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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Hobbit, the Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

We come now, finally, to the third installment of the Hobbit trilogy: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Smaug, the ill-tempered, fire-breathing dragon that has been sitting on a tremendous horde of gold inside the Lonely Mountain for a long time (centuries, it seems) was unleashed in December 2013 at the end of the second installment. For reasons that are not clear, Smaug is intent on destroying Middle Earth. Smaug manages to destroy a large part of the town called Laketown but is killed by one of its intrepid citizens, the one named Bard, with a special arrow that pierces his otherwise unpierceable hide. Of course, Bard wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of his young son, whose name, I believe, is Bain.

So, with Smaug dead, that leaves all that glorious gold inside the mountain unattended, which, naturally, everybody wants for their own. The armies of the different races (dwarves, elves, orcs, and men) converge on the mountain to fight it out. Is all that gold worth fighting a war over? Of course, it is. Which army will prevail in the end? Will it be a force of good or will it be the army of orcs (a cruel, ugly, war-like, humanoid race) sent by arch-villain Saruman?

Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf who is also an exiled king, is supposed to represent the force of good in the war over the gold, but something happens to him. Just being inside the mountain makes him greedy. He begins to believe that the gold means more than honor, integrity and commitment to his people. He is suffering from what one dwarf calls “dragon fever.” How will the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and the thirteen dwarves he has been traveling with since the beginning of the adventure make Thorin Oakenshield see how wrong he is?

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth another visit to Middle Earth, apparently the last one there will ever be. Peter Jackson, the director who directed this trilogy and also the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a master’s touch, says he will not make any more movies based on the fantastical works of J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s been a lot of fun and a great run. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp 

The Christmas Guests

The Christmas Guests 2

The Christmas Guests ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

The party crowd was attentive as tiny Chickpea Knuckles, standing beside the Christmas tree on her little platform, sang in her crystalline soprano voice. When she came to the end of her set of songs, the guests applauded long and enthusiastically. Chickpea bowed graciously a couple of times, threw a kiss or two and then receded into the background.

Sylvia Peat, her enormous breasts trussed up inside her green silk dress, took hold of Mrs. Pinkwater’s wrist in both her hands like a vulture. “Lovely Christmas party, my dear!” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Where did you find that adorable midget singer?”

“You don’t expect me to give away all my secrets, do you?” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Do you think she’d sing at my New Year’s soiree?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “You could ask her. She doesn’t sing for free, though.”

“Where did you find a family of midgets?” Enid Goode asked.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “The father is in jail.”

“What did he do?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. Here’s the singer’s mother, though, if you’d like to meet her.

She snagged hold of Carlotta Knuckles, who was just walking past, and pulled her into the circle of ladies.

Carlotta was wearing a slinky, gold-colored evening gown that Mrs. Pinkwater had had made for her. She carried a long cigarette holder, taking occasional puffs on a cigarette that had gone out a long time ago.

“How do you do?” Carlotta said, looking up shyly at the ladies—all in various stages of drunkenness—that surrounded her like a forest of redwood trees.

“Isn’t she sweet?” Betty Rowley said.

“What’s it like being a midget?” Shirley Faraday asked.

“They prefer ‘little people’,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “It’s more respectful.”

“What’s wrong with calling them midgets?” Madge Settle asked. “That’s what they are, isn’t it? How many of them are there?”

“There’s mother, daughter and son.”

“Where’s the son?” Enid Goode asked. “I’d like to see him.”

“He’s not safe with her,” Betty Rowley said. “She’s looking for a new husband, you know!”

All the ladies laughed.

“Go to hell!” Enid Goode said.

“Well, he isn’t old enough for that,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “He’s still just a boy.”

Just then Bixley Knuckles walked past, bearing a tray of drinks over his head. Mrs. Pinkwater tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and looked at her.

“You don’t have to serve drinks,” she said. “You’re a guest.”

“I like doing it,” he said. “It gives me a chance to hobnob.”

Shirley Faraday ruffled his hair. “He’s so cute I could just eat up him!” she said.

“Hey!” Bixley said. “Hands off!”

“The ladies like you,” Mrs. Pinkwater said.

“Of course they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re at liberty to touch me!”

Mrs. Pinkwater leaned over and whispered in Bixley’s ear. “She’s a little drunk,” she said. “Don’t mind her.”

“Okay,” he said and was gone.

“I’d like to wrap him up and take him home,” Shirley Faraday said.

“And what would you do with him when you got him there?” Betty Rowley said.

“I don’t know. I’m sure we’d think of something.”

The crowd of ladies dispersed to freshen their drinks or to use the ladies’ room.

“How are you holding up, dear?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked Carlotta.

“All right, dear.”

A waiter came by with a tray of canapés, bent over and thrust them toward Carlotta.

“Try one,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re delicious.”

Carlotta took one each hand and began munching on them. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I hate to say it.”

“What is it?

“Quincy has escaped from jail.”

“Oh, my goodness! Are you sure? How did it happen?”

“He’s three feet tall. When the guards opened the doors, they were preoccupied and didn’t look down. He escaped right under their noses.”

“Oh, dear!”

“But that’s not the worst of it. When I was in the kitchen a while ago, there was a knock on the back door. I thought it was going to be another liquor delivery, but when I opened the door who do you think was standing there?”

“Let me guess.”

“Here is where it gets bad. I took him upstairs and hid him when nobody was looking.”

“You know you could get me in trouble for aiding and abetting an escapee, don’t you?”

“He’s cross-dressing.”

“He’s what?”

“He’s disguised as a woman. That was his specialty when he was in the circus, but now, of course, he’s playing a real woman instead of a witch or a harridan.”

“How is that going to help?”

“The police are looking for a male midget.”

“Keep him hidden and we’ll decide what to do with him when the party is over.”

“He wants to come down and join the party. He’s been in prison since Thanksgiving. He’s lonely.”

“All right, but keep him in the background. If any of my guests begin to suspect he’s more than he seems to be, he’ll have to leave. I won’t have my party ruined.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Carlotta said.

Carlotta introduced her “sister,” Corabelle, from New Orleans, to all the guests. They were charmed as she spoke to them in a soft Southern accent. When one of the male guests, Clifford Clifford (himself not much taller than a midget), asked Corabelle to dance, she graciously accepted without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

“Where did she learn to dance like that?” Mrs. Pinkwater said to Carlotta as they stood off to the side and watched as Corabelle and Clifford Clifford moved around the floor.

“He’s always been a good dancer,” Carlotta said.

“She moves effortlessly as if she dances every day of her life.”

“What a lovely compliment!” Carlotta said. “I’ll be sure and tell him what you said. He doesn’t very often have a chance to feel good about himself.”

And where did she get the dress and wig?”

“It’s a long story. He bought them for a lodge function that he attended as a woman. And not one of his lodge brothers recognized him, either!”

“If I didn’t already know he was a man,” Mrs. Pinkwater said, “I’d never suspect.”

“It makes me so proud!” Carlotta said.

When Corabelle finished dancing with Clifford Clifford, others wanted to dance with her but she declined.

“I’m all fagged out for the moment, gentlemen,” she said. “I have to get myself a refresher.”

“Remember I have the next dance!” Finch Baggett called to her.

“You got it, mister!” she said.

“And I have the one after that!” Trent Trill announced.

“Oh, you kid!”

“I never expected her to be so popular with the men,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “And they’re all married. Their wives are looking on with dissatisfaction, if they’re not too drunk to notice.”

“It’s the novelty of the thing,” Carlotta said.

“And wouldn’t they be surprised to know that the thing is not what they think it is?”

“Oh, you kid!” said Carlotta.

At the buffet table, Bixley spotted Corabelle and they began sparring playfully. When Corabelle got Bixley in a headlock, Mrs. Pinkwater and Carlotta broke them up before they gave away Corabelle’s secret.

“Let’s show them our tumbling moves,” Bixley said. “They’d love it.”

“Can’t,” Corabelle said. “I’m wearing a dress, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So?” Bixley said.

“Go get me a glass of that champagne, sonny boy,” she said as she sat down to eat the plate of food the maid prepared for her.

The party didn’t begin to break up until after midnight.

“The best party ever!” one guest after the other said as they thanked Mrs. Pinkwater and went out the door.

“We fooled ‘em,” Quincy said, removing the wig and kicking off the pumps. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Get me another glass of that champagne.”

“Not so carefree, mister!” Carlotta said. “You’re a wanted midget, you know.”

“I can be a woman for as long as I have to be.”

“And what happens when they pull off the wig and lift up the dress and discover you’re really a man?”

“I guess I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

“My husband will be home from his business trip in two days,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I suggest the entire midget family stay here until then. I have plenty of room.”

“Oh, we couldn’t impose!” Carlotta said. “Christmas is in three days!”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “I hate being alone at night.”

“Your husband wouldn’t want to find us here when he comes home.”

“He won’t mind. He enjoys having company.”

“Well, it’s awfully kind of you, but I don’t know.”

“Quincy can remain your sister Corabelle for as long as you’re here. If the police come snooping around looking for Quincy, just tell them she’s your sister visiting from New Orleans. If he can fool all my party guests, he can fool the police.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Quincy said. “I don’t relish the idea of being thrown back in the can and spending Christmas in jail.”

“I don’t know how we’ll ever repay you for all your kindness to us,” Carlotta said, on the point of tears.

“Can I sleep in that little bedroom in the attic overlooking the back yard?” Bixley asked. “It makes me feel like the captain of a ship.”

“How do you know about that room?” Mrs. Pinkwater asked.

“I did a little exploring while everybody was busy,” Bixley said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I can sleep anywhere,” Chickpea said, “as long as there are no snakes.”

Mr. Pinkwater, when he returned from his business trip on the day before Christmas, was not surprised to find the midgets installed in his home, but he was surprised to discover Quincy Knuckles as a woman.

“This is Miss Corabelle Hamilton, from New Orleans, Louisiana, come to spend Christmas in our home,” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “Quincy Knuckles is no more.”

Corabelle stood up and offered her hand to Mr. Pinkwater. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

“I don’t think that’s the same person at all,” Mr. Pinkwater said to Mrs. Pinkwater when they were alone. “I think they’re playing a trick on us.”

“We’re going to have such a lovely Christmas!” Mrs. Pinkwater said. “They’re like the odd children we never had.”

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

What is Christmas Without a Tree?

What is Christmas Without a Tree 2

What is Christmas Without a Tree? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“Oh, mother!” Doris said. “It’s Christmas Eve and you don’t even have a tree!”

“Who needs it?”

“Isn’t Otha still here?”

“She’s in the kitchen fixing supper. And she has her hands full without worrying herself over a tree.”

As Doris walked into the house, she looked like a movie star in her mink jacket, matching hat, and stiletto heels. And—perhaps more surprising than the way she looked—she wasn’t alone. A man came through the door behind her. A smiling man in a broad-brimmed hat and wool overcoat, carrying with him the scent of the outdoors.

“Mother, I want you to meet someone,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a friend of mine. He’s going to spend Christmas with us.”

Damon took off his glove and took the old lady’s hand in his own. “I’m so happy to meet you, Mrs. Davis,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Who are you?” she asked, looking from him to Doris and back again.

“I just told you, mother,” Doris said. “His name is Damon. He’s a good friend. That’s all you need to know.”

“What’s his last name?”

“If I told you, you wouldn’t remember for five seconds.”

“And he’s going to be staying here? In my house? A complete stranger?”

Doris laughed. “I can vouch for him, mother,” she said. “The silver is safe.”

The old lady managed a tight little smile. “Well, why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming? We might have managed something a little more fitting for supper.”

“I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“You know I hate surprises.”

“I’ll bring the stuff in from the car,” Damon said.

“And you don’t need to worry about food,” Doris said. “We brought a turkey, a ham, a cake, a pie, oranges, nuts, candy and lots of other things, Tomorrow I’m going to cook Christmas dinner for you and Otha.”

“You think we don’t have enough to eat?”

“No, it isn’t that. It’s just that I want you to have something special for Christmas dinner.”

“What makes you think we need it?”

“Do you want me to give it away to the neighbors? I’m sure they’d be glad to have it.”

“Don’t get smart with me. You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What way did you mean it, then?”

Damon came in with a load of bags and boxes from the car. Doris directed him to the kitchen.

“He’s your latest love interest, I take it,” the old woman said.

Otha came in from the kitchen dressed in men’s old clothes that came from the rag bag. Her hair was tied up in a dishtowel.

“Otha, dear!” Doris said. “You’re looking ravishing tonight, as always.”

“What am I supposed to do with all this stuff they bringin’ in?” Otha asked. “We ain’t got room for it.”

“I’m sure you’ll find room if you try hard enough,” Doris said. “Put as much as you can in the refrigerator. Anything that won’t fit put on the back porch.”

“I suppose you’re going to want dinner,” Otha said.

“No, we’ve already had dinner,” Doris said. “But thank you, though, for the lovely invitation. And I’m cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow. You won’t have to do a thing.”

“We weren’t having anything special. I was going to fix some chicken and dumplings.”

“Well, you won’t have to fix anything now.”

“Who is that man in the kitchen?”

“His name is Damon something-or-other,” the old woman said.

“Well, tell him to get out of there,” Otha said. “He gets on my nerves. And make sure he understands that my bedroom is strictly off-limits.”

“Here he is now,” Doris said. “You can tell him yourself.”

“Well, here we all are,” Damon said, taking off his coat. “What a happy, happy Christmas we’re going to have! I think we’re going to need a Christmas tree, though. What is Christmas without a tree?”

“Does that mean you’ll go back out in the cold and find a place that’s still open and buy us one?” Doris asked.

“Only if you ask me in a very nice way.”

“Isn’t he just the dearest thing?” Doris said.

“I don’t know if I would exactly call him ‘dear’,” Otha said.

“I’ll see what I can get,” he said. “Don’t expect much, though. There won’t be anything left at this time of night on Christmas Eve.”

“Do your best, dear,” Doris said, kissing him on the lips. “That’s all anybody can do. And get some lights and ornaments and things.”

“You know how I devote my life in service to others,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?”

“I haven’t seen my mother in two years. I think I’d rather stay here and visit with her.”

“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’ll be missing.”

He put his coat on again and was gone.

Doris looked at the old woman and the old woman looked at the wall. “You don’t seem happy to see me,” Doris said.

“I’m too old for unexpected guests.”

“I thought you’d be pleased to see me on Christmas Eve.”

“I am. It’s just that we’re not prepared for company.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it. You have three empty bedrooms upstairs that are always as neat as a pin. And I’m not company. I’m family.”

“What about him?”

“You can consider him family, too.”

“He might as well be a cardboard cutout for all I know about him.”

“You’ll have a chance to get to know him better if things work out the way I want them to.”

“Are you planning on bringing him to my house often? Because, if you are, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk about that now, do we? On Christmas Eve?”

“How long have you known him?”

“About a year.”

“Where’d you meet him? Or maybe I’m better off not knowing.”

“A mutual friend introduced us.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a salesman.”

“What does he sell? Vacuum cleaners?”

“Medical equipment to hospitals.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job to me.”

“It’s a swell job and he makes plenty of dough.”

“How old is he?”

“A few years older than me, but it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t care if he was fifty years older than me. I love him and we’re going to be married.”

“How many times have you been married before? Is it two or three?

“You know how many times.”

“Does he know?”

“Yes.”

“And it doesn’t bother him?”

“No.”

“You say you love him but does he love you?”

“Not as much as I love him.”

“You’d better marry him quick, then, before some other woman comes along and grabs him up.”

“You really don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know that’s never stopped you before.”

“Well, when is the wedding?”

“I don’t know yet. He isn’t entirely free at the moment.”

“Meaning what?”

 “He has to wait for his divorce decree.”

“He’s a married man?”

“Only technically. He and his wife have been separated for a long time. They’re only just now getting around to getting a divorce.”

“I don’t understand you,” the old woman said. “Are you telling me you’re cavorting with a married man?”

“I don’t think ‘cavorting’ is exactly the word I’d use.”

“You’re not going to be happy until you kill me, are you? You bring a married man into my home and expect me to think it’s all right?”

“Maybe we’d better drop the whole thing.”

“Are you planning on spending the night with him here?”

“We’ll stay in separate rooms. If that doesn’t satisfy you, we’ll go to a hotel.”

“I don’t want any carrying on in my house between my daughter and a married man!”

“You make it sound like I’m in seventh grade. I’m an adult and so is he. We’re used to making decisions on our own.”

“You talk like a damn fool!”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. You’ll find a way to object. I can see that coming here was a mistake. As soon as Damon gets back, we’ll leave.”

The old woman waved her hand like a queen bringing an audience to an end. She stood up, took two steps, and pitched forward onto the floor.

“Mother, if you’re pretending to be ill to try to hurt me on Christmas Eve,” Doris said, “I’ll never forgive you.”

She called Otha in from the kitchen and the two of them got the old woman on the couch.

“She’s having one of her spells,” Otha said.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

“I think it’ll pass in a few minutes. What did you say to her?”

“Nothing that would cause her to have a spell.”

“Its her heart.”

“She didn’t tell me she had anything wrong with her heart.”

“She didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“I’m course I’m interested!”

“Your actions indicate otherwise.”

“What are you saying, Otha? Who are you to judge me? You’re just a servant. You don’t know anything about me.”

“That’s right! Go ahead and verbally abuse me all you want. I’m used to it.”

“As soon as Damon comes back, we’re leaving.”

“I think that’s probably for the best.”

The old woman groaned and opened her eyes. Doris took her hand and patted it.

“Are you all right now, mother?” she asked.

“Of course I’m all right. I fall flat on my face every chance I get because I think it’s so much fun.”

“I’m going to have an ambulance come and take you to the hospital.”

“You’ll do no such thing!”

“She hasn’t eaten all day,” Otha said. “And very little yesterday.”

“Why are you not eating, mother?” Doris asked.

“None of your business!”

“As soon as Damon comes back from getting the Christmas tree, we’ll leave. And I’m sorry we disturbed you. I know you want to be left alone in your misery, even on Christmas Eve.”

“What nonsense you talk! I want to go to sleep.”

“Do you want Otha to put you to bed?”

“No, I want to stay here for now. When I feel stronger, I’ll go to bed on my own. Maybe I’ll feel better in the morning.”

“See how stubborn she is?” Otha said. “No matter what you say, she’ll insist on doing the opposite.”

“All right, mother, we’ll leave you to rest. We’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

When Damon returned with a small, scraggly fur tree and some lights and decorations, along with a bottle of champagne and some puff pastries, he took one look at the old woman stretched out on the couch and his smile faded.

“What happened while I was gone?” he asked.

“We need to leave right now,” Doris said.

“What? The snow is coming down in buckets. It’s not safe to be out tonight.”

“We’ll go to a hotel, then, and drive back in the morning.”

“Did something happen between you and your mother?”

“I made the mistake of being born.”

“I’m cold,” he said. “Let’s at least have some hot coffee and food before we go back out again.”

Doris turned off the lights and she and Damon and Otha went into the kitchen.

The old woman slept for a while and when she awoke she smelled coffee brewing and heard laughter coming from the kitchen: Doris’s voice and then the deeper voice of Damon and then laughter again. The clink of silver on china, the pop of a cork from a bottle, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. And above all the other sounds was Otha’s voice and her wheezing snort that passed for laughter. What did that old fool have to laugh about?

She stood up in the dark and took a few steps toward the kitchen. She was feeling a little hungry and could use something to eat, but, no, she couldn’t bring herself to go in there with them. It would be conceding too much, telling Doris that she approved of her and her boyfriend, of her many marriages and her simply appearing out of nowhere whenever she felt like it. No, what she needed to do was to teach Doris and Otha a lesson they would never forget.

She went to the front door and opened it. The Christmas Eve night was luminous with the snow. Not a soul around and no cars. Not a dog or a cat. How beautiful it was and how peaceful!

One step into the snow and then another, wearing only a sweater over her dress and her old-lady shoes that she never wore outside. The bite of the cold was friendly somehow, reassuring in a way that nothing else is. She went to the front gate and out to the street.

The snow was already half-a-foot deep and still coming down furiously. It made the neighborhood that she knew so well an other-worldly place that she no longer recognized. There was a house and there a tree or a clump of bushes that she should know, but she was sure she had never seen anything like them before.

After three or four blocks she didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t remember how far she had come or from what direction. The snow blinded her. The cold robbed her of her senses.

She came to a fence and grabbed onto it and, feeling what little strength she had leave her, slid down it gently onto the sidewalk. No one around. No one to call to for help, but it didn’t matter. She had never felt more at peace. It was Christmas Eve and her only daughter had come to see her.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Exodus, Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

There aren’t many movie spectacles anymore like Exodus: Gods and Kings. It is a retelling of the familiar story of Moses (played by Christian Bale) and how he led the Hebrew people to freedom after four hundred years of slavery by the Egyptians. (And how did Egypt use all those slaves? To build its monuments and tombs, some of which still stand today.) John Turturro (an odd choice) plays the pharaoh Seti (with a strange British accent). When Seti dies, his son, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), becomes pharaoh. Ramses may be a god to his people, but he has the full range of human frailties (self-doubt, fear, etc.) He’s no strutting, arrogant jerk here, as we have seen him portrayed before.

The foundling Moses is, of course, raised by the Egyptian royal family as their own. He and Ramses are like brothers, although they are nothing alike. When Moses, as a man, kills a slavemaster, it becomes apparent that he and Ramses are on opposing sides. Moses is exiled, or chooses exile on his own, and flees across the Red Sea. When he is rescued, near death, from a terrible storm by a tribe of Bedouins, he marries a woman of their tribe and they have a son. In the meantime, God is speaking to Moses through the “Burning Bush.” God’s messenger to Moses is a small boy who appears to be about twelve years old with a grownup’s command of the language. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people from slavery. Why was Moses chosen out of all the others to carry out this task?

Egypt needs its slaves to build its tombs and monuments and has no intention of giving them up without a fight. (As Ramses explains, the monuments, which are so necessary, represent power.) God unleashes the Ten Plagues on Egypt, not only as punishment, but also to contrast His own power with the power of the Egyptian deities. After the tenth plague (death of the firstborn), which costs Ramses his infant son, he capitulates, bringing about the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.

I can’t attest to the historical or biblical accuracy of Exodus: God and Kings, but, for my money it’s solid entertainment on a spectacular scale, far superior to most of the mainstream crap that’s out there. (Horrible Bosses 2? Oh, please! And do we really need another Dumb and Dumber?) There’s something about seeing the grandeur of ancient Egypt in a big-budget Hollywood movie that makes it worth the time and effort. Just enjoy the ride and don’t pay any attention to those people whose job it is to tear everything down.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Birdman

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

An aging, has-been movie star named Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), whose greatest glory was playing a “Birdman” character on the screen, tries to show the world twenty years later that he is still “relevant” and an actor of substance by writing, directing, and starring in an unlikely stage adaptation on Broadway of a play based on the works of writer Raymond Carver. That’s the premise of the movie with the unwieldy title Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). 

Right away, Riggan Thomson is beset with problems, as you might expect. His lead actor is injured when a light falls on his head, so he brings in a replacement named Mike (Edward Norton), a prima donna to whom nothing is real except acting. (When he has to remove his clothes for a wardrobe fitting, he isn’t wearing any underwear.) Riggan has a pothead daughter named Sam (Emma Stone) who resents him because he was never around when she was growing up. Sam, who works as a sort of stage assistant, is drawn to the unappealing Mike for some reason, even though she is about half his age. Mike, we learn, suffers from sexual dysfunction, as attested to by his girlfriend, Lesley (the ubiquitous Naomi Watts), who is a cast member in the play.

Riggan has invested all his money in the play, so if it fails he is financially ruined, not to mention what it will do to his prestige. He desperately needs to make it work, and we feel his desperation. Compounding his problems are an ex-wife who shows up every now and then, a might-be-pregnant girlfriend, a nagging lawyer trying to keep him on track, and a vengeful (and apparently powerful) female critic who tells Riggan she will “ruin” his play with a terrible review (even before seeing it) because she hates him and all he represents. (Riggan’s confrontation with the critic in a bar is a high point.) 

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is unusual in its execution and subject matter. (For one thing, it’s set almost entirely in a New York theatre. For another thing, Riggan levitates in his underpants and can make things move at will—I’m not sure what that is all about.) It’s the kind of movie that critics love because it pushes the boundaries of “art.” (The music score, except for some well-known excepts from classical pieces, is almost entirely composed of rifts on drums.) For regular moviegoers who are not critics, it’s either going to be a boring, pretentious gabfest or the best movie of the year. Maybe somewhere in between. Watch as it wins tons of awards for acting and writing.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom

Your Loving Husband, Alonzo P. Winterbottom ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Adele Winterbottom had the best custom-made draperies for the living room that money could buy. When her husband, Alonzo Winterbottom, received the bill for them, he was not happy.

“Ten thousand dollars for curtains!” he shrieked. “Have you lost your mind?”

“They went a little over the original estimate,” Adele said.

“How much over?”

“Four thousand dollars.”

“What are they made of? Spun gold?”

“No, just regular brocade.”

“You have to send them back and ask for a refund,” Alonzo said.

“I can’t do that. They’re special made. Nobody else would want them. Just look at them. Don’t you think they’re smart?”

He ran into the living room and started pulling at the curtains. When Adele saw that he was tearing them to pieces with his bare hands, she began tugging at his arm to try to get him stop, but he pushed her and knocked her down. She screamed and threw a statue of the Buddha at him but missed.

She had seen him angry before but never to such an extent. She was going to call the police to get them to come and calm him down (or arrest him for domestic disturbance), but she had a better solution closer to hand. She went into the kitchen and picked up her old cast iron skillet that had belonged to her mother and, coming up behind, hit him on the side of the head with it just above the right ear.

He staggered and fell. Afraid she had hit him a little harder than she meant to, she ran to him and placed a pillow under his head. His eyes were opened but unfocused.

“Are you all right?” she asked, slapping his cheek.

“What did? What did you?”

“Do you want me to get the doctor?” she said.

“Uh.”

“I’ll get the doctor for you on one condition. And that is that you don’t tell him I hit you with the skillet. If you tell him the truth, I might be in trouble.

“What yuh?”

“Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?”

“Yuh, yuh, nah.”

“Are we agreed, then?”

He closed his eyes then and seemed to go to sleep. She figured he just needed to lie still for a while, so she went into another part of the house and put him out of her mind for the time being.

After a couple of hours he was still lying in the same position. She touched him on the arm and he opened his eyes.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Head hurts.”

“You know you had it coming, don’t you?”

“Wha?”

“I couldn’t just stand by and let you tear up our lovely new drapes. I had to stop you.”

“Hit me,” he said.

“Yes, I hit you in the head with my mother’s cast iron skillet.”

“B-b-bitch,” he said.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s what I am, but still it’s not a nice name to call a lady. That kind of behavior is what has brought you to this pass.”

“B-b-bed,” he said.

“You want me to help you to the bed?”

“Yuh.”

She got him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him to his bedroom. She got him undressed and into bed, where he immediately began to snore.

“You’ll be all right in the morning,” she said. “I’ll fix you a nice breakfast.”

The next morning he was dead.

She called the police and told them her husband had taken a spill on the stairs and hit his head. She tried to get him to see a doctor but he refused, saying he would be all right in the morning. She helped him to bed, after which she retired to her own room. When she went to get him up in the morning, she found that he had expired sometime in the night.

Her tears, while she was telling the story, were real. The police never suspected there was anything other than the truth in what she was saying. The death was ruled accidental. Case closed.

She was sorry in a way to have killed Alonzo but happy also to be free of him. He had never been what she would call a good husband. She thought back to when they first met and the first years of their marriage. Had she ever cared for him at all? Really, she wasn’t able to remember.

So, she would carry her guilty little secret around with her for the rest of her life. She was sure there were plenty of other wives who had killed their husbands and husbands their wives, with nobody any the wiser. Life isn’t like detective dramas on TV where no murder ever goes undetected and unpunished.

With the life insurance money, along with Alonzo’s stocks and bonds, she was comfortably set for the rest of her life. She traded her three-year-old car in on a more expensive, sportier model; had her hair styled in one of the trendier, more youthful cuts (telling the hairdresser to cover up the streaks of gray any way he could); bought a whole new wardrobe of flashy, colorful garments that made her look like a college girl.

After a suitable period of grief (three months), she threw out all of Alonzo’s clothes and personal belongings, keeping nothing for sentimental value. Then she had his bedroom painted and papered and took the room as her own since it was the largest and most commodious in the house. She bought all new furniture and had custom draperies made for the rest of the windows, laughing at the cost. She made little jokes to her friends about hearing Alonzo turning over in his grave.

With her amazing transformation, only one thing was missing: she was lonely and desired the companionship of a good man. She began socializing more and more and, at a bridge party, met a man named Wallace Lexcaster to whom she was instantly drawn. He was handsome—she didn’t mind that he wore a wig and a girdle and had false teeth—and he had the added attraction of being something of a celebrity because he was a TV weather forecaster.

She and Wallace Lexcaster began seeing a lot of each other. They found they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company. He took her to the smartest clubs and restaurants, lavished her with expensive gifts. He told her stories about his former wives (a growing club); she hung on his every word and proffered just the right amount of sympathy. She told him the fiction of how her husband fell and hit his head and how he refused to see a doctor. How she put him to bed, thinking he would be all right in the morning and how he died sometime in the night.

“It’s good to die in your own bed,” Wallace Lexcaster said. “That’s the way I want to go when my time comes.”

Unable to speak, she put her hand over his as her eyes filled with tears.

She was having a good time with Wallace Lexcaster, but the important thing was that she was happy, maybe for the first time in her life. She began to think she would marry him if he asked her and, no, she wouldn’t be just one more wife in a continuing string of wives. She would be the last wife he would ever have or want to have.

On a Friday afternoon when she was driving home after a three-martini lunch with Wallace, she somehow became distracted on the highway and ran the car off the road. She righted herself in a few seconds, though, and was back on the highway, happy that nobody was there to witness her carelessness.

When she got home, her head hurt and she didn’t know why. She thought she must have hit it somehow without knowing. She took some aspirin and got into bed and slept the whole night through.

In the morning the phone woke her. She felt a rush of pleasure, thinking it was Wallace Lexcaster calling to wish her a good morning.

“Guess who this is?” a male voice (not Wallace Lexcaster) said.

“Um, I think you have the wrong number,” she said.

“No, I’ve got the right number.”

“Who were you calling?”

“I was calling you.”

She hung up the phone and lit a cigarette, her hands trembling. She was thinking she needed to cut down on her consumption of martinis when the phone rang again.

“Don’t hang up on me again, you bitch!”

“Who is this?”

“You know who it is.”

“Wallace? Is that you? Is this some kind of a joke?”

“No more Wallace,” he said. “You can forget Wallace.”

“Who is this?”

“I’ll give you a hint,” he said. “You recently bashed in my head with an old frying pan. I wasn’t the first person you murdered, either; only the most recent. When you were fifteen, you pushed your cousin down the stairs because you were jealous of her. She died later that day of massive internal bleeding.”

“If you don’t stop bothering me,” she said, “I’m going to call the police!”

“Hah-hah-hah! And a lot of good that would do!”

“If this is somebody’s idea of a joke, I don’t think it’s the least bit funny!”

“Now, darling, calm down. I’m trying to break it to you gently. That’s why I’m calling first before I come to you. That little dust-up you had on the highway was a lot worse than you thought. Sadly, you’re just a statistic now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You bashed in your skull but you just don’t know it yet. Isn’t it ironic? Doesn’t it seem like some kind of crazy symmetry?”

“You’re not fooling me,” she said. “This is some kind of a practical joke, isn’t it? Well, if it is, I think it’s gone too far.”

“I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he said. “And don’t even think about trying to keep me out. I have my key.”

“Don’t come here!” she shrieked.

“Don’t be that way, baby,” he said. “You and I are bound together for all eternity. You can bash in my head every day and I’ll still be there the next day.”

“And don’t think I won’t, either!” she said.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

The Third Day of Winter

Christmas 24

The Third Day of Winter ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This short story was published in KY Story’s Offbeat Christmas Story Anthology and has appeared on my website before.)

They had a little party at work, complete with cake and champagne (Here’s to another successful year!), and then everybody was allowed to leave for the day. It was the day before Christmas and nobody had to be back to work for three days. What a festive mood the downtrodden workers were in! There was dancing on tabletops, furtive kissing in corners, drunken laughter.

As Vesper left the office, it was just beginning to snow so she decided she would walk home instead of taking the bus. She had always liked snow, especially at Christmastime, and had seen too little of it in recent years. She stopped on the way home at a little market and bought a dozen oranges and a small box of chocolate-covered cherries. As she was paying for her purchases, the old man behind the counter gave her a sprig of mistletoe.

When she reached her building, she felt agreeably fatigued and slightly frostbitten. As she climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment, she couldn’t help noticing how quiet the building was. The usual loud voices, TVs, crying babies and yapping dogs were absent. She seemed to be the only tenant who hadn’t gone out of town for the holiday.

She unlocked the door, kicked off her wet shoes and hung up her coat. It was just beginning to get dark outside so she turned on all the lights. She tied a ribbon around her mistletoe and hung it in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room; plugged in the lights on her little artificial Christmas tree that was made to look real but wasn’t fooling anybody with its brown-and-green plasticity. She stood back and admired the comfort, the appeal, of her little home. It was the first home she had ever had that was hers and hers alone without belonging to somebody else.

“I’m really very lucky,” she said to herself as she stood in the middle of the room.

Already she was missing her friend Marlene at work, even though she had just left her a short time earlier. She wanted to call her and tell her about walking home in the snow and about the mistletoe. She knew that Marlene would enjoy hearing those things and would laugh at them in her usual way.

She went to the phone, not to call Marlene—she would be busy with family, now—but to call somebody else.

“Hello?” she said when she heard her mother’s voice, sounding very faint and far away.

“Who’s that?” her mother said.

“It’s Vesper.”

“Is anything wrong?”

“No. I just got home from work and I wanted to call you and wish you a merry Christmas.”

“You know I don’t go in for that stuff very much.”

“I know. Did you get the silver pin I sent you?”

“Yes, I got it.”

“I thought it would look good on your black coat.”

“Oh, I don’t have that coat anymore. It was a little too funereal for me.”

“It was a beautiful coat.”

“If I had known you liked it so much, I would have given it to you.”

“It doesn’t matter. How’s Stan?”

“We’ve separated. I haven’t seen him such summer.”

“Are you going to get a divorce?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m seeing someone else now. He’s talked about marriage but I don’t think I want to get married again.”

“Any news of Weston?”

“No, except that he’s living the bohemian life and wants nothing to do with his family.”

“When you see him, tell him ‘hello’ for me.”

“I will, dear. I really have to run now. I’m meeting some people for dinner. I have a terrible headache and don’t really feel like going out, but I said I’d go and I don’t want to break my word.”

“All right, mother. Goodbye.”

As Vesper hung up the phone she was aware of the hurtful omissions in the conversation. Her mother hadn’t bothered to ask her how she was or what plans she had for Christmas, if she had someone to spend it with or if she was going to be alone. Those things wouldn’t occur to her—she simply didn’t bother herself too much with her grown children. She had delivered them safely to adulthood and that’s all that anybody could reasonably expect.

Vesper went into the kitchen to see what she might dig up for dinner, but the prospect of having the usual everyday fare on Christmas Eve and then dozing on the couch in front of the TV until time to go to bed was suddenly dismaying to her. She didn’t have to do what she was doing but was doing it only out of habit. She could do something else if only she would. She could make the evening special somehow even if she did have to spend it by herself.

She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes quickly before she gave herself the chance to change her mind. She made herself ready to go out again (boots, scarf, gloves, coat) and turned off all the lights except for one small lamp beside the door.

She began walking, not knowing for certain where she going. The snow had accumulated to three or four inches and was still coming down, the wind blowing it along the sidewalk and causing it to drift along the building fronts.

Two blocks from her building she came upon two men, an older and a younger, standing with their hands over a barrel in which a small fire burned. Both men were looking into the barrel, but when she passed near them they turned and looked at her. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street everyday. The younger man was thin and bareheaded (in the light from the fire his hair had a reddish tint), wearing an overcoat that seemed too big for him with the collar turned up to his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar as if once, a long time ago, he had been gouged by a shard of glass or the blade of a knife. These details about him registered in her brain as she looked away and pretended not to notice.

She came to a brightly lighted drugstore and stopped and looked through the window at the rows of displays and the people moving among them like the inhabitants of a dream. She went inside, passing a perfume display over which two women were arguing, and went to a rack of magazines against the far wall. She picked up a magazine, thumbed through it, put it back and picked up another one. After she had done this several times she happened to look up and saw in a mirror placed above the magazine rack to discourage shoplifting the reflection of someone standing behind her. It was the tall young man in the overcoat with the scar on his cheek. He was not moving but seemed to just be looking at the back of her head. She put the magazine back that she was holding and left the store.

At the corner she stopped beside a clot of people waiting for the light to turn to cross the street. She looked quickly over her shoulder; she could see all the way back to the entrance of the drugstore. She did not see the man in the overcoat. It was just a coincidence that he was in the drugstore at the same time she was, she told herself, and he was not following her.

A little restaurant with the smell of garlic and twinkling lights in the window attracted her attention. It was a place that ordinarily would have been too expensive for her, but she was tired of walking and hungry so she went inside.

The place was candlelit. About half the tables were occupied. She took off her coat and scarf and sat down at a table for two facing the front. She was the only one alone, but she didn’t mind. She liked the comfortable anonymity of the place.

The waiter recommended fried calamari and polpette di baccala. She had never had that before and wasn’t sure what it was. She didn’t want him to think she was an ignorant fool so she smiled at him and nodded her head. He also recommended a light wine to go with her meal, bringing a whole bottle to her table and setting it down for her to help herself. While she waited for her food she drank a lot of the wine and ate several of the delicious garlic-flavored breadsticks that the waiter said had just come out of the oven.

The food was very much to her liking but what she liked the most was the wine. She ended up drinking nearly the whole bottle before, during and after the meal.

When she was finished eating she felt better than she had felt all day; better, in fact, than she had felt in longer than she could remember. She felt equal to anything and was glad she had ventured out of her apartment on Christmas Eve. She gave the waiter a generous tip, more than she could afford, and ventured back out to the street, feeling lightheaded and a little wobbly on her feet.

In the next block she slipped on an icy spot on the sidewalk and fell sideways into a pile of snow, attracting some unwelcome attention. As a man and a woman were helping her to stand up again, asking her if she was all right, she saw on the fringe of her vision—or thought she saw—the young man in the overcoat. She looked away for a moment to brush the snow off her coat and when she looked again in his direction he was gone.

It was still early evening and, in spite of the snow and the cutting wind, she wasn’t ready to go home yet. She would make a night of it. When she saw Marlene and the others at work, she would have something to tell them about how she spent Christmas Eve. They wouldn’t exactly envy her, but they would admire her for having a good time on her own without having to depend on somebody else.

Four or five blocks farther on she came to a movie theatre. The show was just about to begin so she paid her admission and went inside and took a seat in the balcony among a handful of other people. She dozed during the previews of coming attractions and a featurette about a Christmas tree farm, but when the feature began she was fully awake.

A woman named Mildred was released from a mental hospital at Christmastime. She had to start over with her children because she had been away so long they almost forgot she existed. She tried to resume her role in life as wife, mother and society hostess, but she had terrible nightmares and hallucinations that showed she should never have left the mental hospital in the first place. What was even worse for her, though, was that her fifteen-year-old daughter, Veronica, was showing signs that she had inherited Mildred’s mental illness. She would put her dress on backwards without even knowing about it and stand up during mealtimes and scream that there were Martians on the roof. These were the exact things that Mildred had done that caused her to end up in the mental hospital.

When the picture was over, Vesper sighed heavily, put on her coat and went back out into the cold. She was feeling tired now and a little sad. It had been a lovely evening, though.

The way home seemed much longer. The snow had stopped but the cold was bracing, made worse by the wind. Some of the streets that were thronging with people earlier were now nearly deserted. A drunk approached her and babbled something in her face, apparently asking for money. She sidestepped him and ran for half a block to get away.

Two blocks from her building she came to the barrel that she had passed earlier in the evening—on her left before but now on her right. Two men—an older and a younger—were standing over a small fire burning in the barrel, warming their hands. They looked up at her as she approached. The older man was the nondescript sort that one sees on the street everyday. The younger man was thin and bareheaded, wearing an overcoat that seemed too big for him with the collar turned up to his ears. On his cheek was a crescent-shaped scar.

As she passed the two men, she knew without knowing that the younger man disengaged himself from the barrel and soundlessly began following her. She didn’t speed up her walk or turn around to look at him.

She came to her building and climbed the stairs to the third floor. She let herself in to her apartment and silently closed the door. Without turning on any lights, she went to the window overlooking the front of the building and looked down. Standing there, in stark relief against the snow, was the young man in the overcoat with the crescent-shaped scar on his cheek. He was looking up at her.

She scribbled on a piece of paper her apartment number and the words come up. She wadded the paper into a ball, opened the window and dropped it out. As she heard his footsteps on the stairs in the silent building, her breath quickened and the blood roared in her ears.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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