Tag Archives: film review

Hotel Artemis Struggles at Check In

Hotel Artemis seems to have everything it needs to be a successful film but manages to fall flat anyway. Why is a bit of a mystery. The movie has a strong cast, and the characters should have enough back story to create compelling arcs that drive the movie’s momentum.

The slapdash backstory doesn’t help. The movie is set in riot-torn Los Angeles in 2018. Water has been shut off by the private contractor in charge of the water supply, although the reason is never explained. Gangs seem to run unchecked. Riot police patrol the streets keeping the mobs at bay. The city has imposed a curfew to quell the violence.  The city utility cuts off electricity at seeming random points. This dystopian activity is supposed to provide a setting that creates tension and conflict. It doesn’t in part because the story’s internal logic is never quite explained. Continue reading

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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.

Continue reading

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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/

 

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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.

 

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

Five not so obvious things to love about the movie Wonder Woman

I am not a comic book or superhero fan, preferring more down-to-Earth characters facing situations that are more real world than fantasy. Yet, Wonder Woman is an excellent movie, one of my favorites so far in 2017 (see my movie review here).

For many, the strong female character is a big benefit, and I agree. As a novelist who features strong female characters in all my books, I found Wonder Woman’s emphasis on a strong, multidimensional character gratifying and long overdue. I attribute this to the directorial prowess of Patty Jenkins as well as the charisma and strength of Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role.

But Wonder Women distinguishes itself on several other dimensions as well. Here are five not-so-obvious elements to love about the film.

  1. Diana is a woman that kicks butt. And I mean a woman. She is not a woman dressed up as a man, competing with men on their terms. Perhaps the backstory of a race of Amazon women helps, but the writers have written her in as a strong female character. Her worldview is gendered female, albeit amazons are a warrior race. Wonder Woman, however, doesn’t rely on strength to defeat her enemies—a typically male response. Rather, she uses her tools, whether the “Lasso of Truth,” impermeable bracelets, or her shield. This is a refreshing acknowledgement of real differences between men and women, yet the story does not drive home a sense of superiority of one gender over the other. Rather, as a multidimensional woman, Diana brings a different perspective. She also brings a level of compassion to her warrior mission that adds layers and sophistication. (Some may argue that the compassionate element of her personality reflects a gender stereotype. I believe in fact it shows a human dimension that is not unique to either gender but manifests itself in different ways based on Diana’s background as an Amazon.)
  2. Combat choreography. The hand-to-hand combat sequences show a physical and emotional level of skill that is rare among actors and an attention to detail and fluidity unusual for Western filmmakers. As someone who studies martial arts (To-Shin Do ninjutsu), I appreciated the attention given to these details because it adds an authenticity to the actions of the characters and the plot. The interpersonal combat sequences reflect real combat techniques that can plausibly create the physical effects they intend to project (although, as in all action films, they are exaggerated for the camera and enhanced with special effects). Gal Gadot’s two years of military service as a combat trainer in the Israeli army no doubt adds to this authenticity. She know how to throw a punch and kick, the camera does a great job of capturing these maneuvers, and the director has used special effects such as slow motion to emphasize them as an integrated part of the action.
  3. The special effects are scaled. I still remembered being bored as I watched one of the Superman films as New York City (or was it Tokyo…or Chicago…or….?) was being decimated for no apparent reason other than to “wow” audiences with special effects. The effects did not move the story forward in any meaningful way—they were just showing a good guy and a bad guy throwing punches to see who would persevere and be left standing at the end. Jenkins, however, has scaled the effects in Wonder Woman to reflect the place and context of the scene and character. While we see and experience wild explosions and other fantastical elements, they don’t overwhelm the story or the characters.
  4. Seamless blending of an international cast. Gal Gadot is Israeli, Connie Inge-Lise Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta) is Danish, Elena Anaya (Isabella Maru) is Spanish, Chris Pine (Steve Trevor) is American, Robin Wright (General Antiope) is American, and David Thewlis (Ares) is British, and they all have accents. They also come from different cultures with different nuances about how to relate and interact with the different people as groups and individuals. Cultural unfamiliarity can often interfere with creating on-screen chemistry as the acting becomes wooden, formal, and less personal. The interpersonal connection is crucial to create believable relationships. The blend works in Wonder Woman, unlike other films (e.g., most recently Kong: Skull Island and the Great Wall). The director embraced their differences, and didn’t force a familiarity that might have been difficult to orchestrate. The screenplay artfully creates interplay among characters that embraces the differences and uses human to emphasize contrasts in perspective or cultural norms that further the development of the characters and story. (For example, one of many humorous scenes in Wonder Woman involves Diana walking in on Captain Steve Trevor as his is bathing naked.)
  5. A woman directed the big budget, superhero action film. Okay, this is obvious. But the significance of the trust the studios put in Patty Jenkins, and her ability to deliver a high quality superhero action film, should not be underestimated. This is a threshold event, probably more significant that Kathryn Bigelow’s success with war/thriller The Hurt Locker in 2008. Bigelow was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director and the film won for best picture. I would not be surprised if Wonder Woman is nominated for Best Picture and Jenkins is nominated for Best Director. While the film is likely not strong enough to win Best Picture, Jenkins’ directing may well make her a favorite for Best Director.

Unfortunately, Wonder Woman is marred by a few significant plot holes and inconsistencies early on the film. But those will be the subject of another blog post. In the meantime, Wonder Woman is an excellent, engaging, and sophisticated action film that deserves in commercial success as the box office and the acclaim it has received from critics.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....

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.

Like what your read? We'll make it easy for you to share....