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

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. “

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Review: Molly’s Game gets edge from Sorkin touch

Molly’s Game is a just the kind of movie you would expect from Aaron Sorkin, the creative light behind TV series like The West Wing and movies like The Social Network. His fast-paced dialogue allows his characters to carry a lot of attitude into the movie and story, and Molly’s Game is no exception.

The movie stars Jessica Chastain as the title character, Molly Bloom, a former Olympic freestyle skier who ends up on another path after a career ending injury. She enters the world of high-stakes underground poker and becomes “Hollywood’s poker princess”–before the FBI takes her down. A key part of the film is Bloom’s tense relationship with her skeptical, high-profile attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). My full review is now live at the Independent Institute, but here’s a quick thumbnail summary:

As in most Sorkin scripts, Molly’s Game has many layers. He uses the unusual technique of having Molly narrate most of the movie. This useful device allows for the story to be told largely in flashback while creating tension with the no-nonsense Jaffey. Aside from the conflict between Bloom and Jaffey, the narration/flashback structure serves two other important roles. First, audiences see Molly evolve from a brash, arrogant, determined, Type-A athlete to a more humble and circumspect women who has been tamed by the cruel and violent world of underground gambling. She goes from bratty teenager to an adult with faults that are real and relatable. Second, audiences come to appreciate Molly’s personal journey through Jaffey’s skepticism, and then empathy. Just as Bloom appears to be at her lowest point, resolved to go to prison for decades because she won’t give up her clients, Jaffey is able to provide the support she needs because of his sincere belief in her innocence.

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Review: The Post spotlights The Washington Post‘s coming of age

My complete review of The Post is live at the Independent Institute. Advertised as a political thriller, the movie is really an excellent “coming of age” story for the venerable newspaper The Washington Post and its publisher Katherine Graham.

Graham inherited the paper when her husband committed suicide in the early 1960’s. She didn’t know much about business or journalism. So, she had to learn on the job.

But Graham was reluctant to give up her high-society social life which involved close personal relationships with politicians and White House staff. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times, she had to make a big decision that could put her family’s paper in financial jeopardy.

I observe: Continue reading

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

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.

 

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.

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.

Unsafe On Any Campus? earns two gold medals in literary competition!

PRESS RELEASE

Lake Buena Vista, FL (8/5/2017) – The Florida Authors and Publishers Association awarded two Gold Medals to Florida college faculty member Samuel Staley’s book Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It, one each the categories of Adult Non-Fiction and Political/Current Events.

Hosted by the Florida Authors and Publishers Association, this prestigious national award is open to books published between 2016 and 2017. Organizers say this year included the largest number of entries every drawing from a national pool of authors and publishers.

Unsafe On Any Campus? is written by Samuel R. Staley, a full-time faculty member in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University.  Staley joined the faculty in 2011 after 25 years in the nonprofit private sector. He was unaware of the extent of the problem, which is national in scope, until he learned the stories of survivors and their friends while coaching martial-arts based self-defense classes at FSU. Staley holds a black belt in To-Shin Do, a self-defense oriented version of the classic Japanese “ninja” martial art of Ninjutsu developed by ninja master Stephen K. Hayes.

“Virtually every student will know a survivor of sexual assault by the time he or she graduates from an American university or college,” says Staley, who acknowledges the extent of the problem may vary significantly by college and location. Staley describes his book as a primer for parents, college counselors, and students. “This book is my way of using more than 30 years of professional experience in the field of public policy analysis to explain a very complicated problem and outline practical pathways toward eliminating this scourge on our campuses,” he says.

“The FAPA President’s Book Award exists to promote excellence in the publishing industry by recognizing talented contemporary authors who put both heart and soul into their work. FAPA is proud to be a champion of authors and publishers going the extra mile to produce books of excellence in every aspect.” said Jane R. Wood, President-Elect of FAPA.

Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It is a nonfiction book analyzing contemporary campus culture, why it puts college students at risk for sexual assault and rape, and presents a holistic solution that puts harm reduction at the center of strategies and programs.

Ruth Krug, a survivor of campus sexual assault, writes in her Foreword: Unsafe On Any Campus? is  “innovative, practical, and empowering” and “signifies a turning point in addressing rape and sexual assault in college and university environments.” Unsafe On Any Campus? is published by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing.

Medals were awarded at the annual FAPA President’s Book Awards Banquet held this year at the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace in the Disney Springs TM Area of Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

“We are proud to announce this year’s winners who truly embody the excellence this award was created to celebrate.  We had a record number of entries this year. Competition was stiff! We salute all of our winners for their fine work,” said FAPA’s President, Terri Gerrell.

The Florida Authors & Publishers Association is an organization for authors, publishers, independent publishers, illustrators, editors, printers, and other professionals involved in the publishing industry. It focuses on providing the highest quality of information, resources, and professional development to members and others interested in the writing and publishing profession.

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For more on Unsafe On Any Campus, including discussion questions, videos, and other materials on campus sexual assault, visit: http://www.campusninjaselfdefense.com

To purchase Unsafe On Any Campus?

  • at amazon, click here.
  • at Barnes & Noble, click here.
  • at Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, click here.

 

Review: Valerian‘s entertaining space romp

Source: www.impawards.com

My rather lengthy review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now live at the Independent Institute. I almost skipped this movie, but I’m glad I didn’t. I really enjoyed it: Valerian is an entertaining space romp with a dash of cool action. I also realize this puts me at odds with most reviewers and a sizable number of movie goes. But I try to call’m like I see’m, and I found Valerian is an entertaining and satisfying sci-fi, fantasy movie.

Writer-Director Luc Besson does a nice job of consciously blending a Star Wars-esque space opera with Avatar-inspired fantasy and adding a European flare. Visually, the movie has a lot going on, and it’s fun to just sit back and watch. Unfortunately, sometimes the flare gets in the way of the plot. Still, the story holds together as a rather straightforward sci-fi, fantasy action yarn.

Besson also adds depth, building real arcs into the characters. This allows him to also build a strong message into the substance of the film, specifically one of the overarching importance of individual dignity, emotional transparency, and peace as building block for relationships and community.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also has an intriguing backstory as I write over at the Independent Institute,

Americans might be tempted to think this film and comic series was inspired by Star Wars. In fact, if a relationship exists, the influence may be the other way around. The film’s story is taken from the long-running French comic series Valerian and Laureline (1967-2010), which featured epic, diverse universes with inter-species cooperation and conflict. Indeed, the design director behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace kept bound copies of the comic on his shelf during that film’s production.

The movie has its weak moments—the pace slows in key places, and the dialogue tends to be a bit juvenile—but overall the film entertains. Sometimes, we just need to give credit to a film that is just entertaining.

I scored Valerian 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being perfect) based on 8 elements. This translates into a grade of a B and really 4 starts on a 5-star scale (3 1/2 on Rotten Tomatoes).

The full review can be found here:

Review: Valerian Entertains with Focus on Visual Effects and Personal Dignity

My Facebook site—Movie Reviews By Sam Staley—where I am now posting links to all my reviews can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/themovieswithsam/