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Punishment Park, and six other movies

Captain Scarface (1953)

A ship is about to set sail from South America, and as the captain chats on deck with his nervous first mate, it's obvious that they're scoundrels more than sailors. You're thinking the movie will be about smuggling, or a faked passport, or possibly a slight case of murder. Nah, this movie has moxie — they're up to something bigger than that.

Loose lips sink ships and slip spoilers, so I'll say no more about the story, except that it all seems highly unlikely, but it's an enjoyable hour and a half sailing on the black-and-white ocean blue.

"You appreciate too many women. You would be much better off to appreciate just one woman. Maybe then you would not always be in trouble."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fear and Desire (1953)

This was Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, and he thought it stank so much that when he became rich and famous, he tried to buy and destroy every existing print. Only three copies are known to remain in existence.

Should we respect Kubrick on Kubrick and let the movie rot, or should we watch this restoration? I watched it, of course.

It's less than an hour, padded with a five-minute Kubrick interview from the 1960s, wherein he describes Fear and Desire as "a terrible, dull, undramatic, but very, very serious allegorical story about four soldiers from an unnamed country behind enemy lines, trying to find their way home again."

Sometimes an artist is his own worst judge of the art, and Kubrick is wrong. The movie's not terrible, maybe not thrilling but never dull, and it's plenty dramatic.

The title is generic and forgettable, and the movie doesn't look like a war; it looks like it was filmed on location in a pleasant city park on a sunny day. Some of the voiceover, supposedly the thoughts of the soldiers, is laughable, and occasionally the dialogue tries so hard to be profound that instead it's pretentious.

Call it a rough draft for a Kubrick movie. It's the worst of his films, but that's hardly a criticism. It's better than the best by a lot of others.

It was written by Howard Sackler, who later wrote the quite good Saint Jack and the quite bad Jaws 2

It co-stars Paul Mazursky, who made some beloved movies in the 1970s and '80s, including Next Stop, Greenwich Village and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

And it was photographed, edited, produced, directed, and lunch prepared by Stanley Kubrick, who went on to become Stanley Kubrick.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Punishment Park (1971)

"America is as psychotic as it is powerful, and violence is the only god damn thing that will command your attention."

Anyone suspected of insurrection in America can be brought before an Emergency Court, where the judges are volunteers, and politically motivated, not really judges. Constitutional protections are not in effect, everyone charged is convicted, and everyone convicted is sentenced to a long imprisonment — or, if they choose, they may instead spend a weekend at Punishment Park, which is not a theme park.

Punishment Park consists of desert sands and rugged hills, across which the convicts must, within three days and two nights, reach an American flag they've been told is 53 miles away. While they make this dangerous run in 100°+ heat, they're pursued by the National Guard, federal marshals, and members of the city police riot squad.

That might sound like The Running Man or Escape from New York, but it's not. Those are movies designed to sell tickets and popcorn; Punishment Park is a political statement, and I mostly agree with its perspective, so I thought it was terrific.

It's presented as a documentary, with courtroom proceedings and a litany of familiar complaints — no-knock raids, stop-and-frisk laws, cancellation of Fifth Amendment immunity, preventative detention, the activation of detention camps, and the establishment of quasi-judicial tribunals.

The movie is fifty years old, but how many of those Constitutional violations you're aware of depends only on how closely you follow the news.

As the race for the flag unfolds, the 'documentary-makers' let left and right speak their minds, and what they're saying sounds so passionate and blunt, I wondered whether these were actors performing a script, or people voicing their own political beliefs. It seems to have been the latter, as the credits don't include any "written by."

Punishment Park is powerful, but of course, not perfect, and I could nitpick about a few minor things. I won't, though. It's a low-budget masterpiece. Screw the nitpicking and watch the movie.

"The administration has chosen to accept and exploit the present division within the country and to side with what it considers is the majority. Instead of the politics or reconciliation, it has chosen the politics of polarization."

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Twister (1989)

The Neverending
Film Festival

I'd always wanted to see the big hit movie about people chasing twisters, but oops, this ain't that. There is a twister in this Twister, but it's mostly about a family that's ripping itself apart without any help from the weather.

Based on a novel by Mary Robison, it features Suzy Amis as an impatient and troubled young mother, Crispin Glover as the fragile Uncle Howdy, Harry Dean Stanton as their wealthy but distant father, and Dylan McDermott as Amis's estranged husband. In everything he's in, McDermott is viscerally annoying and the biggest problem, but he's the most likable character here.

"I really admire you for burning down the tool shed."

The story is sometimes strange, sometimes simply boring, and really isn't much of a story, but midway along there's a minute-and-a-half cameo from William S Burroughs, which tempted me to take all the strangeness more seriously. One could, I suppose, search for a meaning amidst the strangeness, but nah, it's just a long visit with an American family that's weird, but not as weird as mine.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Twister (1996)

OK, here's the Twister I'd half-wanted to see. Buncha kooks have the wacky hobby of chasing tornadoes. Well, not chasing 'em, they're trying to get ahead of them. 

Directed by Speed-guy Jan de Bont. Co-written by Michael Crichton. Starring some favorites of mine, including Helen Hunt, with Philip Seymour Hoffman before he was famous, and Jami Gertz after she was famous, and mid-level names in lots of the smaller roles.

It's from Amblin so it's all very Spielberg, a popcorn pedigree. It starts with a great goosebump-inducing opening scene, of a twister sucking a man right out of his storm cellar. A few of the effects look cheesy, 25 years later. I don't know squat about twisters and such, but I'm pretty sure the movie's 'science' is overblown (get it?).

That's not the point, though, and there's no brain power or moral to the story or anything. No critical analysis needed. You must be this tall to ride, and you are this tall.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Walking Target (1960)

Nick Harbin (Robert Foster) robbed a company's payroll and hid the cash — $260,000. He was caught and convicted, sentenced to five years in prison. Now he's about to be released, but he's never told anyone where the money is hidden. The warden warns him as he leaves, that the cops will be watching him.

"As long as that money is missing, there'll be a spotlight right on you… You're no ordinary ex-con. You're a walking target."

Hmmm. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? 

I'm thinking about right and wrong. Maybe the money belongs to the company, legally, or to the insurance company that paid the company's claim. Philosophically, though, seems to me it's Nick Harbin's dough. He earned it, didn't he? He stole it, sure, but then he served his prison time, "paid his debt to society," as they say.

The movie doesn't ponder such questions. It's a fairly standard potboiler about how Nick's friends all want a slice of the money, or all of it. As promised by the warden, the cops are tailing Nick, too, everywhere he goes. One of them says, "Don't quote your civil rights at me, Harbin," and keeps telling him he's a louse.

Two things about The Walking Target seem worth mentioning. First, it's better than the genre average, with a plot that makes sense, tightly directed and with some fine performances, especially in the smaller roles. Great ending, too. 

More memorably, about half the cast have big ears, poking way out from the side of their heads. Just when you're getting used to the lead actor's huge sidehorns, along comes some character with even bigger ears, and after that, someone else who looks like an elephant that could fly.

Verdict: YES. You will believe an elephant can fly.

♦ ♦ ♦

Weird Woman (1944)

Based on the novel by Fritz Leiber Jr, this is an"Inner Sanctum" movie, and I gave it a shot because I'd liked another "Inner Sanctum" movie a while back. This one's kinda sucky, though, so I'm probably done with the series. 

Lon Chaney plays an anthropologist or something, a know-it-all about "the weird pagan rituals of the islands." My guess is that it's the Hawaiian Islands, though that's never specified and the movie certainly wasn't filmed on location. Chaney the expert doesn't know enough, though, to not cross the line of death, despite being warned in advance and in English.

Half the story is about the power of Island superstitions, but the other half revolves around a series of women scheming to get his attention, and each half is as improbable as the other.

Chaney is in his late 30s here but looks 50, playing a professorial type, married to a woman way too young, and all the ladies find him irresistible. Lon Chaney Jr? I'm a fan. He was great at playing monsters, and I've also liked his performances as doddering old men once he got old and started doddering, but c'mon, even with the Clark Gable mustache he's sporting here, Chaney was always 'resistible'.

Verdict: NO.

— — —

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Neverending Film Festival
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Cleopatra without Elizabeth Taylor, and six more movies

Still no internet access at home. A guy downstairs is selling his access for $20 a month, but he's never home when I knock on his door, and I stopped knocking weeks ago. Maybe we'll meet in the laundry room some day, but until then I'll keep going to the library for internet access. It's a pleasant bus ride most days, and I've always felt at home in the library.

It's a hassle, though, when I'm sick and really ought to be at home. Been feeling lousy since late last week. Not much to write about anyway, so I've mostly been watching movies, and I might take a day or a couple of days off from writing and posting, and just lie flat in my recliner at home. If you don't hear from me, don't worry, don't call, and definitely don't knock.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Neverending
Film Festival

100 Vaginas (2019)

A hundred women talk to artist Laura Dodsworth about their vaginas. I've always found vaginas interesting, so it's quite an accomplishment that this movie makes vaginas dull.

100 Vaginas is a hyper-edited montage of pussies and pussy-talk, with each woman speaking a sentence, perhaps a quick paragraph, and on to the next woman's vagina and quickly-snipped words.

I'd sure be annoyed if I'd been filmed answering very personal questions for (presumably) half an hour, an hour, maybe an afternoon, and the film reduced me to twenty words and a shot of me shaving my hootch, and then moved along to someone else.

While any woman speaks there'll be 2-5 camera jumps — we'll see her up close, then from across the room, perhaps down the hall. If she mentions orgasms, expect imagery of fireworks. If she says she's a squirter, expect to see fruit being squeezed. Then on to the next woman and woman bits.

Through it all, there's annoying and clicking background music, the camera wobbles and wanders, and everything seems intended to be artsy, rarely intimate or informative. Of course, I'm not the target audience, just a fan of vaginas, but I would've liked to have seen and heard about vaginas, without all the distractions.

Verdict: NO. 

♦ ♦ ♦

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

David Niven plays a WWII bomber pilot whose plane is going down, and he doesn't have a parachute. He spends his last few moments holding a microphone, pondering death, and flirting with an American female officer on the radio. Then we're in a very bureaucratic British black-and-white afterlife, where the dead sign Heaven's registry, while Captain Niven walks on the beach in color.

From this springs a great deal of philosophical and psychiatric wankery, and a court case deciding whether Captain Niven merits a second chance at life because he fell in love with that dame during his final radio communications.

There's never much doubt what Heaven's multi-cultural (but all-male) jury will decide, and it's all sort of a higher-IQ and less-funny It's A Wonderful Life, but it definitely adds up to a smile.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Cleopatra (1934)

Elizabeth Taylor was Cleopatra in a 1960s movie I saw on TV when I was a kid, and even at ten years old I knew it was too much — three hours long, the bloated all-star cast. It was garbage.

Claudette Colbert, though? She's gorgeous and smart and sympathetic in every movie I've seen her in, so I wanted to see her 1930s version, and it's not a disappointment. She's better than Taylor, that's for sure, and this movie is better than that mess.

It's loaded with palace intrigue, "ides of March," and names vaguely familiar from ancient history or Shakespeare plays. I never paid attention to either, so most of the plot twists were fresh to me, and maybe it's even educational, if we unwisely assume that it's somewhat factual. The first thing I learned here is that "Cleopatra, Queen of the Desert" wasn't her official title, it was an insult when her enemies left her to die in the desert.

The flick is a cinematic achievement, literally directed by Cecil B. DeMille, but it's also easy to enjoy just as entertainment. As a bonus, there's a startling amount of cleavage, sideboob, and underboob, from Colbert, and from the barely-dressed bevy of beauties often surrounding her.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Flight to Nowhere (1946)

This is spy stuff, about bad guys intercepting info about plutonium. It's dry, with a leading man who's handsome, charming, and conveys intelligence. All the other characters are suspicious, or suspicious of each other, or we're suspicious that they're lying about who they are or what they're up to.

The script and acting aren't very good, which let my mind wander and notice that they made the minor-league mistake of filming in actual rooms and buildings, not on sets. You can tell, because the lighting is all wrong, leaving the actors' shadows on the walls. And scene by scene, the sound varies depending on which room it was filmed in, because you kitchens and ballrooms sound very different, and I guess they hadn't invented re-recording yet, or couldn't afford it.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Interzone (1989)

I'm confused, right from the first scene. A handsome white man walks into what seems to be a gay mute bar, where two men inexplicably but wordlessly block his way, one after the other. Then there's a mumbled conversation at a bar, mostly drowned out by the background music.

Then there's a drug deal, and everyone in the bar applauds. Handsome White Man pulls a toothbrush from his sock, demonstrates how it works by miming brushing his teeth, passes it around, and there's another round of applause. I don't know what's happening or why they're applauding, or why everyone in the bar is watching all this. I don't know why I'm watching all this.

Two other men take a sip of an exotic bubbling drink, and both of them instantly die, so everyone in the bar claps again. A fist fight breaks out, with very fake sound effects for every punch, and Handsome White Man slips out of the bar un-punched.

That's the first scene. It's lasted 15 minutes. I'm considering clicking the movie off, but it must be seen to be believed, so I continue watching.

Now a bunch of men in commando gear are loading their guns and standing in front of a dozen men who are wearing vaguely clerical gear. Finally we get the movie's first understandable dialogue: "Unite your [indecipherable] together, brothers. That will protect the treasure, which will in turn protect the Interzone." Then everyone opens fire on the priests, but there's an invisible wall between the gunmen and the priests, so nobody's hurt.

Now an Asian man is walking through a stream, into the woods, across the plains, up a hill, back into more woods, and then he's bitten by a snake, and dies saying, "Please forgive me." Relax, dude, all is forgiven, and surprise — you're not dead, because Handsome White Man shows up, builds a fire, and they begin communicating telepathically.

Next they go shopping at a crowded outdoor market, where folks are selling fruits and vegetables and, apparently, women. Judging by the brief flashback, one of the women is Handsome White Man's girlfriend or ex or something, so he implausibly rescues her, and the three of them — Handsome White Man, Asian Telepathy, and Girlfriend Or Ex — make their escape, chased at 20 mph by several dudes on motorcycles.

There's synthesizer music and gunfire, and Handsome White Man shoots back with an impressive but unexplained array of weaponry, while Girlfriend or Ex screams, and Asian Telepathy folds his hands and closes his eyes, probably says ohhhm but it can't be heard over the synthesizers and gunshots.

We're almost 40 minutes into this, there's been perhaps one minute of dialogue, and several people are dead but why they're dead hasn't been explained or alluded to. It's just like war, I guess.

Then Handsome White Man and Girlfriend or Ex introduce themselves to each other — wait, they're strangers? She's not his girlfriend or ex? Then what was with the flashback scene ten minutes ago, where they were running toward each other across a field, about to embrace? Maybe it was a flash-forward scene? Or, much more likely, maybe it makes no sense, like everything else here.

Now Handsome White Man, Asian Telepathy, and Girlfriend Or Ex Or Complete Stranger (hereafter GOXOCS) are huddled around a campfire, and GOXOCS says, "What exactly is the Interzone?" Ah, the movie is about to get some much-needed exposition.

"It's this," says Handsome White Man. "It's this 300-square mile area of radioactive-free land. Supposedly a freak of nature." Well, that explains everything, or it'll have to, because that's all the explanation we're going to get. Radioactive-free land.

It's quite awful, but it's not The Room — not enjoyably awful. I stayed with this mostly because GOXOCS reminded me of a girl I had a crush on in junior high, and I didn't mind being reminded. Unless you also knew Renee, I can't imagine why you'd want to watch Interzone. There's no plot, no laughs, and at no point did anything in this movie seem pertinent to anything else in this movie, or anything else in life.

Verdict: BIG NO. Huge no.

♦ ♦ ♦

Laboratory (1983)

Space aliens have kidnapped several Americans — three pretty white women, a mustachioed black man, a young white guy who looks vaguely like Patrick Swayze, and a creepy old priest who walks with a limp and speaks King James English. The Professor and Mary Ann weren't invited.

The aliens want to "examine" their captives, by inserting probes down the humans' belly buttons, and later by bloodlessly removing their heads, but mostly they seem interested in observing the humans' interactions.

Those interactions aren't quite believable, but the humans aren't idiots, and most of them work together the way you'd hope most humans would, to try figuring out how they got wherever they are, and how to get out.

It's hard to take Laboratory seriously, because the aliens wear aluminum foil and speak in a cheesy robotic monotone. That's a pity. If the aliens had been presented with a smidgen of imagination, instead of as off-the-shelf bargain-basement movie monsters, this could've been a passable piece of cheap science fiction.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

When the Clock Strikes (1961)

Bad guy Frankie Pierce has been condemned to hang when the clock strikes midnight tonight, and it's a dark and stormy night, of course. A woman driving down the road has car trouble, and accepts a ride from a man driving back up the hill. The prison is nearby, and the man driving the car is looking for the warden's house, but he won't say why.

They drive to a resort, where tourists come every Friday night to be entertained by the executions. It's revealed that the driver of the car was also the key witness whose testimony got Pierce convicted. It's further revealed that the woman's last name is Pierce, same as the condemned man, but she says that's just a coincidence. That's a lot of revelations, but there's more to come:

At a minute to midnight, hanging time, another man enters the story, and confesses that he did the crime, not the man who's about to hang. The clock strikes, and it's too late for justice, but maybe it's not too late to find the $160,000 Mr Pierce stole from a bank, funds never yet recovered.

It's all a series of wild plot twists piled atop each other like pick-up-sticks, and just like the table-top game it could all fall apart at any moment. I enjoyed all of it, including one last twist I hadn't expected at the end.

"Just because they hanged a man who didn't deserve hanging and it hits you in the face like a dish of cold spaghetti, don't expect me to fall apart because of it."

Verdict: Oh, what the hell. YES.

— — —

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Yesterday's mother

Dating back to when it was printed on paper and mailed with stamps, long-time readers of this page know that seeing my mom is at least frustrating for me, often disastrous. Well, she'd invited me to breakfast, and I'd put it off for as long as I could, but yesterday we went to breakfast, and… it was quite nice, except for the breakfast.

The restaurant Mom wanted to go to was several miles from her house, and so far into the wilds outside Renton that there's no bus service. That was the worst thing about the morning — having to drive my car. I always prefer transit.

For breakfast with Mom, I drove about 14 miles on three freeways to get to her house, through five stand-still jams on the way and three more on the way back. I wasn't in the best frame of mind when I got to her house.

We chatted, and I yelled — not because I was angry but because she's hard-of-hearing. She asked, "Should I bring my ears?" meaning, should she wear her hearing aid to the restaurant?

"Yes yes yes," I yelled. "It's a restaurant, so it'll be loud, and I don't want to be talking as loud as I'm talking now, not in a restaurant. Please wear your hearing aid." She said OK, and excused herself to put the device in her ear.

Then she put on her shoes, and jacket, and looked for her purse, and wondered whether to bring her bag, and fed the cat, and drank a glass of water because "I need more fluids," and looked for her keys, and then lickety-split, we left.

On the way, she argued with the GPS about where to turn and how to get to the restaurant, but my GPS is often full of crap — screw you, Garmin — so I shut it off and trusted Mom, and she got us there with no confusion.

When I parked and we got out of the car, Mom said, "Oh, shucks, I forgot to put in my hearing aid." And I sighed, but even though the restaurant was quite busy and very loud, there must've been some favorable quirk of acoustics — Mom and I were able to hear each other, even in a busy restaurant, better than we heard each other at her house or in the car.

The restaurant was located nowhere between Renton and Issaquah. The food was less than the best, the service was uncaring, the coffee was bitter and burnt, and the prices were what passes for reasonable these days, but more than I'd usually pay. That's irrelevant, though, because Mom was buying.

And anyway, this was Mom's favorite restaurant, she'd told me, so I said nothing bad about the place. Midway through the meal, though, Mom said that she didn't much care for her breakfast, and that next time we should eat at a different place much closer to her house.

That soon turned into an invitation, and I said yes, because all through breakfast Mom was actually... kind of delightful.

I'd been prepared to steer the conversation away from all her usual topics, but I didn't need to do any steering after parking the car. Our conversation was easy, natural, and generally grown up. She never chided me for my many mistakes in life. There were no reminders that my whereabouts had been unknown for many years, no invitations to church, and none of her usual quizzes about the names of the wives and children of everyone in the extended family. She never even asked about my recliner.

There were several moments where it could've gone bad. Like, when we first sat down, Mom put her bag on the table, and I absolutely knew it would topple over the edge. "Can I hold your bag?" I offered, but she said no, and as she sat down she rattled the table and the bag teetered, but it didn't fall over, all the contents didn't spill out on the floor.

When the food came, I knew she'd say grace, and she'd do it dramatically, like she always does. She'd want to hold my hand, and then she'd pray loudly, very loudly, and everyone in the restaurant would be watching us, and it would be a long prayer ending with "Thank you, Lord, for bringing my beloved son back to me." Nope. None of that. She bowed her head and mumbled a few words, and even I barely noticed that she'd prayed.

The loud people at the next table had been talking about baseball, but for a few minutes they changed the subject to Bible study, and I saw Mom's ears perk up. Here it comes. This was her moment, her cue. She was gonna talk to me about Jesus. She was eavesdropping as they talked about Second Corinthians, but she said nothing to me about it. That's never not happened before.

Through the meal we talked about music, about the trees blooming pretty in springtime, about what she's bringing to the upcoming family picnic, her first and only job seventy years ago, and a few pleasant memories of Dad. She brought up nothing painful, nothing annoying, and asked zero nosy questions.

Toward the end of the meal, she still hadn't scolded me yet, so I decided, what the hell, let's venture into the dangerous territory of asking Mom a semi-philosophical question.

"Hey, Mom," I said, "when I was a kid, you and Dad had a rule that the family never ate at any restaurant that served alcohol. When we walked in here, though, I noticed that there's a full bar in front of the dining room. Six beers on tap, and a cocktail menu at our table. Since when is that allowed?"

"Well," she said, "your father died many years ago, and that was his rule more than mine. I'm here to eat, not to drink, so why should it matter that they have a bar?"

"Wow," is all I said to that. My parents were always anti-alcoholics. Only milk, soda, and water were allowed in the house. They were opposed to the existence of booze.

My sister Katrina was once grounded for two months because they found out she'd had a sip of beer at a friend's house. The rules have changed, though. Now Mom lives with Katrina, who gets stoned several nights a week, and Mom thinks the scent of marijuana is Katrina's perfume.

She paid the tab and I paid the tip, which led the closest Mom came all morning to criticizing me — "That's a big tip," she said, but that's all she said. Mom never worked in a restaurant, never worked full-time, and hasn't worked at all since the 1950s, so tipping $10 on a $42 tab seemed like a lot to her. For me it was borderline stingy, because we'd stayed twenty minutes talking, after our meal was finished.

And what the hell? Twenty more minutes talking with Mom, and I hadn't been itching to leave?

As we put on our jackets, I said, "Thanks for breakfast. Mom. It was lovely, and would you like to join me for a cocktail in the lounge?"

Mom joked back, "Why, that sounds lovely, but not today. I've been trying to cut back on my heavy drinking." Of course, Mom has never tasted anything more fermented than cottage cheese.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I don't understand my mom, never really have. She's exasperatingly Christian, judgmental, full of prying questions, but — not yesterday. Usually I want to drop acid after seeing her, but I enjoyed yesterday's mother, and I'm looking forward to our next breakfast together.

What went right? I've been trying to figure that out, and here's what I've come up with. I got a new cell phone a few weeks ago, and started getting into the habit of text-messaging people, something I'd almost never done before. It's easy and takes almost no time. Mom and I are trading texts almost daily, and that might be the magic.

All her other kids (except my brother Ralph, who's dead) are constantly in touch with Mom, but I'm the one who disappeared for years. More recently I've often gone weeks, sometimes months without saying half a hello to her. Not because I'm an ass (though I am), but because she's so difficult when I do see her, I'd rather not see her. That's been my policy for thirty years.

When Mom sees me after a long silent spell, she punishes me with scolding, with intrusive questions, faultfinding comments, worried reminders that God will judge my eternal soul, etc.

Ah, but when we've sent text messages the day before, and the day before that, even if it was just a line or three of harmless chat, then she doesn't feel she's been ignored. Which means I don't need to be punished.

That's why breakfast was nice. At least, that's my theory. It's the only factor that seems different, between her behavior at breakfast yesterday morning, and her behavior when we had breakfast two weeks ago. That morning, I hadn't spoken to her in a week, and she made several harsh remarks, and after we'd said goodbye I screamed while waiting at the bus stop.

Yesterday was the opposite of that.

I'm an idiot, for not figuring out years ago that nobody likes to be ignored. So I'm going to send Mom a text message right now. "Gosh, it looks windy out the window." Later I'll check my messages, and she'll have replied about whatever's out her window, and she'll tell me what she had for lunch. Tomorrow I'll reply and tell her what I had for dinner.

A sentence, and then 'send'. Is that all it takes, to keep Mom happy?


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Bodega daydreams

Coupla miles from my boarding house, there's a cheap bodega where I shop twice weekly. They have good prices on produce, plus a random assortment of canned goods and strange surprises. It's Ling's Market, run by an Asian family, but it's gotta be a bodega cuz they sell those creepy-looking candles with pictures of Jesus or Mary looking miserable.

I ain't buying the candles, but a head of celery for 99¢? Yeah, I'll take three. At a grocery store they're $2.79 each, or even more.

My first time at the bodega, Mr Ling was suspicious, and watched me as I navigated the store's few aisles. It's a rough location, semi-slummy, so they probably have shoplifters all the time. Also, I hadn't noticed the stack of hand-baskets when I walked in, so I was filling my own bag with their produce.

I was suspicious of Ling's, too, because only about half the stuff in the store has a marked price. Between affordable cans of soup and tomato sauce on the shelf, there was beef stew in a plastic pouch, but without an announced price. I'd seen the same stew for $5.99 at Saar's Super Saver, so I walked to the counter and asked Mr Ling, "How much?"

He was watching Gunsmoke on MeTV, glanced at the stew I was holding, and said, "Two dollah."

The expiration date gave me almost a year to eat it, so I bought it, liked it, and bought ten more the next day.

The same thing has happened several times. For a while they had dragonfruit, which is so notoriously expensive I'd only tasted it once before in my life. At Ling's there was no price, so I asked. This time it was Mrs Ling at the counter, and she said, "Three dollars each," which amazed me. That's half what I paid for the one I ate twenty years ago.

And here's a very tempting pre-packaged caramel fudge the size of a hearty slice of pizza. With no price marked I was thinking it had to be $6 or $7, minimum. Asked Mr Ling, and his answer again was, "Two dollah," so I bought half a dozen.

After my third visit I stopped asking. The price is always going to be rock-bottom.

Mr Ling doesn't eyeball me any more. Sometimes he even walks away from the counter and into the next room while I'm shopping. "We have more of the fudge you like, two dollah," he told me yesterday, so it's my plan to continue being fat.

At Ling's, I notice the neighborhood, too, and wish I wasn't riding a bus back to my room at the boarding house. On every side of the bodega, there are run-down commercial buildings, and some of them have a second story. Bet I could afford a room upstairs in one of those buildings, if they rent rooms... and if they don't run background checks.

A block away, there's a somewhat better but not snooty area, with cool businesses on both sides of a busy street — coffee shops, a record store that also sells hot dogs, another bodega in case I ever get mad at Mr Ling, and several bars, pubs, taverns, and saloons. There are also a few cheap food carts, taquerias, an Asian sandwich shop (I'm curious what an Asian sandwich tastes like), a non-chain pizza place, a bake shop, and it's a two-block walk to a great mom & pop hamburger.

The bodega's neighborhood reminds me of Mission Street in San Francisco. It's always busy, with very few neckties, and best of all, half a dozen bus routes converge right outside Ling's. If I lived nearby, I could flash my ORCA card and almost instantly be on my way almost anywhere.

Of all the Seattle I've seen since coming back a month and a half ago, Ling's neighborhood feels most like the place for me. I'd like to live there.

But I don't. The room I'm renting is in a sleepy neighborhood of only houses, and "Coming soon, 242 new houses," says the sign across the street from my boarding house. Behind the sign, big burly dudes are hammering ten hours every day. Coming soon, more boring people.

There's a bus that runs through my neighborhood, but only one, and it comes just twice an hour — northbound to downtown, or southbound to nowhere. Four blocks away there's another bus, running three times an hour — northbound to a library, southbound to Southcenter. Ten blocks away there's a bus that runs so often you'd never have to check the timetables, and where does it go? Northbound to downtown, or southbound directly to Ling's, and the neighborhood where I wish I lived.

Well, the boarding house is OK. My flatmate Dean is an annoyance, the floor is crooked, there are rats, the neighborhood is dull, there's not enough water pressure in the shower, the fridge is smelly, and the toilet needs to be double-flushed when you poop, but I have no major complaints. Yeah, I could stay where I'm at and be just fine for the rest of my life.

But in the bodega's neighborhood, twice I've walked around, looking for a "room for rent" sign. So far, nada.

Across the street from Ling's, there's a building so dilapidated, the guy running the porn store downstairs said the city won't even let people go upstairs, let alone live upstairs. I told him that sounds perfect, but porno-guy is just a tenant, not the owner, and he doesn't even have a key to the illegal upstairs. I gave him my number, and asked him to pass it along to the landlord.

Meanwhile, I shop at the bodega twice a week, and always come out with a bag full of cheap vegetables, wishing home was footsteps away, instead of a ten-minute bus ride and a ten-block walk. I'm going to keep knocking on doors in the bodega's neighborhood, asking around...


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Skin Game, There Are No Fakes, and five sucky movies

Atomic Twister (2002)

With that title, you know it's horror or science fiction, but mostly this feels like a Hallmark movie (though IMDB says it was made for TBS).

It's set in a small, ethnically-diverse town where everyone's on a first-name basis with everyone else, and everyone's in everyone else's business, and pianos never stop tinkling on the soundtrack, and even the babysitter in a low-cut shirt playing Twister with the 12-year-old boy reeks of wholesome, but there's a nuclear (nu-cu-lear) reactor in town and a twister — the weather kind — is coming.

The Neverending
Film Festival

It's a very stupid made-for-TV movie, and most of the 'drama' is about malfunctions and snap decisions at the nu-cu-lear plant, something the movie knows even less about than I do. I've always been skittish about nuclear power and stand opposed, but if the place goes dark, c'mon, they do have flashlights on hand.

Of the movie's 31 subplots, the only one that interested me (for all the wrong reasons) was cleavage babysitter and the 12-year-old boy. Tragically, the boy is annoying and cleavage girl doesn't make it very far into the movie. I made it to the end, and regret it. 

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

It All Came True (1940)

Humphrey Bogart was one of the greatest movie stars of the 20th century, and maybe my favorite, for all his noir and dramatic roles. Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre... Here, though, he's starring in a comedy, and I had my doubts that he could pull it off.

Ann Sheridan is excellent (of course and as always) as a tough-talking take-no-crap woman about town. "I act and talk and dress exactly as I please, but technically I'm still a good girl." She's in love-and-hate with a piano player who wants to be a songwriter, and they both live in a boarding house full of comedic characters, including a poodle that walks on its hind legs.

Bogart plays a nightclub operator and gambling kingpin, who shoots a man in the back in his first scene. The cops are coming for him and he needs a place to hide, so Bogart moves into the boarding house. Then everyone in the household puts on an amateur vaudeville and singing show (boring), and Bogart decides to turn the boarding house into a nightclub, with a neon sign in front and an elaborate (and boring) stage show inside.

Yes, it's ridiculous, but it isn't often funny. Smartly, though, Bogart isn't called on to carry the comedy. The film's few laughs come from Bogey playing his familiar tough guy, surrounded by a house full of nosy flatmates and mothering old ladies.

This has to be Bogey's most bizarre movie, but it's 1940s bizarre, and more tedious than funny. Bring in John Waters, please, to make a modern remake.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Lost Room (2006)

In a tense after-hours meeting in a run-down pawn shop, a nervous courier pays $2,000,000 to buy the key to a hotel room. It's a key, though, that does more than merely turn a lock. You can use this key in any door anywhere, and the door will open, but where you'll be once you've walked through the door, well, therein lies the mystery.

All the world's bad guys want to get their hands on this magic key, and there's an array of other 'objects' that have peculiar powers — a pen that burns when you click it, a pair of glasses that can put out fires, a comb that freezes time while tidying your hair, etc.

This is a six-part miniseries from the Sci-Fi Channel, before it became gawdawful SyFy. I tracked it down because it's from the same creative team that made Parallels, an intriguing TV movie I reviewed a few days ago. Oddly, Parallels didn't feel much like a TV show, but this really, really does.

It stars TV actors Peter Krause and Juliana Margulies, and they're OK I guess, but you can't work up a good sci-fi sense of wonder when it's fueled by faces so very familiar from hundreds of hours of Parenthood and Dirty Sexy Money and Sports Night and Six Feet Under and ER and The Good Wife. It's full of familiar TV tropes, too, and obvious breaks where commercials used to be, and TV music and lighting, etc. Not for five minutes could you forget you're watching TV.

I'm not saying it's shit, though. It's just… TV. There's some imagination at play, a few surprises, and occasionally the dialogue is semi-clever, but you don't have to pause it while you grab a snack or check your messages or take a leak. I had no confidence that it was going to make sense at the end, and The Lost Room runs for four hours or so, but about halfway through I took a leak and never came back.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Sisters of Death (1976)

I don't know how this film ended up on my watchlist. It's an everyone's-stuck-in-a-creepy-old-house movie from the 1970s, and not the kind of flick I'm usually interested in. Written, directed by, and starring nobody in particular, it starts with some hot babes in low-cut gowns joining an all-woman secret society, and low-cut is one of my favorite cuts, so there's that.

Here's the setup: A pretty redhead receives several hundred dollars in cash in the mail, along with an invitation to join "The Sisters." And then we learn that four of the redhead's friends received the same invitation. Soon they're all driving, busing, or hitchhiking to a small California town, seemingly unaware they're in a cheap horror movie, despite the boom mic that keeps dropping into the frame.

After that it gets kinda dumb, but it's occasionally spooky without devolving into a nonstop bloodfest, most of the women aren't portrayed as stupid, and there's an amusing surprise at the end. I've seen worse, but also, so many, many movies that are better.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Skin Game (1971)

Before the Civil War, James Garner and Lou Gossett have a profitable con game going. They travel from town to town in the South, and Garner sells Gossett as a slave, then steals him back, and they trot on to the next town to work the scam again.

Trying to build a comedy around slave auctions and whippings and shackles is very precarious. It's not an obvious setting for lots of laughs, and if you want to be offended, you could find something here to be aghast at. Me, I laughed.

Midway through the movie it gets more serious, after their ruse is figured out, and Gossett's character is sold for real. After that the movie has no logical path toward a happy ending, but y'know, if Quentin Tarantino can kill Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, then why can't Garner and Gossett free the Africans in 1850s Texas?

Verdict: YES, for the audacity of it all.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

There Are No Fakes (2019)

Kevin Hearn is the keyboardist for Barenaked Ladies, and he spent $20,000 buying a painting he'd been told was by Norval Morrisseau, a famed and respected Canadian artist. When he learned that the artwork's provenance was falsified, he sued.

I won't ruin the film by going into detail about what's revealed, but it's a story with several skeezeball characters, and it's all true 'cuz it's a documentary.

You're supposed to be angry over the fakery, and if ordinary people had been defrauded I would be, but there are no ordinary people here. When art is priced in the thousands of dollars, only rich people are being scammed, and my sympathies are short. Hearn himself tells the camera that the $20K was easily affordable for him.

Perhaps more pertinent, these fakes are not imitations of well-known works by Morrisseau. They're paintings passed off as "newly-discovered," but they're not really in his style, the colors and even the signatures are all wrong, and once the movie explains the facts of the matter, even a novice could spot the difference between a real Morrisseau and a fake. You'd think rich people would have the brains to do a little research before plonking down their not-so-hard-earned money.

To me, this is a modern-day retelling of Robin Hood and his merry men. Just like that fairy tale, the thieves are stealing from the rich and giving to the poor (themselves), and they're such brazen and merry men, I found myself rooting for them.

I'm pretty sure that was not the filmmakers' intent, though.

Also, it features original music by… Kevin Hearn, of Barenaked Ladies.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Wheels (2016)

Mickey is in a wheelchair and hates his life. He's tried to kill himself several times, but can never quite do it. In a bar he meets Drake, who's also in a wheelchair, who enjoys picking fights with bikers who promptly kick the shit out of him. Clearly, these two are destined to be the best of friends.

They wallow in hating their lives, and deaden the pain by boinking prostitutes and doing hard drugs, although it's never explained where they're getting the funds for these hi-jinks.

"If I could compare heroin to anything, I would compare it to being able to walk again."

After that, the movie turns bleak, as complicated details and misremembered memories explain Mickey's backstory, and to a lesser degree, Drake's.

I don't know squat about heroin, but here's what I know about life in a wheelchair. At the age of 41, my wife went from being a tough, absolutely independent woman to being unable to walk. She didn't like being in a wheelchair, at all.

She'd enjoy the first half of Wheels, I'm certain, for its gutsy refusal to paint a happy face on a crappy situation. And she'd hate the second half, for doublecrossing the first half.

Verdict: NO.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.