Tag Archives: action

Anna‘s stylish action elevates its story

Anna is the newest action movie by French auteur director Luc Besson and my full review is now live at The Beacon. The creator of Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, among others, has helped him build a reputation for deeper storytelling while also paying attention to style and the craft of film making. This approach is clear in Anna, where Besson makes the risky move of casting real-world Russian super model Sasha Luss in the title role. It works.

Besson doesn’t pull back on the action sequences nor the femininity of the emotionally traumatized titular character. The fight choreography is impressive because of its physicality as well as its calibration to the physique and mental state of the lead character. Anna never transforms into a buff, physically trained fighter. This is critical for the plot and the character.

Film critics have not been kind to Anna in their reviews, but audiences clearly enjoy it — as I did. I find it odd that the critics’ major hit against Anna appears to be that Besson doesn’t seem to add anything new to the genre. But some of these critics haven’t found similar faults with franchise films in such series as Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, or John Wick. Besson’s character. The story in Anna is more nuanced than these other films. The layers were clear to me in the way Besson builds the arc of the character, the time jumping through the story, and the nuanced choreography of the martial arts sequences. (Sure, the fights are excessive. But that’s a staple of Western action films.)

My full review is now live at The Beacon, the blog of the Independent Institute.

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Authentic India’s Most Wanted falters as action movie

The decision on whether to formally review India’s Most Wanted, a Bollywood produced “action” movie, was difficult. Reviewers struggle to determine what elements of foreign produced films are culturally specific, and which ones are generally applicable. Bollywood movies typically fall into this conundrum for a variety of reasons (e.g., the inclusion of musical numbers in dramatic film).

On the upside, Western audiences will be treated to cinematography that captures sweeping vistas of India and Nepal. Their sense of place and custom will be jarred as they are transported into the crowded streets of Delhi, Kathmandu, and mountain side towns. They will also be forced to adjust to urbanity where four-wheeled vehicles are scarce, reserved for the wealthiest and most well connected. Most people will be riding on hot, crowded buses, or various forms of two-wheelers. They will see an authentic setting for the story. No attempt is made to project high-powered technology with fancy driving or stunts. The conditions remain grounded in the real-world technology faced by the men on the ground, including cell phones with little more capability than texting and talking.

India’s Most Wanted is inspired by the real events surrounding a secret attempt by Indian special police to infiltrate Nepal and nab a notorious terrorist — without firing a shot. The themes of bureaucratic incompetence and the heroic actions of the lead characters will not present a problem for most Western viewers; these are familiar plot lines and a staple of this genre. Western audiences will also probably find the low-tech nature of the search and capture mission refreshing. The film is low-budget by Western standards, meaning no CGI and limited practical effects. In the right hands, this can be play well. Unfortunately, “India’s Most Wanted” fumbles.

While audiences can certainly believe that the team in under imminent threat of discovery, and this will likely trigger significant negative consequences — national shame, ruined careers, an international incident that could trigger military intervention — few in an American audience will really believe the team is facing dire physical threats or death (even though they were). As narrative, the stakes are substantially lower. No amount of slow-motion video capture, dream sequences, deeply pensive camera shots with stunning sunset backdrops, or roughing up prisoners, is likely to overcome these lower stakes.

Thus, the hurdle for Western audiences will be their expectations. Action movies produced out of China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the West are fast-paced and physical. The heroes in India’s Most Wanted appear by Western eyes to be out-of-shape, middle-aged misfits. None, except perhaps the team leader, looks like they have stepped into a gym or physically worked out since their days of police training. This would be fine if “India’s Most Wanted” were a comedy, or even a “dramedy.” But movie is billed as an action-thriller. We are expected to believe the team is a serious threat capable of taking down a violent and dogmatic terrorist — which they did in real life — but on camera it doesn’t look they could job 100 yards.

The result is slow paced movie that never really rises to its action billing. On-line reviews suggest the film is doing better in India than in the US. American viewers, however, would be best to approach India’s Most Wanted as a cultural immersion more than an engaging, fast-paced ride. The movie is in Hindi with English subtitles.

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John Wick 3 nonstop action with no story

John Wick 3: Parabellum is a direct chronological extension of the second movie (which I did not see or review), with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run after being excommunicated from a global secret society of assassins. If all you are interested in is nonstop, well choreographed, high production value action and a ridiculously high body count, then the third installment in the John Wick series is the right movie for you. The plot doesn’t have much else, although an excellent supporting cast provides important dimension and complexity to the story.

In fact, the entire plot can probably be summed up in its subtitle, which is more accurately represented in its Latin form “para bellum,” which means “prepare for war.” According to wikipedia, the phrase is most often used coupled with another phrase, so it would read: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” John Wick does a little more than prepare for war, mainly by dropping scores of professional assassins licensed to kill him. Although thin, a plot exists as Wick tries to atone for past sins and escape his past life as a hitman.

Parabellum takes its action scenes to extraordinarily high levels as a visual art form with a refreshing reliance on practical effects over cgi special effects. In fact, the effects and fights scenes are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie is nominated for major awards in special effects editing, cinematography, and sound. (As a martial artist, I found the fight scenes very well choreographed and appreciated the authenticity of the attacks and defenses.) Notably, the movie cast Mark Dacascos, a highly skilled martial artist, in a principal role as an assassin recruited to kill John Wick. The movie was also produced and directed by a martial artist and stuntman (Chad Stahelski). The shear number of action scenes might be a bit gratuitous, but they are exceedingly well done. Reeves is impressive in what are clearly long continuously filmed fight involving knives and guns of all types.

The movie benefits from a number of well drawn characters (presumably carryovers from previous movies) with several excellent and well-known actors, including Laurence Fishburne (the Bowery King), Angelica Huston (Ruska Roma), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), and Ian McShane (Winston).

I enjoyed the movie, although I found myself distracted by the body count. Just don’t expect much more than a straight up, fast-paced action movie with a lot of graphic violence.

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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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Will Tracy Lawson’s novels become this generation’s Ayn Rand substitute?

By SR Staley

Resist, the second novel in Tracy Lawson’s Resistance Series, picks up right where Counteract leaves off: Heroine Careen Catecher and love interest Tommy Bailey are on the run after the murder of the director of the national Office of Civilian Safety and Defense (OCSD). The OCSD is a federal umbrella agency that has subsumed major bureaucracies such as the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and presumably even the Centers for Disease Control. Careen and Tommy have discovered the director of this super agency and his cronies are plotting to use terrorism as a cover to drug the general population under the pretense of inoculating them against biological warfare.LawsonResist,1

Set in the near future (15 years from current day), the Resistance Series explores the loss of freedom that can creep up on individuals and society through incremental changes that seem small but loom large over time. As Lawson says: “In the Resistance Series, there has been no rebellion, no cataclysmic event. The dystopian world in which they live has been created by fear, engineered by an enemy masquerading as a protector.” The premise is scary enough, and remarkably rooted in modern events and policies, as the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and leaked classified information on domestic and international spying remind us.

The setting and premise could easily lend itself to an adult thriller by Michael Crichton, but Lawson’s series is firmly rooted in the young adult/new adult genre. The action is faster, and the story carries a syncopated beat that lends itself to the pace of a YA trilogy, not unlike the Hunger Games. In fact, like Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne, the protagonists are older teens who are simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Rather than the post-apocalyptic setting of Panem, in which the vast majority of the population lives in servitude to the Capitol, Lawson’s protagonists are recent high-school graduates focused on the normal current-day activities of enrolling in college and participating in sports. Only an unanticipated series of small events leads them to discover the sinister plot to turn the nation into a mass of compliant citizens under the thumbs of politically powerful bureaucrats. In this way, Lawson’s series is very much grounded in another characteristic of the YA genre: everyday young adults forced to make significant life decisions without the luxury of experience or preparation. Not surprisingly, both Counteract and Resist tend to be plot- and setting-driven stories although the characters have an opportunity to flesh out in important ways in the second book.

Lawson,CounteractMy review of Counteract compared Lawson’s novel to 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian story the coined the term Big Brother and wrestled with government over reach, the tyranny of collectivism, and the implications for freedom. About halfway through Resist, I couldn’t stop thinking about the novels of Ayn Rand, especially her 1937 novella Anthem. In Anthem, Rand tells the story of a Equality 7-2521, a person who lives in a community in which individuality has been purged from the formal institutions of society. A Council of Vocations assigns jobs to people based on what they determine is their Life Mandate. The story follows Equality’s evolution into an individual as he discovers his natural inquisitiveness and intelligence leads him to innovate and produce. Through unregulated exploration, he discovers the word “I” and finds freedom.

Resist, fortunately, is not nearly as abstract as Anthem, making it much more suitable for YA audiences. It’s relentless focus on personal freedom and the right to live independently of the government is strong and tightly woven into the plot, and the action keeps the reader engaged. More importantly, however, as the characters develop, we see in Resist the makings of a trilogy that provokes readers in ways that more popular genre fiction doesn’t. Katniss Everdeen, for example, remains remarkably apolitical through the trilogy despite bearing witness to extraordinary oppression.AnthemBookCover

Lawson has the refreshing courage to push her characters to act and take responsibility for their actions. They don’t just bear witness. They recognize and accept the responsibilities that come with the knowledge they gain. And they act. Thus, unlike other YA fare, the Resistance Series admirably challenges its readers to ask themselves “What would you do?” and explores the implications of acting on those decisions.

For those looking for an engaging, YA adventure/thriller with strong pro-personal liberty themes, the Resistance Series should have a highly visible place in their book case or on their e-reader.

 

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Tracy Lawson’s dystopian “Resist” challenges, engages

When Tracy Lawson published Counteract, her first novel in the Resistance Series (now with 41 reviews, including one by me!), I let out a breath of fresh air. I think dystopian thrillers are at their best when they are challenging conventional ideas about our role as individuals in society or the role institutions such as government play. (See Claire Staley’s take on the unrecognized depth in young-adult literature here, and my take in the context of The Hunger Games here and my short video here.) These are themes that really play out in my books, most clearly in Tortuga Bay, which will be released on September 5, 2015.LawsonResist,1

Tracy’s story, featuring college students Careen and Tommy as star-crossed lovers, did a great job, in my view, of really pushing against conventional ideas in thought provoking but entertaining ways. This is a dystopian series for our times.

Set in the “near” future, the Resistance Series, is squarely in the dystopian science fiction genre. Careen and Tommy discover that the government’s plan to inoculate the general public with a vaccine to combat biological warfare is actually an attempt to control the population. They stumble across the plan, and end up joining the resistance. It’s remarkably plausible and right in tune with modern controversies such as the federal government’s secret spying on Americans in the name of national security. My longer review can be found here.

Lawson,CounteractResist is the second in the series, and it promises to be even better crafted and better paced. In future posts, I will feature an interview with Tracy and provide a more detailed review of the book itselt. In the meantime, check out Resist on amazon. Better yet, buy it, it’s well worth the $3.99. Resist is an entertaining read and, in many ways, more thought provoking and deeper than the Hunger Games and other young-adult dystopian fare.

Here’s what Tracy has to say about the story in the second book:

“Being part of the Resistance presents them with new challenges. Not everyone working for change will prove trustworthy, and plans to spark revolution go awry with consequences greater than they could’ve imagined. Tommy and Careen’s relationship is tested when their philosophical differences and the pressures of interpersonal rivalries and jealousy put a strain on their romance. Can they make time for each other while trying to start a revolution?”

I’ll posting more on this series in the near future. For now, bravo, Tracy Stone Lawson!

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Pirates, Aliens, and Cats, Oh My!

I will be signing copies of the Pirate of Panther Bay, St. Nic, Inc, A Warrior’s Soul, and Renegade at My Favorite Books in Tallahassee on Saturday, July 18, 2015, from 11 am to 1 pm. If you are in town, come out and join me as I talk about these books and others, including the forthcoming Tortuga Bay.June2015-signing

 

I will be joined by Bruce Ballister, the author of Dreamland Diaries and Orion’s Light. These popular sci-fi novels are great for young adults and adults, and Bruce’s stories are characterized as “science fiction with a southern accent.”

 

We will be joined by Chris Widdop, author of Velcro: The Ninja Kat and Velcro: The Green Lion. Check out Chris’s blog for insights into popular culture and media, including timely movie reviews. Need I say more?

I’ve not met Chris before, but he lists Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Interstellar among his top five movies for 2014. I think we’ll get along well.

Don’t forget to visit my updated website for the newest news!

See you on Saturday!

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