushpins.

Pennsylvania and the surrounding states boasted the most markers as you would expect. The East Coast was jammed, too, of course. But there were also pins marking towns all the way from California and Alaska to Texas and south Florida, not to mention a number of pins spanning the lower reaches of Canada. I scanned the map instinctively for my own coordinates to see if I could add anything original to this aleatory depiction of distance and direction, but both the North Fork of Long Island and northwestern Ohio were already pinned down nicely.

At that Mercer McDonald’s the folks working the late shift were pleasant and efficient. I took my order to go. But when I drove away, just another lonely cruiser, I carried with me more than a white bag of fast food. I was filled with e pluribus unum.

Despite a desperate economy and the social troubles facing our nation, I had the sense of being part of something positive, something living and breathing. I had the realization looking at that map on the wall of the Mercer McDonald’s that our national greatness relies not just on the historical geography of 50 discrete states. It comes directly from the individuals who inhabit and crisscross this land with freedom and dignity.

As I drove westward into the American night toward an uncertain personal future, one hand on the wheel, the other dipping into the McDonald’s bag for more fries, I was grateful to be part of this noble experiment.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cinema 2009: The Gran Torino belongs to a grumpy old man

The overexposed look of the 2009 flick "Gran Torino" serves to accentuate the harshness of the down-at-its-heels Detroit neighborhood where Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) seems determined to make his last stand.

Widowed as the film opens, Kowalski's troubled Korean War vet could have provided a layered, age-appropriate role for the iconic Hollywood tough guy, but Eastwood's character here rarely transcends the caricature of a grumpy old man, albeit with the good guy's requisite soft heart and sense of self-sacrifice. Of course, Eastwood's career has been built on melodrama, even if some of his later work arguably owes its critical acclaim to increased forbearance from the actor/director.

In "Gran Torino," Eastwood's character still plays with guns a half century after his service in Korea, including the rifle he used during that United Nations police action. But in his senior moments Kowalski only pulls a make-believe trigger with an empty hand mimicking a gun; except for once, when the old man trips in his garage while confronting a hapless teenaged neighbor who has been put up to stealing the Gran Torino of the film's title as a gang initiation.

That nocturnal confrontation is one of the movie's most compelling scenes. The action is bathed in intermittent light from a wildly swaying overhead lamp that has been bumped accidentally, heightening the tension as we repeatedly are plunged into darkness during crucial action. That piece of expressionistic filmmaking also emphasizes the post-traumatic stress that has been haunting Kowalski since Korea. The Asian countenance of would-be car thief Thao (Bee Vang), born in Michigan of Hmong parents who emigrated from Vietnam, confronts Kowalski in the dark garage like a hallucination of a young North Korean soldier he killed in the war.

The next day Kowalski parks the Gran Torino, which no one ever drives, on the apron of his driveway, defiantly displaying the mint condition muscle car he himself helped build 36 years earlier while working on the assembly line.

When the gang returns to "give Thao a second chance," Clint's character shuffles across his yard with shouldered rifle to get the interlopers off his lawn, and in the process thwarts the gang's kidnapping of Thao.

The calm, methodical plugging of multiple adversaries, who themselves prove unable to return accurate gunfire in the stress of the moment, is an Eastwood trope. In "Gran Torino," it is alluded to by Kowalski repeatedly.

While Thao expiates his attempted theft through manual labor, Kowalski's bottled-up anger visibly rejuvenates the old warrior, for better or for worse. But whereas Dirty Harry could threaten armed robbers in the midst of their crime with "Go ahead, make my day," a civilian, war veteran or not, can't exactly expect a free pass if he blows away some punks wrestling on his lawn. Kowalski and Eastwood both realize this and as the violence escalates, the filmmaker takes the narrative in another direction.

The real tragedy highlighted in "Gran Torino" is the isolation of individuals within society or families, whether caused by bigotry, selfishness, religious tradition, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Gran Torino" is fun, has little and big laughs, and plenty of politically incorrect insults and vintage Eastwood dialog. But despite the realistic themes it dances around and the stark economic reality revealed by Tom Stern's cameras, this movie certainly is not meant to be taken seriously, not from the opening scenes of Kowalski growling at all that displeases him to a later scene where the shuffling septuagenarian lays a brutal beating on a fireplug of a gangbanger without recourse to even a single ampule of nitroglycerin.

Final credits roll over Thao cruising along a pastoral stretch of Lake Erie shorefront. That pacific landscape is anathema to everything we have been shown and while it may imply freedom, it falls short here of providing a liberating coda for troubled Thao.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Cinema 2010: On tracks for disaster

If you like locomotives I hope you find one underneath your Christmas tree. You might also want to screen "Unstoppable" from 2010.

The title of this unimaginatively written action flick turns out to be a somewhat inaccurate description of the massive runaway train the movie is about. In the end, however, perhaps that title alludes to something even greater.

Playing second fiddle to the choo-choo is Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who is Frank, a 28-year veteran of the Pennsylvania railyards assigned here to work with Will (Chris Pine), a well-connected rookie. While Denzel is fun to watch, the star doesn't try to break any new ground here when it comes to acting.

The opening scenes paint a tableau of poorly disciplined workers with even poorer morale. Then there is Frank, a good-humored but demanding senior presence. While Frank lays down his rules for the new guy, in another railroad yard mistakes made and compounded by a hapless worker are setting in motion the impending disaster of a runaway train.

As the ghost train gains momentum with the inevitable smoothness of destiny, elsewhere along the main line Frank and Will get off to a rough start. With the out-of-control train bearing down on them, the protagonists sidetrack their squabble. Later it turns out both Frank and Will are stand-up guys who will respond to an emergency with selfless heroics. By that time it is clear no real harm will come to them as the movie chugs along to its inevitable happy end. Thus the climactic acrobatics and perilous efforts of the heroes atop the speeding train remain devoid of suspense. It is a sharp and disappointing contrast to the latent terror of the opening scenes where an awkward worker tries to climb out of a slowly rolling locomotive to throw a track switch by hand.

In "Unstoppable," reporters and cops swarm the landscape as the mega locomotive smashes its way through rural road crossings like an iron tornado. Director Tony Scott overuses scenes of news reporting to advance and comment on his narrative. Maybe the film's title really refers to a media motormouth who never learned to shut up long enough to let events speak for themselves.

Scott intercuts the action with shots of the heroes' loved ones, but we get it already: the wife wishes she had returned her husband's calls, daughters regret their teenager rebelliousness. Those sappy scenes have their place in such a film but Scott lays it on double-thick.

The only original character in "Unstoppable" is a welder named Ned, played by an original, Lew Temple. (See photo below.) Ned is a blue-collar know-it-all whose diner-counter panacea is precision, and he hammers home that mantra to any waitress in earshot, even while his unabashed enjoyment of the morning's bacon and eggs makes him late for work.

But whenever "Roger that" Ned is onscreen, the audience is being entertained, not least of all by this refreshing performer's ability to steal scenes.

Finally, despite the worn stereotypes offered up here — corporate veeps mismanaging from an isolated boardroom, or the company's owner pausing on the links just long enough to greenlight some cockeyed crisis strategy — "Unstoppable" leaves us with the general impression that beyond the outskirts of Big City America, and in spite of an ever encroaching bureaucratic incompetence and the sad existence of a widely neglected national infrastructure, there still exists a homeland of down-to-earth self-starters.

Though they may be hotheaded and unshaven, those Americans can still answer the call of duty with determination and ingenuity. And no matter how cheesy its ending, this movie would have us go on believing in our American archetypes for one simple reason: they, and by extension we, have hearts big enough to be unstoppable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Town Hall

There used to be a burlesque theater on St. Clair Street in Toledo, Ohio, called the Town Hall. I remember it from the late 1960s and early 70s, mostly from the daily ads it ran in the newspaper but there was also one particular Saturday matinee that I will never forget.

I used to marvel at the eighth-of-a-page ads for the Town Hall that appeared in the Peach Section of The Toledo Blade, "One of America’s Great Newspapers," as its masthead proclaimed and still does, even if like most papers that broadsheet today is flimsier and not as broad as back then. When I was in high school the Peach Section was printed on soft orange-colored stock and contained the TV listings, movie guide, features and a number of columns.

In one column that I loved to read, the author recounted life's mundane struggles and invariably credited his day-to-day triumphs to sage advice from his wife, referred to only as “Green Eyes.” As a boy I fell in love with Green Eyes. My reader’s imagination created an ideal woman around those emerald windows to the soul. To this day I am weak for women with peepers of that hue.

Other aspects of the female anatomy were alluded to in those Peach Section ads for the Town Hall. The strippers performed under tantalizing stage names and were hawked using impressive sets of measurements. One heralded headliner, for example, -- and the only act I remember by name -- was known simply as Irma the Body.

While I was in high school my best friend Blair had the genius idea of actually going to the burlies. So one Saturday afternoon four of us high school students rode downtown in Blair’s white Camaro. We lived in West Toledo. Before the interstate bypass was completed in the early 1970s, you drove downtown via a venerable artery like Monroe Street, which connected the western burbs with Toledo's historic churches and central city merchants.

I think we parked the car near the theater, possibly in a surface lot by Ted’s Hamburger Shop. Ted’s looked like a miniature White Castle, a small white box on a corner surrounded by parked cars. I think it could seat half a dozen at its counter and there might have been a few booths as well.

As we approached the ticket window beneath the marquee that jutted out over the wide sidewalk, there was a small line of old men purchasing tickets. Having observed this, and even though automobile traffic was sparse on St. Clair, Blair cautioned us to hold back. He didn’t want to be seen standing in line to buy a ticket to the striptease in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon. A few minutes later, with the ticket booth clear of other patrons we boldly walked up and bought our tickets, not even sure they would sell them to us. But they did and we quickly ducked into the dark lobby. Inside the theater were a couple dozen older guys scattered in seats around that vintage hall. Many held overcoats on their laps. Led by Blair, we took our seats in the second row at center stage.

A comedian came out in a plaid suit and did his shtick, old time vaudeville jokes. We laughed a lot probably more nervous than amused. After about 20 minutes of that corn the real show began. From the wings a woman danced out onto the stage to piped-in music while a real live drummer sat in a cage left of the boards and furnished the beat, the rim shots and high hat flourishes. The woman took her costume off while the old men squirmed. We sat eyes wide open, soon admiring for the first time a real live, nearly naked woman. When she was finished the audience applauded and the stripper dressed only in a g-string and pasties bowed and disappeared behind the curtain.

After a brief pause the next stripper would be introduced and begin her striptease. The women all looked alike to me: curly haired brunettes, in their 30s, kind of plump to be strutting nude on stage I thought. But what did I know. Still, I was secretly disappointed. I had expected to see women like in the movies, only finally without their clothes, stars like Rita Hayworth or that blonde in La Dolce Vita. I still applauded each one as did my friends. Only Blair was too cool to clap.

Then the headliner came on stage. Was it Irma?* I don’t remember. But she was a different class of woman. Her skin was pale, translucent. She had light colored hair, was lithe and pretty and appeared to be a half dozen years younger than the others. That burlesque star made the strippers who came before her look old, flabby and heavy-footed. When she was finished, standing before us in g-string and pasties, the applause was enthusiastic.

While the audience was still making known its collective appreciation she looked down at us from the stage – down at Blair sitting with his hands on his knees – and spoke, “What’s a matter? You didn’t like it?” Immediately flustered, Blair nodded his head and began furiously clapping his hands as the beautiful, nearly naked stripper, standing above us with arms akimbo, smiled and walked off the stage. We all agreed she was our favorite. And we decided to stay for the second show.

After a break, during which time other old men took their seats in the theater, the comedian came back out on stage. We of course remembered all his punch lines and yelled them out loud before he could spring them on the new audience. He soon got mad at us and began to threaten us under his breath, all the while setting up his next joke. But dressed in his silly suit he did not scare us. Besides, we were a gang of four, fearless of adult men, if not women.

The dancers returned in the same order as before and we continued to marvel at their twirling tassles and curvy flesh. When the pale-skinned princess returned on stage before us, no one, not even Blair, needed encouragement to applaud.

* Some Internet research convinces me I did not in fact see Irma the Body that Saturday afternoon. I must even wonder if my memory is accurate regarding the venue because the Town Hall apparently was razed before we ever got our driver's licenses.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cinema 2009: Action & a figure

"The Wrestler," released in the U.S. in 2009, is a gritty and compelling film about Randy "Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a past-his-prime pro wrestler from the hinterlands of New Jersey. On weekends the aging Ram still body slams opponents and "sits on other men's faces," in the mocking words of the manager at the grocery store where Ram keeps a day job offloading trucks.

The feel of the movie is one of raw, one-take filmmaking. But there is nothing amateurish about the result. A torn parka sums up Ram's socioeconomic status in a single shot, while seeing it in scene after scene underlines the inhospitable nature of the world Ram lives in.

Twenty years after his glory days, Ram is stuck doing the thing that feeds his ego and his pride. He still loves the fans, even if by now they are reduced to a sad trickle at autograph signings. But ringside at the makeshift venues inside rented halls and hotel conference rooms in the Garden State, where these wrestlers hold their matches, the crowds are fanatic. Ram works the independent circuits, including Combat Zone Wrestling, where his middle-aged body, propped up by a panoply of prescription drugs — minus the scripts — suffers broken glass and staple gun abuse, in return for an envelope of small bills.

Out of the blue, Ram is offered a chance to relive his earlier triumphs and make a decent payday with an "epic" rematch against his most famous opponent. Ram's redemption may have come too late, however, because his failing health convinces the old wrestler to finally toss out his tights.

Instead, Ram takes on more hours at the grocery store, working the deli counter. He struggles to rebuild a family life and thinks about settling down with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an exotic dancer. While Ram embraces his job at the deli counter with all the enthusiasm of the good-natured extrovert that he is, old habits die hard. In Ram's case, they are those of a hard-charger primarily defined by the camaraderie of his calling and a penchant to party.

Rourke and Tomei were both nominated for the Oscar for their acting in this movie. But the Academy overlooked Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Ram’s estranged daughter Stephanie. Rachel Wood absolutely stuns with her performance in this minor role. When Ram reaches out to Stephanie, Wood takes her character in a matter of seconds from surprise at seeing her father to indignant outrage at his having walked out on her life so long ago. In a later scene she conveys her emotions through movement, like a dancer. But when her character needs to go beyond tough, Wood's glowering eyes and trembling lip convey a fragile ferocity that positively leaps off the screen.

As for Tomei, her scenes in Cheeques, a "gentleman's club," may be pathetic, as she portrays an over-the-hill lap dancer begging customers to pay for her private attentions, and torturous as she performs on the main stage like an arthritic gymnast, but the 44-year-old Academy Award winner definitely brings it when it comes to those nude scenes. Viewers who remember her as Mona Lisa Vito in the 1992 film "My Cousin Vinny," will be forced to update that impression, while conceding her biological clock has seemingly ticked quite slowly in the interim. By contrast, in scenes outside the club, Tomei imparts to her character a scrubbed purity that masks world weariness.

Back at the deli counter, a customer recognizes the former wrestler slicing cheese. The spark of shame caused by the collision of those two worlds re-ignites Ram's pride and suddenly he is on his way back into the ring — via an uproarious grocery store exit that many in the audience might envy. Cleanup in aisle three.

Cassidy must also choose between "the life" and real life, and here Tomei achieves a sincerity that balances the melodrama.

Ram's poor health is at the root of the tension as he returns to face an old nemesis. We have already been shown the mutual respect among the wrestlers, all the more remarkable when contrasted against the fervor of the ringside fans who pour out love as easily as they spew hate. We have also seen how, in locker rooms before and after the staged insanity of the bouts, the younger wrestlers defer to Ram, who always responds humbly with kind words. We have listened as the wrestlers plan their bouts beforehand ("You bring the cheap heat") to make sure they are on the same page.

Director Darren Aronofsky pulls away this safety net for the final bout. Ram's opponent remains an enigma so we experience the uncertainty Ram feels, not knowing if he will even survive the athletic exertion of the match. Ram takes that leap of faith, and the film's end is a testimony to the success of Rourke's gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching performance.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cinema 2012: Killing them brutally

The crime drama “Killing Them Softly” from 2012 offers a jarring look at fringe mobsters and small-time losers. But the story, based on a gritty 1974 crime novel by George V. Higgins, only suffers from its cinematic updating.

While the tale would no doubt work as a fierce period piece from that earlier American recession caused by the oil crisis, the filmmakers have preferred to present a flimsy update to 2008, mainly relying on a grating leitmotif of sound bites from news coverage of that year’s presidential campaign to place the action in time. Unfortunately that technique comes across as obstreperous, especially on the heels of the most recent (and most expensive) presidential race.

Perhaps the producers feared that setting a nearly 40-year-old tale in its proper decade would limit box office. That’s a shame because Higgins’ crime story is the stuff of that era’s best B movies – just add a slutty jazz soundtrack and you could have had a modest gem of a crime flick.*

Instead we get an uneven film marred in spots by four-year-old campaign speech snippets. Despite this thick slathering of time-stamped footage the rest of the movie, minus a few flat screen TVs and a cell phone, still has a deep 1970s feel to it.

The action in “Killing Them Softly” takes place amid the tired precincts surrounding Boston, in drab "old man" bars, an empty relic of a restaurant, and in and around gas guzzlers. Brad Pitt plays Jackie, a soft spoken mob hit man. But Pitt’s portrayal as an aloof enforcer is too elusive to truly connect to the audience. On the other hand, James Gandolfini, in a supporting role as a self-absorbed hit man turned alcoholic, steals the scenes he shares with Pitt. The kicked back cool of Pitt's character is no match for Gandolfini’s “all in” approach when it comes to his juicier role.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik frames the struggles of the small time crooks in this film against a broken-down America. Much of the film is expressionist, from the trope of showing characters walking down a narrow alley (destiny closing in), to using altered imagery to depict a character’s drugged state of mind. Original shot-framing of Jackie and his mob go-between, played by Richard Jenkins, during a front seat tête–à–tête in the latter's car serves to emphasize not only the rift between the two men but also the uncomfortable status of each within an organization that is evolving independently of them.

In an era when audiences have become inured to movie violence, which is so often depicted with cinematic grace, Dominik slaps a mean and startling brutality on the screen. In “Killing Them Softly” Jackie draws a bloody line connecting the choices made by the crooks who steal from the mob to the brutal consequences of those actions.

Director Dominik is also a godfather of suspense. When a caper unfolds too slowly the tension absolutely tortures because we know the robbers to be ill-prepared amateurs. Nor does “Killing Them Softly” always give the audience the expected payoff, instead it repeatedly breaks its own rhythm to keep viewers off-balance, like a small-time criminal living from score to score.

In the final scene, Jackie delivers a historically shallow rant in pundit-speak about “wine snob” Founding Fathers. It is an ill-conceived add-on by Dominik. To its credit that scene does end on a terse point that sums up the tale nicely. But it also tries lamely to link conceptually the narrative with the extra helpings of campaign sound bites used throughout the movie, and that is justed wasted effort.

*For a brilliant film version of an earlier Higgins novel that doesn’t thumb its nose at the book’s original setting, watch “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” from 1973, directed by Peter Yates, starring the great Robert Mitchum, and featuring a fine dramatic performance by Peter Boyle as “Dillon.”

Booze, guns, and off-duty cops

The case last year of an off-duty county cop suspended for pointing his gun at a bartender — apparently in inebriated jest — in a Long Island pub had me wondering just how common that type of thing is.

In the early 1990s I tended bar in the lounge of a hotel in Nassau County, Long Island. The neighborhood could be plenty dangerous. I knew firsthand, having worked nearby as a security guard. (My boss at the security gig survived a particular Saturday morning shift when a shotgun wielded by the bad guy, the so-called "ninja robber," misfired at point blank range.)

The hotel where I worked behind the bar was known as an airline hotel. Commercial flight crews were bused to our location from JFK and LaGuardia aiports. The pilots and flight attendants were a spirited bunch and I was proud to know them. Inevitably, the lounge became a hangout as well for off-duty cops eager to meet flight attendants.

One quiet night a pilot on a lay-over suggested to his friends that they all go across the street to a neighborhood bar. Not really a good idea, I advised him. The pilot was middle-aged but in shape and confident as all pilots. He had learned to fly in the U.S. Marines. He wasn't afraid to go into any bar, he said.

Personally, I had never been inside that particular establishment. I did know a regular hotel guest who frequented it to play pool. He told me once that the locals were convinced he must be insane so they left him alone.

Sandwiched between a check cashing place and a Spanish eatery is a dive bar with a history of dead bodies.

I figured other hotel guests might be able to go into the bar as well, have a drink, and leave without a problem – if they were lucky. But bringing a couple of hot flight attendants in there with you would, in my opinion, change the equation incalcuably. Besides, what was the upside of escorting attractive women into the ghetto to taste the watered-down liquor in a dump where bad things happened with the sad regularity of a video loop?

"Why not ask this gentleman what he thinks," I said to the pilot, pointing to an off-duty police sergeant at the other end of the bar. "He works in the neighborhood." So the pilot asked him. The sergeant, looking unremarkable in street clothes, turned to the group of airline crew members and smiled. "I was only in that hole in the wall on two occasions," he said, "and both times it was because there was a dead body inside." The pilot quietly dropped the idea.

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I was always glad to have off-duty cops in my bar, especially given the neighborhood. On another slow evening, as I was chatting with the same off-duty sergeant, three young males walked in. They were dressed like mopes, to use the vernacular of that time and place – hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans. One of them sat on a bench near the entrance. Another walked toward the far corner and stood facing the bar. The third came up to the middle of the bar. No words had been spoken.

The sergeant and I exchanged a knowing glance. He casually reached down and unfastened his ankle holster, then moved to a table where he could cover the unfolding scene with his back to the wall. I walked over to the young man at the bar, fully expecting to be looking down the barrel of a handgun. Instead the guy pulled a key from his pocket and asked if he could charge food for himself and his two friends to his room. Sure thing, I exhaled.

And so it was normal for me to greet warmly a group of four off-duty cops who met up in the lounge one night.

They were drinking at the bar next to the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the entrance to the underground parking garage. One of the cops, John, had parked his motorcycle on the walkway outside where he could keep an eye on it through the vertical blinds. At one point his buddy — all four were white males — slapped him on the arm and said, "John, don't look now but there's a n----- by your bike." We all turned toward the windows. Outside, a black police officer from their department was inspecting the motorcycle. The black cop, tall and lean and sharp-looking in his uniform, stepped to the glass squinting. Apparently he couldn't see into the bar because of the tinted glass. He put his hands to his temples and leaned against the window — peering. John took out his nine millimeter handgun and pointed it between the black cop's eyes, muzzle up against the glass. The cops laughed. I held my breath.

That type of gun was known for firing a round that could go right through a person. Surely if the gun went off by accident that plate glass would not slow it down. There were a few other groups in the lounge at the time but I don't think they saw the gun or knew what was happening. The black cop gave up trying to look through the glass and walked away. John holstered his weapon and the group ordered another round. I believe I poured myself one, too.

The black cop walked into the lounge a minute later to say hi to his colleagues. He figured they were there because he had recognized John's motorcycle. I offered him a drink. He was working and would only take a Coke. The cops shook hands all around and spoke briefly, I didn't hear about what. Then the black officer left.

The off-duty cops stayed for a couple rounds. But flight attendants were scarce that night and the group soon took off, as usual leaving plenty of money on the bar for me. That night, for some reason, it felt like I'd earned it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cinema 2009: slum schooled

From the detail of the close-up to the grandeur of the sweeping expanse, "Slumdog Millionaire," which garnered eight Oscars in 2009, is beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking.

Shot on locations in India, the incredible variety of images, patterns and shadows, at the same time familiar and foreign, are utterly compelling. It is genius filmmaking by directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, not least of all because their efforts are put to use in order to reveal human dignity and beauty in the portrayal of the main characters Jamal (Dev Patel) and Latika (Freida Pinto).

The story centers on teenager Jamal, a "slumdog" or child of a Mumbai ghetto, who lands a spot on the Indian version of the TV game show "Who wants to be a millionaire." When Jamal surprises the show's conceited host with correct answers, the quizmaster (who bears an uncanny and unflattering resemblance to Dennis Miller) suspects a scam and has Jamal arrested. As the young man explains to police precisely which life lessons taught him each answer, we learn from those flashbacks the tragic story of a so-called slumdog, one of the countless ghetto children forced to eke out a dirty and dire existence on the fringes of a ruthless and indifferent world.

Scenes from Jamal's past are intercut with his appearance on the game show and his interrogation by police. The cops use that well known double team: bad cop and worse cop. But brutality at the hands of Mumbai's Finest does not make much of an impression on Jamal, who has survived the great hardships and ignominy that society piles upon its outcasts, and who no doubt only expects more of the same.

The film shows us life in the landfills, slums and shantytowns of the subcontinent. Despite those unbelievable conditions, there exists a positive energy among the slum kids that testifies to their humanity and resilience. That beaming ethos infects the entire film with an upbeat sense of outlandish hope.

As the adventures unfold, viewers are swept up in disparate facets of contemporary Indian life.

"Slumdog Millionaire" brings to the screen the rhythms of modern Mumbai thanks in great part to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, film editor Chris Dickens, and an original score by A.R. Rahman. In one particular scene, a haunting soundtrack reinforces a panorama of slums framed like a postcard from hell.

Eventually the tale focuses on a romance unlikely to succeed. Jamal has the defiance of the outsider and the suspicious nature of the kicked dog. But his features take on an angelic quality as his love for Latika helps him transcend the baser instincts much in evidence around him. His close boyhood friend Salim has chosen another direction, repaying blood with blood and building his own material world on that crimson wash.

Latika is held up to the camera as an examplar of sublime female beauty. Even the sadistic men who exploit her cannot detract from the ideal she embodies. We come to view her as Jamal does, so that rather than despoil her beauty, a vengefully inflicted knife scar serves rather to symbolize — like the track of a tear — her unfulfilled love.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cinema 2009: Crowe as old school reporter

"State of Play" from 2009 is a darn good thriller.

In it Russell Crowe plays Cal, an old school newspaper reporter driven to seek the truth even as he is compromised by a checkered past and the expediencies of his trade. Cal works at the fictional Washington Globe, whose publisher is a salty but rudderless leader, played with gusto by Helen Mirren.

Cal is middle-aged, pudgy and dresses in shabby chic, often minus the chic, but he exhibits the spleen of a pit bull and the acerbic wit of a sober leprechaun. As he pursues "a real story" Cal must overcome the distrust of a younger colleague while navigating a swamp of sources ready to accuse him of manipulation, even as those same sources scheme for their own the best possible portrayal in the final edit.

"State of Play" folds in its heavy dose of melodrama deftly enough to make the whole soufflé of a film tasty. There are enough scenes of Washington, D.C., to create a solid sense of place. The movie captures the pulse of our nation's capital, even if director Kevin Macdonald overworks the "unsteady" cam operator. The plot is aptly ripped from Iraq War-era headlines, with fictional security contractor Pointcorp playing Blackwater. But the nuts and bolts of the Hollywood plot, especially the role of a mentally unstable assassin to personify the evil and misguided zeal of what is finally a corporate entity, does a disservice to the thinking members of the audience, however dwindling that demographic may be.

As Cal chases down leads, the movie highlights contemporary conflicts and pressures in the newspaper industry, for example, print vs. web and corporate profits vs. the news. The more traditional rubs are also explored, for example, reporter vs. editor and journalism vs. PR. What newspaperman would not enjoy the special rendition of a particularly obnoxious publicity man? Cal lives that fantasy here.

Despite Cal's rumpled exterior and the clutter of news clippings around his desk — an image that is anathema to the modern electronic paradigm — he is a veteran reporter who enjoys the deep-rooted admiration of his longtime colleagues, and is begrudged respect by his publisher, beset as she is by the financial struggles of her paper.

Ben Affleck plays Congressman Collins, a young, "show horse" of an elected official, presiding over hearings into Pointcorp's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an old college roommate of Cal's who shares plenty of history with the reporter.

Dressed in expensive threads and encircled by a coterie of aides, Affleck totally looks the part of the brash hard-charger. A great framing close-up of Collins with the Capitol dome in the background nails it for the viewer in an instant: here is a rising star. But Collins arrives late for those hearings, and that seed of dissonance does not take long to sprout. There is a scandal brewing.

Unfortunately, Affleck's portrayal of Collins never goes beyond that one-dimensional image. There is great cinematography — shadows playing off Collins’ brow when he confronts his wife and his own dishonesty — but it cannot carry the role for Affleck. Nor can montage substitute for a full blown psychological soliloquy — Collins' interview with the paper's editorial staff is fudged using voiced-over images.

Crowe on the other hand delivers a workman-like performance although "State of Play," despite fine production values, comes off as a minor film. Perhaps Crowe's best moment is when, suddenly face to face with a killer, the resourceful and glib Cal stammers uncontrollably with fear.

The trope of the mismatched partners is served up here as well, as shaggy Cal and youngish cub reporter Della (Rachel McAdams) are thrown together with all the sweet syrup of a PG-13 rating. The two of them even break out the booze in the editorial room, homage perhaps to an old, oft romanticized stereotype.

"State of Play" is highly enjoyable. The editing is spot on, the pace unassailable, the musical score majestic and suspenseful. Crowe's modulated intensity distracts from the soppy aspects of the plot, as do the many great real-life details transformed here into defining images.

Besides, with all the mockery here, zinging dialog, and the appearance of Jeff Daniels so obviously relishing his minor role, “State of Play” provides plenty of leeway for laughter.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cinema 2009: Public enemy, romanticized

"Public Enemies" from 2009 grabs you early and keeps you locked in better than a midwestern jail could hold John Dillinger.

Director Michael Mann uses Steadicams and surround-sound to involve viewers viscerally in the bankrobbing acrobatics and notorious jailbreaks that earned Dillinger the official status of Public Enemy No. 1 in Depression Era America. Dillinger's style and sangfroid, and an adoring press, helped make him a legend. Mann's cinematic technique has the effect of handcuffing the viewer to the chaos of shootouts and getaways. That technique — along with the unfamiliar look of digital film — creates a jarring immediacy that seeks to impart to the viewer the instincts and perceptions of that determined and fearless man.

In less frantic scenes, the camera framing is studied, even artsy. But the pace is never flat-footed. The film bobs and weaves like a bank robber on the lam.

Mann, a native Chicagoan, conjures the city of Big Shoulders, with an artistic grace, using selected, almost iconic locations and cultural artifacts from the era (or thereabouts).

Johnny Depp plays Dillinger with an understated intensity, conveying a no-nonsense man of action. The substance of the man is mean criminality. Dillinger robs banks and escapes from cops with the unerring agility of a big cat. In Dillinger's downtime, hiding out after a heist or cleaning his Tommy gun, Depp affects a faraway look, less the proverbial 1,000-yard stare of the hardened killer than the unfocused yearning of a frustrated romantic.

FBI Agent Purvis (Christian Bale) pursues Dillinger using the same weaponry and fast cars as the bad guys. But whereas Dillinger exhibits style, whether giving a female hostage his coat or bantering with the press while in sheriff's custody, Bale's Purvis is devoid of panache, focussed solely on bringing down Dillinger.

When Dillinger meets a bored coat check girl, Billie Frechette — played flawlessly by Marion Cotillard — the famous felon seduces with smooth pickup lines and sudden, subdued violence. Dillinger convinces her later things will work out, revealing only hubris. But it sounds like self-confidence to the naive Frechette.

Could Frechette's love be the bank robber's salvation? Dillinger talks with Billie of leaving the life, settling down. It is the one big soppy mistake in a script that, apart from some timeline manipulation for dramatic effect, actually captures the ironic truth about a career criminal who, each time he is able to elude the law, is caught ever more deeply in a dead-end destiny of his own design.

Mann, who also co-wrote the screenplay, ties up the romantic plotline with a big Hollywood bow in the form of fictitious last words whispered by a dying outlaw. The trope underscores the mistrust among law enforcement agents but more importantly allows closure of the love story that ran parallel to Dillinger's brief but breathtaking bankrobbing career. Frechette's defiant face-to-face with one of the men who shot her lover becomes a moment for all to mourn Dillinger's softer side as revealed by those, alas, invented last words.

Cotillard quietly stuns in that closing scene as a locked-up Frechette who demonstrates a strong sense of self worth, despite her situation, and who learns something about love and herself at the same time.

Of course, it is all Hollywood hogwash. A more accurate conclusion is outlined in a David Wagoner poem from 1966. Wagoner's free verse litany bears the spoiler-alert title: "The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934." It includes the following lines describing the immediate aftermath of the shooting:

When they shouted questions at him, he talked back to nobody.
Did Johnny lie easy?
Yes, holding his gun and holding his breath as a last trick,
He waited, but when the Agents came close, his breath wouldn't work.

I recommend both the film and the poem.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Horizon 2000: college days, caves, and car thieves

I worked a brief stint in the 1970s as an overnight security guard at a large apartment building in France called Horizon 2000. I was just out of college and living in that particular apartment complex at the time with my French girlfriend, who was a student at the local university.

The building had seven stories and a two-story underground parking garage that also housed individual storage facilities for residents. The grounds included additional parking behind the structure and some manicured greenery. A few hundred people lived in that building, including students like my girlfriend but also, as I soon found out, a wide variety of professionals from a police captain to several reputed belles de nuit.

I wore a green uniform and was initially armed with a meter-long piece of heavy steel cable about two inches in diameter and encased in black rubber. I used the building manager’s office off the main lobby as my base of operations but was required to patrol the building and grounds repeatedly throughout my shift. They gave me a ruled notebook to log any incidents and unusual occurrences.

One night at about 2 a.m. I was outside in front of the building when I heard a woman’s voice coming from above urging a man to come back inside. I looked up to see a man standing on a fourth-story window ledge, swaying on his feet and leaning against the building. He told the woman he was going to relieve himself. I was amazed. The man was clearly drunk and unsteady. At that moment there was no doubt in my mind he was about to fall four stories onto the stone terrace in front of the building. My girlfriend and I had the same ledge outside our seventh-story apartment window. It was no more than six inches wide.

I took a few steps back to watch the unfolding tragedy. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. The woman noticed me below. She grabbed the man’s arm, “It’s the guard, it’s the guard,” she told him urgently. The man now saw he had an audience below. He let himself be guided back inside to safety. I figured I had saved a man’s life, if only by my presence on the ground below. I went back to the office and sat down with a feeling of accomplishment. I made an entry in the logbook.

The next day the building manager wanted to speak to me. Good work, he told me. The woman in that apartment was a nuisance anyway, he contended, frequently holding loud parties. Now he would warn her to stop or she’d be evicted.

The building manager was a dignified-looking man in his 60s, but reading my incident report had reminded him of a story from his college days. On a late night as he was walking home from a student party where he had been drinking more than was usual, he came upon a small, deserted town square. He could no longer resist the urge to relieve himself so he leaned against a building in the shadows and peed. Standing there he marveled at the night’s constellations as he heard himself tinkle. He peed and peed some more. He said he just kept peeing. After perhaps as long as ten minutes of this, the woozy, future building manager began to wonder how it was even possible he could still be peeing. A downward glance confirmed that the job was indeed done but the cockeyed young man continued to hear the same splashing sounds. It took his besotted brain several more moments before he realized he was listening not to his own personal waterfall but to the splashing of the public fountain in the center of the square. It was a funny story but I never bonded with the building manager, after all he was purposefully abusing my situation as a foreigner by paying me half the minimum wage.

Some weeks after the ledge incident, as spring turned into summer, the building's concierge, a blue collar type who claimed to have belonged to the French resistance during World War II, gave me a small handgun. It fired only blanks and tear gas pellets but he wanted me to have it because he believed gang activity would soon be heating up in the area.

Sometimes the concierge would accompany me on my rounds or we would run into each other in the basement. He liked Americans and taught me slang and told tales of his days as a member of the French resistance during World War II. I was learning Japanese karate at the time but had not become proficient. In a deserted corner of that underground parking garage the concierge trained me on techniques for disarming a man with a knife.

He also told me he had a cache of WWII-vintage weapons including grenades. The concierge lived with his wife and teenage daughter in an apartment across the lobby from the building manager’s office. He kept a pop-up camper trailer in the rear parking lot and often told me how his family could be ready at a moment’s notice to travel to the south of France in case of nuclear war.

This was the era of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union after all. The concierge said he and his French resistance comrades still had food and supplies stockpiled in secret caves in the south. He would wait out any nuclear holocaust there with his family, protected from fallout. He wouldn’t begrudge the Yanks from taking out the Russians but didn’t care to end up as radiated collateral damage. Fair enough, I thought, wondering how much of his talk was true and how much invented to impress a naïve kid from Ohio.

After a couple weeks, during which I hadn’t had any occasion to use the gun, the concierge asked for it back. I gave it to him without reservation since I had already made known my reluctance to ever use it. After all, it looked like a real gun. As I had remarked to the concierge after carrying it around for a few days, what happens if I pull it out against a bad guy who has a real, lead-spewing gun of his own? Oops.

The next afternoon the super asked me to walk with him to the parking garage. As we strolled down the ramp a woman in a new Mercedes Benz Roadster convertible was driving up. Because I had never seen her or the car before, I stopped the woman and asked for her parking permit. She was an attractive blonde in her 30s. She made some excuse about not having it handy. I started to inquire as to the number of her allotted space when the super crowded past me to get close to the beauty behind the wheel. Pulling rank, he reassured her everything was cool. Don't worry about it, madame, he said as he ogled her in overdrive. She smiled and roared off.

You're not even on duty, he admonished me as we continued underground into the garage. When we had made our way to his secluded corner he returned the pistol to me. The concierge had reworked the gun so that it would fire live rounds. Now I would be fully armed, he said, and showed me a makeshift shooting range he had improvised in one of the storage units. He wanted me to practice firing the gun.

Okay, it was summertime in France and my girlfriend had completed her college finals. She wanted to take a vacation. As for me, I was earning half the minimum wage and really did not want to be in a position where I might have to shoot somebody. I gave the concierge back his re-tooled gun along with my resignation.

The following week my girlfriend and I left for the south of France. We toured a cave where some 15,000 years ago Paleolithic man had painted scenes of the hunt. I was reminded of the concierge’s claim that former resistance fighters had a natural bomb shelter waiting for them in case the Cold War heated up. So much for 150 centuries of progress.

A couple of days later, camped near the Mediterranean at Narbonne, I saw a small article in the local newspaper about a large Mercedes car theft ring being busted in northeastern France. The thieves had been using an underground parking garage at an apartment complex to hide the cars while they changed the license plates and waited until the heat was off. The name of the apartment complex was reported as Horizon 2000.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cinema 2008: WWII thriller

With "Valkyrie" from 2009, director Brian Singer creates a first-rate suspense thriller. Unfailing cinematic technique connects with the viewer from the very beginning. Tom Cruise is intense and unwavering in his portrayal of Colonel Claus Count von Stauffenberg, in that rarest of roles: a war hero in a Nazi uniform.

"Valkyrie" is based on real events. Stauffenberg led an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler during the waning months of World War II. Whereas that particular coup attempt may be unfamiliar to most Americans, surely it is no spoiler to reveal the plot's ultimate outcome.

The tale of a failed coup certainly must have given Hollywood producers pause. Would audiences even watch a movie where the outcome can never be in doubt? And it is not a happy ending to boot.

Not to worry. "Valkyrie" has the breadth and production values of a blockbuster and the attention to detail that touches viewers deeply. In an early scene, Stauffenberg records his secret thoughts about the war, and the camera lingers on a close-up of his face and in particular his left eye. While that window to his soul would be lost to enemy fire, the soul would not. During an air attack, as Stauffenberg struggles to bring a wounded man and himself to safety he squarely faces down death. The sincerity and the bravery of the man are firmly established.

Later the intense tenderness in a hospital scene, where Nina von Stauffenberg (Carice van Houten) visits her wounded husband, adds another dimension to the hero, his love of family.

When Stauffenberg meets with conspirators in a cathedral, the camera tilts up to reveal the bright sky through the bombed-out roof of the church. Besides adding a graphic reminder of the reality of Germany in the final years of World War II, the scene provides an image for the transparency of man's deeds before the Almighty.

In another scene, Stauffenberg is home enjoying the antics of his children while Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" plays on the Victrola. When an Allied air raid forces the family to seek shelter in the cellar, the bombs exploding nearby shake the house on its foundation and cause the record to skip back to the beginning notes of that inspirational operatic score. In another example of great filmmaking, Stauffenberg's final determination to take down Hitler is conveyed aurally through that reprise.

The pace of "Valkyrie" is unerring. As the suspense continues to build, Singer adds a lyrical scene in which Stauffenberg bids his wife farewell. Like the vision scenes from "Gladiator," where Maximus walks through the wheat field toward his home, these visuals layer additional emotion.

There are many examples of the filmmaker's art in "Valkyrie." A high-angle shot of Stauffenberg entering Hitler's bunker at the Wolf's Lair emphasizes the precarious nature of our hero's task. In one particularly powerful scene, when a desk-riding general demands the Nazi salute, Stauffenberg responds with basic-training bravado — but instead of a raised hand only a scarred stub protrudes from the wounded soldier’s sleeve.

Throughout the film we see the prominence of the swastika and the Fuehrer's portrait. Those at times troubling visuals are used to emphasize the mesmerizing hold Hitler had on Germany.

When Stauffenberg forges ahead with the plan to take control of Berlin, even though he has no confirmation of Hitler's death, Cruise's voice breaks as his character avers, "The Fuehrer is dead." It provides both a realistic touch and a clue to Stauffenberg's own uncertainty.

Finally, brief scenes of the improvised trials of some of the conspirators depict a presiding judge who acts more like a jester than a justice. While that portrayal may confuse viewers unfamiliar with the levels of official insanity within the Third Reich, rest assured that it is quite a realistic touch.