Category Archives: Books

Wild Rose‘s performances tell poignant story of hope and personal responsibility

A Scottish girl working on the economic margins of Glasgow, Scotland wants to be a country music star. So she sets her sights on Nashville and casts everything aside to get there, including her to young children. A Star is Born rip off? Not quite. Wild Rose,” has a lot of heart, as well as heartfelt performances, that allow this British produced movie to hold its own as a story and film. 

But before rolling your eyes (American movie fans), allow me to provide a little pop culture historical context that might give this film more substance than meets the eye. The Beatles started the so-called British invasion in the 1960s but it may never have happened without country music. The R&B roots of modern rock music is well known. The country music roots are not. (I am writing a book on the Beatles right now, so I am steeped in this pop culture history.) Yet what we now call rock music is started as a country and R&B fusion. This combination  produced progeny such as rockabilly, country rock, and, later, rock and roll. The Beatles drew heavily on early rockabilly artists including Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, all with deep roots in country music. In fact, the Beatles, particular Ringo Star, never lost their affection for Country music. The rockabilly sound was foundational to the home-grown British “skiffle” sound which became an artistic bedrock for the Beatles and other British acts. 

None of this background is essential for enjoying Wild Rose, but the knowledge allowed me to go into the movie with an open mind. I’m glad I did because the movie is entertaining with a poignant message about hope, responsibility, and maturity. The story starts off with Rose Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring Scottish country singer living on the wrong side of the tracks in Glasgow getting out a jail after a year-long stint for drug possession. When someone challenges her about why she sings country music, she responds with the familiar adage attributed to the “dean” of country music songwriters Harlan Howard that “Country music isn’t nothing but three chords and the truth.” The screenwriters clearly have an affection for country music, and it shows in the story and on the screen.

Rose is “wild” — a care-free single mother of two, who steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for her decisions as a teenager and young-adult. Now in her mid-twenties, she is estranged from her two young children and pushing her hard working, caretaker mother (Marion, played by Julie Walters) to the limit. We quickly see that the celebrity dream in Nashville is Rose’s attempt at self-validation and escape from the dreary subsistence living of a maid or bakery worker. When a wealthy woman (Susannah played by Sophie Okonedo) hears her singing and decides to help her career out, Rose’s wilding and irresponsibility begin to catch up to her with potentially catastrophic personal consequences. 

The movie is well cast, with excellent acting all the way around. For the most part, the story holds together, although the end seems a bit rushed as the director attempts to tie up a lot of loose ends too quickly to stay in the conventional film format. Notably, Wild Rose is set in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Glaswegian dialect and idiom — the “Glasgow patter” — is thick. At times, as an American, I felt like subtitles might have helped, but the action, tone, and context made the story easy enough to follow. 

The heart of Wild Rose, however, is Buckley. She has a great voice and an interpretive style well suited to the country music and lyrics she sings as well as the story the movie tells. She delivers on strong, heart felt scenes and songs that effectively carry Rose Lynn’s real world travails into the metaphoric songs she sings and listens to as part of the character. 

Overall, Wild Rose is a satisfying film with strong performances, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. 

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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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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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Set It Up‘s light touch is a worthy diversion into romantic comedy

Set It Up‘s (2018) light touch uses a surprisingly snappy comic script and on-screen chemistry among the movie’s leads to offer up an entertaining diversion when viewers need a break from the rat race. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and dabbles just long enough in its characters for viewers to buy into their stories and care about what happens to them as they romp through New York City and discover what really matters.

The movie’s plot is about as transparent as it gets in romantic comedies: Two executive assistants—Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell)—are run into the ground by their narcissistic bosses. Charlie’s boss is Rick (Taye Diggs), a venture capitalist while Harper is forced to content with marquee sports reporter Kirsten (Lucy Liu). Harper is an aspiring sports writer who hopes Kirsten will recognize her talent and give her a shot at an article. Charlie is a buttoned up aspiring investment analyst who Charlie hopes will promote him to a better paying job in his VC firm.

When Harper and Charlie happen to run into each other while trying to fulfill their boss’s mercurial and piqayune tastes for last-minute, take out dinner, they hatch a desperate gambit to create some personal space.
Harper and Charlie figure if they can connect their bosses romantically, they will spend more time with each other than harassing and assistants. Harper convinces Charlie to concoct and implement a plot to hook the power brokers up.

Set It Up‘s plot is incredibly transparent, but Deutch gives the character of Harper just enough quirkiness to keep the banter moving. Charlies is largely along for the ride, but he grows with Harper even as he is challenged to his ethical core as their plans begin to unravel. The two never quite become full partners, but Charlie does serve as just a convenient foil and plot device. He comes into his own, restoring some important balance to Harper’s cleverness, energy, and eagerness to drive a solution home.

Of course, Harper and Charlie’s issue are not just their repressive work environments. Their own insecurities are holding them back as well, and the evolution of these assistants into more mature workers with a purpose allows Set It Up to rise a tier or two above less memorable movies. For writers, Harper’s realization that she needs to simply write, even if her writing is bad, will resonate as an all too true epiphany that that separates the wannabes from the actual writers. (Yes, most writers have their first manuscript burrowed away in a desk drawer, never to see the light of day for good reason.)

While not the best movie of 2018, Set It Up is an entertaining diversion worth streaming when you a comfort movie with a few laughs is just what you need to get through a tough day or period at work.

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The story behind the cover of Calusa Spirits

The cover for Calusa Spirits is great, and I think thing it’s the best one in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. But what is the story behind the cover of Calusa Spirits?

A picture really does paint a thousand works, and Babski Creative really helped pull major themes together as well as capture the mood and tone for Calusa Spirits, the third book in a six-part series from SYP Publishing.

Let’s break it down.

First, you really get the sense that Isabella and Juan Carlos (on the cover) are searching. They are treading into completely new territory, emotionally and physically in Calusa Spirits. In the image, Isabella retains her trademark focus, ready for battle. Juan Carlos is behind her, but he is not passive. He’s searching too. I think readers will really get the sense they are a true couple, partners. In fact, while their journeys are rocky and full of traps–some really exciting escapes are necessary in this installment just to survive–an important sub-theme is how they come together as a couple, more than romantic partners. The last scene in fact has a pretty dramatic twist that hinges on which direction their relationship goes. We see this unfold in the story, but the cover art really conveys elements of this, too. Continue reading

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Hotel Artemis Struggles at Check In

Hotel Artemis seems to have everything it needs to be a successful film but manages to fall flat anyway. Why is a bit of a mystery. The movie has a strong cast, and the characters should have enough back story to create compelling arcs that drive the movie’s momentum.

The slapdash backstory doesn’t help. The movie is set in riot-torn Los Angeles in 2018. Water has been shut off by the private contractor in charge of the water supply, although the reason is never explained. Gangs seem to run unchecked. Riot police patrol the streets keeping the mobs at bay. The city has imposed a curfew to quell the violence.  The city utility cuts off electricity at seeming random points. This dystopian activity is supposed to provide a setting that creates tension and conflict. It doesn’t in part because the story’s internal logic is never quite explained. Continue reading

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What sailing ships tell us about storytelling

As a kid, I was fascinated by sailboats and sailing ships. I loved reading adventure novels such as C.S. Forester‘s classic Horatio Hornblower series. I also enjoyed building models. So, one birthday (or Christmas), my parents gave me a model sailing ship. The model was never built. I could never muster the enthusiasm to spend the hours working on the rigging, sails, masts, etc. to complete it. In retrospect, my reaction may have been my first practical lesson in visual storytelling.

One of the first lessons novelists (and screenwriters) learn is that conflict drives story. Conflict forces characters to act; they are forced to resolve the conflict by making a decision. A story where characters do not have to make choices isn’t very engaging. Readers (and audiences) invest in characters based on the choices they make and how they react to these choices. The various pivot points in those decisions determine the plot.

So, how does this apply to my model sailing ship? Continue reading

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Discount on Contemporary Film and Economics expires soon

Routledge has set the official publication date for my newest book, Contemporary Film and Economics, for July 19th. More information, including a table of contents, can be found here. Pre-orders using the 20% discount can still be purchased at the Routledge website:

https://www.routledge.com/Contemporary-Film-and-Economics-Lights-Camera-Econ/Staley/p/book/9780815367055

Just enter the coupon code: FLR40.

I attempt to bridge the worlds of economics and film in this book, showing how economic thinking can illuminate plots and conflicts that directors and producers may not even be aware of themselves. As a movie reviewer and author of a feature-length screenplay (registered but as of yet unproduced), I thought I could also show how economics could deepen stories.

I appear to have hit the mark:

“Translating economic theories into stories that anyone can relate to is one of the more formidable challenges I face as a teacher of economics.  Staley’s Contemporary Film and Economics accomplishes that feat in a way that is entertaining and subversively educational by showing us how some of our favorite films reflect the principles of economic theory, even if they don’t know it themselves.” — Jason Stephens, Associate Professor of Teaching at Columbia College of Chicago and Chair of the Board for Kartemquin Educational Films.

“Sam Staley brilliantly merges the lens of the director with the lens of economics to provide powerful insights to economic concepts and analysis. Contemporary Film and Economics starts in Hollywood and then digs deep into the world of economics.  Covering important topics such as growth, development, entrepreneurship, and political decision making, the author moves the reader from the silver screen to the everyday choices that produce wealth and prosperity.”  — Joseph Calhoun, Director, Stavros Center for Economic Education, Florida State University and co-author Common Sense Economics.

I am very excited to have this book out and in print!

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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: War for the Planet of the Apes brings closure to a grand arc

I finally got around to seeing War for the Planet of the Apes. This is the third installment of the franchise re-boot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). The film brings closure to a grand arc in the rebooted franchise and most fans of the series should be satisfied. The movie has also received positive reviews, generated tremendous staying power at the box office, and earned $314 million after four weeks at the box office (on a $150 million production budget).

War follows the attempts by the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), to avoid a final show down with the humans. The human population has already been wiped out by a virus blamed on the apes—the Simian Flu—and a remnant of the human population is trying to preserve their owns species by destroying the intelligent apes holed up in the forests of the Northwest United States. Caesar’s ability to communicate and his intelligence are the product of human medical experimentation (and the subject of the previous two films). In War, the humans are led by the maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t JumpNatural Born KillersHunger Games) who is intent on destroying the apes in what he terms as a “holy war” for the survival of mankind.

War for the Planet of the Apes—the ninth in the pantheon of the franchise—stays true to the original series which grappled with important social issues of the day. The innovation in the first movie, Planet of the Apes, was to reverse the roles of the apes and humans, giving the apes the benefit of intelligence, rationality and social superiority. Similarly, in the War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s character embodies the common virtues of humans—desire for peace, cooperation, rational and balanced thought, grace, and forgiveness.

Caesar is morally and emotionally challenged by the deliberate if unintentional murder of his wife and young son by the Colonel and his soldiers. Their deaths spur him to hunt down the Colonel and kill him as revenge and retribution. Maurice, a wise and philosophical Orangutan (Karin Konoval, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), provides the balance and metaphysical foil to Caesar’s charismatic leadership. The humans embody the dark side of humanity—unquestioned loyalty, willingness to uncritically follow leaders, the darkness that comes with succumbing to fear.

Screenwriters Matt Reeves (who also directs the movie) and Mark Bomback (Deception, The Wolverine, The Divergent Series: Insurgent) add important dimension to the story by introducing a young human girl into the story. After Caesar and his party kill her father, a deserter from the Colonel’s rogue army, Maurice refuses to leave her to starve or be killed in the wilderness. The girl’s innocence, courage, and willingness to look beyond her species to bond with the apes plays an important role in Caesar’s own personal transformation in his quest. Her role and acceptance also allow War to become more multidimensional than a simple ape vs. human tale, staying true to the franchise’s emphasis on finding common ground and overcoming prejudice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting sequel to the previous two movies. The special effects immerse the audience in the movie, making the world of the apes as natural and accepting as human life in the real world. The action sequences keep the audience engaged throughout the movie even though the end is never really in doubt. Serkis’s acting gives life to his character in striking ways despite the fact the audience never sees human form. Harrelson finds a way to add dimension in the egocentric, brutal Colonel blinded by his own prejudice and self-righteousness. The screenwriters also do a nice job of infusing references to characters from the older films, giving those familiar with the original series a satisfying sense of closure. While the story is not fresh, the movie is done well.

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