TV, I Bow Before Thee!

Like everyone, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when a vaccine is created that puts an end to the pandemic that has sent us into the twilight zone. It will be fabulous to ditch the f*cking masks and gloves that make us look like weirdo safe crackers. Better yet, getting together with friends and relatives will be back on our agendas, and the outlook will be fair or better for those businesses that were able to survive the dark times. Until that day arrives though, the overall picture, I believe, will continue to be anything but pretty.

Fortunately, life has been okay for me and my wife Sandy since coronavirus struck our part of the USA in March (we live near Philadelphia). Nowhere near as okay as it used to be, but okay enough. You adapt as best you can, after all, and try to deal with reality decently.

Among other things, the pandemic has forced me to make major adjustments to time allocation, as many of what had been my normal, much-enjoyed activities are only memories right now. That’s because, for health and safety reasons, my volunteer jobs were suspended and most of the usual outside-the-home entertainment choices that Sandy and I indulged in (socializing, cinemas, music venues, restaurants, museums) are unavailable, for now anyway.

So, how have I, a lazy septuagenarian, been filling the 16 or so hours of freed-up time each week? Well, for one thing, the living room sofa and I see more of each other than ever before. Upon its sensuous cushions I while away the time, alternating between scratching my balls and twirling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. Yes, I’m proud to report that my fellas are hanging in there okay, considering my advanced age, and that the strands of hair look damn studly. Thanks for asking!

Now, the scratching and twirling account for about nine of the 16 hours, and largely are confined to mornings and afternoons. What about the other seven hours? In a word, television. You see, in early April I really began to miss the kicks I’d been getting for ages at concerts, cinemas, etc. This ol’ boy needed to get entertainment from somewhere. And I wanted to do that with Sandy, my partner in kicks-experiencing for lo these many years. Television was the obvious outlet.

It’s not that I’m a stranger to the tube. In fact, I once was a highly dedicated viewer. But that ended about 12 years ago. Since then I’ve watched TV mostly in shortish sessions and mostly late at night, compulsively and expertly flipping channels. That pattern now has expanded. Yeah, I’ve retained the late night regimen. But, in addition, several evenings a week at around 8:30 or 9:00, Sandy and I head upstairs to our bedroom, which contains the bigger and better of the two TV sets in our home. We then proceed to lose ourselves for an hour or more. Doing so is nothing new for Sandy, who always has racked up admirable numbers of evening hours in front of the home screen. But, as noted, it’s been more than a while for me.

And you know what? I love it! Laughing, gasping, oohing and aahing together has been fun. Together, of course, is the operative word.

And what have we watched? Good movies, such as The Two Popes, The Wizard Of Oz, Saving Mr. Banks,  and Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. And a not-so-good one, Roma, which won an Oscar as 2018’s best foreign language film but which left me blank.

And entertaining series, two of them (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) on network and premium-channel television. The others (Sherlock; Lilyhammer; After Life) were on Netflix, which has become one of my greatest pals. Man, we tore through the Netflix series zestfully, usually chowing down two episodes per sitting (no binge-watching for us, though. Maybe Sandy has the energy for that, but I don’t). And we’ve only scratched the surface of what the Netflix library holds.

Yes, without a doubt we’ll keep watching TV together till outside-the-house entertainment opens up, and probably not stop even then. I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot to be said for TV togetherness. I used to know that, but had forgotten. So, at least one positive development has come out of the pandemic.

Girls and boys, in conclusion let me say this: The last few months have been disorienting to most, probably all, of us. What adjustments have you needed to make as a result of coronavirus’ far reach? How do you spend the extra hours that you might have found yourself with? Finally, which shows and movies have you been watching on TV? I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about any or all of these items.

A Shadowy Walk In The Hood

Until recently, the only time I made a New Year’s resolution was during the waning days of 1976. My intent back then was to ditch the cigarette habit I’d been enjoying for a dozen years. Man, I did it, starting a few days later on the first of January, though I had a low-level relapse in 1982 that didn’t reach its conclusion till 1985.

Several weeks ago, the circumstances were right once again for the New Year’s resolution thing. That’s because an annual health checkup, in mid-December 2019, revealed that my glucose level had inched a bit over the top of the normal range. Crap! What was a very-aging boy to do if he wanted to try and prevent diabetes from setting in? Well, some dietary changes definitely were in order. As in, cutting back on the carbs. And the time also had arrived to up the hours that I spend in motion, as opposed to those spent while sitting on my wrinkly ass. The experts seem convinced, you see, that a decent amount of sustained movement each week can help many people drive their glucose numbers southward. Ergo, since early January, in addition to the energy I expend running errands and chasing my own tail, I’ve been taking four or five half-hour walks each week.

Most of the walks have been in my suburban neighborhood which, unlike the rest of the town, is hilly as hell (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA). Going uphill on the steep slopes is good, obviously, for my exercise regimen, though there’s no doubt I’ll be withdrawing that statement if the exertion precipitates a cardiac event. That’s assuming I survive said event, of course. So far, however, I haven’t needed the assistance of emergency medical personnel or of an undertaker, so I’ll stop that train of thought in its tracks. Let’s return to the walks.

While pounding the pavement on January 22, I noticed a couple of things that ordinarily wouldn’t have jumped out at me but, for reasons unknown, this time did. “Yeah, shadows!” I silently exclaimed to myself, at the end of the walk, when I saw some of them on the sidewalk near my house. “Shadows are cool. I’ll scour the neighborhood for shadows on the next walk. That’ll give me something to write about for the blog. The story won’t be amazingly interesting, but so what? Nobody expects anything all that interesting from old f*cks like me anyway.”

January 23 soon enough arrived. As I left my house that day at 11:30 AM, the temperature of about 42°F (6°C) was bracing but not all that bad. The skies were clear, so our pal The Sun was able to help cast shadows right and left. Ordinarily I listen to podcasts on my iPhone while walking in the hood, to avoid becoming bored shitless. But this time I was podcast-less, the better to focus on my mission. And so focused was I, an hour sped by before I knew it. I hadn’t expected to be out that long. At the end of the hour I arrived back home, having gotten plenty of exercise, and with a bunch of photos of shadows sitting within the phone.

I’ll say it again: Shadows are cool. They are shape-shifting, darkened, alternate images of what passes for reality. They have no substance at all, as far as I, a guy who nearly flunked high school physics, know. And yet, there they are. Not only that, they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere! Well, almost everywhere. I hope that my voyage through the hood the other day doesn’t cause me to become fixated on shadows, as that would be a turn of events not the least bit appreciated. But I sure enough dug them during the session in which I sought them out.

Shadow-wise, I didn’t come across anything particularly unexpected. But that was okay.  Tree shadows that spread mightily across fences and paved streets impressed me muchly, as did the dainty silhouettes of traffic signs. I envied the long fingers of the patterns created by play equipment in the kids’ section of the park two blocks from my abode. And everyday objects that I ordinarily wouldn’t give the time of day to, such as fire hydrants and recycling bins, received my blessings because of the endearingly goofy shapes that they produced.

Still, among all the pictures, how could I not most admire the one containing my own alter-image? I damn well have star appeal in that one, I’m certain everyone would agree. If any movie producers are reading this story (and why wouldn’t they be?) and are in need of a mysterious figure to lurk in the shadows of a movie scene or two or more (and why wouldn’t they be?), look no further. Lurking is my middle name. I am your man!

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I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!

When Martin Scorsese Asked For My Help, I Obliged!: A Cinematic Story Of Sorts

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

“Neil! It’s Marty. Do you got a minute? I really need your help,” Martin Scorsese, the titanic film director, said to me a few days ago. He was calling from his production studios in Manhattan, where he’s putting the finishing touches on The Irishman, a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How can a schlub like me be friends with a luminary like Scorsese? Maybe I’ll go into the details in a future article. For now, let me merely say that Marty and I first met, a few years ago, in a dream (click here to access that dream). Our relationship evolved and deepened organically from there into a real-life friendship.

Leonardo DiCaprio (photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

“Listen, Neil,” Marty went on, “here’s why I’m calling. You know Leo, right? Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s been in a bunch of my films.”

“Sure, everybody knows who he is. But I never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (attributed to Francesco Melzi)

“Leo’s a great guy,” Marty went on. “Talented as hell. Smart as hell too, a genius in fact. That’s why, I suppose, I came up with this fabulous idea: DiCaprio should portray Leonardo da Vinci in a movie. One genius playing another genius. One Leonardo playing another Leonardo. Could anything be cooler than that? I love it, man! It can’t miss . . . except that I’m having trouble figuring out what angle the movie ought to take, what it should be about. A straight drama? Forget it. I’ve done enough of those. A comedy? Definitely could work. Picture this: Da Vinci would be a bumbler in the film, stumbling from one misadventure to another. The running gag would be da Vinci getting his humongous beard caught in a door wherever he goes. ‘Get me out of this hairy situation, I beg you! The f*cking door is stuck!’ would be his catchphrase.”

“Marty, that’s good. You can’t go wrong with a comedy. But you know what’s even better? A superhero movie, Marty, a superhero movie. Da Vinci was gifted as hell. He was a painter, an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, a you-name-it. Shit, there was nothing that old boy couldn’t do. He was the Renaissance man of all Renaissance men.”

Marty cut me off. “I’m listening, Neil. And I like where I think you’re going with this. Tell me more.”

“Well, only the greatest Renaissance man of them all has what it takes to save the hub of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy — from two potentially catastrophic invasions. The first assault is by aliens, the second by zombies.”

“When the aliens, looking for all the world like seven-foot tall ants, descend upon Florence from a distant galaxy, in 1505, the city’s residents are thrown into a panic,” I continued. “But Leonardo da Vinci, a Florentine, stays cool, immediately putting his scientific know-how into use. Within an hour he invents a chemical spray that anything resembling an ant will be powerless against. Then he disguises himself with a Mona Lisa mask, whose enigmatic smile stops the invaders in their tracks. They’ve never seen such a smile before, and are nearly hypnotized by it. Spray bottles in hand, da Vinci now advances on the creatures, systematically killing them one by one.”

David, by Michelangelo (photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unna)

“‘All we wanted to do was steal Michelangelo’s statue of David from your city and bring it back to our planet,’ the alien leader says to da Vinci with its final breaths. ‘David’s hung like a horse, after all. Most impressive! The statue would have sat majestically in our supreme ruler’s palace. He’d have gazed at it admiringly and enviously, sometimes bemoaning the less-than-daunting size of his own genitalia.'”

“You’re on a roll, Neil,” Marty said. “What’s next?”

“Well, only one week after da Vinci dispatches the aliens, Florence is confronted with an untold number of zombies. Those f*ckers seemingly came from out of nowhere. But they don’t stand a chance, not with our Renaissance man on the scene. He dons his signature mask, whose smile has the same effect on the zombies as it did on the aliens. That’s when da Vinci whips out the hammer and chisel that he’s borrowed from Michelangelo — the very same tools that Michelangelo used to carve the David statue — and bashes the living crap out of the baddies. Problem solved! Case closed!”

“Yes, this is the best!” Marty exclaimed. “Mega-sance Man, short for Mega Renaissance Man, is what we’ll call da Vinci’s alter ego. And that’ll be the name of the film too. Neil, I can tell that this will be the most popular movie I’ve ever made, an absolute blockbuster. I’m going to hang up now. I’ve got to call DiCaprio and tell him about your genius ideas. For years he’s been itching to play a guy who saves the world. Thank you, Neil, thank you. You’ll receive a screenwriter credit, of course, and hefty payments for your contributions.”

“Marty, in your hands Mega-sance Man will be stunning. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive, would be flattered and proud.”

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Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

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The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

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The Best Movie Of 2018 Is . . .

I speak nothing but the truth when I say that I’ve never paid much attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which are honors bestowed upon the film and television industries. (I’m not anti-awards shows, by the way, being a lifelong Oscars devotee.) However, two news flashes are in order in regard to that opening sentence: 1) Hardly anybody gives a shit about what I do or don’t pay attention to, which is entirely as it should be. 2) Many millions of people pay a good deal of attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which may or may not be as it should be.

Recently, though, for the first time ever I did spend a few minutes looking online at the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes event held on January 6. That’s because I was curious about how much overlap there would be between my choices for 2018’s best flicks and the choices of the folks who vote for the GGs.

There wasn’t a ton of overlap. The Globes nominated 20 films (five nominees in each of four categories: drama; musical or comedy; animated; foreign language). I saw only six of them, of which I thought highly of three (A Star Is Born; BlacKkKlansman; Isle Of Dogs). And as for the winners, I caught but one: Green Book, good but not special in my estimation, won in the musical or comedy division, though in my view it isn’t a member of either of those genres. It’s a drama with light comedic brushstrokes. Whatever.

Also bringing home the bacon at the GGs were Bohemian Rhapsody (drama), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (animated), and Roma (foreign language). I have a feeling that I’m going to love Roma when I see it. As for the latest Spidey affair, there’s almost zero chance that I’ll fit it into my schedule during my remaining time on Planet Earth. Bohemian Rhapsody, though, definitely is on my radar screen.

So much for the Golden Globe Awards, then. The time now has arrived for me to pen some thoughts about my nominees for best picture and about why my winner from that pool captured the top spot. Caveat: Even though I’ve seen a lot of movies — 32 — that were released in the USA during 2018, there’s no question that numerous good ones didn’t pass before my eyes. But you can’t see everything. Away we go.

Of the 32, a few, such as The Death Of Stalin and On Chesil Beach, stunk up the joint mightily, in my modest opinion. But most of the others were enjoyable, some remarkably so. And a small group were not only highly enjoyable but thought-provoking and poignant too. It’s those three characteristics that elevate them into my Best Films Of 2018 category. Here they are: The Hate U Give; The Insult; American Animals; BlacKkKlansman; The Rider; Leave No Trace. Three others (Eighth Grade; First Man; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) came awfully close to making my list, but six is more than enough for me to deal with.

That sextet is a very fine group. I mean, these are thoughtful, carefully-crafted movies. The Insult, filmed in Lebanon and subtitled, peers at the societal and familial ramifications brought about by two men’s stubbornness and unchecked emotions. BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give throw American racism right smack into your face. American Animals, about which I’ve previously written (click here), is a depiction of screwy, exciting people on a crazy quest. Their quest kept me nervous as hell.

The final two flicks, unlike the four just mentioned, are enveloped with calmer vibes. A quiet, contemporary tale set among Native American cowboys, The Rider matter-of-factly and movingly presents tragedy and love in equal measures. And what about Leave No Trace (click here to read my earlier comments about it), in which a father and his teenage daughter, living off the grid, eventually have to decide how far into society they will venture? Well, among other things, it absolutely broke my heart.

When I began tossing around ideas for this article, I thought it would be difficult for me to select a winner. Turns out it wasn’t. Only one of the nominees has popped into my mind semi-regularly since I watched it. And although each of the six got to me in one or more meaningful ways, the depth to which Leave No Trace penetrated leaves no doubt that crowning any other movie would be oh so wrong. Leave No Trace, I bow before your powers.

At the start of Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik (who notched those same credits for 2010’s excellent Winter’s Bone), dad Will (played by Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are doing their best to keep away from organized society. They live in a makeshift campsite deep within an Oregon public forest, where they forage and hunt. Will, an emotionally and psychologically damaged war vet (he probably served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, though we never find out), has chosen this life for them. But he’s not a hopeless case, not when it comes to Tom, who is the apple of his eye and for whom he’d do just about anything. And Tom’s feelings for her father are as deep as his are for her.

As might be expected, though, time and the legal and social welfare systems catch up with the duo. After evaluations by social workers, Will and Tom are placed into a soft corner of the real world. The second half of the movie is an elegant laying out of their responses to their new circumstances. The movie’s end, sad and profound, yet life-affirming in a sense, just might break your heart as much as it did mine.

Okay, I’m about to bid you adieu, but first I have to state the obvious. Namely, it’s as clear as a bright, sunny day that no one movie is the best of 2018, or of any year. Everyone has their own opinions. The Golden Globes picked their 2018 winners, and I’ve picked Leave No Trace. I’d be very interested to know which films, from 2018, you think stand out from the rest, or any other thoughts you have about movies. So, please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias. Goodbye till next time!

Gutsy People: Thoughts About A Movie, A Book, And The Wider World

When I comment about movies on these pages, I try to be a good guy by not revealing all, especially endings. I mean, for anyone with an itch to see a certain flick, that itch might damn near disappear if they become privy to too much telling information.

But a spoiler alert ain’t needed for Free Solo, a documentary profiling the great rock climber Alex Honnold that was released in September and is still in some theaters. That’s because the beans already have been spilled in every review and article that has been written about this movie. In other words, hell yeah, he made it to the top! To the top of El Capitan, that is, the monster, vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he reached the top, about 3,000 feet above ground, by climbing El Cap without ropes, a harness or safety equipment of any sort. And without a climbing partner or partners. That’s what free solo means. The only item, other than clothing, that Honnold wore while becoming the first (and, so far, only) person to accomplish this superhuman feat on El Cap was a small bag on his back that contained chalk, a substance he’d periodically coat his hands with, the better to grip the rock. (Others had scaled El Cap over the years, but always with ropes and additional equipment.)

What any rock climber does seems pretty well off the charts to me. Shit, I would make it about two feet off the ground on El Capitan’s face, maybe three. Which isn’t bad actually. Only 2,998 or 2,997 feet to go. But what Honnold did on June 3, 2017 was so far off the charts as to be laughable, in a magnificent way, and nearly inconceivable. The film crew that captured his exploits agree. Skilled rock climbers themselves, they are shown in the documentary, nervous as can be and totally awed by what was taking place in front of their eyes.

For anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense, this is a movie not to be missed. If possible, watch it in a theater rather than at home. Whatever the venue, the bigger the screen the better. My wife, brother and I went to see Free Solo in early November. We sat in the sixth or seventh row of a cinema, nice and close to the action. We were captivated. You will be too.

By the way, when I mentioned for anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense a few sentences ago, I meant to include and an appreciation of guts. As modest and unflappable as Alex appears in Free Solo’s interview segments, there’s no denying that he is in possession of an oceanic amount of guts, and I for one find his courage to be very inspiring, And although not too many people are going to try and scale giant rocks, it’s of course true that in less dramatic ways many or most of us display courage throughout parts or all of our lives. And that’s inspiring too. Hell, for much of humanity, simply getting out of bed and facing the day is a brave act, considering the nasty, even horrific, realities facing them.

I read the late novelist Kent Haruf’s final book, Our Souls At Night (it was published in 2015, the year after Haruf died), a few days after watching Alex climb. There are a variety of ways in which to look at Our Souls At Night, as there are with Free Solo. It’s about love and the lack thereof. It’s about emotional pains that do not fully heal. And it’s also about the guts shown by a man and a woman, each around 70 years old, who throw aside their normal inhibitions and begin a relationship with one another.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed, are longtime neighbors who are acquainted only slightly. They live in Holt, Colorado, the fictional town that is the setting for all six of Haruf’s novels. But, as becomes apparent, Addie has had Louis on her mind for some time. One day she pays Louis a visit. Here’s some of what Haruf writes on Our Souls At Night’s second and third pages:

You probably wonder what I’m doing here, she said.
Well, I didn’t think you came over to tell me my house looks nice.
No, I want to suggest something to you.
Oh?
Yes. A kind of proposal.
Okay.
Not marriage, she said.
I didn’t think that either.
But it’s kind of a marriage-like question. But I don’t know if I can now. I’m getting cold feet. She laughed a little. That’s sort of like marriage, isn’t it.
What is?
Cold feet.
It can be.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Wow! Addie has guts. An abundance of it. Don’t know how many folks in her age bracket would do what she does. Couldn’t be a lot. In any event, Louis accepts Addie’s offer. They begin their affair — a platonic one at the start — cautiously. And, finding that they are getting along just fine, take it to higher levels. They become a strong and true couple, telling each other their life stories, opening up more than they did to their deceased spouses.

Addie and Louis do not go unnoticed in Holt. Snide and angry comments and actions come their way from the small-minded, which includes Addie’s adult son Gene. How do Addie and Louis end up? Hey, unlike with Free Solo, I’m not revealing the conclusion, a conclusion that I found to be wanting in relation to what had preceeded it. Still, I give Our Souls At Night a thumbs-up. Haruf, as is clear from his words above, writes beautifully. His style is direct and unflowery, and the book’s characters feel real.

Alex Honnold doesn’t boast about courage in Free Solo. Neither do Addie Moore or Louis Waters in Our Souls At Night. In fact, the three barely talk about it. But they each own courage and use it for their personal betterment, and in manners that bring no harm to others or to the natural world.

(As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks.)

Two New Movies That I Liked A Lot: “American Animals” And “RBG”

As I’ve mentioned a few times before on this publication’s pages, I go out pretty often to the movies. So far this year I’ve caught 20 of ’em. Maybe early in 2019 I’ll do a nice, big writeup on the flicks that passed before my eyes and ears during this, our current year. But for now I’m going to limit my focus and write briefly about only two. I saw both very recently and they agreed deliciously with my delicate system. Okay, away we go.

By the time you read this essay, American Animals may be gone from the theaters. If it remains in one near you, however, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and go to see it. Or do likewise in the comfort of your home whenever it materializes on Netflix or HBO or whatever. (But note the caveat several paragraphs below).

What we have here is an indie effort that struck me as near-perfect filmmaking. The movie is entertaining as hell. Its plot unravels tantalizingly. Its screenplay nails the way that people talk. The acting is excellent. And you’ll be sweating bullets when the going gets rough. Hey, you get the idea. I’m an American Animals fan!

American Animals tells the story of four college-age guys who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare and valuable books (including an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America) from the special collections department of Transylvania University’s library. Believe it or not, there really is a Transylvania University. That institution is located in Lexington, Kentucky. And believe it or not once again, the story that plays out in American Animals really did happen. Writer and director Bart Layton constructed the movie by cutting between reenactments of the crazy story lines, using professional actors, and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The latter offer fascinating commentaries on what was going through their minds at various points in the heist’s planning and execution.

It would be wrong, wrong, wrong for me to spill any more beans about American Animals. You’ll thank me, should you view the movie, for not being a spoiler kind of individual. And so I’ll end my discussion of Animals by noting that anyone who wilts and/or takes shelter from barrages of F-bombs should stay away. As for everyone else, I believe that this one’s for you.

Oh wait. There is another thing or two: I’d never heard of Bart Layton before, and knew but one member of Animal’s cast (Blake Jenner), but so what? The movie proved to me, as numerous others have, that the world is awash with very talented though hardly famous individuals. I’m totally down with that.

RBG, a hit documentary that entered a sizeable number of American cinemas in May, and is still in quite a few, was not on my to-be-seen list. I don’t know why, but I decided that I wasn’t all that interested in learning about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest (age 85) of the nine justices who comprise the USA’s Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the land. But my wife Sandy badly wanted to see it and, peerless spouse that I am, I capitulated. Off we went on a miserably hot day to watch the film in downtown Philadelphia.

I’m here to report that I was wrong. RBG (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) is really good. Justice Ginsburg has led a remarkable life, one devoted to her family, to the advancement of human rights and to the intricacies and necessity of the law.

This movie might not be up the alley of those who, like The Donald, are narrow-minded, mean-spirited and eager to restrict and oppress. But if you believe in respect and equality, then I imagine you’ll become an admirer of Ruth. Hell, you probably already are. Unbeknownst to me, without trying in the least she became a cultural icon and a judicial rock star over the last 10 or so years. This was quite an unexpected phenomenon, since Ginsburg is a quiet, unassuming sort. But millions of Americans have become captivated by her steadfastness, by her support of abortion rights and of gender rights. And by the slight twinkle in her eye and shy smile on her face that she often wears. She’s endearing. No other justice on the high court has a devoted fan base like hers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is smart as a whip. She graduated from law school in 1959 and began to make her name in the legal world in the 1970s, co-founding The Women’s Rights Project and ultimately arguing six gender-rights cases before the Supreme Court. Little did she know that she herself would become a member of that court in 1993, after Bill Clinton nominated her for the job.

Now, I’m anything but a jurisprudence expert, but I’m being more than decently accurate, I think, by describing Ginsburg’s philosophy on the high court as liberal but cautious, common-sensical and mindful of people’s needs. She has taken her job extremely seriously, as well she should, working enormous numbers of hours. And she has no plans to retire. As she says in the film, she won’t step down until she feels that she is unable to keep up her full-steam-ahead pace. She’s a source of hope and pride for many in these right-wing crazy, Trumpian times.

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on good ol’ social media.)

The Oscars Are A-Comin’

I’m very well acquainted with some people who wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards telecast if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance. They can’t stand all the pomp and the self-congratulatory aura that the show is partially dressed in. Well, if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance I’d watch anything, you know, even brain-dissolving entities like The Maury Show or Chrisley Knows Best. That’s the kind of guy I am. Looking out for humanity and nature and all that, you dig?

You’d hardly have to twist my arm, though, to get me to turn on the Oscars, a broadcast that I’m pretty well addicted to. I like seeing big cinematic stars on the Academy Awards’ stage and in the audience. I like the good gags that often fly from the mouths of the hosts. I like holding my breath every time a high-heeled and flowingly-gowned actress heads uneasily toward the podium, doing all she can not to trip in front of a billion viewers worldwide. And, more than anything, I enjoy keeping alive a personal tradition that dates back to when, eons ago, I began watching the Academy Awards with my mom. She was an Oscars lover of a high order. She’d be happy to know that I’ve missed nary an Oscars presentation since those days of yore.

Well then, as surely we all know, the big day is nigh. The Academy Awards extravaganza takes to the airwaves on Sunday, March 4 at 8 PM in the USA’s Eastern Time Zone, the area in which yours truly resides. My wife Sandy and I will be glued to the boob tube. She, like me, wouldn’t miss the show.

And I’ve decided that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to jot down a few remarks about the Oscars. I’ve given a fair amount of thought as to what I might say herein. If I had it in me, which I don’t, I’d churn out thousands of words right now about great performances by actors over the years and about brilliant screenplays and spot-on directing. However, I’m someone who, knowing his limitations, tries to keep things manageable. Thus I’ve made the command decision to limit my realm of discussion. Seeing that the Best Picture category probably is the one that most people pay the most attention to, I will fill up the remainder of this essay by paying attention to it too.

This year there are nine nominations for Best Picture, all of which, needless to say, came out in 2017. A film-going dynamo of sorts, I hit the cinemas 46 times last year, a spree during which seven of the nominees passed before my eyes. The two that I didn’t see (Call Me By Your Name and Get Out) I wouldn’t presume to comment upon. As for the others, I shall, but not before mentioning that, of the flicks I took in last year, I thought that the un-nominated The Florida Project was the best (you can read my review here). It is a work of fiction that feels like real life, which is something I cannot say for many movies. The Florida Project is delightful, poignant and troubling. It will test the emotional strength of your heart. I highly recommend it.

Back to the subject at hand. In alphabetical order, the seven nominated films that I caught are: Darkest Hour. Dunkirk. Lady Bird. Phantom Thread. The Post. The Shape Of Water. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

That’s a sturdy and imposing list. Very fine movies reside on it. But not every one. The Post, for instance, isn’t a very fine movie. A retelling of the Pentagon Papers crisis during Richard Nixon’s presidency, The Post seemed to me to be not much more than standard filmmaking. The Washington Post newspaper (from which the film derives its title) without question stepped up to the plate for democracy by publishing, against enormous legal pressure, leaked government documents (the Pentagon Papers) that showed that the Vietnam War likely was unwinnable. But the movie has far too many preachy moments. They bring an artificial flavor to the proceedings. Director Steven Spielberg has been involved with considerably better work (Jaws, Schindler’s List and Lincoln, to name a few).

Nor is Phantom Thread top-notch, to my way of viewing things. I definitely liked its oddness, its peculiar charm, but felt unsatisfied in the end. It’s the tale of a fastidious and successful British fashion designer (played by the fabulously talented Daniel Day-Lewis) in the 1950s, a gent of 60 or so who marries a lady much younger than he. They feel each other out, they sometimes butt heads and worse . . . but their mental and emotional states, the whys behind what is happening between them, were never clear to me. Way too much understatement for my tastes. I have relatives and friends who rave about Phantom Thread, though, so what do I know? Give it a try.

Ah yes, Lady Bird, the saga of a discontented California high school senior (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, one of the numerous non-Americans who have no trouble nailing American accents) who is fumbling her way toward whatever her destiny might be. The girl’s given name is Christine but, in trying to become her own person, she demands to be known as Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, herself an actress, wrote and directed the movie, a double-barreled feat that she pulled off most admirably.

No, it wouldn’t be an upset if Lady Bird grabs the Oscar for Best Picture, but if the decision were up to me, I wouldn’t hand it the award. I didn’t find myself being drawn deeply enough into the movie, probably because Lady Bird/Christine is not a particularly likeable individual. Still, this is a quality film. You won’t go wrong by spending time with it.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Battle of Dunkirk, in May and June of 1940, for the British and other Allies. Imperiled in their positions on French coastlines, the Allied forces, several hundred thousand strong, seemingly had little chance against advancing and surrounding German fighters. Rather amazingly though, most of the Allied troops were safely evacuated.

The movie drawn from the struggle, Dunkirk, is a powerful one. It reeks gloom, fear and claustrophobia, Anyone interested in history or human nature will want to see it. My only gripe about Dunkirk is that many of its sequences, even the ones in open water, don’t capture the scale of the events taking place. Enormous numbers of boats and planes were in action during the battle, but often only a smattering are pictured in the movie. This was by design, I know, an attempt to describe the big picture in small strokes. Still, I left the theater feeling pretty shaken.

Darkest Hour takes on some of the same subject matter as Dunkirk, as it is the story of Winston Churchill during his early days as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill took office about two weeks before the Battle of Dunkirk began. He was a powerful presence, a leader who refused to compromise with Germany, who did his damndest to instill and elicit strength and courage from the Brits in the face of incredible danger. Gary Oldman is fabulous as Churchill. The movie is all his in a sense. But, then again, it’s not all his, for Darkest Hour would be far less than the excellent production that it is were it not for a screenplay, cinematography and direction that come from the top of the barrel. If Darkest Hour wins the Oscar, it deserves it.

Next up are our final contenders, The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri. I liked them both very much. The Shape Of Water is a dreamy fantasy, a story about many things, including how love can develop most unexpectedly. The movie has an element of the supernatural, in the guise of a mythical type of creature that has been captured in the Amazon jungles and brought to the USA to be studied. And it has the radiant Sally Hawkins. She plays a joyful individual, a mute, who works as a janitor at the science facility to which the lizard-man has been transported. Hawkins, through fluid body movements, subtle gestures and expressive eyes creates a loveable character, a person of true depth. Hawkins is an astonishing talent.

There are sublime sequences in Water that carried me away. And there also is a good guys versus bad guys theme (with “I’m gonna get you” scenes and the like that you’ve seen a million times over the years) that I thought holds down the movie. As good as Water is, it might have been better.

Finally we come to Three Billboards. What we have here are a taut plot and superb acting from its main players. You’re not going to find performances superior to those turned in by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. Three Billboards is a high-power meditation on evil, tragedy, bigotry and redemption. And I’m certain I’m leaving out other big subjects that it tackles.

All of that takes place in a dusty Missouri town where hard-as-nails Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is determined to prod the local police to find her teenage daughter’s killer, as the crime has gone unsolved for many months. She goes to unusual means in this pursuit, taking shit from nobody. Three Billboards will grab you by your collar. If you’re not wearing a collar it will find something else to grab you by. My guess is that the Oscar will end up in its hands. And I will have no complaints if that turns out to be the case.

Nor will I moan if Darkest Hour takes home the gold. Like Billboards, it is gritty and packs a wallop. To me, those two films are equally good. And totally Oscar-worthy.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece on Facebook, Twitter and such. I thank you.)