Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Flash, Season 3

In Season 3 of (so far) 4 of the ongoing adventures of the Scarlet Speedster, DVD viewers are treated to Part 1, but (aaarrgh!) only Part 1, of a crossover episode involving four(!) superhero series based in the DC Comics "Arrowverse"—namely, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and, of course, The Flash. In an earlier season, there were crossovers with Arrow and Legends about which I complained that it wasn't really fair to expect me to be up on the backstory of all these different series, and I didn't care for what they brought to the tone of this show, and I thought that concept was much more interesting (albeit mostly for nerds) than the execution. But in at least one case, the DVD set included the corresponding episode from Arrow in the two-part crossover. This time, I feel obliged to bitch, no Part 2 is evident. To find out what happens after the cliffhanger, I would have to find the DVD of whatever season of Arrow was involved in that particular crossover.

Another thing I'd like to bitch about, while I'm bitching, is Season 3's musical episode, featuring Darren Criss (whose gay character in Glee was pursued by a recurring character played by Grant "Barry Allen/the Flash" Gustin) as some kind of alien entity from Supergirl's universe who puts both Supergirl and the Flash in a shared coma/dream world where they have to sing and dance their way through the plot of a musical in order to survive. The Criss character's motivation is painfully lame, and the so-called musical falls approximately two musical numbers short of its full potential. It's one of those episodes, like certain Star Trek outings I've ragged on in the past, that I think in the long run fans will wish had never happened.

The main thing about Season 3—nope, I'm going to have to stop myself already. There are actually two serialized stories in this season. During the first part of the season, and to a certain extent throughout the season, Team Flash must deal with the fallout from Barry's decision at the end of Season 2 to go back in time and erase the murder of his mother from history. He thereby creates an alternate timeline called Flashpoint, in which he has everything he wants on a certain level, but some of the things that are different are just too awful to let stand. So, before he can completely forget about the way things were in his primary timeline, Barry turns the Reverse-Flash loose to kill his mother again in the hope of resetting everything. It almost takes, but not quite. The differences create some pretty serious dramatic situations for Central City and Team Flash, at least during the first third or perhaps half of the season. (Excuse me for not going back and counting the episodes.) One of them is that Cisco Ramon/Vibe's brother gets killed by a drunk driver. Another is that Caitlin Snow starts to become Killer Frost, just like her Earth-2 doppelgänger. Then there's the fact that Barry's tampering with the timeline has also conjured into existence an obnoxious co-worker, a CSI specializing in meta-humans named Julian Albert, who happens to be played by Tom Felton ("Draco Malfoy" in the Harry Potter movies). A third version of Harrison Wells gets pulled into the Team Flash family circle, this one a romance novelist of only average I.Q. named H.R., so not as handy when technobabble is urgently needed. A parallel-earth bounty hunter named Gypsy becomes a romantic foil for Cisco. Wally West finally (outside of a parallel timeline) gets speedster powers and becomes Kid Flash. And Barry and Iris actually move in together and, eventually, get engaged. But overshadowing all this is (oh no, not again) an evil speedster who is hell-bent on destroying the Flash.

What, again? Well, I guess the Flash wouldn't be very interesting if he didn't have a nemesis or alter ego to go up against. The way to tell this recurring evil speedster apart from the previous two: Reverse-Flash is the one in the yellow costume who came from the distant future and killed Barry's mom; Zoom is the Earth-2 supervillain with the skull mask who just wanted to be the only speedster in the multiverse; and Savitar is this guy in shiny, spiky armor who claims to be the ancient Hindu god of speed, the very first speedster in history. Savitar has a cult of followers, including a certain Alchemy, who can give people the superpowers they had in the Flashpoint timeline, provided they help him bring about the re-ascension of Savitar. This particular villain's strategy for destroying the Flash is a little different: Kill Iris in front of him, and he'll just fall to pieces. Barry, now resigned to the knowledge that he can't keep tampering with the past, visits the future in search of clues about how to defeat Savitar, and there witnesses what a bummer it is if he lets his new nemesis accomplish this goal. Eventually he finds out that Alchemy is actually [spoiler deleted], and Savitar is actually [so completely deleted], and meanwhile Caitlin [are you serious?], and finally H.R. [just forget about it], but you'll know it's a cliffhanger when after they finally defeat Savitar [I'll let you have that one], Barry realizes that he must [nope, nope, nope, nope, nope], and surely this must be the end for Team Flash. Right? Only somehow, there seems to be a Season 4, so I wouldn't call off any bets yet.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) What H.R. does to ensure that Barry defeats Savitar. Uh-uh. I'm not telling. But it's set up with some pretty solid foreshadowing. (2) Pretty much the whole "Attack on Gorilla City/Attack on Central City" two-parter, especially the way Julian lights up when he says, "Are you telling me you're going to the Planet of the Apes?" (Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Tom Felton in a relatively recent Planet of the Apes movie?) (3) The way Barry and a revived Leonard Snart (actually borrowed from the past) break into A.R.G.U.S., which is located in part of the Arrowverse but I'm not sure which series, and what they experience there.

So, it's still a pretty cool superhero series. At times, it explores darker possibilities than the usual upbeat, clean-cut Barry Allen, but these side-trips always remind us why we like the ordinary CSI-turned superhero so much. Also, he gets the girl, loses the girl, kind of gets her again, kind of loses her again—in other words, his romance with Iris keeps moving forward, but never for a moment does it go too easily. And finally, in spite of some crossover events that the series could have done without and an occasional turn of events that makes you curse the stupidity of characters who never seem to learn from their past mistakes, it has a satisfying story arc overall. I'm looking forward to the DVD of Season 4!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Creeping Shadow

The Creeping Shadow
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fourth installment of "Lockwood & Co.," Lucy Carlyle—the clairvoyant kid with a special knack for communicating with the dead—has quit the agency and gone into business as a private consultant. Things are going OK, but only just OK, until she catches a clue that psychic sources that were supposed to be incinerated are somehow finding their way onto the black market. No sooner does she start investigating this than her informant is murdered practically in front of her, and she's the next victim on the list. With nowhere else to turn, she runs back to Lockwood, George and Holly for protection and help recovering the evil skull-in-a-jar with which she, and only she, can converse.

Meantime, an especially virulent outbreak of ghost-touch in a remote village adjacent to a Rotwell Institute ghost problem research facility leads the four agents, plus Quill Kipps late of the Fittes Agency, on a ghostbusting mission that will put them up against the most dastardly conspiracy they have faced so far. It would be more accurate to say they penetrate deeper into the same conspiracy that is increasingly turning Britain into hell on earth. Both of the country's top paranormal agencies are revealed to be not as heroic as advertised. By the time Lucy, Lockwood and the rest lay the ghosts troubling the village, they will witness the biggest violation of the border between the living and the dead so far. In fact, two of them will have crossed it and been lucky to come back alive.

What more can I say without giving away too many of this book's creepy surprises? It is full of terrifying specters and nearly equally terrifying human villains, with lots of suspense and a yet-to-be-revealed agenda plays out in an alternate-history England where "death is in life and life is in death." The mystery, suspense, intrigue and dark magic are spiced with a touch of romance, some character-driven drama, a goodly measure of humor and a bracing attitude of adventure. Stirred together by the master entertainer who brought us the "Bartimaeus" series, it makes for a chillingly addictive series, the next and latest book of which is The Empty Tomb.

Deadpool 2

Yes, it's raunchy. Yes, it's ultra-violent. Yes, it has a lot of foul language in it. And yes, it's a sequel. Also, it's technically a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, albeit one featuring a corner of the MCU (the X-Men) that somehow escaped unscathed from the carnage of Avengers: Infinity War. But it was opening on a Thursday, which made it convenient for me to see it, and nothing else was showing that night in my current hometown, and whatever else was showing that weekend didn't seem worth waiting for, so there it is. Also, I had fun watching it.

This is, naturally, the sequel to Deadpool, featuring Ryan Reynolds as a non-stop chatterbox, victim of a disfiguring accident, and super-antihero with mutant self-healing powers and a complete lack of conscience with regard to taking human life. In this movie, he forms an unlikely alliance with obscure members of the X-Men, blows it up, gets sent to prison, and anoints himself as the protector of a chunky teen from New Zealand who is on his way to being a super-powered monster. Long story short, he and a non-Thanos (but still badass) Josh Brolin, with some help, end up demolishing an institution for kids with mutant powers down to the last blood-and-brains-spattered brick, in spite of or perhaps thanks to an entire scriptful of inappropriate jokes, incongruous musical selections, sexual references, and weapons-grade sarcasm. It's funnier than hell, in a dark-comedic way. I mean, it uses frequent and gruesome death as a source of comedy. So, take that for what it's worth.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Wade Wilson/Deadpool assembles an entire team of superheroes to join him on a mission (pointedly excluding the stereotyped Indian cab driver who has been trying to join his team), then promptly kills them all in a single scene of inadvertent carnage that is somehow simultaneously heartbreaking, nauseating and hilarious. (2) The fight on the armored prisoner transport, driven by a woman whose superpower is luck - one extended, hard-driving sequence of intense action, with this franchise's patent brand of grim yet comedic violence. (3) Any of the many fourth-wall breaks, such as the one in which Deadpool autographs a picture of himself as "Ryan Reynolds," the time he calls Brolin "Thanos," and my very favorite, his quip about a piece of X-Men technology smelling like Patrick Stewart.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Flash, Season 2

My two-season, DVD-assisted binge of the CW's The Flash continues with this 23-episode season, originally aired in 2015-16. It starts with a provokingly slow reveal of what happened after the Season 1 cliffhanger ending, in which Team Flash inadvertently created a black hole above Central City, threatening the existence of the whole planet, while defeating Barry Allen/The Flash's nemesis Eobard Thawne/Reverse-Flash, the time-traveling speedster who murdered Barry's mom when he was 11 and has been impersonating S.T.A.R. Labs genius Harrison Wells for the past 15 years. Now, we learn, this escapade has cost team member Caitlin Snow her husband, and Dr. Martin Stein the other half of two-man-in-one-superhero Firestorm, with Ronnie Raymond biting it for the second time. Things start to look up when Wells/Thawne leaves a video confessing to Nora Allen's murder, clearing Barry's dad Henry of the same, and leaving S.T.A.R. Labs to Barry in perpetuity.

By this time, most of the meta-human troubles arising from the technobabble accident that gave Barry his powers has quieted down. But now a new batch of meta-villains is arising, coming to "Earth-1" from the neighboring parallel dimension, "Earth-2" through one of several spacetime rifts opened by the aforementioned black hole escapade. Among these villains is another speedster, known to his enemies as Zoom (because he doesn't have any friends), who for some reason keeps trying to get other Earth-2 meta-humans to murder Barry for him. Meantime, Earth-2's "The Flash" is revealed to be a guy named Jay Garrick who likes to run around in a crimson (as opposed to scarlet) costume, accessorized with a winged steel bowl-helmet. This guy seems to have lost his speediness somehow, and thanks to him, Caitlin loses her heart again. Meantime, Joe West (Barry's foster father) and his daughter Iris take delivery of a previously unknown son/brother named Wally, who (alert comics nerds will already know) is eventually destined to become a speedster nicknamed Kid Flash. Also, we also meet an Earth-2 version of Harrison Wells, dubbed "Harry" to help Team Flash distinguish him from his defunct Earth-1 doppelgänger (a word that starts to get used a lot during this season). Harry is also a genius, and basically a good guy, though (ironically) less nice to be around than his evil counterpart who, admittedly, was a ringer to start with. His motive for joining Team Flash (rescuing his daughter from Zoom) puts Harry in a frame of mind to do some evil of his own. So, with complications in his life as a crime-fighter multiplying, his relationship with his real dad and with Iris thwarted at every turn, a new monster or super-villain to fight almost every week, bad luck besetting him and a new nemesis testing his powers beyond their limit, Barry's natural cheerfulness and kindness get put through a wringer.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Of course, one of them would have to be an in-joke. I forget the context, but there was a scene in this season when, in the presence of Joe (played by Law & Order alum Jesse L. Martin) someone makes a crack about Law & Order. (2) Recurring "rogue" Leonard Snart becomes a deeper, more complex character, developing in an increasingly sympathetic direction, when he calls on the Flash to help him save his sister from their really rotten father, played by Michael Ironside. (3) Ultimate cliffhanger (so far in the series): While trying to give Barry his powers back (don't ask), the team sees him apparently vaporized. To quote a sainted Star Trek-watching partner, "It must be the last one they ever made." Not!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Flash, Season 1

I've never watched a single episode of the DC Comics series Arrow, and until recently (when I suddenly had a television to plug my DVD player into, after a long hiatus from watching TV at home) I hadn't seen its spinoff, The Flash. Then, I spotted a deal - the first two seasons of The Flash for the same price Season 3 is selling at. And they're good, hefty, 23-episode seasons, too; not those sneaky box sets that invite you to spend $24 for an 11-episode series. This deal came out to approximately 50 cents an episode, which these days is pretty good. And so, by the way, is this series. It's a really fun show in the superhero format, starting with essentially the same Flash origin story told not long ago (with Ezra Miller in the speedster role) in the Justice League movie.

This series, made for the CW network, stars Grant Gustin, best known for his recurring role on Glee, as Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash. Personally, I have no previous acquaintance with this young actor, but I found him very appealing and easy to sympathize with. In a comics-based film and TV-series landscape full of dark, gritty antiheroes and damaged heroes, the Flash's upbeat personality and essentially pure character is a breath of fresh air. Of course, he wouldn't be much of a superhero if he didn't have stuff to be unhappy about, yet he has a persistent and infectious attitude of good cheer and a good heart that makes him stand out against the background of awful villains, monsters, and disasters constantly swirling around him. The tragedy of his life, in case you don't already know, is that his mother was killed by a time-traveling speedster when he was about 11 years old, and his future self couldn't (or didn't) stop it, and his father spent years in prison on a false accusation of killing her. Now Barry is a CSI working for the Central City Police Department, where his foster father Joe West (played by Jesse Martin of Law and Order) is a detective. He has an unrequited crush on Joe's daughter Iris (the lovely Candice Patton), who is in love with Joe's partner, "Detective Pretty Boy" Eddie Thawne (Zimbabwe-born actor Rick Cosnett), who thus becomes both Barry's friend and his romantic rival. Eddie's importance is even more intricately woven into the plot of Season 1, but I won't go there for fear of spoiling it.

So, one fine day, Barry is nerding around in his forensic science lab when the local particle collider blasts him with a bolt of technobabble. Six months later, he wakes up with super speed. Cool, eh? Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh of Ed), the now discredited CEO of S.T.A.R. Labs, takes Barry under his wing and becomes his mentor, leading him to become a better superhero every week with the aid of bio-engineer Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker of Mr. Brooks and Shark) and computer whiz Cisco Ramon (Colombian-American actor Carlos Valdes). Together they try to protect Central City from other metahumans (as they call people who developed super powers after the supercollider meltdown), who are mostly villains for some reason, while Barry tries to figure out how to beat the Reverse-Flash (that future speedster who killed his mother) and clear his father's name. Other regular or recurring cast members include Stephen Amell in crossover appearances as Oliver Queen/Arrow; Robbie Amell (a cousin of Stephen) as Caitlin's fiance Ronnie Raymond/Firestorm, a regular guy who becomes a metahuman by merging with another dude; Victor Garber (Alias) as Dr. Martin Stein, the other half of Firestorm; Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) as villain Leonard "Captain Cold" Snart, who doesn't need superpowers to be a threat; Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) as the evil General Eiling; Liam "Spartacus" McIntyre as Mark Mardon/Weather Wizard, a guy who can hurl lightning bolts and conjure hailstones out of thin air; Matt Letscher (who crossed over to the Arrowverse series Legends of Tomorrow) as Eobard Thawne/Reverse-Flash; etc., etc.

Thanks in part to the Cisco character, this series is full of fun nerd-culture cross references. Two of the three scenes that made it for me, however, were in-jokes that didn't involve Cisco. (1) Mark Hamill, who after his Star Wars role as Luke Skywalker is probably best known as the voice of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, plays a psychotic Arrowverse villain called the Trickster, who has the Joker's tacky sense of humor and insane giggle. In one scene, he looks a younger villain in the eyes and says, " your father." Get it? Of course you do. (2) Brandon Routh, who is mostly known for playing the Caped Crusader in that pre-Henry Cavill Superman movie everyone has forgotten about, crosses over from Legends as Ray Palmer/A.T.O.M., a man in a flying suit. In his introductory scene, members of Team Flash are looking up in the sky when someone says, "Is that a bird?" and someone else says, "No, it's a plane..." (3) The Flash discovers a futuristic artificial-intelligence computer named Gideon hidden in his time-traveling enemy's secret lair. When he asks her why should obey his command, Gideon tells him, "You built me." Whoa, dude. Time travel is just sick! Wouldn't it be nice if the show hangs around long enough for us to see Barry Allen pull off that trick?

And now, a couple of things that un-made it for me: (1) Crossovers from Arrow. Like I said, I've never watched that show, and based on the slow drip of information conveyed through Arrow/The Flash crossovers, I'm not sure that I ever would. From the perspective of a viewer who is only in on half of the super-franchise (no pun intended), these crossovers strike me as kind of stiff and stilted. The characters just aren't like themselves, I think, when they are taken out of their own world and put among the characters of another. There is a strained feeling to every scene and nearly every line of dialogue, sometimes conveying a sense that the two shows' writers are trying to one-up each other, and at other times carrying perceptible artifacts of an early draft in which the heading at the top of the page said "The obligatory scene shared by Barry and Oliver goes here," or "Don't forget to have Cisco offer to upgrade Laurel Lance's techno-thingummy." Plus, I'm apparently missing the crossovers going in the other direction, which feels like a cheat. Finally, now that I've also watched Season 2 with even more crossovers between the shows, I'm picking up on clues that developments on the Arrow side have been pretty dark, with characters that were together at one point not being together anymore, and characters who seemed to be going somewhere now apparently having gone the way of all flesh. McQueen's Star City doesn't seem like as nice a place to visit as Center City and, frankly, I wish he would stay there instead of bringing his issues to Barry's town. For my other complaint (2) I will only hint that there were a couple of characters that I thought shouldn't have been killed off. I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Rewriting You: Law Enforcement Edition

When rewriting a probable cause statement for publication in the newspaper's police blotter, I find the "global search and replace" routine invaluable. That means valuable. I would totally replace "invaluable" with "valuable," to save ink.

After doing a lot of this lately, I can't help noticing that police officers have a uniform writing style. I sometimes entertain fantasies that they have special buttons on their keyboards to insert stock words and phrases. A more plausible fantasy holds that they learned this special lingo - let's call it Law Enforcementese - in a special class at the academy. More likely, they just learned it the way babies learn to talk, by imitating the language used by those senior to them.

Another fantasy I have is of going to the academy and teaching a crash course on writing better, unlearning the bad habits learned from senior officers and replacing them with a style that wouldn't need to be translated for the newspaper. Short of that, however, I'm just going to have to content myself with Ctrl-H (find and replace).

Here are some of the seek-out-and-destroy missions I assign my word processor when I have to edit the typical police blotter entry. After copying and pasting the reporting officer's statement into the news story:

1. I replace all instances of two spaces with one space. Sometimes I have to repeat this operation a couple times, for example, to catch longer series of spaces. This isn't just a law enforcement thing. Pretty much everyone types two spaces after a period, even though one space has been the industry standard for quite a few years. There seems to be a shared false memory that people were taught this in eighth-grade typing class, sort of like the widespread belief that Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s (Fact: Mandela died in 2013 after having been president of South Africa 1994-99) or that comedian Sinbad starred as a genie in a 1990s movie called Shazaam (Fact: Shaq played the genie and the title was Kazaam). Thereby hangs another whole essay. The point is: Find-and-Replace to the rescue!

2. I replace a lot of unnecessarily long and boring words, which suck the energy out of the story, with shorter and more transparent words that let it all shine through. For some mysterious reason, writing in such a way that a dramatic event turns into a snoozefest seems to be the standard operating procedure for law enforcement, or the Cop SOP. Taking some frequently used find-and-replace routines for example, you'll replace the word "stated" with "said"; "informed" with "told"; "located" with "found"; "illuminated" with "lit"; and "responded" with "went."

3. You'll often replace "observed" with "saw," but you have to be careful. Sometimes, depending on the context, you'll want "seen" or some other word, and sometimes "observed" really is the most apt word. Another edit that sometimes works but sometimes doesn't is replacing "obtained" with "took."

4. Some of your replacements will involve persons' names. Often, on the first mention in a probable cause statement, the perp's full name will be given, followed by the phrase "the above named defendant." This phrase will then be used in lieu of the perp's name in practically every sentence thereafter. I can't believe anyone would go to all the trouble of typing "the above named defendant" 20 times when they could just type "Jones" (or whatever the perp's last name is). This is why I think they have a button on their special Law Enforcementese keyboard to insert the phrase "the above named defendant." Either that or they copy and paste it, which is the kind time-saving device I could get behind if it wasn't so gosh-darn time-wasting at my end. So, after pasting in each probable cause statement, I look for instances of "the above named defendant" and either delete it (in the first instance) or replace it with the perp's last name.

On the other hand, you don't necessarily want the names of victims, witnesses or peace officers splashed all over the page. So, a lot of my find-and-replace routines run the opposite way, taking proper names out and replacing them with Victim, Witness, Female, Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Complainant, Officer, Deputy, Investigator, Sergeant, Agent, Trooper, Informant, etc. Each character in the story gets a unique designator. This also applies when the original report has been redacted to replace names with strings of letters like AAA, BBB, the person's initials, etc.

5. Quite a few find-and-replace routines replace something with nothing, disposing of frequently repeated verbiage that adds nothing significant to the story. For example, phrases like "brown in color," "red in color," etc. are a standard feature of Law Enforcementese descriptions of vehicles, articles of clothing, and whatnot. The same meaning can be conveyed, in most instances, without the words "in color."

Another phrase that can be deleted without prejudice to the report's intended meaning is "incident to arrest," as in, "During a consent search of the above named defendant's red in color motor vehicle incident to arrest, Deputy Tyler located a micro baggie containing a white crystalline substance that field tested positive for the presence of methamphetamine." Adding hyphens to such phrases as "field tested" and "micro baggie" is also one of my things. I'll bet the word "motor" is surplus to requirements, too.

I'm really not asking anyone to change how they write. If, all of a sudden, law enforcement officers stopped doing their paperwork in Law Enforcementese and started submitting newspaper-ready incident reports, I would have a lot less to keep me busy on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. So, as you were, officer!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

After I came home from watching Avengers: Infinity War at the local movie theater, I found a glowing review of it in the local newspaper's weekend edition. I now have to give the reviewer credit for two reasons. First, it is because of his review that I actually know the names of several of the characters in the movie I had just seen. Second, if I had read his review before I had gone to see the movie, I would have gone to see the movie. That second compliment may seem like faint praise, considering that I went to see the movie anyway. But if I somehow could have seen the movie before I went to see the movie, I wouldn't have gone to see the movie. Go on, work that out.

Before I discuss why I wouldn't have chosen to see the movie if I had seen the movie—aside from the general rule that one doesn't pay a box-office price to see the same movie twice—I should mention why I did choose to see it. This week my friendly neighborhood movie theater is screening three movies. My choices were this, Super Troopers 2 (a sequel to a movie I didn't see, described by the lady at the ticket counter as a raunchy comedy) and A Quiet Place (a scary movie about an invasion by killer aliens who are blind but can hear really well, so if you want to live you have to be very, very quiet). A few things worth knowing about me: I have a history of walking out of raunchy comedies while they're in progress; I don't as a rule go for sequels, especially when I haven't seen the original; and I have a low threshold for being scarred for life by a scary movie. Also, I had taken my chances on the last three comic-book films that came out (Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Black Panther), and they were all right, in spite of the fact that I had missed virtually every Marvel and DC film leading up to them. I was hopeful that the latest Avengers film would continue the hot streak.

Instead, it took a whole franchise, or rather a super-franchise comprising a bunch of ongoing film franchises, and burned it to a crisp.

The fun part of this review is a recap of the enormous cast of this movie, featuring a super-size collection of comic-book heroes all joining in one stupendously, or perhaps I should say fatally, complicated effort to stop a bad guy from literally wiping out half of the universe. Thanks to the newspaper review I read after seeing the movie, I now have a lot of information I didn't know while I was watching the movie, like who the hell half of these people were. I have never seen a single "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie, so that whole group of characters was new to me. The pace moved so quickly that I didn't have time to work out the names of several other characters, who were apparently last seen in one of the many Marvel movies I have missed.

I think the original Thor and the original Iron Man were the only Marvel movies I had seen until this latest crop came out. Thanks to them, I was familiar with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa/Black Panther, and Paul Bettany as at least the voice of Tony Stark's computer who has now, apparently, evolved into an artificially intelligent android called Vision.

I'm not so disconnected from pop culture that I don't know that Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers/Capt. America and Tom Holland is the latest actor to play Peter Parker/Spiderman, though I've never seen any of the movies featuring them in these roles. I also knew that Chris Pratt was somebody or other in the Guardians of the Galaxy, but I didn't know his name (Peter Quill/Starlord) or anything about the character.

That meant, to keep up with what was going on in this movie, I only lacked background data about the characters played by Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes/War Machine), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch), Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), David Bautista (Drax the Destroyer), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Vin Diesel (Groot), Pom Klementieff (Mantis) and villain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who I take it has appeared before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not that I noticed. Rounding out the cast is Peter Dinklage as the biggest dwarf I've ever seen, not to mention various sidekicks and other recurring characters. To say I felt like I was behind the curve is the understatement of the galaxy. The only reason I wasn't yelling "Who the hell is that now?" every other minute was my sense of consideration toward other viewers in the theater.

I totally get how a complete comic-book nerd would be wowed by an opportunity to see practically the whole Marvel Universe, plus the Guardians of the Galaxy, on the screen together, at least in a variety of interesting combinations. There isn't a lot of time for talk, other than amusing banter or heroic posturing, between gosh-wow action sequences, each gosher and wower than the last. But the cost of it all is that the story has to keep so many plates spinning that it doesn't have much time to bring late-comers into the backstory. It just goes full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, and then it [spoiler deleted] about 30 seconds before an ordinary guy like me, who just came in preference to being grossed out by Troopers or freaked out by Quiet, would have caught up with who was who and what was going on. At the end, I was frankly mad at this set of characters; I was shocked at the audacity of Marvel Films to [spoiler deleted] most of its heroes at one blow; I was mystified as to where the franchise (or super-franchise) can go from here, and above all, I was bummed. I've heard I wasn't the only one to leave the theater looking like they had just watched their favorite dog get run over by an 18-wheeler. And this wasn't even my favorite dog.

Rain Reign

Rain Reign
by Ann M. Martin
Recommended Ages: 10+

Rose is a high-functioning autistic fifth-grader who lives alone with her dad and a dog named Rain. Rose loves homonyms, rules, and prime numbers in that order. She loves them so hard, she needs a personal aide at school to help her control her enthusiasm. Coping with the unpredictable noise and movement of life would be difficult for her at the best of times, but it gets particularly hard when a hurricane blows through town, trapping Rose and her father in their yard and changing the landscape around them. Worst of all, Rain disappears during the storm, thanks to a lapse of judgment on her dad's part.

Rose's inability to stop asking him why he let her dog out in a hurricane without its collar works on both of them, increasing the tension in their small household to a breaking point. At the same time, however, her search for Rain brings Rose closer to her classmates at school, who used to treat her like a freak. At the same time, the search forces Rose to look farther outside the boundaries of the home, the school, and the town where she has learned to feel safe. Along the way, she is aided by a gentle uncle whose protectiveness of her, even against her dad, is among the most touching things in this story. The girl's fear, her isolation, even her resentment of her dad register in the heart of the reader. What happens after she finds Rain goes beyond "touching" and "registering" to a heart-wringing emotional climax.

This book, written from the point of view of a bright girl with Asperger's syndrome, is on the most basic level the story of a search for a lost dog. It also becomes, along the way, the story of a search for a loving family and for common ground with people who process reality quite differently—in a word, friends. It goes right on my list of books to recommend to people interested in fiction about autism, along with Gennifer Choldenko's Moose Flanagan series (Al Capone Does My Shirts, etc.).

Ann M. Martin's writing credits include literally hundreds of children's books, and I mean HUNDREDS, many of them in series related to "The Baby-Sitters Club" as well as the "Doll People," "Kids in Miss Colman's Class," "California Diaries," "Main Street," "Pearl and Lexie," "Family Tree," and "Missy Piggle-Wiggle" series. Her standalone titles include Bummer Summer, Inside Out, Missing Since Monday, Ma and Pa Dracula, The Amazing True Story of Leo the Magnificent, A Corner of the Universe, Everything for a Dog, How to Look for a Lost Dog, and about 20 more. I don't think I could catch up if I tried.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Reflections on a Video Binge

To celebrate my acquisition of a flat-screen TV, the first tubeless boob tube I have ever owned after several years with no television of any kind in my home, I browsed the Walmart DVD aisle. Actually, "browsed" isn't quite accurate. I made a close study of practically every movie or TV show on display. I finally picked two movies: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Stronger.

I won't belabor my review of the movies. I have already written about Fantastic Beasts, and the fact that I bought it on DVD after seeing it in the theater says pretty much all that I need to add to my first review.

I recently read the book on which Stronger was based, and I thought it was all right for a ghostwritten memoir that one can find on a supermarket newsstand, where one can't expect to find anything of really high literary quality. (Something Ursula Le Guin said about the books sold at airport newsstands suddenly comes to mind—but rather than quote it here, I'll remind you that you really need to read her book Changing Planes. Wouldn't it be funny if you find it at the airport?)
About the film I will only add that it struck me as being, texturally and emotionally, as nearly as possible totally unrecognizable from the source book while telling basically the same story. I didn't get the "inspiring story about a reluctant hero" vibe from the movie that I got from the book. It was more on the order of "depressing story about a complete loser." It makes you wonder which version of the story is closer to reality. If Jeff Bauman felt flattered by Jake Gyllenhaal's depiction of him, I would guess the film; if not, the book. I hope it's the book, because the book kind of moved and uplifted me, but the movie just got me down. So down, in fact, that I went back to Walmart to buy more shows to take my mind off it.

So, I got Season 1 of two TV series: Midnight, Texas and Trollhunters. In a succession of evenings after work, I have binge-watched them in that order.

Midnight, Texas is a paranormal horror/romance/mystery series based on novels by Charlaine Harris, whose True Blood novels also spawned a TV series. Perhaps amazingly, I haven't read any of her books, nor have I seen either TV series before now. I didn't recognize any of the actors in this show, so I won't indulge in my usual name-dropping, but it has an attractive and mostly effective cast. The show depicts a remote town whose (insert New Age babble) makes it popular with supernatural characters, including a vampire, a witch, a weretiger, a fallen angel and his mellowed demon boyfriend—these days, it's supposed to be the angel/demon bit that shocks you. The point-of-view character is a spirit medium who was raised by his clairvoyant grandma (now a ghost tethered to their RV) and who is apparently destined to save the town from falling straight through a crack into hell. There are "normal" people in the story, too, but they have issues of their own—like the female assassin who has an energy-leeching relationship with the vampire, the waitress whose teenage brother turns out to be a serial killer (Oops! Spoilers!) and the studly pawnshop owner whose fiancee turns up murdered in Episode 1. In spite of conflicts between them, this group of characters basically evolves into a family, standing up together against the increasingly nasty threats that roll into town every week.

Adult and Occult Content Warnings are in full force. Solution to the danger facing a virgin whom a demon wants as his consort? Deflower her! Method of showing tough love when the kid brother (previously a nice enough kid, up to that episode) proves to be a psychopath? Snap his neck! Strategem to deal with the boss demon who wants to turn Midnight into a staging area for Armageddon? Get demon-possessed and shoot evil energy at him, Harry Potter wand-duel style (only without wands). It's a pretty dark story, kept watchable mainly by the expectation that somebody's shirt will come off at least once per episode. But what's the biggest thing I took away from this series? I'll come back to that in a bit.

Trollhunters, from DreamWorks Animation, is created by Guillermo del Toro, who directed Blade II, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II, Pacific Rim and last year's The Shape of Water, which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. It revolves around a teenage boy from Arcadia, Calif. named Jim Lake Jr., voiced for the first two seasons by the late Anton Yelchin (sob!) and in Season 3 by Emile Hirsch. The voice cast also includes Kelsey Grammer (best known as TV's "Fraser"), Jonathan Hyde (who played Van Pelt in the original Jumanji), Ron Perlman (who was Del Toro's "Hellboy"), Tom Hiddleston (Marvel's "Loki," though in a role recast after the pilot), Clancy Brown, Anjelica Huston and (in later seasons) Mark Hamill.

It's a dark fantasy in which an ordinary kid is thrust into the role of protector of an entire race of magical beings who live under a bridge in his hometown, while they are menaced by an evil troll from the shadow realm, a conspiracy of changelings (which here means "trolls who were swapped with human babies") and hordes of savagely dangerous, though also slightly silly, goblins. Jim's own history teacher, later principal of his high school, is one of the enemy—and at the same time, a fiendish love interest for his single mom, a doctor who knows nothing about all this. His best friends are the chubby kid across the street, a cute girl whose brother has been swapped with a changeling, and two or three trolls who are misfits even among their own kind. In spite of at first knowing nothing about fighting, Jim has to stop the return of the evil troll Gunmar, survive the menace of a warlock assassin, and (eventually) rescue little Enrique from the dark trolls' changeling nursery.

In spite of being chopped up into half-hour bites, the 26-episode first season is a terrific thrill ride, full of humor, action, scariness, a bit of romance, and a complex web of character relationships that really work. The dialogue is great. The acting is terrific. The art work is magnificent. The animation is mostly pretty good and sometimes superb. Not for nothing did this program win seven Daytime Emmys (including two for writing, one for directing, and a performance award for Grammer) and set a record as the most successful Netflix original program for kids.

But now I get to the topic I really wanted to write about: how these series depict the family. In a sense, both series depict an oddball group of unrelated characters coming together as a sort of family in a dark fantasy setting. In fact, there are lines of dialogue in both series that acknowledge this, like "We're family," etc. That's all very nice, I'm sure.

As for actual families, however, I detected a difference between the two shows. In Midnight, the only prominently featured family units are: (1) a female assassin who is worried about her estranged father's efforts to track her down, after he abandoned her to a life of child trafficking; (2) a clairvoyant guy who was raised by his gypsy medium grandma, since his mom abandoned him as a child, and who mainly learned to be con-man; (3) a gypsy father whose controlling nature, and his willingness to sell his daughter's hand in marriage, drove her to suicide; (4) a witchy aunt who takes in her witchy niece and shows her the ropes after the niece's parents get fed up with her; (5) a guy who ran away from his white supremacist family after they committed an act of domestic terrorism; (6) a gangster who sends his wife to seduce another man in order to spy on him, whereupon she actually falls in love with the rube and they get engaged (while she's still married, mind); and (7) a waitress who tells her father she never wants to see him again after she realizes he's been using her to help keep her serial killer kid brother in check; and meanwhile, she went from caring deeply about the kid to not being terribly upset to see him put down like a rabid dog in a matter of minutes.

These examples don't just add up to a negative depiction of real families. They are part of a depiction of a reality in which a natural families are practically non-existent. They are the only exceptions to an apparent rule that none of the characters ever think or care about their real families. They are background noise in a signal advertising a world in which the family is meaningless.

Now, compare that to Trollhunters, Season 1. Sure, Jim Lake Sr. walked out on wife Barbara and son Jim Jr. But mom and son are really devoted to each other. Even when their relationship is strained, it is depicted as a real and valuable relationship. Sure, Jim Jr.'s best friend Toby lives with his grandma, though only because something "happened" to his parents (never specified, to my recollection). And though Toby spends a lot of time sneaking around behind his grandma's back, he also cares about her so much that even when she drives him crazy, he only has to think about how much he loves her to regain his patience. The hero girl has both of her parents, and even though she and changeling "Not-Enrique" grow to accept each other as a sort of family, she remains devoted to getting the real Enrique back. Some father-son pairs of trolls are depicted in the series: at least one that is evil and one good. But even the evil pair is devoted to each other, and the good pair share a bond of regret that the dad troll's career (as the Trollhunter before Jim) meant they couldn't be closer. So, even while acknowledging that not all families are intact with both parents still together, and parents and kids have serious issues to work through, etc., the show essentially depicts a reality in which moms, dads and siblings are important to one another.

Another interesting difference between the two shows goes to the issue of character. Though both groups of hero characters come to feel a kind of family bond connecting them, I think the ones in Midnighters show at the same time a group of self-involved personalities who don't readily trust others.

To some extent, they grow in this area during Season 1. For example, the Rev (a clergyman of unspecified denomination, who also happens to be a supernatural being) confesses late in the season that he has come a long way from being socially dislocated to feeling himself to be part of the family. Manfred, the clairvoyant POV character, takes an inventory of his personal shortcomings and works to overcome them. Bobo, the guy on the run from the white supremacists, admits that he misses his mom and the family's Thanksgiving dinner, etc. And amazingly (Spoiler!!), the season ends with a wedding.

Nevertheless, it's a group of people who are prepared to kill to keep their little enclave of weirdness safe from the outside world—even, if necessary, to kill some of their own. They are so inured to unnatural death (understandably, since it is constantly happening around them) that it doesn't faze them much. Don't expect anything resembling a qualm of sexual morality to cross their minds. They don't want anything bad to happen to the normal people in town, and the Rev in particular doesn't want to hurt anyone, but they are still, at the end of the day (or night), a group that includes a vampire, an assassin, and a guy who can stomp the @#$% out of a jail cell full of outlaw bikers when the sheriff's deputy throws him in there to teach him a lesson. OK, that last one was cool.

On the flip side, observe the people and trolls of Arcadia. They're not perfect. Sometimes their impulses run away with them. But in general, they model the virtues of courage, loyalty, friendship, honor and self-sacrifice that I think could inspire young viewers to practice the same.

The scene that "made it for me" is the one in which Jim Jr. tells Graal, the troll who guards his home, while being scolded for risking his life to save one of his friends, "I would do the same for you." The one-second reaction on the animated troll's face was the most eloquent moment of acting I saw in half a week of binge DVD watching—an expression of moved surprise. I actually got choked up. The basic decency practiced by Jim Lake Jr., even when it is heckled by some of the other characters as a weakness, is one of the things that can make fantasy a tonic for the soul.

But there are many other examples. The initially antagonistic trolls Graal and Vendel are gradually won over by the very special boy Jim Jr. is. The mostly evil changeling/teacher Strickler develops real feelings for Barbara. The doomed troll AAARRRGGHH!!! develops a touching friendship with Toby. Toby's pet gnome, Gnome Chompsky, risks life and limb in an attempt to find the real Enrique in the shadow realm. Not-Enrique, though mischievous, grows more genuinely attached to his "sister" Claire and proves helpful in some crucial battles. Even the warlock-assassin Angor Rot shows a glint of a sympathetic something; as villainous as he becomes, there are moments when the possibility that he may have been otherwise elicits a moment of pity.

What I'm basically saying is that I would love watching further adventures of Jim Lake Jr. and his friends, for the sake of the story itself, the beauty of the world where it takes place, and the variety of characters in it. On the other hand, I would mainly recommend Midnight, Texas to someone whose fantasy is of a world, however dark it may be, populated entirely by sexy 20-somethings who have trouble keeping their clothes on.