"The House With A Clock in its Walls" Review

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-





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Julia Moroles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Teen Titans Go! To the Movies" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

"Incredibles 2" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

"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!

"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.

"Cars 3" Review

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Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) revs up for a victory lap and a chance at one last cup before he’s pushed out of the spotlight by the new cars on the block.

This last film of the ‘Cars’ trilogy excites only the unwavering fan of the franchise. However, I will submit that ‘Cars 3’ tied a satisfying bow on a trilogy that may have otherwise lost its novelty over the years. The first ‘Cars’ movie was wildly underappreciated by the critic community, but has held vacancy in the hearts of viewers. Although I disagreed with many critics in their analyses of the original movie, I can stand firmly behind the idea that the second of the three drove way off track. At best, it is the old beat-up Camaro that dad doesn’t want to bring to the dump. But I digress.

‘Cars 3,’ while staunchly predictable, softens up the viewer to the all-so-familiar Pixar feel-good narrative. It may fall short in the echelon of movie sequels, but I enjoyed the journey it takes you on. Not to forget, however, how egregiously ‘okay’ the screenwriters were with making the plot unsurprising, the jokes repeated to the point of annoyance, and the odd use of modern technology that felt foreign in a world of 80s vehicles. But hey, the kids will love it.

The first act of the movie, the explanation of the story world so-to-speak, is brief because if you haven’t gotten it by the third movie than you don’t deserve an idiomatic setup. That being said, ‘Cars 3’ derails when the hero’s journey begins.

The strange introductions to new characters, the pathetically lazy montages, the passive protagonist, all contribute to an at-times unbearable middle act. More importantly, perhaps, is an ending that saves the legacy of the trilogy. It offers the opportunity for a ‘Cars 4,’ not that we’re asking for it, but the opportunity exists nevertheless.

As stated in the opening sentence, this movie could only possibly be enjoyed by the youngest of kids or the most delusional of Pixar fanatics. However, the message (because there is always a deeper meaning with Pixar) transcends age and intelligence. It is, simply put, the idea of the underdog. The veteran. The Rocky Balboa that is fighting for relevance. The fifty-something near retirement with nothing on the horizon. The middle age crisis of longing for purpose. The student becomes the teacher saga. A beautifully cyclical poem or a connecting puzzle that just makes sense.

As unapologetically foreseeable as the plot of ‘Cars 3’ is, give it a pass for making us smile in the end. Good save Pixar.

‘Cars 3’ is out in theaters this Friday (June 16)

Rating: C

Comment

Ryan Boera

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

"Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie" Review

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is the type of film that makes me go look up the property it’s based on. Not because I was enamored with the film, but because I want to know why this film was made. The children’s novel sold more than 70 million books worldwide! Unlike some of the animated features that share the same space, you have to dig through the sophomoric humor to get to the heart of the film but it’s there. With that said, I’m not sure the book should have been put on the big screen.

George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) have been besties ever since they heard their kindergarten teacher say Uranus. Since that moment, they spent as much time together as possible, telling jokes, pulling pranks, and creating comic books about a superhero they’ve created called Captain Underpants along the way. Their jokes and pranks never go unnoticed by teachers (who are usually on the receiving end), students, and especially their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Their latest prank pushes Mr. Krupp over the edge and he decides to separate the two.

With the doom of their friendship on the horizon, George acts quickly and uses his ring to hypnotize Mr. Krupp. And it works! He believes he’s Captain Underpants. His mission, is to put fun back in the school. Too bad Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) has other ideas as a dastardly villain in disguise as a teacher.

The film feels exactly like it should if an elementary school boy wrote it and a top notch animation house produced it. (No offense to writer Nicholas Stoller.) The narrative quickly derails, comes back and goes off in other directions much like a conversation with an elementary student, but traded for side bits within the film. It’s smart enough to know what it is and make self deprecating jokes. It has a great underlying theme of how friendship can overcome all. 

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie might be a good time for youngsters, diehards who read the novel, and adults who still get a kick out of fart jokes. If that kind of thing doesn’t float your boat, then this movie is not for you. If anything, the film might just take you back to your childhood and what the definition of best friend meant then.

Rating: C

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Trolls" Review: A Hairful of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"The Jungle Book" Review

Lately, Disney seems to be rooting through its vault to find classics to remake into big-budget, live-action blockbusters. They stumbled early on with misfires like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, but they finally recaptured that Disney magic with last year’s Cinderella. And with live-action adaptations of Pete’s Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, and Peter Pan mapped out as far as 2020, it looks like we’re going to be stuck with this trend for a very long time.

Which won’t be a bad thing if these upcoming projects turn out to be even half as good as The Jungle Book.

This movie rocks. It freaking rocks!

Director Jon Favreau, who brought his proficiently crowd-pleasing sensibilities to such films as Iron Man and Cowboys and Aliens, knocks it out of the park once again here. He simply gets it. He gets what goes into making an effective film: a simple story, well-drawn characters, visual pizazz, and most importantly, heart. The Jungle Book does something that few movies nowadays are able to do: inspire wonder in its audience.

The story concerns a young human boy, Mowgli (Neel Sethi, destined to be a big star), who is abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves. When a vicious tiger named Shere Khan (a menacing Idris Elba) threatens his life, Mowgli is forced to leave the jungle with the help of stern panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) and lazy but lovable bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

While it may sound familiar, this new version manages to pay loving tribute to both the Rudyard Kipling stories as well as the 1967 animated Disney film, while integrating certain elements from each in its own distinct narrative direction. However, like the other incarnations before it, this new version is quite episodic in its structure, with Mowgli wandering from one unrelated set piece to the next.

So while the story itself is pretty conventional fare, it’s how the story is told that is the crucial element, and it’s what Favreau and company get so right. The Jungle Book has it all. There is humor, most of it coming from Murray’s quippy asides. There are valuable morals about right and wrong, facing one’s fears, and the importance of family. And there is spectacle—from a hair-raising stampede to a trippy sequence involving the seductive snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), to an exciting and scary chase with the towering orangutan King Louie (the great Christopher Walken).

It cannot be understated how fantastic these sequences look. The visual effects featured here are pushing the boundaries of what can be done with visual effects. All one has to do is spend but a moment in the world of the film to be completely immersed in it. With state-of-the-art digital technology, viewers are transported to a jungle so tactile it’s easy to forget that it was shot on a soundstage with a green-screen backdrop. Here, they meet animals so lifelike it’s easy to forget that they were all rendered on someone’s computer. The illusion that these are real, flesh-and-blood animals is never broken. Not even when they break out into classic tunes like “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”

There are many more remarkable things about The Jungle Book, but I recommend you go see the film to find out what they are for yourself. Bring the kids. See it on the biggest screen possible. And prepare to be taken on an exciting, imaginative journey.

Darn you, Disney. You’ve done it again.

Grade: A-

"Zootopia" Review

Never has the release of an animated film seemed quite so fortuitous. Consider the news headlines of police officers’ abuse of their power, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the discussion of prejudice and discrimination in our workforce and entertainment industry. Now consider the fact that Disney’s 55th animated feature, Zootopia, deals with all of these themes.

Yes. There lie important lessons about stereotypes, diversity, discrimination, and acceptance in what is effectively a children’s film. This is a big deal, especially in our current socio-political climate. But the timeliness and awareness of the film aside, the question remains: “Yeah, but is it any good?”

Yeah, it’s pretty good.

The almighty and all-powerful Walt Disney Company™ has been on a roll of hit animated films in the last few years, treating us to the creativity of Wreck-It Ralph, the marketability of Frozen, and the heart of Big Hero 6. So when trailers for Zootopia began to emerge, so too did the terrifying specter of Disney’s own 2006 monstrosity Chicken Little, which also featured anthropomorphic animals living together in harmony.

So praise be to the movie gods! Zootopia is not as smug nor as cynical as that slice of hot garbage. Instead, it’s exceedingly funny, often touching, and most of all, meaningful in a way that the aforementioned films are not. It deals with the here and the now—what is going on the world right at this very moment.

The story involves a spunky and optimistic rabbit named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who leaves her small-town carrot farm for the big city of Zootopia to become a police officer. But when she arrives on the force, she discovers that her diminutive stature and cuddly appearance make her the subject of ridicule and prejudice among her fellow officers. Determined to prove herself, Officer Hopps tackles a disappearance case with the help of an unlikely partner—a sly, slick-talking fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

For a majority of its surprisingly lengthy runtime (nearly two hours—rare for an animated film), Zootopia plays out like a police procedural. The film’s structure is fast and loose, as Nick and Officer Hopps traverse from one colorful location to the next, frantically in search of the next clue before it’s too late. This leads them to several amusing set pieces that rely mostly on animal-related puns, such as a DMV run entirely by sloths. As expected, this is all very charming.

But what may be less expected is how much underlying heart there is to this story, and it’s entirely to do with the relationship between Nick and Officer Hopps. These are fleshed-out and believable characters with strengths, weaknesses, and all of the facets in between. As we spend more time with them, the layers of their characters peel back, and we find deeper layers. They grow, change, and develop, almost as characters in a movie should do.

(Semi-Spoiler Alert: Skip to the last paragraph to miss a small gripe with the plot.)

Though its pros far outweigh its cons, Zootopia does have some detriments, the most glaring being the inclusion of the “twist villain.” The third-act reveal of a previously innocuous character as the “bad guy” is a plot contrivance that Disney has relied on for their last four features, and it’s getting a bit stale. In addition, there are a couple self-aware jokes that have no business being in this film, including a reference to Frozen that is so forced, it prompted an audible “Ughhh” from this reviewer.

Otherwise, Zootopia is a film that is not only charming, witty, heartwarming, and family-friendly—it’s important. It’s “woke,” as the kids say these days. It uses a seemingly simple story about cute animals as a vessel to relay deeper motivations and wise social commentary. And in a world that’s tumultuous, scary, and confusing, kids need movies like Zootopia. As Officer Hopps says, “No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you. Change starts with me. Change starts with all of us.” That’s a powerful message for any film to convey, let alone one starring a talking bunny.

Rating: A-

Directed by Byron Howard (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph,” “The Simpsons”), co-directed by Jared Bush (“Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero”), and produced by Clark Spencer (“Wreck-It Ralph”), Walt Disney Animation Studios’ comedy-adventure “Zootopia” opens in theaters on March 4, 2016.

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Bryan Loy

Bryan Loy is a 22-year-old film critic and award-winning filmmaker residing in Washington, D.C. He would rather be watching a movie than not watching a movie, and he once held the original negatives for Frankenstein (1931) in his hands.

"Kung Fu Panda 3" Review

There’s no doubt that you make it to a third film in a franchise by either having great content or creating a film for cheap but getting large profit margins these days. Dream Works Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 (KFP3) has certainly made it here by the former. However, is the third time a charm? 

Jack Black lends his voice again as Po, the bumbling but lovable panda. The old crew is still with him: Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Seth Rogen as Mantis, Lucy Liu as Viper, Jackie Chan as Monkey and Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu. Yet, in this installment, Po is on his way to becoming the Dragon Warrior. As if the journey for the student becoming the master wasn’t enough for Po, his long lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) comes on the scene to further distract him. 

While Po reunites with his family (introducing us to new, memorable pandas), an old enemy from the spirit world, Kai (J.K. Simmons) has found a way to return to the mortal world by stealing other master’s chi. As Kai begins to defeat the Kung Fu Masters in China, he accumulates their chi in the form of jade miniatures of each master that he can wear on his belt. The jade miniature animations sound and look so real. The need for Po to ascend to the Dragon Warrior he’s supposed to be is even more pertinent.

With KFP3 you get the same incredible animated visuals you’ve come to expect, but the story doesn’t feel as fresh this time around. The film plays out in a way that feels more convenient to storytelling rather than exciting and integral. As Po unites with his father, tension arises between his bio dad and step dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong). As if finding his family wasn’t enough, Po also has to deal with pleasing the family he’s always known versus his new found relatives. Unfortunately, it feels almost negligent on Po’s part that he deals with his family issues while his comrades are loosing their “lives”. 

By the end of the film we see Po’s growth and ascension into the role of Dragon Warrior with a message of “be yourself” that’s worthwhile for children of all ages. The animation in the film is top notch. While Po has a satisfying character arch and growth in the film, the furious five (Tigress, Mantis, Viper, Monkey, Master Shifu) are virtually silenced. Regardless, my 3 year old loved it, and I’m sure any child under the age of 13 will love the film too! 

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.

"Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Road Chip" Review

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip is classic chipmunks with a bit of heart. Sure, it's sappy and somewhat unoriginal, but it has its moments. It’s certainly not for adult viewing alone, but it’s definitely a good choice for a movie with the kids this weekend! 

How does any Chipmunks episode, or movie start? With Alvin (Justin Long) doing something to pull everyone else into trouble and adventure. This time Alvin thinks Dave (Jason Lee) is going to propose to his new girlfriend (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) after seeing Dave put a ring in his bag before leaving for Miami on business. Of course, Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are convinced they have to help Alvin stop Dave from proposing, especially since the marriage would mean that they would be step brothers with Miles (Josh Green). 

Miles is a bully, and he bullies the chipmunks behind Dave and his mother’s back. Since Miles grew up with out a father, he has a chip (no pun intended) on his shoulder and feels that he doesn’t need one in the form of Dave. With a mutual desire, the chipmunks and Miles come together long enough to take a road trip to Miami to thwart the proposal.

This is one of those children’s films that have the adults acting like children and children like adults. If you’re like me, and watch the tv show with your kids you’re quite accustomed to it. However, with an addition like Tony Hale (Arrested Development) playing Agent Suggs, the air marshal hot on the trail to get the chipmunks after an incident in the sky grounds them, that makes this imaginary world where chipmunks talk quite fun. With Hale, you get a genuine man-child performance that is pretty hilarious. Hale brings impressive physical comic relief to the film, making it fun for adults who may have enjoyed him as Buster in Arrested Development.

“Road Chip” certainly delivers on toe-tapping songs at every stop along the way. Whether in the French Quarters of New Orleans or a party in Miami, the chipmunks know how to have a good time. Your kids will certainly have fun and if you don’t go in expecting much, you just might too!

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.

"The Peanuts Movie" Review

Much care needed to be taken when bringing Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang to the big screen. The comic strip and subsequent television specials were microcosms of the world viewed from the eyes of a child, free of snark or cynicism. So when it was announced that there would be such a thing as The Peanuts Movie, worries were high that Schulz’s legacy would be tarnished. Advertising that proudly boasted that the film was “from the creators of Ice Age and Rio” did not inspire much confidence.

Fear not, for The Peanuts Movie is an absolute delight!

Consider how shallow and soulless many recent cartoon-to-film adaptations of beloved properties have been: The SmurfsGarfieldAlvin and the ChipmunksThe Peanuts Movie is different from those products in that it doesn’t pander to its audience, nor does it appeal to the lowest common denominator by inserting poop jokes, product placement, or modern-day slang. Like its source material, it’s good-natured through and through. And in an age where the G rating hardly exists anymore, it’s commendable that Peanuts remains something that the entire family can enjoy together.

The story is slight. It involves loveable loser Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) trying in vain to overcome his deficiencies in order to win the affections of the new girl in class. Not particularly earth-shattering storytelling here, but the film’s unassuming stakes and laid-back pace—keeping in the tradition of the television specials—is somewhat refreshing. Kids will have a blast with the slapstick antics of that sly beagle Snoopy, and adults who grew up on Peanuts will no doubt be overcome by crashing waves of nostalgia.

However, that nostalgia is a double-edged sword. In trying to please die-hards while also attempting to initiate newcomers, screenwriters Craig Schulz (Charles’ son) and Bryan Schulz (Charles’ grandson) occasionally lift scenes and dialogue wholesale from past Peanuts lore. Everyone loves that moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when, after being licked by Snoopy, fussbudget Lucy Van Pelt screams, “Ugh! I’ve been kissed by a dog! I have dog germs! Get hot water! Get some disinfectant! Get some iodine!” That same moment is repeated in The Peanuts Movie. Twice. Fan service is not always a bad thing, but there is a way to include what fans love about the property without cutting and pasting some of its most iconic scenes.

Of course, this is a small complaint to be made when the movie as a whole is just so gosh-darn charming. It’s lovingly made, with the spirit of the strip and its characters fully intact. It’s beautifully animated, taking advantage of today’s 3D technology without losing Schulz’s endearingly untidy, two-dimensional animation style. And, probably most importantly, it has a big, beating heart. We cheer for Charlie Brown when he succeeds. We ache for him when he doesn’t. He may not be able to fly that kite or kick that football, but for 65 years, he’s never stopped trying. Let’s hope he never does.

Grade: A-

"Inside Out" Review: Laugh. Cry. Repeat!

Laugh. Cry. Repeat. That pretty much sums up what Pixar’s latest and perhaps greatest film is guaranteed to make you do. “Inside Out” takes the complex theme of how we deal with our emotions and presents it in a simply beautiful and entertaining 94 minutes.

Riley Anderson is eleven years old. Her parents have just moved the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. She’s left behind her friends, champion hockey team and everything she knows. The voices in her head- Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader)- are doing their best to help her deal with it from their headquarters in a tower high above all of her memories. 

After a couple of days of being in the new house, Riley’s emotions really begin to tug on her, which means chaos for headquarters. The event sends Joy and Sadness on a journey to try and make Riley happy again. Visiting places like long term memory, Goofball Island, Friendship Island and more, the duo meet old friends along the way. 

What makes this film great is the screenwriting! It perfectly blends what’s happening outside of Riley with the events that are taking place inside her mind. The cause and effect of her parents questioning her and Anger being at the controls make for plenty of laughs. Yet, Pixar delves into the intricacies of how a good memory can become bittersweet. Writer/director team Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen nail the natural growth that takes place when we encounter new life experiences which help to shape and mold our character! 

Pixar has always been great at making films that appeal to children but that parents can appreciate as well. I saw the film with a mixed bag of children and adults and my only concern is that the parents seemed to identify more with the film than kids did. Perhaps it’s because many of them hadn’t reached Riley’s cinematic age themselves, or haven’t dealt with loss outside of a toy, etc. I in no way doubt a child’s ability to comprehend the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids don’t latch on quite as well as others.

“Inside Out” tells a universal story that puts humanity’s feelings on display in a way that hasn’t been seen before. It’s a great ride from beginning to end, and one of the best kids’ flicks to come out in a while proving that Pixar is still king of animation. It may be debated whether it’s one of Pixar’s greatest, but you should definitely see it this weekend and judge for yourself!

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.