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
Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria is one of the highlights from the golden age of the 1970s horror genre.
Intense in every sense of the word, Argento’s film is violent, visually vibrant and surreal with an alarmingly ear-grating soundtrack intentionally designed to set the audience’s nerves on edge. Be prepared for an experience that is both oddly immersive and abrasive to the senses.
The lighting, set design and shot composition are more the stars of this film than the doe-eyed lead, played by Jessica Harper, who merely drifts from one scene to the next as if led by an invisible hand.
The film’s vibrant visuals are just enough to counterbalance a feeble, sometimes nonsensical story and nonexistent character development. Some of its colorful dream-like qualities and childish dialogue make more sense when the viewer understands that portions of the film were inspired by the dreams of co-writer Daria Nicolodi, and that the script originally intended for the protagonist and her classmates to be no older than 12, but neither excuse a weak story.
Suspiria is a stunning film like no other, so be sure to put it in your canon of “must-sees” for cinematographers, art designers, filmmakers and horror buffs alongside other visually salient works like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Rating: 3 / 5
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
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
By James Gilmore
From the director of 13 Assassins comes Ichi the Killer, a gruesome but creative narrative that challenges the senses with its pushing of sex and violence to the extreme in an orgy of gore (a “gore-gy” if you will). (Ichi is banned in several countries for its “high impact violence and graphic depictions of cruelty”[Wikipedia].)
Although listed as an action/comedy/crime film imdb.com, Ichi may feel more like torture porn than anything else to regular movie-going audiences. Its surreal, creative departure from typical gore flicks is intriguing, enhanced by a unique soundtrack, thoughtful acting, and a deceptively simple plot which takes on new depth at the midpoint.
Ichi’s tortured main character is furnished with the uncanny ability to paint any room with a smorgasbord of blood and guts. A sexual dysfunctionary, this weak-minded assassin is the victim of manipulative bullies who push him to avenge a non-existent incident from his past. And while the film plays out as a visual dissertation on sadomasochism, the story is actually about bullying and bullies who, as adults, are fighting for survival among the fiercest criminals of the Shinjuku underworld. The protagonist manages to purge the screen of its many villains in a disappointingly anti-climactic conclusion.
Although it may be the most light-hearted torture porn ever made, Ichi the Killer is not for the faint of heart. Anyone expecting innocent laughs, seat-riveting action or a good old fashioned crime story should avert their eyes and ears and move on to something else. File Ichi in the “most gruesome films of world cinema” category, right next to Salo.
Rating: 3 / 5
By James Gilmore
Act of Valor is a ballad of the unsung heroic deeds of Navy SEALs in clandestine operations.
Although neatly structured the film feels less like a coherent story than a series of military reenactments with a few specks of story spliced in between action sequences. Valor is generously laden with fan service for military aficionados, but at times the ultra realistic use of military jargon crosses the line from necessity to extraneous masturbation. Action sequences deliver impressive intensity and speed while skillful POV camerawork immerses the audience inside each mission, lending a sort of video game feel to the advancement of the plot.
The acting is as wooden as it gets and not just in terms of line delivery—no surprise, considering the principal characters are played by real Navy SEALs and not professional actors. Unfortunately this means that emotional tangibility with the main characters is difficult to establish, even with the repeated use of artificial filmic constructs employed to build personal empathy.
Actor Jason Cottle’s uncanny intensity makes his performance stand out among the cast.
If Act of Valor teaches us anything, it’s that “actual” does not equal “dramatic.” For a stellar example of how dramatizing reality improves its filmic qualities, see Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden. In spite of its painful dialogue and feeble plot, Act of Valor is a realistic, tense experience that military and action enthusiasts will love.
Rating: 3 / 5
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.
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