Category Archives: Minimalist Reviews

Red State, a film by Kevin Smith

Red State (2011) is Kevin Smith’s first and only derivation from his View Akewniverse, and probably for good reason. Smith skillfully creates an authentic world filled with realism in violence and characters devoid of true white hats while successfully avoiding the heavy rambling dialogue of his prior work. And while the atmosphere, acting and mise-en-scene are superbly imparted, the film ultimately suffers as a soaking mess in terms of plot and structure.

red state movie poster for minimalist review of the movie film Red State by Kevin SmithFascinating characters are the heart and soul of Red State. Smith seamlessly shifts the focus between central cast members without disrupting the plot. Minimal effort is required to reveal the rich inner lives of the characters (which is to be expected, given his prior work), even though there are “few redeeming characters” (filmmaker’s words).

Smith’s use of unknown actors lends gravity to the authenticity of the film, but this decision is a double-edged sword, making the introduction of famous actor John Goodman halfway through the film jarringly intrusive. Had his character been introduced at the 17 or 30 minute mark (or even as the protagonist) this could have been averted.

While Goodman’s performance proved to be one of the least interesting in the whole film, actor Michael Parks portrays his character with absolute brilliance. His performance is perfectly and fully realized, charismatic, and utterly entrancing, the true gem of the film.

While the director demonstrates his usual strength as a character-oriented storyteller he also describes his grave lack of ability in plot development. The story is handled clumsily, going out of its way to draw Waco parallels at the expense of an organic plot. In a failed attempt at richness, Smith fails to juggle multiple storylines, each being underdeveloped and poorly communicated, the confused cluster finally crashing into a smoking heap by the end. Other problems stem from this failure, such as numerous payoffs with no accompanying setups (including a key piece in the plot’s final moments), frivolous character deaths, and far too little much “telling” through monologues instead of “showing.”

In the end, this reviewer felt that the film should have been about the cult, not the outside interlopers. More material was to be gained by doing so and would provide the audience greater understanding of each faction in the film. As it is, even the title “Red State“is an ungainly play at immature political commentary.

Rating: 2 / 5

Ender’s Game, a science fiction film by Gavin Hood

(Although we have a few comments to make regarding the film as a whole the majority of this review will be dedicated to the story’s adaptation from page to screen.)

Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game takes a science fiction classic and visualizes it with dazzling realism and originality. The opening is rough and plagued by hokey dialogue but as the story progresses it gradually comes into its own, culminating in arguably the most breathtaking climactic end battle in all of science fiction to date, although the penultimate battle scenes leading up the climax feel truncated, making the third act feel rushed. Asa Butterfield (the principal lead) delivers a performance that becomes increasingly impressive as the film progresses.

photo poster of the film ender's game by writer/director gavin hood, the minimalist review being written by james gilmore

As both writer and director, Hood impressively adapts difficult material to the silver screen, improving notable segments from the book such as the battle school sequence and simulated battles, and correlating Mazer Rackham’s final battle with Ender’s active progress during the course of the main plot.

However, some adaptation decisions were more poorly chosen, such as the near total absence of Ender’s older brother, Peter, who features so prominently in terms of theme and character development (for Ender) but is almost completely absent from the film, despite his being referenced often. As written, the character of Peter should have been omitted altogether to prevent unnecessary dilution of the plot. Also the psychologist character whose presence remains strong throughout the story is so poorly written and spouts redundant dialogue and concepts that are not illustrated in the film, especially earlier in the portions. So much more could have been done with the character to both expand and draw out Ender’s character but very little is ever utilized. The character ends up as a bloated element of fat filled with hot air.

Ender’s Game’s greatest weakness is its botched final reveal. By showing an additional point of view (an excellent adaptation choice) the filmmaker expands on the world of the story but presents the new information in a way that prematurely gives away the ending, thereby lessening the potential impact of one of the greatest reveals in science fiction history.

Despite its shortcomings, Ender’s Game is an enjoyable cinematic journey through an original world tantalizing to viewers who are fans of science fiction. Ender’s Game was adapted from the widely known novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Star Trek: Into Darkness, a film by J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams’s long anticipated sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness outdoes its predecessor in action, intensity and spectacle. Despite a running time of 2:12 (132 min) the film feels a little too short to play out the struggle between the protagonists and the main antagonist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The saturation of fan service and cross-references to other events in the Star Trek universe is an unending treat for fans of the franchise but at times detrimental, especially when it results in lines of hokey dialogue. A simple substitution of one of the film’s mindless action scenes for a short sequence to deepen character and theme development would have greatly benefited Into Darkness.

The first Star Trek took us with surprise by the acting intensity portrayed by its young cast. Into Darkness retains the same cast but fails to carry over the compelling emotional punch from its prequel. Part of this failure results from the from the disappointing script characterization of several cast members, namely Kirk, Spock, and Uhura. Benedict Cumberbatch proves the exception to this rule in his portrayal of the notorious Khan.

The biggest issue in Into Darkness is with the main antagonist, Khan. As one of the most intelligent and complex characters in the Star Trek Universe, more story and screen time oriented toward exploring the character’s intricacies is required in order for his personal journey to feel complete by the conclusion of his story arc. Instead of actually exploring the character, the story turns him into a 1-dimensional foe with no further development beyond the mid-point—a sad misappropriation of story potential. Much more could have been made of his shifting ally/enemy role as well but the film took the easy way out with his character, thereby losing both strength and depth as a result.

One of the most exciting films of the 2010s.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Starship Troopers, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein

A nearly forgotten military sci-fi classic by author Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers pushes science fiction beyond the commonplace genre novel toward the realm of literary fiction and its penchant for universal truth. By setting the story in a futuristic fictional setting, the author disassociates the book with any specific real-world war, allowing him to focus on a thorough examination of theme and moral philosophy.

Part science fiction novel, part moral essay, Starship Troopers devotes considerable time to philosophizing about the role of the soldier, the military, and the obligations of individuals in a collective society, especially to their fellow man. Drawing from the author’s own experience in the Armed Forces, Heinlein uses his well thought-out universe to constructively criticize the faults of American society through the eyes of a militaristic fascist one.

front book cover for science fiction novel Starship Troopers written by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein

The novel’s thematic backbone creates a solid skeleton through which to elegantly explore the psychology of the soldier, specifically the infantryman, as he graduates through the various phases of his career from pre-enlisted civilian through mature officer. Heinlein also explores adjacent branches of this theme tree, including the developing relationship between master and student, commander and enlisted man, and father and son. With each new step toward maturity the protagonist sees the military machine with greater discernment and understanding (the military organization being a thematic substitute for ‘the world’ because in this case the military is the protagonist’s world).

Despite being published in 1959, Starship Troopers provides the experience of reading a novel written 10 or 20 years later than its actual publication date. Unfortunately, the dated dialogue continually bursts this illusion, ever reminding us that the novel was written in the 1950s. An over-use of unnecessary dialogue hedges such as “Uh” and “Umm” at the beginning of character responses slows the pace of many scenes and takes the reader out of the world of the story.

Readers expecting heart pumping action and thrilling space battles will be sorely disappointed in Starship Troopers. Heinlein deliberately steers clear of these tropes by means of the anti-“war genre” (e.g., anti-genre) to maintain focus on his themes and the insightful exposure of a combat soldier’s psychological journey. Despite the agedness of the book, many of his philosophical ideas remain universally valid to this day.

Starship Troopers was adapted for the big screen in 1997 by writer Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Suspiria, a horror film by Dario Argento

Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria is one of the highlights from the golden age of the 1970s horror genre.

Intense in every sense of the word, Argento’s film is violent, visually vibrant and surreal with an alarmingly ear-grating soundtrack intentionally designed to set the audience’s nerves on edge. Be prepared for an experience that is both oddly immersive and abrasive to the senses.

minimalist review of dario argento's 1970s horror classic SuspiriaThe lighting, set design and shot composition are more the stars of this film than the doe-eyed lead, played by Jessica Harper, who merely drifts from one scene to the next as if led by an invisible hand.

The film’s vibrant visuals are just enough to counterbalance a feeble, sometimes nonsensical story and nonexistent character development. Some of its colorful dream-like qualities and childish dialogue make more sense when the viewer understands that portions of the film were inspired by the dreams of co-writer Daria Nicolodi, and that the script originally intended for the protagonist and her classmates to be no older than 12, but neither excuse a weak story.

Suspiria is a stunning film like no other, so be sure to put it in your canon of “must-sees” for cinematographers, art designers, filmmakers and horror buffs alongside other visually salient works like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Rating: 3 / 5

Get the Gringo, a film by Adrian Grunberg

By James Gilmore

Adrian Grunberg’s gritty tough-guy film, Get the Gringo, is a wry tongue-in-cheek action crime drama with an edgy but resourceful troublemaker for a protagonist. He is proactive and refreshingly clever, a guy who only looks out for himself in world where everyone is corrupt and everyone is out to get him.

Colorful in texture, tone and visuals, Gringo creates a palatable experience for the audience free from the dictatorial confines of the mainstream Hollywood studio system, as is evident in some of its more taboo elements and several touches of brutal violence. Characters grow out of the naturally developing, organic plotline and are inseparable from this well-told story.

Some viewers may find parts of the third act low on the believability scale but overall Gringo’s storytelling flaws are minimal.

Although the film may not aspire to deep philosophical pondering the film fulfills its goal as a solid piece of entertainment. If you are in the mood for a Friday night flick that is refreshing, stimulating and all-around entertaining, give Get the Gringo a try.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Last Airbender, a film by M. Night Shyamalan

by James Gilmore

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is nothing short of a fiasco. Watching Airbender is like watching a group of kids play make believe on a $150m budget. Of its scant virtues are a solid midpoint with an interesting twist and beautiful cinematic scenery, neither of which are enough to save this film from ridicule and oblivion.

The plot is a series of anticlimactic events wherein few sources of conflict come to a head in a do-or-die confrontation. The acting lacks any sense of urgency, even at the most critical of moments, and most of the characters appear to have only a narrow range of emotions, most of which consist of being at the brink of bursting into tears at any given moment. Further exacerbating the problem, awkward, immature dialogue is almost exclusively expository and devoid of subtext, castrating every scene of any potential emotional fortitude. Although targeted to a younger audience this does not give the filmmaker an excuse to leave out basic elements of storytelling (contrast Airbender to any Pixar film and one can see the difference is not so much a disparity as a black gaping chasm).

For a director incapable of creating fast-moving action sequences to take on an action film is certainly laudable as a challenge to Night’s filmmaking abilities, but unfortunately the result is an abysmally failed experiment. While is directorial skills remain unquestioned, he should stop writing his own material and stay away from action-oriented films as his own style caters much better to the slow-moving sequences of his earlier works.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw of Airbender is its repeated penchant for “telling” the audience about the world of the film and hardly ever “showing” it. Most of the story is revealed through expository dialogue instead of showing the audience through visual imagery. He takes “show, don’t tell” to the polar opposite, telling the audience about the movie instead of actually illustrating it for us. The oddity is so extreme that one might think there wasn’t enough time/money to finish shooting these sequences, as in the climactic battle of the classical sword-and-sandal epic Cleopatra.

Through his restrained intensity and confident subtlety, Aasif Mandvi is the acting highlight of the film and just about the only positive element in it.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a fantasy epic that falls far short of its grandiose aspirations, ultimately coming across as a very expensive B movie (like his previous film, The Happening). It’s safe to say that we won’t be expecting any blood-pumping thrillers or teen heartthrob sensations out of Shyamalan anytime soon—or ever.

Rating: 1.5 / 5