Author Archives: SR Staley

MIB International entertains despite simple plot

Men In Black: International, or MIB International, doesn’t have many surprises although the movie somehow manages to entertain. MIB International, however, is definitely geared toward younger audiences. It’s PG-13 rating might actually be a little more restrictive than necessary. 

The plot is pretty simple. We are surrounded by aliens of various sorts. It’s up to the secret society MIB to ferret out the bad ones and keep the good ones in line. This time, MIB is trying to save the Earth from something called the Hive. MIB plans, however, are put into a bind. Someone suspects a mole in MIB UK unit is working against our heroes. The specter of corruption within the agency is the primary source of tension in this story. 

MIB International is saved by strong casting. Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel universe franchise movies) plays Henry, or Agent H. He is best known as a care-free investigator and playboy. He’s riding the reputational wave of a major victory over the Hive when he defeated it several years earlier with just his wits. He is paired with Molly (Tessa Thompson, the Creed movies, Selma, Annihilation) who has tracked down MIB on her own in an effort to join the ultra secret agency. Thompson adds a nice spark and sassiness to the movie. Emma Thompson also shows up as their supervisor, Agent O, with Liam Neeson playing Hight T, the head of MIB in the UK.

While the plot is transparent and predictable (at least to adults), MIB International‘s special effects and Tessa Thompson’s acting do a nice job of keeping audiences engaged. 

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Anna‘s stylish action elevates its story

Anna is the newest action movie by French auteur director Luc Besson and my full review is now live at The Beacon. The creator of Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, among others, has helped him build a reputation for deeper storytelling while also paying attention to style and the craft of film making. This approach is clear in Anna, where Besson makes the risky move of casting real-world Russian super model Sasha Luss in the title role. It works.

Besson doesn’t pull back on the action sequences nor the femininity of the emotionally traumatized titular character. The fight choreography is impressive because of its physicality as well as its calibration to the physique and mental state of the lead character. Anna never transforms into a buff, physically trained fighter. This is critical for the plot and the character.

Film critics have not been kind to Anna in their reviews, but audiences clearly enjoy it — as I did. I find it odd that the critics’ major hit against Anna appears to be that Besson doesn’t seem to add anything new to the genre. But some of these critics haven’t found similar faults with franchise films in such series as Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, or John Wick. Besson’s character. The story in Anna is more nuanced than these other films. The layers were clear to me in the way Besson builds the arc of the character, the time jumping through the story, and the nuanced choreography of the martial arts sequences. (Sure, the fights are excessive. But that’s a staple of Western action films.)

My full review is now live at The Beacon, the blog of the Independent Institute.

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Dark Phoenix character-driven story swamped by superhero fatigue

Dark Phoenix limped into the box offices over its first weekend and seems destined to be a big-ticket flop. I have to wonder, however, if part of the movie’s under performance is due to superhero movie fatigue. Dark Phoenix brings a lot more onto the screen than previous movies, particularly in terms of story and well-defined characters.

This Marvel movie installment puts Jean Grey, aka Phoenix (Sophie Turner) at the center of the plot. Jean is brought to Charles Xavier’s (Charles McAvoy) school for mutants as an eight year old in the wake of a horrific car accident. She knows she is the cause of the accident that orphans her, and the resultant insecurity over her ability to control her mutant powers becomes central to Dark Phoenix. Intellectually, Jean knows, and wants, to use her powers to do good. But she is also torn by the confusion wrought by her natural-born tendencies to use her powers to destroy and dominate. When an alien race led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) discovers a preternatural force occupies Jean and magnifies her mutant powers, Jean finds the dark side all too tempting.

Dark Phoenix is a character-driven movie with layers. While Jean Grey’s journey toward self-discovery provides the backbone to the movie, the screenwriters have paid attention to critical supporting characters as well. Xavier’s character in particular must grapple with the consequences of his decisions to shield Jean from the truth about her family and her past. Solid performances by Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven), and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) hold Xavier accountable for a superhero version of helicopter parenting that leaves Grey poorly prepared to deal with life as an adult.

Dark Phoenix slips into cgi excess with over the top urban destruction, but the plot nevertheless remains surprisingly focused. Overall, however, I found Dark Phoenix to have strong story lines that connect with real-world struggles of overcoming feelings of inadequacy, acceptance of natural abilities, and the challenges of conforming mainstream expectations. The movie’s strong thematic warning to parents who, despite their best intentions, allow their protective instincts to create a bubble that fails to equip their children with healthy coping skills also strengthens the story in substantive ways.

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Bharat is a Bollywood story of tragedy, sacrifice, social justice, and personal growth

Bharat had a strong opening in India and has emerged as one of Bollywood’s highest revenue earners in 2019. While reviews in India have been lukewarm, Western audiences (as opposed to Western critics) are likely to be more patient and engaged with this character-driven drama. They will also learn something about India’s recent history and the events that have shaped its recent political and cultural trajectory.

The story begins during the Great Partition, a violent separation of what is now Pakistan from current-day India in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs clashed in riots and nearly 15 million people were displaced as they sought safety. The movie opens as Bharat’s father (Jeffrie Shroff), a Hindu station master in what would become Pakistan, scrambles to put his family on the last train to India and presumably safety. As 8-year old Bharat climbs to the top of a train car with his mother and his siblings, his sister Guidya loses her grip and falls into the throng. Bharat’s father makes young Bharat promise to keep the family together until he finds them at a family owned store in Delhi.

The movie follows Bharat (Salman Khan) as he tries to live up to the promise, putting the needs of his family above his own even as he finds sporadic success and love. At the same time, the audience is given a street-level view of how India evolved through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s. Each snippet in Bharat’s life reflects a particular phase of India’s social and economic evolution, from his attempts to raise money through the black market to his job as a stunt performer in a traveling Russian circus. He works in the oil fields of the Middle East and then as a seaman on a merchant ship in pirate infested waters off Somalia. Bharat suffers through dogged unemployment as India slogs through an economic period of agonizingly slow economic growth. He discovers the meaning of romantic love (Katrina Kaif) as India grapples with cultural modernization and economic liberalization.

At its core, Bharat is a human drama, a story of tragedy, sacrifice, social change, and personal growth. Bharat’s choices reflect the times in which he makes them as well as the broader changes that reveal new, often dangerous, opportunities. Bharat’s story is not an existential one — he never forgets that he is the one responsible for making those decisions and accepting the consequences of his actions. He also must resolve for himself the value of staying true to a promise he gave as a young boy.

Bharat is in Hindi with English subtitles. While the story is tight and holds together very, very well, evaluating the quality of the acting is a bit difficult — we’re often too busy reading subtitles. However, the movie includes some of Bollywoods best-known actors, including Salman Khan (as Bharat), Katrina Kaif (as his lover Kumud), Tabu (as Bharat’s sister), Sunil Grover (as his best friend Vilayti, a muslim), Jacki Shroff (as Bharat’s father), and Siha Patani. Western audiences interested in getting a taste of modern Bollywood, learning something about India, and pulled in by dramatic, character-driven stories should find enough in Bharat to leave the theaters satisfied.

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Aladdin is pleasant, summer diversion

Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin is good solid fare for young ones, but alas does not rise to the level many adults will feel fully engaged or entertained. Fine performances by Will Smith as the Genie and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine keep the story moving forward, but the movie has trouble keeping its momentum despite its magic carpet.

The story follows the outlines of the traditional story, or at least a popular version as told through the folktales in One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights. Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a street waif and, in this movie version, a thief, runs across the princess in the streets of Agrabah somewhere in the Middle East. Presumable, the story takes place during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire (about the 16th century) where Sultans ruled over a vast expanse of territory and riches. Of course, the wise and judicious Sultan (a monarch), father of Jasmine, doesn’t recognize the villainous Grand Vizier — the head of the government — Jafar who is trying to undermine him.

Jafar, however, recognizes Aladdin’s preternatural abilities as a thief and survivor, if not his pure heart. He tricks Aladdin into a cave of riches, where he seizes the magic lamp and unleashes the genie. The rest of the story takes off from here as Aladdin attempts to woo Princess Jasmine by pretending to be a prince. Jafar sees through Aladdin’s facade and attempts to claim the lamp and the genie’s powers while everyone else is trying to figure out what’s going on. Comic relief through Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu helps lighten the story, but, unlike Princess Jasmine’s protective Bengal Tiger Rajah, his antics are also well integrated into the plot.

As narrative, the movie seems to go through the paces without much forward momentum. The critical scenes are spliced together in a logical, chronological order. The musical numbers are entertaining but not gripping or compelling elements of the plot, despite one production involving more than 1,000 dancers and extras.

Overall, the main themes are good ones for modern society: Princess Jasmine bucks the patriarchy despite her well meaning father. Aladdin loses himself in wealth, but finds his soul with the help of the genie. The diversity of the cast reflects the expectations of modern Hollywood. I found the performances of Massoud a bit flat and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar a bit one dimensional. Nevertheless, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, and Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the princess’s handmaiden and confidante, more than enough to keep me interested.

Thus, overall, Aladdin is a pleasant if not inspired movie, a pleasant summer diversion that will be suitable for children even though it doesn’t quite live up to the artistic expectations of Disney feature films.

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Authentic India’s Most Wanted falters as action movie

The decision on whether to formally review India’s Most Wanted, a Bollywood produced “action” movie, was difficult. Reviewers struggle to determine what elements of foreign produced films are culturally specific, and which ones are generally applicable. Bollywood movies typically fall into this conundrum for a variety of reasons (e.g., the inclusion of musical numbers in dramatic film).

On the upside, Western audiences will be treated to cinematography that captures sweeping vistas of India and Nepal. Their sense of place and custom will be jarred as they are transported into the crowded streets of Delhi, Kathmandu, and mountain side towns. They will also be forced to adjust to urbanity where four-wheeled vehicles are scarce, reserved for the wealthiest and most well connected. Most people will be riding on hot, crowded buses, or various forms of two-wheelers. They will see an authentic setting for the story. No attempt is made to project high-powered technology with fancy driving or stunts. The conditions remain grounded in the real-world technology faced by the men on the ground, including cell phones with little more capability than texting and talking.

India’s Most Wanted is inspired by the real events surrounding a secret attempt by Indian special police to infiltrate Nepal and nab a notorious terrorist — without firing a shot. The themes of bureaucratic incompetence and the heroic actions of the lead characters will not present a problem for most Western viewers; these are familiar plot lines and a staple of this genre. Western audiences will also probably find the low-tech nature of the search and capture mission refreshing. The film is low-budget by Western standards, meaning no CGI and limited practical effects. In the right hands, this can be play well. Unfortunately, “India’s Most Wanted” fumbles.

While audiences can certainly believe that the team in under imminent threat of discovery, and this will likely trigger significant negative consequences — national shame, ruined careers, an international incident that could trigger military intervention — few in an American audience will really believe the team is facing dire physical threats or death (even though they were). As narrative, the stakes are substantially lower. No amount of slow-motion video capture, dream sequences, deeply pensive camera shots with stunning sunset backdrops, or roughing up prisoners, is likely to overcome these lower stakes.

Thus, the hurdle for Western audiences will be their expectations. Action movies produced out of China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the West are fast-paced and physical. The heroes in India’s Most Wanted appear by Western eyes to be out-of-shape, middle-aged misfits. None, except perhaps the team leader, looks like they have stepped into a gym or physically worked out since their days of police training. This would be fine if “India’s Most Wanted” were a comedy, or even a “dramedy.” But movie is billed as an action-thriller. We are expected to believe the team is a serious threat capable of taking down a violent and dogmatic terrorist — which they did in real life — but on camera it doesn’t look they could job 100 yards.

The result is slow paced movie that never really rises to its action billing. On-line reviews suggest the film is doing better in India than in the US. American viewers, however, would be best to approach India’s Most Wanted as a cultural immersion more than an engaging, fast-paced ride. The movie is in Hindi with English subtitles.

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Rocketman soars with fantasy and authenticity

“Rocketman,” the musical-fantasy-biopic of British pop music virtuoso Elton John, is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Despite the well-known nature of his trials and tribulations on and off-stage, the movie keeps audiences engaged through a smooth weave of iconic songs into critical points in Elton John’s personal and professional development. What seems like an entertaining musical in the beginning, quickly evolves into a meaningful and heartfelt story of the rise and near-collapse of a pop icon.

The movie begins with Elton John’s heartbreaking origins growing up in a working-class section of the town of Pinner in Southeast England. Isolation from his detached father and free-spirit mother eventually leads him to music. At first, the film feels like a more conventional musical, mixing well-known songs penned by Elton John and his long-time co-writer Bernie Taupin with critical events in his upbringing and personal development. As the movie unfolds, however, these events (and the meaning behind the lyrics) reveal themselves as part of a well-scripted story that is tightly written and intentional. The fantasy elements bring audiences into the emotional and personal world of a young man increasingly estranged from his parents and doubts about his own self worth, even has he shows a remarkable aptitude for songwriting, voice interpretation, and musicianship.

The movie is boosted in no small part by an Oscar-caliber performance by Taron Egerton (from the “Kingsman” action movies) who also sings most of the tracks. Indeed, “Rocketman” may well be a break-out role for Egerton, establishing him has a highly versatile actor willing to take on bold roles. The movie is so well scripted and directed, I didn’t find any scene gratuitous, including what is apparently the first gay-male sex scene in a major Hollywood movie (although this is scene is tame by contemporary standards). This polished result is a tribute to screenwriter Lee Hall as well as director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody).

Notably, “Rocketman” was produced by Elton John and his husband David Furnish. While the movie clearly reflects Elton John’s perspective, the story is reflective and doesn’t shy away from his severe and prolonged battles with addiction, the dysfunctional effects resulting from the relentless pressure to perform on a world stage, his struggles with his own sexual identity, or how his behaviors and choices fractured critical relationships. The screenplay’s vulnerability is a tribute to Elton John, deepens the story, and elevates the messages he clearly hopes his current, more balanced approach to life can convey.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin fans will find a lot to enjoy in “Rocketman.” But they will also come away with new interpretations, or appreciations, of their talent, their songs, and the meanings behind the lyrics.

Strong performances, a tightly written screenplay, and topflight directing and editing will likely keep “Rocketman” in contention for major awards despite its relatively early release in the year.

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook review: 4,093 people reached, 588 engagements, 397 reactions, 21 comments, and 35 shares.

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John Wick 3 nonstop action with no story

John Wick 3: Parabellum is a direct chronological extension of the second movie (which I did not see or review), with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run after being excommunicated from a global secret society of assassins. If all you are interested in is nonstop, well choreographed, high production value action and a ridiculously high body count, then the third installment in the John Wick series is the right movie for you. The plot doesn’t have much else, although an excellent supporting cast provides important dimension and complexity to the story.

In fact, the entire plot can probably be summed up in its subtitle, which is more accurately represented in its Latin form “para bellum,” which means “prepare for war.” According to wikipedia, the phrase is most often used coupled with another phrase, so it would read: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” John Wick does a little more than prepare for war, mainly by dropping scores of professional assassins licensed to kill him. Although thin, a plot exists as Wick tries to atone for past sins and escape his past life as a hitman.

Parabellum takes its action scenes to extraordinarily high levels as a visual art form with a refreshing reliance on practical effects over cgi special effects. In fact, the effects and fights scenes are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie is nominated for major awards in special effects editing, cinematography, and sound. (As a martial artist, I found the fight scenes very well choreographed and appreciated the authenticity of the attacks and defenses.) Notably, the movie cast Mark Dacascos, a highly skilled martial artist, in a principal role as an assassin recruited to kill John Wick. The movie was also produced and directed by a martial artist and stuntman (Chad Stahelski). The shear number of action scenes might be a bit gratuitous, but they are exceedingly well done. Reeves is impressive in what are clearly long continuously filmed fight involving knives and guns of all types.

The movie benefits from a number of well drawn characters (presumably carryovers from previous movies) with several excellent and well-known actors, including Laurence Fishburne (the Bowery King), Angelica Huston (Ruska Roma), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), and Ian McShane (Winston).

I enjoyed the movie, although I found myself distracted by the body count. Just don’t expect much more than a straight up, fast-paced action movie with a lot of graphic violence.

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The Kid carried by story and earnest performances

For those looking for a good old-fashioned western movie, The Kid is probably their cup of tea. The movie, directed by veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio, follows a young boy as he tries to navigate the moral ambiguities of life in America’s Old West.

Set in New Mexico territories in 1879, fifteen-year old Rio (Jake Schur) and his older sister, Sara (Leila George), are on the run after they kill their drunk and abusive father. Even though the killing would seem to be justified, their uncle (Chris Pratt) vows to avenge his brother’s death. He organizes a posse of henchmen to track them down.

As Rio and Sara flee, they find themselves caught up in Pat Garrett’s (Ethan Hawke) legendary hunt for the outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan). Billy offers them safety–an outlaw with a heart, so we think–establishing a heartfelt bond with Rio. Despite warnings from Sara Rio’s affection toward Billy grows. Ultimately, in order to save what is left of his family, Rio has to make a decision between the no-nonsense justice of law, represented by Pat Garrett, and the outlaw (with a heart), represented Billy the Kid.

The American Old West has been a fertile ground for authors and filmmakers since the beginning of the industry (probably The Great Train Robbery in 1903). The American frontier was uncompromising, a toxic cauldron of clashing values, competing cultures, big personalities, and laws only as good as those that could be enforced. Frontiersmen (and women), but their nature, are adventurous pragmatists. D’Onofrio honors the tradition and the genre. The Kid does an good job of putting Rio in the cross hairs of these conflicts as he tries to find his own compass at a point where he must decide whether to remain a boy or become a man.

The decision to frame Rio’s choices and challenges in the context of the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid rivalry was a good one. Both figures carry enough baggage, historically and within the fiction of the movie, to make Rio’s choices unclear and difficult even if he does have a clear moral compass.

While The Kid doesn’t break new ground for Western movies, the film is engaging, the performances earnest, and the plot well scripted. The movie’s pace feels more like a drama than a thriller, but those enjoying the Western genre will find it a satisfying two hours.

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Captain Marvel‘s fast pace stumbles on storytelling

Captain Marvel has emerged as the first true blockbuster of 2019, bursting out of the gate by earning $153 million during its first weekend. Audiences love the movie even though my own review was a bit more tepid.

While Captain Marvel is a very good action film, like several other critics, I thought the story didn’t hold together very well. Some reviewers believed a large part of the blame (from a film quality perspective) was in miscasting Brie Larson in the title role. I actually have a different take. I think the problem with the movie was in the story structure, which complicated the role of the actor and movie editing.

What I mean by story “structure” is the way the story unfolds, both in terms of plot and character development. While I won’t go into this in a lot of detail, movies have very rigid “rules” for developing screenplays and telling stories. Unlike novels, which can take their own course, screenplays have to fit into a highly structure two hour visual storytelling frame. The classic screenplay outline encompasses three acts. The first act gives us background of the character and the “normal” world where they are not faced with conflicts. This includes the inciting incident, that point that propels the character on their journey. The second act has the lead character(s) fumbling about until they realize they need to do something different (or die, often times literally). They will experiment with different strategies and tactics, but they are grounded in their “normal world” even though they are no longer living and acting the normal world. All this builds to a clamactic scene where the lead character overcomes their primary obstacle (or villain). The third act wraps everything up. The actual markers delineating the first, second, and third acts are not formulaic; They change with the character, plot, environment, and action.

Over the first and second acts, we (readers/audience) get to know the characters. We understand their world, their basic coping strategies, and the kinds of challenges that face on regular basis. We usually bond with the protagonist and identify the villain (or who we think is or will be the villain), so we have some sense of how the story will play out. This grounds us (the reader or viewer) in the personality and challenges we expect the character to face. (For more on this, see the classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field and Robert McKee, as well as Michael Tabb’s useful recent addition.)

Most stories are also paths on the so-called “hero’s journey.” They are on a quest for some higher purpose, and to achieve that objective they will face an almost insurmountable obstacle. The obstacle is “almost” insurmountable because if our protagonist doesn’t overcome it the ending is a downer. Most people like to see the protagonist win, even if they have deep flaws.

Which brings me to Captain Marvel….

We (the audience) are introduced to her through dreams, where we think she is human, but later realize she a member of the Kree civilization name Vers (pronounced Veers). Outside the dream, she is spunky, hot headed, and strong willed. In the dream, she has experienced a trauma and is confused and dazed. Which is the real Veers? Is it a dream? Or a memory? I don’t know, and without really understanding her starting point, I was confused. Moreover, we find out that the dreams themselves are connected to some vague Supreme Intelligence. So, they might be memories. Eventually, these two conflicting views of Vers are brought together, and its logical and makes sense. In the beginning, however, I (and surely other viewers) had to dismiss “one” of the Veers because her approach to situations was so diametrically opposed to each other. In the process, I was taken out of the story, and ended up focusing on the action, not the character. As a novelist who writes character driven action adventures, I was disappointed and unsatisfied.

From a artistic point of view, I think these dueling perceptions of the motivations and behavior of Vers unmoored her character in the story, making it difficult for readers and viewers to connect to her. Brie Larson clearly had a vision for her character, and how she would play it. The vision makes sense given the arc of the overall story. But as a viewer (reader if it’s a book), I couldn’t relate to her. I didn’t understand Vers’ motivations. Without understanding her motivations, I was unable to determine what her true challenge was, let alone evaluate the gravity of the obstacles she would face.

These confusions may have been the intent of the screenwriters and directors–there were multiple in both roles–a storytelling trick to keep us hooked. If this is the case, based on the criticisms of the film and Brie Larson’s performance coming from many different quarters of the critic community, I think they were too clever by half.

Personally, I saw a lot to like in Larson’s performance. If I had been more invested in her character and understand better how to interpret her behavior as she embarks, as most superheros do, on their journey toward self-discovery, I would have been all in from the beginning.

For the record, I really like the Captain Marvel character and think it’s long overdue for a female lead character to headline a Marvel movie. I am looking forward to seeing Brie Larson reprise her role in future films.

For those interested in movies with strong female characters, here are links to my reviews of Wonder Woman, a movie that I think gets everything just about right,

More of my writing on storytelling from this blog can be found here.


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