"The House With A Clock in its Walls" Review

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The House with a Clock in its Walls is masterfully nostalgic; director Eli Roth reignites the forgotten appreciation Millennials have for Jack Black. Even though the film is technically created for kids, I was on the edge of my seat throughout the movie. The film is based on a mystery fiction novel written by John Bellairs in 1973. The House with a Clock in its Walls certainly pays homage to the book in its own unique ways, however books are rarely fully realized when adapted to the big screen. The story is not quite the same as the book, but the movie makes up for that with polished special effects,  great acting, and multi-generational humor. The movie is reminiscent of such films like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Golden Compass, and even Goosebumps

Lewis Bernavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is a recently orphaned 10 year old who moves to the fictional town of New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). His uncle happens to be a warlock with a best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), who is a powerful witch. This hodgepodge of characters form a makeshift family on a mission to do one thing, find a way to stop the doomsday clock left by an earlier tenant of the house!

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The first notable thing about the film is the casting, Jack Black  does an amazing job in his role as the creepy, misunderstood uncle. This role is the Jack Black we’ve come to expect to see on screen through and through; he creates such an interesting character within the storyline, it’s hard to look away. Owen Vaccaro steals the show with his ability to cry on cue, competency with linguistics, and charming character. He is the typical nerdy, misunderstood kid, but he certainly proves himself time and time again. Finally, sure to be a character favorite (she was mine) is Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), the platonic friend of Jack Black; their friendship is hilarious and wonderful. They truly care about each other as friends but they don’t waste a moment without dishing out a good insult towards one another. Overall, the acting truly carries the film, and the relationships between all of the actors feels genuine, adding to their creativity.

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Alongside the quarrels and quips between characters, the storyline is incredibly intriguing. The plot is solid and engaging, yet you can never assume what will happen next. The House with a Clock in its Walls is a story that cannot be forgotten (not recommended for kids under age 8), and yet it is filled with humor for different generations. At one point during the screening I saw, an audience member nearby noted out loud that there were more adults laughing at the jokes within the audience than kids which truly speaks to the talent behind the writing by Eric Kripke. As was mentioned before, the character interactions are incredible, and the writing can partially be thanked for this. The actors are able to create palpable, genuine relationships on screen with the dialogue; some of the most impressive acting came from Owen Vaccaro, simply because of the way he “used his words,” (this is even commented on within the film). 

The House With a Clock on it's Walls uses a variety of cinematic elements to give an entertaining final product. The production of the film is well thought out, the creativity shines, and the plot doesn’t falter. The dedication of the actors alongside the great writing help make these characters memorable. As stated earlier, the film is incredibly nostalgic for Millennials; it relates to so many movies in the past that are now reminiscent of our childhood. Hopefully, Jack Black’s role sparks the same sentimental value for the next generation that he created in past films like School of Rock; this film definitely has potential to become a Jack Black cult classic. 

Rating: A-





Comment

Julia Moroles

Julia Moroles graduated from Augsburg College (MN) with a Bachelors degree (BA) in Film Production and Studio Art Production with a minor in Religion. After graduating, Julia lived in El Salvador where she taught film editing, art, and photography in Spanish. While she resided in El Salvador, she studied Monseñor Romero and the liberation theology movement of Central America.

When Julia returned from El Salvador, she completed an internship at a Think Tank in St. Paul Minnesota, called Minnesota 2020. During her 9-month multimedia specialist position, she created two short documentaries focusing on different public policy issues. Her short documentary Colossal Costs closely analyzed higher education loan debt, and was screened in festivals from coast to coast. The second film was a documentary about the urban agriculture movement in Minnesota.

In addition to her studies, Julia has been a photo activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, urban agriculture nonprofit organizations in Minnesota, as well as numerous human rights campaigns (internationally).

In August 2016 Julia began a Masters program (MFA) in Film and Electronic Media for the School of Communication at American University. During her attendance at AU she created various documentaries that focused on social justice issues, female empowerment, and community engagement. Her documentary about American University's Eagle Endowment was honored at the house of the President of American University in 2017. On two occasions, Julia served as sound mixer while filming a documentary for the talented filmmaker Larry Kirkman. Larry is working with the Center of Environmental filmmaking to research the necessity of Science in politics. Julia worked on a 16 person team (8 crews) that covered the March for Science in 2017 and 2018; she also assisted in filming congressional house parties with Larry Kirkman while working on the documentary. Finally, she was a part of a team that filmed interviews with the Defenders of Wildlife in preparation for the 2018 March for Science. Julia's team covered the media tent for both years of the March for Science and conducted interviews with the scientists and speakers for the rally.

From June 2017-December 2017 Julia completed a Fellowship for the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. She worked alongside Mahtab Kowsari to create educational videos that taught students at a graduate level for the Religious Freedom Center. She worked in the fast paced media environment creating the educational videos, promotional videos, filming and producing the educational lectures and she even created an educational social media campaign.

On top of completing a fellowship and assisting with the Center of Environmental Filmmaking, Julia acted as a Teaching Assistant to classes such as Editing, Web Development, Digital Image Editing, and Direction and Video Production.

Julia is currently creating a documentary focusing on the urban agriculture movement across the United States. She has interviewed people on the East and West Coast and hopes to influence more people to be a part of the movement.

"Mandy" Review: A Vision Both Strange and Eternal

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It has been seven years since filmmaker Panos Cosmanos burst onto the scene with the cult sci-fi film Beyond the Black Rainbow, and many have wondered if and how the writer-director could top Rainbow’s ramped-up hallucinogenic visuals.  Fans of the director now have their answer, as Cosmanos has returned with Mandy, an acid-drenched revenge thriller unlike anything released in theaters this year. 

Lumberjack, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), lives a quiet life in the forests of the Shadow Mountains alongside the love of his life, the titular artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).  However the serenity of the forest is disrupted by the arrival of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed folk singer- turned-cult leader and his group of God-loving hippies. After a passing encounter on a desolate logging road, Sand decides that Mandy must join his group. Tragedy eventually ensues and leads Red and his home-forged battle axe into the night seeking revenge at any cost.  

Cosmanos takes this simple plot and drowns it in gallons of blood and LSD.  Mandy’s forest setting is constantly punctuated by beams of Giallo-influenced color, animated hallucinations, and an ever-present heavy metal-influenced score composed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. The film contains homages to midnight films of the past, but these blend seamlessly into Cosmanos’ world and never feel tired or cliche.  It takes a special film to do that in a nostalgia-dominated media landscape, and Cosmanos has shown that a throwback film doesn’t need to consist of yelling “HEY REMEMBER THIS?” at its viewers.  

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Of course, the film isn’t all nostalgia, and provides a number of original set-pieces that must be seen to be believed.  Otherworldly S&M bikers are summoned via ocarina, and grown men duel with chainsaws under the lights of a mining quarry.  These (and other) insane sequences aren’t for everyone, but they certainly draw the viewer into Mandy’s unique vision. It takes a total commitment to the craft to pull things like this off without irony, and the film succeeds where other camp-focused features may fail. 

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This all-in feeling is buttressed by the film’s impressive cast, many of whom turn in milestone performances in their respective careers. Nicolas Cage’s monolithic filmography has been varied to such a degree that the internet has designed a four-point matrix on which to graph his performances.  This, however, is a role no one else could pull off, and Cage’s performance as Red transcends the points on the aforementioned Cage matrix.  Red’s transition from loving partner to blood-soaked death machine requires just about every emotion to come through on screen, and Cage nails every beat required of him.  The viewer really feels Red’s emotional arc, and when Cage engages in one of his legendary on-screen freak-outs, the moment is more than earned.  This is a performance for the ages, and should be seen as a return to form by one of Hollywood’s finest. 

While most of the press surrounding the film’s post-Sundance premiere has focused on Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache deserve equal amounts of praise.  Riseborough’s portrayal of Mandy is wonderful, and Roache’s turn as the villainous Sand should be seen as a breakout moment in his career. A confrontation between the two is one of the film’s highlights and provides a clear piece of social commentary in the age of #metoo.  Expect to see both actors doing big things in the future.

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All of this praise is certainly warranted, but the film is not without some issues. The filmmaker’s editing style is a bit of a double-edged sword, as it was in Rainbow.  The pivotal shift in tone occurs about halfway through Mandy’s 2-hour run time.  This gives the viewer plenty of time to invest in Red’s eventual rampage, but the film does drag a bit.  Those expecting a pace similar to other action-oriented films may find the glacial pace of Mandy’s first half off-putting, but it’s hard to say whether the film’s tender first half could be shortened. 

Nontheless, Mandy is a strong addition to Cosmano’s filmography, and fans of genre-filmmaking looking for an unforgettable experience should strongly consider giving Cosmanos’ latest a view.  Mandy is showing in a limited run of theaters and is available on VOD.  

Rating: B+

"The Predator": A Case for Diversity & Feminism In The Sci-fi Genre

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Seasoned director Shane Black is no novice when it comes to making action films. In the past he’s been known for the Lethal Weapon Series, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight; and he doesn’t hold back in 2018’s The Predator. Not only did Black direct, but he also co-wrote the script for this film, which explains the superb dialogue. Black is considered one of the pioneer screenwriters of the action genre. While he made his mark with the Lethal Weapon Series, he also wrote the cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. So it’s no surprise that this installment in the Predator franchise is stand out in comparison to similar films in the Sci-Fi genre. The diversity of representation is truly thoughtful, the humor is timely, and the amount of blood and guts is just right. I’d go even as far to say the film pays homage to the original in a clever, new age way. 

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First and foremost the comic relief is perfectly timed, and every character has their quick-witted moment. However, something that is most prevalent is the politically correct lens that the humor is placed under. In a film that one may expect to have hyper-masculine dialogue, no one makes a sexist joke, and if a character makes a comment that is remotely sexist it is always thwarted with a feminist response. There are many types of comedy reflective of the film’s diverse characters. Of course, there is the typical archetype in all action films, “the comedian”, played by Keegan-Michael Key, but he is by no means the sole funny person in the film; the film doesn’t depend on his humor. Not only did the humor add a wonderful element to the film, the diverse humor from the characters also makes it a unique film. This type of humor isn’t often found in action films, but it can be found in the sci-fi genre; Shane Black hones in on the comedic diversity of his cast and plays to their strengths, making their humor inclusive yet different.

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Another strong aspect of the film is the diverse cast. The Sci-fi genre hasn’t always been incredibly inclusive with diversity, especially for people of color and women. This film broke the barriers by upholding people of color and women in a positive light within the script; even the “evil” characters were relatable on some level. With that being said, there are only two women in the film, which is typical of the Sci-Fi genre (usually there’s only one female lead and she is almost always the love interest). However in this film, there are two women. Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) is the wife of the main crazy soldier, Quinn McKenna played by Boyd Holbrook. Within the film the other male characters expect Emily to be like the other female archetypes of the Sci-Fi genre (just an ignorant love interest) but she is not only the wife of a soldier, she is trained like a soldier as well. There is a moment where I was actually surprised; Emily starts commanding the men around her to do things and as she proceeds to take a gun off the wall she clearly knows how to use it. Emily’s character isn’t a huge role by any means, but she certainly made an impression by being a badass. The second badass female character who is featured prevalently in the film is Olivia Munn who plays scientist Casey Bracket. She is clearly the most informed character on the Predator and she is also trained in combat. The main thing that stands out to me about Olivia Munn’s character is the fact that the other male soldiers expect her to be strong-willed and cunning; they even make jokes about how she surprises them. Throughout the film Olivia’s character is surrounded by men, and yet none of them really made a pass at her, beyond giving her a pathetic tinfoil unicorn as a gift. She does not become a love interest and she is a key character to understanding the “ultimate” Predator. There is even an eco-feminist lens that could arguably be placed on Olivia Munn’s character as well; she is the only character to interact with the alien dogs within the film, as she alone plays fetch with them. Both of these female characters outsmart men within the storyline multiple times; they are independent, smart, refreshingly tactful and well equipped to handle weapons.


Not only does this film represent women in a positive way, it represents men in a way that’s also unique to the genre. Male characters show more emotions than usual, they have heart to hearts with each other, and they understand that nobody is perfect. What makes these characters perfect, is their imperfections. Keegan-Michael Key plays the comedic soldier Coyle who I mentioned before, he has PTSD from being an incredibly accurate sniper. Key even has an anxiety attack in the film and one of the other male characters consoles him then says, “Its okay, this happens sometimes.” The fact that his PTSD is addressed along with Coyle’s anxiety attack is a big advancement in Hollywood action filmmaking, in the past soldiers would probably say something toxic like, “man up!” or “No time for tears soldier!” In action films, men are oftentimes displayed as emotionless and violent, especially men of color. However this group of crazy soldiers is a diverse bunch. Key is one of three men of color within the group and there are more men of color throughout the film as well including the actor behind the Predator, government officials, and scientists. Nebraska Williams, played by Trevante Rhodes, is an especially interesting character. He is clearly an insane man, but he is also loyal to his fellow soldiers and has a good heart. There is a moment in the film where Nebraska opens up about being a suicidal soldier, which is something I have never seen in Hollywood cinema before unless it is the sole focus of the film. This moment where he confides about his past depression is a monumental step away from the toxic masculinity that has hindered so many films in the past. The fact that the character felt comfortable to talk about his mental troubles truly is an important highlight of how men should be able to talk to each other.

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Alongside the soldiers defeating toxic masculinity, Quinn McKenna’s son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) is an interesting character as well. Rory is on the spectrum and it is believed that he has Aspergers (other kids tease him by calling him ASS-Burgers). This representation is certainly underrepresented in cinema and this film finds an interesting way to highlight how smart some people with Aspergers can truly be.  Even though Rory is a child, he is one of the smartest characters in the film.  In films of the past, the soldier father imposes toxic masculinity onto their child, yet in this film that was not the case. Quinn and Rory seem to have a wonderful relationship and communication, which says a lot when you have a son who has Aspergers. Alongside all of these characters, there is a Latino character that is incredibly religious and socially awkward, and a character with turrets syndrome. These representations might not seem like a lot, but they are incredibly important if we want to create meaningful cinema that is relatable to the population as a whole. This is a film that relates to more people than other Sci-Fi films in the past, which is important because white men are not the only demographic in this world. 


Finally, let’s talk about the gore. Horror films are one of my favorite genres of cinema and oftentimes Sci-Fi films dabble in horror elements to improve the action of the film. The Predator had the exact amount of gore that was needed to make the film great. There are still guts and blood but it isn’t to the degree where you feel queasy after you watch the film. Someone with a feint heart probably shouldn’t watch the film (I am quite desensitized to horror), but if you are a horror fanatic like myself, you will truly enjoy the effort behind the special effects horror makeup. Alongside the blood and guts, the costuming was great. I remember making a note while watching the film that the female scientists aren’t sexualized much like I have seen in the past. They don’t have a ridiculous amount of makeup on, they aren’t showing cleavage and they are viewed as equals to the male scientists. There is even a part where Olivia Munn’s character is naked and she is still not sexualized. This is almost revolutionary for the sci-fi genre, a naked woman who ISN’T sexualized.? Again, the costuming for the female scientists is great simply because they are equal to their male counterparts. The special effects makeup and 3D animation of The Predator was chilling! It’s both terrifying to look at and yet you can’t look away; its almost as if you want to figure out how they operate biologically. This element truly made the film, because in the past you could easily point out what is digitally added and what is makeup. This felt like they have finally found a perfect blend that makes the Predator more realistic than ever. 

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Overall I truly enjoyed the film, I think it is the first of many modernized and diverse Sci-Fi films that are to come. Of course the film isn’t perfect, there are still only two women in the film, and the majority of the main cast is still white, but these efforts of diversity are note-worthy and appreciated. As an audience, we need to support more films that are focusing on a diverse lens; we need to make it known that these types of films are welcomed. The world is not filled with only white men, so our films should not be filled with only white people, this change in diversity and inclusion will create a new generation of cinema that will possibly be even more enjoyable than the past; simply because the voiceless will now have a voice.

Overall Grade: A-

Comment

Julia Moroles

Julia Moroles graduated from Augsburg College (MN) with a Bachelors degree (BA) in Film Production and Studio Art Production with a minor in Religion. After graduating, Julia lived in El Salvador where she taught film editing, art, and photography in Spanish. While she resided in El Salvador, she studied Monseñor Romero and the liberation theology movement of Central America.

When Julia returned from El Salvador, she completed an internship at a Think Tank in St. Paul Minnesota, called Minnesota 2020. During her 9-month multimedia specialist position, she created two short documentaries focusing on different public policy issues. Her short documentary Colossal Costs closely analyzed higher education loan debt, and was screened in festivals from coast to coast. The second film was a documentary about the urban agriculture movement in Minnesota.

In addition to her studies, Julia has been a photo activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, urban agriculture nonprofit organizations in Minnesota, as well as numerous human rights campaigns (internationally).

In August 2016 Julia began a Masters program (MFA) in Film and Electronic Media for the School of Communication at American University. During her attendance at AU she created various documentaries that focused on social justice issues, female empowerment, and community engagement. Her documentary about American University's Eagle Endowment was honored at the house of the President of American University in 2017. On two occasions, Julia served as sound mixer while filming a documentary for the talented filmmaker Larry Kirkman. Larry is working with the Center of Environmental filmmaking to research the necessity of Science in politics. Julia worked on a 16 person team (8 crews) that covered the March for Science in 2017 and 2018; she also assisted in filming congressional house parties with Larry Kirkman while working on the documentary. Finally, she was a part of a team that filmed interviews with the Defenders of Wildlife in preparation for the 2018 March for Science. Julia's team covered the media tent for both years of the March for Science and conducted interviews with the scientists and speakers for the rally.

From June 2017-December 2017 Julia completed a Fellowship for the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. She worked alongside Mahtab Kowsari to create educational videos that taught students at a graduate level for the Religious Freedom Center. She worked in the fast paced media environment creating the educational videos, promotional videos, filming and producing the educational lectures and she even created an educational social media campaign.

On top of completing a fellowship and assisting with the Center of Environmental Filmmaking, Julia acted as a Teaching Assistant to classes such as Editing, Web Development, Digital Image Editing, and Direction and Video Production.

Julia is currently creating a documentary focusing on the urban agriculture movement across the United States. She has interviewed people on the East and West Coast and hopes to influence more people to be a part of the movement.

"The Nun" Review: Save Your Money for the Warren's Next Adventure

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Since its debut in 2013, The Conjuring has grown beyond stand-alone status into a fully realized cinematic universe, all fueled by the real-life investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The newest entry in this gathering of demons and ghouls is Valak, the hell-spawned nun first seen terrorizing the Warren’s home in The Conjuring 2.  Director Colin Hardy takes the viewer back to the source of the demon’s power in the newest Conjuring-related film.  However, the interpersonal relationships and horrific imagery of the source films have unfortunately been stripped away, leaving a carnival ride that fans of the horror genre have ridden a few too many times before. 

Upon hearing of a suspicious suicide at the Abbey of St. Carta, the Vatican dispatches paranormal investigator Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to the Romanian countryside.  Upon their arrival at the Abbey, the pair, along with French Canadian farmer “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), confront and attempt to overcome Valak’s evil influence.  

Despite providing an imposing, Hammer Films-esque haunted house and vague glimpses of the dark history of the Abbey, the film chooses to provide a minimum amount of world building.  After all, the filmmakers have viewers to scare! However, the scares here mostly fall flat, as the viewer is rarely exposed to anything truly terrifying.

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The old standbys are all here: unseen forces inverting crosses, undead beings lurking around the corner, and mysterious pairs of hands reaching out from the dark-all accompanied by a shrieking violin or loud otherworldly thump.  Look, a jump scare is an effective way to get a reaction from the viewer, but so is any unexpected loud noise.  The most iconic films of the horror genre invade the mind of the viewer, implanting imagery and a sense of unease that lasts long after the lights go up in the theater.  Unfortunately, The Nun provides very little in the way of true nightmare fuel. Instead, the film relies on recycled cliches and involuntary nervous system responses to illicit cheap reactions from its viewers.  Some imagery may have felt transgressive at an earlier time but feels tired in 2018.  

The quickly established characters of Burke and Irene, both possessing hints of a troubled past, ultimately serve as little more than engines to move the barebones plot forward.  The dialogue between the two consists mainly of heavy exposition punctuated by screaming. The duo constantly separate, dragging the audience from scare to scare until finally reuniting with Frenchie and Valak for the film’s welcomed ending.  

Credit should be given to Farmiga, who injects some level of humanity into her character. Nonetheless, the film gives the viewer little reason to care about the fate of its inhabitants. Bichir’s portrayal of Father Burke is relegated to a confused facial expression and the desire to run towards any strange sight or otherworldly sound the film throws at him. The campers at Camp Crystal Lake had more sense than the Vatican’s top “Miracle Hunter” has in this film. 

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It could be argued that the traditional imagery and lack of characterization is itself an homage to the B-movies of old.  After all, weak characterization in horror films isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and lord knows film buffs have seen their fair share of haunted houses/castles/hotels/etc, but The Nun doesn’t fully commit to B-Movie status. Instead, it floats somewhere between Hollywood blockbuster and midnight trash.  If the filmmakers chose to lean further toward one of the two extremes, it may have resulted in a better product. However, the lack of commitment here hurts more than helps.

Save your money for the Warren’s next official adventure, and leave The Nun alone. 

Rating: D+

"Operation Finale" Review

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Operation Finale is a historic think piece that depicts the take down of a Nazi who acted as one of the masterminds behind the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) was less famous than Hitler but he was equally horrible in the extent of his actions- they were beyond just “following orders”. Adolf Eichmann fled to Argentina to avoid being tried for his actions in an Israeli court. A team of trained agents (who happened to be Jewish) sought to bring this evil man to justice to honor his victims. Even though the film is a political drama, the storyline doesn’t distort history in a distasteful manner. The film genuinely follows the events to the best of the ability a historical account could.

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The cinematography of Operation Finale is incredible! Director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe, certainly created masterful work. The shots are calculated and creative; the coloring of the film uses muted tones to reflect the era. Alongside the camera work, the lighting is delicate yet deliberate with night shots having a neo-noir feel to them, while other scenes take your breath away from beautifully diffused sunlight. Unfortunately, all that glitters isn’t gold and these aesthetics don’t carry the film in the manner one would hope.


Even though the film is two hours in duration, the pacing is not what will deter audience engagement, kind of. While the cinematography is beautiful, and the acting is well executed, something about the entire piece feels flat. Seasoned film director Chris Weitz creates an intriguing film that contemplates the political nature of the time, however, he doesn’t take into account the lack of action in the script which becomes problematic with the plot. The story comes to a crawl, which forces the audience out of the film. This distraction throughout the movie ultimately builds to an anticlimactic climax.

Finding an appropriate balance is the true issue for Operation Finale, which can understandably be difficult to tackle with historical pieces like this. Sometimes the story doesn’t have a lot of action, but usually, creatives have a way of using the thought-provoking material to compensate for the lack of action. Other times the film is filled with so much action that it just becomes an unnecessary and violent bloodbath. Screenwriter Matthew Orton uses interesting threads to weave a storyline together, however, the essence of the story is never quite found. The film reads as interesting ideas that are underutilized and falls flat. This is unfortunate because for a film that depicts such an important part of history, it demands a better-crafted execution.

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It’s unfortunate the writing doesn’t do the story justice. However, I would not go as far to say I will never watch the film again; it was engaging to see. It is peppered with the commonly recognized Hollywood Jewish Humor which acted as the comedic relief throughout the story. This part of the writing was well executed and the humor came at the perfect time, every time. Small, charming things within the film gave it personality, the characters each had their quips and one liners, making the film more enjoyable within the heavy subject matter. The interpersonal relationships between each actor is genuine and believable.

With all of that being said, this film is a great example of how big budgets can sometimes fail; the elements of the film were there to make it a great piece but there wasn’t a clear cut storyline that was capable of being followed by even the best actors. The cinematography carries the film but I fear the story itself may disengage the average viewer. Even with the elemental issues within the film, I would still recommend seeing it; the story is an important one to know and the tactical actions that were taken to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice are noteworthy. 

Rating: C+

Comment

Julia Moroles

Julia Moroles graduated from Augsburg College (MN) with a Bachelors degree (BA) in Film Production and Studio Art Production with a minor in Religion. After graduating, Julia lived in El Salvador where she taught film editing, art, and photography in Spanish. While she resided in El Salvador, she studied Monseñor Romero and the liberation theology movement of Central America.

When Julia returned from El Salvador, she completed an internship at a Think Tank in St. Paul Minnesota, called Minnesota 2020. During her 9-month multimedia specialist position, she created two short documentaries focusing on different public policy issues. Her short documentary Colossal Costs closely analyzed higher education loan debt, and was screened in festivals from coast to coast. The second film was a documentary about the urban agriculture movement in Minnesota.

In addition to her studies, Julia has been a photo activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, urban agriculture nonprofit organizations in Minnesota, as well as numerous human rights campaigns (internationally).

In August 2016 Julia began a Masters program (MFA) in Film and Electronic Media for the School of Communication at American University. During her attendance at AU she created various documentaries that focused on social justice issues, female empowerment, and community engagement. Her documentary about American University's Eagle Endowment was honored at the house of the President of American University in 2017. On two occasions, Julia served as sound mixer while filming a documentary for the talented filmmaker Larry Kirkman. Larry is working with the Center of Environmental filmmaking to research the necessity of Science in politics. Julia worked on a 16 person team (8 crews) that covered the March for Science in 2017 and 2018; she also assisted in filming congressional house parties with Larry Kirkman while working on the documentary. Finally, she was a part of a team that filmed interviews with the Defenders of Wildlife in preparation for the 2018 March for Science. Julia's team covered the media tent for both years of the March for Science and conducted interviews with the scientists and speakers for the rally.

From June 2017-December 2017 Julia completed a Fellowship for the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. She worked alongside Mahtab Kowsari to create educational videos that taught students at a graduate level for the Religious Freedom Center. She worked in the fast paced media environment creating the educational videos, promotional videos, filming and producing the educational lectures and she even created an educational social media campaign.

On top of completing a fellowship and assisting with the Center of Environmental Filmmaking, Julia acted as a Teaching Assistant to classes such as Editing, Web Development, Digital Image Editing, and Direction and Video Production.

Julia is currently creating a documentary focusing on the urban agriculture movement across the United States. She has interviewed people on the East and West Coast and hopes to influence more people to be a part of the movement.

"Teen Titans Go! To the Movies" Review

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I’ll be up front with you, I’ve never watched an episode of Teen Titans Go!. I’m aware of the Cartoon Network animated series that began airing in 2013, and that people have different opinions about the show itself. I’ve only seen clips here and there, so watching the film adaptation of the series was my first time experiencing this property. Other than the clips I’ve seen and the trailers, this film piqued my interest when it was announced that they got Nicolas Cage to voice Superman, since he was slated to be Superman in Tim Burton’s planned Superman Lives movie twenty years ago before it collapsed. Not knowing what to expect, it certainly won me over with this: Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is a much more enjoyable experience than last fall’s Justice League, and some parts in this film had me howling in laughter.

Every superhero left and right has his or her movie. In this world, you’re not considered a real superhero until you get a movie made about you. Robin (Scott Menville) dreams of having his own film, but none of the superheroes take him or the Teen Titans, which consist of Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), and Starfire (Hynden Walch) seriously. Popular film director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) tells the team that in order to get a film made about their exploits, they need to find an arch nemesis. The Titans might find one in Slade (Will Arnett, who also produced the film), who has nefarious plans of his own. 

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One of the things that I enjoyed about this film is how they sendup all the comic book films that have populated the multiplexes lately. In a sense, whereas the Deadpool films are aimed at an adult crowd, this caters to the kids. Like with last year’s The LEGO Batman Movie, directors Peter Rida Michail and co-creator Aaron Horvath (who also wrote this with co-creator Michael Jelenic) incorporated references of past DC films, TV shows, and comics. No characters are safe, from Batman (there’s a killer joke that WB will basically make any film that’s remotely related to him), Superman, and Wonder Woman, to the most obscured, like the Challengers of the Unknown. While the jokes are mostly catered to the younger demographic, the filmmakers get away with some extremely funny dark humor that adults can appreciate.  

Unlike the tone that’s on display with some of the past DC films, this film knows exactly what type of film it’s trying to be. It’s self aware, and it embraces its roots as a film geared towards children, which is to entertain us for 88 minutes. There is an interesting dynamic in which the directors and animators switch up the animation style whenever it drifts away from the reality of the film universe which helps enhance the story. It feels a bit like a cross between Looney Tunes with a dash of anime. Voice wise, the dynamic between the Titans is good, and you can hear the years of teamwork and how they care for one another in their vocal acting. Arnett once again nails the over masculine type character as Slade, and how over the top he portrays it. The cameos did there part, and Cage as Superman was perfection in my eyes. It makes you wish that he would get another opportunity to voice Superman down the road. Also, the songs are catchy enough that you might have a hard time getting them out of your head.

As for any drawbacks, there’s not enough meat to the bones, and it basically feels like a feature length episode of the series. Even though it runs at 88 minutes, at times, it was as if the filmmakers were trying to figure out ways to pad out the runtime by stretching a comedy bit out or throwing things against the wall until something sticks. As the old saying goes, they had style over substance. There isn’t enough plot, and the film doesn’t go any deeper than you may anticipate going into it. Maybe it was because of the PG rating, but I was a little surprised that the name Deathstroke never gets mentioned once (since that’s Slade’s name in the comics). Finally, the DC animated short that precedes the film, involving the DC Super Hero Girls, felt a little off and choppy. 

Overall, if you’re a fan of the show, chances are you will have a lot of fun with this film. Even if you haven’t watched the show at all, give it a shot. I know I’m not the target audience for this film, but I’ll admit that it has its charm to it, and I was laughing more than I should have. The real question is whether watching this film will lead to me and others to watching the series? There’s a strong likelihood that newbies like myself, may check out at least a few episodes. Be sure to stay around until the mid-credits, because some of the audience members around me lost their minds when it occurred. In terms of DC Animated Movies, I think The LEGO Batman Movie is better, but hey, it seems like Warner Animation may have a better grasp on the DC characters than the live action division. If you were looking something fun to watch this weekend with your family, or just a fan in general, I would recommend checking this out. 

Rating: B

"Mission Impossible- Fallout" Review

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout might just be the best film of the summer! Like a nice fine wine that has aged gracefully, this series just keeps getting better and better. In a way, this series has taken off ever since JJ Abrams came on-board to direct Mission: Impossible III (he has stayed on as producer since). This is a film that somehow manages to outdo each action sequence it builds on and with every minute, slowly shows the great madness that Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (who returns from 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a first for the series) has in store for us. This film goes past nourishing your cinematic needs and leaves you yearning for more! It demands you see this on the biggest IMAX screen possible.

In a nutshell, the film takes place two years after the events of Rogue Nation and the successful capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). After a deal goes south, the IMF team loses a case of three plutonium balls. A group called the Apostles, who spun-off from The Syndicate (the organization that we were introduced to the previous film), plan to detonate them in three cities, causing nuclear destruction. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) must find the missing plutonium case before its too late while being forced to work with CIA Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), who has been ordered by CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) to find the case by any means necessary. As they track down the missing plutonium, Hunt and his team once again cross paths with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has orders that go directly against what IMF is trying to accomplish.

One of the ways that this film succeeds is that McQuarrie decided to make a more direct sequel than previous films in the franchise, while still, for the most part, having this entry stand on its own. McQuarrie does a good job in bringing in various threads from the past films together, while also having some fun nods to the first two films. For all the twists and turns that the story brings us, McQuarrie writes it so that it’s easy to understand the situation Hunt and his team are in. McQuarrie doesn’t overload you, and there’s no expositional dump, but instead he spaces it out so that you get the information when you need it. 

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Character building is strong in this one. For the first time in a long time, you feel more connected with the core group of characters. The chemistry between Cruise, Rhames, and Pegg is great! The humor lands when needed. In a sense, the subtitle has both a literal and figurative meaning, in that the threat of nuclear fallout, and figuratively, the fallout of the choices and past actions Ethan has made throughout the course of this series.

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Acting wise, Cruise continues to bring his all to the series. There’s no doubt that with this franchise, he has found his groove. Even more so with his facial expressions and body language, you can see the wear and tear that Ethan has endured for all these years, including some of the choices he had to choose. While not as charming as he was in 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I liked what Cavill brought to the table as Walker. The dynamic of how Ethan and Walker approach what needs to be accomplished is noteworthy. (While I will say, Cavill is certainly more memorable in this than most of his appearances as Clark Kent/Superman in the DC films). Rhames has more to do this time, and Ferguson still delivers emotionally on what Ilsa has to deal with throughout the course of the film. 

For being the longest film in the series at 147 minutes, the pacing was quite good. We’re talking not look at your watch good! With each passing minute, you’re waiting to see what’s next. The real reason you’re reading this is get a feel for the action sequences, and let me tell you this: just when you think the action can’t top itself, it does. The practical stunts in the films are amazing to watch, and you can’t believe how much they were able to pull off. There are no over-edits on the action, and McQuarrie and his editor, Joe Hamilton, make the action easy to follow! The geographical location of the action scenes are well staged. Some of the action scenes, particularly the bathroom scene, are particularly brutal (and for how committed Cruise is, they left the take in of him breaking his ankle and the aftermath of what happened). 

Why do you need to see this above anything else? The IMAX sequences in this film are something to behold! They are absolutely jaw dropping. For sequences alone, and not counting films that basically used IMAX cameras for their entire shoot, they are some of the best usage of the IMAX format to date that I’ve seen since the Burj Khalifa sequence from 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I implore you, you have to see this on the biggest IMAX screen you can find! The music from Lorne Balfe was certainly memorable in places, with it being more emotional than the past couple of the films, while still employing and updating the classic theme we all know.

Some of the plot twists and revelations in the film are easy to predict, with just a tad too much plot convenience. I’d suggest going into this movie cold outside of this review. While the practical effects soar, some of the visual effects looked a little wonky, particularly during the third act.

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Overall, Mission: Impossible – Fallout certainly ranks as one of the best films of the series, if not the best when it’s all said and done. This is one of the best action films ever assembled during this decade and deservedly needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s a blast from the first minute onward, and leaves you ready to watch the next film immediately. I could watch a new M:I film for the rest of my life so thank you Tom Cruise for putting your life on the line to continually bring us entertainment for our disposal. This entry was one heck of a ride!

Rating: A-

"Eighth Grade" Review

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Eighth Grade is an honest and realistic look at that crossroad of life we come across before we begin high school. The directorial debut of Bo Burnham, a comedian who began his career on YouTube, this film is one of the more refreshing takes on this genre that I have seen in quite awhile. Led by what could be a breakout performance from its leading star, this premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to positive word of mouth. In short, once again, A24 delivered on the goods with this film.

The story revolves around the last week of eighth grade for Kayla (Elsie Fisher). To put it mildly, it wasn’t the best year for her. She’s awkward, doesn’t have many friends, and spends most of her days on her phone or on her social media pages. After being voted by her fellow peers as being one of the most quiet students in school, Kayla does her best to break out of her shell and be more noticeable, all the while trying to navigate her final week at school.

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As I said earlier in my opening paragraph, I suspect this will be Fisher’s breakout role (she previously voiced Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films). Fisher gets the awkwardness down to a capital T and makes her character feel like a living and breathing being. Whether she’s trying to stand out or gets an anxiety attack when forced to attend a fellow student’s birthday party Fisher is impressive with what she brought to the table. Watching this film, I could relate to this film since I was like Kayla in eighth grade. I remember being quiet and painfully awkward at times and didn’t know what to do. Josh Hamilton, playing Mark, Kayla’s father, also puts in good work as a single dad who’s doing his best in trying to connect with Kayla. The chemistry that both Fisher and Hamilton exhibited between one another is authentic and sincere as daughter and father.

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For his first directing effort, Burnham does a good job in showcasing how kids these days are more glued to their phones and their social media accounts than interacting with one another in real life. Case in point, it’s evident that Kayla is more confident in doing her videos for her YouTube channel or spending an entire morning trying to get that perfect selfie for Instagram. Burnham never tries to make a statement, but shows us how the younger generation is more adapt to social media. Burnham shows skills in his direction by juxtaposing scenes to match whatever YouTube video Kayla is making, like talking about how to be more confident, being yourself, and so forth. The film also has a nice blend of awkwardness and drama. Since eighth grade is a strange time in our lives when we’re at that age where we slowly start to transition to adulthood. It’s quite effective, especially during a scene in the third act where Burnham plays with the tone all at once. The cinematography from Andrew Wehde felt realistic in that the film is set up so we are alongside Kayla throughout the film. Even though she’s basically a blank spot to the world, it’s as if Kayla’s in the center of the viewer’s world, and the look of the film made the world bigger than what it actually is. What seems trivial now looking back at it is the end all be all for Kayla. The dialogue is natural enough that it feels like real teenagers talking. The music Anna Meredith composed for the film is wonderful as well.

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Even though the length of the film was just the right amount at 94 minutes, there were some storylines Burnham that could have been explored more that he introduces in the film. One minute, it’s about how Kayla is trying to get her crush, then the next, a different topic, and so forth. There are a lot of small moments he brings to the film that on it’s own, could possible fill out as a film in itself, but it would have been great to get some resolutions to these storylines.

Overall, Eighth Grade doesn’t try to be hip and cool, but gives a much more grounded look at life from an eighth grader’s point of view. As a first-time filmmaker, Burnham put in solid work in this, and I’m interested to see how his filmmaking career progresses from this film. This is Fisher’s film through and through, and a big part of this film’s success rests on her shoulders. Even though it’s a different generation, the growing pains that Kayla goes through is universal all around. It’s a charming film that shows us that no matter what, we’ll get through this awkward phase of life. I would definitely recommend checking this out in a theater when it opens up near you.

Rating: B+

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Richie Wenzler

Richie Wenzler is currently finishing up getting his M.F.A. in Film and Electronic Media at American University. He's currently working on his thesis film. Previous to that, he received a BA in Communications & Culture and Telecommunications at Indiana University. He's a perpetual film student and is chasing his lifelong dream of working in the film industry.

"The First Purge" Review: It's Just a Movie...But

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They say that practice makes perfect. While the fourth installment in the Purge franchise is far from perfection, there is something to it that is undeniably breaking through to speak to real world issues. Yes, The First Purge is more refined and closer to B-movie, survive the night status like some of the classic John Carpenter films. However, the real  magic is in how much its’ premise feels a lot more tangible and believable in our present day political climate.

This film takes it back to the beginning when The Purge became The Purge. At this point, it’s called an experiment, created by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei). Rather than being nationwide, its’ first at bat is localized to Staten Island. In an effort to get members of the community to participate, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) offers $5,000 for wearing contacts that double as cameras with bonuses for committing violence. Potential candidates that range from psychotic and mentally ill to people trying to feed their family are analyzed by NFFA staff.

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The formula here is no different. We’re introduced to the main characters early. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is the drug king of the borough. Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) are siblings who have each other’s back in a world without parents. Nya is an activist who believes the experiment is not good, while Isaiah is caught in the middle ground, seeing an illegal way to provide for him and his sister he starts dealing on the corner. Dolores (Mugga) is their hilarious neighbor and aunt figure in their lives. 

In the midst of main character development, the NFFA is setting up cameras and surveillance around the island to broadcast to the world. Right before and once The Purge commences, so do the one-liners that strike a nerve. The Founding Father president states “We’re all Staten Islanders tonight”. Nya tells her old flame, Dmitri, “we have to make choices to heal or to hurt” after approaching him due to a setback Isaiah had on the street corner.  

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Since there is little ruckus outside of people robbing and looting when things start,  Dr. Updale notes that in order for people to truly embrace The Purge “morality and religious dogma must be dropped”. It’s easy to gloss over that line, but it truly is the key to why The Purge works and why our current real life political climate is as it is. Even if you’re not religious, we all have a moral compass. Whether that compass has been pointed south by life, we all start out with the purity of knowing right from wrong. The statement is truly has Last Action Hero, off of the screen and into the real world impact.

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With our morality in question, Arlo Sabien (Patch Darragh) the NFFA Chief of Staff, makes a call to spice things up. Simultaneously, director Gerard McMurray and writer James DeMonaco (who wrote all Purge films) do the same cinematically. Suddenly, white men wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods and throwback Nazi-like regalia show up on the island, forcing Dmitri and friends to fight back. There are particularly harrowing moments of racism and violence that come straight from our history’s headlines as klansmen shoot up a church with predominately black community members. One man is dragged through the street by his leg attached to a vehicle by chain. Tiki torches light the night. These images seem vaguely familiar. While the formula of the film calls for the main characters to get some payback on their oppressors, the joy that one feels for those kills is worth questioning. Sure, it’s just a movie, but why use Klan hoods as masks? That hadn’t been done before. It’s just a movie, but why are the clean cut white men in power positions to experiment in low-income neighborhoods that are comprised of people of color? It’s just a movie, but why does Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” close it out? The song is the rallying cry of this generation’s people of color. Again, see my opening statement, practice makes perfect and DeMonaco’s pen is getting closer to making powerful statements on the state of our union and lack their of.

Ultimately, the final act of the film is tense and suspenseful as Dmitri must “old school video game” his way up to the 14th floor of Nya’s project apartment building, taking out the bad guys along the way. McMurray’s direction is controlled and his frame is claustrophobic at times, allowing us to see what he wants us to see. He leads the audience to the end like a Carpenter throwback. 

Some of the performances in this film are worth noting. Mainly, Y’lan Noel, who has an enormous presence on screen and natural charisma that forces you to root for him, even when he’s murdering people. Mugga provides plenty of laugh out loud moments in the film. In one scene she tells Nya that she left the church to look for her, then got the bubble guts and had to purge another way! Joivan Wade truly portrays a scared teenager trying to do what he thinks will help his family. Perhaps one character that will be a fan favorite is Skeletor, played by Rotimi Paul. He’s a giant psycho who wants to Purge from the opening scene. Rather than playing crazy, Paul truly makes Skeletor feel like the neighborhood fiend who finally gets to reek havoc on the world that looks down on him.

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The First Purge certainly shows us how everything started. It’s the right length, and an authentic installment in the thesis of what all Purge films rest on in answering the question “what if all crime was legal for 12 hours?”. However, it low key shows us ourselves as well. That’s worth a deeper conversation after the lights come up. 

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.

"Incredibles 2" Review

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Incredibles 2 is a fun summer movie sequel. The new film from Brad Bird, whose previous film 2015’s Tomorrowland underperformed greatly at the box office, returns to the world that he created back in 2004 (which feels oddly similar to how after 2012’s John Carter bombed badly at the box office, director Andrew Stanton retreated back to Pixar to direct 2016’s Finding Dory). Even though it feels safe at times, this is an enjoyable film from start to finish! Given Pixar’s spotty track record with their sequels, I would say that this is their best sequel they have made since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

Immediately picking up after the events of the first film, the Parr family comes across Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a telecommunications tycoon who wants to bring superheroes back into the spotlight. With the assistance of his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), they propose a plan to have Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) be the face of the new program. Helen goes off on her missions leaving Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in charge of looking out for their kids: Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (newcomer Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox), and Jack-Jack. Along the way, the Incredibles comes face to face with The Screenslaver; a mysterious figure that has nefarious plans of his own.

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I enjoyed how Bird switched up the dynamic in this one by having Helen take the lead while Bob watches the kids. It’s hilarious to see how Bob adapts to being a stay at home dad, and you can tell that Bob wants no part of it as everything slowly overwhelms him. More often than not, some of the strongest parts of the film revolve around the domestic aspect of the story with fun moments Bird plays with. The voice acting is still on point, especially between Hunter and Nelson and the chemistry they have with one another. Bird gives strong characterizations to the family themselves allowing each family member have their own standout scene. The MVP of the film is easily Jack-Jack, who they all come to realize is way harder to handle than they previously thought. Although at times it feels as if his scenes are lifted from a Looney Tunes short. Side note, if Disney/Pixar can make a spin-off film or a short involving Jack-Jack and Edna (also Bird), that would be awesome!

The animation in this was a beauty to look at, which is expected from Pixar, and there are some gorgeous shots that Bird and his team put together. The 60s aesthetics that Bird employed with the first film is carried over into here, and at times, the film feels like an animated James Bond movie come to life. The action scenes are inventive and nicely edited, with each having their own rhythm and pace to them that doesn’t feel stale. Finally, Michael Giacchino’s score is an absolute standout! Make no mistake about it, it’s one of the best film scores I’ve heard in a theater so far this year!

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While I had a good time in the theater watching this, the story in this is predictable at times. This was one of those films where you can figure out the basic plot points of the film from watching the trailers. I didn’t buy into the villain’s motivation at all in the context of the story. In fact, a couple of the storylines that we are introduced to don’t get resolved at all, as if Disney/Pixar were setting certain things up for an inevitable Incredibles 3. Finally, even though the family had great character development, there isn’t much character development with the other characters in the film.

Overall, I think families will love this film. If you enjoyed the first one, chances are you will get a kick out of watching this one. As I said in my opening, I had an enjoyable time watching Incredibles 2. The question I had going into this film was whether or not the story that was presented was absolutely necessary for Disney/Pixar to tell. Even though I had some slight issues with the film, Bird accomplished what he needed to do, which is to make a fun superhero film for families to watch.  After watching this, would I watch an Incredibles 3? Sure I would. When you do see this, you will be treated to Pixar’s latest short Bao, which is a sweet and touching story about a lone dumpling. So, on that note, I would say check this out in the theater.

Rating: B

"Superfly" Review

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Whoa boy, Superfly is something, but not in a good way. It’s a reimagining of the 1972 Blaxploitation film that had the famous Curtis Mayfield soundtrack to it. The newest version comes to us from veteran music video director, Director X, who makes his feature length debut with this film. I was a little nervous about the film when after it began shooting this past January, Sony announced it was going to be released five months later. It’s worse then I feared. Devoid of any personality of its own, this is a misfire on all accounts, from the questionable acting to poorly staged scenes and everything in between. It also makes one of the worst cardinal sins of any film: it’s boring.

If you’ve seen the original film, the newest version hits on the same basic story, for the most part. Priest (Trevor Jackson) is a successful drug dealer in Atlanta who has enough to get by and flying low from capturing the attention of the authorities. After getting into an altercation with Juju (Kalann Rashard Walker) of the rival Snow Patrol gang, which leaves a bystander getting shot, Priest wants out of the game and wants to make one last big score with his pal Eddie (Jason Mitchell). Since Priest’s mentor Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams) won’t give him more coke, Priest goes directly to Scatter’s source and makes a deal with the Gonzalez family, a Mexican cartel. Supplied with more coke than they ever gave Scatter, Priest makes his way into trying to make fast cash and then exit the game for good, hoping he doesn’t get killed or captured along the way. 

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If there’s anything that I liked about the film, which isn’t much, it’s that Williams, Mitchell, and Big Boi (playing Mayor Atkins), are decent enough in the film. These three knew the type of film they were acting in. Whenever Mitchell is on screen as Eddie, it makes you wish that the filmmakers decided to have him play the lead role of Priest, because that version would have made things more interesting to watch. The soundtrack curated by Future, who also produced this update, got the job done, and it was nice to hear some of the classic Mayfield songs from the original film in this. Whenever those songs played, the film suddenly became slightly better. Finally, there were some lines in this that made me laugh, whether that was intentional or not.

Too bad the screenplay sucks the life out of the film. The screenplay, credited to Alex Tse (whose last credit was the under-appreciated and underrated 2009’s Watchmen adaptation), hits the same plot points and beats that you would typically see from a cliché gangster/drug dealer film about someone who’s trying to get one last score equipped with the same basic narration from the main character we hear from every film of this type.  Even though this has more story than the original film, it’s all over the place to the point that you won’t care at all as the film tackles police corruption, drug cartels, and potential gang war during the course of the runtime. Superfly is the type of film whose bread crumb trail is comprised of biscuits! You know exactly what’s going to happen, so there’s no tension at all. At least the original film had style to it; this one lacks style or any type of personality. It’s just bland. 

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From the opening frame of the film, you can feel something’s off. Even though Director X is a music video veteran, you can tell this is a work from a first time feature length filmmaker. The few action scenes that are in this are poorly edited with no flow and a lot of quick cuts to the point of overkill. Even for a dialogue scene, Director X and his editor overcut to the point of distraction. The pacing that Superfly has is extremely slow. For a 103-minute film, this feels even longer than that. Acting wise, the actors ranges from completely amateur hour, like Walker’s Juju or Big Bank Black as Q, Snow Patrol’s leader, to over the top, like Jennifer Morrison’s Detective Mason. I also hate to say this, but the film was completely miscast. No disrespect to Jackson, since he’s good as Aaron in Grown-ish, but I couldn’t believe him as Priest since he looks way too young. There’s no character development for anyone and I didn’t care for any of the characters for me to sympathize with.

Overall, Superfly is easily one of the worst films I’ve seen in the theaters this year. Could a remake have worked in today’s age? I think it could have, but for this iteration, it showed that the filmmakers clearly didn’t care, or had no idea about how to properly adapt it for today. Coming out five months after you started shooting doesn’t help matters at all. With careful development and maybe a different filmmaking team on board, this had the potential to be an entertaining update. Alas, this is a generic, cliché film that follows formula with a capital F and is ultimately super-forgettable. You don’t need to pay money to see this. Truth be told, don’t even bother watching this update. Stick with the original version and whatever you imagined for a remake, it would be infinitely better than what you would have paid to see this. Skip this one.

Rating: D

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Review

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a thoughtful, celebratory documentary about the impact of the classic landmark series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The new documentary from filmmaker Morgan Neville, who previously directed the 2014 Academy Award winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, does not have a dull moment throughout the runtime. At times fascinating, other times jubilant, this celebrates the joyful soul that Fred Rogers was and the positive attitude the show was aiming towards. Be prepared to bring some tissues before you head into the theater.

In 1967, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was launched on a local Pittsburgh television station. Fred Rogers, the host of the show, wanted a show that was aimed at the very young age group, as a sort of educational tool to teach them values and talk to them as if they were just another person and not dumbing it down, like some children’s programming were doing at the time. Interspersed with archival footage of Fred are interviews from cast and crew involved with the show, as well as his wife and two kids. In a way, what people saw, and if you grew up on the show, were all aspects of Fred himself.

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One of the great tactics Neville does with the documentary is the format that he uses when he interviews Fred’s family or the people who were closely involved with the show. The style of the interviews, and the documentary itself, employs a feel like the show itself. It connects with you, as if they’re talking to you, about the impact the show had on all their lives. The use of the archive footage was well put together, in that we feel like we’re inside of the room as it happens. Rather than have people talk about Fred’s philosophies, we hear from Fred himself about what he hoped to achieved. It was also quite fascinating that he was just about to become a minster before he came across a television, and switched career paths in an instant. Even though he made you feel comfortable, he got his message out more so than if he was a minster. Another item that they touched on was that even though he was a registered Republican, he didn’t make decisions based on his party, but on his faith. If we saw something taboo on the news, he would make it a point to showcase it on his show.

Using puppets and fantasyland, the show would tackle some big subject matters, like Vietnam and Robert Kennedy’s assassination. It also discussed some big questions, like what happens when someone dies. Fred, throughout it all, spoke to the kids in an impactful way, rather than trying to gloss over them. Speaking of puppets, the documentary points out that he couldn’t really express his feelings on his own, but rather used his puppets, like Daniel Striped Tiger, to express his actual thoughts, especially around his family. To further illustrate this, they use animation of Rogers as Daniel, which was effective at times. Another big question that the documentary talks about was if the Fred Rogers that people saw on TV was the real Fred Rogers in real life. The film’s answer to that is yes he was, and he’s someone that we don’t see that much anymore in television, if rarely. 

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The documentary primarily focuses on the show itself. Even though we do get to hear some aspects of his personal life, the film skims over certain aspects. At times I wanted them to go more in-depth with some of the avenues that they explored throughout the course of the film; I felt like they just didn’t pull back the mask enough. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the length was perfect, but at the end of it, I was ready for more. This documentary could have gone a million different ways, but for the most part, I think Neville went down the right route.

Overall, I truly believe that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be nominated for Best Documentary at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s that good of a documentary! We need figures like Mister Rogers in today’s age, since we live in a time of fake news and sometimes discontent. As Mister Rogers showed us on his show, and what the documentary points out, if we’re nice and kind to each other, the world could potentially be a better place to live. It’s a feel good film to watch with everyone, and when it comes to your area, I hope you seek this out. If you were a fan of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, then this is a must see. I would highly recommend checking this out in the theater!

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.

"Hereditary" Review

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I’m still speechless about what I saw coming out of the theater. Hereditary is the best horror film that I have seen in the theaters since 2016’s The Witch, which coincidentally was another horror film that A24 released from the same producer. The directorial debut of newcomer Ari Aster, this film signals a new filmmaker that you should keep an eye out for from now on following this release. Unsettling and tense at times, Hereditary is that type of film that slowly builds and builds until finally all hell breaks loose. Super creepy as well, this is a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll, and it might give you some nightmares along the way.

Without going into too much detail, since you should try and go to this as cold as possible, the film begins with the grandmother of the Graham family dying and her family members attending the funeral. After the funeral, Annie (Toni Collette) and her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and their children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) start experiencing strange occurrences around them, which results in a tragic accident. In the midst of everything, Annie starts to uncover things about her ancestry and must figure out what’s happening to her family before its too late.

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To start off, this is Collette’s film through and through. This is a phenomenal performance that results in what could probably be her finest hour yet as an actress (if you must know, she and Byrne are also credited as executive producers of the film as well). Some of the scenes that Collette’s required to perform are absolute standouts, and for all the different types of ranges she goes through, she performs them all flawlessly. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of year, Collette is in the mix for award discussions. Another actor that stood out to me was Wolff, who turns in an impressive performance as Peter, as a man who slowly begins to lose his grip on the world. It’s safe to say that for his career so far, this is his best role yet (he’s way better in this then say Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Patriots Day). For her debut film, Shapiro as Charlie definitely plays up the creepy child vibe, but in a good way! Don’t be surprised if she blows up into a future star in Hollywood after this. Most of the characters are well rounded as Aster, who also wrote the film, peels back on the layers to get a sense of who these people are and how each are affected with what’s going on.

Hereditary is that type of horror film that I tend to enjoy a lot, which are those that take on a more psychological approach than having it shoved in your face and being too violent. In my book, horror films are much better if they show you creepy images or imply things rather than showing what happened. If you didn’t know that this was a feature length debut, you would think this was from a master class horror filmmaker. I loved the look that Aster and his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, came up with. Even though in theory the scenes have simple setups, the shots are meticulous, and for the most part, the only camera movements they employ are either pans or slow zooms in or out. Aster never over-cuts on the scene, but rather lets the scenes play themselves out; to the point where scenes start to get unsettling since you don’t know what’s going to happen next. The bluish tones that the film employs also represents the mood and mindsets our characters are going through. In addition, the use of silence in some of scenes help further the mindset of some of the characters. The sound design gets creepy at times, and the music from Colin Stenson hit the spot. I like the slow burn approach that Hereditary takes as it builds and builds until basically an all out assault, since it takes time to let us know who is who and we get to know them before things start to hit the fan.

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If there are any drawbacks that Hereditary has, it is that it may leave people scratching their heads about what’s going on. For a 127-minute film, it relies on you to figure things out on your own rather spelling things out. If you keep up with the dialogue, you should have a grasp in what’s going on. Speaking of scratching your heads, like The Witch, the end gets completely bonkers to the point that you are either on-board or not. The slow burn that the film takes might put people off, but trust me, keep with it and you will be rewarded greatly. 

Overall, A24 has another winner on its hands with Hereditary. If you can, try and go into the film cold outside of this review. The less you know about it, the better off you will be. Go see this in a packed theater. This film will give you the creeps, I will assure you of that. By the end of the film, you won’t be able to sleep with what you just saw. I thought going into the film I was getting one thing, but the film became something else than what I expected, with some of the themes and ideas that the film presents to us. I would definitely recommend this to you. Now it’s time to get some of these images out of my head.

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.

"Solo: A Star Wars Story" Review

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Solo: A Star Wars Story is the surprise of the summer. It’s a miracle that the final product turned out the way that it did. I wasn’t expecting much because of the behind the scenes chaos the film production had (in short, original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired by LucasFilm with a few weeks left in production due to disagreements between them, Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter, and LucasFilm over the direction that the film should take and Ron Howard stepped in as their replacement). Since this happened, I thought this was going to be another Justice League situation where you could tell which director shot each scene, and the trailers didn’t do much to gain my confidence. Truth be told, since this had the most publicized troubles of all the Disney Star Wars films, I thought this was going to be a disaster, but much to my surprise, I was wrong on that. And this is the most fun film that Howard has directed in a very long time, and it’s up there with 2013’s Rush as one of the best films he has made during this decade.

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The film covers the early days of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), how he came to be the character we all came to love, and how he crosses path with his future co-pilot and loyal companion Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). In short, after a job goes south, Han, Chewie, and Han’s mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrleson) need to repay the debt that Beckett has with gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). In order to complete their mission, with Vos’ top lieutenant Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), someone from Han’s past in tow, they will need Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and what he considers to be the best ship in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon. 

The first thing on everyone’s mind will be, how is Ehrenreich as Han? Well, he’s a little clunky at first and somewhat stiff, but then he finds his rhythm about 30 minutes in, and makes the character his own. I enjoyed that he doesn’t try to amp up or imitate Harrison Ford’s Han, yet you can still see hints of who Han will become in the future. Glover puts in an amazing performance as Lando. Glover absolutely kills it! Whenever he’s on screen, he basically steals the film. Lando is charming as ever, showing how much he’s full of himself, while still possessing the charisma to win you over. Harrleson seems like he’s having fun playing Beckett, and it’s a nice change of pace from some of the serious roles he has taken on for the last few years. In the tradition of scene-stealing droids throughout the series, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s droid companion, gets the job done and provides some laughs. Clarke as Qi’ra was fine in this, certainly better than some of her film roles she has taken on outside of Game of Thrones. Chewie finally gets to do something in this one unlike in the past few episodic films, and I enjoyed the chemistry that Suotamo and Ehrenreich exhibited between one another.

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For the story itself, credited to Kasdan (who previously co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) and his son Jonathan, it is serviceable enough. They pay some nice homage to the original films, and there are some fun Easter Eggs along the way. Since this is basically an origin story, the Kasdans for the most part, provide some fun answers about Han’s background. If anyone knows Han inside and out, Lawrence would be your guy. Story and directing wise, you can see the western influence that the Kasdans and Howard were going for with this film. Howard does a good job in visually depicting each of the planets that we go to throughout the film, with some help from his DP, Bradford Young (this is his first big budget film he shot after films like Selma and getting an Oscar nomination for his work on Arrival). Howard keeps the fun up, and for the cynic like me going into the screening; I will admit that I had a smile on my face from time to time. If you didn’t know about the BTS problems, you wouldn’t be able to tell which directors shot what scenes, and it felt seamless enough that nothing felt out of place. As expected, the creature and set designs were on point. For a 135-minute runtime that Solo displays, the pacing was good and it kept right along (it did seem to go by faster than Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and some of scenes were nicely edited that they had a fun rhythm to it. Finally, the music from John Powell, with some help from John Williams, might be the best-composed music yet for a Disney Wars film. Powell does a nice job in paying tribute to what we heard before, or in this case what we will hear later on, and putting a new spin to some of the classic tracks.

If there were any problems that Solo exhibited, it’s that some of the plotting felt a little too convenient at times, in that you can probably figure out what’s going to happen.  The first 15-20 minutes or so are a little clunky and rough around the edges, with the first few scenes so darkly lit that it’s a little hard to see what’s going on. The villain of the film, Vos, isn’t particularly interesting and didn’t grab me, but I wonder if this was one of the casualties of the reshoots and the switching of directors (Michael K. Williams had originally played Vos as a motion capture alien, but when he couldn’t come back, they brought in Bettany and reconfigured the character as a human). For being featured in the marketing, Thandie Newton’s Val was wasted and basically had nothing to do whenever she was on screen. Lastly, the love story that they hint at in the film between Han and Qi’ra is nothing special. Unlike Han and Leia, you never really feel it with Han and Qi’ra, even though we hear throughout the film that there’s something between them.

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Overall, and I know that I said this word a few times over the course of this review, but Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fun film. It starts off rocky, but once it finds its rhythm, it gets good. If you were one of those people who were disappointed with The Last Jedi, I think you will have some fun with this. This won’t change the game, but if you’re looking for something to sit back and relax for a few hours, this is a good choice. I would be open to see more Star Wars Stories in the future, since I thought this was going to be the last film in this series, after the problems that this and Rogue One had. I wouldn’t even mind seeing more films with Ehrenreich as Han, but get me that Lando spinoff film ASAP! On that note, I would recommend checking this out in the theater. If you were a skeptic like me, you might be surprised with the outcome of this.

Rating: B

"Deadpool 2" Review

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Deadpool 2 wasn’t the film I was expecting it was going to be, but in the best way possible. After the first film just over two years ago went on to exceed everyone’s expectations, Wade Wilson is back with his misbehaving ways. For a minute, I thought that the trailers were giving you a general view of the film itself, but they only hint at the insanity that the film entails. It’s bigger, bolder, and a whole lot of fun. In short, if you like what you saw the first time around, be prepared for something more outrageous, including something that might just be the funniest thing I’ve seen so far this year. 

Without going into too much detail, for fear of spoilers, the film is set some time following the events of the first film. Cable (Josh Brolin) has come from the future to stop Russell (Julian Dennison), a young mutant who destroys the future that Cable is from. In order to save Russell, Wade/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) will need to assemble a group, which he names the X-Force, to stop Cable from completing his mission.

Even though I was a fan of the first film, when you compare this with that, Deadpool 2 feels more cinematic this time around. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde and co-director of John Wick, which may or may not be referenced in the film) has come in to replace original film director Tim Miller, who left after creative differences with Reynolds. After the nice surprise that was John Wick and the step back that Atomic Blonde was, Leitch has made a wonderful rebound and gives the Deadpool series the touch that it needed. Unlike Atomic Blonde, which became needlessly overcomplicated, the storyline that Leitch is working with, credited to Reynolds and returning writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is clear and very simple. Reynolds and the writers also bring some depth to the character with some of the larger themes the film displays. Unlike the first film, which felt self-contained at times, this film opens the Deadpool world up more, as evidenced with the more expansive sets and locations that the film takes us to throughout the 119-minute runtime. In a way, they do the same thing that 2014’s 22 Jump Street did in understanding what a sequel is and should be and flipping it on its head.

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For the humor, it’s still consistently funny (full disclosure: I think I was probably the loudest one laughing in the theater), and the meta humor is still clever as ever, poking fun of everything you can think of, from their own X-Men films to Marvel Studios to DC films to general films. And there are some killer payoffs to some jokes that were setup within the first film. Also, the visual gags in this film are something else. The visual look that Leitch and his cinematographer Jonathan Sela (who shot Leitch’s first two films) give Deadpool 2 makes it feel more like a comic book come to life. It’s safe to say that this is the most colorful film of the X-Men series so far, while also showcasing the future and a few shots like the original Terminator film. The action scenes, as expected from Leitch, are nicely edited and have a rhythm to them. With the marketing of the film, I was worried that the film wouldn’t mesh the tones well together, but somehow, Reynolds and the writers find some way to blend them together. I was also nervous that Deadpool 2 was going to go the way of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by shoehorning in X-Force like BvS did with the Justice League, but the way that the film handles that is something that has to be seen to believe.

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Acting wise, everyone here is still game. Reynolds still appears to be having the time of his life with this role. After crushing it last month as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Josh Brolin gives another solid performance as Cable, and I enjoyed the odd couple dynamic that he and Reynolds exhibit towards one another. I also enjoyed that Reynolds, Reese, and Wernick don’t stop the film in its tracks to explain Cable’s complicated backstory, but give you the basics of who the character is and what he needs to accomplish. Julian Dennison, in his American debut after breaking out in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, put in a good effort as Russell. Zazie Beetz was also surprisingly good as Domino. I also enjoyed how, for the most part, everyone plays the straight man to Reynolds’ Wade. The music from Tyler Bates is more memorable this time around, in particular one song he composes that you will not get out of your head.

There’s so much I liked about the film, but there are some drawbacks that I had with it as well. The villain, like in the first film, is lacking again. As a much broader film, it feels like the filmmakers were throwing in everything that they could, when they could have easily reduced the film by 10 minutes or so and nail the effort. Some of the characters that return from the first outing meander with nothing to do and aren’t as funny this time around. Even though these films are on the lower end budget scale of the X-Men films, there are still scenes with obvious CGI that could have used another pass or two on to make it look at least better.

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Overall, in not knowing what to expect, the end result was more than I hoped for. Going in, I was worried that Deadpool 2 was going to retread the same waters that Deadpool exhibited, but I loved that Leitch, Reynolds, Reese, and Wernick attempted something different. Who knows what the future will bring for Deadpool with the possible acquisition of Fox’s film and TV division to Disney, and Reynolds’ recent statements about a third film. The film does a nice job of setting up for the future X-Force film, which is slated to begin filming in the fall. If you enjoyed what you saw with the first film, you will get a kick out of this. Be sure and stay through the mid-credits for a nice fun surprise. I would definitely recommend checking this out in the theater!

Rating: B+

"Breaking In" Review: Payback is A Mother

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If your kids were trapped inside a house with criminals, would you fight to get to them? That question is answered by the lead in James McTeigue’s Breaking In. She answers with a resounding yes!

Gabrielle Union is Shaun Russell. Her father recently passed and she takes her kids with her to his secluded vacation home to get it ready for sale. Little do they know, four men are already in the house on a mission of their own to steal money from a safe inside. The home is heavily fortified with a security system, cameras in every room, and one remote that controls it all.

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What happens next is both formulaic and unconventional. Rather than falling into the usual traps of a damsel in distress, Shaun thinks through her options and slowly works her way to a resolution. Writer Ryan Engle gives us a strong female lead in Shaun and Gabrielle Union deserves a lot of credit in her portrayal of this mother. She’s not a woman scorned as you may think from some of the sound bites of the trailer. Instead, she’s just a woman with baggage. That baggage is never fully explained, and it really doesn’t need to be, but its presence is there throughout the film’s running time. 

On the flip side, the criminals in this fit the bill for generic home invasion thrillers. You have Eddie (Billie Burke) the mastermind, Duncan (Richard Cabral) the psychopath amongst the thieves, Sam (Levi Meaden) the reluctant one, and Peter (Mark Furze) the tech genius. Eddie does a lot of mansplaining throughout the film. He not only tells his gang what to do, but how Shaun will think. In some ways he’s the embodiment of stereotypical thought as to what a woman or mother may do in this situation as we’ve been taught in cinema. In other ways it’s just irritating to hear his thoughts connecting each new development. 

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The film has a tight pace and gets started within the first ten minutes. There isn’t a ton of exposition and backstory as to what Shaun’s father did, why they’re estranged, etc. By getting into the action, preceded with some genuine moments with Shaun and her children, Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr), we’re sucked into the story. There’s an internal clock built into the movie as the criminals have 90 minutes before the cops arrive, but it’s not used to the best of its ability. Regardless, the tension and suspense slowly build in a what would you do, yell at the screen sort of way due to the honesty of Union’s performance.

While the film does well in pacing and suspense, McTeigue seems to have trouble with his framing within the film. It doesn’t feel well thought out and translates to poor spatial awareness at times. You don’t know exactly where characters are in relation to each other. While he does do a good job of isolating characters within the frame (specifically Shaun and her kids are noticeably separated from one another once they are inside the house for the first time) creating a sense of that heightened feeling you get when you’re by yourself and hear a noise, when they do come together it can be jarring.

What keeps this film from being superb is that it doesn’t add anything new to the genre.  Films like The Purge and You’re Next brought something fresh to it that keeps you interested. Here, the film is a straightforward invasion thriller and therefore could be considered bland by many. Yet, the writing is driven by an authentic sense of a mother trying to protect and ensure the safety of her young. The crowd I saw it with was hooked into every moment of narrow escape, one-upping the bad guys, and fight Shaun has to give. The emotional strain was so high at one point they didn’t laugh during a scene that was clearly supposed to release the tension. But maybe that was due to the poor performance of the villain? Regardless, this is a good escape for 88 minutes of entertainment 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.

"Avengers: Infinity War" Review: It's All Led Up To this!

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Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me catch my breath! We’ve been leading up to this battle for ten years, and I don’t think anyone who sees Avengers: Infinity War can say that they are disappointed. For the few people who inevitably may, at minimum you have to respect the gargantuan charge that Marvel had in bringing everything and everyone together. 

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You’ll know the film’s tone and stakes from the opening scene. Things are grim. The villains (Thanos and his cronies) are extremely powerful. They have a power that feels like we haven’t seen before. It’s exercised in such a way that it feels like they can’t be taken on one on one or even two on one at times. The main bad guy in this film is Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple giant that we’ve only caught glimpses of up until now. He’s bent on collecting all of the Infinity Stones now that he has the gauntlet that can wield their power. Marvel gives us a complex villain in Thanos in that through his twisted logic, he believes he can bring balance to the universe by wiping out half of it.

Doing the math on the number of stones, and where to find them, the Avengers quickly spring into action on taking a stand. Throughout the film, different heroes are in different place across space but they’re all working towards the same goal: stopping Thanos.  It’s a desperate situation that literally has the fate of the universe in the balance.

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Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had an extremely large task on their hands in weaving a tapestry of different characters together while creating one cohesive story. For the most part, everyone gets some time to shine. Characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are more than just eye candy in this film. They have a heft to their story that makes them feel more apart of the story than they have in the past. It’s great to see the continued evolution of characters like Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Shuri (Letitia Wright) in their power or intelligence. The writing suggests that in between films thing happened rather than spelling it out for us.

The Russo brothers did a great job in making sure that they respected the directors work that has come before them. So Thor (Chris Hemsworth) feels like Taika Waititi’s Thor (thank God). Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Wakanda feels like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and his vision of Wakanda. The pacing of the film is on the money as well. The 156 minute run time is earned in such a way that you want to see more. 

The biggest issue I had with the film is that at times it did feel like you could see the stitches in the segments being put together for the overall story and to give each character some screen time. While there were plenty of emotional moments throughout the film, some of them felt hollow due to either the writing not setting up the weight of its  importance or the power of the Infinity Gauntlet.

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With that said, I haven’t seen a movie where the audience was one in experiencing it together in a while. Funny moments receive uproarious laughter, grim moments received pen-drop silence as we all held our breath, and awesome fight scenes and choreography got us all cheering. This was a daunting task. It’s the type of task that you say shoot for the moon and if you miss you’ll be among the stars! Well Marvel shot for the moon, and in my opinon, planted their flag as Titans in movie magic. The ending will send you reeling!

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.

"Traffik" Review

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Refuse to become a victim. That’s the tagline of Deon Taylor’s new film Traffik. You ever feel like you’ve been okey doked? There’s a lot of weight in that tagline. It screams survival, defiance, fight. Yet, the film is the definition of a slow burn thriller. Once the film takes off, it’s a fun ride, but it takes far too long to get there.

Brea (Paula Patton) and John (Omar Epps) decide to get away for the weekend by going to John’s buddy Darren’s (Laz Alonso) vacation home in the secluded northern California mountains. On the way up, the couple has an unpleasant interaction with a racist biker gang when they stop at the local gas station. While John has a verbal and physical exchange with one of the bikers outside, Brea unbeknownst to her, receives a phone from Cara (Dawn Olivieri), a woman who appears to be in danger with her biker boyfriend, in the restroom. 

While the exchange in the restroom didn’t send off a red flag in Brea’s mind. It finally goes off once the phone starts ringing later that night. Now joined by Darren and his girlfriend Malia (Roselyn Sanchez) at the house, the foursome unlock the phone to discover a secret that could cost them their lives. Especially, when the bikers come looking for their phone.

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The biggest issue with the film is that it takes almost half of its running time to get started. There is a lot of exposition in the beginning. Characters establish how wonderful another character is or isn’t through lengthy dialogue. Brea and John stop randomly on the ride up the mountain to make love in the car John built from the ground up as a birthday present for Brea. Brea debates and compares notes with Malia whether she wants to take the next step with a man who seems to be proving himself at every turn. It’s these random pit stops in the script’s attempt to verbally over-talk us into caring along the way to the big event that detract from the story.

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However, once the biker gang comes to retrieve their phone, the film really takes off. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti paints the first half of the film with a glamorous hue, and switches to limited, natural lighting when it’s time for the characters to survive. Scenes are lit by headlights, or lamps in a home. The lighting really pulls you in to the intensity and solitude being exhibited in the film. Taylor has a way of building the suspense in the film visually by establishing the space of locations and then using the frame as a peak into what’s happening.

The performances in the film are serviceable but certainly not memorable. While the film’s title alludes to human trafficking, it touches on it, but feels more like it’s using it as a background plot device within the film. Which leads me to my opening point in that the film doesn’t really give what it’s selling.

I ultimately enjoyed the survival portion of the film. This is the type of film that you want to see with someone else so that you can yell at the screen and tell Brea and John what to do. It’s the type of film that you lean over to your spouse and say “make sure you shoot to kill if we’re ever in a situation like this.” It’s the type of film that will give you 96 minutes of escapism while viewing, and you’ll forget about it next week. Know what you’re getting into when you enter and you’ll have a good time at the movies.

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.

"You Were Never Really Here" Review

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You Were Never Really Here is a gripping film from start to finish. The new film from filmmaker Lynne Ramsey, whose last film was 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, is an adaptation of a 2013 novella from Jonathan Ames. Anchored by an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix, the film premiered at Cannes Film Festival last year where it won Best Actor and Best Screenplay. This is the type of film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

The basic plot of You Were Never Really Here centers on Joe (Phoenix), a hired man who specializes in finding missing girls. No matter the job, he always gets it done. After completing his latest job, Joe is recruited by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) to find his missing daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who Senator Votto believes is part of a local sex trafficking ring. As Joe searches for Nina, he unknowingly stumbles onto a conspiracy that’s much bigger than him.

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As I said in my opening statement, Phoenix’s performance as Joe is simply phenomenal;  he’s a man of few words but will get the job done by any means necessary. No matter what Joe does, whether suffocating himself or playing chicken as he tries to hurt himself, pain is never far from him. For the violent subject matter at hand, Ramsey chooses to play the violence off-screen or won’t let us clearly see what’s going on until its aftermath. It’s always blocked out or obscured, even though we know what’s transpiring is swift and brutal. Ramsey also does a good job of visually portraying PTSD on screen. The flashbacks that are presented in the film are fast, furious, unpleasant, and painful, communicating to us that Joe doesn’t have any pleasant memories. The 90-minute length of the film was absolutely perfect to get in and out of the world, and the story that Ramsey adapted for the screen is pretty simple and straightforward. 

The visual look that Ramsey and her DP Tom Townend gave Here did its part in highlighting the loneliness and emptiness that Joe exhibits. At times he blends into the darkness, much like the title of the film. The colors are muted and not vibrant, showing the seediness of the world that Joe is a part of. What we see are simple, yet powerful images that are beautiful to look at. Unlike some directors who would go overboard with their shot selections, Ramsey lets the scene play out to focus squarely on the actors, and there are a lot of close-up shots that she employs throughout the film. Ramsey puts the visuals over exposition, emphasizing more of a characterization of Joe. Like the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and it’s evident here. 

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This might be one of the best film scores that Jonny Greenwood has composed, if not his best. One minute, it’s synth music we would normally hear from an 80s film, the next it’s screeching music that’s in your ears to represent Joe’s mindset. Greenwood does a great job in blending all those sounds together. Finally, in addition to the music, the sound design is also superb, showcasing that Joe is basically a ghost in the world. If he wasn’t there, no one would notice.

I think if there are any drawbacks that this film has, it’s that the pacing might put some people off. Even though it's methodical, people might not like how one scene could go quickly, while another scene could take its sweet time. Some might be confused about the lack of exposition in the film, but if you stick with it, you will figure out what’s going on. Lastly, Joe is a strongly developed character, but other characters aren’t quite as developed as him. Then again, maybe that was the point since the film is squarely focused on him.

Overall, I strongly enjoyed You Were Never Really Here and what it brought to the table. I thought it was refreshing to see how Ramsey put her spin on a story we’ve undoubtedly seen countless times before. It will make you uncomfortable as you watch the film, as it slowly gets underneath your skin to the point of having you sit in silence after watching it, which happened to me, but you’ll be rewarded with a masterful film. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up being in my top ten films of the year by year’s end. I would definitely recommend checking this film out in a theater.

Rating: A

"Isle of Dogs" Review

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Isle of Dogs might just be Wes Anderson’s most accomplished film yet as a filmmaker. Coming off his most successful film with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson returns to the world of stop motion animation that he previously visited having directed 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I very much enjoyed when I saw it. Isle of Dogs is a charming film from start to finish with some huge laughs along the way and a big heart. Even though this is in the same wheelhouse as previous Anderson’s films, this is oddly enough his most accessible film to date.

In the not too distant future in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city, there has been an outbreak of dog-flu and snout fever. To quarantine this epidemic, Mayor Kobayashi (story co-writer Kunichi Nomura) declares an order to place all dogs on nearby Trash Island. It’s also revealed that throughout the ages, his family lineage prefer cats to dogs. After several months, a young boy named Atari (newcomer Koya Rankin) crash lands onto Trash Island to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Assisting Atari on his journey to find Spots are fellow dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and King (Bob Balaban).

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Since Japanese cinema heavily influenced this film, we can tell that Anderson wears those influences heavily on his sleeves. For example, the mechanized dogs look similar in design to Mecha-Godzilla from the Toho’s Godzilla series and the laboratories look like something you would see from a science fiction film. The storyline (written by Anderson from a story from him, Nomura, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman) is simplistic enough that throughout the 101-minute runtime, you never get confused about what’s transpiring on-screen. The pacing is good for its runtime as well. With the way that Anderson presents the story to the audience, at times, it feels like a story coming to life, which is given since the film is split into five chapters like a book, and most of the characters speak directly to the camera, as if they’re talking to us. Even though it’s a stop motion film, I bought into the story that the film was trying to tell. Like with his previous films, you get the humor that Anderson typically exhibits, whether it’s a deadpan delivery or a visual gag. Truth be told, some of the visual gags were the funniest parts of the film.

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On top of that, all the actors that Anderson assembled for the film (most of them are from his previous films) were enjoyable in the roles they were selected, with the MVP in my opinion being Cranston as Chief, a stray dog in the pack that helps Atari. Like with his other films, Anderson plays with symmetry in the look of the film, and the visual design that was employed was splendid. Case in point, whenever the dogs fight, it becomes a ball of smoke like we’ve seen in previous animated films or shows. The film gets political here and there. Even though it’s a stop-motion film about dogs, Anderson uses it as a springboard to discuss larger topics at hand, like the use of fear mongering, corruption in politics, and uses the plight of the dogs as metaphors.  The music choices were spot on, including tracks from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel, since Anderson started that his films were a big influence, and once again, Alexandre Desplat composes another great score for Anderson (he previously won an Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel).

If there are any criticisms that I had with this film, it’s that sometimes Anderson throws too much info at the audience. Since we have an overload of information, it feels like as the film gets toward the end it runs out of steam just a tad. Some of the subplots don’t bring anything to the film and if Anderson trimmed some of them out, the film would have played just as well. As usual, if you don’t like the humor his films tend to employ, you might not view this as funny. 

Overall, even though we’re in the month of March, it’s safe to say that Isle of Dogs is easily one of the best films of the year so far. At the heart of the film, it’s a story about a boy’s love of his dog, and how dogs are truly man’s best friends. This film shows growth for Anderson as a filmmaker, and is clearly one of his best films to date. I enjoyed this more than what I was anticipating going into it. I urge you to seek this film out as soon as you can, and I would most definitely recommend checking this out in a theater!