Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm Baaaaack!

No new posts recently due to taking a little mini-vacation. Picture to follow soon.

In the meantime... I've been thinking lately. My dad would have said "Better watch it, that's dangerous" but nonetheless I've been thinking. About TV. About the future of TV.

You see, I dumped cable over five years ago. The first year without it, I'll admit, I missed it. After that though... haven't really missed it at all. I dropped it because at the time I was moving and I had come to realize that I paid (then) over $50 a month and I watched a sum total of about four shows spread between three channels. It just wasn't worth it!

There was some talk, a while back, of cable services offering "A La Carte" deals -- in which people could pick out which channels they wanted and only pay for those. Nothing has come of that discussion to this day.

The thing was, I didn't want CHANNELS, I wanted cable at a SHOW level! Years ago I was talking to a friend and I said that my dream was to be able to program MY version of a primetime line-up. To sit down and program my TV to play the latest episode of some new series and then play an old episode of The Equalizer or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., etc.

And then along came the internet....

Contrary to a certain song from the musical Avenue Q the internet is for a lot of stuff and one of those things has now become TV. Thanks to free, legal sites like Hulu and AOLin2TV I can just about live my dream of MY primetime line-up. I can watch an old episode of I Spy on Hulu and then bop over to USA Network's website and watch Burn Notice. I can watch new episodes of NCIS on CBS's network site the very next morning after they air! Sure, I might have to wait overnight or in some cases a week but to be able to watch what I want to watch on MY schedule, when I have time to watch it is priceless.

I'm not paying a ton of money out of my pocket every month just to watch a sum total of FIVE TV shows I enjoy. Maybe, if the day ever comes that production companies start producing a lot of TV shows that are worth watching then I might get dish but all my vacation has done is remind me that I made the right choice. During the two nights I spent in hotels I had 50-some-odd TV stations to choose from... and there wasn't a darn thing good on ANY of them. Spent most of the time reading a book.

Even more so -- there is now a new wave of people out there who are creating and producing their own TV shows on the web and what they are doing is a heck of a lot funnier and more entertaining than many so-called "sitcoms" today.

The future is here folks... and it's the internet.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Serious Again.... "And You Call Yourself a Christian"?

I've been a bit disheartened lately. You see, I call myself a Christian. I try as best I can to live as a person with a good heart would. I'm not perfect at it. BOY am I not perfect at it but I try.

And then I see stuff and I hear stuff. The healthcare debate brought a lot of this to a head but it's not the first time I've seen and heard stuff like this.

Throw out the issues over money and costs and taxes and such. I know there are a lot of issues to that. What hits me is the core -- the philosophy at the heart of this. In all the wrangling about Healthcare -- money aside -- one refrain I keep hearing over and over again out of many who protest this is the indignation people seem to have other the idea that THEY will be paying for SOMEONE ELSE'S healthcare. This idea that those who cannot afford their own healthcare are somehow not deserving of it because either they're not working hard enough or they don't know how to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, or they've been addicted to drugs or alcohol.

This isn't JUST about what's on the news. I work on a college campus and while hitting the vending machines I heard two students talking. One, apparently a Med student or something said "People go to the emergency room now who can't afford it and they do it because they know no hospital CAN turn them away for treatment and yet SOMEONE has to pay for their treatment. We've got a guy who came in through our ER just recently, and he's been addicted to heroin who knows how long and the public is paying for his care." And his tone of voice indicated that he, himself, was disgusted by this and figured most other people would be too. I've heard sentiments like this preached from pulpits with my own ears. I've heard stories from people I have no reason to doubt that they have heard similar things preached from other pulpits. I've seen it in comments to print articles online. I've heard it in the news. I've seen stuff like THIS:

"Nothing for free over here; you have to work for whatever you get."

"No, I'll pay for this guy; I'LL decide what he gets!"

There is just this undercurrent that people have to DESERVE the help we give them. People have to EARN the right to charity. Or that only certain people in certain circumstances are WORTH charity.

And on top of all of that, people judge that "worth" based on how these people are NOW. Denying the fact that a person can change, that who a person is now may not be the same person they are in five years or ten. Some people never change, some do, but we can't know their futures. We can't see the path they are going to take and to deny them help because of the way they are NOW can also mean to deny them a future. Even if they squander that future they still had the chance at it. And maybe they won't squander it -- who's to know?

And sadly, I hear people saying all this stuff who call themselves Christian and it just.... I'm not kidding. This is really making me sad.

Christians of all people should know -- you don't EARN God's love, you don't DESERVE anything we get from God. It is a gift out of love.

To me it's one simple question. You ask, "Are they a human being?" If the answer is 'yes' then that's all they need to DESERVE to be treated like one and to DESERVE ANY help we can give them.

And I wonder WHY so many people who act in Christ's name seem to forget this fact.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who Names These Things.... Again!

Back (somewhat reluctantly) to The Flash

Episode 13: Tina, is that You?

Plot: Barry's having trouble sleeping but this isn't a problem for Tina so she offers to use a device at STAR Labs to transfer some of her sleep inducing abilities to Barry. When the machine explodes Tina is injured but seems to make a full recovery... or does she? There's something different about the good Doctor -- she's just not herself. Trouble is, the person she's become is a threat to the Flash!

My Take:
Oh boy. Remember all the times I've said comic book science just has to be swallowed? Well, there are exceptions... stuff that is too stupid to take. This is one of those situations.

The writers try to pull a bait and switch at the opening as viewers are stunned to see Tina arrive at Barry's apartment and declare that she loves him... and that he reciprocates. Unrequited sexual tension payoff so early in the series?! Psych! Tina turns out to simultanously be a purse snatcher with a gun. Yes it all turns out to be a bad dream for Barry (and for those of us watching, yeesh). Although one wonders why his "nightmares" start out with Tina telling him she loves him. Also, as far as nightmares go -- someone with a gun (which the Flash can easily outrun) isn't usually as scary as getting chased by a monster (or getting chased by a monster with a chainsaw through a grocery store and having him start to cut you in half at the checkout line... oh... uh... yeah, forget I mentioned that) or not being able to run or escape, etc.

But I digress. The writers on this episode decided to go with a "Jekyll and Hyde" variation. It's pretty common as far as plots go -- the good guy or the sidekick gets turned evil through hypnosis, brain washing, mind control, chemicals, etc. Here they decide to go with an accident which causes Tina to suddenly become a bitch on wheels.

Poor Amanda Pays. She tries her best, she really does, but in the end, she never convincingly comes across as vicious or threatening. Although I confess, I love it when she breaks out with the British insults.

Our big bad villains this episode (aside from Tina, which we will get to in a minute) are a three girl criminal outfit called the Black Rose Gang. Because, you know, they're girls so they have to have a 'girly' gang name. Geeze. Insert eye roll here. But it does get worse... The leader's name is Harley... but before you get your hopes up she is nowhere NEAR as cool as Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series. Sadly, even if she WERE as cool as Harley Quinn it wouldn't do much good because she stupidly decides to try to run down the Flash with her car... despite the fact that she had JUST seen the man outrun bullets... and she crashes the car and ends up a little bit dead. In truth, looking at the crash and knowing how few safety devices would have been in a '57 Caddy (with fins) it's stretching suspension of disbelief what ANY of the gang survives. But survive two of them do and one even manages to get the drop on the Flash and knocks him out by clonking him over the head. Superhero points deducted.

So the remaining two members of the Black Rose Gang go underground (literally) and spend most of the rest of the episode whining about getting revenge on the Flash and modeling the WORST of 90's fashions with a little bit of the 1950's thrown in. It isn't pretty. Oh, and the writers are stupid. At one point the surviving gang members are told that Harley was buried in a pauper's field and one girl tells the other that this is where they bury "outlaws". Uh... no. It isn't. A "Pauper's Field" (sometimes called a "Potter's Field" from the bible where Judas's 30 pieces of silver, which he got for betraying Jesus, were used to buy a field owned by a potter to use to bury those who died in the sity but were strangers to it) is where cities bury the indigent, the poor, and the nameless. It is sometimes used for burying those who die in prisons but usually only if the prisoner has no family and/or no one to claim the body.

And then, woven throughout all of this we have yet another installment of 'Julio: Worst. Co-Worker. Ever.' The running joke of Julio and his girlfriend always trying to set Barry up on blind dates with disasterous results wore thin after the first couple of episodes. Here we see Barry apparently finally striking gold in a woman named Lisa. And then thw writers pretty much draw a big picture that Barry expects to get lucky. On his first date. A BLIND first date. Yeeeaahh... what kind of message were they trying to send here?

Of course, Barry's dreams of not spending the night alone get disrupted by now crazy Tina. Seriously, everything up to now had been rather awkwardly staged but now it starts getting awkward AND stupid. The plot takes a sharp left onto 'What the Hell' street as Tina decides to get all 90's slinky -- teased hair (which is obviously a hair piece), overdone make-up (seriously, at no point in time should blush EVER have been applied as a diagonal slash across the cheekbones, I don't care WHAT the fasion was), a mini-skirt, fishnet stockings, and ankle boots with little kitten heels. Ugh. Just... no.

In addition to what little fashion sense she had running away scared, Tina also decides to join the Black Rose Gang (why? Dunno. How did she find them? Don't really know that either) and promises to give them the Flash on a silver platter. What follows is a series of terribly put together, semi-action sequences with enough plot holes to qualify for swiss cheese. I could go into detail but I'd rather spare myself as much as my readers here.

Eventually, Barry manages to bring Tina back to her senses in a tearful (literally, and by god it's stupid) scene and all is right with the world. Bleh. Ick.

This episode is a waste of disc space unless you want to watch it with a glass (or two) of wine (or other alcoholic beverage) and spend the next hour ripping it to itty, bitty shreds. It's fairly amusing then. If, however, you are under the age of 21 ignore the suggestion about the alcohol. Never let it be said I encouraged the delinquency of minors. In addition to the stupid plot and terrible acting the running jokes about Julio fixing Barry up on blind dates should have stopped a long time ago due to not being funny. And speaking of not being funny... the characters of Keystone (heh. I made an in-joke. Brownie points to whomever gets it) Kops Murphy and Bellows were NEVER funny but with this episode they move from being unfunny to actually being so incompetant one wonders how they've managed to stay on the force.

Flash Facts:
There is a mention of "Keystone Drive". Keystone City was the name of the home of the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick. Originally, Keystone City and Jay Garrick resided on an other-dimensional copy of Earth known as Earth 2. After 1985 DC merged their multiple dimensions into one Earth and Keystone City became the sister city to Central City. Comic book writer Marv Wolfman has always described it as being like Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.

The Black Rose Gang is hidning out in an old nucelar fallout shelter and, like seeminly EVERYWHERE in Central City, this place has a mural on the back wall. Clearly seen on the mural in one scene is the likeness of President John F. Kennedy. This is probably a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis during Kennedy's time in office -- many people believed at the time that the Crisis was the closest America came to a nuclear with with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

When Barry finally captures Tina he tells her that it's time to "Tame the shrew" -- this is a reference to William Shakespeare's famous play The Taming of the Shrew

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"People often don't know what you're talking about."

The Doctor is coming....

YEAH!!! I loves me some new Doctor Who.

The trailers don't give much to go on but it looks like Matt Smith may be compensating for his obvious youth by giving his portrayal a little more gravitas than David Tennant did. And if that's true then it's an excellent way to go.

This is one of the things I love best about Doctor Who, it's the thing that has allowed it to survive for over 45 years, and it's the thing that would probably never have been allowed on American TV... That the lead actor can leave and be replaced. Heck, that the entire cast can leave and be replaced by a new one and you actually look forward to the changes! Each new Doctor is different than the one before and each new actor brings something a little different to the table. And now it's about time for a new buffet to begin. All new dishes to sample and only a tantalizing glimpse of what's going to be on the menu.....

Drat. Now I'm hungry.

Just Because....

The OTHER Flash....

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back in a Flash

And yes, I am back to trying to complete my review of the Flash TV series.

Episode 12: The Trickster

Plot: It's the return of P.I. Megan Lockhart as she runs afoul of an insane killer named James Jesse. Jesse's defeat by the Flash twists his mind and he believes Megan is his true love who is being mind controlled by the Flash. In order to "free" Megan he is willing to turn Central City, Barry Allen and the Flash upsidedown. Can the Flash's super speed trump the unpredictability of a madman?

My Take: We have our second supervillain here and, finally, one who originated from the comic book! Well, more or less... It should be noted that the Trickster who appears here bears little resemblence to his comic book counterpart. In the comic books James Jesse was a member of a family of circus high wire performers but he disliked the family business and felt more affinity toward crime a la his reverse namesake Jesse James. An engineering genius and basically sane if callous and criminal, Jesse began inventing incredible gadgets and embarking on a life of crime which brought him up against the Flash. In this episode, James Jesse is a madman who has eluded police through six states committing crimes as far ranging as fraud, theft and murder, taking on different identities and different careers for each of his crimes. It should also be said that even the comic book Trickster's costume bore little resemblence to the costume designed for the Trickster here... but, hey, at least we've got a supervillain in a costume so I'm not going to complain too much.

Added entertainment value to the story is the fact that the Trickster is played by none other than Mark Hamill. Yep, Luke Skywalker. Hamill, as it turns out, is something of a comic book geek -- at one point in time at least owning an extensive and expensive collection. So he enters into the role with a reckless abandon that is just a kick to watch. It is also interesting to see since Hamill goes through a number of different characters and voices as his Trickster scams and schemes.

Again, though, we see the writers taking influence from Tim Burton's Batman as this insane version of the Trickster seems to have more in common with the Joker than with the comic book counterpart. Interestingly enough, only a year or so after this Hamill would win the role as the Joker in the critically acclaimed and Emmy winning Batman: The Animated Series

And his portrayal would be seen as THE definitive Joker for more than a generation of fans. Sharp eyed (and eared) Flash fans will see and hear little snippets which Hamill would end up incorporating into his Joker so the episode is like getting a little sneak peek into a proto-Joker.

Sadly, the story spends so much time setting things up that it ends up never quite properly building the Trickster into the proper threat he should be. Part of the problem as well, is that the writer on this story -- namely Howard Chaykin -- turns the Trickster into more of a foil for Megan Lockhart than one for the Flash and many of the Trickster's "tricks" seem more 'sound and fury' with lots of sparklers and roman candles than they do legitimate threats to the life and limbs of the citizens of Central City.

The story also moves forward on the initial attraction between Barry and Megan but then viewers get a 'bait and switch' as the whole thing ends up not only going nowhere but getting a ridiculous excuse for it shoehorned into the last minute of the story. I suppose we should be thankful -- most 'temporary girlfriends' who appear on TV end up six feet under, victims of 'Teresa Bond Syndrome' (google the character and I'm sure you'll get the reference). There is also a painfully awkward subplot with Tina feeling her friendship with Barry will be threatened by Megan.

It also should be said that the actress playing Megan cannot produce a convincing scream. At all. It's surprisingly annoying. I mean, if you're going to try to convince the audience that you're screaming out of sheer terror you need to do a better job than your average high school melodrama production.

On the flip side, the story also manages to play, at least a little bit, with the question "chicken or the egg" question. In this case the question is: "Does the Flash create/attract the villains or have they always been there in one way or another?" Over the decades, a number of comic book writers have explored this idea in various ways and there was a really good episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which a number of Batman's enemies put him on trial claiming that HE created THEM. But I digress...

Despite the flaws, this is overall a really fun episode. It's great to finally see a fully fledged comic book supervillain in the story and Mark Hamill does a great job throwing himself into the part. Definitely worth the watch -- particularly since Hamill would reprise the role later on in the series....

One technical note here: there was a glitch in the broadcast order and since the episodes were arranged on the DVD in broadcast order the glitch has been perpetuated. The episode "Tina, is That You?" was supposed to air BEFORE this one and in fact some of the events of that story are referenced here, and yet the episode ended up airing AFTER this one. They really should have fixed this on the DVD release or at least made a note of it.

Flash Facts:
When we first see James Jesse he is dressed as a traditional stage magician -- with a top hat, white tie and tails, and white gloves. This outfit makes him look like another Flash rogue -- Abra Kabadra. In fact, just a little bit later in the story Jesse claims that he 'studied Harry Houdini' -- a claim that Kadabra would also make. Abra Kadabra, however, originally came from the 64th century where his obsession with stage magic was considered a joke due to the highly advanced technology. Traveling into the past he would use that technology to make it seem as though he could really do magic.

After defeating Jesse the first time the Flash refers to him as "Mandrake" -- this is a reference to "Mandrake the Magician", a newspaper comic strip character created by Lee Falk -- the guy who also created The Phantom. While Mandrake got his start in the newspapers in 1934 over the decades he would be move into the so-called 'Little Big Books' and would also appear in comic books and in animation. Mandrake technically had no superpowers -- he had learned a technique for almost instantanous hypnotism and so he would make people see and hear things that were not there. Mandrake was, and still is, owned by King Features Syndicate along with such other familiar heroes as The Phantom and Flash Gordon.

In point of fact.... Now I'm not saying this was a DELIBERATE 'six degrees of separation' but it IS an interesting coincidence... later in the episode Megan is trying to track down the Trickster thorugh some of the props he used. She asks someone where he could have gotten hold of a statue of Mercury. We can't hear what the person on the other line says but she responds "Not Freddy Mercury!" Freddy Mercury was the lead singer of the rock group Queen and one of the things Queen is well known for was providing the soundtrack for the 1980 movie Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon is, as I mentioned above, one of the King Features Syndicate characters along with Mandrake the Magician. Interesting, no? It's also pretty sad that I could make that connection.

At another point in the story Megan calls Barry and tells him she's found the Trickster's hideout and it's on Margo Ln. Margo Lane was the assistant to The Shadow in the original pulp stories and the subsequent radio series. As it so happened, Howard Chaykin, who wrote this epsiode of the Flash also wrote The Shadow for DC Comics in the 1980's when DC had the license to the character for a period of time.

The policeman's costume ball in being held at the Infantino Hotel -- this is a tip of the hat to Carmine Infantino. Like Gardner Fox, Infantino was a workhorse for both DC and Marvel among many other comic book companies. His work is still praised today and there are likely very few major comic book characters that he hasn't drawn in his life. He was the first artist on the Silver Age Flash series and is credited with creating the character's look.

Late in the game the episode takes a turn for the rather cartoony. At one point Megan states that she's "Tired of all this cartoon crap" and not long after the Flash defeats the Trickster to the sound of the Looney Tunes ending theme and finishes the whole thing up by actually saying "That's all folks". Of course, it must be said that the Looney Tunes characters are all owned by Warner Brothers and Warner Brothers also owns DC Comics and all it's characters and it was Warner Brothers studios which was producing this TV series. So nice to keep it all in the family wouldn't you say?

Friday, March 19, 2010

I don't care if you say you don't read comic books you should read THIS

Joe the Barbarian is an eight issue mini-series from Grant Morrison and it is, in a word, awesome.

A couple of things about Grant Morrison... one is that he's Scottish, so occasionally there is a little British slang that creeps into his dialogue. Don't panic, it's only a little bit and you won't even notice if you don't get it.

Second, Morrison is quite possibly bat-guano crazy. And it's a GOOD thing. Trust me.

But for now... Joe the Barbarian....

Joe is just a little kid and like a lot of kids he's stuck dealing with a lot of familiar stuff -- like bullies and a lack of fitting in. He's also dealing with the fact that his workaholic mother is planning on selling their house and moving... something Joe does not want to do. There's the fact that his soldier-father is dead and on top of everything else Joe is diabetic and really has to watch his blood sugar.

Then an otherwise ordinary day turns into something extraordinary for Joe. Forgetting to watch his blood sugar, Joe goes into shock and starts to hallucinate just about the time a big thunderstorm breaks. Joe, alone in the house, must make his way to the kitchen to find something with sugar in it to restore his system or else thing will go very badly for him. In his present state, though, what would be a short trip of only a minute or so now becomes an epic battle... figuratively and literally...

You see, Joe's hallucinations warp familiar aspects of the real world into this strange, fantastic place -- a kingdom under seige with himself appearing to be a prophesied savior called "The Dying Boy". Joined on his epic quest by Chakk the warrior rat, Smoot the giant Dwarf, and more to come, Joe fights to keep his head on straight because, this is still all a hallucination.... or is it?

One of the great things about Grant Morrison's writing is that a 'happy ending' is not always guaranteed. Usually, the killing of little kids in comic books is something of a taboo so, automatically readers might assume Joe's life is not really in any doubt. But Morrison tends to play by his own rules and that allows readers to buy into the narrative tension. Like I said, a 'happy ending' is not a guarantee here and, even should Joe end up 'living' there is no assurance it will be 'life' as we tend to think of it, or that he will not come away from this experience as the same person he was when he entered.

Most of all, between the art and the writing we are treated to a clever and inventive new world that springboards off the familiar and turns it into something completely alien. For example, the house's hallway becomes the Forest City of Yalway in Joe's imaginative world. Joe's pet rat Jack becomes the giant warrior rat Chakk, and more.

The story is compelling, the characters are fun and inventive -- deliberately playing on traditional quest motifs and characters -- and Morrison proves that he can craft this deeply involved story which, ultimately, takes place within the physical confines of one suburban house and at the same time within the limitless space of the human imagination... and shows that both can become alien places when things go just a little bit askew.

So go, trust me, seek out this comic -- the third issue just came out this past Wednesday, it's not too late to get caught up and enter the world of Joe... the barbarian.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New Comic Book Day

Okay, so technically Wednesday is the day that new comic books come out but life has been beating me upside the head with a baseball bat recently so I wasn't able to get out and pick up my comics until today.

Included in this week's stash was a comic that made me smile... really just made me smile to read it. And what was that comic you might ask? Booster Gold #30. HERE THERE WILL BE SPOILERS! Eventually.

A little background... Writer/artist Dan Jurgens created the character of Booster Gold back in 1986. Originally rather inspired by the Regan Years, Jurgens crafted his new hero character as a guy who decided to use superheroing as a way to get famous and earn money but was something of a bit of a screw-up. The twist was that Jurgens still managed to give the character real heart, make the stories fun, and show character progression for as long as the series lasted (which at the time was only a few years).

For those who have come in late.....
Michael Jon Carter comes from the 25th century. He was a college football star, well on his way to eventually turning pro. In a bad decision made for family reasons Michael agreed to throw a game... and got caught.

Disgraced, Michael was kicked out of the university. His pro football career was over before it began and the only job he could find was as a night watchman for a museum. Getting a bright idea, Michael raided the museum's "Hall of Heroes", taking a costume which would give him durability and superhuman strength, a belt that created a forcefield, and a ring that allowed him to fly. He also stole a time travel vehicle from the display.

Michael went back in time intending to start all over, become a superhero, then use his celebrity status combined with his knowledge of what was to him the past and to everyone else the future to make money. Thus came Booster Gold.

Booster had his ups and downs. As a hero he often made mistakes but usually pulled a win out at the last minute but not without repercussions. Despite his concern for money and fame, however, deep down, Booster really cared about people and really did want to help. On many occasions he acted selflessly. As an entrepreneur, he did garner a fortune only to lose it by being betrayed by his business manager. Many of his 'get rich quick' schemes after that tended to blow up in his face or get himself and his friends in trouble.

He actually served on various incarnations of the Justice League and he suffered because of that as well -- at one point having lost an arm and the rest of his body so badly damaged he could not live outside of a power suit. He got better. It's comic books whaddya expect?

The final straw came when Booster, because of his lack of knowledge about the past, saw his best friend, Blue Beetle, killed, his longtime robot companion, Skeets, dismantled for parts, and many other friends killed or badly injured. He retreated back to the future but while there he found a way to restore Skeets and returned to the past armed with complete knowledge of what would happen.

After helping stop a major threat, Booster believed he was destined to be invited to join one of the greatest iterations of the Justice League. When this failed to materialize along with other events he came to realize that something or someone was altering time. He ended up joining forces with a hero called Rip Hunter -- a Time Master whose job it was to protect the time stream from time traveling villains. In an effort to protect himself and his family, Rip has hidden his true name, where he comes from and when he was born from the world.

Although Booster helped save the day no one knew about his actions to save the time stream. Put through the wringer for a whole year, Booster had enough of time travel and declared that he wanted nothing more than to get on the Justice League again and pursue a life a fame and fortune. When Rip Hunter, however, showed him that many of his friends and fellow heroes would either die or cease to exist because of problems in the time stream Booster agreed to finally give up on his dreams of fame and fortune for a higher calling.

The twist of it all was that, to the world at large, Booster had to remain a grandstanding, ineffectual hero so that villains who plundered time for their own gains would not try to end his career by traveling through time and killing Booster while he was still an infant or preventing his parents from meeting.

So now Booster is a Time Master in training -- operating under the guidance of Rip Hunter, making sure that the histories of his fellow heroes remain as they ought -- for both bad and good. And it isn't always a bed of roses. Booster has been forced to allow certain people to die, he's been forced to allow certain heroes to become villains all to make sure that time stays on course. But there's a little secret here. Rip didn't pick Booster for this job by accident... Booster is his father. Of course, Booster isn't aware of that little fact yet. Nor is he aware of the fact that he is destined to kick off a heroic family legacy and become known as one of the greatest of the Time Masters.

With issue number #30 Dan Jurgens, who has been writing the revamped series since issue #13, is preparing to leave temporarily to work on another project. As his swan song he has given readers a really nice wrap up to the last story arc. Booster is faced with one of his hardest missions -- he must stop a well-meaning time meddler.

A few years in the past a city the size of L.A. was completely destroyed. The government has sent their first time traveler back in time to stop this from happening and Booster is placed in the unenviable position of having to stop them -- having to see that millions die. Can he do it? Or will he change time himself?

Now, I know, the above story doesn't sound like something that would make you smile, right? Well, the kicker comes at the end. Throughout the story arc readers had been seeing a mysterious figure who seemed to be dropping hints for Booster and his compatriots throughout. When the mystery man finally stands revealed to Rip it turns out to be.... his father. Sixty some-odd year old Michael Carter. What Jurgens does perfectly here, though, with both his art and his dialogue is to show readers a character who truly seems... balanced. Here his Booster Gold is a man who has made peace with his past -- who is secure in who and what he is and, despite having a pretty busy job keeping the time stream and the multiverse safe, is happy. Not in that, over-the-top, impossibly happy-ever-after kind of way but in that quiet, 'everything is going pretty well and all things considered that's enough' kind of way.

And that's enough to make me smile.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What it Says on the Wrapper

And now we return you to your (semi) regularly scheduled Flash reviews..

Episode 11: "Beat the Clock"

One year ago a local jazz sax player was convicted of murdering his wife, a jazz singer right on the cusp of hitting it big. Now he has one hour before facing the electric chair. One of the people who believes in his innocence is Barry Allen's crime lab co-worker Julio Mendez. Julio's belief is enough to have Barry decide to get the Flash involved but is even the Flash fast enough to solve the crime in one hour?

My Take:
You almost have to love something that tells you exactly what it is. Almost. Lots of TV shows and movies like to do "beat the clock" style stories. The premise of the TV series 24 is actually an entire season leading up to beating a clock. Basically, no matter what kind of structure the story takes a 'beat the clock' story is one in which the hero or heroes have a limited amount of time to solve a puzzle or a crime or to put a stop to the villains or else.... The "or else" is usually someone (or multiple someones) will die or a city or even a country will be destroyed. Some shows "play fair" -- i.e. they run the story in real-time so that if it would take two characters 15 minutes to drive somewhere 15 minutes pass for real before viewers see them arrive at their destination. Other TV shows play fast and loose with the time frame.

For this episode of The Flash the show splits the difference a bit. Most of the scenes seem to play out pretty close to real-time but the writers do fudge a little bit here and there. The director also keeps things honest by consistently showing various clocks in the background or having someone give the time so that the audience can keep up with the passage of time. It's a nice effect and eliminates the need for putting a countdown clock in the corner of the screen as some 'beat the clock' stories do.

The fact of the matter is, though, that viewers are left with yet another rather pedestrian story. Sure, it's a pretty solid mystery but it still doesn't produce enough *omph* to make it seem worthy of the Flash. Also, with what is known now about forensic science it seems impossible that the fact that something was 'off' about this murder wouldn't have been caught before this. The writers try to throw various things out to keep the Flash from solving this until the last minute with the result that suspension of disbelief is stretched pretty far and our intrepid hero looks a bit ineffectual. There are also some real cringe-worthy scenes of over-the-top, forced hysterical laughter and Tina playing cowering little damsel that just make you want to smack someone... writer, director, actor, I don't know but at least one of them.

The best thing here is the jazz songs and the score by Shirley Walker. I've praised Walker before but she was really on the ball for this episode. Not only did she score the whole episode in a jazz/blues/swing style, she even wove in some snippets of jazz standards AND she also crafted a jazz version of Danny Elfman's Flash theme which is a delight to hear.

In the end, while this isn't my favorite episode to watch it is my favorite episode to listen to thanks to Walker's music.

Flash Facts:
Angela Bassett's character of Linda Lake wears a large flower pinned in her hair -- more than likely a call back to famed jazz singer Billie Holliday, who was also known to wear a flower in her hair.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Go Ask Alice...

So, yeah, taking a little swerve here. Went to see Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland last night. So.... what did I think of it? Oh, and HERE THERE BE SPOILERS so if you haven't seen it and want to be surprised, change the channel now.

First off, going to take a tangent and talk about The Looking Glass Wars, the first book in a series by Frank Beddor. His book is a re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, purporting to be the "true" story of Alice. Shorthand for the book is that Alyss is the daughter of the Queen of Wonderland and heir to the throne. Her aunt Redd, however, stages a bloody coup, Alyss's mother is killed and Alyss tries to escape through a portal only to end up in "our" world accidentally. Alyss grows up here, her name is changed to Alice and she is adopted by the Liddell family. As everyone treats her tales of Wonderland as merely an overactive imagination eventually she quits talking about her home and resigns herself to living in this world. She is sought out, however, by Hatter Madigan, Captain of the Queen's Guard, known as the Millinery (get it, 'military'/'millinery'). Hatter's primary weapon is a hat which can flatten out and form blades which he then throws.

At any rate, Madigan finds Alyss and eventually gets her to return to Wonderland where she must lead a rebellion in order to take back the throne and relieve Wonderland from the iron grip of Queen Redd.

So, yeah, Burton's re-imagining is something like that. Not EXACTLY like that, mind you, but much different from the story you likely remember as a kid. Or the animated Disney movie you might have seen as a kid.

In truth, the story kind of ends up devolving into a rather simplistic tale of 'good vs. evil' and rather to the point, the screenplay really doesn't do much to amp up tension because at least part of the outcome seems prophesied from the start... and prophesied in such a way as it's a sure bet, not one of those 'wishy-washy, interpret it different ways' type of prophesies. We never seem to doubt that Alice will survive all of her perils at least up to a certain point in the story and that robs rather a lot of the narrative tension.

It is, however, a lushly beautiful story and Burton plays with color in a way that I don't think he ever has before. Most of his movies tend to use a very dark color palette but here he opens himself up to the full spectrum of white to black and everything in between. It's a welcome change. The story itself is also not as dark as his usual work. Oh, don't get me wrong, there is a certain amount of darkness here but, on the whole, there is also a much more positive attitude.

The performances are also a bit confusing. The voice actor playing the Cheshire Cat is probably the most consistent and, for a CGI creation, the cat itself is a scene stealer. Johnny Depp, almost unrecognizable (but then again, when isn't he? I swear that man is this generation's Lon Chaney... and that's a GOOD thing)in wig and make-up, has proven in the past that he can put on an accent and sustain it throughout a movie so it is bewildering why his Mad Hatter sometimes has a lisp and sometimes not and sometimes has a Scottish accent and sometimes not. He's too good of an actor for this to not be deliberate... isn't he? So if it is deliberate then... why? Because the Hatter is supposed to be mad? But then that doesn't excuse Helena Bonham Carter -- another particularly good actress -- who portarys the Red Queen sometimes with a lisp and sometimes not. And when she has the lisp she reminds me of Madeline Kahn for some reason.... still trying to figure that one out.

I will say this as well, Burton uses the 3-D technology to pretty good impact here. It enhances parts of the story but never overwhelms them.

There is also a good message here for girls and young women as Alice determines to live her life by her own standards and there is no romance, no handy-dandy little hunk to come in and sweep her off her feet, nope. Alice stands on her brains and her talents and sets off on her own adventure -- meeting the real world head-on and wherever the winds may take her.

In short. It's not a bad pciture. Entertaining enough. If you want to splurge on the extra bucks for the 3-D effects then try for a matinee showing. But this version of Alice in Wonderland sadly doesn't give us nearly enough. It neither gives us a new vision of the original story nor does it go far enough afield imaginatively to give us something that feels wholly original with roots in the past.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nowhere Man

Yes, I know, I've fallen behind. What can I say -- life sometimes interferes with life. But either way, your humble hostess Stressfactor is back with yet another episode of The Flash.

Episode 10: "Sight Unseen"

Tina is working late at STAR Labs when 'a little man who was not there' unleashes a toxin into the building. Now she and her boss are infected and have four hours to live. To make matters worse, STAR Labs failsafes will irradiate the building if anyone tries to breach the building seal. It's up to Barry to figure out who this 'invivible man' is and get the anti-toxin or else Tina dies. Adding to his plight, there are indications that the mystery man also intends to use more of the toxin to poison Central City itself! It's going to be a long night for both Barry and the Flash.

My Take:
Every series, sooner or later, likes to do some kind of variation on a "beat the clock" story. The Flash is somewhat unique since it decided to do TWO of them. This one, which is a quasi-"beat the clock" and the next one in line, which is a true "beat the clock" (something I'll discuss with the next review). These type of stories are really effective when done well; they amp up the tension, they put the hero on the wire, but lives most literally on the line. Problem is, this story? Not done so well.

One major failing right out of the gate is the amount of plot holes and improbabilites we have to swallow. I mean, from the start we see that whatever gadget the invisible man is using to make himself invisible it interferes with electrical equipment -- it causes lights to flicker, it causes radios to get static interference, it prevents a car from starting, it causes security TV's to go fuzzy, etc. It is supposed to be an electromagnetic device to bend light (yes, it's comic book science, get over it. In the 1960's everything that wasn't "ATOMIC!" was "MAGNETISM!") and yet, while still wearing the activated gadget our villain is able to use a computer with no problems whatsoever! And these are 90's computers! The kind where just sneezing around one seemed to cause it to crash! And we're supposed to accept that a guy wearing some kind of sophisticated electromagnet is just blithely booting up a computer and loading a virus?! Seriously, a nice EM pulse next to the server would have just fragged the whole thing anyway.

And then there is STAR Labs safety measures... I mean, what kind of a place has a lockdown that will irradiate a building and yet apparently there is NO ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN SHUT DOWN THE SYSTEM SAFELY!!! I mean, you know, if there were a chemical leak or something, even if you assume that everyone in the building is dead you can't just.... you know... LEAVE THE BUILDING SITTING THERE! At some point someone has to be able to start getting in there to clean up, neutralize the chemicals, etc. so that the building can either be safely put to use again or else safely abandoned. And besides all of that -- there is also the case scenario of what we see this episode -- people infected with a poison or a disease but where there is some hope of administering an antidote -- in which case you need protocols for entering the building and safely removing the sick people for treatment. I could just see STAR Labs motto now: "Work here but if anything happens to you you're on your own because we don't care." Just... stupid.

And then... we've got a guy who checks off most of the mad scientist supervillain boxes... Created a device which basically gives you a superpower? Check. Got a line in crazy, dramatic, death and threat filled ranting? Check. Going to destroy a major metropolitan area? Check. Got a cool costume? No check. GAH!! This is one of the things that drives me crazy about this series. It's like they WANT supervillains but they DON'T want supervillains. They want villains who have all the trappings of supervillains but hen they don't want them to LOOK like supervillains. We saw this in the previous episode where the Ghost started out the episode with a cool (by 1950's standards) costume and yet when he enters the modern era they're quick to stick him in a button down shirt and pleated pants. And really, NO ONE looks good in pleated pants. Here, we have our quasi-mad scientist -- a tall but slightly portly fellow with glasses and thinning hair wearing pleated pants (again!) and a jersey top.... and a duster and wide brimmed fedora. Seriously, if you're going to try to make the duster and fedora look seem cool a dark green knit top and pleated pants are NOT the way to go!

And our villain also has a number of plot conveniences centered around him. For one, while being about six foot (according to one witness) we're supposed to believe that this ill scientist -- this somewhat out-of-shape guy -- is able to lift a full-grown, also slightly portly man, off the groud by his throat and strangle him! Not only do we have to swallow that, but we have to believe that, somehow, just the fact that he's invisible means that the Flash... the FASTEST MAN ALIVE... cannot catch him. I mean, we're expected to believe that in the ONE SECOND it takes the Flash to move across the room to where he heard the invisible man's voice coming from said invisible man has managed to move far enough away that the Flash can't find him. Writers, the guy is INVISIBLE, not INTANGIBLE. And there's no way this out-of-shape guy could be moving THAT fast.

And is that enough terrible stuff to swallow for one episode? Oh no. No, here comes that LOVELY old chestnut -- the arrogant, jerk of a Federal Agent... oh, who also happens to be corrupt as well. Got enough sterotypes in there yet?

In the episode's defense... there are a FEW nice touches. There are a couple of good lines of dialogue (I particularly like it when Barry tells the corrupt Fed to "Pack up your cloak and dagger") and it is a nice touch to try to humanize the mad scientist and show him as someone haunted by the horrors his work has unleashed, as someone wanting to get the truth out there (Yes, that was an X-Files reference), as well as being sick which has likely contributed to his madness. the problem is that these little touches are just too little to save a story that was filled with way too many plot holes and pushed suspension of disbelief past the breaking point.

I will say this as well, overall, the 'invisible' effects largely hold up over time. There are some sequences which look like the action was filmed backwards and then run forwards but it isn't too egregious.

Unless you're a completist, a purist, or someone who likes to rip stories apart MST3K style, this episode can be skipped like a hopscotch board.

Flash Facts:
Barry and Julio were planning a night at the racetrack and Tina was supposed to go with them. When Barry returns to Julio waiting at the lab Julio greets him by singing "I've got the horse right here..." and then says to Barry "We've got the guys where's the doll?" These are references to the musical Guys and Dolls (which was based on some short stories of Damon Runyon's). The opening song is called "Fugue for Tinhorns" and consists of three gamblers looking at their racing forms and each one backing a different horse and insisting that their horse will be the winning one. The song opens with the line "I've got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere..." It's a fun little musical. For those wanting to see it, the only version of it put to film was in 1955 featuring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. But for voices -- I far more recommend listening to the 1992 Broadway revival cast album featuring Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Torch Bearers

The Flash

Episode 9: "Ghost in the Machine"

1955, Central City. the supervillain known as the Ghost threatens to blow up the city center using a television signal if his demands are not met. His plans are foiled by the mysterious vigilante known as Nightshade. 1990, the Ghost awakens from cryogenic sleep to find a brave new world... and one equal to his genius and nefarious plots. The Flash must team up with an out-of-retirement Nightshade in order to stop the Ghost from bringing Central City to it's knees.

My Take:
Ladies and gentlemen, after nine episodes.... We. Have. A. SUPERVILLAIN! YAY!!!!! Okay, so it's not one of the Flash's traditional rogues from the comic books but he fits all the points of supervillainy. Costume? Check (at least in the opener. The wardrobe department is quick to put him in regular clothes and keep him there throughout the episode but there WAS a costume), Supervillain name? Check. Wild, over-the-top, insane plan for conquest (at least of the city)? Check.

About freakin' time. Some disappointment that the first supervillain they feature is one made up for the TV series and not one of the Flash's traditional rogues from the comic books but I'll let it go because IT'S A SUPERVILLAIN!!!!

Okay, okay, it's out of my system now.

At any rate, the writers finally hit their stride with this episode. There are a few minor quibbles -- some elements where time has not been kind to the story, but overall, from the opening to the last scene, this story is awesome!

So, the opening... so very cool that they chose to do this in black and white -- like an old TV show. I also like all of the touches that tie the hero Nightshade into the old, pulp mystery men genre (more on that later).

The story as a whole has some really good dialogue -- everything from truly funny stuff to quiet, dramatic moments that manage to hold you spellbound. Of course, some of this is because of actor Jason Bernard playing Desmond Powell/Nightshade. His performance here is nuanced and grounded giving the characters weight and believability.

There is a lot going on here in the script and yet it all manages to work together seemlessly. The Ghost bemoans that the "future" he has awakened in has fallen short of his expectations. There are no "food pills", no "personal helicopters", no monorails, and no "underwater cities". As modern, British, comic book writer Warren Ellis put it in his Doktor Sleepless comic: "Where's my $%^&ing jetpack?!" It's a nice commentary and good laugh at how science fiction of the 1950's and 1960's always had humanity far ahead of where it would end up being at the turn of the millenium. Then there is the passage of time. We see it physically in the change of the mural on the wall of the secret entrance to Nightshade's hideout, we see and hear it in the characters of Nightshade and Belle as they bemoan their lost youth. And yet, at the same time, there is a realization on the part of both of them that they have lived all of these years and they have gained something from them. Belle eventually flees from her former love -- both from a sense that she cannot be with him while he is still young and vital and she has had time take it's toll on her -- but also because she has grown up as she has grown old and the Ghost has not. Stunted in maturity and morals for not having gone through life the way she has. Belle and Nightshade reflect that age may take away beauty, skill, stamina and speed but it delivers wisdom, intelligence, and maturity.

In addition to all of that, the story is a love letter to the old, pulp mystery heroes many of whom were forerunners of modern superheroes as well as contemporaries of the superheroes. There are lots of little tributes -- Nightshade keeping his car and hideout in an abandoned building where the wall rolls up to let the car out hearkens back to the Green Hornet who had a similar setup. Also, Nightshade's black car seems pretty similar to the Green Hornet's ride, Black Beauty. The idea of an ordinary guy without any superpowers who relies on gadgets was also a staple of the mystery man -- characters like the aforementioned Green Hornet, but also the original Crimson Avenger, the original Sandman, Alias the Spider, and even some women like Lady Luck, Domino Lady and the Blonde Phantom. Nightshade's use of tranquilizers could be a tribute to the Sandman or the Green Hornet -- both of whom used gas guns which dispersed a "knockout" gas. Also, Nightshade's costume bears a slight resemblance to the Golden Age Sandman's costume in that Nightshade's welder's goggles look quite a bit like the Sandman's WWI era gas mask which he wore as a disguise. In another tribute, Powell tells the Flash that he read "Too many pulp magazines when I was a kid". Of course, this also touches back to the Flash's comic book origin where he took his name and inspiration for crime fighting from reading comic books when he was a kid.

Not all is fun and games, though, and there is a lovely soliloquy by Powell/Nightshade about his career -- of returning after the Korean War, of wanting to be of service to the city but being blocked by the fact he was African-American, of the strain and costs of the double life... it is a mature, sincere discusstion wonderfully acted not just by Bernard but by Shipp as well. The character of Barry doesn't have a lot to say here but Shipp manages to convey with expression and body language Barry being entranced by the life of this superhero -- a kind of enchantment like a kid reading a comic book for the first time -- but also as an adult who has found a kindred soul -- someone who understands the masked crusade.

After all of this... lovely writing, a serious story, a love letter to the past, the story does fall down a bit when it comes to the suervillain... or more precisely, his plot. The idea of him uploading his consciousness onto the net and taking over is cheesy, yes, but suitable supervillainy. The writers might have gotten away with it too... I can remember in my youth when I watched this episode first run I thought it was pretty cool. Problem is, we're 20 years farther along with decades of open public internet access being the norm. Of even 10 years olds now knowing enough about the way computers operate and the net operates to know that pretty much ALL of the computer stuff depicted here is so wrong, stupid and bad it's beyond fail. It's beyond ultra fail and has gone into the territory of ultra-mega-bad-crazy-fail.

Still, if one overlooks the fact that time has not been kind, the rest of the story is well awesome.

Now, I said, I would get around to explaining about "Mystery Men" a bit. There are some who choose to subdivide the superhero genre into true "superheroes" -- men and women who wear colorful costumes and who have powers beyond those of ordinary mortals -- and "Mystery Men" -- men and women who are perfectly ordinary, who rely on some gadgets and gizmos but mostly stand on brains, fists, and occasionally guns. The Mystery Men also tend to have costumes that consist of ordinary business suits (although perhaps in an unusal color like green or blue), trenchcoats or greatcoats, domino masks, and fedoras -- either wide-brimmed or snap brimmed. A number of mystery men were actually created before many of the first superheroes (Superman being one of the earliest heroes and he arrives in 1938) but many also came about after the first superheroes throughout the 1930's and 1940's.

The Mystery Men came from two sources -- one was comic books but the other source was the old pulp magazines (hence Nightshade's comment about reading too many pulps as a kid). The Shadow, Alias the Spider and Domino Lady are three who came from the pulps while Crimson Avenger, Sandman, and the Blonde Phantom are three examples from the comic books.

Of course, the lines between superhero and mystery man are not always clear. Take the Shadow for instance. He had the look of a mystery man -- greatcoat, fedora, and scarf covering his face. He tended to use guns in the pulp stories (not so much in the radio adaptations) and he had no superhuman strength BUT he had the "hypnotic ability to cloud mens' minds so they could not see him" basically resulting in invisibility... which pretty much amounts to a super power. And on the flip side you have Batman who had the look of a superhero -- a colorful costume, but who had no superpowers, was an ordinary man and tended to rely on gadgets like grapling hooks and gas capsules like the mystery men did.

Either way, the Mystery Men served an important place in bridging the world of the weird pulp heroes and the comic book hero.

Flash Facts:
Nightshade, in talking about fading from public memory, asks Barry how many people will remember the Flash after 35 years. Unknown if this was a joke on the part of the writers or not since, in 1990, the Silver Age version of the Flash was actually 34 years old, having debuted in 1956. As it is, The Flash: Rebirth comic book mini-series just concluded, returing the Barry Allen version of the character to the comic book world 54 years after his introduction and 25 years after his death. I'd say plenty of people still remember the Flash.

When the Ghost takes control of the computer network he broadcasts a message in which he tells the citizens of the city that: "I control the horizontal, I control the vertical"; this is a reference to the original opening of the Outer Limits TV series. Although this is an odd choice for the Ghost to make as The Outer Limits did not debut until 1963 and the Ghost supposedly put himself in suspended animation in 1955.