Category Archives: writing and storytelling

I’m back: Florida Writers Conference 2018

I have once again been invited back to join the faculty of the Florida Writers Conference !

This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading

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War memorials use immersive design to create visceral stories

The Entrance to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A few unexpected extra hours in Washington, D.C. recently allowed me to visit the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The experience left me with a powerful insight into how immersive physical design can create a visceral human connection to their subject.

All three memorials are incredible displays of physical art. They evoke solemn meditations about the conflicts and the sacrifices our citizens have made over the last seventy years. The World War II Memorial, in particular, was amazing in its ability to communicate the breadth of the conflict and America’s engagement. Its design makes it impossible to capture the entire memorial in one setting, surely an intentional design feature. Visitors are overwhelmed physically with a sense of scope of the conflict. 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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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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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: 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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Five ways the Pirates of the Caribbean films misrepresent real pirates

I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and had to once again take a deep breath. The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, I reminded myself, is intended for entertainment, not historical accuracy (my review of the film is here). As a social scientist and writer of historical fiction (The Pirate of Panther BayTortuga Bay), I have to step back and remind myself that I take liberties when writing my books, too. Nevertheless, the films play loose with pirate history, and those misrepresentations should be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, these deviations from historical fact should be intentional and deliberate, not a result of carelessness or lack of interest. So, I have put together a list of five historical inaccuracies promoted or used in Dead Men Tell No Tales that may serve the plot but probably make historians cringe. This is not to say that the director, screenwriters, or producers were reckless, negligent, or didn’t care. Rather, this short list just provides a little real world correction to impressions that may have been left by the movies themselves based on what we “know” historically about Caribbean piracy.

  1. The ships are too big. Most pirate vessels were small, often one-masted schooners, because they needed to be nimble, fast, and navigate shallow waters. Larger vessels with multiple gun decks were slower and harder to maneuver. They were also easier to run aground. They were best used for blockades or large fleet battles. Hence, these larger ships were called “ships of the line” because they would be arrayed in lines, bow to stern, to engage the enemy. That’s the way fleets did battle up until the 20th century. Pirates were usually solo actors, like Jack Sparrow. A few, such as Blackbeard, were able to command multiple ships. But even Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a frigate without the multilevel gun decks depicted in the films. Frigates were among the larger warships designed for speed, agility, and firepower.
  2. The ships are too fast. Numerous scenes show larger ships of the line overtaking similar sized ships. While some of this can be chalked up to the fantasy elements of the film, in reality ships would pursue each other for days because the differences in speed were only 1 or 2 knots among similar sized vessels. The ships in the films are large, multi-deck warships that would be lucky if they could muster 10 or 12 knots under full sail. Schooners, brigs, and frigates were smaller vessels with relatively more sail area, and were designed for speed. A frigate, for example, could achieve speeds as high as 17 knots. (This is one reason why Isabella commands a brig in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay.)
  3. Jack Sparrow is a sad excuse for a pirate captain. Pirate historians would be scratching their heads wondering why his crew continues to sail with him. He is an ineffective, bumbling criminal. He can’t even rob a bank effectively. Historically, pirates raided and plundered towns routinely. In fact, the fort in St. Augustine, Florida was constructed as a direct response to pirate raids on the town. Captains had to be effective leaders to earn the respect of their crews. In the films, Jack Sparrows crew follows him through friendship, loyalty, and pity.  
  4. Pirate captains were respectful of their crews. While pirate captains routinely used fear, intimidation, and violence against their targets, they had little scope to use the same tactics against their crew. The tyranny Barbossa uses against his crew would not have been tolerated, although the riches may have given him more latitude than usual. Pirates were ruthlessly rational and tactical, using violence to achieve specific ends. A democratically agreed upon set of Articles served as a binding constitution that provided transparent ways to distribute the booty in shares. Economist Peter Leeson has an excellent, accessible book on this called The Invisible Hook. (Or listen to the podcast with Peter at Under the Crossbones here.) Pirate crews were volunteers, and they elected their captains. A pirate captain in the Caribbean would not exact tribute from his crew without risking immediate defection. The crew could always elect another captain.
  5. The British Navy’s anti-piracy campaign was professional.  In the movies, the British colonial administrators are driven by deeply held beliefs in legend and superstition. In reality, the British successfully purged pirates from the Caribbean was eminently practical—they wanted to protect the shipping lanes for commerce. The British were remarkably successful, bringing the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” to an end by 1730s. They achieved this through concentrated force, the ruthless pursuit of pirates, and a liberal willingness to hang anyone caught in the act of piracy. Pirates (as well as sailors generally) were very superstitious. So, this focus on legend and mysticism fits well within pirate lore and even beliefs among common sailors. However, in terms of colonial policy and strategy, the British Navy took a highly professional approach to ending piracy in the Caribbean.

Tortuga Bay, 2016 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist

Writing historical fiction puts authors in a dilemma—often history, or what we “know” to be historical, is at odds with a good story.  This appears to be the case in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where battles between big ships seems to carry more dramatic effect. Authors of historical fiction have to make these trade-offs as well. For example, we have no historical records that a woman commanded a pirate ship in the  Caribbean, but Isabella does in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. Nevertheless, a woman in a leadership position, an escaped slave nonetheless, creates dramatic tension that moves the story. I have tried to nest the story in the real historical context of the times (and appear to have done this based on reviews).

I wonder if a more nuanced approach to storytelling in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies might have allowed a bit more historical accuracy without sacrificing dramatic effect. I have found smaller vessels provide more opportunities for dramatic tension and conflict that larger ships. This is why I found the original escape and pursuit of Jack Sparrow somewhat more satisfying n the Curse of the Black Pearl—at least the ships in the movie were closer to the right scale. But it’s also why Isabella continues to captain a smaller ship in the book series.

For more great history and all things pirate, check out Under the Crossbones, a podcast hosted by Phil Johnson. Phil interviews me in Episode 20 here, and he’s up to 92 episodes.

More details on the Pirate of Panther Bay series, including classroom guides and information on the literary awards the books have earned, can be found here.

The Pirate of Panther Bay is available at amazon.com here.

Tortuga Bay is available from amazon.com here.

 

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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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Review: Kong: Skull Island Box Office Blockbuster Falls Short

Kong: Skull Island continues to hold its own at the box office, generating $164 million in domestic revenues after seven weeks in theaters and $395 million outside the U.S. The film is definitely headed for a profitable ride, thanks in large part to the Chinese market. It’s persistence at the box office justifies a review, even if late, with a few comments about the story and its execution.

The film, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts,  has a fine cast, and a plausible premise (as far as King Kong monster movies go): Bill Randa (John Goodman, Raising ArizonaMonsters, Inc.), a government scientist, has discovered scientific evidence of a strange creature on a remote island that requires investigation. Set in 1973, the waning days of the Vietnam War, the movie  enlists an expert tracker (the Thor film franchise’s Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad) to help hunt the animal, a team of scientists to study it, and a military helicopter escort commanded by the aggressive Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp FictionDejango UnchainedThe Hateful Eight). To counter balance the testosterone is a pacifist photo journalist (The Room‘s Brie Larson as Mason Weaver).

The digital effects are first rate. Many reviewers have commented on the exceptional attention given to animating Kong, one even going so far as to say the digitized gorilla steals the scenes from the live action actors. For the most part, I agree. That’s part of the problem with the film.

As a viewer, most people will connect more with Kong than any of the 13 actors and actresses listed as “stars”.   The CGI artists create more believable action a tension between Kong and his underground nemesis Skullcrawler, who is inadvertently roused to the surface by indiscriminate fire bombing in an attempt to kill Kong. One by one, the platoon of non-stars and co-stars is picked off by either Kong (who is a misunderstood hero) or the skullcrawlers.

This points to a second problem: the cast is simply too big. Although Kong: Skull Island is within the larger King Kong franchise, the characters are not recurring. As such, viewers simply can’t get close enough to the characters to care much about them. This probably for the better, even intentional, since they all pretty much die. In fact, the character viewers are most likely to care about, forgotten World War II aviator Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly, Boogie NightsTalledega NightsGuardians of the Gallaxy ), enters the film half way through. Brie Larson’s character survives, but her character doesn’t have much depth—she begins as a pacifist, and finishes as a pacifist basically able to say “I told you so, peace is good.”

Third, much of the detail surrounding the actualization of the monsters appears to have been forgotten. For example, a major fight scene between Kong and Skullcrawler takes place in a lake. As they thrash about trying to kill each other, characters watching on the edge of the lake never experience unsettled water or a wave that would be inevitable from such a fight. In another example, somehow twelve helicopters lead the team in the island even though they are transported on a ship capable of carrying six.

Fourth, the humans are plot devices, not characters that drive the story. All of them are expendable, and none have a meaningful arc. The movie is really about the monsters (and to its credit doesn’t seem to forget this). All the players do is position themselves to be killed by the monsters. Sometimes, as in the case of Bill Randa’s demise, the acts seem implausibly suicidal. This isn’t unusual in a monster film, but the best movies in this genre use the story as social commentary. In the original King Kong movie, viewers are left to wonder who is the real monster. We use the story to reflect upon ourselves. Skull Island adds nothing new.

The plot holes, transparent plot devices, and careless squandering of acting talent combined to make a weak movie. That said, if someone is looking for a lot of great digital effects, a really cool rendering of a giant gorilla, and some fantastic supernatural fight scenes in an exotic jungle location, Kong: Skull Island is hard to beat.

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Review: La La Land entertains with music, dance, and substance

The contemporary romantic dance musical La La Land continues to post strong earnings at the box office, generating $40 million domestically and $68 million worldwide (double its production budget). The film is destined to generate much more as a Golden Globe nominee and potential Oscar contender. I will be surprised if the film fails to bring home a major award.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 10 Cloverfield Lane), the plot follows the two aspiring artists in Los Angeles—Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist unwilling to compromise on the purity of his art, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who finds the rough and tumble world of Hollywood dispiriting and overwhelming.

The characters are well developed, and their arcs are clearly defined over the course of the story. Sebastian’s intransigence in the face of pressures to bow to bland public musical tastes is artfully depicted in a scene in a lounge (managed by the reliably excellent J.K. Simmons) where he is fired for straying into free form jazz rather than remain focused on the uninteresting background music he was hired to play. His unwavering commitment to art nearly leaves him destitute but secures the admiration of Mia through a serendipitous meeting in the lounge.

La La Land incorporates much of Chazelle’s hard earned experience, as well as that of Gosling and Stone, into its scenes, giving the film a gritty realism while effectively driving the plot. For example, Mia is performing a heartfelt line when one of the casting director’s takes a personal call, an event borrowed from Gosling’s own auditioning experience. The callous nature of Hollywood and the film industry, as well as the idolatry that draws so many into it, is captured well through these small vignettes which increasing drive Mia to a breaking point when she stakes her savings and professional aspirations on a one woman show.

Chazelle’s story masterfully plays off the differing paths of the lead characters as it builds to the climax, a penultimate point that challenges the characters’ commitment to themselves and their art. But the weave of the story is much more complex than a simple clash of futures or paths. One of the more innovative techniques Chazelle uses reels back through time to chart different courses for the characters at key plot points. This begins at the outset of the film when the characters are introduced after a grand dance number choreographed on an LA freeway so congested traffic has come to a stop. But the technique is used several times to convey different outcomes, allowing the audience to internalize the storytelling technique while pondering more substantive questions about decisions and relationships. This becomes crucial for the film’s climax, bittersweet third act that focuses on the emotional and professional state of the characters to highlight what is ultimately a story about the choices we make and the personal consequences of those decisions.

The film is grand and soaring, much like the most audacious mid-twentieth century musicals, but the story is more complex and artful than many of the classics. Drawing inspiration from classic musicals, including Singing in the Rain and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as performances by theatrical numbers by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and others, Chazelle has crafted a film that plays homage to this bygone film genre as well as the real-life experiences of those trying to make it in today’s film industry.

La La Land is distinguished by its production values, ability to entertain, and financial success as a contemporary musical. More interestingly, Chazelle’s determination to tell a complicated story adds to the richness of the film, giving his experienced actors the freedom to explore their characters and relationships. The ending will not be satisfying to many, but this is also his point: real life involves choices and meaningful trade-offs. Our decisions about which choices to make lead to different outcomes, and the results may not be completely satisfying even as we accomplish our professional goals.

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