Tag Archives: 4s

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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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

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

Series 7: The Contenders, a film by Daniel Minahan

by James Gilmore

Before the Hunger Games (2012) there was a grossly popular Japanese film by director Kinji Fukasaku called Battle Royale (2000), and there was today’s subject, an obscure little film called Series 7: The Contenders (2001) by Daniel Minahan.

Movie poster for Daniel Minahan's 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders, as seen on Minimalist Reviews compact film and book reviews.

Based on his experiences working in reality TV, Minahan exploits his intimate knowledge of reality television to accost that hypocritical world with scathing ridicule.  In this deadly serious mockumentary, Minahan takes us through highlights from the seventh season of a fake hit reality series called “The Contenders” in which a group of individuals are selected at random to compete in an anything-goes deathmatch.  Think of Series 7 as the Roman gladiatorial games meets reality television.

The story is short and efficient, confronting head-on a two-pronged theme: that the American public’s insatiable lust for entertainment and the media’s unscrupulous push for ratings could ultimately lead to the sacrifice humanity itself. Minahan drives home his point with merciless precision by employing a faux unscripted format which so closely resembles the genuine article that one wonders if such an inhumane entertainment is not too far off, if our “advanced” civilization has deteriorated to the point of reviving Roman gladiatorial bloodsports just to keep audiences entertained. Or perhaps Minahan is saying that reality television as it is now is an emotional battle royale in which there can be only one survivor.

Character lies at the heart of the script. Plot twists usually occur in the form of character reveals, and everyone in The Contenders hides aces up their sleeves. Even the most unassuming combatant will surprise you more than once.

Viewers may recognize the star of the film, Brooke Smith, whose prior work include roles in Grey’s Anatomy and The Silence of the Lambs.

Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders is a complete surprise and a must see, an impressive low-budget film worthy of its stock. Available on streaming at Netflix.com.

Rating: 4 / 5

Battle Royale, a film by Kinji Fukasaku

by James Gilmore

Before the Hunger Games (2012) there was a grossly popular Japanese film by director Kinji Fukasaku called Battle Royale (2000).

Movie poster for Battle Royale, a film by Kinji Fukasaku, on the compact movie review at Minimalist Reviews.

Delivered in typical overdramatic Japanese style, Battle Royale is unlike any film known in Western cinema. Fukasaku blends beauty and brutality as we witness the innocence of youth corrupted with the ultimate need for survival, kill or be killed. With a death (or two) in every scene, this rapidly-paced narrative holds the sanctity of life as forfeit for each and every one of its multitudinous characters, who attempt a surprising array of tactics to kill, survive, or thwart the system in which they are trapped. All the social mores and pretensions of junior high school are replaced by love, loyalty, and raw fight-or-flight animal instinct.

The gems in this story are its intelligently characterized inhabitants, especially the teacher-turned-gamesmaster, Kitano-sensei. Through his character we see tragic, jaded adults devouring the lives of unblemished youth, especially the main characters, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa, previously ignorant of the horrors of adulthood and disappointment.

Battle Royale’s plot fails to pursue a few red herrings which warrant further development, although this failure does not hinder the plot much, mostly because their elaboration would impinge on the rigorous pacing of the main story.

Although the over-the-top acting may be a turnoff to some, if you approach Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale with open mind, it may just surprise you with its juxtaposition of tenderness and violence, desperation and sacrifice, and ultimately, its human core.

Rating: 4 / 5