Author Archives: SR Staley

Review: Avengers: Infinity War‘s dull plot doesn’t stop Marvel’s romp across the universe

The biggest issue with Avengers: Infinity War is its failure to resolve plot conflict. And the plot is pretty thin: The evil Thanos is on a quest to obtain six “infinity stones” that will allow him to rule the universe. It’s up to the Avengers–dozens of the them–to stop him. And they don’t, as one would expect in the first installment of a two movie series (and hopefully story arc). My full-length review is live over at the Independent Institute’s blog where I go into the nature of the conflict in much more depth. Essentially, Infinity War several hours of showing Avengers of various abilities can’t overcome Thanos and his super human and technology-advantaged thugs. (This also creates some pretty significant plot holes.)

Despite this flat story line, Infinity War is both surprisingly entertaining and fast paced. The action starts early and builds throughout the film. The special effects are stunning. And audiences can keep most of the superheroes straight even if they don’t self-identify as Marvel fans. As I write in my longer review, the screenwriters and directors have done a surprisingly good job of weaving together personalities, travel between galaxies, and story arcs from previous movies to create a very strong film.  Continue reading

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Contemporary Film and Economics is almost here!

Today, we officially revealed the cover for Contemporary Film and Economics, my new book from Routledge. I think they did a fantastic job on the cover—it really “pops”. I am also really excited for its prospects of making economic theory more real and less abstract. I think it’s the only book on the market that blends the goals and aspirations of filmmakers with applied economics. We can hopefully appreciate movies more fully but also raise our expectations about what we can expect from the stories they tell at the same time.

I am excited to see how others respond to the content and the ambition implied in the book.

So far, the response has been very, very positive. Joe Calhoun, director of the Stavros Center for Economic Education at Florida State University says I “brilliantly merge the lends of film director with the lens of economics to provide powerful insights into economic concepts and analysis.” Continue reading

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Review: Tomb Raider fails to live up to Vikendar’s strong performance

The 2018 reboot of the Tomb Raider film franchise is a serviceable action film with an occasional flash of Indiana Jones inspired adventure, but falls short of the tight, well paced sequencing that made the Spielberg predecessors classics. This is unfortunate because Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, Jason Bourne) turns in a worthy performance as a rising action hero in the role of Lara Croft. The movie is a reboot of the 2001 and 2003 films that launched Angelina Jolie into the A-list of bankable movie stars.

In this version, the twenty something Croft is making her way in the rough edges of central London as a bicycle courier and training, unsuccessfully, in a kickboxing gym. Several years earlier, her archaeologist and businessman father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic WestJohn Carter, Money Monster, The Square) disappeared on a quest to find the tomb of Himiko, the mythical Japanese Queen of Yamatai, who possessed dark powers to kill. When Lara is coaxed back to executive suite of Croft Holdings to sign legal papers declaring him dead, she discovers a message in a hidden research room of their family mansion instructing her to destroy his work in order to keep it out of the hands of the shadowy organization Trinity. Instead, Lara uses her father’s research to launch her search for him. Continue reading

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Review: Del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water

Source: International Movie Poster Awards, www.impawards.com

Guillermo del Toro delivers a tour de force with The Shape of Water, a film that is part fairy tale, part romance, and part social commentary. If the trailers hint at inspiration from the 1950s cult classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, that’s because there was. But the movie is modern in virtually every aspect of del Toro’s storytelling, direction, visualization, screenplay, and setting.

Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1962, an amphibious gilled-humanoid (Doug Jones, Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labrynth) is discovered, trapped, and brought back to a secret scientific facility in Baltimore, Maryland. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, 99 Homes, Nocturnal Animals, 8 Mile) is the lead on a military team studying the creature and part of the so-called Space Race. (The U.S. effort to catch up to the Soviet Union in orbital and space technology.) Strickland’s methods are harsh and brutal, usually administered using an electrified nightstick (although the purposes of the experiments and role of the electronic prod are not clear). Strickland’s tactics disturb Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, The Post, Call Me By My Name, Dr. Strange), a scientist on the team who believes the creature is intelligent and capable of communication. Continue reading

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Molly’s Game and the subjective interpretation of movies

Everyone once in a while, I am reminded of how subjective our interpretations of movies can be. I recently reviewed Molly’s Game, a biopic of “Hollywood Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (see also here). I really enjoyed the movie. I thought Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was snappy and engaging, Jessica Chastain well cast in the title  role, and the directing was inspired.

My interpretation, however, is not universal. A friend saw the movie separately, but on the same weekend, and said:

“The movie was superficial for a mob movie with an angle from the parental psychologist character [Kevin Costner playing Larry Bloom, Molly’s father]. Molly’s Game lacked the cerebral subduction and emotional entrapment of mob interfacing movies like the Godfather, Sopranos, or Casino. Especially disappointing when so much of the subject matter revolved around world-class poker. The Molly’s Game script and movie’s execution went for low-hanging emotional fruit found in label dropping visuals, IQ scores, and quick successional facts and statistics about the institution of poker. The high point for me was when the author plugged poker as skill-based as opposed to roulette. I felt the author was disingenuous as well as the “moral” of the story… good guys finish 1st… or slick stories sell movie tickets. “

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Review: Molly’s Game gets edge from Sorkin touch

Molly’s Game is a just the kind of movie you would expect from Aaron Sorkin, the creative light behind TV series like The West Wing and movies like The Social Network. His fast-paced dialogue allows his characters to carry a lot of attitude into the movie and story, and Molly’s Game is no exception.

The movie stars Jessica Chastain as the title character, Molly Bloom, a former Olympic freestyle skier who ends up on another path after a career ending injury. She enters the world of high-stakes underground poker and becomes “Hollywood’s poker princess”–before the FBI takes her down. A key part of the film is Bloom’s tense relationship with her skeptical, high-profile attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). My full review is now live at the Independent Institute, but here’s a quick thumbnail summary:

As in most Sorkin scripts, Molly’s Game has many layers. He uses the unusual technique of having Molly narrate most of the movie. This useful device allows for the story to be told largely in flashback while creating tension with the no-nonsense Jaffey. Aside from the conflict between Bloom and Jaffey, the narration/flashback structure serves two other important roles. First, audiences see Molly evolve from a brash, arrogant, determined, Type-A athlete to a more humble and circumspect women who has been tamed by the cruel and violent world of underground gambling. She goes from bratty teenager to an adult with faults that are real and relatable. Second, audiences come to appreciate Molly’s personal journey through Jaffey’s skepticism, and then empathy. Just as Bloom appears to be at her lowest point, resolved to go to prison for decades because she won’t give up her clients, Jaffey is able to provide the support she needs because of his sincere belief in her innocence.

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Review: The Post spotlights The Washington Post‘s coming of age

My complete review of The Post is live at the Independent Institute. Advertised as a political thriller, the movie is really an excellent “coming of age” story for the venerable newspaper The Washington Post and its publisher Katherine Graham.

Graham inherited the paper when her husband committed suicide in the early 1960’s. She didn’t know much about business or journalism. So, she had to learn on the job.

But Graham was reluctant to give up her high-society social life which involved close personal relationships with politicians and White House staff. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times, she had to make a big decision that could put her family’s paper in financial jeopardy.

I observe: Continue reading

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Review: The Florida Project is a brilliant look into families on the edge

My movie review of The Florida Project, a brilliant film by Sean Baker made with an incredibly low $2 million production budget, is now live at The Independent Institute. At first, I didn’t think this was a great film—a good film, an important film, but not a great one. After a few days, however, I was able to deconstruct it and more fully appreciate what Baker had accomplished as a filmmaker.

The story is told from the point of view of six-year olds living in an extended stay hotel near Orlando, Florida. Their parents can barely make ends meet; they are literally a couple of ten-dollar bills away from being homeless. Since we are told the story through the eyes of children, adults end up connecting dots and filling in blanks through their ears and eyes.  Six-year olds can’t understand why or often even see why their parents or other adults might make really bad choices. But Baker gives us the clues through sight and sound to fill in the dots. Continue reading

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Review: The Hitman’s Bodyguard combines action, ethics, and parody to entertain

Source: impawards.com

My movie review of The Hitman’s Bodyguard starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, and French actress Elodie Yung is now live over at the Independent Institute. This was a fun movie, an entertaining mix of parody, stylized action, and wise-cracking dialogue. Reynolds and Jackson have great on-screen chemistry.

What I also liked, however, was how the story hinged on a great ethical question that was intimately integrated into the plot: Is the person who protects evil people so they can manipulate the legal system or the one who eradicates evil people more ethical? The movie doesn’t answer the question, but the worldviews of Michael Bryce (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid (Jackson) wrestle with this question for two hours as the body count heads into the stratosphere. The story also has strong themes of forgiveness and learning to appreciate the moment instead of regrets of the past. (The film has car and motorboat chases as well.)

Not everyone gets the movie, but audiences have been kinder than critics so far. The movie has generated $125 million worldwide since its release. As I write at the Independent Institute:

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an action/drama that would normally be considered standard fare for the summer season. Yet this movie does more than careen through dead bodies and extended vehicle chases. The story is driven by the relationship between the core characters and turns on a serious question of ethics and forgiveness. At the same time, the film verges on a parody of its genre. This combination seems to have befuddled many movie critics but not audiences.

Based on my movie scoring, I gave The Hitman’s Bodyguard an A. This is substantially higher than conventional critics who seemed to pan it for the cliched plot. I actually saw much of the action as parody and felt the humor offset the seriousness of the heavy ethical and relationship issues that were the center of the relationships between Bryce and Kincaid. The full review goes into these aspects of the film in much greater detail.

 

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Review: The Dark Tower follows convention in effort to entertain

The Dark TowerThe Dark Tower, ultimately, is a convention adaptation to film of the book series by iconic horror writer Stephen King. Unfortunately, the movie probably does not deliver the kind of suspense that King’s fans would expect. Despite a fine performance by Idris Elba (Mandela, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Beyond), the screenplay’s stylized characters do not engage the audience significantly even though the two protagonists have well-defined character arcs, and the lack of depth creates a flat performance for the primary antagonist.

The story starts out with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of his firefighter father and remarriage of his mother. His dark dreams conjure images of a dystopian world where evil reigns, compelling him to use his artistic talents to bring the dreams to life. Not surprisingly, his sketches of dark, desolate landscapes, the aftermath of bloody battles, and a tower under attack are unsettling to his mother and stepfather, who have him in counseling but believe he needs even more aggressive psychiatric intervention.

Jake, however, is convinced a truth lies behind the images. As his parents arrange for him to go to a juvenile psychiatric facility in upstate New York, he escapes and finds a portal to another world. Once in the other dimension, he stumbles into a “gunslinger,” Roland Deschain (Elba), who he recognizes as a protector of a tower that mysteriously controls several parallel universes. The tower is under attack by a Man in Black, Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey,  Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall StreetMudMagic Mike) who is on a quest to destroy the tower and allow pure evil to take over the human world. Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, and the emotional toll of his war against evil has worn him into a deeply ingrained cynicism. It’s up to Jake’s naive commitment to the noble aim of saving humanity to re-engage Deschain as a proactive force for good.

Critics have panned The Dark Tower, largely because of its conventional storytelling and execution. This criticism is well earned. The Dark Tower provides little innovative or imaginative in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and the story is grounded in a fairly conventional western theme. Deschain is the broken, fallen Wild West gunmen whose soul must be revived by rediscovering the dignity that comes with fighting the good fight. McConaughey’s character, however, has virtually no depth. His sole purpose in life is to destroy what is good, and his motivations are never clear. Not surprisingly, with little to work with, McConaughey characterization of Walter is flat.

Their conflict is inevitable, but the screenplay provides little depth to the characters. Thus, the plot is conventional. The ending is never really in doubt. The special effects are well done, but conventionally presented. The effects further the action, but are not embedded in the plot.

Nevertheless, conventional movies can entertain even when they don’t rise to artistic excellence. Audiences will likely be left with the impression The Dark Tower is a conventional sci-fi, fantasy action movie and little more, but still entertains within the conventions. This is probably why audiences on Rotten Tomatoes enjoyed the movie by a 3 to 1 margin over critics (although audiences still gave the film just 54% “fresh”).  The fundamental entertainment value also helps explain why The Dark Tower is still showing in 1,800 theaters nationwide five weeks after its release.

Overall, I scored the film at 8.5 but this is generous—and four stars is definitely generous—in part because of the rubric used to evaluate the movies. The film has well executed effects and top drawer production values. In addition, a strong message of courage and facing up to evil even when the odds are stacked against the protagonists gives the film a boost over other films with weaker messages in the rubric.

The Dark Tower is unlikely to make its production budget of $60 million, earning just shy of $50 million after five weeks at the box office. Nevertheless, the film is likely to find a solid audience in the DVD and online streaming market because it still manages to entertain the core audience.

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