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, "I...am 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 Arrow 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.