"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

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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.

"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-

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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.

"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-

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.

"War Dogs" Review

I wasn’t expecting much from War Dogs. The trailer suggested it was about two frat boys who made their way to the top of the arms dealer chain to live an American dream that’s one for the record books. Director Todd Phillips has helmed films like Road Trip, Due Date, and Hangover 1 & 2, so that also put me in a frame of mind as to what the film would be like. While the film certainly is light-hearted and has its comedic moments, I was surprised to see a line of serious social commentary weaved throughout it.

Based on a true story, War Dogs focuses on David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). After being a massage therapist in the Miami area for the rich, and trying to step out into a failed entrepreneurial endeavor selling bed sheets, David is down on his luck.  Enter his childhood friend Efraim, who tells him he has a million dollars in his bank account, not to brag, just because they’re boys. David is quickly sucked into Efraim’s world. He learns that the US government has a website that is opened to the public for bidding on selling weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and other bulk war needs.

This movie is slick as Efraim, the mastermind behind it all. It pulls some of its crime genre aesthetics straight from Goodfellas with the main character narrating over a freeze frame as he explains why Albanian gangsters are punching him.  Weapons and uniforms have animated prices on them to stress the central theme of war being about money. The gimmicks work for the story though, as it helps us start to view dealing weapons as they do. You see the dollars and cents behind war, and thus you can see how so many profit off of it.

As David and Efraim start to go higher up the chain, David tries to keep things from his devoted girlfriend Iz (an underused Ana De Armas). Iz is strictly in the film as a beautiful one-note girlfriend, who gives conflict back on the home front as David goes into high-risk situations in Iraq and Albania. It’s the ride to the top and adventures along the way that are entertaining to watch and certainly humorous.

Jonah Hill is a scene-stealer as Efraim. From the moment he steps into the frame you can see he’s a slick talking con artist who will be whoever he needs to be for the person he’s talking with as David says in the film. Hill’s signature laugh, created for this character, tops it all off. Teller is our eyes-in character, and is solid in his role but nothing more, nothing less. We get two well done character performances from Kevin Pollack and Bradley Cooper to round out the cast.

As long as you know what you’re getting into this weekend, War Dogs is surprisingly entertaining.  The reason it works, is because the comedy breaks up the insane, unbelievably dangerous situations we see these two twenty-somethings get involved in on screen. Yet, it’s sobering to realize that this is all based on reality.  Right down to the amount of time (or lack there of) they are supposed to serve for their crimes, it really makes you think about our justice system, or lack there of.

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.

"Suicide Squad" Review

It’s no secret that DC is trying to get its footing with every film it puts out. Suicide Squad is not able to escape this dilemma, but I get the sense that they are learning and re-working with each installment in its world. The film starts strong, and ends flat, but in a film that didn’t take itself so serious :), it’s the summer movie popcorn fun that it’s supposed to be.

Picking up after Superman has died from Batman V Superman, a secret government agency decides to comprise a group of meta-humans and bad guys as a contingency against anyone who may rise up and wish to destroy the world. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) leads the charge and seeks out some incredibly talented but villainous individuals. There’s the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) who never misses a shot, Joker’s (Jared Leto) crazy girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a fire powered Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an Australian thief named Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and a witch who goes by Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Right off the bat we’re introduced to each character in an efficient, fun, albeit we’ve seen it before way.

After a mystery villain begins to destroy Midtown, the squad is called into action. The rules are simple, go extract a high powered official and defeat the villain at risk of death, or be killed by the nanite implants in their necks. There you have the motivation for each villain and story in a nutshell. 

Writer/director David Ayer had his work cut out for him in having to introduce us to each character having not seen a solo story for them prior. The first hour of the film starts out pretty strong, introducing us to the characters, seeing them play with others, and getting them into the mission. Ayer’s tactical know how and ability to visualize action as seen in prior films like Sabotage and End Of Watch is displayed throughout the film. Yet character development gets the short end of the stick. 

Smith’s Deadshot, and Robbie’s Harley Quinn are the obvious stars of the film. With the rest of the group being tag alongs almost as dispensable as the group is to the government. Smith brings the charisma we love in a character that isn’t just Will Smith being Will Smith. Robbie loses herself in her character, but unfortunately the Hollywood male gaze pins her as an object more than anything else. Viola Davis brings the ruthless, pragmaticism that we’d expect from Waller. There is a glimmer of shine that comes from Hernandez’s Diablo that I would have liked to see more of. Of course, the character most of us have been waiting to see, the Joker, weaves in and out of the film a lot more than I thought we'd see, but not quite enough to judge how good he is.

The villain in the film gets the least development of the bunch, but is probably way too powerful for the group minus one. All that said; I still enjoyed watching the film. There were moments in the film that gave me goosebumps (Deadshot leaping on the car), character flashbacks that helped you identify with the villain and see where things may have gone wrong, and the team building of the group works for this rag tag team of bad guys.

While we’re constantly reminded that the group is comprised of bad guys, it’s a one off that works to bring new characters into the DC movie universe. These characters will never have their own film, but they’re not supposed to. DC has introduced us to some of their villains, and when we see them in future films we have an idea of what they’re capable of. So while the film has a simple plot, plenty of style and character charm, it’s not supposed to cure diseases. Let’s be real, if Ayer was able to give us a rated R version of this like he’s accustomed to it would have been a better film. Given the parameters, I think it came out alright. Let the trolling begin!

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.

"Jason Bourne": Older Damon, Old Formula

Matt Damon is back in arguably his career defining role as Jason Bourne. The new film, re-teams Damon and director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum) and the formula still works. It’s the action and set pieces that make this spy thriller pop, while it tastes like bubble gum on it’s way out. You know, the kind that started out great but you’re getting a couple final chews out of it before you spit it out?

Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), embedded in a hacktivist group, hacks into the CIA and finds information that’s just good enough to bring Jason (Damon) back on to the grid. Or maybe, it’s the fact that she in particular contacts him to meet. Whatever the case, the two meet in Athens, Greece amidst an uprising, bringing the agency to the party as well. Armed with new information about his past, a chain reaction kicks off for Bourne to follow the trail.

In this installment, we’re introduced to the new CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and the head of the CIA’s cyber ops division, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Lee is put on the case after using her skills to prove she can keep up with Bourne’s moves. Vincent Cassel is also introduced as the knew Asset from the program, who just may have a tie to Bourne’s past as well.

Greengrass knows how to build tension visually. He gives us the lay of the land in a wide and then twists our focus with mids and close-ups as to keep us on edge with the characters. He offers us two amazing chase sequences in Athens and on the Las Vegas strip! It’s the type that will have you hold your breath, and if you need a reminder that it’s just a movie, you have to salute the choreography of it all!

While the film is stacked with a talented cast, everyone seems to have either dialed in their performance, or been written into a stereotypical corner. Vikander’s Heather Lee is fresh off the cookie sheet of other driven, elite hackers who have risen to the top of the bad guy class. She’s cold, calculated, but bland personality wise. Which is sad because Vikander is such a talent as evidenced by her recent Oscar win. Tommy Lee Jones just got paid for this one. He picked up a check and paid bills. It’s in Damon and Cassel, the two characters who do the least talking, that we get the heartfelt performances.

Jason Bourne is a solid entry into the franchise as far as giving us another chance to see Matt Damon as Jason. The action sequences alone are reason to see it in theaters on the big screen. It’s unfortunate that the overall story and some of its characters don’t get the same care!

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.

"Batman: The Killing Joke" Review

I won’t lie, I came to Batman: The Killing Joke late. I didn’t read it until this year when I heard buzz about the feature film. That doesn’t, however, lessen the power of the comic book’s impact on me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it had the same impact on me that it had for folks in 1988. It’s raw, smart, and compelling. Unfortunately, the new feature film doesn’t compare to the force of nature that is the graphic novel.

The film starts out with a voice over from Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), Commissioner Gordon’s (Ray Wise) daughter, telling us that she’s sure “this isn’t how you thought the story would start”. It isn’t, but we’ll go with it. For the next thirty minutes we see the relationship between Batgirl and Batman (Kevin Conroy) as they try to capture Paris Franz (Maury Sterling), a pompous sociopath. Perhaps this deviation from the source material was to establish Batman’s motivations for going after The Joker (Mark Hamil). Perhaps it was to set up future animated features. Whatever it was, it detracted from the overall story.

The prologue gives us a soap opera love triangle amongst Bruce (Wayne), Barbara and Paris. It paints a misogynistic image of an older man being pined after by a young love lorn coed. (Bruce and Barbara are closer in age than the film made it look like.) It’s a forbidden love story of a teacher and student that feels forced. Especially when Batgirl rips off her top (costume) and makes love with Batman high above the city.

Once the story we know takes off, it’s an entertaining film. Your mind goes between what you know from the comic book and what’s been added to fill in blanks. Hearing Mark Hamil’s voice as the Joker once again is great. It reminded me of all those days of grabbing a snack and watching “Batman: The Animated Series” after school as a kid. Hamil has fun playing the unpredictable equal of Batman, as evidenced in his delivery. Kevin Conroy lends his controlled, powerful voice to the role once more and sells Batman.

If you haven’t read the comic book, do it! It’s awesome! Ultimately, this feature film, like many movies adapted from books, can’t compete with your imagination. The mind is a powerful thing, filling in thoughts and feelings where the page’s frames doesn’t. It paints an incomparable cinematic experience! While the feature lifts some of the iconic panels found in Batman: The Killing Joke and puts them into motion, it can’t beat the original. 

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.

"Star Trek Beyond" Review

In today’s world, where daily demonstrations of violence, hatred, and fear offer us an uncertain vision of our future, we need an escape. We need movies that take us to worlds that are not our own. Movies that depict people of different races, backgrounds, and sexualities working together in harmony. Movies that thrill us, make us laugh, dazzle us.

We need movies like Star Trek Beyond.

Taking over the captain’s chair from previous series director J.J. Abrams, Justin Lin (Fast and Furious) has crafted a vessel that’s just as sleek, fast-paced, and exciting as its predecessors. Make no mistake: this is not cerebral, thought-provoking sci-fi; it’s a full-speed-ahead action flick. However, there is something notable about Star Trek Beyond in how it celebrates the series’ fifty-year history and how it honors its enduring characters. This film was made with so much love, warmth practically radiates from the screen.

While on their five-year mission to explore the far reaches of space, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise fall under attack by a hostile alien threat and find themselves marooned on an uncharted planet. With a damaged spacecraft and no means of rescue, the crew must find a way to get back home while evading the grasp of Krall (Idris Elba), a mysterious enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy them.

This film really is the total package. It has terrific action set pieces orchestrated by Lin, a witty script co-written by Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty), and an impressive new character in the form of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), a badass alien warrior who aides the crew on their journey.

Beyond also has something unexpected: genuine heartstring tugging. In touching ways I will dare not spoil, the film pays tribute to the memories of two legendary Star Trek actors: our Spock Prime, Leonard Nimoy, and our Chekov, Anton Yelchin. Seeing Yelchin, who tragically died just last month, onscreen—so youthful, so energetic—is melancholy indeed.

But Beyond also engages us emotionally in another way: it furthers the development of these characters we love so. There is a very tender and heartwarming scene involving Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) that reveals layers to each character that were not even hinted at in the previous entries. And Captain Kirk, Scotty, and Sulu (John Cho), who were all so lacking in any kind of character growth in the last film, Into Darkness (2013), all have their moments to shine here. These actors embody their characters so thoroughly and work with each other so well that they transcend any shortcomings the film might have.

And Star Trek Beyond does, indeed, have its shortcomings.

While it is an entertaining and well-made film, Beyond doesn’t seem bold enough to break away from the established formula. Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) continue their lover’s quarrel that seems to never end, and we are treated to the now-routine sight of seeing the Enterprise get totally wrecked yet again. Idris Elba’s Krall—at first an imposing screen presence—is drained of all menace or intrigue once his “motivation” is revealed in the third act. It’s here where the film completely deflates, for what begins as a tale of adventure and survival takes a turn for a plot we’ve seen before.

Despite these flaws, Star Trek Beyond is still a rousing—and as I said before, necessary—entertainment, and until that third act twist, it’s true to the spirit of discovery and camaraderie established in the original series. When Gene Roddenberry first created the Star Trek television series in 1966, he envisioned a future of unity and optimism. Fans will be happy to discover that Star Trek Beyond is very much in keeping with that vision. It encourages us to boldly go… and to look beyond to a bright and beautiful tomorrow. Happy fifty years, Star Trek. Here’s to fifty more.

Grade: B

"Ghostbusters" (2016) Review

There is a beautiful scene in Ghostbusters in which Melissa McCarthy’s character gives the other members of the team a pep talk after the citizens of New York denounce them as frauds. I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but she essentially says that even though everyone is doubting them, they know what they’re doing and should ignore the vitriol and save the day anyway.

It’s a fitting metaphor for the film itself, when you think about it. From the moment it was announced, Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters received backlash and bile from fans of the original film from 1984, making it the subject of untold amounts of rage-filled comments. Its trailer has become the single most down-voted trailer in YouTube history.

So, even though the angriest denizens of the Internet were counting them out, director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) and the four talented comediennes he chose to be our new Ghostbusters were so sure-handed and confident, they rose above the hatred and won the day in the end.

Of course, this new version of Ghostbusters is nowhere near as good as the classic original. It was never going to be. But it’s not worth all the fuss, and it’s far from the disgrace to the original film’s legacy that the angry commenters were expecting (and probably hoping for). When all is said and done, it’s a scrappy, good-natured summer blockbuster that, while not perfect, delivers a lot of laughs, a few chills, and a ton of thrills.

When a book about the paranormal that she co-wrote resurfaces, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is let go from her teaching position at Columbia University. The at-first-skeptical Dr. Gilbert soon realizes that all her theories were true when malevolent ghosts begin to invade Manhattan. Teaming up with her former friend, Dr. Abby Yates (McCarthy); eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (the particularly outstanding Kate McKinnon); and New York history enthusiast Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), Dr. Gilbert forms a paranormal extermination team called the Ghostbusters in order to save the world from a demonic entity.

While the story hits a lot of the same beats as the original, it’s the chemistry between these four women, as well as Feig’s unique sense of comedic timing, that keep this reboot feeling fresh. Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, and Jones bounce off of each other to great effect, giving us a sense of camaraderie that harkens back to how well Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson worked with each other in the original. There is genuine wit and inventiveness in the design of the ghosts, and there are even a couple of creepy sequences that sent chills down my spine.

However, even though Ghostbusters gets a lot of things right, that makes the things that it gets wrong all the more frustrating. The film needed some more time in the editing room to tighten up the baggy pacing. As demonstrated in his previous works, Feig encourages improvisation in his cast. While this often leads to some very funny bits, it keeps scenes dragging on for far longer than necessary. There are scenes that begin and end very abruptly, and quite a few of the jokes land with a resounding thud. Additionally, there are several surprise cameos from some recognizable faces, but their presence just serves as a distraction as it takes the focus away from the core group.

But once the team gets to busting, the proton packs get to firing, and the jokes get to flying, the film is an absolute joy to watch, especially in a 3D presentation that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. The 3D effects go out and over the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, so it creates the illusion that slime, ghosts, and laser beams are invading the theater and jumping right at you. It’s a truly effective technique, and it made me wonder why more 3D movies don’t take advantage of it.

So after all that hullabaloo over this new Ghostbusters destroying the integrity of the original and insulting the memory of its co-writer Harold Ramis… it’s time to relax. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is not an insult to the original. Harold Ramis, God rest his soul, is not spinning in his grave. The original Ghostbusters is still readily available to watch and enjoy, and is probably on your home video shelf right now. I know it’s on mine. And when the reboot is released on Blu-ray, it will not replace my copy of the original. It will have earned a place right alongside it.

Grade: B-

"The Purge: Election Year" Review

It’s been two years since we last saw America purge in The Purge: Anarchy. This time it’s 2025 and America is on the verge of either electing a new president who wants to get rid of the purge, or a president who wants nothing but to see the annual 12 hours of all crime being legal continued. This weekend at the movies, I vote you save your money and wait for this one to hit your favorite streaming program!

Eighteen years before the present day in the film, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) watched her family be murdered before her eyes on purge night. Since then, she has been on a mission to end the purge. Let’s not kid ourselves, her opponent is a Donald Trump-like character who believes in violence as the American Way. Frank Grillo reprises his role as Seargent Barnes but this time he’s the head of the Senator’s security.

We’re introduced to new characters in the beginning of the film, and it’s noticeably less than Anarchy’s cast. Bishop (Edwin Hodge) is a revolutionary fighting the NFFA (a trivia note, he's the only person who has been in all three films but he's at the forefront in this one), Joe (Mykelti Williams aka Bubba from Forrest Gump) is a small deli shop owner with the worst afro-centric stereotypical one-liners, and Laney (Betty Gabriel) is an ex-gangster who may have traded in violence for being a triage nurse but still has a shotgun near by. The character development is a little rushed, and the only new person I cared for was Laney as she had a great stamp of approval from a teenage hell-raiser (who comes back later in the film) in the beginning of the film.

The franchise hasn’t changed from its baseline since The Purge. The characters still have to survive the night. This time the goal is to protect the senator from the NFFA members and hired henchmen trying to take her out. The intriguing development this time is the culture and technology of the purge. Foreigners from around the world come to America to participate in the purge as a form of leisure, coined “murder tourists”. Purgers use drones to track people, set up sophisticated traps, and have fight clubs. You get a true sense that this America is fully realized throughout the film.

Writer/director of the trilogy, James DeMonaco, visually taps into the terror of the purge by taking what’s typically harmless and making it horrifying. A car wrapped in christmas lights, bumping Taylor Swift, and filled with teenage girls dressed in lingerie becomes a psychotic gang you don’t want to mess with. Unfortunately, this film seems to have lost its steam at the script level. DeMonaco has slowly brought a political/class undertone further to the forefront with each film, and Election Year clearly wants to speak on gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, religious fanaticism and our current election season. The subtlety in eluding to modern issues is tossed out for either on-the-nose dialogue, or long scenes that run its point into the ground. 

I’ve been a fan of this franchise up until this point from a guilty pleasure perspective. The internal time clock on the films keep things moving, and its entertaining to see how the characters will survive. While The Purge: Election Year has its moments, overall it feels rushed and the characters are caricatures of their stereotype. I’m sure there will be another purge film, but this franchise’s clock may get punched if it doesn’t work on better character development and presenting issues in a more subtle way.

Rating: C-

 

 

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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.

"Swiss Army Man" Review

My first Swiss Army Knife was crimson colored and already missing the toothpick. These things are either midnight QVC showpieces or elementary flirtations with danger and utility--passably good at widdling sticks into spears and not much else. Perhaps one would suffice in a dire circumstance, but TV shows like Naked and Afraid have demonstrated the value of a simple machete in survival situations. Swiss Army Man trades on the cinematic junk of wilderness survival movies. The setting either molds or swallows up its players, but such movies succeed on the spirit and imagination of their creators. Like a kid with a Swiss Army Knife, the tool as a portal is greater than the sum of its cheap parts. Swiss Army Man also reflects how much we’ve been raised on the pop culture junk that litters our earth much as our minds and souls. In the world of Swiss Army Man, the forest floor is decorated with a constant carpet of waste, 20 years of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Editions, food wrappers, plastic bottles, and one talisman bag of cheese puffs. 

The film’s titular body Manny (a spectacular Daniel Radcliffe) has the supernatural abilities of his title, but has neither a memory of his pre-corpse life nor humanity at all. Meanwhile, Hank Jones (Paul Dano) is buried in the memories of his own life and lacks the courage to pursue love and friendship. He can’t gather the courage to talk to the winsome girl on the bus (Mary-Elizabeth Winstead), though the secret photo he snapped of her is prominently displayed on his smartphone. It is this photo that churns the friendship between Hank, the man-child and Manny the corpse-man. 

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Hank discovers Manny just as he is about to end his own life on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He soon discovers that, while the body appears dead, it contains an unfathomable amount of flatulence. So powerful is the corpse’s rear-engine that Hank is able to ride it/him across the water like a bare-assed jet ski, before capsizing and washing ashore on the mainland. In case you didn’t know what you were getting into, Swiss Army Man drops its trousers early. If you keep watching, it gets even better.

Manny’s transition from farting corpse to wood-chopping, fire-lighting, water-spewing Swiss Army Man takes place mostly in montages. Even though he is returning to life through the shared conversations with Hank, Manny is the one saving Hank’s hide. Chalk it up to the sparks between them--bromance, necro-mance, or otherwise. Manny is a like a scatological marriage of Pete’s Dragon Elliott, Zooey Deschanel’s Summer (500 Days of Summer) and a dash of Encino Man. At times, Hank is very easily carrying Manny’s farting corpse through the forest and other times really struggling with it. Dano apparently preferred to carry Radcliffe’s actual weight instead of a dummy. So the otherwise brute strength of a survivalist flick is realized in Hank’s very real struggle with a limp body. Likewise, Radcliffe wanted to do as much stunt work as possible, so the magical realism is grounded in very physical acting. 

Written and directed by first-time film dabblers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man is fresh and thoroughly motivated. Daniels, as the team is known, garnered fame for their music video for Lil John & DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” plus many other short compositions. Swiss Army Man sometimes feels like series of individual explorations that are self-contained enough to be a series of music videos starring the same characters. The soundtrack was composed by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (both of whom appear in cameo roles). The score evolves from Hank’s frequent choral renditions of songs like “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, where his voice is doubled and looped into a mesmerizing chorus that often touches the life-affirming buzz of a Polyphonic Spree song. Hank’s songs take on a supernatural quality and reveal one of Hank’s only coping mechanisms for his lonely life. Additionally, they reinforce the film’s theme of scatological alchemy, spinning fart’s and Eurotrash music into gold.

Swiss Army Man, for all its weirdness, seeks to prick the very real emotional center of existential crisis. It does so by shuffling performances of wilderness ritual with juvenile sensibility and arrested development. When the two leads are trapped in a valley, with little to do but re-create the bus-stop interaction that initially motivated Hank’s suicide, the movie channels Michel Gondry and shines because of its commitment to weirdness and not in spite of it. Swiss Army Man uses the beats of rom-com and survival movies to jostle an audience laboring under the delusions of pop-culture truths. Witness a triumphant film that throws a lot of paint on the canvas and beams proudly at its mess. Swiss Army Man is a bit aimless, but packed with committed performances and a weird beating heart.

Rating: B+