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Doctor Strange – Review

6 Nov

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown and expanded so much more than I ever expected since the days of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. After showcasing those more mainstream heroes, including Captain America and Thor, it was time for Marvel and Disney to add something new to the mix and bring in some lesser known heroes. Ant Man was the first to really go somewhere strange, and the inclusion of Black Panther in Civil War was just awesome. Now, with Doctor Strange, we’re going down a wormhole that I never expected to see in an MCU movie. This is probably the most unique film in the entire franchise, and is most definitely one of my new favorites. Who woulda thunk it?

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an accomplished, world renowned neurosurgeon who may operate on other people, but it only working for himself and his own inflated ego. After a devastating car accident leaves him with permanent nerve damage in his hands, Strange tries every medical technique he can find until he hears about this mystical clan in Kathmandu that helped a paraplegic walk again. Upon arriving at the secret training ground, Kamar-Taj, Strange is shown the secrets of multidimensional existence by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and is appointed a teacher, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though reluctant at first, Strange becomes a star pupil and soon has to put everything he’s learned to the test when the treacherous magician Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) returns to unleash dark lord Dormammu and the Dark Dimension onto the earth.

I knew next to nothing about this character before going into this movie, so my expectations were a little weird. I was expecting something entertaining and disposable like Ant Man, but I got something so much more. This is more than just a comic book action film. While it works as an adaptation of a Marvel comic that builds on a universe that keeps on growing, it’s also a really impressive and mid bending fantasy. Listening to the characters talk about muliverses and mirror dimensions along with the lingering presence of the Dark Dimension and Dormammu just sounded so cool. It made even the extended scenes of dialogue feel just as exciting as the scenes with magic. The world that the screenwriters crafted with Doctor Strange is so fantastical, it’s impossible to complain at all about the lack of imagination put into superhero movies.

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So while the dialogue is all really cool, it wouldn’t be worth it if all the magic and special effects on display couldn’t match what they are all talking about. This is where Doctor Strange shines the brightest. This film has some of the best special effects I’ve seen all year. There was one point in the movie where Strange, Mordo, and Kaecilius are fighting and running through a city that is completely folding in on itself and coming apart like a kaleidoscope. Some of that scene was shown in the trailers, but it’s so much crazier than the trailers ever made it out to be. It was like Inception on steroids and LSD. The climax of the movie also plays out much differently than in most movies like this. It fits in very well with the rest of the movie and will certainly not disappoint.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a Bostonian in Black Mass was a little awkward to say the least, so I was a bit concerned with how he’d handle the accent for Stephen Strange. My concerns were unwarranted since it’s clear he is the best choice for this character. He’s funny, arrogant, and sympathetic at the same time which makes this a fully realized character that is brought to life by a great performance by Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor also give very good performances, but I have to give an extra special shout out to Mads Mikkelson as Kaecilius. While his character didn’t have nearly as much screen time as I may have wanted, he stole every scene he was in and is one of the more memorable villains in the recent MCU.

 

Doctor Strange has so much imagination, action, fantasy, and humor crammed into it that it sometimes feel like it might burst from the awesomeness. The actors all do a splendid job with the roles and the special effects are going to make you feel like a kid on Christmas. This is definitely one of the better movies in the MCU, and while it may not be the best, it’s definitely one of my new favorites in the franchise.

Final Grade: A

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Black Mass – Review

22 Sep

It’s pretty natural for actors to get into ruts in their careers, only to have them revitalized with some major performance. It was Matthew McConaughey’s turn a few years ago with Dallas Buyers Club, and 2015 is the year for Johnny Depp. Ever since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie back in 2003, Depp has been kind of stuck with Jack Sparrow, even when he played Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It’s so refreshing to see what an actor of his caliber really has to offer, and you get to see that in Black Mass. Despite a few minor flaws, this film is definitely going to be one of the stand outs of this year and Johnny Depp’s performance isn’t the only reason why either.

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This is the story of one of America’s most dangerous and notorious gangsters, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp). While Bulger is still just a small time gangster in South Boston, he is reunited with his childhood friend, John Conolly (Joel Edgerton), who has begun making a name for himself in the FBI. Conolly proposes to Whitey that they should form an “alliance” where he will feed Bulger information procured by the FBI, while Bulger will give some names and places of notorious Italian mobsters that have been giving the Irish gangs a hard time. As time goes on and both men rise in rank in their organizations, the walls begin closing in on both of them, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to cover their tracks.

The first thing I have to talk about is Johnny Depp’s performance. I mean, how can I not be excited about this. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen the movie and I still get all wound up just thinking about it. Johnny Depp can be a chameleon when it comes to acting and this is case and point. While I was watching Black Mass, I didn’t feel like I was watching Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger. I felt like it was Whitey Bulger. Everything from his posture, to his facial expressions, and how he delivered lines made him a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Props also have to go out to Joel Edgerton who gave the same kind of realistic performance. Finally, after getting used to him, Benedict Cumberbatch threw me through a loop with his higher pitched voice and Bostonian accent.

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The only thing that Black Mass has going against it is just how much content is mushed into its two hour run time. When I say that this movie is packed to the brim, I mean it really is. This movie could have easily been another hour long, and even a miniseries, but two hours just isn’t enough. The movie actually felt longer than it was because of how much stuff happens in it. Scott Cooper actually said that the film was originally three hours long, so if there were ever a director’s cut released, I’d love to see just how much was excluded from the finished product and if it would make the movie flow a little bit smoother. The pacing gets so weird and choppy at times because there’s so much stuff to fit in, finding the proper transition could be hard. It also made it hard to see how much time has passed or where everyone was.

Still, it’s understandable why the film makers would want to cram so much material into this movie. It’s all really interesting stuff, and the character of James Bulger was just asking for a movie like this. You know how in The Godfather you can get behind the Corleone family and in Scarface you can go along with some of Tony Montana’s doings? Not in Black Mass. Whitey Bulger is truly an evil human being with no moral compass whatsoever. In the beginning of the movie, there’s some humanity, but by the end the audience sees just how disassociated from society he really was. It’s also interesting to note that this isn’t just a biopic about Whitey Bulger. It’s also an exploration of a time when the FBI was corrupted and their security breached by this unholy alliance.

While Black Mass may not be the best gangster movie of the past ten or twenty years, it is one that’s going to be remembered. It’s sort of true that Johnny Depp carries the movie, but only because he’s so in character and the character is so intriguing that you can’t help but watch. It was a dark time in the history of the FBI and seeing them deal with that is just as interesting as everything else. This isn’t just a good movie, it’s a great movie. If some of the pacing issues were fixed, who knows how great it would be in the course of film history.

The Imitation Game – Review

9 Jan

While World War II raged on different battlefields around the world, a much quieter battle was going on behind the scenes. These battles, although quieter and nonviolent, were just as important as the battles going on on the front lines. This is where the story of The Imitation Game comes in, with the brilliant mind of Alan Turing working day and night to create a machine that could break the the Nazi enigma code. Churchill, himself, said Turing contributed the most to the war cause with his invention, which is a pretty huge deal I’d say. Still, The Imitation Game is also about Turing’s own personal war of acceptance which ultimately ended in tragedy.

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In 1939, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a genius mathematician and professor, finds his way to Bletchley Park to work with a group of England’s most brilliant minds in cracking the enigma code and save the lives of countless Allied troops. It soon becomes very clear that Turing doesn’t play well with others, and that in large part has to do with how he was bullied and tormented during the early years of his life. It also may have to do with the secrets about himself and his sexuality that he constantly hides in order to be able to keep up his work. He soon finds a friend in Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a newly hired codebreaker who has troubles of her own being a woman working in a man’s environment. As the war rages on, Turing and his codebreakers struggle to find the answer, but this is hardly the end of Turing’s troubles.

This is a brilliant movie for a lot of reasons. For one thing, this film works on the level of a really good spy movie with people from MI-6 floating around, Soviet spies, and plenty of other government secrets thrown into the mix. That in and of itself is enough to make a really entertaining and engaging movie, especially since the story and characters are all based on truth. This movie also works really well on the level of a much more personal story of Alan Turing and the discrimination he faced for being a homosexual, even though he was one of the most brilliant minds of the time and was responsible for shortening the war and saving countless lives.

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Matthew Goode, who played codebreaker Hugh Alexander in the film said that the film is about “Turing’s life and how as a nation we celebrated him as being a hero by chemically castrating him because he was gay.” I feel like even with all of the espionage and war, this movie is mainly about being different from what’s expected of you. Not only was Turing a homosexual, he was also socially inept and brilliant beyond comparison. His being different was one of the main factors that helped the Allies win World War II, but he was still condemned for his own personal ways of living. This is a theme that can be seen in a lot of different movies, with A Beautiful Mind is the same family as The Imitation Game, but I was surprised to see that this was not a pretentious movie at all.

While this movie really is great, there are a few things in it that could have been executed a little better. For one thing, there were lines that seemed to be pulled from the cheesiest, most inspiring Disney movies you could find. This is a historical movie that doesn’t need to have cheesy inspirational dialogue in there. That’s not how people talk and it was weird. I also wish that this movie was longer because I feel that starting in the middle, the movie just starts skimming through things in order to get everything in. If the movie was a half an hour longer, I feel like I’d have a better grip on the relationship of the codebreakers and Turing but also just a better idea of how he built his enigma breaking machine.

The Imitation Game may not be the best movie of the year, but it’s certainly in the top 10 best. Benedict Cumberbatch gives the best performance of his career so far, and Keira Knightley does great work as Turing’s anchor to reality. The film works as a spy film, but I’d rather look at it as a lesson in how to treat people who may not fit in quite as well as everyone else. It’s a lesson for people of all ages and times, but if that doesn’t float your boat, it’s still a really entertaining movie of spies, Nazis, and codes. It’s one of the best of 2014 and shouldn’t be missed.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Review

30 Dec

Well, this is it, ladies and gentlemen. Since 2001, I’ve enjoyed taking my theatrical trips to Middle Earth and seeing some of the most amazing fantasy adventures ever brought to life onscreen. That may seem cheesy, but it’s true. Now we have the last film of the entire saga of Middle Earth, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. This is the big one. This is what everything in the last two movies has been leading up to, and this is also the bridge that takes us into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so this movie has some pretty big boots to fill, Hobbit feet sizes to be exact.

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Picking up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, the movie begins with the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacking Lake-town, but upon his defeat the kingdom under the mountain, Erebor, and all of its riches are up for grabs. Thorin (Richard Armitage) claims it, and commands the dwarves and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to obsessively search for the Arkenstone that he and Smaug so coveted. Meanwhile, Bard (Luke Evans) and the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) begins moving on Erebor to get their share of the treasure, while Azog (Manu Bennet) and his army of goblins, orcs, and trolls get ever closer to attacking the mountain, themselves, and ending Thorin’s bloodline once and for all.

What’s great about the title of this movie is that it really is one of the more accurate titles to a movie I’ve ever seen. It’s called The Battle of the Five Armies, and that’s pretty much exactly what the movie is: one enormous battle. You can kind of see similarities with The Return of the King, that movie also pretty much being one huge battle, but that one did it far better. There are a lot of small problems that find their way into The Battle of the Five Armies that don’t quite ruin the experience, but they really stand out when I think about the movie. Still, this is a superb fantasy film that was a satisfying last trip into Middle Earth.

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Here’s the thing. This movie is almost non stop and at times, that began to wear on me. At a point it is just a battle with scene after scene after scene of fighting. Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie is epic and the battle scenes are great, but there seems to be so much going on that the special effects go completely haywire. There’s one character in particular who looks like Jackson grabbed him from The Polar Express, put dwarf armor on him and just threw him into the movie. It was distracting as all hell and pulled me out of the movie on more than one occasion. Another issue is that this movie feels like a log flume with no splash. The entire movie, hell the entire trilogy, is building up to that big splash at the end, and it just isn’t as impactful as it should have been. Now, I’m sick of being negative here. Let’s look at the positives.

As always, everyone in this movie is great. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage (playing an almost Shakespearean character), and Benedict Cumberbatch all knock it out of the park. They’re characters we love, or characters we love to hate so it’s always a blast seeing them all again. I said before that the fighting started to wear on me, sure, but it is an epic battle nonetheless. Seeing dwarves and elves working together against orcs is just breathtaking to see, but add a hobbit with a ring of power and a wizard with amazing abilities, and it all equals exactly what I want to see when the lights in the theater go down and I’m transported to Middle Earth.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies may not be the best in the entire saga, but after some thought, I think it might be my favorite of the Hobbit trilogy, with The Desolation of Smaug giving it a run for its money. Hell, they might even be tied. There are flaws with the special effects, a boring love triangle, and some odd pacing (and I don’t mean Lee Pace and his elk), but that’s not to say that this isn’t a great experience. To see how these movies and the Lord of the Rings movies come together and all of the battles that went on before the real Battle for Middle Earth began is just awesome. These movies, this one included, will never be as recognized or appreciated as Jackson’s previous Middle Earth films, but this is still a really great movie, nonetheless.

12 Years a Slave – Review

12 Jan

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that spectacular time of year called award season is upon us. It’s a time when film lovers get together and argue or agree on the nominations and predicted winners of all the major awards. It’s also a time where I have to catch up on all the great movies of the year that I may have missed. This is where 12 Years a Slave comes in. Being nominated for over 100 different awards, this is a film that is getting some major recognition, and I was really excited to see it. Well, it was a really good movie that showed terrible things in an uncompromising way. While this may be required viewing, I have major problems with the artistic execution, and the flaws in its presentation made 12 Years a Slave more disappointing than I would have wanted it to be.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two children. After two white men drug him and illegally strip him of his freedom, he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) where he works on his plantations as a slave. After a violent altercation with one of Ford’s carpenters, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) for his own protection. Unfortunately, Epps isn’t as understanding as Ford. Epps is an alcoholic and violent towards his slaves, especially to Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave woman who is constantly abused by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). As Northup waits for his opportunity to free himself from Epps, he must watch and be subjected to the horror that was slavery.

It needs to be said that this is a great movie. There really is no doubt about it. The acting is the shining beacon of this entire things. Everyone, and I mean everyone, give amazing performances. Ejiofor carries the weight of his role was superb talent, proving that this part couldn’t have been casted any better. His facial expressions alone speak more words than any line of dialogue written. Fassbender deserves an Academy Award for his work as Epps, the character that strikes as much fear into his victims as Ralph Fiennes did in Schindler’s List. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o has set a career in motion that I’d love to see blossom. These are just a few of this huge cast that struck hard with their performances. Without these believable and talented actors, 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t be as powerful as it is.

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Along with the powerful acting comes powerful imagery. Director Steve McQueen is no stranger when it comes to visual punishment. Hunger was not an easy movie to sit through, and Shame, although visually tamer, was no picnic either. Both are still fascinating films and great to look at, and 12 Years a Slave is no different. There are beautifully executed long takes, amazing nature shots, and other camera work that makes it feel like it is another character in the film. This is a really great addition to the film, but it’s also where 12 Years a Slave begins to fail.

When a movie with a storyline as moving, horrifying, and tragic as this one is, I expect the director to keep a focused eye on the plot. Unfortunately for this film, McQueen gets a little out of hand with showing the beauty of the South. There are way too many shots of trees and lakes and flowers, which only became a distraction as the movie went on. I understand his showing a beautiful South as a backdrop for such horror, but that only goes so far. By the third act, I was getting sick of the unnecessary shots of nature, and long takes for the sake of long takes. Some just never ended. These problems drag the movie down so much and make me really disappointed. These may seem trivial, but if you’ve seen the movie you may know what I mean.

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12 Years a Slave tells a story, not just of one man, but of the struggle of an entire race in a very dark time of American history. I applaud the movie and McQueen for showing such an uncompromising look at this time, and I also applaud the actors for giving such incredible performances, be they human or horrific. I’m still disappointed, and I really don’t want to be. This is in no way a bad movie, it’s a great movie. Unfortunately, the over-stylization of certain scenes make the movie slow down and lose focus of what is actually happening. I still stand by my point that this is required viewing, even with its artistic flaws.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review

30 Dec

Last year, I was thrilled beyond belief to return to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Upon leaving the theater, I was pleased with the film, but was kind of disappointed with some of the pacing issues. It felt way too long and dragged in too many scenes. The Desolation of Smaug, however, is a huge improvement over its predecessor and is packed to the brim with excitement, action, adventure, and a dragon that will go down as one of the best villains in the history of cinema.

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Picking up directly after the events of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin (Richard Armitage), and the brave band of dwarves are being chased by a group of orcs led by Azog (Manu Bennett). Sensing a dark trouble, Gandalf separates from the group and moves to investigate Dol Guldor which may house the evil spirit of the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, the dwarves encounter the Elves of Mirkwood, two of them being Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), both of whom begin hunting the orcs who are hunting the dwarves. Finally reaching the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo and the dwarves meet Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch again!) the dragon who has been sleeping on an immense pile of gold for many years, and the fight is on to kill Smaug and win back the kingdom of Erebor.

So much happens in this movie, it’s almost ridiculous. This film is dense with characters, action set pieces, battle sequences, villains, returning characters, references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, etc., etc. This makes for a lot of awesome moments in The Desolation of Smaug, but it also is the cause of a run time that made me fidget a lot more than it should. I remember when I saw Return of the King when it first came out. I was still in grade school when I saw it, which is hard enough to believe, but I also never got fidgety. That’s because that movie, for as long as it was, was covering the content of an entire book. The Desolation of Smaug is covering about five chapters. I never read Tolkien’s book, but I know that a lot was added in, and despite all of the awesome adventure, there are a lot of really boring scenes that didn’t need to exist, thereby trimming the movie down a great deal.

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And that is where the problems with The Desolation of Smaug end. The rest is an outstanding adventure through Middle Earth that Peter Jackson has brought to life in such vivid detail. Jackson and his entire team have brought a fantasy world to life in a way that no one has ever done before. Mirkwood Forest, Erebor, and Lake-Town all have very distinct personalities and are a marvel to look at with so much happening on screen at one time. Even the all of the Middle Earth creatures look fantastic. The CGI created orcs, wargs, and, of course, Smaug look better than ever. Still though, Smaug steals the show in this department as well. He is huge and moves like you would expect a psychotic dragon to. Cumberbatch studied the movements of different kinds of lizards in order to perform the motion capture as well as he can.

As if just being in Middle Earth again wasn’t enough, seeing Bilbo and the rest of them all again feels like a great, big reunion. We’ve come to care about these characters, especially the ones that we already know from the Lord of the Rings. Jackson couldn’t have found a better young Bilbo Baggins than Martin Freeman, but I think I said that in my review for An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage play their roles great as always, and I was surprised with how much I enjoyed Lee Pace’s performance, even though he wasn’t in the movie all that much. My two favorite characters, however, were Smaug (obviously) and Legolas! Orlando Bloom is back again and even though he’s pretty shoehorned into the movie, he provided some of the coolest parts of the movie that made the whole auditorium give “oohs” and “ahs” of appreciation.

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I feel like The Hobbit movies are never going to live up to the excellence of the Lord of the Rings, but The Desolation of Smaug sure has come close. I stick by my opinion that these films might have worked better if there were only two of them. The fact that this is meant to be a trilogy based off of a book that really isn’t all that long makes for some really bad pacing problems that hurt this movie in ways that I wish didn’t. Still, despite some fidgeting, The Desolation of Smaug is a major improvement over An Unexpected Journey, complete with an ending that robbed me of any breath and makes me demand a quick 2014 so I can return to the theater once again for the final installment of this trilogy.

Star Trek Into Darkness – Review

18 May

The Star Trek universe has been given so many movies and series throughout the years. The original Star Trek and all of the movies that went with it, the Deep Space Nine series, the Next Generation series and movies, and most recently reboots directed by sci-fi prodigy J.J. Abrams. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek was impressive and very entertaining, so I had pretty high hopes for the sequel. This time, the movie has completely exceeded my expectations in a way that I may have never seen before. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time, and I can honesty say that this is one of the greatest films that I have ever seen.

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A year after the events of the previous film, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) of the Starship Enterprise has created quite a reputation for himself that doesn’t sit very well with his superiors. Spock (Zachary Quinto), despite his good relationship with Kirk, is constantly getting him into trouble in his reports and has more recently become more distant with his lack of feeling. All of this stops mattering once John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet agent, bombs a secret facility in London.  Traveling across the galaxy to reach Harrison, Kirk and his crew begin to realize that the stakes are higher than they could have imagined, and they may even find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy that could compromise Starfleet in its entirety.

The first thing that I need to mention is the incredible writing that this film has been given. There are a few monologues that tug at your heartstrings in a way that not many summer blockbusters can do. Most notably, Spock explaining his lack of emotion when it comes to death and Harrison giving a brief summary of his past sufferings. But what is this dialogue without the talent of the actors to back them up? Every single performer brings their A-game, especially Quinto’s dry line delivery which is the cause of most of the jokes in the film and Cumberbatch’s dire demeanor that makes him and easy villain to hate.

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This part may be a tad spoilerish if you haven’t seen the 2009 Star Trek film, but if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Get on the ball. Anyway, in the previous film, a main plot point is a black hole creating an alternate time line which Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) goes through to reach the Romulans he is trying to aid. Therefore, everything that is seen in these movies takes place in an alternate dimension. Pretty cool stuff, and to be expected with Abrams. This leaves a lot of room for experimentation with new ideas and old ones. Star Trek Into Darkness makes good use of older story lines and references, but changing them in a way where it is recognizable, but still different. This should please long time fans of the universe, but also not get in the way of people who aren’t quite as familiar.

Now how can I talk about a Star Trek movie without talking about the action and the technology. This movie is a space adventure in its most respectable form. Warp speed, different planets, space jumps, and Starfleet battles are just what I need in a film with Kirk, Spock, and the crew. The effects are top notch, but what has impressed me even more with these past two Star Trek movies are the sound design. Using space as the vacuum that it is, there are many explosions and noises that you would expect to be deafening (a la Star Wars and many, many other science fiction film), but Abrams instead mutes them and makes it quite the opposite of what you would expect. There is still noise, but not as in your face or loud. This is a brilliant idea that was used more in the previous film, but still has relevance in this one too. There is a moment when two characters are out in space, and for a second all you can hear is their breathing. This reminded me very much of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Star Trek Into Darkness was a fantastic film. I could put it high up as one of my favorite films, and I’m not just saying that because it’s fresh in my mind and I really enjoyed it. Objectively speaking, it is an excellent movie. There’s brilliant dialogue, character development, action, science fiction, and effects/sound design. This has surpassed the original in every sense and completely blew my mind. This is definitely my pick for the best film of the year thus far, but that can still change. I can’t say I really expect it to, though. Do yourself a huge favor and get your ass to the theatre to see Star Trek Into Darkness as soon as you possibly can.