I Love to Travel, Don’t You?

One of the fun things that comes with having a full-time job is time off. Instead of staying at home, reading, curling up with my cat and crying while listening to indie folk records, I decided to actually travel.

I finally had the means to do so and after years of being the person who went home for break in college or stayed home in junior high and high school–which really isn’t fair because my family did visit Chicago and New York when I was in ninth and tenth grade, respectively. (Also, I went to New York with my family instead of going on the orchestra’s cruise. More on my feelings on cruises later.) Compared to a lot of people, it felt like I did significantly less traveling.

I decided to use my first grouping of vacation days to just pick somewhere and visit. I decided on a place that struck a lot of people as odd: St. Louis.

Hear me out on St. Louis: It has a lot of gorgeous historical buildings, features a brewery tour, has the freaking Gateway Arch and has what I’ve heard is a world class zoo that has free admission. I was also going to visit in June, which would also mean The Muny would begin its season. Plus, traveling to St. Louis would be relatively inexpensive between Amtrak fares and hotel rates.

I requested a tourism guide and began marking all of the places I wanted to visit. The City Museum, the Budweiser brewery, a farmer’s market, the St. Louis Zoo, a museum of religious iconography. I was becoming incredibly excited as I kept hearing from people, “St. Louis? Why? Do you know anyone there? What’s there to do in St. Louis?” as well as various racist and off-color comments about Ferguson.

Then, while I was still hard at work on a Friday, I found out Amtrak cancelled my train, so I had the option of taking a train to Urbana, Illinois and then taking a bus to St. Louis. I would arrive much later than I initially would and having taken Amtrak loads of times, I know the arrival time posted is when you should arrive, but rarely is when you do. I made the decision to call off the trip and find somewhere else to go.

I made this decision two weeks before I was supposed to travel.

After searching every travel website I could, I decided on New York City because plane fares to New York from Milwaukee are at least less than I would have expected. I booked my plane, found a hotel in the Flatiron District, bought a ticket for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and then embarked on a whirlwind adventure to New York.

This was of course met with some questions from people. “New York City? By yourself? Aren’t you scared?” “Do you know people there?” “Isn’t that expensive?” The answers to these questions were yes, yes, no, yes, and depends on what you do.

I loved being in New York and after years of hating flying, I felt relaxed while thousands of feet in the air. The only problem with being in New York for about 36 hours is you can pack a lot in during that time, but leave not feeling fulfilled. Still, I felt happy to get away and just explore somewhere.

I returned to New York City in September and decided to do my previous idea of just doing as few things set in stone and the rest I was going to just do by wandering around. Again, I was asked the same questions and managed to do New York City fairly cheaply, even if I was prone to popping into Pret a Manger to grab a fruit cup to keep me going through the day. I found a bagel shop in Brooklyn with cheap bagels not far from where I was staying, wandered into as many parks as I could manage and still squeezed in meeting with friends.

This brings in the part about the joy of traveling alone: I can do whatever I want. If I want to wander into a shop in Greenwich Village, I can do just that. There’s no itinerary, no limits, other than my bank account. I can spend as much time in a place as I want. If I feel like getting off a subway station and walking around Williamsburg, I just have to follow my feet.

Traveling, especially alone, is liberating in its own ways. Sure, I was frequently texting my parents and even called my dad a couple of times while on vacation, but that’s different from being with a group or with another person. Want to take the subway back to where you’re staying instead of paying for a cab fare? Go right ahead. (Also, take the express bus from Harlem instead of cabbing it to LaGuardia. You’ll thank me later.)

I’ve been revisiting my thoughts on traveling alone as I’m planning a road trip. I keep thinking I may want someone with me as I’m driving all the way to Michigan. But ultimately I’m going there for hockey and to catch up with friends from college. I don’t want to make someone feel like a third wheel or be dragged to a hockey game. I also realized driving alone means I can sing showtunes at the top of my lungs and not be asked, “We’re going to listen to “Hamilton” again?”

Besides, I have made the drive from Michigan to Milwaukee possibly a dozen times and have the routine down pat. Make sure you start off with “Dennehy” by Serengeti because you can’t be sad while listening to that song. Stop at the Portage McDonald’s, because it’s a really nice McDonald’s. If you have the extra money and want to save time, feel free to take the Chicago Skyway.

And above all, enjoy the trip.

Milwaukee Film Festival: “Call Me Lucky” and “Nina Forever”

Call Me Lucky

Barry Crimmins made a name for himself as a humorist in Boston in the 1980s, influencing many young humorists, including Bobcat Goldthwait, the director of this film. Crimmins revealed he had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child and went on to take on AOL’s role in the distribution of child pornography in the 1990s.

Even though Crimmins left a mark on comedy with his incisive take on the United States government, he still manages to be a somewhat obscure figure, possibly because he’s largely been inactive for several years as he’s been living in a cabin in rural New York. But Goldthwait’s film gives you a reason to care about him even though he’s possibly the prickliest of subjects for a rather uplifting and moving documentary. One of the things the film excels at is showing how Crimmins could be an incredibly caring person while also showing his tendency to some times lash out at his audience members or other comedians. Even though it is made by a friend of the subject, it manages to be very even-handed and fair in the best way possible.

Although a dark film because of what the subject endured, Call Me Lucky manages to be an uplifting and hopeful film. This should come as no surprise for those who have seen Goldthwait’s other films that, although fictional, manage to find the right balance between hope and darkness. It is hopeful that although this film features a formerly volatile subject it brings hope to those who see it and an added familiarity to the subject.

5 out of 5 stars

Nina Forever

Rob (Cian Barry) is starting to move on from the death of his girlfriend, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), and decides to hook up with his co-worker from the grocery store, Holly (Abigail Hardingham). Unfortunately, Nina has developed a habit of coming back to life in the middle of Rob and Holly’s sex, violently appearing as a bloody figure through the sheets and bed. To complicate this, Nina usually makes some quip after interrupting the sex.

Nina Forever should work and be a great film, in theory. But it struggles to find the right tone as there is something inherently bizarre and humorous about a wise-cracking girlfriend emerging from a bed mid-coitus with glass shards sticking out of her face, which contradicts the rather thoughtful examination of love, loss and being in a relationship aware of the history a significant other has. The tones are at odds with each other, which is unfortunate because had the film picked one tone and ran with it, it could have been a fantastic film.

This does not detract from the fantastic visuals and imagery in the movie, including make-up causing Holly to appear to have sunken in eyes and the repeated motif of Nina’s parents drinking red wine. The three lead actors give fantastic performances, particularly Barry who is torn between wanting to be with Holly and having to put up with Nina occasionally popping up in the middle of sex.

3 out of 5 stars

Milwaukee Film Festival: “Iris” and “30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle”


Iris Apfel became a fashion icon basically by doing her own thing and not caring what other people wanted. As she states in Albert Maysles’ documentary, “It’s better to be happy than well-dressed.” With her legendary over-sized glasses, chunky necklaces and bracelets and unique pieces of clothing, Apfel has become an artist in her own right.

Maysles’ has a unique knack for portraits of interesting individuals–If you haven’t seen Grey Gardens, which he directed with his brother, you should–as this film shows Apfel interacting with her husband and members of the fashion industry in New York.

The documentary manages to be breezy while giving us a good idea of who Apfel is and her rise to being someone beloved enough to receive a tribute in the form of windows at Bergdorf Goodman. (Really, that’s when you’ve made it.) The documentary doesn’t have any real heft to it compared to other films at the Milwaukee Film Festival about individuals who did their own thing, but this doesn’t require that. It suffers from the lack of a structure or a sense as to the timeline of when events occur for Apfel–even if you read a lot of fashion coverage you may feel lost as we bounce around from one thing to the other–but it manages to be a good portrait of someone who truly is 93 years young.

4 out of 5 stars

30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle

Milwaukee, like many major cities, has a sizable homeless population, many of whom face problems including mental illness and drug addiction. Former federal agent Faith Kohler makes her directing debut with this documentary, filmed over the course of five years.

In an attempt to make a documentary looking at this issue from multiple perspectives–those on the streets, the Milwaukee Police Department, and Milwaukee County judges–Kohler ends up making a film that is scattered-brained. What could have been a good focus point, the attempts of Harold Sloan to stay sober, have a place to live and a steady job, is diluted with other examinations of homeless individuals in Milwaukee whose stories are discussed, but then dropped until the text epilogue. Sloan is someone audiences can empathize with as we see his efforts to improve his life and stay off the streets and as we see him in court, Kohler could have easily woven in the other aspect of the story from the criminal justice system and the struggle to balance trying to enforce laws while trying to truly help the homeless in the city.

Instead we are given a film that goes on for too long and features poor production, such as jerky camera work and muddled audio, making it often difficult to understand what interview subjects are saying. What could have been a moving examination of something Milwaukeeans possibly don’t think much about ends up being a frustrating film, making you wish a better movie had been made about this important issue.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Milwaukee Film Festival: “The Russian Woodpecker” and “Wisconsin’s Own”

The Russian Woodpecker
A woodpecker sound was detected over radio waves in the 1970s. The sound originated from the Soviet’s over-the-horizon radar system, Duga. Duga consisted of three radars, one of is located in Chernobyl. Chad Gracia’s debut film follows Fedor Alexandrovich’s investigation into the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, one he survived but was affected by as a child. As he walks the ruins of the worker’s village in Chernobyl, sometimes wrapped in plastic wrap while carrying a torch, his search leads him to the looming antennas of Duga, sitting there haunting the irradiated countryside.

The journey leads to questioning former Chernobyl and Soviet officials, making the safety of Alexandrovich and the film’s crew increasingly precarious. Although the film yields a rather convincing argument surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, it may seem far-fetched for some viewers.

This does not detract from the success of the film as Gracia has created a documentary that plays like a mystery-thriller with a magnetic personality at its center. While the film tackles Duga, Chernobyl, the rising tensions between Russian and the Ukraine and Fedor’s dreams of him naked, wrapped in plastic wrap and carrying a torch–it’s oddly less weird when you see it–it manages to handle all of these threads while making a well-paced, engrossing film. Throughout the entire thing is the theme of the USSR rearing its ugly head again as we see the problems that arose from the Soviets in the 1980s.

Even if the film doesn’t convince audience members the theory presented is true, it manages to suck you into the paranoia of post-USSR Ukraine while showing why it’s important to question the past in order to prepare for the future.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wisconsin’s Own

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club

The supper club is a Wisconsin institution I admit to have not participated in yet, but Holly L. De Ruyter’s documentary on supper clubs is a thorough and delightful look at the family-owned restaurants. The film has interviews with supper club owners and patrons, as well as historians to explain what makes supper clubs an endearing part of Wisconsin dining culture.

De Ruyter’s documentary, although short, feels as though it covers all of bases on the topics while coming across some interesting characters, such as a particular supper club patron who has some interesting insight into why she enjoys supper clubs. The film features great graphics, including one explaining how the brandy old fashioned sweet is made, and an amazing opening title sequence. Knowing De Ruyter had edited out some of the interview makes one wonder if there’s uncovered territory, but on the other hand she avoids the problem of having a movie that goes on too long and feels over stuffed.

4 out of 5 stars

Tale of the Spotted Cow

The New Glarus Brewering Company has gained a reputation for producing delicious beer only for sale in Wisconsin. The documentary, directed by Bill Roach and written by Curry Kirkpatrick, tells about how Daniel and Deb Carey started and continue to run the brewery in what is essentially the ideal story of the American Dream. Deb Carey had a hard childhood and money for them was tight, but they took a risk and started the brewery one year in the 1990s. The brewery took off and started to grow before Carey made the decision to have it sold only in Wisconsin. It has continued to grow with Spotted Cow being the number one draft beer in Wisconsin.

Although this is a story that should be told, Roach and Kirkpatrick were not the people to tell it. The film has a very amateurish feel starting with the use of rolling dark clouds when going back in time to discuss Deb Carey’s troubled childhood. The film’s biggest problem is the use of a narrator who has a distinctive accent that is not one of a Wisconsinite. It becomes a distraction during the film about something that is unique to Wisconsin, causing the film to lack authority.

The script for the narration is riddled with cliches and hackneyed lines, including one at the end quoting St. Francis of Assisi and connecting it to New Glarus’ beer. The film only really works when it focuses on the interviews with the Careys–which thankfully makes up a lot of this film–who are both vibrant personalities behind a Wisconsin legend. Had this film, which is only a little more than half an hour in length, focused on them with b-roll from both the brewery and the town and archival photos from the subjects, it would have possibly worked. Unfortunately, the film lacks the polish to tell this story as well as it could have.

Two out of five stars

Thoughts on “Fun Home”

“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her relationship with her closeted father and her coming to terms with her sexuality, was a book I found heartbreaking and brilliant when I read it as a freshman at DePaul University. Bechdel, whose work I was familiar with having read “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the gay newspaper in Iowa, managed to use a medium usually viewed as trivial and tell a very cerebral story without coming off as pretentious. Naturally I was curious to see how the musical adaptation turned out simply because it seemed like the least likely source material for a musical, but there’s currently a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, so 2015 is the year of Daring Concepts on Broadway Actually Being Successful at the Box Office. (“Fun Home,” although not grossing nearly as much as “Hamilton,” is consistently selling out.)

The musical “Fun Home,” written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, manages to be an incredibly smart show without taking line-for-line what Bechdel wrote in her memoir. Discussions are had about “Collette,” kids sing lyrics about aneurysm hooks and the lyrics have motifs that work well to convey the pain of the Bechdel women living in the stifling facade of Bruce (Michael Cerveris). In one scene where Bruce seduces Roy (Joel Perez), the handyman, Helen (Judy Kuhn) sings “Maybe not right now. Maybe not right now” while in another room, aware of what is happening. A few scenes later, those lyrics and music pops up when Small Alison (Gabriella Pizzolo at the performance I attended) wants to wear sneakers and a shirt instead of a party dress, but is told no by her father before he tells her she can dress how she wants if she’s okay with everyone judging her. Somehow the show manages to still feel accessible even when book titles and discussions are being tossed around.

Kron and Tesori manage to avoid having any numbers that feel unnecessary. Out of context, “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love” could give an impression of being numbers where the show grinds to a halt, but both of them serve important narrative functions. “Come to the Fun Home” shows how the Bechdel children tried to have a normal childhood while also helping in the family funeral home, which then leads in very well to Small Alison being shown a dead body by her father. “Raincoat of Love” is a fantasy sequence where Small Alison imagines her family happy and Partridge Family-esque, not torn apart by her father’s secrets.

The production also manages to succeed because it’s staged in the round–I don’t know how this show can be taken on tour–and since it’s a memory musical, we see Alison (Beth Malone) interloping in her memories, cringing at the awkwardness of her as a first-year student at Oberlin College. It also makes it incredibly easy to watch everything happening on stage. There are also brilliant flourishes such as the items in the Bechdel family house disappearing through the trap doors, leaving large holes in the stage as Bruce sings right before committing suicide.

The only potential problem I could see people having with the show is Bruce is viewed as being gay by Alison, but Helen simply explains he’s had affairs with other men. In Bechdel’s novel, she writes the reason she refers to her father as gay instead of bisexual is possibly because it then gives them a connection. I didn’t have an issue with it since sexuality is complicated and I feel like the show dealt more with the very complex relationship Alison had with her father.

Sam Gold has done a fantastic job directing a terrific cast, with standout performances from Cerveris, Malone and Kuhn. (I was silently sobbing during “Days and Days,” Helen’s big number. The 2014-15 season on Broadway was a good season for supporting actors giving fantastic performances.) I have been incredibly lucky to see three productions this season where it felt like every element of the production was perfect. It really feels like a bold new musical and theater is better with it in existence.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Loverboy”

Occasionally I’ll watch a movie and afterwards wonder if I was too harsh on other movies. Yes, Divergent, Mrs. Doubtfire and Myra Breckinridge are that bad, but Loverboy is such a bad film, best lost to time since it is so heavily dated, it makes Catch Hell look like Casablanca.

Randy Bodek (Patrick Dempsey) is a college student who has a girlfriend, Jenny (Nancy Valen), but is often distracted by partying and other stuff. As it turns out, he’s failed nearly every class and his father, Joe (Robert Ginty), is sick of paying for college. Randy turns to delivering pizza for a Mexican-themed pizza restaurant, but is invited to have sex with an older women, Alex (Barbara Carrera). After telling her his woes, she starts paying him for sex, so Randy becomes a gigolo. Meanwhile, his father thinks he’s gay and his mother thinks her husband is cheating on her.

Patrick Dempsey is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of his acting on Grey’s Anatomy. The thing is in this film, which he was 23-years-old when it was released, he looks way too young for this film to not be gross. After you watch this movie, you will definitely need to take a shower. And the thing is, it’s not just he has an affair with an older woman. He is paid to have sex with older women and he unwillingly becomes a prostitute because the number for the pizza place gets passed around. And no where is there a scene where someone is reaching for a condom, not even a hilarious scene where Randy is carrying a massive amount of condom boxes, some falling to the floor as he walks.

The film is also rated PG-13 and there’s a part of me that feels like if it was rated R and more explicit about the sex, it would be more enjoyable, but I also think then you would feel the desire to burn your DVD player because of how gross you’d feel after watching this film. All that’s shown that’s sexual is post-coital cuddling and licking and some heavily obscured scissoring. Everything else we’re told happens while Randy dances with women and feeds them ice cream. (I really wish I was making up everything I just typed, but I’m not.)

There’s also the rampant gay panic in the film, which makes sense given when this film was released. It was released in 1989 and at that time we were still thinking of AIDS, which was fairly new at this time, as being a “gay disease.” This is similar to the attitudes expressed in Myra Breckinridge and Mrs. Doubtfire. The problem is this feels more like a bad farce plot point with a mistaken identity since Randy tells his dad he’s staying over with a guy and a Italian man drops off a suit for Randy with a note from Alex. This then leads to Joe talking to Harry Bruckner (Vic Tayback, who I mistook for Robert Loggia) about how his son couldn’t be a “fruit”–the film’s word, not mine–because just look at these pictures of his son playing sports. In fact, this film does have this idea that gay men can’t be interested in sports because later Joe asks Randy if he wants to toss the ball around.

In fact the film in general feels like a bad farce. There’s a lot of sneaking around, mistaken identities, misunderstood comments–such as Diane (Kate Jackson) thinking Joe is having an affair because she hears some noise and her husband simply tells her, “Oh those are just some hookers.” There’s a huge climax where the husbands of the women hiring Randy try to find him, only to beat up Randy’s pimp because the man actually being hired by their wives couldn’t be the guy they’re looking for because Harry has been told he’s gay. This, by the way, happens around the time Randy almost has sex with his mom, who has gotten her son’s number from her doctor (Kirstie Alley), who hired him.

But none of this is enjoyable partly because it has a really young Patrick Dempsey who looks barely legal in the lead role. Even if you bumped up the age, it would be a slog because a huge part of it is made up of montages of Randy dancing and doing things that aren’t having sex. At least Catch Hell, which had some problematic issues, was made enjoyable by watching Ian Barford chew scenery. Even Myra Breckinridge is more enjoyable than this because Myra Breckinridge is like watching two cars hit each other, leading to a pile up before being hit by a train.

This is an inherently disgusting concept at almost all areas. The only way this could possibly be worth watch is if it was a guy in his 20s or 30s and does not look like he just hit the age of consent, who becomes a gigolo voluntarily after his girlfriend leaves him and he learns how to be a better lover in the process, but I pretty much just described the film My Awkward Sexual Adventure, except for the male sex worker part. (Also, My Awkward Sexual Adventure is a much better movie.) With the rest of the movies I’ve written about, I can see why they were released, but I don’t know who thought this movie was a good idea.

And I really could have used that condom scene.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Mystic Pizza”

Thanks to Meghan-Annette for suggesting this film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

I have a confession to make: I’ve never watched “Mystic Pizza” before now. It’s one of those girl things I hadn’t partaken in like manicures with your BFF or synchronized periods. My main point of reference for this movie was an episode of “30 Rock” where Jenna Maroney is in “Mystic Pizza: The Musical.” I knew Julia Roberts was in it and there was some pizza involved, but that was about it. To be honest, for the longest time I thought it was a movie about an interstellar pizzeria, which would be a pretty great movie.

“Mystic Pizza” is about three friends–Kat Arujo (Annabeth Gish), Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts) and Jojo Barbosa (Lili Taylor)–who work at Mystic Pizza in the small town of Mystic, Connecticut. The film follows the three of them as they navigate romance and balance it with tensions arising between them, their lovers, family and friends. Kat babysits for Tim (William R. Moses), a married older man she finds herself falling for before heading off to Yale to become an astronomer. Daisy meets Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. at a bar and they hit it off instantly, but the class difference could pose a problem. Meanwhile, Jojo has been dating Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio? Vincent D’Onofrio.) for a while and wants to have sex with him, but Bill wants to get married before they have sex.

It’s clear to me having watched this movie why it’s kind of a beloved film from the ’80s. It’s a nice cozy film about three young women on the verge of really starting their lives, fighting over relationships and being there to console each other when things go wrong and they feel betrayed. It’s the type of movie focusing on things many women have been through and seems like the type of movie many women would watch as a double feature with “Dirty Dancing”*.

The thing about “Mystic Pizza” is it’s a nice movie that feels like comfort food, but there’s nothing stunning or horrible about the film. The only thing I can fault the film for is that I only really care for Daisy, because Kat’s affair with Tim is doomed from the start and Jojo has serious boundary issues. Yes, it is kind of dickish that Bill renamed the fishing boat he works on the Nympho after you, but you are sex crazed and really need a good lesson on consent because Bill really doesn’t want to have sex, so stop it. Everything in the scene where Bill is telling Jojo he doesn’t want to have sex, but she has his pants pulled down around his ankles is so horribly gross and it’s deeply unfortunate the scene is played for laughs, but unfortunately this is the least harmful sexual assault to occur in any film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

The film features a terrific, nuanced performance from Julia Roberts that feels like a star-in-the-making performance, as well as a restrained performance from Vincent D’Onofrio. The movie also tackles class issues, which largely works well except in a scene where the audience is clobbered by the concept when Daisy has dinner with Charles’ family. The movie excels for being a movie about characters and exploring their problems instead of making it a problem about concepts, which some filmmakers and writers could do since it’s largely about working-class Portuguese-Americans.

Although “Mystic Pizza” isn’t a movie I would normally watch, it’s a movie that is well-made and one I can see many people being able to watch over and over. In the realm of “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” it’s certainly the best film I’ve watched so far, it’s just not a film I can enthusiastically recommend. But it would at least be a good movie to curl up on the couch with a friend and watch.

*I don’t know why people treat “Dirty Dancing” as a feel-good movie. It’s kind of sad and a huge plot point is someone needing an abortion. But Jerry Orbach is there and I remember that being a big draw for me when I was a kid.