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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has to go out of his way to inject horror into this non-story, and does so in a way that seems almost amateurish and outdated.Movie poster for Hannibal, a 2001 film by Ridley Scott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

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

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

Blue Gender, an animated series by Ryosuke Takahashi and Koichi Ohata

by James Gilmore

In an attempt to branch out in review material, Blue Gender is this blog’s first Minimalist Review of a TV series—a Japanese anime TV series at that.

Movie poster for Blue Gender, a Japanimation series by Ryosuke Takahashi and Koichi Ohata, on Minimalist Reviews.

Seemingly inspired by another anime series called Neon Genesis Evangelion (and occasionally approaching near plagiarism of it), this 26-episode animated series proves to be an incredibly dark, violent and gory sci-fi that is externally centered around a chosen few individuals who pilot exoskeleton suits (read: big robots) to fight off a global alien invasion. Internally, the story is about one individual trying to find his purpose in a seemingly pointless existence.

Although the series stays afloat with decent execution, it suffers from numerous logic holes, a unique but blunted concept (a directorial issue, see below), and a bloated, inefficient plot spread too thinly over 26 episodes. Even though it improves somewhat over time, the whole series still feels two episodes longer than is necessary. The plot is sometimes too predictable due to directorial shortcomings in dramatizing big reveals, even if they do occur on cue in a solid over-arching structure. The underlying emotional/relationship content remains adequate for the genre but could have been taken much further given its powerful seeds. Barely worth mentioning is the all-too-frequent laughable dialogue and occasional clips of unnecessary nudity (justified as “fan service,” which is typical of the anime supergenre).

Despite its numerous shortcomings, Blue Gender remains coherent, well structured, directed, animated and characterized, ultimately leading to a surprisingly entertaining end result, even if the commendable main character has a habit of becoming irritating a little too often. Testaments to the series’ impressive visuals are its gruesome imagery, realistic future technology, intimidating foes and intense battle sequences, most notable in the first six episodes. Most striking of all is the uniquely remarkable soundtrack which combines dirty grunge and dark choral with the experimental.

In the end, Blue Gender is worth a look for those into adult sci-fi series featuring an alien invasions, big robots and wholesale slaughter.

Rating: 2 / 5