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has to go out of his way to inject horror into this non-story, and does so in a way that seems almost amateurish and outdated.Movie poster for Hannibal, a 2001 film by Ridley Scott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

Suspiria, a horror film by Dario Argento

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.

minimalist review of dario argento's 1970s horror classic SuspiriaThe 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

Act of Valor, a film by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh

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

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