7 Hells of Okemos, MI

*Initially published on The Black Sheep (http://theblacksheeponline.com/michigan-state/7-hells-okemos-michigan)

Okemos compellingly embodies emotional turmoil, with its conflicting small-town layout and rapidly rising property value. Try not to be thrown by the delightful folksy exterior of its many suburban subdivisions: Okemos is a frothing, sloppy wrestling ring of steep upper-class values and Get Out (2017)-style social fronting. Spread across this curious Michigan landscape are seven nuggets of hell, each bearing its dollar-infused essence.

7.) Jolly Road:

Jolly Road is the most apt describer of Okemos, displaying its tiny chain stores, fully functional farms, single story houses, and mansion suburbs. It’s likely the only place you’ll see a southern-plantation style mega home with its own horse stable placed next door to a converted trailer, a visual poem that both encapsulates the sweeping majesty of Americana and makes you question how the fuck resources could be distributed with such inequity.

6.) Ember Oaks:

One of Okemos’ most recent mansion suburbs, this money cluster was erected and populated faster than two married lawyer/doctors could hire a housekeeper. When jogging through watch out for paranoid stares, as you duck and weave through an unending maze of Cadillacs and Mercedes’, and fire-causing lightning strikes, as apparently God himself can’t stand such wealth concentration.

5.) Dobie Road:

Life in the Midwest proves that terribly maintained roads are the foundation of any small town, and Dobie Road is no exception. Rife with gasp-inducing potholes, the street exists in a nebulous purgatory of government funding, ensuring any complaints to financial offices will prove Beckett-style futile.

4.) Meridian Mall:

Ah, the great nexus of Okemos’ bizarre socioeconomic mix. Feast your eyes on a rotating turnstile of single mothers with seven children in tow, goth high schoolers riddled with piercings, and middle school children sporting fresh polos, blinding white sneakers, and immaculately clean sunglasses. Aural sensitivity is key when navigating Meridian Mall, as the decibel level of any given group’s laughter is directly proportional to its wealth.

3.) The Intersection of Jolly Road and Okemos Road:

Every year Okemos folk wait with baited breath for fresh collisions occurring on the civil engineering nightmare that is Jolly and Okemos. Placed mere hundreds of feet away from an I-96 exit and replete restaurants, gas stations, and a Holiday Inn, your chances of making that left turn without a dent are slim to none.

2.) Meijer:

Frequented by Michigan State students, yuppie families, and all shades around and in between, the Okemos Meijer is a chaotic social equalizer, bustling with bodies on the weekends and proving that regardless of upbringing, it’s still challenging to maneuver a cart upstream a river of tired faces.

1.) Okemos High School:

OHS is the crown jewel of Okemos: public enough to service all stars and stripes with a quality education, yet rich enough to house highly competitive AP classes and preposterous arts programs. Throw into the mix your fair share of sex scandals, children in the running for Mr. Peanut-level snobbery, and perfunctory  yet deceptive liberalism, and you’ve got yourself the zesty bummer-of-a-melting-pot that is Okemos High School.

If you’re on the lookout for a rich town problematically named for American Indian tribes, look no further than Okemos, Michigan. Stop by and enjoy some greasy Applebee’s favorites, a recently built Whole Foods, and a giant marching band exercising its corn-fed free speech in sporting racist caricatures.

Local Barista Wishes You’d Hit on Him but Won’t Let It Affect the Latte

Campus Barista John Gondelman desperately hopes you’ll ask for his number while he makes your coffee. Though his burning desire for you to make a move consumes every fiber of his being, he cares about the quality of his product and won’t let it alter his milk steaming routine.

“I wish there was some way to communicate my willingness to be hit on without actually saying or doing anything,” the sad little boy lamented while waiting for a Frappuccino to finish blending. “Instead I end up meekly holding eye-contact for too long and getting flush in the face.”

Much preferring for you to read his mind and act like you’re in a romantic comedy, John hopes not to repeat the mistakes of the past. “Once I was so overly concerned with thinking of something sexy and witty to say, that I put 2% instead of almond milk in this girl’s latte. By the time I had the perfect line she was on the floor in anaphylactic shock, and then I knew something had to change.”

He resolved to assume a monk-like passiveness when clocked in to avoid similar scenarios in the future. Limiting himself to being openly desperate outside of the workplace has improved John’s latte-foam exponentially, but leaves a hanging question mark over his off-the-clock love life. “All the media I consume forcefully tells me that flirting with the ‘cute barista’ is the start of most marriages, so if you don’t make a move I’m screwed.”

Despite the ever-increasing likelihood that he’ll die alone, John does his best to see the glass half full. “Best case scenario, I find my soulmate. Worst case scenario, you get an amazing cappuccino. It’s a win-win if you think about it hard enough.”


You Damn, Depressed Ape!


War for the Planet of the Apes showcases the power of narrative cinema. It’s made with such delicate humanity that it rises to the level of film art, despite its ridiculous premise and comical franchise-status. I was shocked, depressed, thrilled, and moved to tears by a film that follows a band of intelligent apes at war with humans, the third in a prequel series to Planet of the Apes (1968).

At the center of this wonderfully emotional tale is Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, leader of the apes, flanked by Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Cornelia (Judy Greer). The apes wage war against the merciless Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and along the way befriend Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and Nova (Amiah Miller).

War succeeds comparably to its science fiction contemporaries Arrival (2015) and Interstellar (2014) by focusing with clarity on its central emotional relationships, and letting its spectacle lie adjacent. Supporting this strategy are a multitude of incredible performances, on the part of both actors and animators. War’s central apes are performed so well that I befell a convenient amnesia, and was entranced by their emotional threads rather than their preposterous photorealism. This is David Fincher-esque filmmaking, where the storytelling is so excellent all digital trickery is rendered imperceptible.

Matt Reaves, War’s director, not only succeeds in capturing powerful performances, but also elicits stunning score-work from Michael Giacchino that retains the grandeur and texture of War’s source film, but loses the pompous cheese that befalls movie music of the era. Though blaring, flamboyant brass at times clashes with War’s stone-cold sobriety, the juxtaposition draws a layer of classical color across an otherwise bleak film.

Reaves further ensnares War in classic-film tones by allowing cinematographer Michael Seresin’s visuals to take on the aggressive beauty of Stanley Kubrick. While the occasional direct reference to Paths of Glory (1957) shoots across screen, Seresin channels War’s obvious parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)’s first act and embodies a Kubrickian symmetrical composition. Seresin punctuates his artful style with dynamic tracking shots that hearken back to Akira Kurosawa’s canonical visual brilliance in Rashomon (1950).

The totality of War is an anomaly in contemporary genre cinema. It insists on the importance of character and story while juggling the craft of cutting edge technology and the pressures of studio franchise filmmaking. It’s a thrilling, heartbreaking, and inspiring ride that brilliantly locates its essence in the emotions of its protagonists while delivering on explosive visuals and compelling plot points. It’s an excellent film.


Homeward Bound


I have an emotional connection with Spider-Man. I was six years old when Sam Raimi’s inaugural adaptation materialized in 2002, and despite my age-related inability to endure Tobey Maguire’s reduction of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin into a slow-motion bloody pulp, I became enamored over the aesthetic of a high-school boy in red and blue tights scaling buildings and shooting webs, as revealed by the film’s trailer alone. I wanted badly to see it, and my parents met me halfway with the purchase of Marvel’s graphic novelization of the film, which I read cover-to-cover until I had the movie beat-by-beat memorized. I poured over Peter Parker’s animated features, I scoured the Okemos Library for anthologies of original Spider-Man comics, I nagged my mother to buy Marvel “How to Draw” books, I stared at a massive Spider-Man poster taped to my bedroom wall every night, and when I was deemed mature enough to consume Raimi’s film I watched and re-watched it religiously on videotape.

Viewing Spider-Man: Homecoming on a Sunday afternoon in a terrible seat amid a crowded Chicago AMC reconnected me with my dormant excitement for the wall-crawling hero. I felt my gut wrench with joy and giddy love for Tom Holland’s Parker, as he performed ludicrous stunts with doe-eyed innocence, while wading through high-school drama in a pitch-perfect manner that hints at The 400 Blows (1959) and deeply resonates with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

Homecoming functions beautifully as a vehicle for childhood excitement largely due to its refreshingly uncynical take on high school life. Peter Parker is an excitedly nerdy freshman with a similarly upbeat best friend (Ned, played by Jacob Batalon), who endures bullying but isn’t heartbroken over it, has a crush on the captain of the academic decathlon team Liz (Laura Harrier), and is tired of condescension from adult forces outside of his control. Peter’s youthful obstacles are treated with a genuine sunshine that works to complicate the audience’s relationship with the villainous Vulture (Michael Keaton), who’s similarly motivated by fatigue over uncontrollable externalities, and lends the film a periodic resemblance to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. By simultaneously retaining a childlike sense of amazement and wonder for its fantasy action, Homecoming makes the straightforwardly positive tonal moves most contemporary superhero films either ignore or consciously push against.

This most recent Spider-Man film further perfects its treatment of youth by taking cues from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and lightly framing Peter’s supernatural life as a metaphor for common high-school struggles, including the anxiety of young love, the desire to appear cool, and the frustration at not being taken seriously by adults. Homecoming then improves on Buffy’s model by counterbalancing its relatable drama with properly taught and grandiose action sequences, rife with terrifying villains, awe-inspiring set pieces, and a rumbling sound design that should incentivize theatre attendance.

Garnished with comedic touches by the brilliant Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and Donald Glover, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the kind of film that would have had six-year-old Simon leaping with excitement. It’s a funny, thrilling, and scary ride that taps into America’s splendiferous cinematic history of colorful high-school depictions, and generates the full-bodied joy I experienced while staring at the huge Spider-Man poster plastered on my bedroom wall.

And I Was Like ‘Baby,’ ‘Baby,’ ‘Baby,’ Oh!

I wept when I saw Baby Driver. Walking out of the theatre shaking and dumbstruck, I was approached by a stranger from the same screening who needed confirmation that she wasn’t alone in feeling blindsided. I was emotionally depleted not wholly by Driver’s story, a familiar narrative about a getaway driver with a troubled past who falls in love and tries to escape his life of crime. I received a bliss injection from its style, it’s glorious ambition to precisely synchronize its action sequences to an immaculately composed musical playlist, an on-its-surface simple idea executed with such excellence that the resulting work activated something basic in my brain and flooded me with fervent joy. In combination with flawless performances and a brilliant screenplay, the totality of Baby Driver demonstrates the power of perfect filmmaking.

The film is unmistakably authored by Edgar Wright, Driver’s writer/director, a favorite of mine whose previous works have left an indelible mark on contemporary film culture. Wright’s latest piece, which stars Ansel Elgort as the eponymous driver, Lily James as his love interest, and a criminal gang composed of Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza González, shows a loving refinement of his unique directorial style, famous for its precise and methodical milking of sound and image for maximum expression and humor.

In Driver’s case, this means the development of action sequences that unfold with close precision to the songs Baby (Elgort) curates for the occasion. He perpetually sports earbuds and in some magical sense lives his life to the rhythm of his personal soundtrack, a joyful perspective into which Driver’s audience gains access, as tires squeal, guns fire, and bodies move with cascading choreography akin to musical classics such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The film’s unusual combination of taught action and song-synchronization is pulled off with such rigorous perfection that I found myself buzzing from a spewing neural firehose of endorphins.

Hamm unexpectedly delivers a career-best performance as Buddy, a seasoned criminal with greasy hair, killer scruff, and an angular face bent on dispensing white-hot rage. Foxx delivers a similarly simmering performance, and Spacey rattles off lyric monologues like the Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) pro that he is. Elgort tops the pyramid with a cool performance both flamboyant and stoic, and James makes a compelling argument for love at first sight.

Wright dispenses not totally with his comedic stylings, as Driver features a wide roster of quick dialogue jokes and visual gags that reward the attentive viewer. Wright-heads will recognize his signature editing flairs and comedic rhythm, and I recommend multiple viewings to spot the film’s litany of Coen-esque details that prove Wright’s literary skill in refining an airtight screenplay.

Baby Driver is an ecstatic experience, a vehicle for pure joy and awe that illuminates the immense emotive power of well-crafted film form. Wright’s impossible improvement on what was from its beginning an ingeniously effective style bodes shockingly well for the future of his directorial career, and I’d be personally appreciative if you used your money to ensure its continuity.

Michael Bay Does It Again


Transformers: The Last Knight represents a landmark in the refinement of Michael Bay’s powerful style. It’s long, loud, oppressive, and dumb in a manner more effective than his previous films, and in this sense perhaps deserves a perfect rating. However, I find Bay’s work so forcefully stupid that the thought of lending it even tacit approval is repulsive.

Knight stars Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, an inventor trying to stay alive in the dystopian post-Age of Extinction (2014) future. After receiving a mysterious talisman from a dying Transformer, he gets roped into a complicated plot to destroy the planet through the efforts of Quintessa (Gemma Chan), which involve mysterious giant horns sprouting up across the world, a traitorous turn from Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), a family line starting at the Knights of the Round Table and ending in Laura Haddock (Viviane Wembly), a quirky British historian (Anthony Hopkins), and Megatron (Frank Welker).

Though with Bay this criticism feels like beating a dead horse, it’s always worth mentioning his racism. The number of black-coded robots in the film could qualify Knight as a minstrel show, running the gamut from mentally deficient “jive” talking robots to “thug” bots who wear gold chains, and in one instance literally sing “Free at Last” while dancing (not to mention the return of our beloved yellow-faced samurai robot Drift, voiced by Ken Watanabe). There’s an ineffable quality in Bay’s cinematic assault on the senses that smooths over the rough edges on his bigotry, and works to make such stereotypes feel okay. They are not okay. Bay is trading on cultural racism to quickly and lazily imbue his Transformers with identifiable qualities (whether that be comic stupidity, evil, or physical prowess), and as a result continues to reinforce the ‘naturalness’ of such racial assumptions.

Knight also continues Bay’s trend of treating cinema in the most blatantly capitalistic way possible, in manners ranging from comically clear product placement to the obviously rushed nature of Knight’s production. The most head-scratching evidence of this comes in the form of Knight’s aspect ratio, which switches from full-screen to IMAX wide-screen at frequent and seemingly random intervals. Another lazy element is the bare nature of Knight’s script rewrites. Few narrative arcs are followed coherently across the film’s considerable runtime, resulting in much of the film’s initial story setups being discarded in its latter half. Optimus spends roughly ten minutes under the influence of evil, Izabella (Isabela Moner) is introduced as Cade’s surrogate daughter yet is wholly abandoned an hour into the film, and an elaborate introduction of new Decepticons proves worthless when the new robots aren’t at all necessary to Knight’s story.

I could go on with Bay’s tone-deaf sense of humor, inability to convey action in a coherent manner, and ignorance of filmmaking basics, but such would be most criticisms of all his films. I believe this speaks to the power of Michael Bay, where a discussion of any of his works devolves into a discussion of the director himself, a contemplation on his oeuvre and his status as an American auteur. Surely the mark of a great directorial voice is the transformation of their name into a genre, as Michael Bay has done with the construction of the “Michael Bay film.” Few living American directors share this distinction, and as such dismissing Bay as simply stupid is a naïve approach to his work. His cultural handprint extends far across the contemporary media landscape, and if we are to countermeasure this viral infection, we must apply sober thought to work that is markedly thoughtless.

‘Cars’ Can Talk, Again


I lost something watching Cars 3. Maybe it was the youthful sense of play that buoyed me through mediocre film experiences like The Core (2003) or Paycheck (2003). Maybe it was the inability of mine to accept reality, which had been shielding me for the years that Pixar had become no longer this magical movie machine, churning out annual transcendence reliably. Maybe it was the security of my taste, as each passing second of the third talking cars movie interrogated whether Pixar films were really that good to begin with, and I was inundated with flashes of Inside Out (2015) and Wall-E (2008) and Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004), these animated feature films made truly for everyone, gorgeous cinematic masterpieces that punched your heart and made you laugh from the gut. I’d hopped off the Pixar train for the last couple years, and it was a shock to jump back in and see the bare mediocrity of the thing, to see how far this company had fallen.

That’s not to say Cars 3, an oddly nostalgic and wandering tale about Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) journey to overcome age amid a new technological era alongside Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and Smokey (Chris Cooper) is a bad film. It’s not. It’s just mediocre, bland, and full of arbitrary spectacle. While in moments it reaches for the emotion of a classical Pixar picture, it lacks the properly developed characters necessary to back it up, making these moments feel forced and unearned.

Thematically the film is confused. Whereas Inside Out keeps to its central metaphor of personified human emotions, exploring it to its fullest and arriving at a thesis on the human condition, Cars 3 brushes against notions of aging, a transforming economy, grief for the dead, the inhumanity of capitalism, and the power of individual spirit over collective rationality, without ever digging in and exploring one thing fully. The result is a bland narrative with vague characters and a couple chuckles.

I’m not equipped to answer whether this film would be affective for children. I mention this because Cars 3 doesn’t want to be anything but a kid’s film. It’s (for the most part) visually appealing and simple, but not overly invested in the interiority of its characters. While in incongruous bursts it lets emotion take hold of its narrative, the “pull” of the film is simply the sight of familiar characters going on another adventure, and I do not know if that’s what kids want. In this sense Cars 3 condescends to children, feeding them spectacle and simple humor when films like Where the Wild Things Are (2009) treat youthful psychology with the seriousness and respect it deserves.

Cars 3 will not change you, because it does not want to change you. It is what it is, an animated film about talking cars who compete in races. And while I can’t fault it for not being more than the sum of its parts, I can grieve the lost opportunity of transcendence, an expectation set by Pixar in a previous life, an expectation likely now old fashioned.