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.
Pirates of all ages are welcome!
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.
Pirates of all ages are welcome!
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.
My movie review of Logan is up at the Independent Institute! This is a film that shows superhero action movies can have soul, with complex characters and a meaningful plot.
I really enjoyed this film, although it earns its R rating. Logan follows the final days of Wolverine as he rediscover’s his humanity while trying to save a new crop of young mutants. I write, in part,
The violence may seem gratuitous to some viewers, but mostly it serves the purpose of the story. James “Logan” Howlett is the mutant Wolverine of Marvel Comics fame, and his personality is volatile and emotional. He also has a conscience. These dimensions—including the guilt that comes with the curse of having steel claws that decapitate, impale, and slash his attackers—are portrayed well by Hugh Jackman (his ninth movie performance as Wolverine). Logan’s mutant powers are used defensively, not offensively. The violence is not portrayed as honorable or noble, and this becomes an integral part of a very thoughtful film.
I don’t mention in the Independent Institute review the strong pro-family theme. This is a bit of an oversight although I was trying to keep the review focused. Logan is caring for the dying Charles Xavier, a.k.a., Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and the relationship is very much father-son. Charles pushes Logan to connect with Laura, although Logan resists the responsibility that comes with the paternal relationship it implies.
Dafne Keen, who plays the eleven year old mutant Laura Kinney, cloned from Logan’s DNA, is impressive, and one of the primary reasons I enjoyed the film. Her character is brooding and intense, but her transformation into a more human and complete person is astounding for such a young actress in her first major role in a high-profile film.
Check out the full review here.
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
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
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:
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 email@example.com.
Manchester-by-the-Sea is one of those movies I sometimes hesitate to see. I am pretty sure I am going to like it, but in a crowded field of really good movies, which ones do I want to give up to see this one? Well, Manchester-by-the-Sea was well worth the time, and it’s earned its spots as a nominee for academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island), and Best Original Screenplay. The movie is a gritty, compelling, down to earth story of tragedy and heartbreak that still sits in my brain, propelled by fine, grounded film making and exceptional acting.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York), the story is set in New England and focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone, The Finest Hours) a handyman in Quincy Massachusetts who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights, Bloodline) dies from heart failure. He finds that Joe has assigned him guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom, Kill the Messenger). Lee is forced to confront the challenge of parenting a teenager and demons of guilt from the tragic loss of his children years earlier. He also must face the legacy of the tragedy that still lives in the memory of the townspeople, as well as Joe’s friend and partner George (C.J. Wilson).
The story starts out slow, as films of this nature tend to do; they are not action films. But the characters and story grip the audience as soon as Lee Chandler returns to his hometown. The story is complex and layered, with the screenplay providing a textbook example of how to reveal only what is absolutely necessary to keep the audience engaged, leave enough unsaid to maintain tension, and provide just enough information to keep the pace moving forward. Lonergan does an excellent job of splicing in flashbacks at just the right moments to enrich the plot and reveal the intertwined lives of the characters. We learn why some relationships are tenuous, some are frosty, and others are too hurtful to confront. The audience, however, is never overwhelmed with their complexity and layers.
It’s a poignant but real story, and Affleck leaves no doubt that he owns this film although the supporting cast is also superb. Central to the story is whether Lee can put the defining tragedy of his young life behind him. Other characters have found ways to forgive him and move on, but Lee struggles. Affleck deftly shifts from happy go-lucky young husband to self-loathing, guilt ridden wreck, but plays the part with a balance and reserve that keeps the audience rooting for his recovery. Viewers might leave the film a bit disappointed because it lacks a clear resolution. Then again, this is a story about real life, not fantasy.
Manchester-by-the-Sea has earned more than $50 million since its release in mid-December 2016, an astounding and well-earned return on its $8.5 million production budget. Producers Matt Damon and Chris Moore (among others) have proven once again they have a knack for finding a compelling story that can become a gripping movie without a big budget or A-list actors. This movie, however, might be the vehicle to put Casey Affleck back on the path to the A-list.
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.
Most of the sexual assault survivors I have come to know in the process of researching and writing Unsafe On Any Campus? were teenagers when they were raped. For many, the assault turned their world upside down, sending them into a downward spiral of self-loathing, distrust, and cynicism. Fortunately, for most, resilience won out. In fact, a few have even found a new center, a renewed sense of self, and an element of peace.
This begs the question: What life lessons can we learn from these trauma survivors? Here are just five:
These teenagers became women far too soon, their innocence stolen in a matter of minutes. They were forced to “grow up” and become adults far faster than any parent would want for their child. Fortunately, many survivors find a place where they can accept themselves again and embark on a path of self re-discovery. These stories—their journeys of recovery and healing—are almost never told. They don’t make it into make it into the headlines. Yet, as these survivors pivot on their path, they often find a light others may never know.
They also inspire me.
By bearing witness to their trauma, we can take inspiration from their journeys. By allowing ourselves to hear, we can understand the struggles that come with trauma. If we understand, we can support those who are on their path as well as those struggling to find it.
Perhaps, if enough of us understand, sexual assault and rape will become relegated to a dark part of our social history and banished from our present culture.
Permission to reprint and distribute this blog post is given with attribution to the author, Samuel R. Staley, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 2016)
I 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 Glory, Legends 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.
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.
The action film Deepwater Horizon has a lot of elements that make it one of the best movies of the year—a smart screenplay, excellent action, immersive special effects, and a compelling narrative. (See my review at the Independent Institute here.) Missed in almost all the reviews of the movie, however, is a brilliant example of foreshadowing through visual storytelling that, frankly, drives much of the success of the film overall.
As a story, Deepwater Horizon faced what many writers would think is a fatal flaw: everyone knows the ending. Deepwater Horizon was the name of the oil rig at the center of the world man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history (and perhaps the world): The Gulf Oil Spill. The full costs of the spill exceeds $45 billion by all accounts, and BP Oil is shelling out more than $50 billion in compensation, fines, and reparations as a consequence of the blow out.
Everyone knows what happened. Where’s the suspense? How can this be built into the story?
The film was marketed as a heroic action film, showing how ordinary men and women responded to an unthinkable event (even though they technically had trained for one). This is all fine and good, except that the filmmakers, like most storytellers, want their audiences to be fully vested in the characters—we had to care about them, really care about them, to want to know how they get out of this mess. So, we (the audience) needed backstory.
Some films will accomplish this through flash backs, or dreams, or memory tricks. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t use these techniques. The story (by Matthew Sand with screenplay help from Matthew Michael Carnahan) starts with the protagonist, rig technology guru Mike Williams, waking up in bed with his wife the morning he is heading out to the rig for a long assignment.
Boring. Most people in a relationship get up with their partner or spouse every day. And many, military people in particular, see their partners and spouses deploy for months and years at a time. Nothing extraordinary here. Some reviewers have dismissed this scene as an “obligatory” nod to family and traditional values. But I think this is much more significant and critical to the story.
Conflict drives stories, and these small personal conflicts—the husband going to work, not seeing his kids, etc.—are very minor in the greater scheme of things, particularly in the context of the world oil spill in history. A cardinal rule of writing is that the “inciting incident“—the event that drives the plot and arcs of the main characters—must begin early in order to catch the attention of readers and viewers. They don’t have to finish the arc, but characters must start down the road to transformation to keep the story fresh. And conflict drives the actions of the characters and builds tension in the plot.
Sand and Carnahan do something clever. They write in the 10-year old daughter, Sydney, who is giving a presentation on her dad’s job (played by Mark Walhberg) to her elementary school class. She describes (beginning at minute 9 in the collection of trailers emedded below) how, way back in time, dinosaurs roamed the earth. When they died, the dinosaurs became big bad black monsters (oil) that were trying to escape. When humans drill for oil, the monsters try to escape (the oil gush). Her Dad’s job is to put a lid on the hole that keeps the monsters in the hole, using honey to illustrate how mud is used to block the hole.
During the entire presentation, the daughter is showing what happens by first taking an opened soda can representing the oil reserves that will be tapped, driving a hole in the top using one of her father’s tools to represent the men drilling for oil, and then containing the oil by putting honey down a brass pipe fitting (the oil pipe) until it stops seeping from the can. Everyone is happy, proud of the daughter for coming up with such a simple, clever way to explain a very complicated job to her kids who, like most adults, know little, if anything, about oil drilling and its dangers. Then a chemical reaction leads to the soda exploding from the can—the “blow out”. The family runs from the spraying soda, showing they are powerless to stop it. Since it’s just a soda can, it’s all fun and games.
However, what Sand and Carnahan have done is use foreshadowing to bring the inciting incident into the earliest scenes while providing backstory that shows a close, respectful loving family at breakfast. Now, however, with our advance knowledge and the privilege of knowing the ultimate end—tragic blow out—we know that this family will be threatened, perhaps even torn apart or destroyed. We just don’t know how. We are invested in the main character. This is not an obligatory scene pandering to audience sensibilities; it’s critical to the story’s development and engaging the viewer.
Most of the reviews have focused on how the technical language of oil drilling is handled in the action sequences. Most people will not be able to follow the language, but it’s not necessary. Indeed, when I saw this scene, I realized that an important part of the sequence was to explain to the audience just how the blow out was supposed to be handled. The scene, and the daughter’s explanation, visually and orally explained the basic principles behind drilling and the tactics used to prevent a blow out.
But the scene also accomplishes something much more. It brings the inciting incident upfront in the film, into the opening minutes of the story. Now the audience is focused on whether Mike Williams—the father, the oil rig operator—will survive, whether he will make the right decisions, and, if he survives, how he perseveres through a tragedy that killed eleven men, injured scores of others, devastated an entire region of the Gulf of Mexico, and fundamentally changed the way deep water oil exploration is managed and regulation.
This is one reason why I believe Deepwater Horizon is one of the best films of 2016, and another reason writer’s can learn a lot from successful films and screenwriters.
The year 2016 will be logged as one of the most successful in my writing fiction writing career, as Tortuga Bay takes how three first place wins, two second place finishes, and two additional finalist spots in literary in national and statewide literary competitions.
These were not small wins, either. We started out the year with a bang, when Tortuga Bay earned a category finalist spot in the Eric Hoffer book awards, a competition that generates more than 1,200 submissions. I estimate that this put Tortuga Bay in the top 10% of submissions.
Then, in August, we found out the results of the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Awards. FAPA’s competition generated nearly 400 entries from across the nation. Tortuga Bay placed first in Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Romance/Coming of Age/New Adult.
And now, in October, we were in Orlando to accept several awards in the Royal Palm Literary Awards sponsored by the 1,500 strong Florida Writers Association. the first place award for Published Historical Fiction, second place award for Published Mainstream/Literary Fiction, and second place award for Published Young Adult/New Adult Fiction. This year’s competition attracted 480 submissions, mainly from Florida authors and members of the FWA. About 140 authors made it into the final rounds based on a rubric used for scoring each submission and tallying up their points.
Isabella’s story has proven to be a robust one that attracts readers from across genres—young adult, adult, new adult, women’s fiction, mainstream, action/adventure, among others.