Monday, May 13, 2013

Kindness Activates Reward Miles Ahead

Sunday morning
The bright arrival of the new day brought me a fare to pick up at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. A heavy-set woman got in the back seat, and I said, “Good morning! How are you today?”

“Not very good,” replied the woman. I figured, since she was coming out of the hospital, that maybe she had just been in for some kind of care. “I think I’m having a miscarriage.”

Oh, jeez!

She asked me to take her to Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, about a 20-minute ride from Arlington Heights. She was visiting her mother at NCH when she had started experiencing severe cramps and bleeding, and when she went to the ER at NCH, they told her that, since her doctor wasn’t on staff there, she needed to go to Lutheran General, where her doctor is on staff. My guess is that, since the woman’s condition wasn’t threatening her life, then there was no need for emergency transport to the other hospital.

So, I sped only as much as I dared while the woman spoke on her mobile phone with her doctor — or, at least I think she spoke to her doctor — telling of all the things she had felt going on inside her body for the prior two hours.

We arrived at Lutheran General, and the woman handed me her debit card to pay the 23 dollar fare. The credit card system declined the card. She threw a small fit, which is pointless because I didn’t decline it, technology did. I can’t make the system un-decline it. She said she didn’t have any other way to pay.

So I let her go. “Just go,” I said.

“Really? It’s okay?”

“No, it’s not okay,” I said, “but I’m not gonna be the guy who strong-arms a woman who might be having a miscarriage!”

A short while later, a little pissed off about the situation because I felt that I may have been played like a little tin flute by the miscarrying woman, I mentioned it to one of the waitresses at Mac’s, the restaurant with the best corned beef hash breakfast in America. When I got to the part about feeling I may have been hoodwinked, she said, “No. You did a good thing. It’ll come back to you.”

I rolled my eyes at her.

Monday morning
3:00 am. I had worked through the night, and I was sleepy. I still had several hours to go, and it was the dead hour, so I pulled into my favorite dark parking lot intent on taking a 30 to 40 minute nap… not to mention the nuisance fare I wanted to avoid that fires off every weekday morning at 3:30! I had just shifted the car into “PARK” when the dispatch computer sounded off, indicating I was being offered a fare. I resisted the temptation to ignore it, and I accepted it. Though it was rather early for such a fare, it was to bring someone to O’Hare, a ride worth 28 dollars, minimum. Good call, Tony!

The young man was waiting and eager to get started on his trip to Florida. I could tell by his enthusiastic greeting that he had been up all night packing and/or lying awake in excited anticipation for this trip. We chatted about travel, the weather in Florida, his mother, whom he was headed down to visit. I mentioned the trip to Las Vegas I’m taking in two weeks for a reunion with some of the guys I was stationed with in Germany back in the mid-1980s. My passenger seemed quite thrilled for me, and then equally thrilled and inquisitive about my military service. He asked, and I told him about the job I did in Germany.

We pulled up to the doors at Spirit Airways, and I said, “Twenty-eight dollars.”

I heard the rustle of paper in the relative darkness behind me, a good sign that he was counting out cash with which to pay me.

“Here you go,” he said, and at the side of my vision I could see his extended arm. “That’s for your Vegas trip.”

I took the bill and looked down. In my hand I clutched a 100-dollar bill!

“WHOA!” I sputtered. He was already stepping out of the car. “Sir,” I called, thinking he had in the darkness inside the car pulled out the wrong bill, “this is a hundred-dollar bill!”

“I know!” he called back! “Enjoy!”

“You’re CRAZY!” I shouted back.

He slammed the door. He didn’t look back at me. He entered the terminal. Tampa bound.

Karma. Fewer than 24 hours later. I hope her baby is okay.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Obstinate Arrogance

Imagine this wildy ridiculous plot line for a film: a single mother's nine-year-old son mysteriously disappears when she has to leave him home alone for a day. Her life goes on pause for two weeks while she deals with the search, and then with the sad realization that the police can't find him. While continuing at her job, she never stops searching for her son...until she receives word from the police — five months after his disappearance — that they've found him!

She rushes to greet him, but when the police present the boy to her, she is stunned to discover that the boy is not her son. Despite her insistence that the boy is not hers, the police captain in charge of the case insists the boy is hers, suggests that he has changed so much in the time he was missing that she just doesn't recognize him, and intimidates her into taking the boy.

She continues to insist that the boy isn't hers, and the police captain, fed up with her tenacity and fearful of the negative publicity she could bring down on the police department, has her apprehended and committed to an insane asylum.

In Changeling (2008), directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, that is exactly the far-fetched and unbelievable plot.

In a minor departure from the usual Eastwood auto-fellatio, the director seems to have managed to resist the urge to also star in this film. However, the musical score in this Depression-era period piece, a woefully ill-fitting smooth-jazz theme (music by Clint Eastwood), occasionally displaces the film from its era. The rest of it, however, appears properly in place. Set in Los Angeles, there are still locations in the City of Angels left over from the late 1920s and early '30s that, with a little adjustment, could be rendered believably back into the period. The costumes were superb; the hairstyles never jarred me back into the 21st century.

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, the mother of Walter Collins, the boy abducted while Christine is away. Admittedly, I am not an Angelina Jolie fan. Before viewing Changeling, I can't recall ever seeing a Jolie film which has required her to act, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised with her turn here. Aside from a few clearly admiring close-ups of Jolie's face, the film does a good job reminding itself that it isn't about her bombshell beauty, but about a regular, work-a-day woman and the search for her boy.

Also well executed is the feeling of horrific absurdity at the police department's refusal to listen to Christine Collins as she insists they've brought her the wrong boy, as well as the uncertainty the film plants in the viewer's mind over whether this boy is or is not Walter. After he goes missing, we never see Walter's face again to compare with the boy that is presented to Collins, so we are left with the decision either to side with Collins — who has on her side only a mother's intuition — or to doubt her.

In what seems a nod to a cliché of the more recent turn of the century, the film paints a dark picture of the Los Angeles Police Department as a deeply corrupt organization that operates more for its own benefit than that of the public, outfitting as many thugs in its uniform as there are out running the streets, and terrorizing as many citizens as criminals. When Christine Collins's story reaches the ears and the radio airwaves of anti-LAPD corruption crusader Rev. Gustav Briegleb, portrayed by John Malkovich, she finally has an ally who brings her an army of supporters and additional heat on the LAPD.

The LAPD's response — individually by Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) — rather than reexamine their procedures in finding this boy, is to apprehend Christine and commit her to an insane asylum under a "code 12," a blanket tactic for getting rid of problem cases without arrest or trial. On the outside, an LAPD detective working on an otherwise unrelated immigration case stumbles upon some evidence that, along with Rev. Briegleb's army, throws the whole case out into the light of day.

The film works its way to its end with several climaxes, some satisfying and others not so.

Ultimately this far-fetched film is just sad. With its unbelievable plot and its impossibly arrogant police department executives refusing to listen to a woman desperate to find her son, the film is so terribly sad because all of it is true. It really happened.

The story of Christine Collins and her missing son, Walter, was a big story in Los Angeles when the boy went missing in 1928. The police department, suffering a public relations nightmare for its corrupt activities, seized on an opportunity for positive press when they found a homeless boy matching the description of Walter in DeKalb, Illinois. They sincerely believed he was Walter, as the boy they found somehow knew of the story of Walter Collins, and claimed to be him. When Christine Collins told the police that the boy was not her son, rather than admit their mistake, the police intimidated Collins and tried to shame her into admitting the boy was her son, and eventually committed her to an asylum because of her refusal.

Despite the case working itself out in the newspapers and city council hearings, it likely fell into obscurity with the fall of the stock markets in 1929. Changeling's screen writer, J. Michael Straczynski, was made aware of the case by a Los Angeles city worker tasked with examining ancient city files slated for destruction. It becomes apparent that the corruption apparently rampant in today's Los Angeles Police Department is part of a long, shameful legacy reaching further back than anyone realized.

The lengths some people will go — at the expense of the innocent and of those truly in need — to preserve their fragile egos or positions of title... it boggles the mind.

Changeling (2008) A Numb Butt Cheeks® rating of 7.5* At Clint Eastwood's helm the film has an almost lackadaisical pace, more of what I would expect of a Depression-era film set in New Orleans...or perhaps that is the influence of the Eastwood-penned smooth-jazz soundtrack. Over all, it's a very moving film, with a solid performance by star Angelina Jolie, and the realization that, not only could this happen in the United States, it did happen.

*The Numb Butt-Cheeks® scale of zero to ten: a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of zero indicates such a disregard for the film that one could get up to go to the bathroom at any point without worry of missing anything exciting or important; a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of ten indicates there is no way one would get up and leave, save for a distinct tearing of bladder tissue.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Karma Is a Sweet, Sweet Old Lady

Sometime back in January or February I related a story on my Facebook page about an elderly female passenger who had lost a cherished family heirloom ring in my taxi. She wasn't absolutely certain she had lost it there, but had asked the Lost and Found department at 303 Taxi to help her find it. Since the lady — Pat is her name — had scheduled her pickup through the reservation service, the Lost and Found department was able to determine that I was the taxi who had transported her from the WalMart store in Rolling Meadows to her home at the senior living center just down the road.

Lost and Found contacted me, telling me that a passenger had lost "an engagement ring" in my car. I pulled the back seat out and found a ring — as well as a man's driver's license and a child's toy car/Transformer character. Though it didn't look like a typical engagement ring — it had the image of a flower engraved and painted into the metal, covered by what looked like glass — it certainly looked very well made. I called Lost and Found and described the ring, and a few hours later they called me back and said that it was indeed the ring Pat was looking for. They forwarded her phone number to me, and I called her right away.

I brought the ring to Pat at the senior home, and she shunted me off to a corner where there was some sort of lectern or high table of some sort, and she asked me my full name. She pulled out a checkbook and leaned on the lectern to write, and I told her that she did not have to give me any money. Pat explained that the ring had been her great-great grandmother's engagement ring, made in 1868! Pat had cried all through the night before because she thought it was lost forever. There was nothing I could say to stop her writing the check. She made it out for 100 dollars.

Through my Facebook page I shared my agonizing over whether I should cash the check or just forget about it. The majority of my friends encouraged me to accept Pat's generosity and cash the check...and so I did. ...never mind the fact that I really, really needed the money!


Early on the Monday morning of March 25th — some would consider it Sunday night — I accepted a fare in Palatine, the Chicago northwest suburb adjacent and to the northwest of Arlington Heights, where I usually work. By the zone displayed on my in-car computer, the fare was waiting in the north end of Palatine, but the GPS led me to downtown Palatine. The zone displayed on the computer was incorrect. Had it displayed the correct zone for the downtown area, I would not have accepted the fare, as I do not possess the required chauffeur and taxicab business licenses for Palatine, and picking up fares downtown is an extremely risky business. Also, it has been my experience in the past that, when a fare is offered at 2:30am for a customer waiting in downtown Palatine, it's almost always at a huge bar there called Durty Nellie's, and by the time I get there, it's almost always a no-show, meaning the customer has found another taxi standing by, and gotten into it.

Hoodwinked by a dispatcher's error, I found myself waiting outside the front door of — you guessed it — Durty Nellie's. And sure enough, from behind me rolled up one of Palatine's Finest who briefly quizzed me as to why I was there, and why I was trying to pick up a passenger even though I don't have the required Palatine licenses. Unable to provide him a satisfactory answer, I then had to cancel the fare and wait for him to issue me two tickets — one for each missing license — each carrying a fine of 200 dollars.

I looked up the ordinances, and this morning I consulted the lawyer on staff at 303 Taxi, and he told me that the wording of the ordinances is pretty broad, and I will likely be unable to escape having to pay the fines.


This afternoon I accepted a fare to pick up at the Meijer store in Rolling Meadows. The name on the order: Pat!

She got in the car and I could tell pretty quickly that she didn't recognize me. I didn't let it bother me, and we cruised on toward the senior living community she calls home. On the way our brief conversation landed on a local news story I had not heard about in which a gas station/convenience store in nearby Streamwood had been robbed one late night a few weeks ago, and the lone clerk there had been stabbed to death. I was shocked because, for a time, I had frequented that particular gas station, and I had probably transacted business with the victim.

Then Pat told me about her son-in-law who is a police detective, and who has been burning the candle at both ends on this murder case. Is her son-in-law in the police department in Streamwood? No.


Despite the sad reality of the murder in Streamwood, I laughed and told Pat the story of my Palatine ticket woes, and asked her if her son-in-law might be able to make my Palatine tickets disappear.

"Oh, I don't know," she hemmed and hawed. "I suppose I could ask him. He's busy with this awful murder..."

I turned to face her. "I am the guy who found your ring..."

"OH MY GOSH!" Pat blurted. "It is you!"

She then told me again about how much she had cried that night thinking the ring was lost, and how happy she was when she heard I had found it, and how sorry she was that she couldn't write the check for "ten times more" than she had. She also mentioned that she was worried when she saw that I hadn't cashed it right away, confirming the fears I had expressed were I not to have cashed it.

Pat asked me my name and phone number again, and the date the tickets were issued. I wrote them down for her.

"I will definitely talk to my son-in-law about this!"

I have no doubt Pat will talk to her son-in-law about my tickets. I have little confidence, however, that anything can or will be done about them.

But isn't this a phenomenal coincidence!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Changing Landscape

Tuesday afternoon I had a passenger in my taxi — a young, very beautiful Indian woman — for a longish ride from Schaumburg to Rosemont, and we engaged in easy conversation most of the way.

As anyone who knows me is already aware, I often make lame jokes in just about any situation. It’s not that I aim to make lame jokes, but rather that I aim to make people laugh. I like to make people laugh. I always have.

Tuesday’s opportunity was no exception. Fear not, for I didn’t harangue her with incessant jokes or absurdities; I don’t work that way. We talked mostly about her time living in the United States: she first moved to California where she lived for two years, and then she moved to Chicago about a year ago. She’s a consultant at a Chicago firm with a client in Schaumburg. She’s from a city the name of which I don’t remember about two hours from Mumbai.

As we neared the Rosemont Blue Line CTA train station, I asked, “Do you have a husband? Children?”

“ both,” she replied.

I paused for a few extra seconds, and then I said, “Neither do I.”

She laughed tentatively, catching the incongruity of my equal but opposite comment. It was intentional on my part, but her hesitant laugh seemed to say to me that she wasn’t sure if I had made a joke or if I had really overlooked my wording.

I gave her permission to laugh. “I don’t have a husband and children, either.”

She laughed.

But then it occurred to me: my made-up scenario isn’t a joke any more. As things progress, as things have progressed in several states of our union, the scenario of a man stating that he has or doesn’t have a husband — or a woman a wife — is no longer absurd. It is becoming a statement of plain fact.

The landscape is forever changing, forever evolving. We’re moving toward acceptance and away from resistance.

But damn if marriage equality isn’t taking away some good lame joke fodder!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

When Compassion Isn't Enough

In the three and a half years that I've now been driving a taxi, I have never once refused a customer, other than when I was already waiting for someone with a reservation. I never had any reason to refuse someone, nor have I ever set any criteria for such a reason. Until last Sunday night.

It's not that he's of any racial, ethnic, or religious persuasion; anyone who knows me well knows I don't carry those cards in my deck to play. It's not that he's homeless; a reader can peruse the annals of far·ra·go and the account of an instance of taxi charity to a homeless person...who was probably carrying more cash that day than I was. It's not anything about who or what he is or about his circumstances.

I had driven him once before. He has strapped to a small luggage dolly such a load of personal belongings that would collapse a pack mule: a backpack or two, a couple of soft cases, what I assume is a sleeping bag in a plastic drawstring bag, and two foam bed rolls. It's bulky and heavy, and it does not fit in my trunk without having to force the lid shut, squeezing the whole mess down. That first time he had me drop him off at a trendy little breakfast restaurant in a newly remodeled and refreshed shopping mall. I don't recall anything unpleasant then, other than his attitude and his difficulty getting in and out of my car.

He's a big fella, maybe six foot two or four or so. And he's not skinny. And he's pretty old, with white hair and a beard. He moves with extreme difficulty...and a walker. But all I can remember from that ride was fearing that he wouldn't have any money to pay the fare. And that pack.

This most recent Sunday evening I rolled up to the front of the Subway restaurant and saw him sitting on a bench outside, waving me over. He wore many layers of clothing and shoes or boots wrapped in duct tape. I remembered him immediately, and I groaned at the prospect of wrestling his obnoxious load of personal belongings into my trunk. As I parked the car, an employee of the Subway restaurant timidly approached me.

"I don't want to bother you, but another taxi was here earlier, and the driver wouldn't take him. 'I won't take him. I don't care if he has money.'"

How rude, I thought. "Did you get his car number?" I asked, pointing to my car number as an example of where to find the car number on a taxi from my company.


"Well," I said, "you can call the company and tell them you had called earlier, and they'll be able to tell which car was sent." I just thought it unacceptable to refuse this customer just because he's homeless. Or slightly difficult.

I had inadvertently parked the car with the rear passenger door impossibly close to a snowbank, so while the intended passenger approached, aided by his walker, I repositioned the car. During those few moments I heard the homeless man begin trying to hack something up. Not from his lungs; he seemed to be working out a loogie from the depths of Hades, his Godzillian snorts and coughs resonating against the windshield of my car. The poor young man from Subway who was being so nice and helpful stood mortified mere feet from the man as he hacked and coughed and spat out his demon phlegm. His face registering incredulous shock, the poor young Subway employee remained in place, but leaned so far to one side, away from the hacking, spitting giant that I was reminded of Buster Keaton's old silent movie lean-shoe sight gag. I was amused by the momentary slapstick as I moved to assist my customer.

And then I was assaulted by his stench.

I'm not being unfairly prejudiced here. I have driven some of the homeless people of this area on several occasions and, yes, some of them have been a little on the side of unclean. I realize a shower or bath is probably a luxury difficult to come by for the down and out. But, somehow, they find a way.

I don't think this guy has found the way.

Since 2008.

I do not exaggerate. I can't even find appropriate words to describe the stench. It wasn't musky-armpit body odor; it wasn't stale crotch-rot. It was the hell-reek of pure, unrestrained bodily filth. I must repeat that I do not exaggerate. The smell didn't merely reach my nose, but rather flung itself at me and wrapped itself around my head and forced itself into my throat. I literally gagged! I fought the stench and abbreviated my breaths, as I know for certain had I inhaled fully, I would have exhaled my lunch.

The young man from Subway diverted me, to my momentary gratitude, with a request to help him load the old man's material existence into the trunk. The thought hadn't bothered me before I stepped through my customer's miasma, but now I didn't care to touch any of his belongings! But it had to be done. The load lay thick across the width of the vehicle, but taller than the depth of the trunk. "Uh oh," said Mr. Subway. "It won't fit."

Shuddering at the thought of having to yet again touch the filthy personal effects of Mr. 'Mephitis' to rearrange the load, I said with conviction, "I'll make it fit." I pulled down the trunk lid until it rested on top of the bundle. With nearly a foot remaining between lid and latch, I heaved my weight onto the trunk lid and smashed it closed. Mr Subway graciously excused himself, and then sprinted to the door of his store, likely for fear that Sir Stink might change his mind and decide to dine there after all.

Standing outside in the fresh air, I couldn't get within four feet of this guy without his atmosphere reaching my nostrils, and now he was wedged into the back seat of my car. Much to my relief, he asked me to open his window. I thought perhaps even he couldn't stand his own rank essence. I sent his window down only to learn that he needed to continue his barrage of coughing, hocking and spitting out the semisolid contents of his lungs.

"I wanna go to some sort of chicken place. You know of anything?"

I desperately racked my brain to think of the nearest chicken ANYTHING just to get him out of my car. A new Chick-fil-A just opened about a mile from where we were, but no, he wanted a real chicken place, like KFC or Popeye's.

"There's a Popeye's not too far from here," I said. My next breath brought me a face full of his effluvium and I felt my diaphragm convulse. I struggled to find a way to only exhale for the coming eternity of 10 minutes but, failing that, I opened my window and tried to hang my head out without appearing to hang my head out.

I drove in abject fear of catching another lungful and tossing my cookies all over my steering wheel, but the cross breeze created by his open sputum portal and my fresh air lifeline kept his cloud flowing out in his direction.

In a classic case of I-would-punch-you-in-the-throat-if-your-force-field-of-fumes-didn't-stop-me, I was already in the right hand lane and committing to a right turn when he said, "Hey there's a Culver's [restaurant] around here, isn't there?"

"Yes," I indicated with a finger pointed in the general direction of left.

"Oh, I would much rather go there."

So, having waited for the light to turn green before he changed his mind, I now had to turn right, and then turn around, only to wait through another red light, all the while wondering how much longer I could breathe without actually inhaling.

I pulled into the Culver's lot and parked in the disabled access slots. Without Mr. Subway to help, I had to deal with the Pack From Hell on my own...and I couldn't lift it from the trunk.

"You want me to help you?" Mr. Malodor asked. I had no choice. He helped me lift his belongings out of the trunk, and then he asked me to grab his filthy jackets from the rear seat.

I helped him into the restaurant where a slightly dazed young female employee asked if we needed any help.

"I'm just dropping him off," I said, quickly trying to deflect any suspicion that Señor Smell and I were together.

He turned past the door frame and headed for the nearest table, in a small nook where two women and several children appeared to be celebrating a birthday. No sooner had the olfactory offender sat down than the birthday party was suddenly packing up to leave! I was handed a 20-dollar bill for which I had to run back to the car to make change. I made the trip there and back, and lied when he asked if I could "come back in 90 minutes or so," or if he would have to call the company.

"No, you'll have to call the company. I have no idea where I'll be in 90 minutes." It was a Sunday night; not much going on. I knew as I said it that — wherever I was — I was going to be nowhere near Mt. Prospect, or in any zone close enough to where Dispatch might send me his fare when he called!

It came to me as I drove away that the next time I see this poor man I will not serve him. I can't. I just can't.

It's strange what can test the limits of one's charity. For me, apparently, my limit is my nose.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ocular Physician

Eye doctor.

Eyed doctor.

I doctor.

I, Doctor.

I'd doctor.


Aye, doctor.

I docked her.

Hollywood's Guilt Trip

I realize he has made a few good, Oscar-worthy, Oscar-winning films, but, really, someone needs to tell Clint Eastwood to give it a rest. I was appalled at Grand Theft Auto and its cheap-feeling message and its lame backdrop of the Hmong immigrants’ struggles with gang infiltration in their Detroit neighborhood. 

Million Dollar Baby was a great film. I don’t mean to say that Eastwood can’t direct a film. I just mean that he should either stick to one side of the camera or the other, or pick and choose better projects.

I’m way behind in my movie viewing, so it was only this week that I was able to get to Blood Work, an Eastwood-starring and directed, 2002 screen adaptation of the 1998 Michael Connelly novel by the same title.

Blood Work, which directly preceded Eastwood's 2004 star/director turn in Million Dollar Baby, tells the tale of Terrell McCaleb, an aging FBI superstar investigator followed by a fan who murders people solely for the enjoyment he gets from having McCaleb investigate his crimes. McCaleb suffers a heart attack while chasing the murderer, and his career ends. Two years later McCaleb is recovering from a heart transplant and is confronted by a young woman who wants McCaleb to investigate the murder of her sister whose heart McCaleb received for his transplant.

Enter gravel-voiced Eastwood and witness as he stiffens up every scene he’s in. I realize his style worked for the Rawhide TV show that launched his career, but some time after 1973 it stopped convincing me.

I’m sorry, but — as with Roger Moore’s 1980s James Bond before him (Moore was 58 when he last played Bond) — the septuagenarian Eastwood does not make a convincing action hero. Kudos to him in this go-round, as he played convincingly someone who would most likely have a heart attack after chasing down a suspect (and further kudos to Eastwood who clearly did some pretty hard charging on camera for this scene in the film), but all his tough-guy lines and tough-guy machismo fall short on the feeble, gravel-voiced delivery. I have even less desire to see 72-year-old (at the time) Eastwood in a love scene with a 30-something woman!

I don’t know if it was for comic relief (from the non-existent suspense?) or for a real sense of the fear of repercussion, but the choice of actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez as a hot-headed, McCaleb-hating, LAPD homicide detective was the wrong one. I don’t know when Rodriguez stopped being funny, but I suspect it was sometime just before he began filming for this role, in which he was neither funny nor menacing.

As suspense films go (I can’t speak for the novel, as I haven’t read it...though its treatment here doesn’t promise better), it couldn’t be more obvious if they placed a neon sign in every scene pointing to the head of the serial killer who lures McCaleb out from retirement. I guessed it about ⅓ of the way through the film.

I watched Eastwood’s first Oscar-winning directorial effort, Unforgiven (1992), twice — once when it first came out and again about 20 years later — and, each time, I failed to see its supposed greatness. As a film with a purported meta-message about the awfulness of violence in film, it was an awfully violent film. I don’t understand how it won an Academy Award other than for the suspicion that the Academy got together and said, “Gee, this guy has made a lot of movies and never won a thing! This one looks pretty and kinda makes sense. Let’s give it to him!”

Million Dollar Baby is — in my humble opinion — Eastwood’s magnum opus. It grabs you, gives you someone to root for, and then rips your heart out with a twist so unexpected you’ll spend a week in a cervical collar...and then it’s followed by yet another, equally unexpected twist.

Perhaps as his preparation for Million Dollar Baby Eastwood studied the completed Blood Work as everything not to do in a film.

Blood Work. A Numb Butt-Cheeks® rating* of 5.0. Miss it if you can. You’ll probably get a better rush from reading the book one page a day.

*The Numb Butt-Cheeks® scale of zero to ten: a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of zero indicates such a disregard for the film that one could get up to go to the bathroom at any point without worry of missing anything exciting or important (or a desire to return!); a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of ten indicates there is no way one would get up and leave, save for a distinct tearing of bladder tissue.


Friday, February 15, 2013

On 90 Wasted Minutes

Have motion pictures improved over our lifetime, or do our tastes in films mature?

A discussion on Facebook with a friend sparked a challenge and rekindled an idea I had years ago for a blog entry that I never posted.

But first, a little background: my friend Sarah was house-sitting for a friend of hers and mentioned one evening about her friend's awful taste in movies, evidenced by the selection of films from Netflix that were present in the home. Sarah mentioned specifically a film released in 1987 titled Real Men, starring James Belushi and the late John Ritter. She told me that the first time she tried to watch, it was so bad she turned it off after a few minutes. She thought later that maybe it deserved a second chance, so she tried again, but fell asleep in the first half-hour. I said that it couldn't be that bad.

Sarah challenged me to watch it, and she encouraged me to blog about it.

But first, a little more background: around 2000 or 2001 — not long after I had moved in with the now-ex Mrs. Farrago — she revealed to me that she had never seen the 1986 film Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert. I was dumbstruck. "You never saw it? Not even on TV?!" She hadn't.

It then became my mission to familiarize her, indoctrinate her, and win her over to a film I felt was one of the most amazing, ground-breaking, awe-inspiring films that had ever been made. I went to Blockbuster, found the director's cut(!) on VHS, rushed it home, made popcorn, propped up the pillows on the bed, and prepared to watch her face as she watched the incredible spectacle I told her she had been missing out on for the past 15 years, and see the wonder fill her eyes as the film's awesomeness washed over her.

I pressed "PLAY" on the remote. The film started.

And it sucked.

What the hell?! Nothing was different; the "director's cut" consisted of a bonus feature in which the director talked about — and showed — a couple of segments that had been cut from the script and never filmed for the release, but which he and a couple of the crew had filmed anyway — at his personal expense — in the event that he ever had the chance to re-cut the film.

No, the film was the same. The dialog seemed clunky and immature. Suddenly, Scotsman Sean Connery's cameo appearance as a Spaniard seemed absolutely absurd. Star Christopher Lambert's performance suddenly seemed slightly less riveting than watching a two-by-four propped against a wall.

Had I changed?! Well, obviously I had; 15 years had passed since I had last seen the film, but had I changed that much?!

So I was faced with questions: Had Highlander always been this bad? Was I just too testosterone-soaked a young man in my 20s when I first experienced this fantasy-action-adventure to be able to see past the broad strokes to notice that the finer details were actually missing?

Or was it that Highlander was a superb action film in its time, but filmmaking advances in the intervening 15 years had spoiled me for older, less technologically sophisticated films?

The answer lies in there somewhere, as Highlander was only the first of several iconic — or so I thought — 1980s films whose dazzle had seemed to pale in the years between my first viewing and introducing them to my wife in the new millennium.

I suppose there's a third possibility: sensing that my wife was unimpressed could have caused me uneasiness and insecurity. "If she thinks this movie blows, what, then, must she think of me?" and so every movie I revered then seemed horrendously flawed. Could that be it?

Real Lame
And so it was with this sense that I slipped Real Men into the DVD player. Having never seen the film, and having only the Netflix description — as well as Sarah's — to go by, I had low expectations.

The premise: James Belushi stars as suave, super cool Nick Pirandello, a top US spy, and John Ritter as Bob Wilson, a timid insurance man who just happens to look exactly like another US spy who was assassinated while practicing for a rendezvous with space aliens to make an exchange for "the good package," which would save Earth from toxic chemicals that had been dumped into the ocean. Since the aliens will deal with no one except the special agent — now deceased — whom Wilson resembles, Pirandello "recruits" the unwilling Wilson to complete the mission as planned. At every turn, Wilson tries to escape, thinking Pirandello is an insane kidnapper, but Pirandello is always two steps ahead of him, and brings him back to heel. Through Pirandello's encouragement — and a few white lies — timid Wilson becomes convinced that the constant exposure to danger has made him into a formidable warrior, and his attitude and demeanor change with the new-found confidence. When all is over, Wilson returns home a new man, and he sets a few things to rights with neighborhood bullies and a would-be Lothario with designs on Wilson's wife.

I probably don't have to continue, but I promised Sarah I would blog about it.

If I didn't know better — and hadn't watched the whole thing — I would have guessed, based on the slapstick, that this film had been made for children. It is definitely intended to be a screwball comedy, but with one scene which includes a glimpse of a woman's bare breasts, and another, actually creepy-funny scene in which an attractive, but definitely much older woman sets her sights — as well as her hands and lips — on Wilson, but turns out to be Pirandello's father who has just returned home from his sex-change operation in Sweden, the film clearly is not intended for kids.

The film fairly flies through some ridiculous shoot-em-up scenes, in which Russian spies who apparently have impossibly good detection and tracking skills, but absolutely no weapons skills couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with their fully automatic weapons blazing, and Pirandello can't miss them with his sidearm while shooting from the hip with his eyes closed.

Wilson's migration from mild-mannered, cowardly insurance guy to dashing, fearless special agent is hardly seamless; all it takes is one tall tale from Pirandello that Wilson single-handedly took out an entire crew of rogue American agents (all of them dressed in clown garb, no less), thus saving Pirandello's life — when it was Pirandello himself who knocked them all out — to turn Wilson from lamb to lion.

Maybe it's just me; maybe I feel spy characters are supposed to appear to take things more seriously. Maybe Jim Belushi just doesn't come across in any construct of my imagination as a top-shelf secret agent, even in a screwball comedy. John Ritter doesn't convince as either the mealy-mouthed insurance man or the fearless convert.

Come to think of it, for a buddy-film duo, Belushi and Ritter never seem to click at all. I never got a sense of chemistry between them. They're a mismatched pair.

The only certain thing about this film is that it is trying to be a comedy. It misses as an action-adventure comedy. It misses as a spy-movie spoof. Just like its hapless Russian gunmen, it just plain misses.

But who am I to say anything about comedy? Not having seen this when it came out in 1987 — back when I was 24 and still in the grip of daily testosterone overdoses — I can't be sure if Real Men suffers in my possibly matured movie-going sensibility, a matured movie-making industry, or if it's just a really bad film.

But in 2013 I'm going to go with "bad film."

Real Men (1987) Numb Butt Cheeks® rating of 2*. Very forgettable.

*The Numb Butt-Cheeks® scale of zero to ten: a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of zero indicates such a disregard for the film that one could get up to go to the bathroom at any point without worry of missing anything exciting or important; a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of ten indicates there is no way one would get up and leave, save for a distinct tearing of bladder tissue.