Monday, August 30, 2021


Time for another travelogue:

Day gig business took me this month, briefly, to the good city of Indianapolis. While there I had the opportunity to sneak away to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library...

(Thank you to the random Hoosier kid passing on a bike who took this pic.)

The museum is devoted to the Indianapolis-born novelist, short story writer and essayist best known for Slaughterhouse-Five and other hipster classics. If, like me, you're a lifelong reader and fan, and if you find yourself nearby during its hours--the place is only open Friday through Monday--I highly recommend, especially if you can get the excellent Beth Anne to give you a tour.

Attractively arrayed over three floors, the collection includes everything from personal items to drawings; Vonnegut was an avid doodler who sometimes illustrated his own books... letters, to tributes by other artists inspired on the author's work. Look one way and you'll see paintings based on Vonnegut's P.O.W. experiences...

...look another and you'll see a hand-crafted Tralfamadorian...

I was most entranced by the personal items. On display is the typewriter on which Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions and other books, in the same case as his reading glasses...

Elsewhere you'll see his Purple Heart alongside his membership card in the Alplaus, New York, Volunteer Fire Company...

...and a big box in which he diligently saved his rejection slips.

There's also a gift shop, of course, generously supplied with post cards, fridge magnets, t-shirts and, it goes without saying, books. Note to Santa: This Christmas feel free to bring me the Sirens of Titan couch pillow.

I also managed visits to the Koorsen Fire Extinguisher Museum...

...and the Indiana State Museum, where I was looking forward to seeing Fred the Mastodon; alas, when I got there Fred was wrapped in plastic...

A friend wondered if this was a COVID precaution; after all, he already went extinct once.

Fortunately, I was able to obtain a postcard showing Fred and some of his Ice Age pals...

Walking between museums--Indianapolis seems to be a fine walking town; it is, as advertised, blessedly flat--I came across the Indiana Workers' Memorial...

What, then, can I say about the whole trip?...

Friday, August 27, 2021


On major streaming platforms this weekend:

When I'm a Moth--Just after graduating from Wellesley, Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, spent part of the summer of 1969 in Alaska. She slummed around, working menial jobs, including, very briefly, cleaning salmon in Valdez. By her own account, she didn't like the work and had little aptitude for it, complained about the conditions at the facility and was fired after a week, shortly after which the place closed down.

The details of this peculiar episode are a bit vague, so filmmakers Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak are at pains to admit that this indie is a work of fiction; "So is the United States political situation," they add. They refer to their movie as an "un-biopic."

In an adventurous mood after getting fired, Hillary, played with amusing affectlessness by Addison Timlin, invites two unemployed Japanese fishermen (TJ Kayama and Toshiji Takeshima) who had been staring at her to join her for drinks. Gradually she bonds with the younger man, and talks to him in endless circles about her ambition, her lack of authenticity, her inability to see other people as real.

The movie is slow, but it has a certain moody power, a quietly sinister, Altman-esque atmosphere. I'm still not sure what Cotler and Zyzak were after, however. For a while I even wondered if this was some kind of covert art-house reactionary canard; I kept waiting for Hillary to commit a murder or something. At one point we even see her beginning a letter "Dear Saul..."; presumably to right-wing froth trigger Saul Alinsky.

More likely, though, When I'm a Moth is just an attempt to explore the "problem" of Hillary--in short, why she lost. But the answer may not be as complicated as her being hollow and soulless, even if she is.

It may simply be that she was a woman, and of no particular public charm or oratorical power, and she was placed in the wretched position of playing straight man to a sexist professional clown. It's almost as if she and her opponent played out in presidential politics the drama that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played out in sports. In the tennis world, it was a comedy; in the political world it was a tragedy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021


Like so many people of my generation, I've read and loved comic books since I was a small child. Over the last year or two, however, for some reason I've experienced a resurgence in my enthusiasm for weird-ass comics from the vintage of my own childhood and youth (and earlier), including titles I missed back then. Here, for instance, is an odd specimen I had never heard of, but which I turned up recently in the same junkshop stacks in which I found the Classics Illustrated version of Wild Animals I Have Known. This one is the 1982 Marvel Comic The Life of John Paul II.

"THE ENTIRE STORY!" the cover promises, "FROM HIS CHILDHOOD IN POLAND TO THE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT!" This was, almost certainly, the only time that the face of JP2 ever shared a cover with the face of Spider-Man. I also love that the Pontiff gets his own little upper-left-hand corner box illustration... which Marvel allowed browsers to flip through the rack and spot their favorites without pulling whole issues out, just like Spidey or Iron Man or She-Hulk or any other superhero. His superpower, I guess, is Infallibility when speaking Ex Cathedra.

Anyway, home with me it went.

This book has no ads or editorial content, no "Marvel Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan Lee's Soapbox," no full-page strip advertisement in which the Pope uses Hostess Fruit Pies to outwit an enemy. The back cover...

...depicts the Papal Coat of Arms.

The script, by Marvel veteran Steven Grant (later of The Punisher), uses a sort of Citizen Kane structure, with an American reporter waiting for a Papal appearance at Yankee Stadium in 1979 ("Me? I'm a newspaper man--and The Pope is my beat!"), and thinking back over the Pontiff's life as Karol Wojtyla back in Poland. We learn of his love of sports...

...his youth in the theatre, his struggles as a seminarian during the Nazi occupation of Poland...

...his rise to Cardinal, then to Pope...

The comic is at pains to place its admiration for the Pope on a social and secular basis...

...lest anybody suppose that Marvel, of all entities, had gone into the business of Catholic proselytism.

According to the inside back cover, the comic came about when Gene Pelc, a Marvel rep in Tokyo, became friends with a certain Father Julian, a Polish priest serving in Japan. In 1980 Marvel had published a comic book biography of St. Francis (!) called Francis, Brother of the Universe. Father Julian liked it, and thought Marvel should try their hand at a comic-book bio of JP2 as well; Father Mieczyslaw Malinski, who had been a pal of the Pope's when he was still Karol From the Block, was made "Consulting Editor."

Despite the secular disclaimers, though, the result is on the hagiographic side; it's largely a reverent, uncritical account. Which was the tricky part for me, because...I've never been a big fan.

Don't misunderstand: Though I was raised Presbyterian, I come from a heavily Catholic town, went to a Catholic college, had close friends, teachers and mentors who were Catholic, dated and married Catholic women. I've always found the Catholic world seductive, from the dazzling theatricality of its rituals and trappings to the mind-expanding, soul-wounding power of its philosophy, theology and art. The cultural legacy of Catholicism, for beautiful and for horrible, for nightmarish and for glorious, is awe-inspiring to me.

But JP2? For me, always kind of meh.

After John Paul I offered a flicker (possibly illusory) of hope for a more progressive direction for the Church, JP2, while undeniably formidable and charismatic, marked a return to dour, paternalistic, my-way-or-the-highway conservatism. He always seemed to me like part of the Neocon Holy Trinity of the '80s, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Even back then I would have regarded him as the least hypocritical, most intellectually complex, and indeed most admirable of that trio, but nonetheless his hardline positions on issues like gay rights, abortion and birth control struck me as harmful, and still do.

But while it didn't completely change this feeling in me, this improbable collaboration between the Vatican and Marvel--and I'm afraid that the values and ideals promulgated by Stan Lee's cornball comic empire of the '80s are closer to my heart than those of the Vatican from the same period--made me take into consideration JP2's staunch insistence on human equality, his ecumenism, his opposition to the death penalty, his capacity for forgiveness, etc. And thus this comic taught me an embarrassing truth about myself: If Marvel Comics thinks you're OK, I'm likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, August 20, 2021


Opening at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square today...

Flag Day--Based on Jennifer Vogel's 2004 memoir Flim-Flam Man, this is roughly the zillionth telling of one of the perennial American dramas: The relationship with the father. The author's often-absent dad, John Vogel, was a career criminal in the '80s with everything from bank robbery to arson to counterfeiting on his record; he was also a sensitive, loving person who sketched, and who introduced his daughter and son to Chopin and marinated steaks.

Sean Penn, who directed and who plays John Vogel, makes us see how both of these personalities can exist, albeit uncomfortably, in one guy. It's one of his most painfully believable performances since his turn in The Falcon and the Snowman back in 1985; like that guy, Penn's John Vogel is one of those people who are both repellently obnoxious and charismatic, somehow at the same time. He's a hustler in the grand Willy Loman tradition, insisting, when asked what he does for a living, that he's "an entrepreneur," with many irons in the fire at any given time.

Penn's daughter Dylan Penn is impressively un-histrionic and sympathetic as the grown-up version of Jennifer, taking over for a couple of first-rate younger actresses who play her earlier vintages. The director's son, Hopper Penn, effectively plays Jennifer's little brother as an adult.

Stylistically, the movie generates superbly convincing period atmosphere, and it has a '70s art-cinema vibe. It's like something by Terence Malick, with lots of leisurely montages cut to melancholy songs and deliberately grainy, home-movie-ish footage, and heavy use of Dylan Penn's voice-over narration. Virtually a catalog of severe family dysfunction, it's a bitterly sad story, but seen strictly in terms of Jennifer's accomplishment, it's a pretty inspirational story, too.

I wondered why Jennifer's beleaguered Mom (Katheryn Winnick) didn't get more sympathy, until her inaction during a crisis about midpoint in the film makes it harder to like her. Overall, though, the movie is yet another illustration of the tremendous, and tremendously unfair, emotional advantage that fathers tend to wield in the family dynamic, and in the Western narrative tradition. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


Exclusively, for now, in theaters:

Don't Breathe 2--The 2016 shocker Don't Breathe was, essentially, Wait Until Dark in reverse. Three thieves break into the home of a blind person, but this time, they discover that he's an ex-Navy Seal with murderous skills that compensate for his blindness and then some, and that he knows the turf and they don't. The crooks find themselves fighting for their lives.

It was a gruesome but gripping and witty tale, and it was built around a stunning performance, by Stephen Lang as The Blind Man. The veteran Lang has long seemed to me like a great actor who's never quite had a great role, and with The Blind Man he elevated this movie's Grand Guignol corn, as if by force of acting will, to an almost Shakespearean level.

For this sequel, co-written and directed by the Uruguayan Rodo Sayagues (who co-wrote the original), The Blind Man has been made the hero, more or less; this time he's fighting to rescue an adolescent girl, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), from a cadre of slimy creeps connected to human-organ trafficking. Although he wreaks gory havoc on the bad guys, his character is softened by comparison to the earlier film. This inevitably results in a shrinking of Lang's power, though he's still unforgettably baleful.


And Don't Breathe 2, like the first film, has an outrageous and unsavory plot twist that you aren't likely to see coming. But be forewarned: it's hideously violent, and animals are among the targets. Despite this, however, the movie does have a notably reverent attitude toward dogs; The Blind Man is reluctant to kill a dog even when his life may depend upon it, and the dog doesn't fail to reward his consideration.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021


Available now, and well worth checking out, on Amazon Prime...

Whirlybird--This documentary by Matt Yoka is both a chronicle of the rise of a new form of TV journalism and a fascinating but troubling and uncomfortable character study. The journalistic form, dating from the '80s and '90s, is eye-in-the-sky coverage, from helicopters, of car chases, riots, fires and the like. The character in question is Bob Tur, now Zoey Tur (she transitioned to female in 2014), a pioneering pilot and reporter of this sort in L.A.

As kids, Tur and his then-girlfriend Marika Gerrard (parents of MSNBC journalist Katy Tur) were headlong young stringers shooting video of accidents and crimes for local stations, giving their business the name Los Angeles News Service because Tur thought it sounded official. At some point he grew weary of negotiating streets, learned to fly, bought a helicopter and covered stories like the L.A. riots, the Northridge quake and, perhaps most notoriously, the O.J. Bronco chase, often with Marika, by then his wife, as cameraperson.

The team received many awards, including multiple News Emmys; Tur also had his pilot's license revoked or suspended more than once for reckless flying. His faithful backup pilot during these times was Lawrence Welk III. You can't make this stuff up.

This vivid yet comfortably distanced approach to reporting, with its lordly, omniscient viewpoint, often on the dramas of disadvantaged people, is journalistically problematic. Tur herself admits that witnessing the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots "made me feel like a racist." The form quite literally encourages us to look down on people.

But there may be a practical aviation reason to worry about helicopter news. That vintage of Tur--whose voice kept reminding me, somehow, of Owen Wilson's--emerges as a short-fused, barely-controlled maniac, spewing ugly verbal abuse at his wife while she struggled to get the shots. This leads the viewer, naturally enough, to wonder whether a person of this demeanor is ideally suited to be at the helm of an aircraft over a major metropolitan area.

As it happens, I know some people in the helicopter industry who saw Yoka's film. A very experienced professional helicopter pilot of my acquaintance told me, first, that the footage of Tur's "sloppy landings would make any professional pilot cringe." He went on to say that "The film dwells on Zoey's regrets, but not once does she ever express regret about jeopardizing the safety of anyone onboard or underneath the helicopter through her reckless flying or manic behavior in the air. In the end, it's still all about her--what she's lost, and not what she might have cost others."


This year's postponed edition of the Phoenix Film Festival finally kicks off tomorrow at Harkins Scottsdale 101...

...and runs through August 22, concurrent with the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, at the same venue. Check out my short preview article, online at Phoenix Magazine.

Sunday, August 8, 2021


Despite the depressingly--though appropriately--audience-less venues, I thoroughly enjoyed the Tokyo Summer Games, which wrapped up this evening. Thanks to the greatest TV channel of all time, Turner Classic Movies, I also got to observe the Olympiad by watching a film that's been on my list since I read about it back in the '70s...

Visions of Eight--Produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper and scored by Henry Mancini, this is a 1973 anthology of documentary shorts, each on a different aspect of the 1972 Munich Summer Games, by eight important directors of the time. All are interesting; a couple of them are real gems...

The Beginning--Soviet director Yuri Ozerov helmed this brief, briskly edited segment on the Opening Ceremonies. A standard travelogue in style, but a good time capsule of images and people.

The Strongest--Mai Zetterling choose weightlifting for her subject, she says, because she knew nothing about it, but was fascinated by the solitary, obsessive nature of the training. "I am not interested in sports, but I am interested in obsessions." She captured some remarkable physical feats, and some poignant psychology.

The Highest--As pure cinema, Arthur Penn's visual poem on pole vaulting is probably the best of these shorts. Nearly wordless--indeed, nearly soundless; just some dim crowd noise and chatter faded in and out--it's elliptical and almost hypnotically beautiful.

The Women--Though women had been participants in the Olympics since 1900, they were still enough of a novelty in '72 to be patronized in this short by Michael Pfleghar; he got some fine footage, however, including scenes of German long jumper Heide Rosendahl.

The Fastest--Kon Ichikawa had already directed one of the great sports documentaries, Tokyo Olympiad (1965), about the '64 Summer Games; it featured throat-catchingly wonderful footage of Ethiopian marathon great Abebe Bikila. His quick, highly concentrated, almost forensic look at the Men's 100 meter dash at different speeds is another high point of this collection.

The Decathlon--Milos Forman intercuts the event with both traditional and classical German music, at times facetiously. We see some of then-Bruce Jenner's first Olympic appearance.

The Losers--Claude Lelouch's painful and compassionate look at some of the losing athletes is another of the best segments.

The Longest--Except for a vague mention in the opening, this short by John Schlesinger is the only one to include any content about the Munich Massacre; its main subject, however, is British marathoner Ron Hill (who just died in May of this year, at 82). Somehow Schlesinger's style seems, with the possible exception of Ozerov's, the most dated and heavy-handed, but it's still a compelling chronicle.

What I liked about all of these films is how little any of them rely on talk; there are interviews or a scrap or two of narration here and there, but on the whole this is visual storytelling.

Anyway, in the unlikely event that you're not quite ready for a break from the Olympics, Visions of Eight is available to stream at through August 18; Blu-ray and DVD editions are available from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, August 6, 2021


Opening this weekend...

The Suicide Squad--Sort of a Dirty Dozen for the comic book world, The Suicide Squad is a team of DC supervillains offered suicide missions in return for reduced sentences. The premise debuted in 1959 in the team-up title The Brave and the Bold, and was revived in the late '80s. It made it to the movies in 2016 as Suicide Squad; this sequel adds a "The" to the title.

James Gunn directed this darkly comedic adventure, in which the Squad, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba) under the direction of Colonel Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), invades a small South American country which harbors a sinister alien force. Wild gory violence ensues, making Deadpool look like Paw Patrol.

The film is self-consciously brutal and cynical, as well as foul-mouthed and sexually frank; as such it can at times feel a bit wearyingly like reading the nihilistic yet energetic poetry of an angry sixteen-year-old. Yeah, yeah, you may want to say, life sucks, got it.

Even so, there's a lot to like in the film. Elba, who wisely plays it very straight, is always good company, and Margot Robbie, back as The Joker's jilted, cheerfully lethal girlfriend Harley Quinn, is as endearing as ever. Peter Capaldi only has one really juicy scene as a mad scientist, but he makes it count, and Jon Cena is quite droll as gung-ho '60s-era superhero Peacemaker. My own favorite is lovely, kindly Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher, who can communicate with and command rats the way Aquaman can lead the fish.

I also loved Starro, the giant, colorful cyclopean starfish that menaces the team in the movie's nutty climax. He strongly resembles the aliens from the 1956 Japanese sci-fi flick known in the U.S. as Warning from Space, but he's a lot less benign.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021


The Wife, The Kid and I made a hectic, way-too-short trip back east to the homeland for a family reunion, a tour of Penn State Behrend, etc. Here are some travelogue pix, starting with me at Cleveland Hopkins Airport posing with one of Cleveland's favorite sons (I'm in the foreground)...

Next is me in Conneaut, Ohio, outside The White Turkey, from which a root beer float may have been consumed...

Friday evening we went with friends Lory Anne and Tom to UPMC Park (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Park; formerly Jerry Uht Park) in downtown Erie, Pa, to see our beloved Erie Seawolves (AA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers) play the second of two seven-inning double header games, a makeup game from the previous night's rainout. The Seawolves lost to the Bowie (MD) Baysox, alas, but Dippin' Dots were consumed, The Kid got to hang out with mascot C. Wolf...

...and after the game there was a fireworks show that sounded like the invasion of Bagdad.

Great baseball weather, too.

We made a pilgrimage to Mighty Fine Donuts on Parade Street in Erie; the name is not false advertising... 

We drove over to Meeder's in Ripley, New York, and bought a jar of their grape jelly...

...but as we were going through security at Cleveland Hopkins on the way home, the TSA agent flagged my suitcase, dug out the jar of jelly and said "Sir, this can't go through." "Just toss it," I said. What else could I say? Very disappointing. Pretty drive, anyway.

The Wife, The Kid and I also made it, along with our friend Lory Anne, to Waldameer Park in Erie, arriving only about an hour before closing time. The Kid, guilting me for being too chicken to take her on the roller coaster at New York New York in Vegas a few years ago, talked me into riding the Ravine Flyer 2, the gigantic terrifying wooden roller coaster there. I had ridden it a few years earlier with Lory's husband Tom, and would have thought nothing could have induced me back on. But when I saw kids of 8 and 10 eager to get aboard, I felt ashamed of my craven cowardice; this did not, however, stop me from bellowing like a wounded moose through the ride's brief duration.

Afterwards, I had the honor of accompanying The Wife on my favorite ride at Waldameer, the Wacky Shack (Lory Anne, who took these photos, rode with The Kid)...

One of my most treasured memories of the first couple of years of our marriage was of The Wife throwing her arms around my neck and saying "Kiss me in the Wacky Shack..." Pretty much sums up a successful marriage, if you ask me.

A few more random images: Me with some of the rather patriotic dinosaurs at Peters Welding on Bartlett Road in Harborcreek, PA... fellow Harbor Creek Marching Husky and pal Pete Geanous and his sister Liz made me a delicious Greek omelet at Coney Island Lunch in Wesleyville...

...I got to see my pal Stan, very briefly (and my pal Ron, only a bit less briefly, but didn't get a pic)...

The Kid at Presque Isle, at "Kite Beach," at Glass Growers Gallery and at the top of the tower at Dobbins Landing...

The Wife & Lory Anne at the Presque Isle Lighthouse...

...and a pierogi burger at Union Station in Erie...

Family reunion pics...

And finally...Elvis!

The hotel at which The Wife and I stayed (The Kid, mercifully, stayed with Lory Anne and Tom) was, I think, the grossest, divey-est hotel at which I've ever stayed, which is certainly saying something. Due (supposedly) to COVID, no changed bedding or room cleaning, no clean towels, and--not due to COVID--no elevators, and rusted-out stairwells that looked, potentially, due for collapse. Having said that, the staff was nice, the continental breakfast offered excellent scrambled eggs, there was a party atmosphere among the guests, particularly the Western PA Retreads, a motorcycle club for bikers 40 and older. And...on our last night there, there was live entertainment! Rudy Elvis, an impersonator of The King from Canvas, West Virginia (near Summerville), played to a seriously packed ballroom of aging bikers...

I wandered by, loitered in the doorway long enough to hear Rudy E. perform two Hank Williams songs "which Elvis made his own, to a degree": "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." A nice lady spotted me and offered me a chair. I also heard a pretty respectable "Return to Sender" before I had to step away. A while later, I was in the lobby again and two middle aged Rudy-heads (who had followed him up from WVA for the show) asked me what I thought; I was able to honestly say I enjoyed it. About this time Rudy himself stepped into the lobby, saw me, and told me that he noticed me singing along with "Your Cheatin' Heart." "You're one of those guys who, if I forgot the words, I'd just look at your mouth."

His groupies explained to me that Rudy had taken up Elvising just ten years ago; this, they said, was his 218th performance--Monday night at the ironically-named Quality Inn, at State Street and I-90 in Erie. Good gig; living the dream!

Then it was back to the airport in Cleveland, with this lovely view out the window of the Great Lakes Brewery where we had lunch. A memorable voyage!