"mid90's" Review

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Jonah Hill’s directorial-debut film Mid90s is a movie, at face-value, about a group of skateboarders; but it is certainly more profound than that.

In 1990s Los Angeles, 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) flees from a turbulent home life by finding solace in a new group of friends he meets at a local skate shop. The eldest, and leader of the group, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), takes Stevie under his wing and shows him what a family outside the home can look like. Like most families, however, this one has their fair share of tribulations. Their journey is beautifully honest on screen. In fact, their acting is possibly the only thing that rivals the poise of their skating.

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There is a scene in the film, a close-up shot of Ray gripping Stevie’s new board and drilling in the wheels, that’s gloriously over-the-top. It is evident that Hill wanted to make a film about skating and hip hop, but it isn’t until the final frame that it becomes clear these two vehicles for narrative offer a unique metaphor for perseverance. Perseverance, I submit, is an underlying message in the film. Can you fall and get up? How hard can you get hit, rather, and still find the strength to get back on your feet? Falling is inevitable. As Hill eloquently puts it, “we are all under construction.” But what Hill finds more important, and what is expressed through the film, is the journey to loving yourself.

This idea is similarly expounded upon in the magazine Hill released in conjunction with A24 and Mid90s. It serves as a companion piece to the film but is also quite an engaging read on its own. In short, Hill interviewed some of his close friends and asked them about the process of loving yourself or, reversely, hiding a part of yourself you are ashamed of. In a way, the film is a representation of how these tough questions can materialize within friend groups.

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In that regard, the magazine feels like a director’s notebook for the film. However, there is the film you write, the film you shoot and the film you edit, and it is difficult not to get the impression that much of the film was cut out in the final edit. Although not much change happens over the course of the movie, it runs a mere 90 minutes in length and has ubiquitous quick cuts that are jarring at times. This editorial style is only used effectively during a tense scene towards the end of the film, but I’d be remiss if I gave too much away.

On the other hand, the music in the film is beyond redeemable. Fantastic. A Tribe Called Quest meant to Hill what the Beatles meant to his parents. It was clear before the film began that music would have a significant role in the piece and kudos to Hill for curating and developing this soundtrack with his team, because it carries you through the melodic roller coaster splendidly. I even found myself bouncing my head up and down to the beats.

You may vibe with the music as well if you grew up in the 90s. Or even if you didn’t. You may be brought to tears by the film because it is, like The Florida Project a year ago, wonderfully sad. You may find yourself laughing hysterically because it is filled with wit. And although it is unconventional, the story still seems to work. Jonah Hill may have made this film for himself, and for those kids who feel they do not belong, but I believe everyone can enjoy this film.

Rating: B+

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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. 

Middleburg Film Festival '18: "Widows" Review

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In lesser hands Widows would be a run of the mill heist film. Give this script to any other director and you may not be challenged to keep up visually in the way Steve McQueen intelligently crafts this film. Give this script to any other cast and the words wouldn’t be elevated from the page to create characters that we see transform throughout the course of the film. Grab your popcorn folks; this is why we go to the movies!

Set in Chicago, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) are found grieving the loss of their criminal husbands. After the hubbies perish in their latest heist attempt, their death means nothing to the people they owed. Local crime boss turning politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), seeks the money that Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew stole from him on principle, but also because he’s running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the man whose family has been alderman of their district for two generations prior. Manning’s motive for getting the two million dollars is solid and with his cold-blooded gangsta brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), eager to help his brother win the elected spot, Veronica has no choice but to get to work. Equipped with a notebook her husband Harry left, Veronica decides that she can get out of debt and start a new life if she and her fellow widows can pull off the big caper Harry plotted out.

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McQueen’s work has always been raw, dark, and visually biting. He’s able to use those elements, set against the climate of current day Chicago, to give us a memorable, blockbuster heist film. The opening itself is a Soviet Montage of sorts that doesn’t lovingly bring you into the story but crashes together in a rhythmically edited mashup that quickly brings the audience up to speed. McQueen leads the story with his camera, laying the ground work for his actors to step in and knock the ball out of the park, and they come through.

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This review would be too long if each cast member got their time to shine here, but know that they do. Of note, Davis delivers a stellar performance as per usual by giving Veronica an internal conflict that is exhibited in a way that only Mrs. Davis can do over the course of the film! Elizabeth Debicki may certainly have the best character development throughout the film as you literally watch a shutdown and abused widow become a leader and empowered woman. All of the lead and supporting cast give us well rounded characters to watch on screen.

McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn never telegraph an overt message in dialogue, but rather McQueen uses visuals to explain the issues in Chicago. The political race between Mulligan and Manning is a plot point, but there is a larger conversation to be had in our minds as audience members about the violence in the streets of the Chi. There’s a beautiful single take shot that shows the economic disparity that pushes the story forward while making you think afterwards. 

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The only small issue with the film may be in the eagerness to gain their dignity and respect, there is an ever pervasive message of the widows trying to prove themselves in their words. Their actions already show that they’re more than capable so we don’t need on the nose lines like “no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off!” While well delivered from Davis, it would be nice to be shown more than told. This in no way takes you out of the film or detracts from the empowerment that it delivers.

Widows proves that heist films can have layered meaning and story to them. It’s a good night out for the ladies, date night, and even time for the fellas! However you see it, make sure it’s in a theater. It will be well worth the money spent!

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.

"First Man" Review: The Best Space Race Film to Date

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First Man could be the best space race film created to date! Plenty of films have taken us to the moon. Plenty have shown the complications that can arise when an astronaut is alone, hundreds of thousands of miles away from the Earth. None have captured the human sacrifice, internal struggle, and loneliness of getting there so well as this motion picture.

Director Damien Chazelle, hot off his success  with La La Land, tells the story of the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in the eight years leading up to his infamous walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. With a film like this, you know the outcome, but it’s the journey to get there that’s intriguing, entertaining, and educational. Chazelle does more showing than telling with his production of the story. His camera predominately stays in tight on his subjects, forcing us to connect with them, see what they see, and absorb small moments that we may usually miss in wides or mid-shots. 

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Sound is another important element in the film. Every breath, turn of a knob, rocket roaring, bone crunching accidents, and even the silence of space matters in this film. It accentuates the moment and submerges the viewer further into the emotional weight or lack there of in a scene. The grand stakes of the mission to the moon is perfectly balanced between moments of devastating failure and nuanced humor backed by a beautiful score from Justin Hurwitz.  Hurwitz manages to insert a piece of percussion that ticks throughout many of the songs subconsciously pervading the sense of time, whether it’s running out or seemingly nonexistent in space.

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The casting is spot on with this ensemble. Gosling turns in a stellar performance as Armstrong with an emotionally distant, introspective yet caring portrayal of the American hero. In films set in the 60’s we typically see the stay at home mother and housewife character portrayed as seen and not heard but there for support. Yet, Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong is able to evoke this enormous sense of a highly intelligent woman, emotionally strong enough to shoulder the burden of raising kids with the ever present reality that her husband could lose his life at any moment. With notable performances from Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, and Jason Clarke as Edward White you get the authenticity of the best indie film performances in a blockbuster.

While the film never focuses specifically on the politics of the time, you are able to get glimpses of the economics of the day through various meetings NASA has with politicians and protests. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon” gets a surprising moment in the sun during this film. The powerful spoken word allows Chazelle to highlight the disparity of funding for the expensive space program versus the hard working citizens paying for it with tax dollars while trying to survive. 

First Man is a film about perspective. It gives the viewer a moment to feel what it must have been like to be in Armstrong’s shoes, what his family and other family’s who lost loved ones for the mission endured, and how small we are in the universe. The focus on character and story, using all of the components of film to engage its’ viewer, makes this film soar above all other race to the moon films that have come before it. Treat yourself to an IMAX showing of this film, because it deserves star treatment!

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.

"A Star Is Born" Review: A Fresh Look At A Classic Story

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Even before its release, A Star is Born (2018) existed as a landmark point in the history of contemporary American cinema.  This is the third version of the story to hit the screen since 1937.  It also marks the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, as well as the big screen debut of Lady Gaga.  The press for this iteration has been brimming with praise since the film’s premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival.  While not destined for classic status, A Star is Born is a strong debut feature and provides a fresh look at a classic story. 

Ally’s (Gaga) life is a struggle; she lives at home with her father (Andrew Dice Clay) and works as a server in an upscale restaurant in the city.  Her only reprieve is her weekly slot at a local bar, where her vocal talent allows her to perform live alongside a group of lip-synching drag queens.  This all changes when singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) swings by the bar on his way home from another headlining arena show.  Maine immediately falls for Ally, and the couple embark on a journey through the contemporary music industry filled with soaring highs and soul-crushing lows. 

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The film serves as a strong directorial debut for Cooper, who quickly draws the audience in, even though they may be familiar with the story.  The numerous musical performances were shot live in secret during a number of large musical festivals and feel extremely authentic…because they are.  The camera stays close to its characters, resulting in extremely intimate moments within the context of packed stadiums and festivals.  The songs, many of which are penned by the stars, are emotional earworms that support the main storyline and will likely stay with audiences after the lights come up in the theater.

Cooper’s reliance on close-ups throughout the rest of the film keep this intimacy going when its characters are offstage as well. Despite the quality of the direction, the film is not without issues.  The film’s 135 minute runtime starts to crawl after a while; the momentum built in the opening hour drifts away in the final act.  In addition, Cooper’s choice to replace an existing narrative of the rise and fall of musicians with a battle over “authenticity” is an interesting one, but it doesn’t quite land. 

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While the film serves as evolution for Cooper’s career, it’s Lady Gaga who steals the show.  The pop star’s stripped-down turn as Ally makes her a serious contender in the film industry.  Near unrecognizable sans the elaborate costuming she’s known for, Gaga becomes her character and elevates the emotional core of the story.  This is in contrast with Cooper, whose performance as Maine, while good, wasn’t born of the same immersion  While the leads are obviously the focus here, much could be said for the supporting cast, all of whom provide a real sense of depth to their roles.  This is especially true of Sam Elliot, who plays Cooper’s older brother/manager Bobby. 

A Star is Born isn’t perfect, but it will likely be remembered as a watermark in the careers of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  The film will probably receive a number of Oscar nominations, although wins are not guaranteed.   This reimagining of A Star is Born manages to take a classic Hollywood tale and update it with the visual playbook of modern independent cinema.  Fans of either may come away with a positive opinion of the film. 

Rating: A-

"Mandy" Review: A Vision Both Strange and Eternal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"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.

"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!

"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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

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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. 

"War For The Planet Of The Apes" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"A Ghost Story" Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

"Baby Driver" Review: Wright is Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Get Out" Review: An Instant Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Logan" Review: Super Hero Films Take Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

 

 

 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Moonlight" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"The Birth of A Nation" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Green Room" Review

Green Room is one of those films that probably won’t get the respect it deserves until a little while down the road, or when we film critics tell enough people how great it is. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, since it is written and directed by Blue Ruin’s Jeremy Saulnier (if you haven’t seen that film, you should). For a single location thriller about apunk rock band trying to fight for survival, the film tells a brilliantly written and executed, surprisingly universal human story...albeit an extremely violent one.

The Ain’t Rights are a punk band comprised of four friends: Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Sam (Alia Shawkat), and Tiger (Callum Turner). They’re purists when it comes to their music, and as far as we can tell they survive off it alone. Touring the west coast, the group is in a van big enough to haul them and their equipment. They syphon off gasoline to keep the van going and save what few dollars they have.

After getting hired to play a paying gig in a secluded club in the backwoods of Oregon, the group reluctantly obliges. They’ve been informed by Tad (David W. Thompson), a promoter and music reporter who owes them one for stiffing them, that the club is run by neo Nazis. They just didn’t know they would stumble upon a murder right after the show. Once the scene has been seen, it can’t be undone, and there can’t be witnesses. Which means the group has to play a game of wits and survival with the club owner, Darcy (Patrick Stewart).  

The casting in this film is perfect. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role of Darcy, and Stewart’s years of experience gives the film a dangerous villain who never raises his voice. Yet, it’s not a film where Stewart’s presence saves the film, it only enhances and fortifies an already solidly casted movie. Each member of the band is a fully realized character that has a moment to shine. The same can be said about the skinheads as well.

Always a master of Pace, Saulnier knows how to build a scene, let it breathe and then shake things up a bit. Once the group is locked into the green room, the film is extremely tense until the end, but Saulnier is kind enough to intercut dark humor and moments to relax between violence. I was extremely pleased with everything prior to the murder discovery. Each scene was tightly edited by Julia Bloch and advanced the story with no room for fluff. 

As with any group survival film, not everyone will make it to the end. Getting to the end is a huge adrenaline rush though! In a film where the protagonists are forced to face their mortality, Green Room finds plenty of human moments and jokes that will turn this into a cult classic.

Rating: A- 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"The Big Short" review

Every now and again it happens, a film receives a nomination before it is released to the general public. If you’re like me, these early nominations work as a major thumbs up — a sign that this is a can’t miss film. The Big Short is one of those films. So far, it has nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Choice and the Golden Globes. And notably, the film’s nominations are quite diverse with nods for the screenplay, individual performances and editing. If the race to the Oscars is your thing, then The Big Short needs to be added to your weekend to-do list. This fresh and funny film is absolutely one to watch.

Based on the book by the same name, The Big Short is the story of a group of financial misfits who catch wind of the housing collapse several years before everything comes tumbling down. Things start out innocently with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a fund manager and top-notch numbers guy. After noticing a trend in thousands and thousands of housing bonds — the loans comprising the bonds are all primed to default around the same time — Burry decides to gamble against the big banks, and more importantly, the always stable housing market. It’s a bold move and slowly a small group of other financiers grab on to the idea. They’re going to short the housing market and it’s an idea that could earn them millions.

As a lady, one of the first noteworthy pieces to The Big Short is its cast. It is as if director Adam McKay decided to fill his film like a well-stocked fishing farm of beautiful, funny men. To name a few: Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater...hold on I need to take a breath, but  I think you get the point. Typically, well-stocked ensemble casts like this one are a gimmick, an easy way to get a lot of people into the theater.  However, for this film the performances demand these performers. The way in which they play off of one another takes the comedy to a whole other level and turns the almost non-stop dialogue into a sharp sparring match between friends, making this cast an absolute pleasure to watch.

Another can’t-miss aspect to this film is seemingly everything else that makes a film fun to watch? The film was shot and edited in an almost erratic mockumentary fashion. As the story moves along, the financial risks become bigger layers and layers of big bank BS become more obvious. Simultaneously, the aesthetics of the film match your steadily growing heart rate. The live camera edits, rapid-fire b-roll and pop-heavy soundtrack create the perfect build-up to the eventual housing collapse. As an audience member you almost breathe a sigh of relief as the financial world comes crashing down. Your heart rates slows and you realize you’re actually somewhat relieved that housing market bubble has finally burst.

It seems unfair to compare The Big Short to The Wolf of Wall Street, but the similarities are worth noting. Like Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short is a comedy taking on a harsh truth. Deceptive banking practices are not inherently a fun topic, but with the right touch, the subject can be commented on in a way that is both entertaining and educational. The Big Short accomplishes this and I am excited to see which trophies it will walk away with this awards season.

Rating: A