Sunday, April 22, 2018

TV Review: Lost in Space – More Danger, Will Robinson!

Like many of young boys in my generation, I grew up watching the original Lost in Space TV series and identified with Billy Mumy who played Will Robinson. I also wished I had a friend like the bubbleheaded Robot and could get to bounce around with him in outer space. Admittedly, I had a crush on Penny (Angela Cartwright) and found Dr. Zachary Smith (the late great Jonathan Harris) to be the comic relief the show needed.

I looked forward to the Netflix series reboot gleefully, with all my warm memories still vivid about the old show. I watched the reboot with my son who is a bit older than I was when the original series had its initial run, and I did describe what happened on the old series in order for him to have some background, but as he noted after seeing the first episode, “This is really different than your show, Dad.”

The good news is that the new Lost in Space is indeed quite different than the old series. There is a darker tone throughout the ten episodes now streaming on Netflix, yet there are also dashes of humor here and there, mostly provided by Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West and Mina Sunwall’s Penny. West is no longer the straight arrow played Mark Goddard in the old series, and Penny gets the funniest lines and Sunwall is a bright young star on the rise if this series is any indication of things to come for her.

The rest of the Robinsons are back too. Toby Stephens is the dad John, who has been deployed in the Special Forces too long overseas and is back to try to make things right with his family. Molly Parker plays wife and mom Maureen as a tough, brilliant scientist who became head of the household when John left and remains in charge. Judy Robinson (Taylor Russel) is now the biracial daughter from Maureen’s first marriage who has a deep bond with her adoptive father John and a possible romantic interest in Don, and Maxwell Jenkins plays youngest sibling Will Robinson in a strong, emotional portrayal that evokes Billy Mumy’s importance in the original series but imbues the character with a new, dramatic depth that is most welcome.   

After having watched the ten episodes of season one, I found one constant throughout – one member of the Robinson family is always in danger. This is reminiscent of the old series in some ways, but the feeling here is much more palpable. Credit this to circumstances that seem increasingly dire for this Robinson clan, but also to Parker Posey for her creepy portrayal of Dr. Smith. Unlike Harris who initially played the role as diabolical but quickly became a humorous character, Posey’s Smith becomes increasingly pernicious and duplicitous. It takes a few episodes to see where her character arc is going, but once we do she undermines our protagonists every step of the way.

Of course, the Robot (Brian Steele) was an essential part of the original series, and the same holds true now. This new version is not human made as was the original; rather, it is from some alien species and its initial mission is destroy the larger mothership The Resolute and all humans aboard. The Robinson’s Jupiter 2 and other Jupiter ships detach from the mothership after the Robot attacks it. All the ships crash or land on a nearby world as does the Robot’s ship. Through strange circumstances Will saves the Robot, and due to the crash, it gets reprogrammed and the boy and machine become friends.

As a futuristic take on a boy and his dog, the relationship between Will and the Robot quickly becomes complicated. Since he has been disconnected from his Dad for so long, Will wants and needs a friend as well as a father, and the Robot becomes both in some sense for a time. A scene of Will playing catch with the Robot is emotional and heartbreaking.

They form a bond and a sort of intuitive connection, thus the Robot shows Will the terrible things it did on The Resolute, but the boy is so convinced that the Robot is now benevolent – it saves his sister Judy’s life – that he keeps this information to himself because he knows that his father will want to destroy the Robot if he finds out.

While Stephens and Parker do good work here, it is the young actors who particularly shine brightest. The series creators Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless have taken legendary original series creator Irwin Allen’s characters in new directions. Now, Judy is a medical doctor in training and quickly must put her skills to the test when Maureen gets injured. Penny is a wisecracking teenager who, while seeing the humor in things, also has a sensitive side and wants to be a girlfriend to Vijay Dhar (Ajay Friese), another crash survivor who has a secret of his own. As in the original series, Will goes off with the Robot and has various adventures, and sometimes gets into trouble thanks to Dr. Smith – but here it feels as if Will’s life is really on the line.

The series is a visual delight thanks to cinematographers Sam McCurdy and Joel Ransom. One truly stunning landscape after another is successfully realized, and they manage to capture the mercurial climate of this strange new world in vivid detail. Sazama and Sharpless share writing credits with seven other writers, but there is cohesion in the story line throughout the ten episodes and notable character development and change. Christopher Lennertz’s musical score more than meets the challenge of the material and captures the essence of scenes and adds to the wonder and awe of the visuals, including the awesome CGI that makes me wince when I think about the poor quality of the original series’ effects, especially the space scenes.

Netflix’s Lost in Space has flashbacks that provide key background information worthy of Lost, plenty of weird creatures reminiscent of Star Wars, and a family unit that is nothing like the old series – another good thing. It also contains Easter eggs such as a Bill Mumy cameo and elements like the chariot vehicle (but not my beloved space pod) and the Jupiter 2 itself – a revved up version of the old series’ flying saucer ship. There are so many good things here that they help you overlook some little inconsistencies in the script and the seemingly forced cliffhangers at the end of each episode.

While the old humor is not here – oh to hear the Harris's Dr. Smith say, “the pain-the pain” or “bobble-headed booby” to the Robot one more time – there is much to admire about this series and an ending to episode 10 that almost demands that Netflix provide a season 2. There is plenty of danger ahead for Will Robinson and the rest, and I can’t wait.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington

Hoping that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg would go to the Capitol Hill hearings in his signature gray T-shirt, I was disappointed to see him wearing a suit and tie. It would have made a statement that would have been as simple as it would have been profound – his social media empire is about people in their pajamas interacting with each other not about people wearing suits. That is why Zuckerberg’s plain T-shirt is as sublime a uniform as it can be for the CEO, and he should wear it proudly even in the halls of Congress.  

The Congress people grilling Zuckerberg at times seemed like groupies, while others were like pit bulls with no teeth. All of those hours and all those questions did nothing to rattle Zuckerberg; rather, they only enhanced his stature to the public and caused Facebook stock to rise

While some of the senators and representatives earnestly showed concern about people’s private information being exposed, Zuckerberg’s responses were calm if not reassuring. I don’t know how many times that he said, “I didn’t know” as a response (it seemed like at least ten times) but it was not what people want to hear – especially the up to 87 million Facebook users whose information may have been compromised; however, Zuckerberg also said that he would “follow up with my team” at least as many times as he said that he didn’t know, if that provides any more comfort.

Many people are rightfully upset that Facebook shared data with other companies for profit, especially the
political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. A sense of trust that Facebook was a safe place for seeking entertainment and connecting with relatives and friends has been eroded now. Besides outrage and disappointment, some people like actor Jim Carrey are dumping their Facebook stock and deleting their accounts. Carrey also contributed a grim painting to enhance his argument.

The truth is that many people who worry about privacy online and do all the complaining sadly do nothing much about it, thinking that they can have their cake and eat it too. This cavalier attitude makes the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, Google, et al) sneer like a virtual Marie Antoinette and say, “Let them eat cake,” while rubbings it hands together and savoring its profits. Those users of these sites who sign up without reading terms of service or even caring about them until something like this happens are as much to blame as the people who run these sites.

This week saw Zuckerberg suit-up and answer questions in a voice that reminded me of the character Eddie Haskell from the TV show Leave it to Beaver. Now I am not suggesting that Zuckerberg is just like Haskell, who would be nice in front of adults and then show his true colors with other kids, but it did seem as if Zuckerberg was answering as expected only to go back to Menlo Park and start doing things his way again.

I would like to believe that Zuckerberg meant it when he said, “We didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm.” I hope that when he said, “We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry” that he was sincere and that was not a royal “we” but alluded to him and his team.

In the end Zuckerberg took responsibility, but what does that mean in the big picture? Will this change how Facebook operates? Can we expect all the other social media sites to do the same? Or perhaps we can expect more of the same when we are online and be prepared for it and try to use whatever privacy controls are available to protect our accounts. After all, that is what responsible people are supposed to do.

I am not quitting Facebook or other social media sites – though my inner voice says that I should – because they are a guilty pleasure. I believe that the Facebook users who watched Zuckerberg testify saw nothing that would cause them to go out and delete their accounts; however, I am not certain that they feel like Zuckerberg has their best interests at heart either.

Will Zuckerberg and his team make big changes or will the illusion of privacy online remain forever shattered? There are no easy answers at this point and certainly none that will give us peace of mind.

I am not sure what we take away from Mr. Zuckerberg going to Washington. To me it seemed like a farce, a charade that was meant to prove our elected officials are looking out for us and that Zuckerberg came to town in earnest to apologize and vow to change the way he does business. When it was all over, I felt disappointed. It seemed like Zuckerberg was saying, “Privacy online is an illusion” without saying it and that Congress was nodding its head in tacit approval, making all those hours of testimony a good deal of sound and fury that signified nothing. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Incredible Lightness of Being on Social Media

The Incredible Lightness of Being on Social Media

Recently there has been talk about people leaving social media for various reasons, especially Facebook because of its use of account holders’ information for financial gain. However people feel about that, users on Facebook and other social media sites must accept terms of service, but more than 50% probably have not read the fine print. This does not mean what these sites do with personal information is ethical, but it does indicate that users have a chance to not accept those terms of service.

These are the times that try our souls, but perhaps that can be said about many moments in the history of the human race. During my lifetime I recall a number of times feeling scared about things, as if the world were coming apart – wars, riots, natural disasters, and political turmoil all seemed to weigh me down.

I don’t know if it is a comfort or not to think that many generations have had similar anxieties, but right now seems a difficult time for many people, yet that burden may have a bright side – because life is a series of a good times and bad times, and the heft of the darkness is necessary in order to appreciate the light, but light is not lightness. Light purifies and is cathartic after the heavy dark times, but lightness is merely a distraction, allowing us to drift somewhere between light and dark.

The Anomaly of Social Media

The thought of going home and reading a good book used to be comforting to me, but now I come home from work and feel compelled to sit down, turn on the laptop, and “check on things,” which is my euphemism for my using social media. It is not enough that I have been checking on things on my phone throughout the day – this is just a more thorough checking on things.

What am I – and apparently millions of my fellow human beings – so fixated on checking out? Of course, the answer is all those sites that connect me somehow to other people – Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of those places that draw me to them. I want to see if someone has liked my posts, and I want to see if other users like the posts that I have liked. It is a relentless drive to reach out, but nothing is tangible in reality. It’s a virtual sea with lots of virtual ships that I will observe from a distance but never get to actually ride on them.

The problem with social media is it antisocial by nature. Besides the current divisiveness that has its origins in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been a sharp edge to social media that leaves wounds that don’t always heal. There is always that one person looking to start a fight, and social media provides millions of opponents on a silver platter. The problem is that it is not an even playing field for many users who are there for benign reasons; therefore, the possibilities for negative outcomes are endless.

I Like It Anyway

Despite the obvious problems with social media, I like it anyway. I am drawn to go on these sites each day, and I know I should be doing other things, but I cannot kick the habit, which is the reason why these sites are successful. The are like Lays Potato Chips – you cannot consume information from just one post – because you want to ingest them all.

I enjoy seeing posts by friends and family members who share photos from vacations, blizzards, and barbecues. I have watched some of my relatives and friends’ children grow up on these sites, and that is part of the pleasure and the lure to go on them; however, the majority of posts I see are not of this nature. There are numerous political posts from both sides of the aisle, rants about other issues, and a good deal of frivolous matter (like Bollywood videos and obscure movie clips).

The time spent on social media is a guilty pleasure to be sure but, despite all the diverse posts that I see on these sites, I don’t come away with anything substantial. This goes back to the life well-lived question. Most times I don’t feel good about being on social media and sometimes feel guilty. It is not like the feeling I get when reading Langston Hughes’s poems, seeing Macbeth on stage, or listening to Mozart’s Requiem; these things elevate my soul despite their heft. Being on social media is more the frivolous experience – I know I’m wasting time and I like the fact that I am even if it is embarrassing.  

The Thought of Quitting

As someone who has never smoked, I have seen the difficulty people have in quitting that habit. The thought of quitting social media comes now and then, but it quickly dissipates because my desire to go online again is stronger than the notion that I should refrain from doing so. There have been times when I am away on a trip and unable to access these sites, and I am fine with that and don’t feel like I am missing anything. Soon as I get home though I want to get on the sites again, give an update on my trip, and post pictures.

If I am brutally honest with myself, quitting social media means ending my public online celebration of self. Because of social media the self has come to mean more than it ever has before and, if you are supposed to love yourself before being able to love others, judging from what is seen on social media, there’s a lot of love going around.  Think of the selfie as the best perversion of that concept that has ever existed. The selfie explosion says, “I want to post all things about me” and has enabled sharing ourselves with the world, but at what long term cost is yet to be determined.   

Still, I got up today and thought again about quitting social media, but my posting this essay is proof of how well that went.

The Lightness

The problem with social media is the lightness of it. There is no substance, no heft; it is mostly fluff that may be pretty but is vacuous. If someone tries to make a statement that is meaningful, it goes either unnoticed or ignored.
Only the flamers get attention – whether they lean left or right – and then the haters get sucked in like moths to that flame. Then there are people who want you to “share” their fluff. They’ll write something icky like, “I’m going to see who reads this whole post.” Man, does that get me scrolling faster than Jesse Owens away from that one.

In the age of social media, gone is the notion of scholarship, integrity, and discourse. Either you see something their way, or you are excoriated as being the enemy, so it’s a case of either agree with the fluff or get out of here. There is no middle and that is why things are falling apart.

In Milan Kundera’s exquisite novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.” I think of social media as that feather floating in the wind. It sure seems carefree, but it’s never going anywhere. Real world things do weigh us down, make us understand a truth that we used to know before our heads were lost in the iCloud.

Kundera continues, “Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

No one seeks a burden or conflict, but as Kundera notes those things do define our lives and make the good times seem even better. Unfortunately, on social media conflict is happening all the time – sometimes alienating family members or friends. Perhaps many users are like rubberneckers who stop traffic in order to look at an accident, for they can get their entertainment watching others go at it. It all seems so superficial and meaningless at times – a lightness that seems never-ending.

Accepting Social Media for What It Is Not

I suppose that I am staying on social media because I am accepting it for what it is not – a place to go for information, facts, and serious dialogue. I can fulfill those needs in other ways. 

Accepting social media and all its imperfections, I know I will continue to enjoy seeing my friends and relatives’ posts, laugh at the occasional funny post, and get to waste some time for the joy of it. Sure, the real world is out there with all its burdens and rewards, but sometimes it feels good to get away from it all and embrace the lightness for all that it's worth.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Let’s Face It – We Cannot Survive Without Our Smartphones

I lost my smartphone the other day, and I almost lost my mind along with it. When I initially discovered that it was missing – from that sacred space in my back pants pocket where I keep it and a folded handkerchief – I went absolutely bonkers. I, who once could not understand a man whom I had overheard crying and complaining to a cashier in a department store about losing his phone, now completely understood the look of terror visible on his face and the fear that must have been in his heart.

I don’t know if that poor fellow ever found his phone, but I do remember the last words I heard him saying as I walked onto the elevator – “Please, you have to help me; my whole world is on that phone!” Those words inspired a little smirk to myself in the elevator mirror, but now I realized that my lack of empathy for that guy came from not having yet crossed over to the dark side of cellular phones.

Alas, that was then and this was hell. I had taken a walk in the park and sat and watched the geese in the pond. I then went into the drugstore to get a few things. My usual procedure in the car is to keep the phone in my pocket because I can answer it hands-free, and this is, of course, the safest way to drive. When I put the bags containing my purchases into the trunk, two iced tea bottles fell out of the bag onto the ground, with one rolling under my car. I got down on my knees in the parking lot, squeezed under the car, and managed to retrieve the bottle.

When I got home and was putting my purchases away, the landline in the living room began to ring. By the time I got to it the answering machine had picked up, and I realized that it was yet another robocall. I went back into the kitchen after this distraction to finish putting things away, and I reached for the phone in my back pocket to check my messages only to find it flat and empty – the phone was gone. I tried not to get excited at first, immediately looking around the kitchen and asking myself, “Did I put it down somewhere?”

After futilely checking the shopping bags, my other pants pockets, and my coat pockets, I thought about when I last used the phone – sitting in the park to take a picture of the geese. I surmised that my beloved communication device could be anywhere between there, the store, and my front door.

I took several deep breaths to try to calm myself, slipped on my coat, and went out the front door. I looked on the ground along the path to the driveway and saw nothing. Inside the car I checked the seat, under the seat, and on the floor and did not find the phone.

The drive to the store is approximately five minutes, and during this time I started thinking about everything stored in my phone. Indeed, just as that distraught fellow in the department store noted years before, my whole world was on that phone – all my contacts’ phone numbers, emails, and street addresses as well as all my text messages and favorite apps. Most of all there were the photos – probably in the thousands at this point – that I was always meaning to save to a flash drive and print but never got around to it.

Stopping at a red light I felt my hands sweating as I gripped the steering wheel and looked at myself in the rear view thinking, “Where’s the snarky little smirk now, dumbass?”

I parked my car outside the store in a spot that was next to the one where I had parked before, now occupied by an enormous flatbed truck. If my phone had been on the ground there it would have been a goner, but I still looked around and under the truck to no avail. I tracked my steps back inside the store, walked up and down the aisles, and found nothing. I went up to the busy cashier and asked if anyone had found a phone, and she shook her head and said, “Sorry!”

I went back outside, got into the car, and drove to the park. It was an overcast day with a little mist in the air, so the park was relatively empty. I traced my steps up and down the pathways and made my way to the bench where I had been sitting. I kept seeing the phone falling out of my pocket onto the pathway somewhere, but there were no signs of it anywhere.

I sat on the bench thoroughly exhausted – not from the searching but from the emotional upheaval I was experiencing. Oh, the lost photos on that phone were too much to bear – France, Italy, Niagara Falls, Rhode Island, two weddings, and worst of all my son’s first communion and my daughter’s sweet sixteen. All were gone now into some void, some vast gulf separating real life from the virtual one that we have all now have tacitly accepted, just like sheep herding into an electronic meadow of doom.

Sitting there on that bench I understood that we are all responsible for this situation. We bought into the need for these smartphones because everyone wanted to have one, and then social media came along to reinforce that life without their sites was empty and vacuous and lonely, and we accepted the notion that we didn’t have to just keep up with the Kardashians but every other household on the planet.

The magic little device in our fingers dazzled our eyes and rushed electronic moonbeams through our arms up into our souls. We had become quantified and qualified by the type of device we wielded, like warriors being known by a signature weapon. There were no downsides because it was all upsides – proving Marshall McLuhan right – the medium is the message, and in this world of ours now it is all about reaching everyone and knowing everything, like even our exact location on social media maps where there is no longer privacy and just an illusion of inter-connectivity. We are never alone and yet more lonely than ever, and how far we have come that we can be found but also forever lost?

I got up and started a slow walk back to the car. Nothing seemed to matter now. I would have to report my lost phone to all the necessary people, make the sad trip to the store to purchase a new one, and face the fact that everything on that phone was lost to me now.

When I walked into the house my kids were laughing, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

My daughter handed my phone and handkerchief to me and said, “You left these in the refrigerator, Dad.”

I stared at that phone in her hand, wanting to be giddy as a school boy on the last day of the semester, but I feared I was more like a man lost in a desert, staring a mirage of an oasis. I blurted out, “My phone!” grabbing it from her and feeling the cold lingering on its surface from its refrigerator entombment.

Closing my eyes, I remembered what had happened – the dropped iced tea bottles had been dirty from falling on the ground. I had reached into my back pocket to remove my phone and the handkerchief that shares that space with it, intending to clean off the bottles before placing them in the fridge. When the landline rang, I must have put my phone down on the refrigerator shelf as I rushed to the living room, not realizing I had left the phone inside when I shut the door.

I went upstairs immediately and began the process of saving my photos to a flash drive. As I sat there and watched precious images flowing across the screen into safe keeping, I wanted to believe that I had turned a corner. I was no longer going to depend on this little device to be my keeper. It was too in control of my behavior – everything from communication, finance, and precious memories was housed on it.

After spending a few hours transferring all my photos, I took a break and went to the window. I felt a buzz in my pocket and looked at my phone to see a message from my wife about dinner being ready. I saw my reflection in the glass and that snarky little smirk had returned again.

“Who am I kidding?” I thought. The use of these phones is now so ingrained in our lives that they are like an exterior organ, essential to our vitality and existence. I have forgotten all phone numbers because of this phone, and I would be hard pressed to find a physical phone book in my house because there isn’t one. In short, the phone is indispensable in my life and controls many aspects of it, all of my own volition.

Being dependent on my smartphone feels right despite my knowing it is wrong, and I am certain most people know it is wrong but they do not care. The fear of missing out on anything and everything – all of which is at the touch of our fingertips through a marvelous little device – is greater than our losing anything else, so losing my phone even for that brief time made me feel like the walking dead and, truthfully, I was like a zombie during that half an hour, having only one purpose – to find that phone and devour its contents again.

As I went downstairs for dinner I saw my family sitting around the table, looking at two phones and an iPad. This is what it has come to, and we are all okay with it. My wife will say something about putting down the devices during dinner, and there will be compliance for a few minutes, but the irresistible urge to see who just texted is undeniable.

We have to face the despicable fact that we have been conquered by electronic devices and are powerless to stop using them. Now is the time to face that truth no matter how bitter it is to accept, and we all need to look in the mirror because we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

TV Review: Star Wars Rebels Series Finale – The Jedi Strike Back

*There are spoilers in this review.

After four terrific seasons, Star Wars Rebels ended with a 90-minute series finale that lived up to all expectations. There are the space battles, firefights on the ground, and exotic and strange creatures (in this case the Loth Wolves and the space whales) that we have come to expect, but series creator Dave Filoni and his team also gave us complex characters that we cared about and wanted to see make it through the finale.

The mistake people have made about Disney XD’s animated series Star Wars Rebels – as some did with its precursor Star Wars: The Clone Wars – is to dismiss it as a children’s series rather than give it the respect it deserves. That is unfortunate because both series are definitive parts of the Star Wars Canon, meaning that they both have deep connections to the all the films and help fill in the blanks for gaps in time between them that fans greatly appreciate.

The nine films (counting Rogue One which is considered part of the canon) in the series each give us a limited point in time with the characters and we get to know them based on that moment in the saga. We fans do understand that time elapses between the films, and these characters have lived during those times and we don’t see what happens in that period.

The Clone Wars and Rebels have given us a deeper look into that galaxy far, far away and the characters we know and love who inhabit it. These series also introduced new characters like Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) who have become beloved as much as any characters from the films.   

The biggest question that bothered my son and me as we watched these four seasons of Rebels was the obvious problem with this series – these characters are (like those from Rogue One) moving into the same time frame of the film A New Hope – Episode IV. As we saw in Rogue One, that meant all of the characters (good and bad) had to perish, except for ones we knew continued on in A New Hope.

My young son and I have watched every episode of the series together, and we were both excitedly anticipating the finale as well as dreading it. Not only did we not want the series to end, but we were both afraid that we were going to have a similar ending as Rogue One. I am happy to report that this was not what happened.

We had every reason to think this way because Kanan Jarrus/Caleb Dume (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) died when he sacrificed himself to save the team in the midseason premiere a few weeks ago. Kanan, being a Jedi knight, was logically on the hit list because he would have to go in order for Luke Skywalker to truly be the last Jedi.

We had justifiable fears that the remaining Ghost crew of Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray), Hera Syndulla (Vanessa Marshall), Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar),  Zeb Orrelios (Steve Blum) and droid Chopper (Dave Filoni) were in danger and, while they all found themselves in life and death situations, they do survive, though in Ezra’s case there is a big question mark.

In a bold move devised by Ezra with the help of the Loth wolves, the team defeats the imperial forces on Ezra’s home planet Lothal, takes Governor Pryce (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) prisoner, and all seems right until Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) and his fleet arrive and threaten the team and the citizens of the planet. Since Ezra’s whole plan was to save the people of his planet, he feels obligated to do something and agrees to surrender himself to Thrawn.

In this selfless act Ezra proves that he is worthy of the Jedi training he received from Kanan, and when Thrawn turns Ezra over to the Emperor (voiced by the great Ian McDiarmid) via a hologram video, it is hard to escape the feeling that Ezra is walking down the same path as Luke does in Return of the Jedi.

The Emperor does not appear as his battle ravaged self but rather as the more benevolent-looking Palpatine, and as always is the case with this character, there are ulterior motives. The Emperor pretends to give Ezra a tour of the Jedi temple, but his goal is for Ezra to access the World Between Worlds as Palpatine knows that Ezra has entered it before. If the Emperor can enter this realm – where there is access to the past and the future – his power would be invincible.

The Emperor tempts Ezra with the possibility of an alternate life where his dead parents can be alive again. Despite Ezra’s misgivings, he looks at a gauzy wall (reminiscent of Rey’s experience looking for her parents through a smoky wall in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and wants to go through it and be with his parents again. As the wall becomes more transparent and the images of his parents become clearer, Ezra has a profound Jedi moment when he understands it is a false hope and runs away.

Seeing that his ruse did not work, the Emperor morphs into his current disfigured shape and tries to attack Ezra, but Ezra uses his considerable powers in the Force to bring down the walls of the temple. Surprisingly, even though the Emperor is only a hologram, he is unable to restrain Ezra who escapes and goes to confront Thrawn. This tantalizing scene is a way to not only connect Rebels directly to the Original Trilogy but also foreshadows the Emperor’s plans for Luke, a boy approximately the same age as Ezra.

When Ezra confronts Thrawn on the bridge of the ship, it seems as if Ezra may be killed until the arrival of the Purrgils (space whales) that crash through the windows and envelope Thrawn in their tentacles. Ezra had anticipated Thrawn’s attack on Lothal and had summoned the Purrgils to help defeat Thrawn’s fleet.

Just as Kanan sacrificed himself to save the team, Ezra also gives himself up to allow the Ghost and its crew to escape. The Purrgils take the ship and Thrawn and Ezra along with it and jump into hyperspace, so we can say Ezra survives but his whereabouts are very much unknown.

At the end of the episode we get an epilogue in the form of Sabine’s voice-over, and she tells us the crew survives until the Emperor and his forces are defeated at the Battle of Endor, taking us right to the end of The Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Hera and Kanan did indeed consummate their relationship, and the proof is her young son Jacen, about whom Sabine tells us, “Born to fly just like his mother, and well, we all know what his father was like.”

Filoni teases us with a final scene of Sabine meeting up with Ahsoka, who looks older and much wiser than when we first meet her as Anakin’s young apprentice in The Clone Wars. Now we learn that Sabine and Ahsoka are going to team up and search the galaxy in order to find Ezra. The possibilities are tantalizing as we contemplate that duo joining forces.

There are many unanswered questions such as: Will Jacen be Force sensitive and grow up to be a Jedi like his father? Will Sabine and Ahsoka find Ezra and bring him home? Will Ezra then train Jacen as his father Kanan trained Ezra? The exciting possible answers may come in a new series, hopefully with Filoni back at the helm.

For now, my son and I are extremely pleased with the finale. Star Wars Rebels ends well and with an understanding that we are left right at that place between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, which certainly leaves room for another series to fill in that large gap of 30 years, with characters like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa all in the mix for possible guest appearances. Here is hoping that Filoni will get that on the air sooner rather than later.

Until that time comes, may the Force be with you all!

Monday, March 5, 2018

The 90th Academy Awards – Time to Make a Long Story Short

Returning host Jimmy Kimmel talked about past Academy Awards ceremonies and referred to the first one as occurring across the street way back in 1929. He said that the whole thing took about 15 minutes and, after watching last night’s seemingly never-ending broadcast, it made me long for those days.

As a rule, I do not watch awards shows because they are usually a bloated conglomeration of all things I do not like. Just think about it – you have a combination of dolled up celebrities, many awards for things I never saw or heard, presenters reading corny shtick off a teleprompter, and a typically annoying host attempting to fill in the gaps in the broadcast like the little Dutch boy trying to stop a flood by sticking his chubby little fingers into holes in the dyke.

Kimmel gave it his best shot, but the Price is Right gimmick with the water ski seemed pretty lame – even with the great Helen Mirren being involved – and the offer to win it was made to the award winner who gave the shortest acceptance speech. The problem is that most of these celebrities cannot stop themselves from blabbing on and on, even though some did seem to rush through their moment of glory (whether it was for the prize or not I can’t be sure).

The problem with all awards shows – and the Oscars in particular – is that there seems to be so much filler, so many unnecessary moments, that the run time never seems justified. Maybe they had the right idea back in 1929, but because of so many more categories the behemoth we have today could never be squeezed in 15 minutes, but I think it could get compressed into an hour and be way less tedious.

It is not just the Oscars that are boring for me – the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and Golden Globes are too. It seems all these broadcasts follow the same pattern, and no matter who is hosting appears to be on the same script. I could never sit through the entire showing of any of them, so the Oscar ceremony is in good (or is that bad?) company.

People tune into any awards show for one reason – to see their favorite performers receive their awards. All the other stuff – from the oddly thrown together presenters awkwardly attempting to banter to Kimmel sending stars out of the auditorium to deliver snacks to people in a nearby theater – is just bloating an already obese broadcast.

Last night there were some stellar moments during acceptance speeches and from presenters. Lupita Nyong’o and Frances McDormand both spoke passionately, but the wait in between such moments is unbearable. The performance of “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman by Keala Settle was a
highlight of the broadcast and proves that good things can happen at the Oscars; however, it is cruel to make us suffer through three hours of meat scraps to get to one hour of filet mignon.

It is time for people behind these awards shows to give them an extreme makeover. They need to streamline the experience for those celebrities in the audience and those of us at home, or they are going to continue to lose viewers. Hollywood, are you listening?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Movie Review: Wonder – A Lesson in Love and Understanding for Kids and Their Parents

In these weeks before the Academy Awards, I always find myself binge watching nominated films either in the theater, streaming them online, or getting the DVD. Thus, after viewing films like Get Out, Dunkirk, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird and more, I got hooked on Wonder – nominated only in the category of Makeup and Hairstyling – thanks to my young son’s desire to see it.

The film Wonder, based on the New York Times bestselling children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, is not just a story for kids – it sends a powerful message to people of all ages about the importance of treating everyone with respect. It also features strong performances by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, and young Jacob Tremblay (so memorable as Jack in Room) in the role of Auggie, a young boy suffering from Treacher Collins syndrome that causes him to have facial deformity that has required 27 surgeries.

Directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder deftly tackles the difficult story of a boy who has been home schooled by his mother (Roberts) because of his appearance. Auggie’s visage is at first jarring – we see him walking around in a NASA space helmet that obscures his face. When he takes it off his ears are like globs of flesh, his eyes seem a bit askew, his cheeks pulled down and scarred, and there is a feeling that he has been in a car accident or fire and had plastic surgery.

Tremblay overcomes this with a powerful and earnest performance, imbuing Auggie with such depth of heart and soul and love, and we get that all he wants is to have the world accept him as he is, but his parents recognize that middle school doesn’t always work that way. Mom Isabel has put everything into Auggie’s life and education, but she makes a stand about him going to school in hopes that he will be able to have a semblance of a normal life despite the objections of her husband Nate (Wilson).

The first day of school, not easy for most kids to begin with, does not go very well. The things that make Auggie a regular kid – he loves Star Wars movies, Minecraft, outer space, playing with his X-Box, and likes sports – matter little to the other ten-year-old kids that are in his class at Beecher Prep, especially Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who picks on Auggie and makes fun of his braided ponytail, which Auggie wears to be like a Padawan in the Star Wars films. 

After suffering all day with Julian's bullying, Auggie goes home and storms into his sister Via’s (Izabela Vidovic) room, grabs her scissors, and cuts off the ponytail, symbolically severing his protected childhood in a warm, loving home, from what he now must face out in the totally cruel real world.

Despite his difficult first day, his parents convince him to go back to school. Auggie accepts that he will have to endure the taunts of Julian and his buddies but Jack (Noah Jupe), one of the boys in Julian’s group, decides to sit with Auggie at lunch one day. They begin to form a friendship, with Auggie even bringing him home after school much to the delight of Isabel.

Things seem to be going well, and although still bothered by the other boys, Auggie likes school because of Jack. Halloween comes – Auggie’s favorite time of year because he gets to wear a mask – and he is ready to go to school dressed as Boba Fett from Star Wars, but his dog throws up on the costume. Auggie goes to school dressed as Ghost Face (from the Scream movies), but Jack is expecting him to be Fett. When Auggie goes into the classroom Jack notices Auggie but doesn’t know it is he (a clever plot device reminding me of Shakespeare’s use of characters in disguise) so, when prodded by Julian, Jack says negative things about Auggie causing him to run out of class and asks the nurse to tell his mother that he is sick.

Thus Halloween, Auggie’s favorite holiday, is destroyed and so are his spirits. Once home he is unaware that he has ruined a mother-daughter day Isabel and Via have planned. Via, a complex character in her own right, has been feeling neglected because her parents’ world seems to revolve around Auggie, but she deeply loves her brother and decides to forget her own plans and puts on a costume to try to salvage Auggie’s Halloween.

Now we reach the point where we ask the salient questions: can Auggie ever get the kids in the school to treat him like any other kid? Will Via, who has become estranged from her own best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), be able to join the drama club and find new friends, and will Isabel and Nate reconsider their decision and go back to having Isabel home school their son again?

The answer to these questions is spoiler territory, but the way Chobsky gets you to the end is worth not knowing because it is an incredibly enjoyable trip. One of the key things that makes this film so successful is that Chobsky makes a movie about a child with facial deformities not just a movie about a child with facial deformities. Using a chapter-like format, he lets the audience get to know
Auggie, Via, Jack, and Miranda more deeply, enriching their characters and broadening the scope of the film to reflect everyone’s journey and how it is affected by events triggered by Auggie’s going to Beecher Prep. 

Chobsky’s other amazing accomplishment is that he has made a Julia Roberts movie that is not a Julia Roberts movie. Julia always shines in films (as she does here), but her innate spark is tempered, and she slides into Isabel’s shoes in a way that is convincing and necessary. She also works well with Wilson – whom we expect usually to be engaging in shenanigans of some kind – who is thoroughly believable as the dad who will play video games and bang plastic toy Star Wars lightsabers all day long, but also adds nuances as the concerned father who wants to do what is best for his kids.

The rest of the cast seems perfectly suited for each role, with Mandy Patinkin’s Principal Tushman a comic gem. The setting mostly takes place in the warmth of the Pullman family brownstone and the children’s schools, and there is a sense of those places importance in the overall story. While the film will definitely entertain its target tween audience, it has been crafted in a way as to appeal to all ages.

After watching the movie together, I realized it had a profound effect on my son. He identified with Auggie’s situation and could relate to his appreciation of all things Star Wars, but the main takeaway he had was that the film was truthful – kids can be mean, but they have to be shown and taught the importance of kindness.

In essence that is what the film is all about – kids, teachers, and parents doing the right thing and treating people well. It is something Auggie learns from his parents but, as we see in the film, even some parents need a lesson too, and thus watching this movie provides numerous teachable moments.

Wonder, as the titles implies, is wonderful, and a great film to watch with the whole family and is highly recommended.