HBO Max’s Doom Patrol: Season 2 – A Few Thoughts

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Doom Patrol is a show based on the DC Comics title. During it’s first season, it aired on DC Universe, a streaming service. However, because HBO and DC both fall under the Warner Brothers umbrella, this second season of Doom Patrol appeared on HBO Max. (Conventional wisdom says DC Universe is going to be folded up and inserted into HBO Max. We’ll see.)

Doom Patrol has been around since 1963. The title has always been comprised of strange misfits that don’t quite work anywhere else in the DC Universe. You won’t find most of these characters in the Justice League, the Teen Titans, or even The Outsiders. They are sometimes a super hero team, sometimes a dysfunctional family, and sometimes just a bunch of people occupying the same space at the same time.

The first season of Doom Patrol proved a success in that it looked great, hit some very offbeat notes, and struck the audience as genuinely unique compared to most “comic book” screen properties. Furthermore, it featured some impressive names such as Brendon Fraser, Diane Guerrero, Matt Bomer, Alan Tudyk, and Timothy Dalton. Like most first seasons, though, it spent a great deal of time simply establishing character and chemistry. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted at some point during most of the episodes as they seemed about twenty minutes too long.

While the second season had some great moments, I’m afraid I can’t say it much improved on the first. The episodes are still too long for the stories, and the characters are still being developed to the point that they don’t seem to interact with each other all that much. The show is called Doom Patrol, after all, yet there are very few moments when they all appear on screen together.

Individually, the characters are all dynamic, visually interesting, and well-acted. But each episode seems to focus on their individuality rather than the “group” aspect of the show. They are a lot of fun when they are all together–I’m not sure why they don’t have them all together more often. They tend to break off into teams of two or three.

There are a few breakout stars of this show. Personally, I find April Bowlby to be the heart and soul of Doom Patrol. She plays an actress from a bygone era who does not age, yet also cannot guarantee that she won’t turn into a pile of goo. Bowlby has great timing, humor, and her voice work never fails to entertain.

I also like Joivan Wade, who plays Cyborg. Why is Cyborg a member of Doom Patrol? I have no idea. After all, he’s been a member of the Justice League both on screen and in the comic book for years. Furthermore, he’s never been a member of Doom Patrol in the comics; he actually started off in The New Teen Titans. Though it seems a strange decision, I like Wade and I think they present Cyborg well. It’s fun to see him with practical effects instead of CGI.

Speaking of which, the sets and costumes in Doom Patrol are always top-notch. The only time they get themselves in trouble is with some of the grandiose special effects. Some of the effects look good, but when the effects get too big and too complicated, they are noticeably flawed. Season 2’s main antagonist never quite looked right to me. The CGI big-bad DC dilemma strikes again, right? (I’m talking to you, Doomsday, Steppenwolf, Incubus, and Ares.)

I also understand that Fraser’s character, Robotman, is very rough around the edges, but they have him screaming–yes, screaming–the “F” word every ten seconds. I’m no prude, but they are way over the top with the use of that particular piece of profanity.

Honestly, the second season of Doom Patrol failed to capture my full attention with every episode as well due to an inevitable slog at some point. When compared to shows such as The Umbrella Academy or The Boys, which are similar in tone but far better paced, this is disappointing.

And while I won’t spoil the Season 2 finale, I found it so abrupt, so off-kilter, that I had to double check that it actually was the finale. As finale’s go, it doesn’t get much more dissatisfying.

The Umbrella Academy: Season 2 – A Few Thoughts

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As good as The Umbrella Academy was during its first season, the second season has easily proven superior.

I’m going to go to great lengths to avoid spoilers, not just for the second season, but also for the first. My hope is that the uninitiated will give The Umbrella Academy a try after reading this piece.

The first season established the characters of these seven extraordinary brothers and sisters. Fetched from all over the world as children in order to use their wondrous powers for the forces of good, their benefactor, Sir Reginald Hargreeves … well, he created a rather dysfunctional family. Things worked out fairly well for them as children, but as they grew into adulthood and gained independence … they began to see Hargreeves for what he actually was.

Once this dynamic got covered in the first season, the second season got to blow it all apart. These interesting characters are now absolutely mesmerizing. They are flawed, funny, and lovable. Everyone has had a shift from the first season, which makes this season feel totally fresh.

This show is part comedy, part action-adventure, part family drama, part social commentary, and very sci-fi. There are fist fights, martial arts, energy blasts, time travel, talking ghosts, talking fish, and even nuclear explosions. It’s bonkers, yet it all works.

The Umbrella Academy is also smartly written. The plot is mostly tight, the story is exceptionally satisfying, the dialogue is crisp, the pace is perfect, and the twits never stop. It absolutely builds off of the first season and is even dependent on the first season, but it never comes close to feeling like a repeat of the first season.

But the real magic is the actors. These actors are all charismatic and the chemistry between the brothers and sisters is a joy to watch. They are exceptional on their own; together they are magnificent. Whoever selected these actors nailed it. They seem so comfortable this season and actually living in their characters’ skin.

If you’re looking for a fun, fast, action-oriented show with superb characters and captivating plots, The Umbrella Academy is for you. Just keep in mind that it gets a tad violent from time to time, and there is a bit of profanity.

Does Your Teen Need Help With Writing?

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I’m excited to announce that I’ve opened a small online business aimed at helping teenagers from all over the world improve their writing skills. If you happen to know of any families seeking supplemental writing instruction because their teen is being home schooled or learning remotely, I hope you’ll share Advanced Writing, LLC, with them.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT ADVANCED WRITING, LLC

HBO’s His Dark Materials – A Few Thoughts

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My daughter is a voracious reader, and though she’s never read His Dark Materials, I thought she might enjoy the show primarily due to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s participation. (She’s a huge Hamilton fan.)

Of course, because it’s HBO, I decided to watch it with her both in order to spend time together but also to make sure it was appropriate.

Honestly, I’m not sure which of us enjoyed it more!

I’ve also never read His Dark Materials (despite also being a voracious reader), so I really didn’t know what to expect.

His Dark Materials’ actors are among the best of the best with names such as the aforementioned Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Dafne Keen (of Logan fame). There’s also many other actors that are exceptional but not necessarily household names.

The story itself takes place in a fully realized alternate reality. This world they create is much like ours, but just a little bit different. Those differences will become obvious almost immediately. However, this world looks very lived in. It references historical events in passing, has crumbling buildings, ancient books, and aged tombs. In other words, it feels real.

Speaking of real, the CGI in this show is excellent. I won’t spoil much for you, but there are a great deal of animals in this show, and the vast majority of them are CGI. However, there were many instances when I truly couldn’t tell if they were using a real animal. Even the really big animals, the ones that usually look CGI, were nearly seamlessly inserted into the scene. It was amazing to behold–some of the best I’ve seen mixed in with live-action.

Furthermore, every single episode is cinematic in scope. Each installmentĀ  looks like a movie. The acting, the locations, the set pieces, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the CGI are of the highest quality.

Besides looking wonderful, though, the plot is what’s really got us engaged. Again, I won’t spoil it, but His Dark Materials seems to be about one thing, but then it adds a very complex addition to the plot, and then it does so yet again! I’ve heard the books making up His Dark Materials are quite controversial to some, and it appears that the show is not shying away from the more challenging material. I’m fascinated to experience these notions alongside my daughter–I’m sure it’s introducing ideas she hasn’t previously considered.

If you’re looking for a show to watch with your children, I recommend His Dark Materials. It is somewhat violent with some difficult moments that probably aren’t suitable for kids under 12, but the older kids will love it, and you will, too.

(One minor spoiler: Lin-Manuel Miranda does not sing, rap, or dance in His Dark Materials.)

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter To Political and Educational Leaders

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Before I begin, I’d like to state that I truly believe almost all teachers and administrators honestly want the best for their students. I cannot say “every” because I try not to deal in absolutes, but the vast majority of teachers and administrators with whom I’ve worked put the students first.

Educational leaders are in an impossible situation. They know that children need to be in school. It’s not a political responsibility, it’s not an economical responsibility, it’s simply a responsibility to the child’s well-being. Children need to grow socially, intellectually, and emotionally, and school is an exceptional place to do that. School is a place for children to exist independently from their parents or guardians and a place for them to find their own voice. Yet it is also a place filled with structure, routine, boundaries, and–perhaps most importantly–professional guidance.

However, school is impossible without teachers. We all seem to be forgetting that fact. Teachers are, right now, being asked to enter often poorly ventilated, overcrowded classrooms filled with children who are proven to carry the coronavirus. We are literally asking our teachers, many of whom are over forty years old, to risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

I often hear the argument that grocery stores and doctors’ offices are open–schools can open, too. I think it’s important to remember that those are usually very well-ventilated environments with strict control over who and who cannot enter. If someone refuses to comply, they literally have a security force they can call upon. We took our child to the doctor the other day. We had to wait in the car until we got a text. Then, when the text came, we entered a side door, spoke to no one, and made our way directly to the patient’s room. We wore masks the entire time, as did the medical staff. It was an incredibly controlled, rigid system. My wife’s eye doctor even had a placard placed in her examination room stating the room is disinfected between patients.

Think back to your days in school. Do you really think children are going to stay six feet apart (even though most agree this will be impossible to accomplish in classrooms due to limited space and teachers). Do you really think schools are going to be able to force students to wear their masks correctly?

I’ve seen some plans where teachers are being told to wear a mask all day, disinfect desks between class periods, eat lunch with the same group of students in the classroom daily, prohibit shared material (like textbooks), stay six feet away from those students in the classroom (which will literally be impossible in many cases), enforce temperature regulation, and direct traffic in the hallways. This is on top of the daily lesson planning, teaching, grading, behavior management, parent contact, and meetings.

Furthermore, some schools are going all in, every student every day, while others are going half in-session and half remote learning. I have a child at the elementary level and then another child at the middle school level. The middle school is essentially going part-time, while the elementary level is going full time. Meanwhile, my place of work (a high school in a different district), is going all in, full time. This is an incredible burden on me both as a parent and as an employee. I’m being asked to leave my middle school child home alone for three days out of the week, find after school care for my elementary school child (which further bursts any already-lackluster bubble), and work full time in my own building. My middle school child is going to be isolated at home for many, many hours, which is dangerous at a physical, emotional, and social level, while my elementary child is unnecessarily being exposed to even more people. As a parent, I find this incredibly stressful.

If your child is next to a child who shows any of the numerous symptoms, your child is quarantined for several days. If your child’s teacher shows any of the symptoms, he or she is quarantined for several days. In some cases, an entire class could be quarantined for several days–perhaps as many as fourteen. This is all true for school buses as well. We are quickly going to run out of teachers, substitute teachers, and drivers. You’re going to be finding someone to watch your child as they keep getting quarantined when kids in their classes show symptoms. It’s going to get very chaotic, very quickly.

Though it’s not the popular solution, the most logical, rational, and safest decision is for all school districts to go 100% remote. Families can continue with whatever summer childcare they have in place, which will keep them within whatever bubble they’ve established. We can all start the school year off with a remote learning procedure in place. As it stands right now, schools meeting in-session will be doing so completely out of any previously proven routine, and will likely have to go remote within four to six weeks anyway. When that happens, many are going to be scrambling for childcare and trying to figure out remote learning anyway. Doesn’t it make more sense just to start off with 100% remote learning when we know it’s coming? Neither choice is easy–I understand that. There will be hardships even with 100% remote learning. This is obviously a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Personally, I feel ensuring the physical health of our teachers and students must take priority.

As a nation, we have not done our part. As a nation, we’re not wearing masks, we’re not staying home, and we’re not establishing a bubble. People at my grocery store won’t even follow the arrows marked on the floor. We teach our students that behaviors have consequences. Guess what, America? 100% remote learning is the consequence of your behavior. Many have taken the necessary precautions, and it’s awful that those people must suffer the ramifications of those who haven’t been responsible.

Additionally, I fear this is further reinforcing the class divide. I hear more and more of my friends who are upper-middle class or upper class opting to keep their kids home in order to guarantee their safety. They will still have outdoor play dates, Facebook Messenger For Kids calls, trips to the park, and bicycle rides. Those parents, who are likely working remotely due to white collar, well-paying jobs, don’t have to think about it too hard. Meanwhile, lower-middle class families and low-income families don’t have a choice at all. If they don’t physically go to work, they don’t get paid. They literally cannot afford to do what they think is best for their kids–they have no choice in the matter. They will risk their lives, their children’s lives, and their extended families’ lives because they have to. This is the height of inequality.

It will take incredible bravery, morality, and willpower for school administrators to do the right thing and implement 100% remote learning at the start of the year. It will be incredibly hard. They will be ridiculed every step of the way. Many will question them at every opportunity. There will be several challenges, such as food distribution, guaranteeing WiFi, and providing services for those students with unique needs. However, in the long run, it will be what’s best for our children.

As for politicians, I suspect the most powerful of politicians never attended public school nor send their own children to public school, so they should stay out of it and let the experts–teachers and school administrators–work it out. I’m tired of politicians using our children as pawns in their political warfare and you should be, too. I was under the impression that they were here to serve us, but it seems to be just the opposite.

Getting Deep With the Bass

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My oldest daughter, who just turned twelve, has been taking weekly guitar lessons for the last several years. Frankly, I’m consistently amazed by her talent. Of course, we have encouraged her to practice daily, so all of that hard work is now paying off as I listen to her play popular riffs and entire songs perfectly. Most astounding of all, though, is watching her read music.

Music has always been a mystery to me. I’ve never been musically talented, but I’ve also never tried that hard at it. I should have the “music gene.” My mom’s side of the family has it, especially my aunts and cousins.

Last January, when 2020 wasn’t yet … well, 2020 … I borrowed a bass guitar from a good guy with whom I work. My daughter (eleven at the time) taught me tabs and I started learning some very basic bass riffs. I worked at it for a few weeks and then, in the middle of February, starting practicing less and less.

And then the quarantine hit.

While the pandemic has been awful in numerous ways, I’m happy to report one bright spot in that it has afforded me the time to again practice daily. In fact, except for a few “sick” days, I’ve practiced every day for twenty minutes at a time.

At some point (I think it was mid-May–it’s all a blur), I bought a copy of Hal Leonard’s Bass Method. It was time to actually start learning musical notes.

I’m happy to say that, with a LOT of help from my daughter, I’m finally starting to learn notes. It has been painful, frustrating, and even infuriating, but it’s happening. At the age of 43, this dog is learning new tricks. I never–ever–thought I’d be able to read music. And though I’m still not great at it, I’m getting better every day.

While I don’t think I’ll be sitting in with anyone’s band anytime soon, I do like to think that by this time next year–come on 2021!–I might be ready to play in some kind of public capacity. Maybe as a bass player’s back up?

 

 

HBO’s Perry Mason – A Few Thoughts

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I’m not going to pretend to be a fan of the 50s and 60s Perry Mason. In fact, I’m not sure I ever watched a single episode (in reruns, of course). However, something about the HBO revival of the show caught my interest–probably Robert Downey Jr.’s involvement as an executive producer.

I took in the premiere episode a few days after its debut and have kept up with it every week since. The third episode aired last night, and I believe I’m ready to share my opinion of the show.

Simply put: I like it.

I wouldn’t say I love it, but I do look forward to watching it each week. Truthfully, it’s not the story that’s captivated me. Rather, it’s the performances, the costumes, the set pieces, and the cinematography that keeps me coming back.

Set in the early 1930s, this Perry Mason is a private investigator suffering PTSD from WWI, struggling to hold on to his family’s farm, and basically down on his luck in every way possible. He’s rough around the edges, cynical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Yet, somewhere behind the weary exterior is a good man, a man who could have shined under different circumstances.

There are some excellent performances in Perry Mason. Matthew Rhys has truly brought Perry Mason to life. The slight expressions, the body language, the voice inflection–it’s all working to create a dynamic character that is, though incredibly flawed, deeply appealing. Tatiana Maslany is always fantastic. I haven’t seen her since Orphan Black, but she’s as potent as ever. Of course, there are other superb actors in the show as well such as Juliet Rylance, John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin, and Stephen Root.

The “look” of the show is gorgeous. Some of it is CGI, but much of it is actual reproduction of architecture, clothing, and vehicles from the 1930s. The costumes are beautiful, by the way. The suits, the hats, the leather jackets–outstanding. It’s just an interesting show to watch.

Be warned, however, there are some disturbing images from time to time. A podcast warned me to be ready regarding a dead baby during the first few moments. There’s also an intense scene taking place on the battlefield of WWI, gun violence, and regular visits to the police morgue.

Again, I can’t say that Perry Mason has connected with me at a visceral level, but I appreciate it for what it is: a very good show with beautiful costumes, exquisite set pieces, and superb acting.

Hamilton On Disney Plus – A Few Thoughts

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When Disney Plus announced that Hamilton would be coming to their service, my family got very excited. Yes, my wife and I saw the Chicago production back in 2018, but my nearly twelve-year-old daughter has never seen it and desperately wanted to for years.

Friday night, July 3rd, my wife and daughter hunkered down in the basement and watched it together–they both loved it.

Yesterday, July 4th, I put it on the main TV as we were going about our day. It wasn’t long before I found myself completely captivated by it, on the couch, abandoning my other pursuits.

Because here’s the thing: as good as the Chicago cast was back in 2018, there is something hypnotic about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the New York cast. In my opinion, Miranda is not a great singer, nor does he have a beautiful voice, yet it’s undeniable that he is a star on that stage. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him.

I also discovered something else about myself in regards to stage theater. Before I get to that though, it’s important to understand Disney Plus’ concept of Hamilton–they simply presented a version that was recorded in 2016. Someone had the forethought to record the musical on the actual stage, which results in closeups on the actors’ faces and the dancers’ movements. The camera weaves in and out of the action, but completely maintains the stage theater’s atmosphere. Hamilton has a rather unique set that is both stationary and dynamic–that is, the set pretty much remains the same but there are several moving components within that set.

Which leads me to my discovery in regards to stage theater: I feel the same way about stage theater as I do about live sporting events. If I’m not close to the front row, I much prefer just to watch it on TV. At the Chicago production, we were so high up that I couldn’t see every little detail of the actors’ expressions, and, though people were moving, the view appeared fairly static. The screen version’s quick cuts and closeups, just like with sports, made for a more intimate, exciting experience.

If you haven’t seen Hamilton, I recommend you do so. Honestly, a year’s subscription to Disney Plus is still a fraction of the cost of an actual Hamilton ticket. I think it’s amazing that seeing Hamilton is no longer an elite experience–now everyone can partake in the event.

It is, frankly, impossible to walk away from Hamilton without feeling some kind of inspiration. It will motivate you to think more, to be more politically active, to be more creative, to better appreciate diversity, and to recognize more often the astounding steps it took to construct this great nation.

CW’s Stargirl – A Few Thoughts

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Do I feel a little weird recommending a CW show featuring a twenty-year old actress playing a fifteen-year-old high school student? You bet. But, I’ve got my reasons …

Stargirl is a beloved character who primarily appeared in DC Comics’ Justice Society Of America. The JSA was DC’s original super team, a precursor to the Justice League of America. In the late 90s and early 2000s, they brought the team back with its original heroes from the 1940s. They were intent upon training new heroes to continue on the JSA’s legacy, and Stargirl was one of those new recruits.

As a devout JSA fan, the CW’s Stargirl is a delight because they are not shying away from the JSA’s stalwarts whatsoever. Starman, Green Lantern, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Wildcat–they are all either seen or referenced. Furthermore, due to circumstances I won’t reveal, Stargirl takes it upon herself to create a new JSA. She starts with a new Wildcat, Dr. Mid-nite, and Hourman. I have to be honest, though Hourman is a ridiculous concept and perhaps even a troubling premise, he’s always been one of my favorite characters and seeing his incredible costume on the screen is fantastic. Additionally, I loved James Robinson’s Starman, and seeing Stargirl use the cosmic rod is deeply satisfying.

For me, however, the real joy of the show is Luke Wilson. Remember him? I’m not sure what happened to Wilson’s movie career, but he is every bit as good as you remember (if not better). Whenever I see him on screen, I think, “Wow. He’s probably a little too good for this.” Another great blast from the past is Amy Smart, whom I haven’t seen in a long time but is still charming and charismatic.

Finally, the show’s villains are a fresh take compared to the other CW DC shows like Legends Of Tomorrow, Arrow, The Flash, and Batwoman. They have real motive, real depth, and are played by actors with real talent. Collectively, they call themselves the Injustice Society, and if you think that’s kind of a dumb name, you can only blame the folks from 1947 who created them. You’ll see classic villains on this team such as Icicle, Solomon Grundy, Sportsmaster, Tigress, and Brainwave. For a DC fan, this is kind of a big deal.

The show isn’t perfect–there’s quite a bit of teen drama. The action tries very hard, but still looks a little too reliant on “good enough” special effects. And, while some of the actors are quite talented, others still have room to grow.

However, I think the costumes are extraordinary from top to bottom, especially since they’ve decided to go with the more classic “tights” approach versus leather and armor.

By the way, if the name S.T.R.I.P.E. means anything to you, you’ll be very pleased with Stargirl. I suspect this is where most of their special effects budget went.

So while it’s a little awkward for this forty-something to recommend Stargirl, I have to admit that it is a real pleasure to see fan-favorite DC characters brought to life both joyfully and authentically.

 

Looking For a Local Hike? Try Merwin Nature Preserve In Central Illinois

If you’re looking for a fairly easy hike you can do in well under two hours, give the Merwin Nature Preserve a try.

My friend, Troy Marcy, recommended Merwin Nature Preserve to us after I asked him to suggest a few local hiking trails. Troy is an incredible nature photographer, so he knows all the best spots in our neck of the woods.

We’re not avid hikers, and we have two young daughters, so we weren’t looking for a day-long hike or a hike that would leave us exhausted. Merwin Nature Preserve proved perfect because while it had one uphill spot that got us breathing hard, it was otherwise a pretty simple hike with ample diversity.

For example, during our hike, we encountered prairie land, deep woods, a riverbank, several streams, and an overlook of the Mackinaw River. Best of all, we experienced all of this in just a few hours. Keep in mind that we stopped quite a bit to look at minnows, roots, tadpoles, wildflowers, and and impressive view of the river. I’m sure if someone moved at a fast pace and didn’t stop, they could hike the trail in around forty minutes.

Be aware, though, that there is quite a bit of poison ivy. We all wore hiking boots and pulled our socks up, so we were fine, but it’s definitely there from start to finish. Furthermore, the trail became so narrow and overgrown at times that I started to wonder if we somehow got onto a deer path. However, for the most part, the trail is clear and easy to follow.

If you refer to the picture below, we parked at the West Gate and hiked the trail with the nineteen station markers. We printed off the information specific to each station marker ahead of time because their website stated cell service is spotty in that area. As we came to each marker, we read what was special about that particular area. You can find all the material to print by clicking HERE.

If you’re looking for a quick hike with the kids, I highly recommend Merwin Nature Preserve. It’s got a little bit of everything that makes Central Illinois’ environment unique.

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