Randolph Street: My Kind of Town

October 24th, 2014

Jon’s still goofing around somewhere in Argentina, so here are a few of our recent favorites…



Wrigley at night…



One way or another…



A Chicago fisherman…

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Benny Jay: The Empty Screen

October 23rd, 2014

There’s a scene midway through Michael Cuesta’s great thriller–Kill the Messenger–that sort of sums up the reality of my existence.

This action-packed flick tells the tale of Gary Webb, a crusading investigative reporter, who paid a very high price for exposing some pretty grimy secrets about the shitty things our government is capable of doing.

It’s well worth watching, if only for Jeremy Renner’s sensational performance as Webb. So, naturally, it’s only on about four screens in Chicago.

Apparently, they still want these things to remain a secret.

The connection to my existence most definitely does not come when Renner’s whipping around town in his super-cool British sports car, sneaking into a Mexican prison by paying off a guard or doing other swashbuckling things that I’ve never done in over 30 years of journalism. And am not likely to be doing anytime soon. Though I am working on getting that sports car.

No, it comes when he’s ready to write his story, having completed his investigation. He enters his office, turns on his computer, stares at the screen and has this brief moment of terror where he realizes: Holy shit, I gotta fill up this empty screen!

It’s a dreaded moment of panic that’s probably confronted every writer from Shakespeare to Mickey Spillane. Minus the computer, of course.


Gary Webb


I believe Stephen King wrote a whole book about it–The Shining–which Stanley Kubrick turned into a pretty good movie.

Not to equate myself with Shakespeare, Spillane or Stephen King, but this moment confronts me every day. It’s confronting me right now, as a matter fact. It’s like you have to peel back your skull, scavenge around your brain and find something useful you can yank out and use superfast–before it disappears.

For some writers–like Roger Ebert–this is not a problem.

For other guys, it’s an ordeal.

This empty screen confrontation is, I believe, that make-or-break moment when thousands of people realize they’re never going to be a writer. Sort of like first year bio makes thousands of college freshmen realize they’re never going to be a doctor.

A realization that–for me–came with third grade earth science. That shit was hard, man.

If you can believe the movie, Gary Webb had a ritual to get him through the moment. He put on some rock `n roll–preferably, The Clash–did stretches, breathed deeply and took the plunge.

The good news is that he finished his story and filled the screen.

The bad news is that the story he finished pretty much finished him.

Anyway you look at it, there’s got be an easier way to get that sports car.

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Benny Jay: Ali & Frazier by William Greaves

October 21st, 2014

A few months back, I read an obituary about William Greaves, a filmaker who died at the age of 87.

Of all his movies, the one that caught my eye was Ali, the Fighter. As the title suggests, it’s a documentary about the great Muhammad Ali.

Naturally, I had to order it up on Netflix.

What a treasure. If there are any fight fans out there, I urge you to watch it.

The film’s as much a tribute to Joe Frazier–Ali’s greatest fight foe–as it is to Ali.

This goes back to the early 1970s, right after Ali had been banned from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army.

He was trying to win back his heavyweight title, which Frazier had “won,” during the time Ali had been in boxing exile. So to speak.


William Greaves with Steve Buscemi…


On March 8, 1971, they met at Madison Square Garden–two undefeated heavyweight champs–for what was billed as the Fight of the Century.

In the first half of the documentary, we see a lot of Ali, hilariously talking shit about Frazier.

Who just isn’t witty enough to keep up.

But once we get to the fight–which takes up about 45 minutes–well, let’s just say Joe Frazier puts on a world-class athletic performance.

I mean, the man was relentless–from the opening bell to the closing–15 rounds later.

Trying to use his longer reach, Ali launched one booming blow after another. And still, Frazier advanced.

He hit Ali again and again and again with brutal blows to the chest, neck and head.

How Ali sustained this beating–much less, went on to fight for another ten years–I’ll never know.


It was a brutal fight…


Greaves not only captures the violence of the fight, but draws back at crucial moments to show the audience. Mostly white people, including all sorts of celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Woody Allen, etc.

So the film’s also about rich white people watching two black guys beat the living shit out of each other.

You might call it a parable about, oh–everything.

At the climatic moment in the final round, Frazier stunned Ali with a vicious left hook. Knocked him to the ground. Give Ali credit for getting up to finish the fight.

For the record, Frazier won this bout. But Ali won their next two.

The power of Frazier’s left hook stayed with me long after the movie had ended. I was still thinking about it a day or two later when I bumped into my neighbor, Sam the firefighter.

One of the wisest men I know.

Of course, I told Sam all about the fight. And how horrible it is that Ali and Frazier pretty much had their brains beaten out.

And Sam said–look on the bright side. Those epic bouts gave Ali a platform to crusade against war and racism.

I guess he took what he got and made the best of it. Just like Joe Frazier and William Greaves.


Randolph Street: Blue Skies

October 17th, 2014

While Jon’s away on important business in South America, we’re publishing some of his greatest hits…


jonranargentina1I’m too tired too talk…



You talkin’ to me?



Blue lady…

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Benny Jay: James Gandolfini Film Festival

October 16th, 2014

I admit I was late to the James Gandolfini bandwagon.

The great actor was dead for at least several weeks before I jumped aboard. As I’d never watched The Sopranos when it was the rage of the nation.

This was the summer of 2013, when my wife and I saw Enough Said–one of the last movies he made.

Great romantic comedy, by the way. It’s got a lot to say about the rivalries women have with each other.

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who’s become one of my favorite directors.

Anyway, Gandolfini’s character commanded my attention. And I said to my wife…

“We should probably out The Sopranos. At least rent a disc from Netflix — just to see what all the talk’s about.”

“Why not,” said my wife.

“We’ll only watch one disc,” I said.

Well, one turned into two and then three and so on and so forth until that show consumed my home movie watching life.

Eventually, over six months had passed and I’d watched every episode.

But even then I wasn’t through with Gandolfini. To really appreciate his work, I realized I had to see his movies. So I organized my own James Gandolfini Film Festival–right in my own living room!


Gandolfini was great in The Drop…


I watched three Gandolfini movies in a row:  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Romance & Cigarettes and Cinema Verite.

It was sort of disappointing. Wonderstone really wasn’t a Gandolfini movie at all. More like a lame Steve Carrell comedy in which Gandolfini had a bit part.

And Romance & Cigarettes was this truly bizarre musical featuring actors who can’t sing. Like Mr. Gandolfini.

Cinema Verite was OK, but nothing to write home about. All in all, the Gandolfini film festival was sort of a bust. Good thing I was the only one who watched it.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from rushing out to see The Drop, just as soon as it opened.

That’s apparently the last Gandolfini movie to come out. But I thought that’s what they said about Enough Said. So, you never know.

I got to the theater early and watched as one guy after another walked in, dragging his wife or girlfriend. That’s when I realized there are lots of guys my age who have this thing for Gandolfini.

Not sure why. Maybe its cause hes’s a schlumpy-looking guy who still gets the chicks.

By the way, The Drop was sensational.

I plan to watch it again–when it comes to the Red Box.

And so my James Gandolfini Film Festival continues.

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Benny Jay: Jared Allen & The Falcons

October 14th, 2014

While watching Sunday’s Bears game, I had a profound revelation!

I’ll get to that later.

First, let me tell you about the setting…

I was watching in a Lincoln Avenue bar that bills itself as a home-away-from home for displaced Atlantatonians, like my good friend Adrienne.

What up, Adrienne!

She roots for the Falcons cause she was raised in Atlanta. So we can’t hold it against her. Besides, it’s not like she’s rooting for the Packers.

A few months ago, Adrienne suggested we watch the Bears/Falcons game at this bar so I could see how the Falcon half lives.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but now I’m not so sure. For one thing, everyone’s decked out in Falcon red and black. I was going to wear my Bears T-shirt. Except I don’t have one.

I decided to bring my 1985 Bears Super Bowl coffee cup. Then I realized all the lettering had faded, so, really, what was the point?


Jared Allen looks like…


Instead, I grabbed my trusty Bulls baseball cap to at least represent something Chicago. But when I got to the bar, I discovered that, in my haste to leave my house, I’d grabbed the wrong hat.

The hat I was wearing had no logo at all. So when I made a big deal about putting it on, Adrienne and her friends politely smiled as if I were some lunatic drooling in the alley.

By the way, these Falcons fans are no joke. When the Falcons scored, some guy ran up the aisle of the bar, waving a Falcons flag.

Plus, another guy was wearing a T-shirt featuring Samuel Jackson’s character from Pulp Fiction, under the banner: Rise Up!

That’s the Falcons logo. Apparently, Jackson picked up an affinity for the Falcons during  his days at Morehouse.

But don’t quote me on that–I’m just telling you what Adrienne told me. Though she should know.


The trumpeter–Joey `the Lips’ Fagan!


The climactic moment of the game came when Jared Allen, the Bears defensive end, sacked Matt Ryan, the Falcons QB. That’s when I had my revelation.

Ever since the Bears signed Allen as a free agent, I’d been looking at his picture and wondering: Who does he look like?

And right there in that Falcons bar on Lincoln Avenue, it hit me. He looks like Joey “the Lips” Fagan, the trumpeter from The Commitments. One of the great movies of the early `90s.

I was set to share this factoid with Adrienne and her friends, when I realized–they’re 20 somethings. They probably never saw The Commitments, much less heard of Joey” the Lips” Fagan.

Alas, some revelations cannot be shared, as great as they may be.

Good news–the Bears won!

Maybe next year, Adrienne.

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Benny Jay: The Great Teachers Strike

October 12th, 2014

As a shout out to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who’s recuperating from an illness, we bring this blast from our glorious past…


Sunday, Sept. 9:  Watching Bear highlights on the tube when word breaks: Teachers on strike!

Flash to press conference outside Merchandise Mart where negotiations have stalled. School board president David Vitale steps before the cameras. Dude’s been negotiating for days. Looks haggard, like he might pass out.

Next comes union President Karen Lewis and union VP Jesse Sharkey. Sharkey’s talking, says: “us teachers….”

“We teachers,” Lewis quietly corrects.

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

TV cuts to Mayor Rahm’s press conference. The mayor looks like he’s ready to rip someone’s lungs out.  Vitale’s standing behind him, barely awake.

Rahm says he’s ready to send Vitale back into negotiations right now!

Obviously, that’s news to Vitale. His eyes flicker open. First time I’ve ever felt sorry for a school board president….

Karen Lewis is Jewish — just like me `n Sammy Davis, Jr!


Monday: Utterly obsessed with the strike, I’m checking the Internet for updates every five minutes while fielding constant calls from my mother.

Mom: What’s the latest?

Me: Romney praised Rahm.

Mom: Motherfucker!

Me: Which one?

Mom: Both.

Have you noticed more people are swearing since Mayor Rahm made it fashionable?

Wednesday:  Big news! Karen Lewis is Jewish! It’s been in the papers. I’m fielding calls from ecstatic Jews all over town. Hey, man, we’re open to anyone who wants to join.

Caller: You didn’t tell me Karen Lewis was Jewish!

Me: What — I’m supposed to send out announcements?

Caller: But she’s black?

Me: You never heard of Sammy Davis Jr?

If they remade Chinatown, Rahm could play this role….


Thursday: Desperately needing a break from the strike, I see Chinatown, playing on the big screen at a theater in Evanston.

Big mistake. The movie’s dark. The bad guy wins. Plus, the Roman Polanski character reminds me of Mayor Rahm.

Polanski plays this skinny, little hit man who’s always twitching. Works with Claude Mulvihill, the knuckle breaker for the crooked pols.

There’s this great scene where Mulvihill and Polanski corner Jack Nicholson out by a reservoir.

Nicholson says: “Hello, Claude. Where’d you get the midget?”

And Pulaski pulls out a knife and cuts Nicholson’s nose.

Wonder if Mayor Rahm carries a switchblade? Suddenly, fear for Karen Lewis.

Friday:  Union/board negotiators settle on a deal. Strike may be over. I’m so happy I run out and eat Chinese. Scallops in Schezwan sauce. Actually, I probably would have had Chinese regardless — cause, man, that shit is good!

Sunday:  Union delegates say they need more time to review the deal with their members. Noooo!! I’d already written one story and now I have tear it up and write another. It’s almost enough to make me a Republican.

Monday:  Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest Jewish holidays of the year. Supposedly, Mayor Rahm’s taking a break from the strike to spend the day in prayer. I have this vision of him in a yarmulke and prayer shawl, pacing in the parking lot outside his synagogue, cell phone to his ear, cursing about Karen Lewis.

Tuesday: Having won just about everything they sought, union delegates approve the deal. Strike over! Yah, whoo, whee!

I run to Rush Street, get drunk and turn over cars. Just like I always do when the good guys win!!!!

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