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Filmmaker goes to the dogs in jumbled 'Letter to True'

If "A Letter to True" were a personals ad, it would say: Must love dogs and poetry. In fact, this documentary from filmmaker and photographer Bruce Weber ("Let's Get Lost," "Chop Suey") sort of is a personals ad, inasmuch as it's a public plea for love and understanding among people -- facilitated by man's best friend, of course.

To make this real simple: If you have a book of canine photography on your coffee table, you'll probably like this film. There are more shiny coats and wagging tongues here than there are at a nail salon, and if you took out all the shots of four-legged things frolicking, Weber's 78-minute documentary would be about the length of a heartworm collar commercial.

Through a scrapbook-style collection of personal vignettes, borrowed images, and odd or poignant tales from strangers, this writer-director wants us to see the value of life and the impact of loss. So, as a narrative device, he writes a poetic letter to one of his prized golden retrievers named True, and he reads that letter (or sometimes leaves it to you to read his handwritten script) as a way of stringing together his many clashing elements. The device is creative, but doesn't work, perhaps because there's no good way to move from an old Elizabeth Taylor film clip to news footage of a dog trained to search the World Trade Center rubble. Ditto for Weber's stylized photographic portraits and the lush music of Doris Day going up against Larry Burrows's war images, the plight of Haitian detainees, life among Australian surfers, and a farm family enjoying being kicked out of Wal-Mart.

If you can see how all these things could be interrelated, never mind leashed to a golden retriever, then maybe you won't mind Weber suggests his dog is, "like all of us," trying to get over the tragedies of Sept. 11. And maybe it also won't bother you to see images of black children blended with that of a canine sporting a "dogs for peace" sign as Martin Luther King Jr.'s words echo in the background.

Weber's speaking voice (which gets limited assistance from Julie Christie and Marianne Faithfull reading poetry) is unpolished and sort of endearing. He has some interesting things to say, and several of the film's segments find clever ways to get their message across, but overall, there are way too many thematic leaps here, even for dog fans.

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