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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 Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.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

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

Conan the Barbarian, a film by Marcus Nispel

By James Gilmore

Don’t go into Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian expecting an expert remake of the 1982 classic by John Milius. You won’t get it.

The 2011 Conan is an action-soaked bonanza without any pretense at storytelling depth.  Nispel bombards our senses through an orgy of stylization and violence in an attempt to mask its slender content, but no amount of polished veneer can obscure the shallowness beneath.  The storytelling is clumsy and repetitive at best, hyper-extending itself to stretch a thin 60-minute perfunctory plot over two painstaking hours in an endless string of action vignettes in which the audience is whisked through time and space to a number of noncontiguous historical eras.

(Let’s not mention the fact that the acting and poorly written dialogue are enough to make you want to run for the hills.)

Movie poster for Conan the Barbarian remake 2011, a film by Marcus Nispel, on Minimalist Reviews.

Visually, Conan is a gruesome mishmash of every other fantasy film ever made, numerous elements being ripped almost directly out of better, more fulfilling constituents of the genre (which shall remain unnamed).

As for the character Conan, he is barely a character at all.  Employing the oft-overused-in-Hollywood cliché as his template, this impetuous hot-headed central character is more an excuse to paste the screen with gore than a true protagonist.

The only accomplishment worth lauding Conan for is the duping of Hollywood into spending $70 million on what is essentially an expensive-looking B movie.  And Hollywood executives wonder why audiences won’t pay up at the box office to see piles of sugar-coated poo…

(Meanwhile, thousands of excellent scripts waste away on shelves, unread.)

So if you’re up to stuffing a handful of dollar bills down the garbage disposal or want to watch actors don ridiculous costumes and douse each other in fake blood for an evening, pick up a copy of Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian.  If you are a fan of his kitschy horror resumethen you will probably take this bloated little number in stride.

Otherwise, see aforementioned garbage disposal.

Rating:  1.5 / 5

Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, a novel by Jules Verne

By James Gilmore

Among the great works of literature by Jules Verne are such classics as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island.  What you will not find nested among those works is a novel called Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon (La Jangada is the original title)—and for good reason.  One wouldn’t be so surprised at the quality (or lack thereof) of the novel had it been Jules Verne’s first attempt at the craft, but it mystifyingly appears at the very heart of his career alongside the greats.

Book cover for Eight Hundred Leages on the Amazon, a novel by Jules Verne, on Minimalist Reviews.

Despite pretense of adventure, 800 Leagues is for all intents and purposes a family melodrama with only trace amounts of “adventure.”  The novel is a dull read and hardly believable.  Sorely lack in conflict, the text is often insultingly redundant, the author reiterating known facts in such a fashion that the reader can’t help but feel like he is trying to fill space in a balloon filled with hot hair.  This effectively reduces the pacing of the novel to that of a dying snail.  The linear, predictable story submarines the uneventful plot with rare exception.  Any changes in the story occur entirely by means of deus ex machinae, which leaves the hands of the characters out of events almost entirely, save one or two instances, scuttling their raison d’être.

Overshadowing the weak dramatic impact of the book is the fact that it reads like a pedantic love letter to the Amazon River, like a wan excuse to wax poetic about this illustrious body of moving water.  Although informative, it reduces the novel’s literary value to a mere historical survey of Amazonian river tribes who would cease to exist a century later.

The characters in the novel tend to be shallow in depth and over dramatic.  The antagonist is the most interesting and compelling of the cast.  Unfortunately, his presence is minimal.

Despite some interesting tangents concerning facts about the Amazon River and a few florid descriptions, the novel is thin, flat, artificially contrived and obvious.

A caution to all who tread here: Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon is Jules Verne’s worst.  Despite a 5-star rating (from 2 reviews) on Amazon.com at the time of this writing, place this novel on your list of “books to avoid at all costs.”  Feel free to sample the free Kindle book (if you dare).

Rating: 1.5 / 5