Tag Archives: film reviews

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

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Movie Review: A United Kingdom

I take an in-depth look at the very well acted British film A United Kingdom in my most recent movie review at the Independent Institute.  The story highlights the romance and marriage between Sir Seretse Kama III, the heir to the throne of what would become Botswana, to Ruth Williams, an English white, working class woman in 1948.

The marriage touched off an international firestorm in colonial Bechuanaland (now Botswana) as well as in the United Kingdom, and ultimately resulted in their exile. The movie features fine performances by David Oyelowo (SelmaThe Butler) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another DayGone GirlPride & Prejudice).

The story is a powerful tale of love and international intrigue firmly based in real-world events. Director Amma Asanta does a fine turn for the story by depicting a layered understanding of how race and racism played into the politics of post-War colonialism as well as African desires for independence.

Critics have given a thumbs up to the movie although I think it falters a bit. It simply tries to do too much. Ruth Williams Kama was a force in her own right, and she doesn’t get her full due in A United Kingdom. She deserves her own cinematic treatment as a European facing the struggles of living in a hostile culture and climate while trying to gain acceptance within the traditions of her husband’s tribe.

The Kama’s story would also be worthy of a sequel to A United Kingdom. Plenty of drama can be found in Seretse Kama’s fight for an independent Bechuanaland, which became a reality in 1966 with the founding of Botswana.

My complete review can be found here.

A commentary linking the economic success of Botswana to Seretse (and Ruth) Kama’s political and economic liberalism can be found in the Tallahassee Democrat or here.

 

 

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Review: Logan shows superhero action movies can also have soul

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to fix Jack Reacher

jack_reacher_never_go_back_posterI 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 GloryLegends 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.

  1. Production values & artistic scope. Overall, the film didn’t have anything that pushed the envelop. The cinematography was state of the industry, but not state of he art. In leading action films such as Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne, technology is used to augment action sequences. Creative editing slows or hastens the pace. The camera shots engage the viewer with different angles and perspectives to illuminate motivation, create suspense, and immerse the viewer. I didn’t see much of this creative use of standard film tools and techniques in Never Go Back. It was yoeman’s work, for sure, but not much beyond it.
  2. Plot, internal consistency & composition The plot wasn’t particularly creative;
    “good guy, but flawed, cop uncovers duplicitous arms dealer” is a pretty worn concept. Buddy rescue stories are also pretty common. The fact that the new boss of Reacher’s old unit is a woman (Turner) might have been innovative in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 2010s it’s almost cliche. Similarly, the emotional threat of a family member being used to derail the good guy cop is also pretty common (remember Lethal Weapon?). Reacher is a drifter and loner, much like old western heroes, and being tied down by an unwanted child is also a familiar plot device (recall True GritShane, etc.). While the story had an internal consistency—few loose ends left around at the end—its plot and composition were pretty stale. Also, the subplot of the uncertainty about paternity seemed contrived to add some humanity to the hardened soldier turned outlaw. In part this was necessary because Major Turner could pretty much take care of herself. So, some character had to be vulnerable, and that ended up being the teenager that might be Reacher’s daughter. She was never fully integrated as an essential element of the plot.
  3. Story plausibility and dialogue. Okay, this is a bit of a stretch for action films—they are almost always implausible—but my assessments are put in the context of the genre. The dialogue was straightforward without nuance in Jack Reacher. The banter was standard and straightforward, with little wit; Audiences weren’t asked to interpret much beyond what was said by the actors. In fact, I found very little in the way of compelling visual storytelling, in contrast to other similar films such as Deepwater Horizon and Jason Bourne. What makes cinema different from literary forms is the ability to show character and emotion through facial expressions, physical action, and reactions to events and other people without resorting to dialogue to tell the story. Visuals substitute for literary description. The actors were asked to do little more than straightforward acting in the film.
  4. Context in terms of genre. The film’s plot is relevant to the action film genre. After all, the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan, and those weapons can easily be diverted. But the story doesn’t unfold in a creative way. The theft of arms is a standard plot for military television series such as NCIS or JAG. The theme simply is transported onto the big screen in a formulaic way. Even adding a corrupt inside guy n the military isn’t presented in an innovative or creative way.
  5. Entertainment & audience engagement. Never Go Back was entertaining, but it didn’t keep me engaged evenly throughout the film. If I had received a phone call or text message, I would have been willing to leave the theater to take it believing I wouldn’t miss much by the time I returned. In part, this is because the film was predictable and lacked imagination. This movie could have easily gone straight to DVD and saved for late night parties for your teenager.
  6. Character depth & arc. None of the characters really grow. At the end of the film, Major Turner is redeemed and goes back to her job running Reacher’s old unit. She is restored to her position rather than given new responsibilities, and her relationship with Reacher is not significantly deepened. Reacher goes back on the road, taking up his vigilante lifestyle, and the girl goes back to school (albeit this time living with her real mother who has cleaned up her act). Ironically, its the teenager—Samantha—that grows the most. She realizes the truth about Reacher, develops true feelings for him, but takes on a more mature and adult role as daughter to her mother. Unfortunately, Reacher and Turner on the leads in the movie, not the girl.
  7. Social message & relevance. The film has virtually no social relevance or meaningful message, except that Jack Reacher might not forsake the child he may have fathered. The film ends with Samantha giving Reacher a phone for him to contact her, but he doesn’t embrace the new relationship. Similarly, showing bad guys as bad guys doesn’t really advance our understanding of human nature, or reveal new ways of looking at human relationships. It’s all standard formula action movie fodder.

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.

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