Monday, December 14, 2015

Star Trek Beyond

Well, J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episode in George Lucas's popular franchise and the first in a new trilogy of films is just a few days away from hitting theaters. Reviews will start spilling through the Internet Wednesday, so those of you weary of any spoilers be careful of what you read not only in reviews but anywhere on the Internet!

In the meantime, however, the countdown has begun for the return of another popular Sci-Fi franchise: Star Trek. 2016 marks Star Trek's 50th Anniversary and Paramount (despite plenty of behind-the-scenes drama) have managed to pull things together in time. The first trailer is set to be attached to The Force Awakens (most appropriate) but it's already found its way onto the Internet.

My upcoming Force Awakens review likely be my last Star Wars-related post for the foreseeable future as I shift gears from one of my favorite franchises into my other favorite franchise. Yes, those who prefer one over the other, it is possible to love both Star Trek and Star Wars! My family is evidence enough of that!

So here it is, our first glimpse at the newest Star Trek move due out late-July 2016!

While this trailer is likely to divide a very finicky fandom, I must fancy myself impressed. There's something I find irresistible about this trailer. The look and feel strikes me as being very much akin to the original series and it just looks like it'll be wacky and fun! Plus, there just seems something refreshing about the thought of the Enterprise being destroyed and the crew being stranded, forced to improvise and resort to their basic skills for survival. I like that since it forces the crew to be themselves and not rely upon their technology.

I guess we'll see in July.

Let the countdown begin!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

My New Star Wars Trilogy Theories

In less than two weeks, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will open to what is sure to be huge box office numbers. Questions will be answered, many more will arise. Amongst them will be whether J.J. Abrams's Episode VII will be more akin to the original 1977-1983 trilogy or the 1999-2005 prequels that many Star Wars fans dismiss as awful and unimportant.

In the meantime, many fans are busy posturing their own theories about the new trilogy which will be released every two years until Episode IX debuts in 2019. So, I thought I'd offer my own theories about what will happen and hopefully I have more success than my 2015 Postseason Baseball predictions!

Now some of these predictions aren't just for The Force Awakens, but for the trilogy as a whole. So while some of these may not transpire in two weeks, I'm putting them out there as long-term possibilities.

  1. The opening movie in both trilogies have each featured a prominent death (Ben Kenobi in Star Wars and Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace), so it's safe to assume something similar will happen in The Force Awakens. While the leading rumor is that it'll be Harrison Ford's Han Solo (he wanted Solo to die in Return of the Jedi), there are some suggestions that it could be Chewbacca. Will I'm not entirely discounting the possibility that Chewie will meet his end, I think it's more likely that for greater dramatic impact Han Solo will die.
  2. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Luke Skywalker hasn't been featured in any promotional materials. This is fueling many questions about that has happened to Young Skywalker in the 35 year timeframe between the events of Jedi and Force Awakens. The most interesting theory is that Skywalker has turned to the Dark Side (some going as far as suggesting he is the masked Kylo Ren) and that it happened during the events of Return of the Jedi. While this would definitely be very interesting to explore, I find it unlikely since whoever it is that follows the path of the Jedi (whether it be Daisy Ridley's Rey or John Boyega's Finn) will need a mentor and unless Leia has become a Jedi, only Luke can fulfill that role. So I believe Luke has been in hiding because he has become a legend for defeating the Emperor and Darth Vader, but because he is also hiding from Kylo Ren. Which leads me into my next theory...
  3. Kylo Ren is Luke's apprentice who fell to the Dark Side. Following the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke sought to rebuild the Jedi Order and thus sought out to train a new generation of Jedi, beginning with Kylo Ren. But Kylo Ren, in learning of the history of the Sith and Darth Vader, found the idea of power too tempting and fell to the Dark Side. So, Luke has gone into hiding until someone else is ready for him to teach them, much he had been hidden by Obi-Wan and Yoda at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
  4. Rey is the daughter of Han and Leia who was hidden away to protect her from Kylo Ren. While the theory that Rey is their daughter is a popular one, the reason she doesn't know who her family is remains a mystery. And I believe she was hidden away for her own protection when it was discovered she was strong in the Force with the hope that one day Luke would return to train her to become a Jedi.
  5. Finn is the son of Lando Calrissian. Now as for whether or not Finn will train to become a Jedi, I think that remains a mystery but I think it's a definite possibility since he's seen wielding a lightsaber in most of the promos. Given Billy Dee Williams's notable absence from The Force Awakens, I find it likely that this won't be revealed until Episode VIII.
  6. And finally, for what I believe to be the whopper...Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia, making him the brother of Rey and nephew of Luke. Now, this isn't one I've seen yet but I think this is a strong possibility, likely to be revealed as Episode VIII's big climactic twist (a-la "I am your father"). Kylo Ren was probably born within a year of the events of Return of the Jedi with Luke beginning his training a few years after that. But as said in Point 3, Kylo feel to the Dark Side likely during his teenage years around the time that Rey was a small child. Because she's his sister, he would immediately be aware of her and view her as a threat, leading to the need for Han and Leia to hide her. It would also likely lead to the inevitable attempt at Kylo's redemption on the part of Rey in Episode IX, just as Luke tried to save Anakin in Return of the Jedi.
Those are my big New Star Wars Trilogy theories. I guess we'll see which ones come to pass in a couple weeks and likely have to wait four more years to see if any of the others take place as well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The 1985 ALCS / 2015 ALCS Not-So-Parallel Parallels

Much has been made of the fact over the past week that this year's ALCS rematch between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals is a rematch of their 1985 ALCS meeting, one which is considered by many to be a classic series. But the similarities between the two end there. After the Royals went up 2-0 after the first two games, many sports writers and fans began drawing parallels to that 1985 series when the Jays were up 2-0. They would go on to be 3-1, needing only one more win in the final three games to advance to the World Series. The Royals would stage a historic comeback, winning the three remaining games to knock out the Blue Jays to go onto the World Series.

With Game 5 about to start and the Jays facing elimination, many Jays fans are looking to that 1985 series to flip the script. Many parallels have been drawn, with the Jays winning game 3 at home just as the Royals did in '85. Unfortunately, and I say this is a life long Jays fan, don't expect history to be flipped this year.

While the Jays probably have the best lineup in the big leagues this year, in their nine postseason games this year, they've struggled. With the exception of the four games they've won, their offense has been very dormant in the rest, silenced by the pitching staffs of both the Rangers and Royals. In fact, the Jays owe their ALDS victory to the three 7th inning errors by the Rangers offense which led to Jose Bautista's monster game winning home run. Before those errors, the Rangers' starting pitcher had kept the Jays at bay.

So has been the case not just with the Royals starting pitching (with the exception of Game 3's starter Cueto), but their frighteningly effective bullpen as well. Outside of the eleven runs the Jays scored in Game 3, their offense has only produced five runs. And even their victory in Game 3 was closer than it needed to be as the Royals scores four runs in the 9th inning to make it am 11-8 game. The Royals have produced most of their runs in the final three innings of each game in this series, with nine runs produced in the 7th, 8th and 9th last night. The Royals have proven that they are very effective late in the game, while the Jays have done more damage in the beginning.

But the biggest factor, I believe, is that while the Jays might be able to win tonight's game to force a Game 6 in Kansas City, I just don't see them winning both Game 6 and Game 7. One or the other, sure, but considering their current position, they won't have that luxury. As postseason - starved as the Jays and their fans are, the Royals and their fans want this more after last season. The Royals are playoff hardened, having been here before. They've had a taste, gone the distance but just missed it. So they have the hunger more than the Jays who are doing this for the first time since 1993.

In order for the Jays to be serious contenders, they need to get a taste and lose it just as they did in 1991 before winning in 1992 and 1993. From what I've seen, the Royals want it, they've tasted it and are ready to take all of it this year.

Maybe next year, Jays.

Friday, October 16, 2015

And the Winner Is...

The 2015 Postseason is well underway. 26 teams have been knocked from contention. Some rather unceremoniously, others in incredibly dramatic fashion. Now we are left with four teams competing in two separate League Championship Series to see who will go on to the World Series. There are plenty of predictions out there as to who will beat who and go all the way, the craziest coming twenty-six years ago when it was said that the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series (see Back to the Future II), something that's not so far-fetched anymore.

All four teams are trying to overcome postseason droughts that span decades. Of the four teams still in contention, the most recent World Series Champions are the Toronto Blue Jays of 1993! Yikes! The last time the Mets won in 1986, I was just about my son's age. The Royals won in 1985 (the year the first Back to the Future came out, by the way). And the last time the Cubs Won It All, Theodore Roosevelt was President and the Titanic was still three-and-a-half years from its doomed maiden voyage!

So regardless of who goes all the way, somebody's drought is going to end in the coming weeks.

So, I thought it was time to throw in my two cents, even though the first round is already over. Though I didn't put anything in writing a week ago, I have to say my LDS predictions weren't too far off.

Blue Jays v Royals
In a rematch of the 1985 ALCS where the Royals overcame a 3-1 deficit to take the series from Toronto, both teams are pretty evenly matched. Both have a way of coming from behind to win in dramatic fashion in the late innings, and each had very similar records.

However, while the Royals topped the Jays during the regular season for best record (95-67 over 93-69), the Jays had a far stronger second half and nearly overtook the Royals for home field advantage. Not to mention, the Blue Jays feature one of the best offenses in the history of the game as well as some pretty powerful bats. If anything helps balance however, it's the Royals' home field advantage. If the series goes to a final do-or-die Game 7 in Kansas City, I don't see the Blue Jays coming out on top.

Still, Blue Jays in 6.

Cubs v Mets
There's no doubt that there's something special about these two teams. Both the Cubs and Mets have struggled in recent years, each posting multiple losing seasons before coming into this season. So to say that this season has been a turnaround for both teams is an understatement. Both are youthful and charged with energy, but there's something special about the Cubs this season that is undeniable.

Cubs in 5.

Blue Jays v Cubs
Admittedly, this is my dream match up for the World Series. And to be honest, as much as I love the Jays, the Cubs are the one team I wouldn't mind seeing beat them. Both teams have been swinging powerful bats lately with plenty of monster home runs to boot, particularly in their LDS clinching games. Both are fairly evenly matched with the key to success coming down to whose pitching staff better restrains the other's offense. I see this series going all the way, with it easily going either way. However, only one team has displayed a tendency for clutch heroics...

Blue Jays in 7.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rangers v Blue Jays: The Magnificent Seventh

I think it's pretty safe to say that the 7th inning of Game 5 of the ALDS between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers in Rogers Centre in Toronto will go down as one of the wildest, craziest, most obscure and any other word you can find in a thesaurus in the history of baseball.

Now, I know much will be made of the collapse of the Rangers defense in the bottom of the 7th that allowed the Blue Jays to load the bases. Poor Elvis Andrus  (who botched three plays but was only credited with two errors) will need to find a new team, just as Mitch Williams needed to follow Game 6 of the Blue Jays' 1993 World Series victory. However, I don't think Andrus should receive as much of the blame as he will during the off-season.

Instead, I would look to Rangers manager Jeff Banister.

That's right. You see, after Russell Martin's return throw to Aaron Sanchez bounced off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo and base runner Rougned Odor scored, the home plate umpire called the play dead. Credit must be given to Odor who not only played a terrific series but also committed an excellent heads up play by running home (keep an eye on him in coming years). He crossed the plate even after the umpire called the play dead and returned Odor to third base, a call that was wrong. Banister ran out of the dugout to challenge the call, which was overturned after a conference between the six umpires under the Unintentional Interference Rule. Odor scored, giving the Rangers a 3-2 lead an elimination game and Rogers Centre erupted in fury.

I dare not defend the crowd in Toronto for their behavior. They acted very poorly. It is understandable that they be upset. After, it's the Blue Jays' first postseason appearance since 1993 and there was already plenty of angst regarding some of the umpiring in Game 2 on Friday afternoon. A too-close-to-call play at second base (again involving Odor) on the 14th inning was upheld in the Rangers favor resulting in a Rangers victory, in addition to an inconsistent strike zone which resulted in a higher number of strike three calls against the Blue Jays than is normal. So the umpires were already not popular in Toronto. Still, though the outcome was undesirable, the call was correct. But, it gave the Blue Jays the much-needed spark they'd been lacking the entire game.

Had Banister not challenged the call, it's likely that it would've been Texas who felt robbed. They probably would've picked up an extra spark and scored the go-ahead run in the 8th or 9th innings. Considering the Blue Jays were struggling against Cole Hammels  (they were lucky to score the 2 runs that they did, in my opinion), they probably wouldn't have overcome the deficit. Instead, it would be Texas gearing up for the ALCS in Kansas City on Friday night and not the Blue Jays.

But having already felt robbed of Game 2, the Blue Jays and their fans would not be robbed of Game 5 and have their first postseason since 1993 robbed of them by judgment calls by the umpires. When the Jays came to bat in the bottom of 7th, down by one, they came out swinging like they hadn't done the entire game. Yes, Andrus' numerous errors helped, but it's probable that with the Triple Threat of Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion coming up somewhere in the 8th and 9th, the Jays may have had the necessary spark to come back and win. Bautista monster home run is evidence enough of the energy that the Blue Jays possessed, an energy they would never have gotten had it not been for the weirdest yet most simple play in the top half of the inning.

Though Texas benefited in the short term, by the end of the 53-minute Magnificent Seventh Inning, Banister's decision benefited the Toronto Blue Jays. He may have been correct, but that doesn't mean it was the best decision.

Nonetheless,  Gane 5 of the ALDS between the Jays and the Rangers was easily the most tense, most exciting games of baseball I've watches since 1993. Watching the Blue Jays play the best they have in decades has brought back memories of my childhood that are filled with joy. I'm still holding our for the perfect World Series between the Jays and the Cubs, the only team I wouldn't mind seeing defeat Toronto. For now, I look forward to the ALCS against the Royals in a rematch of the 1985 series where Kansas City came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit to eliminate the Jays and ultimately go on to win the World Series.

As for things with Texas, a series that was filled with emotion and is still being talked about thanks to Jose Bautista's home run and bat flip, I'd like to paraphrase Casablanca: I have the feeling this is the start of a beautiful rivalry.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Jindal Has Incredible Internet

According to his press secretary, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal plans on highlighting "his bandwidth" during the Happy Hour Debate on Fox News this evening. Now, unless bandwidth refers to something besides Internet that I'm not aware of, Mr. Jindal must have some incredible Internet access for him to boast about to us average Americans. How this will help him be President, I don't know. I guess we'll find out.

Just saying...

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Review: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is a marked improvement over The Phantom Menace but still doesn't match the classic trilogy. George Lucas continues to struggle with heavy exposition, clunky dialogue, and lack of solid characterizations, but he still provides a fun, exciting and highly entertaining movie. Click for my full review 73/100

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Continuing to make my way through the Star Wars Saga, I've posted my latest review on my Review Blog. Enjoy!

Facing insurmountable expectations, it's no surprise that The Phantom Menace disappoints even the most casual of fans. Even in hindsight that disappointment is well justified. George Lucas's return to a galaxy far, far away is a visual treat filled with groundbreaking visuals and gripping action. However, it's lack of a strong plot and the deep characterizations and charm that made the original Star Wars trilogy so beloved keeps it from achieving it's promised heights. Click for my full review 60 / 100

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Donald Trump: The Candidate the GOP Asked For But Didn't Want

Let's be honest. There's something rather entertaining about watching the Republican Party establishment squirm at Donald Trump's unlikely success. And the funniest part? They only have themselves to blame.

Ever since John McCain and Sarah Palin painted themselves as "rogues" running to change a broken system in Washington, the Republican Party has tried to take up the mantle of being anti-establishment. According to them, the Democrats and even certain members of their own party (specifically, moderates) were the reason for Washington's dysfunction. As a result, Conservatives openly embraced the Tea Party Movement and pulled the party as a whole to the right, gradually bumping out those who didn't exhibit their ideology all the time. The party blasted the media for their political bias and refused to show any sign of bipartisanship. The only compromise would be if Democrats were to bow completely to their will.

The strategy worked well in 2010 and Republicans had a good chance of unseating Barack Obama in 2012. The problem, however, that Mitt Romney (once a moderate) had moved so far right to win the nomination that he was outside Americans's comfort zone for someone to serve as President. The loss shocked the party who ignored the polls and warning signs because of their belief that the system was against them. Some Conservatives went as far as to hint at voter fraud on the part of Democrats.

The party establishment assessed the situation and recognized that they had to change their approach and subsequently who they nominated. Rumblings began almost immediately for Jeb Bush to run, hoping that he would be moderate enough to win the White House in 2016. This, of course, angered Conservatives who were both unhappy with the last toe Bush presidencies but also weary of a third. But the idea of preprdsining Bush as the candidate of choice only pushed things further and led to Conservatives to up their calls for a pure Conservative to run against both the media and the GOP establishment. The GOP leadership, in their eyes, was now the problem especially as Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began yielding to President Obama even as Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

This brought about the rise of Ted Cruz, an unyielding Senator willing to buck party leadership and crusade against the "liberal" media. Cruz single-handidly shutdown the Federal government over Obamacare. It didn't matter that Cruz hadn't been part of any major legislation since joining the Senate. Cruz was the Conservative Champion trying to stop bipartisanship to uphold their values.

Until Donald Trump entered the race. With rambling, probably improvised speeches filled with rhetoric that insulted Mexicans and John McCain and Lindsey Graham's phone number, Trump became the anti-establishment, anti-media candidate Conservatives had been looking for. He immediately jumped to the tops of polls despite efforts by members of the media and the establishment to downplay his candidacy as a joke. This, however, has only served to energize Trump and his base even further.

Conservative voters have been searching for years for someone to tell it how it is in unrelenting fashion and not be sorry about it. Trump has yet to apologize for any insult he has made, despite calls from his fellow candidates to do so. Conservatives have grown to view the other candidates as being part of the problem as they're already part of the system. Trump, however, is no politician. He's a straight-talking businessman who says what he means and means what he says. He doesn't answer to anyone, whether it be party leadership or the media.

In other words, Conservative voters's dream candidate.

Trump has tapped into the anger and anti-Washington sentiment that many Conservatives have felt for years now and ridden it to the top of state and national polls. He's spoken out in ways that almost every politician can't because he isn't a politician and thus not bound by their "code of conduct", so to speak. He doesn't care who he offends or how he does it as long as he's speaking what he feels to be the truth.

Trump is the kind of candidate the Republican Party has been asking for. Only, they had hoped that through political consultants and polling-generated messaging they would be able to create such a candidate from within, one who they would still have a handle on. This candidate would give the party the outreach they wanted to win elections while still holding true to Conservatism. They'd hope for Jeb Bush and would've settled for someone like Scott Walker.

Instead, they got Trumped.

With The Donald now trumping the competition, the party leadership is no longer seeing their candidates trying to expand their outreach through thoughtful and meaningful debate. Instead, the inflammatory rhetoric and over-the-top antics that the Conservative base loves has been kicked up to new heights. With Trump dominating the news, the other candidates are trying to get a piece of the headlines. Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code. Lindsey Graham smashed his cell phone. Rick Perry has gone head-to-head with Trump and called him a cancer. Mike Hucakbee has invoked the Holocaust in discussing the Iran nuclear deal and, in Trump fashion, has refused to apologize for it even when his own party has called for him to do so. And Ted Cruz, the once-Conservative Champion who has seen his thunder stolen the most by Trump, took to the Senate floor to attack Senator McConnell as "flat-out lying" to every Republicsn Senator and the media in what amounts to a violation of Senate rules.

Did he apologize for his speech? No.

The Republican Party have gotten the anti-media, anti-establishment Conservative Champion they asked for but didn't really want; Donald Trump. Now they don't know what to do with him.

The White House might have to wait until 2020.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Return of the Jedi

Directed by: Richard Marquand
Produced by: Howard Kazanjian
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Alan Hume
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Sean Barton & Duwayne Dunham & Marcia Lucas & George Lucas
Costumes by: Aggie Guerard Rodgers & Nilo Rodis-Jamero
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Sebastian Shaw, Ian McDiarmid, David Prowse, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis & James Earl Jones

1983 / 134min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Luke Skywalker returns to Tatooine in order to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance prepares for a surprise offensive against the Empire's latest weapon; a new, more powerful Death Star.

The Empire Strikes Back proved a big enough success that George Lucas moved forward with his plans to finish his trilogy, once again personally financing the next film. Lucas brought back Lawrence Kasdan to help him write the script while tapping Richard Marquand to direct. The third and final film in the trilogy was given the title Revenge of the Jedi, as Kasdan felt that Return of the Jedi was a "weak title". However, despite promotional materials being produced in the lead-up to the movie's release, Lucas retitled it Return of the Jedi feeling that Jedi don't seek revenge.

While leads Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had already been contracted for a third movie, Harrison Ford was not and doubt arose as to whether or not he would return for the finale since his star power had greatly risen following the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ford returned, however, though he believed that Han Solo should be killed partway into the picture, with both he and Kasdan believing it would instill doubt about the fate of the rest of the characters. Lucas disagreed, wanting to provide a happier, more uplifting ending in order to encourage merchandising. Many elements of the original script were dropped or changed; most famously, the moon of Endor was to be home to the Wookies, but they were changed to the smaller Ewoks.

Return of the Jedi's climactic third act was to also serve as an epic finale to the trilogy as a whole, calling for huge special effects sequences that had never been done before. To help give Industrial Light & Magic as much time as possible to produce the effects, producer Howard Kazanjian scheduled principal photography as soon as possible, leading some members of the crew to doubt their ability to prepare in time.

With the father/son relationship between Luke and Darth Vader at the heart of the story, Lucas has said that Return of the Jedi is the most emotionally charged of the three original Star Wars films.

Over the years Return of the Jedi has often been derided by the fan community as the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy, with many calling the film either ok or outright bad. While some of the criticsms leveled at Jedi are justified, others are exaggerated, fueled by the disappointment that it didn't live up to it's predecessors's standards. Without a doubt, Return of the Jedi isn't on the same level as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is nevertheless still a strong but flawed outing that still provides a satisfying conclusion.

The biggest flaw in Jedi can be found in it's plot. While Star Wars and Empire were both tightly-written and plotted affairs, Jedi is somewhat thin. The first act is dedicated entirely to resolving Empire's cliffhanger as to the fate of Han Solo. While the sequence of Han's rescue from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt is entertaining, it feels rather detached from the rest of the movie. The first act of both Star Wars and Empire not only served as an entertaining adventure but also helped launch the main plot of each movie. Aside from wrapping up Empire's loose ends and displaying Luke's new Jedi skills, the first act does little to the movie's Big Picture, acting as it's own separate adventure and forcing the rest of the movie to restart and build it's own momentum.

This wouldn't be so much of an issue if it wasn't for the thin plot that dominates Jedi's middle portion. Recycling the use of the Death Star only emphasizes that Lucas had not originally intended to destroy it at the end of the first film, having done so in the event that the original did not warrant a sequel. Having a second Death Star is fine and increases the stakes, but it's destruction becomes the whole point of Jedi, the concept feeling rehashed. Not helping matters is that the Endor plotline is thin and does little advance the characters.

Which is probably Jedi's second biggest flaw; character development is at a minimum. Aside from Luke's journey which is still done convincingly and remains at the heart of the picture, the rest of the characters feel like pawns being moved from one place to the next as the plot demands. Han and Leia's relationship takes a backseat with little done to push them beyond where they were at the end of Empire. Also an issue is Han's characterization, which seems to have been softened and lost a lot of the bite that made his character so charming and loveable.

Also disappointing is Darth Vader's diminished role as he takes a backseat to the Emperor, played chillingly by Ian McDiarmid. Vader's turmoil over his feelings for Luke and his loyalty to the Emperor is necessary and part of the story's heart, but it seems to lessen the menace that made him so terrifying in the last two pictures. Perhaps that's the point, but it would've been better if it had been more gradual than how it was done here.

The performances of the cast are once again excellent, though they seem to be lacking the same fun pep of the previous installments. Harrison Ford seems slightly off in his performance, having lost some of his sharpness. Carrie Fisher is once again excellent as Leia, though she too seems to be lacking some pep. The rest of the cast is still on point in their supporting roles, with Billy Dee Williams relishing in a more crucial part than in Empire. As mentioned before McDiarmid as the Emperor is excellent and steals every scene he's in, giving the Emperor enough menace that it's understandable as to why even Darth Vader would now to him.

When all is said and done, Return of the Jedi is Mark Hamill's film, with Luke's growth and maturing in the middle. Hamill does excellent work with the material, though at some points when the drama is at it's peak his range seems a little limited. Still, he convincingly portrays Luke's development, the character who has come the farthest since their first introduction in Star Wars.

It all leads, of course, the third act, a special effects bonanza of a finale that interweaves three simultaneous battles that proves fittingly epic to wrap up the trilogy. The special effects are once a big improvement over what's been done before, with Industrial Light & Magic's work proving second-to-none. The action is breathtaking and gripping, the stakes having never been higher. The third act is the film'a highlight, though is still not perfect.

Many fans take issue with the presence of the Ewoks and the role tht they place in Jedi. While they don't bother me as much as many people, I do take minor issue with their presence in the final battle. It's not so much that they fight side-by-side with Han, Leia and Chewie, but the surprising level of preparedness they display for such a last-minute endeavor. I find it somewhat hard to believe that they could prepare battering rams and cut down so many large trees, moving them into such perfect position to use against the Imperial soldiers with such little notice. Still, it's still fun to watch and John Williams's forest battle music is amongst my favorite of the series.

Each of the three battles is resolved quite satisfactorily, with the battle between Luke, Vader and the Emperor proving the emotional high point. The ultimate resolution and Vader's climactic acts are poignant and believable, accentuated perfectly by Williams's score. The final scene between Luke and his father is quite touching and a very satisfying conclusion to the story. Of course, it's the space battle that provides the requisite explosions and finishes the trilogy with quite a bang for a very fitting conclusion.

Enhancing it all is John Williams's fantastic score, which masterfully weaves together each of the series's themes in such seamless fashion while successfully adding new ones to the mix. Of note is the powerfully emotional theme for Luke and Leia, signifying the new development in their touching relationship, while a theme for the Emperor is quite haunting, especially in it's use at the end of the movie. The Ewok theme borders of cloying but Williams keeps it restrained enough to still be fun. The thirty minutes of nonstop action for Jedi's finale is quite a feat and the performance of the London Symphony Orchestra is top notch.

Despite it's flaws, Jedi receives too much of a bad rap. After the high standards set by both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, it would be near-impossible for the conclusion to not disappoint on some level. Still, Return of the Jedi is quite entertaining and provides a very satisfying conclusion to one of the best movie trilogys of all-time.

Story: 4 / 5
Plot: 6 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Characterization: 7 / 10
Development: 6 / 10
Acting: 17 / 20

Pacing: 4 / 5
Tone: 4 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 8 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 80 / 100

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

Directed by: Irvin Kershner
Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Screenplay by: Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan
Story by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky
Production Designed by: Norman Reynolds
Edited by: Paul Hirsch, George Lucas & Marcia Lucas
Costumes by: John Mollo
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness & James Earl Jones

1980 / 124min / Rated PG (for Sci-Fi Action Violence)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire has the Rebel Alliance on the run as Darth Vader hunts down young Luke Skywalker. Continuing the path set for him by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke finds Jedi Master Yoda who begins instructing him in the ways of Force so that he can become a Jedi. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Princess Leia try to outwit the Empire as Darth Vader hopes to capture them in an attempt to lure Luke to him so that he can lure him to the Dark Side of the Force.

Following the incredible and unexpected success of Star Wars, George Lucas set out to continue his space saga. Having negotiated ownership of any sequels in his deal with 20th Century Fox, Lucas had full control of the series. As a result, Lucas did what most producers don't do; he personally funded the entire budget of The Empire Strikes Back.

Due to his role of having to juggle multiple production aspects, Lucas chose not to direct the Star Wars seque, approaching his former-college professor Irwin Kershner to direct instead. Kershner initially refused, feeling that no sequel could come close to being as good as the original. It was Kershner's agent who convinced him to accept.

Lucas met the screenwriter Leigh Brackett to turn his handwritten treatment into a screenplay. Lucas was unhappy with Brackett's first draft but she died from cancer before they could make revisions. Lucas reworked the script himself, adding the surprising revelation of Darth Vader's identity and deciding that it was "Episode V", not "Episode II" as he fleshed out the saga's backstory. Working with Kershner, writer Lawrence Kasdan wrote subsequent drafts and approached the sequel as a darker, more adult-theme story, stepping away from the light adventure of the original film.

The best decision that Lucas and company made while making The Empire Strikes Back was to not fall into the trap of many sequels which is to try to copy the original film. Instead, Empire charts it's own storytelling path with a darker, more engrossing story that steps out of its predecessor's shadow. On it's own Star Wars is a fun, light-hearted Science-Fiction adventure. But it's The Empire Strikes Back that transforms the series into a sprawling space opera packed with power and emotion.

Instead of attempting to duplicate Star WarsEmpire instead builds upon the story established by it's predecessor and goes deeper into both the mythology and the characters themselves. Each of the characters is pushed to grow and developer beyond where they are at the start of the movie, something that is essential when telling an ongoing saga. Here, it's done in a way that's both natural and quite engrossing.

The story splits into three parts, with none being given greater dominance over the others. It's difficult to say which plot is the A-story and which is the B-story, as Kershner's direction of Brackett and Kasdan's script finds excellent balance in the three stories, seamlessly interweaving them together until they all come together in The Empire Strikes Back's powerful finale. Such an approach risks each storyline starting and stopping and never gaining momentum, but that's not the case here thanks largely to Kershner's sure-handed direction.

Luke's storyline finds him delving not only into the powers of the Force and his own training to become a Jedi, but forces him to examine who he is and the way that he has lived his life. The introduction of Yoda is superbly handled. The detail of the character's appearance is so masterful and his characteristics so engaging (thanks largely to a vocal performance by Frank Oz) that it's easy to forget that the character is merely a puppet. Mark Hamill's performance is spot on as he not only conveys Luke's growth and inner-conflict but does so against a puppet. The exploration of the Force and it's powers is well-handled and adds to the mysticism that was only touched upon in Star Wars. Indeed, Luke's storyline forms the heart and soul of the picture.

The storyline following Han and Leia as they're pursued by the Empire is equally great, packed with action in addition to character depth. The interaction between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is natural, continuing on from the wonderful chemistry they displayed in Star Wars. The romance that gradually develops between them is quite believable, given a strong dose of tragedy and heartache in the film's ultimate climax. The bickering and exchanges between Han and Leia (and also Threepio) is witty and fun, especially as the Millennium Falcon rattles around them in action sequences that don't miss a beat, providing plenty of thrills and visual treats while always keeping the focus on the characters.

The introduction of Billy Dee Williams's Lando Calrissian comes late in the film but works very well, especially considering it's importance in the overall plot. Williams does a formidable job of conveying Lando's conflict as he tries to protect his friends while also having to work with Vader. Despite the character's decisions, Williams makes Lando a likable and welcome addition to the series.

The third storyline is that of Darth Vader as he pursues Han and Leia with the ultimate goal of capturing Luke. Vader is given a much larger and more menacing role than in the original film. James Earl Jones's voice work is superb while David Prowse always conveys the appropriate amount of intimidation in every scene. The Empire Strikes Back belongs to Darth Vader and it's due to this movie that he has become such an iconic villain.

The convergence of the three storylines is well done for a finale that is pulse-pounding and leaves you on the edge of your seat. The action is steps above that of Star Wars, likely because the emotional investment in this movie also takes a step up. The lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader is gripping and a pleasure to watch, culminating in one of the most iconic moments in movie history. Even after growing up with these movies, having seen them countless times, Vader's shocking revelation is just as powerful as it was the first time I saw this movie.

I've heard some say that they have issue with the lack of resolution at the end of Empire. I can understand that problem as it's one often faced by movies that fall in the middle of a trilogy. Yet, I find The Empire Strikes Back so fun and engrossing that I find the lack of resolution only adds to it. You're left wanting more and that's always a good feeling.

John Williams returns with the London Symphony Orchestra to deliver another powerhouse of a score that features larger-than-life themes that expand upon his work for Star Wars. His theme for Darth Vader is unforgettable, while his Yoda theme is touching and delicate. Meanwhile, the often-overlooked love theme for Han and Leia is sweeping and powerful and one of my favorite themes from the franchise. The score for Star Wars is a classic and sets a high standard for all movie scores to strive for, but I believe that Williams's score for The Empire Strikes Back is a superior work because he builds upon what he has done before.

It's a tribute to George Lucas and his team for The Empire Strikes Back that they put together such a timeless movie that managed the seemingly impossible; made a sequel that is superior to the original. Every aspect is greatly improved. The visual effects are excellent, with the chase through the asteroid field especially incredible to watch. The acting and the writing are also improved, something that's hard to do considering the quality of Star Wars. The dialogue is greatly improved upon, thanks largely to Lucas taking a step back on the later-script work and letting others hand that aspect of the writing. The performances grow yet are always packed with drive and energy, maintaining the same sense of adventure from the first film. Everyone here is at the top of their game.

It's been a long time since I first watched The Empire Strikes Back and to this day I can't get enough of it. It exceeds it's predecessor in every regard, no difficult feat considering how strong a movie the original Star Wars is. It's not only my favorite of the entire sage, but one of my all-time favorite movies.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 10 / 10
Dialogue: 5 / 5

Characterization: 10 / 10
Development: 10 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 5 / 5
Tone: 5 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 10 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 100 / 100

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Star Wars (1977)

Directed by: George Lucas
Produced by: Gary Kurtz
Written by: George Lucas
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Cinematography by: Gilbert Taylor
Production Designed by: John Barry
Edited by: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch & Marcia Lucas
Costumes by: John Mollo
Music by: John Williams

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones

1977 / 121min / Rated PG

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

The galaxy is under the rule of the Galactic Empire who possess a terrible weapon, the Death Star, which has enough power to destroy an entire planet. Led by Princess Leia, a small band of rebels steal the plans to the Death Star. When she's captured by Darth Vader, Leia hides the plans with a pair of Droids who fall into the possession of farm boy Luke Skywalker. Young Luke is thrust into adventure as he joins Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in a quest to save the princess, the rebels and the galaxy itself.

In 1977, a phenomenon was born. Now it can be debated if this phenomenon had a positive or negative affect on the filmmaking of the last 40 years. But as it stands, George Lucas's Star Wars is one of the single most successful endeavors in movie history.

And yet, the path to it's release was not without it's struggles. Lucas's original screenplay, originally titled The Star Wars, was far too long to be made into one movie. Multiple studios passed, believing the costs of production would be too high (ironically, one of these studios was Walt Disney). Finally, Alan Ladd of 20th Century Fox agreed to finance Lucas's script. Lucas's script went through numerous rewrites, eventually achieving the form with which we are all familiar today.

Production was not so easy for Lucas eithee, as he faced numerous technical difficulties on set and sometimes clashed with members of his production crew in his atempt to micromanage every aspect of the film to achieve his vision. Members of the crew often didn't take their work seriously, feeling they were working on a "kid'a movie" and often laughed during filming at parts they felt were unintentionally funny. Even Kenny Baker (R2-D2) thought it would be a failure, with Harrison Ford even commenting his confusion as to why the princess had "buns on her head." Alan Ladd proved to be Lucas's only ally at Fox as studio executives fretted over rising budget costs.

Yet, despite these difficulties and the preconceived notions about the film'a success by those involved, Star Wars proved to not only be a critical and commercial hit beyond anyons'a imagination, but changed the way movies have been made for the last forty years.

Whether or not that impact has been positive, Star Wars on its own is a resounding success on every front. From story and plotting, characterizations and music to (most notably) visual effects, it's no wonder Star Wars reshaped the way the general public views Science Fiction as well as the moviworld going experience.

There'a very little to criticize about this first installment into the Star Wars franchise. Though Lucas had envisioned a larger space saga, he focused entirely on making Star Wars a standalone movie. It's sad that this approach is being largely abandoned today as filmmakers focus so much on franchisd-building and leaving plot threads open instead of making one good movie. By not worrying about any subsequent sequels and this film alone, Lucas achieves near-perfection.

Though his story is heavily influenced by old Saturday morning Sci-Fi serials and plenty of familiar fantasy elements, George Lucas's story feels fresh and new, presenting a very original concept and universe. His plotting is tight, his psce always moving forward with very little unnecessary fluff present to drag things down.

The movie really takes off in its second half once everyone is brought aboard the Death Star, always maintaining a high level of fun and excitement. The film's climactic space battle is pulse-pounding and visually spectacular, which helps to make up for what's perhaps the biggest plot hole; the long trench that conveniently leads to the Death Star's fatal weakness. Still, it's so much fun and engrossing you can't help but overlook it.

Though his dialogue is sometimes stiff and awkward, it's hardly noticeable because the performances of the cast are infused with so much confidence and energy that you hardly give the dislogue'a stiffness a second thought.

And that's perhaps Star Wars's most successful aspect; the characters and the actors inhabiting them. There isn't a weak leak amongst the cast and the chemistry between leads Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is so natural and infectious that it's a shame the three of them don't come together soon. The actors bring so much energy and excitement to their performances that they elevate the film's excitement and sense of adventure.

Sir Alec Guinness is a stand out in a mostly supporting role. He brings a level of maturity and wisdom to the proceedings. He's the most restrained of the cast which keeps things fairly grounded. The most unfortunate aspect of his character is his ultimate fate before the film launches into its final act, but it's still well handled and given the appropriate amount of weight and impact.

Darth Vader doesn't have much to do as he mostly stomps around and follows Governor Tarkin's (a commanding Peter Cushing) orders, but he's instantly menacing and memorable. His presence is always felt throughout and James Earl Jones's voice work is spotless.

Even by today's high standards, the visual effects hold up pretty well. In many respects, I even prefer the practical effects as well as the use of miniatures over today's abundant CGI. Something about the models seems more real while the CGI spaceships of today lack that same realism. The same goes for the sets which are unpolished and seem used, helping to ground them in reality and make it seem as though they're used day-to-day.

Of course, perhaps just as key to Star Wars's success as any other element is John Williams's iconic and unforgettable score which reshaped film music for the rest of the century. It's pretty much flawless and helps add to the film's sense of adventure. I think it could be argued that without Williams's touch, Star Wars would perhaps have not been as successful and vice versa as it also helped make Williams.

Star Wars deserves it's place as one of history's most revolutionary and iconic movies. Despite the problematic production, everything came together to make a movie that's just about as perfect as you can get and one of my all-time favorites.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 9 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Characterization: 10 / 10
Development: 10 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 5 / 5
Tone: 5 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 10 / 10

Music: 10 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 98 / 100

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Star Wars Prequel Soundtracks

When the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in its 20th Anniversary special edition in 1997, new 2-disc editions of John Williams's classic scores were released as well, featuring nearly every minute of music written for the trilogy. The three albums are amongst my favorite soundtracks, with the first pretty much accomplishing perfection. Ever since, these three albums have been released in different forms with different covers and booklets, but musically it's the same album.

The same cannot be said for the prequel trilogy. While the scores for the prequels aren't as magical as the original trilogy, they're still better than most scores out there. It's too bad theither available albums are disappointing.

The only one of the three prequels to receive more than one album is The Phantom Menace, but that's been pretty much a travesty. George Lucas did so much last minute editing of Episode I that there wasn't time for Williams to redo his score. As a result, it was chopped up and heavily edited to match Lucas's changes, particularly the third act which is a mess. There was such an outcry from fans for a more complete release that Sony (who owned the release rights at the time) released an "Ultimate Edition" of the score in 2000. The result; the score was presented as heard in the movie, complete with butchered edits. It was pretty much a mess.

The same editing technique was used for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but nowhere near as exstensively.

Still, there has yet to be a really satisfying release of the scores for the prequel trilogy.

With the new trilogy about to debut, I think it's time for this to be rectified. I believe all three scores should be released as complete editions as recorded for the movies, especially The Phantom Menace, before George Lucas cut it up. I think it would be interesting to hear how John Williams originally intended his scores and a be get an idea of what the first movie was almost like.

I'm not sure who currently owns the rights to the prequel scores. I know 20th Century Fox still owns distribution rights for the original six movies but I thought I read somewhere that Disney now owns all the soundtracks. If so, hopefully someone at Disney sees an opportunity (especially for a nice profit) and pushes to release complete editions of John Williams's fantastic scores. That's something I'd happily pay to get!

I mean, come on! It's Disney! How could they not pass up an opportunity like that?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Is the Confederate Flag Racist?

One hundred and fifty years later, we're still fighting battles from the Civil War. The tragic shootings at a South Carolina church of nine African Americans at the hands of a white man touting white supremacy has reopened a debate that has plagued our country since it's darkest days more than a century ago. Though the first black President currently resides in the White House, racism is still a part of our society. As President Obama rightly pointed out, just because it's not as visible doesn't mean it's no longer there. After pictures of this young man were found where he poses with the Confederate flag, the debate has begun about whether or not it stands for racism.

This is a debate that I believe deserves mature and honest discussion. It's not as simple as black and white (pardon the pun) as there is plenty of grey on this issue. I've spent a lot of time pondering this question in recent weeks. As the Confederate flag is taken down from flying over the capital of South Carolina, I find myself agreeing with the decision though I don't believe the flag stands for racism.

At least, not originally. But over the years, the Confederate flag has been warped into a symbol of racism and white supremacy. When the stars and bars were first flown, they represented a country that wasn't fighting for slavery but for the power of individual states. While Lincoln and Republicans (in a case of historical irony) believed in the power of the federal government, southern states (ironically led by Democratss) believed that the states should be allowed to govern themselves. While this did entail being allowed to own slaves, the Civil War was about states rights more than anything else. The Confederate flag was a symbol of freedom. Indeed many brave men died fighting for their beliefs under that flag. Fighting for the Confederacy does not mean that they were racists.

But in recent decades, it's been used for other purpose. The flag that has flown over the capital of South Carolina was originally put up in 1962 as a way of protesting federal-enforced desegregation. Today the flag is used by KKK groups across the country and by people who view themselves as white supremists. Many African Americans are understandably justified in their feelings that the Confederate flag has become a symbol of racism, just as many Conservatives and southerners are also correct when argue that it's not. I think it's important to recognize that both sides are justified in their feelings even though they each allege that the other is wrong.

I personally believe that the Confederate flag should no longer be flown because it's been transformed into something that it's not. As long as it's embraced by those who wish to use it for their fight to dominate other races, it's no more appropriate for any state to use the Confederate flag than it is for them to use the German swastikah, itself viewed as a symbol of hate and genocide.

It's important to acknowledge it's place in our history as it originally represented the honorable notion that people have the right to question their government, a belief and freedom that the Southern States exercised during the Civil War. I'm saddened to say that the Confederate flag, which once represented freedom and liberty just as much as the American flag, has been reduced to a symbol of hate and racism.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I'm Being Sued By the IRS For $20,000

So I was spending time with Nicholas the other afternoon when I got a voice message from a phone number I didn't recognize; I'm being sued by the IRS, please call back right away. Now, I could easily have panicked and freaked out about this but I've been expecting this phone call for a few months now so was prepared on how I would handle it.

I called the number left for me in the message, which according to the caller ID on my phone was located in Texas. I get ahold of a man with a heavy Indian accent who gives me his name, Aaron Hall, and proceeds to give me his batch number as I hear numerous voices in the background in what sounds like a call center. After confirming my name, he looked up my record and then tells me that they are an auditing company. My tax records from 2008-2013 were audited and they discovered that there was a miscalculation on my income taxes; I owe $20,000 to the IRS who is now filing a law suit. "Aaron" give me an arrest warrant number, letting me know that if I don't comply immediately the warrant will be issued and a sheriff will be at my house to arrest me in 25-30 minutes.

I had two options; try to fight the law suit. This would result in my arrest, facing up to five years in prison and having my driver's lisence revoked. Option two; agree to make a payment through this agency who would then help me schedule a court date to try to work things out with the IRS.

What would you do?

I don't have $20,000. In fact, I don't think I've even come close to having half that amount! So I remained calm, even maintaining a bit of levity in my tone. I'd go as far to say I was somewhat jovial with Mr. Hall, with a southern accent so thick he sounds like he's from India. Keeping calm, I said to Mr. Hall from the Texas call center:

"I don't have $20,000, so my options are limited. But I'll tell you what I'll can go ahead and issue your arrest warrant. I watched ABC News a couple months ago and I know that this is a scam."

The call was ended from the other end. I'm still waiting for the police three days later but I have a feeling they won't be knocking on my door any time soon.

You see, ABC News (amongst others) recently reported on this very scam a few months ago. The IRS does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants nor can they revoke your lisence. They also wouldn't delegate something like this to a third party agency. A spokesman for the IRS issued a statement saying those very things, warning people that if someone calls saying you're being sued it's likely a scam. The IRS might not have the best reputation, but they deserve a little more credit than that.

The problem is that because so many people don't trust the IRS and have been led to fear them that a scam like this preys upon that mistrust and that fear. As a result, this scam has cost uninformed tax payers millions of dollars because they've fallen for this scam. I have to admit, it would be pretty easy to panic upon hearing all those threats. But even if I wasn't already informed of this scam, it seemed pretty shady from the call center background to the India-accent with a very American name. Even the extent of the threats seemed pretty far-fetched, not to mention the dollar amount that was being claimed. I don't think I even got that much back from the IRS during that 6 year period!

Still, once fear and panic set in it's easy to fall prey to something like this. So be warned that if Mr. Hall calls saying you're being sued by the IRS and could be arrested in 30 minutes, it's a scam.

Just a little side note...this is my 100th posting on this blog! Wow!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Nicky Won't Be Going to College in Texas

Nicholas is two-years-old. We're currently working towards getting him into a Fairfax County Public Schools preschool program this fall. So college should be the furthest thing from our minds.

At least, until today.

Moments ago, I read an article on POLITICO that reported that the state of Texas has passed a law giving students and teachers in Texas colleges, who are 21 or older and licensed, the right to carry guns on campus. I, personally, am appalled by this maneuver. The NRA would have you believe that this law will make their college campuses safer because people will think twice about opening fire on campus of there's the chance that they will be shot themselves.

I find this argument flawed. If you look at the history of shootings in colleges, high schools and (sad to say) elementary schools, most of the gunmen involved have taken their own lives. Death is something which these people are already prepared to face. So why would the possibility of being shot by someone else dissuade them from this act when they already intend to take their own life?

It's sad that not even three years after the shooting at Sandy Hook we're talking about the easing of gun laws as opposed to their restricting.

Gun rights activists are so caugh up in their right to own whatever gun they wish that they don't stop think about how times have changed since the Bill of Rights was first written. I seriously doubt that the Founding Fathers had laws such as these in mind when they drafted the Second Ammendment. In fact, I'm sure they would have endorsed gun restrictions following the murder of two dozen five-year-olds in their own classroom at school.

When the Second Ammendment was written, many people lived on farms and plantations. Their closest neighbors were miles away. Local law enforcement was scarce and not a 911-phone call away. So many people who lived outside of the cities were isolated and on their own, without the security of relying on help from anyone but themselves. Thus, the Second Ammendment was written to guarantee that these people and their families who lived miles from civilization could defen themselves. After all, relations between Colonial Americans an Native Americans weren't exactly rosy, in addition to the threat of outlaws. These people had to be allowed to defend themselves.

So I seriously doubt that the Founding Fathers would look at today's law enforcement officials and believe that the average American needed an AK-47 to defend themselves. Gun rights activists love to tout that they should be armed to defend themselves from our own government, but I think that argument is an insult to the men and women of our Armed Services. After all, I really doubt that any uniformed soldier would obey an order to attack their fellow Americans on American soil. They'd sooner accept dishonorable discharge, which wouldn't be so dishonorable if they're standing up for what's right.

I find the arguments of the far right to be deeply flawed and based in irrational fear. These new development in Texas colleges is quite alarming and I wouldn't be surprised if these schools see both fewer students and teachers. I guess time will tell. As far as I'm concerned, if this law remains in Texas when we're looking at colleges with our kids in fourteen to sixteen years, Texas colleges and any other state that passes similar laws in the future will not be on our list for consideration.

It'll be their loss.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

DWTS's Missed Opportunity

This week was big for Dancing with the Stars for a couple of reasons. In a season that has been rather tame, Monday night was not only the strongest night all season but for the last few seasons as well. The dancing was terrific and the night overall was very emotional with multiple occasions where most of the audience was in tears. At one point, host Tom Bergeron was also in tears! Six of Monday night's right dances received perfect scores, something I don't think I've ever seen after watching for eleven seasons.

It was also a big week because it saw front runner Nastia Luikin and pro partner Derek Hough voted off the show. Luikin's last three dances (including her final one from last week) all received perfect scores from the judges. Fandom has been get vocally upset about this elimination, a bigger surprise than the mid-season elimination of Willow Shields. Many have voiced that Nastia should have made it to next week's finale while Noah Galloway (the Army vet missing one arm and one leg) should've been sent home.

Dancing with the Stars is no stranger to controversy when it comes to which stars stay and which are sent home. Conspiracy theories abound that it's all arbitrarily decided by the show's producers and not by fan votes as is advertised. I, however, believe that the producers don't directly choose who stays but merely "stack the deck".

I point to Season 18 when pro Max an partner Meryl won the Mirror Ball Trophy. Meryl certainly deserved to win and is a fantastic dancer. However, much of the season's narrative centered on Max who had been absent for several of the show's previous seasons and was regarded as the "Bad Boy of Dance". However, the entire season portrayed Max as having changed and gave him a much softer image. So the only resolution to the story crafted by the producers was for Max to finally win. I say Max and not Meryl because ultimately it was more about Max's journey that season than it was about Meryl's, which is the usual storyline. Max's image was changed to make him more appealing to voters, thus stacking the deck in his favor.

This season, however, the anger over Nastia's elimination has been focused on Noah. While Noah is certainly no great dancer, he's been inspirational and a fan favorite. But, the deck wasn't stacked in his favor so much as it was against Nastia in favor of Val, Max's brother. Nastia has never had the greatest image since her days as an Olympic gold medal winning gymnast, earning the nickname of "Nasty" Luikin. The early weeks of the season seemed to change that perspective and showed a softer side of her...until a few weeks ago when the tone of her video packages shifted negatively. She was shown as frustrated, irritable and not getting along with Derek. People started to see the hard-to-like Nastia they remembered. Derek has gone public to defend his partner by not only saying that those are brief moments that don't truly represent what really goes on, but saying that producers were intentionally pushing her buttons. As a result, people started to dislike Nastia.

Meanwhile, the video packages about Rumer Willis became more centered on Val and softening his image and making him more sympathetic. Val has always been more likable than brother Max, but has always fallen just shy of winning. From the beginning of this season, Rumer's talented dancing looked to change that until she stagnated and her scores dropped. That's when the narrative for Val and Nastia changed.

If the producers truly are stacking the deck, than they missed a huge opportunity for a wonderful finale. No offense to Noah, but this week should've been his last. That would've left Rumer, Nastia and Riker all competing for the Mirror Ball in what would've been easily the most competitive finale this show has likely ever seen. Any of these three could've won and deserved to win, something I can't say for any of the final three I've ever seem during my time watching this show. Instead, with Nastia gone the finale won't be quite so thrilling. While Noah touch's peoples hearts, he's not as talented a dancer as the other finalists. The producers would've had the most genuinely suspenseful finale this show would've ever seen. Instead, in order to help deliver a win to Val, they may have just stacked things against Nastia who likely would've won if she made it to next week.

Now, in case anyone is wondering, no, I don't think Nastia should've won. In fact, my wife and I both believe that Riker should win (even if Nastia had stayed) because he's the best dancer this season. However, that probably won't be the case.

My prediction? If the producers are stacking the deck, I believe that it's Val who will win...oh, and Rumer too.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Great Star Wars Debate

Since 2005, there have been two debates that have riddled Star Wars fandom; 1) Han Shot First! And 2) In what order do you watch the Star Wars movies? This is a debate that I'm sure will continue, especially with the upcoming Sequel Trilogy and the subsequent spin-offs that are likely to take place at different points throughout the Star Wars timeline. But until then, there's just the Original and Prequel Trilogies to debate.

1. Chronological Order
The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi
There are fans who subscribe to this order because it keeps the upbeat ending of Return of the Jedi as opposed to the more solemn, downbeat ending of Revenge of the Sith. Two big problems however is the difference in filmmaking techniques. The visual effects of the Prequel Trilogy are much more advanced than those of the Original Trilogy and will be especially noticeable if you "jump back" in time. The biggest drawback, however, is the big revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. While very few people don't know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, Empire's big reveal won't pack the emotional or dramatic punch if the viewer already knows this because of the Prequels.

2. Release Order
Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith
This is the viewing method with which I subscribe. It's the order each of the films was released so most people saw it in this order already and Empire's big reveal is kept for new viewers. Of course, the one drawback is finishing the Saga on a downer note with Revenge of the Sith. Still, I think this method is best and that drawback will be obsolete once the new trilogy comes out later this year.

3. Splitting the Original Trilogy with the Prequels as Flashbacks
Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi
This is the most convoluted viewing order that tries to counter the cons of both previously mentioned orders while keeping their pros. Empire's reveal is maintained while still ending the Saga on Jedi's upbeat note. However, narratively it interrupts the flow of the Original Trilogy by splitting it up. The momentum will be lost by jumping back to the Prequels and then returning to Jedi as the finale. Of the three methods, I consider this to be the weakest.

However, the release of the new trilogy will render the downbeat ending of Method 2 obsolete as there will be a new set of films to watch after Sith. Of course, the debate will continue because even though there will be a new trilogy, there will be spin-off films that will take place at various points between these movies. Thus, fans will try to figure out when to watch those films so that they form one long narrative.

Ah, the life of a geek...

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Visit with the Family

Here are some recent pictures of the family!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dancing with the Stars Isn't for Teenagers

Maggie and I have been fans of ABC's Dancing with the Stars for about five years now. We started watching during Season 10 and haven't missed an episode since...due mostly to DVR, without which we could not live. We've seen highs and we've seen lows but have always been able to enjoy the show. Oftentimes it's predictable; it was clear from the get-go last season that Alfonso would win. Occasionally it manages to surprise us, such as last night.

I must admit that this twentieth season of Dancing with the Stars has been surprisingly underwhelming. There are fewer strong dancers than in recent years and a number who just aren't very good. Their Disney Week was bland and last week's Spring Break Week was...ok. Early on I predicted that the finals would feature Nastia and Derek, Riker and Allison, and Rumer and Val. But there was a surprising wild card; Willow Shields (of The Hunger Games series) with professional Mark Ballis. At fourteen, she's the show's youngest competitor yet did surprisingly well. I thought that if anyone had a chance to upend the results, it would be here.

Last night, that came crashing to a halt.

In the most shocking elimination of the season, Willow was sent home. Everyone was astounded, especially the judges. Willow was in tears. It occurred to me as Maggie and I watched Willow crying in Mark's arms, surrounded by the rest of the consoling cast, that Dancing with the Stars had finally gone too young.

Dancing with the Stars has proven to be not only physically challenging but emotionally as well. It's overwhelming even for the most mature adult, including many of the professionals who have been dancing their entire lives. The show has featured teenagers before; last season's Sadie Robertson (17) finished third while season 16's Zendaya almost won it all, finishing second at age 16! Both these young ladies possessed a maturity  beyond their years that enabled them to endure the brutality of the competition that stretches across three months non-stop.

Young Willow, however, is not Sadie nor Zendaya. That's not a knock against her. She's a sweet young girl who displays both an incredible talent and determination that made her enjoyable to watch, even though Mark's high-creativity concepts slowly got in the way of the dances they performed. But at the end of the day, she's only fourteen and there's a striking difference between a fourteen-year-old and a sixteen- and seventeen-year-old. Fourteen-year-olds are still in a very delicate phase as the change emotionally and physically. They get overwhelmed enough as it is with their everyday lives with school and friends and even with their own families.

Because she's so young and still in that delicate phase of maturity, Willow wasn't prepared to endure the emotional roller coaster of Dancing with the Stars. In a couple years, sure, but the producers should've exercised better judgment before casting her, clearly trying to gain the youth viewership because of her attachment to the currently-hot Hunger Games series.

Dancing with the Stars is basically a popularity contest where one has to sell themselves both personally and in talent. The ones who have gone on to win have all been able to win the public not just because they could dance well but because they could get people behind them and like them. Willow did an excellent job week-in and week-out. She's clearly a wonderful young girl and had a shot to make it to the finale. She just didn't sell herself well enough to gain enough fan support to vote her through to the end. It devastated her more than it has anyone else Maggie and I have watched over the years. Teenagers dread rejection and this young girl got rejected on a very public and national level.

As we watched her cry, I turned to Maggie and said, "She's too young. Dancing with the Stars is not for fourteen-year-olds."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: Interstellar

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan & Lynda Obst
Written by: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Executive Producers: Jordan Goldberg, Jake Myers & Thomas Tull
Cinematography by: Hoyte van Hoytema
Production Designed by: Nathan Crowley
Edited by: Lee Smith
Costumes by: Mary Zophres
Music by: Hans Zimmer

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Matt Damon

2014 / 169min / Rated PG-13

In a not-too-distant future where everyone is a farmer, mankind is on the verge of extinction. It's only hope lies in the stars. A former-pilot-turned-farmer must make the sacrifice of leaving his children behind on Earth in order to lead a mission to other worlds in the hopes of finding a way to save the Human race.

Over the past decade, Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be a filmmaker of big ideas. Even his Dark Knight Trilogy was filled with ideas that transcended the comic book superhero genre and made them much more substantive than any other film in the genre. With Interstellar, Nolan sets out to create a film that's this generation's 2001 and fills it with the big ideas for which he has made his name. He sets his ambitions high. Perhaps a little too high as with Interstellar Nolan bites off more than he can chew. However, a film by Nolan that missed the mark is still far better than most of the other films that pack the theaters these days.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan create a future Earth where mankind is on the verge of extinction but doesn't even know it. Humanity leaves in a global Great Depression under constant threat of monster sand storms. Everyone is a farmer as the population struggles to grow enough food for survival. With each passing year, they hope that the next will be better, unaware that their situation is only growing worse and that they may only have a generation or two left to live. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) leads a NASA that literally operates underground to avoid scrutiny for wasting tax payer money from a public that believe the Apollo moon landings were a hoax to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Brand has discovered an artificially-created wormhole near Saturn that leads to a solar system in another galaxy that may be home to a planet capable of sustaining human life. His belief is that humanity's best hope for survival is not on Earth but in the stars.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a hot shot pilot who discovers NASA's compound following a seemingly supernatural event in his daughter, Murph's bedroom. Brand believes Coop's arrival is no coincidence and enlists him to pilot the mission to find a new home for humanity. The catch is that he must leave behind his son and daughter without knowing when he could return. Due to the laws of physics and relativity, Coop could likely return to find that while only a few years have passed for him, decades may have passed on Earth. Coop accepts the mission with the hope that he will ensure his family's survival.

Unlike most science-fiction films, the plot of Interstellar is based heavily on real science. The dialogue is laced with physics and talk of relativity yet isn't confusing and doesn't detract from the enjoyability. It adds a sense of authenticity and serves to raise the stakes as, in true Nolan fashion, time becomes as valuable of a resource to the characters as water and good. Nolan has always displayed a fascination with time and the way we perceive it and the laws of relativity are used to great effect to show how our different perceptions of time can greatly vary. The worlds that are visited are fascinating as they're depicted as truly alien worlds that are quite different from our own.

The influence of 2001 is often on display. Like 2001, space scenes are depicted realistically with no sound mix present aside from the musical score. The two robot characters are also an homage to 2001's HAL, though infused with more personality to have them better relate to the human characters. Even the docking sequence feels like a reference back to Stanley Kubrick's earlier film.

Nolan's films have often been described as being cold and lacking real human emotion and Interstellar threatens to be the same with all it's realistic science. Yet with Interstellar Nolan seeks to break from that mold by packing in real human emotion and melodrama. The results are decidedly mixed as he sometimes borderlines going overly mushy and sappy. But he keeps things reigned in just enough thanks to wonderful performances by McConnaughy and Anne Hathaway who plays Brand's daughter. The affect of Nolan's time manipulation are taken on the characters while what's only a matter of hours for them is decades for everyone else. A powerful scene features McConaughy watching messages from home in which he literally watches his children grow into adulthood before his eyes while he's only aged a couple of years. McConaughy conveys the powerful toll that's taken on Cooper who's children mean everything to him.

Despite those efforts to keep the story grounded by the human element, the jumps back and forth between the scenes in space and those on Earth are sometimes jarring. Though the Earthbound story following Chastain's adult Murph is necessary to the overall story, something about the back and forth shifting doesn't flow naturally. It takes a few moments to readjust to the different narrative. These jumps are something that Nolan has perfected in his other films, but here it doesn't feel as effective.

The characters also lack real depth. Only McConaughy and Matt Damon feel like real people. When Damon shows up, he brings a very real take on basic human instinct and emotion. Though his appearance is unexpected and could remove the viewer from the experience, the exploration of humanity in it's most primitive state is fascinating to watch and Damon sells it with brutally raw performance. The rest of the characters, including Hathaway's Brand and Chastain's Murph are sadly underdeveloped despite their substantial roles. The performances of the cast are excellent, especially Caine and John Lithgow in very dignified turns, but they serve little purpose besides offering exposition.

It's only in the third act where things threaten to unwind as a film that spends most of it's almost-three hour runtime grounded in science makes a departure into being borderline fantasy. While it avoids jumping the shark, it feels like liberties were taken to wrap things up neatly and provide a happy ending. It's far from a bad ending and doesn't ruin the picture, but it feels almost disconnected from the rest of the movie.

Interstellar is always engaging, though, never feeling overly long as Nolan keeps the pace moving but never feeling rushed. From shots of ships traveling through space dwarfed by massive planets, to planetary vistas and depictions of wormholes and blackholes, the visual effects are breathtaking, flawless and seamlessly integrated into shots involving real actors. Nolan strives to use practical effects whenever possible, especially with the robots that accompany the crew, using computer effects only when necessary. Interstellar is one of the most strikingly beautiful movies I've seen in a long time.

Hans Zimmer accompanies with a score that predominantly features the organ. Though he doesn't use a full orchestra, Zimmer's score is epic in scope and most enjoyable.

Interstellar is an incredibly ambitious effort by Christopher Nolan. His attempts to keep emotion at the heart of the story only undermine him but not enough to ruin the film. It's still far better than most movies out there these days and Cheistopher Nolan shows his passion for filmmaking as an art form. Tackling big ideas to make one think, Interstellar is an excellent movie that delivers a memorable experience.

Story: 5 / 5
Plot: 8 / 10
Dialogue: 4 / 5

Development: 7 / 10
Growth: 7 / 10
Acting: 20 / 20

Pacing: 4 / 5
Tone: 4 / 5
Overall Enjoyment: 9 / 10

Music: 8 / 10
Visuals: 10 / 10

TOTAL: 86 / 100