Category Archives: Film making

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. “

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 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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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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Five not so obvious things to love about the movie Wonder Woman

I am not a comic book or superhero fan, preferring more down-to-Earth characters facing situations that are more real world than fantasy. Yet, Wonder Woman is an excellent movie, one of my favorites so far in 2017 (see my movie review here).

For many, the strong female character is a big benefit, and I agree. As a novelist who features strong female characters in all my books, I found Wonder Woman’s emphasis on a strong, multidimensional character gratifying and long overdue. I attribute this to the directorial prowess of Patty Jenkins as well as the charisma and strength of Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role.

But Wonder Women distinguishes itself on several other dimensions as well. Here are five not-so-obvious elements to love about the film.

  1. Diana is a woman that kicks butt. And I mean a woman. She is not a woman dressed up as a man, competing with men on their terms. Perhaps the backstory of a race of Amazon women helps, but the writers have written her in as a strong female character. Her worldview is gendered female, albeit amazons are a warrior race. Wonder Woman, however, doesn’t rely on strength to defeat her enemies—a typically male response. Rather, she uses her tools, whether the “Lasso of Truth,” impermeable bracelets, or her shield. This is a refreshing acknowledgement of real differences between men and women, yet the story does not drive home a sense of superiority of one gender over the other. Rather, as a multidimensional woman, Diana brings a different perspective. She also brings a level of compassion to her warrior mission that adds layers and sophistication. (Some may argue that the compassionate element of her personality reflects a gender stereotype. I believe in fact it shows a human dimension that is not unique to either gender but manifests itself in different ways based on Diana’s background as an Amazon.)
  2. Combat choreography. The hand-to-hand combat sequences show a physical and emotional level of skill that is rare among actors and an attention to detail and fluidity unusual for Western filmmakers. As someone who studies martial arts (To-Shin Do ninjutsu), I appreciated the attention given to these details because it adds an authenticity to the actions of the characters and the plot. The interpersonal combat sequences reflect real combat techniques that can plausibly create the physical effects they intend to project (although, as in all action films, they are exaggerated for the camera and enhanced with special effects). Gal Gadot’s two years of military service as a combat trainer in the Israeli army no doubt adds to this authenticity. She know how to throw a punch and kick, the camera does a great job of capturing these maneuvers, and the director has used special effects such as slow motion to emphasize them as an integrated part of the action.
  3. The special effects are scaled. I still remembered being bored as I watched one of the Superman films as New York City (or was it Tokyo…or Chicago…or….?) was being decimated for no apparent reason other than to “wow” audiences with special effects. The effects did not move the story forward in any meaningful way—they were just showing a good guy and a bad guy throwing punches to see who would persevere and be left standing at the end. Jenkins, however, has scaled the effects in Wonder Woman to reflect the place and context of the scene and character. While we see and experience wild explosions and other fantastical elements, they don’t overwhelm the story or the characters.
  4. Seamless blending of an international cast. Gal Gadot is Israeli, Connie Inge-Lise Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta) is Danish, Elena Anaya (Isabella Maru) is Spanish, Chris Pine (Steve Trevor) is American, Robin Wright (General Antiope) is American, and David Thewlis (Ares) is British, and they all have accents. They also come from different cultures with different nuances about how to relate and interact with the different people as groups and individuals. Cultural unfamiliarity can often interfere with creating on-screen chemistry as the acting becomes wooden, formal, and less personal. The interpersonal connection is crucial to create believable relationships. The blend works in Wonder Woman, unlike other films (e.g., most recently Kong: Skull Island and the Great Wall). The director embraced their differences, and didn’t force a familiarity that might have been difficult to orchestrate. The screenplay artfully creates interplay among characters that embraces the differences and uses human to emphasize contrasts in perspective or cultural norms that further the development of the characters and story. (For example, one of many humorous scenes in Wonder Woman involves Diana walking in on Captain Steve Trevor as his is bathing naked.)
  5. A woman directed the big budget, superhero action film. Okay, this is obvious. But the significance of the trust the studios put in Patty Jenkins, and her ability to deliver a high quality superhero action film, should not be underestimated. This is a threshold event, probably more significant that Kathryn Bigelow’s success with war/thriller The Hurt Locker in 2008. Bigelow was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director and the film won for best picture. I would not be surprised if Wonder Woman is nominated for Best Picture and Jenkins is nominated for Best Director. While the film is likely not strong enough to win Best Picture, Jenkins’ directing may well make her a favorite for Best Director.

Unfortunately, Wonder Woman is marred by a few significant plot holes and inconsistencies early on the film. But those will be the subject of another blog post. In the meantime, Wonder Woman is an excellent, engaging, and sophisticated action film that deserves in commercial success as the box office and the acclaim it has received from critics.

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