Tag Archives: 4s

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

Super 8, a film by J.J. Abrams

by James Gilmore

Super 8: think The Goonies with a touch of Cloverfield flavoring. A modernized 1940s pulp brought to life in the style of 1980s family adventure movies, watching Super 8 is in many ways like reliving the nostalgic childhood you never had.

movie poster for Super 8 for Minimalist Review blog

While the ambiance is an undeniable factor in drawing the audience into the world of the story, what really sells the film is the remarkable chemistry within the cast. In no small feat, Abrams manages to garner authentic performances from his child actors from fade in to fade out.

While character chemistry and ambiance stand out in Super 8, the film is not without its pitfalls. Super 8 lacks the depth of Abrams’ other works, especially in terms of plot, which proves itself to be somewhat thin and predictable, making for a somewhat hollow filmic experience in what could have been a magical one. Nevertheless, parts of the film are memorable, especially the mini film-within-a-film which plays during the end credits.

In spite of its slender plot, Super 8 remains a wholesome thriller that is sure to stand as one of the greatest youth adventure films since The Goonies.

Rating: 4 / 5

Argo, a film by Ben Affleck

By James Gilmore

Ben Affleck’s Argo takes a clumsy script and transforms it into a seat-riveting filmic experience.  He and his skillful editors successfully impress artificial tension upon the audience in spite of the script’s many shortcomings.  Script problems magnify when translated to the big screen, and such issues become very evident as characters reveal their lives to each other in standalone cutaway scenes that serve no plot purpose.  Affleck’s protagonist character, Tony Mendez, is poorly written, making him too weak and impotent in comparison to his fellow cast members.

Minimalist Review of Argo, a film directed by Ben AffleckThe audience will feel a sudden jolt as they are thrust into and out of a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood sequence that is not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, and ultimately comes across as a series of inside jokes among Hollywood types more than a cohesive story segment.  The final confrontation between protagonists and antagonists proves to be the most artificial construct of all, where editing alone creates the tension, not the clash of goal and obstacle, desire and counter-desire.

In short, Ben Affleck should quit acting and direct full-time, but he needs to learn to push the script to a final polish before jumping into making the film itself.  With such spectacular directing talent it is a waste to not use equally judicious judgment in finishing the screenplay, as is evident in both Argo and his feature film directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone.  Still, audiences eagerly await his next work.

Rating: 3.5 / 5