"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

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" Review: Keep Em' Coming!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not a film about if, but how. How did the Rebel Alliance get the plans to the Death Star? Well, it wasn’t easy, and that’s where this off shoot from Star Wars episodes fits in.

Imagine what it was like in 1945 as the Atom Bomb was about to be tested. That’s where things stand in Rogue One. The Death Star is up and running, but the planet killer has yet to be used. With time running short, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is recruited by the Rebellion early in the film as an access key. Her bloodline and past makes her important to the group’s plan to see the Death Star destroyed. 

The movie is more a war film than anything like its predecessors. Most of the film is tactical in nature. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a recruiter and soldier in the Rebel Army, extracts Jyn out of Imperial transport vehicle with the help of his reprogrammed K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Jyn is offered the opportunity to help the Rebellion, or continue as she was in the hands of The Empire.

Time is of the essence on both sides as Orson Krennic (the always stellar Ben Mendelsohn) is going to show The Empire that the Death Star, the project he’s headed up, is in full working order. As plans on both sides move forward we’re introduced to Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baz Malbus (Wen Jiang), two guardians of the temple on planet Jedha, which is being mined by The Empire as fuel. The Empire is on high alert as an extremist in the Rebellion named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) keeps them on their toes, along with the rest of the Rebel Army.

Suspense and tension is high in this film, while keeping some humor sprinkled in to break things up. With everyone on edge as the clock is running out, it makes for good pacing. Director Gareth Edwards captures the ground and air fights in such a way that we feel entrenched with soldiers, while seeing the scale of the enemy.

A lot should be said about the diversity of the cast. Felicity Jones brings a nice balance of strength to her character, while carrying the emotional weight of her past in her eyes. The combination of Jones, Luna, Yen and Jiang throughout the film make for a great rag tag family and diversity that isn’t too often seen in a big budget film like this because screen time is spread well amongst the group.

In case you were wondering, Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) is in the film just the right way and for the right amount of time! His presence is known and when it’s felt it’s felt, but it is sure to please any Vader fan. Rest assured, they got that part right!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a nice entry in setting up the epic saga to follow. It instills confidence for more stand-alone movies in the coming years as well. Since my kids won’t know the difference, when they reach an age that Darth Vader doesn’t scare them, we’ll start with Rogue One and work our way up to episode 8 (by then)! One through three will always be extra credit.

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.

"Doctor Strange" Review

Another lesser-known hero is being introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend in Doctor Strange. As we near a decade of the super hero powerhouse charting unchartered territory, we can expect to see more heroes and teams of the sort. Doctor Strange is a visually captivating and entertaining installment that I’d place ahead of its similarly lesser-known Ant-Man predecessor.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an ego to match his brains. When a car accident gives him nerve damage in his hands, he sets off to the Far East to find a solution after western medicine fails him. While in Nepal, he meets a group involved in mystic arts at a place called Kathmandu. This allows him to shift his focus and brilliance into studying under The Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton), the leader of the group. Strange learns quickly and is able to apply his photographic memory that once helped him retain information on the body, to retain information of various spells.

While there, Strange meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a master amongst the group, Wong (Benedict Wong) guardian of the library of spells, and eventually Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) a disciple gone rogue to learn the darker arts. There is nothing too new here in terms of basic story and plot folks. Yet what is refreshing is the way in which we’re brought into this new side of the Marvel world. As Wong says “the Avengers save the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.” While this film does have a certain feel of Inception meets The Matrix, there is no set up as to how things work. We’re just thrown into it from the opening scene. And it’s awesome!

We go on the same trippy ride that Strange goes on as he learns about the mystical realms and multi-verse. The visual effects are stunning and director Scott Derrickson does a great job of keeping us aware of where things are happening in the frame without losing us due to them. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a swagger and arrogance to the role that rivals Tony Stark's, so I can’t wait to see the two of them (Robert Downey Jr.) in a scene together. This is a movie with tons of A-listers though, so the performances of Swinton, Ejiofor, Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer (Strange’s work colleague and pseudo love interest) are all top notch.

This is a smooth installment in bringing in another Marvel character and revealing another side of the universe that is mind-bending. It keeps its light-hearted dialogue but well-rounded storytelling that we’ve come to expect. I’m looking forward to seeing Dr. Strange using his powers in a team up film. There’s no question that we’ll see that soon enough as you’ll find out in the film. Be sure to stick around to the end for 2 post-credit roll sequences. Due to the visuals, IMAX 3-D may be worth the upcharge if you’ve got a little extra in your pocket 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.

"Trolls" Review: A Hairful of Happiness

I was expecting Trolls to be a snooze fest. After all, it’s been quite some time since we’ve heard about trolls. Those of us of a certain age remember playing with or seeing friends play with the long-haired dolls, and the 1992 cartoon. Dreamworks has reignited a franchise in a film that’s filled with humor and a touch of the feels.

Twenty years after her father, King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor), saved the trolls from being eaten by ogre-like creatures called Bergens, Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) throws a commemorative party. It’s the loudest, happiest party ever, but unfortunately it’s also a calling card for Chef (Christine Baranski), a Bergen who has been searching for them since that date twenty years ago, to receive loud and clear. The Bergens are unhappy creatures, who are convinced the only way to experience happiness is by eating a troll. 

With a fanny pack full of trolls, Chef sets off to reclaim her place of respect amongst the Bergens. Poppy, with the help of a surly troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake), pursues Chef in order to free her friends. Along the way they meet a Bergen scullery maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who they are able to help find happiness in the form of her love for King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) through song and dance numbers that you can’t help but tap your feet to.

While the set up for Trolls is pretty unoriginal (an overly happy character teams up with an overwhelmingly unhappy character to accomplish a task), Kendrick and Timberlake make for a great duo. Their chemistry makes for an enjoyable ride. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger draw up a world that is over the top infused with color and glitter, light hearted, and yet somehow grounded in a reality that’s emotionally tangible even for it’s youngest viewers.

Trolls has a clear message that anyone can be happy. Between its soundtrack and jokes, the film is guaranteed to make you leave the theater with a little bit of happiness in your pocket. So parents, don’t be surprised if trolls make an appearance in your home pretty soon. In fact, your old trolls stored away from long ago may make you cool 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.

"Moonlight" Review

The buzz about Moonlight started after its premiere at Telluride. Since then, it’s been one of the most sought out films on the festival circuit. And it should be. Moonlight is a magnificent film that doesn’t exploit itself or its message. Instead, it simply tells us a story of beauty, bittersweet irony that allows us make our own decisions and conclusions.

Told in three parts of a man’s life, the film begins with a nine year old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) who is called Little. Director Barry Jenkins instantly makes us relate and sympathize with the main character in a heart-wrenching scene in which Chiron is chased by the neighborhood kids into an abandoned building. As Jenkins camera hovers over Little like the bullies he runs from, Jenkins also uses sound to put us in Little’s world. A cacophony of inaudible yelling and knocking on the door torments our ears, as it does Little.

Juan (Mahershala Ali), the kingpin drug dealer of the block, looks after Little, who doesn’t speak accept for when he’s being fed. After trying to reunite Little with his mother (Naomie Harris), Juan quickly finds out that she’s one of the fiends that he serves. From then on, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) take care of Little when his mother neglects him for whatever reason. So when Little asks Juan “What’s a faggot?” due to bullying, there is an incredible dynamic between the machismo of Juan and the innocence of Little. The beauty in watching a crack dealer provide love and support for a young child while ironically continuing to kill his mother slowly are some of the touches that the movie offers up, with no judgment.

As Little grows into Chiron (Ashton Sanders) the teenager in the second act, the bullying hasn’t stopped. In fact, it seems like a state of the way things are. Chiron’s only friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who has been his friend as a child, but is now a pretty boy and ladies man. It’s in the story of teenage Chiron that we see a point of intersection between the first time he has a sexual experience and when he’s decided he’s had enough of the bullying. This takes us into the final act of the film where we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes), the muscle bound shell of machismo that Chiron has built himself into.

The entire cast of Moonlight does an outstanding job! Mahershala Ali gives Juan the iron fist and open hand that’s needed for us to see the irony in the first act. Harris’s Paula is the only character to be in each act as a steady force in Chiron’s life whether for good or bad, and it stings. Each version of Chiron and Kevin throughout the years bring something different to the table, building off of one another and handing off the baton in a perfect relay race. In the Q&A after the screening I saw of the film, Jenkins said that he never allowed the actors to meet. Knowing that, makes the film that much more impressive.

 Based off of the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight tells a story that’s rarely heard in regard to black male sexuality and displayed without drama. Without ever using the word gay or having a coming out moment, the film simply shows. Jenkins use of restraint and excellent craftsmanship will definitely put Moonlight in the ring during awards season!

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.

"The Birth of A Nation" Review

The Birth Of A Nation is a film for our time. Written and directed by Nate Parker, it manages to transcend its 1831 setting in which an enslaved man led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, and speak to our present. While current controversy surrounding the film may cast a shadow on its director, the film itself is undeniably effective and must be seen.

The film starts with Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) as a child. Like all children, he’s trying to make sense of the world around him. While born into slavery, his soul is that of a fighter.  His owner allows him to play with his son, Samuel, and along the way Nat begins to learn how to read. Samuel’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), nourishes Nat’s developments by helping him read the Bible. 

As an adult, Nat (Nate Parker) ministers to his fellow slaves on the Turner property. He preaches about peace, love, and obedience. When the economy gets tough for slave owners, the local preacher suggests that the adult Samuel (Armie Hammer) take Nat around to preach a message of obedience to calm other slaves.It’s during his travels that Nat starts to see the world in a different way. He witnesses the cruelty of slave masters on other plantations. These images of human beings tortured and oppressed by their owners conflicts with the message that Nat is forced to preach and has seen in his studies over the years. It tears at his soul, and has an impact on his outlook on life. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, Nat preaches with slave masters at his back, a message of obedience from the scripture while simultaneously giving a hope of vengeance for his fellow enslaved people.

After his wife is brutally raped, Nat sees scriptures in a different way. He slowly begins to believe that he is supposed to lead his people to rebellion, and that God has called him to do it. So he does. 

This is not an easy film to watch, although not as unflinchingly brutal as 12 Years A Slave, Parker used a less is more approach. Instead of constantly showing violence, he shows the result of it. There were at least two audible gasps made by the crowd I saw the film with. Yet what’s more powerful and pervasive in a film that occasionally slips into melodrama, is its message. The indisputable atrocities suffered during slavery in the United States are on the screen plain as day, but the links to present atrocities comes through as well. 

It’s certainly no coincidence that the The Birth Of A Nation hits theaters 100 years after D.W. Griffith’s monumental, albeit racist, film of the same name hit the screens. I never dreamed that Nat Turner’s story would make it to the big screen, but it has, and in many ways it’s a reflection of how far we’ve come as a nation. This film is a conversation starter for the right reasons and should certainly be seen, because if we don’t learn from our past mistakes we could easily repeat them!

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.

"Snowden" Review

I’m not quite sure if Joseph Gordon-Levitt is purposefully taking biopic roles in which a documentary of the same subject comes out prior (Snowden is to Citizenfour as The Walk is to Man on Wire) and covers it better or it’s pure coincidence. Either way, in both instances he’s fully committed to the role. While Snowden has great moments, there are a lot of deflated scenes that string them together.

The film starts with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in training to become a member of the Special Forces in the US Army. After breaking his legs, he’s not able to complete training and eventually joins the CIA. From there the film quickly journeys into Snowden’s rise in the intelligence community. He’s a brilliant programmer who catches the eye of Linsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) along the way. 

As Snowden’s clearance levels expand, he starts to notice programs that encroach on privacy of people. His moral compass keeps him on the straight and narrow, while many around him either turn a blind eye or have suffered the wrath of speaking up. Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) is one of those mentors, banished to what looks like a high school science/computer lab in the CIA, who serve as a visual as to what happens to those who don’t play by the rules. 

snowden-linsay.jpg

With the decision to be quiet or speak in front of him, Snowden chooses to contact documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to wisely set up a meet in a hotel room in China to give the truth before the media machine can shut him down. This part of the film is where the documentary Citizenfour centered and covered beautifully. Here, it’s not unveiled as smoothly.

Let it be known that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears Snowden on his shoulders like a rucksack and fights to carry it toward being a film worth seeing. He executes the role with a laser-like focus and care for the character and telling his story. Quinto and Poitras give poignant performances that add to the weight of Snowden’s decision to come forward. Unfortunately, Woodley’s Linsay is forgettable, a character piece placed in the film for conflict with the main character. The pacing of the film, jumping through time, checks off the biopic “must cover” list and director Oliver Stone is able to create the sense of pure paranoia that one would expect to feel in going against the most powerful country in the world.

I don’t think a based on a true story was necessary, and its message is muddled in explaining counter surveillance at times. However, Stone’s film does not shy away from promoting real life document leaker Edward Snowden as an American hero who should be commended, not chastised. Unfortunately, it’s in its slant that the ability to judge for yourself is lost. Which probably wasn’t necessary, because by the end of the first act you already want to turn off your phone and cover your webcam. Excuse me as I close my laptop!

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 Light Between Oceans" Review

“I’m just looking to get away from things for a little while,” remarks Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a single man and veteran of the Great War. Sherbourne has been hired for a six-month stint at Janus lighthouse, whose caretaker has taken a convalescent leave. The name of the lighthouse, taken from the dual-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, lends its name to this movie and the novel it’s adapted from. The lonely lighthouse, while only a few decades old, carries the faiths of its patron town. Residents hope that the beacon will “guide wealth and prosperity” to their edge of the map. 

Such is our introduction to The Light Between Oceans, a deceptively dark, symbolist tale about the weight of postwar guilt and parental loss. The film is ultimately a redemptive one. However, it takes more than a few narrative bends before arriving at final conflict between the rightful parent of a baby girl and the two who have raised her to a toddler from infancy.

For the first half of the movie, Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) delivers a thoughtful, beautiful, even sensual movie about love as a redeeming and renewing force. Alicia Vikander’s Isabel Graysmark quickly takes a liking to Tom. While it is not clear whether Isabel is simply attracted to Tom or sees a wounded man to save, the sparks between them ignite a flame and they are married. This is the first of several quick turns the film makes in order to get to the central conflict. 

With The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance breezes through the couple’s brief seaside courtship and two harrowing miscarriages, the latter of which foreshadows the doomed narrative ahead, in order to balance happiness and companionship atop the weary Tom’s back. No sooner than Tom has literally wrestled with the grave markers of his lost children, does a newborn arrive on the shore, deceased father in tow. Do they report the incident as every other meticulous entry in Tom’s log, or is this a divine sort of coincidence for a childless couple?

Adam Arakpaw’s cinematography captures the breathtaking isolation and splendor of the lighthouse as well as the intimacy of love and loss. Alexandre Desplat’s piano-driven score is equally brilliant, filled with moments of true uncanny to demonstrate the connections between hope and despair.  As the movie drifts on, that spare beauty is traded in for heavy plotting and one beat-you-over-the-head biblical allegory. Some of this could be forgiven, but the tacked-on conclusion guides its vessel right into the rocks.

The Light Between Oceans also offers committed performances from leads Rachel Weisz, Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Fassbender is a particular chameleon, despite always looking like himself. In that way, The Light Between Oceans disappoints by bumbling a trifecta of excellent cinematography, stirring score and strong acting. This is a film too accomplished to ignore, but too poorly plotted to satisfy.

Rating: C+

 

 

"Don't Breathe" Review: A Breath of Cinematic Fresh Air

For some reason I’m thinking about the scene from Blade 2 where the half vampire half human Blade comes out of a pool of blood after being shot by Reinhardt. He slowly rises, energized by the fresh blood and ready to take on his nemesis. After a summer of horrible and lackluster nationwide releases shooting us to cinema death, Don’t Breathe is the lifeblood needed to remind us of the magic of movies and that great films do exist!

The film is pretty simple in its premise. Three teenagers, Money (Daniel Zovatto), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Rocky (Jane Levy) burglarize Detroit area homes for money. After getting a tip on a house that’s inhabited by a blind man (Stephen Lang) who won a big $300,000 settlement after his daughter was killed by a motorist, may have that cash inside, they decide this may be the last house they have to rob in order to get out of the slums of Detroit. Which is actually pretty ironic considering the genre of film.

Once the trio gets into the house, things get complicated. They quickly learn that the blind man is not to be trifled with. Director Fede Alvarez masterfully crafts this film into a tension, suspense filled survival film that beautifully balances psychological terror and physical harm. In his arsenal of psychological weapons, Alvarez utilizes sound much like his blind antagonist. Sounds like a creak in the floor, breathing, sniffling, footsteps, and more all become needles to poke us with psychologically. He frames scenes in such a way that we see the youth in the space of the blind man, and much like them we want to escape the claustrophobia of danger.

Cinematographer Pedro Luque gives the ally-oop with the use of light and lack there of within the frame to help this film be a slam dunk. Light becomes a character that reveals and conceals within this movie in all the best ways possible. We’re able to both see what Alvarez wants us to see at times, and then like the blind man, things we want to see are taken away from us, heightening the horror.

 The cast does a great job of playing their characters. Horror roles are easy to break down into stereotypes, but each actor brings some level of humanity to theirs. Stephen Lang is terrifying as the blind man. His muscular figure in an aged, military veteran body becomes instantly imposing. He sniffs and snorts throughout the film like a Minotaur hunting down its prey inside the maze of the home that he knows inch by inch. You can watch him reach for landmarks as he chases after the teens, and with each confirmation you feel his plan for catching them. Zovatto is the annoying and abrasive wanna be gangster, that even in the trailer, we’re happy to see leave. Minnette plays the smart/heart amongst the trio, and Levy is an every woman heroine that we can feel for.

 What really sets Don’t Breathe apart is the morality shift that occurs throughout the film. Who is really the villain: the blind man or the thieves who broke in? Who is the victim? There are a couple of great twists within the film that quickly displace where you stand and how you feel about characters. It’s the cinematic experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat with all of your senses in tune to what’s going on before your eyes! Go see this film! Just remember to breathe during the scenes, as breathtaking as they are at times.

Rating: A-

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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.