Friday, December 8, 2017

TV Binge Review - The Punisher

Netflix's 'The Punisher' mixed incredible violence with plodding inaction disguised as drama.

  Netflix released their latest Marvel Comics series ‘The Punisher’ on November 17th. I waited until the Thanksgiving weekend to binge watch the 13 episodes, watching four episodes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, three episodes on Thanksgiving, and two episodes on each of the remaining three days of the long weekend. The 2004 Punisher movie starring Tom Jane is one of my all-time favorites and I liked the Jon Bernthal version that appeared in Netflix season 2. In that series, The Punisher (real name Frank Castle) avenged the murder of his wife and children at the hands of a drug cartel aided by corrupt members of the NYPD.

  I was hoping that having dispensed with the ‘origin’ in Daredevil, The Punisher would be moving on to his war on organized crime and corruption in government. Instead the main plot brings more layers to the death of Castle’s family by linking it to a drug-smuggling ring in Afghanistan that was unknowingly aided by an elite Black Ops team named Project Cerberus that Frank Castle was part of. The team would capture, torture, and kill unquestioningly at the command of group leader ‘Agent Orange’. The project comes under the scrutiny of Homeland Security agent Madani in New York when a video of her former partner in Afghanistan being tortured and killed by the as yet unknown members of Cerberus.

  The video was sent to Madani by a former NSA agent who is shortly shot and left for dead by ‘Agent Orange’ but survives and is off the grid except for his being able to hack into seemingly every computer and camera on the planet. The NSA agent (code named ‘Micro’ who is the Punisher’s aide and confidant in the comics) then locates the Punisher and convinces him that ‘Agent Orange’ was really behind his family’s death and sets off the 13 hour adventure.

  I understand the need for a ‘big bad’ for the series but dredging up the death of Castle’s family as the reason for the Punisher’s involvement seemed like overkill to me. Since we are introduced to many of Frank Castle’s military pals from his previous life and special emphasis is given to how the Punisher will risk his life for his friends there could have been many other ways to get to the main conflict between Punisher and Agent Orange underway. Having the constant flashbacks of Castle’s family being murdered combined with Micro’s anguish at being able to see his family (through cameras he has wired into their home) but not let them know he is alive made the series extremely dark. In addition, there is the massacre of a team of Homeland Security agents (including the brutal neck slicing of Madani’s confidant Sam Siegel). The Punisher is such a dark character that the rest of the cast doesn’t need to add more to it. The supporting cast doesn’t need to bring comic relief but they shouldn’t add to the darkness. The only character that didn’t brood their way throughout the series was Punisher’s fellow ‘Project Cerberus’ member Billy Russo. Russo has a great time dressing up in nice suits, having an affair with agent Madani, and running his ‘army-for-hire’ contracting business. Unfortunately for Russo he is also Agent Orange's right hand man and gets his comeuppance by series end.

Believe it or not this is one of the least violent confrontations in the series...

  To say the series was violent would be an understatement. In all but two episodes there are brutal fist fights, gunfights with head shots at very close range, and knife work with neck slicing and regular run of the mill stabbings. Agent Madani is shot in the head, shot in the side, and has her car smashed by a truck with each incident requiring downtime. The Punisher seems to need no rest after countless stabbings, shootings, being beaten to a pulp by ‘Agent Orange’ to the point of having his teeth knocked out. The only time Castle needs a break is when Micro poisons him and when he is shot with an arrow that causes a massive infection (that is cleared up within hours after the arrow is removed. I would rather have seen the Punisher being maimed one or twice in the entire series instead of hourly. After all he has no super powers and should be wearing body armor to protect him instead of miraculously healing in time for his next confrontation.

  I liked the show primarily because of Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of the Punisher. Bernthal is unrelenting and vicious in his Punisher persona and I liked his ‘New York quiet tough guy’ Frank Castle. There was a lot of violence which OK with me but the show had a lot of warts also. With the extreme violence in each episode came a lot of slow moving plot development that seems to be a staple of the Netflix/Marvel shows. The intrigue at Homeland Security and the CIA was interminable as was Madani’s soul searching talks with her mother. The only slow moving parts of the show I liked was Castle’s bonding with Micro’s family as he infiltrates the household in order to keep an eye on them. I was expecting Castle to get involved with Micro’s wife which didn’t happen and was a nice fakeout.

This is more of the typical Punisher violence in the series.

  The overarching mission of once again finding his family’s killers intermixed with the slow moving plot development made the show lurch from one confrontation to the next. My favorite parts of the series was when the Punisher finds himself as part of the day to day violence of life in New York. In the opening episode Castle works at a construction site slamming a sledgehammer against concrete walls for hours on end in an attempt to forget his past when he stumbles on a co-worker being dumped into a cement foundation for his part in a robbery gone wrong. Castle switches from crazed sledgehammer guy to Punisher mode in a heartbeat and quickly and painfully dispatches his co-worker’s assailants. In another show Punisher saves his friend Karen Page from being killed by a PSTD suffering veteran turned suicide bomber while confronting the FBI, homeland security, and the NYPD. I would have liked to have seen more of the Punisher in the role of protector of the ‘somewhat innocent’ than once again seeking revenge for his family’s death. I can only assume the showrunners did not think the revenge plotline was exhausted in the Punisher’s stint in Daredevil.

  If there is another Punisher season it will likely be in 2020 at the pace Netflix is moving with their Marvel sagas. The stage is set for Punisher’s nemesis ‘Jigsaw’ to make his appearance. I am hoping I get to see more of the Punisher stopping random crimes in short bursts rather than the epic tale that season one attempted and failed to deliver.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Movie Review - Justice League

'Justice League' lived up to it's considerable hype in my opinion if not at the box office.

  The weekend after seeing Marvel Studio’s ‘Thor:Ragnarok’ Kathy and I went to see the DC super team flick ‘Justice League’ on it’s opening weekend. When I was a kid comic book readers were generally either in the DC or Marvel camp. Marvel was the cooler option with their large grey areas of flawed super-heroes and anti-hero villains set largely in Manhattan as opposed to DC’s white hat/black hat view of the world with the heroes living in fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham. I was always a DC fan for a very simple reason – economics. 10 cents and later 12 cents were very hard to come by to get a comic in my youth and when I had that kind of cash to spend on a comic buying a Marvel story was almost a surety that I would walk into the beginning of a multi part story that I would not be able to afford to read to the conclusion of, the end of a story line that I had missed out on, or worse yet a crossover with another comic title that would be off the shelves before I ever had a chance to see it. On the other hand a DC comic was sure to have a self-contained story all in one issue and that made it my top choice. If these ‘comic wars’ were ongoing today I could characterize Marvel as the ‘limousine liberals’ of comics that had relatable characters but cost a lot of money to follow.

  This all changed in 1970 when DC brought Jack Kirby (along with Stan Lee the creator of many Marvel creations like the Hulk, Thor, and the Fantastic Four to name but a few) over from Marvel to create the ‘Fourth World’ of the peaceful planet of New Genesis and the hellish planet of Apokolips in perpetual war and Earth stuck in the middle. Kirby’s Fourth World got started in the formerly insipid pages of ‘Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’ and continued in the issues of ‘New Gods’, ‘Forever People’, and ‘Mister Miracle’. The stories had overlapping plots and characters and made DC comics as hard to follow on a limited budget as Marvel was. When I got older and had more money I get the back issues of the ‘Fourth World’ series and was able to appreciate it for the epic saga it was. The addition of Apokolips, its leader ‘Darkseid’, and insidious allies like Steppenwolf, Granny Goodness, and Desaad revolutionized the DC Universe. Now DC had a cosmic scope to rival Marvel entities like Galactus and the Watchers and suddenly Superman seemed not nearly as super as before. The New Gods had made a brief appearance in the television series ‘Smallville’ but had not made it to the big screen, which made my anticipate the Justice League movie ever since I saw Kirby’s famous ‘Boom Tube’ make its appearance in the previews.

  Justice League takes place an indeterminate amount of time after the ‘death’ of Superman in last year’s Batman vs. Superman movie. The first third of the movie concerns itself with setting up the rest of the movie as Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) finds out about an invasion of the bug-like ‘parademons’ and finds out from Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) about an ancient battle for the fate of the earth between Steppenwolf and the allied forces of earthlings, Atlanteans, and the Amazons. Steppenwolf was going to recreate earth as a fire pit of a world by uniting three ‘mother-boxes’ that were split up after the battle. The parademons herald Steppenwolf’s return and he routs both the Atlanteans and Amazons to collect two of the three mother boxes.

  This leads Batman and Wonder Woman to recruit the super beings hinted in ‘Batman vs. Superman’ – Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg to form a super team and battle Steppenwolf. While the first part of the movie had some Batman and Wonder Woman action the assembling of the team was full of angst as Cyborg is full of angst at the half human-half robot he has become and Flash is full of angst because his innocent father is in prison for the killing of his mother. Aquaman is the funny man of the group but Seems more angry than funny. The team realizes that they cannot stop Steppenwolf from getting the third ‘mother-box’ so Batman hatches a plan to resurrect Superman using the mother box combined with Kryptonian technology. Superman is duly resurrected but is in no mood to team up with Batman so the group has to battle Steppenwolf alone until Superman rejoins the team and turns the tide to save the earth.

  Justice League was a good but not great movie and in my opinion far better than its reviews. When the team gets together the battle scenes are great. Steppenwolf made a fine villain and even though he was no match for Superman hopefully Darkseid will show up in a future movie to give Superman a challenge. The main thing I disliked about the movie was the time spent trying to introduce the three new characters to the moviegoing audience. Ben Affleck makes a great aging Batman and comes across as one scary guy even though he has no super powers. His interactions with the new members were great but there was too much of trying to get to know Cyborg by having him interact with his father and the Flash (through a macabre gravedigging scene when retrieving Superman’s body). Flash and Cyborg would have been better served by showing off their interesting powers more and talking less. Aquaman was a comic relief vehicle and had the same problem that the character has in the Justice League comics – if there is no underwater action he’s just a strongman and if the action is underwater the rest of the League is too slow to keep up.

  Wonder Woman was epic in her action scenes especially in the opening when she takes out a group of terrorists single handedly. She had a great fight scene with Batman (that was over in one punch) but she took a backseat like most of the characters when Superman made his inevitable appearance. I liked how the ‘Man Of Steel’ and even ‘Batman vs. Superman’ portrayed Superman as an alien that was distrusted by humanity and distrustful of humanity to a degree. Justice League gave Superman near-deity status and far too much screen time as he had to get his bearings after his death experience. As much as I like the Superman character the Henry Cavill version has all the personality of a block of wood and the character is still just too super for earthly adventures.

  The box office for the movie was disappointing but it was still enough of a money maker to justify more DC team-up movies. Justice League was very much like a DC comic in that it was self-contained except for Superman’s death which was covered well enough that any first time DC movie patron could follow the plot. I appreciated that this movie was only a single year after Batman vs. Superman and the same year as the Wonder Woman movie. I wish the Marvel movies could bang out the headline movies every year. Next year is scheduled to bring a Batman movie which will hopefully bring a Nightwing or Batman Beyond character. There is no Man of Steel movie on the schedule which doesn’t surprise me since Warner Bros/DC does not seem to have any idea how to make the character relatable or less super. When Superman is on the job there doesn’t seem to be any room for the other heroes to shine. Hopefully DC will be able to bring more of the New Gods saga to the movies as this is probably Superman’s best chance to have a worthy antagonist.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Movie Review - Thor:Ragnarok

'Thor:Ragnarok' is easily the best Thor film to date.

  I went to see the latest Marvel superhero movie ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ at the local theatre with Kathy three weeks ago on the opening weekend. The Saturday night showing we went to was half full which was expected for the #1 movie of the weekend but far from the norm for most movies I go to see in Marshalltown. This is the third Thor movie in the current series following 2011’s ‘Thor’ and 2013’s ‘The Dark World’. The first two movies alternated between Thor’s cosmic realm of Asgard and Earth with the major subplots being Thor’s relationship with earthling Jane Foster and his half-brother Loki’s persistent betrayal of Asgard and his adoptive father the all-powerful Odin. The movies were good but the earth action and constant showing off of the grandeur of Asgard made them slow-moving as well.

  ‘Ragnarok’ starts with an action scene and never lets up. It begins with Thor battling the demon Surtur on a hell-like planet. After his ultimate victory, Thor brings Surtur’s head back to Asgard for safekeeping as it was foretold that Surtur was the harbinger of Ragnarok (otherwise known as the end of Asgard). Upon his return Thor immediately sees that his father Odin is being impersonated by the mischievous Loki and the pair head to earth to retrieve Odin from the Norwegian village where Loki banished him.

  The trip to earth was as light-hearted as the battle with Surtur was action packed. This was a hallmark of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ – the movie had both a great humor and superior action and the ability to switch between the two in an unforced manner. On Earth, Thor has a funny run-in with Doctor Strange who proves to be Thor’s match in every way and sends him to find Odin and Loki where Odin dies after giving some expository on his first born daughter Hela. Hela immediately appears and she is every bit the menace she is shown to be in the comics and more as she destroys Thor’s hammer with one hand and banishes Thor and Loki to the far ends of the universe by disrupting their escape through the warp-like BiFrost as she heads to Asgard to begin her quest for domination of the ‘Nine Realms’ (Asgard, Earth, etc..).

  At this point the movie takes another about face as Thor finds himself marooned on a planet controlled by the ‘Grandmaster’ where he is put to work as a gladiator while being enslaved by an electric shock device. Thor is desperate to get back to Asgard and promised by the Grandmaster his freedom if he can defeat the gladiator champion in battle. It turns out the Grandmaster’s champion is none other than the Incredible Hulk who disappeared at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Grandmaster is crazily played by Jeff Goldblum who oscillates between being a cutthroat killer and a party animal.

  After a great fight between Hulk and Thor (which Thor seemed to be winning until being ‘shocked’ into defeat by the Grandmaster), the movie pivots to Thor’s attempts to escape from the Grandmaster’s planet and reminded me a lot of ‘Star Trek Discovery’ except with super heroes. There is the help from a resident of the planet, finding an escape ship, and the eventual escape and obligatory chase scene. The best part of this section of the movie was the screen time afforded to both Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Instead of the mono-syllabic Hulk of the Avengers, this Hulk was intelligent in a petty and child-like way and liked being the ultimate gladiator of the Grandmaster’s planet. When the Hulk finally turns into Bruce Banner Mark Ruffalo’s Banner is not the mild-mannered scientist I’ve been used to but more of an arrogant type that argues he is more valuable than the Hulk because of his doctorate degrees but also manages to keep his pulse rate down while flying the escaping space ship.

  After the funny adventures on the Grandmaster’s planet, Thor and his team of Loki, Hulk, and Valkyrie (a confidant of Grandmaster but originally a resident of Asgard) head to Asgard for the final battle against Hela in which the good guys win but at a tremendous cost.

  This was a well-made and fun movie and in my opinion the best Marvel Studios production to date. The other Thor movies seemed too full of the ‘grandeur’ of Asgard or Thor trying to find himself or figure out his relationship with Jane Foster but this movie was just action or humor. Cate Blanchette was an incredible Hela with a bone chilling disregard for anything but revenge and power. Her costume was an improvement over the comics with an expanding headdress that gave her battle horns a ‘Medusa-like’ quality. Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk were perfect complements to the ever serious Hulk and stole every scene they were in. Tom Hiddleston was his usual superb self as Loki and Chris Hemsworth mixed humor and gravitas as he has seemingly figured out how he wants to play Thor.

  With the exception of February’s awesome looking Black Panther, this is the last Marvel Studio release until next spring’s much anticipated Avengers: Infinity War starring Thanos the Destroyer. I know it will be a big box office success but I wonder why after nearly a decade of Marvel Studios films there are still only three movies a year being produced. This year saw Spiderman: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and Thor: Ragnarok and that was it. Each movie did gangbusters at the box office. Marvel films are such proven moneymakers I can’t understand why they aren’t coming out at least every other month until the market proves it is oversaturated. There is such crossover between characters that these movies could be made two or three at a time for later release. I can see why a Planet of the Apes or Transformers movie can only come out every few years – the story centers around a basic theme and characters. I can’t understand why a multi-faceted franchise like the Marvel Universe can’t produce their movies like the money-making factory they have proven to be.

Next up from Marvel Studios is 'Black Panther' in three months. It looks incredible if it is even half as good as this trailer.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Five People I Don't Want to Meet in Heaven - Part 3

  Sadly for me I’ve again run into the type of characters that compel me to add a new chapter to my series on the five people I don’t want to meet in heaven should we both end up there. Part one was about the dumpster diver that called me heartless when I didn’t let him get close enough to me and my howling beagles to ask for a handout. Part two detailed my dealings with the representative of a government entity a program of mine interfaces with telling me errors and delays on their end was ‘their lead developers highest priority’ to quiet me down for two weeks and then telling me that the problem wouldn’t be fixed for months because their staff was ‘a quarter of the size it was a year before’. My most recent run in was with master of the ‘bait and switch’ who may or may not end up in heaven that I don’t want to meet there or anywhere else for that matter.

  Not much has changed on the work front since I last wrote about it. I am still a self-employed contractor hiring myself out as a programmer to a company in Ames and still working part time troubleshooting the program I wrote for my previous employer that they couldn’t keep running after eliminating my entire department earlier this year. The program is used by two different companies that are both having it rewritten by other companies meaning not the company that laid off everyone who could maintain the program. I am slowly turning over the day to day duties to the ‘user’ companies but since the program is quite complex the turning over and the rewrites are taking longer than expected and five months after assuming the second job I am putting in as many hours as ever on my two jobs.

Bait and Switch Artists

  One of the two companies that use the program I maintain owns the software and arranged to sell the other company the source code as of April 2014 (Don’t ask me why). The issue is that the buying company had also paid for specific enhancements to the program after this seemingly arbitrary April 2014 date. I was asked by my former employer if I could merge the purchased code with the specific enhancements.

  It seemed like a simple enough task. I had done several of the specific enhancements and all the code revisions were on a repository that I am very familiar with so I agreed. I asked for access to the code and was told ‘I would get the access I need’ from the executive I made the agreement with. The next day I got an email from someone I never met before who I shall call SDM for ‘Software Development Manager’. SDM said that the easiest solution on his end would be for me to get the source code versions in a format called GIT and that I should download the GIT software from the internet and put it on my machine. I wrote back to SDM saying I didn’t know GIT and that the easiest thing for me would be to have access to the code repository I was used to working with. I left out the part about how I am generally less than impressed with people when the first thing out of their mouths is what is easier for them.

  SDM wrote back saying that getting me access to the repository “did not fit the timeline” and “you can reach out in this thread if you have questions." and also that I would have to learn GIT at some point. I didn’t mention that I have survived 57 + years on the planet without learning GIT but mention that the learning curve would delay the project but I would give it a go. After all, SDM said there was a timeline and if I needed help all I had to do was ask in the email thread.

  That was on a Tuesday. I was supposed to receive this GIT version of the code and start working (there was a timeline after all). I didn’t get the files on Wednesday or Thursday but on late Thursday afternoon I got an email from the ultimate recipient of the merged code telling me they were told I was working on it and asking when I would be done. I didn’t tell the customer I hadn’t started because I didn’t have the code but I did write to SDM mentioning I hadn’t received anything but an email from the customer asking when I was going to be done. SDM said the PG (programming guy) that was supposed to send me the files was out sick and I would get the files on Friday.

  I didn’t get the files Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So much for the ‘timeline’. I suppose I could have written again. I didn’t because I saw no reason why there would have been a different result than the last time I asked. I wasn’t SDM or PG’s mother and if I was they probably would never see a desert again. I was also wondering if I would ever get the file but on Monday I got an email from SDM asking me if I had everything I needed and if I had any questions about GIT, PG could provide “brief assistance”.

  Part of me wanted to drop this project like a hot potato. A larger, much larger part of me wanted to mention that if I wanted to work with clowns I would have run away and joined the circus when I was a child. But being the responsible adult and someone who had made a commitment I wrote back saying not only did I NOT have everything I needed I actually had NOTHING I needed. I also expressed my concern that the offer of reaching out in an email thread if I had questions had changed in the space of five days to the nebulous offer of ‘brief assistance’.

  I got an email from PG within the hour telling me that he had sent me an email containing the code but his email client ‘appears to be blocking the sending of the code’ and sent me a link to the 73 megabyte file. I know 73 megabytes is not as much as it used to be but it is still way too much for most email servers to send and receive. I was finally able to download the source code. Then SDM wrote to say they could indeed help with GIT and they were outsourcing the project because “our resources are tight”. He closed the email by saying "Have you reviewed the online resources on GIT? If you have questions after that, feel free to ask questions."

  Now for those who haven’t dealt with this type of technical support the translation of this ‘offer’ is known as ‘RTFM’ as in READ THE F******* MANUAL assuming any question I had was going to be so basic that I could just look it up online and asking for help was tantamount to admitting my laziness. As Johnny Cash said in his classic song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ –"What could I do?" Once I had agreed to the project I was getting pushed around like a piece of trash by SDM and possibly PG (who may genuinely not know about sending 73 megabyte emails) with their minds focused on what is easiest for them, blather about timelines, and then not being able to do what they say they are going to do, and fake offers of assistance. It was a classic bait and switch - once I agreed to use the GIT source code repository nothing else that was said by SDM and PG mattered because they were give the minimum of help and do as little as possible which almost didn't even include sending me the source code required to even start the project!

  I wrote back saying that "I will be sure to review the online resources on GIT before feeling free to ask questions." and I haven’t asked any questions because I am sure that I wouldn’t get any kind of an answer. I’ll get the project done but it will take a lot longer and while that’s not OK with me I will make a decent buck from the project and once complete I will run away having anything to do with this company.

  I don’t hate much but I despise dealing with incompetent people that can’t deliver on what they say they are going to do. The only person I’m more upset with that SDM and PG is me because I agreed to this project without nailing down all the details and didn’t demand to use the source code repository I was familiar with. There’s two reasons I don’t want to run into these characters in heaven – first because I don’t like them and more importantly if I ran into them I’d probably do something to get myself kicked out!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Beagle Birthday Dreams

It's that time of the year when America's most literate beagles – Daisy and Baxter,
take over the Broken Pawn to celebrate their birthday!

Hi Everyone! It’s Daisy… …and Baxter with another blog post for all our fans. And of course everyone knows the big news, right Daisy? They better, Baxter. We had our birthday this week! Happy Birthday Baxter! Happy Birthday, Daisy! Now we are 7 years old. Can you believe it? I don’t feel middle aged but the doctor sent us a birthday card with an advertisement for senior dog food. If senior means more meat, I’m all for it! YUM!! I love meat! I think it means food with less calories so we don’t get overweight (she said to the beagle that weighed in at 38 and a half pounds last month…)

That’s in the past! I’m pretty buff. I lost two pounds in the last week alone. If buff means fat then you’re super buff, Baxter! I weigh a petite 30 pounds. And you only lost the 2 pounds because we had to go to the Happy Tails Kennel again last week. It was the second time this year we had to go to the kennel. We had to go there in May when Hank and Kathy went to Idaho for Ben’s graduation. This time they went to South Carolina for Grandpa Walt’s retirement party. I wish retirement parties and graduations were beagle friendly. Me too. And the worst part of going to the kennel was that I got kennel cough. I have to take medicine and I haven’t felt good for a week.

I cut my paw and had to get wheeled around in my wagon. Owwie... I had an operation and had to wear this hideous shirt to keep me from pulling my stiches out.

Then you gave the kennel cough to me and I have it too. And that’s on top of my other ailment. What ailment was that, Daisy? Kathy found a lump on my arm. The vet took a biopsy and said it was a soft tissue sarcoma. Oh I remember now – that was pretty scary because a sarcoma is kind of a cancer. It was. I had to have an operation where they cut open my arm and took the lump out. But the vet said they got all the cancer out and all you have is a scar. And they had to shave my arm. The hair still hasn’t grown back yet.

I had an ailment too. I cut my paw and it hurt when I walked. Owwie... You should be more careful where you walk, Baxter. I had to take my wagon on walks for almost a week. Seems like a pretty first world problem to me, Baxter. That’s because you have four good feet. I already have a foot with one toe so I need all my other three feet. At least with the wagon Hank could wheel you around pretty fast on our walks. When you walk you are the slowest dog in the world. That’s because I like to smell all the leaves and every blade of grass. You’ve been walking faster since we got the kennel cough. That’s because it’s hard to smell stuff. I wish we didn’t get boarded. Then we wouldn’t get kennel cough.

Humans have all the fun. Look at this incredible food Hank and Kathy ate at the Waffle House!

Normally Hank stays with us when Kathy goes away but he wanted to eat at the Waffle House, Baxter. Who could blame him, Daisy? Did you see the picture of the T-Bone steak? YUM!! It sure looked good. It would have been nice to get a taste but Hank didn’t bring us back any. HELLO!!! Hungry beagles here! And how about those hash browns? SCATTERED ON THE GRILL! SMOTHERED IN ONIONS! COVERED IN CHEESE! CHUNKED IN HAM! DICED WITH GRILLED TOMATOES! CAPPED WITH MUSHROOMS! And TOPPED WITH BERT’s CHILI! I wonder who Bert is? I don’t know who Bert is but he must be a great chef, Baxter.

It doesn’t seem fair Daisy. What doesn’t seem fair? Hank gets to go to the Waffle House and eat T-bone steak and eggs and awesome hash browns with chili and ham but all we got for our birthday was premium dog food out of a can! I know. We love premium dog food out of a can but it would have been a better birthday if we got to go to the Waffle House. Hank says that there aren’t any Waffle Houses in Iowa and that’s why he doesn’t take us to any. It’s not right that we don’t live near a Waffle House. No wonder Grandpa Walt and Kathy’s sister Megan hardly ever visit us. There aren’t any Waffle Houses here. I wouldn’t want to visit us either. Even though we are very lovable I’d rather visit less lovable dogs that live closer to a Waffle House.

Hank said that he asked Chef Roger at the Waffle House how much a Waffle House franchise cost and that Roger told him it cost a million dollars. That’s not too much money, Daisy! We helped Hank and Kathy find $12.75 on our walks just in the last 2 months. We could easily find a million dollars and we could open a Waffle House so Hank and Kathy could take us there on our birthday. Unfortunately I looked up Waffle House franchise opportunities on the Internet and found out that Waffle House restaurants are all corporately owned. Hank and Kathy can’t buy a franchise because they don’t sell them. I guess Chef Roger should stick to making T-Bones and eggs. I guess all we’ll ever get for our birthday is premium dog food out of a can. Maybe not, Baxter. What if we opened our own restaurant?

I think we need a different logo for our Beagle House restaurant... Looks good to me!

That’s a great idea, Daisy! We can’t call it Waffle House. What should we name it? How about the Beagle House? It rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It sure does! We can serve T-Bone steak and eggs just like the Waffle House. And hash browns with ham and chili but I don’t know about the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Skip the vegetables! Let’s have more meat. I’d enjoy my hash browns SLABBED with bacon! How about STICKED with a topping of beef stick treats? YUM!! That’s what I’m talking about. Maybe BONED with a T-BONE steak! Sure! And PATTIED with hamburger patties! OH BOY!!! And for the high class customers FILETED with a topping of Filet Mignon! And for the value customer – FRIED with fried chicken. MAN!! I’d like an order of hash browns, DICED, TOPPED, SLABBED, STICKED, BONED, PATTIED, FILETED, AND FRIED!!! What a meal. And since we aren’t franchising the internet says we can open a restaurant for just $275,000. Is that less than the million dollars Chef Roger said it would take to own a Waffle House? A lot less! And don’t forget we already have the $12.75 we found over the past two months. At that pace we’ll have the beagle house open in no time. Maybe before our next birthday. And in the meantime we can practice cooking our DICED, TOPPED, SLABBED, STICKED, BONED, PATTIED, FILETED, AND FRIED hash browns!! What are we waiting for? Let’s get started! YUM!!!

That's what I call a plate of hash browns!! YUM!! I'll take two plates!!

Friday, November 3, 2017

No Waffling

Amid the tangle of signs, roads, and stores in Gaffney, South Carolina a vision comes into view...

  This past Thursday I took a trip to South Carolina with Kathy to visit her dad, Walt. Walt is retiring from the college where he had worked for the past 25 years and he was being thrown a big retirement party. There were a number of reason I didn’t want to take this trip. The first reason is I hate flying. The second reason is that taking two days off work is taking two days’ pay off the table since I became a paid consultant in February and don’t get the benefits of sick days or vacation time. The third reason is that we have to board Daisy and Baxter and I don’t especially like to leave my favorite beagles in anyone’s care but mine.

  The main reason I shouldn’t have gone didn’t become apparent until the trip itself. An old friend of Walt’s was also going to South Carolina and had arranged to take the same plane with us and was going to stay in the same hotel with us and we were going to take her with us. The friend was very nice but was also handicapped which meant that she had to ride in the passenger seat of the car where ever we went while Kathy drove. This left me in the back seat with our son Matt and his wife. After being in a cramped airplane and then being on numerous cramped car rides and watching a football game on bleacher seats my back and legs were super sore from being twisted and cramped for hours on end. I know that this is a first world problem but it was my first world problem so I decided to give it the name of DPS for Distressed Passenger Syndrome and since I couldn’t find any references to it I have applied for a trademark and hopefully will be able to market an entire line of DPS™ merchandise in the future.

  Aside from my bout of DPS™, there were plenty of good points to the vacation. I got to hang out with Walt, sister-in-law Megan, brother-in-law Shawn and his family. I got a tour of the college, plenty of meals, and a great seat to the football game between the Limestone Saints and Catawba Indians. And this is before the highlight of my trip which was to eat at my favorite restaurant, the Waffle House for the first time in over a year!

Here is my father-in-law Walt with the brand new Chevy Malibu from his retirement dinner.
The portrait was done a few years back and will stay at the college forever.

  Thursday was full of travel. Up at 3:30, drive to Cedar Rapids by 6, arriving at Charlotte by 11:30, and then taking a van to Gaffney, South Carolina where we arrived at Walt’s house. Megan had a huge lunch spread waiting for us. We ate and then headed to the Hampton Inn where we were staying. There was time for a quick nap and then it was time to put on a suit for the first time in years and head to the retirement dinner. The dinner was at a real upscale facility with an open bar and servers bringing appetizers around. We mingled and then sat down for the dinner where Walt was lauded for his 25 years of stellar service to the college. He was presented with the Order of the Palmetto which is the highest civilian honor awarded by the state of South Carolina and a new Chevy Malibu among other gifts. By the time the dinner was over and we got back to the hotel it was after midnight east coast time which was 20 hours after I had woken up the day before in Marshalltown, Iowa.

  Over 20 years of waking up at 4am to walk beagles have rendered me incapable of sleeping late so I woke up on Friday at 5am east coast time. I worked for a half hour and played chess on the internet for a half hour. And then I played for another half hour. And another half hour. I just kept on playing until it was 9am and it was too late to go to the Waffle House because Kathy was up and Walt’s friend was knocking at the door to eat at the hotel’s free breakfast room. After that Kathy took Walt’s friend shopping for a half hour and I played more internet chess. Then we spend the day eating lunch (at the Olive Garden), having a tour of the campus on a golf cart, and then driving almost two and a half hours round trip back to Charlotte to visit Kathy’s brother and his family.

From the humble Waffle House kitchen comes the most amazing food!

  All the driving and riding on a golf cart aggravated my of DPS™ but the ride back was better because there were only two people in the back seat on the drive back. We once again got home near midnight and I once again woke up around 5am east coast time and I once again worked for a half hour but instead of succumbing to my internet chess addiction Kathy and I walked a mile to the nearby Waffle House. We arrived around seven and the restaurant was almost empty except for a lady who was sitting in the prime location at the end of the counter with a view of the entire kitchen. Thinking quickly, I angled Kathy and me to the booth that was closest to the grill. Our waitress Dee asked us what we wanted. Kathy had a waffle and eggs with orange juice. I had plenty of time to eat and plenty of time to digest with no long car trips scheduled to trigger another bout of DPS™ so I ordered the meal that was my staple of the last century when I lived for a couple of years in Florida : A T-Bone steak with eggs, toast, hash browns, and grits. The only thing I forgot was to load up my hash browns with all the toppings (SCATTERED on the grill, SMOTHERED with onions, COVERED with cheese, CHUNKED with ham, DICED with tomatoes, PEPPERED with jalapenos, CAPPED with mushrooms, TOPPED with Bert’s Chili, and COUNTRY slathered in Sausage Gravy. I knew I forgot when Dee told the cook she needed hash in the ring which meant a plain order of hash browns. It was ok, though, because my grits were almost immediately put in front of me and before I could devour the giant bowl two more plates full of food were headed my way. I pounded down my eggs, toast, and hash browns and saved the giant T-bone steak for last. All the food was awesome and brought me back to happier times of eating at the Waffle House every day when I lived in Florida, completely banishing thoughts of my DPS™. Kathy enjoyed her breakfast but not as much as I did because no one could have enjoyed a meal as much as I enjoyed my T-Bone with eggs, toast, hash browns, and grits. I chatted a little with Dee the waitress about how great it must be to work in the Waffle House, gladly paid the $22 check, and left a big tip with the anticipation of getting back to the Waffle House before our early flight out on Sunday.

The Limestone Saints and Catawba Indians played an entertaining and competitive Division II football game.

  Saturday was the day of the big college football game between the Limestone College Saints and the Catawba College Indians from Salisbury, North Carolina. It was a nice warm afternoon and we had seats on the 50 yard line. My DPS™ started acting up from sitting on the bleachers for a couple of hours but the game was very entertaining even though the home team Saints lost 45-28. It was a 4 point game with just eight minutes left before the Indians got two scores in a 10 second span a minute later to put the game out of reach. After the game we went for a donut a Sunny's Donuts (the best donut shop in South Carolina) and then to dinner and hung out at Walt’s house at which point the lack of sleep over the last three days finally caught up to me and I fell asleep in an easy chair until it was time to go home for the night.

At Sunny's Donuts you pick your donut and the filling you want and the donut is then prepared for you.
Here is my lemon injected glazed donut!

  On Sunday I once again woke up around 5am east coast time and I once again worked for a half hour and once again suppressed my desire to play internet chess and headed with Kathy to the Waffle House. The restaurant was empty and we grabbed seats at the counter with a full view of the cooking area where a server was using a squeegee to clean the floor. I’d have loved another breakfast of T-Bone steak, eggs, hash browns, and grits but with the nauseating plane trip home just a few hours away I decided to keep it light and have some hash browns SCATTERED on the grill, SMOTHERED with onions, COVERED with cheese, CHUNKED with ham, DICED with tomatoes, CAPPED with mushrooms, and TOPPED with Bert’s Chili. I learned my lesson from my trip to the Liberty, Missouri Waffle House last year and passed on having my hash browns PEPPERED and remembering how the chef was incredulous at my having both chili and country gravy on my hash browns passed on the country gravy.

Round two at the Waffle House on Sunday saw us get Kathy's eggs and waffle and my SCATTERED, SMOTHERED, COVERED, CHUNKED, DICED, CAPPED and TOPPED hash browns. I think my plate looks a lot like what heaven must look like!

  Kathy ordered a blueberry waffle with eggs and orange juice and we watched Roger the cook fire up my hash browns while he was scrambling Kathy’s eggs and prepare her waffle. While we were waiting I struck up a conversation with Nana the waitress who told me that lots of people have chili and country gravy on their hash browns and that she and Roger had been working the night shift at this Waffle House for over 20 years! Roger brought our food over and I mentioned that when I first started going to the Waffle House you could only get the hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered. Roger started telling me about all the changes he had seen in the past 25 years. For example people can get their hash browns in a bowl with eggs and sausage.

  The hash browns were awesome with each bite exploding with flavor. There was no way I couldn’t be full after eating that massive plate of hash browns. I was so happy after my hash browns I asked Roger if I could take a picture with him. Roger was OK with it and Nana the waitress brought me a Waffle House cooks hat and wanted to be in the picture too. I paid my $13 for our meal, left a large tip, and even bought a waffle house coffee mug.

  Since I was full of hash browns SCATTERED, SMOTHERED, COVERED, CHUNKED, DICED, CAPPED and TOPPED I was in a dream like state during the hour long car ride to the airport and slept most of the way through the two and a half hour trip in the tiny tube of death called an airplane. Except for my DPS™ it was a great trip. I don’t know if I would have felt the same way if there hadn’t been a Waffle House to eat at. I mentioned the trips to the Waffle House to some of my co-workers and I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they react when the Waffle House comes up in conversation. Some people roll their eyes and if they’ve been to a Waffle House it is a sure sign that we just don’t share the same world view. Some people get a blank stare because they’ve never been to one which is understandable since there are no Waffle Houses in Iowa or New Jersey (where I have spend 55 of the past 57 years). But when someone smiles knowingly I know they see the world the same way I do and are enlightened to the wonders of the Waffle House.

After taking care of the floor and cooking, Nana and Roger gave me my own Waffle House hat and posed for a picture,
ensuring me many happy memories until I can get to a Waffle House again.

Friday, October 27, 2017

TV Review - Fear The Walking Dead - Second Half Season 3


The highlight of Season three was the massive zombie horde!

  My last review of AMC’s 'Fear The Walking Dead' was in June after the fifth episode of the current third season. I wrote how I felt the show had turned itself around from a lackluster second season with more action, unpredictable character deaths, and utilizing horror genre staples. The third season concluded last Sunday with a double episode to make way for the parent ‘Walking Dead’ show.

  The first five episodes of the season was tight and suspenseful with rising tensions between the Broke Jaw Ranch of survivalist Jeremiah Otto and sons and the Black Hat Reserve and takeover of a Dam and it’s coveted water supply by Costa Rican black ops soldier Daniel Salazar and Lola the water engineer (AKA The Water Queen). The remainder of the first half of the season focused in the ranch and reserve but descended into plot improbability. In order to secure a peace between the ranch and reserve, one of Otto’s children (Jake) arranges an exchange of ‘hostages’ with Walker, the reserve leader. Coincidentally, the exchange is for two series regulars with Ofelia (Salazar’s daughter who was shown in flashback fashion to be rescued in the desert by Walker) heading to the ranch and post-apocalypse first family daughter Alicia heading to the reserve. Meanwhile Otto’s other son, Troy, murders a ranch family that wants no part of the conflict and tries to leave the area. Troy’s murder is covered up by post-apocalypse matriarch Madison who pins the blame on the Indian tribe in order to keep the ranch united against the reserve.

  As if covering for a murderer wasn’t enough, Madison and Troy then break the peace by leading a raid on the Reserve in order to get Alicia. The raid succeeds despite the Reserve having shown themselves to be strategically superior to the ranch in every way up to this show. In order to preserve the peace, Jake returns Ofelia who is dumped back to the ranch. The ranchers and Indian tribe seem to really hate each other but the ranch allows Ofelia to work in the camp kitchen whereupon she immediately poisons the entire ranch militia with anthrax! This leads to Madison leading yet another raid against the Indian reservation. The raid is once again successful this time leading to the theft if an entire tractor trailer full of Indian artifacts. The Indian tribe then circle the ranch for the first half of the season finale. I was expecting a battle but instead after having led two successful raids against the Indian camp, Madison decides to kill Jeremiah Otto as part of a peace deal with Walker’s tribe.

  Madison doesn’t actually kill Otto, her son Nick does as the final scene in an odd ending to the half season that started with great promise. How many silly plot devices were there? Need to have the militia poisoned? Have the girlfriend of the enemy leader show up and put her in charge of making coffee. Need to get the superior enemy to show up at your doorstep? Have a couple of raids that take an entire Indian tribe by surprise. Need a reason to kill the founder of the ranch? Just kill him to keep some sort of nebulous piece with the man who sent his girlfriend to poison the militia!

  The second half of the season continued with more inane plot twists designed to put our main characters in ever increasing jeopardy. To start the season the Indians and ranchers are all of a sudden sharing the ranch and living together in an uneasy truce but minutes later Madison realizes from some old maps she just happens to find that the ranch’s wells are going dry. To make matters worse Troy gets into a shootout with some of the Indian tribe and is banished. Madison and one of the tribe takes Troy to be exiled but Troy kills the tribesman. At this point Madison has a gun pointed at Troy but inexplicably lets him go to wander in his exile instead of killing him.

  There is a good side to inane plot twists and the middle part of the half season brings it all together at the ‘bizarre bazaar’ which is sort of a swap meet in a soccer stadium. Madison and Walker leave the ranch and bargain for a tanker of water using the Indian reserve of gold when Madison sees Strand the con-man. Strand has been missing in action for a few episodes and is working off his debt to the mysterious bazaar bosses ‘The Proctors’ by being chained to a fence killing walkers. So what does Madison do? She steals Walker’s gold to buy Strand’s freedom and then Strand, Walker, and Madison head to the dam to bargain for the same kind of water that had just been bargained for. At the dam, more plot twists ensue as Daniel finds out his daughter is alive and cooks up a plan with Strand (whom he despises) to bomb the dam’s water trucks to convince Lola (the Water Queen) to trade water for the guns at the ranch in order to fortify the dam.

Trapped in a airtight pantry with dozens of fresh zombies? Not a problem!

  This sequence led to the set piece of the ‘zombie horde’ and ‘panic in the pantry’ where Troy (the same Troy that Madison let free and the same Troy that murdered the ranchers that wanted to leave the ranch) leads thousands of zombies to the ranch. Nick and Troy’s brother Jake head out to stop the horde and when Jake is choking the life out of Troy what does Nick do? He clocks Jake with a shovel to save Troy! Jake gets bitten by a zombie and dies while the zombies overrun the ranch leaving the surviving ranchers and Indians to hide in the pantry.

  No matter how contrived the circumstances, the zombie horde and pantry episodes were the best of the entire season. There is plenty of food in the pantry but the air duct is blocked. While cast regulars Ofelia and Crazy Bear head off to clear the duct, Alicia gets the task of conserving the remaining air by euthanizing the survivors that have been bitten by zombies. That was grisly enough but as the survivors start to suffocate they turn into zombies and eat the other survivors that have passed out from lack of air. Somehow Alicia survives until the rest of the group returns from the dam but everyone at the ranch except Alicia, Ofelia, and Crazy Bear are all dead. The ranchers were redshirts without even knowing it.

  The penultimate episode brings our now small group of 7 survivors back to the bazaar to reunite Daniel with his daughter. The problem is that Ofelia was bitten by a zombie while clearing the air vent. Madison brings Ofelia to meet her father but Strand thinks that Daniel will be less than pleased and makes a deal with the leader of the bazaar (Proctor John) to sabotage the dam to allow the Proctors to take it over. Alicia has struck out on her own but is taken prisoner by the proctors and becomes the head nurse to Proctor John’s back operation which coincidentally goes well enough for Alicia to be Proctor John’s good luck charm.

  In the final episode of the season the group girds for the battle with the Proctors which doesn’t go very well, thanks to Strands sabotage. Madison finally comes to her senses and beats Troy (the last surviving member of the ranch) to death with a hammer although I think Troy may survive even this incident given his charmed life so far. The Water Queen and all the followers that work in the dam are killed. It seems that the entire population of the dam were also redshirts. There is a final battle at the top of the dam and a standoff with Nick holding a detonator that is wired to blow up the dam in order to give the rest of his family time to escape from Proctor John and his army of biker refugees. Nick explodes the dam and the only survivors we can be certain of are Walker and Crazy Bear (who pick off some of the proctors at the top of the dam with a sniper rifle far from the action) and Madison who washes up on a riverbank in the last scene of the season. I don’t know if Madison really survived since the episode was full of her dream sequences of Christmas at the ranch with everyone having a great time and the main course being Jeremiah Otto’s head under a silver platter.

  The second half of this season had unbelievable contrived sequences and coincidences to move the plot to the predetermined showdown at the dam. But I didn’t mind since the payoffs of the epic zombie horde overrunning the ranch, the episode of underground terror with the air running out and people turning into zombies, and dam explosions were well worth the unbelievable twists and turns to get our characters in the right places at the right time. Our merry cast of West Coast zombie apocalypse survivors have seen the west coast, the Abigail farm, the Black Hat Reserve, the Broke Jaw Ranch, and now a massive dam crash and burn with almost no survivors. Where it takes the parent Walking Dead show seasons to destroy nascent post-apocalypse civilizations, Fear The Walking Dead destroys multiple civilizations In weeks thanks to the freedom of not being tethered to a comic book plot written years before. This show remains one of my favorites and the third season was the best of the bunch.

In Fear The Walking Dead destruction is the name of the game...

  The show has been renewed for a fourth season with Scott Gimple as the new showrunner, likely as an answer to second straight year of declining ratings. Gimple has been the showrunner for the parent show for the past four seasons and has shown a penchant for splitting up the cast and bringing them together as the thread to hold seasons together. With our cast split to the four winds and only Madison having proven to possibly survive the finale there is no way of knowing which of our characters will make the cut and there is the possibility of at the next season will hold. I find all the remaining characters are interesting enough to be carried over and especially hope that Walker and Crazy Dog continue as series regulars but with a new show runner all options are on the table.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Move Review - The Foreigner

'The Foreigner' shows Jackie Chan in a more serious side...

  I went to see ‘The Foreigner’ starring Jackie Chan on Saturday afternoon with Kathy at the local Marshalltown theater where we were joined by five other patrons. I hadn’t seen any television ads for this film but there seemed to be ads for it before every YouTube video I watched over the last month. While I like watching Jackie Chan in action I’ve never cared for his movies which paint him as either the straight man in buddy movies like the ‘Rush Hour’ series or in ridiculous situations like ‘The Tuxedo’ or 'Legend of The Drunken Master’ that paint him as a martial arts idiot savant. The YouTube ads played up the notion of Jackie Chan as a man in pain out for vengeance with what looked like a lot of action without inane situations. Pierce Brosnan was shown to be the heavy of the piece as former IRA terrorist turned Irish politician Liam Hennessy that is the target of Chan’s quest to find his daughter’s murderers.

  The film doesn’t waste much of its two hours setting up the plot as it starts with Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) picking up his daughter Fan from her London school and rushing across town to the store where all the ‘cool’ kids shop to get a dress for an upcoming dance. There is a big hurry because Fan is wired to the internet and knows that there are only two of the prized dresses left in her size. It’s a shame that Fan couldn’t have used her ‘dress app’ to reserve the dress since as soon as she enters the shop a bomb explodes, killing her along with dozens of others.

  A variant of the IRA claims credit for the bombing and there is political pressure on Brosnan to give up the bombers which he deflects by blaming a rogue element while bargaining for some IRA terrorist pardons in return for his cooperation. Quan is devastated and continually calls and visits the British agency investigating the bombing. Even though this agency has cameras everywhere and instant access to all sorts of information no one bothers to find out that Quan was a special forces operative who lost his wife and other two daughters escaping from Thailand. We don’t find this out until much later but we already knew that Quan had some training because after all this is Jackie Chan.

  Quan quickly traces down Hennessy as the man most likely to give him the names of his daughter’s killers and heads to Belfast to talk to him. Hennessy’s office also fails to check on Quan’s identity until after he plants a bomb in Hennessy’s office building even though he call has called and visited repeatedly . This leads to the meat of Chan’s action scenes. There is a battle in his rooming house that carries over to the neighboring rooftops and streets which lets Chan display some of his acrobatic moves but without the silliness of his other movies. After that Chan lays siege to Hennessy’s county house with a hunt in the woods reminiscent of the classic mountain scene in ‘First Blood’ from the Rambo series. Then there is a fight with Hennessy’s special forces nephew and the climactic battle in London with the murderers.

  There wasn’t the amount of action one would expect from an action movie but the action was intense in its bursts. Luckily the movie wasn’t just an action film but had the elements of a spy movie as Hennessy’s perfect little diplomatic life slowly unravels. He finds out that his wife is sleeping with his nephew and she betrayed his plans to trade the bombers for British pardons to the same IRA lieutenant that was working with Hennessy to plan the bombings in the first place. This lieutenant is responsible for subverting the targets from banks to civilians. And to add insult to injury the girl that Hennessy is cheating on his wife with is part of the terrorist cell that has been perpetrating the bombings.

  In addition to the action and spy movie elements ‘The Foreigner’ has some Big Brother\police drama themes as well. The London unit assigned to catch the terrorists does most of their work by cross referencing the all-encompassing camera shots with facial recognition software to come up with the name of one of the terrorists who lapses for a second and lets his face be seen by a camera when he drops his keys. The unit arrives at the terrorists flat en masse with swat teams, snipers, and a camera snaked through the air vent to see inside the apartment. At that point however, this supposedly elite unit falls on their face as Chan gains entry to the apartment as gas leak repairman without being seen visually or on camera. Then the swat team manages to arrive only after the climactic battle which allows them to torture one of the terrorists into giving up the location of a bomb that is meant to be planted on an airplane.

  Aside from the police turning from elite unit to keystone cops to elite unit as needed, ‘The Foreigner’ was a tight and entertaining film. Switching from action movie to spy movie to police work is hard to pull off but the film managed to seamlessly integrate all three genres. Chan gave a great performance as the tortured Quan. Chan could show pain at losing his family without descending into pointless angst but was also able to be an action star without turning into a joker or mindless killing machine. Brosnan was workmanlike as the part terrorist part con-man Hennessy. Brosnan was most effective showing the ruthless aspects of the character and seemed to struggle showing the inherent weakness of the character as he spirals downward. The best of the supporting characters was Hennessy’s wife Mary (Orla Brady) and right hand man McGrath (Dermot Crowley) who are the major actors in plotting his demise.

  This was a fine movie and gave me a whole new slant on Jackie Chan as a serious actor. The film was also a financial success despite only 7 people attending the Saturday matinee in Marshalltown with $12 million in the opening US weekend and over $100 million overall for a $35 million budget. Hopefully Chan will spend his twilight years with this sort of film instead of Rush Hour sequels.

Friday, October 13, 2017

TV Review - The Last Ship Season 4 (Second Half)


  When I wrote my last review of TNT’s Sunday night post-apocalyptic drama ‘The Last Ship’ I expressed my disappointment at the transformation of an action-oriented show to a melodrama centered on the angst of the main characters. The show had deteriorated so much that I had been opting to spend my Sunday night post-apocalyptic television viewing time watching AMC’s ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ and catching up with ‘The Last Ship’ from the TNT website Monday nights. The fifth episode of the ten episode season was a low point in the series with the primary plot point Captain Tom Chandler’s angst over retaking his oath to join the Navy and take command of his ship and the rest of the crew’s angst over his upcoming decision.

  I had high hopes for the second half of the season with the promise of a confrontation between the USS Nathan James and the Greek warships commanded by mad scientist Dr. Vellek in a massive Mediterranean storm and I was not disappointed. Starting with this episode the show did an about-face and gone from the most disappointing show of the year to the most compelling.

  Having Capt. Chandler resume his command allowed the writers to put away the angst plotlines and put the show back on an action-oriented pace. ‘Tempest’ featured the chase through a massive storm with the Nathan James breaking through a blockade by the warships by heading past them directly into the storm knowing that the enemy would not engage in battle because the Nathan James was in possession of the seeds from the only plant that is naturally resistant to the ‘Red Rust’ plague wiping out all the food on the planet. The way the ship eludes their enemies was reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon heading into the asteroid shower to escape a horde of tie-fighters in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. The seafaring action was accompanied by the side plot of the British spy planted in a group of refugees that were rescued in a prior episode stealing the seeds that have been the focus of the season and passing them to Fletcher (the British liaison to the Nathan James). Fletcher has been instructed to betray the alliance and bring the seeds to Dr. Vellek in return for the assurance that Britain will receive the rust resistant crops that Vellek will be creating with the seeds.

The second half of 'The Last Ship' season four displayed excellent writing like this bit of naval trickery...

  Episodes seven and eight are focused on away missions to determine Vellek’s location. ‘Feast’ brings Chandler and company to Vellek’s island that was used as a fighting arena where they hope to get their hands on Vellek’s communication equipment. When they arrive they see Vellek’s older son Giorgio throwing a party so they change their plan and kidnap Giorgio while they transmit the information to the ship. The plan changes yet again when a group of Middle Eastern terrorists that were betrayed by Giorgio earlier in the season invade the island. A firefight ensues with Giorgio escaping in the confusion, heading back to Vellek’s base which we later find out is one of the Greek warships. The crew of the Nathan James finds out that Vellek is experimenting with drugs to prevent aggression. Meanwhile we find from Fletcher and Vellek that the good doctor is adding his docility drug to the ‘Red Rust’ resistant crops he is creating. We see the experiment come to fruition on the former Greek Admiral who is drugged and is only able to meekly obey Vellek’s orders to take off his medals, eat more of his drugged food, and go to his room.

  Another away team mission is on the docket in episode 8’s ‘Lazaretto’ as the team sneaks onto another island in order to bug a satellite and obtain Vellek’s real time location and communications. The fly in this ointment is that the island is the prison home to Vellek’s mind-controlled fighters who for some reason are guarded by a large number of heavily armed thugs even though the prisoners are drugged and completely docile, unable to summon the will to fight or their captors or even disobey their orders. Our crew sneaks in and pretend to be mind–controlled as well until the mission is completed. This was pretty much a repeat of the previous episode but was only the prelude to the most inventive plot twist I’ve seen in years. During the previous episodes we have seen Vellek collaborate with his youngest son Kristos (also a brilliant scientist) to bind the cure and drug to the crops that will be spread across the world. Kristos is clearly Vellek’s favorite and he continually rubs that in the nose of his older son Giorgio. Fletcher catches on to this and once he figures out Vellek’s mind control scheme tries to split Giorgio from his father. Giorgio doesn’t bite and turns Fletcher in to his father moments after Fletcher manages to get a message to the Nathan James. Giorgio then shoots Fletcher in the head. I was wondering about Giorgio’s blind loyalty to his father and expected him to turn at some point until it is revealed that Kristos died in a mugging years ago and Vellek is only imagining him via the use of the same mutated hallucinogenic drug that was seen in an earlier episode. This explains Giorgio’s blind loyalty and Vellek’s desire to use the crop cure to prevent all aggression, and set up the show for Sunday’s epic double episode season finale.

The 'Kristos' revelation was reminiscent of 'The Sixth Sense' and an equally stunning plot twist!

  The double episode finale was indeed epic with a few blips along the way. The Nathan James heads to Malta to intercept the plants that will give Vellek world domination. The problem is three Greek warships are between the ship and Malta. The US warships and Greek Navy engage in a battle of wits where the Nathan James discerns that Vellek’s ship is not one of the Greek warships and the Greek Navy manages to shake one of their ships loose from the U.S. radar. The Nathan James loses its lone helicopter while managing to blow up one of the Greek warships. Vellek orders his boat to speed to Malta which gives its location away to the Nathan James, who use the new information to discern where the remaining warships will head to protect Vellek and manage to blow them out of the water also, killing Giorgio in the process.

The end of the season is the time to say farewell to some familiar faces. So long Sunshine and Giorgio....

  The season finale leads the crew of the James to Malta where Dr. Vellek has loaded three planes with the mind-controlling cure. After the epic sea battle of the previous episode the finale seemed rushed. The five member away team gets pinned down on an airstrip but manages to outshoot dozens of soldiers and a sniper with two or their number getting shot and even destroys two of the planes, leaving the James to shoot the third plane out of the sky. Chandler and his former romantic partner Sasha head to Vellek’s warship and sabotage it while the Nathan James rams the warship and boards it like some sort of pirate movie.

  Naturally our heroes all survive their encounter with the Greek warship, rescue the remaining seeds, and even get some of Vellek’s cured plants that have not been infected with the mind-control drug. At the climactic confrontation between Chandler and Vellek, Vellek’s daughter Lucia shoots Chandler in the leg before being gunned down by Sasha. I would have been happy to see the season end with Lucia crying ‘Daddy’ as she died but the plot turned maudlin as Vellek and Chandler have to share pontifications about how dark the world is and Chandler’s belief in humanity finding the light in the darkness before Vellek tells Chandler that heaven is ‘out there’ as he points to the horizon and jumps off the ship (presumably to his death).

  The second half of The Last Ship’s fourth season more than made up for a boring angst-filled first half. Peter Weller’s Dr. Vellek was fantastic up till the last episode where he inexplicably was turned from an evil mastermind to a sniveling drug addict searching his lab for one more fix of his hallucinogenic tea. Aside from that one quibble, the last five episodes were tightly written and self contained with each focused on a clear cut objective and was far superior to striving for the ‘epic narrative’ of Capt. Chandler finding himself that seemed to be the focus of the first half.

  Season five of The Last Ship was shot at the same time as season four and will likely be the final season of the show. The ratings have fallen of a cliff this season with not a single season four episode having two million viewers and the season finale ratings well behind ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ and even ‘Fear The Walking Dead’. A Season Five teaser shows a Pearl Harbor type attack with a South American protagonist with mad computer skills which holds promise for travel and action. I don’t think the show would have been picked up for a fifth season but having already been produced should ensure it making the airwaves next summer. I saw enough the second half of this season to make me look forward to the next season. Hopefully the show will be worth my anticipation.

'The Last Ship' will be back in 2018 for a fifth (and final?) season. Here's hoping it will be worth the wait!

Friday, October 6, 2017

To Stop a Tank

  Lost in the recent ‘revelation’ that shoe companies are bribing collegiate coaches to bribe teenage players to attend the universities that are paid millions of dollars to wear the apparel supplied by the shoe companies and the hubbub over whether professional football players are kneeling, standing, or locking arms during the national anthem was the National Basketball Association changing the draft lottery rules in an attempt to prevent teams from losing on purpose in order to get better draft picks.

  The practice of ‘tanking’ or being as bad as possible in order to get a potentially transcendent player is as old as the basketball draft. Up until the early 1980’s the team with the worst records in the eastern and western conferences conducted a coin flip to determine which team would get the top pick and led to celebrations (and championships) when the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trailblazers won their respective coin flips and drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, respectively. This system worked until the early 1980’s when the Houston Rockets were accused of losing their last few regular season games to get in the coin flip two years in a row, winning both and selecting Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

  The new lottery system was designed to give each non-playoff team a one in seven chance at the top draft pick. The first lottery winner was the New York Knicks who drafted Patrick Ewing and earned the league ‘conspiracy theory’ accusations of a rigged lottery to get New York a franchise superstar. The equal chance at the #1 pick lasted only five years and was replaced with the current weighted lottery system where each non-playoff team gets a chance to get one of the top three draft picks with the best of the non-playoff teams having a minuscule chance at a top pick and the team with the worst record in the league a 25% chance at the top pick, a 65% chance at getting a top 3 pick and are assured of no worse than the fourth pick in the draft. These percentages have been in force since 2005 with minor tweaks before that.

  Practice has shown that getting the top pick in a draft with a transcendent player can alter a franchise’s destiny. Tim Duncan transformed the Spurs from a good team to a championship team while Dwight Howard and LeBron James brought their teams to the NBA Finals within five years. Practice has also shown that a poorly run franchise will not make good use of their fortune at getting a top draft pick and remain a lottery team for years. Kwame Brown was Michael Jordan’s choice as the #1 pick for the Wizards in a relatively barren 2001 draft and made no noticeable impact on the team while top picks Greg Oden, Andreas Bargnani, and Andrew Bogut (2007, 2006, and 2005 top picks) were so injury prone that only Bogut of the three was able to help his team make a token playoff appearance.

  Starting with the 2019 Draft, the three worst teams in the league will each have a 14% chance at the top pick in the draft and a 47% chance at getting a top three pick. The beneficiaries are the teams with the seventh through tenth worst records in the league and have doubled or tripled their chances of getting a top three pick. Presumably there will be less incentive to be the worst team in the league since the same draft lottery odds can be obtained by being the third worst team in the league instead.

  This reform is a reaction to the handiwork of former Philadelphia 76er general manager Sam Hinkie. Upon taking over the team in 2012 Hinkie was clear in stating that his process for rebuilding was to stockpile as many top draft picks as possible with the goal of landing enough superstar talent through the draft to have a championship team instead of the low level playoff team he inherited. Hinkie traded every player of value for future draft picks and he continually drafted players that either couldn’t play in their rookie seasons due to injuries (Nerlins Noel, Joel Embiid) or foreign players that were going to play overseas (Dario Saric) which had the effect of an awful team not getting better by virture of their draft picks because the draft picks didn't play for the team. The 76ers were woeful but never had the worst record in the league under Hinkie and never got the number one pick in the draft. They did have the 6th, 3rd, and 3rd picks from 2013 to 2015. During the 2016 season the 76ers hired consultant Jerry Colangelo (head of USA basketball and former owner of the Phoenix Suns) who installed his son Bryan as the president of the team. There is a widespread belief in NBA circles that the change in leadership was pushed on the 76ers by other owners and commissioner Adam Silver in order to improve the ‘optics’ of the 76ers being so blatantly bad for so long in order to accumulate top draft picks. Hinkie resigned shortly thereafter and as fate would have it the 76ers finally got the #1 at the end of the season. Colangelo used the pick to draft consensus top prospect Ben Simmons but in Hinkiean fashion Simmons was injured in training camp and held out for the entire year which gained the 76ers the third pick in this year’s draft which they traded along with another first round pick for the #1 pick in the draft (Markelle Fulz).

  Now the 76ers are the envy of many teams in the league because of all the young talent they have assembled and look like a playoff team for the next few years and if everything breaks right could even be a Finals contender. Other teams have noticed and are also working hard to enhance their draft position. The Phoenix Suns held out all their veteran starters over the last two months of the season and were rewarded with the second worst record in the league which translated to the fourth pick in the draft because of the 76ers and Lakers jumping them in the lottery.

  The copycatting of the 76ers success at assembling talent by being bad is the main reason for the lottery ‘reform’ but it will barely make a dent in tanking in my opinion. A bad team will always have an incentive to be worse to get a better chance to get one of the top picks. The new system removes the incentive to be the WORST team but increases the incentive to be one of the 10 worst teams and there is still a considerable incentive to be one of the three worst teams in the league. The new system sounds great and makes it look like the league is taking tanking seriously but there will be a new system as soon as a big market team like the Knicks, Bulls, or Lakers find themselves continually one of the worst teams in the league but continually lose out on their 42% chance to get a top three pick and wallow in the depths of the standings. This is what happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the years before drafting Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft and after trading Garnett to the Celtics in 2007. The Wolves were perpetually unlucky in the draft, never getting top draft pick and have never made the playoffs without Garnett on the roster. The Wolves were further beset by awful management. They are favored to make the playoffs this year after trading for #1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins and finally winning the lottery and getting the #1 pick Karl Anthony-Towns in the next season. The NBA had no problem letting the Timberwolves wallow at the bottom of the league but I cannot imagine letting the same fate befall a big market team and will rerig the system to once again reward the worst team with the best chance at a draft pick.