Friday, January 29, 2021


In Valley theaters this weekend; on Epix starting February 12:

Saint Maud--The title character is a young in-home nurse assigned to care for Amanda, a terminally ill choreographer and dancer, in a mansion overlooking a bleak British seaside town. Maud is a devout Catholic, recently converted after a tragedy. She's pretty sure that God has plans for her bigger than nursing drudgery, and finally it hits her: she's meant to save the soul of the worldly, terrified Amanda.

What ensues in this devotional shocker written and directed by Rose Glass, along with clashes between Maud and Amanda and her circle, are unbidden, overwhelming and apparently orgasmic spiritual ecstasies, terrifying and exalted visions, and self-harm and mortification of the flesh. It's like a Hammer film directed by Bergman or Dreyer, with more than a dash of Ken Russell. How much of what we see is Maud's tortured psychology and how much is truly supernatural is left ambiguous. The overall effect is potently horrific and sad, yet also startlingly, joltingly erotic at times.

Much of the movie's power derives from the Welsh actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud. She avoids an obvious pitfall--playing her as a wide-eyed, rapturous innocent--and gives Maud a businesslike edge, but with touches of gnawing uncertainty at her mission, and a heartbreaking underlying sense of despair. She's superb, and Jennifer Ehle, as Amanda, monstrously inconvenienced by her illness but keen-eyed for any diversion, is no slouch. These performances are heavenly.

Saturday, January 23, 2021


While visiting my sister in Atlanta in the summer of 1973, I got to see Hank Aaron play, before he broke the record.

He didn't hit a homer that day, but he did get two hits, and the Braves beat the Cards. It was “bat day” at Fulton County Stadium, and the bat I got that day was my baseball bat thereafter; the Hank Aaron pennant I got that day was on the wall of my room for many years thereafter. More than a decade later my father met Aaron on an airplane and got his autograph for me. Except for Muhammad Ali, who I loved for his humor rather than any interest in boxing, Aaron was the first of my few sports heroes. RIP Hammerin’ Hank.

Another legend has departed us this weekend: RIP to radio and TV titan Larry King, at 87.

In 1984 and '85, I ran the overnight board at WSEG, Ron Seggi's long-since-departed station in Erie; I hosted and played oldies for the first hour, then babysat the feed of Larry King's talk show from the Mutual Network for the rest of the night. In those days, King had regular eccentric callers, like Norman the Numbers Man from Paramus, New Jersey, who insisted that sports scores showed his divinity via his obsessive numbers-crunching and would invariably end by exploding with anger at King's attempts to reason with him (Norman probably needed professional help), or the Portland Laugher, who never said anything but would simply cackle maniacally at anything King would ask him. For all King's accomplishments on TV, nothing he ever did there was as marvelous as this radio work.

Anyway, one night, at the height of the Reagan-era Cold War, I called in to the show.

As many of you know, I've always been a dinosaur geek (it's only one of my many geekdoms, but it's the earliest). Earlier that day I had been discussing with my friend Ron which dinosaur was more well-known, the T-Rex or the Brontosaurus. So that night, bored and restless at the studio, I called into King's show, got on the air, and asked "Larry, what do you think is the most famous dinosaur?"

And without missing a beat, Larry King said "The brontosaurus, or the Defense Department."

Thursday, January 21, 2021


Hope everybody had a great Inauguration Day.

On Inauguration Eve, Donald Trump, Jr. posted this comparison between incoming President Joe Biden and Scar, the villain of Disney's The Lion King, on Instagram:

I'd like to set aside the obvious silliness--that Biden "cheated to win"--and ask Junior a different question: Who, in this "analogy," are the hyenas?

Back in 1994, when I reviewed The Lion King for Phoenix New Times, the 32-year-old pedantic ass I was spent interminable paragraphs trying to show off my supposed great Shakespearean acumen by tediously noting all the allusions to the Bard in this and other Disney animated flicks of the period. I didn't get to what should have been the point of the review until the last couple of graphs, and even there I let the movie off too lightly for it.

Specifically, I should have given more emphasis to how hard it is to escape the interpretation of The Lion King as an allegory (probably unintentional) in support of racial--or, at the very least, nationalistic and aristocratic--purity. Much was made at the time that this was the first truly original Disney film; that it wasn't based on some fairy tale or novel or other such source. Yet what they came up with was, as in the Star Wars flicks, one more tired-ass tale of a prince destined to rule as a birthright.

Even back then, though, what I found still more disturbing was the matter of the hyenas.

The usurper Scar invites the hyenas to integrate the lion pride, a sure sign of his wickedness. Two of them have overtly "ethnic" characterizations, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin. A third, performed by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, appears to have some sort of disability. It's this diversity that wrecks the integrity of the pride under Scar. The filmmakers seemed to be uncomfortable with this implication themselves, since toward the end there's a heavy-handed shot of the hyenas goose-stepping. This touch now seems like a classic reflexive right-wing projection, a meme tactic, like putting a Hitler mustache on a picture of Obama.

I closed my review back in '94 with the observation that "...if The Lion King weren't so obviously might have seemed like the jackboots had been placed on the wrong paws." I can remember people I knew back then rolling their eyes at this mild suggestion as being overthought and tiresomely "politically correct" of me. But the 58-year-old pedantic ass I've grown into now wonders if I didn't take this insanely popular movie too little to task.

So, again, I'd like to ask Don Jr., who would have been about 16 years old when The Lion King came out: Who, in your view, are the hyenas?

Also, does this mean you see yourself as Simba, destined to rule after throwing Biden off a cliff?

Monday, January 18, 2021


Word has reached Your Humble Narrator, from across the continent in my beloved home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, that The Peanut Shoppe, longtime fixture on the southeast corner of 10th and State Street, closed last week. A day or two later came the news that proprietress Anna Linebach, known throughout town simply as "The Peanut Lady," had passed on, at 89.

This one hurts. I've loved that magical place since I was a small child, and my Mom bought me a green plastic Mr. Peanut bank there, which lived for many years in my room and forever in my heart...

It was the street-level corner store of the 14-story G. Daniel Baldwin Building...

...Erie's tallest skyscraper (it's now called "Renaissance Centre"). Ms. Linebach was a crusty Austrian, given to griping about the weather, an ongoing challenge for her since her best marketing tool was leaving her door open and letting the smell of roasting nuts waft out onto the sidewalk and lure in hapless passersby. I was often one of them. My friend also used to buy raw peanuts there for his parrot.

In my college years I would walk over to buy tubs of cashew butter, which Ms. Linebach would grind herself, nodding at me approvingly and saying, in her German accent, "Dot meggs a noise zaandwich [that makes a nice sandwich]."

A few years ago my brother, knowing my fondness for the place, sent me this t-shirt...

I'm wearing it today, in Ms. Linebach's memory. RIP Peanut Lady.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


The January/February issue of Phoenix Magazine... on the stands around the Valley, is dubbed "The Food Love Issue," and the cover story promises "101 Reasons to Get Psyched About Valley Dining." Your Humble Narrator had the honor to be one of the seven authors of the story; thirteen of those reasons were written by me. See if you can guess which ones!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


Strange to reflect, as we say farewell to the past year, on how many iconic "futuristic" years I've lived through: 1984, 2001 and...

...if short-lived '70s-era Hanna-Barbera cartoon show titles count as iconic, 2020. I doubt I'll make it to The Year 2525 of which Zager and Evans so memorably sang, at least in my current incarnation.

Anyway, here's one more list for January; my books for 2020. Even granting that it doesn't count short stories, articles, blog posts, poems, comic books, shopping lists, factory warranties, skywriting, banners towed behind airplanes etc etc, it's disgracefully short; I'm a ploddingly slow reader, and there are a couple of longish ones on there, at least by my standards, like Death's End, part three of Cixin Liu's astonishing Three-Body trilogy, and David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman

Wild Wives by Charles Willeford

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen

Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother by Barry Sonnenfeld

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Death’s End by Cixin Lui

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I didn't include it on this list, because I was only about halfway through it on New Year's Eve, but in December I also finally cracked a book I've put off for a long time, Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, his 1722 chronicle of the 1665 Great Plague of London.

As you might guess, there's plenty about 1665 that's perfectly recognizable in 2020, although the response of the city's government, as described by Defoe, puts this country's federal response utterly to shame. But it's also instructive reading for anyone who thinks that 2020 was the worst possible year.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021


Weird in many far more important ways, 2020 was a weird movie year. For one thing, it was for most of us a vastly truncated moviegoing year; at this writing, I haven’t gone to see a movie at a theater, either a press screening or a regular commercial showing, since The Wife and I went to that new version of Emma in late March.

This is almost certainly the longest such stretch for me since I was a small child. I also haven’t been to a movie at any kind of public venue at all since I went to see Sonic the Hedgehog at the West Wind Drive-In in Glendale a few days later.

All the same, I’ve managed to see quite a few movies.

Via streaming, DVDs and the like, movies have been a major diversion during the months of lockdown, as well as the months since the relaxation of lockdown during which many of us still haven’t heard of a movie worth risking COVID infection to see on a big screen.

The releases of lots of big-budget, screen-filling movies got postponed, like the James Bond flick No Time to Die. So 2020 turned out to be a year for the sort of movies that critics often claim to wish would get more attention: low-budget indies, obscure festival bait and—especially—documentaries would get releases and notice they might otherwise have struggled to find.

This year we got Korean small-town horror with Zombie for Sale, micro-budget Great Lakes absurdism with Lake Michigan Monster, sexual awakening at church camp with Yes, God, Yes, and a comic Scottish Most Dangerous Game with Get Duked!

We got documentaries about everything from post-Soviet Russian hockey to Harry Chapin to the Moonies to the Church of the Subgenius to President 45’s psychology. And all of them got a marketing push that would have been all but unthinkable the year before.

Anyway, here are the ten films that, at this writing, seemed like they helped me pass this Plague Year most agreeably:

The Trial of the Chicago 7Aaron Sorkin’s dramatization of the 1968-70 trial was as lively, funny, sad, cogent, thought-provoking and entertaining as anything I saw this year.

First CowThe story of two guys trying to get ahead in the Oregon Territory in the early 19th Century, directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt, is an austere and heartbreaking take on the American Dream.

Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysMore tough but touching naturalism, this follows a teenage girl in trouble as she and her best friend travel from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City. Sidney Flanigan gives one of the performances of the year in the lead.

The King of Staten IslandPete Davidson co-wrote and stars in a semi-autobiographical comedy about a directionless young guy in the title borough, directed by Judd Apatow; Marisa Tomei plays his widowed Mom. The movie’s a little poky and shapeless, but it’s hilarious and good-hearted.

Desert OneThe disastrous attempted rescue mission of the American hostages in Iran in 1980 is chronicled in this painfully honest documentary from Barbara Kopple, fleshed out with graceful animation by Zartosht Soltani.

Promising Young WomanCarey Mulligan shines in this harsh but bracing and caustically witty rape-culture revenge shocker, an impressive feature debut for writer and director Emerald Fennell.

KajillionaireMaybe the strangest big-name release of the year, this deeply eccentric portrait of a family of the smallest of small-time grifters is made unforgettable by performances from Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez.

My Darling VivianThis documentary about Vivian Liberto, the first wife of Johnny Cash, is narrated by their four daughters. It’s essential viewing for Cash buffs, but fascinating for anybody.

The Way I See ItAnother documentary; this one about Reagan and Obama White House photographer Pete Souza’s awakening to political engagement. There are maybe too many corny inspirational anthems, but the subject’s photos are potent.

Borat: Subsequent MoviefilmThe Candid-Camera-on-crack style of comedy practiced by Sasha Baron Cohen is, I must admit, not my cup of tea; I find it excruciatingly embarrassing to watch at times. But there’s also no doubt that Cohen, through the adventures of his “Kazahk” alter-ego Borat, makes highly trenchant and relevant satirical points, and Maria Bakalova, the young Bulgarian actress who plays Borat’s daughter, brings the movie an unexpected dose of genuine emotion.

Also worth sitting through this year: The Invisible Man, for Elizabeth Moss; the uneven Filipino historical drama Quezon’s Game, for its fascinating subject; Freaky, for Vince Vaughn as a teenage girl; Ham: A Musical Memoir for the singing of Sam Harris;  Lucky Grandma, for Tsai Chin’s badass performance; Radioactive, for Rosamund Pike’s badass performance; the live-action Punch and Judy show Judy and Punch; the overlooked Hitchcockian set-bound thriller 7500, for Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Yes, God, Yes, especially for Natalie Dyer; the rather hair-raising horror indies The Wretched and Homewrecker; tiny-budget dramas like Angelfish and Clementine; the near-miss showbiz tale The High Note; the near-miss psychology romcom Sunny Side Up; the near-miss biopic The Glorias; the near-miss sci-fi yarn The Vast of Night; the cheeky WW84; the intriguingly stylized school drama Selah and the Spades and the Irish supernatural comedy-thriller Extra Ordinary. Also, a bunch of worthwhile documentaries: Our Time Machine; Blessed Child; J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius; Boys State; the hard-hitting wildlife documentary Wild Daze and the dazzling Time.

While I’m at it, here are quick hits on a few notable flicks I hadn’t previously reviewed:

Hillbilly Elegy—Ron Howard’s adaptation of the J. D. Vance memoir is compelling  and well-acted in itself, especially by Glenn Close and Amy Adams, but politically evasive and timid in what it omits.

Mank—This chronicle of Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane, a long-cherished project of director David Fincher and his late father Jack Fincher, has some superb acting and looks good, but it’s accuracy-challenged, and worse, appallingly slow and overlong.

On the Rocks—The latest from Sofia Coppola, this mild comedy-drama has rascally art dealer Bill Murray helping daughter Rashida Jones stalk her possibly-straying husband Marlon Wayans. Murray’s performance is another classic of avuncular mischievousness, and Jones is just as good, but the movie lacks urgency, like a piece of literary fiction that ultimately doesn’t feel like it’s about anything much.

The Prom—A gay high school student throws her Indiana hometown into a tizzy because she wants to go to prom with her girlfriend, and Broadway stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells swoop down uninvited on the town for what they hope will be a career-boosting protest of this intolerance. The tunes in this musical are unmemorable but pleasant, the stars have a self-deprecating blast; it’s sort of boring to say so at this point, but Streep is particularly marvelous. And Jo Ellen Pellman, as our heroine, is a wonder.

I also managed, at this writing, to have not yet caught up with several important films: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, News of the World, TenetSoul and Nomadland, to name a few. Any of these could have altered my list.

Happy New Year everybody; have a great 2021, at the movies and everywhere!