Category Archives: Independent Institute

Review: Solo entertains but doesn’t break ground in Star Wars Universe

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened to less than enthusiastic audiences, but the numbers are likely to improve the longer the movie spends in commercial theaters. Director Ron Howard really shows his craftsmanship in putting the film together, making Solo a fun ride as a sci-fi action adventure. My full review with complete links can be found over at the Independent Institute’s blog here.

The movie was billed as an “origin” story for the iconic space pirate Han Solo from the original trilogy. Solo, however, is best viewed in a more conventional light rather than an integrated part of the Star Wars canon. Viewers don’t really get a lot of new information about the real origins of the character, and Solo is just not bitter enough at the end of this one to believe he is the cold-stoned smuggler he plays in A New Hope (Episode IV). Moreover, Harrison Ford owns the character.

Nevertheless, Alden Ehrenreich settles into the role well. The plot, which is grounded in his star-crossed love for Qi’ra is believable thanks to great acting by Emilia Clark of Game of Thrones fame. Audiences will empathize with most of the characters because the story gives each a soul. They just can’t be true to themselves because of the dark world in which they are forced survive. Continue reading

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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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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: 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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Review: Wonder Woman is a smart, well executed action film

My movie review of Wonder Woman is live at the Independent Institute. I really liked the film, and, as I mention in another blog post, I think this might be a break through film for women directors. The film is smart, well executed, and superbly directed by Patty Jenkins.

Perhaps one of the elements I appreciate the most is the multidimensional development of the main character, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman). She doesn’t lose her gender identity as she embraces the superhero role and heroic commitment to saving the human race. Diana Prince is not a character that essentially acts and looks like a man. Kudos to screenwriter Allan Heinberg for scripting a great character and giving her a worthy arc. Jenkins has also done an excellent job blending an international cast and using the story to play off their differences. Their differences become humorous interactions that deepen relationships and understanding.

In my longer review, I write:

Wonder Women contains an excellent story in a well-executed film that grapples with the conflicts between idealism and practicality, innocence and experience, gullibility and wisdom. Jenkins has crafted a film that infuses substance into a smart story. She uses well-crafted storytelling elements, such as defined and complex character arcs, to allow the anti-war social conscience that underlies the film to shine and provide a compelling context for the film.

This is great summer film—a lot of fun with great action sequences and excellent character development.

The complete review can be found herehttp://bit.ly/IIwonderwoman

An article about five not-so-obvious things to love about Wonder Woman can be found herehttp://bit.ly/5notsoWW

Stay tuned to this blog because the film is prompting me to think about several other articles on plot development and character development using Wonder Woman as a starting point for the riff.

 

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rousing romp through the universe

My movie review and commentary on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is live at the Independent Institute blog. Guardians 2 is a fun, entertaining romp through the universe with the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family. The acting is more than adequate—Chris Pratt‘s (Peter Quill) comedic talents are evident as are those of Dave Bautista (Drax)—but James Gunn‘s script and directing is outstanding. He makes the most of a capable ensemble cast, including Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Michael Rooker (Yandu), and the voices of Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Baby Groot). The special effects don’t overwhelm the story or the action, providing a nice balance between character development and plot. I’ve got more details of my thoughts in the blog.

I think this movie is underrated by some credits. This is a very smart, well crafted film. In particular, the main tension between Peter and his father Ego (Kurt Russell) is driven by a deep philosophical idea about personal identity—a heavy theme no doubt. But Gunn doesn’t let the weight of the idea slow the film down.  In fact, I believe this film is a great example of storytelling where substance drives plot. More often, filmmakers attempting to make a point slow the action down because it’s not integrated well into the plot. I will be writing on this point in a future post on this website.

I write in part in the Independence Institute review,

Despite the heavy theme, Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 remains a engaging film, a rare combination of state of the art filmmaking and substance. Gunn is able to combine a keystone cops comedic lightness with first-rate special effects, making the film suitable for a wide range of audiences. Gunn leverages the comic talents of his cast and quirky characters to craft an entertaining, action packed, and amusing addition to the Marvel Comics film universe. The movie has already grossed more than $430 million dollars worldwide, double its production budget, and seems likely to legitimately earn a spot as one the highest grossing films of the year.

I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and I’m looking forward to the third installment which is already under contract.

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Review: The Promise, Armenia, and the Origins of Genocide

My full review of the move The Promise is live at the Independent Institute. This narratively complex film never loses its main focus as a story of the Armenian Genocide. Nearly three quarters of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire—1.5 million men, women and children—died between 1915 and 1924 through forced marches, conscription into labor camps, rioting, and mass murder.

I write:

If you want to know the origin of the term “genocide,” watch the film The Promise. Literally. The movie is billed as a romantic drama, but it’s really a well-produced, narratively complex story of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic and targeted extermination of 1.5 million Christian Armenians through starvation, forced labor, rioting, and massacres in what is now Turkey.

In fact, the word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, who drew directly from the Turkish government’s expulsion of 2 million Armenians between 1915 and 1924 to define the practical parameters of the term. The Promise, while fiction, does a hauntingly good job of staying faithful to the story of the what is often now referred to as the Armenian Holocaust.

Unfortunately, the film was sold as a romantic drama featuring a love triangle that doesn’t quite work. The love story serves a critical purpose, however, tying together Armenian internal conflict with the pogram’s political motivations and press efforts to raise global awareness of the atrocities. The acting by Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, and Christian Bale is very good, but the chemistry for a love triangle simply isn’t there. I’ll analyze this in a later post on this blog, but all three characters need to be in sync and connected for a love triangle to work.

Nevertheless, even with this shortcoming, I recommend the movie. It’s a solid film, remarkably faithful to the real-world events that inspired it, includes epic visuals and digital effects, and tells an important historical story. It’s also highly relevant to events unfolding in the Middle East today.

Read the full review here.

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Movie Review: A United Kingdom

I take an in-depth look at the very well acted British film A United Kingdom in my most recent movie review at the Independent Institute.  The story highlights the romance and marriage between Sir Seretse Kama III, the heir to the throne of what would become Botswana, to Ruth Williams, an English white, working class woman in 1948.

The marriage touched off an international firestorm in colonial Bechuanaland (now Botswana) as well as in the United Kingdom, and ultimately resulted in their exile. The movie features fine performances by David Oyelowo (SelmaThe Butler) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another DayGone GirlPride & Prejudice).

The story is a powerful tale of love and international intrigue firmly based in real-world events. Director Amma Asanta does a fine turn for the story by depicting a layered understanding of how race and racism played into the politics of post-War colonialism as well as African desires for independence.

Critics have given a thumbs up to the movie although I think it falters a bit. It simply tries to do too much. Ruth Williams Kama was a force in her own right, and she doesn’t get her full due in A United Kingdom. She deserves her own cinematic treatment as a European facing the struggles of living in a hostile culture and climate while trying to gain acceptance within the traditions of her husband’s tribe.

The Kama’s story would also be worthy of a sequel to A United Kingdom. Plenty of drama can be found in Seretse Kama’s fight for an independent Bechuanaland, which became a reality in 1966 with the founding of Botswana.

My complete review can be found here.

A commentary linking the economic success of Botswana to Seretse (and Ruth) Kama’s political and economic liberalism can be found in the Tallahassee Democrat or here.

 

 

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Review: Can We Take A Joke? Forewarned Free Speech Attack at Middlebury College

My most recent film review at the Independent Institute blog examines the free speech message at the core of the documentary Can We Take A Joke? The film was released in 2016, and its content focuses on comedians who have experienced an unexpected increase in attacks on free speech on college campuses and elsewhere. This wave was on full display recently at Middlebury College where a contrarian scholar was physically attacked for his views by protesters.

This is a disturbing trend. Free speech used to be a sacred principle of American public discourse and democratic engagement.

In my review, I ask whether this film forewarned of an escalation in these attacks and perhaps even anticipated the physical violence recently displayed against influential libertarian scholar Charles Murray at Middlebury College. I write in part:

Can We Take A Joke? uses the real-world experiences of these mostly liberal comedians to show the rise of intolerance against non–politically correct social commentary. Comedians are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, typically among the first wave of victims of intolerance or government oppression. This is because they are often on the front lines of social commentary and social change, as Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch points out in the film.

Documentary films are at their best when they provoke public discussion on important issues of the day. I think Can We Take A Joke? can achieve this objective on what used to be a sacred principle of American democracy and public discourse.

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