Wednesday, January 25, 2023


The cover story in the January/February issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands... "Eatin' in the USA," in which you learn where you can get a signature dish from all fifty states without leaving the Valley. Your Humble Narrator is proud to have been one of the authors; see if you can guess the ten states I covered. Hint: I wasn't assigned my beloved home state of Pennsylvania, but I did get to do one of its neighbors, with a dish also relished in my home town of Erie.

Friday, January 20, 2023


2022 is unlikely, it seems to me, to go down in history as a banner year for popular movies. But even in less auspicious years, there are always some good flicks, and some good or even great scenes or performances in movies that aren't so great overall.

Out of what I saw, here are ten movies that stood out as best for me this past year:

Nope--Jordan Peele's latest is probably the best UFO movie since Close Encounters, though it has a more sinister edge. It's wildly original, funny and creepy sci-fi/horror, yet it also carries the heroic charge of a good western.

Good Night Oppy--This documentary about the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit has interesting information about the Red Planet, but it's really about the way the NASA nerds anthropomorphized the robots and fretted over them and cheered them on and ultimately grieved over them. In an entirely unpretentious way, the movie hints at the question of where sentience comes from. 

The Duke--This pandemic-delayed release was, I thought, perhaps the most overlooked and delightful movie of the year. Jim Broadbent is splendid as Kempton Bunton, a cab driver, factory worker and anti-television fee protestor who in 1965 confessed to stealing Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London; Helen Mirren is his fed-up wife. The direction, by the late Roger Michell, is warm, graphically lively and period-rich.

Everything Everywhere All At Once--Family drama, immigrant saga, sly comedy, martial arts actioner, Matrix-style sci-fi adventure and more are mashed-up in this freaky yarn from writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert that tries to live up to its title. It's epic, intimate, silly and profound. All at once.

Thirteen Lives--Dramatizing a technically complicated rescue mission in detail, Ron Howard is in his element in this moving account of the rescue of twelve Thai kids and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in 2018. A little tough if you're claustrophobic, but a true feel-good movie.

The Whale--Brendan Fraser gives a luminous, possibly generational performance as Charlie, a morbidly obese English teacher trying to reconnect with his furious estranged daughter. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the movie is a little heavy and one-note aside from the star, but Fraser's radiance shines through the prosthetics.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down--Infuriating because of what Giffords lost when she was shot in 2011; inspirational because of how much she got back, and how courageously she refused to give in to despair. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West build the movie around how central music was to Giffords' recovery.

The Fabelmans--In Steven Spielberg's loosely autobiographical coming-of-age yarn, scripted by Tony Kushner, the focus is largely on the parents, beautifully played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams. The movie isn't a grand slam, but it's fascinating, and it has the best final shot of the year.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On--This feature expansion of the 2010 viral short by Dean Fleischer-Camp, with Jenny Slate voicing the tiny title character, is sunny and hilarious, but with improbably dramatic and poignant undertones. Isabella Rossellini is exquisite as the voice of Marcel's "Nan."

The Banshees of Inisherin--Martin McDonagh's black comedy about the agonies of friendship goes so sour in its later acts that I almost didn't put it on the list. But the brilliance of the initial conception and, especially, the magnificent acting of Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon demand its inclusion.

One more list, while I'm at it; for anyone who might unfathomably be interested, here is the embarrassingly short list of books I read this year (as always, it doesn't include short stories, poems, comic books, essays, articles, reviews, automotive manuals, skywriting, menus, fortune cookie fortunes, etc etc)...

The Silent Gondoliers by William Nolan

Sucker's Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Spread by Barry Malzberg

Ben by Gilbert A. Ralston

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak

Destry Rides Again by Max Brand

Friday, January 6, 2023


In theaters today:

Women Talking--In a hardcore religious farming colony, a group of men have been arrested for repeatedly tranquilizing and sexually violating women of all ages, including young children. The attacks have been attributed to ghosts or the Devil, or to "wild female imagination." With the farm to themselves for a couple of days before the men make bail, the minimally educated women sit around the barn and debate whether to forgive the men and carry on as before, to "stay and fight," or to leave the only home they've ever known. They've been told that if they leave, they will forfeit their place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley from the novel by Miriam Toews--inspired by a real-life 2011 case at a Mennonite community of Canadian origin in Bolivia--this drama opens by calling itself, in subtitle, an act of female imagination. It certainly feels convincing. Superb actresses of all ages, ranging from Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and a particularly forbidding Frances McDormand among the elders to Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy among the younger adults to some fine, lively women among the youth, embody the various responses, from seething, vengeful fury to sad acceptance.

Though the tone is inevitably somber, Polley's direction is deft, and she leavens the gloom with some high-spirited moments. Looking in from outside their world, many of us in the audience are likely to feel the most sympathy with the viewpoint of the enraged women who favor a violent response; the idea of a mass exodus from the scene of these atrocities sounds like a solid idea too. Forgiveness and a return to the status quo feels, in this instance, like a very distant third.

The movie also includes a token adult male, a gentle schoolteacher (Ben Wishaw, excellent as usual) not implicated in the attacks, who is allowed to take the minutes of their discussions because he can write. He's been to university outside the colony, and when a census-taker drives by in a car, blaring "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees, he softly sings along. The moment makes a pretty strong case for secular pop culture.

Now streaming:

She Said--This chronicle of the struggle of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey to break the Harvey Weinstein case could be seen as a sort of companion piece to Women Talking (Brad Pitt was among the Executive Producers on both). At one point in the investigation Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan) wonder if anyone will care about the story if it runs. People did--the story, which ran in October of 2017, was not only one of the factors that led to Weinstein's arrest and conviction, it also helped get the #MeToo movement rolling.

The initial response to the movie, directed by Maria Schrader from a script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (based on Kantor and Twohey's book), was less explosive, however; it bombed in the multiplexes in November. It's worth a watch, though. While it lacks the precision and tension of the greatest of investigative-journalist buddy pictures, All the President's Men, it's still an absorbing account, focusing on the extreme reluctance of the targets of Weinstein's savagery to be first to go on the record by name.

Schrader's direction generates a palpable atmosphere of the gloomy anxiety that life in the 45 era had for many of us, but probably more intensely for women, but we're spared graphic violence. While we hear a skin-crawling audio tape of Weinstein with one of the women, the actual assaults are kept offscreen. Much of the dramatic potency in the film derives from the stunned faces of Kazan and Mulligan as they interview the women; the horror that quietly registers in their eyes effectively takes the place of seeing what they're hearing.