Ordinarily, a spy-thriller-comedy with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart would be a movie I'd expect to watch when it reached HBO.
But then I started seeing Dwayne Johnson doing promos on various talk shows. Ever since watching San Andreas, I've had a new respect for Dwayne Johnson as an actor rather than a mere action star (which, by the way, isn't exactly easy, either).
Turns out he's pretty good on talk shows, too. Personable, fairly relaxed. Way better than Stallone or Schwarzenegger at this stage of their careers.
The trailers and clips they showed were OK -- nothing that hinted that Central Intelligence would be as good as, say, Trading Places or 48 Hours. Or even as funny as the Melissa McCarthy comedy thriller Spy.
So what was I hoping for when my wife and I paid more than twenty bucks for a couple of senior tickets at the Red Cinema last Saturday night?
I think that it was the movie's advertising motto: "Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson." It was kind of clever. Kind of funny. That's all I was looking for: cleverish with a few laughs. And maybe, just maybe some of the genuine emotional content that has typified the most recent Dwayne Johnson movies that I've seen.
Though I should have kept in mind that Kevin Hart is the box office giant in this pairing. And I didn't know enough about his movies to have any real expectations.
Here's the first happy experience: The movie was in theater 8 at the Red Cinema, where they have "luxury seating," which means chairs that recline. I mean, seriously, it's better than first-class seats in the best airlines. It's better than the very nice recliner I have at home. I wanted to take it with me, or live there and have my meals brought in.
Even though our seats were fully laid back and the footrests were up, there was room for the kid on a popcorn run to get past us without wearing our footprints on his pants. Lots of room.
No wonder the senior ticket prices were so high. Let me tell you, even at home you won't be more comfortable watching a movie than in those chairs.
In practical terms, what this meant was that if the movie wasn't entertaining, I would have paid ten bucks for a nap. And it would have been worth it.
But the movie was entertaining, so I never dozed off. The spy-movie plot had the CIA treating Dwayne Johnson as a rogue agent; they accused him of murdering his partner and being the big guy in a drug plot. No one will be surprised when Dwayne Johnson turns out to be the good guy, though there are some entertaining twists and turns, and we suspect a lot of people along the way.
But that storyline is not what we care about. Instead, everything in the relationship between Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson depends on what happened in high school. Dwayne Johnson was a fat kid who gets dumped naked in the middle of a school assembly; it's Kevin Hart who takes off his letterman jacket so he can cover up and make his escape.
So now, when Dwayne Johnson shows up again, he finds Kevin Hart -- the kid most likely to succeed -- as a forensic accountant who is bored and disappointed with his career. He did marry his high school sweetheart, but things aren't going well. Depressed guys don't make the best husbands. They've made an appointment with a marriage counselor.
But here's Dwayne Johnson, and he has become the kind of glamorous spy, big and muscled and confident, that Kevin Hart had kind of thought he'd become. Only Johnson's on the run, and Kevin Hart has no idea whether he can trust this new version of this kid he barely knew in high school.
Dwayne Johnson's character has treasured the memory of Kevin Hart's kindness to him as a mark of lifelong friendship and admiration. But Kevin Hart keeps going back and forth between helping Johnson and turning him in to the CIA brass who pretty much want him dead rather than alive.
So: Who's the bad guy? Can Johnson be trusted? Can Kevin Hart figure out what's worthwhile in his life?
Here's the key scene in this storyline (and if you're one of those big babies who gets mad when somebody talks about a movie and "gives away" something, then here's your spoiler warning: Stop. Save yourself). Dwayne Johnson is piloting them in a small plane when it loses power and starts diving.
Now, this kind of plane can glide a long way and there's no reason for it to crash, but Hart's character doesn't know that.
During the dive, when Hart is panicking, Johnson demands that Hart tell what he most regrets not having done with his life. What Hart comes up with is this: He wanted to be a dad. He wanted to have a baby with his beloved wife and be a great father to him.
In that moment, I decided I loved this movie, because that moment was exactly right. There's nothing more important that you can do with your life. Period.
The movie made me laugh a lot, but it's not a hilarious comedy. The action was well done and often quite resourceful, but it won't leave any Fast & Furious movies in the dust. People are naked kind of a lot, but we don't see anybody's johnson, big or small. What we get is: heart.
I cared about Kevin Hart's character. While Johnson was funny and delightful, he was channeling Tom Cruise in Knight and Day -- energetic, incredibly competent, completely in charge -- and in the long run, the movie belongs to Kevin Hart. Though at times he's as over-the-top as Adam Sandler, Hart comes back to earth when it counts, and that's why I really liked this movie.
Not every movie has to blow you away with the most amazing special effects ever, or the most hilarious (or offensively gross or filthy) jokes. It's a good thing for a movie to be pretty darn good at everything, and have a script that can touch your heart, and actors that can deliver.
I've seen critics give Central Intelligence all kinds of grades, none bad, but no A's, either. But I'm a college professor and I give real grades to real students, and here's what I think: If a student does everything assigned, and brings it in with something extra and unexpected, then that's an A.
What are you saving your A's for, other critics? Do you reserve them for Oscar-worthy movies only? That's just silly. Half the Oscars go to pretentious drivel or formulaic think-pieces anyway -- like that horrible Hilary Swank-Clint Eastwood assisted-suicide boxing movie.
I give my A grades to students, and to movies, that deliver more than required, who show that they care enough to put something important and personal and real into their work.
The Lobster was pretentious drivel, but I liked it. A good solid B. Central Intelligence hasn't an ounce of pretension, but it delivers more than it has to, and it gets a solid A from me.
Once I found UniBall micropoint pens, I began to buy them by the dozens. I hated using any other kind or size of pen.
But the other day, on a trip to Office Depot, I stopped by the pen-and-pencil department to search for some new mechanical pencils and then got sidetracked by some interesting new pens.
To start with, UniBall now makes gold, silver, and white pens that write on slick paper. These Gel Impact pens wouldn't replace your normal writing instruments, but I sometimes have to sign autographs on comic books, with slick pages that don't hold regular ink and art that has few spots where dark ink would even show up.
Sometimes you want to write something on the slick surface of a glossy photograph, or on a magazine page, and regular pens won't do. The UniBall Gel Impact white ink shows up amazingly well -- way better than gold and silver. And the gold and silver pens show up better than any other metallic-color pens I've used before.
But this is not just a paean to UniBall. I also picked up some TUL brand pens. I had never heard of TUL before, but having tried the blue and black ink pens, I must report that they write a smooth and steady line, and the pens have a comfortable heft. They don't make my handwriting legible -- come on, they're making pens, not miracles -- but they do give me a better chance of achieving legibility than most other pens.
Are they better than my standby UniBall micropoint Vision? No. For some purposes, they're better; for others, not so much. They're both worth having in your penholder or pocket.
Note that I never carry an expensive, valuable pen. That's because I don't ever want to carry a pen that I can't afford to lose or give away.
TUL, by the way, seems to have started life as an OfficeMax store brand. Apparently when Office Depot acquired OfficeMax -- or was it the other way around? -- Office Depot inherited TUL pens. Worth a try, in my opinion.
The TUL pens come out of the box with a tiny transparent plastic cap over the nib of the pen. If you don't notice that this is a removable condomlike obstruction, you will be quite frustrated trying to write or draw with the pen. You have to nip off the cap with your fingernails, rather like picking up a flea. If you're aware of this, you won't jump to the conclusion that TUL pens don't work.
American Ninja Warrior is back, and it's better than ever. Some of the obstacles are unthinkably hard. And yet people succeed at them. You don't have to be an athlete to appreciate watching human beings do things that no sane person would ever attempt, let alone succeed at.
I happened to watch a couple of episodes at the home of a friend who has the latest version of TiVo. It has software that speeds up both the picture and the sound by 30 percent, if you tell it to. The dialogue is completely understandable at that speed, and yet it takes up less time.
This means you can watch a whole episode of American Ninja Warrior with a lot less waiting through some of the excruciating ordeals, and the nattering of the commentators annoys you for a lot briefer time period. I suggested to my wife that we needed to get that model of TiVo to replace our present one.
To which she replied, "I gave you that one for Christmas. We just didn't install it because we had so many programs recorded on our present TiVo. At the end of summer, we can make the switch."
Oh, yeah. It's cool when you covet something that's probably too expensive, only to find out that you already own it.
I don't think that will happen, though, if I suddenly start wishing for a Tesla.
By the way, I have put some money into an IndieGoGo project called Solar Roadways. The idea is to "pave" streets and parking lots with hexagonal solar panels that generate electricity all day, except for the moments they're actually in the shadow of a car.
I love the idea of making all that grey street and highway space into an energy producer, but in their research they recently discovered something interesting. They expected that flat solar roads would generate less electricity than solar panels on a south-facing tilted roof.
What they weren't expecting was the discovery that this is only true on sunny days. On cloudy days, the flat roadways are more effective at converting sunlight to energy.
Won't it be cool when we drive our all-electric cars on roadways designed to generate solar energy to power those cars?
Why did the fireman wear red suspenders?
Because he wasn't yet so fat that his belly would roll the top of his pants down and pop the suspenders right off the buttons. If the fireman got any fatter, suspenders would be out of the question.
Let's face it, when a man gets to a certain size, it's a battle just to keep his pants on. People always say, "Keep your pants on," but it isn't that easy.
The way nature deposits extra fat, a large guy is likely to have more fat in the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius area. This makes his waist wider so that the waistband of his pants will probably slide off easily without unfastening anything.
This makes it imperative that either belt or suspenders be used to keep the trousers from drifting downward.
But we have not yet begun to discuss the complicated part. When you're carrying extra bummage, each step up a stairway causes the back of the pants to be pulled down a ways. If you don't have a free hand to tug upward on your pants, you can reach the top of the stairs with your pants halfway down your thighs. In other words, please don't go commando.
Clip-on suspenders, under such tension, tend to unclip. Belts tend to drift downward along with the waistband, unless you wear a sturdy belt, tightly cinched.
What is a "sturdy belt"? There's a reason leather has been used for this purpose for centuries -- it flexes and bends, and yet it takes a lot of wear and tear before a leather belt breaks.
The problem for overweight men is (a) finding a belt that's the right length, and (b) finding one you can cinch tightly enough to keep your pants up on the stairs while not interfering with the process of digestion inside the circle of your belt.
Just to see what they felt like, I tried "flexible" or "elasticized" belts, and let me make this perfectly clear: You might as well not wear a belt at all.
The point of a belt is that while it has a tiny amount of give, it won't give so much that the pants fall off. With elasticized belts, the pants will be around your ankles all the time.
If that doesn't happen, then you don't really need an elasticized belt, because you're so svelte that your pants stay up with or without a belt.
For years, I used leather web belts. Not belts that have a web of leather in back and a normal leather strap-with-holes where they clasp. I mean belts that are webbed from buckle to tip.
These flex and bend as much as you need -- but as long as they're not elasticized, the belt still holds your pants up. This gives leather web belts the least discomfort and the most holding power of any belt.
Best of all, since the tongue of the buckle can go through any gap in the belt, you don't have to choose to set your buckle by the inches between holes on the strap. There's a nearly infinite range of hole placements on the webbing.
The drawback is that where the tongue of the buckle goes through the web at just the right spot, you're probably going to cinch the belt exactly the same amount, time after time. This will result in putting so much tension and friction on the thin leather thong right at that junction point that eventually the thong will break, and ... ankle-trousers once again.
I have finally found what seems to be the best solution: SlideBelts. (Http:slidebelts.com ). It looks like an ordinary strap belt with a classy looking buckle of simple grey metal.
But when you're actually putting it on, you quickly realize that it's nothing like the regular strap belt.
You see, the free end of the belt has no holes on it for the tongue of the buckle to poke through. No holes at all.
Instead, the underside of the free end has a strip of ratchet teeth. You'll never see them in normal wear, but when you slide the free end of the belt into the buckle, the mechanism of the buckle engages the teeth. Thus, for the last few inches in which you cinch the belt into place, the belt won't be held by mere friction: You can hear the teeth clicking through the ratchet of the buckle.
That belt is not going to get looser until you tell it to.
Those pants aren't going to fall off (if you cinch the belt tightly enough) and the belt isn't going to show the normal stretching and wear-and-tear of inserting a buckle tongue through a hole or a gap in the belt.
And the sizing will be as perfect as with a web belt. When you get your belt, you try it on. If, to cinch it properly, the free end tries to go beyond the ratchet strip, you'll know the belt is too long.
So you remove the belt and then remove the buckle, revealing the cut-leather end. Cut off as much as you need to cut off, reattach the buckle, and keep trying it until you get the size right.
At the SlideBelts online store, you'll find every kind and color of leather, and as long as your waist isn't above, say, 50 inches (they say 48" but they're being too conservative), you can size it yourself until it fits perfectly.
Because of the design, of course, with those ratchet teeth behind the free end of the belt, you can't get a two-sided design. If you need two different colors, you'll just have to make do with owning two separate belts.
Most belts cost $45 to $85. If a belt is cheaper than that, make sure it isn't just the leather strap, waiting for you to buy a buckle separately.
There's a full range of color, and if a particular color isn't available in leather, you might find it in canvas belts that work the same way.
For those who, like me, fight the Battle of the Belt every day, the SlideBelt comes as a blessed relief.
I remember reading about how children have really short attention spans. Then we had some kids of our own, and I realized that children have an infinite attention span.
Our firstborn was about three when we bought a used Betamax VCR. We could only afford a couple of movies -- the Robin Williams Popeye and a compilation of Chip 'n' Dale cartoons. Oh, and Breaking Away, because the guy we bought the VCR from owned a bicycle store in Orem, Utah, and so of course he had the best-ever biking movie.
Our son didn't care about the bicycling -- he was too young to follow the story. So his attention span for that tape was pretty much zero.
But Popeye and Chip 'n' Dale, now -- our boy's attention span was endless.
When my wife had the world's worst migraine -- nobody had told her you shouldn't get up within the first hour after a spinal tap -- she would lie on the bed while Chip 'n' Dale had their adventures, then stagger to her feet in agony, rewind the film (neither the TV nor the VCR had a remote; this was 1981, and remotes, when they existed, worked badly), and collapse again.
Our son didn't mind at all. He could watch the same cartoon over and over, and laugh at the same jokes every time.
No wonder he had a hard time believing me when I explained that some jokes are only funny once, and therefore have a diminishing effect when repeated again and again, with the expectation that adults will continue to laugh at it every time.
Attention span isn't even a real thing. When psychologists used to measure attention span, what they were really testing was obedience in the absence of authority.
That is, they set a child to do a task. Then they left, and used hidden cameras to see how long the kid kept at it. They called the duration of the activity the child's "attention span."
When a kid is doing something he loves, he works at it, and keeps working at it till he's satisfied or realizes he can't do it. Of course, this can be a one-year-old throwing all the toys in the upstairs rooms down the stairs to the main floor -- gravity tests are all the rage among toddlers -- but the point is that these little ones are born with the ability to remain intensely involved with a task they care about for, like, ever.
But a task you assign them to do? Heck, even if you promise a reward, nothing can keep them doing something boring and pointless forever.
Even adults had to invent the coffee break because they couldn't stand doing the jobs they were paid for, hour after hour, without a break.
That's what growing up is all about: learning to obey the instructions of idiots long enough to keep getting paid for doing it. Or learning to do jobs you hate because nobody else is going to do them, they have to get done, so you might as well do it now before the job gets even harder later on.
Kids aren't grown-ups. They can still pick and choose which idiotic instructions to obey. My first daughter was very resourceful in the ways she avoided doing jobs she didn't want to do. At two years old, if I told her to pick up her toys in the living room before we went on to the next activity, she'd suddenly be a quadriplegic who was being tortured by fire ants.
Her body would be completely inert. It was the kind of power struggle parents have to win, so the child will learn the horrible lesson that you can't always get out of jobs by acting miserable and injured. So I picked her up, balanced her diapery butt against my shin, and held her by the upper arms, picking up the toys by pressing her wrists together on each toy and putting it in the box.
She never broke character. Other kids might laugh because hey, it's kind of fun to have Dad treat your arms like the shovel in the arcade game where you use a machine to pick up a toy inside a glass box and try to get it to the delivery slot.
But while her attention span for picking up toys was zero, her attention span for acting crippled was absolute. She never relented. I mean never. I had to manipulate those limp arms and useless hands the entire time till the toys were all picked up. And then I had to carry her limp and moaning body into the bedroom to get her ready for bed.
Her act only stopped when the audience changed. When her mom came in to take my place, suddenly that toddlerina had full use of all her limbs, and could talk and sing. But as long as I was in the room, she was the suffering mute and martyred cripple.
I don't know if she can still do that whole limp-body thing -- I'll have to ask her husband how often he had to throw her over his shoulder to get her from the car to the house.
But I have to say that the real attention span of all my children was impressive. Then I found out that everybody else's kids have that same kind of attention span.
Dogs. Cats. That's who's got a short attention span. Children engrossed in something they love are undistractable.
You know who else has a short attention span? Me. Start telling me a long story and if it isn't immediately interesting, my brain will be off on something really compelling, like how, in the novel I'm writing, I can get a kid named Dabeet out of Fleet School into hard space so he can see a Really Bad Thing happen. You know, work.
Short attention span is adults contemplating suicide as they play through an entire game of Chutes & Ladders or Candyland. Doesn't matter how much you love the child. The game itself repels adult attention. You pray for your kids to be old enough to play Skip-Bo or, you know, lawn darts. Something that can keep you awake.
So now I'm going to test your attention span by talking about something that is only interesting to editors. Elaine Hammer, who edits my column, is constantly finding errors I've made.
Now, I'm really careful. I look stuff up. But sometimes, finding a definitive answer is hard.
For instance, in the IMDb listings and Google Search results for Chip 'n' Dale, you can find them thus: Chip an' Dale. Chip-n-Dale. Chip 'n' Dale. Chip n' Dale.
You know and I know that it doesn't matter at all. As long as you don't write Chippendale, you're going to be OK.
But editors are taught to seek consistency for its own sake. Even though Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," copy editors instantly reply, "I'm paid to keep my mind exactly that small."
So editors go in search of "the" correct way that something should be spelled. And I can tell you this, after writing this column since January 2002: Whatever way I found is wrong.
No, I don't mean that my editor arbitrarily picks some way other than the one I found. I mean that whatever I submit will turn out to be hopelessly, ignorantly wrong.
It's supernatural: All the places where I saw it spelled my way completely disappear from the internet, never to be seen again.
It teaches you humility.
That's why when I find the game written Skipbo or Skip Bo, I can be sure that the real spelling is Skip-Bo. But as soon as I settle on Skip-Bo, my editor will find that it's something else entirely. Probably Uno.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com