The Aqua Tunnel.

Not the actual pool.

I was eleven years old when my father took me and my half-brother Mike for a weekend vacation in Richmond, Virginia. I’d been to Richmond a few times, and while I thought it was a bit more laid-back than my hometown of Washington D.C., I never felt like it was “the south” or “country.”

We spent the night in a hotel, and when you’re a kid staying in a hotel, the first question that enters your mind? “Is there a pool?” Yes, there was a pool, and it wasn’t an indoor pool or an outdoor pool. It was both. It was one big swimming pool with one half inside and the other half outside, connected by a narrow passageway that Mike and I called The Aqua Tunnel. I was doubly excited because I had just mastered holding my breath underwater and swimming/wading in water deeper than my four feet of height without freaking out.

But, before I could splash in, we had to take a trip to the store because I forgot to pack swim trunks. Truthfully, I don’t even think I owned any, since I hadn’t been swimming in a while, and I was a growing boy and all. The store we went to was a thrift store; my father wasn’t exactly affluent. They didn’t have any swim trunks in my size, so he got me a pair of green gym shorts with a bright yellow stripe up the sides. They also weren’t my size, but they only cost 25 cents, plus another 2 cents for a safety pin to keep them from falling off me.

Back to the hotel. Mike and I couldn’t change into our second-hand gym shorts fast enough. We jumped into the pool on the indoor side and raced each other to The Aqua Tunnel. We’d hang out on the outdoor side for about a minute, then swim back through the tunnel to the inside. Then back outside, and repeat. The Aqua Tunnel was so awesome, and quite futuristic for the 1980s, we thought. A couple of inner-city youths like ourselves had never seen anything like it. I felt like Jonny Quest swimming through a secret entrance into Dr. Quest’s lab.

While we were frolicking, I noticed a white kid, who looked a lot more like Jonny Quest than I did (for obvious reasons), watching us as we emerged from the tunnel. I could see in his face that he was every bit as wowed by the hotel’s pool as we were. He jumped in and started swimming toward us. We both had expressions on our faces that seemed to say, “he’s gonna love this!” Before he got more than a few feet from where he jumped in, his mother called to him and told him to get out of the pool. Mike and I went back to swimming, figuring he’d join up with us later. He never did.

My father came and got us a little bit later. He was mumbling something to himself as we walked back to our room. I could tell that he was upset about something. I asked what was wrong, and he told us that the parents of that Jonny Quest-looking kid went to the front desk of the hotel and asked them if we were guests of the hotel. When they were told that we were staying there, he said that the lady said that we didn’t “look like the kind of people who would stay at such a nice place.” Now I don’t remember the name of the hotel, but like I said, my dad was nobody’s Rockefeller, and even though the pool was awesome, I doubt that it was any sort of ritzy joint.

What ended up as a little slice of Black Boy Joy for me, turned out to be a source of disgust and/or bigotry for some random white lady in Virginia. Not sure what her kid thought about the whole thing, but part of me still kinda wonders whatever became of him and what kind of person he grew up to be.

My Amtrak Writing Retreat: The fast trak back.

After two and a half days of dealing with Los Angeles traffic, I was more than ready to get back on board the train and head east. Especially since I went ahead and upgraded to one of the bedroom compartments.

Los Angeles’s Union Station was every bit as big and busy as Chicago’s, with old-school architecture and lots of unique touches. I found the Metropolitan Lounge, and proceeded to kick back in there for about three hours. The lounge began to fill up, and I played a game where I tried to predict who would be getting on the Chicago-bound train with me; They’d be my “neighbors” for the next day or two, and I’d most likely be sharing a table at the dining car with some of them.

We were escorted to our Superliner train; they split up the sleeper cars, putting one in the front of the train and one in the back. My room was in the front, so I was to have the added joy of again being serenaded by the train horn at each and every RR crossing. At least the dining car was the next car over.

Train attendant was named Tila, I think. Tila insisted upon putting my bed down for me even though I told her I could do it myself (the instructions weren’t that hard to understand). Maybe it’s because she’s legally required to do it, so they can avoid idiots suing them if they lose a limb or something. Either way, I felt like a big dumb oaf just standing there, while this 5’2″ lady worked so hard at setting my bed up.

The eastbound Superliner was quite a bit more turbulent than both of the westbound trains were. I don’t know what it feels like when a train derails, and I hope never to find out, but all the shakin’ and quakin’ this train was doing must have been pretty close to it. I’m glad I don’t suffer from motion sickness or it would have been sheer hell. No Wi-Fi on this train, either. Oh, well.

I made sure to get all my writing sufficiently backed up when I got back to the lounge at Chicago’s Union Station. I went off in search of a steel mug to add to my collection with either “Chicago” or “Amtrak” on it, but could only find the ceramic coffee mug in that picture at the top. My Viewliner bedroom was also more spacious. I was near the front of the train again, and the dining car was no less than seven cars down. I only made the long journey once for dinner, and just ate snack bar crap for the rest of the trip.

Made it into Boston just as night fell. I’d decided to sleep at a hotel and board a daytime flight back to Tampa. Figured since I was in Boston, I should order a Boston Cream pie for dessert. Was yummy.

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Downtown Boston is somewhere behind that fog. 

All in all, the ten days I spent traversing the continental U.S. was fun and rewarding, even if the ride wasn’t as smooth as I remembered, and the lack of reliable Wi-Fi was a bit of a bummer. I didn’t finish any of my works in progress, but I made some progress.

Would I do it again? Yeah, probably not. I think I’ll look into some other version of retreat, like a cabin in Colorado, or some other wilderness-type place. Well, a wilderness-type place with strong Wi-Fi, that is.

My Amtrak Writing Retreat: Who and where am I?

Day three of the retreat got off to a rocky, rumbly start. The train was shaking so damn much, I had no choice but to give up trying to sleep at around 6:00 a.m. Central time (I think). All meals in the dining car are included when you book a sleeper car compartment. Still, I decided to skip breakfast; even though I did fine at dinner the night before, my social anxiety thanked me for just having coffee and a muffin in my cabin.

I did venture down to the dining car for lunch. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be as crowded as breakfast or dinner, but I was wrong. Still ended up eating with three nice older folks, including a guy in his late 80’s who would not stop talking about everything. On the upside, he did keep me from having to fill the silence.

My mobile hotspot coverage may be spotty, but the scenery on the Southwest Chief is pretty nice. It was a partly cloudy day when we cut through the mountains and mesas of Colorado and New Mexico. When the conductor announced that we’d be pulling into Las Vegas in a little bit, I was first confused, then a little excited. We had just left Colorado; weren’t there a few more states between us and Nevada? It wasn’t nighttime yet, so the lights of Sin City wouldn’t be as impressive, but still, it’s Las Vegas, baby!

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Oh. Different Las Vegas. Never mind. 

Albuquerque, or ABQ, as the hipsters call it, was the next leg-stretching stop. The train was scheduled to be there for about an hour as various train staff transferred out. I thought I’d switch it up and get something to eat from a nearby restaurant. Well, there weren’t any; there was only the snack bar inside the bus/train depot. Their featured dish was the “Al-burger-que,” a name so clever that I almost got one. Decided at the last minute to just get a double order of fries.

Part of the Southwest Chief route through the southwestern U.S. runs right along original Historic Route 66. Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona are train stops as well as song lyrics.

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I like the way this pic came out; thinking of framing it and putting it up in my office. 

Toni, the train attendant, came by to remind us that we’d be getting into L.A. around 8:00 in the morning, and that breakfast was at 5:00. In the morning. Well, to my own surprise, I was awake at five, so I ambled to the dining car. Thought because it was so early, I’d get a table to myself, but no. The chef sat me across from a man all dressed in black and white, with a long beard and no mustache, and gold-rimmed spectacles. I was pretty sure he was Amish, but didn’t want to come out and ask. When he pulled out a Nokia flip phone, I figured he was either Amish or a time traveler from the 1990’s. We had a nice conversation while the train was stalled just outside San Bernardino, California; he did ask some tough questions though. When I told him I was a writer, he asked, “How does one make money being a writer?” Umm, Be Stephen King or James Patterson? Convince Oprah to select your book for her book club? Write by day, and rob banks by night? I dunno.

Finally made it to Los Angeles, where I spent a few days sleeping on a non-moving bed, with no train horn lullabies. I called Los Angeles home from about 1988 until about 2002, so I mostly knew my way around. Did some driving around, visited the old University Park campus, had a delicious authentic Mexican dinner with a college buddy, then got my mind right for the return train trip.

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Me, back at the old alma mater. Not gonna get confused for a high-schooler this time, I bet.

END OF PART THREE

 

My Amtrak Writing Retreat: It continues.

So, I bedded down pretty soon after dinner, as I had been up since 3:30 that morning. I slept about as well as one could sleep on a moving train. I vaguely remembered waking up and looking out the window as the train pulled into Cleveland, Ohio in the middle of the night.

Oh–forgot to mention this in part one: Did you know that trains have to sound their horn before they approach road crossings? Like every, single, crossing? Whether it has a light, bell, or crossbuck, or not? I guess I did, too. Well, did you know that when you’re in the cars directly behind the engines, you hear the horn the loudest?

What do you mean, “duh?”

I had brought a pair of noise-cancelling headphones with me, because when I write, I like to listen to music. But, I can’t wear them while sleeping, because I’m a side sleeper. Fatigue finally overtook my annoyance, and I managed to clock a few hours of Z’s despite the horn going off literally every 15-20 seconds.

Woke up a little after 7:00, Central time I think, as we made our way through rural Indiana, When it wasn’t fields upon fields upon fields, my scenery consisted of unkempt backyards full of appliances, car parts, and the occasional trampoline set.

We got into Chicago about twenty minutes behind schedule, but since I had about six hours before I’d be boarding my connecting train, it wasn’t a huge deal. Chicago’s Union Station is located right downtown, and it’s a busy, busy place. Besides the bus station being there, there were about 30 or so tracks with commuter trains, and probably some of those L trains I’ve always heard about. I stumbled off the train and made my way to the Metropolitan Lounge to kick back, and let me tell ya, Chicago’s lounge makes Boston’s look like a broom closet. It was two levels, and cushy AF.

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Cool architecture at Chicago’s Union Station. This is the main waiting area. The lounge is down that hall on the left.

I unloaded my bags and did a little walking around outside; it was in the mid 40s, so my light jacket kept me warm enough. Union Station was just a block from the Chicago River, which was already green even though St. Patrick’s Day was still two weeks away. Maybe it’s always green; I dunno. Another block away was the Willis Tower, the third tallest building in the U.S.

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As well as other points of interest.

One delicious lunch and a few snacks later, I was aboard the Southwest Chief and on my way west. This train was a Superliner, so it was a bit bigger than the Viewliner I took to get here. My roomette on the Superliner wasn’t any bigger or more comfortable, though. I settled in and broke out the laptop so I could continue to get some writing done; by the way, I’m working on two novels, and three short stories about such varied topics as people going to the movies, a young girl named Dippy, and killer chinchillas (not all in the same story).

Before we left the station, a man and woman in plain clothes approached my cabin. They started making small talk with me; where am I going, how am I feeling, etc. The guy asked to see my ticket, then said that since Amtrak doesn’t have official TSA screening, they sometimes do random checks of passengers and their luggage. He asked me if the bags were mine and if I had anything in there I shouldn’t. I told him unless he had a problem with a small plastic bottle of Captain Morgan, I’m clean. He and his partner proceeded to go through both my bags anyway. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized they never showed me a badge or anything. So after they left, I went through my bags, just in case some contraband made its way into my stuff. Still clean. Okay then.

I had logged into the Wi-Fi and was opening up files when the sleeper car attendant came on the speaker to inform us that the train didn’t have Wi-Fi, but they were hoping to get it soon. Turns out I was still on Union Station’s Wi-Fi, and that disappeared as soon as the train started moving. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to save my work to the cloud if I couldn’t get online. I tried using my phone as a mobile hotspot, but that was only as good as T-Mobile’s coverage, which dropped out a lot while traveling through the plains states. I’d just have to save my work to the laptop and upload it whenever I could.

Dinner on the Superliner was a step up, too. The chef came through the sleeper cars and took reservations. La dee da. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat in the dining car; since it was just me traveling, they’d have to sit me with strangers, due to the limited space. Introvert that I am, the very thought filled me with apprehension. But then I figured, what the hell, these people don’t know how shy and reserved I am; maybe I could fake being a normal guy. I had manicotti that was almost as good as I’d had at Olive Garden. Sat with a nice couple from Wisconsin and a single dude from Chicago, and we engaged in polite conversation. Meanwhile, the couple across from us were loud and profane, and it created unnecessary tension at our table. We all tried to ignore them, but it wasn’t working very well.

Went back to my roomette. I passed a couple of those bedrooms that I mentioned earlier; they looked like they were empty. Later that night, I overheard a couple who had booked a roomette upgraded to a bedroom, because they wanted more elbow room. I thought about doing the same thing, but then decided I’d just ride it out where I was at; It’ll build character.

 

END OF PART TWO

My Amtrak Writing Retreat: It begins.

As I sit here in my home, not being able to go anywhere, I’m reminded that a mere three weeks ago, I was in the middle of going almost everywhere in the continental United States. From March 1 thru 10, I was, at different times, on a plane, in a car, and on a train, traveling through Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California, and many places in between. I’d like to tell you about my self-imposed ten-day coast-to-coast train writing retreat.

But first, a bit of backstory. Like most red-blooded American boys, I loved trains as a kid. I had my own train set; sure, it was Playskool plastic and not a Lionel HO scale version of the Pennsylvania-Dutch Railway or whatever, but that didn’t mean I loved it any less. Even the train sets that I never owned brought me joy. I would trace the tracks of all the pictures of the sets in the JCPenney and Sears Christmas catalog, knowing full well that Christmas would come and go, and there’d be no train under the tree for me.

Riding a train was even better. And no, I don’t mean those little choo-choo’s at the amusement park; I mean real trains on real tracks. Took a few trips as a youngster, but up until about three weeks ago, I hadn’t been on a long train trip in more than 30 years. So, when I got the chance to remedy that, I jumped aboard.

I wanted to get a sleeper car, since I’d never experienced train travel that way before. And there’s no point in getting a sleeper car for a trip that lasts less than a day. So, I planned a east-to-west and back again trip that comprised 71 hours of riding the rails.

However, I couldn’t board the train in my home state of Florida; well, I could have, but then I’d have to ride it up the coast to either DC, New York City, or Boston, and then get on a different train and go west from there. That would have taken a bit longer, and I really didn’t want to have to transfer trains more than once (most of the east-west routes went through a transfer point at Chicago’s Union Station). So, my train trip started with a flight from Tampa to Boston early, too early, on a Sunday morning.

The flight was at 6:00 a.m., which meant I had to be at the airport around 4:00, which meant I’d have to get up around 3:00. I ended up sleeping through my alarm by about 45 minutes, then dashed to TIA and made it onto the plane with about a half hour to spare. Flew to Boston, Massachusetts without a hitch, then took a Lyft from the airport to the Boston South Amtrak Station. My Lyft driver asked me why I was getting onto a train after just getting off a plane; I just told him “long story.” He said I could’ve taken public transportation from the airport for free; yeah, that’s gonna be a “no” from me, dawg. Not that I’m a snob or anything; just that it was my first time in Boston, and I’m sure that was written all over my face and luggage.

Sleeper car riders get to kick back in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, a private waiting area with attendants, free drinks and snacks, and comfy couches and TVs. I had about four hours to lounge around before I’d board my bus. No, that’s not a typo; Amtrak called me the day before my trip and told me that my train was not running, because they were doing maintenance on the tracks, so I’d have to take a bus from Boston to the Amtrak station in Albany, New York.

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One of these things is not like the other.

I didn’t let the fact that my train was the only one not running bother me too much. The private bus trip to Albany wasn’t too bad; the bus wasn’t full, so I had two seats to myself, and the weather and traffic were good. Took about five hours to get to Albany, NY. Rensselaer, NY, actually, since the train station was across the Hudson from Albany proper. I asked the lady where the Metropolitan Lounge was. “We don’t have one,” she said, “we’re a small town.” Oh well, not a problem. I killed some time in their quaint cafe, where I had coffee and a muffin; nothing too heavy, as I’d be eating dinner while aboard the train.

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This electronic billboard was above the cafe. They have interesting advertising techniques in upstate NY. 

Before too much longer, I was in my compartment on the Lakeshore Limited, heading west to Chicago, Illinois. It was… well, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t it. Not that it was unpleasant; it’s just that I thought that maybe they would have made a few more modern upgrades in the thirty-or-so years since I’ve been on a train. All the furniture, fixtures, and electronics were very last-century. Lots of incandescent lighting, velcro, and hook and sling setups. The train did have wi-fi though, which was a big plus.

I got a little bit of writing done before and after dinner in the dining car, which was located about six or seven cars away from where I was. The sleeper cars were near the front of the train, while the dining car was basically the caboose of this long-tripper. (The cafe car, which was open to everyone, was right behind my car.) As anyone who’s walked from car to car in a train will tell you, it’s not a leisurely stroll when you’re rollin’ down the tracks. I did manage to make it there and back without me or my food ending up in some stranger in coach’s lap.

Like I said, the sleeper cabin wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a bit cramped, in my opinion. Even though my Viewliner Roomette said it was for up to two people, I couldn’t really imagine two people traveling in here. I booked the roomette because I thought it’d be big enough. After I scraped my ankles on some protruding piece of metal for the fifth time, I’d made up my mind that I would get a bedroom cabin for my return trip.

 

END OF PART ONE

Spenser Confidential: He gets beat up a LOT.

Has Mark(y) Mark Wahlberg successfully completed the transistion from 90s white-hop douche to accomplished leading man? Probably. I dunno. He hasn’t put out any cringeworthy quasi-rap albums lately, but has acted in lots of films. Some good ones (The Departed, Three Kings), and some turkeys (The Happening), so people must like seeing him in stuff.

As if it wasn’t evident, I didn’t have much use for Wahlberg during his “Marky Mark” phase (had absolutely no use for the Funky Bunch). With his inability to wear shirts or button his pants, raps that were laughable, and a face that was extremely punchable, It wasn’t hard to guess why New Kids On The Block kicked him out of the group. So, when he said he was going to start making movies, I immediately prepared my self for Cool As Ice 2: Boston Boogaloo. But, he started out with bit parts and cameos and was relatively unremarkable. Leading roles in films like The Perfect Storm and Boogie Nights showed that he wanted to give acting a real go. Movies like Ted and The Other Guys showed that he was also ready to be a funny guy, albeit with varying levels of success.

Which brings me to the latest Netflix joint, Spenser Confidential. It’s a rollicking blend of action, comedy, suspense and more punches than a Subway Sub Club card. Wahlberg plays Spenser, a good ex-cop (and ex-con), Boston-born and bred boxing enthusiast who teams up with a man called Hawk. And if any of that sounded familiar, it’s because they are the same characters from that 80s crime drama Spenser: For Hire.

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Has his face lost any punchability in the last 25-or-so years? Maybe a little.

Spenser’s not “for hire” here; he’s just trying to blow the lid off of Boston’s corrupt cop syndicate “because it’s the right thing to do.” Winston Duke plays Hawk, who in this iteration, is an animal-loving gentle giant whom Spenser bonds with through the sweet science of boxing. Alan Arkin is also along for the ride because when you need a crochety old goat to spout zingers, there’s no one else better (or still alive).

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Spenser’s not small; Hawk is just HUGE. When a kid asks Hawk if he’s a giant, he naturally answers “yes.”

Wahlberg plays Spenser with a certain degree of smoothness but, as Hawk says, he does get beat up a lot. Of course, the best boxers will tell you that learning how to take a punch is just as important as learning how to throw a punch. So he gets punched, hits back, while uncovering more dirty secrets, and pretending to keep away from his girlfriend Cissy, who might be somebody’s idea of a catch, but I’d’a thrown her back into the Hahbah.

Still, Spenser, Hawk, Uncle Henry and Cissy make for an amusing motley crew, and the laughs are aplenty. The story’s fairly typical buddy cop fare, and the twists don’t really shock, at all. They could’ve trimmed about 20-30 minutes off as well. No word yet if Netflix is going to go to series with this reboot of Spenser. I wouldn’t bother if I were them; it won’t be worth all the dough Mark Wahlberg would probably require. Two and a half out of five stars.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Disney’s Stargirl: One word.

I started reading comic books in earnest around 1981 or so. Soon after, I felt like creating my own superheroes and made up my own characters. One of the characters I “invented” was a girl who could channel solar energy, whom I named Star Girl. Two words. Not very original but hey, I was 12. I had no idea if the name had been trademarked, or even if names made up of already-existing words could be trademarked.

In college, I wrote a short story about that selfsame character. She was still Star Girl (two words), but I was toying with the idea of renaming her “Solara.” Then Toyota started making a car with that name, so I figured screw it, she’ll stay Star Girl (two words).

So, seeing as I had something of a personal connection to the name, I decided to read Jerry Spinelli’s acclaimed YA novel Stargirl (one word). I knew it wasn’t going to be a superhero-type adventure, but thought I might enjoy it anyway. The edition of the novel I had came with a “soon to be a major motion picture” sticker added to the cover. So, I read it and, well, didn’t like it. Hated it, in fact. The story did nothing for me, and I didn’t like the way it was written. (If you liked it, great; I’m entitled not to like stuff.) I wasn’t sure it would make a good movie. I gave the book one out of five stars.

That being said, I kept a lookout for when the film would drop, and it finally did, on the new Disney+ streaming service. (The last book/film comparison I did was for Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. Loved both; highly recommend). Playing the titular Stargirl was America’s Got Talent winner and burgeoning pop singer Grace Vanderwaal. She’s a pretty good singer-songwriter, especially for someone her age, but I don’t think acting is her thing. Then again, the script didn’t really do her any favors.

Anyway, Disney’s Stargirl (not to be confused with Warner Bros.’ superheroine of the same exact name) is told from the perspective of Leo Borlock, just like in the book. I didn’t like learning about Stargirl through the eyes of Leo in the book, and I don’t like it in the film, either. Not a fan of movies that start with the main character doing a voiceover. Leo’s not very interesting, porcupine necktie notwithstanding. Why Stargirl takes a liking to him, who the hell knows. In the book, she thinks he’s cute; here, who the hell knows.

Movie Stargirl is only moderately quirky, compared to her book counterpart. All movie Stargirl does is walk around in thrift store ensembles, plucking her ukelele and singing songs a kid her age wouldn’t even know existed. “Be True To Your School?” Really? Book Stargirl made up original songs on the fly (we don’t get to hear any of them; just Leo telling us that they were made-up); VanderWaal herself has written original songs, so why is movie Stargirl mining classic rock from The Beach Boys and The Cars? Who the hell knows.

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“We Got The Beat” by the Go-Go’s makes an appearance, too. Great song, but you can’t convince me millenials or Gen-Z’ers think so. 

Stargirl the movie plays up the “magic” angle a lot more than the book does. In fact, the film changes quite a bit from the book, as most adaptations tend to do, and they’re not all for the better. Leo’s relationship with an elderly archaeologist comes off even more nonsensical; the way she keeps track of Leo and others, Stargirl comes off kinda stalker-y, to me; Hillari the “mean girl” isn’t really mean at all, she’s just… kinda there. I may not have liked the book, but at least it had depth. This movie don’t.

I didn’t like the book because everyone in it except Stargirl were class-A jerkasses. I didn’t care for the movie as much, because it didn’t do an adequate enough job of pulling the best parts of the book out; it was all kind of too breezy. It felt more like a musical. I hate musicals.

Disney’s Stargirl kind of blows in and out of Mica High School not really changing anything or anyone until after she leaves, and people, Leo included, wonder if she was even real. I don’t think the film teaches us anything new about being ourselves, but it does remind us how awesome old songs are. Disney’s Stargirl gets one and a half out of five stars from me. I’d recommend you read the book instead; you’ll probably like it more than I did.

#Amwriting. #Amediting. #Amtrak.

I am just a few days away from departing on a 10-day vacation, riding a train coast to coast and back again, during which time I hope to get a lot of my writing projects finished, polished, and ready for submission.

I’ve put together my own writing residency, after the folks at Amtrak decided to discontinue their program. Theirs was only offered through a selection process, and I’ve never been very lucky at contest-style stuff, so my chances of doing it via them weren’t very good anyway. Still, for a while, it was still just a pipe dream. I didn’t have nearly enough disposable income to spend more than a few hours aboard a train; I would have spent more time getting to the train than actually onboard it. But… my fortune has recently experienced an uptick, so I figured if I don’t do it now, I never will.

Here’s the lowdown: Being that I’m currently situated in Florida, I’m going to fly to Boston, Massachusetts, and take a train (or two) from there to Los Angeles, California, and back. (Can’t go east-to-west if I left from FL; that’s why Boston is the jump-off point.) Part of the journey will be aboard the Southwest Chief, said to be the most scenic train route in the country.

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After traveling to Chi-town from Beantown, I’ll take this route. If you see a train in your backyard or farmland, be sure to wave to me.

Been on many trips by train before and, outside of a less-than-savory trip from Albuquerque to L.A. about 20 years ago, they’ve been great. My fondest memory is when I was a wee lad of only about ten, spending a couple of days riding from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit my grandmother. I was in a coach seat then; this time I’ll be doing a sleeper car.

Though I plan to do a lot of writing, I’m still hoping to blog a bit, and get a few pics/video of the process. So, watch this space and my other social media for updates.

A Fall From Grace: ………um………….

There’s been some hubbub about the fact that media mogul Tyler Perry has his own production studio but is yet to hire any black writers. Well, I know a pretty decent black writer; I shave him every morning. But if Tyler Perry came to me and said he wanted to make one of my books into a movie, I’d politely decline.

Personally, I have nothing against the guy. I don’t knock his hustle; it’s better than most business ventures he could have undertaken. And as an actor, he’s okay; I liked him in Star Trek (2009). Heck, I even thought he did a fine job in Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows. Probably because those roles were created and written not by him. I tried watching one of his TV shows, House of Payne, I think it was called; it was awful. The Madea movies I wouldn’t go anywhere near; I stopped caring about black guys in drag after Flip Wilson’s Geraldine. The bits and scraps of his other films that I stumbled across always resembled souped-up stage plays in terms of acting, sets, and script. How he hasn’t yet made a movie called Mama, Don’t Smoke Crack In Church is beyond me.

Anyway, on to the film. A Fall From Grace is the first TP film I consciously watched from start to finish. And…….um……….. Wow. Every famous saying proves itself at least once, and when it comes to his films, Perry truly is a jack of all trades, and master of none. I’m not sure how much dough Netflix gave him to do this flick, but judging by what I just saw, I hope the cast and crew get a chance to use that Kohl’s Cash before it expires.

Bresha Webb plays Jasmine, a put-upon public defender charged with the task of getting a plea deal out of Grace, played by Crystal Fox. (Though they’ve done other people’s films, Webb and Fox are some of the go-to’s of Tyler Perry’s stable of actors.) Grace is a divorced mature lady who’s accused of killing her new younger husband, which, for some reason is all anyone in this town can talk about. Nameless talk radio hosts and sticker-on-a-van news crews are all abuzz. Why it’s such a high-profile criminal case is unknown; Grace isn’t a public official or celebrity, she’s a Sunday school teacher who bakes cookies for kids and sings in the choir (though we see her doing none of these things during the movie).

Jasmine gets stuck with the Grace case because it’s known far and wide that she sucks as a public defender; even Jasmine herself isn’t all that interested in actually defending people, until suddenly she is. With Grace, anyway. Once Grace spills the story of how she got caught up in a “worldwind” romance with hunky slab of beef Shannon (played by Mehcad Brooks, who needs to take that stupid wig off and get back to Supergirl, stat), Jasmine’s convinced that Grace didn’t murder him, despite Grace’s confessing to bashing Shannon’s head in with a baseball bat and throwing him down a flight of stairs.

The flashbacks, staged with less production value than an episode of Forensic Files, do nothing to convince us that Grace and Shannon were in love; they had all the chemistry of oil and water. Anyway, Shannon turns out to be a no-good, thievin’, cheatin’ so-and-so, and he and Grace take turns chewing the scenery until she lets him have it with the bat. Grace’s friend Sarah sells her out, in more ways than one, and a bunch of other ridiculous stuff happens to pad this turkey out to two full hours. The “twist” at the end of the movie is enough to make you either scratch your head all the way down to bare skull, or laugh hard enough to make milk spew from your nose, even though you’re not drinking any.

It’s recently come out that Perry made this “film” in about five days. Maybe that’s why they didn’t give the extras real food to eat. Maybe that’s why it has almost as many continuity errors than Benny Hill’s Police Raid in Waterloo Station. Or maybe, just maybe, Tyler Perry’s not a very good writer/director/producer/actor. Pick a lane, and stay in it, and you just might win a race every now and again.

Now that I’ve seen a complete TP movie, I can say I’ve been TP’d, then clean up the mess, and pretend like it never happened. Negative one out of five stars. That’s right. -1.

DEAD
No screenshots from this film; just this representation of my psyche after finishing this movie.

 

Have a gander at this Twitter thread; I ain’t the only one who regarded this as a hot mess.

6 Underground:A film with guts. And brains. Literally.

I’m a red-blooded American male. So, yeah, I like me a good action flick. Even bad action flicks can be an amusing waste of time. And sometimes, movies are just… there. Netflix’s latest blockbuster-wannabe outing, 6 Underground, is probably the loudest, most profane two hours of nothing I’ve ever had to sit through. By the end, if you make it that far, you probably won’t feel a thing.

Director Michael Bay isn’t known for subtlety or nuance; his MO has always been to start full throttle and just go up from there. The first ten minutes-that-feel-like-hours of the movie prove that anything can fly and/or explode, be it cars, fruit stands, body parts, innards, etc. A woman even gets smacked in the head by a pigeon. Not kidding.

6-underground-explosion
And man, does Italy have a sh*t ton of sidewalk restaurants.

The film opens with star Ryan Reynolds doing a snarky voiceover, which he already did, much better and funnier, in the Deadpool films. He does kind of blend in though, because his other 5 operatives are all just as smart-mouthed as he is. They outdo all the F-bombs in Netflix’s Bright in the first ten minutes. Reynolds tries to play it a little more serious, spouting some rhetoric about “doing the jobs they can’t,” or something along those lines. He comes off as Wade Wilson with the mind and money of Tony Stark, but with the charm of neither of those guys. The six are a culturally-diverse bunch who could best be described essentially as the Expendable A-Team on an Impossible Mission:, or, an even less-likable Suicide Squad. The plot? Hell, the screenwriters didn’t concern themselves with it, so neither will I.

Speaking of SS, this film has way too much in common with that chunk of cinematic sludge, right down to the soundtrack. The first action sequence features no less than three “songs” from some group called The Score, which I guess is who shows up when you can’t choose between Imagine Dragons and Panic! At The Disco. 6 Underground does not contain the same-titled song by trip hop group Sneaker Pimps, not even a sterilized remake of it, so don’t wait for it.

Fans of the Spice Girls won’t be disappointed though. “Wannabe” blares from the radio of the six’s car in what’s supposed to be a funny bit, but it’s about twenty years and four hundred movies past its freshness date. Most of the humor is so eye-rollingly bad, even the characters get sick of it.

Like I said at the top, I like action films. Take a classic like Die Hard (which is actually longer than this movie by five minutes). It’s still watchable to this day, because we felt for the hero John McClane, an everyman caught up in an impossible situation. We feel nothing for the six; they are all experts at what they do, and are never put in precarious or perilous situations. The parkour expert wants us to believe he’s a goner, but he takes repeated punches to the face and never gets as much as a black eye. The French spy lady goes from projectile squirting blood from a gunshot wound, to wearing a flimsy evening gown a few days later. The topper is the final song playing over the credits. It’s titled “Bulletproof,” because screw you, that’s why.

I can’t recommend this one. Go back and watch Deadpool, or even Deadpool 2, if you want Ryan Reynolds at his snappy, voiceover-y best. For a fun action movie, check out The Nice Guys, Bay’s own Bad Boys, or any episode of CHiPs. Zero out of five stars.