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Saturday, April 22, 2017

TV Review: 24: Legacy – A Mostly Satisfying Season Concludes


*This review contains spoilers.

From the very first episode, comparisons have been made between 24: Legacy and the original series starring Kiefer Sutherland as the iconic Jack Bauer. Fair or not, it is understandable because the original 24 was an undeniable juggernaut that shook up TV dramas on broadcast and cable networks with its innovative split screens, a timely terrorist threat, and a real-time scenario that included the pounding beat of that clock that kept everything at a fast pace.

Despite negative hubbub generated by some critics and fans, 24: Legacy held things together for the most part, largely due to executive producers from the original show staying on board (Howard Gordon, Manny Coto, Brian Grazer) and also thanks to a solid performance by new leading man Corey Hawkins portraying hero Eric Carter.
The original format of 24 one-hour episodes has been subsumed this time by 12 episodes that still unfold in real time – until the last one which features a 12-hour time jump to encompass the 24 hours indicated in the title. For 24  purists this has been an issue, but that also was a case in the last bad day Bauer experienced in 24: Live Another Day, so the side stories that seemed to enhance characterizations and the office intrigue at CTU that pleased many fans were no longer possible.

As I was watching this series, I kept telling myself that this is 24 despite feeling like something was off at times, which reminded me of watching the Star Wars prequels during which I kept thinking, “Come on, this is Star Wars.

Depending on to whom you are speaking, the many similarities to the first season – a senator running for president, a hero whose wife was in danger, a possible mole at CTU, a nefarious plot that is not what it seems to be, and a bad guy who was supposed to be dead and is not – were either annoyingly repetitive or just what the doctor ordered.

The season kicked off with a great first episode and then sort of sputtered along the way, and it seemed like the producers knew this and turned over a big rock and dug up Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) to save the day. As it turns out, Tony has a past with presidential candidate and Senator John Donovan’s (Jimmy Smits) wife and former CTU Director Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto), who brings him into the picture as a problem solver. They take Donovan’s father Henry (a terrific Gerald McRaney) to an abandoned warehouse (a 24 staple) where they interrogate him the old fashioned and painful way (another staple of the old show). When this produces no results and causes friction between John and Rebecca, Henry is released and we figure maybe Tony is done here (though I was hoping he might give Jack a call for old time’s sake).

Tony doesn’t get much more to do until the last two episodes when he is called by Director of National Intelligence Donald Simms (James Moses Black), who wants him to do a dirty job that is right up Tony’s dark alley. Those who remember Tony fondly from the past might have forgotten that Bauer’s old buddy turned to the dark side and then some.

The back story here is that DNI Simms and Rebecca hatched a plot just as sinister as anything the terrorists could imagine. They targeted terrorist families, and managed to kidnap Sidra Naseri (an excellent Moran Atias), the young daughter of Asim Naseri (Oded Fehr). Naseri had been helping Carter in Afghanistan but turned on him after his daughter’s abduction thinking that she had been killed. He joined the terrorist Sheik Bin-Khalid (Eli Danker) whose men were sent to wipe out Carter’s team as payback.

Carter learns that Sidra is still alive, and because Naseri is holding Rebecca hostage, he hopes to trade Sidra for Rebecca. Of course, Tony and his team have been sent by Simms to kill the girl creating a collision course between Carter and Tony. The best moments of the finale involve Carter and Tony’s fight – sort of like old 24 against new 24 – and it is a brutal battle until Carter breaks Tony’s arm, and then Tony receives a call from John Donovan telling him that Carter is there to try to save Rebecca. Did you get all that?

Yes, it is a bit of the old winding and intertwining conflicts of interest, but Tony reveals his inner goodness by telling Carter that he would go with him to save Rebecca if he didn’t have the broken arm. Carter gets the girl onto a helicopter to the Egyptian embassy and then goes to meet Naseri, and once he knows that his daughter is safe he is willing to cooperate. The exchange does not go well because Bin-Khalid is angry at Carter for killing his son Jadalla (Raphael Acloque) and starts shooting. He kills Naseri and wounds Rebecca before Carter takes him out, and then Carter makes a desperate attempt to save Rebecca.

Unfortunately, Rebecca makes it to the hospital but passes away. Her husband is devastated, and when his father comes into the room where Donovan is sitting with her body, Smits does a great job of conveying the man’s pain and also his anger with Henry. The old man admits his mistake and is willing to go to prison, but he thinks John should still run for the presidency because the country needs him.

Donovan knows that his father Henry was in cahoots with Bin-Khalid (Henry was being blackmailed because he had business dealings with ISIS) and yet, because of Rebecca’s dirty deal with Simms (who blows his brains out when he realizes that he will be exposed in the kidnapping of Sidra) she was also connected with Henry, and John wants to protect her reputation more than maintain his bid for the White House.

While loyal viewers would figure that one main character had to die in keeping with the show’s tradition, it was very surprising that it would be Rebecca – I was thinking it would be Carter’s wife Nicole (Anna Diop) – but then that would be entirely too much like the first season when Jack lost his wife, so the impact here is a bit different but has major implications if there will be a second season.

While the series had a mostly good run, the ratings weren’t terrific, but based on Hawkins’s strong performance and the show’s pedigree, Fox should give this series at least one more season to try to build its fan base and gain more viewers.
There are many possibilities with the remaining characters including Donovan becoming president, fallout from the program Simms and Rebecca put in place, and Carter becoming a CTU agent. During a touching scene with his wife, Carter promises her no more lies (he had been secretly applying to CTU), and Nicole accepts that.

As Carter goes into a debriefing with CTU Director Mullins (Teddy Sears), we get a last shot of Nicole’s face, but from her expression we cannot be sure whether she is just afraid for her husband or unhappy about his decision to join CTU. Let’s hope we get a second season so that we can find out!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Happens in Schools With No Report Card Grades – True Learning Begins!

When thinking of Socrates – one of the greatest teachers who ever lived – it is hard to imagine him assigning A’s and B’s or worrying about students Plato and Xenophan’s grade point averages. Socrates knew that greater knowledge brought greater happiness, but the first and foremost assignment would be to know oneself in relation to the world – only then through reasoning and logic could true knowledge be attained.

Flash forward to our current abysmal education system where everything revolves around grading and standardized testing. In order to get students to do well on these assessments, so-called “knowledge” is shoved down their throats with intensity in order to have them perform well and prop up test scores for their districts. In this meaningless annual cycle, teaching to the test amounts to little or no teaching at all, but rather a concerted effort to make the grade.

Parents across the country have rebelled against state assessments and standardized testing. They have realized that students are not truly learning content – which means mastery – but rather are being put through repetitive drills with sample tests in order to succeed on the examinations. Once the exam periods are over, there is no retention of information and thus the next school year the exasperating cycle will have to begin again.

One school district in Connecticut has done away with grades. In Windsor Locks students in the middle and high school there are involved in a new system that requires them to “master” skills in every subject area in order to be promoted. School superintendent Susan Bell notes that a D- (the old passing grade) is no longer a pass to the next grade or to graduation. Of course, this makes sense because no one is ready to move up to the next grade with a D- average.

The model in Windsor Locks should not only be applauded by other educators – it should be initiated in some form or other in their districts. The idea of mastery means progress – gone is the formality of number or letter grades that do little to tell anyone what a student knows. In this school district, a student must fully learn skills and, if he or she needs more time, is not penalized but rather supported until mastery is achieved.

Yes, this is a unique model, but it also fits into a vision I have had for schools for a long time. In my ideal school, every student would have an IEP – an Individualized Education Program – not just those enrolled as special education students. By giving each student a plan designed for his or her abilities, schools would be enabled to structure a course of instruction that is reasonable and personal.

In this system grading would be obsolete. Students will compile semester portfolios which will show their progress and, as in the Windsor Locks system, they will have to demonstrate more than a simple understanding of each subject area – but each student will have his or her own level of tasks needed to be completed. In this way mastery is in no way a one size fits all expectation just as A’s and B’s used to be.

Opposition to these kinds of innovate education plans is to be expected. Many parents and teachers who came through antiquated A’s and B’s school systems feel semesters and report cards are normal parts of their children’s scholastic experience. They have been conditioned to accept the status quo because they know nothing else.

Why should any child not have an optimal educational experience in school? What has been going on in classrooms for many decades is far from optimal. A teacher who is in a classroom with 25 students must face the facts – that  in some ways he or she is failing to reach each one of them in a given day  because he or she is expecting them to conform – to all get the same understanding through instruction and then to get the same grades on tests which should result in the same grades on their report cards.

How could any teacher possibly believe that he or she could reach 25 students who are all unique individuals in the same way every day? It is a cookie-cutter approach that has been going on for far too long, but the problem is that kids are not uniform cookies – they come in all shapes and sizes and have different learning needs. The education system continues to fail students because of this folly of expectation that has resulted in reliance on standardized test scores that have no meaning in relation to what a child knows and retains.

I praise Windsor Locks school district for its innovative approach and hope that more school districts will begin to embrace this kind of instruction and assessment. It should be the wave of the future, but administrators will have to be brave and bold and do something that has not been done for so long – what is best for the children and not their budgets and the vested interests like testing companies.

Instead of a child bringing home a report card with grades on it, he or she should come home with a multi-page document – I  label it a "Learning Narrative" which sounds a good deal less intimidating than "report card" – that covers all skills learned, ones yet to be learned, and realistic goals to be reached in the following period of instruction based on his or her IEP. As it always should be, parental involvement and support would be encouraged and welcome – as it is now many parents are kept at arm’s length from the school building and do not feel like partners with their children’s teachers. This has to change.

The most important thing to parents besides their children’s health and well-being is their education. As a parent, I want my kids to come away from school with the skills they need to succeed in life, but I also want them to be able to retain knowledge and have an understanding about subject matter that is deep and not just cursory in order to pass state and standardized tests.

As parents, it is our duty to do everything we can to advocate for this kind of change that will create a more meaningful and memorable school experience for all students. We owe it to our children because they deserve so much better than what they are getting now.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

TV Review: Big Little Lies – Satisfying Finale Leaves Us Wanting More




*This review contains spoilers.

From the first dreamlike strains of the opening credits (featuring Michael Kiwanuka’s amazing “Cold Little Heart”), we get sucked into a stream of consciousness sequence of beautiful images of Monterey, our main characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Jane (Shailene Woodley) driving their kids to school, the wild ocean, a gun held in the sunshine, children dancing, the female leads mugging for the camera in Audrey Hepburn costumes, and silhouettes of lovers – and the show hasn’t even started yet. But just like HBO’s other recent hit mini-series Westworld (they really have cornered the market on making opening credits an art form), we come to understand what Big Little Lies will be about and it’s quite compelling.

The (hopefully season and not the series) finale answers the questions everyone wanted to know – who got murdered and who did it, but the way we get there is not how we have believed we would. The fact that Jane has a gun and fears the rapist who impregnated her has hung over the series (that is the  gun seen in the opening credits), and if we subscribe to Anton Chekhov’s theory about guns (if one is shown in a story it has to eventually go off), the way the murder takes place is a shove instead of a shot, and the person doing the shoving is the least likely character to do it.

The series would have been compelling enough if the murder was not in the mix. We have Madeline cheating on her husband Ed (Adam Scott) with Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), the director of the local theatre company, and also dealing with her teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) wanting to auction her virginity for charity. Former lawyer Celeste is trying to raise twin sons while engaging in an increasingly violent and abusive relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). New in town Jane gets into a battle with powerful executive Renata (Laura Dern) who accuses her son Ziggy (Ian Armitage) of bullying Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George), so there is plenty of conflict and also numerous potential aggressors and victims, which makes the murder mystery all the more interesting.

Writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée have taken the story from Liane Moriarty’s novel and adapted it deftly (while also leaving out a number of details from the book) for television. The arc of seven episodes gives ample time to develop these compelling characters, show the tensions in their interactions, and question who would have enough animosity to cross the line and become a killer.

During this time, we identify with each of the three main female characters, even the less sympathetic Madeline grows on the viewer as we see how she is torn by her actions and understands that her marriage could be unraveling and, when her daughter announces that she is moving in with Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his new, younger wife Bonnie (Zoē Kravitz), she begins questioning her parenting skills.

As the abuse escalates we connect with Celeste’s quiet but incongruous battle to stay with Perry, who one minute is gentle and loving and the next minute is smashing her head against a wall. While Perry maintains he is fighting demons and needs help, he also suggests that their twin sons Max and Josh (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) have no idea that he is using her as a punching bag; however, Celeste believes that the boys are not only aware but that it is affecting them.

Perhaps we empathize with Jane most of all as she fights the good fight for her son, knowing in her heart that Ziggy is a gentle soul and confirming it with testing and evaluation. Her flashbacks of the rape by a man she cannot remember as well as her chasing him along the beach after the rape are upsetting, but not any more than when she dreams about the rapist trying to break into her home and she reaches for the gun to stop him.

The series culminates with the big Trivia Night fundraiser for the children’s school where it is Audrey and Elvis Night – all attendees are dressed in various incarnations of the iconic figures Audrey Hepburn or Elvis Presley. Some of the main characters take a turn at the microphone to sing, and none is more moving and hypnotic than Bonnie. She is probably the least developed of the five female characters, but her opportunities in scenes are memorable and she brings a subtle strength to the table literally when Ed and Madeline visit with Bonnie and Nathan to discuss the raising of Abigail and handling her virginity auction. Amidst all the bickering, Bonnie is the only one who makes sense.

The most misunderstood of the five is Dern’s Renata, who comes off as the hard as nails CEO who wants Ziggy expelled from school for messing with her child, but to Dern’s credit she gives Renata a vulnerability that redeems her for the viewer, especially when she and Jane meet and try to at least come to an understanding, even after Jane has attacked her and given her a black eye.

At the Trivia Night the lies of the title start to unravel one by one. Joseph’s wife Tori (Sarah Sokolovic), who has confronted Madeline previously about her suspicions of an affair, now glares angrily at her. Celeste, who has been hiding a beachfront apartment as part of an escape plan, is confronted by Perry about it in their car, but she manages to get out and run to the party. Celeste confesses to Renata that Max is the one abusing Amabella, and Madeline overwhelmed with guilt (and more than a little drunk) runs off to the edge of the property where yellow caution tape is stretched across a dangerous staircase. Jane follows her and Madeline confesses that she had an affair.

This is when Renata seeks out Jane to let her know that she is sorry about wrongly accusing Ziggy, and then Celeste comes toward them as she is trying to escape Perry. In horror Jane stares at Perry and realizes that he is the man who raped her – and Perry recognizes Jane too. He still wants Celeste to come home with him and, when she refuses, he begins to get physical and pushes away the other women who are trying to help Celeste. Bonnie, who has followed Perry because she saw him and Celeste bickering, comes running forward after Perry has knocked the other women to the ground. As he prepares to punish Celeste, Bonnie rushes him and pushes him through the yellow tape and down the staircase, killing him.

If this seems way too coincidental, perhaps it sounds that way, but Kelley and Vallée pull it off, thanks in large part due to the cast’s incredible talent to make this moment actually work when we see it. In the end the police arrive and Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey), whom we have seen throughout the series conducting the investigation, doubts the story that the five women have obviously agreed upon telling – it was an accident. She suspects that they are covering up something and asks her partner, “Why lie?” Of course, that has been the context of the whole series, so ending the series with one last big lie that is far from little seems apropos.

The last scene shows the mothers and their children frolicking on the beach, all laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Gloriously adult male free, they throw their cares (and the plot’s many other loose ends) to the wind. It is a fitting final moment but the last shot is seen from the perspective of Detective Quinlan looking through a pair of binoculars watching the women on the beach, letting us know that she is still not satisfied and leaving the door open for season number two. 

There are many situations yet to be resolved, including the detective’s lingering doubts about the case. A second season will have to rely on something vastly different than just the continued murder investigation, but there are more than enough stories yet to be told for these characters.

We should hope for season number two to eventually happen, but getting this dream cast back together may be harder than reuniting the Beatles and ultimately just as unsuccessful. What a shame that would be!

Friday, March 31, 2017

TV Review: Star Wars Rebels : “Zero Hour” – What Jedi Devilry Is This?



* This review contains spoilers. 
The third season's finale of Star Wars Rebels had just about everything we fans could want – an epic space battle, a pernicious villain, heroic action from our Jedi, and the element of human trial and error that can make or break the rebellion.

That said, the two-part “Zero Hour” had to follow in the wake of last week’s powerful “Twin Suns,” the season’s penultimate episode featuring the long awaited battle between Obi Wan Kenobi (Stephen Stanton) and Maul (Sam Witwer). Still, this finale did have enough of everything that keeps Padawan hearts beating fast and, as the storyline keeps moving forward, we have the inevitable collision with characters from Rogue One and A New Hope, which are like enticing Easter eggs we can’t help but love finding.

The concern that keeps popping up in my mind is a great villain like Admiral Thrawn (dastardly played by Lars Mikkelsen) and the equally great Jedi Kanan Jarrus (Freddy Prinze Jr.) and his Padawan Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) are nowhere to be seen in A New Hope. Thrawn would seem to be quite integral to the Empire’s plans, especially since he frequently communications with Grand Moff Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) who is a key figure in A New Hope. Why would Thrawn not be involved unless he were dead?

Kanan, Ezra, and the rest of The Ghost crew are now equally integral to the rebellion – even rubbing elbows with the iconic figures Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Jan Dodonna (Michael Bell) – that it seems incongruous to think of them not being around when Han, Luke, Leia, and company come on board to join the rebels, unless they are dead. That prospect is upsetting, but then again an explanation could be that both Imperial forces and the rebel alliance are widespread, and thus Thrawn and the crew of The Ghost certainly could be deployed elsewhere during the original trilogy.

Getting back to “Zero Hour,” we see Thrawn take on undercover Agent Callus (a terrific David Oyelowo) and capture him, and then he begins the plot to destroy the rebel fleet stationed at Atollon.  Thrawn, no doubt owing his blue skin to the ice in his veins, is the best villain in three seasons of Star Wars Rebels (if you don’t count appearances by Darth Vader), and his cunning and brilliant plan has been to get to know his enemies before destroying them.

On Atollon the rebels are preparing to attack the imperial forces on Lothal, and Ezra is happy to see this plan to liberate his home planet coming together. He shares a crucial scene with Kanan, where the Jedi master reveals that he is not sure there is anything more that he can teach Ezra. The Padawan responds by saying that Kanan (now blind due to an attack by Maul) has taught him more than just the Force – he has taught him about life. It is wonderful to see how the relationship has grown between these two and how Kanan now fully respects Ezra as his partner.

Once the rebels discover that Kallus has been compromised, they realize their attack on Lothal is not possible and that an evacuation of Atollon must happen immediately. In orbit above the planet Commander Sato (Keone Young) is surprised to see five Star Destroyers appear, and with his small contingent of ships knows that he is trapped.

The Battle of Atollon begins with the rebels, as usual, badly outgunned and outnumbered, but Hera (Vanessa Marshall) believes if she can get word out to the larger rebellion force out there that things can be salvaged. She sends Ezra on a desperate mission to get this extra help, while Kanan seeks a different kind of support in the desert of the planet.
While Sato and his small fleet put up a valiant fight above, Kanan goes to meet Bendu (Tom Baker) and things do not go so well. Though the Jedi has established a rapport with the powerful being who exists somewhere in the middle of the light and dark side of the Force, Bendu is angry and blames Kanan for bringing war to his planet. Instead of getting Bendu’s help, Kanan receives his wrath and a small sample of the scope of Bendu’s powers when his eyes illuminate and he churns up a dust storm.

On his journey in hyperspace, Ezra reaches Mon Mothma via hologram, but the wise leader of the rebellion warns Ezra that Thrawn is counting on the rest of the force to come to Atollon to destroy it in its entirety. Ezra realizes this is true, but then seeks help from old crewmate Sabine Wren (Tiya Sicar) who to his dismay is too busy helping her fellow Mandalorians fighting a civil war. When Ezra believes things are hopeless he prepares to leave, but Sabine changes her mind and convinces her mother, Countess Ursa Wren, to send ships and troops to help the rebels.

The final battle is fierce and spectacular – on the ground and in space – just what we would expect along with the heroism of the outnumbered rebel force. When it looks as if the Empire is going to have a victory in space, Ezra and Sabine arrive and prepare to clear a way for the rebel ships to escape.

On the ground Thrawn uses three AT-ATs and TIE fighters to pummel the rebels, eventually surrounding them with his force of Death Troopers (first seen in Rogue One). He demands Hera’s surrender and prepares to start killing her people with Kanan to be the first one, but streaks of lightning shake his resolve as he utters “What Jedi devilry is this?” That should serve as a classic line to be repeated from this point forward.

The “devilry” is Bendu, his glowing eyes in a black cloud that manifests itself powerfully, destroying the AT-ATs while the lightning takes out some of his troops. “Leave this place,” Bendu’s voice thunders, and this disruption allows Hera, Kanan, and the rest to get to their ships and escape.

After the initial shock, Thrawn is not impressed by this and orders the rest of his men to fire at Bendu, eventually causing him to collapse. The sinister Thrawn stares at the fallen being with disdain as Bendu warns, “I see your defeat.” Thrawn shoots Bendu but instead of killing him it causes him to vanish (ala Obi Wan and Yoda), making us believe that he has now become one with the Force.

In the end Hera rescues Kallus who escapes the Imperial ship in a pod, and the team is reunited. They are mourning because some of the rebels were lost during this battle, including Sato, but now they have to make plans to join the rest of the rebels on Yavin (yes, that rebel base on that planet), getting us closer to the events of A New Hope.

Kanan discovers a disenchanted Ezra, who is upset that his home planet could not be liberated. The episode ends with Ezra saying, “There is a future for us, one where we’re all free, but it’s up to us to make it happen.”

Overall, season three has been satisfying, but there certainly was the feeling that the impact of season two’s Ashoka-Darth Vader arc hung heavily over it. With their bruising light saber battle ending last season’s finale, it would have been hard for anything to top that – though the Obi Wan-Maul duel in episode 20 came pretty darn close.

For now it is exciting to see the convergence of Rebels, Rogue One, and A New Hope stories this season, and no doubt we can expect more of that in season four (due later this year). I must confess I did not have high hopes for this series initially, but the stories are so strong and with its indelible characters Rebels is now an essential part of the Star Wars canon. I really look forward to watching it each week (since it is animated, I make the excuse that I am watching it with my son). The truth is that Star War Rebels is so good that it is fitting entertainment for fans of all ages.

Until next time, may the Force be with you!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

TV Review: Star Wars Rebels: “Twin Suns” – Saving the Chosen One


*This review contains spoilers.

My reasons for watching Disney’s animated series Star Wars Rebels are twofold – it makes connections to the other animated series The Clone Wars and, more importantly, with the Star Wars films, but it also gives me a chance each week to bond with my young son over our mutual love of all things Jedi. That said, season 3 episode 20 – “Twin Suns” – is well beyond just any episode but rather a defining moment not only for this series but the mythology of the entire franchise.

The title “Twin Suns” refers literally to the two suns of the planet Tatooine, but figuratively can be seen to represent two Jedi sons Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray) and Luke Skywalker (in this episode a shadow seen only from a distance). These Jedi must go in separate directions to fulfill their destinies, and protector Obi Wan Kenobi (Stephen Stanton sounding more like Alec Guinness than seems possible) must see to it that both stay safe.

The looming threat in this episode is (the former Darth) Maul, voiced convincingly by Sam Witwer, who through The Clone Wars and then Star Wars Rebels has been seeking Obi Wan to exact his revenge (for being sliced in half during the film The Phantom Menance). Maul’s entire arc through that film and the two series has been used to illustrate the depth of the dark side’s power and evil, and Maul’s attempt to enroll Ezra as his “apprentice” connects with the mythology of the Sith once defined by Yoda as “There’s always two: no more, no less.”

Yet Maul can be seen as trying to relinquish his ties to the Emperor (also Witwer) and become a different type of follower of the dark side of the force, if not actually Sith, and using it to his full advantage as he lures Ezra to Tatooine in order to bring Obi Wan out of hiding.

Writers Dave Filoni and Henry Gilroy have great respect for the Star Wars canon, and it is never more obvious than in this episode that carefully weaves threads from the films and both TV series into a dramatic fabric that is quite effective. Ezra has a vision, inspired by Maul, that Obi Wan is in danger, and then he defies Hera (Vanessa Marshall) and Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) when they tell him they need him to stay put and fight for the rebellion (which they do).

Ezra, always impetuous and still learning the ways of the Force, decides to heed the call anyway, which makes perfect sense for his character. With intrepid droid Chopper as a stowaway he blasts off for Tatooine without thinking – his confrontation with Maul would obviously end in disaster if it were to take place.

Maul wanders the desert of Tatooine waiting for Ezra to arrive, and when he does so is immediately attacked by Sand People, but just like Obi Wan saving Luke from them in A New Hope, Maul saves Ezra from them here, but not before they destroy his ship and any chances of escape.

Chopper is eventually incapacitated by a dust storm and Ezra collapses, only to wake up and find that Obi Wan has saved him. This allows the characters a chance to talk – the erstwhile Jedi master and the apprentice who looks up to him as an idol. Though their encounter is brief, Obi Wan’s wisdom is not lost on Ezra. This momentous interaction has to change Ezra, help him refine his views, and bring him closer to the Force.

Maul appears as we and Obi Wan know he would, and Obi Wan quickly sends Ezra and Chopper off to make their escape. The “battle” we have been anticipating since these two faced off in The Clone Wars has finally arrived, and there is some banter between the two, with Maul condescendingly saying, “Look what you have become – a desert rat.”







But we know that all this time Obi Wan has not just been wallowing in the desert. He has been there as a protector of Luke Skywalker all this time, and he has also been perfecting his connection to the Force and his Jedi skills. Thus, the battle with Maul is not a long, drawn out one as between Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) in the season 2 finale, which was a battle of almost equals. Here Obi Wan (not surprisingly) quickly dispatches Maul after Maul surmises that he is protecting someone on the planet.

As he dies in the arms of his opponent, there is a moment of illumination for Maul but not redemption – he asks Obi Wan if he has been protecting the Chosen One. Obi Wan admits that he has been, and Maul expires wrongly thinking that the Chosen One will bring about his revenge, but Obi Wan knows otherwise. The Chosen One’s purpose has always been to bring balance to the Force.

So, after eight films and two TV series, we finally get confirmation of what many of us have suspected – Anakin Skywalker was never the Chosen One; it was always going to be his son Luke. Based on what we know from Return of the Jedi, that film does so much as validate that fact. Though Darth Vader throws the Emperor to his death, his motivation is to save Luke. Vader dies knowing that he has prepared the way for his son to bring balance of the Force to fruition.

Star Wars fans should be delighted as I am with this episode. The mythology of the Chosen One has long hovered over the entire franchise, with the dramatic irony of characters in the prequels believing Anakin was the Chosen One, but his turn to the dark side always seemed too easy, while Luke’s resistance to it – even in the face of death – clearly establishes him as the one.

It will be interesting to see how Star Wars: The Last Jedi (December 2017) will connect with this revelation. It was once assumed that Obi Wan was the last Jedi, and that we know was wrong. We also do not know where some other Jedi may be – as Ezra, Kanan, and Ashoka are still out there as of now – after this series ends and the years progress through the original trilogy to the new film. We also should assume that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is also a Jedi based on The Force Awakens, so the title of the new film may be a misnomer, but we will have to see.

The end moments of “Twin Suns” are most compelling and deeply meaningful ones – Obi Wan watches the moisture farm where Luke grew up from afar, those setting suns on the horizon as they were in A New Hope when teenage Luke stared at them and thought about his future. At this time Obi Wan hears the familiar voice of Aunt Beru (archived voice of Shelag Fraser from A New Hope) calling, “Luke, Luke…” and in the distance we see the shadow running home across the field. Cue John Williams’ enthralling music (and the lump in my throat), and we have just been treated to a most compelling connection to the films that feels unforgettable.

I am looking forward to next week’s season finale, but it will have to go a long way to surpass this penultimate episode that made necessary connections, strengthened Obi Wan’s legend, and helped to shape Ezra’s story arc. In my opinion season 3’s episode 20 is the most important and memorable one to date in Star Wars Rebels, but that may change next week as the rebellion and the Empire prepare for battle.

Until next time, may the Force be with you.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

A St. Patrick’s Day Song for the Bishop - A Short Story by Victor Lana

It had always been said that “Smiling Jack” Doyle could make any man – or woman for that matter – cry when he sang “Oh Danny Boy,” his deep and robust voice quivering ever so slightly throughout, causing hearts to flutter and eventually tears to flow.

On a cold Brooklyn night a week before St. Patrick’s Day, Jack sat at his usual table in Dolan’s Pub surrounded by several friends. At 47 his once gaunt and handsome face had become red and swollen, and the lean physique had been subsumed by the current bloated version he saw in the mirror each morning.

Business was booming at the accounting firm Jack had inherited from his father, and he was proud that he put his kids through Catholic schools and sent Jack Junior to Notre Dame and Deirdre to the University of Delaware. He had pictures of them in his wallet that he proudly showed people after a few pints, and he told everyone that life had been good to him.

Old man Dolan came over to the table wiping his hands on a bar towel. “Gents, may I speak with Jack for a moment, please?”

Tim Finnegan looked up from his glass of Old Bushmills and said, “We’ve all been friends since kindie-garten, Bill. We have no secrets.”

Dolan frowned and pointed to the giant bouncer Rob Rooney at the door. “I need to speak to Jack alone. Go away or you can go home.”

“Have it your way, Bill,” Tim said taking his drink and leading the others to the far corner of the bar.

“So what did I do now?” Jack asked.

Bill sat down. “I’ve got a big favor to ask you actually.”

Jack sipped his Guinness and downed a shot of whiskey. “Well, you know I’d do anything for you, Bill.”

Bill whispered,” I want you to sing this Friday night.”

Jack laughed, “But I always sing without an invitation, Bill.”

“This is different.”

“I can hardly hear ya, Billy-boy.” Jack leaned closer to him. “I feel like I’m in confession.”

“Funny you should say that,” Bill said. “You will be singing for the bishop.”

Jack’s eyes widened and his face turned almost purple. “The bishop?”

“Yes, he is coming for dinner and personally requested that you sing ‘Oh Danny Boy.’”

“How did the bishop hear about me?”

“McCrae says the bishop saw that story on New York 1. Seems you’re getting famous, Jack.”

“I guess,” Jack sighed.

“So, will you do it, Jack?”

Jack sipped his drink and nodded. “It will be my honor.”

*

Three days had passed and Bill hadn’t seen Jack in the pub, so he sent Rooney to check on him.

Maureen Doyle answered the door, her green eyes shining in the sunlight. “What do you want here?”

Rooney, despite his size, was extremely shy especially around women. “I…I’m checking if Jack’s alright.”

Maureen dug her fists into her hips. “Alright? He is mortified about singing for the bishop. He’s not eating or sleeping and what’s worse he’s not drinking.”

“Oh, my,” Rooney moaned.

“He’s driving me nuts! Tell that to your boss.” Maureen slammed the door and turned to see 

Jack looking out the back window. “Jack, why don’t you go to the office for a few hours or the pub?”

Jack turned to her, his lips quivering. “I can’t drink a drop until I sing for the bishop. I need to be thinking clearly as to not mess up the words.”

Maureen went to him and touched his hot red cheek. “You’ve sung that song hundreds of times.”

“But this will be the first time for the bishop.”

“Okay,” Maureen turned to walk away and looked back at him, “but you have never sung in public without needing a few drinks first. Think about that.”

*

St. Patrick’s Day came and the pub was overflowing with people. The Kerry Brothers Band was performing, and platters of corned beef and cabbage kept coming out from the kitchen. As Kenny Kerry crooned, “I’m looking over a four-leafed clover…” Jack Doyle walked into the pub and everything stopped.

Dolan came running up to him looking at his watch. “I thought you weren’t coming. The bishop will be here in five minutes!”

Jack wore a suit and green tie; the collar of his shirt was dark with sweat. “I’m…here.”

Bill pointed at Kenny and barked, “Play some music.”

Jack went to the end of the bar and sat down. Dolan quickly poured him a pint and set a glass of whiskey next to it. “Do yourself a favor, Jack, and have a drink.”

“No, I must not,” Jack said.

The bishop came wearing his black suit and white collar followed by several priests. An empty table waited for him directly in front of the stage, and he sat down and ordered a glass of wine and corned beef and cabbage. All conversations and the music stopped; you could hear a pin drop all the way to Dublin.

Jack went on stage, took the microphone from Kenny, and stared at the bishop. “It is an honor to sing for you tonight, Your Excellency.” The band began playing. Jack sang, “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…” By the time he had finished, the bishop used his napkin to dry the tears on his cheeks.

Later that night Jack sat at the bar staring at the same pint and whiskey Dolan had poured for him earlier. The bishop had left, the band kept playing, and the crowd had become rambunctious.

“You’ve sung it many times, but that’s your best performance, Jack,” Bill said.

“Thank you,” Jack said.

Bill lifted his pint and said, “It’s over now; you made bishop cry! You need a good stiff drink.”

Jack got up, adjusted his tie, and said, “I’ll have my next drink when I want one and don’t need one.” Jack left the pub through the back door to avoid the crowd and walked home whistling “Danny Boy.”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island – Two Out of Four Bananas


Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island is the type of big summer blockbuster audiences crave, except that this is still winter. He gets the blockbuster part right, however, thanks to excellent CGI and the big lug at the heart of the film. King Kong has always connected with audiences in his various incarnations, not because he is big and powerful, but rather that he is an innocent wronged by greedy humans who wish to exploit.

Nothing against Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (chewing more scenery than Kong as Colonel Preston Packard), and Brie Larson (award-winning photographer Mason Weaver) and the rest of the human cast, but this is Kong’s movie. Part of the problem is that Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein have made the human cast so one dimensional, with little exploration of their characters. Only John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow (a World War II pilot who crashed on the island and has been marooned there for 28 years) is given a back story and lines that make him somewhat interesting.

Kong: Skull Island seems to be something like the child of Predator and Land of the Lost. The CGI action scenes featuring Kong in battle against various other oversized creatures – who knew the big ape enjoyed eating giant calamari – are the best parts of the film. The humans fall into various kinds of stock characters, and I am not sure if the writers were playing with idea of giving them more to do or not, but particularly Larsen’s Weaver seems lost and has a perplexed rather than a frightened expression on her beautiful face as she gazes at these gigantic beasts, making us wonder if she too doesn’t have clue as to her character’s motivation.

Without giving too much away, the cold opening involves Marlow and a Japanese pilot (Miyavi) crashing on Skull Island during World War II. As they battle each other on the ground, they are interrupted by the roar and then the enormous face of King Kong staring at them, which sort of changes the playing field.

Flash forward to 1973 and Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) go to Washington D.C. to see a senator to try to raise funds for an expedition to the unchartered Skull Island. After some wrangling they get their money, and since the Vietnam War is ending they get a military escort in the form of Packard and his men, who should be going home but sign on for one more mission. Randa and Brooks also bring Conrad along for his expertise in tracking, and Weaver is hoping to chronicle the action and gain more notoriety. Of course, we’re thinking she is the requisite blonde we have known since Fay Wray and that Kong is going to have to walk around with her in his huge paw at some point – which, of course, he does.

The rest of the story pretty much is textbook action fare, except that it all looks so wonderful. Chris Brenczewski’s special effects along with Larry Fong’s cinematography paint a beautiful lost world indeed, and there has never been a more believable Kong in the fluidity of his movements, the hair raising on his neck, the steam of breath coming from his mouth, and the benevolence of his beautiful eyes that makes us know he is no monster.

There is some attempt to make Packard a kind of Ahab figure and Kong his Moby Dick, but there is just not enough in the script for any of it to seem valid. Hiddleston and Larson look great but lack any chemistry, and the best moments are when Kong realizes that all humans are not bad and acts way more humane than Randa and Packard possibly could.

Besides Kong there are a slew of other enormous beasts on this island – a battle with giant spiders is perhaps the best sequence of humans fighting back – but most of the time the characters get in each other’s way and do things that make no sense. Packard’s insistence on finding one lost man is not only illogical but foolish, and the only excuse could be that Ahab thing, but it doesn’t work for me.

Clearly this is Kong’s show and, while he could have pounded his chest and roared a few more times, Kong and his interaction with the other spectacular beasts is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, when the most frightening thing in the movie is a Richard Nixon bobble-head on a helicopter dashboard, you know something is missing.

Still, due to the great depiction of Kong, I give Kong: Skull Island two out of four bananas. I just hope Kong doesn’t get too comfortable because I have a feeling that a formidable opponent named Godzilla may be darkening the shores of his island in the near future. If that pairing occurs, can Mothra be far behind?