Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Books: UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies and Realities by John B. Alexander

How do you feel about UFOs? Personally, I am a skeptic about them being spacecraft from alien worlds, but I love researching them and hearing the wild stories told about the most unusual “incidents.” UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies and Realities by John B. Alexander, Ph.D. is a no-nonsense look at unidentified flying objects by a scientist who claims to have no ax to grind either way. 

Alexander, a former military man, researches U.S. government UFO programs and presents an excellent case that: 

- There are unidentified objects flying in earth airspace. 
- These objects complete maneuvers, accelerate, and reach speeds that are not possible with current world technology. 
- The United States has no authority in charge of studying, recovering or combating these objects. 
- There (and this is the big one) is no evidence that the United States has captured or obtained an alien spacecraft or alien body, nor have they reverse-engineered such a craft from alien technology. 
- There is no general cover up of UFO information by the U.S. government. In fact, most government UFO files are available online due to the FIA (Freedom of Information Act).  

Alexander presents his case factually and logically. In fact, not only is there no cover up, but funding any group to study UFOs would be a political hot potato that no Congressman wants to touch. People in your district can’t get a job, but you’re the Senator who wants to appropriate millions to study LGMs (Little Green Men)? Not likely, according to Alexander. 

I’d love to think there is a crashed alien spacecraft in Hangar 18 somewhere, with frozen alien bodies offering up their secrets of life on another planet. Or perhaps they are living among us, eating too many moon pies and fighting their secret interstellar wars. Such speculation suffers from a distinct lack of evidence. 

Alexander concludes from many credible sources that there are strange, unidentified objects in our atmosphere.  But these “objects” are simply unidentified, not necessarily from outer space or other worlds. Are they alien? From another dimension? Angels? Something unthought-of? I’ve gone from a flat skeptic to the belief that something is up there. But the authorities are as confused as we are. The book is chock full of thought-provoking questions and makes its case well. 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Empire: Uprising #1
Empire: Uprising #1 – A supervillain with all the trappings; cruel, bloody and evil, has taken over the world. And everyone must bow down to him. This miniseries continues the original Empire series from writer Mark Waid and artist Barry Kitson. Waid brings his characteristic wit and superior storytelling to the book and Kitson is a terrific artist. Together they continue exploring the world dominated by one of the worst superpowered bad guys. Kind of like modern America. Kidding! 

World dictator Golgoth continues to consolidate his reign of terror. He starves South Africa until they submit. When they do, he brings in food for the starving populace. People can eat their fill, as soon as they sign their loyalty pledges. Meanwhile, the underground resistance attacks Golgoth’s palace wearing masks of the villain’s dead daughter. Golgoth teleports back just in time and things get bloody. What he does not know is that he has high officials in his own administration who are plotting against him—but is their ultimate goal to give people back their freedom, or just become worse dictators? 

Waid grabs the reader’s attention by the throat, as usual, and won’t let go. I anticipate a lot of carnage before he’s through, and I’ll be there for every bit. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Convergence: Shazam! #1
Convergence: Shazam! #1 – There is every reason not to buy a Convergence book. It’s a cheap and creatively bankrupt way for DC to flood comic shops with meaningless paper while they move their offices from New York to the West Coast. Plus, it contains elements of the New 52, the bane of all coherent storytelling. However, Evan Shaner might be the finest comic book artist working today. So there’s that. 

Jeff Parker does a good job with the plot, even working within Convergence’s dumbed down parameters. He even manages to avoid pointing out that DC moronically changed Captain Marvel’s name to Shazam, one of their most ignorant corporate moves. I have to admit it is fun to see the classic cast; the entire Marvel family, Uncle Dudley, Sivana and even Talky Tawny. I’ve mostly sworn off DC comics, but I would consider buying a monthly Captain Marvel book by this creative team. Regardless, it’s great to see Captain Marvel back in action. Even if DC doesn’t know his real name. 

Rating: *** 
Art Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Alex + Ada #14
Alex + Ada #14 – The government has discovered that human Alex has activated the sentience of his android companion Ada, a capital crime. On the run and hunted by the authorities, A + A manage to stay one-step ahead. Now their adventure is almost over, as the police track them down on the beach to which they’ve fled. As they consider their options, if any, things take possibly the darkest turn of all. This cliffhanger will lead to the next, and last, issue of the series. I will be incredibly sorry to see this book finish. Alex + Ada has been top-notch science fiction from the first issue, dealing shrewdly with themes such as humanity, friendship, artificial intelligence and love. I believe the days of these themes becoming reality are just around the corner. Let’s hope real world events turn out better than the ones in this book—so far. One more issue. I can’t wait to see what happens. This book does everything a good comic should. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Afterlife With Archie #8
Afterlife with Archie #8 – This comic still has no right to be this good. Who would have ever thought mixing vicious, flesh-eating zombies with the happy go lucky Riverdale gang would result in one of the best horror comics of the year? But that’s precisely what happened. In this issue, Archie has a few beers with the ghost of Jughead (in a scene inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining), Archie has heart-to-heart talks with his mother (not mentioning his much-dead zombie father) and Cheryl Blossom, and folks sing Christmas carols to remind them life goes on. There is a marriage proposal between two major characters, if they live long enough to actually get married. I never thought straight up horror would with mix with the Archieverse ... but it works, mostly thanks to writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Francesco Francavilla’s moody and expressive art doesn’t hurt. An excellent book. 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars 

We Can Never Go Home #2 
We Can Never Go Home #2 – After a spectacular first issue, cool girl Madison, who has glowing eyes and super strength, and weirdo Duncan, who can kill people with his mind, go on the run after a horrific event. Problem is, they’re just high school kids who have no idea what they’re doing. Duncan gets the bright idea to use their powers to rob a local drug dealer for some road money. In and out fast, no one gets hurt. That’s ... not quite what happens. Turns out the dealer has an empty safe, a mountain-sized bodyguard and an armory full of firearms. Violence ensues, leaving Madison and Dunc in a very vulnerable place. Add a cliffhanger ending and the result is one thrilling book. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

Joe Frankenstein #3
Joe Frankenstein #3 – Dixon and Nolan keep the quality high in this continuing tale of Frankenstein’s monster revealing himself to and protecting a Frankenstein descendant—a guy named Joe. All sorts of ghoulies are after Joe for some reason; so many the monster can barely fight them off. The deceased-looking villain Golgatha is particularly powerful and Frankie falls into their hands. Joe gets away, but how long can he stay on the run? The leader behind the entire plot is revealed to be ... well, I won’t spoil the wonderful surprise. Let’s just say she has two white streaks in her hair and a big streak of evil ... right through her heart. 

Kudos to writer Dixon and artist Nolan for a vastly superior, high concept horror adventure comic! 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Birthright #7
Birthright #7 – There really are some fantastic adventure comics out right now, and Birthright is at the top of the list. Mikey, the kid who grew up in the fantasy dimension Terrenos and learned how to fight monsters, is hiding out in the woods with his older (now physically younger) brother Brennan. Mikey says they are seeking magical weapons to slay monsters who have bled over from Terrenos, but his story is a little fishy ... Everyone from the local hunters to the sexy female Trading Post owner suspect them of being the people stealing food from campsites in the area (mostly because they are). Mikey and Brennan break into the Trading Post to steal the magical knives about which the pretty owner has no idea. When she shows up in the middle of the theft, things go horribly wrong. 

A sub-plot deals with a winged fairy from Terrenos coming to Earth in search of Mikey. She just happens to pissed, pregnant and looking to lay a beating on Mikey for deserting her. There’s a lot going on in this book, which is full of fresh and mad fantasy ideas. I love it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

Darth Vader #5
Darth Vader #5 – What is so surprising about Marvel’s various Star Wars books is that they are actually good. That was unexpected. Salvador Larroca is an artist with a long string of brilliant work, but writer Kieron Gillen is not someone whose work I usually enjoy. He’s doing a great job here, as Vader is using a suicidal, geeky IT grrrrrl to help him track down some enhanced mercenaries who are rivals for the Emperor’s affection. Unfortunately, they find them. Vader is doing this behind the Emperor’s back, and stuff hits the fan as these mercenaries challenge Vader as the Emperor, their invited guest, looks on. Expect an epic battle next issue, along with Vader probably being spanked by the Emperor for his impertinence. There’s something you don’t see every day. It is fun to read original and creative Star Wars tales again. I’m not sure I’ve experienced one since The Empire Strikes Back

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Books – The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

One thing about Wonder Woman creator and writer William Moulton Marston; the man was a freak. A well-educated Ph.D., Marston was the inventor of an early version of the lie detector and pushed many crackpot theories over the course of his life. This book is the story of his education, non-traditional family life and the creation of Wonder Woman.

Writer Jill Lepore is a History professor at Harvard and a staff writer for the New York Times. Despite that, her research seems true and well reasoned. Kidding! Lepore was given unprecedented access to Marston’s files and letters, and what emerges is a rounded portrait of the man, his life and his greatest creation.

William Moulton Marston
Curious and intelligent, Marston was involved in the beginnings of the feminist movement early in his life. He thought the world would be better if run by women, and looked at women as full equals in every way. He married his high school sweetheart, Sadie Holloway, and they took turns going to college. Marston wound up with a Ph.D., Holloway a Masters Degree. Marston never held a job more than a year or two (except as a comic book writer, strangely). He worked for various colleges as a lecturer, wrote articles for major magazines and even spent time as a staff psychologist for a Hollywood movie studio. This is where it gets weird. As a young professor lecturing to college students, Marston met and fell in love with the boyish Olive Byrne, one of his students. Byrne was the niece of suffrage and family planning activist Margaret Sanger, who was destined to become quite close to the Marston family. Marston arrived home one day and told his wife Sadie that Olive was joining their family as his “other” wife, or he would just leave her and shack up with Olive anyway. Astoundingly, Sadie accepted this arrangement. Awkward at first, the women actually became close friends who lived together until they died many decades later.

Wonder Woman in Chains
Writing as "Charles Marston," Marston put all of his progressive and unusual (for the time) feminist ideas into Wonder Woman, the first successful female superhero. Wonder Woman was an instant hit, spawning several titles of her own (Wonder Woman and Sensation Comics, which she headlined) and a newspaper comic strip, which Marston wrote for years. Under Marston’s tenure, Wonder Woman was controversial for his use of bondage imagery. Every issue, Wonder Woman was bound; chains, ropes, handcuffs, complex bondage knots. DC editors would tell him to lay off; he would outright refuse and double up. Lepore points out that Marston had a goal other than titillation. Wonder Woman was never tortured or trapped by chains; she always escaped or threw them off. Marston was showing that chains could never hold back the strength or power of femininity. Personally I always thought Marston was obsessed with bondage and must have practiced it at home, especially with his unusual home life. But Lepore could find no evidence of this, and several of Marston’s children expressly denied it—saying their liberated “mothers” would never have stood for it.

Marston died in 1947, not dreaming of the longevity of his creation. Since that time, Wonder Woman has indeed been the most successful and licensed super heroine in history; taking her place in the DC Comics “trinity” of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is extremely well researched and written, and brings out many more details of Marston, his wives and children, and the early adventures of Wonder Woman. Their story is full of history, especially of the early feminist movement, and is interesting to all audiences, not just comic book fans.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

TV Rampage

TV Rampage - Television Reviews

A critical look at some recent television shows.

Justified has been must-see television for six straight seasons. And the main setting is Kentucky, a definite plus. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens takes his place with Matt Dillon, Andy Taylor, Steve McGarret and Andy Sipowicz as one of TV’s most treasured lawmen. Always quality TV, the show never took a misstep. The recent series finale was one of the best finales I’ve ever seen. There was an Old West-style gun duel, getaways and captures, and a wonderful face-to-face confrontation between Raylan and villain Boyd Crowder. Everyone’s story was wrapped up beautifully and believably, and incredibly (slight spoiler) no series regulars were killed. With as many bullets as were flying around that show, that’s nearly impossible. In addition, the producers knew when to wrap things up, when the show was still at its creative peak. Season 2 was best, with Margo Martindale’s Emmy-winning performance as Mags Bennett, matriarch of a Harlan crime family. I’ll miss the show, but will follow closely what the writers and producers do next. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

The Missing (Starz)
This miniseries is one of the best of last year. A British couple and their young son are on holiday in France. Their car breaks down in a small provincial town, which forces them to spend a few days waiting for repairs. When their son disappears from a town celebration, parents Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor) Hughes tear up the town, and their lives, looking for him. 

What follows is the dissolution of a marriage and the destruction of two likeable people trapped in a parent’s worst nightmare. Flashing back and forth between present day and eight years ago, when the disappearance took place, The Missing tells the story of two people who wouldn’t give up the search for their missing son. Until one did, and the other slid into the madness of obsession. James Nesbitt has become one of my favorite actors, with an incredible range of characters. As Tony, he lights up the screen with his highs, as he discovers a new lead or torn photo that may be important. He makes the screen shudder with his lows as he is led to one maddening dead end after another. He is assisted by the French police, mostly by a French detective named Julien who specializes in finding missing children. Each episode shows a bit more of the story of the disappearance eight years ago and a present day lead Tony has found that may lead to the boy. There is so much suspense built up by the final episode it’s almost as if a real child went missing and viewers are going to learn his fate. 

The Missing features a fascinating story, real characters and a tension factor of 10. Highly recommended, but be warned; it will suck you in like few other shows. And the ending will shock you to the core. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 


The Honorable Woman (Sundance TV)
I am amazed by any show that tackles Middle Eastern politics, while still making them clear enough to understand and not getting bogged down or lost in them. 

Maggie Gyllenhall stars as Nessa Stein, the matriarch of a company supplying fiber optic cable to Middle Eastern countries to get everyone connected to the web. To get her construction contracts, she has to maneuver around endless minefields and disparate agendas. She thinks she has everyone pegged and can play the politics game, but has woefully underestimated both her competitors and her opponents. When she and her interpreter are kidnapped and held by terrorists, she becomes involved in a plot that will involve the entire Middle East, the United States and spies from every nearby country. 

The plot to this show is complex, but easy to understand if you pay attention. It unfolds like an onion and viewers can enjoy each delicious part. Gyllenhall is terrific as Nessa, a strong, intelligent woman who just wants peace and understanding. The Honorable Woman shows just how challenging that is when you deal with citizens, leaders and politicians who are all working for their own political agendas. Excellent. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

The Comedians (FX) 
On The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play, well, comedians who do a late-night comedy sketch show. The show is based on the Swedish series Ulveson and Herngren. Both actors are playing versions of themselves, with Crystal’s imaginary wife being portrayed by Dana Delany. That’s definitely who I’d have playing my wife if I were making the show. If Charisma Carpenter were busy. 

Crystal plays the older “superstar” comedian, continually flummoxed by Gad’s younger actor who also sings and dances. Gad constantly brags about being in Frozen, “the biggest animated movie of all time,” as Crystal rolls his eyes. They constantly find ways to drive each other crazy. 

The Comedians offers some laughs, and the actors are totally game for mocking their own images and exaggerated quirks. But it really isn’t enough. The jokes aren’t funny enough, nor the writing sharp enough, to stand out from the crowd of mediocre comedies on TV. It’s good, just not great. 

Rating: *** out of 5 stars 

Married at First Sight (FYI) 
Shhhhhh. Please don’t tell anyone I watch a reality show, okay? Good; our little secret. Fact is, I’m addicted to Married at First Sight. It’s like a train wreck, I just can’t look away. 

Being into history, the idea of arranged marriages has always fascinated me. I’ve read that arranged marriages throughout history have been successful around the same as love matches; around 50% of the time. On the show, therapists match two people who have never met and they get married, sight unseen, meeting at the altar as they say “I do.” There have been two seasons so far, each featuring three separate couples. They go on a honeymoon, then live together for six weeks. At the end of that time, they decide if they want to stay married or get divorced. A real divorce. In the first season, two out of the three couples stayed together, and as far as I know are still married. This year three more couples tied the knot. The show is in the middle of its second season, so I’m not sure what the current couples will decide. Two of the three seem to be getting along fine. 

It’s funny to be a voyeur as the couples first meet at the altar. Two out of the six couples so far have been repulsed by the other physically—that is the woman has not been attracted to the man. All the women chosen have been extremely attractive; the men have varied from male model to average. It’s also funny that the two brides who weren’t attracted to the groom at first now have the strongest relationships. They were forced to overlook the lack of attraction because they were actually married, and it has resulted in getting to know the person as a person, and because of that they have forged strong relationships. 

The three present couples are fascinating to watch. It looks like one couple will be happy and make it, another has misfiring communications but seem to like each other, and the last are two hot tempered people who can’t communicate and have formed a genuine and healthy dislike for each other. The male in that couple comes off as a real jerk. It’s hard to say for sure because at the end of the day this is a reality show; which is to say nothing about it is real. Are the producers editing the show for drama? Of course they are. Are they editing to make “good guys” and “bad guys?” I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say for sure. I believe the general premise and that the couples either stay together or not, but who knows if their struggles and miscommunications are real or just directed and edited by the producers? Still the journey, real or not, is riveting television. Just don’t tell anyone I tune in though, okay? 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Movies – Avengers: The Age of Ultron

It’s weird to think Marvel Entertainment actually controls the world. Reading comics all my life, I secretly longed for the day when these characters would have universal recognition and appeal. That I wouldn’t be the only one in my class/job/a room who knew who Captain America was. It was a pipe dream, of course. Until it wasn’t. 

Marvel really has done the near impossible. The overwhelming output of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is outstanding entertainment, made by people who love comics and want to get the stories “right.” Avengers: The Age of Ultron is no exception. Writer/director Joss Whedon is another life-long comics lover. Although his online persona is that of an angry, bullying progressive, I tend to enjoy his actual work. And he can still make a dynamic action film that appeals to all audiences, despite their political persuasions. 

Avengers: The Age of Ultron is a truly epic movie. Somehow Whedon manages to balance plot, wild action/battle sequences, a zillion characters and quiet moments of characterization flawlessly in one two-hour spectacle. Is it bloated? A little. Is it over the top? Yes, as a sequel to The Avengers should be. Is it fun? Yes. Non-stop. 

The comic book Vision
I’ll always be grateful to Whedon for introducing one of my all-time favorite superhero characters, the Vision, into the Marvel Cinematic canon. When I was a kid I could totally relate to the Vision in the comics; an outsider, someone who felt he never belonged. I always loved the fact that, despite being an artificial man, he eventually gained acceptance from his peers, fell in love with and married the weirdo prom queen and had a generally happy life. In the comics, the Vision is a totally red-skinned android who wore a green body suit and yellow cape. Despite Marvel Entertainment’s general acceptance of superheroes and costumes, I believed that would never fly with a mass-audience, commercial movie. It was nice to be wrong about that.  Actor Paul Bettany makes the Vision a bit less of a freak outsider than in the comics, but it’s close enough that I’m calling it a home run. I loved seeing the character on screen and being treated respectfully. 

Paul Bettany as the movie Vision
The general plot is fun; it is astounding to see Ultron; whom I’ve read about for over 40 years, right there on screen, brought to scenery-chewing life by the great James Spader. Marvel didn’t spare a dime on this movie, and the money is well spent on Ultron’s super-villain antics. The superhero battles in this film come as close as I’ve ever seen to recreating the massive skirmishes featured in the actual comics. 

This is the last Marvel film Joss Whedon will direct, at least for a while. I hope the next Avengers director is someone who really “gets” superhero comics as Whedon does. He throws in so many Easter eggs for longtime comics fans and has such a deft hand with story and characterization, I’d hate to see things just go to a flavor-of-the-month who has never cracked a comic (like the new Fantastic Four movie). However, after this many great movies, my tendency is to trust Marvel Entertainment. Their movies are as good as their present comics are bad. More power to them. I’ve seen Avengers: The Age of Ultron twice so far, and will probably see it many more times on film and Blu-ray. I loved it. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Television – Daredevil

We nerds have been waiting impatiently for the new Netflix Marvel shows—thirteen episodes each of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and Iron Fist to binge on. The first of these series, Daredevil, premiered on April 10. Due to being out of town, it took me a few days to get though all thirteen episodes. Some thoughts:  

The Good: 
- The show is played straight, but has a sense of humor. The dark, dark themes are filled in by some appropriate humor that springs from the characters, not campy jokes or out of place one-liners. 

- The cast. Charlie Cox is wonderful as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, he springs right out of the comic book. Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page is not only one of the world’s sexiest actresses, but also gives an outstanding performance. The most welcome surprise is Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. I thought they might use Foggy as comedy relief only (dances with lampshade on head, “Look at me, everybody! I have a lampshade on my head! I’m a law school graduate who never grew up! Wheeeee!”). They didn’t go that direction. Foggy was a nuanced character with a great sense of humor and keen sense of morality. And of course Vincent D'Onofrio tore up the screen as Wilson Fisk (playing villain the Kingpin, although never called that in the show). Great writing and performing. 

- The tone. Daredevil balanced perfectly between a superhero, crime and action show, while still being its own thing and something we’ve never seen before. Well done. 

The So-So: 
- The plotting. Not much really happened regarding the main plot in thirteen episodes. I realize they had a lot to do; introduce everyone, establish characters, make the world safe for an actual costume, etc. But I’d like to see a few more cameos from the Marvel Universe and a few more badass minions for Daredevil to fight. There were a few and they were extremely well done. But I’d like to see the show grow in personalities and characters, both hero and villain—they have 50 years of comics history from which to cherry pick ideas. 

Rex Smith as Daredevil
- The costume. I liked, but didn’t love the final costume. Cox’s first black costume (reminisicent of Rex Smith’s Daredevil costume in the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk) was used way too long. Nothing about it said “Daredevil.” When the more traditional costume was unveiled, I’d say they got it about 80% right.
All-red Daredevil from the comics
First of all, Daredevil’s costume in the comics, and the Ben Affleck movie, was 100% red. Why is the TV costume red and black? The black isn’t necessary and goes back to the fact that all live action designers dress heroes in black ninja crap. They’re so afraid of color and sticking to the source material! The black parts aren’t necessary, there is nothing wrong with adhering to the comics here.
TV Daredevil's "beak"
Also, they gave the cowl a beak. I really hate that. Batman does have a kind of beak, where the cowl sticks out to cover his nose. Daredevil doesn’t, and his mask/cowl looks much better in the comics, or his first movie. I hope this changes, as to me it makes the entire costume look weird. Not bad though, we’re getting there! 

A possible "no-beak" cowl look

The Bad: Nothing really bad about the show, just a few minor nitpicks. 
- Episode pacing. Between episodes five and seven or eight, some of the episodes seem to drag a bit in the middle. Are the writers just getting the pacing down? Would it be better to have ten episodes instead of thirteen? 

- Sound effects. During fights, when characters strike each other, it sounds like plastic fists dropping on bags of sand. Refer to the Indiana Jones movies for some striking fist-to-jaw noises. Make it sound like someone is throwing/taking a punch! I look forward to the second season (already renewed) to straighten out most of these nitpicks. 

Overall, an extremely enjoyable experience. I loved having one of my favorite comics characters being brought to the screen with so much care and professionalism. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars