Thursday, December 26, 2013

A load of bushido bull

In our day of list-mania, one might be able to enumerate 47 reasons why not to watch Keanu Reeves in “47 Ronin.” But that would be pointless.

Suffice it to say that “47 Ronin,” by first-time director Carl Rinsch, is a puerile mash-up of samurai sword & sorcery pulp. The movie is "based on a true story" --  an early 18th century event involving revenge taken by a group of samurai. But the film has the sensibility of a first-person shooter videogame.

Morgan Benoit is Keanu's stunt double
in "47 Ronin."
Co-written by Chris Morgan of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, “47 Ronin” is unoriginal fare. The film presents an unappetizing smorgasbord of leftover action movie tropes with a bittersweet star-crossed lovers theme tossed in for dessert. Still, when it comes to the impressive visuals it really is all you can eat.

And why not? More than 650 persons are credited under visual effects, including previsualization supervisors and postvis artists, data wranglers, shader writers, a mistika artist, Houdini artist and lead paint artist (read: “leed”).

And that doesn’t include another 30 or so credited for the special effects. Cinematography is by John Mathieson.

The sword slashing here is fun, with filmmakers appealing to adolescent boys and perhaps to those young Katnisses out there, and no doubt as well to many American men, a demographic once referred to as “failed boys” by author John Updike.

Unfortunately, the swordplay here ends on a historical note rarely seen outside of Jonestown. In this day of everything from suicide bombers to flash mobs, do we really want to define honor by old school, bushido bullshit? The gratuitous infatuation with mass ritual suicide, depicted fetishistically in this film, is offensive. Even failed boys deserve better.

Instead, check out “Ronin” (1998), a tough guy caper from director John Frankenheimer, in which Bobby Deniro, Jean Reno and others cut a bloody and exciting swath through southern France and the Eternal City.

My kind of ronin.
This movie includes a scene that may very well have inspired this recent ronin ridiculousness. At one point in the 1998 caper movie, a meditative, erstwhile operative is seen in his home painstakingly placing miniature ronin figures on a model battlefield. I would have preferred that the filmmakers of “47 Ronin” had approached their project with the same reasoned consideration.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Escape from "Elysium"

There aren’t many laughs in “Elysium,” a sci-fi thriller with an activist conceit that takes itself too seriously to allow its protagonists the Hollywoodian luxury of zinging a nemesis.

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp envisions a 22nd century world where the Earth has become the wrong side of the tracks and where the rich have moved into the ultimate gated community – in orbit.

Matt Damon’s character Max, a paroled car thief, is living in the squalor of a Los Angeles slum where android cops stop and frisk. Max reconnects with childhood friend Frey from their days in foster care, a girl we are supposed to believe Max has been pining for ever since. When Frey tends to a wounded Max, she discovers he has a tattoo replicating a rudimentary drawing she once made on young Max when they were six or seven and which meant “Max and Frey forever.” Blomkamp reprises the earlier scene in what amounts to a brief, yet annoying, example of cinematic overkill. Hey, Blomkamp: We remember. We get it. No need to insult our intelligence.

There is plenty of action in “Elysium,” and even a few scenes guaranteed to make moviegoers misty. Such is the sentimental shlock served up in the guise of science fiction: Max, the car thief with a heart of gold, still true to a childhood crush.

Not only was the filmmaker unsure of the average moviegoer’s acumen, he apparently could not decide how to make an original piece of cinema. Instead “Elysium” resembles a cinema scavenger hunt, cobbling together “Robocop,” “Terminator,” “Iron Man” and even “Escape from L. A.”. By attempting to ape those franchises “Elysium” hamstrings its own screenplay and guts its flawed forays into social commentary.

A buff and blonde Jodie Foster plays the heavy while Faran Tahir, an actor of Pakistani ancestry, embodies the ineffective voice of reason. But Foster is boring in her role here. Ditto Damon. The scene-stealers are Sharlto Copley, a sociopathic CIA agent, and Wagner Moura, a coyote whose operation shuttles nonresidents up to the orbiting habitat. Diego Luna gives a palpable and rich performance in a minor role.

The lingua franca of 22nd century Los Angeles is pretty much español and many of the early scenes feature this language exclusively. While that certainly also has its mercantile considerations, it remains an insightful touch and likely the most plausible aspect of the L.A. depicted in “Elysium.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"2 Guns" loots little known 1970s classic

For pure cinematic entertainment of the action variety you cannot go wrong with “2 Guns.”

In this latest iteration of the buddy flick, Denzel Washington, as an undercover DEA agent, and Mark Wahlberg, as a naval intelligence operative, team up – reluctantly, as the trope demands – against a motley crew of corrupt or compromised government types and a Mexican drug lord with an angus avocation. It is a caper that morphs from a south of the border sting to a heist in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, to a hostage swap and finally to a dos mas Mexican standoff.

Along the way, Bill Paxton reinvents his on-screen persona in the role of a ruthless enforcer tracking stolen millions. Paxton’s loquacious sociopath is played with an unhurried relentlessness. The veteran actor’s gentle drawl uncannily heightens the cold-bloodedness of each spoken threat.

Although Washington mostly mails it in – only occasionally flashing the visceral sincerity that marked his outstanding performances in “Flight” and ‘Training Day,” the actor’s effortless cool is always front and center. Wahlberg on the other hand absolutely delivers in a role tailor-made for his familiar brand of Everyman action hero shtick. Both actors benefit greatly from the hip and quirky dialog in Blake Masters’ screenplay, based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant, according to

Director Baltasar Kormakur has created a well-paced film. The cinematography by Oliver Wood presents a visual feast. There are details like a single spent brass casing, which subtly heightens suspense as it foreshadows the impending harsh interrogation technique preferred by the enforcer. There are sweeping panoramas like the aerial shot of the footprints illegals make in the virgin sand of the Mexican wasteland, an alea iacta est image that emphasizes life-and-death choices while reflecting on one of the largest political and social issues of the day. It is one of a handful of scenes in this picture where the Icelandic director dares to overlay the more cartoonish aspects of Hollywoodian action with a serious message. The most obvious scene is when Washington's wounded DEA agent gets the drop on a pair of borderland vigilantes, identifying himself with a gun for effect and, for irony, a greeting in Arabic.

Kormakur once claimed he would never sell out to Hollywood by making movies he is not proud of. Having certainly mastered the art of balancing pretty images of orange-flamed explosions with his characters’ snappy braggadocio, Kormakur can be proud of “2 Guns.” He has made a darn good flick, even if the director failed to elicit much of anything new from Denzel.

Who really deserves the writing credit?
However, this is not the first film in which a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, was robbed. The plot of "Charlie Varrick" (1973), directed by legend Don Siegel, is set in motion by just such a heist. Interestingly, there are further similarities that go beyond homage.

In "Charlie Varrick" the robbers also make a much bigger haul than they expected and are subsequently pursued by a mob enforcer with pronounced sadistic traits. "2 Guns" even reprises a scene from the movie released 40 years ago, in which the hapless bank manager weeps as he is "advised" that those whose money has been stolen are unlikely to believe in his innocence.

"Charlie Varrick" is based on the John Reese novel "The Looters." How ironic "2 Guns" borrows from a film based on a book by that title. It may be hard to be proud of it after all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Flash Novel Reject

The following is my entry to Toledo City Paper's socalled Flash Novel contest – a novel in three sentences. It was not selected as a winner. Perhaps it is too long for a three-sentence "novel." Maybe the subject matter was considered not compelling enough (another contest criterion). Or, as my wounded ego is telling me, maybe those judges just don't know from good writing...

The End of the Affair

In the middle of their lovemaking he laughed out loud.

Such a spontaneous outburst of bliss – for that was precisely what it was – had never happened to him during sex before, not that he was all that experienced in bed let alone here on her living room floor for that matter, and it startled him so thoroughly that he was temporarily unable to proceed.

She, too, was surprised, and being much more experienced than he – her BFF chalked up her promiscuity to low self-esteem – felt not at all pleased at such unheard-of mirth on her throw rug and became instantly defensive and angry that her man would mock her (WTF) at the moment she was approaching ecstasy and instantly she knew she needed to flee his sweaty torso, although to where she did not know, since how could you run away from what had just happened, and that inability to imagine a refuge paralyzed her for a moment in which she watched her lover’s beatific countenance morph into a mask of anguish and despair as he recognized her misinterpretation of his innocent albeit ill-timed laugh and correctly sensed that she would never again trust him, nevermore be his to love.

You can check TCP's actual winners right here and decide for yourself if my fiction fragment has comparable merit.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

leery of the loudmouth

“I had my leeriance about it,” the big dude told the three lapdogs gathered around him at the bar like he was some rockstar messiah. Listening in absentmindedly up until that point from his stool halfway down the bar, Jaffy figured the big dude meant he was leery about some particular thing. It was an appalling abuse of the standard idiom. Who makes up such a thing? Where does the verbal confusion come from that yields such a phrase? And more to the point: why not just say you were leery?
Although leery was a queer word, Jaffy had to give the big guy that much. One of those words you might not be 100 percent about its meaning. And you never wanted to say you were something if you weren’t sure what that something was. Still the blowhard in question didn't appear to warrant the benefit of the doubt.
Jaffy just couldn't see this local Mr. Popular going through at some level a similar thought process while holding court and slamming Jaegermeister shots with his coterie. Still, "never underestimate the human brain," thought Jaffy, who immediately amended that idea to “never doubt the power of the subconscious,” for Jaffy wasn’t prepared to give the joker credit for using his brain in any way other than a strictly reptilian fashion.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Moustaki lives!

Avec ma gueule de métèque
De Juif errant, de pâtre grec
De voleur et de vagabond

Pop singer Georges Moustaki appeared a gentle soul despite the unruly hair and beard. It was in his eyes, wide and expressive, that you recognized the encompassing empathy of the immigrant.

I was introduced to his haunting anthems as a young man living in France in the 1970s. Moustaki was one of many singers we adored, whose music we yearned for. Unlike most other popular singers of the time, Moustaki came from a culture foreign to France. Yet he had learned the tongue and the culture and become a creative force in his adopted land. I admired Moustaki for the way his own path celebrated individuality. He was a living muse.

Moustaki was exceptional in another way. The hairy performer with the coaxing, guttural voice was universally adored by all the girls I knew. Perhaps Moustaki’s charm resided in the elusive character of his persona: French but not French, an indigenous outsider of sorts. Dressed invariably in white, he seemed to embody a Christ-like love. He sang of liberty and acceptance. His message was tolerance and he expressed an irreverent embrace of the rhythms of life.

Recalling his music, his songs on this, the day Georges Moustaki died, I am glad for having been touched by the poignant spell of their valiant idealism.

Et nous ferons de chaque jour
Toute une éternité d'amour
Que nous vivrons à en mourir

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cinema 2013: Curse delayed, not well played

“Lords of Salem” by cult auteur Rob Zombie initially holds promise for the serious moviegoer with some fine visuals and expressionist cinematography only to devolve into nondescript set pieces and hackneyed horror tropes. If “Lords” were a plane its engines would sputter loudly but it would not fly.

The premise of the film is workable: a Salem witch slain in the 1600s is exacting payback on her tormentor’s modern-day descendant, the oddly goth radio personality Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife). That dead witch must have really believed revenge is a dish best served cold.

But the film’s exposition stalls when the seeds of impending horror fail to sprout. The slice-of-life scenes with Heidi and crew are enjoyable and strike a spot-on tone but never amount to much. Meanwhile the scary ain’t scary. And while the gory is plenty gory, it entails a frenzy that director Zombie fails to make contagious.

Not only are the low-budget production values here devoid of charm, where is the modern world of the radio audience our protagonists owe their day jobs to? It is nowhere in evidence in this film. Instead, Zombie’s modern-day Salem seems stuck in some 400-year-old warp, resistant to the pace, accoutrements and increased population density of the 21st century. Director Zombie would have been well served by hiring a small army of extras. Not only could he then have turned the Lords’ sparsely attended free concert into an epic gig, he could have populated the deserted streets, barren cityscapes and Heidi’s empty apartment building, all of which taken together build a disconnected vibe throughout the film.

Still, the concert scenes deliver a palpable dissonance and succeed in conveying an acute sense of doom that is perhaps the most poignant takeaway of this flick.

Finally, the movie takes its R rating no doubt from an aggregate of female nudity as well as one particular scene depicting a wannabe kinky sex ritual which, although brief, is actually quite surprising for inclusion in a wide release film.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Muddy wants you!

The one and only Muddy.

Toledo Mud Hens team mascot Muddy is ready for the Home Opener. Are you? Muddy wants you to come out and root, root, root for the home team Thursday, April 11.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hill of thrills

Grounds crew chief Jake Tyler, right, and crew member Jake Dippman pause from mound-building to peer into the dirt for any imperfections in the pitching bump at Fifth Third Field.

Will the 2013 Mud Hens “amound” to something? See for yourself at Fifth Third Field in Downtown Toledo starting Thursday with the team's Home Opener, the first game of a nine-game homestand.

----- Birdbrain

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring weather & baseball in the Glass City

Workers recently installed a brand new Budweiser bow tie and other ads along the outfield fence at Fifth Third Field in Downtown Toledo. The Mud Hens open play there April 11.

Sustained spring weather has finally descended on northwest Ohio – just in time for the Toledo Mud Hens Home Opener, Thursday at 5 p.m.

Unfortunately, local meteorologists Sunday were calling for plenty of spring showers leading up to game day. But it is doubtful any amount of precip will spoil the fun of baseball-starved fans in the Glass City, especially with parties planned all around the friendly confines of Fifth Third Field. Besides free beer on Huron Street, plenty of Downtown watering holes will open their doors mid-morning to accommodate pre-gamers and Hens’ friends of every feather.

Those Mud Hens Sunday booked their first win of the 2013 campaign and avoided being swept by the Louisville Bats. They now head to Indianapolis for a three-game series leading up to the Home Opener. It’s a cinch the players will feel a sense of relief to get home to Toledo and finally play on their home field in front of their fans.

----- BirdBrain

Thursday, April 4, 2013


There is a new Kindle ebook called usa2 that collects a number of "pomes," some of which have been posted on this blog. I recommend wholeshebang fans and nutshell groupies check it out. Those poems, when given fair consideration, deliver an original perspective on the American experience, craft-brewed pop culture, so to speak. You can check it out right here.

It's an important lesson for anyone who truly wants to dig America, from "foreigners" to the indigenous middle class masses. usa2 serves as well as a primer for America's insider experience, so often denied to persons who have immigrated to our shores, so often beyond the imagination of our own zombie-like average Joes.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cinema 2009: senseless aural, visual pounding

At the end of a screening of "Terminator Salvation," as the credits rolled and the smattering of shy applause quickly faded from the crowded theater, I walked to the exit at the right of the big screen. While the crowd filed back up the aisles toward the common lobby, I gave the door's release bar a rude shove and was instantly outside, alone in the cool, dark night.

Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of machines while explosions reverberated overhead in the night sky. It was a surreal moment. Sure the machines outnumbering me were only parked cars — once fearsome four-wheel drive SUVs, the writing was already on the wall for those fossil fuel guzzlers. But what about the explosions? Echoes from "Terminator Salvation," a veritable two-hour ear-pounding of a film, or symptoms of a deeper condition, call it post cinematic mess disorder?

Two silhouettes approached me from around the corner of the cineplex. In a panic I prepared to hide between a Tundra and an Avalanche. Then I noticed the approaching figures were not, as I had feared, 600-series Terminators, but only a pair of giggling teens. As for the explosions, once around that corner I could see red and blue starbursts in the eastern sky — fireworks.

"Terminator Salvation" is tough on its audience. You may even experience a similar moment of silver screen shell shock after watching the DVD.

From the opening credits, which hammer away at you with the sense of impending doom, "Terminator Salvation" reprises the relentlessness that is the trademark of its franchise. Magnificent warfare, colossal explosions, big bullets and angry overkill — it's all here. The question is: aren't we tired of all that already?

Early on there is some remarkable cinematography. When the wounded body of John Connor (Christian Bale), the leader of the human resistance against Skynet's killer machines, and the remains of a terminator are shown from above sprawled in the dust with a destroyed helo between them, that symmetry foreshadows an incipient inner battle between the nature of man and the manufactured.

But cinematography is soon sacrificed at the altar of effects and loud booms. (More than 300 persons are credited for the visual and special effects.)

There is heart-pounding action in "Terminator Salvation" but the filmmakers serve up an apocalyptic vision that looks like a World War II movie where the Nazis have been replaced by terminators. There is even a stunt stolen from Steve McQueen's role in John Sturges's 1963 classic "The Great Escape."

A series of cheesy shots is used to depict the rag tag human resistance 14 years after "Judgment Day," when the machines unleashed global nuclear war in an attempt to destroy humans. Now dressed in greasy tatters and huddled in small groups around old radios, these "good guys" wait for orders to drop napalm on what is left of their wasteland planet. Apparently they believe mankind hasn't been bombed far enough back into the Stone Age already.

In the entire film there is only one interesting character (a cameo by the governor of California doesn't count): Marcus Wright, a self-avowed bad man who insists he has been given a second chance. But Wright is played with luminous lackluster by Sam Worthington. The only good acting comes from Moon Bloodgood, a lithe, dark beauty of a fighter pilot, who overcomes such lines as "I don't meet a lot of good guys these days," to steal scenes and make her human co-stars look like early robots.

There are other new machines, but they lack originality and there is no logic for their existence.

Most of the dialog is forgettable, although I personally enjoyed the line "We need to get out of L.A." Still, I doubt it has catchphrase potential. For that I nominate the line, "The human condition no longer applies to you." Try it on your buds.

There is a new twist in "Terminator Salvation," a one-of-a-kind prototype terminator created to tip the odds in this epic war in favor of Skynet. But the preponderance of the film is tedious in its lack of originality. There are so many explosions and crashes in "Salvation" that audiences may finally get their fill, a tipping point that could eventually usher in a kinder, gentler Hollywood blockbuster. Now that could qualify as salvation.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

hardwood handicapping

Art courtesy of Joe Zeff

Buzzer beaters make quite the big racket
in March when they blow up your bracket;
and not every great coach will be the fella
who saves a top seed from a Cinderella.
So pick 'em, swami, let's see if you can hack it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

in your face

Bert Davis comes face to face with modern art as he helps hang the 2013 Area Artists exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition is free and on display until April 14.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Memo to Dennis Rodman: El Supremos suck

In light of current events, I would like to direct readers to a post from last July that sadly seems to have no expiration date; an earlier version of the same column appeared in the summer of 2009.

If only the pen were mightier than the sword...

Friday, March 1, 2013

the drinker's ghost

He came over and leaned against the bar a few feet away from me – in the regulars’ corner, only there were no regulars there. He introduced himself as John but said they called him “Shithead.” I demurred.

He was a lanky man with a gaunt look and a dark beard, silver in spots. He looked like a diminutive Captain Ahab, although he was not short. But he did not project maniacal power like the obsessed whaling captain. Rather, John seemed more like a castaway, amazement in his eyes for the desert isle that had received him, even as his shipwrecked body succumbed.

You could tell he had been drinking although it would only be evident to a veteran observer of boozehounds. He didn’t reek of alcohol, well, perhaps a bit. He didn’t slur, well, perhaps a tad. But it was clear just the same that the man’s life raft was a glass bottle.

John had a tale to tell. His brother-in-law, who was like a real brother to him, he said, had died three days earlier, only hours before John was to visit him in Michigan, west of Grand Rapids.

The brother-in-law had served in Vietnam and died of cancer caused by Agent Orange, John claimed. The cancer was only diagnosed in 2011, two years earlier. The brother-in-law had been a big man, 6’4” and close to 300 lbs. But the cancer had emaciated him. He was the second man left alive from his wartime platoon, John said. I thought the story reminiscent of the opening scenes of “Rambo: First Blood” and interrupted John to point out the similarities. He seemed not to like my inference and halted his narration. He began to examine a handful of scratch-off lottery tickets he was holding, looking down at them with the same graven expression.

When the young barmaid came over, John offered her one of the tickets. She brought back a fin and a bottle of Bud. John took a swig from the longneck and set it back on the bar. He picked up the fiver and rubbed it between his thumb and fingers. His hands appeared darkened and coarse. The nails were long and blackened underneath. John let the bill fall back on the bar. He clutched his beer bottle and tilted it but did not raise it to his lips.

Instead he looked at me, his eyes weary but streaked with stubbornness. He raised the bottle and poured beer into his mouth. He set the bottle back on the bar. I couldn’t see him swallow. He told me he had a tent and complete camping gear in his car. He asked me if I liked to fish.

Sure, I replied.

After that we talked about fishing and John finished his beer in a quick series of mouthfuls. Then he was gone. I never noticed him leave.

Friday, February 22, 2013

mémoires crevées

Nous avons chacun
nos mémoires lointaines.
Dans chacun de nous
bat le coeur brisé,
faisant un bruit
de pot d’échappement crevé.

Il n’existe plus assez de tendresse
au bout des routes de la vie.
J’en ai moi des mémoires lointaines.

-- le 22 février 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Delivering justice

Jessica Chastain is nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Maya, a tenacious CIA analyst in director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Zero Dark Thirty” about tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. If Chastain does win, her Oscar might to a large extent reflect the significance of the events the movie is based on.

Chastain delivers a wonderfully intense performance but it is a portrayal sequestered in the narrow emotional bandwidth of a single-minded character whose personal life and backstory do not factor in the narrative. Maya is Company through and through. Posted to Pakistan, she labors in a cramped space with an intensity that contrasts with the relatively bloated culture of her bosses in their big offices with golf putters in hand. Maya is a laser beam. She doesn’t need cigarette breaks. She doesn’t screw; she hardly even goes out to dinner.

Her mission: Get bin Laden. She isn’t put off by torture. She isn’t a Navy Seal groupie. She treads the halls of power in Washington without awe and the streets of Pakistan without fear. She goes after results and doesn’t rest until she gets them.

Chastain’s countenance and slender frame belie a toughness and obsession in her portrayal of Maya that rival any Islamist zealot. In one telling scene, Maya, narrowly escapes a terror bombing in Pakistan, immediately fleeing with her colleague, making no attempt to look for survivors or render aid to the wounded. Maya stays on task regardless of the toll it takes on her own humanism.

When several of her colleagues are killed in a bombing, Maya is shown sitting on the floor next to her desk. Grief has knocked her down – but not out. The unfinished mission brings her back. In the wake of that attack Maya even seems to believe in her personal exceptionalism. As she resumes her efforts to track bin Laden, Maya tells her boss, “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

Throughout the movie Bigelow uses newsreel footage of terrorist bombings to mark the passage of 10 years, creating a sad timeline of international terrorism. When a CIA chief orders his analysts, “Bring me people to kill,” those recounted bombings also serve as tacit justification for a blunt game plan.

The scenes depicting the actual op against bin Laden are quite detailed as if Bigelow was determined to give viewers a proper pay off for two hours of skulking run-up. The Navy Seals loom bionic in their night goggles and mission gear.

Clearly they are killers, as they put a businesslike bullet into the heart of downed targets. While collateral damage is a necessary evil, numerous children in bin Laden’s compound are spared. The Seals deal death dispassionately even as they avenge the slaughter of thousands of innocents.

Those scenes make clear the difference between the Seals’ motto and the terrorists’ infamous “Allahu akbar.” The latter is but a senseless war cry by some of the most inhuman mass murderers of modern times. “For God and Country” on the other hand is the heartfelt code drilled into our elite soldiers to guide them through their most trying episodes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cinema 2009: 'Bloody' flick is schlock and sick

If you have neglected 3D movies in recent years, you may be interested to know that director Patrick Lussier and the filmmakers behind 2009's R-rated "My Bloody Valentine 3D" have learned to incorporate, shall we say, "eye-popping" three-dimensional effects into nearly every scene from opening to closing credits, with one exception, notable for its typical American sensibility, if it even makes sense to use the word "sensibility" in this context.

In "Valentine," our protagonists are chased by yet another murderous madman, this one concealing his identity behind a coal miner's oxygen mask and coveralls, and wielding a miner's pick ax with utter ruthlessness and three-dimensional bloodlust.

Don't worry so much about trying to solve the mystery of the killer behind the mask, although the cynical screenwriters do drop a clue or two amid the crimson carnage. Just sit back as hapless extras and actors in secondary roles are brutally dispatched via that steel tool in every way imaginable and a couple more ways that probably would have been hard to imagine without the help of 3D. You might think ax murdering would grow repetitious, I assure you it does not.

There could be many morals to this tale.
Run, don't hide, when being pursued by a pick-ax wielding psycho in a miner's oxygen mask.
Don't show up to an ax-fight with only a crow bar.
Don't adhere so strictly to gun safety when you are home alone and expecting a killer to drop by. In other words, keep that shotgun loaded!
If you are a cop, call for back up.

Most members of the cast, which combines veteran character actors with young-looking 30-somethings — rising stars no doubt — appear too tired or too cool to take their jobs seriously.

Notable exceptions are Jaime King, who plays the sheriff's wife, and Megan Boone, who plays his young lover. Both women deliver the goods during the straight scenes, then prove they can scream and run at the same time during the fun-filled terror scenes, especially when the killer stalks the ladies in a grocery store. Their mop-wielding moxie rouses the audience, by now tired of the miner's murder spree. Suspense builds as the babes are trapped in a back room. Will they unlock a window in time to escape? It is a tried but true formula.

There is not much comic relief in "Bloody Valentine 3D," except for quips by laconic lawmen surveying crime scenes that would otherwise hush the most hardcore homicide detective.

Lussier also throws in extended female nudity, all of it tamely two-dimensional.

Although the 3D effects are mostly furious fun with flying pick axes, ample spritzes of blood and meteoric body fragments seemingly crashing into the seats around you, the level of useless torment at times outweighs the terror and reduces the film to base bloodletting. The inclusion of such scenes in the genre is not new. The 2005 film "Hostel" similarly lost its way — and was rewarded at the box office.

While the pace does improve as the movie builds toward resolution, those scenes of execution-style murder numb the normal psyche, no matter how side-splittingly funny 3D splatter may seem. Granted, the audience for such a movie goes in expecting catsup-stained corpses and a body count that competes with a major Mexican metropolis. But when filmmakers toss in the mutilation of corpses and what amounts to the torture of the helpless, the horror shlock turns senselessly sick.

The film's ending, on the other hand, when the secret identity of the maniac is revealed, is rewarding. Who else could it be but the sole actor who camped up his performance throughout the entire film.

Monday, February 11, 2013

“Silver Linings” is golden

Director David O. Russell has created a resounding success with the filming of Matthew Quick’s debut novel “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Quick’s subject matter is a veritable vortex of the pop culture Zeitgeist in America – mental disorders, dysfunction, and dance – which Russell brings to the screen in a direct fashion, relying on fine dramatic performances and classic cinematography, both beautiful and understated, not to mention a sublime soundtrack mix.

The film’s mini-ensemble cast of characters is quirky yet empathetic. You can’t mistake the real feel of family and friends that is the backbone of this movie. O, did I mention the plot also involves football and gambling, and more running than any movie since “Forrest Gump?”

Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany delivers a performance as gripping and moving as anything in the past 75 years of cinema. Indeed, Lawrence astounds with a powerful onscreen presence awash in natural dignity and the purity of her craft, reminiscent of Betty Davis or Ida Lupino. Lawrence displays a seemingly limitless depth and breadth of emotive powers. She is quicksilver and rock solid. Make no mistake, Lawrence is the eye of this narrative storm. Actor Robert Deniro even seems to step out of character to acknowledge this rising star in a scene where the bookmaker he plays is forced to reconsider an elaborate football handicapping strategy in the face of Tiffany’s bold gambit.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) suffers from a mental disorder diagnosed in the wake of a violent, pre-story episode. Released from the mental ward at the film’s outset, Pat only acts out violently when off his meds and then seemingly only against reading materials.

Certainly many moviegoers might be tempted to give the manic hunk a pass on his crime of passion, but that violent past is disturbing, especially since it is so intimately linked to Pat’s efforts to move forward with his life. Cooper threads the needle in his portrayal of a troubled and flawed man who remains nonetheless sympathetic almost in spite of himself, as if his disorder is only an overemphasis of certain ideal qualities.

Pat wears a plastic garbage bag over his sweats when running around the neighborhood. The garbage bag and aimless running are apt metaphors for troubled Pat, whose feet initially propel him into his past in violation of restraining orders. It is Tiffany who channels that raw energy away from solitary, mindless pavement-pounding into a heart-pounding dance routine for two that ultimately reveals a silver lining.

Along the way the couple attempts a dinner date which spins surreal as the two medicated personalities spar with each other over a bowl of cereal while the ordinary folks around them go about their mundane business costumed for Halloween.

Can Tiffany’s love cure Pat of his unrealistic longing for the past and provide a source of future happiness? You have to wonder what kind of odds Pat’s bookmaker dad would give on an exacta consisting of an inveterate slut and a man who beats his wife’s lover to a bloody pulp. The answer doesn’t matter because such hypotheticals go beyond the arc of the narrative. Besides, if there is one point to the entire film, it’s that silver linings are what we have when we try our best in this imperfect world of our own making.

The celebration at the dance contest crystallizes the notion of success within a group portrait of family and friends. The Hollywood happy ending touches us because Pat and Tiffany themselves are exemplars of a society seemingly built on roadblocks to happiness.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Thursday, January 31, 2013

corpus christi

It was still dark when the eighth grade boy walked up the three stone steps to the back door of the church, leading into the sacristy. The door was unlocked. Inside, his classmates Rick and Tom, the president and veep of the altar boys, were already in the black cassocks they wore for serving Mass. The two were rummaging in the cabinets that lined the narrow room behind the church’s main altar. The boy dumped his book bag in the corner by the door.

“Hi guys, what’re you doing?” he asked.
Ignoring the latecomer, Tom brought forth a cylindrical metal canister as big as a Cain’s potato chips can. “Here it is,” he said with the air of serious effort he gave all his undertakings.

“Dave, c’mon,” Rick said in a high-pitched voice, finally acknowledging the third boy, who served as secretary of the altar boys. Rick’s dark hair was slicked down, a cotton ball wedged into one ear against a chronic earache. “We found the hosts,” he squeaked.

Dave had taken off his jacket and was searching the cassocks hanging from a long rack against the outer wall for one big enough to cover his long legs.

“You ever eat the hosts?” Tom asked Dave as he pried the lid off the container.

“Are you crazy. Where’s Monsignor O'Connell?” Dave had perhaps a deeper respect for the grandfatherly priest. After all, had not the monsignor once taught him a law of the universe?

On that particular Saturday about a year earlier, Monsignor O'Connell had asked Dave to go with him into the school on some errand. The door was locked and the monsignor took a small key ring out of his pocket. There were two keys on the ring. As the priest slipped the first key into the lock he turned to the young boy and whispered it was a law of the universe that if you had two keys and one lock, and you didn’t know which key fit, the first key you put into the lock will always – always – be the wrong one. As if there could be any doubt about something Monsignor O'Connell said, sure enough on that afternoon the first key would not turn the lock on the school door and the priest had to use the second key to open it.

Dave also knew he had something in common with the elderly cleric. Both had slightly crooked lower front incisors, perhaps not pronounced enough back in the 1960s to warrant the expense of corrective braces, but crooked nonetheless and in precisely the same way. The monsignor’s lower teeth were noticeable to an altar boy kneeling close to the altar when the church leader prayed the Mass. The boy did not know what significance to attach to that shared orthodontic peculiarity but felt it conferred on him a kinship with the revered priest.

“Don’t worry,” Rick was chirping, “When I went to the rectory to get the key, Father Morgan told me Monsignor O'Connell wasn’t feeling too good and would be about 15 minutes late.”

“Mass is going to be late?” Dave said aloud, trying to imagine the consequences of such an unimaginable disaster.

Tom was already crunching away at the hosts, in his typical self-absorbed manner. He passed a handful to Rick. Dave approached them slowly. It was nearly half past six, the time Mass was scheduled to begin. Dave had walked half a mile to the church and hadn’t eaten anything that morning but any natural hunger the 13-year-old boy might have felt was suppressed by a sense of sacrilege. Meanwhile his peers were munching loudly.

Dave came close and looked into the canister. Thousands of the thin white wafers – like a pile of giant fish scales – glistened, eerily translucent. The smell reminded him of that part of the Mass when the hosts were distributed.
“Try some,” Tom urged.

Without warning, the door to the sacristy – the priests entrance – opened and shut, and scuffling footsteps headed toward them. Tom quickly shoved the can back into the cupboard, banging the doors closed while Rick walked swiftly past Dave toward the far end of the long room where the cassocks were hanging. Both Tom and Rick had mouthfuls of hosts they were desperately chewing and in a panic to swallow. But those dry wafers, which the boys had been taught became the actual body of Christ, tended to stick to the roof of your mouth. During the Mass you could kneel and pray for a good minute waiting for a single host to dissolve in your mouth – you were taught not to chew. It was clear an entire kisser full of those hosts was not going down without a struggle.

“Gosh, we’re late today.” It was Gary who had come in through the priests doorway. He was the fourth and final server to arrive for Mass. “Where is Monsignor O'Connell?”

“We all thought you were him,” Dave said. Tom concurred with his eyes as he turned to face his classmates, his bulging jaws still working on the hosts. Rick reappeared with his silly smile and with his black-framed glasses off center. He raised his hands chest high, palms out, to punctuate the scare Gary had given them. Tom went back to the cupboard, finally able to speak. “Look, we were eating the hosts.”

Gary trudged past them toward the cassocks. “I’ve done that,” he muttered. Gary was treasurer of the altar boys. He hung up his pea coat and grabbed a cassock. “It’s OK. They’re not blessed yet.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

that 'object' is outa here!

Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio, is the home of the Mud Hens.

Objects leaving the playing field...Hmmm, that would make a good "Family Feud" category: What did people say when asked to name 'objects' that might leave the playing field, specifically over the centerfield fence at a hint hint 'baseball' park?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cinema 2006: Satan made me wear Jimmy Chu

“The Devil Wears Prada” from 2006 entertains well enough, but leaves you thinking the book must be better. That book of course is Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef about the fashion magazine industry.

David Frankel’s movie version is strangely devoid of chemistry. Andrea (Anne Hathaway) or Andy, as she is called, lands a job working for the legendary fashion publisher Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy survives a rocky start with help from a compassionate associate at work, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who eventually transforms her from go-fer to geisha.

Despite the workplace abuse, Andy develops loyalty to her dragon lady boss, whose personal life is in crisis – although it is not clear what distresses Priestly more: her problems or reading about her problems on Page 6.

By film’s end, Priestly has brought Andy to Paris on business to teach her the dog eat dog nature of the fashion industry, a tough lesson for a sweet Midwestern kid. Despite being at Priestly’s beck and call at all hours, Andy finds time to have a fling – not even with an exotic Frenchman – just a New York writer with lousy pick-up lines (Simon Baker). That wine-fueled tryst works in the narrative because it shows us another stage in Andy’s evolution. She began as the “fat girl” from Ohio, hired by Priestly on a whim and a dare, and later morphed into a stylish size four with guidance from Nigel and by dint of her own ambition. Now flush with her own success in Priestly’s view, the only opinion that matters, Andy indulges in a traditional workplace perk of the powerful – in the politically incorrect, but hardly defunct, recent masculine paradigm: sexual conquest.

Ultimately our protagonist embraces the core values of loyalty and friendship. In the process she rejects the backstabbing career path she is on, nimbly landing on her feet by landing a new job in “real” journalism.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

O say can you see?

Beyond Beyoncé-Gate

Some Americans are unhappy with our national anthem. Those folks suggest we retire The Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a tune that is easier on the vocal cords.

The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

Anybody with cleaned-out headgear can recognize it takes more than an octave to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. But while performing it may be no easy job, there have always been talents who have nailed the song, notably, the late Whitney Houston, Idol alum Kelly Pickler, and most recently Beyoncé Knowles, whether in studio or on the Capitol steps. And why should the relative difficulty of the song be reason enough to yank it from its honored status anyway, especially when its lyric, based on the poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, has proved so transcendent.

Indeed, Scott Key’s lyric continues to deserve the praise and affection of true patriots, in particular, for its final couplet. For two centuries that couplet in fact has promoted the kind of self-reflection necessary to keep the grand experiment on track across the generations.

Regardless of whether a star sings or lip-synchs the song, it is that most poignant of questions at the end of our national anthem that squarely places on all Americans the responsibility for the preservation of this beloved republic and the essential freedoms it represents. It remains up to all of us who have ever sung along or listened to those words with fervor to make sure we can still answer that question with a resounding "Yes."

Yes, that flag still waves.

Now how can you mess with that?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cinema 2005: Hotter than a pepper sprout

Joachin Phoenix achieves a tour de force with his powerful portrayal of a young Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line."

While Phoenix's singing has been widely and deservedly praised, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter also holds up her half of the duets, and her buoyant performance helps save the film from wallowing in the lead role's personal troubles.

Also credit James Mangold's adept direction of his and Gill Dennis’s screenplay for ultimately advancing the narrative by the savvy use of songs that reinforce the tale. You will cry and smile during this emotionally charged and highly enjoyable film version of an authorized biography.

Mangold shows us the boy called J.R., suffering a drought of paternal affection in the shade-deprived cotton fields, but who learns from his mother how to tap into a spiritual strength by singing. We are brought into the boy’s dark night, where we sense his self-doubt which, fed by guilt, will later sap the spirit of the young singer and lead to the addiction that threatens to destroy him as he strives for success.

When Phoenix finally appears on stage as the veritable embodiment of the successful Man in Black, and leans into the microphone to give us that "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" in perfect Deep South baritone, there is no doubt – so flawless have been the cinematic exposition and the acting by Phoenix.

With superb attention to detail, the film captures a lost era in the life of our nation, just as it repeatedly shows Johnny Cash attempting to regain an idealized childhood. The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael II frames forlorn scenery with the reverence a true believer has for all God’s creation.

To illustrate the toll Cash's career takes on his first marriage, Mangold shows the couple arguing in a room filled with fan mail. At one of his concerts, Cash's family sits conspicuously in the audience, segregated from his onstage inner circle. Who could better share Cash's love than June Carter, his tour mate, the disembodied voice he idealized as a boy and the one woman who remains his true friend.

Cash spirals into the depths of drug addiction, and inevitably is arrested, but the scene of the singer alone in a jail cell is brief and does not serve as the image of a moment of truth. Indeed, Cash avoids confronting his demons. Released from custody he heads home instead to hang his head in self-pity at poolside.

Consistently the film shows how Cash is intimately affected by personal struggles and triumphs, whereas the man’s great commercial success and many number one songs are mostly referred to obliquely in montage. Finally, June Carter saves the literally drowning singer. She dries him off, then dries him out.

The happy ending works in this film, since Cash's reconciliation with his father has been prepared. After a lifetime of miscommunication, misdirected anger and guilt between father and son, it is the brutal honesty of the senior Cash that forces the crisis which brings about the singer's redemption. Johnny Cash goes from being a talent mired in addiction to the man who recaptures his artistic potential, symbolized by the live concert at Folsom Prison. Whereas the song “Folsom Prison Blues” was an early product of Cash’s chafing against authority, the actual live performance showcases a mature artist who celebrates in song the human condition and in so doing redeems himself.

The final credits roll to the voices of the real Johnny Cash and June Carter singing one of their signature duets. It makes you realize those two American icons were inimitable. But at the same time you are overwhelmed at how consummately that duo has been brought back to life by the acting and singing of Phoenix and Witherspoon.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fish ...

You wouldn't look any happier.

... It's what's for dinner.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cinema 2006: A joyride for bullet junkies

It is common for filmmakers to add a subplot involving children in their “shoot ‘em up” projects. What is unusual is to incorporate the young ones so gratuitously into the violence. Unfortunately, that is the gist of “Running Scared” from 2006. And its happy ending does an absolute disservice to society.

There are a few nice cinematographic touches in this violent thriller, written and directed by Wayne Kramer, but the bulk of it is little more than a bullet junky’s joyride.

The film opens on the proverbial drug deal. The quality control guy assesses the dope laconically, “We’re happy.” That is the last time anyone in this film is happy until its insulting conclusion.

The deal goes bad and the shotguns and semi-autos take over. Everyone runs for cover, including the guy in charge of lighting. There are so many dark scenes here it looks like the movie was shot with the wrong film. Perhaps no one, not even Kramer, wants to shine any real light on the squalor and violence depicted here.

Forget the premise about a gun that can link a common New Jersey-variety mobster to the killing of a cop. Logic doesn’t loom large in “Running Scared.” This tale is a train off the tracks with more twists than a 60s sock-hop, and enough hot and cold-blooded violence to make the average citizen squirm and the hardcore videogamer sit still.

The film even reprises that decades-old sine qua non of the genre, the strip club scene, where the gangsters and/or cops meet to talk business, framed by the undulating bodies of the naked women who profit from the lust of these venal, violent men.

As the action piles up, you wonder why anyone would even root for the central character, Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker).

The final showdown at a local sports venue gives new meaning to the ice hockey term “goon,” but fails to distinguish itself in a long line of cinematic shoot outs. And when you see our hero at breakfast afterward, having cleaned himself up after taking three slap-shot pucks to the face, you wonder why our NHLers bother with bridgework.

Then there is Anzor (Karel Roden), a loser who has been sold a bill of goods on the American Dream. He is wearisome to watch as he tries to explain his adoration of John Wayne to his wife’s son Oleg (Cameron Bright). But the boy doesn’t care about cowboys or his father. And since Anzor came to New Jersey to be a mobster, I never found myself caring about him or his sob story anyway.

The movie doesn't gives us a reason to cheer until things begin to fall into place near the end. And no amount of Mom (Vera Farmiga) spooning with her son is going to atone for her own stint as a self-appointed executioner. It is as if such a film would make us believe murderous violence is the truest expression of love.

The films ends on an insult to any upstanding citizen, including the blue-collar contingent to which Kramer seems to be playing. Hollywood might consider it clever to brush off the parade of atrocities visited upon the kids in this movie with one scene in which Dad rough-houses with them while Mom looks on approvingly. But take a quick partial inventory of the parade of atrocities visited upon the kids in one day: kidnapping, pedophilia, attempted murder, murder.

In addition, Oleg is abused by a pimp named Lester, played with refreshing idiosyncrasy by David Warshofsky, who puts a switchblade to the boy’s face and threatens to disfigure him. Unfortunately for actor Warshofsky, his work amid this depraved human comedy can only come off as cartoonish.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cinema 2011: Chimp change

"Rise of The Planet of the Apes" from 2011 bases its narrative on the germination of higher intelligence among the apes, although Darwin has been taken out of the equation, presumably because evolution theory is slower than baseball.

It is man who develops a brain-repair medicine and tests it on chimps. One of those chimps is pregnant but none of the white-frocked science guys or burly chimp wranglers notices, of course. That overly cute baby chimp ends up as the lone survivor of a primate pogrom ordered by the laboratory director after a violent incident is interpreted as a side-effect of the wonder drug.

Named Caesar, the baby chimp is raised as a pet and soon as a son by the protagonist scientist (James Franco), who realizes the experimental medication has been passed in utero from pregnant mother, now deceased, to this baby.

Director Rupert Wyatt's buildup to the promise of the title is uneven, at times boring. Caesar runs around the good doctor’s house naked until the scientist starts dating a zoo vet (Freida Pinto). Eventually an adolescent Caesar (Andy Serkis) goes ape on a hapless neighbor. While both combatants appear to have anger management issues, no doubt rooted in the frustration of their suburban routines, the neighbor’s opposable thumb and other digits are no match for the dentition of the adolescent ape, who consequently is remanded to a shelter to await his day in court. The shelter is chock full of primates, including an orangutan who learned to sign in a circus, a backstory that inexplicably is never developed. Come on Wyatt, give us some scenes of the big orange orang chumming around with carnies in the shadow of the big top.

One laugh-out-loud scene occurs when the scientist visits Caesar in lockup and vows, “I’ll get you out of here.” Well, in the theater I was actually the only one who laughed but you really have to guffaw at this schlock, I mean, we haven’t abdicated our intelligence to another species quite yet, have we?

The jailbreak does come, but on Caesar’s terms. By now the chess-playing chimp is leader of a group of about 40 primates; Caesar springs them all and the apes go bouncing into Frisco to free their brethren who are being experimented on at the lab where Caesar was born. Now their ranks have swollen to some 100 or more chimps, orangs and gorillas, who can smash through plate glass and fall two stories onto concrete without a scratch or bruised tendon.

They wreak lethal havoc as they head for the Golden Gate Bridge and the redwoods beyond — in the film those trees are just beyond, say in place of Sausolito. No matter, it is still a “Eureka” moment for Caesar, who by now is standing upright and can manage limited speech.

In the woods, the good scientist catches up with the chimps and pleads for Caesar to come home. The mighty primate pulls the researcher close and, standing head to head with the man who raised him, whispers, “Caesar is home.” Check out the big brain on Caesar.

The public enemy chimp and leader of the smart apes turns his back on the scientist and walks upright to a giant tree and climbs it. Apparently, you can take the chimp out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the chimp, even if his IQ rivals man and he can speak, sign, and wipe his chimp ass.

The movie ends with the apes sitting in the top branches of the redwoods looking out on Frisco Bay, the city, and the country beyond. But this cinematically sweet image does not stand scrutiny. How will this planet of the apes ever rise if those hairy legions stay in the trees? If they are ever going to conquer Earth, Caesar’s cerebrating simians need to descend redux from the trees, and maybe get to work on making some weapons grade plutonium.

Cinema 2008: Sci-fi remake lacks punch, purity of original

On the day I saw Keanu Reeves in the remake of a 1951 science fiction classic, it was the audience that sat still. But I couldn’t tell if it was because they were depressed by the star’s atonal Chinese or stunned by cheesy CGI.

Scott Derrickson's 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does have some things to recommend it. No. 1 is the screen presence of Jennifer Connelly, who carries every scene she is in. Connelly — as Helen Benson, a professor of astro-biology or something — will make you want to go back to college and sign up for a full load of science credits.

When the impersonal feds swoop down on Benson's warm hearth, the placid countenance and restraint of the lead government agent are at odds with the force he represents. But the resultant cinematic tension is squandered when the tweedy types are whisked away in big choppers in a scene that conveys no power, no G-force, but looks cribbed from some failed video game.

Still, we are treated to iconic New York City bathed in light from the strange alien spacecraft, which lands in Central Park. Our scientists wear hazmat suits that look like Dior as they approach the spacecraft. Derrickson gives us human beings who look like aliens, an apt image for the disconnect between mankind and his exploited planet.

In the original, spaceman Klaatu lands in D.C. In 2008, he sets it down in Central Park after overflying St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Empire State Building, but not Ground Zero. That last would have been an appropriate image had Keanu's Klaatu been on the same mission as his 1951 antecedent, namely, warning atomic-age mankind to end war or face annihilation from outer space. Perhaps Hollywood felt war was good in 2008, at least maybe the Global War on Terror. At any rate Klaatu's mission focuses on the imperiled environment, even though the starman could have easily found WMD. As it stands in the remake, Klaatu has come to save the earth — and is prepared to destroy mankind (and Giants stadium) if that's what it takes to do so.

Many special effects are unconvincing — from the fake snow on the fake beard of the Reeves' character in the clumsy pre-story, through to the swarm of space flies unleashed to devour homo polluter and his sports arenas.

And is Derrickson supporting the troops when he shows them busting our awe-inspired eggheads' Central Park intergalactic love-in? Why not humanize the guys on the front line? Instead, a trained trigger finger lights up Klaatu, and Benson is there to assume, blood spattered, the pietà pose. It is a stunning visual.

Kathy Bates' role as secretary of defense is well written, that is until the entire film derails in its denouement. Bates' character is a savvy politico, and limns the conflicts inherent when pure science and pragmatic government collide.

She decides, clever girl, that the extraterrestrial noncombatant can be held for having violated U.S. air space. Security is everywhere, except in the lie-detector room where a lone lackey administers a polygraph test to the man from outer space with no one at all watching (= weak page in script). Klaatu easily turns the tables on the agent and with a Terminator-like trope, obtains Men In Black threads in the bargain.

On the loose in Manhattan, Klaatu is at first content to observe the "fumble of humanity." But it's no fun to be single in the city, so Klaatu reunites with Benson. In what passes for irony in Hollywood, Klaatu meets a fellow alien, a sleeper cell of sorts, at a McDonald's in Jersey to decide the fate of the human race.

All in all, Keanu's Klaatu is a drag. He has one good line: Get in the car. Unfortunately, without an Austrian accent it never quite caught on.

When Klaatu finally meets with a Nobel laureate (John Cleese in too brief an appearance) there is a moment of pathos when the two species commune via the language of math. The professor senses all is lost and basically advises Benson to bat her eyelashes at the alien. And why not? Work it baby, the future of the whole race hangs in the balance.

Klaatu is finally convinced to call off Armageddon when he observes a mother's love for her son. The sentimental spaceman even puts himself at risk to halt the destruction unleashed by his "automaton," as it is called. Come on, we all know it is a robot.

The original film is much purer and its moral is delivered with a thought-provoking punch. In the remake, after Klaatu calls off annihilation, takes his robot and goes home, you just don’t feel rededicated to improving the world by anything you watched during the previous 103 minutes.

Gort, now he was a great robot, shown here on an updated poster for the 1951 original, directed by Robert Wise.

Monday, January 7, 2013

American Sisyphus

Life can be an uphill struggle. Keep rolling your boulder; it's all you can do.

Perhaps there are times when we can agree with Albert Camus, who wrote: La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d'homme. (The struggle itself toward the summit is enough to fill a man's heart.)

Just not every day.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cinema 2009: Leaving Pelham 1 2 3

The sounds of subway trains can be heard briefly during the opening credits in the 2009 remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," before rap music obliterates that poignant aural touch.

Similarly, the expressionism evident in the cinematography of the early scenes — lights reflected in a man's spectacles, defining him by the career he chose; confining scenes shot through the cloudy glass of a subway car's windows — cedes too quickly to run-of-the-mill images. It is as if director Tony Scott lost interest in the psychological study of greed, violence, and fear, and decided instead to coast on production values and the acting of Denzel Washington, as MTA employee Garber, and John Travolta, as the subway hijacking sociopath Ryder, performances that struggle to gain traction amid the nonsense and routine of an unremarkable so-called Hollywood thriller.

The script does include great detail, but it is the kind of stuff you would expect in a weekly TV show, including plenty of comic-relief one-liners. Writer Brian Helgeland includes a video-chat plotline, which is a good idea when updating a screenplay from 1974. Too bad he forgot to include a coherent middle and ending to his script.

The cops are portrayed as big kids with plenty of fancy toys but not much training. Indeed, what we find here is a hostage situation where vermin in a subway tunnel are calling the shots.

The working class stiffs get short shrift in this remake. They are the victims of ambush or personal failure. While Garber disingenuously refers to himself as "just a guy," we soon learn that he is dispatching only because he is under investigation for having accepted a bribe. In reality, Garber's a big shot — one that broke the rules and the law.

Ryder himself is a rotten apple from Wall Street. It is as good a place as any to find your criminal du jour. But in the 1973 novel, and the original film based on it, the bad guy is a former mercenary.

In Scott's remake there are many quick-cut close-ups. The same repetitive camera movement repeatedly introduces us to Garber at the microphone of his dispatch desk, and that repetition detracts from any dynamic effect.

Lame, too, is the use of Google Earth-type special effects to show the progress of police bringing the ransom money through the city. Call me old school but I want to watch a movie not a website.

A bloody shootout in the middle of midtown is gratuitous. I suggest it would have been more gratifying for the audience to see those perps prostrate on Park Avenue with New York's finest pinning them to the pavement as they slap on the cuffs. That image at least would have alluded to the triumph of the rule of law, something Americans used to claim pride in.

John Turturro is wasted here as the hostage negotiator who doesn't get to negotiate, although the script allows him human touches.

The climax of course pits Ryder against Garber, alone in New York City in the middle of rush hour, while the entire NYPD is looking for the bad guy. Scott draws out that final face-to-face as if something climactic is about to happen. It does not. A couple dialog lines overstuffed with pseudo-philosophy and bang. Heck, we don't even get a splashdown in the East River. That would have at least provided viewers with some well-deserved scenic beauty after more than an hour of cinematic claustrophobia.

As good as Washington is at portraying "just a guy," that portrayal suffers when the script, which has already unmasked Garber as a muckety-muck, later turns him into an action figure who runs down a murderous psychopath with no backup. Afterward, Garber is debriefed by the cops, stroked by the mayor, and turned loose to ride home alone on the subway — with not so much as a counselor, police escort, or hungry reporter in tow. Of course, that particular subway car is also devoid of commuters. It conveys "just a guy" (who occasionally travels to Japan on business), alone with his thoughts after one hell of day at the office.

Joe Sargent directed the original, released in 1974, back when they still spelled out words like "One Two Three."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cinema 2009: Angels & Demons — lacks wings

"Angels & Demons" from 2009 is the second film based on books by Dan Brown. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie marks an improvement over the 2006 release "The DaVinci Code,” but still leaves a lot to be desired.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Professor Langdon, the world's foremost authority on the arcane aspects of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and its secular empire, the Vatican. Langdon's conceit is that he considers himself a modern day Sherlock Holmes, without the white powder favored by the latter but with the same gimlet eye and tendency toward hubris.

These are both demonstrated when we first meet Langdon here. The discerning professor mistakes a Vatican emissary from the United Nations in New York City, a cop by trade, for a papal errand boy sent all the way from Rome. Perhaps it was the circles under Officer Vincenzi's eyes that threw Langdon off. As it turns out, those are due more to career fatigue than to any recent jet lag.

When we are introduced to Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer), the attractive physicist who becomes Langdon's science sidekick, we see her classic features hardened by flashes of ego and ambition.

Soon these buddies begin a sick tour of Rome's churches in an effort to save hostages and foil a plot to blow up the Vatican. Most of the action is set in the Eternal City and features some of its most popular tourist attractions, from St. Peter's Cathedral and a shadowy glimpse of that most famous chapel ceiling, to the pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Castel Sant'Angelo. But the cinematography by Salvatore Totino remains largely uninspiring, except for brief candids and architectural details.

When Langdon lectures his Vatican hosts on the serial emasculating of many church sculptures by an earlier pope, he is suspected of being anti-Catholic, whereas he is merely parading his erudition. Still, that reaction by the loyal churchmen reinforces the academic's own disdain for the blind faith of true believers.

The plot is set in the modern day interregnum between the death of a pope and the election of a successor. The plan to destroy the church would use a new scientific discovery — anti-matter — to blow Rome to smithereens.

Spoiler alert for the scientifically-challenged: this is not (yet) real science. But if those white labcoats ever do isolate enough anti-matter to blow up a world capital, I have a suggestion: Don't make a handy thermos for the darn stuff, like these movie physicists here have done. No sooner created in neighboring Switzerland, the anti-matter is taken on the road by the bad guy.

The special effects used to illustrate the creation of anti-matter and its inevitable destruction smack of leftovers from the infinity sequence of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Whereas Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece rocked moviegoers in 1968, more than 40 years later those kinds of effects come off as tediously psychedelic.

Still, kudos go to Tom Hanks, who carries the movie as the avuncular academic, careening through Rome, commandeering carabinieri, and cracking clues with enough alacrity to consternate a trivia king. En route, a stylish Vittoria lets her humanity show, perhaps motivated by the knowledge that it is her scientific work, hijacked for evil purposes, which has put so many innocents at risk. Along the way, Langdon, bespattered with blood and shot at, witnesses horrific violence and unbelievable deceit. Yet he never finds God in any of the foxhole situations he is thrust into by his quest.

To the end Langdon is wary of Cardinals bearing gifts. Or maybe he is simply following the advice given him by an assassin: "Be careful, these are men of God."

"Angels & Demons" gets good supporting acting from Ewan McGregor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Stellan Skarsgård. Still the movie lacks punch despite plot twists in the final reel. For all the pretentious Church vs. Science rhetoric, there is little here that makes a lasting impression. And a final scene of violence is both gratuitous and redundant, and perhaps worse, not even visually interesting.