A Slow Burn in the Wild West

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is far from what you might expect out of a western. I’d argue the only thing “western” about the film is the setting, as the story itself plays more akin to a Shakespearean drama. What writer/director Andrew Dominik has crafted for us is an intimate and harshly melancholy character study of the twilight years of the mythological Jesse James. While you might think that Brad Pitt’s Jesse James would be the centerpiece of this escapade, you’d be mistaken. This is as much Casey Affleck’s show as it is Brad’s. The film refrains from simply giving us a “Greatest Hits” highlight reel of Jesse James, and prefers to focus on the somewhat mystifying relationship between Jesse and his infamous assailant Robert Ford.

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(Photo courtesy of alchetron.com)

It’s difficult to put into words all the things that the film gets right. What’s apparent from the first frame is just how spectacular of a cinematographer Roger Deakins is. This same year (2007), Deakins worked with the Coen Brothers on their own understated masterpiece No Country for Old Men, though I would argue Jesse James is a tad more impressive visually. Every frame of this film could hang proud in an art exhibit, and I’m only being slightly hyperbolic when I say that. Deakins finds a way to give the Old West a trodden and bleak aesthetic while remaining strikingly beautiful; a mournful picture of a dying era that, in tandem with a gorgeously somber score from Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, sets a woeful tone that enshrouds the entire narrative.

The cast is phenomenal top to bottom. Brad Pitt as the first half of our title characters commands every scene he’s in thanks not only to his natural charisma, but to his ability to bring the larger-than-life Jesse James down to earth with a performance that feels genuine and deeply personal. Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford shoulders his half of the narrative burden admirably; his portrayal gives us a picture of a strange, flawed man who, by the end of the proceedings, we’re not sure if we should condemn or pity. The supporting cast around our two leads is a veritable laundry list of underappreciated talent including Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, and Garret Dillahunt, all of who turn in outstanding performances in their more bit parts.

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(Photo courtesy of listal.com)

The criticism I see leveled at Jesse James consistently is aimed at the film’s deliberate and methodical pace. Make no mistake, this is a long movie that has no quarrels about taking its time to get where it wants to go. The whole experience plays as a slow, emotional build to the grim fate of its ultimately doomed characters, and is rewarding in that payoff for those who can commit to it’s near three hour run time. Nothing is rushed, and everything we see has its place in the larger picture the film is aspiring to portray. Character depth is essential to the themes at play, and the film makes sure to deliver on that count.

I regret that I’ve only just got around to seeing Jesse James recently, as it likely would have found a spot in my recent top ten films of the past decade somewhere in the top three or four. And that, ultimately, is how I feel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will be remembered: A quiet masterpiece that never quite found the limelight in its time. With There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men dominating 2007, Jesse James seems to have simply gotten lost amidst the heavy-weights, yet easily holds its own among them when given the opportunity.

Scoreless in Seattle

To be a Lions fan is to accept that football may never be rewarding. The first 2017 Wildcard round has just concluded, and the Detroit Lions have clinched the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history. To anyone paying attention, this is far from shocking. In fact, I’d call it “business as usual” for Detroit football.

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photo courtesy of zimbio.com

The 26-6 thrashing the Lions received in Seattle marked the final chapter in a poetic late-season collapse for Jim Caldwell’s crew. Squandering a two game divisional lead in the last three games of the regular season, Detroit backed their way into the playoffs thanks to Eli Manning and the G-Men shutting Washington out of the wildcard spot in week 17. Admittedly, the writing was on the wall for Detroit long before Aaron Rogers set Ford Field ablaze in the final game of the season. Matthew Stafford, for all his merits, is not a playoff quarterback. He can light up mediocre and sub-par teams every day of the week, but when the chips are down, he just can’t seem to find his game against the big boys. When playing against teams with winning records, Matthew Stafford is 5 – 45. Now, that’s not all on him, obviously, but it’s a statistic that’s impossible to ignore. Sure, watching his late game heroics against the Jaguars is entertaining. Watching him orchestrate a last minute comeback against a dysfunctional Vikings team on Thanksgiving is electrifying, but eventually it all rings hollow when a team that’s worth a damn rolls around.

I’m an unbearable pessimist when it comes to the Lions. Even at 9-4 with their two game lead, I was certain they would find a way to hand the Packers the division. I’m not proud that I was right. I didn’t “call it.” I’m not boasting; I’m not a football guru. I’m just a Lions fan, and I know how they operate. This is what they do. I’ve always said that I love this team, and that I will always root for them. I’ll cheer them on, and I’ll always be in their corner, but I don’t believe in them. I can’t, as much as I want to. I’m pessimistic about this team because they’ve yet to prove me wrong. Every time the opportunity arises for them to take that next step, they undoubtedly fall short.

But don’t mistake my pessimism for apathy. I do love this team, and for all their shortcomings, they are moving in the right direction. We’ve come a long way from Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna, and 0-16. Three playoff appearances in five years is certainly better than a growing stockpile of first-round draft picks, but that losing stigma is still latched to this team like a tumor. While they have their moments, they’re still the same old Lions at the end of the day. Here they are, in the playoffs; it’s their time to rise up and make a statement. That statement: Two field goals, a scoreless offense, and a nine game post-season losing streak.

They desperately need to take that next step, and they’re just not there yet. Stafford looked much improved this year, and his play only took a sharp decline after tearing a ligament in his throwing hand. Our receivers looked fantastic (barring the Seattle game, which I suppose only further emphasizes the larger issue), and Zack Zenner showed promise as a viable option for our struggling run game. Caldwell remains a passable head coach, the D-Line could use some work, and our offensive play-calling leaves something to be desired (looking at you, lack of second-half adjustments). All of these issues are fixable, but it’s that looming culture of losing that they just can’t seem to shake. I’m not saying they have to take home the Lombardi trophy next year, but a playoff win in my lifetime would be a decent start.

A Decade’s Retrospective in Film

Over the last 10 years, Hollywood has released some of its finest work in recent history. As 2016 draws to a close, I felt inclined to take a look back over this past decade, and recall the finest moments on the silver screen between 2006 and 2016. That, and I really wanted to make another list. I love lists.

10. American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

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(photo courtesy of gaiahealthblog.com)

Ridley Scott starts off our list with 2007’s American Gangster; the fact-based biopic of crime boss Frank Lucas. One thing American Gangster gets so very right is its flawless production. Very few films can nail a time period the way Gangster does, and it’s refreshing to see it done so well in tandem with what I would argue to be Ridley Scott’s best directing. It probably goes without saying that Denzel Washington is absolutely spectacular in the lead role, but it’s by no means his show alone. Russell Crowe carries himself well opposite Washington, and the supporting cast is sprinkled with all kinds of talent, from Josh Brolin to Chiwetel Ejiofor. Everything about this movie clicks, and the result is both stylish and effective.

9. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

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(photo courtesy of theodysseyonline.com)

I wish I could put this film higher on this list. Children of Men from director Alfonso Cuaron gets so many things right, and is a marvel to behold on a technical level. The world the film manages to build is incredible, which goes a long way in helping the story feel grounded. It feels authentic and believable, and is clearly the result of a meticulously devoted effort from Cuaron. The whole thing feels like a labor of love, and it really does come through in the finished product. The set-pieces in Children of Men are some of the best I’ve ever seen, accompanied with creative and innovative camerawork in order to create a spectacle that’s nothing short of stunning. Yes, a crucial “character” introduced near the end of the film being completely CGI is distracting, and Clare-Hope Ashitey’s performance as Kee comes up lacking at times, but the grand scope of what Children of Men is able to accomplish more than outshines its shortcomings. Unfortunately, those shortcomings are what lands Alfonso Cuaron’s epic at the lower end of our list.

8. The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

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(photo courtesy of netflixlife.com)

The Big Short is an interesting little dichotomy. On one hand, this film is a lot of fun. On the other hand, the subject it’s looking into is shockingly infuriating and more than a little depressing. The Big Short approaches the recent housing crisis with prominent contempt for those responsible wrapped in a wicked sense of humor. The writing is clever, the directing is fast paced and electric, and the film has a way of presenting downright boring Wall Street jargon in a way that is interesting, easy to comprehend, and often quite funny. The cast is stacked with loads of talent, and their chemistry together is infectious. Also, I feel bad for just barely leaving Drive off this list, so this will serve as my surrogate love note to Ryan Gosling in its stead.

7. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

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(photo courtesy of hellogiggles.com)

I think we all knew I wasn’t going to make it through this list without Marty. If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes talking movies with me, I’ve probably mentioned 2006’s The Departed. This film is everything you could want out of a Martin Scorsese crime drama. The whole cast is superb, the directing is what you’d expect from Scorsese, the story is intricate, the whole thing is riddled with scathingly effective dark humor… Really, this being on my list should come as a surprise to no one. Marty deserved his Oscar long before The Departed, but it was more than earned with this film.

6. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

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(photo courtesy of goodreads.com)

If I had to describe The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men in one word, it would be “understated.” No grand theatrics, no major set-pieces, no bombastic monologues. This film’s greatest strength is its subtlety. Joel & Ethan Coen have shown that they are undeniable masters of their craft, and No Country for Old Men is the evidence of that thesis. To say that Javier Bardem’s performance is anything shy of chilling would be underselling it; I’ve had my share of nightmares featuring Bardem and that psycho-brand page boy haircut. What makes the affair all the more unsettling is the Coens’ decision to exclude any sort of soundtrack; every scene is comprised solely of ambiance. That kind of low-key direction from the Coens as well as Tommy Lee’s quietly profound lead performance make for a genuinely unnerving masterpiece.

5. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

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(photo courtesy of hindustantimes.com)

What came first: the chicken or the egg? Am I in love with Brie Larson because of Room? Or am I in love with Room because of Brie Larson? Either way, Room is one hell of an emotional punch in the gut. I went into Room completely blind, having not seen any trailers or plot synopses (interestingly enough, the picture above is the only media I had seen on the film before watching it), which is very uncommon for me. I was blindsided by just how emotionally dark the film turned out to be at the start. The first act is outright harrowing, and the following two acts aren’t necessarily sunshine and candy, either. Brie Larson was a shoe-in for the Oscar off this performance, but it would be a disservice to not give immense credit to her co-star, Jacob Tremblay. Room is unique in that it showcases easily the best child performance in recent memory, which only goes to further bolster the emotional impact of the whole experience (especially one particular scene near the end of the second act). Room also holds a special place alongside Castaway and The Road as the only films that have literally brought me to tears.

4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

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(photo courtesy of tasteofcinema.com)

If you were alive and knew what movies were in 2007, you heard how fantastic Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is. There’s really nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about this film. Daniel Day-Lewis is perfect as Daniel Plainview, and believe me when I say that I am in no way being hyperbolic. There Will Be Blood deserves its accolades as a modern masterpiece, and is an outstanding showcase for the generally underappreciated talent of Paul Thomas Anderson as both a superb writer and director. I wish I had more to add, but the film really speaks for itself. Expertly crafted, essential viewing.

3. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

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(photo courtesy of foxsearchlight.com)

If I’m being perfectly honest, 12 Years a Slave is probably the best film on this list. First off, if you haven’t heard the name Chiwetel Ejiofor, you’re missing out. Those of you familiar with the films on this list may have noticed that this marks his third appearance in our little countdown, following American Gangster and Children of Men. He has proven himself a profound talent, and 12 Years a Slave is a wonderful culmination of that talent. 12 Years a Slave is also the third film from director Steve McQueen. Both his previous films (Hunger and Shame) show a clear grasp of fundamentally powerful film-making that remains just as present in 12 Years a Slave. Credit is also due to Lupita Nyong’o for an outstanding film debut, and to Michael Fassbender for playing one hell of an antagonist (but we’ll talk more about him in just a minute). This is one of those films in the company of Saving Private Ryan, often referred to as “The best movie I never want to see again.” It’s the kind of film that leaves you exhausted and emotionally broken once the credits roll. It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” 12 Years a Slave. It’s more something that’s experienced, and I’m thankful that I did.

2. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015)

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(photo courtesy of engadget.com)

Steve Jobs is one of those movies that took me by complete surprise. I knew it was most likely going to be good with Danny Boyle at the helm, but it wasn’t until after its initial release that I discovered Aaron Sorkin’s involvement with the project. Sorkin is one of those names that draws me to a project regardless of what pieces are assembled around him, and this project had the added benefit of great pieces. While Michael Fassbender boasts the most outstanding performance of the bunch, everyone assembled in this film is spectacular. Sorkin’s writing against Danny Boyle’s innovative direction makes for a film driven solely by dialogue that’s as exhilarating as a chase scene out of Mad Max. The writing is sharp and quick-witted, everything typical of what puts Sorkin in a league of his own. I once heard this film described as “an action movie of words”, and I can’t think of a more fitting description. I also have to admire the film’s bravery in depicting its title character as the deeply flawed and often unbecoming individual he seemed to be. This so easily could have fallen into the realm of bland, recycled mythologizing of a prominent historical figure. Steve Jobs is like nothing I’ve ever seen, which helps elevate it to such a high standing on this list, but it’s not alone in that merit.

1. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2012)

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(photo courtesy of newyorker.com)

If you’re looking for innovation, look no further than Alejando Inarritu’s Birdman. It’s difficult to describe this film, honestly. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. Birdman is the perfect melding of creativity and artful storytelling; an innovative triumph that stands apart from… Anything. From everything. Is Birdman perfect? I have no idea. It transcends genre, it follows the beat of its own drum. I can tell you that, on a technical level, Birdman is beyond exceptional. The whole film is shot and edited to look like one continuous shot throughout its entirety, and while it is apparent where a couple cuts were made, the effect works beautifully and gives the movie a distinct flow that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. All the performances in Birdman are wonderfully nuanced; every character has something to contribute towards whatever it is this film is trying to accomplish. This is one of those films that offers new interpretations and new discoveries with every repeat viewing. I can’t recommend Birdman enough, if only as a testament to its wild ambition and unmatched creativity.

Torn in the USA

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** FILE ** In this Dec. 1, 1992 file photo, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, listens to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former POW in Vietnam, during a hearing of the committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. The committee released classified testimony detailing the Pentagon’s intelligence gathering efforts in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, file)

See that? That’s Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain. Opposite sides of the political spectrum, and yet, throughout their political careers, they’ve been good friends. There were even rumblings that the two might run together on a bi-partisan Presidential ticket in 2008. Can you imagine? That’s political history I wish I’d witnessed. This most recent election has shown just how far we’ve strayed from what seemed outlandish and far-fetched eight years ago. I’ve never seen any phenomenon foster as much hate and divisiveness in my lifetime as the 2016 presidential race, and that hurts more than the election of any candidate. I’ll admit outright that I am disappointed in the outcome. I’ve been up most of the night thinking about it, and I find myself discouraged more by what’s become of us than the outcome itself.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve watched The West Wing too much, or that I’m not old enough to be irrevocably jaded, but I always find myself having faith in people. I find myself romanticizing the idea that we are more than our politics, and that what separates us politically is not fuel for quarreling, but an opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas that are different from our own. I’ll admit, I’ve fallen victim to frustration with those who have opposing views to my own. It’s not easy because we think we’re right. I know I do. It’s a difficult hurdle, and I find myself struggling to temper my agitation with patience at times, but it’s a struggle I’m excited to face.

I have a rather conservative friend, and to say we disagree politically would be an understatement. To borrow a turn of phrase from The American President, she would advocate at the top of her lungs that which I would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of mine. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We talk. We laugh. We share stories. We love football. I would argue that we have more similarities than we do differences despite our harshly polarized political ideologies, and I consider myself immensely privileged to have not brushed her aside in lieu of her political views; we have so much more to offer each other than being liberal or conservative, and I would venture that to be true of everyone. It’s disheartening to see that so many people have become so gruesomely adversarial towards each other, and I think this election is a harsh reflection of that vitriol. That’s where the real pain comes from as this fiasco comes to a close. These are people who would otherwise share a great deal that are splintered from one another through the political dog-fighting that starts up every four years. That woman in the Hillary shirt? She’s probably at home with her kids, cheering for the same Broncos you are. The guy with the Trump bumper-sticker? He probably screamed just as loud as you did in jubilation when the Cubs won in the tenth.

Again, it’s probably the romanticized optimism of an ignorant youth, but I can tell  you one thing I do know: It’s not fun to hate someone. It’s not fulfilling to hate someone. I want to have faith in people, but the fallout from this election has shaken that faith more than the President-elect. I wish I could end this with some uplifting anecdote, but I find myself coming up empty. McCain and Kerry have apparently grown quite detached and distant in the midst of this election. That picture at the top represents a faded memory of what we so desperately need in the years to come. I pray the victors do not boast, and those who lost do not lash out in anger at those we disagree with, and that we instead look for an understanding of each other. We don’t agree on everything and we won’t agree on everything, and we should look to that not as an obstacle to drive us apart, but as an opportunity to propose new ideas and new solutions. We may bicker and we may become insufferably frustrated with each other, but that shouldn’t stop us from caring for the people around us. I hope some day soon we can all come to slander a little less. I hope that some day soon we can all shout a little less. I sincerely hope that some day soon we can all come to hate a little less.

Star Trek: The New Generation

When it comes to influence on pop-culture, I’m not sure there’s anything that surpasses Star Trek. Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, it’s hard to deny the effect Star Trek has had not only within the realm of science fiction, but in society as a whole. Star Trek (The Original Series), created by Gene Roddenberry, introduced bold topics and themes in a fresh sci-fi setting that was wildly unique; a cultural splash that fundamentally redefined science fiction. Unfortunately, this monolith of sci-fi pop-culture struggles to hold up today, especially to the uninitiated (myself included). While innovative in its time, the show can’t help but fall victim to its age. The dated production value is all too apparent, the larger ideas at play often outreach the writing, and then there’s William Shatner. While I admire what The Original Series set out to do, it should speak volumes that Shatner’s post-Trek career has become a full-blown parody of his own dreadful Kirk performances for the last 50 years. Admirable intentions and a wonderfully innovative mindset marred by flimsy execution and a comically miscast lead.

classic-star-trek-montage(Photo courtesy of screenrant.com)

And that’s not to say that the original Star Trek was an unavoidable victim to the grasp of time; if presented more tactfully, The Original Series could very well have held up today. The Twilight Zone (premiering in 1959; 7 years prior to Star Trek) is presented in such a way that, while it certainly shows its age, it’s not defined by its age. Rod Serling was able to craft stories that transcended the culture in which they were crafted, and I’d argue that The Twilight Zone is just as compelling today as it was when it aired. There’s nothing wrong with Star Trek being dated, but that shouldn’t serve as an excuse for its numerous shortcomings.

Come 1987, Star Trek found surer footing with its first official spin-off series. Starring Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation found a more mature and consistent tone, providing a more capable platform for the kind of ideas Gene Rodenberry was trying to convey in The Original Series. For starters, Patrick Stewart is far more versatile and believable as Captain Picard, and has a much more grounded character to work with in comparison to Shatner’s Kirk. The writing became more introspective and philosophical, more interested in not only presenting but contemplating big ideas. While character preference is largely subjective, I also found the cast of The Next Generation to be more compelling, with characters like Data (Brent Spiner) and Worf (Michael Dorn). Episodes centered on Worf often focused on staggering cultural differences and political strife between the Klingons and the rest of society in order to highlight not only the advancement of culture, but the differences between cultures and how those differences are perceived. Data’s episodes explored the nature of consciousness and sentience through the eyes of a man-made android, often dabbling in themes we see crop up in titles like Blade Runner or Ex Machina. This kind of character-centric world building makes the world that’s being built feel all the more believable.

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Now, that’s not to say that TNG isn’t without its flaws. While Roddenberry deserves credit for creating the series as well as its predecessor, it sounds like his involvement in TNG was more of a hindrance than an aid. And yes, there’s the occasional superfluous episode centering on Lwaxana Troi’s ridiculous attraction to Picard (which somehow managed to merit multiple full-length episodes), or any episode featuring “Q”, not to mention Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis taking a massive dive in quality following what was widely accepted as the best Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan with Star Trek: First Contact. These missteps may seem minor in the grand scope of what The Next Generation was able to accomplish, but that shouldn’t excuse them. Still, Star Trek: the Next Generation, with all of its flaws, proved a massive step forward in both production and storytelling for the Star Trek saga.

With the conclusion of The Next Generation, things started to slow down. In 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came on to the scene to luke-warm reception, followed by Star Trek: Voyager only two years later in 1995. While both series were considered to be relative successes, they came nowhere close to the influence of TNG or The Original Series. Feeling more like a tired retread, both series suffered from comparisons to their massively successful predecessors, and couldn’t help but come across as an attempt to keep a popular series alive on name recognition alone. Through the 90s, Star Trek had the big screen to thank for keeping the series afloat, with TNG’s Star Trek: First Contact (1996) proving both a financial and critical success, despite TNG’s television series ending two years prior. With Deep Space Nine wrapping in 1999 and Voyager following shortly in 2001, the well seemed to have run dry for the sci-fi mega franchise. A floundering attempt to keep the series relevant emerged in 2002 with the wildly disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis, marking a depressingly underwhelming farewell to the crew of The Next Generation. For the next seven years, Star Trek would lie dormant.

Fast forward to 2009, and our series seems to have found new life thanks to Star Trek super-fan JJ Abrams. Planning a film adaptation for a re-imagined version of the crew from The Original Series, Abrams aimed to give Star Trek a modern resurgence on the big screen as opposed to booting up a new television series. He wanted to pay homage to the series he fell in love with while also introducing a younger audience to the world of Star Trek. And it worked.startrek-abrams(Photo courtesy of thefilmexperience.net)

I’ve always considered J.J. Abrams to be a very safe director. His movies are always well made on a technical level and they accomplish what they want to accomplish. He rarely takes chances and sticks to the Hollywood formula to a fault. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s kept his films from elevating to anything beyond “fine” for me. Nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. Fine. Having never been a Trekkie, news of the 2009 reboot helmed by the Andy Dalton of Hollywood had little impact on me. Regardless, the reboot was a massive hit, and it’s easy to see why. The cast has great chemistry, the script, while safe, is solid, the aesthetic of the film is sleek while still looking very “Star Trek”, and at the end of the day, it entertains. The reboot, simply titled Star Trek, reignited the cultural buzz for the once aging franchise. It was far from perfect, but in Abrams fashion, it did exactly what it set out to do.

Four years later is where I came in. Abrams and company reunited for a sequel to the 2009 smash hit, and released Star Trek: Into Darkness. Having heard the buzz over the 2009 reboot, I decided to give Into Darkness a look, marking my first foray into the series. While the film had a few bumps, I couldn’t help but love it. Abrams proved once again that he knows how to make an exciting spectacle, but there was something different about Into Darkness that I didn’t get from his other work. Abrams’ respect and admiration for Star Trek was radiant through every frame of the film, and it was apparent even to someone like me that had never experienced Star Trek. Into Darkness was also a unique viewing experience in that it was a retelling of arguably the most profound Star Trek film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The homage felt seamless as a first time viewer, and having not grown attached to the characters in The Original Series, the dramatic scenes retold from Wrath of Khan felt genuine as opposed to nostalgic. The film felt fresh and new while also capturing the world of Star Trek in a way that made me as a fresh viewer want to know more. I could tell the man behind the camera loved what he was making, and he wanted nothing more than for others to love it with him. That kind of passionate film-making is contagious, and I was officially on board.

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I wasn’t alone, either. JJ Abrams inducted a new wave of young Trekkies seemingly overnight. After nearly a decade of relative silence, Star Trek was ‘cool’ again, and not just the new Abrams films. Young folks flocked in droves to the older series to see where the new films had their roots. I hadn’t given two thoughts to watching Star Trek until the Abrams reboots, and now I’ve experienced The Original Series as well as The Next Generation, with a minor sprinkling of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. It hasn’t all been great, but I’ve found myself with a particular fondness for The Next Generation. I’ve already developed a nostalgic bond with the Abrams-era Trek films for having introduced me to the whole experience. Chris Pine as Kirk will always be the Captain that ushered me into the series. Zachary Quinto will always be Spock, and Karl Urban will always be Bones. I feel a part of something that I never appreciated before. I have an uncle that’s a bit of a Trekkie, and every time we talk he speaks of old Star Trek episodes as if they were folktales from generations long past. He refers to Kirk and Picard almost as relics of a bygone era akin to Babe Ruth or Jim Brown, and now I have a better understanding as to why.

That hint of longing nostalgia in my uncle’s voice had always made me curious, and I’m glad to have experienced what enthralled his imagination for all these years.

Suicide Squad: The Killing Choke

(Photo courtesy of forbes.com)

Suicide Squad marks yet another sub-par entry into the floundering DC cinematic universe. For many fans, it may well be the final nail in the coffin following a barely-passable Man of Steel and a painfully underwhelming Batman v Superman. With Suicide Squad, DC had an opportunity to make a film with its own unique voice, being the first film in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) not helmed by Zack Snyder, and, more importantly, the first to not have screenwriter David Goyer working on the script. Written and directed by David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch), Suicide Squad had the potential for real depth and originality. Unfortunately, what we’ve got is a plethora of bland, underdeveloped characters stumbling through a half-baked plot straight out of a bad episode of The Next Generation. 

After slogging through twenty-five minutes of David Ayer’s “Best of Classic Rock” Spotify playlist, we meet our cookie-cutter cast of characters whose names you won’t remember after the drive home. Every character we’re introduced to seems to have the same personality as the last. All the dialogue feels so canned and recycled. We see our gritty, stone-faced anti-heroes trading almost verbatim the same banter as a scene from five minutes prior. “Shut up or I’ll shoot you” loses steam pretty quick when it’s the extent of the interaction between characters we’re supposed to care about. Speaking of which, Suicide Squad spends little to no time developing our heroes. Most everyone gets their 3-5 minute scene of heavily cliched sentimentality before snapping back to their colorless personas, seemingly unaffected and detached from what little backstory they’ve been given. suicide-squad-movie-characters-calendar(Photo courtesy of screenrant.com)

Chris Nolan fans can also rest easy knowing that Ledger’s Joker remains the crowning portrayal of the iconic villain by a healthy margin. Jared Leto’s take on the classic clown comes across as incredibly safe, often feeling like a second-rate Kroger brand retread of what made Ledger’s portrayal so impactful. In addition to being largely uninspired, the Joker feels spliced into a movie that never wanted him. His scenes are meaningless in driving the plot forward and his thin sub-plot with Harley Quinn accomplishes nothing in developing either character. He, as well as the handful of Batman appearances, feels empty and shamelessly tacked on for the “Hey look, we have an extended universe, too!” scenes. It all feels so desperately forced in an attempt to jump-start for DC in a single film what Marvel worked for meticulously over the course of several years (A problem Batman v Superman also ran into head-first).

While underwhelming, Suicide Squad does have its bright spots. Will Smith carries a bulk of the film on his back, giving easily the strongest performance of the cast. Through his effort alone, he manages to drag the film, kicking and screaming, to mediocrity. Credit should also be given to Margot Robbie for crafting a half-decent Harley Quinn out of the atrocious dialogue she had to work with, proving a more effective Joker than the clown himself. Jay Hernandez (Diablo) has flashes of something more than a faceless G.I. Joe, though what little he does get out of the role is smothered by a generic, cliched backstory. Aside from them, there’s not much to see. The villain is downright laughable by the film’s climax (If the line “Join me or die” makes it to the final cut of your script, you have a bad screenplay), and the rest of our Suicide Squad could have been exchanged for any nameless lead character Jason Statham has ever played with minimal effect to the main story.SUICIDE SQUAD(Photo courtesy of collider.com)

By the time credits rolled, I was left wanting a solo Deadshot movie with Will Smith and a better writer. Everything in Suicide Squad feels expendable. Nothing between these characters feels genuine; none of the comradery feels natural. They feel forced together in hopes that DC can have their own Avengers, and it’s not working. DC is playing a desperate game of catch-up with Marvel, and is flaming out spectacularly in the process. With Justice League: Part 1 back in the hands of Zack Snyder and the writers of BvS, the DCEU is in danger of willfully falling in the same rut that crippled them in the first place. With Suicide Squad’s shortcomings and probable under-performing at the box office, DC will have to hope for a brighter future in Ben Affleck’s solo Batman film (which he is rumored to be both writing and directing) as well as the stand alone Wonder Woman movie due out in June 2017. If anyone over at DC is hoping to see a phase two for this cinematic Justice League, they better start making some drastic changes, and they better do it soon. It’s going to take more than Margot Robbie in short-shorts to pull this franchise out of the colossal dumpster-fire they’ve delivered so far.

A Look Down the Road: What’s Worth Seeing?

There are plenty of big flicks on their way with Oscar season just around the corner, so we can expect to see some heavy hitters. This is my personal favorite time of year to be a film geek, with the big name ensembles making their push for the Academy Awards. With all of these high caliber films hitting the Fall season, it can be difficult to stay focused on what’s worth seeing. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of upcoming films that I would definitely recommend taking a look at this coming Fall.

5. The Counselor; Ridley Scott

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ML50I0mVHY

Counselor

The Counselor starts off strong with a screenplay from Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men and The Road, coupled with seasoned veteran Ridley Scott in the director’s seat. With The Counselor, Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus star, Michael Fassbender, who will lead an all-star cast along side Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz. With so much talent, this star-studded crime drama sets the bar high, and we should expect nothing short of spectacular from The Counselor.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis; Joel and Ethan Coen

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl8DidbbTQM

Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers find themselves on our list with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about a struggling musician, played by the underrated Oscar Issac. With Joel and Ethan Coen calling the shots, we can expect to see subtle yet immensely powerful performances with crisp and well-executed dialogue, which have proven to be prominent factors throughout their immaculate career. If Inside Llewyn Davis succeeds on the level its expected to, it will only prove that there really is no genre the Coen Brothers can’t excel in.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street; Martin Scorsese

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

Wallstreet

With The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio take on their fifth project together. This collaboration has given us fantastic works of cinema, with films like The Departed, The Aviator, and Gangs of New York. With that kind of track record, it goes without saying that the next installment of the Scorsese/DiCaprio legacy is turning more than a few heads. Perhaps The Wolf of Wall Street can finally land DiCaprio his long overdue Academy Award? There’s always a fighting chance, I suppose.

2. American Hustle; David O. Russell

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0

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Silver Linings Playbook trio Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and director David O. Russell are joined by Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale in the crime drama American Hustle. For Russell, American Hustle is like a merging of two families, with Lawrence and Cooper from Silver Linings joining Adams and Bale from his earlier film, The Fighter. Needless to say, this group has chemistry, which is important when tackling an ambitious, sprawling crime drama. If all these pieces fall into place, we could have the next great gangster film on our hands, akin to Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

1. 12 Years a Slave; Steve McQueen

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk

12Years

From director Steve McQueen comes a brutal tale of a man forced into slavery. Backed by an extremely talented cast, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s third feature film, following his critical successes Hunger and Shame, both starring Michael Fassbender, who also appears in 12 Years. The lead role in this harrowing tale goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor, with a supporting cast consisting of Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano, to name a few. With such a powerful ensemble, Steve McQueen has an opportunity to tell one of the most haunting and moving stories in recent history; McQueen has shown his prowess as a powerful filmmaker with his earlier films, finding raw emotional depth and human conflict in Shame as well as in Hunger. With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen is at a defining moment in his career, and this film could prove if he can be one of the most influential artists of his generation.

Elysium: District 9 With Extra Popcorn.

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On August 14th, 2009, South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp redefined the genre of sci-fi. His debut feature length film, District 9, came out of nowhere, proving to be a massive success with both critics and box-office. District 9 arrived on the scene with a strikingly original concept and a very intelligent script to back it up. It’s become a staple of the “How have you not seen this film?” category in it’s own right. With District 9 being arguably the best film of its genre in the past decade, the hype-machine behind the release of Elysium, Blomkamp’s second feature-length effort, was admittedly unavoidable.

So what did we get for all of our waiting? We got a fun, well-constructed sci-fi action flick that didn’t quite live up to the hype. That’s not to say that Elysium is a bad film by any stretch; following up District 9 is no easy task, and Elysium puts forth an admirable effort. Blomkamp’s second film brings us into a somewhat distant future where Earth has been plagued by disease, over-population, and lack of proper medical care, among other issues. The rich and privileged escaped the horrors of Earth by fleeing to a massive Utopian space station called Elysium, where they live comfortably with access to cutting-edge medical technology that can cure virtually any ailment imaginable. Needless to say, tensions between the two societies are high.

While Blomkamp’s screenplay is a bit weaker this time around, he continues to excel in his passion for “world-building.” Where Elysium and D-9 both thrive is in their immersive and fleshed out settings. The film takes an incredibly interesting look at Earth, with most of the major cities being reduced to slums. Most of the characters we meet are rugged and often times desperate or hopeless. Every shot has a color pallet consisting of grey and brown to the backdrop of desolate buildings and poverty; imagine Blade Runner set in Detroit. On the flip side, Elysium itself offers a staggering contrast to Earth. Every home in Elysium is like something you would see on a poster for Beverly Hills, with most of its residents resembling the cast of 7th Heaven. The film does an outstanding job of building a world for the viewer to get pulled in to, which proves to be the film’s biggest strength.

The cast is, for the most part, solid. Matt Damon makes the absolute most of every scene he’s in, providing us with a performance of real emotional depth and character, though what else was to be expected? His character feels grounded and genuine, and has a certain charm only Damon could bring to a role. Sharlto Copley reunites with Neill Blomkamp after starring as the lead in D-9, Wikus Van de Merwe, now returning as the ruthless bounty hunter, simply named Kruger. While Sharlto clearly goes all in on this new role, some of his scenes seemed to be treading on familiar ground in the villain department. Some of Kruger’s scenes seem very “cookie-cutter” at times, acting like villains we’ve seen a thousand times before, which really stands out as underwhelming given the originality of the film as a whole. Nevertheless, Copley’s Kruger proves a fun and compelling villain. Much like D-9, Elysium features surprisingly strong performances from supporting characters from relatively unknown actors. Wagner Moura proves a stand-out as “Spider”, a local crime boss often using his resources to shuttle people to Elysium. Moura is clearly having a blast with his part, and that excitement and passion really comes through on screen.

While Elysium is certainly a fun flick, it does have a couple flaws that really kept it from being spectacular. The most apparent of these flaws is, surprisingly, Jodie Foster. Foster has quite a solid track record, and often gives strong performances, but this is not one of those instances. Of all the pieces that fell so well into place for Elysium, Jodie Foster seems like the odd one out. Most of her dialogue comes across as incredibly stiff and awkward, and she gives off a vibe of sheer boredom and disinterest. This seemed to be a case of Foster not trying hard enough.

Another factor that kept Elysium from going above and beyond is that it’s a “summer popcorn” flick, more so than D-9. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a popcorn flick, but it shows in Elysium’s somewhat dulled down screenplay. I can’t help but feel that there was an abundance of untapped potential with Elysium, and Blomkamp decided for a much more pedestrian approach than what he was capable of. Make no mistake, Elysium is an intelligent film, but it feels like it could have done so much more.

Even with its flaws, Elysium is a blast, and Neill Blomkamp is showing himself to be a dominant figure in the sci-fi genre. His new ideas and concepts define him as a true innovator in his field. This kind of originality and ambition is something the science fiction genre hasn’t seen since the early days of Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg. Elysium resembles the second step in a young director’s path towards becoming one of the most prominent story-tellers of his generation. 

Man of Steel: Nolan and Goyer don’t like Superman.

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From a box-office standpoint, Man of Steel is a massive success. The big name studios and producers couldn’t have asked for a better result, and now they plan to ride their gargantuan river of money into an already in-the-talks Man of Steel sequel. Things couldn’t be going better for Kal-El at first glance, but when we take a look at Man of Steel on anything more than a surface level, we find a handful of issues that results in a relatively fun experience with some major flaws.

One issue that Man of Steel faces is that the screenwriters (David Goyer, with a story from Christopher Nolan) seem to be working under the assumption that their audience can’t comprehend a basic plot progression. Man of Steel features a large amount of dialogue that serves only to bluntly explain plot points to assure that the audience “gets it.” I understand the need for some clarity within a story, but Man of Steel comes close to downright condescension at times. I would be willing to point to Goyer for this mishap, seeing as Nolan often challenges his audiences to really think with most of his films. Goyer was also screenwriter for Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and even then we began to see this kind of blunt, forced narrative from characters in Dark Knight Rises. Almost nothing is left unsaid, which doesn’t leave much for the audience to figure out.

As for the story itself: Goyer and Nolan really seem to have no actual interest in Superman as a character, which seems very strange, given that their Batman trilogy fleshes out the character of Bruce Wayne beautifully in its first two installments (and even merits a decent job in Dark Knight Rises). Henry Cavill, our leading man, does a fine job with what he is given, but the problem is that “what he is given” is hardly anything at all. It really feels like Henry is just there to be “the hunk in the cape that punches things.” There is almost no identifiable character behind Kal-El. The truly outstanding characters in the film are either insignificant or are merely serving as a driving force for Kal-El, who is much less interesting by comparison.

The real moments of emotion come from scenes where our more veteran actors are present. Russell Crowe turns in a great performance as Jor-El, giving off an aura of the strength and humility that resonates well with the Kryptonian father figure. Another scene-stealer comes from the incredible Michael Shannon as our villain, Zod. Shannon is clearly having a blast with his role, and his passion shines through, making his portrayal of Zod arguably the strongest part of the film, which is no surprise. The real shocker for me came in the form of Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent. Costner has always been a bit of a wildcard for me, being largely hit or miss, but his portrayal of Pa Kent is without a doubt the most emotionally fueled performance in the film, giving it some much needed (albeit fleeting) depth.

We cannot forget to give credit to the man at the helm, Zack Snyder. While Man of Steel suffers from a weak script, it most certainly thrives in its breathtaking visuals. Snyder nails a look for the film that is both grounded and beautiful. The sequences on Krypton feel like something out of a sprawling sci-fi epic, while the sequences on Earth feel much more natural, which makes for a great contrast when Zod with his Kryptonian technology arrives in downtown New York. The effects in this film are top-notch, and the action sequences flow nicely. Not Snyder’s best, but it is a notch up from other films of its genre in that respect. I’ve always appreciated Zack Snyder and his ability to make his films look awe-inspiring, and he stays true to form with Man of Steel. His style of clear, slick, smooth visuals makes for a handful of shots and sequences that would give goosebumps to any cinematographer.

What Man of Steel feels like as a whole is an admirable attempt at something that could have been spectacular, and that’s what makes it all the more frustrating. All the pieces were in place to make something really special, and it just didn’t quite click. As it stands, Goyer has confirmed that he is working on a script for a sequel, which has me worried. Hopefully Chris Nolan or David Goyer will pick up a Superman comic sometime in the near future, and learn that there is a character beneath that suit.