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It was my freshman year in college when I first developed my appreciation for all-things-Abrams. Here was a visionary who truly understood the realm of sci-fi. Through works like Lost, Cloverfield, and Super 8, director J.J. Abrams has demonstrated how a skilled filmmaker can pay tribute to the “rules” of the genre, while simultaneously re-write them. We see this idea at work once again in Abrams’ latest film Star Trek Into Darkness.

I never classified myself as a Star Trek fan, and certainly not a Trekkie. However, I’ve always been aware of its importance and had a basic understand of its mythology. I enjoyed Abram’s 2009’s Star Trek reboot, but I wouldn’t say I loved it (the side plot with new Spock and Spock Prime was needlessly confusing and not worth the price of Nemoy-nostalgia). Despite these small issues, I was still interested in seeing Into Darkness. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in looking at the movie like as a test-run for the future Star Wars films.

Overall, I was very pleased with Star Trek Into Darkness. The movie definitely succeeds in building upon the ideas established in the first film. Kirk and Spock’s relationship is put to the test and the crew encounters interesting ethical question that seem very relevant to our post-9/11 world. At what lengths should you go to eliminate a terrorist? When is it justifiable to bend the rules?

I enjoyed this movie so much that I actually went back and watched 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. It was fascinating to see how that film inspired Abrams’ interpretation. But it’s even more interesting to see how Abrams takes those original scenes and makes them his own. Despite how different the special effects are, the two movies still share the same powerful themes regarding friendship and self-sacrifice.


Abram’s shows his brilliance once again with the casting choice of Benedict Cumberbatch. Like most of the world, I was first introduced to the British actor in BBC’s Sherlock. (If you haven’t seen Sherlock yet, I highly recommend you check it out on Netflix.) Cumberbatch has developed a reputation for playing his roles with a passionate intensity and quick-wit style. In this movie, Cumberbatch plays the film’s villain with an icy calm that commands your attention. Zachary Quinto also gives a noteworthy performance and continues to make Spock his own character. As far as paying tribute to the original cast, I’d vote for Karl Urban as most convincing. Urban perfectly captures the grit of Dr. McCoy.

Unlike Star Wars, Gene Roddenberry’s universe deals less with “light vs. dark,” and more so with what it means to be human. This idea is usually played out in the philosophical struggles between Kirk and Spock–one representing emotion, the other logic. Star Trek approaches each problem through two sets of eyes. The first asks, “What is the logical thing to do?” and the second asks, “What is the right thing to do?” We learn that the answer is usually somewhere in between.

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I recently attended the midnight release of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D. I was very unsure as to what I should expect for this movie.  The two primary things I asked myself were: how would this movie be able to be converted into a 3D film worth watching more than ten years after its initial release, and what kind of turnout would I run into for the midnight showing? Now if anyone can remember back to when The Phantom Menace was first released, there were people camping out for weeks just to be the first ones to see it; it was one of the most hyped movie releases of all time. This time around…not so much. I arrived at the theater around 1030; 90 minutes prior to the start of the film so that I could find four seats together. When I got to the theater there was only one other small group waiting to see the movie and they looked too young to have been able to see the film the first time around.  The theater wound up being maybe half full once the movie started.

This is not so much a review of the movie itself as it has been out for so long and everyone has already formed their own opinions on it, but a review of the re-release in 3D and what we can expect for the 3D release of the remaining 5 Star Wars films.

The 3D for this movie was actually a lot better than I had expected it to be. The opening scroll is one of the most important parts of any Star Wars film and it was quite enhanced and pops right out at you. All of the text throughout the film is this way, including all of the subtitles used when another language is spoken. I found myself taking my glasses off and on from time to time to see what really was and was not enhanced. This was because it didn’t really feel like an obnoxious 3D movie you might see where it is hard to focus your eyes because of the poor quality of glasses or too much happening or whatever other reason. I can’t really stress this enough.  Most 3D movies I have seen in the theaters are very straining on my eyes and never focus as well as I want them to, this conversion seemed to flow very well for me.  The scenes just kind of popped and looked nicer and clearer and certain things really stood out much better like foreground characters(specifically CGI/holograms), special effects, and most importantly…lightsabers. The only time anything really was thrown at the audience was during the Droid Army-Gungan Battle when a blue ball is thrown towards you.

The highlight of the enhanced 3D film is the same as the highlight of the original movie: the epic(I do not use this word loosely) lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. I cannot start to explain how excited I was for this part of the movie; I was ten years old all over again. The lightsabers were 3D while the characters looked slightly enhanced but weren’t popping out of the screen.  All of the subtle 3D additions seemed to somehow enhance these scenes. There was also one major change to this movie from the original 1999 release and this was Yoda being converted from a puppet to CGI. This change was included on the recent Complete Saga Blu-Ray release.  The change bothered me initially, but makes sense for the continuity of Episodes 2 and 3 using a non-puppet Yoda.

If you have not yet seen The Phantom Menace then by all means go and see it in 3D.  Qui-Gon Jinn played by Liam Neeson and Darth Maul by Ray Park remain two of my very favorite characters in the entire expanded Star Wars universe.  Despite it not being the best of the “Saga” it is still very enjoyable and begins to show the progression of many important characters and the very political demise of the Galactic Republic into the Galactic Empire.

The following is going to be extremely opinionated:  Seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time in a few years and listening to many Star Wars “fans” opinions on the prequel films made me somewhat unexcited for certain parts of the movie, i.e. Jar Jar Binks and podracing. After watching it again I cannot see why everyone is so down about the movie.  Jar Jar is obviously not Han Solo, so don’t expect him to be more than the silly comedic character he was intended for.  Not everything George Lucas makes is going to be The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark so don’t expect it to be and you won’t be disappointed. I for one cannot wait another year for Attack of the Clones 3D, but that’s mostly the fanboy in me.

What can be said about a silent film. Perhaps nothing at all.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is unlike any film I have ever seen. Aside from the musical score, there is no sound– no footsteps, no gunshots, no laughing, and no words. But that’s the point. It’s a silent film about silent films. In the film, we meet our title artist George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin. George is a silent film actor and at the top of his game (think 1920’s George Clooney). Because of a chance encounter, George falls in love with up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo. This sets off a chain of events which result in the ruin of his career.

On the surface, The Artist might seem like a novelty tribute to a simpler time, but this movie deals with themes and ideas that are universal and timeless. The film asks the question, “How do we stay relevant in an ever-changing world?” Interestingly, Hazanavicius chooses an outdated medium (the silent film) to tell the story of how the silent film became an outdated medium. Basically, the “talkies” were invented and Hollywood changed forever.

George Valentin’s tragic flaw is that he is too proud to adapt to a changing industry. He refuses to take part in talkies. As a result, Peppy Miller becomes the famous star of the talkies and pushes George out of the spotlight. The Artist makes us examine the instability of fame and youth vs. old age.

To those movie goers who are afraid of subtitles– don’t worry. Watching The Artist isn’t like going to see a foreign film or reading a novel. Very little of the film’s dialogue is presented in text. The real magic of this movie is the fact that we can understand exactly what’s happening based on the amazingly expressive performances. The audience doesn’t need verbal explanations to understand exactly what’s taking place. Jean Dujardin can say more with a smile than most actors can say in a thousand words.  Without this actor’s incredible performance (and awesome mustache), the film’s title would seem ill-suited. He truly carries this movie.

When considering the subject matter of both The Artist and Hugo, it makes sense that both films amassed numerous Academy Award nominations (10 for The Artist and 11 for Hugo). Both movies take a look back at the history of motion pictures and pay tribute to the magic of cinema. I’m guessing the Academy eats that up.

Overall, I highly recommend seeing this film. If you’re the kind of person who gets bored easily, then it may not be for you– or if quiet movie theaters makes you uncomfortable. But, if you really love movies as well as the history of movies, then go see The Artist. Plus there’s a cute dog. What else do you need?

Aside from the game itself, the most interesting and most talked about part of the Super Bowl is usually the commercials. I felt like this year’s batch of ads were mostly based on rehashed ideas. Yes marketing geniuses, we get it. Beer makes everything better, Dorritos make you crazy, polar bears really like Coke, and GoDaddy is really vague about what they do. Same old stories. The only commercial that I found to be truly creative was done by Audi. The featured a vampire driving to a party, but when he gets there, the super bright LED headlights end up killing all of his vampire buddies. The commercial did a good job of commenting on how everyone is sick of the Twilight/True Blood vampire bandwagon.

When I’m watching Super Bowl commercials, I always look for movie trailers.  Movie studios usually pick Super Bowl Sunday to unveil teasers for the year’s most anticipated movies. I was hoping for another sneak peak at The Dark Knight Rises, but we weren’t so lucky. Instead we were given gems like Battleship and John Carter. Two epic trailers for two mediocre-looking movies. One is a Transformers rip-off and the other is an Avatar rip-off, two movies I am in no rush to see again. Also, I probably won’t see The Lorax, but I can appreciate a trailer that features a Vampire Weekend song.

For me, the only Super Bowl commercial worth viewing again is latest trailer for The Avengers. As beautiful as the original 30-second trailer was, the good people at Marvel also released an extended 60-second version.  The teaser shows us the Avengers fully assembled, yet still only gives us brief hints of what the Hulk will look like. I also love the exchange between Tony Stark and Loki at the end. Counting down the days until May 4.

It seems like Liam Neeson is everywhere these days. Already famous for his roles as Oskar Schindler, Qui-Gon Jin, and Ra’s al Ghul, Neeson gained even more exposure as an action hero after 2008’s surprise hit Taken. Since then, the Irish born act has appeared in similar action packed movies like Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, and Unknown. As thrilling as these movies may be, they aren’t exactly good (I couldn’t even finish Clash of the Titans). I was afraid that The Grey might fall into absurdity like the rest of those films, but fortunately I was mistaken.

The Grey is the story of a lonely man named John Ottway. He is a contract hunter whose job is to protect oil workers from the Alaskan wildlife (i.e. wolves). We are first introduced to Ottway in the middle of a suicide attempt. Just as he’s about to pull the trigger, we hear the howl of a wolf, and obviously Ottway has a change of heart.

The next day our hero and the rest of the workers embark on a flight back to civilization. Everyone knows that the plane crash is coming because we know its a survival movie. What I wasn’t expecting was just how realistic the plane crash scene would be. As someone who is already afraid of flying, this scene was definitely powerful. This plane crash makes those from Castaway and Lost seem tame in comparison.

Once on the ground, the cat and mouse game begins. A couple weeks ago I saw Neeson appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where they discussed the film. Jimmy remarked, “It’s like Jaws with wolves.” While this is certainly an oversimplification, it does illustrate how and why the wolves are so frightening. Like with Jaws, the fear in The Grey is built around what we don’t see. It’s all about creating moments of great tension. Much like the famous shark, we really don’t see much of the wolves on camera. Between those moments of great tension and action, The Grey contains important scenes of human struggle and heartbreak. It also showcases Liam Neeson’s exemplary talent as an actor, especially during a scene in which he describes to a mortally wounded companion what dying feels like.

I keep asking myself, “Is The Grey an action movie reaching for some depth, or is it a deep movie disguised as an action movie?” The more I think about it, and the way the film ends, the more I lean towards the latter. This isn’t just a dumb action movie. The Grey asks fundamental questions about existence like, “What is fear?”, “What is the nature of death?” and “Who should you believe it, God or yourself?”. What I enjoyed about this movie was that it leaves us with more questions than answers.

My advice is to see this movie now while it’s still in theaters. You need the big sound of a theater to get the full effect of the plane crash and the wolves. Watching it on DVD just won’t be the same. Also, make sure you stay after the credits! Although brief, this short final scene tells us a great deal.

Chris Farraday seems like just a normal guy with a normal family. We slowly learn that our hero has a shady past involving smuggling, but now he’s on the straight-and-narrow. However, a smuggling job gone wrong results in Farraday’s brother-in-law owing a lot of many to some dangerous people. To help protect his family, Farraday is forced to return to his criminal past and complete one last job.  It might sound like Gone in 60 Seconds on the surface, but Contraband has a key element which takes it to the next level– Mark Wahlberg. Without his style and charisma, Contraband would be a dull movie with an rehashed plot. But, the movie features Mr. Wahlberg doing what he does best– kicking ass. “You think you’re the only guy with a gun?”

Aside from Wahlberg, the other performances in this movie are underwhelming. Kate Beckinsale is far too attractive to be believable as a working-class soccer mom. Giovanni Ribisi was alright as bad guy Tim Briggs, but his squeaky sort-of-Cajun accent didn’t work for me. I tried to ignore the parallels between Contraband and Gone in 60 Seconds, but every time I saw Ribisi, I was reminded of the similarities.

The cinematography in this film did a great deal to enhance the storytelling. Wide environmental shots of New Orleans and Panama City helped in creating a specific feeling of atmosphere and authenticity– unlike the artificial feeling of a Hollywood soundstage that plagues countless action movies. Most of the dialogue is framed by shaky cameras and alternating focus which creates an effect of disorder and unrest. Everything about this movie is designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Plot points build and build, making the audience ask, “What else can go wrong for this guy?”

Many film critics have been making a big deal about product placement in this movie, specifically in regards to the use of Schlitz beer. Personally, I wasn’t even aware this beer existed, so I didn’t even notice the product placement. However, what did bother me was the focus on the Ford F-150 Raptor. It’s a weird-looking pick up truck and sticks out like a soar thumb. It doesn’t even make sense that the character would drive a brand new truck like this. The film crosses the line during a scene where the truck is backing up and we zoom in on the Raptor’s on-board camera which helps the driver park (What a convenient feature!). I definitely felt like I was being force-fed a commercial.

Overall, I’d recommend this movie because it delivers what it promises. If you’re looking for a fun and exciting movie, go see Contraband. If you’re looking for intellectual stimulation, stay home and watch Jeopardy.

The following movies, television programs and music are already on my radar for 2012.  These aren’t any guesses as to what may happily surprise us this year, or any bold predictions regarding bands we’ve never heard of.  These are lists of things that I know I will enjoy, and/or for which I am otherwise and already on the lookout.  (Note: TV and music to follow).

Films:

Uncharacteristically, I am excited about two movies, set to be released in theaters in 2012.  I genuinely hope these are the only two movies I see this year.

The Hobbit

I am new to the Lord of Rings universe and fan club, having just read The Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring in 2011. (Footnote: I hope to have read the whole trilogy before I see The Hobbit movie).  Peter Jackson will be directing the film, as he did the trilogy, which begs a few questions.  First, why make The Hobbit after the trilogy, though it was written first and chronicles a journey before the time of the later books?  Second, in which order shall newcomers, such as me, see these films?  The answer to the first question is likely irrelevant, but the second is crucial.  Perhaps it’s intentional, and having seen the trilogy offers an enhanced watching of The Hobbit.  As with Star Wars, should it not matter?  Would anyone have made it to A New Hope had they first seen The Phantom Menace?  I’ll need until December to get my shit together.

Moonrise Kingdom

The combination of Bill Murray and Wes Anderson has become formulaic, though not in an overdone or cliché sense at all.  Moonrise Kingdom will be funny, and it should be no surprise to anyone who has seen their past workMurray is a regular in Anderson’s films, typically alongside a Wilson brother or two, but this flick only features other regular Jason Schwartzman.  Interestingly, the rest of the cast includes Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton.  Set in small town New England, Murray and McDormand play the parents of a youngster who, along with her boy-toy, run away from home.  Willis is set to again reprise his role as John McClane… wait, no, that can’t be right.