Sunday, June 17, 2018

Incredibles 2

I saw this movie last night and, other than a long wait in a stuffy theater lobby, the experience was altogether enjoyable. Reprising their roles from the 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles are Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible), Holly Hunter (ElastiGirl), Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone), and writer/director Brad Bird (also playing superhero costume designer Edna Mode). It also features Bob "Better Call Saul" Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Pixar staple John Ratzenberger. In addition to the family core, which includes a speedster son and a daughter who can go invisible and throw force fields around, there is now a baby (Jack-Jack) who has a dizzying variety of super-powers, and a bunch of other supers - including, my favorite, a guy named Reflux who can vomit fire, as well as a girl who can open dimensional portals, a guy who can shoot electricity, a human/screech owl cross, and a guy who specializes in crushing things with the power of his mind. They're all good guys, but any or all of them could become villains at any moment, thanks to a mysterious nemesis of all things "super" who uses the power of hypnotism to control people's behavior.

So, that's enough synopsis already. I'll repeat that I had an enjoyable time watching this movie. It wasn't as much fun as the first one, though. I thought the balance tilted a little too much in favor of the domestic scenes and not enough toward superhero action. Still, Jack-Jack's antics were hilarious, and Edna Mode's scenes were adorable as always, and I liked the brother and sister characters who offered to help the Incredibles reclaim their legal status as superheroes. The animation was good. The action was fun. The movie has a cool, vintage look about it - kind of retro-futuristic. There was good comedy in it, and a good heart. It just wasn't as moving as the first movie, and the main characters didn't seem to get as much time to do their super-thing.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Jack-Jack's battle with a raccoon; (2) Violet's fury when she deduces that the Men in Black guy erased her almost-boyfriend's memory of her; and (3) the Krusher guy's perplexed reaction when Mr. Incredible asks him to uncrush something. If I am legally obligated to include an action scene on this list, then I'll make 3.5 the fight between ElastiGirl and the apparent culprit in the rash of hypnosis-related crimes. "Good for a sequel" seems to be about the size of it. We wanted a sequel. We got a sequel. It is, alas, a sequel. There can be nothing like the amazing original movie.

Arrow, Season 1

This series has been in progress for six seasons, and I finally started watching it because I was interested in The Flash, a spinoff series in a CW-network super-franchise known (thanks, I guess, to this series being the first) as "The Arrowverse." I didn't really want to invest in the DVD set without seeing at least some of it first, especially after the "meh" impression of it that I gleaned from crossover episodes on The Flash. But then I noticed that my local public library had this season (and several others) on DVD, so I borrowed it and was pleasantly surprised. I guess I shouldn't really need this lesson to know that crossover episodes don't, as a rule, convey a fair impression of the tone or quality of the series at the other end of the cross. In this case, the contrast was absolutely staggering. It just adds a whole new dimension to my growing aversion to crossovers between different TV series. It isn't just that they don't do justice to their special guests; they absolutely take a crap on them, with writing that resembles the work of internet slash-fanfic writers, only less in touch with the personality of the characters they portray.

What I'm trying to say is, I was really surprised, I mean surprisingly surprised, by the emotional life of the characters on this show, the quality of the writing and acting in what is, frankly, a comic-book-based series without superheroes. Main character is billionaire's son/college-age bad boy Oliver Queen, played by the undeniably hunky dude shown above, who gets stranded by a shipwreck on an inhospitable island off the coast of China for five years, then returns to his former digs in Starling City, where his family and friends have already written him off as dead and moved on with their lives. Complications ensue. Making sure they ensue is Oliver's vendetta against a whole notebook full of names that his father gave him before dying in the same shipwreck. Using skills he learned on the island (it wasn't deserted, but it was VERY inhospitable), he becomes a hooded vigilante, firing arrows with deadly accuracy at mostly rich and powerful people who, he declares, have "failed this city." Adding layers of complexity to the drama are the romance between his lifelong best friend and his ex-girlfriend, whose sister died in the same shipwreck after running away with him. The ex-girlfriend's dad is a police detective who about equally hates Oliver and his alter-ego, eventually to become known as the Green Arrow (though that nickname is only mentioned once in this whole season). The best friend's dad is another archer/assassin type who is plotting an evil undertaking toward which the entire season builds. His dead father was part of the undertaking, as is his manipulative mom. Joining the ensemble is an Afghanistan-veteran security consultant, a geeky female computer expert, a bratty younger sister and her boyfriend, an ex-street thug turned Arrow wannabe. Meantime, the viewer is treated to a slow drip of memories relating to the psychological baggage Oliver/the Arrow picked up on that awful island, where he was tortured and subjected to a variety of other deadly intrigues.

This is where I usually mention the cast of the show, but I don't really know the cast of this show from anywhere except this show and, in some cases, crossovers to The Flash. I do remember seeing Paul Blackthorne (Detective Lance) playing wizard detective Harry Dresden in a too-brief TV adaptation of The Dresden Files. Susanna Thompson, who plays Oliver's mother, played a recurring Borg Queen on Star Trek: Voyager and was also, on Deep Space Nine, noteworthy for sharing a lesbian kiss with Jadzia Dax. Playing Malcolm Merlyn, the season's main villain, is John Barrowman, best known (to me, at least) as Capt. Jack Harkness on Dr. Who and Torchwood - though I have to admit I've never seen either of these series. I mean, ever.

Three scenes that made Season 1 for me: (1) Oliver reveals his secret identity to his best friend at a moment of urgent, life-or-death crisis. It's an "OMG" moment of realization, on Tommy Merlyn's part, that bears a lot fruit in the drama between the two. (2) An assassin breaks into the Queen mansion and is about to finish Oliver off when, of all people, Detective Lance bursts into the room, firing his gun. It's so much fun seeing both men suffering as Oliver thanks Lance for saving his life. (3) Another assassin, who also later ends up infiltrating the mansion, poses as a lawyer and silences his "client" in a quiet, offhand way that just chilled me to the core. This is, as I anticipated, a very dark world of adventure featuring a main character who hews toward the "antihero" end of the hero/antihero continuum, but with enough ethical distinctions to pit him plausibly against real villains. I have to admit, I'm curious to see what happens in Season 2.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Two 'Robbie Stories'

Two more of what my mom calls "Robbie stories" took place last week: the kind of things that I confess to her for the pleasure of hearing her laugh. Sometimes she starts giggling before I get to the good part, and it becomes hard to finish the story. Usually she ends up telling me that I remind her of Mr. Bean. It often feels as if these petty disasters can only happen to me.

Refreshing when taken orally
One night, I decided the time was right to take a couple of those chewable vitamin tablets whose packaging invites you to take up to three doses a day of four tablets each. I rummaged in the cupboard above my kitchen sink and popped open a pill bottle that looked like the right one, at least when viewed from the wrong side of the label. The pills looked about the right size and shape, too. But when I started chewing them up, I realized they were actually my Mucous Cough tablets, which smell like something a dog sicked up and taste worse.

Interesting fact: partially chewed Mucous Cough tablets are difficult to spit out into the sink. It took a lot of spluttering and rinsing with tap water to get that awful stuff out of my mouth. Fortunately, the chewable vitamins (next bottle over) have a strong enough flavor that, when I was able to get them in my mouth, they mostly masked the nastiness.

During my lunch break the other day, I went to a local supermarket and bought three cardboard trays of 24 cans of my favorite zero-calorie, flavored sparkling water, which were on sale for 99 cents per four-pack. Past experience has taught me that the cashier always wants to scan every single four-pack, so I put them on the checkout conveyor belt and pushed the cart ahead of me at the till.

When I got the trays back, I had to lower them over the folding child seat to get them back in the cart. This proved to be trickier than it looked. The cans bumped the child seat; it started to unfold while I was trying to get the tray over it. Somehow, I managed to nick one of the cans on a jagged piece of metal sticking out of the child seat. Pressurized fizz immediately started spraying out of the can, and I started to feel a cool sensation in my groin region. In seconds, it looked as if I had wet my pants. Aaaand that's how I looked when I went back to work after my lunch break.

Only me. Always me. And yet after all these years, I keep racking up personal firsts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rewriting You 2: Unquote

There are two epochs in my career as a writer of newspaper stories: before I was provided a voice recorder and after. In the earlier era, which coincides with my newspaper career in Missouri, when I interviewed someone or attended a meeting, I had to write down as much of what they said as possible, as fast as possible. I tended to skip anything that wasn't interesting or to the point. I only wrote down "word for word" things that sounded really quotable; everything else was bullet points. Sometimes I asked the subject to repeat themselves or to wait while I caught up. Quotes based on my notes tended to be the best version of what the speaker said.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
In these latter (Minnesota based) days, I often go back to the recording and type up a transcript before writing a story based on my notes, which now increasingly consist of time indexes for the juicy bits. The difference is huge. Part of the difference is the amount of verbal packing material I have to throw away. It took hearing the recording again, and having to type and re-read a transcript of it, to bring home to me just how much of the average person's speech is made up of unnecessary vocalization. I'm not pointing fingers at others; this applies to me, too. If anything, I find my voice more tedious to listen to on tape than most people's, full of hesitations, unfortunate interruptions and badly scripted dialogue. On the upside, I don't usually have to rewrite my painfully awkward remarks; instead, I get to edit myself out of the story entirely.

I am blessed to be under the supervision of a newspaper editor who is OK with verbal crud being edited out of quotes. She disapproves of ellipses (when snipping surplus verbiage) and parentheses inside of quotes (when replacing verbal mistakes and unclear references with what the speaker obviously meant), preferring to quote the speaker in the most on-point manner possible. Meantime, I am becoming adept at seeking out and destroying words and phrases that add nothing to a quotable quote. Some examples follow; it's not an exhaustive list.

Just: I had a 10th-grade social studies teacher who banned this word from his classroom, reasoning that its use implied an attempt to make excuses instead of taking responsibility. It's also a word that many people have noticed being overused and abused in public prayers and invocations, to the effect, "Gee, God, we're JUST asking for one thing, and then another thing, and then another..." Maybe I shouldn't be surprised to find that a lot of people just pepper their talk with the word "just" for no particular reason. It's just a verbal space-holder. It just doesn't mean anything. After a while, it just starts to just drive me crazy.

Kind of/kinda: This is another verbal spacer that kinda drives the grammar freak in me kind of crazy. My conscience kind of pricks me about letting a two-word phrase, ending in a preposition, kinda stand in place of an adverb. My spellchecker goes kinda nuts when I try to replace it with a one-word coinage, or a kind of contraction, that isn't recognized by the dictionary. But it's kinda deletable, because after you hear or read it repeated in sentence after sentence, you kind of realize it adds zero meaning to what the speaker is saying.

Uh-huh.
You know: I think this was the phrase that sank Caroline Kennedy's hopes for a big-time political career, when her side of a televised interview was embarrassingly bogged down in repetitions of what seemed, in the last analysis, to mean "duuhhhhh..." Similar substitutes for "um" or "er" include like, OK, yeah, so, and so, now and I mean. Even very bright people can provoke snickering or eye-rolling when you notice that their every statement begins with "So,..." I once had to advise a preacher, by way of a confession of sin, that I couldn't help counting the number of times he said "And so" in each sermon and that the game was distracting me from his message. As for the conversational gambit of opening with "Yeah," whether the statement that follows is agreeing or disagreeing with what was said before? Please! Stop trying to remind me of Phoebe on Friends!

Well: This sentence-starter sometimes stays in the story for rhetorical effect, or because it conveys a sense of attitude. But some people salt and pepper their speech with it so liberally that you could search for it and replace it with nothing, without any net loss. Interestingly, but not very interestingly, a lot of instances of this sweet nothing introduce "inside quotes" citing the thoughts of a hypothetical person. For example, "Someone will probably read this and go, 'Well, that's completely pointless.'"

Needless amplification: There are several different words and phrases that fall into this category, and each individual picks one or a few and repeats it (them) a lot. Some examples are really, pretty much, actually, basically, essentially, probably and all of a sudden. Taken one occurrence at a time, they seem to function as adverbs and even seem to add pizzazz to the quote. In a voice-recording transcript where they are repeated again and again, they are revealed all of a sudden as really, pretty much basically meaningless.

Etc., etc., etc.: Yul Brynner, in The King and I, raised the noncomittal sentence ender to an art form. Many people today practice this art on an instinctive level, but with a less culturally enriching effect. Frequently heard substitutes for "and so on, and so forth" that I have heard people tack on the end of sentences, repeatedly and without any real meaning, include and all that, and stuff like that and, in the case of an elderly Missouri farmer I interviewed last year, something like as far as that as may be - which he repeated compulsively at the end of every thought, sometimes multiple times in a single sentence. My conscience troubled me not at all when I ignored this polysyllabic tic when I quoted him in my story.

Unnecessary time markers: Some people's vocal tic is to stick words and phrases like "Then" or "After that" into two out of five sentences. I'm guessing they don't notice they're doing this, and if that's the case, they also won't notice if I skip those words except where a precise sequence of events is crucial to the story.

Yep, yeah, uh-huh: When the response to a question is a simple affirmative, I tend to recast the question as a declarative sentence and make it an indirect quote, like "The mama bear confirmed someone had been eating her porridge." This saves me having to introduce her answer with something like, "Asked whether..." Sometimes the affirmative is more specific or personally engaging, like exactly, precisely, correct or absolutely; but after the speaker gives the same response seven or eight times in one interview, the sense of originality fades.

I recently had an opportunity to read the full mansucript of a recorded police interview with a murder suspect. It was an excruciating ordeal, full of apparent interruptions and tragically placed instances of the tag [inaudible]. Compared to a brief extract of another interview that had to be based on handwritten notes, because the entire sound recording turned out to be unusable, it left a poor impression of the average person's ability to improvise snappy, plot-forward dialogue. It was due to this assignment (which ultimately didn't result in a newspaper story) that I posted the following status on Facebook: "Reading transcript of a police interrogation. Urk. THIS is why script writers make the bucks." And then I commented on my own status: "A thousand times, Urk."

Monday, June 4, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

What you think is history is actually fantasy. What you think is fantasy is reality. Behind it all is a conspiracy of evil, soul-devouring librarians. Resisting them are a band of heroes from a continent you don't even know exists. And leading a mission to stop the librarians from getting their hands on ancient technology that could tilt the balance in their favor forever is a kid named Alcatraz Smedry, who can do seemingly magical things by looking through special lenses, and who has the super-power of breaking things. That doesn't sound like a superpower to you? It comes in handy when someone aims a gun at him, and that seems to happen a lot.

In this adventure, Alcatraz gets swept up into an aerial battle on board a glass dragon. He meets an uncle whose super-power is getting lost and a cousin whose special ability is looking ugly when she wakes up. You can't pick your super-powers, but you can do nifty things with them if you use them right. Joined by a mother-daughter pair of warriors, they travel to one of the most dangerous Librarian strongholds: the Library of Alexandria, where to borrow a book, you have to surrender your soul and become one of the horrible, wraith-like curators, forever. Alcatraz hopes to find his long-lost father (who specializes in losing things) and his grandpa, who is always late. But along the way, he must face an enemy who is part human and part machine, survive traps, outwit a bunch of soulless spirits and process unexpected discoveries about his own powers.

Like the previous book Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, this book supplies a steady stream of excitement, intrigue and bizarre imagery, building a unique fantasy world within our present-day world. At the same time, it relentlessly pokes fun at the reader, inviting laughs and provoking intelligent thoughts at the same time.

This is the second of currently five books in Brandon Sanderson's kid-friendly "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" series. After this come Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens and The Dark Talent. Sanderson's works for older teens include the "Reckoners" trilogy, The Rithmatist and, coming out in November 2018, Skyward. His adult fiction includes Elantris, Warbreaker, six "Mistborn" novels, two "Infinity Blade" novels, two "Legion" novels, the "Stormlight Archive" trilogy, and the concluding three books of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series.

The Empty Grave

The Empty Grave
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this fifth and, for now, last book of "Lockwood & Co." a small, independent psychic detective agency faces off against the most powerful woman in the U.K. Penelope Fittes, according to the skull/trapped ghost that talks to agent Lucy Carlyle, is somehow one and the same with her grandmother Marissa, one of the first agents ever to combat the Problem of the unquiet dead. Also, Team Lockwood learns, Ms. Fittes may have something to do with how the Problem started.

To find out what that something was and put a stop to it, they have to dig into secrets that are dangerous to know. How dangerous? Ask research maven George, who gets the stuffing beaten out of him for his efforts. Ask Lockwood, who nearly has his soul sucked out by a vampiric vamp. Ask newest associate Kipps, who shows signs of going the way no one can return. After infiltrating a tomb stuffed with deadly revenants, ridding a theater of a glamour queen who can steal a man's will to live with a single look, breaking into a spooky London club full of psychic weapons and gadgets, and finding a rare pamphlet that reveals a chilling motive behind everything that has befallen the country during the past 50 years, the team learns enough to become too dangerous for Penelope/Marissa to let them live.

What a time, then, for Anthony Lockwood, leader of the agency, to discover that his life, as well as the deaths of his folklorist parents, has more meaning than he ever realized. What a time for Lucy to begin to admit to herself that the possibility of being in love with Lockwood makes her life precious, too. What a time, indeed, for the Lockwood Five to find themselves barricaded inside 35 Portland Row with the sinister black marketeer Jacob Winkman, the nefarious Sir Rupert Gale, and a gang of plug-uglies outside, armed for bloody murder. What a time for their best shot at life to be crossing over into the underworld, from which their only route of escape is through the city of the dead, all the way to the headquarters of their enemy.

During this perilous, physically and spiritually chilling journey, they make fresh discoveries that will raise gooseflesh. They experience thrilling chases, narrow escapes, death-defying battles, and confrontations with terrifying monsters. When they're in the tightest spot of all, and an explosive ending seems inevitable, there comes an unexpected twist on a long-dreaded prophecy. What happens then will be one for the history books, at least in the alternate-history England that exists in this series of books.

If this is really the end of the series, I'm sorry. Even though everything so far seems to build up to this book, the characters, relationships, and magical dynamics of this whole world would be fun to visit again. The fact that I've learned to trust their author to craft an enveloping worldscape and a tightly-paced, well-structured storyline doesn't hurt. Mind you, I'm using the word "fun" in a sense that includes a considerable amount of gibbering horror. But what are a few night terrors between friends?

Jonathan Stroud is the author of a number of books that I have already named in multiple reviews. I think with this book I have actually caught up with him and read them all. Get busy, Stroud! I'm not done with you.

Scowler

Scowler
by Daniel Kraus
Recommended Ages: 14+

Boy, is this book dark. I'm not saying I don't like it. Nor should I really be surprised. I have two previous experiences of reading books by Daniel Kraus that should have forewarned me. The first was Rotters, featuring a terrifying father who forces his son to follow in his footsteps as a graverobber, not to mention a monster in human form who makes you sympathize with the dad by comparison. Then there's Trollhunters (co-authored with Guillermo del Toro), the book on which the dark fantasy animated TV series was based; only after you read it the TV version won't seem so dark.

Then there's this story, featuring a young man named Ry Burke who barely survived a rampage by his abusive father nine years ago, thanks in part to a psychotic break in which the voices of three toys coached him through the ordeal. Now age 19, he still lives with his mom, struggles to cultivate the family's dying farm, and seems to be going nowhere in life - until a meteorite busts his pop out of prison. Just when dear old dad is about to shoot Ry dead for his boyhood betrayal, another meteorite lands on the farm and the voices return. This time, Ry isn't so inclined to listen to the kindly bear or the serene figurine of Jesus Christ. This time, he may not be able to hold back the terrible personality known as Scowler, even if it takes him too far. This time, Ry's father won't be the only monster threatening his family's survival.

Don't mistake me, it's a heartbreaking book. Even so, I didn't always find Ry a sympathetic character. I'm not sure I really want to explore the genre, whose existence I glimpsed in Amazon's list of books customers bought along with this one, of stories about hero kids whose parents brought them up to be killers. I mean, that is sooo dark. For the same reason I like The Flash but have no interest in Arrow, I found this book almost as much distressing as entertaining. Let the fact that I found it, after all, mostly satisfying suffice to tell you whether the hero proves to be good or evil in the end.

Daniel Kraus is also the author of The Monster Variations, which I'm not going to read; the "Death and Life of Zebulon Finch" duad of At the Edge of Empire and Empire Decayed; and The Shape of Water, also co-written with del Toro as a companion to his award-winning movie by the same name. It is also rumored that Kraus is going to complete George A. Romero's unfinished book The Living Dead.