Category Archives: Books

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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Review: Dunkirk‘s foreboding, somber tone masterfully executed

My full review of Christopher Nolan‘s new movie, Dunkirk, is now live at the Independent Institute. Nolan’s storytelling is masterful and innovative, something we’ve come to expect from an “auteur” filmmaker who brings his own aesthetic and storytelling style to his movies. Dunkirk is not exception.

The film uses several devices to convey the deep, foreboding mood of the evacuation and its implications for the attempts to stop the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Dialogue is minimal, the plot almost completely driven the actions of individuals non-verbally. Nolan uses sweeping vistas of the beaches of Dunkirk to convey the enormity of the task to evacuate 400,000 troops and the hopelessness. Lines of soldiers snake into the shallow waters of the beaches and breakers with virtually no sign of help stretching out to the horizon (and Britain).

The story of the evacuation—which was a logistical success that mitigated the enormity of the disaster—is told from the perspectives two soldiers trying to use their cunning and opportunity to get off the beaches as quickly as possible, a flight of three Spitfire fighter pilots that get whittled down to one, and a private boat operator and his son sailing into the heat of the battle to rescue soldiers. The stories ultimately converge, but the way Nolan assembles the stories is innovative and sometimes difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, the film is likely to be among the list of Best Picture and Best Director nominees at next year’s Academy Awards. I scored the film 9.13  (out of 10) on my rubric and gave it 4 1/2 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Book Review: Revolt provides rousing conclusion to the Resistance Series

Revolt, the fourth book in the Resistance Series by Tracy Lawson

Tracy Lawson and the Resistance Series is what Indie publishing is all about: Giving voice to new ideas, stories and passions and a distribution platform to get those creative works into the hands of readers. Her fourth book in the series, Revolt, brings the dystopian story of Careen Catecher and Tommy Bailey to a stirring conclusion that stays true to its Young Adult themes and characters but refuses to wrap-up the aftermath in a tight, pretty bow.

In Counteract, the first book (reviewed here), we met teenage college students Careen Catecher and Tommy Bailey, a former high school football player sidelined by an injury from a mysterious car accident. They are living in a near future (2030s) dystopian world where the national Office of Civilian Safety and Defense has been charged with “protecting” the public from terrorist attacks. Under the threat of a chemical terrorist attack, the OCSD developed and deployed a serum to protect citizens from its effects. Everyone is required to be inoculated  for their own protection. Careen and Tommy, however, discover that the antidote is actually a mind control drug used by the leaders of the OCSD to take control of the country. They are reluctant resisters. Tommy’s parents were supposedly killed in a car accident, leaving him to recover by himself. But Careen’s parents have disappeared, and Tommy joins her in trying to find them. 

Resist, book two in the Resistance Series

In book two, Resist (reviewed here), Careen and Tommy are on the run from the government after Careen is accused of killing the OCSD director, Lowell Stratford. They find themselves inadvertent and at first unwilling members of a nationwide Resistance movement. The nefarious ways of the OCSD become even more stark as the new director, Madalyn, continues to develop and deploy a serum that will extend mind control to the entire population. Careen and Tommy have different views on how to address the sinister plans of the OCSD, driving a wedge in their relationship that could be come permanent.

This theme continues throughout the series as we find the Resistance is less unified than those from the outside think. Resist brings the question of violent versus peaceful resistance to the forefront of the  story, representing a fundamental tension that ultimately leads to the dramatic climax in Revolt. Careen and Tommy both set out to disrupt the OCSD, but they end up the inadvertent victims of an explosion set by a rogue member of the Resistance.

Ignite (the third book reviewed here) takes us deep into the Resistance. Of the three books, Ignite might be the most traditionally “young adult” of this series. The character arcs of Tommy and Careen become more intertwined and complicated. Careen was wounded in an explosion at the end of Resist, and was captured by the OCSD. As the nation’s number one fugitive, Careen’s capture represents a coup for Madalyn…and an opportunity to manipulate public opinion in her favor. Madalyn breaks Careen down through torture and deprivation, ultimately convincing her that the Resistance is the real enemy. Careen becomes a spokesperson for the OCSD as Madalyn rebuilds her identity around the values and mission of the OCSD. Meanwhile, Tommy Bailey hides out in the mountains with other leaders of the Resistance looking for his opportunity to rescue her. Ultimately, Tommy embarks on his own mission to rescue Careen.

Ignite, book three is the Resistance Series

Meanwhile, Madalyn has shifted gears, moving from a chemical-based strategy for controlling the population to one based on 24-hour surveillance through a device called the Cerberean Link. Sold to the public as a way to protect children from starvation and illness, Madalyn envisions a world where everyone is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Working with Atari, a brilliant IT guru, she plans hijack the link for her own power and personal gain. Careen is one of the first people to be installed with the device, putting her own future, freedom and independence in doubt.

Revolt picks up immediately after Careen’s rescue by Tommy, and Lawson uses this as an opportunity to explore the deep, psychological trauma that afflicts those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Tommy’s patience is tested as Careen wrestles with night terrors, paranoia about being tested by Madalyn about her loyalty to the OCSD, and her own struggles to recover her identity and sense of purpose. The Resistance continues to fracture as one faction stays on course for violent revolution and another attempts a nonviolent political solution. The wild card in the story is the flawed but gifted Atari who appears to be a Resistance agent but could be working a double cross. Atari’s sense of self-importance keeps readers on the edge throughout the fourth book, never quite knowing which side he is more loyal to. While Lawson’s ending should leave most readers satisfied, she’s left openings for future books and storylines. 

Author Tracy Lawson

Lawson has created a vibrant, near-future dystopian world that fits well within the Young Adult science fiction genre and issues relevant to our times. Her willingness to grapple with substance directly gives the plots and storylines an embedded complexity that allow her characters to develop steadily and three dimensionally over the series. Her lean writing style keeps the pace fast and momentum forward. For those interested in a fast-paced, modern telling of the dangers of government overreach, the implications for personal freedoms and civil liberties, and how those values manifest themselves in the choices we make on a daily basis, Lawson’s dystopian series provides a great ride and lots of food for thought and discussion. 

For more on Tracy Lawson, visit her author page at amazon.com or her website, www.TracyLawsonBooks.com.

 

 

Take advantage of these special deals July 17-21 courtesy of Tracy Lawson:

Counteract: Book One of the Resistance Series FREE!

Resist: Book Two of the Resistance Series and

Ignite: Book Three of the Resistance Series for 0.99 each!

Get a FREE PDF of Shatter: Tommy’s Prequel to the Resistance Series, which includes a gallery of the amazing artwork created for the series! This prequel will NOT be available on Amazon.

Here’s how it works:

Order Revolt: Book Four of the Resistance Series on Amazon for $2.99:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071S8KFML

Email your receipt to tracy@counteractbook.com, and in return you’ll receive Shatter: Tommy’s Prequel to the Resistance Series.

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Review: The Exception harkens to classic war-time romances

The Exception made a brief appearance in the movie theaters before heading to the DVD and on-line streaming market. This is where the film is likely to find its commercial success. It lacks the fast-paced action, grand themes, and scenic worlds that lend themselves big screen storytelling. In many ways, The Exception seems like a throwback to the period romantic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

This World War II story centers on a forbidden love that develops between a German army officer, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad, UnbrokenDivergent) and a female servant working in the household of the exiled German Emperor, Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, BeginnersThe Last Station). The Kaiser and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, Maleficent, Albert NobbsInsurgent) are living in Belgium awaiting an opportunity for the former monarch will be reinstated in Germany. Brandt has been transferred by German headquarters to lead Wilhelm’s security detail.

In retrospect, Wilhelm’s hope to return to Germany seems hopelessly naive and detached (and toward the last years he appeared increasingly delusional). But the Kaiser’s character is rooted in the real life dynamics of post-World War I German culture, society, and politics. Germany’s disastrous early experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), kept hopes for re-establishing the German monarchy alive for many in the aristocracy and military. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated rather than renounce his claim to the throne, and he hoped to be invited back to Germany in a prominent government role.

German loyalty to the former monarch was, in fact, problematic for Adolph Hitler. While Hitler never considered reinstating Wilhelm, the former Kaiser’s stature was sufficiently high his death (in 1941) was used for propaganda purposes reinforce German values of honor and commitment to German aspirations for European hegemony. This historically grounded reality sets up important plot points in the movie.

When Brandt is transferred to the Kaiser’s security detail, he meets Meike de Jong (Lily James, Downton AbbeyBaby Driver), a servant in the Kaiser’s castle. They begin a romance despite rules against fraternization between staff and the soldiers. Complicating matters is the fact Meike is Jewish. Following his heart, Brandt refuses to break off the romance. Intrigue deepens as the SS (a German paramilitary police force) discover a British agent is working in the town. Meike is also an informant for the Dutch resistance, reporting on the activities with the Kaiser’s house.

The Exception is generally well executed and acted. Plummer successfully projects the naive optimism of the banished Kaiser while also adding humanity to his borderline delusional character. McTeer’s portrayal of the Kaiser’s ambitious and devoted wife, Princess Hermine, creates the necessary tension to keep the outcome of the clandestine romance in question throughout most of the movie.

Unfortunately, the plot is predictable, providing little that is fresh or innovative with the exception of a small plot twist at the end. Virtually nothing in this film pushes or even comes close to a creative boundary. The result is an entertaining but largely un-engaging film.

The relationship between Brandt and de Jong as characters is also problematic. The first day at the castle, Brandt and de Jong notice each other, making eye contact several times. This presumably is an attempt to demonstrate mutual attraction. Later that evening, however, de Jong delivers an invitation to dinner with the Kaiser to Brandt in his private quarters. Brandt orders de Jong to strip, and he rapes her (although physical violence is not used or attempted). This scene clearly establishes the master-slave hierarchy. Soldiers by virtue of their status and rank, could take advantage of the subservient role of women.

Yet, just a few nights later, de Jong enters his room again and voluntarily has sex with Brandt after discovering he was wounded on the Eastern Front. If this were a ploy to extract information from Brandt, this turn of events and de Jong’s actions would be plausible. But just days later they are in what appears to be a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. While Brandt’s shift from lustful physical satisfaction to romantic interest is plausible—in the first case it was “just sex”—de Jong’s attitude as the rape victim would be much more difficult. Yet the film does very little to address how the character overcomes the indignity and humiliation of her rape other than a flimsy apology by Brandt after he has developed personal feelings for her.

The Exception is a film that harkens back to the naive innocence of the romance-dramas of the post-World War II era. Despite this inconsistency, the romance mixed with international intrigue creates enough tension and conflict to keep audiences entertained throughout the movie despite the unimaginative plot.

The Exception scored a 7.9 (out of 10) on my rubric, earning a C+.

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Reminding myself that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise was inspired by a theme-park ride is useful. As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself enjoying the movie much more. Such is the case for the fifth installment of the series Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales where fine acting and first class special effects shoulder most of the burden for creating an entertaining film. The caliber of the actors and producers, however, suggest this movie had much more potential than what was delivered on the big screen.

Multiple story lines bog down the plot in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and many viewers will find the story hard to track. New characters are introduced on top of a cast that had already expanded under the first three films. Dead Men Tell No Tales sequentially follows the third film (At World’s End), complicating matters, because the fourth film (On Stranger Tides) was a “one-off.” The story tried to capitalize on the popularity of Jack Sparrow and his crew independently of the established story line in the first three films, creating a nonlinear break in the story.

Dead Men Tell No Tales picks up with a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, The GiverGods of Egypt), the child of Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Curse of the Black PearlTroyLord of the Rings) on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, which legend holds will break all the curses of the sea including his father’s. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Curse of the Black PearlPlatoonEdward Scissorhands) holds the key to finding the trident through his bewitched compass, which will reveal the location of its owner’s most prized object. Through a series of comedic mishaps, Henry discovers and joins forces with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, Maze RunnerWuthering Heights), who also happens to be searching for the trident to vindicate her father’s scientific calculations left to her in a diary. Corina, however, is about to be hanged as a witch because no one believes her scientific ruminations as a brilliant astronomer.

When Jack Sparrow gives up his compass for a drink in a local tavern, a crew of undead Spanish Navy sailors led by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old MenSkyfall, Before Night Falls) are released to continue their quest to rid the seas of pirates. This puts Captain Barbossa‘s (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s SpeechThe Book Thief, Life and Death of Peter Sellers) pirate fleet in jeopardy. Barbossa is captured by Salazar, and his life is saved only when he relents to find Jack Sparrow. Everyone is now on the quest to find the Trident of Poseidon—Henry Turner to release his cursed father from the Flying Dutchman, Corina Smyth to prove her scientific brilliance, Barbossa to retain his power over the seas, and Salazar install himself as lord over the seas.

Keeping all this straight in difficult, and Dead Men Tell No Tales is prone to dialogue that fills in details and background for the audience (a classic case of Show Don’t Tell) with predictable results—slowing down the action. This is a problem because the Pirates of the Caribbean films are built on action sequences that include protracted sword fights, running duels among pirate ships and their pursuers, and chases through towns and jungles. Dead Men Tell No Tales has those scenes—one in particularly has Jack Sparrow dodging a ghost’s attempt to skewer him with a pike as he jumps from cannon to cannon between Bardem’s ship and the resurrected Black Pearl.

Juggling so many characters and story lines creates challenges for directors in a format as structured as film, where the the entire story must take place in a 2-3 hour window. Few characters really have a chance evolve. Henry Turner stays the same brash, precocious young man throughout the movie, although he falls in love with Corina. Salazar stays the same revenge and hate-filled pirate hunter. Corina becomes slightly less headstrong. While Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan make an appearance, but their time on the screen is not long enough to have a meaningful impact on the plot except to set up a sixth film.  (Hint: stay seated through the final credits.)  The lone exception is Barbossa whose hardcore piratical worldview sets up a personal dilemma that forces him to make a tragic but noble choice—and let’s Geoffrey Rush show his experienced acting chops.

Thus, the plot fails to bring much fresh to the story. The characters come off as flat despite excellent acting by the entire cast. (Even the brief part played by and credited to Paul McCartney—perhaps the only time a beetle is welcome on a wooden ship—was well done and, for me, worth the movie theater ticket price.) Dead Men Tell No Tales’ special effects, particularly those applied to the renderings of Salazar and his crew and the final battle for the trident, are also state of the art, so don’t be surprised to see a few technical Oscar nods to this movie next year.

Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining film that stays well within the framework and spirit of the first three films in the franchise.

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Arrrrr pyrating good time in Algiers Point New Orleans

Kids play games at Family Pyrate Day in Algiers Point in New Orleans

I had a great time at the Family Pyrate Day held in Algiers Point, New Orleans. The event was organized by Confetti Kids, an non-profit organization that funds fantastic programming for children in the Algiers neighborhood of NOLA. Here’s what their website says:

“Confetti Kids is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of children in Algiers Point. We maintain parks in our neighborhood, and we try to foster a sense of community by bringing neighbors together for child-centered programming. All Confetti Kids events are open to the public.”

Lots of kids and families played and entertained in the alleys and in the buildings. And they were creative: strollers were made up as pirate ships! A big shout out to Katy Hobgood Ray and her crew for organizing a fantastic day with a diverse set of entertainers.

John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur and Tori Baur promoting Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter and all things pirate.

Algiers is an old neighborhood, almost as old as NOLA itself. Walking the neighborhoods was very cool. The streets are narrow, and several houses have architectural features that date back to the 18th century. Many of the residences have great southern-style porches even as long, narrow shot-gun style houses line other streets. Warren’s Corner, an old bar, feels as if it hasn’t changed for over a century. I was told that the building has doubled as a movie set. On the corner across from event location is the iconic Old Point Bar, which also served as host for the event.

The day’s festivities took place at Warren’s Corner on Patterson Street across from the levee, and included readings, music and skits by professional and amateur performers. (My reading from The Pirate of Panther Bay was scheduled at 12:30 p.m, but quickly turned into a on-stage theatrical performance with pint-sized tars angling for a sword fight.) Katy has a great song over at the Confetti Kids YouTube channel the captures the spirit of the day called “Watch Out For The Pirates.”

The event had a number of “colorful” characters. I had the great fortune of meeting John and Tori Baur. John is the author of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter (check out the review by legendary pirate historian and expert Cindy Vallar here). He is probably best known as Ol’ Chumbucket, one of the co-founders (with Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers) of International Talk Like A Pirate Day. If you want a great laugh, check out Well Blow Me Down! A Guy’s Guide to Talking Like a Pirate They have a great interview with Phil Johnson on the Under The Crossbones podcast—Episode #34. (And while you’re at it, you can check out my interview–No. 20–on the same podcast.)

John Couret, coauthor of the Captain Deadeye anti-bullying books, is swarmed by kids at Family Pyrate Day

I also spent time with another great team—Dianne De Las Casas and John Couret—co-authors of Captain Deadeye: The Bully Shark. This is a fantastic new children’s series focused on bullying, courage, and leadership published through Write Hook Media. The book is a great story for early chapter book readers, and kids dealing with bullying in elementary school (or earlier). They have an entire anti-bullying curriculum built around the series. They were incredible with the kids at Family Pyrate Day, and loved every second they had with them.

All in all, this was a great day to be in New Orleans, and inspiring to see how creatively people have put pirate lore and myth to good fun and use.

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Family Pyrate Day in New Orleans!

I’ve been late getting this up, but Confetti Kids and Old Point Bar in Algiers Point,  New Orleans are kicking off NOLA Pirate Week with Family Pyrate Day on Saturday, March 25th from 11 am to 5 pm.

A whole slate of entertainers and authors is set up starting at 11 am at the Old Point Bar. I will do a reading from The Pirate of Panther Bay at 12:30 pm.

Pirates of all ages are welcome!

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Florida’s top local young-adult authors

Tortuga Bay takes home three awards in 2016 Royal Palm Literary Award competition.

National authors are easy to spot–they are the ones on the best-seller lists of the New York Times, USA Today, and other national publications. But what about local authors? These writers are often unknown and lack the national distribution networks of big publishers, but they also produce exceptional work from small and independent presses. The problem for readers (and bookstores) is assessing the quality of their work in a crowded field. One way to set them apart is to look at their performance in literary competitions that are referred by independent judges.

Florida Literary Competitions

Tortuga Bay earned two gold medals in the FAPA President’s Awards

Fortunately, several organizations exist in Florida that hold statewide competitions. These competitions generate hundreds of submissions from Florida authors and publishers, but they award top prizes to just a few.  The better literary competitions employ rubrics that independent judges use for numeric scoring to rank submissions. These rubrics generate overall scores that must meet certain minimum thresholds before a book can advance in the competition.

I examined data on the first, second, and third place awards for three established statewide literary competitions: The Florida Book Awards (FBA) hosted by Florida State University, the President’s Awards run by the Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA), and the Royal Palm Literary Awards (RPLA) hosted by the Florida Writers Association. I then analyzed the places earned by Florida authors and ranked them by the number of wins.

Since a first place is generally considered superior in quality to second place (and third place), a first place award was given 10 points, a second place award 5 points, and a third place award 3 points. Thus, an author who earned two first place awards would score 20 points, and an author who earned a first place and a second place award would score 15.

These competitions, of course, are not inclusive of all authors. Authors may not submit their books because they are unaware of the competitions, find the entry fees too costly, don’t need or want the visibility, or already have an established marketing and distribution platform. Nevertheless, as a general indicator, placing well multiple times in a competitive literary contest is probably a reasonable indicator of quality.

Full disclosure: I have done well in recent literary competitions, albeit in multiple categories, and have won awards in the FAPA (Tortuga Bay), RPLA (Tortuga Bay, St. Nic, Inc.), and Seven Hills Literary Competition (Renegade) run by the Tallahassee Writers Association (and not included in the rankings for this article). The results below are based on the methodology above which focuses exclusively on weighted, numeric scoring.

Florida Young Adult Author Rankings

The FBA, FAPA, and RPLA competitions provide lists of all award winners going back several years. I wanted to capture active writers and those committed to the Florida literary scene. Thus, the rankings include only those for the last five years.

Since 2011, 53 authors have received first, second, or third place awards from one of these three organizations. Just six have received multiple awards. The top five young adult authors were multi-award winners and placed first in at least one competition, and are

  1. Leslee Horner (Tallahassee), coming of age, http://lesleehorner.com
  2. SR Staley (Tallahassee), action adventure, http://www.srstaley.com
  3. Jade Kerrion (Orlando), science fiction, fantasy, http://jadekerrion.com
  4. Kyle Prue (Naples), fantasy, http://kyleprue.com.
  5. M.R. Street (Tallahassee), coming of age, horror,  http://turtlecovepress.com  

Leslee Horner’s work is notable since her books have taken home four awards–the most of all authors entering the competitions–in the young adult categories in FAPA and FBA competitions. Honorable mention also goes to Alex Finn (http://alexfinn.com), also a multiple award winner (although not first place).

Other Florida authors who earned first place awards in one of these competitions included:

  • Gino Bardi
  • Mary Dawson
  • Dennis Cooper
  • Debbie Reed Fisher
  • Carl Hiassen
  • Christina Diaz Gonzalez
  • Shaun David Hutchinson
  • Joe Iriarte
  • Linda Kelley
  • Madeline Kuderick
  • Alison McMahan
  • Mark McWaters
  • K.B. Schaller
  • Ryan Van Cleave
  • Rick Yancey

Future blog posts will include rankings for the categories of historical fiction, mainstream/literary and thriller/suspense.

For additional information on the rankings, contact Sam Staley at sam@srstaley.com.

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How to fix Jack Reacher

jack_reacher_never_go_back_posterI recently saw the Tom Cruise action film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. The movie was very serviceable as an action film—lots of fights, car chases, and take downs of bad guys—but I was disappointed overall. I personally believe Cruise is one of our best actors, and he, like Matt Damon, is capable of filling action hero roles quite capably even as he progresses through his mid-50s. (In fact, the sci fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow remains one of my favorite movies.) Even though Cruise has an entire wikepedia page devoted to his awards, he may be the best actor currently working yet to receive an acting academy award. Jack Reacher doesn’t come close to other movies in quality despite the talents of Edward Zwick, the academy award winning director of Shakespeare in Love and critically acclaimed films such as GloryLegends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai. Why?

I explored this question using a rubric that includes seven criteria to help me think through a film’s overall quality and pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve done similar things for character development in novels (see here and here).

Never Go Back is part of the Jack Reacher thriller series penned by British novelist Lee Child. The story puts former military policy investigator Jack Reacher into the center of a conspiracy to swindle the U.S. government out of millions of dollars through illegal arms sales. The inciting incident is the arrest of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who is in charge of Reacher’s old unit. She’s jailed for espionage, but is really a target for assassination because her investigative work uncovered the arms trafficking scheme. Reacher also learns of a paternity suit in the course of the investigation that claims he is the father of a 15 year-old girl, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). When Turner’s attorney is murdered, Reacher is framed for the crime. The assassins quickly link Dayton to Reacher, expecting to use her as a pawn to trap and kill Reacher. So, the film is off and running as action adventure crime thriller.

I thought Never Go Back was a enjoyable action movie, but fell short of being an excellent one. It relied too much on formulas, and not enough on creative storytelling. So, how did this movie fall short? What made the difference between mediocre and great? These are my thoughts based on my film criticism rubric.

  1. Production values & artistic scope. Overall, the film didn’t have anything that pushed the envelop. The cinematography was state of the industry, but not state of he art. In leading action films such as Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne, technology is used to augment action sequences. Creative editing slows or hastens the pace. The camera shots engage the viewer with different angles and perspectives to illuminate motivation, create suspense, and immerse the viewer. I didn’t see much of this creative use of standard film tools and techniques in Never Go Back. It was yoeman’s work, for sure, but not much beyond it.
  2. Plot, internal consistency & composition The plot wasn’t particularly creative;
    “good guy, but flawed, cop uncovers duplicitous arms dealer” is a pretty worn concept. Buddy rescue stories are also pretty common. The fact that the new boss of Reacher’s old unit is a woman (Turner) might have been innovative in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 2010s it’s almost cliche. Similarly, the emotional threat of a family member being used to derail the good guy cop is also pretty common (remember Lethal Weapon?). Reacher is a drifter and loner, much like old western heroes, and being tied down by an unwanted child is also a familiar plot device (recall True GritShane, etc.). While the story had an internal consistency—few loose ends left around at the end—its plot and composition were pretty stale. Also, the subplot of the uncertainty about paternity seemed contrived to add some humanity to the hardened soldier turned outlaw. In part this was necessary because Major Turner could pretty much take care of herself. So, some character had to be vulnerable, and that ended up being the teenager that might be Reacher’s daughter. She was never fully integrated as an essential element of the plot.
  3. Story plausibility and dialogue. Okay, this is a bit of a stretch for action films—they are almost always implausible—but my assessments are put in the context of the genre. The dialogue was straightforward without nuance in Jack Reacher. The banter was standard and straightforward, with little wit; Audiences weren’t asked to interpret much beyond what was said by the actors. In fact, I found very little in the way of compelling visual storytelling, in contrast to other similar films such as Deepwater Horizon and Jason Bourne. What makes cinema different from literary forms is the ability to show character and emotion through facial expressions, physical action, and reactions to events and other people without resorting to dialogue to tell the story. Visuals substitute for literary description. The actors were asked to do little more than straightforward acting in the film.
  4. Context in terms of genre. The film’s plot is relevant to the action film genre. After all, the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan, and those weapons can easily be diverted. But the story doesn’t unfold in a creative way. The theft of arms is a standard plot for military television series such as NCIS or JAG. The theme simply is transported onto the big screen in a formulaic way. Even adding a corrupt inside guy n the military isn’t presented in an innovative or creative way.
  5. Entertainment & audience engagement. Never Go Back was entertaining, but it didn’t keep me engaged evenly throughout the film. If I had received a phone call or text message, I would have been willing to leave the theater to take it believing I wouldn’t miss much by the time I returned. In part, this is because the film was predictable and lacked imagination. This movie could have easily gone straight to DVD and saved for late night parties for your teenager.
  6. Character depth & arc. None of the characters really grow. At the end of the film, Major Turner is redeemed and goes back to her job running Reacher’s old unit. She is restored to her position rather than given new responsibilities, and her relationship with Reacher is not significantly deepened. Reacher goes back on the road, taking up his vigilante lifestyle, and the girl goes back to school (albeit this time living with her real mother who has cleaned up her act). Ironically, its the teenager—Samantha—that grows the most. She realizes the truth about Reacher, develops true feelings for him, but takes on a more mature and adult role as daughter to her mother. Unfortunately, Reacher and Turner on the leads in the movie, not the girl.
  7. Social message & relevance. The film has virtually no social relevance or meaningful message, except that Jack Reacher might not forsake the child he may have fathered. The film ends with Samantha giving Reacher a phone for him to contact her, but he doesn’t embrace the new relationship. Similarly, showing bad guys as bad guys doesn’t really advance our understanding of human nature, or reveal new ways of looking at human relationships. It’s all standard formula action movie fodder.

I am not sure how these aspects of the film could be “fixed,” but actors, producers, and directors of Tom Cruise and Edward Zick’s stature and experience can certainly find ways to do it. I didn’t feel like I was ripped off sitting in the movie theater, but I certainly expected more and I believe the principals could have given more. With a production budget of $60 million, they could have. On the other hand, the film has generated nearly the same amount in domestic revenue and $136 million worldwide. So, in at least a commercial sense, the film is a success despite its artistic flaws.

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