Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Sorry about all this pending going on. I have been getting very little recreational screen time lately. If I didn't park these reminders here, I would never be able to catch up!

This is Book 1 of a series titled "The Dagger and the Coin." My review is based on an audiobook read by Pete Bradbury.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited
by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 13+

Jane is a college dropout who is still shaken by the death of her Aunt Magnolia, an undersea wildlife photographer who got caught in a blizzard in Antarctica. The last time Magnolia came back from a photo shoot, she made Jane promise to accept any invitation to visit Tu Reviens, a lavish, cobbled-together mansion on an island off the coast of New York. When she gets just such an invitation from her former tutor Kiran, who grew up there, Jane packs up her umbrella-making supplies and allows herself to get swept into...

Well, what she gets swept into depends on which of five options she chooses at a critical point in this story. Somewhere between a "choose your own adventure" book and an exploration of a multiverse layered with parallel realities, Jane's adventures - depending on which character she decides to follow at that crucial moment - include an art heist investigation, a secret agent caper, a case of paranormal creepy-crawlies, a visit to a dimension in which a convoy of spaceships is all that remains of the Earth, and a fantasy world that I don't dare to describe for fear of blowing the surprise.

At times, while pursuing one path or another, Jane picks up faint echoes of the other might-have-beens. Some versions of her visit to Tu Reviens reflect better on her character than others. Some of them lead to a reasonably good fate, some to a pretty bad one, and only one ties up everything for her in just the way she needs.

It comes together as a uniquely structured book, something like five books in one. It seems to explore a variety of possible stories that could grow wild in the same earth, while leaving the impression that there could have been even more to tell about that weird house with mismatched rooms and the unhappy eccentrics who live there. Grief, loneliness, disillusionment, artistic creativity, feelings of belonging, feelings of being trapped, and fits of dread and shock all come into expressive focus in this one book, which dares to let the curtain drop and let the reader see an author's choices steering the course of a ship-like house, an island, a world. And yet, despite being up-front about its own fictionalness, this book is also an immersive experience.

Adult Content Advisory: Parents who like to keep tabs on what is going into their kids' heads should be advised that this book features some profanity and sexuality, including same-sex attraction and a post-intercourse bedroom scene. It seems to be marketed for teens, but I would advise specifying older teens. On the other hand, a book that invites young readers to wrap their heads around a mash-up of five different fiction genres may both expect and foster a certain maturity of mind.

Kristin Cashore is also the author of the "Seven Kingdoms" books Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Her forte seems to be fantasy that challenges genre conventions and develops powerful emotions in its reader. It is interesting to see her striking out into an even more unusual direction. I plan to try to keep up with where she goes from here.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Predator

So, I guess this is the fourth installment in the film franchise that started in 1987 with the "alien hunter stalks commandos in the jungle" movie Predator, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers and gave former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura his signature line, "I ain't got time to bleed." That was followed up by the 1990 "alien hunter stalks cops in L.A." feature Predator 2, starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey and Bill Paxton. The third one, in 2010, was Predators and it starred Adrien Brody and a bunch of TV-grade talent and, let's face it, I didn't see it. Not numbered in this list is the "Alien vs. Predator" franchise (2004's Alien vs. Predator, starring Lance Henriksen, and 2007's Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, starring nobody in particular), which I suppose is a separate series, or a two-film stunt mashing up the "Predator" and "Alien" series. I haven't seen either of them. I kind of feel that I have to say all this, though, because the titles of the movies are somewhat similar and I, for one, haven't seen them all. I'm missing at least half of the "Predator" mythology, so I can't say anything intelligent about series continuity or whatnot. But if you're like me, you'll probably approach movies with titles like "Predators" with a bit of skittishness, not knowing where it fits into the whole confusing mess.

This one, directed by original movie cast member Shane Black, was a fun diversion on the night of my 46th birthday, when I had nothing else in particular to do. Forgive my ignorance of three out of the previous five movies, but if Movie 1 was "commandos meet Predator in jungle" and Movie 2 was "L.A. cops meet Predator in the big city," I reckon Movie 4 (or 6, if you insist) would have to be "Ragtag group of mentally damaged military misfits go after Predator in the suburbs." Actually, there are two Predators in this one. It's not that there's a good Predator and a bad Predator, so much as that one of them is on the lam and the other one is kind of a bounty hunter going after him, and both of them are bad news for humans. The one being chased is big and bad enough, but the one chasing him is bigger and badder, harder to kill, and he seems to mark the main character (an Army Ranger sniper) as his particular prey. Actually, of course, it's not the sniper himself but his autistic son (played by Auggie from Wonder, not that you'd notice without the Auggie makeup), whom the Predator identifies as his nemesis. Funnily enough, the kid has the goods to fight him. But having a heavily armed dad and a squad of "Loonies" at his back doesn't hurt, much.

There's a lot of carnage and gore and explosive, fast-moving action, almost from the beginning of the movie to the end. Character development is done in broad strokes and seems pretty effective, if you don't notice how heavily it relies on stereotypes about certain psychiatric conditions. A more or less non-stop humorous patter gives a perhaps disturbingly light tone to a movie in which most of the characters die horribly and in which death (including by suicide) is portrayed so calmly, casually, one might even say callously. By now there doesn't seem to be much point in concealing the Predator's appearance, so only a handful of scenes are played for suspense. The adrenaline flow in this outing shows a definite preference toward fight as opposed to flight. What seems to me to be an interesting development is the amount of screen devoted to the Predators' technology, which is pretty spiffy and can actually come in useful, if you have a high-functioning savant along for the gore-fest. Also appearing are government bad guys willing to kill their fellow Americans - sometimes almost as threatening as the alien baddies.

The cast is effective, though only somewhat familiar to me. I know from Thomas Jane, who plays a Loony with Tourette's syndrome. Jake Busey, son of Gary, was in one of my favorite paranormal slasher flicks, Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Trevante Rhodes, whose character puts the "suicide" into this movie's version of the Suicide Squad, was in 12 Strong, which I saw not too long ago. A couple of the other faces look familiar, but their film and TV credits are pretty much stuff I haven't been watching. So, it's a pretty good ensemble without being headlined by a big star. And it's an entertaining enough movie to suggest that some members of the ensemble might get a shot, in the near future, at becoming a big star. It would be interesting to be able to say you were there to see it happen, the magic moment when someone went from nobody in particular to somebody big. If that happens to anyone in this movie, I'll go out on a limb and predict that it will be Boyd Holbrook, who plays the sniper with the autistic son. He proves in this movie that he can pull off an inwardly tortured but tough and super-capable type, with a vulnerable spot hidden somewhere about him (in this case, his son), and with the strange combination of the ability to be an authority figure and a habitual disregard of authority. That's a mouthful. But it's also a good money-making character type. John Krasinski just recently proved he can pull it off (cf. 13 Hours) and where is he now? Playing Jack Ryan. If the makers of Jack Ryan had waited a beat or two before casting the role, they might have discovered Holbrook. Next time, dude.

The Spaceship Next Door

The Spaceship Next Door
by Gene Doucette
Recommended Ages: 13+

Annie Collins, age 16, is the life of Sorrow Falls, Mass. A short bicycle ride from where she lives with her cancer-afflicted mother and without, repeat, without her father, a UFO landed three years ago and hasn't done anything since then. At least, nothing anybody knows about. No little green men came out and asked to meet the planet's leader. No killer robots rampaged through town, shooting lasers out of their eyes. In fact, nothing has changed in Sorrow Falls at all - which is really spooky, when you think about it. But so far, the only person who has managed to think about it is a government researcher named Ed, who hires Annie to serve has his translator because his cover (being a journalist looking to write a story about Sorrow Falls) isn't standing up to local folks' scrutiny.

Together, Annie and Ed visit the RV encampment across the road from the army-guarded gate to the field where the UFO stands. They talk to a local leader of industry. They look at a mural at the public library depicting the founding of Sorrow Falls. They explore the vague hints that the alien ship really is doing something that may threaten all life on Earth. They become a bit concerned when a couple of people start to exhibit what may be a tendency to have violent episodes while sleepwalking, followed immediately by death, or (gulp) the first awakenings of a zombie apocalypse. But really, what Ed would like to know is who managed to put a handprint on the alien ship, in spite of a force field around it that forces horrible thoughts into the mind of anyone who comes close. And it's just when Ed and Annie are starting to realize that the solution to the mystery is closer than they would ever have guessed, everything goes crazy. Bombs. Zombies. Heavily armed conspiracy nuts driving a camper like it's a tank. An intelligence so alien that it really does threaten the survival of the whole planet. And between us and doomsday, one 16-year-old girl with guts, brains, and people skills enough for 20 people.

This is a weird, woolly, wild and wonderful book, full of science fiction in-joke chapter titles, intelligent dialogue, humor, romance, action/suspense jeopardy heavy enough to bend starlight, and characters and relationships that pop up in three or more dimensions before the mind's eye. It's a book full of genre stereotype-breaking surprises, excruciating honesty, compassion for flawed people and lovable whimsy. Every move is unexpected in the moment, while somehow, at the same time, the story coalesces together with a sense of inevitability.

I am really interested, now, to look at some of Gene Doucette's other works, which include an indeterminate number of "Immortal" books (Fantastic Fiction is strangely vague about this), stand-alone novels Fixer and Unfiction, and the sequel to this book, The Frequency of Aliens. His non-fiction titles include Beating Up Daddy: A Year in the Life of an Amateur Father and Vacations and Other Errors in Judgment.

Temptation Bangs Forever

Temptation Bangs Forever: The Worst Church Signs You've Ever Seen
by Robert Kroese and Joel Bezaire
Recommended Ages: 12+

Remember the Tackiness on Holy Ground thread on my blog? It hasn't been very active lately. But it's been over four years since I moved away from the St. Louis neighborhood served by a Lutheran church whose pastor literally wrote the book about what to put on your church's sign if you have really bad judgment. Now, to steal the thunder from my rants about tacky church signs is this book by the author of the "Mercury" novels (Kroese), whom I first encountered through his hilarious but now defunct blog "Mattress Police," and another humor blogger (Bezaire) who specialized in, well, tacky church signs.

This book is basically a photo album of the best, I mean the worst, of the church signs Bezaire collected, with snappy comebacks by both of them and section intros by some guest contributors whom I will not name here. It would probably be a sufficient review of this book if I were to say, simply, that I am envious of their opportunity to contribute to a book like that. I think it would have been a gas to be part of that crowd. But reading the book was reasonably gaseous as it is. It amply documents the fact that authors of church sign sentiments often lack not only good taste or a sense of the proper tone for their subject matter and medium, but also have trouble with spelling and grammar, a blind spot to breathtakingly inappropriate ways a person of average or below-average piety may interpret what they wrote, and a tendency to try so hard to seem "with it" that they only prove how out of touch they are. For example, take the sign that lends its punchline to the title of this book: OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS 1X - TEMPTATION BANGS FOREVER. Yeah, it really said that. The book has photographic evidence.

It's such a ridiculously short book, and even more quickly read than its length would suggest, that I almost feel guilty about writing a review of it. But it was fun, and the fun was about something I actually care about. Like Kroese and (I think even more so) Bezaire, I poke fun at bad church signs not to be blasphemous, but in a sort of cathartic way, because if I didn't laugh I would perhaps have to cry. In a similar way, I go after church music that I think is tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, not because I want to run nice religious people down but because I think what is taught and confessed in the sung portions of the Divine Service is too important to leave in the hands of people who haven't the least sensibility about it. For a better witness to the outside world and a stronger grasp of our own faith, we owe it to ourselves as churchgoing people to learn from, and turn from, mistakes like the ones laughed at in this book. And if we laugh at them in fun, well, that's gravy.

Crime Scene

Crime Scene
by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This first book in the Clay Edison series focuses on a heretofore untapped area of mystery novel sleuthery: coroners' deputies. In the Bay Area county depicted in this novel, that means a group of sworn sheriff's deputies who specialize in photographing the scene of a suspicious death, collecting the body to take back to the morgue, and (after the pathologist submits an autopsy report) deciding whether the corpse's manner of death was natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined. The Clay Edison of whom I have made mention is one of these guys. It might sound fishy to viewers of TV mystery shows, but I recently wrote a newspaper story about a woman who retired from a similar position with the Minnesota BCA, and around this time last year (when I was still living in Missouri) I read about the BCA in a crime novel and thought it was a fictional agency. So, don't write it off as far-fetched. Somewhere between the cops who interview witnesses and suspects and the scientists who analyze crime-scene evidence, there are, in some jurisdictions, cops with guns who serve on the crime scene detail but who aren't tasked with solving the crime. So, if he's that type of cop, how does Clay Edison manage to solve the crime in this novel? Well, that would be telling. But I'll give you a couple hints: (1) he does it mostly on his days off, and (2) he gets in trouble for it.

So, there you go. Clay Edison is a former college basketball star and with an "all but dissertation" doctorate in psychology, the younger of two sons who when asked whether he has any siblings says "none to speak of," and a cop who sees dead people everywhere, but mostly because he remembers securing the scene where they died. His job isn't to close cases; it's just to "manner" people's deaths and help their loved ones find closure. Nevertheless, once he gets his teeth into the death of a disgraced psychology professor whose daughter is convinced it was murder, he just can't let go. Even with all the evidence indicating that the man died of a heart attack, something about the the psychologist's past niggles at Clay. The latest death may be natural, but the prof's former research assistant came to a similar end several years earlier, and that death seems somehow related to the brutal slaying of another member of the research team years before that, and the disturbed young man who went to prison for her murder was not only out of jail in plenty of time to kill both men, but he's also missing. And Clay thinks he saw the guy at the scene of the prof's death. And Clay is increasingly drawn to the professor's daughter. And so on.

You know how it goes. Law enforcement officer begins to cross a professional line with one of the witnesses, and there's a psycho out there, and so of course, they're both in danger... Except, none of that happens in this book. In fact, it goes in a surprisingly different direction, though one that is richly stocked with spookiness, regret, intrigue, and other emotional revelations. The story is tightly plotted, yet at the same time it increasingly invites the reader to invest emotionally in Clay as a character. Also, it is rife with hardboiled-style zingers such as the following description of a witness:
He wore a broadcloth button-down shirt tucked into Levi's. Both belt and suspenders had been enlisted in the battle between pants and gut. I liked the gut's chances. It had gravity on its side.
Among other bits that I liked so much that I promised myself at the time that I would quote them here are the statement, "I make it my business not to make other people's business my business," and the observation, "(She) crossed her legs, a maneuver that took a long time and ought to have involved the FAA." There are lots of examples like this in Clay's narrative of smart remarks that reminded me fondly of Philip Marlowe and his ilk.

Believe it or not, I have never read anything by Jonathan Keller before. He is the author of approximately 34 crime thrillers featuring a child psychologist named Alex Delaware, who makes a cameo appearance in this book, as well as a couple "Petra Connor" novels (Billy Straight and Twisted), several other novels, short story collections, non-fiction (mostly about abnormal child psychology, but also a book about guitars), and a couple of books for children. With his wife Faye Kellerman, he wrote Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. With his son Jesse, he has also written two "Jacob Lev" novels (The Golem of Hollywood and The Golem of Paris) and a sequel to this book, A Measure of Darkness. On his own, Jesse Kellerman has published the novels Sunstroke, Trouble, The Genius, The Executor and Potboiler, and the play Things Beyond Our Control.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann
Recommended Ages: 14+

My birthday was this past Saturday, but it didn't get celebrated much on the day itself - mostly because both of my parents had their 50th high school reunion that day. Nevertheless, my mom and her husband took me out for barbecued ribs the day before, and my dad and stepmom had me over for a delicious home-cooked meal a few days later, and I'm too old for cake and balloons, so it's all right. When both of my parents asked me what I did on my birthday, my answer was: I went out for shrimp egg foo young and splurged on myself at the local bookstore. This book was one of my birthday presents to myself, and I devoured it hungrily in spite of the weight of three Chinese omelets with gravy in my stomach.

This non-fiction book generates the kind of atmosphere of suffocating dread and tension that would do credit to a novel of mystery and suspense. It follows the investigation and prosecution, involving an early team of FBI special agents led by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, of some of the key figures in a widespread conspiracy that was killing off the wealthy Osage Indians in an oil-rich area of Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Members of this well-to-do community were dying at a rate well above the national average, in spite of their high standard of living; meantime, the government did not allow them to handle their own affairs as they saw fit, treating them as incompetent and denying them the full rights of citizenship. This put them in a position that influential people could, and did, take advantage of. Basically, the Osage were dropping like flies, while their money and mineral rights filtered into the hands of the dishonest guardians and relatives of their white loved ones. In one particular family, the main focus of this book, an Osage woman saw virtually her entire family taken down by poison, bullets and a bomb, and her own health was failing until she was taken out of the care of doctors who seemed to be involved in the conspiracy. But then, who wasn't? Who could you trust when detectives hired to investigate the crimes were themselves in on them, along with the sheriff, local police, the county prosecutor, the governor, the state's top investigator, and lawyers and medical personnel? How do you, supposing you're Tom White, get to the truth when you can't trust any official in the entire state, because a word breathed to the wrong person leads, time after time, to a suspect or witness being murdered, evidence disappearing, a cooperative defendant suddenly deciding not to cooperate, etc.?

The mystery in this book isn't just engaging; it's disturbing. Tom White and his team solved just one tiny corner of a huge and complex web of mystery. Other culprits apparently got away with wholesale murder and fraud, some in spite of their involvement being known to law enforcement, because there was not enough solid evidence to convict them. The death toll was staggering. That's what makes me choose the word "disturbing" to describe it - the apparent fact that the murder for money of Osage Indians was not just the act of a few people, but a systemic activity in which Oklahoman society was generally complicit. It's a chilling tale of husbands conspiring to kill their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and so on, and the few white people who raised a finger to stop it promptly turned up as horribly murdered corpses. The deeper author Grann delves into this case, the more unnervingly awful it becomes, until disgust with the human race finishes in a tie with feelings of intrigue and appreciation of the triumph of justice in the story's central case.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an example of the kind of investigative journalism, sometimes just a tad fictionalized, structured in the form of a novel, that Truman Capote is sometimes credited with inventing in his book In Cold Blood. From time to time - mostly before I started this series of book reviews - I have hugely enjoyed an example of this genre, such as Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Dava Sobel's Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, Robert M. Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and my personal favorite, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. I'm just mentioning books that I haven't reviewed, or of which my review is now lost; others, like a recent book by M.T. Anderson about Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, are also on that favored shelf of my mental library: great pieces of non-fiction entertainment. In many cases, they're as gripping as a thriller novel, to which the knowledge that they're a true story just adds zest. This book hits that nail on the head, and countersinks it with a bibliography and end-notes that document the meticulous research that lies behind the chilling tale.

David Grann is a New Yorker magazine writer whose other book-length works of investigative journalism include The Lost City of Z, a book about an ill-fated expedition into the Amazon jungle which was made into a movie starring Charlie Hunnam last year; The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of previously published essays about real-life mysteries; and this year's The White Darkness, about an expedition to Antarctica.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gotham Season 3

This is the season of the Batman prequel show in which Ivy (who will presumably become Poison Ivy) gets fast-forwarded to adulthood via particularly acute case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome (which also involves recasting the role); it introduces Jervis Tetch/The Mad Hatter, whose sister carries a virus, later used as a bio-weapon, that brings out the worst in people; it introduces Alexander Siddig (sometime "Dr. Bashir" on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as lord of assassins Ra's al Ghul; it also recasts the roles of Bridgit Pike/Firefly and Kathryn of the Court of Owls; introduces and then kills off a grown-up son of Don Falcone, as a love interest for Jim Gordon's love interest; moves both Gordon and young Bruce Wayne into their darkest place yet, from which it hardly seems possible they can be redeemed; and pits villains Penguin, the Riddler, Butch Gilzean, Tabitha Galivan and Barbara Kean against each other in continuously shifting configurations of alliance and betrayal.

In this season, we see Police Capt. Barnes become the Executioner, Penguin become the mayor of Gotham, Ed Nygma totally lose his cool when Penguin declares his romantic feelings for him (though, in all fairness, Penguin also happens to murder the love of Nygma's life), Lucius Fox start acting like a principal character, and in the final shot of the season, Batman in action for the first time ever.

So, there's a lot to pack into this serialized story. I can't possibly do it justice. Just what happens as a result of the Alice Tetch virus is enough to turn the status quo upside-down and inside out. Gordon shoots Lee Thompkins' husband dead on their wedding day; Barnes becomes obsessed with destroying Gordon; Gordon has to infect himself in order to survive being buried alive; meantime Bruce gets caught up in the conspiracy to destroy Gotham City with a virus bomb. Lured into a plot that ultimately has Ra's al Ghul behind it, he gets brainwashed into becoming something poor Alfred doesn't recognize. The good guys get put through the wringer, but the bad guys aren't exempted, either. Butch first loses a limb, then survives being shot in the head only to be revealed to be someone else entirely. Love, hate, jealousy and revenge come between Penguin and the Riddler. Barbara claws her way to the top of the city's criminal underworld. Harvey Bullock spends a lot of time acting as police captain. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze finds his way to an alpine climate where he can take his shirt off, supplying the first overt moment of male sex appeal in the series so far (that is, if you like bluish skin).

A cute journalist named Valerie Vale catches Gordon on the rebound from Lee, then dumps him when the Mad Hatter forces him to choose which of the two of them must die and he says, "Kill Vale" - though, perhaps ironically, Jim was actually applying reverse psychology at that moment. The guest cast also includes a Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair of heavies, a doppelganger of the girl Ed Nygma loved and killed in a previous season, an anti-Court of Owls group called the Whisper Gang that turns out to be particularly good at getting killed, Selena/Cat's estranged mother who comes back into her daughter's life solely to use her to con money out of Bruce, an uncle of Gordon's who literally kills himself to get his nephew into the Court of Owls, and a cult (led by David Dastmalchian, who played a villain from the future on Flash) that worships, then resurrects, the late Jerome Valeska, who I previously said looked like a good candidate to become the Joker someday. So, yeah, lots of stuff.

Out of all this stuff, however, I think the Three Scenes That Made It For Me (it being Season 3 as a whole) were: (1) Penguin begging for his life when Nygma takes him out to the harbor to kill him. (2) Bruce telling Alfred that his first rule, going forward, is "I will not kill" - a resolution that I think will haunt him after events later in the season. (3) What Tabitha does when Nygma forces her to choose between killing Butch and losing her own right hand. For what it's worth.

It may be a while before I see Season 4, but as I said before, each successive season of this show seems to top all with its relentless exploration of darker, dangerouser, bat-guano-crazier visions of the criminal and crime-fighting lifestyles of Gotham City. Also, it just keeps exhibiting its own unique look - retro-present day, industrial gothic, shadowy urban decay - that goes perfectly with the concept of a city where the only thing that gives people hope amid an apocalyptic cocktail of chaos, corruption, and over-the-top villainy is a flamboyantly costumed vigilante who, at his most effective moments, is almost a villain himself. And what keeps you guessing is how, after all the dark places their journey has led them already, Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne are going to get their act together on time to be the heroes they will someday become.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Gotham Season 2

New in Season 2 to the already huge ensemble cast of this DC Comics Batman-backstory series are James Frain (familiar to viewers of Grimm and Star Trek: Discovery) as a kooky villain named Theo Galavan who gets himself elected mayor of Gotham, all while planning the occult murder of Bruce Wayne; Jessica Lucas (star of several short-lived CW series) as his "Tigress" sister Tabitha; Ron Rifkin as the high priest of Galavan's spooky personal cult; Natalie Alyn Lind as Galavan's cute teenage ward, who captivates young Bruce; Michael Chiklis (who previously played superheroes in The Fantastic Four and No Ordinary Family, and cops on The Commish and The Shield) as the Gotham PD's hard-headed new captain; Michelle Veintimilla as a street urchin who turns into the Firefly; BD Wong (the mad scientist who survives all of the Jurassic Park/World movies) as mad scientist Prof. Strange; Tonya Pinkins as Strange's sidekick and sounding-board Mrs. Peabody; Nathan Darrow as a cryogenics expert whose desperation to save his dying wife turns him into Mr. Freeze; Paul Reubens (you know him as PeeWee Herman) as the Penguin's biological father; Melinda Clarke as Penguin's wicked stepmother; Raúl Castillo as a cannibalistic hitman named Flamingo; and more, more, more.

Meantime, continuing Season 1's theme of listing as members of the "regular cast" people who are hardly seen again after about the fourth episode, Nicholas D'Agosto (as the future Two-Face) gets promoted to a series regular just in time to pretty much disappear off the show. Oh, well.

For those struggling to keep up with this series' never-ending reversals and flip-flops as to who is aligned with whom, this is the season in which a secretly evil zillionaire, who secretly has an evil vendetta against the city and especially the Wayne family, kidnaps and tortures the mayor and, while he is missing, gets elected to replace him. Supporting Galavan's grab for power are a shadowy monastic order with twisted ideas about atonement, Jim Gordon's former fiancee Barbara (who, after having her head messed with by the Ogre in Season 1, continues to develop into a hellacious villainess), Butch Gilzean (who, after being conditioned by Victor Zsasz to do whatever Penguin says, gets set free by whip-wielding Tabitha), and a Suicide Squad-esque team of criminally insane Arkham inmates who escape with a little help and perish, one by one, in the commission of crimes designed to position Theo as the savior of Gotham. Some of these are kooks you've met before, including the kid I thought was going to grow up to be the Joker but who (surprise!) suffers an ingeniously timed death at Theo's treacherous hands. Unfortunately for him, Galavan makes two key enemies: Gordon (who, as head of the police union, endorses Theo for mayor before realizing he is a big-time murderer) and Penguin (whose mother dies in his arms after being kidnapped, tortured and finally stabbed by the Galavans). Eventually, they team up to rub him out; but Theo doesn't stay dead (more on this later).

Meantime, back at the asylum, the nefarious Professor Strange (not to be confused with Doctor Strange) is running experiments in resurrection at a secret basement-level facility called Indian Hill, answering to a shadowy group that likes to wear owl masks and has its hands on Gotham's behind-the-scenes strings. Combining the DNA of dead (or at least severely maimed) villains with such exotic creatures as octopuses and cuttlefish, Hugo Strange more or less creates Firefly (who likes it hot), Mr. Freeze (who likes it cold), a guy who can shape-change into anyone you want to impersonate, etc. The formerly dead monsters tend to lose their memories of their past life, such as when he brings back Theo as Azrael, the angel of death. Bruce's chances of surviving to adulthood dip during this interlude. Strange's big breakthrough, however, is bringing back a version of Fish Mooney who not only remembers who she is, but can persuade people to do her bidding just by touching them. Her breakout from Arkham sets a lot of gears in motion leading to the complex and dangerous climax of the season.

I haven't had time to mention what happens to Jim Gordon while he has a murder on his conscience, or what happens when he gets framed for a completely different murder, or how things go between him and his beloved Dr. Lee Thompkins, or the direction his career takes while he's out of favor with Capt. Barnes, or the progress of Ed Nygma's evolution into the villainous Riddler, or Penguin's psychiatric treatment, release, discovery of his father, and the various ways he deals with losing both of his parents in quick succession, and so soon after meeting his father. There's a lot packed into this season, and what happened in what order is already hard to keep straight in my mind.

But as for the Three Scenes That Made It For Me, let me first go back to Season 1 and correct my omission (or rather, my error in going with three Things instead of Scenes). The moments I liked best in Season 1 were, in no particular order, (1) when Bruce fought back against his school bully, (2) Jerome's insane giggle revealing him as the possible future Joker, and (3) the way Sal Marone provoked Fish Mooney to kill him. In Season 2, the Three Scenes That Made It For Me were: (1) Bruce's Zen-like calm during his captivity while waiting to be sacrificed (not to mention seeing right through Silver St. Cloud), (2) The "grilled cheese sandwich" scene in which Fish realizes she has a super power, and (3) when Penguin and Nygma get together for the first time, foreshadowing a later and more fateful partnership.

Things really get moving in this season, with over-the-top gangsters increasingly giving way to seriously messed-up monsters in human form - people returning from the dead with supernatural abilities, "Maniax" on the loose raising Cain, religious cultists preparing for a human sacrifice, masked conspirators plotting who-knows-what. Bruce finds out who killed his parents (that is to say, who pulled the trigger), but is still a ways from knowing who sent him or why. Gordon takes a stroll on the dark side, leading one to wonder how he ever gets back to being Commissioner Do-Right. Harvey Bullock spends a good deal of time acting as police captain. And the tragedy of Gordon's relationship with Lee begins to open up, like a big black flower. If you can't believe that Gotham can get any darker than this, wait till Season 3.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Login Lunacy

I can't decide which of my free web-based email accounts is trying harder to get me to quit.

The news is not so much that they're trying, but that Google is actually pulling even with Yahoo! these days. My habit of checking my two main personal email accounts at least once a day had slowed, in the case of Yahoo!, to once or twice a week; I was pretty much just keeping it around as a fallback position in case Google went on the fritz, or as a second email address so when I want to back up a document, I can attach it to an email to myself. But the rewards of preferring Gmail for my everyday business are dwindling. If I didn't have years of history with both accounts, I would quit both of them like, a month ago.

Logging in and out of these accounts doesn't really need to be a big production. You go to your "mail dot" web address. You type or select the user account you want to log in. You type the password. You're in. But Yahoo! is like this: You tell it which account you want to log in, then you get a screen where you have to confirm that you want to log into that account. The only thing worthwhile about that screen is unchecking the box next to "stay logged in," because you're security conscious about that kind of thing; but even if you uncheck the box, Yahoo! will keep you logged in on that computer until you tell it to log out. Anyway, the next screen is where you finally get to type your password, and then you're in.

Logging out of Yahoo! also requires more steps than should be necessary. You select "sign out" from a pull-down menu, and then it shows you a screen similar to the one you started with, showing you a choice of Yahoo! accounts available on your computer (I happen to have two, but one is an old account that I rarely check because it forwards to the other). After several instances in which I thought I had signed out and came back later to find I was still logged in, I noticed that this screen that Yahoo! shows you after you tell it to sign out of your account actually requires you to confirm that you want to "sign out of all accounts." So, it won't just do what you tell it to do, either signing in or signing out; you have to tell it to do what you've already told it to do. This is why Yahoo! sucks.

Gmail was all right, by comparison, until a month or two ago when it practically forced everyone to start using the "new Gmail" format. Basically, it wouldn't stop nagging you about it with pop-up reminders and such. Sort of like how Youtube encouraged its users to select the option of activating its Dark Theme by making the site impossible to use until they did so. Only now, what happens when you sign out of one Gmail account (say, your work address) and into another (say, your personal account) is like this: (1) You select "sign out" from the pull-down menu. (2) Google shows you a screen warning you that "Syncing is paused. Your bookmarks, history, passwords and more are no longer being synced to your account, but will remain on this device. Sign in to start syncing again" - and you then have to choose either "Continue" or "Sign in again," neither of which, at first blush, sounds like "sign out of my damn account already," which is the button you want to click. (3) After clicking "Continue," you get to the screen where you choose which account you want to sign in, click it, and (4) enter your password. Then (5) Google shows you an animation of an envelope opening, signifying that it is loading the way over-produced version of your inbox that came with the new Gmail. (6) Your inbox appears for a tantalizing instant. (7) Google sends you back to the password screen, where you have to type that monster a second time. [EDIT: Actually, it sends you back to the "Choose an account" screen. Whatever.] (8) You see an encore of that cute envelope animation. (9) Finally, you get into your inbox.

Step 2 only seems to occur going from my work email to my personal account. Steps 7-8 used to happen only going in that same direction, but now I consistently see it every time I switch accounts in either direction. I've also noticed that the Step 5 envelope animation tends to last longer, or plays part-way and then skips back to the start before playing straight through, while the Step 8 encore is just once through the whole animation.

I don't know why Google needs me to enter my password twice every time I go from one account to the other, or why it now requires me to confirm that I want to "continue" signing out when I've just told it to sign out. The more use I make of Google (and in my job, I use its features extensively), the more mysterious it becomes. As far as I can tell, the only way the new Gmail format benefits me is by taking longer to log in and out, eating more data and requiring more memory to accomplish pretty much what the previous version did. And how wonderful it is -- isn't it, isn't it, answer me now! ISN'T IT? -- to have all this purveyed to you by a business whose approach to its customers is to ask them to switch from a product they've learned to make do with to whatever comes next, to ask them every five minutes until they submit, knowing there can be no going back. ISN'T IT JUST GRAND?

Gotham Season 1

Superhero origin stories typically span the first installment in a movie franchise, or the odd episode or a few of a TV series. Gotham, like fellow DC Comics property Smallville, makes the origin-story concept the whole point of the series. You know, I know, and everybody knows (disclaimer: unless they don't) that a TV series set in Gotham City, featuring a boy named Bruce Wayne and a rookie homicide detective named Jim Gordon, is pretty much a Batman origin story. Gritty realism it is not. Over-the-top villainy, systemic corruption, urban decay, disillusionment, the good guys' eternal temptation to cross over to the dark side, the blurring of the line between justice and revenge, mentally screwy mobsters, a landscape of steel girders and concrete shrouded in a corrosive haze ... isn't it just great? The only things missing are supervillains and superheroes, but we'll get them, you bet, and most likely in that order.

Everything begins when billionaire couple Thomas and Martha Wayne are sent to their reward by a masked gunman, leaving their little boy Bruce (David Mazouz) alive and traumatized, with no one to care for him except his tough, ex-Royal Marines butler Alfred (Sean Pertwee), with a little help from white-knight cop Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and a street urchin named Selina (Camren Bicondova), who occasionally goes by the nickname Cat (hint, hint), while Bruce comes to suspect that shadowy forces within Wayne Enterprises (which he technically owns) is behind his parents' deaths and everything else hinky going on in Gotham. Gordon, meantime, has a slovenly partner named Bullock (Donal Logue), a basically honest but pragmatic police captain named Essen (Zabryna Guevara), a brittle fiancee named Barbara (Erin Richards), a subsequent love interest in a medical examiner named Lee (Morena Baccarin), and a strange rapport with a low-level gangster named Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), whose infatuation with Gordon suggests that the Penguin might be a little gay.

Penguin, now, works for a mid-level gangster named Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who has a thick-necked henchman named Butch (Drew Powell) and works for a high-level gangster named Don Falcone (John Doman), who has a blood feud with a rival gangster named Sal Maroni (David Zayas). Filling out the first season's principal cast are a nerdy, functionally unbalanced CSI guy named Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), the filing clerk love of his life Kristin Kringle (Chelsea Spack), a weaponized lounge singer named Liza (Makenzie Leigh), another street urchin named Ivy (Clare Foley), a vaguely creepy assistant DA named Harvey Dent (Nicholas D'Agosto), Richard Kind as the crooked mayor, Peter Scolari as the crooked police commissioner, Carol Kane as Penguin's disturbingly saintly mother, Anthony Carrigan as the crazy-eyed bald killer Victor Zsasz, Cameron Monaghan as a teenaged psychopath who looks like a good candidate to grow up to be the Joker someday (I mean, somebody has to), plus a couple of people I won't mention even though they are listed as regular cast members because they pretty much disappear after the first handful of episodes. It's funny how series involving a complex weave of character arcs sometimes strays from the plan, eh?

It would be fun to see more of these characters. And if you know a bit about Gotham City, you probably also know what some of the people I've already mentioned are going to become - like Poison Ivy, the Riddler, etc. For the time being, they're pretty much just cops, gangsters and the occasional psychopath thrown in for texture, and what's going on is an operatic shifting of alliances as a prelude to an apocalyptic gang war. Ensuring that the bedfellows are as strange as can be is Arkham Asylum, a dingy old relic that really shouldn't still be running, and that at different times serves as a bang-board to bend the trajectory of several characters. Keeping track of who is (supposedly) working for or against whom requires constant mental agility. But there's no point in feeling confused, because at every moment some fiendish plot is about to go off with a grisly pop, sending allegiances flying and moving the game of controlling Gotham's underworld to a new level.

I almost hesitate to bitch about this, but you know me: The DVD cases seasons of these shows come in, nowadays, are complete rubbish. Several of the last sets of TV-on-DVD I have reviewed came in flimsy boxes with hinged panels whose hinges had snapped when I first opened them, or that had one or more panels that could no longer hold a DVD in place because some small piece of plastic in the area that is supposed to grip the disk had given up the battle, or that had a scratched-up disk that got all skippy and freezy on me. Season 1 of this show was one of a couple DVD sets that I have taken back to the store for replacement because a disk was unplayable. I've actually kept at least one TV-on-DVD set that had a mildly skippy disk just because the nuisance of having to do this outweighed the small amount of the show that was unwatchable. I just wish this product was made better.

As for the series itself, I'm into it. I don't know why, but I am. A lot of it probably has to do with the terrific acting. For example, you like and sympathize with Butch, Nygma, Penguin, and Falcone even though they are repeatedly shown to be vicious, stone-cold killers. You are fascinated with Fish Mooney, even though her evil sends chills down your spine. And you enjoy being momentarily chilled by Maroni, Barbara, Zsasz (but boy, is that name hard to type), not to mention some of the guest villains, like Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley (a couple of child-snatching minions), Todd Stashwick (a businessman whose hiring practices are murderous), Christopher Heyerdahl (the eloquently named Electrocutioner), Allyce Beasley (an Arkham nurse who turns out to be, in fact, a patient), Dish Mihok (a crooked narcotics cop), Julian Sands (a serial killer who preys on people with phobias), Mark Margolis (a blind fortune-teller), Jeffrey Combs (an ill-fated henchman to the Dollmaker), Colm Feore (the Dollmaker, a doctor who abducts people and uses them for spare parts), and Milo Ventimiglia (the serial killer deservedly known as the Ogre who messes with Barbara's head). All of these actors are familiar faces to me, if not to you, and I think they do some of their creepiest work in their brief roles this season. Dan Hedaya also puts in a guest turn, but unfortunately not as a creep; what a waste of good talent.

Another big selling point for Gotham is the look, the atmosphere: pervasive gloom, grungy grandeur, machine-age Gothic with a hallucinogenic twist. There is a timelessness about it, with a few hints that the setting is present-day (such as cell phones and computers, though they aren't used much). The cars seen in the streets of Gotham City are mint-condition models from 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Hairstyles, styles of clothing and decor, decorative accents of buildings, office equipment, the horn-rimmed eyeglasses, the jazz-age musical numbers at Fish's club, the clunkiness of the technological marvels, even the occasional splashes of futurism like the Ogre's apartment, all suggest the world as depicted in the comics of decades ago. The artistic design is seriously classy, even when it's being blown up or invaded by low-class thugs.

And the Number Three thing, now that I realize that what I am writing about is the Three Things That Made It For Me, is the psychology of the characters and of Gotham City as one collective thinking, feeling beast. It is a world at war with itself, from the cosmic level right down to each individual soul. Case in point: Jim Gordon. Another key example: Penguin. Oh my goodness, what a good example. I'm sorry, Bruce Wayne, but you haven't suffered enough to cast a shadow on either of these two characters. The nice thing about Brucie, if I may be so familiar, is that he is really such a peaceful, centered young chap. He is like a Zen bodhisattva floating through a maelstrom of murder, deceit, jealousy and betrayal. And greed, lust for power, lose-lose scenarios, agonies of conscience, love-hate, sexual confusion, self-loathing and many other such magical materials for creating carnage that doesn't quit.

Goodness, yes. I'm rubbing my hands together like an evil member of the inner councils of Wayne Enterprises, salivating to see what horrid specter emerges next from the collective conscience of Gotham City. It would have to be worse than anything seen yet for the series to keep getting better. Knowing the human condition like no one in the Marvel Universe evidently does, it seems inevitable that Season 2 will mine just that wonderful awfulness out of the cesspool of story possibilities that Gotham is. And knowing that all of this is going into who Gordon, Penguin and Bruce turn out to be, years later, is exactly what makes a Batman show without Batman in it (yet) a satisfying entertainment experience.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Cold Blooded

Cold Blooded
by Lisa Jackson
Recommended Ages: 15+

Rick Bentz is a New Orleans homicide detective with a younger partner, introduced in a previous book titled Hot Blooded. He has a college-age daughter who isn't really his, a hang-up about the fact that his ex-wife cheated on him with his half-brother (who happens to be a Catholic priest), and since he busted a killer priest in his previous case, a bit of a hang-up about the church. Plus, you know, trust issues. So imagine how he takes it when a beautiful woman barges into his office, claiming to have had a psychic dream about a priest horribly murdering a woman, and almost immediately a murder scene turns up mirroring every detail of her dream. Bentz doesn't know whether to gather Olivia Benchet into his protecting arms or to push her away.

Long story short, he ends up having to make up his mind really quick when the killer, who knows that Olivia sees everything he does, steps up his gruesome timetable and crafts a gruesome "martyrdom of the saints" scenario around her. And her best friend. And Bentz's daughter, just to be complete. Family secrets, eerie visions, psychosis with religious features, sex, murder, and struggles of conscience flock around Olivia, Bentz, his estranged brother, and even his partner, whose girlfriend's disappearance goes unsolved in spite of this mystery's highly wrought climax.

It was wrought so highly, in fact, that I thought it may have been a bit overdone. A red herring character, skillfully dragged across the killer's trail, is disposed of rather too glibly, while Father James' torment comes to a resolution that somehow, to me, seemed both too easy and over-indulgently drawn out at the same time. Also, I don't really get the romance between Bentz and Olivia. While I sympathize with the detective's past relationship troubles, I just don't buy the way such a strong, independent woman melts into his arms, and then keeps going back to him in spite of his repeated cruelty. Maybe the problem is I'm just not made to enjoy romance novels. But while the focus is on the killer's diabolical doings, the story is pretty gripping. The "whodunit" reveal is actually satisfying, which isn't a given in today's crime fiction. The horror scenes are horrific, the suspense scenes tingle, and the climax pulls all the story threads together in a tight grip. The only thing missing, in my opinion, is a stronger sense of local color, which should maybe be expected of a novel set in New Orleans.

This review is based on listening to the audiobook narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan. Following Hot Blooded (which I haven't read), this book is the second in the New Orleans-based Bentz/Montoya series of mystery thrillers, which is currently up to eight books. Jackson is also the author of two "Abandoned" novels, of which the second, titled Million Dollar Baby, bears no relation to the Clint Eastwood film by the same name; four "Maverick" western romance novels, a "historic trilogy" penned as Susan Lynn Crose, at least four "Love Letters" books (A Is for Always, etc.), three "Dark Jewels" novels, the "Forever Family" romance trilogy, five "McCaffertys" novels, three "San Francisco" thrillers, the "Medieval Trilogy," the "Savannah" trilogy, eight "Montana/To Die" thrillers, two "Wyoming" novels coauthored with Nancy Bush and Rosalind Noonan, and some 40 other novels. This was my first time reading anything by her, as far as I can recall. I'm personally more interested in the crime thriller side of her work than in the romance, but this book hits both angles.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dog Days

I saw this movie because I wanted to see a movie, and I thought my other two choices were unacceptable. Then I saw a trailer for The Meg, one of those other two choices then playing in town, and I decided it might have been acceptable after all. Nevertheless, I stayed and watched this movie. A year from now, this review will be a valuable record of the experience, because by then I will probably have forgotten that I ever saw it. It was a nice movie with an attractive, middle-market ensemble cast, set in a sunny west-coast (U.S.) city, eking romantic comedy out of the relationships between several thinly-interconnected families or individuals and their respective dogs. The overall message was that dogs make people's lives better, and the movie gets that across without resorting to a single anthropomorphic canine, talking mutt, or fancy animal trick. For this it is to be valued, at least during the 15 minutes remaining before all memory of it disappears.

The only thought related to it that lingered in my mind while I was walking home from the theater was how close the movie hewed to the line between laugh-aloud funny comedy and that other type of comedy that is taking the silver screen by storm these days - the kind that makes you want to smack yourself in the head, or hide your face in your hands, groaning and squirming in discomfort. The gags in this movie scattered about equally on both sides of this line. Both kinds of jokes worked in their own way, but I have to admit that I prefer the belly-laugh type.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Slacker dude, who is dog-sitting for his sister while she and her hubby cope with newborn twins, gives his guest the full benefit of a stoned-out experience when the mutt goes on an unscheduled pot brownie trip. His sweet revenge includes waking the dog up for a walk the next morning when it clearly wants to stay asleep. (2) ... Um ... (3) ... Nope. I can't think of any other scenes that made it for me. Sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have waited until Wednesday to write about something I saw last Saturday. Or maybe I should have seen The Meg. Based on the trailer I saw, I'm pretty sure I would be able to come up with two more scenes that made it for me. Nevertheless, I didn't dislike this movie. I would just recommend waiting to see it until it starts playing on cable TV.

Friday, August 10, 2018

True Detective, Seasons 1-2

My latest TV-on-DVD binge was a six-disc set of the first two seasons of HBO's series True Detective. Each season is eight episodes. Season One was actually all written by one writer (Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by one guy (Cary Joji Fukunaga), so in a lot of ways it was like an eight-hour movie serialized in one-hour installments. Season Two manages a similar sense of creative unity in spite of having multiple writers and directors working on it.

Other than that, and expansive dialogue, and rich characterization, and beautiful landscape photography that establishes a powerful sense of place, and a certain dark, gritty sensibility running through and under everything, the two seasons don't have much in common. They have different settings, different characters, different themes, and ultimately a different story structure - although each season is split down the middle by a stupendous action sequence that sends the mystery the detectives are investigating off on a completely new trajectory. In fact, apart from both being detective stories, I'm not even sure both seasons represent the same genre. So if one of these two miniseries, or mega-movies, seems to suffer in comparison to the other, that may have something to do with it. I think Season 2 is a superb present-day example of the hardboiled genre, a neo-noir masterpiece that would have made Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett proud. I love me a good potboiler, and the L.A.-area story arc hits all of the marks perfectly. It isn't fair, in my opinion, to judge it in comparison with Season 1, which is something else - something that I don't think I have ever seen before, for which I can think of no pigeonhole to stick it in. A genre unto itself.

Season 1 features Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a partnered pair of Louisiana State CID detectives who don't particularly like each other, solving a young woman's murder that has deviant religious features - solving it together, in spite of their personal differences, in a story that hops between three time periods (1995, 2002 and 2012) - solving it, also, in spite of powerful forces that seem to be dead set against the truth coming out. Harrelson is a by-the-book cop who cheats on his wife, played by Michelle Monaghan. McConaughey is a nihilist with a dark past, both professionally and personally - but he is also an unconventional thinker in a way that makes him a brilliant sleuth. In spite of a relationship meltdown that nukes the one's marriage and the other's career, to say nothing of a pair of present-day detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles, filling out the opening-titles cast) who suspect McConaughey of being the actual killer, the two guys patch things up enough to finish what they started.

On a certain level, the mystery is just window-dressing, while the view through the window focuses on this antagonistic relationship between two men who finally prove to be each other's best friend - two guys who at one point are ready to kill each other, and who end up saving each other's lives. The fight between them, in the 2002 segment, is (pun intended) a knockout, as is the way McConaughey convinces Harrelson, 10 years later, to help him solve the case that everybody else considers already solved. What comes between them is heartbreaking. What brings them back together is amazing. Parts of this eight-hour film are painful to watch, but taken as a whole, it is astoundingly good.

Three Scenes That Made Season 1 For Me: This is really hard, because there are so many scenes that work like gangbusters, but here goes: (1) That insane drug heist/urban riot, shot in one incredible take, when 1995 McConaughey follows a white supremacist biker/drug dealer into a gnarly situation and then drags him out of it, all in the hope of catching up to a known associate of the suspected murderer. (2) McConaughey calmly telling a woman who has just confessed to smothering her three babies that prison and the press are going to be really hard on her, so she should probably kill herself while she has the opportunity. (3) The whole sequence inside the abandoned fort, which is decorated as if the detectives are walking through the killer's diseased brain - a truly hair-raising passage.

Season 2 moves the setting to L.A., where a small industrialized suburb called Vinci proves to be a hotbed of deadly secrets. Headlining the cast are Vince Vaughn as a gangster whose efforts to become a legitimate businessman are derailed by the murder of his sleazy business partner; Taylor Kitsch as a deeply tormented California Highway Patrol officer who is moments away from killing himself when he stumbles on the victim's body; Rachel McAdams as an L.A. County Sheriff's detective, scarred by childhood trauma, whose assignment is as much about investigating corruption in Vinci as about solving the murder; and Colin Farrell as a Vinci cop with anger and substance abuse issues, who is halfway in Vaughn's pocket while the other half is under orders from the crooks who run the town to keep an eye on Kitsch and McAdams. The fifth member of the opening-titles cast is Kelly Reilly as Vaughn's wife, although his character isn't the only one with a romantic partner.

Your first clue that things may not work out as well for these protagonists as for the Season 1 guys comes at the end of Episode 2, when Farrell - who, mind you, leads the billing in the opening credits - gets blasted with a shotgun at point-blank range. You go into the closing credits in disbelief: "You what?! Did you just kill your leading man one quarter of the way in?" Spoiler: He recovers. I say "he recovers," not "he lives," because I wouldn't want to give away what happens to any of these main characters, but consider yourself warned: only two of the five survive to the end of the season. What they survive, and what they don't survive, bear disturbing testimony toward the theme "You get the world that you deserve." Some of them - perhaps all of them, one would think after seeing their characters struggle and grow during these eight episodes - deserve better. But even more than the detectives in Season 1, these characters have been dealt into a game that has been rigged against them. The people who don't want them to solve the case have plenty of power to make sure that they don't, and the more determined they are to find the truth, the less their chances of living to tell it.

Three Scenes That Made Season 2 For Me: (1) Obviously, the "Vinci Massacre" scene, which (according to DVD extras) took five days to shoot, and every minute worth it. It's a devastating turning point at the center of the story that brings three of the main characters (Kitsch, McAdams and Farrell) closer together, unlocks their best selves and, at the same time, makes the doom of their enterprise utterly inevitable. (2) Everything that happens to Kitsch's character after he realizes that the old army buddy with whom he had a gay fling (a big part of why he's so tormented) has betrayed him to the enemy. Your heart breaks for him, especially because his heart will never get a chance to heal. (3) Everything to do with the season's denouement, which subverts murder mystery convention by leaving at least some of the bad guys unpunished while the good guys struggle, all but hopelessly, to get away. If I've ever seen an hour of television that left me with a bitter, disillusioned view of the world, this is it. And yet it's not without a hint of justice at the end.

I wouldn't recommend this series to everybody. It's extremely dark, graphically violent and sexual, full of R-rated language and characters (like McConaughey's, for instance) spouting a vile worldview. But the story earns these things; they aren't just thrown out there gratuitously. And though one of these super-films is a tragedy and the other isn't, they are powerful works blurring the boundary between art and entertainment, displaying lives that feel lived in and problems into which the viewer enters personally. Season 1 leaves you satisfied that the story is complete, even if it might be fun to imagine what Woody and Matthew (or rather, Marty and Rust) get up to next. Season 2 leaves little or nothing standing that a subsequent story could build on, yet somehow it seems worthwhile. At a certain point in each season, I wavered as to whether I really wanted to keep watching them, but I did and at the end, I doubted no longer. This is TV the likes of which have hardly ever been made before. If it influences the way TV will be made in the future, I believe that would be a change I could get behind.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Mothers Hymn

I cannot remember the last time it took me so long to write a single hymn. Weeks, months even, have passed since someone dropped a suggestion (well before Mothers' Day, I believe) about how "useful" a Mothers' Day hymn would be, if it was really Scriptural and edifying to the faithful. Oy gewalt, though, was it ever difficult! Naturally, being a hymn-tune nerd first and a hymn-writer second, I never entertained a single thought about what tune this hymn will be sung to up to this moment - or even including this moment. I'll have to look into that later. For the meantime, please don't be too hard on the poem below simply because it's too long to expect the Mothers' Day crowd at your church to sing. I planned this hymn to bring Scripture to bear on issues touching the hearts of today's Christian mothers. I didn't really think the world needs any more three- or four-stanza settings of Hallmark greeting-card sentiments. When I imagined the sort of hymn about motherhood that might really be useful to Lutheranism, it went something like this.

1. Christ, Lord of all things everywhere,
True God and Mary's Son,
Take up our cause; sustain the prayer
Of all blessed by a mother's care,
Here in Your name begun.

2. Seed of the woman, pledged to Eve,
Her travail's fear to hush:
Teach us, though serpent's voice deceive,
Your oldest promise to believe;
Our tempter's power crush.

3. Free woman's offspring, Sarah's Son:
Though breast and womb be dry,
Convict us that Your word is done,
And we as heirs are rightwise born,
Our home secure on high.

4. Recall Rebekah's fav'rite, who
Lagged both in pow'r and age;
Do not repay to us our due,
But freely bless and cleanse us, too,
Of envy, greed and rage.

5. For Leah's and for Rachel's sake,
Give ev'ry child a name
That stamps on us our mothers' ache
In Your rich favor to partake,
Your faithful love to claim.

6. Mindful of Tamar's, Rahab's ways,
Relieve our mothers' shame.
Forgive their sins of former days;
That they may frame Your mercy's praise,
Garb them in spotless fame.

7. For mothers who, like Jochebed,
Must let their precious go:
Uphold their heart, till they be led
Across the stream that lies ahead,
And there Your purpose know.

8. Like Zipporah, whose wounding blade
Saved child and father both:
When souls are sifted, hearts are weighed,
Our mothers' tender hand persuade
To prune our vice's growth.

9. As trusting Hannah gave the Lord
The child her heart had craved,
Grant each whose prayers are nightly poured
The toll of motherhood restored:
To know her child is saved.

10. As Eunice, even Lois brought
Their little one to You,
So let our Timothies be taught
Your word, with saving power fraught,
That they may teach it, too.

11. The baptist's mother heard the voice
Of her who bore the Lamb;
He leapt within her, to rejoice
That You made Mary's womb Your choice,
Desired of Abraham!

12. With him and with Elizabeth
Your mother's faith we praise;
Dear Christ, till we pass over death,
Let us as well, with ev'ry breath,
Pray "Be it so" always.

13. E'en so, though sword may pierce between
A mother's heart and soul,
Let her, with son or daughter, lean
On You alone: by faith made clean,
And after death made whole.

EDIT: Here is a video by a very fine pianist of his performance of PAX CELESTE, a hymn tune that would fit this hymn. It was used in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) with the hymn "There is an hour of peaceful rest." The only alternate tune that I know of, which I have found paired with the same hymn, is considerably inferior in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Magic Delivery

Magic Delivery
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Nick and his best friend Burger are coasting their bicycles down a dangerous hill when a delivery truck suddenly pops out of a wormhole in front of them and swerves off the road, missing them by inches. Almost as weird as the wormhole bit is the fact that the truck seems to be driven by a bear. The boys go to investigate the wreck and find a surprisingly intact truck in the woods, guarded in fact by a bear, which chases them away - but not before they borrow a couple of items out of its cargo area. Their booty turns out to be a couple of high-end Halloween costumes - a full-body gorilla suit and a robot get-up. When the boys put them on, the costumes come vividly to life and the boys almost forget who they really are. Luckily, they're able to unzip before their backyard Movie Fight gets too far out of control.

Neat as these magic costumes are, problems soon develop. The driver of the truck is desperate to complete his first delivery, after inheriting the job from his father and a long line of ancestors. If he screws it up, the witch who employs him will ruin his whole family. But while the boys are willing to help him, the same can't be said for a wheelchair-bound high school bully and his football-player cronies. Dressed as a variety of monsters, they terrorize the Halloween party of the popular girl Nick likes. To stop them, two boys not otherwise known for their heroism must step into the role, costume and all, and face down a terrifying assortment of creatures who (unlike Nick and Burger) aren't held in check by compassion for others.

The book I kept finding myself comparing this to, for some reason, was Brandon Mull's The Candy Shop War. I guess there was something similar in their appeal, as stories about kids discovering magic of terrifying power hidden in a seemingly harmless item, like candy or a party costume, and then having to risk great danger to bring the magic back under control. It also made interesting use of the idea of a disabled bully who becomes most dangerous when he regains his lost ability. Fun use is also made of the theme of labor rights. Overall it was a very funny, magical, and exciting adventure with a gentle heart.

Clete Barrett Smith is also the author of the "Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast" series and the stand-alone teen novel Mr. 60%.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small
by James Herriot
Recommended Ages: 12+

This semi-fictional memoir recounts the early years of a young veterinarian's career in the Yorkshire Dales during the last 1930s. Almost from the moment Scottish city boy James Herriot, fresh out of veterinary school, arrives in the village of Darrowby, he feels blessed to be there, even while being called out at all hours of the night to treat afflicted cows, pigs and horses. He falls in with a colorful pair of veterinary brothers, notices a pretty farmer's daughter, and gets up to his shoulder in the body cavities of various animals, all (so far) before the introduction of medicines and techniques that really made a world of difference, and yet somehow without losing his pride and passion for the work.

Herriot experiences terrifying moments, hours of paralyzing suspense, incidents ranging from wistfully sad to breathtakingly tragic, and hilarious high jinks. He makes mistakes, gets into scrapes, witnesses the lives of people both admirable and pitiable, and earns the respect of almost everyone around him. He also bears witness to backward superstitions and the all but magical methods of treatment from a discredited, bygone age. And for the enjoyment of readers since a bit before I was born, he tells all of this with an ear for the way people talk, an eye for the scenery (not to mention a nose for the fell-top air), and a sensibility about people that is unsparing of their foibles, least of all his own, while at the same time understanding them with compassion and respect.

I enjoyed this book in the audio-CD format, read by Christopher Timothy, about whom I have only one critical comment: To my American ear, his voice sounded perfectly English, though I gather that the narrator may have had a certain Scottish lilt to his voice. At one point he even uses the word "bonny." Timothy deftly portrayed various other regional accents, including Yorkshire and Irish, so I'm sure it wasn't from a lack of ability that he overlooked the opportunity to entertain me with a touch of Scots. I should probably spare more of my grouchiness, though, for the library-borrowed CD set that unfailingly went all skippy and scratchy just during the most interesting parts.

The real James Herriot, unlike the Herriot depicted in this book, was in fact quite English, and his real name was J. Alfred Wight (1916-95). He wrote loads of books, mainly about animals and many of them in a form of autobiographical fiction about his career as a veterinarian. His most famous books are published in America as a trilogy beginning with this book and continuing with All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Things Wise and Wonderful, though this trilogy was originally six books, published in the U.K. as (deep breath) If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, Let Sleeping Vets Lie, Vet in Harness, Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin . Later, two more books were added to the series, published in both the U.S. and the U.K. as The Lord God Made Them All and Every Living Thing. His animal stories for children include, among other titles, Only One Woof and Oscar, Cat-About-Town.

Aliens in Disguise

Aliens in Disguise
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third installment in the series that began with Aliens on Vacation, young David and Amy, the girl he would like to kiss, get the opportunity to prove that they are ready to run the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast without adult supervision. It happens when David's grandma (who runs the hostel for alien tourists) wins an award and gets swept off on an all-expenses-paid trip to a pleasure planet in another galaxy, and Amy's dad (the b&b's security chief) runs off to protect her and gets trapped on a all-species-welcome singles cruise. The kids would have everything under control, if it weren't for a class full of misbehaving alien brats, a group of artists who can't keep their rainbows contained, and a couple of earthlings who are determined to crack the secrets of the b&b.

Fans of the series will probably best remember this book as the one in which the kids and their extraterrestrial guests mount a daring rescue of one of their own by parading through town, pretending to be science-fiction fans disguised as aliens. But the disguise theme cuts the other way, as a loopy couple of UFO hunters tries to pass as Mr. and Mrs. E.T. and later, many of the characters attempt another costume act that you have to read to believe. The weirdness is funny and the humor is weird, and a bit of youthful romance makes a nice garnish to a very light but charming adventure in the often overlooked hospitality side of science fiction.

Besides this trilogy, which also includes Alien on the Rampage, Clete Barrett Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery (about a load of magical Halloween costumes that turn the wearers into whatever they are pretending to be) and Mr. 60% (about a high school drug dealer with a heart of gold). I'm reading the former right now. But I wouldn't mind seeing more books in this series, populated with goofy aliens, goofier humans and two very resourceful kids.

Skyscraper

There was a moment during this movie when I realized that I was laughing in an inappropriate manner, in response to a stimulus that was no laughing matter. But I simply had to laugh, to let some of the strain off my nerves. If I were a nail biter, I might have emerged from this movie with one of my arms chewed off up to the elbow. I spent numerous minutes of this movie gripping parts of myself and of the furniture around me. If the theater (on the last, lightly attended showing of the movie before it left town) hadn't been almost empty, I probably would have gotten punched for grabbing somebody else. I also grimaced, groaned, squealed, partly covered my face and peeked between my fingers. Who wouldn't, during 102 minutes most of which, to my recollection, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson spent dangling in a variety of ways from a burning 200-story building while representatives of three organized crime syndicates fired automatic weapons at him from one direction and the Hong Kong police fired automatic weapons at him from the other. Also, his wife and two kids were in the building. Also, his boss was in there somewhere, feverishly working out how to avoid ending up like Mr. Takagi in Die Hard.

Also appearing in this movie are Neve Campbell of Scream fame, who gets to kick a little ass herself as the wife of Johnson's one-legged security consultant; Pablo Schreiber, half-brother of Liev, as the best friend who betrays Johnson and gets his right away at the beginning; Noah Taylor, who played Mr. Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as a (spoiler deleted) whose dying scream suggests an alternate method of chocolate making; Byron Mann, who played Yao Fei on Arrow, as a Hong Kong cop; and as the lead villain, an actor who actually has an extensive criminal record. Talk about casting true to type!

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Dude with one artificial leg climbs up the outside of a 100-story crane gantry, extends the crane toward the burning skyscraper, and (long story short) takes a running leap across the gap toward a broken window. OK? (2) Dude with one artificial leg sidles along the outside of a skyscraper, way about the 100th floor, with duct tape on his hands to help him stick to the glass, then jumps through the blades of a whirling dynamo, then jumps back out again as the motor explodes, then dangles by said artificial leg by a rope connected at the other end to an objet d'art positioned precariously across another broken window, then - you get the idea. The audience watching from the street below did not cringe more convincingly than I did, though they were better company than the almost empty theater around me. (3) That scene where the mom has to walk a wooden plank that barely spans a collapsed section of a bridge over a drop into 100 floors of raging inferno, then carry her kid back across, while The Rock strains to hold the bridge up by sheer cussedness. Don't talk to me about it. I don't think I can look at that scene again in my mind's eye, just yet.

So yes, it's an incredibly intense piece of action/suspense, and Johnson displays a considerable part of his acting range that I have not seen before - specifically, the part that refrains from quirking an eyebrow. The movie is very successful in conveying a convincing sense that its characters are in, on, and dangling outside of a 200-story burning building. And what a lovely building it is; it's a pity to see it reduced to ruin. It's even, in my opinion, a pity that it doesn't actually exist, ruined or otherwise.

I am so glad that I got to see a movie this weekend (well, Thursday) that wasn't either Momma Mia 2, Hotel Transylvania 3 or Mission Impossible 6(!!!). The very idea of MI6 just makes me sick; I still haven't gotten over the staggering injustice the first film in the series did to the TV show it is supposedly based on, and I cared less to see each installment since then, to the point where the amount I care has gone past zero and gone out the other side into the realm of a passionate, vehement "No!" The opportunity to see a trailer for the new "Fantastic Beasts" movie, due out in November, was a big treat, too. But Thursday night's trip to see a truly towering inferno restored, for the moment, my lately lukewarm enthusiasm for the movies.