Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gotham Season 3

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

(Sorry, I get very little time online outside of work these days. Be patient!)

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.

Have It Your Way

The town where I now live is famous for having the worst McDonald's restaurant in the memory of anyone who has visited it. A few blocks down the street is a Burger King restaurant that, if you can conceive of it, had an even worse reputation before it was suddenly closed, renovated inside and out, and re-opened with an entirely different staff. I was impressed the first time I went into it, and I've "dined in" there approximately four times since it re-opened. Each time, however, I've been less impressed.

One of the first improvements I noticed, when the joint re-opened, was the option of ordering at one of two touch-screen kiosks. The first time I tried this, it was OK. The next time, I had some difficulty getting the touch-screen to respond to my touch. The last time, this problem persisted, plus the machine asked me to pay $107 and odd change for a budget meal deal of two sandwiches, a side and a drink.

I went to the counter with the cash registers to ask for help. Though several employees walked past on the other side of the counter, it took several minutes for a cashier to appear and offer to take my order.

We quickly determined that I was better off placing my order with him than using the machine. So, I decided to try ordering the same budget meal deal, which starts with two sandwiches out of a choice of three. For my first sandwich, I wanted a bacon cheeseburger. The kiosk offered me that option; the sign on the menu board above the counter offered me that option; but the cashier said the restaurant was no longer offering the bacon cheeseburger as part of that deal. I said, "Fine, I'll have the regular cheeseburger as my first sandwich."

Sandwich Two was a classic chicken sandwich; on the kiosk, I had tried to order that with tomato subbed in for the lettuce, but I decided not to press my luck with Mr. Friendly at the cash register. I then requested my preference for the side item, an order of onion rings. The cashier said the restaurant was out of onion rings. Biting off a suggestion involving the sliced onions they put on their sandwiches and the deep-oil fryers that lined the side wall of the kitchen, I just hoisted my hands in the air and said, with the broadest sarcasm ever achieved north of Iowa, "Well, isn't this visit just the greatest?" I decided at that moment to forgo the idea of ordering a dessert item.

I also had to visit the touch-screen drink kiosk, which teases you with the offer of dozens of different beverages. This time it worked OK (other than a bit of that same trouble with the touch screen not detecting my touch). On a previous visit, I couldn't get any of the flavors I was interested in because the machine had apparently run out of practically everything. Apparently the store's new management hasn't caught on to the need to re-order supplies once in a while.

Another thing I noticed was that the place hasn't seen anything like the huge crowd that showed up when the restaurant re-opened since, like, when the restaurant re-opened. Maybe I'm not the first person to notice that Burger King is trying to wrest the "worst restaurant service in town" award out of the grasp of the local McDonald's.

I frankly don't know whether the cashier was telling me the truth about the restaurant no longer honoring the promises on its menu; for all I know, he may have been a lazy git who just didn't want to do any more work than he had to when his boss wasn't looking over his shoulder. But he definitely gave me the impression that I was there for Burger King's enjoyment, rather than vice versa.

I came away from these past few trips to the local Burger King knowing three things: (1) The words "Have It Your Way" have lost all meaning; (2) Even with better-tasting food and a more attractive look, the spectacular feat of exhibiting worse management and poorer service than the miserable McDonald's two blocks away is totally achievable; and (3) Life being too short to waste time, money and digestive juices being insulted by people who don't even know their own business, I will probably be happier if I dine elsewhere from now on. I have no complaints about the town's Pizza Hut, Subway, A&W or Dairy Queen restaurants, to say nothing of all the locally owned places to eat. They wouldn't even have to try particularly hard to win my business. All they have to do is act like they kind of want it. As far as that goes, they can have it their way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Kestrel

The Kestrel
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Westmark, the picaresque adventures of former printer's devil Theo and his rogues gallery of friends and enemies turns into a tale of war when the neighboring kingdom decides to invade. Theo, sent out by Westmark's king to take the temperature of the kingdom, gets caught behind enemy lines and forced to fight alongside anti-monarchist rebels Florian, Justin and friends. Meantime he is separated from the love of his life, a sometime beggar girl he knows as Mickle, but who has lately been revealed to be Princess Augusta. Soon enough, Princess becomes Queen and, after sneaking out of the royal palace, makes her way to the front and takes command of her country's retreating army.

Before the two young lovers meet again, Theo's belief that killing is wrong will be tested to the point that he becomes the Kestrel, a guerrilla warrior whose raids terrify the enemy. Also abroad in the theater of war are two innocent children, a consumptive cartoonist, a bombastic master of disguise and deception, a spoiled young king who hasn't learned to distinguish between toy soldiers and live ones, and various shades of bad guys ranging from blackest villainy to pale-gray treachery - from almost sympathetic figures who find themselves trapped by their own bad choices, to downright monsters who threaten the existence of everything good. There are deep conflicts between sympathetic characters. There are characters (Theo included) who struggle with their conscience. There are momentous conflicts affecting the future of entire nations. Yet through it all, the story encourages the reader to care most about whether young Theo and Mickle/Augusta will find each other, and whether the two waifs and their satirical protector will ditto.

There is a third book in this series, titled The Beggar Queen, which I have found it a little harder to come by than the first two. Be patient while I explore options other than the regional library system, which knows nothing about it. It's a shame that the drive toward holding only new and up-to-date titles is driving the all-but-classic works of storytellers like Lloyd Alexander off library shelves. Books like the Prydain Chronicles, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Fortune-Tellers, The Iron Ring, The Rope Trick and The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio have, I would think, a timeless place among the masterpieces of American-made children's literature. Also, I'm unnerved at the prospect of all the effort it will cost to get hold of the six-book "Vesper Holly" series, which I have yet to read. At least, thanks to the Internet, one no longer has to take one's chances at the local library.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Westmark

Westmark
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

The Kingdom of Westmark is primed to explode. King Augustine, rendered senseless by grief since his daughter's mysterious demise six years ago, spends all his time searching for a spiritualist able to put him in touch with the late Princess Augusta. Effectively ruling the kingdom as his chief counselor is the villainous Cabbarus, who disposes of anyone who threatens his power without the inconvenience of a trial. The king's only faithful adviser, his personal physician, has been banished and, for good measure, followed to the docks by one of Cabbarus's hand-picked assassins. Cabbarus wants to be king in name as well as in effect, but a few persistent obstacles remain in his way. Meanwhile, a rebellion is stirring, led by a charismatic nobleman's son named Florian.

Unwillingly caught up in it all is a virtuous young printer's devil named Theo, who flees from an arrest warrant and takes refuge in the coach of a traveling mountebank named Count Las Bombas, his dwarf servant Musket, and a half-starved, sexless urchin named Mickle, who has a particular talent for throwing her voice. Together, in spite of the urgings of Theo's conscience, they set up a phony medium show where townspeople pay hand over fist to hear from their late loved ones. Inevitably, their success reaches the ears of Cabbarus, who forms a new plan to seize power around them. Hedged in on the other side by rebels who want to put to the test Theo's vow not to kill people, the gentle friends may have no choice but to take part in a brutal struggle for power.

This is a thin, quick-paced, warm-hearted example of a story shape Lloyd Alexander has written before: a road trip with tender romance, danger, intrigue, secret identities, and friendships unexpectedly growing up between straight-arrow types and people of questionable character. It features tests of courage, ethical conflicts, warring political philosophies, issues of civil rights and social justice, clear-cut villains and ambiguous heroes. It's an enjoyable book, maybe even a spiritually moving one. If it isn't, after all, much different from places Alexander has taken you before, take note: this book has a sequel. Two sequels, in fact: The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. I'm reading the former already, and I can categorically say that Westmark is worth the reading, at least to introduce you to an even bigger adventure to follow.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the fourth installment of "Alcatraz Versus," a boy who only recently traveled for the first time to the Free Kingdoms (the part of the world that isn't secretly ruled by Evil Librarians) unexpectedly becomes king, for a day or so, of an entire kingdom. Unfortunately, that kingdom is about to fall, and fall hard, unless Alcatraz Smedry can figure out a way to use the powers he is still struggling to understand, while also leading the defending forces of a city under siege.

Now, the first thing you have to understand is that the city's primary defense is a great big glass dome. All right? Next, wrap your brain around the fact that the army includes a bunch of giant, rock-throwing robot librarians. Here's a third thing: Alcatraz's mother, a devious Librarian herself, shows up just when the conflict is at its hottest. At a certain point, everyone tells Alcatraz that the Mokians must give up to survive. Only he knows a way to turn giving up into winning.

It's all part of the Smedry magic, which includes such goofy magical powers as breaking things, arriving late, getting lost and being bad at math. After only a few short months in command of his powers, Alcatraz has learned things about the Smedry talents that nobody has ever thought about before. But does he have time to learn things that his mom and dad know, either one of which could destroy the world he loves? That's the poser that keeps the pages turning, leading to what I reckon to be the most spectacular climax in the series so far. Meantime, as the fourth-wall-breaking narrator of his own story, Alcatraz continues to tease, play around, torture the reader, and guide him or her across new horizons of thought. Bonus credit goes to the reader who figures out what's up with the numbering of the chapters in this book.

Don't let the cornball comedy and light touch of youthful romance throw you off. Beneath the layers of mockery and unadulterated silliness, this book and the series it belongs to teem with legitimately brilliant fantasy conceits. I almost want to blurt out the phrase "world-building," although in a way, it takes place in part of our world. It just happens to be a previously unknown, secret, and stupendously weird part of our world. There are moments of truth and honesty in it that pop like a subcutaneous thermometer out of a store-bought turkey. (Practice food safety, folks.) For example, there's the scene in which the king of Mokia admits that grass huts aren't really more advanced than houses of wood, steel or brick. There's also a hint that, in spite of Alcatraz's continued development as a hero, there's a real chance that all will end in tragedy. Maybe that will happen in Book 5, The Dark Talent.

Do the Movies Have a Future?

Do the Movies Have a Future?
by David Denby
Recommended Ages: 13+

It seems weird to criticize a book of criticism, or review the work of a reviewer, but here goes. This slightly dated book (based on material written between the 1990s and about 2011) brings together some critical essays by a veteran New Yorker film critic who has seen a lot of movie history during his career, which (like my life) started in the early 1970s. He also studied film at a university level, which adds even more credibility to his opinion. And though there are some details on which, nevertheless, I am convinced he is full of it, his major argument comes across pretty solidly: the film business, as it has been operating during the last couple decades, is killing the movies.

That is to say, it is killing their ability to bring audiences together as a community, to communicate with them meaningfully, to create emotional experiences for them, to leave an impression on them that they will think about and talk about later, to tell stories and depict images that come to life in their imagination. The film business is doing this, he argues, by devoting all its large-scale investments to crappily made blockbuster franchise/genre flicks full of meaningless fantasy spectacle, investing only meager crumbs in a few "art-house" movies, and omitting the whole middle range of quality entertainment - including whole genres that are sadly fading away. The blockbusters bemuse the eye with movement and the ear with noise, while seldom showing anything real.

Denby reminds the reader that there are alternatives, selecting examples of his own previously published (and some unpublished) articles organized by director, genre, critics, and other issues. Yes, they're just movie reviews, and I've read a lot of them by other writers; but they're very thoughtful and thought-provoking ones. His appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael was very personal and touching. His ditto of James Agee includes samples of super-intelligent prose, as well as a few tid-bits of awe-inspiring bitchiness. His review of a movie that I have never seen, and still may never see (I'm not sure I have the strength for it), actually made me cry. I kid you not. Also, I laughed out loud several times during this book. Did I mention it's a book of film criticism? Either there's something wrong with me, or David Denby has the stuff.

I thought he was wrong about a couple of movies. I agreed with his opinion about at least one film, but not with his reason for arriving at it. I thought his views about the work of at least one director, one film, and one whole school of film-making were half-baked. Criticism is, after all, opinion; everyone has one and is welcome to it. But in this book I also learned a lot about the history of film and how to watch them and evaluate them. Will I tell you which bits I most enjoyed learning about? No. You go ahead and read this book, or don't read it, and learn what you like. What I will say is that a writer who can express himself as well as Denby deserves some credit, a reasonable doubt at least, for having the ability to think clearly and, when he applies that ability to something worth thinking about, his opinion is worth reading. This book, for what its moment in film history is worth (and it's still recent enough to apply today, for the most part), is still out there, searching for readers who have the clarity of mind to consider Denby's opinion about the movie business - its past, present, and future. Perhaps by helping train those minds to see and understand what is and isn't happening on the silver screen, this book will affect the answer to the question opened by its title.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third "Alcatraz vs." book, fantasy powerhouse Brandon Sanderson continues his conquest of children's literature by poking fourth-wall-breaking fun at even more writing cliches, while at the same time developing the strange fantasy world to which young Alcatraz Smedry belongs in more detail than ever. His arrival at Nalhalla, the capital of the Free Kingdoms, is heralded by an explosion that almost kills him. He finds the high king, who happens to be the father of his best friend Bastille, on the verge of signing a treaty with the nefarious Librarians and handing over the besieged, Pacific island kingdom of Mokia. To stop this disaster, he must avoid letting his first taste of being a celebrity swell his head too much. Then he has to find out what book in the Royal Archives (not a library!) the Librarians are after, and get it before they do.

He must do this in spite of the distraction of being in the same city as both his evil, Librarian mother and the father whom he just rescued from being a soulless wraith forever - and neither of them is a more affectionate parent than the other. Luckily, Alcatraz has some friends on his side, with such amazing magical powers as "being a really bad dancer." Also, he's in a city where glass-based technology allows people to disappear from one place and instantly appear on the other side of town, and where other forms of transportation include riding on a dragon who has been sentenced to community service and traveling via a giant glass pig which, embarrassingly enough, opens at the butt. This weird, hilarious adventure will end up hinging on one of the Smedry clan's prerogatives as the heirs of an abdicated royal house: you just try to guess which one. It'll make you laugh, though.

In spite of his credentials as the author of thick, serious fantasy novels, Sanderson has also proven himself many times to have a handle on all the things that make for a quirky, funny, exciting adventure for kids, laced with smart in-jokes and sass. For more examples of this side of his work, please see The Rithmatist, the Steelheart trilogy, and the series of books starting with The Alloy of Law that feature an unforgettable character named Wayne. Then grow to realize that his Alcatraz side is even present in such fantasy powerhouse novels as Elantris and Mistborn.

Supergirl, Season 2

The second season of the CW's Supergirl series stumbles almost immediately by getting rid of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) as a regular character. It goes part of the way toward redeeming this questionable decision by introducing two entertaining new characters: hard-bitten but honorable Catco Media editor Snapper Carr (played by Ian Gomez, the real-life bridegroom of the bride in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and galactic ne'er-do-well Mon-El of Daxam (played by Chris Wood, a veteran of three previous CW series). The former guides Kara Zor-El a.k.a. Danvers firmly onto the path of a journalist - and it's about time she decided what she was going to be when she grew up. The latter provides the romantic foil the superheroine has needed since the beginning of the series, and succeeds so well that his departure at the end of the season-long serialized plotline is really emotionally devastating. I don't mean to sound breathless about it, but Wood's portrayal of Mon-El fills in a lot of voids in the series that one felt during Season 1, and went beyond that to be perhaps the most entertaining single character in any of the three DC/CW series I have binged on recently. He brings such a delightful sense of mischief, fun, and the joy of living to a show that unfortunately, at times, seems too serious to be taken seriously.

On the downside, this season also expends a phenomenal amount of playing time on the frankly boring lesbian romance/coming out drama of Kara's human foster-sister Alex, who by very tentative degrees hooks up with a gay cop who - forgive me if I sound like Alex's dad here - doesn't seem good enough for her. Apparently this was a very big socio-political moment, with everyone in Alex's life being so gosh-darn happy for her/proud of her, as though deciding to date a chick was a big accomplishment. As the season progressed, I became increasingly convinced that the writers and producers were out of touch with the quality of the work they were producing. One tunes into a series about the adventures of a superhero, or team of superheroes, to see adventures of a superhero or team of superheroes. One therefore feels a bit cheated when 15 minutes on the hour is levied for installments in an after-school special about female gay relationships among non-superpowered people who aren't really doing anything interesting. Every time one of these scenes started up, I groaned and said aloud something like, "Aw, not this boring crap again!"

Did I complain that there wasn't enough romance in Season 1? Yes. But it was Kara who wasn't getting any. That situation did improve in Season 2; in fact, her romance with Mon-El was very romantic. But all the superpowered fun, this season, had a tendency to come to a standstill and yield the screen for minute after tedious minute to the practically irrelevant (for main plot-line purposes) family melodrama/sexual intrigue between a second-string character and a minor recurring guest, each of whom was more interesting to watch when they were participating in the main action of the series. It was like watching canonical characters playing out snippets of slash fan-fiction, only with the additional discouragement of knowing that it was apparently being forced on us for our edification. Well, I for one think the importance of these scenes' message has been vastly over-inflated and that TV history will remember them as scenes that could have been left on the cutting-room floor without detriment to the episodes they are in.

This season also gives Kara a new best friend, Lena Luthor - yes, that's Lex's sister - replacing tech magnate Maxwell Lord, who mysteriously vanished between Seasons 1 and 2. Lena's mother (played by Brenda Strong of Starship Troopers) turns out to be the leader of an anti-alien terrorist group called Cadmus, which becomes one of the two main threats to Kara, her "super-friends" and the DEO this year. The other threat is Mon-El's parents, played by Kevin Sorbo (star of TV's Hercules and Andromeda) and Teri Hatcher (the better half of Lois and Clark) - particularly mom Rhea, who refuses to take "buzz off" for an answer, tries to force Mon-El to marry Lena Luthor, and just about conquers Earth to replace their home planet, which was also wiped out when Krypton exploded. Luckily, Daxamites - though almost as super as Kryptonians - have a weakness that is cheaper to come by than kryptonite. Unluckily, it means that the season ends (sorry about the spoiler) with Kara and Mon-El no longer able to be together. Still, the closing scenes of the season finale suggest something interesting remains in store for the entertaining Mon-El.

In terms of stunt casting, this season isn't far behind Season 1. Besides the guest stars I've already mentioned are Lynda Carter (the late 1970s' Wonder Woman) as the president of the U.S., Tyler Hoechlin of TV's Teen Wolf as Kal-El/Superman, Peter Gadiot of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as the impish Mxyzptlk, and William Mapother of Lost as the environmentalist wacko who gets taken over by a prehistoric parasite. Also fun to watch is the developing relationship between J'onn J'onzz, the last "green Martian," and a female Martian named M'gann M'orzz.

Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) Battle Superman vs. Supergirl (toward the end of the season), (2) James Olsen and Winn Schott's tandem transformation into technology-assisted crime-fighters "Guardian" and "Man in the Van," and (3) the return of Cat Grant (also toward the end of the season). If I can expand my list to five things, I would add (4) Mon-El's fun-loving outlook on life, and the fun his attitude brings to the central circle of characters; and (5) the whole conflict with Rhea of Daxam, which brings the season to its climax. But I don't think this season deserves a special dispensation to receive bonus Things That Made It For Me, because of the things that un-made it for me - most notably, the boring soap-opera scenes, relevant to second- or third-string characters with no superpowers, without which this volume of Supergirl would have been just as super, perhaps more so.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Supergirl, Season 1

My season-by-season DVD binge of CW series based on DC Comics characters continues with this part of a box-set of Seasons 1 and 2 of Supergirl that I came across recently. The show features Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers, a cousin of Kal-El/Clark Kent who also escaped the planet Krypton moments before it blew up. Kara, then 12 or 13 years old, was supposed to look out for baby Kal, but her pod got stuck in the Phantom Zone (where time is meaningless) and didn't make it to earth until 24 years later, by which time Kal was already Superman. So, she had to finish growing up in the care of the Danvers family, and as a young 20-something finds her way to National City (somewhere around Houston, I think) and becomes the perky, bespectacled executive assistant to "media queen" Cat Grant.

All this, so far, is explained in about the first five minutes of the pilot episode, with Kara providing a narrative voice-over supported by flashback imagery. As far as superhero origins/exposition goes, it feels pretty rushed. But this leaves us the rest of the first hour of the series to build up to the moment when Kara "comes out" as Supergirl – saving a plummeting airplane on which her foster-sister Alex is a passenger. Alex is soon revealed to be an agent of the DEO, the Department of Extranormal Operations, a covert government agency devoted to protecting the country from aliens. It turns out that Kara wasn't the only one who found a way out of the Phantom Zone 12 years ago; an alien prison named Fort Rozz came with her, crash-landing in the Nevada desert and spilling out a load of super-powered bad guys and gals. Among them are Kara's own Aunt Astra, twin sister to the Kara's mother, who put her and many of the other inmates away; Uncle Non, a next-level-up villain as evidenced by his British accent; and quite a few other weirdos who soon put Kara's developing powers to the test. By day, she runs to fetch Cat Grant's coffee; after hours, and increasingly often during unscheduled breaks during the work day, she hunts alien baddies as a DEO operative.

The cast is pretty good. Melissa Benoist is becoming a star, playing the beautiful and vivacious Kara/Supergirl. Calista Flockhart, who made the big time as "Ally McBeal," plays Cat Grant with a delicious touch of The Devil Wears Prada. There's also a tall, strapping, black Jimmy (I mean James) Olsen, moving over from Metropolis to watch over his super-bud's cousin – though, I'm sorry to say, the ongoing tease of a romance between him and Kara never comes to anything; a short, funny-looking, techie sidekick named Winn Schott, who immediately struck me as the Supergirl universe's answer to The Flash's Cisco Ramon (only with Anglo-Saxon roots and a serial killer for a dad); a certain Lucy Lane, kid sister to Lois, who at different times serves as Cat's legal counsel, as a stooge to her xenophobic general father, and as the director of the DEO; while the guy who normally plays that role is revealed to be a shape-changing, mind-reading Martian Manhunter named J'onn J'onzz (John Jones?).

One of the "Three Things That Make It For Me" in this season is the stunt casting of various guest roles, including living references to other fantasy/comic book classics. Playing the earthling couple who raised Kara after her crash-landing are Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in a 1984 movie, and Dean Cain, who played Superman in Lois and Clark. Playing semi-villainous tech mogul Maxwell Lord is Peter Facinelli, who led the Cullen clan of vampires in the Twilight movies. Jenna Dewan-Tatum, here playing Lucy Lane, has starred on American Horror Story and Witches of East End. Glenn Morshower, who plays General Lane, has made lots of guest appearances on Star Trek, appeared in X-men and Transformers movies, and is best known as the sheriff on the original CSI. There's a colonel in a few episodes played by Eddie McClintock of Warehouse 13. Playing one of Cat Grant's two sons is Levi Miller, who was Calvin in the recent A Wrinkle in Time movie. And Laura Vandervoort, who plays the villainess Indigo/Brainiac 8, played Kara Zor-El/Supergirl herself on Smallville.

The second Thing etc. is practically every line that comes out of Calista Flockhart's mouth, including (roughly quoted): "I'm a writer. It's like riding a bicycle and severe childhood trauma; you never really lose it." And then there's the time she tells a group of young adults that they look like the attractive but unthreatening, racially diverse cast of a CW series. If I didn't spew a mouthful of soda when I heard this line, it was only because I was between sips. Thing No. 3: The crossover episode with The Flash, which not only filled in something I was missing from watching the corresponding season of that show, but was also pretty darn fun.

Overall, maybe it's a sad reflection on the season's quality that a crossover episode was one of its high points. Themes of distrust vs. acceptance of aliens, saving the planet from human-driven climate change, and girl power were handled with an obviousness that sometimes crossed the boundary into shrillness. With a wealth of opportunities for superhero-vs.-supervillain action, it's a telling fact that the most dynamic character was a non-powered media executive, followed in descending order by a recurring (not regular) inventor/tech magnate, a shock jock who becomes electricity personified, a blue-skinned cyber-villain, a crazy auntie with a skunk stripe in her hair, and either of Cat Grant's sons, each of whom in his own way (depending on his age) crushes on either Supergirl or Kara.

It's a pity most of those characters weren't developed further, and that any hint of romance involving Kara didn't get past being lightly teased before she killed it for totally implausible reasons. Maybe I didn't notice it when the same thing happened in Arrow or The Flash, but this series devotes an awful lot of screen time to talky hand-wringing about whether the superhero(ine) should or shouldn't. And other than Supergirl's skirted costume looking rather fetching on Melissa Benoist, the sex-appeal quotient seems to be a bit lower than in the other ongoing DC series. I'm not saying it wasn't fun; for the reasons I mentioned above, and more, it was a gas. But what I'm saying is, it could have been a much more volatile gas.