Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

Barring the gravitas lacing Depp’s portrayal of increasingly infamous James “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass can’t quite shake its ostensible Triple A reenactment feel. Charting the blue-eyed psychopath’s swift rise to criminal superstardom in his native Boston, the film examines Bulger’s steadfastly procured infallibility among peers and rivals. With FBI agent and fellow Southie native John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to thank, creative bloodshed frequently punctuates a broadening warpath toward total domination of the criminal underworld.

If geographic authenticity means masking one’s native accent with another, Black Mass immediately tops the charts. With an affected overarching dialect so distracting it nearly becomes a detriment, the coinciding exchanges and native profanity carry less weight than they should despite the serviceable albeit objectively familiar engagement factor present. A gangster does gangster things as factual exposition details when, where and why, thus rendering dialectic hyperbole the least of the film’s worries.

Depp’s laudable turn as Bulger can’t quite stave off Black Mass‘ questionable romanticization of the character, of whom is awkwardly compassionate when he’s not compulsively violent. The film’s slick presentation of the greatest hits peppering his legacy is undeniably impressive though, even if the criminality timeline conceit is something we’ve seen employed throughout dozens of other true crime efforts. An embellished verbal exchange here, a key sequence there – Black Mass adheres to exaggerated biographical trappings in a manner unable to reinvigorate the formula it replicates.

Black Mass is at its best a meaty slice of awards-pandering banality. Its examination of the relationship between Bulger and Connolly that shaped the former’s legacy is agreeably involving, yet the film unavoidably falls victim to an air of total needlessness. During a time when Bulger himself is still relevant – and especially after 2006’s The Departed – anticipation was almost solely contingent upon Depp’s presumed resurgence. Black Mass’ parts are glaringly greater than their sum, of which is ostensibly an actor’s showcase in a grimy, era-specific wrapper.

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12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

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Widely branded as but not necessarily “essential” cinema, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s technically adept but middling stab at illustrating the horrors of American slavery in the 19th century. Doing so via the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same title, the film chronicles Northup’s wrongful kidnapping and ensuing time as a slave juggled between several plantations, shakily steeling his resolve if only for the sake of the family he one day hopes to reunite with.

By now, we’ve assuredly familiarized ourselves with the oppressive treatment of slaves throughout the American South, at least in some capacity. It’s an important subject to address and, as such, has been acknowledged via many a history book, personal account and pop cultural medium. Fitting snugly into the latter two out of three, 12 Years a Slave frequently overcomes a hackneyed historical retread through uncomfortable territory via identifiable singularity, if nothing else.

Pairing a unique individual’s engrossing tribulations with McQueen’s flair is functional more often than not, the storytelling aspect of the film ringing the most substantial amid overwrought instances of brutality. While undeniably well-intentioned in an intentionally unflinching way, McQueen’s trademark adherence to human suffering runs its course as true-to-life begins to border on exploitative and gratuitous. Barring our expected discomfort, a relentless, almost unbearable air of hopelessness is only rendered naught by the autobiographical nature of the source material, more specifically the fact that Northup lived to tell the tale – one that warrants a happy if agreeably cloying conclusion.

Although identifiably important in a broader subjective sense, 12 Years a Slave is a basal, characteristically uncomfortable account of human inequality at its most deplorable. Benchmarked by McQueen’s prior success in accentuating the bleakest aspects of the human condition, Solomon Northup’s suffering is assured in its presentation but smothers us with a blanket of all-consuming, moreover overbearing grimness. Appropriately taxing as it all may be, 12 Years a Slave merely tells an inherently interesting tale of an individual’s admirable perseverance in the face of violent adversity, McQueen’s flourishes alternately benefiting the feature and serving as a detriment.

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

As sometimes opposing sects of sci-fi fandom, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes have birthed a considerable number of die hard and subsequently hard-to-please fans when it comes to handling their respective, longstanding mythologies. While the latter’s prequel trilogy still remains of notoriously questionable quality, J.J. Abrams’ initial Star Trek reboot wowed fans and non-fans alike, tapping into the more accessible side of Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild while offering up enough of a modernistic visceral spectacle for all to enjoy. Needless to say, Mr. Abrams has hopped on the predictably lucrative sequel bandwagon, sating our appetites following a four-year wait with Star Trek Into Darkness – a technically competent moreover highly enjoyable endeavor that capitalizes on the first film’s strengths and then some.

Having already firmly established his and his crew’s sterling if amiably reckless reputation, Captain Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) find themselves demoted, mildly disgraced and redistributed among Starfleet’s best following a disastrous near-death experience prior to a mission’s shoddy completion. Morale remains low and sinks even lower when acts of blatant premeditated terrorism are committed by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a supposed rogue agent of sorts whose motives are as muddled as his true identity. Promptly reinstated as captain of the USS Enterprise on behalf of unforeseen tragedy, it’s up to Kirk and his crew to wrangle the coldblooded son-of-a-bitch before more harm is done.

Picking back up where the first film (more or less) left off, Into Darkness is immediately and thoroughly engrossing based on its predecessor’s not-so-surprising success story, even if the original television series’ mythos is tapped into a bit more frequently, but not in a wholly alienating sense. As to be expected, there are subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the franchise’s origins, the most noticeable being a quite startling reveal involving Cumberbatch’s ambiguously intentioned if enthralling central villain, of which may or may (probably) not be a surprise for hardcore Trekkies. Even still, the action remains full throttle and more than serviceable in between bouts of spoken – moreover shouted – deliberation between opposing and non-opposing factions on the Enterprise’s quest to bring their man to justice.

As to be expected, the film’s somewhat sprawling narrative sports its fair share of twists and turns, illustrating textbook double crossing and traitorship amid bits of pre-established galaxy-building involving the existence of the Klingons as the civilized beings’ ultimate adversary. Furthermore, it’s these nail-biting instances and Abrams’ apt handling of them that benchmark the proceedings considerably, thanks to both the film’s inherently captivating sci-fi trappings and stellar performances from an all-around dedicated and exceedingly talented cast. After all, who can deny the appeal of a fully suspense-driven sequel that so adequately ups the stakes for literally all involved?

Star Trek Into Darkness, in summary, is a genuinely fine sequel to an equally fine reboot of a beloved franchise. Suspense galore and appropriate series-centric lore do wonders in complementing Abrams’ gorgeous contemporary re-envisioning, thoroughly proving that the first film was far from a fluke. Throw in a generous smattering of emotional gratification, frequently evocative sci-fi imagery and a competently tasteful knack for storytelling of this caliber and you have yourselves one hell of a follow-up effort, plain and simple.