Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge Should Dry Up

First appeared on Blogcritics.

ice 2The Ice Bucket Challenge to raise funds to combat ALS (amytrophic lateral sclerosis) has gone more than viral – it is a worldwide phenomenon born out of good will. What is better than doing something to help others? Those who are allowing themselves to be doused with ice and water are generous and loving, and the notion of "calling out" (challenging friends, families, and colleagues) people to do the same thing is a clever idea.

Celebrities like Today's Matt Lauer, singers Shakira and Gwen Stefani, and even some members of the New York Mets  have become soaked in ice and water for this most worthy cause. Many other celebrities and people all over the world have joined in the chilly good fun. The ALS Association clearly adores this challenge idea because it is reaping bigger contributions than ever before, and there are those who believe this type of thing is here to stay and will change charitable giving forever.

ice 3While the idea appears to be fresh and seemingly new, think of how this all started – in sports. Golfer Chris Kennedy, from Sarasota, Florida, got the notion to use the idea to raise money for a relative who has ALS, and it all went viral from there. Truth is though sports fans have seen players dumping buckets of ice and water over their coaches’ and managers’ heads for many years. That tradition of celebrating a victory on the field has now morphed into one of the biggest fundraising ideas of all time.

But before we start calling for even more widespread Ice Bucket challenges, there is one salient thing everyone is overlooking – we are wasting a huge amount of water in the process. Water is the most crucial resource for people all over the world, and in these times of widespread drought and famine, wasting even a precious drop of water seems particularly absurd – especially as there are many people  dying of thirst.

ice 1So while the concept to do something unique and attention grabbing to raise awareness and money for good causes is an idea that I totally support, I think we need to do it without wasting a vital resource like water. Actor Charlie Sheen actually had a great idea for a challenge – he dumped a bucket of cash ($10,000) over his head, all of which he is donating to the charity. He also called out his old friends at Two and a Half Men to do the same. That Charlie really knows how to spread the love, doesn’t he?

So while the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great idea, we need more people doing what Charlie Sheen has done (that is without question one sentence I never thought I would ever write). We need to think of creative ways to do a challenge without wasting water – or any other precious resource for that matter. My thoughts range from recycling materials, household garbage, or those annoying Styrofoam packing peanuts; you take your pick.

The best things to come out of the Ice Bucket Challenge are charity and awareness. ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a worthy cause, but there are many other ones out there. Why not come up with your own environmentally friendly challenge for the charity of your choice? Whatever it is you will be making a difference while not depleting any resources necessary for human life, and that will indeed be something heroic you have done that is worthy of your selected cause.

  Photo credits: wisegeek.com, today.com, tmz.com      

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams – One Film That Helped Change My Life

First appeared on Blogcritics.

rob 1There is no question that people are mourning Robin Williams for many reasons, among them his vast body of work that delighted, moved, and entertained millions of people. We remember the laughter he incited, as well as the tears, and we recall him in the movie Patch Adams wearing a clown’s nose as a reminder of the severe dichotomy of a comic’s life – he who makes us laugh the hardest is usually the saddest one of all.

 Robin Williams rose to fame based on his rapid fire delivery, quick mind, and physical elasticity. When he first appeared as alien Mork on the sitcom Happy Days, it was a revelation to watch someone work the scene so well, so fluidly, making all the other actors (even the juggernaut character of Fonzie as played by Henry Winkler) seem inconsequential. Mork would soon be seen in his own series, and that launched Williams  into the stratosphere as a star of films, stand-up, and TV specials.

In my life I recall the joy of seeing many of Williams’s performances, including his stand-up act, which to this day impresses as something so over the top that it would be mentally and physically impossible for any other human being to accomplish. But the most important performance of all in my life, is perhaps his most constrained, strongest role as teacher John Keating in the powerful film Dead Poet’s Society. Because of seeing this movie when I did, I stopped myself from making what would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

I was in my first year of my doctoral program in English, and besides taking a full load of courses I also had to teach two freshmen composition courses. Fellows also had to be prepared to substitute for sick professors as needed. Feeling inundated by too many obligations as my second semester was winding down in the spring of 1989, I had hit a wall. The students, while earnest for the most part, seemed overwhelmed and not the least bit interested in writing or literature. Professors who already had their doctorates for the most part appeared to be grumpy, going to and from class with clouds of steam coming out of their ears. I thought, “What am I doing here?”

I remember sitting on the grass at the university and watching everyone rushing along paths to and from classes. I saw one girl chasing after a professor to ask a question, and he picked up his pace and told her that she needed to come during office hours, and everyone seemed to want to be anyplace else but there. I thought, "If this is the way education is, I want out now!"

A week or so later I made a decision that I would not return in the fall to start my second year of courses. I would think about changing careers, maybe working in Manhattan for a publishing house as an assistant editor or even doing work in my father’s business. I knew I was done and believed my career in education was over.

Then that weekend in early June I went to see Dead Poet’s Society. Williams as Keating is a revelation; he is the teacher every student wishes that he or she had, and he is the wake-up call for every teacher to realize how important inspiration and exhilaration are in the classroom. Keating is not only a master teacher, but he empathizes with his students, who learn that he once had been a student at Welton and also belonged to the secret Dead Poet’s Society.
rob 3There are so many memorable scenes in the film, but the most haunting is when Keating reads Robert Herricks’ famous poem and tells them that “gather ye rosebuds” is really the same as the Latin “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. He shows them pictures of all graduates long gone and now dead, and reminds them that they too will one day be gone. It is not only a so-called teachable moment, but it is a fine example of a teacher caring for his students beyond the classroom in the interest of their well-being, so much so that he manages to infuse literature with a life lesson as well as accomplishing the difficult task of getting them to actually like poetry.

After seeing this film I recalled why I wanted to be a teacher – it was also films that inspired me. Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love and Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips had stoked the fire of my passion for teaching, and now as it was waning to a flicker of a flame, Williams came along and doused it with enough lighter fluid to engulf a city block. I walked out of the theater knowing I not only still wanted to be a teacher, but one as good as Mr. John Keating.

Many people recall the scene when Keating stands on the desk as he teaches and later invites the students to do the same to see the world from a different perspective. We recall the best teachers we had were the ones who didn’t have us glued to our books but to their every word. Some of us went through all our school years never having a teacher like Keating, and hopefully some of us had that precious experience here and there that made us realize that there was more to life, as Hamlet says to Horatio, than we have ever dreamt of in our philosophy.

rob 2In the end of the film after iconoclast Keating is fired, and old stuffy headmaster Nolan is teaching the class by sitting at a desk (strongly suggesting to all teachers that is a very bad idea), the students rally in his support, calling him “My Captain” as many of them stand on their desks in protest of his dismissal despite Nolan’s screams to get down. As we see Keating from their perspective, looking down at him, we know in their elevation that he has been successful in passing the torch – these boys will do more than remember him, they will seize the day and change their lives.

After all these years I remain in education and I have Robin Williams to thank for it. I remember him for all his many wonderful roles, but the one as John Keating is my favorite because he so fully embraced that part that there is not one second in the film that I don’t believe Williams is the best teacher in the world. Over the years whenever I have any doubts, I recall Williams whispering “Carpe Diem” to his students, and then I get right back on track and seize my own day.

Thanks for passing the torch, Robin Williams. In pace requiescat !

Photo credits: ontohinbd.com, forthewords.blogspot.com, huffingtonpost.com.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Texting and Walking – Is It To Die For?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

walk - 3We have all seen it happening here in New York City, across the country, and around the world – people texting while walking and causing some kind of havoc. Since 91% of Americans now have a cell phone, there is obviously a great opportunity for these kinds of “distracted while walking” accidents. 127 New York City pedestrians were killed in 2012, but there is no concrete proof that they were all connected to distracted walking, still it seems likely many of them were.

From what I have witnessed texting and walking is reaching epidemic proportions in this city. You have much more chance of getting hurt by a distracted walker than you have of catching the Ebola virus. A recent article in the New York Daily News by Meredith Engel highlights the problem as becoming an unending story of falls off curbs, collisions with fellow pedestrians, tumbles down stairs, and encounters (sometimes fatal) with cars, buses, or subway trains. She notes that distracted walking – tweeting, texting, emailing, Facebooking, and Instagraming – accounts for 78% of pedestrian injuries across the country.

As a witness to some of these occurrences, I have seen people crashing into each other while both were texting, someone almost falling off a subway platform, and one guy tumbling over a park bench. Similar incidents have been captured on those same smartphones causing all this trouble and posted on the Internet. We have all seen the woman falling into the water fountain, the guy tumbling down an escalator, and the man being hit by a bicycle. Maybe we have laughed at these things too, but the truth is this kind of thing is far from funny.

What is the lure of the text message? Why do most of us find that little ping that tells us we have a new one irresistible? Engel asks this of psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen of California State University who specializes in technology. He says, “We’re obsessed with not missing out on something important.” He also tells her that we have a need to know things “immediately.” He calls it FOMO – the fear of missing out.

When I watch people on the streets, their cell phones seem to be appendages now. When they first became popular, people had them attached to their belts, in their pockets, or secure in purses. Now it is common to see them held right out in front of their faces as they walk, or securely ensconced against an ear for an obviously crucial conversation.

It is irrefutable that cell phones have changed our lives and, while many will say for the better, their convenience and technology have come at a staggering price. While some would argue that our phones have brought us together, from what I see all around me is that we are distancing ourselves from everyone else, all preoccupied with a little screen in our hands with blinders on to the world around us. We don’t see what’s happening across the street let alone right in front of our faces because we are so busy being connected that we are getting farther apart.

Once we were worried about cell phone use in cars, but then we discovered hands-free technology that helped cut down on that transgression; however, as I drive I am still seeing many people with the cell phones pressed up against their heads. Only the other day at a stoplight I saw a man with his phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. I thought, “Who’s driving? Siri?” Stopped at another light I saw a woman texting with one hand while looking in the rearview mirror and doing her makeup with the other. This takes multi-tasking to a whole new, dangerous level.

I never texted before last year, resisting it as something I didn’t need in my life; however, once I got a smartphone, everything changed. Within a month I eschewed phone conversations almost entirely, opting instead to text away. I have to admit I felt the urge to text while walking and then even while driving (but limited myself to doing it only at stoplights). I realized though that I had become hooked when I walked into a garbage can on the street and hurt my leg. This wake-up call changed my perspective. Another game changer came while driving when I saw a guy texting as he passed me at a high speed and then swerve off the highway a few miles down the road with his car ending up deep in the brush on the shoulder (hopefully his wake-up call).

walk 2 - gettyNow my cell phone is firmly in my pocket as I walk. If it buzzes with a text or I get a phone call, I move off to the side away from pedestrians and look at my phone. In the car I place it in a holder and can answer it hands-free if it rings, but I wait to check my texts when I get where I am going. It’s fairly easy for me now, but as Dr. Rosen suggests, you have to train your brain to be without your cell phone like a toddler going through potty training. You need to take increased increments of time (15, 20, 30 minutes and so on) without your cell phone. I know it sounds difficult but it can work, but only if you persist, just like that little tyke who wants to be diaper free.

Can you face life without constant texting? Maybe limiting it will save your life someday or someone else’s. Baby steps, dear readers, baby steps!

Photo credits: gadgmag.com, getty images, studentaffairs@stonybrook@edu

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Venus Goes to Mars: A Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

venus 3 Venus and Mars Are alright tonight. -Paul McCartney

As the ship moved into final approach to Mars, Captain Frank Marshall saw his first glimpse of the crimson world through the porthole, and a tear rolled down his cheek. Ted, the ship's computer system, calibrated the final settings to move into orbit.

 At 89 years old Frank had been a widow for nine years – most of them spent trying to get to this moment. He finally convinced billionaire Walter Robbins to finance the first “return mission” to Mars, with the hook being a reality show about a retired astronaut fulfilling a promise to his dead wife. The ratings increased daily as millions of viewers worldwide watched Frank’s every move, providing Robbins with more than a substantial return on his investment.

Many years before Frank and his wife had been chosen to be the first husband and wife astronauts sent on a “no return” mission to Mars, and the media called them the Martian Adam and Eve. Their assignment – to assemble modular dwellings before other settlers arrived; they could also be fruitful and multiply along the way. Despite taking precautions, she inexplicably became pregnant before their scheduled departure, thus nullifying their opportunity.

“Are you crying, Captain Marshall?” Ted spoke with an authoritative but trustworthy voice, programmed to sound like newsman Walter Cronkite, someone who became famous and died long before Frank was born. All Air & Space Force vessel computers were programmed to sound like him.

Cognizant of his audience, Frank looked up at the monitor. Ted appeared as a glowing blue light that pulsed on all the ship’s panels. “Yes, Ted, but it’s in happiness.”

“I do not comprehend that,” Ted said.

Frank stared down at the metallic urn held by arthritic fingers. “Well, it’s all about love.”

“I am programmed to understand love but admit it is a difficult concept.”

Frank thought about his overwhelming love for his wife and three grown children and seven grandchildren back on earth. “For humans it’s everything, or at least is should be.”

“Is this why you need to do this?”

“You mean deposit her ashes on Mars?”

“Yes. I must admit that it does not make much sense. You are interring them and returning to earth; you are even more separated?”

Frank chuckled. “These ashes are not my wife.”

“But are they not her cremains?”

“Yes, of course, but of her physical body. Her spirit is not within this urn; it’s in this cabin right now.”

“I cannot detect her presence.”

“Of course, not,” Frank spoke more wearily this time. “Sensors won’t show you anything tangible. Aphrodite Anastas, whom I always called Venus, is a spirit now. On the 510 days of our long journey I have seen her many times, looking just the way she did when I first met her, but you and our friends back home could not.”

“How can that be, sir?”

“I don’t know how, Ted. I just know that it is.”

“So please tell our audience what brought you to this moment.”

Frank knew that besides running the ship Ted functioned as host of the world’s most popular reality show. “It’s a long story, Ted.”

“Usually, we talk about human-machine matters and other humorous things, but in essence this is why we are here.”

“Well then, this is it – as my wife lay dying, her last wish was to be brought to Mars; I promised her I would do it, and here we are.”

“We are reaching launch window, sir.”

venus 2
Frank stood up with difficulty, bringing the urn over to the small capsule inside the acrylic launching chute. He placed it inside with a single rose on a satin blanket, shut the door, and slid the capsule into position. “It is done,” he said as he flipped the switch to engage.

A loud noise followed by a severe jolt rocked the ship, almost causing Frank to fall down. “Captain, please return to your seat.” 

Frank stared at the urn still locked in place. “What happened?”

“The launch unit ruptured,” Ted said.

“Repair it.”

“Unfortunately, sir, this malfunction can be only repaired externally.”

Frank leaned against the chute to keep his balance. “You’re talking about a spacewalk. I’ll suit up.”

“Sadly, sir, you are in no condition for such an endeavor; additionally, it would take too long and jeopardize our opportunity to jettison into course position for our return journey.”

Frank stared at the monitor. “Are you telling me that I came 36 million miles for nothing?”

“Well, sir, although you will be unable to inter your wife’s cremains on Mars, you have had the chance to see the planet in person as you always wished to do.”

venus 1
Ted stared out the porthole. “Look at that beautiful elusive war-god. I’ve always longed to get my feet on its surface, my hands in its red dust. This was a compromise, but worth it only because I could fulfill my promise to Venus. Now, now there is nothing.”

“I do apologize, sir.”

Frank opened the chute, popped out the capsule that would have exploded and sent Venus’s ashes showering over the surface, and removed the urn. He struggled to walk back to his seat, and fell down clutching the urn to his chest. He looked at the monitor and said, “Sometimes the captain has to make the hardest decisions.”

“I do thank you for your understanding, Captain.”

Frank leaned forward and engaged the override lever, rendering Ted, Space Control, and the worldwide audience merely spectators. “As I said before, I’m doing this for love.”

“Sir, my first directive is to protect and maintain human life at all costs.”

Frank locked in the coordinates and increased engine speed to full power. “I’ve purposely set course for an area with no settlements. Your directive is fulfilled.”

“But this is a return mission, sir.”

“My mission, and yours, is ended.” He glanced at the monitor. “And the show is over, folks.” As the ship raced rapidly toward the surface, Frank held the urn lovingly as he braced for impact.

 Photo credits: space.com, lovingmemorials.com, ntlworld.com  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

24: Live Another Day - Time Jump in Season Finale Leaves Tantalizing Questions

First appeared on Blogcritics.

* This review of Episode 12 contains spoilers. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has never been meant to live a normal life. Those of us who fondly recall that first scene back in season one’s first episode, when Jack played chess with his daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), remember the only time that we basically got a glimpse of his happy domestic life. It was too brief then, with 24 being set in “real” time, every minute seeming to count and with no flashbacks, Jack would never be that way again.

recap 1 Moving forward through the seasons, Jack has lost everything or close to it. He has even lost, above all things, his own identity. He goes into hiding and only surfaces when he perceives a threat to President James Heller (William Devane), a man for whom he once worked. Jack knows he is a “good man” (there is short supply of them in the 24 universe), and Jack also knows that he owes him. Heller’s daughter Audrey (Kim Raver) had been his lover, and he was indirectly responsible for her being kidnapped and tortured by Chinese lunatic Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma). Jack is in London really, more than anything else, to save Heller and his daughter and then, as we discover, the rest of the world too.

Episode 12 has to be one of the darkest in all of the 24 seasons. As Sutherland's voices tells us eerily at the start of the episode, the action takes place between 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. This deftly gets the full 24 hours into the season with a time jump, but as we are watching we are not certain as to how it will be worked into the story. More on that later. Audrey is still on the park bench with the sniper training his weapon on her. At the Russian house Jack and Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) are trying to get some information about Cheng’s location, but slimy Mark (Tate Donovan) gets a call from Cheng with an image of Audrey in the sniper’s bulls eye. Soon Jack is getting a call from Cheng, and it’s to tell Jack that he will kill Audrey if Jack comes after him.

recap 2Kate and Jack devise a plan to split up, with Jack going after Cheng and Kate going to the park to save Audrey. At this point Kate has earned Jack’s respect and trust (and the viewer’s too). If anyone can rescue Audrey it is Kate Morgan, especially since Jack must stop Cheng from starting World War III.

As in all 24 seasons, Jack is always forced to make a tough choice. We know in his gut he wants to go save Audrey, but he also realizes that Kate, while very capable, is probably no match for Cheng. Besides, Jack has an old score to settle with Cheng, and that cannot be done remotely. As I have mentioned in previous reviews, Jack wants to kick Cheng’s ass (and we want to see it!).

After splitting up with Kate Jack is driving and spots Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) walking on the side of the road. She jumps in and soon has a laptop in hand, explaining that Adrian (Michael Wincott) had tricked her and that she feels partly responsible for the override device and the attack on the Chinese aircraft carrier. Thus, we have two guilt-ridden people in the car, but Jack and Chloe are always a good team and they still need to work together.

Once at the docks where Cheng is trying to get his sweaty butt out of the country, Jack meets up with Belchick (Branko Tomovic), whose loyalty to Jack has been unwavering this season (in one episode he does tell Chloe that Jack saved his life). Belchick has that dependability factor, one that makes him an ideal Jack sidekick. They rush off to get Cheng on the tanker, while Chloe runs into a closet to give tech support.

Back at the park Kate uses a little spy scope to try to find the sniper in the window. She secretly calls Audrey and asks her to stand up to draw fire, which is like asking a chicken to walk into KFC, but it’s the only way Kate can see where to shoot the guy. Audrey complies, a few shots are fired, and then Kate rushes forward and shoots and kills the sniper. We all breathe a sigh of relief that Audrey is safe. Kate even calls Jack to tell him, so Jack moves forward with even more gusto.

Guided by Chloe’s tap into a surveillance system, Jack and Belchick get to play video game shootout, taking out all the bad guys as Chloe reveals their location. It’s like poetry in motion watching Belchick and Jack kill these guys smoothly and swiftly, and we figure Cheng is shaking in his boots now, but Cheng also has a Shanghai surprise for Jack and Kate - a second killer. This killer springs upon Kate and Audrey as they are evacuating. Kate dispatches the guy, but not before he has wounded Audrey. Kate desperately tries to save Audrey, but as she lies bleeding on a park bench, we can see her life abating. Audrey cries one tear, and we can imagine it is for all the wasted years, for never having been with Jack, and then she dies, and we get the silent clock. Sadly, there will be one more before the episode is over.

Kate has to make the call to Jack, and Sutherland plays it brilliantly. His face is the flashback we don’t get in scenes, and all the anger, frustration, and sadness manifest themselves in his expression. All his losses from wife Terri to Renee Walker to Audrey now coalesce, and as he stands with gun ready, we know he is on auto-pilot mode. What follows is Jack going ape (reminiscent of him taking out Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper) and his men in season one). Anything at hand (knives, swords) will be used, but soon all Cheng’s men are dead.

The fight between Jack and Cheng is satisfying. Cheng holds his own only briefly, and soon Jack has done what we all hoped he would do - he has kicked Cheng’s ass. He then holds a bloody Cheng up to the camera and calls President Heller. Facial recognition technology confirms this is indeed Cheng, and Heller calls the Chinese president and the war of the worlds is over. Heller knows that he has succeeded, largely because he believed in Jack.

Once again, Bauer saves the day. Now that Cheng is disposable, Jack takes a convenient sword and says, “This is for Audrey,” and slices off Cheng’s head. Some may quibble about this being an execution, that Cheng could have rotted in American prison for years, but Jack wants to make sure that this rat never surfaces again, and Jack's philosophy is simple - the only good rat is a dead one. Back in the HQ Heller is informed that Audrey is dead. He reacts as any father would, in disbelief at first, and then he collapses with grief. Devane has played Heller exquisitely all season, but this scene displays without words what seems more than credible: the grief is just too much to bear.

Back on the tanker, Jack gets a cryptic phone call after he and Belchick discover Chloe is missing. Jack says he understands, and then we are set up for the last ten minutes and the long awaited time jump. The time jump goes from 10:50 in the evening to 10:50 in the morning.

We can only speculate what happens during those twelve hours. Do Jack and Belchick go to a pub and have a few pints? What happens to Heller during this time? And who has Chloe and what are they doing to her? All this speculation as to what happens during the time jump is exciting in one sense and frustrating in another; however, it also leaves tantalizing possibilities open for extras on the season’s eventual Blu-Ray and DVD. 

At CIA HQ, Kate is overcome with grief. Besides Jack and Chloe’s palpable guilt, Kate’s ride this season has been a see-saw from guilt to revelation to understanding, but the grim reality is that she did not stop the president’s daughter from being assassinated. None of us saw the second killer coming (but Jack probably would have), so Kate turns in her gun and badge (ala Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and walks away – this time we would assume for good. I still hold out hope that Kate Morgan goes back to the States and fulfills her destiny as the female Jack in some form or another (in a show of her own).

We get a scene at the airport, where Audrey's flag-draped coffin is being rolled onto Air Force One. Heller and British Prime Minister Davies (Stephen Fry) stand together, and when Davies offers his help, Heller explains there is nothing anyone can do. This is Devane's finest moment as Heller (just one of many Emmy worthy scenes), and we understand that Heller's fate may be better than anyone else's because with the Alzheimer's taking over, he will not be aware of his losses.

recap 3 As for Jack, I imagine him preparing for the inevitable end. He is so seasoned, so inured at this point to pain and suffering, it is almost as if Jack is like the boxer longing to get back into the ring, to put himself into the enemy’s hands saying, “Give me your best shot.”

Jack and Belchick arrive at the meeting point, and Belchick asks if he really wants to do this. We already know Jack’s answer. Chloe gets out of a helicopter, and it’s the classic trade-off scenario with guns ready on both sides. As Jack and Chloe cross paths, Jack takes her hand and their exchange is heartbreaking but true – Jack tells her that she is his best friend. Jack is giving up his life for her, and Chloe runs to Belchick and Jack walks up to the Russians (who else would it be?) with a bit of a smirk on his face that says, “Okay, no matter what you do, I’m unbreakable.”

Jack warns head Russian Boris Badenov that if anything happens to Chloe or his family that he will be in a world of pain, but the Boris acknowledges that they only want him. Boris jokes that he’d like to say Jack will enjoy Moscow, but that’s not true; however, Badenov doesn’t know Jack. After nine seasons, we think that we do, but in truth this stoic, grim, and determined Jack is not able to be understood no less known. Jack Bauer has come so far from that man playing chess with his daughter, fallen so low and emotionally hitting his nadir; this Jack is like a voodoo doll that will keep breaking the hardest pins. This is the real Jack who is beyond suffering.

So Jack flies off to Russia with almost a glow on his face. He has stopped a world war, prevented Heller’s assassination, and rid the world of more terrorists than Raid inspect spray has killed cockroaches. Yes, he has lost loved ones and friends, and that he associates as being on his shoulders, a heft that would be too much for almost anyone else to bear, but this is Jack Bauer. Jack has gone off into sunsets, faked his own death, and gone off the grid – always alone, yet always capable of surviving. There is another silent clock, but is that for Jack or for those who think they now have him at their mercy?

Will there be another 24 season sometime soon? Will there be the long promised film? At this point we cannot know, but I imagine that Chloe, Kate, and Belchick could become a formidable team to go get Jack out of prison. They may be surprised by the time that they get to Moscow that Jack isn’t behind bars but perhaps helping to run the KGB. Remember, this isn’t just any one; it is Jack Bauer, one of the most iconic TV characters of all time. He just may end up enjoying Moscow more than Badenov could ever imagine, even clinking glasses of Stoli in the Kremlin and saying, “Please pass the caviar, Vladimir.” While we wait for the next incarnation of Jack Bauer, we have nine seasons on disc to enjoy again and again.

Until next time, Klaatu Barada Nikto! Photo credits: FOX

Monday, July 14, 2014

Germany Defeats Argentina for World Cup - But Fans Worldwide Are the Winners

First appeared on Blogcritics.

We have a World Cup champion. To get to the facts right away, the German team defeated Argentina 1-0 in second extra time, on an incredible goal by an improbable hero: Mario Götze, who deftly bounced the ball off his chest and then kicked it into the corner of the net, stunning his opponents, fans in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, and people watching all around the world. The midfielder, with a supermodel girlfriend (Ann Kathrin Brömmel) and a wry smile, becomes the toast of Deutschland and the World Cup. As a late game replacement, Götze secures his place in football history (soccer for we Americans) and World Cup lore.
wcup 4Germany has won the cup four times now, but this is its first win as a united country (three previous championships came to West Germany). The significance of this accomplishment was not lost on German fans everywhere, from those celebrating in the stadium, at home, or all across the world just as some New Yorkers did at an outdoor viewing party on the East Side of Manhattan. People of German descent and many others enjoyed cheering for this team, one that seemed destined to win since the beginning of the action weeks ago.

wcup 1My mother’s family came from Germany, so we were rooting for not the home team but in the spirit of the blood coursing through our veins. When Germany played against the American team, we all wore our U.S.A. gear and felt if they didn’t win it would be a shame, but once the Americans were dispatched from the proceedings after the tough loss to Belgium, all our attention turned to the German team. My kids designed their own rally poster, working a long time on getting it just right. We all wore team colors and endured the long wait for our team to get the goal and win it all.

There have been many stories that American viewers stopped watching after their team was eliminated, and while the numbers seemed to initially support that (24.7 million watched U.S.A vs. Portugal, 21.5 million watched America lose to Belgium, and only 11.8 million watched Brazil vs. Colombia), the final match between Germany and Argentina is suspected to have attracted close to 30 million American viewers. In terms of comparison, the Super Bowl routinely attracts approximately 34 million viewers annually, so does this mean that soccer could be on the verge of actually becoming a major sport in America?

We continue to face the incongruity of being a country that has little kids playing soccer, some as young as three, for years, only to abandon the sport as they get older. We parents go and cheer on our kids, enjoy the games, and even place magnetic soccer balls on our cars and minivans and bumper stickers that support the teams. Something mystical happens though once the kids get older, gravitating to the more “popular” sports such as baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis. There seems to be a shift in mental alignment that takes place, moving kids out of their soccer cleats and into other uniforms to pursue the dream of getting a scholarship and eventually becoming a professional player.

One thing that most Americans will note as extremely different about soccer is that there are no time-outs. The clock just keeps running, even in the final when German player Bastian Schweinsteiger kept getting knocked down and bloodied to a pulp. The fact there are very little if any opportunities to cut for commercials clearly works against soccer, making it less appealing to advertisers and thus preventing its players (even at the professional level) to receive the lucrative contracts that the competition gets in other American sports. So it seems to be this fact, plus an apparently American parental aversion to soccer beyond children’s early years, that keeps it from becoming a mega-sport like NFL Football.

Despite this, the rest of the world loves football (soccer) and people all around the globe were watching. The worldwide ratings were off the charts for the final: Germany 35 million, France 13 million, Spain 12.7 million, and 20.6 million in the U.K. to cite a few examples). Overall, it is projected that close to one billion people watched worldwide. These mind boggling numbers attest to football’s (soccer) popularity to people everywhere, and also promotes the notion that sports can be a unifier, bringing people together like nothing else can.

I know that the World Cup brought my family together, and I think it also brought the world closer to one another with a common incentive to see these fine athletes playing at their best. It is so refreshing to be discussing people cheering collectively for something that rises above politics and war. I know it is a bit naïve to think it could be possible, but wouldn’t it be nice that if two nations had a disagreement they could settle it on the pitch rather than the battlefield?

wcup 2FIFA's 2014 World Cup from Brazil is history now, Germany has the cup, but the legacy lingers. More Americans than ever watched the games and became involved, coming a little late to the party that the rest of the world routinely celebrates. It is a rare moment indeed for a planet that seems inundated with negative news stories to become obsessed with sport to the point of forgetting about all the other minutiae that pulls us apart.

Alas, we need to wait another four years for the next World Cup. Sadly, that is too long to wait for that most unique thing, that unifying tournament that brings the globe a little closer and makes it a better place to live. Once again, the World Cup has proven the power of sports, especially football (soccer) to do what politicians everywhere seem unable to do - bring us together.

  Photo credits: NY Daily News; Victor Lana

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

24: Live Another Day – Episode 11: Russian to Judgment Day

First appeared on Blogcritics.

The penultimate episode of any 24 season is usually a bumpy ride, but since this is a 12-episode version of the usually 24-episode model, we kick into warp speed from the first seconds and proceed without little time to take a breath. All of the old tropes are back in full vigor: a president and his cabinet watching blips on a screen of an impending attack, crossed wires causing havoc among world leaders, an evil ultimate villain with a game changing trick up his sleeve, and someone close to Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in dire peril which will shape the way things happen in the finale.
jack 2 

Once Jack and Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) dispatch of the Russians (with a little help from a back-up team), they proceed into the decimated One Cell lair where they find the remains of Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) and his team, as well as the tracking unit for the override device. Jack quickly surmises that Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has been taken, and this is confirmed when Kate finds a phone with a recording that jars Jack’s circuits (the look on his face when he hears Cheng Zhi’s voice is Emmy worthy).

Of course, Cheng (Tzi Ma) tortured Jack for over a year, kidnapped Jack’s lover Audrey (Kim Raver), and did despicable things to her as well. While Cheng was supposed to be dead (in 24 “death” is always something as reliable as the New York City subway), President James Heller (William Devane) quickly believes Jack’s theory that Cheng is the mastermind behind the day’s events, that he has been working with the Russian spies (who probably are also rogue as Cheng), and that they have tried to start a war between America and China.

Jack does have a "tender" moment with Audrey; of course, being this is 24, it is done split-screen with the characters on the phone. Jack says that he is worried that Audrey would hate him; she says that she could never hate him. They really need to be alone somehwere, but that's not happening anytime soon. Jack, you big lug, why don't you just say, "I love you" and get it over with?

When Jack finds something linking Mark (Scurvy Spider) Boudreau (Tate Donovan) to the Russians, he speeds to the American consulate to confront him and make Heller aware. Heller immediately wants to arrest Mark and charge him with treason, but Jack has a better idea. Why not use Mark to get to the Russian in a way to locate Cheng?

Our gal Chloe is not going down without a fight. Trapped on a truck with Cheng and his nefarious associates, Chloe takes the opportunity to make an escape when she finds a convenient lead pipe and goes ballistic on the unsuspecting Chinese tech guys. Soon she is jumping from the truck and running over the river and through the woods to escape the big bad wolf. Cheng and crew try to pursue, but British soldiers roll by and shake him up, forcing him to abandon the search. Chloe runs and hits her head and lays unconscious and out of harm’s way for now.

As Jack, Kate, and Mark rush to the Russian compound, Audrey comes up with an idea to speak to a Chinese diplomatic connection as a way to ease tensions between the two countries. Now, at this point, after Audrey was dragged off to China and tortured, you would think Heller would tell her “No way, dear.” Instead, since he is dropping his pills and shaky as a teenage boy on his first date, Heller (with whom the fate of the world rests) sanctions the meeting and sends his little girl out into the dark London night. Anyone who didn’t feel this was a bad idea must be sniffing something stronger than airplane glue.

jack 1 Jack’s mission into the Russian lair is a disaster. He and Kate kill all the bad guys, and Mark wrestles with the Russian bear bad guy until he gets glass stuck in his neck. Bleeding out, he warns Jack that Russia will never give up on getting him. That’s reminiscent of Cheng’s “China has a long memory” from seasons back. All this does nothing for the current crisis but tells us that, if we have another season of 24, Jack will still be dodging bullets and finding a way to survive.

More pressing problems await now as Heller declares a “Defcon 3” situation, which considering his now fragile mental state is like asking a five year old to put the car into drive. Nevertheless, the free world (and everyone else caught in between) may be bracing itself for nuclear war based on Cheng’s little ploy of using the override to sink a Chinese aircraft carrier. No one ever taught this Cheng guy how to play nice, did they?

jack 3The final sequence involves Audrey in the park (this girl always puts herself in a vulnerable position with Jack too far away) meeting with her Chinese connection, but that goes as well as Brazil’s hopes in the World Cup. Soon her Secret Service detail and the Chinese woman are dead, and Audrey’s phone rings. No, it’s not Publishers Clearing House telling her she has won a big prize – it’s the despicable Cheng telling her that she is the sniper’s next target if she doesn’t sit on the bench nicely. He tells her that maybe he will let her live. Gee, Cheng, you just don’t know how to talk to women.

So now we are set up for a classic 24 finale, with Jack obviously being put into almost like a Sophie’s Choice scenario. Does he save the world or save Audrey? Just as in previous seasons, Jack will have to find a way, but usually anything he accomplishes comes with an enormous price tag. That is Jack’s fate, and the idea of him ending this season “happy” and dancing to Pharrell Williams’s tune just doesn’t seem in the cards.

We have to look for a slam-bang finale. My feeling is Jack will stop himself from killing Cheng in order to bring him in to face the music, but judging from the preview of next week’s episode, at least one character dies and Heller seems on the verge of collapse. My inner desire to see Cheng beaten to a pulp may not be satisfied, but he may discover that Jack Bauer has a long memory too, and there is a need for 24 to end this season in a very big way. Let’s hope that involves an ending we all can accept and live with after the clock stops ticking.

Until next week, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

  Photo credits: tv.com