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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Star Trek To Go "Beyond" In 2016?

Next year will mark the 50th Anniversary since the original Star Trek series premiered on television. To mark the occasion, Paramount Pictures is naturally planning the next Star Trek movie.

Getting the thirteenth film in the series has been tumultuous so far. JJ Abrams (director of 2009's Star Trek and 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness) will be tied up with the new Star Wars movie until the end of this year and unavailable to direct, though he's staying on as producer along with his production company, Bad Robot. I won't go into all the details of the trouble the film has had getting off the ground so far, but it's included a change in both director and writing team. But with the hiring of Justin Lin (director of four Fast and Furious movies) and both Doug Jung and Simon Pegg as writers, the next Star Trek film seems on course for it's debut next summer.

While I don't know much about Lin or Jung, I personally am a fan of Pegg's work. He's proven himself a strong and witty writer and is a fan of Star Trek. Critically-acclaimed actor Idris Elba is rumored to be the film's villain. So I'm optimistic.

According to TrekMovie, a title may have been set: Star Trek Beyond. Pegg has said that after Into Darkness ventured away from the spirit of the series, he wants to bring the next movie "back to it's roots". Hopefully this title is an indication of the Enterprise crew boldly going instead of staying camped out in Earth's backyard.

I like this possible title and have found myself thinking about each of the previous titles of the Star Trek movies. To be honest, the only one that's not that good is Into Darkness. The Search for Spock is a little too revealing and while Insurrection is an overstated title, it's still kinda cool. So I'm glad that Star Trek Beyond is a good title after the klunker of Star Trek Into Darkness.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Disney's Risky Star Wars Plan

In the last couple of days, Disney and Lucasfilms released the second teaser for this Christmas's upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not only is it a better teaser than the one released last winter, but it also gives a much better look at the film. I personally am impressed and happy to see that The Force Awakens (Episode 7) seems to be much closer in tone and style to the original trilogy. The effects seem far less cartoony than those of the prequels which is most welcome. Also welcome is the return of original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. What kind of film we get this Christmas remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: it's likely to be a huge hit.

While there's nothing wrong with Disney moving forward with a sequel trilogy (episodes 7, 8 and 9) I do have serious doubts about their other plans. While these sequels will be released in 2015, 2017 and 2019, it's those years in between that pose a huge risk for Disney and Star Wars itself. In those "off years", Disney plans on releasing a spin-off film. Star Wars: Rogue One is already slated for release in December 2016. However, this film will not be part of the sequel trilogy. Thus poses one of several risks Disney is taking. But first, let's look at their reasoning for this strategy.

Marvel Studios (which is currently owned by Disney, by the way) releases one or two of their movies every year. This has proven to be quite a success as the movies that fall into the "Marvel Cinematix Universe" are the biggest hits of recent years. I'm taking about the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and of course The Avengers movies which all play in the same universe and are interconnected. Despite these relations, each film still follows their own characters in their own settings with some minor and major characters moving from film to film. Their strategy works because each lead character and each setting is different enough that there's little risk of confusing one movie from the next.

This has worked out both creatively and financially for Marvel and it's this formula that Disney seeks to duplicate with Star WarsBut Star Wars presents plenty of risks when tackling this strategy.

Risk #1: It's All Star Wars
One notable thing about the title of The Force Awakens (aside from having a cooler title than any of the prequels) is that it abandons the use of Episode VII. While personally don't have a problem with this and actually prefer it, the spin-offs will all subsequently follow the same practice. Thus increases the risk that casual moviegoers will go to the theater in December 2016 and expect to see the sequel to The Force Awakens. Instead, they'll find narratively unrelated Star Wars film. As a result, casual moviegoers may be turned off from going to see Episode 8 in 2017 because they won't know if they're getting a sequel to The Force Awakens, Rogue One or just another spin-off. With the Marvel movies, each standalone movie falls under their own character's name thus removing the risk of any confusion.

The easiest solution to this problem would be for Disney to just release the sequel trilogy every other year first and then launch into their spin-off movies. That way moviegoers won't risk getting confused between now and 2019 when the last of the sequel trilogy films is released.

Risk #2: The Characters
The biggest appeal of The Force Awakens is being able to see Luke, Han and Leia again. It's one of the film's big selling points and why the new teaser both includes a VoiceOver by Mark Hamill and the last shot being Han and Chewie. The sequels will primarily feature new characters but including familiar characters will bring a sense of familiarity to The Force Awakens so that those who are hesitant after the prequels will get a chance to see old faces while gettin to know new faces.

With the spin-offs, this familiarity is quite unlikely. While there's the potential to see a Han Solo origin story or a film featuring a young Princess Leia in the early days of the rebellion, they won't be played by Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. Moviegoers may not be as willing to accept younger actors in the roles especially if they still get to see the original actors every other year.

But the greater risk is that these will be new characters or ones featured only in novels or comics. If so, only the most die hard of fans will be excited to go to see characters who they alone are familiar with. While most moviegoers aren't very familiar with all of the Marvel superheroes, they at least have an idea of who Captain America and Iron Man are. The same cannot be set for Mara Jade.

Risk #3: The Setting
By the time Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, considered to be their B-level comic line, they had established their universe with almost ten movies before expanding it further. While there will have been seven Star Wars movies by the time Rogue One is released, the Star Wars universe is much more vast and covers a much larger period of time. All of Marvel's movies fall into the same time period, thus the dynamics of the universe are pretty much the same.

With Star Wars, if you tell a Han Solo or even a Yoda origin story, you're taking the franchise into different eras with each film. In a Yoda origin story, the Empire will have yet to exist. If you follow another character during a time between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars (I will never refer to it as A New Hope), the Empire is in power under the Emperor. By jumping from one era to the next, you risk losing your casual audience. You can't have the Empire in power in one movie and then not in the next Star Wars movie. Those who don't follow movie news on the web will become lost and not know where they're at in the big picture story. If they get lost, they'll stop going to the theater.

Not to mention, you run the risk of space battles, blaster shoot-outs and lightsaber battles looking alike. People may start to feel one film isn't very different from the last one they saw.

Risk #4: Oversaturation
This is a risk that even Marvel runs especially with DC planning to release their own cinematic universe derived from Man of Steel. People will only be able to take so many superhero movies for so long.

The same can be said for Star Wars. The great thing about Star Wars for so long was that it was unique and rare. There were only so many stories to be seen. Now, though, there have been two animated series about the Clone Wars and now a third series is on the air about the early days of the rebellion. It's becoming not so rare anymore and now with the introduction of spin-offs in addition to the sequel trilogy, Star Wars movies and TV series will be all over the place. People might feel enough is enough, especially if the quality doesn't hold up. For a perfect example, look at the diminishing success of Star Trek in the late-90s into the earl-2000s when quality dropped because there were almost 800 TV episode. Only so many stories can be told that feel fresh. As I mentioned above, lightsaber duels and space battles can only be done so many ways so many times before they start to feel stale and old.

Risk #5: Even Regular Fans May Not Be Interested
You better believe that when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker return to theaters, I plan on being there to watch. But I personally have little interested in seeing Rogue One or even any potential Yoda or Han Solo origin stories. I'll go see the sequels but I'm gonna need to be sold on any of the spin-offs for me to not wait for them to hit DVD.

Thus presents the biggest risk: even big fans may cherry pick which films they go to see. The most die hard fans will likely go see anything Star Wars, but there are going to be those who decide to skip the spin-offs and just see the sequel trilogy, like myself.

I guess only time will tell how successful Disney's strategy will be. While I'm sure it may start off quite profitable for them, eventually that profitability will likely drop off. I, for one, only hope that the quality stays high especially with the sequel trilogy.

Time will tell.

Of course, I can't help but post the trailer!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nissan's Impressive New Ad Campaign

This evening, my wife and I were watching TV with our son when we saw a new ad for Nissan. In it, a boy and his father (driving a Nissan) get into a race with a school bus to see who would get to school first. That's right...a school bus!

Needless to say, the Nissan won. But I didn't find it very encouraging that the whole concept of this commercial revolved around the promise that a Nissan would beat a school bus. As a school bus driver, I can assure you that it's not very difficult to beat a school bus.

Either Nissan overestimates the power of a school bus or their cars have finally just now achieved the ability and power to drive faster than a school bus!

Just saying...

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Jets Are Playoff Bound!

Well, Jets fans, it's finally happening! After 19 years, playoff hockey is returning to Winnipeg. It would've been nice if the Jets had actually won last night instead of limping over the finish line by going into overtime (and an assist from a Calgary victory over LA) but they're on their way.

It's been quite a year for the Jets and for a time during the second half of this season, it looked like they might blow it. But the Jets held on and considering they were competing in the best division in the NHL (every team earned at least 80 points) it's quite an accomplishment, one that has gotten a lot of attention from hockey analysts and sports writers who have loved this story all season.

I, personally, don't have high expectations for the Jets. Only twice in team history (I'm counting only the teams known as the Jets) have they cleared first round and both times were swiftly eliminated. Still, though, it's nice to see some success from the Winnipeg Jets. They have one game left tomorrow night but have still earned more points than at any other point in team history with 97 points. They're currently 1 win shy of the team high, but still 42 is a good number of wins. They've done really well and hopefully this is the start of a renaissance for the Winnipeg Jets.

Now if only the Blue Jays could get their act together...

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Retaking an Old Test

Take the Star Trek Quiz I recently retook an old test while perusing my blog and my how things have changed in the last 6 years!