"Mandy" Review: A Vision Both Strange and Eternal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: D+

"Hereditary" Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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.

"IT" Review

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IT has been a long time coming. Not only was this a film stuck in development hell, but it comes as an example of this generation’s property-driven adaptation streak that includes the prolific but often poorly adapted Stephen King. Each reworking of the unimaginably popular and massively prolific King is something like pulling the sword from the stone.  So far only two have definitely done it: The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining. Kubrick’s The Shining altered the material enough to receive a full dismissal from the author, even as the standalone film is one of American cinema’s most extraordinary and cryptic works. The other was touching critically praised, but not in any way a horror film.

Andy Muschietti’s film (along with this summer’s other long-simmering King work, The Dark Tower) comes with introductory endorsement from the author himself. The reasons for a poor page-to-screen transition are numerous, let alone King’s winding, character driven epics. Even then, IT is an albatross, a cinder-block sized horror-text about childhood trauma, friendship and a decades-long wrestling match with an inter-dimensional being who appears as a clown. But the premise is simple, IT is a creature that preys on the fears of children. 

So, take a minute King fans…horror fans. IT is a great movie--a worthy adaptation of King, an unrelenting visual delight and horror film first and foremost. 

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Set in the Derry, Maine in the summer of 1988, IT tells the story of Bill Denbrough, a junior high kid whose brother Georgie was snatched down a storm drain by a maniacal clown the previous fall. All the town knows is where he disappeared. As school lets out for summer, Bill and his friends (known as the Loser’s Club) discuss whether they will pick up the abandoned search for Georgie. Here, we’re introduced to a collection of stock roles and identities: Stanley Uris, the Jewish one (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) the hypochondriac and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) the foul-mouthed one. They will add to their ranks Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) the girl, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) the black kid and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) the new kid/the fat kid. They are antagonized by a trio of shaggy haired bullies, lead by the mulleted Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). What pain isn’t inflicted by the bullies is portrayed by cartoonish parents who are dismissive, predatory or smothering. Given that nearly every character is given some type of minor arc the stereotypes are a way to identify a barrage of introductions and early interactions. 

But IT loads the titular monster early. Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgård) appears to each of the kids as a manifestation of their own fear or trauma. For instance, Mike Hanlon, having been orphaned in a house fire and raised by his grandfather, a livestock farmer and butcher, is confronted with a vision of the house fire and the clown, strung up on a meat hook, eyes glowing in the dark. Stanley Uris, sees the clown first as a creepy Edvard Munch-like portrait come to life. Each child is confronted by IT as Pennywise and IT as a creature. They have to find and confront the clown as a group or risk being picked off in isolation.

The script deals each bit of exposition with bursts of thrilling nightmares, all Dutch angles and swift editing. There is little time to catch your breath before the next scene and the narrative is incomprehensible. At 135 minutes, IT is barely contained, stuffed to crown of its encephalitic clown skull with wondrous and terrifying set pieces. Assembled more episodically, IT pulls away from the coming-of-age story to deliver a finely crafted creature feature. There’s some half-baked structure around how fear (literally) divides the Losers club, but the adventure lies in the variety and ingenuity of the scares. 

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Skarsgård wisely crafts Pennywise’s persona from scratch, trading the harsh taunting of Tim Curry’s 1990 portrayal for a childlike charisma that emanates wordlessly from the painted contours of Skarsgård’s face. IT/Pennywise is given no backstory and reigns in the immediacy of each encounter, bursting through slide projectors, rising from floodwaters, and menacing in a room full of clown dolls.  

For horror fans, this is a must see. IT is old-school fun and deserves the experience of the big screen. The film leaves no doubt of a sequel, and remains highly re-watchable until that time.

Rating: A

 

 

 

"It Comes At Night" Review

Americans are primed for the apocalypse. Whether the deluge of doomsday preparation and undead apocalypse TV shows or cardio-based zombie evasion fun runs, we’re a nation steeped in the possibility that all men will eventually become zombies. And when that time comes we’ll have achieved a 40-yard-dash time quick enough to outrun the bloodthirsty masses to a fortified armory and help rebuild civilization. Escaping danger is our collective middle name. 

Thing is, once we’ve hacked and slashed our way to safety, all that time spent locked away in the abandoned fort will be tedious. There’s drama, sure. Leaders will emerge and be challenged, resources will go dry and need replenishing and all our social networks will be useless. Survival is a waiting game, meal after meager meal, day after dull day, month after miserable month.

It Comes at Night, the second feature-length movie from Trey Edward Shults (Krisha), is laced with small doses of excitement, but spends much of its running time watching its characters wait in fear. Shults employs the camera as a tight third-person observer. While boogeymen real and imagined circle the limited world of the script, the camera is focused on the mental and physical strain our heroes suffer as they undertake survival. They are bound to a day-to-day exercise in trust, regiment and they hold a skeptical gaze toward any stranger in their midst. 

The family in question is only identified as father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as fear has a way of grinding units down to individuals. The familial clan of survivalists are holed up in the woods while an ambiguous plague threatens the world around them. At the start of the film, the illness has already claimed one other family member, but little else is explained about its origin or effects. It Comes At Night is not about the fight against the undead, but the threat of sickness penetrating the family unit. It opens in a tragedy meant to solidify the family unit and warn the viewer of both the outsider itself and the fear of outsiders. 

After the deceased is laid to rest Paul, Sarah and Will must move on and bury sadness with trust and routine. When a young father, Will (Girls’ Christopher Abbott) barges in on the trio in search of supplies, it takes some time before Paul agrees to bring Will’s family into their fold. Joel Edgerton’s Paul is nothing if not a cautious realist, but he’s flawed in his fearfulness. While the two families attempt to live together in tension and mistrust, Travis has visions that wind the daily tension with nightly terror. His insomnia is the lens of horror tropes. He sees his mouths filled with blood, animal corpses and one of the film’s very few jump scares.

Shults uses Travis’s nightmare sequences to explicate both the characters fears and his desires. It Comes At Night follows through with a drama film that plays as horror because the viewer, through close camera focus, is meant to watch the characters diligently to see how and when they break. While the familiar beats of zombie films and backwoods horror will delight enthusiasts of both genres, the subdued action may disappoint some. Still, It Comes At Night holds so steadily in its watchful gaze that the viewer must see themselves walking down every empty hallway. And as horror films are often a chance to live out death from the safety of an armchair, It Comes At Night is a chance to be the weary eye of a survivor, waiting and watching in fear.

Rating: A-

"Get Out" Review: An Instant Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

Comment

Kevin Sampson

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

"The Purge: Election Year" Review

It’s been two years since we last saw America purge in The Purge: Anarchy. This time it’s 2025 and America is on the verge of either electing a new president who wants to get rid of the purge, or a president who wants nothing but to see the annual 12 hours of all crime being legal continued. This weekend at the movies, I vote you save your money and wait for this one to hit your favorite streaming program!

Eighteen years before the present day in the film, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) watched her family be murdered before her eyes on purge night. Since then, she has been on a mission to end the purge. Let’s not kid ourselves, her opponent is a Donald Trump-like character who believes in violence as the American Way. Frank Grillo reprises his role as Seargent Barnes but this time he’s the head of the Senator’s security.

We’re introduced to new characters in the beginning of the film, and it’s noticeably less than Anarchy’s cast. Bishop (Edwin Hodge) is a revolutionary fighting the NFFA (a trivia note, he's the only person who has been in all three films but he's at the forefront in this one), Joe (Mykelti Williams aka Bubba from Forrest Gump) is a small deli shop owner with the worst afro-centric stereotypical one-liners, and Laney (Betty Gabriel) is an ex-gangster who may have traded in violence for being a triage nurse but still has a shotgun near by. The character development is a little rushed, and the only new person I cared for was Laney as she had a great stamp of approval from a teenage hell-raiser (who comes back later in the film) in the beginning of the film.

The franchise hasn’t changed from its baseline since The Purge. The characters still have to survive the night. This time the goal is to protect the senator from the NFFA members and hired henchmen trying to take her out. The intriguing development this time is the culture and technology of the purge. Foreigners from around the world come to America to participate in the purge as a form of leisure, coined “murder tourists”. Purgers use drones to track people, set up sophisticated traps, and have fight clubs. You get a true sense that this America is fully realized throughout the film.

Writer/director of the trilogy, James DeMonaco, visually taps into the terror of the purge by taking what’s typically harmless and making it horrifying. A car wrapped in christmas lights, bumping Taylor Swift, and filled with teenage girls dressed in lingerie becomes a psychotic gang you don’t want to mess with. Unfortunately, this film seems to have lost its steam at the script level. DeMonaco has slowly brought a political/class undertone further to the forefront with each film, and Election Year clearly wants to speak on gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, religious fanaticism and our current election season. The subtlety in eluding to modern issues is tossed out for either on-the-nose dialogue, or long scenes that run its point into the ground. 

I’ve been a fan of this franchise up until this point from a guilty pleasure perspective. The internal time clock on the films keep things moving, and its entertaining to see how the characters will survive. While The Purge: Election Year has its moments, overall it feels rushed and the characters are caricatures of their stereotype. I’m sure there will be another purge film, but this franchise’s clock may get punched if it doesn’t work on better character development and presenting issues in a more subtle way.

Rating: C-

 

 

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Kevin Sampson

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

"The Conjuring 2" Review: Wan is Back in the Zone!

Horror fans, indulge me for a moment. Think of all the elements that go into a masterful horror film: Nerve-jangling scares; a sense of dread permeating throughout; imagery that sticks with you and keeps you up at night; brilliant production design; a great score; believable performances; and yes, even genuine emotion.

It sounds too good to be true in today’s world, where fecal matter like Ouija, The Gallows, and The Forest clogs the toilet that is mainstream horror. Yet there is hope in the form of our savior, the almighty and all-knowing James Wan, who has come to show us the way. Wan has always been a master of his craft, as he has demonstrated in the original Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, but now he has perfected it. With The Conjuring 2, he has made a perfect horror film.

Yes. The Conjuring 2 is a perfect movie. As in, it has practically zero flaws.

Like its 2013 predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is set in the 1970s and delves into the so-called “true case files” of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), a real-life husband-and-wife team of renowned demonologists. This time, the Warrens travel to Enfield, England, where a single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are being tormented, possessed, and generally inconvenienced by a demonic presence.

What transpires at the Hodgson household is pretty standard stuff: A chair moving on its own, strange voices, bumps in the night. Of course, we’ve seen it all done before in plenty of other movies, but rarely have we seen it done so well. Like a certain Mr. Spielberg, Wan has a gift for manipulation, and not in a bad way—he meticulously crafts each individual moment for maximum effect, so that the audience is completely wrapped around his finger. The tension Wan creates is palpable, and while he often makes use of those dreaded jump scares, they never feel cheap and they always feel earned. The man simply knows what he’s doing.

He’s aided by terrific production design by Julie Berghoff and a spine-tingling score by Joseph Bishara. Both add authenticity to the period setting and an uncanny unease to the film’s atmosphere. Sweeping camerawork by director of photography Don Burgess glides placidly, putting the viewer on edge for what awaits just around the corner. And the performances—with standout turns once again by Wilson (TV’s Fargo) and Farmiga (TV’s Bates Motel)—bring humanity and heart to the spooky proceedings.

I loved this movie. As a horror fan, I want to shout it from the mountaintops: “The Conjuring 2 is not only the rare sequel that’s as good if not better than its predecessor, it’s a masterpiece of the genre!” It’s a rickety, demented funhouse ride that, despite its 135-minute running time, doesn’t overstay its welcome (unlike those pesky spirits). That’s quite an accomplishment. And though there have been some phenomenal indie horror films as of late, such as It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch, James Wan is king as far as mainstream, wide-release horror goes. With all the heavenly blessings, I thank James Wan for turning down Fast 8 to direct this film. Horror is where he belongs.

Grade: A+

"The Visit" Review

These days, the name M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t hold much cinematic weight. The director of “The Sixth Sense” has probably had more failures than successes at this point in his career. With “The Visit”, Shyamalan displays an ember that we hope he fans into flame for all future work!

Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents. After their mom (Kathryn Hahn) left her parents’ home after a feud for a relationship with an older man (who became Becca and Tyler’s father) as a teenager, she never reconciled with them. Even though she doesn’t care to see them, she let’s her children go on a week long trip to meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) for the first time after being contacted by them online.

The film takes on the found footage genre from the perspective of aspiring documentarian Becca. Becca enlists the help of her rapper wanna-be brother as a camera operator during the week. As the days unfold, the two teenagers slowly realize that Nana and Pop Pop are a bit strange. While Pop Pop has incontinence and is forgetful, and Nana struggles with sun downing, there seems to be more there than “old people problems”.

The fun of the film is trying to unravel the mystery of what’s going on with Nana and Pop Pop with the kids. In fact, Shyamalan perfectly plays on our fears that we had as youngsters throughout the film. We wonder what the sound on the other side of the door is, but we’re afraid to investigate. We wonder what Pop Pop might be hiding or doing in the barn just like Tyler. We wonder why Nana wants Becca to climb into the oven and clean it. It’s our curiosity that puts us on the edge of our seat, right where Shyamalan wants us.

Always a visual storyteller, Shyamalan uses the entire frame to tell the story, placing the camera with purpose and forcing us to observe what the camera sees. He combines his technical use of the frame with going back and forth between comic, heartfelt, and utterly creepy moments in the film. Each emotion serves the other. We’re able to laugh after a scary scene, learn more about the characters during a sincere interview for the camera, and cover our eyes when things get scary after sunset. It all blends together into a uniquely told tale.

The cast and performances within the film are solid. Deanna Dunagan deserves a special mention as Nana. She steals almost every scene she’s in effortlessly by embracing the irrational and equally sincere sides of her character.

While the kids can be a little over-precocious at times, and the film asks us to turn a blind eye to some moments, it’s a great ride! Known for making surprised twists, this one sucks the air out of the theater, as the crowd I screened the film with could be heard collectively gasping. “The Visit” will have you sleeping with one eye open next time you visit the grands, as Shyamalan seems to be saying “don’t sleep on me!”

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.

"Unfriended" Review

The internet and social media rules our world. What happens when that world rules you? “Unfriended” is simply a gimmick in which writer Nelson Greaves won’t let us unplug from the desktop shown before us, and if you can get past that, it works.

Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her friends, Val (Courtney Halverson), Mitch (Moses Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) group chat via Skype. This particular evening is the anniversary of Laura’s (Heather Sossaman) death. Laura committed suicide after an embarrassing video hit the web and went viral. The entire story is told from the perspective of Blaire’s computer.

When the group chat is initialized, an unknown entity is also on the chat. As they try to figure out who it is, they all start receiving messages via various social media. Skype, Facebook, Spotify, and iMessaging all get used during the course of the evening. While things start out as what seems to be a joke, the unknown entity starts to put the group’s dirty secrets on display.

You could write the rest of the film. There are enough characters to start killing them off one by one. As the mysterious person takes over the social media handles of the late Laura, the group is forced to come to terms with the wrong that they did.

Sadly, there are no likable characters. We don’t even care about Laura. What makes the movie interesting is the use of the computer screen and seeing it from Blaire’s perspective. We’ve all been on the computer and typed a message, erased it, and then typed something else or cycled through applications while multitasking. Director Levan Gabriadze captures these moments extremely well. We spend a good portion of the time reading what Blaire is typing to her boyfriend Mitch or Laura as she contacts her on other apps. It’s intriguing and voyeuristic. 

Gabriadze also uses the sounds that we hear on a daily basis to his advantage. The clicking of computer keys, mouse clicks, Skype’s ringtone for calls coming end or going off, and other sounds are used to create tension. Even connection and disconnection issues become a part of the suspense of the film. 

Ultimately, “Unfriended” would end if the characters would just disconnect and walk away. Yet their curiosity to find out who is stalking them, and our curiosity to continue watching keeps the film going. It’s definitely not worth seeing on the big screen, but perhaps the small screen or even better, a laptop is where it could be most effective.

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.