High seas

I got my semi-annual royalty check for When the Night Comes Down, the Dark Arts collection that contains four of my stories. I can now buy that pack of gum I’ve been saving up for! The book is available in both trade paperback and eBook if you ever want to sample a variety of my writings.

I also sold a new short story, which is always nice. I signed the contract but the book hasn’t been announced, so I’ll hold off announcing the details until later. I will say that the story involves a couple of characters who have appeared in other stories of mine.

My wife and I were off the grid on a four-day cruise over the long weekend to celebrate her birthday. People generally ask us where we went, but it doesn’t really matter, because we didn’t get off the ship! They used to have this thing called the cruise to nowhere, and that would suit us just fine. There was just one stop, in Cozumel, where we’ve spent time before, so we decided to avoid the throngs of tourists and enjoy the mostly empty ship. We even got in a round of minigolf on the upper deck! It was a very nice, relaxing four days indeed. We had some great meals, lots of wine, took in a couple of shows and read a bunch. The image above is the menagerie of towel animals that we ended up with in our stateroom by the end of the trip. A different one appeared each evening during the turn-down service.

After finishing The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, I read Burial by Neil Cross, the guy who created and writes Luther, a compelling crime novel about a guy who covers something up then gets involved with someone directly affected by what he covered up and then has the whole thing come crashing down around him a few years later. Gritty and tense.

Then I read Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, translated from the French. It’s the second book in a trilogy, but it was the first to be translated into English of the three. It starts with a kidnapping, but by the end of the first section, you realize that the person who took the title character had understandable motivations and the victim is more than she seems. By the end of the second section, there’s another reversal and you come to the conclusion that the victim-cum-villain had her own particularly understandable motives for what seems like a rash of random crimes. The book deftly plays with the readers sympathies. It has some quirky characters and a very tight plot. I went from there straight into Irene, the first book in the trilogy. Alas, I know the ultimate fate of the title character, but the story doesn’t start with that situation, but with another set of gruesome murders. Good stuff.

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The Hip

I finished the first draft of a new short story this morning, my first in a while. The draft took about seven days, and the story came in at about 4900 words, which is quite a bit longer than I expected. However, it was over 5000 words before I did a pruning edit on it yesterday, and that was before I added the final two pages this morning.

I hand-wrote the first 4000 words and then I dictated it into Word on Monday morning so I could work on the computer from that point forward. I always have to proofread very carefully after I do that because the built-in voice recognition module of Windows 10 is quite good, but not perfect. I still have a couple of plot details to reconsider, but then it’s on to the proofing/revising stage. I have a week to get it ready for submission, but I hope to have it mostly done by the end of the weekend.

I moved away from Canada in the late 1980s, so I mostly missed out on The Tragically Hip. However, with all the publicity around their final concert tour, culminating in the final show on Saturday night, I’ve been re-educating myself on their music. I picked up a copy of “Yer Favorites,” a 2-CD collection of songs selected by the fans, which is a good introduction to their most popular songs. I watched some of the simulcast of the final concert on the CBC YouTube channel on Saturday, too.

I met Michael Koryta a couple of years ago at NECON and we’ve become friends ever since. He came into Houston for a signing at Murder By the Book last Friday. He almost didn’t make it: his flight was scheduled to land around noon, but that was the middle of a torrential downpour, so he got diverted but finally made it into Houston with a little time to spare for the 6:30 event he was doing with local author Bill Crider. Afterward, we went out to dinner with a couple of the MBTB people, which was a lot of fun. If you haven’t read any Koryta, check out his latest two books, which are part of a trilogy: Last Words and Rise the Dark. My introduction to him was The Prophet, which I can also highly recommend. Also high on my list: Those Who Wish Me Dead. I need to catch up on some of his back list.

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Murder on the High Cs

After five or six consecutive days with the temperatures exceeding 100° and the heat index in the mid 100-teens, we’ve had some relief. In the form of torrential rain, but we’ll take it. After a very soggy beginning to the year, we’ve been a while without any precipitation at all, so it’s a welcome return.

It rained a bit during the day on Saturday, but it was Saturday evening when the heavy stuff started. We could hear it from inside the movie theater at the local multiplex, pounding on the roof. When we got out, our car was in the attached parking structure. It wasn’t raining at the moment, anyway, so we contemplated going somewhere to eat. One glance at the dark, dark skies (it was 6:20 pm) had us reconsidering, so we headed toward home, thinking we might stop somewhere closer to the house. Then the skies opened up in a deluge, so we went straight home. Unlike many of our neighbors, we actually use our garage to store our cars, so we managed to avoid getting wet at all.

We saw Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory). Streep played the title character, a real-life socialite who aspired to being an opera singer despite having no talent or aptitude whatsoever. By carefully curating the attendees and excluding any critical media, she manages to produce a number of engagements over the years, including a final event at Carnegie Hall where a more true response to her painful caterwauling bubbles to the surface. (I wish I could take credit for coming up with today’s subject line, but someone else beat me to it.)

Helberg plays a young pianist hired to accompany her (apparently Helberg actually plays the piano throughout). His reactions to that first practice session are worth the price of admission alone. Afterward, we debated whether her husband (they had a chaste marriage because she developed syphilis thanks to her first husband when she was 18) was an enabler or was truly devoted. He allowed her to get into these situations and helped shield her from criticism by doling out wads of cash to compliant journalists. (By the same token, he was a mediocre actor and she confessed to hiding some of his worst reviews from him, too.) In the final analysis, she was happy doing what she did, so I guess there was no harm done, except to some eardrums and some musical sensibilities! Streep is her usual very good self, and Grant is a definite step above his usual bumbling, stammering persona. We won’t, however, be buying the soundtrack.

I got caught up on some delinquent book reviews recently. Check out Onyx Reviews for the following:

I’m working on my first new short story in a while, too. Writing it longhand. I have no idea where it’s going, but I’m getting there a day at a time.

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Turned in my 40th column for Cemetery Dance magazine last night. That’s a lotta words, especially factoring in how long the early ones were.

We watched a fascinating movie on Netflix called The Birth of Sake, a documentary about the sake makers at the family-owned Yoshida Brewery in northern Japan. For seven months a year, these men devote their lives to all the steps needed to convert rice into wine. They live at the brewery and get two days off a month during this period. Some of them get up at 5 am every day to tend to the vats. Others have to check on things every couple of hours during the night. It’s an intensive process, far more demanding than normal wine making. Many breweries have automated the process, but Yoshida is one of the few that still does it the traditional way. You have to believe that their attention to detail produces a significantly superior product in order for their sake to be competitive in the marketplace, but boy it sure does look like a lot of hard work.

We also watched Miles Ahead, the Don Cheadle-driven (co-written, directed, co-produced, starring) biopic of Miles Davis. I saw Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in June 1991, three months before he died. At that time, he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak when he was on stage. He held up placards with single words on them from time to time. In this film, Ewan McGregor plays a putative reporter from Rolling Stone who wants to get the big story of Davis’s prolonged hiatus. The McGuffin is a tape of Davis’s most recent recording sessions, claimed by the studio but stolen by Davis at gunpoint. A lot of people are after that tape, and viewers hope that there’s something worth hearing on it. Unlike many biopics, this one doesn’t show much of Davis’s life overall, focusing instead on this very brief period in the late seventies, with the occasional flashback. It’s almost a gangster movie, with shootouts and street chases. Fun stuff.

Getting out of the house, we saw the 3D version of Star Trek: Beyond, which was fun but not terribly memorable. We only opted for 3D because that showing fit with our schedule. There aren’t many 3D moments in the movie, but there is a level of added depth. Probably not worth the surcharge. I liked the Jaylah character quite a bit. Idris Elba was virtually unrecognizable save for his voice throughout much of the movie. There were entire minutes that I had no real idea what was happening because so much was going on at once. A little bit chaotic and dark.

I finished my re-watch of Stranger Things yesterday, in preparation for doing a tag-team review with Hank Wagner for Dead Reckonings. It was every bit as good the second time around.

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The Little Things

It’s always gratifying to receive an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow. In the introduction to the newest Best Horror of the Year, she mentions notable fiction in October Dreams II, including my story “The Boy in the White Sheet.”

And here’s a trip and a half: someone posted this photograph on Facebook. Its from Guillermo del Toro’s book At Home with Monsters, part of his massive library. Someone else observed that the tall volume with the silver spine on the second shelf is  my book, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. How cool is that?

We watched Hello, My Name is Doris on the weekend. It’s an indie film starring Sally Field as a woman of a certain age who has been looking after her mother for many years. The mother has just died and she’s now faced with all the possibilities of effectively being liberated from incarceration. She’s worked for the same company for years, doing data entry, and essentially being ignored. One day, a new, young coworker speaks to her in the elevator and she becomes infatuated with him. She has Walter Mitty-like fantasies about him and learns from the 13-year-old daughter of a friend (Tyne Daly) how to make a fake Facebook page to learn more about him. She pretends to like his favorite band, and they end up going out on the town a couple of times. He sees her, but he has no romantic interest in her. In fact has a girlfriend. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not a tragedy…it’s hard to say what it is…except it’s good. Field is fantastic in this part. She’s a hoarder and an eccentric, but she becomes fully alive despite her brother’s efforts to “fix” her. Peter Gallagher has a small bit as a motivational speaker (impossible = I M possible), Stephen Root plays her brother and Max Greenfield is the object of her obsession. Natasha Lyonne is severely under-utilized as a background character, my biggest gripe with the film.

We also finished the first season of Quantico. It has taken us a long time to get through it, what with kidney stones and trips to Japan and all. I have come to the conclusion that the big problem with network TV series is that there are too many episodes. This means they have to pad out plots and concoct too many fake cliffhangers and plot twists to keep things going for 22-23 weeks. I have the same issue with The Blacklist. I have become increasingly fond of the 8-12 episode series. Quantico is okay—we’ll probably dip into the second season—but the acting is spotty, and the series verges on being soap-opera-esque at times. The final reveal made sense, but this was after the suspicion had been shifted onto literally every other character at some point in the season, so we were a little bit red herringed out by the end.

We’re also watching the second season of Marco Polo on Netflix. The thing Kublai Khan does at the end of the second episode almost put us off continuing, but we decided to give it another episode and we’re back on track again. It’s a good replacement for Game of Thrones. Similar sorts of intrigues. I’m three episodes into my re-watch of Stranger Things, too, prepping for the conversational review Hank Wagner and I are doing for Dead Reckonings.

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How NECON cured my jet lag

Fifteen hours of sleep over a three-day period, on top of two cross-country flights will do it!

I got into Providence on Thursday afternoon after a couple of uneventful flights that took me through Charlotte. It was an early morning departure, so I got my sleep deprivation off to a good start. I can make the drive from PVD to NECON in my sleep, I’ve done it so often over the past dozen years or so. There was a pot-luck dinner at the convention hotel, a new development, so that was good. Spent the evening in the quad having great conversations with a number of people. I talk more over the NECON weekend than I do for the rest of the month.

One person I met was a fortuitous blast from the past. The first time I went to NECON was shortly after I had a story accepted to Borderlands 5. It was the Monteleones who mentioned the conference to me and suggested I might like to attend. A while after that, the anthology was sold to Time Warner for the paperback release. One weekend, while my wife was out of town, I went to the local pub, which is located right next to the interstate. I was sitting on the deck and the traffic noise was loud. My cell phone rang, which was a rare enough event at the time. Caller ID showed a NY area code. It was the editor from Time Warner, who really liked my story (“One of Those Weeks”) and wanted to talk to me about it. She also asked if I had a novel to show her. At the time I didn’t. The editor was at NECON and remembered the story. She asked again if I had a novel, and this time I do, so that’s  cool. Fingers crossed.

I was on one panel, wherein we discussed awards, what they’re good for, and some of the recent controversies surrounding them. I took part in the pub quiz, and while we didn’t win, we didn’t end up with zero points, either! It was a lot of fun. Then, for the first time, I was invited to take part in the roast. That set off a few alarm bells, because there’s generally a lot of subterfuge around the process, with reversals and twists, so I thought there was a small chance I might end up on the receiving end. I was part of the “rapid round,” where ten people who’d never taken part in a roast before got 15 seconds to hit the victim (Rio Youers) with their best shot. The risk, of course, was that someone would use your joke before your turn came up, but that didn’t happen.

The con was a good mix of veterans and newbies, and it was fully subscribed. I think that’s the first time that’s happened when I’ve been in attendance. Everyone seemed to have a grand old time–I know I did. I had to get up at crazy o’clock on Sunday morning to get my 8:00 flight (there aren’t many options that get me back from PVD other than very early morning or late evening), which got me home shortly after noon. Lack of sleep caught up with me a few hours later–I nodded off a few times while we were watching a movie, so I did something I rarely do: I took a nap. That helped greatly and I now feel like I’m completely over the jet lag that had been messing with my sleep since my return from Okinawa.

Time to get back to the regular routine.

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Stranger and stranger

I had the weekend to myself, so I watched a lot of Netflix.

First, I finished Season 1 of Bloodline, wherein all is revealed. Leave it to a cop to be able to set up the near-perfect frame-up job. “Near” being the operative word, which sets up Season 2: the cover-up and the repercussions.

Then I binged my way through the eight episodes of Stranger Things. I’m not a child of the eighties—the seventies was my formative decade—but I lived through the 80s, so I was familiar with all the allusions, from the Ford Pinto to Realistic electronics from Radio Shack to the music featured in the series. It’s a mash-up of just about everything you can imagine from that decade, and more. Off the top of my head, I found myself thinking of E.T., Close Encounters, It, Firestarter, Super 8, Carrie, The Goonies, Poltergeist, Altered States, Stand By Me, and so on.

The entire young cast could have been lifted en masse and dropped into the It remake. In fact, the guy who plays Mike (aka Turtle Face) will be Richie Tozier in the new film. My favorite character was Dustin, he of no front teeth. He was a real trip. I was thrilled to see Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. She was so incredible in Intruders (based on the Michael Marshall Smith novel), where she had to channel a 70-year old foul-mouthed man. She’s only 12, but she has serious acting chops.

Good to see Winona Ryder again, too. She has a difficult part, because for most of the eight hours she has to be in full-on hysteria. I found it interesting that you could tell her character knew how crazy she sounded at times to everyone else. I particularly enjoyed her scenes with Eleven later in the story, where she gets to be motherly and less hysterical. Matthew Modine’s evil scientist was the weakest part, I thought. He has no redeeming traits whatsoever. Monotone bad guy. But the rest of the cast and characters were stellar, and the story was terrific, too. I might watch it again before too much time passes.

I also watched the first two episodes of The Night Of on HBO. It’s a remake of a British series called Criminal Justice, and the focus is on the justice system. A guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time gets arrested for a crime he probably didn’t commit. The first episode is a case study in everything a person in that situation should not do. John Turturro plays a sketchy ambulance-chasing lawyer (originally it was supposed to be De Niro) who happens to be in the right place at the right time to insinuate himself into what he sees as a potentially lucrative case. The series is gritty and as realistic a portrayal of the system as I’ve ever seen on film. It doesn’t move along very fast, because nothing moves quickly. Thus far there are no bad guys. The lead detective, Box, is very good at his job and doesn’t mind testing the limits of a suspect’s rights, but he thinks he has his guy and he just wants to wrap up the package for the prosecutor. Interesting to see James Gandolfini’s names among the executive producers. I guess that’s something you can do from beyond the grave. It’s an eight-part series—I really look forward to seeing the rest, and might track down the original British series, too.

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Lester the Lobster

I was sound asleep at 12:30 am the night before last when the guy delivered my delayed baggage, and I feel like I could have slept through the night. However, last night I was wide awake at 1:30 am and remained more or less awake for the next couple of hours. Jet lag, man. It’s a drag.

I was trying to remember what the other movie was that I watched on my way to Japan and it finally came to me: a very odd indie film called The Lobster. It’s a dystopian flick set in a time and place where it is against the law to be unattached. If your partner dies or leaves you, you have 45 days to get a new one. You’re shipped off to this hotel resort with other singles and if you fail to connect with someone after that period (it’s a little fluid, because there are ways of extending your deadline), you are turned into the animal of your choice. Colin Farrell picks a lobster because they have blue blood (status), live a long time and are fertile all their lives. The hotel is run by Olivia Coleman, and John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw are among his fellow desperately seeking singles. It has the feel of a Wes Anderson movie, with voiceover narration provided by Rachel Weisz, who enters the film later as a renegade single who lives in the nearby forest.

What’s it all about? I couldn’t possibly tell you, but it seems to have something to say about loneliness and togetherness. And poking your eyes out with a sharp stick. It’s surreal and absurd and I think I liked it.

I finished the fourth Game of Thrones novel and I think that Martin made a huge mis-step there. Once he discovered that the novel was going to be too long, he decided to split it into two books, which is all well and good. However, instead of slicing it in half temporally, he divides the two books by character, which means that Jon Snow, Daenerys and Tyrion, three of the series’ most interesting characters, don’t appear in it at all. It’s bad enough reading the books now, having to wait a couple of weeks to get to the fifth book to find out what’s going on with them. I can’t imagine what it was like for people reading the books upon release having to wait six more years (after waiting five years for the fourth novel) to catch up with them. Well, as someone who read The Dark Tower books as they came out, I can sort of sympathize. I can’t imagine that HBO did the same thing with the TV adaptation. I’m only at the beginning of the third season there, though.

I started watching the Netflix original Bloodline last night. Intrigued enough to carry on.

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I was happy that Air Canada finally delivered my delayed luggage to my door. Less happy that they chose to do so at 12:30 am. As a remedy for recovering from jet lag, I can’t recommend getting woken up in the middle of the night highly enough.

So, I’m back from a week in Okinawa, where I got to meet my grand-daughter for the first time. In this picture, she is one week old.

My trip across the Pacific took me to Calgary, then Tokyo and finally to Naha, Okinawa. Breaking the trek into parts seems to help, although the 4-hour layover in Narita was a bit of a killer, making the final 3-hour flight at the end of a 24-hour trip brutal. The layovers were much shorter on the return trip, and I was able to complete the journey in a mere 20 hours.

This was my first time on Okinawa, where my daughter and her husband (and, now, their daughter) have been living since last fall. Until they went there, I didn’t have a firm grasp on where Okinawa was, but it’s like Japan’s Hawaii. It’s a long way from the “mainland,” and is tropical, has sandy beaches and coral reefs and surf. It’s closer to Taiwan and Korea than Tokyo, I believe. It has a slightly different historical tradition than Japan, too, so the culture is somewhat different. It rained a lot during the week, mostly thanks to Super Typhoon Nepartak, which missed the island on its way to Taiwan but caught us with its outer bands. Good thing it missed—at one point it was offering gusts of wind in excess of 200 mph. A buoy registered a pressure of 897 millibars, which is really, really low, indicative of a very powerful storm.

It takes a long time to get anywhere on the island. In the cities and towns, the roads are narrow, with lots of stops. There is a toll expressway, but even there the maximum speed is 80 km/hr (50 mph). Thanks to Google maps, we were able to navigate without too much trouble. I don’t know what we would have done without it. The hospital where my granddaughter was born is visible from the expressway, but the route to it from the exit was convoluted, and the fact that we couldn’t really read the street signs didn’t help! My wife did all the driving (she lived in the UK for 5 years and has more experience driving on the right) and I navigated.

The American military presence in Okinawa is contentious and strongly felt. Kadena is the biggest base, and just about everywhere we went we encountered Air Force personnel, many of them very loud and very brash, which is at odds with Japanese culture. We went to a curry restaurant one night and the place was packed with young men, many of them still teenagers, yelling and roaring at the tops of their lungs. My daughter and her husband have encountered that a number of times before and have been so uncomfortable that they’ve left the establishment.

We didn’t really do much sight seeing, but we covered the stretch from Naha, where the airport is to Nishara (hospital) to Kadena (restaurants and shops) to Onna (apartment) a number of times. That accounts for about half the length of the island. We didn’t have many language problems, though our trip to the grocery store was interesting. Figuring out whether those were ham slices or chicken at the deli was a real challenge (we got it wrong).

I watched a lot of movies in transit. On the return flight, I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey, which was a lot more serious than I expected, but that wasn’t a bad thing. The trailers focused on the funny bits (stopping the convoy so she could pee; the clip where the Afghani woman driver accidentally shifts into reverse) but it’s a decent look at the lives of embedded reporters, and Fey is a compelling viewpoint character. I liked it a lot. Then I watched a German movie called Grüße aus Fukushima (Greetings from Fukushima). It’s about a self-absorbed young German woman who has a personal setback, so she joins an organization that sends her to Japan to be a clown to entertain a group of elderly people who are still in a shelter after the tsunami. She has a hard time fitting in, but she befriends one woman, Satomi, who is determined to return to her destroyed family home in the “dead zone” caused by the flood and nuclear incident. It’s an east-meets-west kind of story that reveals a lot about the Japanese culture as the two come to understand each other and their personal tragedies. It’s also a ghost story. A touching drama in black and white. Completing my international film festival, I watched a Canadian movie called The Confirmation starring Clive Owen, Maria Bello and Jaeden Lieberher (who will be Bill Denborough in the forthcoming It. Owen is a recovering alcoholic who is looking after his son for the weekend. He’s struggling to find work, and when his valuable carpentry tools are stolen, he is launched on an improbable journey to try to get them back, with son in tow. They meet a bunch of shifty characters (including Patton Oswalt as the shiftiest of the bunch) and learn a lot about each other along the way.

On the trip over, I watched Spectre, the latest James Bond, which was pretty good, and an hour-long documentary about Queen from their early days through the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I saw something else, too, I’m sure, but I can’t recall it at the moment. Thanks jet lag.

I caught up on Aquarius and Murder in the First (an interesting and timely plot development involving the Black Lives Matter movement and a scene in which a black cop shoots a black suspect) since I got back, and watched the first episode of Irdis Elba: No Limits, in which he practices to become a rally driver and tackles his first rally drive in Ireland. My favorite quote from the episode was this: “I’ll tell you one thing about flipping cars (i.e., rolling over): once you’ve done it…you don’t want to do it again.” It was also fun seeing Tess Gerritsen cameo-ing on Rizzoli & Isles in a meta-scene where the author gets to meet her creations.

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I stumbled upon a real blast from the past, a TV show that was a favorite when I was eight or nine. It’s called Randall & Hopkirk Deceased. Imagine if Miles Archer came back as a ghost in The Maltese Falcon. Hopkirk is killed in the first episode and returns as a ghost for the rest of the series, assisting his partner and friend Randall in solving crimes. He can walk through walls—he teleports, really—but he can’t touch or move things (mostly). Given that the show is nearly fifty years old, it’s understandably dated, but I was fond of the show back in the day. I know there was a short-lived remake recently, but I never saw any of it.

I finished the second season of Game of Thrones and am about 80% of the way through the third novel. I’m starting to see a few points of departure between the books and the series. I understand these will increase as time goes on.

I went to see Independence Day: Resurgence last night. My low expectations were met. It’s a pretty bad movie, all in all. I mean, if you’re an alien species that needs the molten core of a planet for a power source and you have thousands of planets to pick and choose from, why would you opt for the one where people might not want you to take their molten core? There are so many plot holes and logic problems and so much laughably absurd behavior that the movie could almost be a case study on those topics. Brent Spiner (ST:TNG’s Data) is one bright spot in the film as a sort of mad scientist freshly awakened from a 20-year coma (he has a wonderful relationship with another character). It’s always fun to see Judd Hirsch, even if his character is so stereotyped as to be almost offensive.

The movie ends with an obvious setup for a sequel, but given this one’s dire performance and reviews, I’d be surprised if there’s a third film. In my lifetime, anyway.

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