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Thursday, April 26, 2007

TV Review: S6:19 of "24": Jack and Audrey and Bill and Hillary

Since Jack Bauer has put his life on the line so many times during this season, we are probably inured to his being in danger and his willingness to sacrifice himself for others. Yet last night's episode put him in a unique situation because this dying for someone else involved Audrey, the woman Jack loves. During the six seasons of this show, we have witnessed Jack having to "trade" with bad guys for countless things. For example, just last season Henderson had Audrey and Jack gave up the recording. We would think that by now Jack would have become an expert at this sort of thing, but here Jack is greatly outnumbered by Cheng and his men, so he comes up with an idea to use enough C-4 to blow the building, himself, Cheng, and the desired component from here to that Chinese laundry in the sky.

The problem is that only Prez Wayne knows about this plan and he is a little bit under the weather at this point (he has suffered a stroke and is in the hospital). This leaves Vice President Noah (Jim Jones) Daniels in charge at the White House. Jones is kind of busy himself, getting things in order with his staff and the sneaky-looking blonde Lisa who has been making goo-goo eyes at him for hours now. Jones isn't swaggering so much in this episode; it's more like his tail is between his legs. He knows that Tom (Twitchy) Lennox has a recording (yes, yet another recording) of him conspiring with Lisa to commit perjury, so he is a little worried about that. He asks Lennox what will happen, but Twitchy is just worried about protecting himself. They reach some kind of agreement.

Meanwhile, Karen (Hillary) Hayes has been cornered by some guy with a laptop and she knows that he's got something on her. She watches as Reed Pollock (the guy who engineered the assassination attempt on Prez Wayne) tries to worm his way out of the death penalty by giving up her man Bill Buchanan. It seems Bill had arrested Fayed (Mr. Clean) a while back but had nothing to hold him on, so he had no choice but to let him go. Of course, Fayed goes on to drop a nuke on LA, but how can you blame old Bill for that?

Hillary has to make a difficult choice about Bill (hmm, that sounds familiar), and in this case she realizes that she has to sacrifice him for the sake of her career and the good of the country. In essence, Hillary fires Bill and thus leaves CTU a bit vulnerable in this time after the worst crisis in US history, but a gal has to do what she has todo.

Jones is skulking around the Oval Office like a panther in heat, and once everyone is gone he sets his paws on lithe Lisa and lets her know he wants her to stay the night. She kisses him (one of the most sickening television scenes since Sanjaya and the hair) and then says she has to go home and get a few things. I don't know if this sent up any red flags for anyone else, but I'm starting to think that the "mole" (and there always has to be a mole in every season) just might be our little blonde bombshell. Wouldn't that just be so nice for Jones? A panther getting bit by a viper?

Doyle is in hot pursuit of Jack and his man-bag. This guy has been trumped by Jack twice already, and he still keeps trying. Now he steals a car that just happens to have a cell phone in it. He gets in contact with gang at CTU and they help him navigate his way toward Jack who is at the rendezvous point at an abandoned hotel waiting for Cheng and Audrey.

We get a scene between Milo and Chloe that just adds on to the previous minutiae that we have suffered between these two. Milo rolls his eyes like it is a waste of time, and he is right about that. Upstairs in Jack's old office Bill is packing his bags and handing over the reigns of CTU to, get this one folks, Nadia Yassir (just a few hours ago she was under arrest and suspected of being the mole). Before Bill walks out the door the staff gets dour looks on their faces, and he shakes hands with Nadia and mumbles something incoherently. If I were him, I wouldn't be leaving with such dignity, but that's our stoic Bill.

Back at the hotel Jack has set the C-4 and awaits his former tormentor. Cheng arrives with a gagged Audrey, and Jack barks at him to get the gag out of her mouth. Cheng complies (oh, man, does Jack want to beat this guy senseless) and Jack tells her to get moving. Jack shows Cheng the component but says he will only give it to him once Audrey is out of range of the snipers. Audrey goes running off into the night, and Cheng is annoyed because his egg foo young is getting old. Enough is enough and Jack tosses the component to Cheng, who snags it with a basket catch like Willie Mays. Maybe if he went over and played baseball in Taiwan as a kid, none of this crap would be happening.

At this point Jack is readying to blow them all up, but Doyle intervenes and starts shooting Cheng's men. A TAC team arrives and a firefight ensues. Incredulously, Cheng runs outside, gets in a Hummer,and escapes. A helicopter briefly pursues him but is hit with a surface to air missile and has to disengage. Back at the hotel Doyle arrests Jack who is screaming about how he had the whole thing handled. Doyle's men bring in a befuddled Audrey, and Jack realizes that she doesn't even know who he is. Holy brainwashing hell, Batman!

We don't get the convenience of flashbacks in 24 the way we do in a show like Lost, so we cannot be certain what Jack went through during his twenty months in Chinese prison. We do know he was tortured and suffered, and we can assume that the only thing that kept him going was the thought of his lady love Audrey. Unfortunately, Jack didn't know that Audrey was also in a Chinese prison and, unlike Jack, she was not trained to withstand the rigors of such circumstances. In this episode we see the results of her incarceration and they are not pretty.

What a way to end the episode. Audrey is non compos mentis, Jack is under arrest, Bill has been fired, Lisa is getting ready for a night of passion with Jones, and Cheng is running around with the component. The dung has hit the fan, ladies and gentlemen, and we have five remaining episodes for Jack to clean up. I'd say the first order of business is that Jack has to escape. Judging from his dealings with Doyle in previous weeks, this isn't going to take long. At least let's hope so.

Until next week, Klaatu barada nikto!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

TV Review: S6:18 of "24" - Jack Goes Rogue

In the best moments of 24 during past seasons, Jack Bauer has had to work outside the rules and regulations of CTU, but usually for the good of the country. This season Jack has mostly gone by the book, even when he had to kill his former partner, Curtis, in order to stop the terrorists from accomplishing their goals of another nuclear attack. Last night we got to see the old Jack Bauer, calling in favors from Chloe and pushing all boundaries to save Audrey, the woman he obviously still loves. Jack is back!

The odd situation gets set up by Jack’s success in dealing with the terrorist threat. After killing all the bad guys, including Abu (Mr. Clean) Fayed, it seems like Jack will be able to return to CTU and get medical attention for broken ribs and other injuries. Unfortunately, his old tormentor Cheng Zhi has other plans for him. The former diplomat (and now terrorist) Cheng has kidnapped Audrey Raines, Jack’s former lover and the daughter of Secretary of Defense James (Nuts Landing) Heller.

What does Cheng want? Some gobbledygook about deciphering the entire sequence of Russian defense codes from a device inside the nukes (yet another “component”) ensues, and we can rest assure that Jack is in for a difficult time. Jack speaks to his lady love briefly, and we know that he is going to do everything in his power to save her.

Her Chinese captors have managed to take the once glamorous Audrey (you may recall her stylish outfits and equally trendy white coat from last season) and make her look like a broken waif, her hair black and stringy and her face sallow with cuts above her eyes. The sympathy factor kicks in and we want Jack to save her from this brute Cheng and, of course, administer a dose of justice like only Jack can deliver.

The problem is Jack must get the component and two surly and burly Marines are guarding it. Jack does a little babbling about a Presidential directive, and soon he is inside the gate where the nukes are waiting and he’s got Chloe on the line helping him. One of the most satisfying aspects of 24 has always been the Chloe-Jack dynamic, with her steadfast loyalty to him making her do things outside her job description. Will Chloe get caught helping Jack? Of course, she usually does, but that is also part of the equation.

Morris (Yul Brenner) O’Brian catches Chloe and threatens to report her to Bill (More Stoic Than Ever) Buchanan, so Chloe agrees to tell Bill what she has done. Sooner than you can say “damn it” Doyle is on scene with some other agents and gets one of the Marines to hit Jack with the butt of an M-16. Just when we think the proverbial jig is up, Jack talks to Bill on the phone and gets to make one phone call (a sly reference to his denied request after Cheng captured him last season).

Whom does Jack call? The President of the United States, of course. That Jack, always going straight to the top. Actually, it is no longer reassuring to hear Jack say those sacred words, “Mr. President,” the way it used to be when Jack was talking to David Palmer in seasons past. Now, David’s brother is the Commander in Chief and doesn’t inspire that same good hands confidence.

Admittedly, Prez Wayne is under duress from his near-death experience with a bomb earlier that day; however, he does prove that he is carved from the same presidential timber as his brother in dealing with Vice President Noah (Jim Jones) Daniels. He tells Daniels that he must resign and literally shows him the door to the Oval Office. Things seem rather stable until Jack calls, but Wayne feels an allegiance to Jack and authorizes a mission to get Audrey back (even though it involves using the component for the trade).

At CTU Chloe is in deep trouble as Bill tells her he no longer trusts her. The rest of the gang is coordinating this new venture to assist Jack in his attempt to rescue Audrey. Milo and Nadia are seen very briefly, but there is little time for them to go into a dark corner and lip-lock again. Bill seems all the more disturbed when he gets a call from his wife Karen (Hillary) Hayes, who looks as if she got highlights in her hair at the White House beauty parlor since last week.

Hillary tells Bill that Prez Wayne has had a stroke and that Jones has taken over again, making his first order of business to stop Jack’s mission to save Audrey. We could see this coming, of course, because Jones is power crazy and also has no relationship with Jack as does Wayne. It seems Prez Wayne is now off the playing field for good, so his threat to use the recording made by Tom (Twitchy) Lennox is history. This put Jones in charge and everyone else in big trouble.

Jack is in the car with Doyle heading to a rendezvous with Cheng. Bill calls Doyle and Jack immediately suspects something is wrong, so what is Jack to do but pull his weapon and order Doyle to stop the car. Doyle tells him that he doesn’t want to do this, but Jack explains that he killed Curtis earlier that day and would have no trouble killing Doyle. Doyle gets out of the car and Jack drives off.

I’m not certain about Doyle yet. One moment he is admiring Jack’s handiwork at killing all the bad guys and securing the nukes, and the next minute he has Jack in handcuffs. The truth seems to be that Doyle is a company guy and follows the rules like a good soldier. Obviously, he can learn a thing or two from Jack about what it takes to be able to work outside the box as an effective agent.

Back at CTU Bill announces to everyone that Jack has gone “rogue,” and that is just where we want him to be. Jack Bauer is never better than when he must work against all odds, and now it seems they are all against him. As Jack heads off to meet Cheng with no support, we wonder how he will make the exchange. Will Audrey be saved? Will Jack be able to recover the component? Most importantly, will Jack pull something out of his bag of tricks (yes, the man-bag is back) that will turn Cheng into chop suey?

Until next week, Klaatu barada nikto!

Makes No Difference Who You Are: Disney Welcomes You Home

If you have ever been to Walt Disney World in Florida and stayed at a Disney resort, you are familiar with the words "Welcome Home." This phrase is repeated by everyone from the bus driver, the concierge, the bellhop, the maid and the cashier at the store to the workers at the theme parks.

At first it was a little amusing when I heard this, but after the fifth time or so it became somewhat eerie. I wondered whether or not these Disney people had been drinking some kind of Mickey Kool-Aid and were part of a weird cult. This cynicism slowly faded as I saw the wonder in my five-year-old daughter's eyes and understood that they were all part of making the magic happen for her (and for her Mommy and me, too).

Disney is all about magic from the moment of arrival. There is a sense of stepping through a looking glass, a sense of wonder that springs from the child we all still have hiding somewhere inside us. It took me a bit of time to adjust to this, but on the way from the airport to the resort, when I saw the road signs with Mickey ears and the billboards announcing various rides at the theme parks, I was hooked as much as my daughter was.

The mat outside each room at Disney Saratoga Springs has the words "Welcome Home" on it, and the room was a comfortable little "villa" with a complete kitchen, a large master suite (with Jacuzzi), a large living room, and a balcony with a lake view. There was a spa, two golf courses, and four pools on the grounds (each with water slides and spraying fountains). Needless to say, though the accommodations were lovely, my daughter's focus was on getting to the parks (and staying in them for as long as possible).

The first stop on this six-day whirlwind tour was The Magic Kingdom. Since this vacation coincided with our Easter break, we went at a time when seemingly a million other people had the same week and a half off. As we entered the park through the train station and came out onto the sunny Town Square, a parade was in progress and the enormous crowd was enthusiastic. As the floats went around the circle, my daughter caught a glimpse of Cinderella waving to everyone with her Prince at her side. She tugged on my sleeve, gave me a quick thumbs-up, and returned her attention to the parade.

Later as we walked (more like slowly shuffled) down Main Street, U.S.A., pressed in among thousands of other people heading toward the castle at the center of town, I felt like I had made a major mistake coming at this time of year. Once we were standing close to the statue of Walt and Mickey in the circle that opens out to the castle, a musical stage show (Dream Along with Mickey) commenced and my daughter was thrilled to see all her favorite characters dancing, singing, and interacting with the crowd. Her excitement and happiness made me realize that this was what the vacation was about. The crowds, no matter how large, were not going to ruin it.

This was an amazing start to the rest of our journey. Every step (and there were nothing but steps as we walked from attraction to attraction and ride to ride in each park) brought us closer to a kiddy nirvana, a place where dreams collide with reality and make for a memorable experience no matter how old you are. Luckily, for $10 a day you can rent a single or double stroller that is not only good for the little ones' legs, but is a damn fine place to toss those backpacks heavy with water bottles, sunscreen, and other supplies.

It became surreal standing on line for twenty minutes or more to get on a ride, listening to parents and kids from all over the country (and the world) talking about their exciting experiences at Disney. My wife discovered that we could also get a FASTPASS. This is kind of like cheating because it gives you a time to come back to the ride or exhibit and avoid the lines (although there are usually lines for FASTPASS, too). The most rewarding rides were ones like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan's Flight, Mad Tea Party, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. The only "scary" ride my daughter went on was Splash Mountain. She came off a little shaken and wet, but later on said it was her single favorite thing at Magic Kingdom.

After spending the short first day at the resort pool (because it was so hot and we got in late from the airport) and two full days at the Magic Kingdom, it was time to get to the other parks. Animal Kingdom, the newest of the theme parks, was our next stop and it was an amazing place that is part amusement park, part zoo, and something like a journey to the far corners of the earth. The thing my daughter enjoyed most here was Festival of the Lion King, which is a full-blown live spectacle of beasts and humans. Familiar characters from the movie make an appearance and sing and dance while acrobats take to the air.

The different sections of the park include Discovery Island (complete with a huge Tree of Life that is surrounded by animals similar to those found on the Galapagos Islands), Africa (with the best safari anyone is going to find this side of Kenya), Asia (the Kali River Rapids features exciting white-water rafting), and DinoLand U.S.A. (Finding Nemo - The Musical is a must). This park provides quite a contrast after spending time at the Magic Kingdom, and the good news is that it is not as crowded even at the peak time of mid-afternoon.

The next day we went to Epcot, and I must confess this was my favorite place. As you enter the park, you can't help but be impressed by the huge white sphere (home of the Spaceship Earth presentation) that is as immediately recognizable as Cinderella's Castle, but represents Walt Disney's futuristic vision more than anything else. There are great rides to be found here including Mission: SPACE (featuring the more intense and exciting Orange Team and the Green Team for those who want a more sedate experience), Test Track, and Soarin'. By the way, those rides that are a physical challenge are advertised as such, with signs posted outside warning those with various medical conditions not to come aboard.

Despite all the other attractions, the heart of Epcot is the World Showcase, where you can stroll through pavilions featuring realistic representations of places from all over the earth. Each "country" has streets with distinctive shops, restaurants, and attractions that one would find in the real places without having to take the arduous voyage to get there. I particularly enjoyed Maelstrom in the Norway section, a replicated boat voyage that shows what the Viking era was like. The beer is delicious in Germany, the sushi fresh in Japan, and don't pass up the cappuccino in Italy.

The highlight of this day was a carnival mask (like one found during New Orleans' celebrations) that my daughter designed in the Italy section (materials, markers, and crayons were provided). We then had to "travel" to every pavilion where she would get an attachment for the mask (representative of that country) and also a stamp. For collecting these items from all eleven countries, her reward was a colorful Disney poster, but the thrill of the chase for these things was more than enough for her.

On the last day we visited the fourth theme park, MGM Studios, and this was another exciting adventure for us all. At the center of it all is a huge wizard's hat (just like the one worn by Mickey in Fantasia) atHollywood Junction. Here my daughter reveled in the High School Musical Pep Rally and met some of the characters she had been longing to meet.

One of the most interesting diversions in these parks is seeing children line up to get the "autographs" of their favorite characters. Autograph books and special Mickey pens are sold in all the parks, and it is unbelievable to see children and adults (no chances for a FASTPASS here) waiting in long lines for these ten to fifteen-second encounters. We did get autographs in the other parks, but the most coveted ones were found here (Mickey and Minnie). Even I couldn't help but jump in a picture with Mick and shake his white-gloved hand (my daughter was not the only one waiting a lifetime to meet this charismatic mouse).

MGM Studios is a delightful place (and features the Brown Derby if you want to treat yourself to one great meal in the parks) that is made to look like old Hollywood, with swaying palm trees, art deco buildings, and bright pink and blue archways that reflect days of the golden age of films. We saw the best shows in this park, with the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular being the most thrilling 30-minute adventure you can imagine. Also, don't forget to come back at night for Fantasmic, a superb laser and water show that is the best of some very good evening entertainment found in the parks.

While running around the parks and trying to see all the sights, get on the rides, and watch the shows, it isn't that simple to stop to shop or eat. We packed a brown bag lunch every day for each of us, and this was fortunate because the lines for a sandwich, cup of coffee, or an ice cream could be as time consuming as the ones for the rides. As for shopping, the best thing to do is probably wait until evening and take some time to get away from the parks and visit Downtown Disney.

Downtown Disney is a waterfront stretch of shops, restaurants, pubs, clubs, and entertainment centers that is vibrant and not just for kids. In fact, the area known as Pleasure Island is specifically designed for adult visitors only. The other areas are very kid friendly and most of the restaurants have children's menus. The stores are packed with everything one might want to bring home as a souvenir or give as a gift, and there are enough toys to please the Jolly Old Elf himself. In fact, Once Upon a Toy is one of the best toy stores I've ever visited and is a must for kids of all ages.

When we were sitting on the plane flying home, I was sorry our vacation was over and that the time went so fast. I went to Disney as an unbeliever, but I came away understanding that the words to the song my daughter loves really do apply while visiting there: "When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / When you wish upon a star / Your dreams come true."

As cliché as it may sound, visiting Walt Disney World is very much like having a dream come true, for it is a place where people from all over the world can enjoy unimaginable sights and sounds, but still hear the words "Welcome Home" and feel like they just arrived on their own doorstep.

Friday, April 13, 2007

S6:17 of "24": Fayed Dies Hard and Cheng ZHi's Shanghai Surprise

In the past I have mentioned that there are sometimes echoes of Bruce Willis's John McClane from the Die Hard films to be found in Jack Bauer, and last night was a good example of that. The writers even borrowed a very familiar scene and one memorable line from those movies in Jack's final confrontation with bad guy Abu (Mr. Clean) Fayed. There is nothing wrong with this homage to good old Bruce, and it did in fact fit in contextually and felt new in an odd way.

How Jack got to that moment with Clean is a little murky, and it goes back to the incredulous events in Episode 16 when Fayed cuts off Gredenko's arm (here, borrowing from Season 3 when Jack cut off Chase's arm) and they flee into a bar. Why people are sitting around drinking in a bar after a nuclear attack earlier in the day seems as strange as the idea that someone would let someone else cut off his arm to escape from anyone. Gredenko ends up bleeding to death under the Santa Monica pier, and Fayed is caught by those bar patrons, and this allows Jack the chance to get him. Got all that?

Meanwhile, back at the White House everyone is nervous about the nuclear missile launched by the USA under orders from President Wayne Palmer. This missile is directed at Fayed's "home country" which is still unnamed. The ambassador of this country knows the nuke is on its way and will flatten the minarets of his capital city, so suddenly he remembers that they have some guy named Habib in custody who is a rogue general. Prez Wayne has correctly assumed that the ambassador was lying to him, and Tom (Twitchy) Lennox is impressed with Wayne's machinations.

Prez orders the ambassador back to the White House for the duration of the crisis. He also calls off the missile strike (the Joint Chiefs arrange for it to crash into the gulf, which we assume is the Persian one). Wayne tells Twitchy that the nuke was never armed because, unlike Vice President Noah (Jim Jones) Daniels, he was not going to risk innocent lives but had to do something dramatic enough to get the ambassador to cooperate. Nice going, Prez Wayne!

Twitchy and Karen (Hillary) Hayes have formed some sort of alliance that allows the former foes to work together. They realize that Wayne is still weak from his brush with death earlier that day. Prez wants another shot of adrenaline, but Doc Welton is not going to risk Wayne's life. Obviously, this guy should crawl back into bed and get hooked up to an IV, but with Jones waiting in the wings that scenario is unlikely.

As Jack and Doyle take turns interrogating Clean, Jack realizes that the terrorist is not going to talk. Clean makes references to his brother (Jack tortured and killed Clean's brother), so Jack reminds Clean what he can do to him. Eventually, Jack decides to bring Clean back to CTU to get the Burke treatment (Agent Burke is the one with the little black box who medically "induces" people to talk).

Once they are in the van and on the way back to CTU they are intercepted by terrorists in another van. There is a shootout and it seems like Jack and Doyle are dead as Clean is rushed off by his compatriots. However, this is all a ruse and the terrorists are really CTU agents who speak Arabic. Clean is unsure of this "cell" and asks for a gun as proof of their loyalty. One of them gives over a weapon and Clean checks to make certain it is loaded.

Back at the bunker the ambassador has arrived and arranged for this General Habib (a weird looking guy with an eye patch who looks like the sea captain from Sponge Bob) to talk to Clean and call off the attacks. It seems like Habib is cooperating, but Nadia (still having problems with Milo) Yassir listens to the exchange in Arabic and believes Habib has sent Clean a coded message. By the time Jack can warn the agents in the van, Clean has killed them all and set off in a truck. Jack manages to climb on board and hide under the truck that Clean drives to the "safe house" where the remaining nukes are waiting.

This sets up a scene that is very reminiscent of the one in Season 1 when Jack takes out Victor Drazen and all his men. When Jack gets that look in his eyes he is like on autopilot, and he mows down Clean's buddies quickly but runs out of ammunition (as does Clean). This sets up the final showdown between the two, and at first Clean seems to be getting the best of Jack. Jack does end up pummeling him and twisting him up in a mechanical chain (just like a terrorist in the first Die Hard). As he turns on the machine to hang Clean he tells him, "Say hello to your brother." Bruce Willis fans will remember this line from Die Hard 3 when McClane kills Simon, the brother of Hans from the first movie.

As we see Clean hanging there dead, everything seems right with the world. The nukes have been rescued and the bad guys are finished. But we know in Jack Bauer's twenty-four hour day thatthere are seven hours left, and just as Jack winces in pain (yes, his ribs are still broken) Doyle gets a phone call that is going to rock Jack's world. Whenever a call is "patched in from CTU" we know there will be a problem.

Is it Kim? No, it is Audrey. Looking nothing like her usually stylish self, Audrey reveals that she is alive. Jack speaks to her only briefly and then we get a glimpse of his old nemesis Cheng Zhi, the one who carted him off to China for his twenty months of incarceration. Cheng tells Jack to call him on a secure line if he wants Audrey to live. So, Audrey is not dead as Jack was lead to believe. We can imagine that the next seven episodes will be about Jack trying to save her life.

Earlier this season I mentioned that Jack had unfinished business with Cheng. I felt that the way Jack looked at him when he got off the plane suggested that Jack was going to get some kind of revenge. Now, with Audrey in the picture, it is clear that Jack is going to have a bullet with Cheng's name on it. It should make for an exciting ride the rest of the way.

Oh, and I am sorry for not reviewing last week's episode, but I was off running around Walt Disney World with my five year old. I have yet to recover. Until next week, Klaatu barada nikto!