Tag Archives: 3s

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking

By James Gilmore

Book cover for The Grand Design, a pop science physics nonfiction book by Stephen Hawking, on Minimalist Reviews.It is not my habit to review non-story materials but I thought a brief experiment might be acceptable.

The Grand Design is yet another book by the mastermind Stephen Hawking concerning the makeup of our universe.  While a fascinating read, the book spends almost its entirety on the history of the field which built the foundation for quantum physics.  A Layman’s History of Physics would be a much more apt title.  The book only expresses one real opinion which is made plain at the very end—essentially that M-Theory rocks and everything else sucks.

Not Hawking’s best.  A tantalizing and thought-provoking read nonetheless.

Rating: 3 / 5

Damned, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

by James Gilmore

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk follows the idea that every cliché you’ve ever heard about Hell is absolutely and completely true.  And Hell isn’t really that bad of a place so long as you don’t expect it to be like Heaven.  All it needs is a little optimism and some long-overdue re-landscaping by the supernumerous tenants.

Book cover for Damned, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, on Minimalist Reviews.

The book is creative, thoughtful and entertaining, and is probably more broadly-appealing to readers than most of Palahniuk’s other, more shockingly gruesome works.  With trim, lean writing the author creates the most sympathetic, likable protagonist of his career.  To his credit, the 13-year old female protagonist is thoroughly authentic in thought and viewpoint, which allows Palahniuk to lead the character to a number of unusually profound conclusions.  Like the protagonist, every member of the supporting cast is similarly illustrated with sympathetic—if not tragic—human weaknesses.  As the backstories of these characters are revealed the reader becomes continually haunted with the idea that there is no Heaven at all, and that Hell is for everyone.

Despite its strengths, Damned is not Palahniuk’s best.  His trademark technique of using repetition in changing contexts fails to fulfill its purpose in this novel.  The result is frequently negatively iterative, if not, at times, indulgent.

The structure of the final act is particularly weak as well, giving the impression that the novel was cut short of the full story the author was trying to tell.  Virtually without warning, we are ushered to a rapid climax which dissipates with an anti-climax.  The pivotal idea to the story’s final revelation—that the main character is driven by free will—is hindered by the poor structure and ultimately results in invalidating all the story which preceded it by making it feel pointless.

Damned is worth a read, especially for those who love anti-fundamentalist and anti-liberal satire.

Rating:  3 / 5

Shadows and Fog, a film by Woody Allen

by James Gilmore

“It’s been a strange night,” says the protagonist in Woody Allen’s film, Shadows and Fog (1991).  And a strange night it is.

This surreal tragicomedy features the bumbling Kleinman (Woody Allen) adrift and directionless in the “shadows and fog” of life in an existence where everyone else seems to know exactly where they are going and where death is a nameless killer ever lurking in the shadows.  Kleinman is invisible, a ghost in a world of flesh and a story of coincidence.

Movie poster for Woody Allen's film Shadows and Fog 1991 on Minimalist Reviews.A cursory glance reveals a clumsy film which is episodic, disconnected, strange and star-studded with actors like a pathetic publicity stunt.  However, a much closer inspection is required in order to uncover the gold hidden beneath this deceptively layered film.

Shadows and Fog is an 85-minute metaphor for life in the macroscopic sense.  Every scene is a sampling of some form of human existence, a circus filled with “theories and questions” which masks the true meaning of humanity.

Ominously looming over the film’s rich qualities are a number of detractors.  The film feels coarse and drifting, like the filmmaker wasn’t satisfied with the end product but resigned not to fix it (or wasn’t sure how).  Scenes of maladroit exposition and dialogue appear too far into the story to justify their inclusion and are all too often coupled with less-than-desirable acting and blocky line deliveries.  The episodic nature of the story serves to confuse more often than engross.  The end result is a film whose pacing ebbs and flags and whose quality is uneven.

To sum up with a paraphrase from the magician (played by Kenneth Mars): “People need illusions, like they need air.”  Cinephiles and Woody Allen fans delight, all others take flight.

Rating:  3 / 5

The Trip, a film by Michael Winterbottom

by James Gilmore

The Trip is a comedic film reconstituted from a short-lived improv TV series of the same name, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional (and sometimes not so fictional) versions of themselves. Off-beat and off-color, this hybrid mockumentary/traditional film narrative delivers comedy that might not be to taste for the general American viewing public. Although presented as a low-key comedy, the film is really a sad coming of middle-age story at heart.

Movie poster for The Trip a film by Michael Winterbottom on Minimalist Reviews.

The plot follows a foodie pilgrimage taken by non-foodies, unfolding to reveal the life of an aging, professional actor as he approaches a sort of mid-life crisis. But beneath the façade of this simple story is one man’s journey as he is confronted with the revelation that he hides in a fantasy world and must face the brutal truth about his own life, and in so doing transcend from the idles of youth into the maturity of adulthood. For this the film and especially the direction are commendable. Unfortunately, in part because of its conception and in part due to its nature as an ad-hoc film edited together from a TV series, The Trip fails to deliver a strong story arc, resolution of sub-plots or character relationships. The true core of the film cannot be better illustrated than by Steve Coogan’s line: “It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.”

The film’s comedy is both passive-aggressive and extremely understated, often to the point of there being no joke or gag at all, merely subtext and unspoken situation which presents itself as genuinely humorous. Especially entertaining is the continuous battle of dinner table impressions, namely those of Michael Cain and Woody Allen.

 

Coogan’s acting proves to be one of the most impressive aspects of the film as he demonstrates his chops for more serious roles (not to mention that he won a BAFTA for his acting in The Trip).

 

Rating:  3 / 5

(Jet Li’s) Fearless, a “Quickie” Review of the film by Ronnie Yu

by James Gilmore

Movie poster for Jet Li's film Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia), a quickie review on Minimalist Reviews.

Jet Li’s Fearless (aka Huo Yuan Jia) is a martial arts action film told in the old Hong Kong studio style.  While the fight scenes are nothing special in of themselves, watching Jet Li attempt to act is always a grueling task for even the most die-hard of his fans.  The impressive layered conclusion is packed with subtext, character and emotion, in spite of the obligatory (and blatant) pro-Chinese, pro-unity message required to pass government censorship.

A must for any fan of Jet Li or kung fu diehard, a popcorn film for everyone else.

Rating:  3 / 5

The Fighter, a film by David O. Russell

by James Gilmore

Movie poster for The Fighter, a film by David O. Russell, on Minimalist Reviews.

The Fighter is not so much a story about one boxer trying to make his way in the world as a story in which every character is a scrappy fighter in their own respect, each trying to achieve his or her dream in a gritty, realistic world bristling with testosterone and raw emotion, unstained by the airbrushing of Hollywood gloss.

This modern day Cinderella story appears to be about boxing on the surface, an inspiring underdog story about a man who literally never quits. But in truth the film is much, much more. The pseudo-documentary style and directing create an unglamorous world which examines poverty, family, loyalty, love and, of course, boxing, all with a humanistic eye. At the core of the film’s strength is its impressively detailed peek into the complexities of family and family politics.

Acting performances in the film deliver an array of raw emotion in a steady one-two of jabs and thrusts without the forceful injection of artificial drama, while its bold, aggressive characters allow Amy Adams and Christian Bale to thrive in their best acting roles to date—an impressive achievement considering both actors’ extensive experience.

The Fighter, obviously more a labor of love than a labor of money, proves itself to not only be one of the best boxing films ever made, but one of the greatest family dramas of all time.

Rating: 5 / 5

TRON: Legacy, a film by Joseph Kosinski

by James Gilmore

TRON: Legacy is a delightfully updated remake/sequel of the original Tron (1982), although it’s more of the PG Disney version of The Matrix for tweens, than anything else.  With a strong, robust 15-minute opening sequence, this visually stunning film dazzles the eyes with dark, sleek spectacle without becoming intrusive or overbearing (no surprise, coming from Disney).  The landscapes and color palettes, although reminiscent of the original TRON, seem to be inspired far more by The Matrix and The Dark Knight.  Excellent directing and cinematography are worth noting (Kosinski managed to handle this big blockbuster budget directing debut without drowning).  The film’s visual elegance is complemented by a minimalist, electronica-revival soundtrack.

Movie poster for Tron 2.0 Legacy, a film by Joseph Kosinski, on Minimalist Reviews.As is typical of an action/adventure film, the plot is thin, even though the concept is good enough for a potentially breathtaking story.  The magic of TRON: Legacy begins to fade toward the middle of the film as the weaknesses of its mediocre storyline are revealed, dispelling some, but not all, of the immersive filmic experience.  And although there are a few instances of borderlines senseless technobabble, a few stretches of logic (such as programs acting exactly like humans), and clichéd generic dialogue, this tightly-woven, efficient film is a visual feast and thoroughly enjoyable.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn with surprising presence.  Often he appears to be imitating a younger, more restrained version of Christian Bale in voice and countenance.  Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn* brings both dimension and depth to his character, adding that touch of subtlety akin truly great acting—and the same would be more than welcome in Sam Flynn and Quorra (played by Olivia Wilde) as well.  On the other hand, Zuse (played by Michael Sheen) appears curiously out of place and/or over-the-top within the tone of the piece, frequently sticking out like a decorative sore thumb after the parade.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

*It seems apt that I am writing this review on the day of Steve Jobs’ death because, in a sense, TRON: Legacy is about Sam Flynn, a fictional, magical Steve Jobsian visionary and technology emperor.  If you’re wondering about the date, these reviews are usually posted several days after they are initially written.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, a film by David Yates

by James Gilmore

In what should have been one of the greatest climaxes of modern film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 falls very short of its mark. While Part 1 transforms the worst segment of the Potter novel series into the greatest film of the series, Part 2 manages to insult the best portion of the novel series with nearly the worst filmic experience in the series. The film is not without a few traces of remarkable moments, but nothing more than a trace.

It is perplexing how director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves managed to create such a remarkable Part 1 and a pathetically deflated Part 2Part 2’s story somehow lacks the robust emotional presence, subtle character, the visual acuity, and skillful storytelling of Part 1. The writing barely suffices to tell the plot of the story and proves completely insufficient to do anything more. It lack the thematic material warranted by such an epic series conclusion. Despite the intensely emotional situations involved in the story, every scene feels drained of emotional power, and is frequently absent altogether.

Movie poster for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, a film by David Yates, on Minimalist Reviews.The main characters are robbed of their greatest gems, especially Snape, Hermione and Ron, all of whom receive little to no actual development on screen although they are ever present in the background. Snape, for whom Part 2 is the apex of his character, is completely blunted as a character by the writing and direction to point that the incredible twist associated with his character is treated as a mere afterthought. The lovable secondary characters are used liked doilies, thrown into the story whenever required but serving little to no purpose except to have a few minutes of face time before they are again forgotten. The death of the Weasley brother, a moment of intense catharsis for the audience, is glossed over like the death of a background extra. Only Narcissa Malfoy and Neville Longbottom are given any character work worthy of remembering.

Quite deadly to the film is its ending, or lack thereof. Although there is a cute “years later” scene to conclude Part 2, the real conclusion which precedes it is barely a conclusion at all, consisting mostly of the main characters walking around with vacant stares.

Somehow, Daniel Radcliffe managed to break through the stunted storytelling to illustrate his grown maturity as an actor.

Overall, Part 2 feels unfinished, unsatisfactory and rushed, as if irreverently composed of mostly B-footage.

Rating: 3 / 5

The Kids Are All Right, a film by Lisa Cholodenko

by James Gilmore

The Kids Are All Right (but the parents are not)—the anti-hollywood movie; or, an advertisement for ultra-liberal living.

Movie poster for The Kids Are All Right, a film by Lisa Cholodenko, on Minimalist Reviews. Somehow Lisa Cholodenko has managed to turn slow pacing, low conflict, and a nearly directionless plot into a film that is oddly intoxicating, sucking the viewer into a strange microcosm of uber-liberal Californianism. Although laughs are unevenly distributed, the comedy is always natural and never forced or artificial as is seen in so many Hollywood films, but grows organically out of the emotional content of the scenes. Despite its ability to entrance, the ending is so poorly handled it begs the viewer to second guess the film’s anti-Hollywood nature and instead wonder whether the filmmakers simply didn’t know what they were doing.  The final sequence—the most crucial in any film—is not only unsatisfying, but is handled with complete ineptitude and lack of relevance to the story.

Also problematic with this character piece is, in fact, character. The story could use a little more diversity among the adults, who all feel like they are part of the same social circle from the start. And while the sex of the director should not interfere with the storytelling, somehow all the male characters in The Kids Are All Right receive unfair treatment. They fail to compare in dimension and emotional presence to any of the female characters. Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo), a principal character and the lynchpin which the entire plot of the story hinges upon, disappears after an ambiguous, noncommittal confrontation with Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and doesn’t even make it to the conclusion. Laser (Josh Hutcherson) lacks both character development and depth, being stereotyped as the typical “insensitive” male in a story unevenly weighted in favor of the females. Even the extraneous gardener character, also male, serves no appropriate purpose except an artificial construct to hinder (although he fails to do so) the developing physical relationship between Paul and Jules (Julianne Moore).

Finally, the acting gems of this film: Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska. Mark Ruffalo also delivers a commendable performance.

The Kids Are All Right could have been a 5 / 5 film but pitfalls in character and the ending of the story severely hamstring the film.

Rating: 3 / 5

Inception, a film by Christopher Nolan

by James Gilmore

Movie poster for Inception, a film by Christopher Nolan, on Minimalist Reviews.Christopher Nolan’s Inception sports an original but difficult concept, which the film explains surprisingly well, although more could have been left to the speculative imagination. The unfortunate side effect of having a difficult concept is that it requires a lot of time to illustrate, meaning the film takes 60 minutes to get to the heart of the concept, at which point it runs with the intensity of a driven madman. The close cutting adds to the dreamlike quality of the story but cannot alter the impression that one is watching two or three films rolled into one—the total of which ultimately seems lacking in a final or third-act twist whose gravitas is appropriate to the story. Fortunately, the aggressive pacing of the story helps blunt the ham-fisted dialogue and the glaring plot hole which serves as the crux for the third act. As for acting, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is adequate but overshadowed by the quiet show-stealer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Overall, a slight disappointment but a supremely wonderful, well-executed concept.

Rating: 3 / 5