"Night School" Review: A Lesson in Bad Comedy

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Let’s start with an alliteration. Night School begs for comedy charity chuckles. Let’s do the math. Kevin Hart plus Tiffany Hadish doesn’t make comedy gold. Now, let me take you to school.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Night School follows the story of Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart), a high school drop out who has used his quick wit and charm to get ahead in life. He has it all. His girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is a beautiful businesswoman, and the porsche he drives is equally elegant. The only problem is he’s maxing out on his credit cards to keep her impressed and in his life. After a freak accident following his proposal to Lisa, Teddy finds himself unemployed and unable to keep up the facade. So he decides to go to night school in an effort to become a financial analyst. 

From there we’re introduced to the ragtag bunch of night school students in Teddy’s class. There’s the stressed and under-appreciated stay at home mom Theresa (Mary Lynn Rajskub), woke brother Jaylen (Romany Malco), former jock Mackenzie (Rob Riggle), high school teen queen Mila (Anne Winters), wanna be pop star Luis (Al Madrigal), and in confinement convict Bobby (Fat Joe).  They’re all led by an underpaid teacher named Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). 

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The problem with the film is that at the script level its thinner than a sheet of paper. With six names on the writing credits you would think that someone would say, “hey, let’s make sure the stakes are more than our main character has to hide educating himself from his fiance.” There is no major emotional investment for the viewer to take the ride on this unlikely story. Yet, the six writing credits may explain why the story goes into so many different directions. It’s a caper comedy, teen comedy (equipped with choreographed dance moves from a group of students during a prom scene), buddy comedy, and more. So we’re forced to hope that the banter amongst the characters will be worth the entry. It’s not.

You start out wanting to see more of Haddish, but quickly realize she’s underused in her role. Hart works too much and brings nothing new to this character. So the lesser names in the ensemble wind up bringing more creativity to the mix. Romany Malco is almost unrecognizable as Jaylen and he brings a full character to the screen and some good moments of humor. Even though Fat Joe can’t act, you can tell he was being himself as the Skyped in convict, and it makes for some good bits. In fact, the small details in the film are worth paying attention to. I’ve compiled my top five things to look for if you dare to go:

1) Fat Joe’s graduation jewelry.

2) The names of the sodas at Christian Chicken where Teddy works. Names like Ruth’s Beer and Coconut Christ Water were pretty funny.

3) How (Jaylen) Romany Malco brushes his hair. If you pay attention to what he’s doing, you’ll see it’s pretty funny.

4) Poor editing during the film. There are more than a few times when an action takes place from one angle and then the same thing happens again in the very next cut. (Haddish hitting Hart in the Christian Chicken parking lot for one.)

5) The terrible dub-overs in the film. There were plenty of times where you wonder if the audio is out of synch. My theory is that to keep the rating PG-13, certain dialogue had to be changed. There is a specific moment where heffer is used instead of the clear f-bomb Haddish actually said.

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Overall, this film is a great pitch concept and nothing more. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are talented comedians at the top of their game, but this experiment didn’t produce a great outcome. I stayed awake through the end in order to write this review, but the man snoring extremely loud in the last ten minutes of this twenty-minutes-too-long movie provided more laughs and conversation amongst the audience than the movie itself. Save your money on this one!

Rating: D

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"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

"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.

"War Dogs" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: C+

 

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"Central Intelligence" Review

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart team up to save the world in Central Intelligence. It’s a shoot ‘em up, buddy comedy that seems far too familiar with decent laughs sprinkled in. In fact, if Twins, 48 Hours, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion met up at the bar to discuss making a film, Central Intelligence would be the outcome!

In high school, Bob Stone (Johnson) was picked on and bullied, while Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the man on campus. (It should be noted the CGI work on the two stars to make them look younger is pretty dog on good.) Twenty years later, Calvin is an accountant, married to his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but that may be the only accomplishment he’s had in life post high school that he is proud of. After getting a Facebook friend request by Bob Stone, Calvin decides to meet with him on a whim.

The meeting reveals Bob to be a handsome, muscle bound man with a few lethal fighting skills under his belt. No longer a nerd, Bob seems to have a low key infatuation with Calvin for sticking up for him in high school. As the film moves forward, Calvin quickly gets wrapped into the mysterious world of Bob, the CIA, and his forensic accounting skills are needed to save the world. All of these revelations are made by the time of their high school reunion the next night.

The film has its laugh out loud moments, with hilarious cameos from some of the best in the business. While The Rock is a great actor and he commits to his role in this film, the man child in a giant’s body (especially compared to Hart) feels a little forced at times, thus making Bob seem more like a caricature. At the same time, the film's underlying spy duality keeps the audience guessing as to what's what and who is who as the Rock flips between moments of the nerd in a stud's body to CIA action hero star we're accustomed to seeing. Hart playing the straight man in this buddy comedy is a change that works to let him show his acting chops while still hitting his unique, spastic physical comedy. 

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, Central Intelligence is a popcorn flick probably best served for Netflix and chill. You’ll laugh while you’re watching, but forget that you saw it by the end of the year. While saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson in this film, me saving you some money this weekend just took you reading this review! 

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.

"Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" Review

Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone are known for their comedy sketches and parody videos as a part of The Lonely Island. They came to prominence with their Saturday Night Live digital short “Lazy Sunday”. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is simply them coming together and fleshing out a feature length version of one of their videos. It’s a rock mockumentary for the popular culture of the 21st century, that’s actually funny. 

Conner4real (Samberg) is a young singer/rapper at the top of his game. He started out in the hip hop group called The Style Boyz with his childhood friends, Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer). Stepping out from the group he catapulted himself to the top of the charts and hearts of his fans. After the huge success of his first album, we find Conner preparing for his latest, Connquest. To ensure the albums success, Conner wrote all of the songs and used 100 producers to create all of the beats. 

With songs like “Equal Rights”, about marriage equality but stitched together with homophobic lines, and “Finest Girl” which makes references to killing Osama Bin Laden, Connquest tanks. The rest of the film is about Conner realizing he has a bunch of “yes men” around him and getting back to his roots. 

While the set up is typical of a VH1 Behind the Music episode, that’s a part of what makes it wonderful. The film mocks pop culture, pop music, and hip hop in a way that’s right on the money by marrying the documentary style filmmaking with comedy. Popstar is written by Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone and there is a palpable sense that they wanted to mock the culture while hitting dramatic beats and actually telling a story rather than stringing together numerous sketches.

As the film unfolds, numerous celebrity cameos of popular artists and comedians are woven into the film. Some are brief, and other’s continue to come back, but most of them add to the humor of the film because of the irony of making fun of the business they helped create or are still a part of. There are a few TMZ or CMZ as it’s called in the film, scenes that are hilarious! They nail Harvey Levin and crew’s office sessions. 

This film is a little funnier than the trailer, and I cracked up watching the trailer. So if you don’t find the trailer funny, than you probably won’t find the film funny either. But there’s no escaping the fact that this is clever satire that encapsulates this social media/reality TV/need to be liked generation in an affectionate, genuine, comedic film.

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 Nice Guys" review

Co-writer/director Shane Black is back at it again with a buddy action-comedy film. Known for penning hits like Lethal Weapon, modern noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and mixed genred Iron Man 3, this time around he’s cooked up a 70’s retro-noir starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The duo come together to solve the case of an alleged suicide of a female porn star in The Nice Guys

The film asks you to set aside your brain and understand that coincidences are going to happen from the opening sequence. A young boy is checking out his father’s adult magazine, when a car crashes into the house. The car happens to be driven by adult-film actress, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), the same woman the boy was just looking at in the magazine. From there, you can expect the rest of the story to follow suit.

Enter muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe) and alcoholic/private eye Holland March (Gosling). Although they first meet when Healy breaks March’s arm for a seemingly separate case, they combine forces to search for a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who seems to be connected to the dead adult film star. As the two begin down the rabbit hole, they eventually run into plenty of dead bodies from the porn industry and uncover a large conspiracy. 

Did I mention they allow March’s tween-age daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) to tag along for a lot of the ride? While her character is a "girl who has had to grow up quickly by looking after her to-drunk-to-drive father" at times throughout the movie (and we can assume in the past), the humor that she’s supposed to infuse doesn’t always work. Should a little girl really be watching pornography at an adult industry party? Drunk or not, should March and Healy really allow her to tag along? (Although at times they do try to send her away.) Holly is a major part in the film who works and doesn’t work throughout the movie in such a way as to act as a speed bump rather than acceleration pad.

Crowe and Gosling give performances worth most of the buzz the film has been getting. Crowe’s straight man compliments Gosling’s entertaining physical humor. They play off each other well and own the dialogue. 

Black has fully developed characters in The Nice Guys. He has nice touches of mystery and restraint with issues like Healy’s aversion to alcohol versus March’s indulgence. He hits many of the twists and turns that you expect from a film noir. Yet it’s the plot that is too convoluted, asking you to just go with it as the detectives make random connections through happenstance. I just wish the plot was as thorough as it’s likable characters.  

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 Night Before" Review

Deck the halls with weed and mushrooms, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la cocaine.

That’s pretty much the mindset that this film occupies. Combine a Christmas movie with a stoner movie and you’ll get The Night Before, the latest comedy starring Seth Rogen. Those who have seen Rogen’s past efforts (This is the End, Neighbors, The Interview) are well aware of what to expect by this point: vulgar humor, pop culture references, and a laid-back, improvisational approach to storytelling. The Night Before is no exception, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely dependent upon the viewer’s tolerance for that sort of thing.

Me? I laughed when I saw it, in spite of myself. The Night Before is equal parts naughty and nice, relishing its raunchiness while pausing for sobering, heartfelt moments as well. This is a film about friendship, forgiveness, growing up, and the spirit of Christmas… that also features a scene in which Rogen, wearing a sweater bearing the Star of David, vomits in the middle of a church during Christmas Eve service.

The film concerns three childhood friends—Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Chris (Anthony Mackie), and Isaac (Rogen)—who are on the cusp of some big changes in their lives. Before adulthood claims their freedom to party forever, they gather on Christmas Eve for one last night of bacchanalian shenanigans. On a quest to find the Christmas party to end all Christmas parties, they traverse from one outrageous set piece to the next. This is not so much a story as it is a collection of things that happen.

Like with all Rogen comedies, the sheer level of talent assembled is impressive. In addition to the believable chemistry and snappy banter of the three leads, there are also hysterical supporting turns from actresses Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) and Mindy Kaling (The Office), who often overshadow their male costars with their radiant comedic timing. But the most brilliant—and surprising—comic performance of the film comes from Michael Shannon (yes, General Zod from Man of Steel) as the mysterious marijuana dealer Mr. Green. He runs away with the film. 

But too often the humor relies on lazy pop culture references and random celebrity cameos that will date the movie instantly. Miley Cyrus appears in one scene. What’s the joke? I guess it’s meant to be funny because she’s there. Or is there irony in the way the characters lay the praise on thick by saying things like “Miley Cyrus is so amazing! Isn’t her song ‘Wrecking Ball’ timeless?”

It’s unnecessary detours like these that take precious screen time away from our heroes and grind the film’s momentum to a halt. Had the script stayed focused a bit more on its central characters, I would have found myself caring if Ethan gets the girl or if Isaac learns to be a responsible father or if Chris becomes less of an egotistical jerk.

But perhaps I’m being a bit of a Scrooge. People don’t go to a film like The Night Before looking for well-developed characters or a polished script. They go to laugh. And when Christmas brings us such lumps of coal as Jingle All the Way, Deck the Halls, and Christmas with the Kranks, we can be thankful that The Night Before is as funny and warmhearted as it is. After all, isn’t being thankful what the holidays are all about?

Grade: B-

"Our Brand Is Crisis" Review

Political satire is an art form. From Veep to SNL’s approach to the presidential candidates each year — the formula that generates great political commentary involves a delicate balance of humor, tact, intelligence and a willingness to take everything to the next level. “Our Brand is Crisis”, directed by David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”), mixes politics and humor, creating a film with genuine insight and a laugh-out-loud approach to the world of political campaigns.

Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), or Calamity Jane as she is known in the political world, has retired from politics. For years she rolled with the top-dogs, working on some of the biggest campaigns, but her dedication to the craft took a toll on her personal life — resulting in several stints in rehab. Seemingly content with her cabin in the mountains and pottery-making, bad news comes knocking in the form of Nell (Ann Dowd), a former colleague. Nell is currently working for a Bolivian candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), and she wants Jane on the campaign. Castillo is 28 points behind in the polls and in desperate need of Jane’s expertise. Jane isn’t convinced to join the team until one name is brought up: Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), her political campaign nemesis. At the mere mention of his name Jane is on a flight to Bolivia, off to save Castillo’s campaign.

“Our Brand is Crisis” is Sandra Bullock at her finest. As Jane, she delivers a bull-headed personality, perfectly countered by an off-kilter charm and sense of humor. There is something classically physical and consistently effortless about Bullock’s comedic chops and this role allowed her to bring what she does best to the table. Her performance turns what could’ve been a deeply-flawed, stoic woman into a riveting, can’t-wait-to-see-what-she-does-next character. An added bonus to Bullock’s performance: Billy Bob Thornton as Pat and Zoe Kazan as political ingenue, LeBlanc. The relationship between Jane and Pat is dark and twisted and to watch this play out onscreen is a pure delight. Time slows down as Pat and Jane come together in a series of biting and witty conversations and Billy Bob Thornton plays his character to a twisted tee. Zoe Kazan’s LeBlanc is mysterious, but Kazan stands as the perfect partner to Bullock’s comedy.

As a lazy, but always intrigued, political junkie what I found so fascinating about this film is its ability to touch on the truth of political campaigns while also managing to have a lot of fun. As Jane and her team work to bring their candidate up in the polls, you really get to see the art of political communication — how it is not about honesty or doing what it is right, but it is about telling the right story at the right time and convincing the people to believe in that story. It’s as simple as that. “Our Brand is Crisis” tells the story of the type of people it takes to get the political job done, and its humor comes from the eccentricities of their different personalities. The writing is fantastic, and if you’ve ever wondered what might lead Sandra Bullock to flash her bare bottom at a passing bus of political enemies, this movie is definitely for you!

Grade: B+

"The Final Girls" Review:

I remember watching “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” marathons on the occasional Friday the 13th back in the day. Even though I would watch from underneath a blanket in fear, it was something about the slasher flicks that I enjoyed. “The Final Girls” is a celebration of the 1980s style slasher flicks. It knows what it is and what it’s doing. It’s a movie on the timeline of a cinematic history full of movies and it uses tropes from over the years to make its point. There is so much going on in the film that highlights the past through a contemporary lens, but in the best way possible!

Max (Taissa Farmiga) was always playing the role of the grown up with her mother, Amanda (Malin Akerman), a one time star of “Camp Bloodbath” 1 and 2. Three years after losing her mother in a car accident, Max is invited to a movie marathon of her mother’s biggest role by the franchise’s biggest fan, Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). Max drags her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) to the theater. They run into Max’s possible new flame Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and his ex/mean girl, Vicki (Nina Dobrev). The teens double for the stereotypical characters that can be seen in “Camp Bloodbath”.

After a fire breaks out in the theater, the group try to escape through the theater screen to the back exit but are transported into the “Camp Bloodbath” movie, “Last Action Hero”-style. They soon discover they are stuck in a continuous 92-minute loop of the film and the only way to get out is to get involved in it. As the film moves forward, each cast member steps into their position. Duncan is the genius who knows the Camp Bloodbath movies in and out. While you may assume that you know how everyone else fills their roles, it’s their interaction with their counterparts that makes the film so interesting!  

As Chris interacts with Kurt (Adam DeVine), the jock of Camp Bloodbath, viewers can see the 80’s definition of the athletic male stereotype versus the 2015 version. Yet, where the movie finds a lot of it’s emotional depth is in the interaction with Max and her mom’s character, Nancy. The chance for Max to speak to her mom again turns “The Final Girls” into a fun movie with wit and heart.

For the film geeks, the movie is technically proficient and brilliantly executed. All the elements of slasher films are there for dissecting through humorous scenes thatserve the story: slow motion running, backstory flashbacks, stepping over titles, jump screams from the killer appearing in the window, swelling scores, and so much more that this review could turn into a paper. There are plenty of spoof horror films out that you probably can roll your eyes thinking about right now, but this I assure you is not one of those.

“The Final Girls” is an absolutely brilliant film that celebrates the process of filmmaking, the history of slasher films, and the emotions we feel as viewers when we go to the movies. You can’t reinvent the wheel that Wes Craven created in “Scream”. However, you can create your own brand. “The Final Girls” does that and some! Go see it now!

Rating: A+

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Kevin Sampson

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

"American Ultra" Review

The psychedelic posters for American Ultra make the film’s purpose clear: it’s a bold, stoner comedy. The film’s tagline — “Everyone’s getting smoked” — further drives the point home. Unfortunately, like most potheads, American Ultra fails to deliver on its promise. 

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner with an ambition problem. He wants something beyond the life he has created in the small West Virginian town he lives in. Unfortunately, he’s all too content working at the local convenient store, getting high while doing so, and coming home to his all too understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Things begin to shift for Mike when a federal agent (played by Connie Britton) comes to visit him at the convenient store one night. Through a string of nonsensical words, the agent activates a deadly night of gun-slinging, bomb-blasting debauchery for Mike and Phoebe — just your normal stoner comedy, right?

Comedy is by far one of the hardest genres when it comes to telling a good story. When the main purpose of a film is to get a good laugh, major details like structure and plot can get lost in the name of going for the joke. For American Ultra, the comedy seems to have been prioritized and the all important question of “What is at stake?” is simply forgotten. Between the rushed introduction of the “romantic” leads and the disjointed CIA storyline, there is no space for the audience to get to know these characters or give us a reason to care about them. This set-up worked in the sense that the film is just bizarre enough to be funny, but the humor is one-note, rarely going beyond a well-written line or two. The surface level humor of American Ultra is further compounded by the sheer violence of the film. Guns were a plenty, as were other cringe-worthy kills brought about by dust pans and spoons. Yes, spoons.

A case could be made that this was simply a wrong person, wrong film situation, but as a big believer in comedy, this reviewer stands by the sour taste left in her mouth by American Ultra. There is also the chance that maybe, just like it’s main characters, American Ultra is best watched while stoned. Maybe then this peculiar film would make a little more sense.

Grade: D+

"Mistress America" Review

There is something very necessary about portraying the female experience in all its varying forms. It is a story often left behind — or at least out of focus. Mistress America — directed by Noah Baumbach and cowritten with Greta Gerwig — is  a unique approach to the complicated relationships that enrich and detract from being a girl in this world. And no, this isn’t about a boy.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is the Barnard babe we all wish we were when we started our freshman year at college. She is intelligent, knows how to rock a blazer and her literary aspirations are classically indie. There is one tiny problem though: she does not fit in, or at least her peers seem to have little interest in letting her join in on the freshmen fun. Tracy laments to her mother about her lonely days and nights on campus and her mother reminds her to get in touch with Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her soon-to-be step sister.

Brooke is the thirty-flirty-and-thriving NYC woman, hitting all of the benchmarks of a fabulous New York City lifestyle. At first glance, she does not seem to be the answer to Tracy’s dashed college dreams, but in girl world, the solution to the problem is not about finding the perfect solution — it’s about finding the best solution for right now. Fans of Gerwig’s character from Frances Ha may find Brooke a little grating. She’s manic and blissfully unaware of her shallowness. For Tracy though, Brooke offers up the fun and sophistication that has been lacking from her college experience. They are an immediate pair, informed by Gerwig and Kirke’s obvious chemistry.

Mistress America could’ve easily turned into a self-aware commentary on this generation and the plight of the aimless twenty-something. Instead, the film becomes a situational comedy featuring quick-witted characters who offer a plethora of depth depending on the life experience of the audience member. By stepping away from the will-the-girl-get-the-boy formula, Baumbach and Gerwig have created a film about the other, if not more important, relationships that come in and out of a girl’s life. This film is about the positive and negative experiences we all go through as we chose who to align ourselves with — how you find yourself through the good and the bad. 

Baumbach and Gerwig clearly know how to get things done. Speaking after the screening I saw, Gerwig noted that Mistress was shot in only 60 days — an extended vacation compared to the 50 days the pair used to shoot Francis Ha. Baumbach and Gerwig also know how to use their time to tell a story that is often not told. Combining an 80s touch and feel (especially apparent in the soundtrack) with quick dialogue, Mistress America offers up the charm, quirk and depth of your favorite short story.

Rating: B

Mistress America releases this weekend in select theaters!