Category Archives: Minimalist Reviews

Capote, a film by Bennett Miller

Austere, brilliantly-acted, and full of contrast

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman once again demonstrates his acting mastery in this biopic about Truman Capote during the writing of his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood—the book that defined Capote’s career. In fact, Hoffman brings the character so much to life that one can’t help but feel that he is more “Capote” than Capote himself.

But existential debate aside, Hoffman fills the role naturally and without artificial affect as he portrays a character unlike any other in his repertoire. It paid off: Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance.movie poster for philip seymour hoffman's masterfully acted movie Capote

The idea of “In Cold Blood” permeates Capote as it progresses in a reserved but naturalistic and non-distractedly spare manner with patient, steady pacing. A heavily restrained earth-tone color palette paints a stark picture supported by a similarly spare soundtrack that is at times cool and unmelodious, at other times contrasting with a tender piano score to complement the idea of human emotion and sympathy.

But the austere tone of the film is also counter-balanced with an interesting theme of humanizing the inhuman—a task the source material handles exceedingly well. The book itself (In Cold Blood) explores the human aspects of even the most cold-blooded acts of cruelty.

The plot focuses on the relationship between the ambitious but friendly and persuasive Capote and the accused murderer Perry Smith. As the story develops, the film draws clever and subtle parallels between their emerging friendship on the surface and the contrasting desires nested within: Capote’s search for book material and Perry’s heartless desires for self-gratification.

Perry’s full sociopathy finally surfaces toward the end once the veils are cast aside to reveal the harsh but ultimately human truth that lies beneath. The sequence portraying Perry’s confession illustrates this best, climatically depicting the heartbreaking humanity inherent in his brutality.

What could they have done better?

While the film demonstrates excellence in many regards, the story does have a few areas that could have been improved.

1. Where’s the Other Killer?

The book In Cold Blood depicts Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as a pair of cold-blooded killers—Dick coming across as particularly unfeeling and brutal compared to the warmth exhibited by Perry. While Dick is included in the film, his character lacks meaningful presence. Sure, the heart of Capote centers around the Truman’s relationship with Perry, but that doesn’t excuse his absence, particularly because Dick’s character provides an incredible opportunity to draw further contrast between the humanness of Perry and Dick’s inhumanness.

2. Act Three Pacing

The slow and steady pacing works for the film…except in the final act. Capote builds up the potential to push toward a riveting climax, but instead falls into the typical biopic pitfall of slowing down to end on a low note. Capote’s third act slows down an already andante step even more, practically to the point of boredom.

Still, all-in-all, a film worth seeing, particularly if you are fan of either Truman Capote or Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

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The Place Beyond the Pines, a film by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond the Pines is a Hollywood rarity. Theme is the driving force here, not plot, saturating every layer of the film. Cycles and cyclical imagery abound. At its core, Beyond the Pines is about how boys become their fathers, even if they consciously set out on different paths.

Essentially three short films in one (connected through a thematic father/son through-line), the movie proves itself through uncanny execution of what could easily have been a forgettable snapshot in time. The extraordinary directorial vision makes use of perspective and point of view to create a three-dimensional world, elevating a simple genre story into a filmic experience.beyond the pines 50

Visually gritty and visceral, the film is aglow with light and textures of color. Breathtaking cinematography makes use of the rich, the dramatic, and the crisp to capture the feel of vintage film stock. A slow, relaxed introduction to the story paints each scene as a thoughtful, ponderous photograph. But this pacing is double-edged, making the film feel a bit too slow and ponderous at times.

One thing is certain: The storytellers truly know character. Populating the cast with coarse, realistic individuals that feel genuine and real, each and every character comes across flawed and human. Excellent acting rounds out the characters with additional depth. The multiple protagonists can be jarring—as each new handoff brings instant change in tone—but ultimately serving to contrast or parallel the protagonists’ families.

What could they have done better?

1. Too Many Films

More than anything, this should have been two films. The first, an atmospheric short. The second, an interesting failed experiment. Although connected thematically and as a way to span generations of fathers and sons, a short opening sequence could solve that issue without making the film feel overlong. Granted, this would impact the Cianfrance’s audacious vision. But we are addressing story, not vision.

2. Act Two Pacing / Direction

Being thematically-driven, the act two development section feels as though it lacks forward direction at times. Creating a more clearly motivated end-point for characters in this section would have helped keep the pace from lagging. Cutting a few scenes to be shorter with less navel-gazing is another tried-and-true solution to a lull in pacing.

3. Extend Act One Meticulousness

The first act feels meticulously groomed, refined, and executed, making the other acts pale by comparison. During the script development phase, the writing team could have extended the tone and attention to story from act one to the rest of the film. Once in the editing room, however, the solution lies—believe it or not—in editing.

While Beyond the Pines may not be perfect, it is anything but another lobotomized Hollywood clone, but rather, a thoughtful observation of human behavior. If you’re a cinephile who loves mood and character and you’re in search of an experience that’s more complex and dense than your everyday summer flick, be sure to check it out.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

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MST3K: The Return, a Minimalist Review

While fans of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) are either loving or hating The Return  (read: Netflix “reboot”), its reception elsewhere is much more lukewarm. Starring Jonah Ray,  Hampton Yount as the voice of Crow T. Robot,  and Baron Vaughn as the voice of Servo (also known for his role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie),  The Return goes back to the old Joel Hodgson formula, complete with the much-loved invention exchange.mst3k_thereturn

Slipping into the roles of this trailblazing trio is Jonah Ray,  whose serviceable performance as an average but not-so-average guy lacks the humble charm of his predecessors, and yet manages to come across as rather likable after an episode or two. Patton Oswalt repeatedly demonstrates his performance to be the most well-acted role in the whole show and a welcome inheritor of TV’s Frank role as the evil bumbling sidekick.

But it’s the robots that stand out most. Like Jonah, as characters they are pretty bland with undifferentiated behaviors, jokes, and even voices (it’s easy to confuse the three voices in the darkened theater). Their personalities are essentially interchangeable, making them feel underdeveloped and gimmicky, like caricatures of the originals. Even Gypsy (previously voiced by Jim Mallon), whose role as the somewhat mentally slower robot sibling, is not exempt. Altering her voice from “funny” to “young and sexy” strips her character of one her most defining feature.

The show launches with a rocky start. Its series opener aims below cheesy for the disappointing sub-adequate mark. Jokes range from fair to good, rarely great. By the second episode the team finds their riffing groove and the comedy becomes relatively smooth sailing from there on out.

That said, Jonah and the bots carry a heavy torch in following up the comical adeptness of MST3K’s original cast. While it may be hard to live up to the legendary Joel, Mike, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (let alone the powerhouse trio of Mike-Kevin-Bill, now of RiffTrax fame), even they did not start out as comedy all-stars. But with a little time and practice, maybe they will one day surpass the originals.

For many, the magic is in the freshness of seeing new MST3K episodes for the very first time. Or perhaps it is watching as one of the greatest cinematic experiences in living memory passes onto a new generation while also stoking the dormant coals of that beautiful old nostalgia.

What’s the conclusion for this Minimalist Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return?

Meh.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

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The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a Minimalist Review

Brenda Hampton’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a TV show, in that it has characters with their own personalities, desires, coming into conflict with each other within a plot of sorts. However, it is hardly more than that.

TheSecretLifeoftheAmericanTeenagerWhile the overall storyline plays out like an immature daytime soap, characters and conversations give the impression that the show is being written by a sheltered 14 year old virgin guessing at how adults and teenagers must act in the “real” world, with limited understanding about relationships and the facts of life. The end result is a weird demonization of sex that confuses hormones, love and lust in ways that are inaccurate, misleading and downright harmful. If teenagers are using this show as a guide to navigating their teen years, they will be in for a considerable shock.

Episode plots are absurdly repetitive, so skipping 1 or 5 episodes results in landing on the exact same issues you left on. Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.

Despite being set in Los Angeles–one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US–the cast is almost entirely white, with one representative couple for each other ethnicity. But even those groups are played as “white” for all intents and purposes.

Character arcs rarely surprise as they take on predictable lines. The principals tend to fall back into the same issues repeatedly. The main female lead proves herself the most heinous of the bunch, acting selfish, petty, demanding and spoiled to the point where she ends up as a sort of villain to her supporting cast. If you want to a watch a show where nearly every character ranges from unlikable to downright loathsome, you’ve come to the right place.

While the characters themselves are rather well-formed, their dialogue seems to be written by someone who has never heard of subtext…or a thesaurus. The collective ensemble ends up wielding a combined vocabulary equivalent to that of a single 10 year old.

To sum up…

The Secret Life is one of the worst television shows to survive more than one season on the air, let alone a mind-boggling five. It is a show that exists for reasons beyond reason. If any script from this show came across my desk for analysis, it would have been an easy PASS/PASS.

Rating: 1.5/5

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Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

Hannibal, a film by Ridley Scott

Hannibal, aka “Ridley ScottDavid Mamet and Steven Zaillian make a stinker.” Drawing on the original characters and ideas of Silence of the Lambs, this sequel makes a paper mache mockery of the original, turning stellar characters into shallow caricatures of themselves, and in so doing, forgets to provide an adequate story. Plot is weak, advancing little over the second act from frivolous scenes of fan service and obvious filler. The film has to go out of his way to inject horror into this non-story, and does so in a way that seems almost amateurish and outdated.Movie poster for Hannibal, a 2001 film by Ridley Scott

Worst of all? It’s BORING.

The main characters spend most of the film pining away for each other and very little else. Emphasizing the Hannibal-Starling love story serves as a through-line for the film, but is not strong enough on its own to carry the story, and ends up feeling repetitive and tired. Lack of dimensions in the characters exacerbate the issue. Agent Starling has very little to do with the film except as an opener and an agent in the closing sequence of the film. Julianne Moore handles her role well considering the cardboard she was given to act with.

The writers attempt to portray Hannibal with the elegance and sophisticated depth found Silence of the Lambs but fail to do more than put up a poor façade sorely lacking in both content and depth, although Anthony Hopkins’s voice and some large words try to obscure the fact. With his complexity grossly reduced, the audience is left with a weak story and artificial horror.

In short, Hannibal lacks the artistic vision and execution of the original, making it just another slapdash horror movie. Unless you’re a fan of the genre…don’t waste your time. Check out Red Dragon instead.

Rating: 2 / 5

The Shadow of the Torturer, a science fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer is a science fantasy novel written by Gene Wolfe. A favorite among fantasy fans for decades and the first in the series The Book of the New Sun, it is usually forgotten in lieu of its later descendants…and for good reason.

Shadow’s only saving grace is its highly literary writing style which is polished and masterfully executed. However, that is the only good thing to be said about this book. This reviewer can’t help but wondMinimalist Review of science fantasy novel Shadow of the Torturer book by Gene Wolfeer how many people were blinded into thinking this book belongs on the shelf of greatness due to its excellent writing style and not for its merits of storytelling, of which mastery is entirely absent. In fact, the technical elements of the story are so poorly handled that it feels written by a first time amateur who doesn’t know what he is doing.

The Shadow of the Torturer starts with the idea that an insular guild of torturers produce sheltered individuals who do poorly when dealing with reality and the outside world. But that’s as far as the story goes with it. From there, the plot devolves into a masturbatory wandering through a directionless plot that has little to do with the story’s setup. Its gimmicky ending cuts the story off mid-action without ever deciding what the story is going to be about or without any type of conclusion. The only connective tissue between the first and second parts of the story is a long-winded setup for the explosive mess that follows it.

Exposition is delivered in an unskilled, forced manner. World-building lore and history rarely pertains to the plot or the events at hand. At one point the main character asks his companion if she would like to hear a story and she turns him down, so he TELLS IT ANYWAY. OUT LOUD. TO HIMSELF.

The world in which the story is set is simple, inorganic and incomplete to the point that it is difficult to get a grasp on its sociological elements. Its neatly containered societies are too neat and easy, the cultures being completely non-present in day-to-day life. The author introduces new concepts seemingly to just introduce them. Rarely do these concepts become relevant to the story and even more rarely do their setups have any payoffs.

Although several thematic elements establish themselves early—presumably for a thoughtful exploration later on— no such examination ever takes place. Even the title, The Shadow of the Torturer, promises a wealth of thematic material as a central spine but fails to deliver in any form.

What passes for characters in Shadow are more akin to two-dimensional sheets of gray paper than actual living, breathing beings. Their complete lack of depth or imagination can be seen in the way they react like vague clichés of characters borrowed from the 1940s pulp era. And while several characters are presented with interesting setups, none of their story arcs ever deliver a meaningful payoff.

The main character is the only exception to the rule. His inner emotional life is visceral and effective, and certain details of his person add interesting dimensions to his character, such as his perfect memory. But ultimately even these facets of his character serve no purpose in advancing or enriching the story.

The protagonist lacks a strong motivation or drive to seek his goal. He spends most of his time falling into the company of characters unrelated to the main through-line and letting them direct him from one pointless task to another, consuming nearly two-thirds of the book in nonsense shenanigans and depriving the reader of a more substantial experience. Finally, most (if not all) of the inter-character relationships play out to like juvenile wish fulfillment subplots of the protagonist, and not relationships of believability or value.

Granted, The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in a cycle of four, all of which were written and completed before Shadow was published, so many of the issues that arise in the first book are likely (read: hopefully) addressed in others. In fact, the vast majority of the fanatical acclaim associated Shadow groups it with other books from the series and not as a standalone. However, being part of an award-winning series does not excuse the story from lacking the basic ability to stand on its own.

The Shadow of the Torturer has received much praise over the years. It is sad to think that such a poorly-crafted novel has been so lauded, as if the genres of fantasy, science fantasy and speculative fiction were so sorely lacking for quality content that Shadow stands above the rest as a mark of excellence. It is also interesting to note that while the book is worshiped as sacred and sacrosanct, seldom do adherents actually say WHAT is so good about it, probably because evidence is remarkably scant.

An interesting read for the curious mind and perhaps of significant importance to those willing to read the entire series, but for this reader the experience was nothing less than infuriating.

Rating: 2 / 5