A Christmas Miracle

Temporary resident in Brother Dave’s yard

It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. — Hans Gruber in Die Hard

So, being smack dab in the midst of the 2017 holiday season, I find myself looking forward to waking up Christmas morning, firing up the old Blu-ray, and watching Die Hard. While I enjoy the movie any time of year, I do find it takes on special meaning at Christmas.

Just like how it somehow feels right to watch Jaws around the Fourth of July. Though not every Fourth of July—in any given year, I’ll abstain if I happen to be training for an open-water swim race. It’s too spooky heading out into the water if Jaws is fresh in my memory.

But I’m getting sidetracked. I did not intend this post to be about my holiday movie-viewing habits. It’s supposed to be about a couple of rare occurrences that transpired recently.

First, snow in Southern Louisiana. That is rare indeed. The winter storm that just blew through much of the U.S. took an unusual southward dip. Last Friday, I drove to work through freezing rain, and saw some snow flurries later in the day. Though the snow didn’t stick on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain (where I live and work).

The snow did stick roughly thirty miles away, on the north shore of the lake. I found myself over there on Saturday, making good on a long-standing intention to visit 2nd & Charles, a used bookstore. There are maybe 40 of these stores scattered throughout the U.S., and only two in Louisiana.

Another aside: I’m a newly-minted fan of this store / concept. I traded in a bunch of DVDs and Blu-rays, received a cash offer for them, and then spent slightly more than what I had just received on gifts. The net result was that I still reduced the amount of unused “stuff” in our house, and was also introduced to a really cool bookstore.

Anyway, once I crossed the 24-mile concrete span known as the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, signs of the previous day’s snowfall were evident. The white stuff was still showing—on the shoulder of the road, on pitched rooftops. I had lunch with my brother David and his family, and his north shore neighborhood still looked like a winter wonderland.

Which brings me to the phenomenon I really intended to write about. By pure happenstance, I saw all of my Louisiana-based siblings on Saturday. There are five of us here, (seven total—two sisters live out of state), and our respective orbits don’t typically intersect. And, we’re a pretty introverted lot, so gatherings and celebrations don’t come together as quickly or naturally as they might for other families.

Lunch with Brother Dave and his whole family—Sister-in-Law Barbara, Nieces Cherie and Veronica, and Veronica’s fiancé Josh—would have been blessing enough. I headed back over the Causeway with a full belly, and happy to have caught up with beloved family. And, I had enough time to make it to vigil Mass with Brother Jerry, or “Mass of the Ancients” as we’ve dubbed it. (Vigil Mass with Jerry is not a rare occurrence; we used to bring our mother to this Mass, and just never stopped once Mom was gone).

When I arrived at Jerry’s house, I discovered Niece Kate, recently home from her first semester at Mississippi State, would join us for Mass. Then, walking into church, what to my wondering eyes does appear, but Sister Susan and Brother Stephen. They usually go to the late Sunday Mass, but as the fates would have it, were at Saturday’s vigil.

So, lo, in the span of just a few hours, I saw all my Louisiana siblings. Mom, who passed away three years ago this coming Sunday, would have been very pleased by that turn of events.

Jones vs. Mews

Jones v. Mews—kinda sounds like a legal dispute, doesn’t it?

Nope, in keeping with the tone of this blog, it’s a movie / pop culture reference. I caught up on Stranger Things over the long Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S.

I loved Season 1 when I watched it last year. Several months after everyone else did. So, I began streaming Stranger Things 2 this past Saturday. Several weeks behind everyone else. Again.

And, because everyone’s already seen it, I think I can keep this post spoiler-free. Heck, I still have 3 episodes to go, so there’s only so much I can spoil.

What’s jumped out at me are all the Aliens references in Stranger Things 2. Paul Reiser’s role is the most obvious. Since they all seem so apparent, I wanted to make sure I didn’t plagiarize anyone, or re-write what some other fan may have already written.

The top result from a quick Google search was a Vulture article by Brian Tallerico, “All the Ways Stranger Things 2 Is Like James Cameron’s Aliens.” NOTE: the Vulture article contains spoilers. Which, actually, I didn’t mind. But I might be one of the few people on the planet who actively seeks out spoilers. I hate surprises.

Anyway, sure enough, the very first thing the article points out is the comparison between Paul Reiser’s portrayal of Dr. Owens in Stranger Things 2, and Burke in Aliens. (After all these years, I still love to hate Burke. What a great weaselly villain.) The article also scooped me on the following:

  • The visual similarity of the worlds inhabited by the Demodogs in Stranger Things 2, and the aliens in Aliens. Though I would have gone a little further to point out the tunnels in the Upside Down and the sub-floor on LV-426…
  • The use of radar. It’s a brilliant device for tension-building. Observers see little blips on a screen (the aliens / Demodogs) descend upon their teams, while they watch in horror.
  • Flamethrowers are the chief weapon used against the monsters in each story.

But here’s something that wasn’t in Tallerico’s Vulture article: the cats. Jones from the Alien movies, and Mews from Stranger Things 2. My apologies to anyone who’s already drawn this comparison, but I didn’t see anything in a quick perusal of the Google results. Though I didn’t scan too far down. It’s a little surprising, since cats consistently win the Internet.

In the Alien universe, Jones, or Jonesy, is an orange tabby cat. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) looks after him. The Alien vs. Predator wiki calls Jones a “ginger American Shorthair,” but where I come from, cats of his ilk are known as orange tabbies. Or more specific to my family, orange marmalade cats.

Here’s a fun fact: I grew up with the random knowledge that calico cats are always female. But just recently learned that orange tabbies are predominantly male, roughly 80% so.

Mews from Stranger Things is also an orange (marmalade) tabby. But is apparently in the 20% minority, because the Stranger Things wiki refers to Mews as a “she.”  Mews belongs to Dustin Henderson’s family; and, as such, appears to have a more pampered house-cat existence than Jonesy.

While Jones and Mews meet different fates, they are two cats who look similar, who have roughly the same presence in each dramatic milieu.

In a match-up, I’d pick Jonesy any day, but I won’t elucidate why, because that might be a spoiler.

So, there.

We’ll never have Arnhem?

It’s been a while since I’ve written about movies. They’re one of five categories I use on this blog, (I don’t count “Uncategorized” as a category) and I feel like it’s been somewhat neglected lately. So, time to correct that.

I watched A Bridge Too Far for the first time, just a few nights ago. This WWII movie, directed by Richard Attenborough, came out in 1977. It’s loaded with actors, an “all stars of the 1970s” cast: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, James Caan, Elliott Gould, Maximilian Schell. It being a war movie, there didn’t seem to be many roles for women—I think Liv Ullmann is the woman with the most screen time. She plays the owner of a house in the Netherlands where a bunch of wounded Allied soldiers crash.

Two casting choices had me scratching my head a bit—Ryan O’Neal as a baby-faced Brigadier General, and Gene Hackman as a Polish Major General. He spoke with an accent that felt mildly Eastern European.

It’s a looong movie, clocking in at nearly three hours. I fell asleep for a while in the middle of it (my couch is really comfortable). But I caught enough to get the gist of it. I thought the ending was really strong, so I was glad I was awake for that part.

A Bridge Too Far is based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name. (William Goldman did the screenplay. Why does that name sound familiar? Because he also wrote The Princess Bride 🙂) Anyway, A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, a failed attempt to break through German defenses in the Netherlands, roughly three months after D-Day. In the Allies’ effort to secure the bridge in the Dutch town of Arnhem, a whole lot goes wrong.

At the end of the movie, British general Urquhart, played by Sean Connery, meets up with his superior, Lt. General Browning (played by Dirk Bogarde). Urquhart tells him how he went in to the mission with 10,000 men, and came out with less than 2,000. Browning tells him how Field Marshal Montgomery, who devised the whole plan, is calling Operation Market Garden “90 percent successful.”

I was pretty stunned by that. And suffice it to say, Montgomery does not come off well at all in A Bridge Too Far. It’s also pretty interesting that Montgomery is not portrayed in the movie (unless he showed up while I was sleeping). For what I saw, his orders are represented through Browning, who was the one to tell Montgomery before the operation, “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”

It all got me thinking about WWII in a different way. My schooling gave me, really, just a cursory knowledge of  WWII, from just the American perspective. I like to think that my understanding has grown over the years, much of it gained through movies. Earlier this year, it was Dunkirk that had me looking at history from different angles.

Dunkirk was in theaters this past summer. It, by contrast, is less than two hours long, and I did not fall asleep. While the details are not as fresh to me as A Bridge Too Far, I came away from Dunkirk thinking about this: all the really bad stuff that was going on in WWII long before the United States ever got involved. (The events depicted in Dunkirk happened in May 1940). And how insurmountable the odds seemed for the Allies. From that point of view and point in time, the eventual Allied victory was far from a “given.”

Casablanca always gets me thinking about that uncertainty, too—especially because it was made and released years before the war ended!

Anyway, I’ve probably yammered on enough about war movies. From the perspective of a writer who’s trying to improve her story telling, I found a lot to be gleaned from A Bridge Too Far, some from Dunkirk, and don’t get me started on Casablanca. That one’s a gold mine.

Quarter Report 2017: Star Trek TNG, Quanta, a New Year, and More

Chicago: I rode the L!

Annnnnnd, we’re back to The Fast and the Furious. I’ve written in these pages at least twice about the character Dom Toretto and his special brand of wisdom. When I first heard Vin Diesel utter the line “I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” I knew I had encountered a bit of cinematic brilliance. Something on the order of Patrick Swayze’s (as Johnny Castle) “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Or my own personal muse, John McClane’s “Yippee ki yay, *Mr. Falcon*” (as it appears in the censored version of Die Hard 2.)

Much like Dominic Toretto, I tend to think, and plan, in terms of quarters (yearly quarters, not miles). Discrete, three-month-sized chunks. As I reflect on the third quarter of 2017, I find it’s been pretty eventful. Some of the stuff I’ve written about (the eclipse, our visit to New Smyrna Beach, hurricanes, the release of my novel), but there’s plenty of other stuff I haven’t. Here, in no particular order, are some observations, tidbits, and events that have been swimming about in my particular cosmos in Q3:

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, Outside In Makes It So releases today! This collection of essays covers every episode of Star Trek: TNG, plus the movies. It’s commemorating the 30th anniversary of the show’s premiere. I’m thrilled that my piece about the episode “Time’s Arrow” is included. You can find the anthology on sale here.
  • More about discrete chunks: While on a recent Internet search into famed physicist Max Planck, I discovered what he is most known for, and it’s this: quanta. Quanta, the root of the term “quantum.” As in quantum physics, quantum theory, Quantum Leap. Planck is credited with the hypothesis that the very nature of nature itself is not continuous, that change occurs in discrete increments. Regarding electromagnetic waves, he termed these discrete packets of energy “quanta.” This discovery earned him the Nobel Prize nearly 100 years ago. All these years of being fascinated and confused by quantum physics, and I’d never thought about the meaning of “quantum” before. And I’m sure some of you who have read this far are hoping you never have to think about the word again.
  • U2: I saw U2 in concert for the first time ever a few weeks ago. They are on tour, promoting the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree” album. (Discrete chunks of thirty years seem to be a theme, here. I also attended my thirty year high school reunion this past quarter). Anyway, U2: during my heavy concert-going years (when I was between fifteen and twenty-five, roughly), I would have definitely bought tickets to see U2, if they had come to my town. (In those years, it was New Orleans and Tucson, Arizona). But they never did. I was glad the band opened the set with really old stuff, songs from “War.” The songs I would have wanted to hear, if our paths had crossed so many years ago. All in all, very worthwhile—plus, Beck opened for them, and he was fantastic.
  • Rosh Hashanah: I’m a little hesitant to write this, since I’m not Jewish, but I really don’t see this as cultural appropriation. I’m Catholic, which is a Judeo-Christian religion, and I’ve always been a bit ecumenical in my practice, anyway. So, Rosh Hashanah—about fifteen years ago, after a particularly rough twelve months (four quarters), I decided to start my new year’s resolutions at Rosh Hashanah. To give them a sort of beta test-run before January. With all this “30-year” backwards staring, I’m grateful that the arrival of Rosh Hashanah last week has me looking forward once again.
  • Chicago: And, oh yeah, I spent four days in Chicago last week with my job. It was a good time to be there, if a bit unseasonably warm. The pictures in this post are from that trip.

Spirit of Music statue, Grant Park
View of Lake Michigan and Adler Planetarium (I think) from Grant Park


Going home, connecting in Nashville

Total Eclipse of the ’80s

Logan and John Wick

I realize today is International Women’s Day. And I will get to that in a bit, I promise. But first, an introduction: in determining a topic for this week’s post, it occurred to me that I just saw the new Wolverine movie, Logan, two nights ago. And prior to that, the last movie I saw in the theater was John Wick: Chapter 2. There are certain similarities to the two films, so that seemed as good a thing as any to write about.

The biggest similarity that comes to mind is the ultra violence. According to the Internet, the total body count in John Wick: Chapter 2 is 128. I think that’s like a 50% increase in kills from the first John Wick. I couldn’t find a total body count for Logan, maybe because the crafty Internet denizens who spend their time counting such things haven’t gotten around to it yet. Suffice it to say, it felt pretty high. And with an “R” rating and an extra set of adamantium claws in the movie, it gets really bloody.

There is always some part of me that feels I need to apologize for my love of action movies. To those folks who feel action movies glorify violence, or only reinforce certain gender stereotypes. Since my affinity for action movies has not diminished over time, my justification is pretty much the same as it’s ever been: it’s the stories that I love, not the violence or the macho-ness for their own sake. When it’s a great story, the actions of the characters serve the plot. Sometimes those actions can include lots of killing and questionable choices.

And I might be able to offer an argument against the gender-stereotyping claim. Today being International Women’s Day, I’d like to focus on the females in these two movies. To be sure, there aren’t many, but they are crucial to the story of each, especially Logan.

But first, John Wick: Chapter 2. The most memorable female role (to me) was assassination target Gianna D’Antonio, played by Claudia Gerini. She was a powerful woman who showed no fear, who appeared to live as she died—by her own rules. The other main female role was one of John Wick’s chief adversaries, Ares, played by Ruby Rose. She never uttered any great memorable lines because she never spoke—she communicated via sign language.

And as I recall, many of the contract killers who go after John Wick (there are a lot of them) are female. I can’t go so far as to say John Wick: Chapter 2 takes great steps to further the cause of equality; but as far as the story goes, it was very enjoyable. It took itself even less seriously than the first, and played up its arch elements to utmost effect. (I love the whole concept of the criminal underworld’s Continental hotel chain, which allows no “business”—read killings—on the premises).

Logan was also enjoyable, but in a more heart-breaking way. And I definitely could make a case for how equality is at the very heart of the entire X-Men series—of comic books and movies. So I feel there is less need of a defense on that claim. In Logan, for female roles, there is Gabriela, a nurse played very effectively by Elizabeth Rodriguez, who seeks out Logan and sets the whole story in motion.

But finally, there is the character of Laura. Dafne Keen plays her to indelible effect. There would be no story without Laura, and it would be a very different movie with a different actor in the role. It feels condescending to say Dafne Keen is “one to watch,” so instead I’ll just say I was consistently amazed by her portrayal.

In a very short span of story time, and with no words spoken, I was totally convinced of the connection she forged with Charles Xavier. (I could go on about how phenomenal Patrick Stewart is in this movie, but since today isn’t International British Knight Day, I won’t). And Laura’s relationship with Logan is immediately intense, and complex, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by calling it heartbreaking.

I’m getting long-winded, so I’ll wrap this up. Some final similarities between Logan and John Wick: Chapter 2—I think each improved upon preceding films in the series. And neither did anything to lessen my love for action movies.

Children of the Bandit


We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done.
We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.

                                                Jerry Reed, “East Bound and Down”

The title of this post could be “Procrastination.” True to the theme, I started writing this about a month ago, after Tim and I watched Smokey and the Bandit. But the holidays and other topics intervened.

I could use the same excuses for The Tremors on the PCH, the working title of the second book in the Lacey Becnel series. It’s the follow-up to The Incident Under the Overpass. In truth, I am not as far along as I hoped to be by this point. I’ve got an incomplete first draft, where I hoped to have at least a complete first draft by the time 2016 ended. While I’m not in full-on-panic-mode yet, I’m not ruling out the possibility of it striking. Soon.

Call it confirmation bias, but there are two things I read recently that made me feel a little better about my current state of incompletion.

First, Smokey and the Bandit. This is a movie I’ve only come to appreciate in recent years. Even though it is chock full of stuff I’ve long had an affinity for: big rigs, convoys, CB radios, car chases, romance, and alcohol. But it’s the song—“East Bound and Down,” by Jerry Reed—that’s pertinent to the point I’m trying to make. The lyrics at the top of this post have been in my head for the past month. (Because I have a long way to go. And a short time to get there.)

So here’s the first thing that assuaged my procrastination guilt: “East Bound and Down” was written overnight. Thank you, Mental Floss (13 Fast Facts about Smokey and the Bandit)

After promising he would come up with a song, he (Reed) didn’t have one at the end of filming. After (director Hal Needham) asked him about it, Reed promised he would have something for him the following morning. Despite being out all night, Reed managed to sing his new song “East Bound and Down” for Needham the next day. When Needham didn’t react right away, Reed said, “If you don’t like it I can change it. “If you change one damn note, I’ll f*ckin’ kill you!” the director replied.

I’m going to assume Jerry Reed didn’t compose it out of thin air—that he had been playing around with elements of the song, but just hadn’t gotten around to the actual composition. It’s probably more confirmation bias, but I could say I’ve been doing the same with Tremors on the PCH.

The second thing was a cover story on Vulture.com about Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. (Thanks for posting that, Hosky).

This is a film I’ve only seen once, ten years ago, at the movie theater. It’s one of those films that made a big impression, and was disturbing enough, that I didn’t feel the need to own, or re-watch multiple times.

The article, by Abraham Riesman, is interesting. It draws comparisons to our current state of the world and the dystopian future (the year 2027) depicted in the film. But what really interested me was a behind-the-lens story Cuarón tells of a scene near the end of the film. It’s one long take where the main protagonist, Theo (played by Clive Owen) is racing through a refugee camp, dodging gunfire and explosions.

“I think we had 14 days to shoot the whole set piece, except by day 12, we hadn’t rolled cameras yet,” Cuarón recalls. On the afternoon of the 13th day, they were finally ready to film. But around the 90-second mark, Cuarón yelled “Cut” because, as he puts it, the take “was just wrong.” . . . The morning of the final day dawned, and they gave it another stab. The cameras rolled, the scene commenced — then camera operator George Richmond tripped and the camera fell. Five hours of reset later, Cuarón had only one chance left.

To sum up, they shoot the scene, and it seems to be going well, but Cuarón freaks out because some fake blood accidentally squirts on the camera lens. He yells “Cut,” but no one hears him because of all the explosions. He’s thinking all is lost, but his cinematographer assures him that the accident was nothing short of miraculous. In the end, it only added to the hyper-real feel of the film.

So, yes, I just wrote about Smokey and the Bandit and Children of Men in the same post. But, I guess, I find it pretty fascinating that both an enduring song, and an enduring scene, were born in the last possible moments under a looming deadline.

Dearly Departed: Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016


“There is no point at which you can say, ‘Well, I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.’”

-Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

Of all the great talents we have lost this year, this loss hits especially hard. I shudder to think of what more might be in store in these last four days of this watershed year.

Why this hits hard: when you’re an adult, yet you still dress up as Princess Leia once a year, that means the roles played by Carrie Fisher have transcended run-of-the-mill stardom in your life.

But it’s not just her integral part in the whole Star Wars galaxy. I’ve admired Carrie Fisher the writer for decades now. I remember reading all the promotional material around Postcards from the Edge when I was in college. She published the book during my first year, and the movie came out toward the end of my time in school. I took note of both her honesty and fearlessness.

It was also around that time that I discovered Carrie Fisher was a much-sought-after script doctor. Back then, I’m not sure I knew that such a vocation even existed. I wish I could say I have since become a script doctor or ghostwriter of some renown, but I would not be emulating Carrie Fisher’s honesty if I did. But the point is that I still have that aspiration, due, in large part, to her.

And of all the work she’s done in movies, either on the screen or as a writer, there is one tiny cameo role that stands out in my memory. It’s in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I think Carrie Fisher has less than two minutes of screen time. But the context, the comedic timing, the dialogue is all so pitch perfect; it’s hard to forget.

I’ll leave you with one last quote attributed to Carrie Fisher. I don’t know where it’s from:

I don’t want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art.

I hope she realized before the end that she managed to accomplish this—in funny, fiery, and downright heroic fashion.

Rogue One


So, I saw Rogue One on Friday. And I’ll try to keep what I’m about to write spoiler free. Since it seems I’m inherently unable to write a straight-up review anyway, that shouldn’t be too hard.

I feel kind of bad that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hasn’t received the same level of hype as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Though, to be sure, the amount of hype out there is more than sufficient.) Because I thought it was a really good movie, possibly a notch above last year’s offering. I enjoyed Rogue One more than The Force Awakens.

All of what I’m about to write has been touted before, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything: Rogue One is meant as a stand-alone story. There’s no crawl at the beginning, signaling it’s not part of the (now) seven-episode Star Wars story arc. Which I guess is why it’s not getting the same amount of hype as Episode Seven, or (I can only imagine) what next year’s Episode Eight will get.

A nice byproduct of the lessened hype: I didn’t need to implement the same level of planning as I did for The Force Awakens. Husband Tim and I prefer to watch the standard viewings—no IMAX or other vertigo-inducing formats for us. (Even though the IMAX poster is probably my favorite of all of them). So it was pretty easy to secure tickets for an early evening show, and we had our pick of seats in the theater.

Here, in no particular order, are the reasons I enjoyed Rogue One:

  • No cliffhangers. Unlike The Force Awakens, with everyone still wondering about Rey’s parentage, at the end of Rogue One, I was left satisfied that this story has concluded.
  • The director, Gareth Edwards, also directed 2014’s Godzilla.
  • Rogue One sufficiently explained something about the Death Star that had always bothered me.
  • Rogue One is a really good war movie, with the characters finding strength they didn’t know they had, making sacrifices, and doing a bunch of stuff for a greater cause than their own individual interests.
  • One of the first trailers for the movie led me to believe the filmmakers might try to make the lead character, Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), a knock-off of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Which would have been a shame, because there’s no need to borrow from another storyline—Star Wars has the architecture for great female characters. So I was relieved that I didn’t get that sense at all. I loved the character and Jones’ portrayal. My only comment is that I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few more female combatants in the Rogue One crew.
  • K-2SO. I’ll try to keep this brief. Hands-down my favorite droid in all of Star Wars. While I love R2-D2, and was just as captivated by BB-8’s cuteness as most everyone else, K-2SO is everything I love in a mechanical humanoid character. It’s almost as if Douglas Adams’s marvelous Marvin the Paranoid Android got reincarnated into a reprogrammed Imperial security droid.
  • K-2SO, part two. Alan Tudyk. A.k.a. Wash from Firefly. Alan Tudyk is K-2SO. I’m going to make a fool of myself geeking out over Alan Tudyk. So I’m going to stop here.

Anyway, if you like war movies, and Star Wars, go see Rogue One. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.