Sunday, February 22, 2015

Get Your Ass to Portland

I've never been to Portland.  And I never met Steve McCall.


Over the years, Steve and I became cyber friends, first through Epinions and then through Facebook. I grew to respect him as a writer primarily because of an article he wrote about Sedona. It was a piece that was so unpretentious and beautifully written, that it inspired me actually to visit this place. Years later, I'm seriously considering Sedona as the place to retire.

Between now and then, I still have miles to go and Steve recently managed to write a traveler's guide to his home city, Portland. I really hate him because my traveling budget can stretch only so far.
Copyright Steve McCall, photography by Astragal
No surprise it's a quick, great read and it proves what I've long suspected about Portland - that it deserves a visit.  My poor wallet.

Steve's book is available through Amazon here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movies Adapted from the Comics

I was rummaging through some articles I wrote for Epinions and I came across this jewel that I published three years ago. I'm pretty proud of this list. With the exception of possibly adding "X-Men, Days of Future Past" and "Man of Steel", I still stand by this list of my favorite comic book movies.


This is a countdown of my top 10 comic book action movies.  While movies adapted from a comic book don't have to remain 100% faithful to their source material, they should still embody a generous portion of the spirit from which the series is based.  In addition, excellent action and adventure, and realistic human drama would be the next crucial criteria behind all the choices listed herein.  The title says it all, so I'll list some honorable mentions and we'll start the countdown.

Honorable Mentions:
Superman (1978), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Watchmen (2009), Amazing Spider Man (2012)

10. Superman II (1981)
"Kneel before Zod", Terence Stamp proclaims.  And in the summer of 1981, we all knelt before Superman II.  Presaging the special effects boom of the 1990s, Superman II can look dated at first blush, but there are other reasons for which this movie makes the #10 spot.  The first Superman (1978) brought the comic book hero to real life, but Superman II took it to the next level.  Dated special effects aside, the stunt sequences are still solid and loads of fun (the wonders one can do with just a sewer lid).  The opening Eiffel Tower scene is a swashbuckling hoot as Lois Lane's impetuous nature (a feisty Margot Kidder) will always put her in need of a Superman.  Not one, but three black patent leather-suited villains?  That was worth the price of admission alone.  Add the late, great Christopher Reeve who embodied the noble spirit of this flagship DC character, and Superman II had all the right ingredients for a summer blockbuster.  Just add the popcorn.

9. Superman Returns (2006)
Woefully underrated, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns deserves a second look.  Not only is it beautifully shot with a reverent eye toward Richard Donner's 1978 adaptation of the Superman movie, but its brisk storytelling nimbly alternates between love story and action movie, with neither hitting a false or hurried note.  Newcomer Brandon Routh ably fits the role of Clark Kent/Superman, whereas Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane seems to be the only slight misstep in casting.  Lex Luthor's villainy lies in his vicious intellect and Kevin Spacey conveys this with his trademark dramatic pauses.  Even the tinges of humor - more leftover from Gene Hackman's portrayal than anything from the comic book - doesn't detract from Luthor's deadly menace.  Well over a two-hour running time, Singer knows how to let a movie breathe while still making it taut and entertaining.  A double-take on this movie is most worth it.

8. Spiderman 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi crafted a serviceable, albeit thankless, directing job in outlining Spiderman's origins in Spiderman 1 (2002), and I think no one would disagree that the Green Goblin posed a problematic interpretation to the big screen.  Whereas Spiderman 1 was merely adequate, Spiderman 3 was just too unfocused and scattershot.

Spiderman 2, however, was a pitch perfect superhero action flick.  The comic book series as envisioned by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, struck a light yet dramatic tone between Peter Parker's everyday teen problems and the burden of his newfound powers.  Spiderman 2 balances this high wire act brilliantly.  Whether Peter is struggling with his fading powers, dealing with the on again/off again relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), or a strained friendship that's about to boil over with Harry Osborn (James Franco), the movie's center of gravity comes from Peter Parker's constant grappling with the moral sense of duty his Uncle Ben inculcated in him: "with great power comes great responsibility".   As far as villains go, Doctor Octopus could have been just another one-dimensional psychopath wreaking havoc and robbing banks.  Extra kudos go to Alfred Molina for humanizing this villain.

7. X-Men First Class (2011)
X-Men First Class explores the origins of how Charles Xavier’s team of mutants came into existence.  It can be very tricky to tell a story whose outcome we already know.  Done with no respect for continuity or lack of logic, and the audience can easily walk away feeling cheated and bored.  Luckily, Matthew Vaughn retrofits this prequel with excellent actors tweaking their respective characters with youthful cheekiness and morally ambiguous motivations.

Before they were known as Professor X and Magneto, we get a glimpse into Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) friendship with Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and how events unfurled to turn these men into archenemies.

Set in the 1960’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis as backdrop, Charles and Erik help the American government recruit other mutants to stop the imminent threat of nuclear war precipitated by Sebastian Shaw (a casually cruel Kevin Bacon).  First Class combines wonderful action sequences with a fantastic plot and a mix of new and old characters from the X-Men universe.

6. Batman Begins (2005)
After a lamentable raping at the hands of Joel Schumacher, director Christopher Nolan gives the Batman franchise the proper reboot it deserved, creating "Batman Begins", a somber and decidedly more serious comic book movie.  With second class villains like Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow, not to mention a more believable retelling of the Batman's origins, one would think Batman Begins is a plodding and leaden affair, but nothing could be further from the truth.

With few special effects, Batman is one of the rare comic book heroes with no super powers, and as such, everything about the character is related on a human scale and within a realistic framework.  Rather than an aerodynamically phallic space age automobile, the Batmobile is a veritable tank, clunky almost in its bulky frame.  Even Bruce Wayne's alter ego goes through growing pains before he perfects his crime fighting persona.  A cape interspersed with negative charges explains his ability to glide through the air.  And as Batman wages a nightly battle with Gotham City's criminals, it's Bruce Wayne that wakes up the next morning visibly bruised and beaten.

Tenebrous, moody, and relentlessly brooding, "Batman Begins" flawlessly distills the essence of a dark, psychologically complex superhero without compromising a scintilla of great storytelling or heart stopping action.

5. Iron Man (2008)
After a heart damaged by shrapnel from a terrorist ambush, Tony Stark literally has to schlep a car battery under his arm to keep his heart from giving out.  Confident and cocksure just like its character, Iron Man is one of those movies that far exceeded my expectations.

A-list actors marvelously cast in each role (Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges).

A knock out script with boldly drawn characters.


Great special effects in service of the plot rather than the other way around.

Action and drama tempered with bits of genuine, zippy humor.

And in the middle of it all, a boozing, womanizing multi-millionaire with a brazen attitude must save his own life from terrorist captives.  From this defining event, Tony Stark transforms himself into Iron Man, an all too frail human encased in a high tech, impenetrable shell of armor.  Don't let it fool you - Iron Man is all heart.

4. X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)
Though I was never able to articulate it as a child, I enjoyed the X-Men comic books on so many different levels.  It wasn't just the idea of super powered mutants who protected a society that hated and feared them, but it was the obvious parallel it drew to the prejudice and bigotry real people experience for being regarded as different and therefore socially unacceptable.  In X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer skillfully and subtly weaves this subtext throughout the entire movie.

On the surface, X2, just as in the pages of the comic, is about a group of super beings shunned by normal society for the extraordinary abilities they possess.  Government operatives are hostile towards this new, powerful race, who many think are poised to occupy and dominate the next rung on the human evolutionary ladder.

As well on the surface, it's jam packed with great action and character cameos that would make a fanboy pump his fists.  The opening sequence with Nightcrawler's balletic attack on the White House is just an amuse bouche for what's to follow.  Along the way, there's a handy subplot involving Wolverine's origins, there's the introduction of Jean Grey's Phoenix persona, Cerebro, and Lady Deathstrike.

At more than two hours, X2 never feels like it bites off more than it can chew precisely because its quieter moments reveal a genuine poignancy.  "Couldn't you just stop being... a mutant?", Bobby Drake's mother asks.  Substitute "mutant" for "gay", or any word to define weird or "other", and X-Men 2 taps closer to the human marrow than any comic book movie should.

3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Pay attention to Batman Begins (2008) and you’ll see how The Dark Knight Rises becomes the perfect capstone to Christopher Nolan’s masterfully dark vision of DC’s iconic Batman character.

Whether viewed as part of the trilogy or on its own merits, Rises makes the grade.  And though probably a tad less brilliant than its second chapter, Nolan still manages some revelatory surprises, with the stakes never higher.  Rises features a brutal, methodical villain in Bane (Thomas Hardy) and a slinky Ann Hathaway as a morally ambiguous cat burglar.  Coming out of an 8-year retirement, Batman must rescue Gotham City from certain nuclear annihilation.

While some fans have argued that Rises is a parable for the Occupy Wall Street movement and a bubbling resentment over the uneven distribution of wealth among today’s classes, Nolan maintains that he derived his inspiration from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”.  Whatever the case, The Dark Knight Rises is suffused with a trenchant and murky introspection that’s as deep as the pit Bruce Wayne tries to crawl out from.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The praise heaped on Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins deserved every bit of critical acclaim that came its way.  The Dark Knight is as much a feast for the eyes as it is the brain, and it doesn't rest solely on Heath Ledger's volcanic and unsettling performance as the Joker - a sociopathic prankster who masterminds deadly social experiments just for funsies.  It's the richly drawn characters with competing - and not always clear - motivations.  It's the twisting plot narrative that pits a deadly game of one-upsmanship between The Caped Crusader and his deranged adversary.  And it's Nolan's dark and claustrophobic visual style that keeps with the sense of doom that seems to lurk behind every corner.

District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) looks to be the only bright spot in a city brimming with corruption and moral rot.  Batman (a stoic Christian Bale) is viewed as just another vigilante and the rise of the Joker plunges Gotham's inhabitants into a state of perpetual fear and panic.  The battle for Gotham's soul doesn't come in the final showdown as the Joker suggests, but in the complete vitiation of its one true rising star.  The Joker is captured, but not defeated, and there's no tidy ending for this intense and dark thrill ride.

1. The Avengers (2012)
Forget its mega blockbuster status (The Avengers raked in $620M domestically!).  Forget even the technicolor action, fluid dialogue and the genuine LOL moments.

That a movie could be made with this kind of scope is not a stretch with today’s sophisticated digital effects.  So let’s leave that out too.  The real challenge with an ensemble cast of outsize comic book characters is how can it be translated to the big screen without looking like a campy mess?

Director Joss Whedon’s witty, light touch is all over this, and he plays the story as a clash of huge egos coming together to contain a worldwide threat.  Watching the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow all come together in this successful superhero team movie made me feel like a kid again.

And truthfully, it gives me hope that Hollywood can do justice to a Justice League movie.  Now that would be bank!

--This article was originally published on Epinions, December 8, 2012

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Thanksgiving is a time to gorge and be thankful, to come together and weather awkward family moments, making sure no one steps on any land mine topics. This year was no different. I love my family, but so what? The holidays should be used as occasions to reaffirm bonds, but I see less and less of that. People put up their guard, put on their best face, or just ignore each other. My niece and nephew, entrenched in their teenage phase, regard adults like me as passe or unapproachable. Ironically, my puerile response is to play on my iPhone.

Everything this year felt like a rushed chore to be done and over with as quickly as possible. I left stuffed and empty. I'm not saying that the holidays should be used as "come-to-Jesus" meetings. Can you imagine what that would be like? Mostly, I'm grateful that everyone's got their health and faculties so that I have the privilege to gripe in this manner.

The best I can hope for at this stage of my life, is to hope that everyone is doing the best they can; the best they can to be happy and healthy. The best person they can be.

The best I can hope for is to do the same for myself.

And there's always room for improvement.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Travelogue 4 - Isola di Ponza, Italy (June 23 - July 4)

On the early morning of June 23, a driver picked me up at my flat just off Piazza del Popolo and drove me to the port city of Anzio. From there, I took a hydrofoil to the island of Ponza.  Ponza is one of those best kept secrets: it floats aimlessly in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just south of Rome, north of Naples. Ponza doesn't quite have the name recognition of Capri or its Greek counterpart, Santorini, but that’s just fine with me. It retains its authenticity and its tourist trappings to a minimum.

Beach Italy Ponza
Spiaggia Chiaia di Luna - Copyright Jack Aiello Photography
My family comes from Ponza. My father still lives here. According to him, the summer months still saturate the island with Italian mainlanders, but it’s a nominal price to pay when such a small island is rich with natural beauty and a history that dates back to ancient Roman times. 

Ponza Lighthouse, Jack Aiello Photography
Aerial view of the Lighthouse -
I used Long Exposure techniques to render the blue waters like smooth frosted glass
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -
I’ve written about Ponza before.  I can blather on about its history, the people, the wonderful coastline dotted with grottos, cliffs, and the beaches whose surrounding sea waters migrate from jewel tones of green and turquoise to baby and sapphire blues.  However, in the pursuit of simplicity, I’m opting for some pics to tell you the rest of the story.

Ponza, Italy
Topography from Le Forna, the northern portion of the island rich with beautiful bays
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -

Ponza, Italy - Main Port
The main port
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -

Ponza, Italy - Main Port
Aerial View of the Main Port - Ponza, Italy
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -

Jack Aiello Nature Landscape Photography
Cala Gaetano - It takes at least 200 steps to get down there.
No sandy beach, just perch on the rocks, take in the sun, and dive in those waters to cool off.
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -

Pops and my nephew, John, enjoying an amazing seafood dinner.
Copyright Jack Aiello Photography -

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My Trip Back to Ithaca and Watkins Glen - Travelogue 5 (September 26-28)

Revisiting Ithaca and Watkins Glen has been a wonderfully satisfying experience. Driving around these local roads while playing my "Autumn Road Trip" playlist really made this even more special. When a song complements the setting, it's like a soundtrack to your life is playing out.

Most of my images are still on my Canon 5D. I'm really proud of the new batch of photos I took, but it's going to take an age processing the good ones (plus, I still have the photos from Italy to deal with).  Still, I managed some quick iPhone snapshots for a visual of this weekend's road trip. I drove and snapped pics all day today, so I'm about to hit the sheets very soon.  Good night.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Aubade by Philip Larkin - The 4am Haymaker

When I was younger I had a fairly uneventful sleep pattern. It was simple: I would go to bed at night and right as a line, I would wake to morning light. It was as if what happened in between was none of my business.

I rarely knew what it was like to wake up prematurely in the quiet dark of 4am. But on those rare occasions that I did (and it was always in the 4am hour), an unspeakable dread would overcome me and I would feel an inconsolable sadness that I could never speak about. I didn't know how to explain it to other people and it was too disturbing to elaborate. Until I discovered the poem below. He even got the hour right.

Thank god for poets, Philip Larkin, in particular, otherwise I'd still be rambling.

One more thing: I don't sleep through the night anymore so I haven't had that feeling in years. I'm not sure if I conditioned myself to sleep in fits to avoid it, but sometimes I think that in throwing out the bad I have thrown out some of the good. But that's a discussion for another day.

I'm going out for a walk now, and breathe the Friday night air.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.