Movies that I'll always stop for...

I’ve made it quite clear in previous postings that I’m an old, old man. Yesterday I got another year older, but I don’t especially have a problem with that. I’ve seen a lot of things change since the stork dropped me off in the cabbage patch. (Yes, that’s how I came into the world. If you try to convince me again that my parents ever had sex, I’ll do that thing where I stick my fingers in my ears and go, “La la la la la” at the top of my lungs)

One of the biggest and best things that happened was the invention of cable television. How we avoided mass extinction with only four or five channels to pick from, most of which that went off the air after one or two in the morning, is beyond me.

Way back then you didn’t usually turn on the television until there was something on that you wanted to watch. Can you even imagine? You sat down to watch a show, then turned the television off and went and did something else.

Thankfully, today we don’t have this burden to deal with. Fifty years ago it was up to the television programmers to come up with something good to entice us to watch. These days it’s up to us, the television viewer, to seek out and find something enticing to watch. It’s a good thing that television remote controls have evolved to match the task at hand.

If I were a stand-up comedian (which I’m not—to much standing involved) I could go off on a riff about all the different ways people channel surf. My wife, daughter and I all have our different methods of scanning for things to watch. Huge amounts of tolerance keeps us from killing one another over this.

My wife manages to hold her tongue while I’m flipping around (which must be hard for her to do, because it can be so sharp and sarcastic at times). But the one thing she never holds back at is mocking me for the movies and shows that I click on to check out.

All I can do is pity her for not having as sophisticated a palate as I was born with. After some fourteen odd years of living together, here’s a list of movies she knows I’ll always stop at. Some them she actually likes herself. Perhaps some of my good taste has rubbed off on her after all this time.

- Godzilla (Any and all of them. Even the one with Ferris Bueller in it.)
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Although these days I always wonder what Mr. Rooney has stashed in his desk drawer.)
- Predator (This movie is sooo much better than people give it credit for. I’ll usually stop for the sequel as well, but it pales compared to the first.)
- RoboCop (Always the first one in the series, most times the second one, and the third one only if no one else is in the room.)
- The Incredible Hulk
- Finding Nemo
- A Shot in the Dark (As well as any of the Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers in them.)
- The Fifth Element (Bruce Willis doesn’t get more charming than here. My favorite dialogue exchange happens at the ticket counter. “We’re newlyweds. Just met. You know how it is. We bumped into each other, sparks happened…”“Leeloo Dallas mul-ti-pass.””Yes, she knows it’s a multipass. Anyway, we’re in love.”
- Independence Day (Yes, you read right, and no, I haven’t been drinking gasoline.)
- Stargate
- Nighmare Before Christmas
- Ronin (a great movie that never found the right audience)
- Pitch Black
- Near Dark
- Galaxy Quest
- Stuck On You
- Memento
- What's Up Tigerlily?
- Kung Pow
- Lord of the Rings (Any of the three but especially the third.)
- Star Wars (Any of the six, even with JarJar.)
- Smokey and the Bandit (This one worries me a tiny bit. But not much.)
- The Hustler (Newman + Gleason + Pool = Cool)
- The Great Escape
- The Conehead Movie (Once I gave it a chance I was hooked for life)
- Rocky (I’ll check out any of the first four, but the second one is my favorite and I’ll watch if from start to finish.)
- Sky Captain
- My Neighbor Totoro (as well as Kiki's Delivery Service)
- Fat City (It’s from the 70s and Stacy Keach plays a washed up boxer who tries for a comeback.)
- Planet of the Apes (I’ll take a peek at any of them, but only stay for the first one.)
- The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen burns up the screen, and Ann-Margret is so damn sexy she practically leaves puddles of lust behind wherever she goes.)
- Fail-Safe
- Dr. Strangelove
- Disney's Beauty and the Beast
- Flight of the Phoenix (I’ll stop and watch the remake as well.)
- When Worlds Collide (Great concept, pretty good execution, not much cheese.)
- Alien (All of them. Even Alien Vs. Predator.)
- The Omega Man (I wish it were on right now. I should go check. Nope.)
- Monsters, Inc.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (I’ll check out any of them, but he second one still leaves me cold, even after years of trying to like it.)
- Buckaroo Banzai (Flawed, but an A+ for effort.)
- Key Largo (Bogart does his best work in this film.)
- Journey to the Center of the Earth (I refuse to eat goose pate even to this day. Poor Gertrude.)
- Jaws
- Five Million Years to Earth (Part of the Hammer Quartermass series. A childhood favorite that I still cherish today.)
- Mysterious Island (I don’t care if it ignores the book. I still hold it precious.)
- Firefox (Clint Eastwood speaking Russian AND flying the fastest jet on the planet? Count me in!)
- Our Man Flint (Hey buddy, got a light? Oww!)
- To Sir With Love (Those schoolgirl days…)
- The Road Warrior (Not a big fan of the first Mad Max film, but I’ll always stop for this one and Beyond Thunderdome.)
- The Verdict (of the Newman/Redford team I always liked Paul Newman lots more)
- Army of Darkness (As well as Evil Dead 2)
- Blazing Saddles (As well as Silent Movie, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers.)
- Hair
- Johnny Dangerously
- Crimson Tide
- Around The World Under The Sea
- Silent Running (Bruce Dern as a creepy hippy trying to save the rainforest. Why not?)
- Dead Calm
- Magnum Force (Along with Dirty Harry. You got a problem with that? Well, do ya’ punk?)
- Return of the Living Dead (Smart and funny—what a combo!)
- Marooned (Gene Hackman is good in anything.)
- The Silencers (Any Matt Helm movie is worth a quick look.)
- The Birds (As well as most Hitchcock films.)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- Poltergeist
- The French Connection
- Toy Story
- Slap Shot (Paul Newman at his cynical best.)
- Tobor the Great (Tobar is Robot spelled backward.)
- Inherit the Wind
- Robot Jox
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

THE THREE TIMES THAT I ALMOST DIED (that I'm aware of) Part One

When I was a kid I ‘heard’ a lot of things. Have you ever seen those collections of Urban Legends that were popular a few years back? That was the stuff of my childhood. It seems like everyone that I came in contact with back then had a friend, aunt, uncle, boss, sister, third-cousin, army buddy, or driving school teacher who was good friends with the guy, girl, or whatever the legend was about. The closest I ever got to the source was Susan, a teenage friend of my sisters who lived next door to us on the South Side of Chicago. She claimed to personally know the girl who was so happy with her complicated hairstyle that she froze it solid with hair spray. Weeks passed without her washing it. Somehow a pregnant Black Widow spider found her way into the varnished hair-do and decided to make it a home to her new family. Susan swore to me that she was sitting there in class when the spiders decided to emerge from their cocoon and see the world.

I used to hear lots of stories about kids who died imitating their favorite superheroes. There was a kid who lived out on a farm and his favorite comic character was Superman. He liked Superman so much that he thought he had superpowers himself. One day he tied one of his mother’s clean bed sheets around his neck and jumped off the roof of the barn. (In one version of the kid fell like a rock and splattered on whatever type of ground they have around barns. In the other he did such a good job of tying the makeshift cape around his neck, that when it got caught on a nail at the edge of the deck it hung him until he was dead. He was still hanging there when his parents got home from church.)

Another Superman story featured a kid who saw bullets bouncing off of Superman’s chest and thought he’d try that with his daddy’s pistol. There were also a lot of variations on the story about the kid whose favorite comic character was the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. “Flame On” indeed.

I guess somewhere down deep I knew most of these stories were made up, but that part was squished beneath the much bigger part of me that wanted them to be true. I guess if I had really understood the whole concept of the Urban Legend, I would have started cooking up my own. Who knows? Maybe my friends and me were creating our own. At the very least we were giving continued life to existing stories and probably embellishing on them along the way.

I never ‘heard’ any stories about dumb kids killing themselves by imitating characters from television shows, but I’ve got one of my own. It happened when I was eight or nine.

I had plenty of television series that I enjoyed a lot back then. Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea was a big one, as was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, It Takes A Thief, Gilligan’s Island, Speed Racer, Bozo’s Circus, The Banana Splits, and the family favorite in our house, The Fugitive. But the standout of the group, head and shoulders above all the rest, was Mission: IMPOSSIBLE. (Just typing the words sends a tingle racing up and down my spine.)

Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and I was eight-years-old, TV’s ‘prime time’ ran from seven to ten, instead of today’s eight to eleven (I used to know why they changed it, but have since forgotten). Mission: IMPOSSIBLE was on Sunday nights at nine. They probably moved it around in the schedule in the years that followed, but during my ‘honeymoon’ years with the show, it was Sunday at nine. I owe a cigar and a steak dinner to whomever made this decision. It was perfect for me. By the time it came on the only Sunday shows that we watched (The Wonderful World of Disney and maybe The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for me and my sisters—The Lawrence Welk show for my parents) were over. My sisters were upstairs finishing their homework or doing whatever it is that older sisters do. My dad had headed upstairs to bed, and my mom was probably in the kitchen smoking Salem cigarettes and drinking coffee.

This meant that for all intents and purposes, the television was mine! My bedtime was ten, so the timing was perfect. One hour of television dynamite and then off to dreamland.

I could go on for hours about how much I loved Mission: IMPOSSIBLE, and why, but that’s not my goal for today. (Perhaps another time. Oh yes, another time.) Today I wanted to tell you about how my love for Mission: IMPOSSIBLE almost got me killed.

The core members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) included:

Jim Phelps: Master tactician and leader of the team, who always managed to find a way to stay one step ahead of the enemy.

Cinnamon Carter: Fashion cover girl and society ingénue. (And yes, I know it’s not necessarily logical to pick a top model, whose face has been on the cover of every major magazine, as a member of your secret squad of agents. Perhaps team leader Jim Phelps reasoned that the target of most of his missions, be it the Russian mob, third-world drug cartel henchmen, or defecting nuclear scientists, weren’t big magazine readers. And besides, Cinnamon was a skilled actress who could blend into any role she played, from socialite to scrubwoman.)

Rollin Hand: Stage magician without peer, master of misdirection, and man of countless faces, Rollin could impersonate anyone from drug lords to heads of state.

Willy Armitage: Definitely the muscle of the group; in addition to the heavy lifting, Willy was an expert martial artist, adept with weapons, and as dependable as the day was long.

Barney Collier: The undisputed renaissance man of the group, Barney was a master electrician, mechanical engineer, pilot, architect, deep sea diver, and no matter how hot the action got, he remained cool as a cucumber.

Of course Jim Phelps wasn’t the original team leader. That was Dan Briggs, who was a talented strategist, but lacked some of the social graces needed to be a truly effective leader. We never learned what happened to Dan Briggs. Perhaps he was killed during the course of a mission. Or maybe he was captured and he’s rotting in a jungle cell somewhere, refusing to give his torturers a single scrap of information. I missed him for a while but I was quickly won over by the way Phelps took care of business.

My favorite of the group, though, was Barney. He usually had the most to do during the missions, so he always seemed to be the most important member of the team to me. Let’s say for example that the mission involved a deposed military leader who was sitting on a stockpile of nuclear warheads that he was planning to make for sale to the highest bidder. Well, Barney might have to crawl through the heating vents of the foreign embassy where the kook was holed up, defeat a sophisticated security system, dodge and duck the armed guards roaming the halls, tap into the telephone system to reroute all communications, pick the locks on at least five or six doors, and then break into the vault where the warheads were being stored. He would have to hide his efforts by first secretly dropping down a flexible movie screen in front of the vault door, and then setting up a movie projector that would project the image of the undisturbed door onto the screen. Only then could he open his really good bag of tricks to crack the locks on the door, neutralize the nuclear warheads, and then use a sonic disruptor to disintegrate the floor of the vault so the warheads would drop down into the subterranean caves beneath the embassy. While all this was going on the other team members would be doing their magic to cause distractions and delay the warhead auction.

In the end the deposed leader will have sold off the warheads to a particularly nasty lot of blokes. He’ll have their cash in hand when he opens the vault door to reveal…nothing. Cut to a shot of the IMF team driving away as gunshots echo throughout the halls of the embassy.

I think part of the reason Barney was my favorite was because of my dad. My father was a television repairman, so I grew up tinkering around with radios and televisions in his basement workshop. One of my favorite treats was junking old televisions that owners had dropped off for repair. Either the set was deemed unfixable, or the owner didn’t like the sound of the estimate and told my dad to keep it. Either way it was junk, and my dad would let me take it apart and strip it down for spare tubes, usable parts, and the precious copper yokes that used to be wrapped around the neck of the picture tube.

Of course I would pretend that I was doing something altogether different. I would either be defusing a bomb, trying to repair an encryption device before enemy bombers flew overhead, or some such fun. Back then televisions and radios had lots of big bulky parts that were ripe for goofing around with.

Then I would get bored. A bored Fred with a screwdriver in hand is inviting trouble. I started wandering around the basement, pretending to pick locks, pry open hidden compartments in things, and of course, tightening any loose screws I happened across.

And then I saw the fuse box.

I’d seen Barney tinkering with fuse boxes on Mission: IMPOSSIBLE. I had to climb up the outside railing of the stairs to reach it, but I was clever that way. I popped open the cover with the screwdriver and saw maybe a dozen fuses screwed into the panel. (I guess this was back before circuit breakers. The fuses I’m talking about were metal and about the diameter of a quarter. There was a tiny window in the face of the fuse and looking in you could see a tiny metal bar. If the bar was melted though it meant that the fuse was blown. I goofed around with twisting the fuses. Then I loosened the screws that held the fuse panel in place. Inside I could see some big fat copper wires. Some were thick as my finger. Copper was worth a lot of money, I knew, from scavenging the yokes from the castaway television sets. I was rich, I reasoned.

The plate wouldn’t come all the way off, so I jammed the screwdriver inside to try and loosen the copper wires.

I woke a long time later. I was on the basement floor, ten feet from the stairs. I had a horrible taste in my mouth. Blood. I had bitten the inside of my mouth. The screwdriver was nowhere to be seen. I tried to get to my feet but my legs were made of rubber. I felt really strange. It took me a long time to get upstairs.

My sisters must have been watching me, because I don’t remember seeing my mom as I climbed up to my bedroom. My body was tingling from head to toe and it wouldn’t stop. My hands seemed to be made of rubber too. I couldn’t turn the doorknob to the bathroom. I decided to hold it and lay down on my bed. I woke when I was called for dinner. I ate in silence. I was usually the quiet one, with my mom and sisters carrying the conversation. I went upstairs and went back to bed.

I woke in the middle of the night and this time I was able to open the bathroom door. I remember how much it hurt when I peed. It had never hurt before. I guess it was starting to dawn on me what had happened. I padded down the stairs and returned to the scene of the crime. The paint on the fuse box near where I’d jammed the screwdriver in was scorched black. The screws that I had loosened were gone, but the panel was only drooping open an inch or so. I bunched my pajama sleeve around my hand for protection and swung the fuse door shut. It mostly looked like it had before.

The tingling stayed for a few days, especially in the hand I was holding the screwdriver with. It took a few days more for the inside of my mouth to heal. As I type this I’m running my tongue around trying to feel a scar. Nothing.

If I had been a little smarter I would have probably been scared enough to tell my dad what I’d done. If I’d been a lot smarter I guess I would have never done it in the first place. Today, thirty-seven years later I recognize a miracle when I hear one.

That was the first time (that I know of) that I should have died.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about my opinion, I thought the Tom Cruise Mission: IMPOSSIBLE movies were silly little diversions. Neither movie captured the heart of what I loved about the original television series. But people like them, so live and let live. I always say.


Who will claim these lost people?

No, they aren't the lost people from the Lost island. I know what happens to them. These are people whose images were found on exposed rolls of film stuck in antique cameras.

For the writers out there seeking inspiration--look no further.

Here's the URL for a site put up by a camera nut who haunts the shelves of second hand shops. I guess he sometimes finds exposed film stuck in old cameras. He processes the film and shows the world these images for the very first time.

I don't know about you, (well, some of you I do) but I could have hours of fun imagining the backstory of any of these photos. It's fun to imagine, isn't it? I think so too. Do you ever imagine what your mommy does when one of your many 'uncles' visits and she locks you in your bedroom? I like to pretend I know what all those strange sounds are. The banging on the walls, the squeaky sounds that mommy's bed makes, glass breaking, and then in the end, the sad sound of desperation.



Oh that’s right. The Hobos were run out of town by the Homeless. That’s a shame. Hobos always had a slightly mystical turn of the century charm to them. The Homeless just aren’t trying hard enough. Everything was better in the olden days—even the poor.

Happy Halloween, y’all. I’ve always had a weird attachment with Halloween, because it was a crutch for helping me remember when my birthday was. I was born two days after Halloween, which I always thought was much cooler than being born two days after Christmas. Anyone unlucky enough to be born close to Christmas has got to suffer. They’re going to get shorted on one of the days.

As a result of my birthday coming so hot on the heels of Halloween, I don’t have a lot of childhood memories of Halloween. Even though Halloween meant loads of candy, which I love today and much as I did back then, my birthday was always more important to me.

You could get candy any day of the year, but there was only one day a year when I was in control of our house. Not total control, mind you, but lots more than I was used to.

I had two older sisters, and the youngest one was five or six years older than me, which meant I was a mistake. My arrival into the world was not scheduled, but tolerated. My mom went through the ‘change of life’ when I was very young, so my sisters Nancy and Marcia had a very active hand in my raising. Which is cool, and which I am grateful to this very day for. But anyone out there with older siblings knows what it’s like to be the runt of the lot.

The majority ruled in our house when it came to making decisions like what to watch on television, which movies we would get to go see, or what to have for dinner. I’m sure I was on the majority side more and a few times, but what I remember is always being a minority of one. If there was something I wanted to watch on television and it was on against something my sisters wanted to see, well, at least I get to see it no on the TVLand channel.

But on my birthday, I was the big cheese. I was the headman. I was the one in control of the television. Plus, there was cake and presents, making it a day of days. As far as presents, my parents were never too cheap when it came to keeping me supplied with toys and games. I could count on Nancy to give me a few Hardy Boys books, and Marcia would always kick in with a pair of slippers or some Peanuts paperbacks.

I do have strong memories of one Halloween. I must have been nine or ten. I always loved the Red Skeleton Show on television, and one of the characters he played was a lovable tramp. There were a lot of lovable tramps on television back then, and I sort of thought the whole concept was cool. So it was so shocker when I announced that year that I was going to be a hobo for Halloween. My mom went along with it and agreed to sew some patches onto an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. I was stuck without a hat, and no self respecting hobo would be seen out in public without a scuffed and beaten old hat, so I decided to make my own.

I’m pretty sure it took me two or three hours to make that hat. I used the pieces of white cardboard that new shirts and underwear came wrapped around. I colored the cardboard brown with crayons and then got busy cutting and taping the mess together. It was sort of a puzzle, figuring out how to make it work. (I think that’s one of the reasons I became a writer. No, not the making hats part, but rather the solving problems part. What is writing fiction if not solving one problem after another? Don’t answer, I was being metaphorical. I think Halloween is an appropriate day to be metaphorical. It’s such a diabolical word. Much like the word ‘diabolical’ itself.)

The rest of the day is pretty much a blur. I know it happened because I have a photograph of me in costume, which I wish I could lay hands on at the moment. I probably grabbed a pillowcase and went trick-or-treating with my best pal, Donnie Draves. Everything from then on would have been a sugar haze, anyway.

We always got treats and never tricked. We would plan out elaborate tricks that we wanted to pull off, but I guess we weren’t mean spirited enough to follow through. Besides, like I said, we always got treated.


Wanna See A Dirty Picture?

Well, I got no dirty pictures for you, but what I do have is an exceptional movie for you to rent. That is, if you like a heaping helping of violence in your movies. Most of us do, but most won’t admit it. That’s why people continue to watch the Rocky movies. No matter how much cheese Sylvester Stallone heaps on us, we always cheer him on in the end, when he’s punching the snot out of whomever.

The movie I’m suggesting you rest is titled ‘Unleased’ in United States, but around the rest of the world it’s known as ‘Danny the Dog’.

It features martial artist Jet Li as you’ve never seen him before—as an actor. Sure, he kicks the shit out of just about everything that moves, but this boy can act as well. How good is he? For starters, he holds his own up against the likes of Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins, and that’s a lot.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of a young boy raised in a cage to be a human pit bull. (Yes I know I’m using dog stereotypes, and that probably more people are killed tripping over wiener dogs than are killed by pit bulls, but it’s late and I need a quick analogy, so deal.) Bob Hoskins plays a loan shark who raises the boy to kill on demand—which helps a lot when it comes time to collect overdue loans. One thing beautifully leads to another and Danny the Dog (Jet Li) comes in contact with blind Morgan Freeman. Wait, that doesn’t actually happen in the movie, like Being John Malkovich. What I mean is that Danny the Dog comes into contact with Sam the blind piano tuner, played by Morgan Freeman.

I hope you didn’t laugh when you read that, because I sure laughed when I typed it. “Well look who we have here, it’s good old Sam, the blind piano tuner.” Believe me, it works. Having a blind man see human being inside the killing machine does reek of treacle a bit, but you can blame the French. The film was written Luc Besson (the love him/hate him director of The Professional and The Fifth Element) and was directed by Louis Leterrier, a Besson protégé who also directed the underappreciated and misunderstood film, The Transporter. The French aren’t as jaded as we are, so to them a character like blind Sam the piano tuner is a sweet idea. Again, if anyone could pull off a character like this, it’s Morgan Freeman, and he does.

A secret little shining star hidden in this movie is Ms. Kerry Condon, who plays Morgan Freeman’s stepdaughter. But not really. She plays a character that is Morgan Freeman’s character’s stepdaughter. (Must stop doing that.) Condon is immediately recognizable, yet I knew I’d never seen her in anything before. Kinda like Ron Howard’s daughter who played the blind girl in The Village. You’re sure you’ve seen her before, yet you never have. Condon plays a just-turned-eighteen schoolgirl, who’s cute as a button. (Yet with enough simmering underlying sexiness to make any fathers watching—like me—kind of uncomfortable.)

Danny the Dog is pretty much a blank slate when he comes in contact with Sam and his stepdaughter and that’s when Jet Li really shows his acting chops. All his character knows about the world is what he picks up while living in a gangster’s cellar or when he’s unleashed and ordered to kill. Danny learns about the world at a natural, unrushed pace.

And of course there’s enough martial arts action to choke a Vietnamese pig. Which is a lot, I think. The fights were choreographed by the genius Woo-Ping Yuen, who called the shots in the Matrix movies and both volumes of Kill Bill. There’s a lot less wirework in this film and that’s probably because he had the likes of Jet Li to work with, as opposed to Keanu Reeves. Master choreographer + master martial artist = movie magic.

Did I mention how good Bob Hoskins is? I haven’t liked him this much since The Long Good Friday.

I hope this movie finds the audience on home video that it missed while in the theaters.