"The Dark Tower" Review

The Dark Tower is considered by many to be Stephen King’s magnum opus. Spanned across eight novels and across other media, it’s the series that sometimes connects to other stories from King. The film adaptation has been in development for quite some time, and after some false starts, the film finally came to life under the direction of Nikolaj Arcel. I feared, given the lack of promotion, that this would be this summer’s Fantastic Four. Well, the film isn’t the disaster that some thought it would be. Instead, it’s just an average film that has some good elements in it.

Described by the filmmakers as a sequel to the novels, and combining elements from the series as well, the film is about Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who has been having nightmares about a Dark Tower and Walter Padick/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who seeks to destroy the tower to let evil forces take over. In his search to find the mystery behind his visions, he suddenly gets transported to Mid-World, where he comes across another person from his dreams, Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Idris Elba). Together, Jake and Roland must find a way to stop the Man in Black from accomplishing his goals.

One of the things that I thought worked with the film was McConaughey’s performance as The Man in Black. He seems to be having a lot of fun chewing the scenery in every scene he’s in. McConaughey gets what film he’s in, and the way that he interacts with people and manipulates them to do his bidding is great. Elba does a good job as well playing The Gunslinger. For their characters, this was perfect casting. Whenever they interact with one another, for the most part, the film comes to life. For non-readers of the story, the screenwriters (including Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinker) do somewhat a good job in describing what the Dark Tower represents. The film is also humorous in places, especially when Roland comes to Earth. Lastly, since this is supposed to connect to other works from King, be on the lookout for references from The Shining, It, and The Shawshank Redemption to name a few.

For the first third of the film, it wasn’t bad and I enjoyed the pacing of it. Once it gets to Mid-World is when the film sadly collapses to mediocrity. Since this is a 95-minute film, it felt like it was gutted from a much longer film. It felt rushed in places, and some of the editing didn’t feel right. For example, the final battle goes so quickly that it doesn’t make that much sense. On top of this, there’s basically no character development at all in the film, and some of the characters were severely underwritten, like Katheryn Winnick’s Laurie and Jackie Earle Haley’s Sayre. Also, Taylor was somewhat bland as Jake, being very one-noted throughout the runtime. For being based on a fantasy series, most of the film takes place in NYC, as if to save cost. The monsters look isn’t imaginative and there’s some questionable CGI throughout the film. The visual look of the film wasn’t great, especially when Roland and Jake are roaming around Mid-World. The music from Tom Holkenborg isn’t memorable either. The action scenes weren’t staged particularly well, and they make the mistake of overcutting so you have no idea what’s going on.

Overall, The Dark Tower is an average film and nothing more. What could have been a fun summer film instead felt like it was compromised in places, and the filmmakers decided to play it safe instead of going for it. For fans of the series, I have a feeling that after seeing this, they might be disappointed with this adaptation. For the lofty plans that they had, which included films and a TV series, this might just be a one and done film. Like I said before, it’s not a disaster by any means, but it’s not a great film. If you’re a Stephen King fan, maybe save your money until next month when It comes out. If you do go see The Dark Tower, I would suggest go to a matinee screening or just wait until TV.

Rating: C

Is ‘Dunkirk’ Nolan’s Magnum Opus?: Review

The filmmaking virtuoso who brought us Memento and The Dark Knight is back to dazzle us once more with Dunkirk, the gripping WWII story of heroic sacrifice. 

Christopher Nolan has never been one to shy away from cinematic challenges, and Dunkirk is no outlier to this methodology. The film was beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema in 70mm (watch it in IMAX 70mm if possible), and not a single frame in the 120 minute thriller is wasted. Nolan’s use of this format is masterful and commemorates the artistry of filmmaking, unlike Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The conventionality of Nolan’s color scheme in this film is not only aesthetically enjoyable, it makes sense. The deep blues and vibrant oranges pop off the screen while the grey of war leaves us with holes in our hearts. Nothing with Nolan is fake. Therefore, appreciate the long sequences in the air tailing fighter planes, the terrifying underwater scenes and the explosions, because it is all real. More accurately, it is jaw-dropping and equally horrific. Only Nolan could make the massive Dunkirk beach feel claustrophobic. 

The film is set in 1940 during WWII, and Hitler has pushed 400,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers to sea, trapping them on the beaches of a small French town called Dunkirk. The soldiers all await evacuation while the imminent threat of death looms over their shoulders. To put it simply, the Allied troops are dead-men walking, stuck on a beach that allows for a pain-staking spectacle to watch. The English Channel is too shallow for large rescue ships to pass through, meaning the lives of 400,000 men rest in the hands of brave civilians daring enough to pass underneath the German air fleets. Nolan states in the opening titles of the film that a miracle is the only thing that would save these men. Well a miracle is what they got. 

The successful evacuation of these troops was only made possible by a handful of prominent heroes the story follows. First, civilian boat captain Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), fighter pilot Farrier (the always masked Tom Hardy) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) to name a few. Although Nolan cuts right to the action leaving out any backstory, it is easy to empathize with the incredible heroes that fought for each other and for their country. On the other hand, Nolan strips the Nazis of any human quality. They stand merely as grey wisps in the sky, bomber planes but never faces. The soldiers on the beach and the audience can hear them coming but we never are truly connected to the enemy. 

The sounds of the planes and the explosions, the panting and running, gasping and breathing, the underlying ticking of a clock to emphasize the importance of haste, all of these sounds contribute to a riveting, viewing atmosphere. Hans Zimmer’s all so familiar score pulsates through this film with an electrifying cadence that may only be out-shined by Hoytema’s cinematography. The cacophony of war is so breathtaking that not a moment of relief goes by until the final cut to black. Dunkirk leaves us hanging to the edge of our seats, looking to the horizon for the British ships, and it isn’t until the sun finally rises in the end that we can exhale. 

Undoubtedly, this Christopher Nolan film is Oscar-worthy and one of his highest rated films to date, which begs the question: is Dunkirk Nolan’s magnum opus? Historical war films often receive waves of historical accuracy criticism, however, Nolan tackles this story with such honest grace that all the critics will be talking about this summer is the raw emotion of the narrative. In a present-day that offers a world of doubt and uncertainty, Nolan gifts to his audience solace. Solace in a film that shows the suppressed fighting together and forging bonds out of suffering. It is the best film so far this year, and I would be remiss if I did not answer my own titular question. Yes, this is Nolan’s magnum opus.

Rating: A

Comment

Ryan Boera

I am a 2017 graduate of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. I received my degree in Film Production, I am a strong believer in cinema and I'm a storyteller at heart with an insatiable curiosity. I have editing/design experience with the Adobe Creative Suite; acting experience in theater productions and low-budget shorts; writing experience through two feature film scripts, two television spec scripts and a compelling (read: not-so compelling) blog. Lastly, I've gained cinematography experience while working with the Canon 5D, C100, DJI Phantom 4 Pro Quadcopter, Osmo Handheld, Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K, and ARRI Arriflex 16mm cameras. Suffice to say, I love film. I am also a fan of hikes, travel, craft beer, singing in the shower, the Yankees, Survivor, and of course, chocolate chip cookies. 

"Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets" Review

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been a lifelong passion project for filmmaker Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Based on a French comic book series entitled Valerian and Laureline, Besson has been trying to get a film version off the ground during his entire filmmaking career. After scoring his biggest hit yet in 2014 with Lucy, Besson finally decided to pull the trigger and make the film. While there were parts of the film that I enjoyed, there were other parts that stopped the film dead in its tracks. 

During the opening credits of Valerian, we are treated to a montage about how the space station Alpha became the city of a thousand planets. Hundreds of years later, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are assigned by the government to investigate a dark force that’s taking place within the center of Alpha. Not only could it affect Alpha, but it could have ramifications across the entire universe.

One of the things that I liked about Valerian is the visual look that Besson and his longtime DP, Thierry Arbogast, gave the film. At times, the film looked like it was leaping off the pages of the comic book. It’s probably one of the most colorful films you will come across this summer. Both the production and creature designs in this were great as well. They did a really good job in making sure one stood out from the other. The production design, especially with Alpha, was astounding. I will say that for both DeHaan and Delevingne, this was better then their last films they were both in (A Cure for Wellness (the 2nd worst film I’ve seen this year) and Suicide Squad). The action scenes were cool, well designed, and imaginative, especially during a sequence at the Big Market that takes place on different dimensions. Including the mostly single take shot from the trailers of Valerian running through different sections of Alpha. When the film was good, it was fun.

One of the biggest problems that I had with this film is the runtime. The story that Besson presented to us in no way warranted the 137-minute runtime that this had. Even though this was his passion project, Besson needed to trim the fat. There are characters and scenes in this film that could be easily eliminated and the film still would have played the same way. With this runtime, the film takes awhile for the plot to kick in (the same issue Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 had earlier this summer). As soon as the film started to get good, it would stop dead in its tracks and nothing would happen. So it keeps you waiting and waiting for developments. 

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The plot itself was a little confusing to follow, and it’s not particularly exciting. Also, while I said that this was better then their last films respectively, DeHaan and Delevingne had zero chemistry with one another. Maybe there were better actors for these roles. The music from Alexander Desplat was a little disappointing as well in that it’s not particularly memorable. When I first saw the ads, I thought it would be a great film to see in 3D. Sadly, the 3D doesn’t add much to the film, and only a couple of spots here and there. Lastly, the subtitles for a film like this weren’t particularly imaginative, and oddly, they were framed on the extreme edges of the screen.

Overall, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t a bad film per say, but it wasn’t a great film. I wished it fully embraced the weirdness that the ads were showing us. For some of the runtime, it delivered what I was hoping for. If they would have cut down the runtime, I think I would have a much more positive outlook on the film. It’s a film that sometimes goes around in circles not knowing what it wants to be. I don’t see this doing well here in the United States, but it’ll be interesting to see how it does overseas. If you want a great sci-fi film from Besson, stick with The Fifth Element. You don’t need to pay the price for a 3D ticket. If you must, go see this during a matinee screening. If not, catch it on TV sometime.

Rating: B-

"War For The Planet Of The Apes" Review

For a summer filled with fast paced, loud, thinly developed character blockbusters...War For The Planet of The Apes is the exact opposite! It’s an emotional roller coaster of a character drama, sprinkled with just the right amount of action, led by a stellar cast and driven by a director who knows what he’s doing. Let’s not forget that this is the third installment in a trilogy that continues to build on itself with films that are just as good as its predecessor!

After an epic battle that tore the apes apart in more ways than one in Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is wrestling with his emotions. With the apes hiding in the forest, a group of soldiers have their scopes set on the simians that they view as a threat to their existence. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is the merciless leader of the soldiers and he’s bent on taking Caesar out. After tragedy strikes, Caesar is just as focused on the Colonel.

The new school Planet of The Apes films have always been a character study of who we are deep down as human beings. Our morality is what makes us, and it’s explored beautifully through the apes. Where the prior films had a little bit more balance between humans and apes on screen, this installment is certainly ape heavy. But that’s fine, because stripped of heavy dialogue, this movie focuses on themes like love, family, sacrifice, justice and mercy. These subjects are matters that we wrestle with at the core of our being. It’s displayed magnificently here and you can certainly identify with the character struggles in the film. 

Andy Serkis is one of the great motion capture actors of our time. He crushes this role once again as Caesar! Caesar is a deep thinker who always has to think ten steps ahead to protect his kind, while leading them at the same time. Serkis is able to physically show that throughout the entire film in a way that grabs a hold of you and won’t let go. There are also great motion capture performances from Karin Konoval as Maurice, Terry Notary as Rocket, and Michael Adamthwaite as Luca. You have to tip your hat to the entire team for what they’re able to bring to life through technology in creating believable, relatable ape characters.

The sound and score of the film is an ever present character as well. Whether it’s the grunt and breathing of the apes, or the timpani pounding on your heartstring; the music and sound in War can not be denied. It’s moving.

Co-Writer/Director Matt Reeves is in command of his camera much like Caesar is the apes. He frames the film in such a way that captures the performances and accentuates what’s happening in the story in an effort to push it forward. Mark Bomback gets a nod as well in co-writing the film with Reeves to create a strong screenplay. I just have to re-emphasize that this is the third at bat and there is nothing “dialed in” about it. 

I did have some issues with certain characters in the film. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape has a minority vibe to him that doesn’t sit right as the lovable idiot comic relief. Also, Amiah Miller’s Nova could have been played by any girl of a different race, but we’re stuck with the embodiment of innocence being that of a blonde white girl. It’s not that blonde white girls can’t be the embodiment of innocence, it’s just the repetitive nature of it in films that sends a message. Yeah, I opened that door. The film also had interesting parallels to the slave narrative we’ve seen in our country, right down to the in-fighting amongst slaves. That’s not necessarily a negative thing about the movie, but an interesting theme that is explored but not fully developed into making a statement.

Outside of those foibles that can be looked past for the larger experience, War of The Planet of The Apes is certainly an experience. It’s a great time at the movies because it has something to say about who we are and how we treat each other. This is certainly the film to see this weekend, and will be talked about in film circles for the rest of the year!

Rating: A

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" Review

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It’s an awesome feeling to watch another great Spider-Man film. Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of the best MCU films to date, as well as the best Spidey film since 2004’s Spider-Man 2. With an unprecedented deal between Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios to allow the webhead into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the disappointment that was The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, as a lifelong fan of his, I’m happy to report that Spidey is in good hands once again. This is a film that will have you grinning the entire runtime.

Two months after his scene-stealing turn in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) adjusts to life in Queens after the Battle of Berlin, which they recap greatly via a cellphone movie that he created about the trip. As he waits for his next big assignment from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Peter comes across the crosshairs of Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton), who has a personal vendetta against Tony after basically putting him out of business after the events of 2012’s The Avengers.

First things first, it seems like Tom Holland was born to play Peter/Spidey. Throughout the 133-minute runtime, it appears that Holland is having the time of his life. He builds on his appearance from Civil War into what I would imagine Peter being if I was reading the comics. Holland takes the best qualities of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and rolls them all into one! He plays Peter perfectly. Michael Keaton as Adrian/The Vulture is quite honestly the best villain in the MCU since Loki. I had doubts about The Vulture since he’s typically goofy in the comics, but the way director Jon Watts and his screenwriters (which included him, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers) approached him in the film was well done. There’s a scene between him and Holland that’s quite honestly one of the best scenes in a Spidey film yet. Like Holland, Keaton seems to be having fun playing a bad guy. Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned steals the film from time to time with some of the funniest lines in the film! 

I also enjoyed the grounded tone that the film has compared to the other MCU films. If I had to make a comparison, this is probably the most grounded film since 2015’s Ant-Man. Rather than use end of the world stakes in this film, it was a story that suited Spidey’s needs as a high school student with great power. The cinematography that Watts and his DP, Salvatore Totino, went with complements the storytelling. Some of the shots in the film look like something you would see straight out from the panels, and they even recreate some here and there. The action scenes are fun and easy to follow as well. 

This is probably the funniest MCU film to date, from the in-jokes of the MCU, to how hot Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is to some running jokes (you’ll know it when you see it). I was surprised by how much I was laughing throughout the film. Finally, unlike The Amazing Spider-Man 2 which tried to cram in every character they could possibly think of, Spider-Man: Homecoming opens doors that they could further explore in future installments in a natural way.

If there’s anything wrong with the film, there was not much character development with some of the characters in the film, especially with The Vulture’s crew: The Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) and the Shockers (Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green). The CGI in some places seemed like they were unfinished and if you want to know as little as possible about this film before going into the theater do your best to avoid the trailers.

Overall, if you can’t tell, I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming. After the hiccups of the past couple of films, they got him right again and I’m excited to see where Sony/Marvel take Spidey next. Watts seems like the perfect director to steer this franchise forward. There’s so much I can talk about this film, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, and I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s one of the most fun films you’ll watch this summer. As always, be sure to stay until the end for a little surprise. Go see this! 

Rating: B+

"A Ghost Story" Review

Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that. A Ghost Story is the new film by director David Lowery, who directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and last year’s remake of Pete’s Dragon (which I contend is probably the best of the Disney remakes to have come out in recent years). This film reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and this was shot quickly and quietly after Lowery finished post-production work on Pete’s Dragon. This is a film that captivates you throughout the 87-minute runtime.

In this film, Affleck’s C and Mara’s M are a married couple living in a house. After he gets killed in a car accident off-screen, C wakes up in a morgue and walks back to his house. There, C watches M grieve over his death. I don’t want to talk more about the film out of fear of spoilers, but from the trailers I was expecting one thing, but I was quite surprised (in a good way!) when the film becomes something else entirely, with themes about death, the concept of time, and life after death, but told in a straightforward storytelling. All of this is set within the confines of their house to brilliant use. 

One of the things that this film does well are the long takes that Lowery and his DP, Andrew Proz Palermo, employ throughout the course of this film. In particular, a scene with Rooney Mara’s M and a pecan pie plays out almost as if we, the audience, are ghosts observing what’s happening on screen. Lowery also does a smart move in not overly editing the film, given that he edited this film himself. Each frame is pretty simple in its execution. A Ghost Story also employs an interesting visual palette, in that it’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. So it plays out like you are looking at old photographs or home videos. Some of the images in this film are absolutely haunting as Lowery and Palermo frame C’s ghost within the shots. The use of the music and sound design works well for this kind of story. Even the extended use of silence in scenes compliments the story. They could have easily been overly dramatic, but Affleck and Mara both give restrained performances. 

While I very much enjoyed this movie and its themes, this film isn’t for everyone. The pacing, especially in its first third, is slow. While I get what Lowery was going for, some might be bored with it. With the use of silence, there are long periods where there’s no dialogue or music forcing us to focus on the visuals on screen. 

Overall, I can’t stop thinking about A Ghost Story. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. I could easily write more paragraphs about just how much I liked this film. A24 has another winner on its hands. With this and Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has shown us that he’s one of the best young filmmakers working today and a filmmaker that to watch. Even though it may feel like a small story, Lowery is showing us something much bigger than ourselves. Please, do yourself a favor and watch this film. It’s seriously one of the best films to have come out so far this year. 

Rating: A-

"The Big Sick" Review

‘The Big Sick’ Review By Ryan Boera

‘The Big Sick’ Review By Ryan Boera

Kumail Nanjiani weaves an exceptionally brilliant story of love and sacrifice in his newest romantic comedy, ‘The Big Sick’. 

In an archetypal romantic comedy, the two, leading lovers tend to be young, likable and otherwise destined for each other. Yet, they are kept apart by some complicating circumstance until, surmounting all obstacles, they are finally wedded. In Kumail’s case, this obstacle takes the form of class differences and parental interference. Two themes that undoubtedly heighten the relevance of the film. 

Kumail is a Pakistani comic who meets an American graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up gigs. As their relationship unfolds, he gloomily anticipates what his traditional Muslim parents will think of her. Parents who will jump at the opportunity to gift upon their son an “arranged” marriage. Suffice to say, they don’t approve of Emily. 

‘The Big Sick’ undeniably occupies the romantic comedy genre, however, I would argue it’s gift is that it pushes the categorial envelope. The screenplay is incredibly intelligent, to put it modestly. But more importantly, it handles difficult topics; it’s topics other filmmakers are afraid to even look at, with such grace and deference that it has almost created a new standard for the genre as a whole. 

Romantic comedies have become passable films. Two-hour, running clichés, rather. Studios evolving into hamster-like wheels that churn out flick after flick with no integrity. The longer we allow these clichés to consume our films the harder it becomes for us to escape them. At which point you must tip your hat to Kumail and Emily Gordon (an author and Kumail’s life partner) for crafting such an intriguing piece of literature. 

The film is exceedingly honest, an open book of sorts, and so ridiculous it must be a true story. Kumail learns from his relationship that honesty is the best policy. A golden-rule that protrudes from the screen with vibrant colors. It is hard-pressed not to laugh at the unbearable circumstances presented throughout the film. Somehow, the tension and the humor live symbiotically together. 

Even at the risk of running too long, ‘The Big Sick’ is good for more than just a few laughs. In fact, the anticipation of the succeeding one-liner is so ever-present in the theater, you can feel the audience’s mouths agape with expectancy. Above all else, ‘The Big Sick’ will make you laugh, cry, and think, and that’s a win in anyone’s book. 

Rating: A-

Comment

Ryan Boera

I am a 2017 graduate of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. I received my degree in Film Production, I am a strong believer in cinema and I'm a storyteller at heart with an insatiable curiosity. I have editing/design experience with the Adobe Creative Suite; acting experience in theater productions and low-budget shorts; writing experience through two feature film scripts, two television spec scripts and a compelling (read: not-so compelling) blog. Lastly, I've gained cinematography experience while working with the Canon 5D, C100, DJI Phantom 4 Pro Quadcopter, Osmo Handheld, Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K, and ARRI Arriflex 16mm cameras. Suffice to say, I love film. I am also a fan of hikes, travel, craft beer, singing in the shower, the Yankees, Survivor, and of course, chocolate chip cookies. 

"Baby Driver" Review: Wright is Right

“Baby Driver” is the cinematic fresh air that you hope to catch during the summer season! It’s the movie that will be talked about on everyone’s end of year lists, and deservedly so. Director Edgar Wright has turned out another hit!

The film follows Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young getaway driver, whose skills behind the wheel are unmatched. He works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a brilliant crime boss who masterminds heists. Doc never puts the same crew together, but his one consistent “lucky charm” is Baby. Baby lives the way most of us would love to, with a song for every occasion, which he plays on an old school ipod or three that he keeps on himself at all times to drown out the hum caused by a childhood accident.

Off the rip we see an awesome get away car chase sequence, introducing us to Buddy (Jon Hamm), his dangerous girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and a nice bit part for Jon Bernthal as Griff. These characters are fully realized, while over the top criminals. As we’re introduced to Baby’s world we see just how much it all contains music.

In fact, the key to this film is the infusion of music. It’s comprised of the moments when you’ve been in your car and punched the gas because of a dope beat, played that Adele song to match your emotional state, or that love song when you’ve found that special someone! Except this is a movie, and therefore the story can be told at tempo. It’s edited to cut to the rhythm of the 808, slows down to the strings, and even machine guns fire to the beat. What could have turned out to be gimmicky is used with just the right amount of detail at the right time, that it adds to the engagement of the film.

The movie’s pace is a bit awkward after the initial sequences, but once it’s in the zone it’s a joy ride until the end. Perhaps some of that has to do with the casting. Overall, this is a stellar cast, beautifully blended together. I think it’s some of the best work we’ve seen from Jamie Foxx in a while with his character Bats. He’s the scary mixture of volatile and street smart that you respect but don’t turn your back on if you’re in the same room; which helps to add to the intensity and suspense when the film gets cooking. Ansel Elgort seems a bit outmatched and I preferred the moments when he was not talking, but he works for the film. His love interest, Debora (Lily James), is an acquired taste as well, reminiscent of the character work Juliette Lewis did in her youth. However, by the end of the film you settle in to the odd couple romance.

If you’re looking for an original film to see this weekend, “Baby Driver” is it! Honestly, if you’re looking for something original in the past few years it’s still a contender. While the idea of “one last job and I’m out” is nothing new, it’s the getting there that’s fresh. The chase scenes are stand out, the soundtrack is on point, and the script is great. Go see it this weekend!

Rating: B+

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"All Eyez On Me" Review

When Tupac was at his height of popularity, I was in middle school. So I didn’t really get into Tupac’s music pas what I heard on the radio until I started getting tapes (yes, cassette tapes) from my friends and sneaking to listen to the unedited version in high school. Pac was raw, dynamic, and there’s a reason that he’s still talked about today. Unfortunately, All Eyez On Me doesn’t quite do the legend justice.

The film is like a patchwork quilt. From a far, you can see the full scope of Tupac’s life, but it’s made up of what feels like different films. It starts out framed by Tupac (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) being in the Clinton Correctional Facility in 1995, giving an interview to a journalist (Hill Harper) which allows him to talk about his life up until that point. We see how he comes from a leader and fighter in the Black Panther movement, Afeni Shakur (a stellar Danai Gurira). Which gives room for us to see how Tupac the revolutionary was influenced and raised by his mother.

The movie starts patching in odd or dispensable scenes as it moves toward the Tupac most people know, with his big break in the movie “Juice”. Perhaps the worst thing director Benny Boom could have done was recreate iconic scenes from films that the real Tupac starred in. As an audience, we automatically compare performances, and Shipp Jr. is no match. Yet, this happens multiple times throughout the film, continually throwing us off with each patch. The movie also camps out for a while on Tupac’s rape case in which he’s portrayed as wholly innocent in the matter.  

It’s hard to believe that Tupac was only 25 when he passed because he did so much in his short time on Earth. If there’s one thing that the film does capture, it’s how a man can start out on one path in life and end on another. We see how his multiple court cases, the expenses that came with them, and the shady business of the hip hop industry itself led him to sign with Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), the infamous owner of Death Row Records. By the time the movie gets to that point, we forget about the Tupac who set out to be a revolutionary and see a man who is fed up with the system and wants to get money because he needs it. That journey is fascinating to watch.

 2015’s Straight Outta Compton set a high bar for hip hop biopics because the script, acting and direction were top notch. All Eyez On Me had nothing short of the same type of electrifying material but missed the mark on all levels by settling for a banal form of storytelling with a lead, who despite giving his all, only has brief moments of embodying the dynamic man who was Tupac Shakur. This is a rated R made for TV movie. It’s not bad for Netflix at home, but you might want to save your money at the theaters this weekend on this one.

Rating: C- 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Cars 3" Review

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Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) revs up for a victory lap and a chance at one last cup before he’s pushed out of the spotlight by the new cars on the block.

This last film of the ‘Cars’ trilogy excites only the unwavering fan of the franchise. However, I will submit that ‘Cars 3’ tied a satisfying bow on a trilogy that may have otherwise lost its novelty over the years. The first ‘Cars’ movie was wildly underappreciated by the critic community, but has held vacancy in the hearts of viewers. Although I disagreed with many critics in their analyses of the original movie, I can stand firmly behind the idea that the second of the three drove way off track. At best, it is the old beat-up Camaro that dad doesn’t want to bring to the dump. But I digress.

‘Cars 3,’ while staunchly predictable, softens up the viewer to the all-so-familiar Pixar feel-good narrative. It may fall short in the echelon of movie sequels, but I enjoyed the journey it takes you on. Not to forget, however, how egregiously ‘okay’ the screenwriters were with making the plot unsurprising, the jokes repeated to the point of annoyance, and the odd use of modern technology that felt foreign in a world of 80s vehicles. But hey, the kids will love it.

The first act of the movie, the explanation of the story world so-to-speak, is brief because if you haven’t gotten it by the third movie than you don’t deserve an idiomatic setup. That being said, ‘Cars 3’ derails when the hero’s journey begins.

The strange introductions to new characters, the pathetically lazy montages, the passive protagonist, all contribute to an at-times unbearable middle act. More importantly, perhaps, is an ending that saves the legacy of the trilogy. It offers the opportunity for a ‘Cars 4,’ not that we’re asking for it, but the opportunity exists nevertheless.

As stated in the opening sentence, this movie could only possibly be enjoyed by the youngest of kids or the most delusional of Pixar fanatics. However, the message (because there is always a deeper meaning with Pixar) transcends age and intelligence. It is, simply put, the idea of the underdog. The veteran. The Rocky Balboa that is fighting for relevance. The fifty-something near retirement with nothing on the horizon. The middle age crisis of longing for purpose. The student becomes the teacher saga. A beautifully cyclical poem or a connecting puzzle that just makes sense.

As unapologetically foreseeable as the plot of ‘Cars 3’ is, give it a pass for making us smile in the end. Good save Pixar.

‘Cars 3’ is out in theaters this Friday (June 16)

Rating: C

Comment

Ryan Boera

I am a 2017 graduate of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. I received my degree in Film Production, I am a strong believer in cinema and I'm a storyteller at heart with an insatiable curiosity. I have editing/design experience with the Adobe Creative Suite; acting experience in theater productions and low-budget shorts; writing experience through two feature film scripts, two television spec scripts and a compelling (read: not-so compelling) blog. Lastly, I've gained cinematography experience while working with the Canon 5D, C100, DJI Phantom 4 Pro Quadcopter, Osmo Handheld, Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K, and ARRI Arriflex 16mm cameras. Suffice to say, I love film. I am also a fan of hikes, travel, craft beer, singing in the shower, the Yankees, Survivor, and of course, chocolate chip cookies. 

"It Comes At Night" Review

Americans are primed for the apocalypse. Whether the deluge of doomsday preparation and undead apocalypse TV shows or cardio-based zombie evasion fun runs, we’re a nation steeped in the possibility that all men will eventually become zombies. And when that time comes we’ll have achieved a 40-yard-dash time quick enough to outrun the bloodthirsty masses to a fortified armory and help rebuild civilization. Escaping danger is our collective middle name. 

Thing is, once we’ve hacked and slashed our way to safety, all that time spent locked away in the abandoned fort will be tedious. There’s drama, sure. Leaders will emerge and be challenged, resources will go dry and need replenishing and all our social networks will be useless. Survival is a waiting game, meal after meager meal, day after dull day, month after miserable month.

It Comes at Night, the second feature-length movie from Trey Edward Shults (Krisha), is laced with small doses of excitement, but spends much of its running time watching its characters wait in fear. Shults employs the camera as a tight third-person observer. While boogeymen real and imagined circle the limited world of the script, the camera is focused on the mental and physical strain our heroes suffer as they undertake survival. They are bound to a day-to-day exercise in trust, regiment and they hold a skeptical gaze toward any stranger in their midst. 

The family in question is only identified as father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as fear has a way of grinding units down to individuals. The familial clan of survivalists are holed up in the woods while an ambiguous plague threatens the world around them. At the start of the film, the illness has already claimed one other family member, but little else is explained about its origin or effects. It Comes At Night is not about the fight against the undead, but the threat of sickness penetrating the family unit. It opens in a tragedy meant to solidify the family unit and warn the viewer of both the outsider itself and the fear of outsiders. 

After the deceased is laid to rest Paul, Sarah and Will must move on and bury sadness with trust and routine. When a young father, Will (Girls’ Christopher Abbott) barges in on the trio in search of supplies, it takes some time before Paul agrees to bring Will’s family into their fold. Joel Edgerton’s Paul is nothing if not a cautious realist, but he’s flawed in his fearfulness. While the two families attempt to live together in tension and mistrust, Travis has visions that wind the daily tension with nightly terror. His insomnia is the lens of horror tropes. He sees his mouths filled with blood, animal corpses and one of the film’s very few jump scares.

Shults uses Travis’s nightmare sequences to explicate both the characters fears and his desires. It Comes At Night follows through with a drama film that plays as horror because the viewer, through close camera focus, is meant to watch the characters diligently to see how and when they break. While the familiar beats of zombie films and backwoods horror will delight enthusiasts of both genres, the subdued action may disappoint some. Still, It Comes At Night holds so steadily in its watchful gaze that the viewer must see themselves walking down every empty hallway. And as horror films are often a chance to live out death from the safety of an armchair, It Comes At Night is a chance to be the weary eye of a survivor, waiting and watching in fear.

Rating: A-

"The Mummy" Review

The Mummy is Universal’s second attempt in the past couple of years to relaunch their Universal Monsters series, now called the Dark Universe. Their first attempt, 2014’s Dracula Untold, was a bit of a misfire. This one is better then that. It’s also a step up from the last Mummy film, 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. A good analogy would be that this was Universal’s Man of Steel to their Green Lantern (when that film was supposed to launch their DCEU). Now dubbed the first in a new franchise, The Mummy had to tell a story while at the same time launch the universe around the dealings of an organization known as Prodigium. For the most part, it’s a fun popcorn film.

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On the plus side, Tom Cruise still commits himself to the role. Yes, this is another movie where he can outrun or out-swim you, but he does a good job with the performance he gives as Nick Morton, a soldier who pillages antiquities in Iraq. After unearthing a giant Egyptian tomb with archaeologist, Jenny Hasley (Annabelle Wallis), the evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is unleashed on Earth.

Russell Crowe seems like he's having a blast as Dr. Henry Jekyll, the head of the organization. He’ll be an interesting character they can explore later. The music from Brian Tyler is epic and seems to be better then it should have been. Whenever the film works, it’s fun, with some funny lines sprinkled in here and there. Since this is supposed to set up the new Universal Monsters universe, be on the lookout for some of the other famous monsters along with a blink and miss it reference from the previous Mummy trilogy. The film also plays with the viewers’ expectations in a few places. Finally, the action sequences throughout the film, like the airplane sequence from the trailers, were well choreographed and not overly edited so it was easy to follow.

On the negative side, Boutella doesn’t get to do much as Princess Ahmanet. Since she was a scene-stealer in 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, this should have been a big breakthrough moment for her. Instead, it feels like she didn’t have anything to do other than stand there and try to look menacing. It’s a missed opportunity for her, and she deserved better. The film is derailed by some of its exposition scenes, especially during the opening sequence where it feels like someone is reading a book to you as they try to tell how Prodigium works. It’s also derailed by multiple, repetitive flashbacks to sequences that you saw literally a couple of minutes prior. The CGI is obvious in places and overboard in some places. You know it’s a problem when they repeat some of the same visual cues as the previous trilogy.

With an inconsistent tone, one minute the film is funny and knows what movie it’s trying to be, and then the next it takes itself way too seriously. This could be the case that this film had six credited screenwriters (screenplay from David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts and Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet). It’s easy to see which scenes were a part of the reshoots to help this film fit in to the larger universe at play. With the combination of writers and reshoots, the climax is a bit of a letdown since it feels like they ran out of money or changed the ending to fit their needs. You don’t need to see this in 3D because it didn’t really bring anything to the film, and instead make some of the night scenes look even darker. 

Overall, when it knows what movie it’s trying to be, The Mummy is a fun popcorn film. It’s better then what the trailers advertise, but it does have problems. If you turn your brain off during it, you might have some fun with this, knowing it suffers from trying to set up future installments rather than focusing on The Mummy. This universe might be DOA before it even starts, but if they work on the problems, it could potentially work. If you have to see it, go with a matinee screening. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a great film.

Rating: B-

"Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie" Review

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is the type of film that makes me go look up the property it’s based on. Not because I was enamored with the film, but because I want to know why this film was made. The children’s novel sold more than 70 million books worldwide! Unlike some of the animated features that share the same space, you have to dig through the sophomoric humor to get to the heart of the film but it’s there. With that said, I’m not sure the book should have been put on the big screen.

George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) have been besties ever since they heard their kindergarten teacher say Uranus. Since that moment, they spent as much time together as possible, telling jokes, pulling pranks, and creating comic books about a superhero they’ve created called Captain Underpants along the way. Their jokes and pranks never go unnoticed by teachers (who are usually on the receiving end), students, and especially their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Their latest prank pushes Mr. Krupp over the edge and he decides to separate the two.

With the doom of their friendship on the horizon, George acts quickly and uses his ring to hypnotize Mr. Krupp. And it works! He believes he’s Captain Underpants. His mission, is to put fun back in the school. Too bad Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) has other ideas as a dastardly villain in disguise as a teacher.

The film feels exactly like it should if an elementary school boy wrote it and a top notch animation house produced it. (No offense to writer Nicholas Stoller.) The narrative quickly derails, comes back and goes off in other directions much like a conversation with an elementary student, but traded for side bits within the film. It’s smart enough to know what it is and make self deprecating jokes. It has a great underlying theme of how friendship can overcome all. 

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie might be a good time for youngsters, diehards who read the novel, and adults who still get a kick out of fart jokes. If that kind of thing doesn’t float your boat, then this movie is not for you. If anything, the film might just take you back to your childhood and what the definition of best friend meant then.

Rating: C

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Wonder Woman" Review

With DC’s recent track record, it was hard to be any more than cautiously optimistic going into Wonder Woman.  But in the end, it is one of their best films!  I’d say it’s my favorite DC comics movie since Christopher Reeve.  It might not be a coincidence that Gal Gadot embodies Wonder Woman in a way that’s reminiscent of Reeve.  Reeve showed a Superman who actually enjoyed being a hero, even if it was difficult.  Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the same and it’s always refreshing to see that on the big screen.

There’s been a trend lately where movies feel like your glass is half full or half empty.  But Wonder Woman has moments of intense sadness and despair mixed in with feelings of humor and love.  This isn’t just an action movie with some jokes, it’s a film where the central theme is that pain and joy are often never far apart.  Some of that comes from the setting.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that even tried to capture “the war to end all wars,” but it really works here.  The setting and the narrative intertwine very well.

Love is one of the main themes of the film, but it was also clearly a driving force behind the production.  Nearly every aspect is put together with a sense of pride and skill that has been missing from quite a few summer blockbusters of recent years.  The fight scenes were not just enjoyable, but you could actually see and follow most of the action.  When you watch Diana fight, you'll be able to really appreciate her skill and power.  The art direction and costume design are perfect, and the soundtrack is fantastic!  All the performances are really good, though Etta Candy is underused and several of the villains are not particularly three dimensional.

Director Patty Jenkins giving Gal Gadot instruction.

Director Patty Jenkins giving Gal Gadot instruction.

Everyone is going to be looking at Patty Jenkins as a barometer for the future of women-led blockbusters, which is an unfair and unnecessary burden to place on her shoulders, but what are superhero movies about if not unfair burdens?  Jenkins rises to the task, and honestly I’d like to see DC give her a lot more to do in the future. 

There are things to quibble with, as always.  While it’s the best use of slow motion I’ve seen in years, it is still overused.  There’s a framing story that could have been left out, but I could see why some audience members would want it, especially if they’re coming in from the more recent franchise films rather than a comic book background.  But none of that takes away from a film that is incredibly enjoyable, and one of the best of its genre.

Rating: A

Comment

Mary Ratliff

Mary Ratliff is a storyteller at heart, and is equally at home working on fiction and documentary films.  As an active member of the D.C. film community, she has worked on several features, a webseries, commercials, and numerous short films as a member of the art department and a script supervisor.

As a screenwriter, Mary was a finalist in 2010's DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition and the recipient of the Will Interactive Dramatic Short Screenplay award for her script, "Catching Up."  The film also received the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant, and the completed short won the Visions Award for Outstanding Thesis Project in 2011.

Ratliff has earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Film and Electronic Media at American University (Washington D.C.) and a BA from Hollins University (Roanoke, VA) with a major in Film and Photography and a minor in Art History.

Besides her work in Film, Mary is also an avid photogapher and writer, and has written articles for online magazines including io9 (see below). Mary also enjoys playing video games in her free time. It was her love of the gaming community that lead to her latest film, the feature length documentary Good Game.

"Alien: Covenant" Review

Ridley Scott may have a disdain for humanity. At least he has little affection for us. This film, for its many talented actors, is concerned visually and narratively with the non-human stars. As a result, the characters and humanity by proxy seem…well, disposable. 

The newest addition to the Alien franchise opens on a conversation between synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender) and ubiquitous financier from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce.) Weyland is a megalomaniacal creator and the Alien franchise has done a pavlovian number on the audience with the Weyland name. He commands David to play music and fetch tea, generally marveling at the product of his own genius, but David asks questions about the chain of origination that begat himself and that kind of reflection doesn’t sit well with Weyland. This sets the tone for a movie that often looks down upon the fertile homo sapiens, who are constantly looking for a savior, but won’t do the damned work of saving themselves.

But let’s backtrack. It is December 5th, 2104 and the starship Covenant is en route in colonization mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. In tow, a crew of 15 and a payload of 2000 colonists and 1400 human embryos cryogenically stored away. The ship is a floating starter kit for humanity on the more habitable planet of Origae-6. Awake on the ship is a new synthetic, Walter, still played by the wonderfully game Michael Fassbender. Trouble begins immediately, when a random localized event (space glitch?) forces an emergency crew revival from cryogenic stasis. 

Reborn into chaos and doom, the crew of the Covenant fight against fate to correct their course. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes command, but his rigid faith-based leadership quickly isolates members of the crew and he struggles to unite the team or even properly memorialize their fallen captain. The rest of the crew are mostly coupled up, including Branson’s partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston), for population purposes narratively and stakes for the audience.

Meanwhile, while fixing external damage to the ship, crew member Tennessee (Danny McBride in a Danny McBride role) picks up a ghostly transmission from a nearby planet. As the crew is not eager to get back into their cryo-coffins, Oram decides that this planet is likely as good as Origae-6 for colonization. He leads all but three of the ill-fated crew on a scouting mission. 

No sooner have they split up in their eerily-empty surroundings than pod-born nano-dust impregnates the least of these with the usual body-bursting aliens. The crew discovers a few familiar faces in the otherwise deserted planet, including David (Michael Fassbender) in an spirited Fassbender on Fassbender duo that Covenant thoroughly explores. David is still harboring ulterior motives and, well, it gets weird. Any more and the reader will be robbed of Covenant’s best bits. 

Working from a script by John Logan (Gladiator, Spectre) and screenplay newbie Dante Harper, Ridley Scott embraces a universe outside the spacecraft. Far gone are the claustrophobic thriller or doomed exploration mission of Alien and Prometheus. Instead, we’re given a one part greatest hits creature feature and one part world-building techno-thriller.

In a way, Alien: Covenant looks a lot like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, complete with its own sequence of raptors in the tall grass. As the second film in the Ridley Scott revival, Covenant may be answering to the anger of Alien fans upset at the distance between the xenomorph/neomorph-centered plots of the preceding films and the myth-building plot holes of Prometheus. During an exploration scene in the deserted engineer city, Daniels says, “There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense” as if to apologize for the confusion of Prometheus and acknowledge the strange turns Covenant takes. And for the most part the madness benefits the film’s many set pieces. There are plenty of gruesome body-hatching scenes and old-school face hugger deaths to make this writer practically giddy. And the mix of hyper-tech space ships and ancient architecture offers an expansion of Prometheus’ visual design.

In the last act of the movie, Fassbender’s character attempts to reassure a crew member, “I think if we are kind, it will be a kind world.” It is the least reassuring arrangement of words uttered in the movie and speaks directly to the thinning veil of civility (even naivety) keeping humanity from tearing itself apart. The optimism injected into the line makes it ring all the hollower. True horror is despair, not spectacle. But Alien: Covenant delivers a meal of both, with all the grotesque comforts of the franchise.

Rating: B

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" Review

It pains me to say that if you liked this year’s Power Rangers (I did not), than you’ll really enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. If you enjoy the Fast and Furious franchise (I know I do), then you’ll enjoy this film. If the combination of those two films makes you want to wait for this film to come on Netflix, do it. While it has the self-awareness and humor of its’ predecessor, this sequel is just another step in the ever widening pyramid that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

We find the Guardians protecting batteries for an elite group of beings in the opening scene. The scene encapsulates the fun that we’ve come to like with baby Groot dancing in the midst of danger. Director James Gunn keeps us focused on Groot without letting us know what’s really happening in the fight. Gunn nails his vision and direction in this film, but traded his effort in the writing. Just as quickly as the Guardians become heroes, they have the same group of elite beings chasing them through the galaxy. Thus, the film takes off.

Family is the tie that binds the movie together much like the Fast and Furious. Whether the Guardians are dealing with blood relatives, or their own makeshift family, they each have to learn what family is all about. The cast has great chemistry and it comes through in the film but more so when they're fighting and taking jabs at each other. Seeing them learn the true meaning of family in the midst of saving the galaxy from insurmountable odds is the part that’s tough to swallow. You can easily visualize the index cards mapped on the writer’s room board with each character, what they should learn in this installment, and lines connecting them to the points in the film where it should happen. 

The problem with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that it feels like re-hashed soap opera storylines set to a decent soundtrack and beautiful visuals. It has the son who finally finds his long lost father, the sibling rivalry so strong that they’re enemies...except they love each other deep down, a character who tries to protect his own heart by keeping people at a distance by being a jerk, and so on. The movie is full of moments that should make you tear up or feel good inside, but they feel forced and designed, much like Power Rangers

Basically, this film wants to ride the successful formula of Vol. 1 but doesn’t want to put in the real work to make it great. So while the film was entertaining and a break from the real world for me, it couldn’t stop me from checking my watch. Sure, it did its job in expanding the MCU, but this was a bland installment. I dare someone to tell me this doesn’t look like The Expendables 6 with its cameos and characters at points in the movie! Stay to the end of the movie for the multiple credit scenes, but you could also just stay home this weekend.

Rating: D+

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Raw" Review

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a new veterinary student taking the transition from home to university a little harder than her peers. She over-drinks like everyone else, explores confusing sexual feelings and ends up on too many leering camera phones, but who hasn’t? College is the time to test the limits oflust, intoxication and academic rigor. But Justine is undergoing another type of change, one that isn’t part of rush week depravity and she’s a bit confused about whether her upper-classman sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) will understand. After Justine wakes up in bed with her roommate near the end of the movie, she stares solemnly into the mirror like so many screen teens before her, assessing how much she’s changed. But this is not a typical coming-of-age movie and Justine is wishing that her regrets were simply carnal.

Raw is hungry for the ecstasy and ugliness of the human body. In college, when people are perhaps at their most beautiful (or at least beautifully unaged) and their urges are least restrained, the teen comedy take on fraternal excess doesn’t explicate the dangers of a hedonistic attitude. Raw sinks its teeth deep into that idea. Director Julia Ducournau nabbed honors at Cannes and Toronto for this feature-length debut that, alongside films like It Follows, Green Room, and even The Purge, push the horror genre toward an ideological craftsmanship. It’s less of a horror film than say the Babadook which held up a gothic grotesquery to lure audiences into a mature thriller about the dangers of grief. Raw is really a fable, a cannibalistic twist on the adolescent experience. Though humans are just meat-bags, Raw posits peer pressure is not a good enough reason to bow to such crude reductionisms.

As Juliet takes part in the hazing rituals of the upper-classmen, the once staunch vegetarian is pushed to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Soon after, she breaks out in a full-body rash and begins the steep descent into a carnivorous diet. Raw isn’t a buckets-of-blood grindhouse flick. It gets far more mileage out of a girl chewing on (and later regurgitating) her own hair than the bloody car wrecks that pop up throughout. It is a practical gore-fest that’s far more gristly than out-and-out brutal. The French-Belgian film doesn’t exactly belong in the canon of New French Extremity but Ducournau lingers on shocking scenes with much the same spirit of complicit punishment. Whereas Gaspar Noe’s troublesome morality could be called a social commentary, his twisted style and focus are the draw. Raw is held together by the humanity in its characters and especially the relationship between Justine and Alexia. 

But just as vivid are the parallels between human and animal. The veterinary-school setting is filled with unsettling interactions between the two, such as an early scene where a group of freshman help tranquilize and transport a horse. This interaction is a normal part of vet work, but the tremendous size of the equine is an uncanny glimpse into the evolutionary power human minds wield over physically superior animals. When Juliet accidentally scissors off Alexia’s finger-tip as part of a botched Brazilian waxing (you read that correctly), their pet German Shepard comes into frame in search of a treat. We’re expecting the dog to find the severed digit, but Raw is not a movie about unsavory animal behaviors. And there is a strong argument that the film reflects the audience’s appetite for gore as much as the character’s appetite. Justine chews at the finger like a buffalo wing, in a perfect parallel to an earlier scene depicting a late-night shawarma feast. It serves the viewer more than the character. Audiences should know what they are getting into.

Since Raw doesn’t bring much animal cruelty to the table, Ducournau does not appear to be making a case for treating all God’s creatures better. Instead Raw serves up the unpalatable indulgences of vice and corruption that draw the characters and the audience a little closer to their own creature-ness. Raw will satisfy gore hounds and art house audiences alike but this vicious tale bucks the average viewer with ease. You probably won’t need the barf bags being passed out at screenings, but for most it’s grimy exterior will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Grade: B

"Get Out" Review: An Instant Classic

Let’s face the facts, meeting any significant other’s parents for the first time is plain scary! Add in the fact that you’re an interracial couple and it can add a little weight to that. In writer/director Jordan Peele’s Get Out, he takes that premise, a dash of suspense, and real world issues to make a refreshingly original take on meeting the ‘rents.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is an upcoming photographer who is going to his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) home for the weekend to meet her parents. While the love between the two is strong, there’s no question that Chris is a little anxious to meet her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. After encountering a deer the hard way, Chris gets his first introduction to Rose’s hometown through the local police. This is where we first see how Peele is telling his horror through real life issues of being black in America. During the exchange, we witness Rose talk back and be confrontational with the officer, while Chris does just the opposite with a smile. Thus, the dichotomy begins.

After arriving at her parent’s home, Chris navigates through the normal awkward attempts to relate with lines like “I would have voted for Obama a third time”, or “my man!” However, it’s Walter (Marcus Henderson) the groundskeeper and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) that make Chris squirm. As he attempts to talk with them, they seem to have no soul, which in this film refers to black culture, in them. Things only get more peculiar as the weekend goes on. Whether it’s a late night hypnosis session that Chris barely remembers, meeting Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) who seems familiar, or his cell phone being unplugged at night, it all starts to add up into a horrifying tale.

The key to this film is the manipulation of space and time, framing, sound, and good storytelling. Peele’s pacing of the film is perfect. Things move at just the right pace as to lure you in and speed up once it’s too late to stop. He gives us in your face close-ups that heighten the sense of alarm within the film. Yet it’s his script that’s the backbone of this sure to be instant classic.

Kaluuya and Gabriel give memorable performances in their roles as black people “trapped” in a white world. Their faces say so much more than words. Simultaneously, without the creepy opposition of Williams, Keener, Whitford, and Caleb Landry Jones as Jeremy Armitage, you wouldn’t have the tension that is felt so much throughout the film.

Get Out is a film that you have to see more than once to catch everything that was thrown at you. There’s no doubt that it’s a horror/mystery for this generation! Equipped with the comedy of Chris’s best friend Rod (LilRel Howery) who stands in the gap for the audience who would regularly be yelling at the screen, this film knows what it’s doing and knows what you’re thinking!

Rating: A

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Logan" Review: Super Hero Films Take Note

Can you imagine an X-Men film in which there is less focus on spectacle and powers and more focus on drama and human relationships? How awesome would that be? Well look no further! Director James Mangold’s Logan manages to give us the perfect blend of emotional drama, storytelling and brutal action! 

Set in 2029, a rundown Logan (Hugh Jackman) aka Wolverine is a limo driver. He’s trying to save up enough cash to buy a boat and sail off into the sunset with Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) and mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant). He just wants to be off the grid, and he seems to be doing it right off the Mexican border. Until a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes to him for help.

Gabriela wants to enlist the battle scarred Logan to get a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keene) to a place called “Eden” in North Dakota. With enough cash dangling over his head to get the Sunseeker he desires, and a little prodding by Charles, Logan takes the mission. 

The Wolverine quickly finds out that Laura aka X-23 is a product of biotech company Transigen, and they want her back. Laura’s powers are similar to Logan’s with a small improvement. Logan embraces its rated R status to drop a few F bombs, but mainly to show us the most brutal violence we’ve seen in the X-Men movie-verse. It’s the kind of brawling that takes Logan back to his animalistic roots at times, especially when faced with the “soulless” X-24. Yet, for a supposed swan song for the character, it’s equally a chance to see how damaged Logan is and how each fight seems to make him more mortal with his healing ability so slow. The makeup team really deserves some credit here.

Hugh Jackman puts it all on the line for the character that catapulted his career some 17 years ago. Watching Sir Patrick Stewart as an aged Charles Xavier with a degenerative brain disease is nothing short of a treat! The relationship and chemistry between Logan and Charles is equally authentic and touching. One would have to believe that the personal off screen friendship and historic relationship of these characters is what comes through on screen. Dafne Keene is equal parts believable (as a kid unleashing brutality on dangerous men), funny, cute, and scaryall in one. The kid can do some damage! The relationship between Logan and Laura is another great example of character development that we invest in as viewers. 

Logan just might be The Dark Knight of the X-franchise films. It’s dark, gritty, but packed with heart. They could have easily shaved off 15 minutes, but it’s certainly worth the watch and should serve as a reminder of what super hero films can be and do!

Rating: B+

 

 

 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"The Founder" Review

What do we make of our corporate leaders as people? Names like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Walt Disney are embedded in the popular conscious as much as any kid wizard or snap-together playthings. Though we have access to the legacy of CEOs and leaders, many institutional heads are not as personally familiar as their product. We live in a time where tech titans are the subjects of top-billed films and non-tech icons may seem like an ancient generation.

The Founder is a straightforward biopic of an analogue man, an archetype of mid-century, middle American salesman, Ray Kroc. Kroc is introduced hocking milkshake mixers and scraping by on meager demand for his products when an unusually large order comes in from California. There, Kroc meets Maurice “Mac” McDonald and Richard “Dick” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, respectively) brothers and the founders of a new assembly-line style restaurant that does away with car hops and barbeque trays for disposable packaging and made-to-order hamburger meals. Kroc smells real success in the McDonald’s revolutionary kitchen and he wants in. The brothers Mac reluctantly allow Kroc in and he quickly gets to work franchising the operation. The Founder presents Ray Kroc as the foundational understanding for chasing the American dream; every man is just one good idea (his own or another’s) away from striking rich. If Ray Kroc wasn’t the little-f founder of McDonald’s first burger shop, he was the capital-f Founder of the McDonald’s brand.

The Founder follows several blockbuster films about wildly successful company heads that have built their legacies on the work of others. It doesn’t dabble in David Fincher’s upstart backstabbing (The Social Network), nor in Danny Boyle’s confrontational schadenfreude (Steve Jobs). However, the Founder does marvel at its central ego. Robert Siegel’s script hovers over Ray’s marriage to Ethel Kroc (Laura Dern) like a buzzard. Dern’s Ethel offers one of the film’s best performances as the exhausted supporter of Keaton’s workaholic Ray. However, Ray’s relationship with future second-wife Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) feels undercooked. It matters to his “persistence will pay off” megalomania that he discards his first marriage, but the squirrely middle-aged salesman doesn’t appear charismatic enough to charm the blonde bombshell presented within, considering her marriage to an already successful restauranteur Rollie (Patrick Wilson). Director John Lee Hancock uses Smith as the manifestation of Kroc’s growing success, framed in a red dress and topped with a golden coif (a vision of French-fries incarnate?) singing “Pennies from Heaven.”

Composed in un-ironic reverence, The Founder strings the business of building a fast-food empire together with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, clutched baseballs, stuffed drive-ins and teen greasers. It rolls Kroc’s cornflower blue Plymouth right up against the line of tasteful nostalgia and uses red, white and gold to liven the screen. But the film’s nostalgia is as innocent as Kevin Arnold or Richie Cunningham. Between repeated cuts to American flags and church steeples, Kroc lays out a plan for McDonalds as a cultural staple, “the new American church”, and a gathering place for the hungry families “and we’re open on Sundays.” Don’t expect much cynicism or moral critique to balance; Kroc is simply an inevitability of capitalist enterprise.

The Founder is not built on redemption or destruction, but is instead focused on building an entertaining story in the singular drive of one man who took a good idea to greatness and the many people who were brought up and down along the way. It pleases and informs, but leaves moral certitude at the audience’s feet.

Rating: B