"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+

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.

"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!

"Annihilation" Review: Subverting The Norm For The Win!

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It’s been a while since I’ve watched a sci-fi thriller that used silence in such a way that I could hear the leather of my neighbor’s seat when they moved. Annihilation is one of those film’s that reminds us of what a big budget Hollywood machine can do if given the opportunity. It takes us to perhaps one of the scariest places, our own imagination, and asks us to probe the unknown along with its protagonists.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and Army veteran whose husband just returned home after twelve months of radio silence. Army sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) was thought to be dead, but his presence brings up more questions than a joyful reunion. Lena finds out that he went on a mission inside what’s called the shimmer. It’s a growing bubble that looks and glistens just like the stuff we used to play with as kids but is far from something to be toyed with. All we know is that things go in, but don’t make it out.

With Kane deathly sick, Lena decides to join the next ragtag group of people going into the mysterious shimmer that only her husband has come back out of. She joins psychologist leading the team, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic from Chicago, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist. The film unfolds over various points in time. It’s told in present day with Lena being investigated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know one part of how the story ends, but through flashback, we’re able to fill in the gaps.

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Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is in full control of his film as he cleverly parses out information at just the right pace. He allows us the film to push forward by constantly dangling a question before us. Whether it is what’s the shimmer? How has time passed within it? How has a shark and crocodile crossbred? Or something as simple as what’s that noise? We constantly question what’s happening on screen right along with the group of women who are trying to get the same answers. 

As the group slowly begins to unravel and questions themselves and each other, we too are pushed to stretch our minds as to what’s possible within the shimmer. The casting in this film is exquisite as each woman is playing a character that goes against type for what we’ve come to see them in. Sheppard says at one point in the film “we all are damaged”. The way that Portman, Leigh, Rodriguez, Novotny, and Thompson display that on the screen through nuanced performances is a joy to watch. Tessa Thompson certainly stands out as the shy physicist with her physicality and ability to make her character seem so small in compared to the larger than life personas we’ve seen her take on in past works.

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Garland’s imagery of this world is beautiful. Yet, he drops clues to what the world is through mise-en-scene (things specifically placed before the camera) by shooting through a glass of water, or plants in the shape of humans. What Garland keeps off screen is equally important as what is on at times and shows his understanding of the power of suspense and mystery in a film like this. In a film like this, the third act is the difference between a downer or a memorable film. Annihilation certainly delivers on a trippy but suspenseful third act that will leave you questioning the future of its world.

While Annihilation may not be on par with Ex Machina, it is a solid addition to the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It’s reminiscent of The Thing in how it constantly makes us and its cast question what we know. The fact that its all women in the lead makes it that much more exciting as they handle the material in a beautiful way that’s subversive of the norms we expect! 

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.

"Black Panther" Review: Why Representation Is Key!

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Any thoughtful critic would tell you that there are some films that you just don’t know where to start in writing your review. You may need to see the film more than once. You may need the time to live with the film in your mind to find the words to describe it eloquently in written form. Black Panther is one of those movies for me. It’s a cinematic experience that, having seen it twice before penning this, is equally powerful on repeat viewings.

Following T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film picks up with him returning to Wakanda as king. So in short, the film is about a young man ascending to the throne and dealing with the weight of that. Yet, writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, give us something more. It’s a movie that analyzes what a person is made of. What really makes a king, a leader, or a person great? Similarly, what makes us bad, evil, or the villain? 

Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Hidden in plain sight, it’s main resource, vibranium, has allowed the nation to evolve leap years ahead of the rest of society. Yet, there are those who want to get their hands on the precious metal. As an old and new enemy comes on the Wakandan radar, T’Challa fights to make the best decision for his people and the world as a whole. 

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The casting in this film is absolutely perfect. Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue is a man you wouldn’t even let your kids say hello to. Danai Gurira’s General Okoye is fierce, intelligent, strong, and has a beautiful spirit that pops out at just the right times between upholding her duties to the throne that she takes seriously. Lupita Nyong’o is another stand out as Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest and friend. Nakia is not diminished to just a romantic interest in this film. She’s a fighter for justice who would prefer to live outside of Wakanda, making a difference with people who are impoverished, over enjoying the spoils of her royal bloodline. Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the first villain we’ve seen that we could get behind, at least understand and earnestly believe his motives. His calm, intellect and patience in execution of the long game is what makes him so dangerous. It creates an equally powerful enemy that T’Challa has to go up against and sets the stage for serious stakes! But is he really a villain? The Martin versus Malcolm of T'Challa versus Killmonger metaphor is there. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), brings the humor in some scene stealing moments. The chemistry between Boseman and Wright is totally believable as a family unit!

That was just the main characters in the film. You’ll certainly enjoy Winston Duke’s M’Baku as the funny but beast of a leader of the Jabari tribe. Everywhere you look, there’s black star power in Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani and more. Writer/director Ryan Coogler was the right person for the job. His use of the camera is masterful. His angles stress the magnitude of the environment when necessary, and singles in on intimate moments appropriately. Knowing what to put in the frame and equally what not to show is a skill not all directors have. Watching his set ups and reveals after an additional viewing proves that he’s one of the great directors working today! (I may have to write a separate analysis review as to avoid spoilers here, but Coogler doesn’t play.)

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The score of this film is absolutely beautiful. Ludwig Goransson blends in tribal shouts and African drums in such a way that it very subtly pays homage to Africa, while accenting and supplementing the action or drama on screen. The combination only helps you sink further into the world of Wakanda.   

The costume design from Ruth Carter is exquisite! Black Panther is a film in which it’s costume and wardrobe is like wallpaper, done well you won’t notice it but tacky wallpaper sticks out like a sore thumb. The colors, designs for different tribes, and materials are incredible. The production design is a beautiful imagining of an advanced civilization in Africa. Everyone came to WORK on Marvel’s first black superhero film in the MCU. 

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Black Panther represents Marvel’s showcasing of a lesser known character, who after this film will be a global favorite (for those who didn’t know the comic character). It also represents the showcasing of a predominately black cast and afro-futuristic story. It represents! In some ways, the importance of this film with the cinematic representation of a black superhero is on par with Barack Obama becoming president. Whoa! Did I say that? I did. Until this film, we haven’t had a black superhero who is as intelligent, rich, and powerful as his white counterparts. We haven’t seen a King and a hero like this. We haven’t seen black women who are equally elegant, poised, and intelligent as they are strong, skilled in combat, independent yet team players. Can movie characters be role models? They may not be the type you can talk to in the flesh, but they certainly are displayed as examples that little black boys and girls can be inspired by.

Who are you? It’s a question that is asked multiple times throughout the film and in various ways. Knowing yourself and who you are is huge. This film subtly pushes the importance of knowing who you are, where you come from, and charting your path to greatness. Sometimes that takes seeing someone like you do something that you want to do but never thought possible. (Don’t read this next portion if you don’t want a spoiler, but this example doesn’t have any importance to the overall plot of the film.) Those possibilities and the beauty of sparking a young mind is encapsulated in the closing scene of the film when a young inner city kid is exposed to a Wakandan aircraft. As he looks at the aircraft he takes a moment and connects the dots of T’Challa being its owner. For anyone who doesn’t understand why this film is so important from a cultural level, that’s why. When a barrier can be broken, or a glass ceiling shattered, that means everything to the person who has been held back. Everyone should have the opportunity to dream and strive to see their dreams realized!

There is no wasted space in this film...except maybe the ubiquitous Stan Lee appearance. The film hits a perfect pace and tone, and has a great balance of suspense, humor and action. It’s Marvel’s best at-bat in my opinion, and how it represents is just icing on that cake. Ok. You’re finished reading, get to the theater ASAP! Talk to me in the comments section if you’ve seen it!

Rating: A

Listen to my interviews w/ Black Panther producer Nate Moore and costume designer Ruth E. Carter here!

"Early Man" Review

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“Early Man” is an amazing visual spectacle and storytelling debacle simultaneously.  That may be a little harsh, because it attempts to have a sweet message. Like its protagonist, it’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is unfortunate coming from the folks that made “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun The Sheep”. 

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Set in the dawn of time, after seeing his tribe pushed out by an army that has mastered bronze making, Dug (Eddie Redmayne) decides that he wants to save his home. The best way to do it is to play a soccer match against Lord Nooth’s (Tom Hiddleston) professional soccer team. It’s your classic underdog versus the bullies story in which the primitive tribe has to learn how work together if they want to get their home back.

If the soccer match in the middle of what should be prehistoric time throws you off, it’s ok, just go with it. You can guess the twists and turns in the story from a mile away. The unique aspect is the elaborate story animation. Seeing a stadium filled with spectators fade into one character being on the pitch by herself after daydreaming is a outstanding.  It’s just unfortunate that the film’s story isn’t as unique.

You could definitely take the kids to see “Early Man” and have a good time with them. They’ll laugh. You’ll be thinking about what’s for dinner in between laughs. It’s a nice family film that falls flat in its predictable story. 

Rating: C-

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

Movie Review: The Curious Case of "Proud Mary"

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Proud Mary is a sequel to a movie we never saw. It expects us to have a certain level of knowledge about its’ characters that could only be known by having met them before. Writers John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin expect us to care and buy into their script in a way that they don’t earn nor attempt to construct. Yet since we’ve never seen the prequel to this film, we’re left with the work of three clearly inexperienced writers (check their imdb creds) whose rushed script was passed through the Screen Gems studio hierarchy and green-lit without a thorough analyzation of the work. A vehicle for female protagonists like this doesn’t come along very often, especially for African American women. We deserved better than a hooptie.

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Taraji P. Henson is Mary, a hit woman working for an organized crime family in Boston led by Benny (Danny Glover) and his eagerly “waiting in the wings for the throne” son Tom (Billy Brown). After sparing a kid named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from a hit she clearly should have done more research on, we find her keeping tabs on the boy one year later out of the immense guilt of leaving him orphaned. Poor Danny is now a runner for Uncle (Xander Berkeley). He’s physically and verbally abused by Uncle and struggling to find food. So Mary takes Danny in but is sure to omit the small detail of killing his father. 

Out of her love for Danny, Mary decides to defend him by confronting Uncle. When this results in Uncle’s death, the white crime family (last names aren’t given) wants blood and the black crime family has to serve someone to them in order not to start a war. If I stopped here and said that Mary serves up someone in her stead to covers her tracks and has to keep the lie going, this would be the premise for a good violence begets violence and covering a lie with a lie never ends well type of film. Instead, we get the one last kill to get out of the game completely storyline, which mushrooms into a kill everyone to get out story. In fact, the entire film feels like a convergence of different crime tale stereotypes we’ve seen before to get to the closing credits. It even boasts of dialogue like “Wake up! He was never gonna let you out!” or “if it weren’t for this family you’d still be a guttersnipe”. 

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The chemistry in the relationships within the film is lacking or forced. The driving relationship between Mary and Danny has sparks of realness mixed with moments of on-screen mothering that would make Madea proud. There’s a strong theme of the one time romance between Mary and Tom, but even those scenes that bring up their past love are cringeworthy. Everywhere you turn, there’s no escaping the underwritten and underdeveloped characters that have to hit certain beats to make this film a 90-minute feature.

Director Babak Najafi understands how to structure an action sequence. Don’t let this film fool you. He’s done it on the larger $60,000,000 London Has Fallen. Yet, in this film, he can’t quite figure out how to set up his shots in such a way that we can have a frame of reference for our space and location within the action scenes. Cliched shots of Mary with a gun in both hands firing every direction in a stairwell, sliding on her knees and shooting down human targets, or firing out of the window of a bullet-ridden car are all there! We’re just missing the proper orientation of how it all visually works together.

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Outside of the terrible screenplay, direction, and editing, the film was executive produced by Henson herself. I’ve seen her elevate a screenplay with her talent alone in a film like From The Rough, but here it’s not enough. Which leads me to point at the elephant in the room. Are black female action leads so uncommon in Hollywood that a film like Proud Mary can get green-lit with hacks for writers, a director who is asleep at the wheel and an attached Academy Award Nominated African-American star in the producer chair who closes her eyes to the flaws in order to get the film made? What am I missing? Female action stars are rare, and black female action stars are unicorns. So why wasn’t more care taken in making this film? Why not create an iconic character that we’ll want to see again? I can only come up with desperation to fill a gap and see a character like this on the big screen. 

If numbers don’t lie, then the fact that Proud Mary has virtually made it’s budget of $14,000,000 back in under two weeks since its release and the fact that it was narrowly beaten out by The Commuter (which had double its budget and Liam “particular set of box office skills” Neeson starring in it) in its’ opening weekend says a lot. To me, it says that there is a market out there for this type of film with people ready to support it. The film didn’t get a huge marketing push like last year’s Atomic Blonde or the upcoming Tomb Raider. So the duckets were earned on this one. Yet, it goes back to the age-old debate and double-edged sword of backing a film like Proud Mary with your dollars. Do you do it to tell the industry we want to see action films like this with a black female lead or withhold your hard earned cash to say we demand better?

I backed the film with my money even though I was hearing bad things on social media channels because I want to see minority women as action stars on the big screen. I sat through the film on the edge of my seat, not because of the white-knuckle action, but because I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But I showed up and gave the film a fair shot. What you do is up to you, but our daughters, wives, and mothers deserve to see more representation of themselves on the big screen as action stars that are better than this! Perhaps it will take a Patty Jenkins-esque scenario in which the powers that be empower a female director who actually cares about the story to take the reins. Maybe Taraji should handle the screenplay, producing and direction next time. Maybe. Whatever it is, Proud Mary is the poster child of what not to do in the future and it saddens me to say that! 

Rating: F

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.

"12 Strong" Review

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12 Strong is the same song and dance that we’ve seen before with a war film. Directed by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, this is also the first war film that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been involved with since 2001’s Black Hawk Down. Riding the wave as such films like 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s 13 Hours (Iraqi war films that came out in January or expanded wide), 12 Strong is cliché to the capital C and plays it relatively safe. In short, it’s a formulaic film that hits on the same points previous war films go through.

Based on the true story, the film is about Task Force Dagger, a group of twelve American soldiers led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) who are sent into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Once they get into the area, they form an uneasy alliance with General Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance, and together, they take on the Taliban forces and do their best to defeat them, and as one of the soldiers states, they would be the first twelve Americans to fight back.

On the plus side, the actors do all they can with the material on hand, with the standouts being Michael Shannon and Michael Pena. They are all likeable enough, and there’s more humor in this than what I expected when I saw the trailers. It’s nice to see Hemsworth and his wife Elsa Patsky act together, even though they’re playing a married couple. Some of the scenes work as well, particularly those that involved Hemsworth and Negahban. The pacing of the film, for the most part, was fine. Finally, there were a handful of cool images that Fuglsig and his DP Rasmus Videbæk come up with, whether it’s a horse running alone through a battlefield, or the landscapes of New Mexico doubling for Afghanistan. 

As for why this falters, the screenplay that’s credited to Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) does it no favors. For a war film, they hit on the same beats that we see time and time again with these films. With war films, you’re supposed to feel sympathy or relate too the characters that we see on screen. In this film, I didn’t feel for any of the characters as the runtime progressed, and the film is bland enough that I didn’t even know what the characters name were, thus resorting to the actors that were up on the screen. Also, there’s no character development at all in this film, and some characters are underdeveloped. We hear it, but we don’t see it. And Tally and Craig write some cliché dialogue through the course of the film. The cinematography was nothing special, opting to go for the same grittiness that we’ve seen before with war films. As for the action scenes themselves, while they were decently edited for the most part, too many times there were quick cuts to know what’s transpiring on screen, thus making it hard to make sense of the geography of the land. The villain of the film was one-dimensional and they could have trimmed some scenes out and the film would still played the same way.

Overall, while 12 Strong is technically competent, but it’s ultimately a forgettable film. With the subject matter of the story, this could have been an interesting film. Sadly, it just plays it safe. When I came out of the screening, all I had was a shrug. It’s not a bad film per se, but it’s an unmemorable one. You don’t need to rush out and see this opening weekend. This is a film that you could have playing on the background when it makes its eventual debut on TNT. By year’s end, you will probably forget that this film came out this year, if not sooner.

Rating: C

"The Post" Review: Truth is Timeless

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What happens when you get one of the greatest directors of our time to work with two of the greatest actors of our time? Well, it may not be the best journalism thriller of our time, but the answer is The Post. It’s still a good time at the movies and a movie that speaks to our time!

Not long into the running time will you be able to draw the parallels between the need for the freedom of the press now and the same need during 1971 in which the movie is set. The film covers the Washington Posts’ fight to print the Pentagon Papers, documents containing highly classified information about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep is Katharine (Kay) Graham, the owner of the Post. She has to walk a thin line of being a woman in power, pleasing her board of directors in seeing papers sell, and trying to stay true to the paper’s journalistic integrity. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is the editor of the Washington Post. He’s old school and doesn’t care about the politics behind the scenes that Graham has to deal with. 

When the New York Times gets the scoop on the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee is on a mission to get the story. An opening arises when Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) chases down sources to get his hands on the Papers and the Times comes under fire from the government. The crux of the conflict in the film comes down to whether the Post should publish the truth by printing the classified documents and risk being destroyed. It’s the moral conflict that director Steven Spielberg is able to explore with his camera and cast of amazingly talented actors that makes this film so intriguing.

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Both Graham and Bradlee come to see that the frequent social activities they’ve shared with government officials they call their friends has put them in a tough spot. Publishing the papers can bring sons of the United States home from a war that they’ve been losing for years, but it may put their friends in legal trouble. It’s the personal connection that we all have had to deal with in our lives that can create a moral dilemma out of something that should be simple. Of course, the right thing to do is to burn the establishment down and print the Papers, but it’s difficult when you know the faces of those who will be affected. 

Spielberg uses plenty of one takes to draw us into the tension. He gives a master class in how to keep the camera rolling through a long scene without cutting away, but instead allowing the camera to focus on what’s important. He moves out of a closeup with one character, into a two-shot with another, and then to a wide with effortless ease. It’s also evident that Spielberg respects the process and importance of the printing press in the era. He takes moments to show letters being arranged for printing, and groups of people running to the paper to consume information that we take for granted receiving these days in an instant on our cell phones. 

There’s no doubt that there is a beautiful dance between the camera and the actors’ performances. With lines being delivered by Hanks, Streep, Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemmons, (an underused but serving the storyline of woman’s roles in the 70‘s household) Sarah Paulson and more, the combination makes for an entertaining film.

While The Post may not stand with titans like All The President’s Men and Spotlight in regard to incredible journalism thrillers, it’s not too far behind. The public should know the truth about the government who is supposed to serve them, but The Post explores the grey area that makes it hard to be done at times. Nonetheless, it shows that the right side of history is always the one that tells the truth. 

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.

"Bright" Review: The Rumors Are True

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By this time, you’ve unwrapped your gifts, dealt with a little family love and drama, and might be getting in a little work before the New Year break. So why not escape from reality for a couple hours with director David Ayer’s Bright? Let’s just say that’s not a bright idea. Yeah, because the film is about as corny as that last pun.

Will Smith is Daryl Ward, a veteran cop who is getting back out on the street with his orc partner, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), after being shot by a criminal. It’s bad enough that orcs are considered scum in this world of humans, elves, and fairies, but diversity hire Jakoby is a part of the reason Ward was shot. So Jakoby is hated by virtually everyone in his life and his own kind. When a routine response uncovers a magic wand at the residence, the two partners are the most sought after cops in...can we call it Middle-earth for kicks? Everyone wants the wand because whoever wields it can be granted whatever they wish for. The problem is, only a Bright can hold it and live. 

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Thus, a survive the night film of sorts kicks off. Not the kind that Ayers is good for, but the kind of buddy-cop drama that just doesn’t work, reminiscent of the films that came out post Lethal Weapon. While the world building in the film is decent, you constantly feel like something isn’t quite right. You’re waiting for a punch line that’s never revealed. Maybe that’s the problem; the film takes itself seriously. With elves that do acrobatic martial arts moves and don’t miss when it comes to taking a shot, in the midst of a barrage of bullets that miss, it’s hard to believe. It’s also hard to believe there’s no racist themes underlying the film. With the orcs as baggy clothe wearing gangsters living in the slums, the elite elves wearing the latest high-fashion clothes and living in a gentrified area, and humans fitting somewhere in between, the “races” lean into stereotypes. It’s certainly not the District 9 environment it strives to be.

When news hit that superstar Will Smith would be starring in a Netflix film, a sense of excitement hit blogs and media outlets. Seeing Smith in Bright is the equivalent of the time that you beat your dad in a race for the third time. You knew he hadn’t been winning for a while, and you thought maybe it was a fluke. This film cements Will’s range and the fact that his delivery is still stuck in the Bad Boys 2 era. Edgerton is wasted, but it’s probably a good thing that you can’t recognize him in all his orc make-up. Genius decision! Noomi Rapace adds a small spark of excitement as Leilah, the big baddy hunting down her wand.

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At the end of the day, in order to bake a good cake, you take different ingredients and bring them together. Generally, they’re brought together with one or two key ingredients that can gel them all and poof! Deliciousness! Bright has all the right ingredients, but it’s lacking the jell to bring them together. Ayer is known for his signature style in the cop genre. He wrote Training Day! He wrote/directed End of Watch (a film I enjoyed)! He has skills. Ayer teamed with his longtime cinematographer, Roman Vasyanov, so the film’s look is definitely there. The cast on paper is a solid ensemble. Taking Ayer’s style and infusing it into a fantasy world could work had Max Landis’ script not been so disjointed.

There’s a reason Bright is getting a lot of buzz for being bad. It’s bad! Yet, the word of mouth that has drawn in 11 million viewers in the first three days maybe the kind of thing that years from now makes it a cult classic. Perhaps that’s why you checked out this review. Perhaps that’s while you’ll check it out yourself. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Rating: D

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri" Review

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a white knuckle of a film. The newest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, who previously helmed 2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths (both of which I enjoyed a lot). He’s back with a timely film. With the subject matters at hand with the film, it could have gone one or two ways: either skim the surface or be overly exploited, but with McDonagh at the helm, he turns the film into something even more. In short, this is one of the very best films that I have seen in the theaters this year! 

Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) has had enough. It’s been close to a year since her daughter, Angela, was murdered. No arrests have been made or any suspects questioned, and it has become a cold case. To take matters into her own hands, she decides to rent three billboards outside of the town, but close to her home, to call out Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for lack of progress. With this, Mildred hopes that it will put pressure on the police to finally solve the case. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the film explores.

Three Billboards is a hot button film that presses on a lot of issues, especially in today’s climate. Some of the issues include racism, police brutality, and sexual assault. McDonagh touches on these subjects greatly and doesn’t hold back about his views on these, yet he never hits you over the head with what’s he’s trying to say. Similar with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, the writing is brilliant and darkly funny at times. McDonagh knows how to balance the comedy with the drama that thankfully, the comedy doesn’t overshadow what’s transpiring on screen. It’s funny when it needs to be funny. McDonagh also does a great job in rounding out the characters in that they all feel three-dimensional and each has their own personality. By the end of their introductions, you know exactly who the characters are and how they act around people. In fact, it’s easy to identify with the characters and believe in the actions they take throughout the course of the 115-minute runtime. Behind everyone’s façade, McDonagh shows us the pain that they face, whether they face their demons externally or internally. 

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Acting wise, everyone shines in this. McDormand gives a fearless performance as Mildred, who’s just trying to find the answers to her daughter’s murder. She’s headstrong and sometimes a bull in the china shop. This might be the best role that she has had in a long time! In particular, a scene that involves her and the local priest that may just be one of the best-written scenes in a film this year. Harrelson (reuniting with McDonagh after Seven Psychopaths) puts in good work as Sheriff Willoughby. At first, you don’t know how to feel about him, but you quickly will. By far, the best performance from the film belongs to Sam Rockwell (also returning from Seven Psychopaths) as Officer Jason Dixon. It’s a powerhouse performance that Rockwell gives as a character who’s vile, despicable, insensitive yet sympathetic towards the end of the film. Rockwell’s the MVP of the film, and this is the type of role that could finally be his breakthrough performance. Don’t be surprised if he gets some awards love this season.

If there are any drawbacks that I had with Three Billboards, some of the characters could have been left out of the film or fleshed out a little bit more. In particular, while I’m a fan of Peter Dinklage, the subplot between Mildred and his character goes nowhere, and he’s basically not in the film enough to leave an impression. Likewise, there are scenes that run in circles and should have been condensed or left out entirely for a much tighter film. Because of these scenes, the pacing feels a little off at times.

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Overall, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film for the here and now. This is a film that I enjoyed way better then what I was hoping for going into the screening. It’s a film that will stay with you long after you watch it. I hope that this film will spark discussions about what people saw on screen, including the ending that will surely be up for debate for years to come. With this film, McDonagh makes us confront what’s going on today in America. It’s angry and raw at times, but pushes for people to be held accountable for their actions. All we need to do sometimes is talk to the other side or see the world from a different perspective. This might just be McDonagh’s best film yet as a filmmaker. It’s one of the best films of the year, and a treasure. You should absolutely see this in the theater ASAP.

Rating: A

"Thor: Ragnarok" Review

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Thor: Ragnarok is a very fun film, and sometimes extremely funny. The third film in the Thor series, and the seventeenth film overall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this latest installment comes from filmmaker Taika Waititi, who after directing indie hits such as What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (which was one of my favorite films last year), makes his big budget debut. Fully embracing the comedy aspect that the first two Thor films explored, you’re in for a fun time in the theaters. While the story itself is a little lacking, Thor: Ragnarok makes up for it with some huge laughs from start to finish. Truth be told, this might just be my favorite of the Thor films.

The basic plot of the film follows Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who after an encounter with Hela (Cate Blanchett) finds himself on the planet of Sakaar and gets taken prisoner by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Forced to battle his old friend Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a gladiatorial arena, Thor must find a way to get back to Asgard to battle Hela and prevent Ragnarok from occurring on Asgard with some assistance from old and new allies.

Right off the bat, this is a much better film then his last solo film, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World.  The humor from Waititi’s films translates well to this film. If you’re a fan of the type of humor his films provide, you’ll have enjoyment with this. The jokes come fast and furious, and there were times that I was laughing so hard that I missed the next joke. Essentially, this is a buddy comedy film with good comedic timing throughout and a lot of improv. There are some fun callbacks to other MCU films. For 95% of the film, it finally did what I was hoping a Thor film would be: a story that’s set in the cosmos and not on Earth. The production design from Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent is on point. The colors are vibrant and the design really stands out, especially on Sakaar. I could watch a movie set on that planet or get lost in that for hours. This film would make Jack Kirby proud, since it seemed like they looked at his artwork for inspiration.

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The acting across the board is good. Blanchett appears to have a ball as Hela. Tessa Thompson (a new face to the  group) is solid as Valkyrie, and she holds her own in every scene she’s in. Hemsworth, as always, embodies the role. This film features my favorite portrayal of Banner yet in the MCU, and the CGI when he’s The Hulk is probably the best looking so far. The way that Ruffalo plays him is brilliant. Since you can’t have a Thor film without Loki (Tom Hiddleston), I thought what they did with their storyline was good and how they basically have to come to terms with one another. There are funny cameos throughout, especially with the one and only Stan Lee! When the film was set on Sakaar, I dug the 80s synth score that composer Mark Mothersbaugh provides. The use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” was great. Instead of getting bogged down with exposition, screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost basically give you the bare minimum without overly complicating it. Finally, for a 130-minute film, the pacing was good.

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If there are any drawbacks I had with the film, the story isn’t particularly deep and somewhat skims the surface. Some of the characters aren’t developed well, and maintain their one note status in the choir, like Karl Urban’s Skurge. There is a little too much CGI in certain scenes, and noticeable in others. If you’re coming in looking for explanation to what happened to certain characters, you either won’t find it, or it’s said in passing dialogue. I saw this in 3D, but the 3D aspect didn’t do much for me and nothing really stood out.

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is a fun comedy adventure film. It’s the most fun of the series. It felt like I was watching a comic come to life. For his first big budget film, Taika Waititi succeeded. This is yet another winner from Marvel Studios, which did their own version of a 80s buddy comedy sci-fi film. If you’re looking to spend some time in the theaters and laugh your head off, you can’t go wrong with this. As always, be sure to stay until the end of the credits. Go see it!

Rating: B+

"Happy Death Day" Review: A Unique Twist on the Genre

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It’s a theme we’ve seen before. The protagonist has to repeat the same day over and over, except this time her murder is what hits the reset button. Happy Death Day is a refreshing take on the repetitive day genre, whose charm resides fully in the capable hands of its lead character, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe).

We first meet Tree waking up in the bed of stranger Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She came home with Carter after drinking too much, and while attractive on the outside, her insides are pretty snobby and shallow. As we patiently munch popcorn through the obligatory set up of her day, we realize just how shallow she and some of her sorority sisters are. Patience is key in the first act of the film, because we know she’ll live, die, repeat, but the payoff is what happens next.

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Once the rules are established and Tree is up for the challenge of figuring out who her killer is, here lies where the film succeeds. Screenwriter, Scott Lobdell, allows Tree’s character growth to mature in a way that makes the film enjoyable while building on the overall story. Each day brings another clue that we didn’t know before, as well as the opportunity for the shell around Tree’s heart to slowly give way to a person that we can really root for. She’s funny, not as shallow as he appears at first, and she becomes more kind and grateful for those around her. Did I mention that she embraces each day with a comical, nonchalant sarcasm that is as charming as laugh out loud funny?

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Some praise has to be given to Jessica Rothe, who we spend every scene with. Her acting choices with Tree are subtle, natural, and likely to make her a new, popular face in Hollywood (while she has been in other films). With a film like this, the protagonist makes or breaks the film, and she makes it work!

While the solution to the mystery is laughable, there are some twists along the way to make up for it. Overall, Happy Death Day takes us on an entertaining ride and manages to side-step foibles that could drag it down. Surprisingly, this would be a good date movie with your boo and likely fun in a full theater. While I saw it with one other person at a mid-day showing, if it doesn’t do well in theaters, it’s certainly a must see on Netflix or Red Box! It’s a worthy entry into the genre that should get more love than I fear it may receive.

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.

"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" Review

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is not a bad film. Coming off the heels of the wildly successful comic book adaptation from this summer, writer/director Angela Robinson shines the light on the backstory for how the classic character came to be. Even though they’re completely separate films, this reminded me of a similar situation in 2006. After Superman Returns was released that summer, the film Hollywoodland, which centered on the death of Superman actor George Reeves, came out that following fall. While there are parts that I liked as I watched this, Professor Marston falls into some of the same trappings that you would normally see in a traditional biopic.

Luke Evans and Rebecca Hall play Professor William Marston and Elizabeth Marston, a husband and wife team who work together. Since Professor Marston teaches psychology, he takes notice of a college student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) and tells Elizabeth he wants to study her. Olive eventually becomes Professor Marston’s assistant. Professor Marston is also trying to prove the DISC Theory that he’s been researching that focuses on dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. The three of them form a bond, and after realizing they all have feelings for each other, Olive becomes their mistress and moves in with them, with both Elizabeth and Olive having William’s children. From the DISC Theory, to how the three co-habited with one another, to finally how William sees the best in both Elizabeth and Olive, this paves the way for his biggest breakthrough yet: Wonder Woman.

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The acting across the board, especially from Evans, Hall, and Heathcote, was generally good. No one here gave a bad performance or stood out like a sore thumb. This is another solid performance from Evans after his scene-stealing turn in the Beauty and the Beast remake, and Heathcote makes more of an impression here then she did earlier this year in Fifty Shades Darker. Relationship dynamics are a key theme here. The dynamic between Evans and Hall is great, and the film re-emphasizes Elizabeth is more dominant and controlling than William. Once Olive enters the scene, she quickly asserts herself as the more innocent of the group. The way that they play off from one another is extremely effective. The visual look that Robinson and her DP, Bryce Fortner, is distinctive. In particular, during happier times, it’s more colorful and when it’s not, it’s bluer. The best-looking shot of the film probably has to be when we see Olive in what looks like the inspiration for the Wonder Woman outfit. 

The film is certainly funnier then what I was expecting, and there’s some playful energy that the film exhibits as well. The best part of the film is when the advisory board is asking William questions about Wonder Woman. Everything they ask about from the pages, we see is based on some part of their life, like a mirror image of sorts. In addition, during a montage sequence, the juxtaposition of the pages of the comics to the inspirations they were from is great. 

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Since this is a biopic about their life, it follows the same old song and dance that previous biopics hold. If you know the formula, you know what’s coming. Like other biopics, there’s a feeling that at times, they condense parts of their life to make it a more mainstream narrative. The music by Tom Howe tended to be overly dramatic at times. Even though Evans is good in the film, his American accent is off-putting and distracting at times. As for the creation of Wonder Woman herself, while the film is framed around William’s meeting with the advisory board, they don’t start to explore why he created it until the end of the second act/beginning of the third act. Lastly, and this might be a pet peeve, even though the timeline is spread throughout a couple decades, none of the actors seem to age. 

Overall, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a serviceable biopic. It is better then what I expected going into the film. While it’s formulaic, the film features good performances, and the dynamic between the three leads is surprisingly good. If you like Wonder Woman and want to see where she came from, go check this out. This is a fine film to watch this fall. It’s one of the better biopics to come out recently.

Rating: B

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" Review

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Goodbye Christopher Robin is an above average biopic. Director Simon Curtis and screenwriters, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, explore the origins of how Winnie-the-Pooh was created and the relationship that author A.A. Milne had with his son, Christopher (who served as the basis for the character named after him). As a kid, I remember growing up on the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and his adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. While the film features good performances from the actors, the film ultimately suffers from some of the tropes you would normally see in your typical biopic.

The film is set after World War I and A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is trying to find inspiration for his new book. Cold and distanced from his friends and family, Milne has trouble connecting with people. After Milne, his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and his son Christopher (Will Tilston) move to the countryside, A.A. still has trouble finding his inspiration. As he finally starts to connect with Christopher, A.A. begins to write more, and Christopher asks to write a story for him. Using Christopher’s imagination and his stuffed animals as basis, A.A. begins to write stories about Winnie-the-Pooh (which is based on Christopher’s stuffed bear) and it becomes an instant success. With the fame that he wanted in hand, A.A. doesn’t see the harm that it causes Christopher until it’s too late.

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The film succeeds with the acting that’s on display. Gleeson as A.A. Milne, or ‘Blue’ as Christopher calls him, is particularly good and I liked the arc that his character goes through in the film; going from somewhat cold to caring and everything in between, it’s a good showcase for the actor. Robbie, playing Daphne, A.A.’s wife, puts in another solid performance as someone who doesn’t particularly care for her son and constantly shifts the blame when things go bad. Kelly McDonald as Olive, Christopher’s nanny, stole the film from time to time as she looks out for Christopher’s well being. The kid who plays Christopher, Tilston in his first role, succeeds as well with a natural performance. Another aspect of the film that Goodbye Christopher Robin does well is showcasing A.A.’s PTSD and how it affected people around him. The film displays interesting transitions, like when A.A. goes from the battlefields of World War I to a ballroom in an instant.

I also liked the contrast between A.A.’s cold-hearted reality that he’s seen to Christopher’s innocence, and for the most part, they balanced that well. This is a well paced film. The makeup effects that they placed on the actors as older versions of their characters was believable. Perhaps the strength of the film is that it works to show how much of Christopher’s childhood that A.A. basically exploited for gain and the toll that it took. What’s the ultimate price for selling your child’s life and can you ever recover for what you did? Can you reconcile that you basically had no childhood?

The film could have fought harder to go against some stereotypical biopic tropes that you’ve seen time and again. With a biopic, you know that they have to hit certain beats along the way. Adversely, the film seemed like it glossed over things, when it should have gone more in-depth in sections. The third act feels truncated, as if they were running out of time. I wanted to see and feel more of the torment that Christopher went through as kids started to pick on him and the growing resentment he had for his parents. It’s as if the filmmakers were close to nailing it, but pulled back. If they went more in-depth, I think the film could have been even stronger then what we see on-screen. 

Overall, Goodbye Christopher Robin features some good performances. As I said before, even though they go in-depth in some places, I wished it did more when it came to some important facts. I will give the film points in that it’s rare to see a biopic that focuses on the negative side of what was its main character’s greatest creation. If you’re a fan of the Pooh, you may want to spring into theaters this weekend!

Rating: B

"Victoria & Abdul" Review

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“Victoria and Abdul” the biographical film about Her Majesty’s controversial affair with an Indian servant was, to be frank, mediocre at best.

It is difficult to overlook the lackluster approach to comedy and the poor representation of class divisions in a film that was supposed to embrace and celebrate diversity; it’s reminiscent of a Rodgers and Hammerstein King and I: it’s just not funny.

The film follows Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who arrives in England from India to participate in Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) golden jubilee. Karim is to present a gift to the Queen without making eye contact with her. His disobedience to rules opens the door for their unlikely relationship to unfold, much to the dismay of the royal family and all of the Queen’s staff. The mystery and the aberration of this pair’s affiliation are by no means boring, but the ebb and flow between comedy and drama falls flat in this film. Perhaps this issue could have been resolved in making “Victoria and Abdul” a documentary, in part because it only seemed to get better during the end credits.

These credits expound upon the gaping fact that it took researchers and devotees over one hundred years to discover evidence of their relationship. Woah! That’s your story. Not the blossoming friendship, which is only saved on screen by the grace of Dench, who pulls off the Queen’s likeness admirably. The intensity that would have gripped audiences could have been found in the documentation of what happened afterward.

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I do digress, however. Stephen Frears is a fantastic director. In fact, I would go as far to say Frears (at his best) rivals the best Hollywood has to offer. But I cannot ignore the fact that this film doesn’t work. The story is unsuitable for three-act screenplay structure and there is no looming conflict until—as I mentioned before—the film is over. Additionally, there were sloppy cuts, poor lighting at times and CGI-effects that distract even the non-attentive eye.

All this being said, there were some redeeming qualities in the cast. Judi Dench is masterful in her role. Her poise and cutting remarks shine so far above the body of work that many moviegoers will be drawn to theaters near and far for this alone. More surprising, however, was the performance of Adeel Akhtar who also played an Indian servant. His comedic moments were the only ones of the film that landed. Equally as funny in “The Big Sick,” which released earlier this year, Akhtar helps lift this film up as it comes slowly crashing down.

“Based on real events … mostly,” is what the opening credits read. If you can get past the fact that the film presents a “mostly” real story stricken with laughable material then it may be enjoyable. To any end, it has its moments.

Grade: C

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Ryan Boera

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

"American Made" Review

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American Made is one of the surprises of the fall season. It’s one of the better Tom Cruise films to have come out during this decade, and it’s definitely better then this summer’s The Mummy. With this film, Cruise reunites with director Doug Liman, who previously directed him in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, a highly underrated film. 

In this film, based on a true story, Barry Seal (Cruise) is a commercial airline pilot who gets employed by CIA Agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleason) to do reconnaissance missions for the CIA by flying over locations in South America and taking photos. As Seal starts to do more jobs for the CIA, like becoming a courier for General Noriega in Panama and running guns to the Contras, he comes into contact with the Medellin Cartel, who asks him to smuggle cocaine back into the US. Within a few short years, Seal makes more money than he’s ever dreamed of since he works for both the CIA and the drug cartel, but as things slowly start to collapse, Seal will do anything to save his own skin.

For the subject matter at hand, Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli play with it fast and loose. Just when you think the story can’t get crazier, it does. I enjoyed how it didn’t take itself too seriously, and the tone, for the most part being light-hearted, stayed consistent. Cruise seems like he hasn’t had this much fun in ages, and this film shows that if you pair him with the right material, he’s still got it. It’s also no surprise that teaming up with Liman brings out the best in Cruise. Charismatic and charming, Cruise does make you root for a slimeball of a guy. The visual style that Liman and his DP Cesar Charlone bring to the film is unique, and they do a good job in visually highlighting the locations in the film with a distinctly different color. Like with this month’s It, that was also set in the 80s, Liman doesn’t bash you over the head that this is a film that takes place in the 80s. Also, the film does make concepts that seem complicated easier to understand, with map animations and documentary footage mixed in. 

There are a few drawbacks that I had with this film. Since the film primarily focuses on Cruise’s Barry, other then him, the other characters felt underdeveloped. I wanted to learn more about certain people, like for example, the people who made up his Snow Birds team. There were also story threads that didn’t bring much to the table, like a subplot involving Barry’s brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones) that they could have cut out completely. There are also characters in the film, that after a scene or two, completely disappear from the film. It makes you wonder if there was a much longer cut that Liman and his editors cut down from. Finally, the score from Christophe Beck (also reuniting with Liman after Edge of Tomorrow) was okay, as well as the music selections. They could have done a better job with that.

Overall, American Made won’t win any awards, but I think you will have fun with it. Between this and Edge of Tomorrow, hopefully Cruise and Liman continue to work with one another and this is a start of a long-term collaboration. I dug it, and it’s a breezy film. As I said before, this is one of the better films that Cruise has made in the last few years. If you’re looking for something to watch in the theater, you won’t go wrong with this.  

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.