Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Mugger

So I’m just going to try and get all this down in some kind of order. It probably won’t be completely coherent but it’s more about getting what just happened out of me than anything else.

I just got mugged. And then I mugged the mugger right back.

It happened more or less like this:

I left the house at 11.30pm to meet a friend and go for a walk. He had initially suggested watching a movie at his place but I hadn’t left the house all day and wanted to stretch my legs.

[So this is already my fault, I know.]

We ended up sitting on a couple of swings at a park near a local supermarket, shooting the shit. I had just made a potentially controversial statement about–you know what, it doesn’t matter what it what about. What matters is that it was a crucial moment that really didn’t need interrupting and God decided it was the perfect time to prove he had a sense of humour.

Enter the Mugger.

He was about as stereotypical a chav as you could ask for: hood up, bottle of indeterminate brown liquid and cans of lager in hand. His jacket was kind of expensive-looking, but he did say he had come from York so that pretty much explains it. He was also off his face and decided it wouldn’t be creepy or terrifying to approach two guys on a swing set and not announce his presence until he was practically breathing down my neck.

He didn’t attack us or anything. He didn’t even seem like a threat once he started talking. In a way I wish he’d just made his intentions known from the off. Then I wouldn’t feel so dumb and shitty about everything that happened and I could just feel like a victim instead. Which is already a stupid thing to say, I know. But hear me out.

[For the record, this isn’t a story about something really bad happening to me. Nothing is physically gained or lost by the end. This is just a story about something that happened two hours ago and how I feel about it now.]

He sat on the swing set next to us and told us how happy he was to see two guys just enjoying themselves, sitting here in a park in the middle of the night. (He seemed pretty sincere; I added the sarcasm myself.) He began his tale of woe but cut himself off pretty early, as if he’d already forgotten the finer points of the night; he got “blown out”  by a girl (his words, presumably bad) and didn’t have a place to stay tonight.

I didn’t feel that bad. Guy comes to town on the shaky pretence that he might be getting laid tonight he better have a plan B. He seems nice enough and all

Then the Mugger asks a nonsensical question that should have struck alarm bells instantly: “You guys got a Sony Ericsson charger I can plug into your phone?”

I don’t really know how to answer this – I figure he’s just wasted and mixed up – so my pal does it for me. “We’re outside, mate.” This guy picks just the worst moments to be wry.

But he accepts it. “Oh,” he says, seeming confused. I guess it was innocent after all. I mean, he rolled my friend a cigarette and offered us a sip of his brown stuff. I declined both offers, but thanked him all the same.

Then he asks if his headphone socket (or charger or cigarette lighter or what, I can’t even remember any more) would fit in either of our phones. My friend just tells him no, it’s not the same make. I tell him the same, but he gets up anyway and saunters over to me because I was the one who made eye contact.

Now, here’s the part where you might lose sympathy. It’s the part where I do the dumb thing. No, not that one. The really dumb thing.

I pull out my goddamn mobile phone.

To this moment I’m not certain why. The rationalisation I’m feeding myself is that I was trying to show him the port that wouldn’t fit his (charger? washing mashine? sex robot?) and put it away before he was within grabbing distance, but even that requires a basic disregard of logic. I’m seriously concerned that I’ve just got a reflex that wants to please people, give them whatever they want the instant it’s asked for without a notion of how badly it might affect me. Because if I don’t give them what they want, they might not like me. I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.

Anyway. The phone.

So it’s out and upside down, and I’m already saying, “See, it won’t fi–” and his hands are already on it.

I don’t know if you own an iphone or have ever tried to keep anyone from taking one from you, but those things have no fucking grip whatsoever.

“Please–don’t take my phone.”

“I’m taking this phone.” It slips fully from my grasp. How did I not see this coming?

The Mugger steps back and my earphones disconnect, flop against my jacket and I’m on my feet. I’m gonna do something – I don’t know what – but it’s gonna be something damn manly.

“…Please, come on, man. Give me back my phone,” I manage to squeak out.

He’s already five, six feet away but he doesn’t make a move to run. Doesn’t want to abandon the brown goo in the bottle he’s left under the seat, I suppose.

Mugger sneers at my no-hearted attempt to take back what’s mine. It belongs to him now because he has the power to invade a stranger’s personal space and I don’t. He says something else but I don’t hear it, I realise he’s left his front pocket open and I’m moving in with my left hand, I let my anger speak for me:

“Fucking GIVE me my PHONE.”

It’s not exactly Dirty Harry but it does the job. Kind of. My hand plunges into his pocket and connects with a mesh of earphone wires, a cigarette case and a glass rectangle that hope to Buddha isn’t just some honorary award from a community centre. I know it’s the phone, really – I saw it before I dove in – but right now I’m looking at this guy’s face and wondering when he’s going to nut me and I’m more concerned with just getting my hand out of there ASAP, never mind what’s in it.

They’re deep pockets, and you know how earphone cables get – it’s a mess. It’s not exactly the conventional way to use a pocket, either, so I’m orienting as much as I’m grasping.

He looks like he’s leaning back, and even though my right arm is held up across my face (at least I think it was) I see him lean back, not running, leaning back with his head and his right arm, and I expect a blow –

[This might be an appropriate time to let you know that I’ve never been punched in the face before]

– but my hands slips out with the phone and without incident. The Mugger backs off and starts laughing, making excuses like he was going to give it back but I’m not listening. I’m mad at him, of course because he took something of mine like it was his, but not just because of that. When we were locked in that weird non-tussle, not only did I think he would nut me, I anticipated it, could practically feel my forehead buckle and my brain swell. If he’d done that I would have struck, or tried to (my right hook is as of now still untested), because I really wanted to hit him in his arrogant fucking face.

I’m mad because he wronged me and didn’t have the common decency to give me a chance to hurt him. I know I’m not supposed to feel this way, I know it’s bad. Violence doesn’t help anyone, and it would have undoubtedly made the situation a million times worse. But it’s how I felt, and still felt for the next hour of my life.

What happens next is so banal that it’s almost surreal: I hand the Mugger back his earphones (they’d come up with the phone), because I’ll be damned if this asshole turns me into a thief too, and he laughs as if I’m the jerk. He talks some more aggressive shit, I threaten to call the police and he starts coming for the both of us so we run. He stops after about three seconds but we keep on going until we’re three streets away and can’t hear his rueful laughter any more because who wants to stick around crazy?

Half a glass of water in my friend’s living room later and I can’t take any more of sitting still and start the 40-minute walk home, trying to focus on a podcast about screenwriting but looking over my shoulder every ten seconds and taking almost none of the hosts’ lighthearted banter in until I’m sure he’s probably passed out in a car park by now.

I think about the dumb decisions that led to my vulnerability tonight and I think about how I didn’t know I was the kind of person who’d try to steal his own stuff back. I also think about how used to the whole scenario my friend seemed and whether that was just putting on a brave face or general nonchalance gained from his previous experience with muggings and street violence, either way it’s hard to think about.

But mostly I think of what I’m going to write about when I get home. A blog, probably. It does me no good to make a diary entry no-one will ever read. I need people to know, not for sympathy or pity, but because knowing other people know will make me feel better for some reason. I think about the fact that I’m considering blogging about a potentially traumatic experience, and then I think about writing about thinking about that, and then I get sick of myself before long.

What I hated most about tonight was that the Mugger seemed to prove what’s been subconscious for so long: that it’s better to stay inside, not leave the house (or only go to your friends’) and that it’s just not worth talking to strangers. I hate it because I don’t really believe that, not on a waking, thoughtful level. But if my subconscious didn’t have any bearing on how I live my life then how come I’ve barely left the house in three weeks?

I don’t like to end on a downer, so I’ll leave you with this:

Writing all this down has made me feel better. The fact that it’s nearing 4am and the old adage ‘never go to bed mad’ is seeming more and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy with every passing minute shouldn’t have any bearing on the matter, but all the same.

I’d like to say the assholes didn’t win tonight, but I’m not so sure.

[Unless I’m the asshole.]

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This Dad Accosting His Family As Batman Is The Best

Yes. Yes it is.

I love how surprised his wife looks in several of them. BatDad must have gotten putting-on-a-cowl-while-driving down to a fine art.

[via /Film]

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Flaws Are Sexy

A few friends on the media social were linking to this piece on “strong” female characters and it’s well worth checking out. It discusses the notion that what’s more interesting and three-dimensional are female characters with flaws and personalities and, you know, those things that humans have.

The author links to this other piece from the New Statesman that inspired her. It’s somewhat more substantial, especially for its notion of the “Strong Male Character” and the potentially few examples of such a narrow-minded concept, like so:

Batman’s insistence that he can, must, will get into the Strong Male Character box comes close to hysteria, but there’s no room in there for his bat ears and cape and he won’t take them off.

As you can tell it’s also pretty funny so I’d heartily recommend that too.

As a guy who writes women (as well as men of my own gender) and worries that he’s making them too flawed, that people won’t get that I’m making a statement with a character or just trying to give them enough depth to be interesting and seem real, it’s somewhat comforting to read pieces like this and know that I really am just overthinking things.

Wait. It’s comforting to know that I’m just neurotic?

Um. Yeah, I guess.

I kind of wish I’d been able to read something like this a couple of years ago when I started working on Scars, that horror/drama/comedy screenplay I occasionally blather about that has a female protagonist and a reasonably diverse supporting cast of characters. I won’t spoil the story for you but it concerns a young woman named Laura who comes back to her hometown after an extended absence and starts to fall into old patterns that aren’t necessarily too healthy for her. Naturally, this meant she had a few problems, and I was terrified that I’d be crucified for making her seem like a “bitch” or a “slut” or any number of other derogatory, reductive stereotypes.

This was, of course, pretty dumb.

I’d bash my head against the wall trying to make sure Laura didn’t come across as the kind of character who would offend anyone when really I should have been more concerned with ensuring her motivation made sense and that I cared about her enough to get other people to care about her too. That kind of second-guessing can drive you mad, so I’m glad I gave it up before long.

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t think critically about your work as a writer or an artist of some description. That’d be pretty dumb. But you can’t let the guiding principle to any work be “who might be offended by this portrayal of so-and-so?” – that’s the death knell of creativity. Instead, I’d suggest the advice that’s been given a million times before: just get it written. Beat that first draft out without giving it too much thought and then look back on it to see if the result matches up with your intentions. If there are a few glaring contradictions and howling errors in what you’ve done then congratulations – it’s definitely a first draft and deserves rewriting to within an inch of its life. And hey, if you’re so mired in the intricacies of the story that you can’t see your characters for the plot, just get your nemesis to read it. They won’t be shy about telling you if your characters suck, believe me.

Okay, I think that’s all I have to say about that. I’m starting to do that overthinking thing again.

G’night.

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Slumpkiller

Here’s an excerpt from the first of my recently reborn In Defence of the Reboot columns at Nerdly, in which I wax lyrical about the art of the spin-off:

Let’s keep it in the television family for now. Sitcoms were probably the first to truly capitalise on the spin-off dollar – and I mean capitalise in the most literal term. Happy Days spawned no fewer than five(!) other shows – Joanie Loves ChachiLaverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy among them – and was itself kind of a spin-off from LoveAmerican StyleCheers spawned the incredibly successful and well- loved Frasier, which actually ran an equal number of seasons to its predecessor, and made everyone involved rather a lot of money. I’m not saying that’s an indicator of quality by any means, but we all love Frasier, right?

I could go on, but the list really is staggering.

You can read the rest here if you like.

I intend on making the column a weekly affair, assuming there’s proof that anyone actually reads the damn thing, and intend to keep it up a good while longer than the last time I attempted it (I think I got as far as #6 – let’s just call it a miniseries). It might take a few attempts to get an authorial groove going, however, as I’m still trying to figure out the best approach for making one-sided discussions of pop culture ephemera in any way entertaining, so you’ll forgive me if I waffle on a bit.

Mind you, if you’re reading this then you’re probably used to that sort of thing by now.

But then why should I have a column at all when I’ve got this? Surely there’s even more free reign on my own personal blog than an entertainment news site? Well, less than you’d think – at least on Nerdly, which is why I enjoy writing for it so much – and it’s the self-imposed limitations to working on something for another site that are most appealing, as they force me to get to the point, i.e. actually have a point, and practice the kind of writing that can be easily digested by a wider audience than I usually get.

I mean, writing on here is always practice…in the same sense that taking a casual bike ride with no destination counts as training for the Tour de France. There’s just not the same sense of discipline as when you’re meant to be being judged by everyone else. But yeah, hopefully it won’t suck and you’ll enjoy reading (and commenting on – hint hint -) it.

On a related note, this post marks the first five days in a row I’ve written a post since March, which is both surprising and a little depressing. I’m not asking for a parade or anything – though it wouldn’t be totally uncalled for – and don’t anybody actually get used to this malarkey lest you jinx it, but it seems pretty safe to say that I’ve gotten over my recent slump for the time being.

Um, yeah. Hooray?

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Some Thoughts on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Pilot

I’m going to try not to be too biased here, but I guess it’s kind of telling that my favourite moment from the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was when Shepherd Book was on screen for all of ten seconds.

Yeah, this show’s definitely for the fanboy in me. I’ve always been a fan of rich world-building (one of the reasons I most enjoyed Pacific Rim so much was that the universe felt fully realized even when the dialogue and character work was a bit iffy), so the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D already had seven movies’ worth of world behind it was always going to work in it its favour. I can’t think of any other show that’s been pre-sold so well, and my first viewing of the show was entirely coloured by an astonished wonderment that it was able to exist in the first place. This is genre programming brought to life by the preeminent nerd in all of pop-culturedom, but it gets a prime time slot, a gigantic budget and the biggest debut ratings on US TV since 2009?

Somebody pinch me; I think the fanboy in me’s having a wet dream.

[Yeah, I know: gross.]

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It’s A Grand Time To Be A Nerd

No matter how you feel about the characters of Breaking Bad, it’s hard not to let your heart get a little warm and fuzzy when looking at this wonderful print by artist Scott C:

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Walking Bad Wars

Spin-offs are on my mind a lot this week. I just submitted an article to Nerdly – the first of what will hopefully be a series of columns discussing entertainment taboos and fanboy frustrations from a ‘devil’s advocate’ point of view – in which I talk about the recent announcements of both Breaking Bad and Walking Dead TV spin-off shows. Strangely enough, the article itself is a spin-off from a column I used to do for Blogomatic 3000 when it had that name and I used to write at least semi-regularly.

Incidentally, the announcements seem pretty cynical when you note that both shows are run by AMC, and while Better Call Saul seems to have come pretty organically from the writers, the Walking Dead ‘companion’ does look more or less like a grab for more cash while the cow’s still fat and the metaphor’s still mixed. That said, I would love to see a sequel to Mad Men (another AMC show) detailing Sally Draper’s coming of age in the 1970s, as put forth by /Film’s Peter Sciretta.

Unfortunately, just as I finished writing the article a new Star Wars TV show was announced…and I’m far too lazy to rewrite the damn thing, so I’ll mention it here instead.

The premise actually sounds pretty exciting: taking place during the gap between episodes III and IV, Rebels is set to detail the rise of both the Empire and the Rebellion, as well as checking in on Luke’s childhood on Tatooine.

No word yet on who else the series will focus on, but I for one would love to see some of Leia’s formative years expanded on…as long as it doesn’t include too much politics.

This sounds pretty similar to the live-action series that’s been in indefinite development for years, but this show will be in CG so I’m still holding out a sliver of hope. Hell, there’s supposed to be one Star Wars film every year for six years from 2015 so it’s not completely out of the question, right?

And we’ve never been let down before, right?

…Right?

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Lessons I Learned From Three Days Of The Condor

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of classic American paranoid thrillers. You know, those movies set in New York City about one man made to fight for his life against shadowy, possibly omnipotent enemies and tasked with uncovering a vast conspiracy that may or may not lead right to the highest levels of government office.

The hero doesn’t need to be a CIA agent (The Conversation) or a journalist (The Parallax View) – they might just be graduate student studying Nazi history (Marathon Man) – but they do need to get pretty quickly out of their depth and become romantically entangled with a gorgeous woman who may not be everything she seems…

It seems only natural that these movies would all crop up around the same time: the Cold War was on, there were plenty of John le Carré novels to adapt and – most importantly – the New Hollywood filmmaking philosophy of the late ’60s and ’70s allowed movies to be bolder with their statements and yet even more personal with their characters, a recipe that allowed for a truly astonishing run of movies even without the spy genre (and all at the cost of a few hard drug habits, dozens of failed marriages and exploded egos – just go read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls already if you haven’t).

Which all leads me to a deceptively simple statement:

Three Day of the Condor is a great film.

That’s it. If we lived in a perfect world I would say that and you’d simply spool up Netflix or pick up the DVD remote and watch the film, perhaps once it’s finished two hours later remarking, “Well, I’ll be darned if Mark wasn’t right about this flick,” and then perhaps, “I wonder where I can get a pair of sideburns like Redford’s?”

Alas, we live in a high-speed age and you’ve probably got a lot going on – maybe a hair appointment, or a protest against genetically-modified flying terrapins or somesuch – so it’s a bit much to ask you to watch a movie you might not even enjoy all that much.

You will, but that’s beyond the point.

Actually, the real reason I wanted to talk about it was because there were two scenes in the movie that stood out for me. Everything in Three Days of the Condor is wonderfully executed and perfectly gripping, but these two scenes are of special import to the screenwriter in me. Who know? You might find them interesting too.

First, a brief plot synopsis:

Robert Redford is a low-level CIA employee working in NYC (natch) named Turner. He’s not an intelligence operative or anyone particularly exciting, really, he just reads books and magazines, anything that’s published on the lookout for recurring motifs, hidden codes or changes in the zeitgeist.

[As an aside, let’s just think about that job for a minute: Turner and the other people doing his job are paid to read everything that is published in the entire world. As in, while actually keeping more or less up to date. That’s mind-boggling in the face of how much written content is generated on the internet alone daily. It seems a little quaint now and kind of insane, but at least Redford acknowledges it: “Who’d invent a job like that?”]

He goes out for lunch one minute and comes back the next only to discover that all of his colleagues have been shot to death while he was getting their pastrami-on-rye. He calls the men upstairs to bring him in but after a botched rescue attempt it seems that the CIA want Turner dead just as much as the assassins led by the enigmatic Max von Sydow’s Joubert do. He decides to make a stand and get to the bottom of what’s happened, but not before accosting a woman, Kathy (Faye Dunaway), on the street and holing up in her apartment.

[As you can see it’s a little tense at first, but Kathy breaks through Redford’s distrustful shield and…well, it was 1975, and it was still Hollywood.]

The first scene I want to talk about is a moment between Redford and Dunaway in her apartment. They’ve more or less just entered the place after Turner  having the single worst day of his life, so he needs a kip. He’s not about to let Kathy out of his sight so he drapes her arm around him with a gun in one hand so as to feel her moving should she try and escape while he gets 40 winks and waits for the 6 o’clock news report. When he does wake he trots over to the TV and switches it on to find…

…adverts. Because that’s what happens when you turn a television on at random. It’s rarely ever the exact report or programme you need, and having it appear so easily insults the audience’s intelligence by assuming they won’t notice your laziness as a screenwriter.

This device – a little thing I like to call ‘realism’ – helps us ground us in Condor‘s world a bit more. We’ve been chased and shot at up and down the streets of Manhattan all day, so it’s somewhat comforting to have a safe space where something dull can happen and hitmen aren’t waiting in alleys. I do love a good awkward silence between two gorgeous movie stars, don’t you?

And then it starts getting really good, because the screenwriters (insert names) know an opportunity for good characterisation when they see one. Instead of letting the joke run its course and just be that, they create a moment of depth by having Turner point out the black-and-white photographs on the wall, prompting a brief but illuminating and oddly sweet discussion of Kathy’s tendencies as a photographer. She takes “lonely pictures” of empty benches and leafless trees with no-one in the frame. Kathy tries to write them off as impersonal, stating that “it’s winter,” but Redforf sees through her. “No…it’s more like November. I like them,” he says, and there’s a brief spark of connection between the hostage and hostage-taker just before the news report finally comes on (it doesn’t feel like we’ve been waiting at all) that never would have existed had we been in story more concerned with cutting to the chase.

I honestly don’t know why I haven’t seen this more in the 38 years since Three Days of the Condor‘s release (probably because I wasn’t alive for 15 of ’em), but I reckon it’s no coincidence that this film’s endured as long as it has.

The second comes in the penultimate scene of the film, after secret organisations have been unveiled, covered up and brushed under the rug. It’s the dawn of the fourth day, and Turner and his enigmatic would-be hunter stroll along a path together, discussing plans for the future. Von Sydow suggests that he could make a fine living in his line of work, perhaps in Europe. After all, there’s little for him here but the gnawing knowledge that, one day, a car will pull up by the side of the road, someone he trusts in the back seat…

But no – Redford says he’s going to stay here. “I was born in America.” Someone’s got to at least try to set things right, he figures, and he just doesn’t have the same nihilism that Joubert pulls off so effortlessly. He makes hired killers seem like the most peaceful creatures on Earth, and it’s somewhat terrifying just how convincing he is:

I don’t interest myself in ‘why?’. I think more often in terms of ‘when?’, sometimes ‘where?’. And always ‘how much?’.

The fact is: What I do is not a bad occupation. There is never a Depression. Someone is always willing to pay.

It is…quite restful. Almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There is only yourself. And the belief is in your precision.

– Joubert, Three Days of the Condor

Despite them being on opposite sides of an ideological spectrum, they’re no longer enemies. They have no reason to be at this point in time, so why should they give themselves more grief by trying to kill one another?

It’s pretty clear to see what’s so appealing about that scene – it’s shades of gray. Everybody’s someone else’s villain, everyone’s the hero of their own story and your reason’s just as good as anyone’s. I’m glad when characters actually seem autonomous and become capable of deciding for themselves who’s a villain rather than having The Movie dictate it to you.

“But he’s got a shotgun shaped like a swastika! He must be the bad guy!”

No, thanks. It’s just not real. And I’m not for a minute suggesting that I think films should be realistic to within an inch of their entertainment, just that they should be able to trick me into thinking that they are real despite all evidence to the contrary.

A New Hope is real because the droids are junkheaps and Luke has a shitty job. Die Hard is real because John McClane has jetlag and no shoes.

Three Days of the Condor is real because there are TV commercials.

[You can download a copy of the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel here. Some credit should be given to the author of the source novel Six Days of the Condor James Grady, but how much I couldn’t say. Clearly the timeframe was ramped up among presumably other things.]

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You Win Again, Feldman

Christ. I used to be good at this. Well, not good per se, but at least frequent. Ish. Being frequent is a good thing, right? I suppose it depends on the circumstances, My brother ended up spending a night in the cells for being too frequent so I suppose the key’s moderation.

Yeah, I want to come back here soon. I just have to figure out what I’m going to talk about. I already know what I want to talk about – what I’ve always wanted to talk about – but I need to come to some kind of understanding of how it can be interesting to me and other people at the same time.

The best posts from the past year or so were those where I actually had a modicum of focus on a subject rather than starting off lost and not quite finding myself 2,000 words later (and three hours poorer). Having said that I’ll probably now get a comment or ten rejoicing my rambleposts and I’ll look a right tit.

Just kidding. There aren’t that many commenters on here.

“Oh, isn’t he self-effacing! I do find that so charming,” said no-one ever, “not to mention erotically stirring.”

So. Where was I? Oh yeah. Focus.

Things’ll be happening on here soon. I don’t know whether to write a new manifesto but after the fifth one they sort of become redundant, don’t they?

Regardless, it’ll be films and comics in some form or another. Maybe some stories too. They might be rubbish. But that’s always the risk you take when you head over here, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I’ve been a bit better than okay once or twice and I’m really banking on you, Dear Reader, to hold onto the everlasting hope that next time, just maybe next time we’ll get back to the good stuff.

That was a bit melodramatic, wasn’t it? It’s just a blog. It might be because I just read this article about a depressing party Corey Feldman threw for his own birthday and I felt for a moment like we were kindred spirits.

Except I wasn’t in The Lost Boys and don’t actually have any money from my better days.

You win again, Feldman.

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