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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Blurs Reality

13 Hours
13 Hours hit theaters this week.

Directed by Michael “explosions” Bay, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi details over a month leading up to and during the 2012 Benghazi attack.

So, it’s actually almost 900 hours, not 13.

Anyway…

Everyone remembers Benghazi, right? One horde of Islamic extremists, plus four dead Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, multiplied by a storm of media mayhem and suspicion concurrent with the 2012 presidential elections equaled one stressful Thanksgiving dinner.

Don’t worry, all that’s apparently way too complicated to condense into a two and half hour movie. Instead, Michael Bay adapts Mitchell Zuckoff’s book of a similar title, written from the confused perspectives of the six covert contractors hunkered down too long in a barrage of bullets and mortar fire.

Bay impressed and surprised by humanizing the troops, the most memorable roles being John Krasinski (The Office) as Jack Silva and James Badge Dale (The Pacific) as Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods. Jack watched his kids grow up and learned about his wife’s fourth pregnancy through Skype. Rone tucked a picture of his newborn beneath pounds of combat gear. The rest of the team read Joseph Campbell or played Call of Duty.

Bay emphasized that, regardless of the politics, these are average dudes in extraordinary circumstances whose lives are forever altered. Considering Bay’s immature and downright horrific Transformers films, this was a definite step up.

And then he overdid it.

We’ve all seen it before in war films. The sad piano music, the slow motion “Nooo!” while sparks and dirt rain down, tearing off the helmet with glassy eyes while kneeling before a fallen brother. Was this really how the soldiers acted?

And let’s not forget the American flag waving gently in the glimmer of the morning sun, then later wrinkled and torn following devastation. The soldiers noticed that in all those 13 hours of chaos?

Almost everything relating to the Benghazi attack and the people involved felt scripted or dramatized in some way. This works fine as piece of entertainment, but the film sacrifices realism, which tends to be important when telling a true story. It comes off as dishonest when audiences are trying to better understand or even care about this controversial story.

Was Michael Bay trying to make another action film or a biography? The answer seems to be something in between.

The Revenant: Predictable Revenge Plot on The Ol’ Frontier

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

The Revenant premiered on Dec. 25, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and follows an incapacitated mountain man’s journey for survival to avenge his son’s death at the hands of an egocentric comrade during the early 1800s.

The film took some time to reach this point, however. Almost an hour, actually. Director Alejandro Iñárritu, whose artful Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, lured audiences into Montana and South Dakota’s open wilderness. The northern states’ landscapes of snow-capped mountains ringed by vast creaking forests and cascading rivers were as beautiful and serene as they were cold and cruel.

DiCaprio, whose real-life-inspired character’s name (Hugh Glass) barely stuck, slushed and clawed through icy water and dirty snow. Nature was unforgiving in The Revenant. You could see how freezing he was, almost feel that bone-numbing chill (then again, Long Island is pretty effing cold right now, too).

Oh, and he’s mauled by a mama grizzly bear. And ambushed by Native Americans. And slept naked inside a dead horse. Stylistic camerawork shot right-up-in-your face action sequences, detailing every bone-snapping crunch, arrow pierced through someone’s neck or eye, or volumes of saliva foaming across DiCaprio’s lips. The gritty fights were very up-close and personal.

Sadly, for all the film’s breathtaking backdrops and thrilling action, those are The Revenant’s biggest strengths. What bound everything together was a compelling and dramatic but simple revenge story with a predictable and underwhelming outcome.

DiCaprio and Tom Hardy both delivered believable performances, though Hardy once again mumbled his way through some scenes with yet another inaudible character (The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane, Mad Max, etc.). Overall, there wasn’t anything impressive or memorable about their characters’ personalities when compared to the actors’ previous roles, such as DiCaprio’s scumbag Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Neither performance in The Revenant was bad; they just weren’t their best roles.

Perhaps the standard set by DeCaprio and Hardy’s résumés destined their latest characters and The Revenant overall to fall short of amazing, but jaw-dropping scenery and savage action carry this revenge story well enough to make the film a praiseworthy start to 2016 cinema, and encourage moviegoers to venture out into January’s merciless chill. At the very least, viewers will be more appreciative of our current weather conditions come the end credits.

Press Picks for Top 5 Movies of 2015

Hollywood dominated 2015 with some superb movies, transporting moviegoers to other worlds, gazing into the future, reflecting on the past, and even showing some familiar character faces. In the order of their release, below are the Press’ favorite 2015 movies.

ExMachinaIGNEx Machina
The sci-fi thriller assesses the world’s first artificial intelligence. Almost completely covered in CGI effects, Alicia Vikander delivers an impressive and eerily life-like portrayal as the AI. Joined by programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) and the oddball AI creator Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the story takes a bit of a weird turn. Ultimately, the film explores the current and controversial relationship between man and machine.

MadMaxWebsite (1)Mad Max: Fury Road
Continuing director George Miller’s 30-year-old franchise, the Road Warrior returns to a simple chase plot through his barbaric and outlandish apocalyptic nightmare. Beautifully choreographed but intense action sequences (literally) drive the story forward, leaving the worldbuilding and character development to the stunning visuals, leaving the unnecessary explanations in the desert Wasteland’s dust. Charlize Theron’s one-armed Furiosa steals the spotlight sometimes from Max (Tom Hardy), but their journey is exciting and fun. Open-minded audiences will finish this film exclaiming, “What a day! What a lovely day!”

TheMartianWebsiteThe Martian
Matt Damon is stranded in space … again. This time he’s on Mars and needs to grow food and water on a planet where nothing grows, establish contact with Earth, and ultimately, “science the shit out of this.” What’s expected to be a predictably depressing survival movie surprises with a comically sarcastic and optimistic main character and overall tone. Even more interesting, the scenario is realistic and backed 100 percent by NASA, which “coincidentally” announced that water was found on Mars just around the film’s release. Check out the Press’ complete review here.

SpotlightWebsiteSpotlight
Okay, maybe we journalists are a little biased here. We like to think our job is hard work, but few can compete with The Boston Globe’s investigations and disturbing revelations into the cover-ups of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The dramatized retelling of the widespread scandals enlightens viewers to the infuriating process of investigative journalism when impeded by opposition. Releasing this film when religious skepticism is at an all-time peak seemed like curious timing, too.

This photo provided by Disney shows, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren with his Lightsaber in a scene from the new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The movie releases in the U.S. on Dec. 18, 2015. (Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm via AP) ORG XMIT: CAET177
This photo provided by Disney shows, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren with his Lightsaber in a scene from the new film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The movie releases in the U.S. on Dec. 18, 2015. (Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm via AP) ORG XMIT: CAET177

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Let’s be honest, we all saw this one coming. Star Wars is back! Maybe not quite more powerful than we could possibly imagine, but still back! Clashing lightsabers, one Millennium Falcon, and some screeching TIE Fighters returned fans old and new to a galaxy far, far away. Does it surpass the original trilogy? Hell no! But the new characters separated themselves from the original cast enough to claim the story as their own and set the stage for the now highly anticipated Ep. VIII in 2017. Check out the Press’ nostalgic review here.

‘Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens’: A New Reboot Strikes Fandom

This photo provided by Disney shows, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren with his Lightsaber in a scene from the new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The movie releases in the U.S. on Dec. 18, 2015. (Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm via AP)

As of Thursday evening, few Darth Vaders, Princess Leias, Chewbaccas, or any new Star Wars characters’ costumes reveled with flashing lightsabers or blasters in the darkness of movie theaters nationwide. Many theater chains had restricted face coverings and simulated weapons for the public’s safety. But then Lucasfilm’s logo flashed, fans held their breath, and John Williams’ epic score ignited an explosive cheer not heard in a long time.

Star Wars was back.

Millions of wannabe Jedi, Sith, and scoundrels of all ages were immersed in real sets and practical effects – something notably absent in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005) – in a galaxy far, far away, set thirty years after the events in Return of the Jedi (1983).

For the saga’s seventh installment, The Force Awakens, the director J.J. Abrams passed the torch (lightsaber, actually) to a new generation of characters.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) was a scavenger, hollow on the inside – unfulfilled – but wore a tough exterior, like the crashed starships she frequented. Finn (John Boyega) was a stormtrooper whose life literally came crashing down after he went AWOL. And Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) was an X-Wing pilot who totally got cocky.

Abrams and his new lead trio didn’t change the way we look at movies, but instead helped legions of new youth take their first steps into a larger world, and restored Star Wars’ ineffable “force” that bound and penetrated generations past, making J.J. Abrams the fan base’s honorary lord and savior (with the looming threat of being unofficially and unfairly dubbed “Jar Jar” Abrams – a reference to the largely despised character Jar Jar Binks – should the film be a critical flop).

Simple pleasures, like watching that “garbage” Millennium Falcon dogfight those screeching TIE Fighters and jump into light speed, made diehard fans – or maybe just me – want to hug this eventual DVD the same way old and gray Princess – sorry, General – Leia (Carrie Fisher) pressed against Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) latest rakish jacket.

Still, there’s something familiar about this plot: a “no one” youth who looked to the stars from a desert wasteland; a space pirate’s fortress of galactic riff raff, a wretched hive of scum and villainy; and neo-Empire First Order’s Starkiller Base, yet another battle station that’s the ultimate power in the universe.

There was a lot of symmetry between A New Hope, the first/fourth Star Wars film, and The Force Awakens – subtitles that both suggest a rebirth. It’s a rehashed plot, maybe even homage, but sometimes our eyes deceive us.

Star Wars’ mythology borrowed from themes rooted in literature, religion and history, but now that mythology looked inward at itself. Specifically its purists – extremist fans characterized by nitpicking every parsec of Star Wars material, or trolling Disney’s changes to the universe’s canon, or more recently, racist and sexist tweets toward the new black, female and Guatemalan American main characters. If it’s not from the original trilogy – as in, the 1977-1983 unaltered original trilogy – these fans don’t approve.

Intentional or not, J.J. Abrams and returning The Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan seemed to find this lack of fan faith disturbing and so they fired a powerful message back at these nearsighted scrap piles. While Rey, Finn and Poe all proved themselves equally, if not more, identifiable and complex as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the message was best personified by the new villain.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was a living and walking commentary on extreme fandom. His radical obsession with deceased Darth Vader – an iconic symbol of the original trilogy – was weirdly comparable to the purists’ passionate relationship with those classic three films.

But Kylo Ren was imperfect, like his crossguard lightsaber that spewed three unstable fiery red blades – a raw replica of an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Even his voice – altered but not mechanized – reminded me of an amateur Vader impression (though his voice still sounded awesome). He can’t become the original baddie or create more Death Stars. You simply can’t keep recreating the original trilogy, like so many Star Wars purists suggest. You have to let go of the past.

Kylo Ren didn’t surpass Vader – no villain probably ever will – but that seemed to be the point, communicating a deeper message that perhaps subtly resonated with hardcore Star Wars fans more than any Emperor could have foreseen, and that made him come damn near close.

The overall message: it doesn’t matter which Star Wars era you were raised with or favor; all fans share one unifying Force. That acceptance, that unity, was the real “Force” awakened.

“Find your place in the galaxy,” Disney wrote across their overwhelming and nostalgic marketing campaign. Moms, dads and younglings all sharing loving bonds for all things Star Wars were validated when The Force Awakens’ credits finally rolled. It was as if millions of voices across the universe suddenly cried out in bliss and were suddenly captivated.

Han said it best: “We’re home.”

 

Interview: Long Island Native Brendan Hay, Producer of Dawn of the Croods

Dawn of The Croods
Dawn of The Croods premiers on Netflix on Dec. 24, 2015.

DreamWorks Animation’s Dawn of the Croods premieres on Netflix Dec. 24 worldwide, showcasing an episodic drama of history’s favorite Neanderthal family. Executive Producer, Long Island native and self-proclaimed geek Brendan Hay – whose writing spans from The Daily Show to Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken to the graphic novel Rascal Raccoon’s Raging Revenge – talked with the Press about the prehistoric comedy as well as his writing roots.

Long Island Press: You grew up on Long Island, but now you reside in sunny Cali. Do you miss Long Island, Brendan? Do you miss the clogged LIE, that annoying cold relentlessly blowing on your face? Maybe just the New York pizza?

Brendan Hay: I do! I grew up in Carle Place. The only thing that can compete with the LIE is the 405 out here, so it’s like I never left! I will say that after experiencing winter out here, that did kind of sway things in L.A.’s favor. But for all the New Yorkers out here in Southern California, it still blows my mind that they have yet to crack how to actually make halfway decent pizza and Italian food in general. It all comes down to food. Anytime going back, I basically just eat as much Italian food and bagels as I can.

LIP: Did growing up on Long Island influence your career path?

BH: My first job was at a comic book store in Williston Park called Grasshoppers Comics. It was from working at a comic shop that I got to meet a whole great art community of Long Island. There was also a backpage columnist – I forget her name now, unfortunately – who used to write about comic books and movies. I read that faithfully every week. It was, like, “People can actually make this stuff and write about this stuff, and this is a career path.” There’s nothing wrong with being an accountant or a lawyer, but there are other options. [Long Island] is also close to the city, so you still have culture, and it was nice seeing that there were other options out there. It opened me up to that.

LIP: What about a favorite writer? Is there anyone you idolize?

BH: Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis were two comic book writers who wrote a run on Justice League back in the ‘80s. Mixing action and comedy and just having fun really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you can do with stuff, and that comedy can end up anywhere. Growing up, I’ve always been a comic book and animation guy. They were just things I really loved. Simpsons premiered when I was about 10 or 11 years old, which was the perfect age, and I just immediately fell in love with it. From the get-go, it was like, “I want to do something like that.” And now, I’m getting a chance to.

LIP: And now The Simpsons are on your resume!

BH: That part was somewhat surreal. I just hoped to work for something like The Simpsons, and then getting that chance was like, “Ok. This is even better.”

LIP: Are there any new writers who stand out to you?

BH: On the comic book front, I really love Saga by Brian K. Vaughan. I’ll follow him anywhere and check out any book he works on. On the TV and animation side, Bob’s Burgers is my favorite thing I’m watching these days. It just kills me! That whole writing team, voice cast, and everybody involved there; they are just doing such a great job for the animated family. And DreamWork’s All Hail King Julien is absolutely hilarious!

LIP: Now you’re working on DreamWork’s Dawn of the Croods, an animated family show. You have a lot of notable experience with animation – The Mighty B, Robot Chicken, The Simpsons. Does animation come with any limitations to your writing or imagination? How different is writing for animation versus live-action?

BH: It’s a double-edged sword. Theoretically, you actually have control over every aspect. If it can be drawn, it can be done. That part is really freeing. It’s also really easy to get stuck on perfectionism – I must keep twiddling, I must make it the best it can be. That can be a little maddening. You also have budgets and schedules. Any animation writer’s first script is going to be, like, “And this shot has a hundred characters, and it’s amazing, and it’s in the rain!” You learn that if we do something like this, 10 of our artists will probably commit suicide trying to make that happen. It’s just way too much to actually do in the time and on the money that we have. So, you learn how to make it work. That’s kind of what I love about animation: it’s unlimited possibilities, but with just enough limits that it forces you to be more creative. Even just something like Croods.

LIP: You didn’t work on the 2013 feature film of this upcoming show. What was it about our prehistoric roots that attracted you to work on this project?

BH: My agent reached out to me and said, “Hey they’re looking to develop a TV show around The Croods,” and it did happen to be a movie I had seen and actually really liked. I think I was expecting something a little more Flintstones and I liked that it was different. They really stuck to the fact that these are cave people going through all the things on our planet and in a life for the first time. I really liked that.

LIP: It’s been said that the Crood family will deal with modern-day problems but with a primitive twist. Any personal favorites you can share?

BH: We tried to take things that were totally innocuous. We made an episode about the first nap. We also have the invention of shadow puppets and it’s like our time’s version of movies. It’s basically the invention of fiction. We start off that episode with the idea that in the Croods’ world, telling a story means you’re basically telling something that happened to you. The Croods’ son, Thunk, starts by having weird ideas and starts sharing them and everyone is like, “That can’t be a story because that never happened.” He then discovers shadow puppets and starts telling the story that way. He also becomes the first creator to get backlash because he kills off a ‘fan favorite.’

LIP: The Croods feature had a colorful cast – Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds. Was there a lot of interaction between the voice actors and writers?

BH: We have a really great cast of our own. Our Eep [the film’s lead role] and our Thunk are the sound-alikes from the feature film team who are really amazing comedic actors. [Stephanie Lemelin] and [A.J. LoCascio] are really fun to work with. We also weirdly ended up with a lot of Saturday Night Live alumni. We have Laraine Newman, Chris Parnell, Ana Gasteyer. Both Grey Griffin (Grey DeLisle) and Laraine Newman, even before our show has premiered, have been nominated for Annie Awards during the Animation Industry Awards. For replacing Nicholas Cage, it was actually one of our staff writers! [Dan Milano] had done some voice acting in the past with Robot Chicken and he used to be Greg the Bunny on FOX years ago. He blew everyone away. He joked later that he found that the way to sound like Nicholas Cage is to do Elvis doing Jimmy Stewart. So, that is the equation for a good Nicholas Cage impression.

LIP: So you can’t verify if Nicholas Cage is as crazy as Youtube and Internet memes depict him?

BH: Working with Nicholas Cage, sadly, must remain one of my career goals right now, but I hope to get there someday.

Brendan Hay
Brendan Hay, a Carle Place native, is executive producer of Dawn of the Croods.

LIP: Who is your favorite character in Dawn of the Croods?

BH: It’s kind of like family members: you love them all differently. I’ll say Thunk, who in the feature you don’t get that much sense of him. To everybody else he’s a weirdo, but he’s also the first creative kid, maybe in history. Art doesn’t exist, so nobody knows what to do with him. It’s like the former, probably-still-current little artsy weirdo kid in my own mind. We also have one of our new original characters. One-Eyed Amber is the boss of all the hunters. She’s voiced by Laraine Newman. She’s the only cave person who talks like that stereotype of a caveman – dropping words out of sentences – but she’s also incredibly smart and soulful and deep. It’s this great contrast of, “Amber think, Amber talk, Amber – ” Anyway, it was fun.

LIP: How about your all-time favorite animation character?

BH: You may have just broke my brain a little! My first instinct was going to be Homer Simpson, but I may have to actually go with The Tick. He was a superhero parody comic book from the ‘80s and then a cartoon series in the ‘90s and, man, I just really love The Tick. Honestly, he influenced the father of the Croods, Grug, a lot in the sense that he is just this beautiful, crazy confident alpha male who is also completely wrong 90 percent of the time, but just bouncing with pure confidence and take charge. He and Homer [Simpson] are kind of the same. I think I just have a soft spot for confident stupidity.

LIP: You described yourself as a self-proclaimed geek. What are your earliest memories of geekdom?

BH: Before I realized I’m not very good at drawing, I was creating my own comic books for as long as I can remember. My parents also found audiotapes of me where I can list off all of the Star Wars characters at, like, two years old.

LIP: Clearly, that knowledge paid off! You worked on Star Wars Detours. Whatever happened to that?

BH: I worked on it for three years – about 2010 through the end of 2012. We have 39 completed episodes. This show is hilarious! [George Lucas] reached out to the Robot Chicken guys. We were trying to create an all-ages version of the Robot Chicken [Star Wars] specials. Then he sold the company and it wasn’t really a project that Lucasfilm wanted to do anymore. It’s on a shelf. Hopefully it’ll get out there someday. I totally get where Lucasfilm was coming from. We should not be somebody’s first introduction to Star Wars, where it looks like Force Awakens will be a great introduction!

America Under the Reich Looks Disturbingly Normal in Amazon’s Gripping Original Series ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, Amazon’s original series The Man in the High Castle has essentially become known as “that Nazi America show.” Set in an alternate 1960s, the Allies have lost World War II so the East Coast has become part of the Greater Nazi Reich while the Japanese have gained control of what they call the Japanese Pacific States of America. What struck me most was how casual the immersion into Axis America could be.

With a different victor, come the spoils. Swastikas have replaced the stars on Old Glory and now they gleam from Time Square’s billboards. Hitler’s face is on our dollar bills. Elementary artworks depicting Nazi honor and duty decorate school hallways. There’s even a Nazi Veterans Day when patriotic families can gather around their televisions and watch Hitler address the nation with that vigorous passion of his.

Yet nothing about the strangeness feels abnormal. In fact, a lot feels familiar. An awkward teenage boy asks a girl out to tea. Factory workers run business as usual. In East Hampton, which looks exactly like the one we know, neighbors wave to each other from their freshly mowed front lawns. Families with giggling children barbecue in their backyards or pitch a baseball back and forth.

Sure, there’s a coat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan over this painting, but how different is this place from the America we know today? The characters of this world don’t even think twice about it, in the same way most of us barely glance at an American flag unless it’s Memorial Day. There’s no dramatic pause in the story to emphasize society’s flaws. Axis America simply exists.

Not that (hopefully) anyone agrees with Nazi ideology, but The Man in the High Castle humanizes a society that has been actively dehumanized for so long in our minds. This series creates an impressive sense of eerie realism. Everyone, even the most insignificant characters, lead believable, normal and oddly relatable lives.

This mundane quality gives more context to Amazon’s recent controversial promotional campaign: extravagant ads with Nazi and Imperial Japan signs decorating NYC subway cars. As a sort of transmedia project, the ads were designed to immerse us in this alternate nation. The experience has turned out to be too immersive, as subway-riding Americans, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the promotional ads for displaying the insignias without any critical distance. Amazon still got what they wanted out of it, though. Negative press attention is still attention, right?

While everything seems quite normal in Axis America on one level, by the time the final episode’s credits have rolled, the layers of perfection have started to peel away, exposing the dark underbelly of this sick society.

In one scene, a police officer observes a sudden showering of gray flakes from the sky.

“Oh, that’s the hospital,” he says. “Yeah, Tuesdays. They burn cripples, the mentally ill. Drag on the state.”

Oh, right…Nazis.

Not everyone accepts this Reich life, of course.

The series’ main characters are Resistance soldier Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and her companion Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), but the story follows an ensemble cast. Juliana’s Jewish boyfriend, an S.S. Obergruppenführer, and the Japanese Trade Minister shine a light on political pressures – a sort of cold war – between the two Axis governments as well as the tensions affecting their own citizens. Some of these storylines are more interesting than others, and not all of the characters are equally engaging.

Even so, you realize that some characters serve contentious ideologies, you know what they represent, but like meth-dealing Walter White from Breaking Bad, you feel for them. It’s yet another strange immersion. Ultimately, like any smash hit, TMITHC evolves into a story about the people and their humanity, a quality historically antonymous with the Axis Powers.

The frosting on top of this Nazi-themed cake: the ending. Granted, if you read the book, you know how it “ends,” but it’s definitely not a common or predictable conclusion, and Amazon has stayed true to the source material.

If nothing else, The Man in the High Castle is much more than “that Nazi America show” and certainly worth checking out on Amazon Prime.

(photo credit: Amazon)

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Invades ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’

The Force will be with you, always, especially since Disney-controlled Star Wars’ marketing campaign has become the ultimate power in the galaxy. Hype leading up to Episode VII: The Force Awakens, in theaters Dec. 18, covers every parsec of the media. Monday night was no exception as ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live dedicated a full episode to that galaxy far, far away.

From a certain point of view, the highlights were few and far between. Ewok-sized bits of information, most of which fanboys probably already knew, were casually mentioned during the hour-long show.

The biggest news was from director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Lost). Though reported two days prior, Abrams confirmed with Jimmy Kimmel that The Force Awakens was fully armed and operational as of early Saturday morning.

That still left anxious fans to count down 25 days and 10 minutes until the premiere, which may be worse than being slowly digested for over 1,000 years inside a Sarlacc. Kimmel pressed for even a word of new information, which turned out to be the first spoken word in the new film.

Here it is.

Get ready.

“This.”

To the roar of the crowd, the mundane pronoun exploded onto a screen in Star Wars’ iconic yellow font, as seen in the film’s opening crawls. Now fans have 25 days to ponder, “’This’ what?”

Abrams also brought a never-before-seen 16-second clip, which can be viewed at the end of the Youtube video below.

Kimmel and Abrams were later joined by some of the cast members. Daisey Ridley plays Rey, a scavenger living on a desolate planet. John Boyega (Attack the Block) crashes into Rey’s life as Finn, an AWOL stormtrooper. The duo will cross paths with Adam Driver (HBO’s Girls), who wields a three-bladed lightsaber as Kylo Ren. And Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Princess – sorry, General – Leia.

The new leads detailed the moments they found out they had been cast in Star Wars.

“I was, like, 19,” Carrie Fisher joked, referring to her days of cinnamon-bun hairstyles and underwear-less outfits beginning in 1976.

Ridley was at a play, Boyega’s dad didn’t know what Star Wars even was, and Abrams accidentally spoiled Driver’s surprise to his wife, but each shared cute moments that would warm even Darth Vader’s cold, mechanized heart. After all, who wouldn’t be excited to be in a Star Wars film?

The cast also emphasized the secrecy surrounding their roles and the film’s production. When asked if it was always him acting beneath his helmeted character, Adam Driver nervously looked at Abrams.

The director is known for keeping his projects, especially major productions like Star Trek and now Star Wars, under lock and key. According to Boyega, the cast could only practice their lines at Pinewood Studios in England, where the scripts were not allowed to leave the premises in order to reduce spoiler leaks.

Other brief appearances included R2-D2, who whistled and beeped around the set, as well as Harrison Ford, who will return as an aged Han Solo alongside his furry sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

We would be honored if Mark Hamill would join us, but the one and only Luke Skywalker was yet again absent.

“Where’s Luke?” has become one of the latest questions trending among Star Wars fans, opening the blast doors to speculation about the iconic Jedi’s whereabouts in The Force Awakens as well as his allegiance to the Light and Dark Sides of the Force.

It’s got fans talking, though, looking to the future, to the horizon. The hype train isn’t stopping. Last week, EA DICE released a rebooted Star Wars Battlefront to video game consoles. HP unveiled an Empire-themed notebook laptop. Google encouraged users to choose between the Light and Dark Side, the decision altering several Google apps. And North American film fans topped it all off with record-breaking advance ticket presales exceeding $50 million, with a month still left to go.

Everything is proceeding as Disney has foreseen.

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2’: Finale Gets 3-Fingered Salute

This weekend, as Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 opened in theaters across the country, militant fans of the series—appropriately called Tributes—were dispatched to the war-torn front lines of the Capitol. To the distant crack of gunfire and explosions, they proceeded down lifeless streets of rubble and smoke, littered with a minefield of barbarous traps, as they headed down the homestretch of the adapted dystopian series’ finale.

Some moviegoers simply appreciated the bow-wielding Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as one of the better heroines since Harry Potter‘s Hermione Granger. Others, no doubt heart-eyed, drooled over the hunky bods of brainwashed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and pretty boy Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whose romantic roles were both barely a cut above Twilight’s pathetic Edward and Jacob. Of course, watching the bloody and tense rebellion escalate against the ruthless dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland) may have been action enough.

Despite never quite reaching the emotional peak achieved in Suzanne Collins’ novel—most notably during a few major death scenes—Mockingjay Part 2, the final installment of the beloved Hunger Game series, faithfully packed all this in an explosive finale, a welcome improvement from the lackluster, Mockingjay Part 1 (2014), which just delayed the inevitable.

Capitalizing on the curse first cast by the Harry Potter franchise, Hunger Games divided yet another young adult series’ final book into two movies. The glaring difference was that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows transfigured a grand total of 759 pages of plot compared to Mockingjay’s 390-page storyline. In other words, the producers ensured that the box office odds were in their favor.

But The Hunger Games was more than a cash cow milking young adults. Political, social, cultural, even environmental messages run through the books’ pages and the films’ reels. If the striking images of children facing off in fights to the death weren’t gut-wrenching enough, tense subjects like tyrannical governments or the wealth gap between the impoverished and the rich caught fire off-screen.

In June 2014, protestors in Bangkok were apprehended for flashing the Hunger Games’ three-fingered salute in opposition to Thailand’s authoritarian government.

During the Fergusson, Missouri riots, Katniss’ declaration, “If we burn, you burn with us,” was spray-painted on the Gateway Arch in St. Louis following the grand jury’s exoneration of white police officer Darren Wilson, who’d shot Michael Brown, an African American teenager.

There is also a campaign, “Odds In Our Favor,” fighting economic inequality in America (#MyHungerGames).

The movie stayed true to the books, right down to the last line, but Katniss’ final journey never hit home–the way she unfailingly did with her bow and arrow.

But maybe Mockingjay Part 2’s meh farewell was more of a “thank you” from the fans for all the series’ inspiration. If fingers represented stars, Mockingjay Part 2 gets a three-fingered salute with an eerie four-note whistle, gestures that symbolized gratitude, admiration, or farewell to a loved one in the once dystopian nation of Panem.

‘Into the Badlands’: Martial Arts Drama with No Punch

Following Sunday night’s zombie apocalypse as depicted by the latest episode of The Walking Dead, AMC presented badass martial arts mayhem with its season premiere of Into the Badlands.

A lot of strange words with no context were tossed around–Clippers, barons, and the Colts–but swift sidestepping, bone snapping, and karate whooshing distracted the brain and glued the eyes to the screen.

At least for a little while.

Wearing “cool guy” sunglasses and riding a motorcycle in a blood-red trench coat, Sunny (Daniel Wu) hits the trail to brighten nomadic and hostile gangs’ days by snapping their wrists and impaling them with rusted skewers or wielding his ever shiny katana.

Evidently, once upon a time, Sunny was one of the aforementioned Clippers, assassins who “just show up, kill people, and leave.” But beneath all his ink, which records each of his many kills (404 and counting), Sunny is supposedly just a nice guy who made a bad career move. Now he’s about to rewrite his job description, as we shall soon see.

 

So, for the sake of argument, let us join Sunny and go into the Badlands, this post-apocalyptic world with vast meadows of roses. Early on, after effortlessly wiping out about a dozen dudes without breaking a sweat, Sunny rescues M.K. (Aramis Knight), a teenager he finds trapped in a chest. It turns out that M.K. can unlock a mysterious power of ass-kicking whenever he bleeds, making you ponder the consequences if he ever accidentally nicks himself. And so, on top of motorcycle-riding assassins armed with Japanese Samurai swords, we also have magical teenagers.

The Badlands are also occupied by the sickly Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas, The Lord of the Rings), his eighth wife-to-be (Sarah Bolger), his jealous wife (Orla Brady), Sunny’s pregnant lover (Madelein Mantock), and primitive boys training to become cold, heartless Clippers–and follow in Sunny’s footsteps. Figuring out their names was less concerning than trying to understand why all this cliché drama littered the background of a show loosely based on “Journey to the West,” a 16th century Chinese novel.

It all was so odd yet so familiar…

Apparently, there was something about Sunny’s martial arts skills that piqued the interest of the Baron–who decided to put it to “good” use–and will supposedly keep us enthralled in the journey ahead.

But after Sunny brings M.K. back with him inside the high-walled doors of The Fort, where Baron Quinn runs his adolescent training camp, the drama within turns silly and mundane, and the more obvious it becomes that Into the Badlands is nothing more than an excuse to watch Daniel Wu flex his well-oiled muscles.

And then it hit me. After tons of dull dialogue, the closing shots flashed on-screen with the song, “Lead Me Home,” by Jamie N Commons. The tune turned a knob in my brain, opened a door, and flooded out memories dating back to February 2013.

“Lead Me Home” also concluded an episode of The Walking Dead (“Clear”, season three), when the protagonist Rick Grimes parted ways with an unhinged underling, Morgan Jones, for the second time in the series.

This is another post-apocalyptic world. Humans coping with everyday drama are simply trying to live their lives in an environment that won’t let them. It’s the same formula with a new skin. Even AMC’s promotional commercials of Sunny’s martial arts abilities had shot-by-shot similarities to Walking Dead’s Michonne, Daryl and Morgan’s katana slicing, kicking, and stick wielding against the oncoming zombies. The cable network labeled its Sunday double-bill, “Twice The Fight.”

Was AMC trying to make another Walking Dead out of Into the Badlands? Sure, there were no zombies lumbering through the Badlands’ rose meadows, and the characters were a lot more settled in, but paralleling the two shows explained all the out-of-place drama.

Each commercial break started with these words, “Coming up on Into the Badlands,” leaving viewers hanging with a suspenseful action scene, as though AMC knew the risk that many (myself included) might change the channel if their curiosity weren’t aroused. Almost 20 million viewers tuned in for The Walking Dead’s season six premiere in October, so it’s no surprise that AMC hopes to draw those numbers with the five remaining episodes of its new series before the show enters the real badlands of low ratings.

And that might prove the match for a prized martial arts champion like Sunny no matter how many necks he snaps.

(Photo credit: AMC)

Enjoying the Republicans’ Latest Game Show: Their Fourth Debate in Milwaukee

Live from the Milwaukee Theater, it’s the fourth GOP presidential debate!

Tuesday night’s prime-time show featured a big cast of characters, even though a few wannabes from the previous episode had been dropped in this ongoing political comedy series (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) due to their low ratings.

On hand for the main event in Wisconsin were Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush—it’s okay, catch your breath—Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Rand Paul. Each of them was individually “WHOOED!” like a celebrity rock star as they were introduced. They were the top draw at 9 p.m. on the Fox Business Network, which sponsored the program with the Wall Street Journal, both with ties to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. At 7 p.m. the “happy hour” debate had Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But who except the hardcore conservative would want to put in four hours watching all this in one night? Get a life, people!

The debate rules were simple: 90-second answers. If a candidate talked for too long, they were supposed to shut up (but totally didn’t) at the sound of a bing-bing.

“It sounds like a game show, but it’s not,” joked moderator Neil Cavuto, Fox Business Network managing editor, who failed as both a comedian and a persuader.

Two minutes prior, inspirational music had played to dramatic retellings in what may as well have been a “Previously in Wisconsin” clip. In 1859, we learned that the so-called “black president” Abe Lincoln (a Republican, no less) had campaigned in Milwaukee. In 1912, a few blocks away from this debate venue, Teddy Roosevelt (then a Progressive Party candidate, no longer a Republican) had given a 90-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his chest after he’d just been shot outside his hotel by an unemployed saloon keeper. And, of course, no conservatively biased video is complete without a cameo from their true Lord and Savior, Ronald Regan, who praised the Badger State’s Brew City for all its worth.

In short, Neil Cavuto got it wrong. American presidential campaigns have always been a game, whether it’s TR capitalizing on a shooting for sympathy, Reagan sucking up to Milwaukee, or the Fox Business Network using those stories to choke up nostalgic patriots. America loves drama – especially evocative legends of bravery and heroism, even if they all were just an act – and in less than three minutes of this Republican debate, the storyboard was set and the pieces were moving.

Two hours of 90-second-plus monologues wooed viewers with conservative wet dreams. Good America vs. Evil: like illegal immigration, Obamacare, and Putin. Bonus claps were earned if someone badmouthed Hilary Clinton or strategically brownnosed America’s military the night before Veterans Day.

“I know that the world is a safer place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world,” said Marco Rubio.

“We have to make our military bigger, better, stronger than ever before so that nobody messes with us,” echoed Donald Trump.

“We have the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone knows it,” copied Carly Fiorina.

They said a whole lot of nothing and something at the same time, and that something was whatever earned them brownie points. After all, who doesn’t love being praised?

The remaining highlights were when the candidates disputed each other, their outraged voices blended together, the commentators attempted (and failed) to control the outburst, and mostly notably, the crowd whooped and booed.

Fox Business Network decided who would attend the debate based on four recent polls, which I’m guessing asked, “Which candidates will get us the highest ratings?”

The debate averaged 13.5 million viewers, which was 13.5 million viewers too many, as far as I’m concerned, but the most audience this cable network reportedly has ever gotten.

But let’s be honest. Following the November 2016 presidential elections in November 2015 indicates a lack of true entertainment in one’s life. Find something else to watch on TV, people.

The Democratic debate will be held this Saturday, Nov. 14, in Des Moines, Iowa. But The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 also opens in theaters this weekend. The fifth GOP debate will be Tuesday, Dec. 15, in Las Vegas. You know, where there are casinos. They’re a better bet if you actually want to win something.