Tag Archives: realism

Red State, a film by Kevin Smith

Red State (2011) is Kevin Smith’s first and only derivation from his View Akewniverse, and probably for good reason. Smith skillfully creates an authentic world filled with realism in violence and characters devoid of true white hats while successfully avoiding the heavy rambling dialogue of his prior work. And while the atmosphere, acting and mise-en-scene are superbly imparted, the film ultimately suffers as a soaking mess in terms of plot and structure.

red state movie poster for minimalist review of the movie film Red State by Kevin SmithFascinating characters are the heart and soul of Red State. Smith seamlessly shifts the focus between central cast members without disrupting the plot. Minimal effort is required to reveal the rich inner lives of the characters (which is to be expected, given his prior work), even though there are “few redeeming characters” (filmmaker’s words).

Smith’s use of unknown actors lends gravity to the authenticity of the film, but this decision is a double-edged sword, making the introduction of famous actor John Goodman halfway through the film jarringly intrusive. Had his character been introduced at the 17 or 30 minute mark (or even as the protagonist) this could have been averted.

While Goodman’s performance proved to be one of the least interesting in the whole film, actor Michael Parks portrays his character with absolute brilliance. His performance is perfectly and fully realized, charismatic, and utterly entrancing, the true gem of the film.

While the director demonstrates his usual strength as a character-oriented storyteller he also describes his grave lack of ability in plot development. The story is handled clumsily, going out of its way to draw Waco parallels at the expense of an organic plot. In a failed attempt at richness, Smith fails to juggle multiple storylines, each being underdeveloped and poorly communicated, the confused cluster finally crashing into a smoking heap by the end. Other problems stem from this failure, such as numerous payoffs with no accompanying setups (including a key piece in the plot’s final moments), frivolous character deaths, and far too little much “telling” through monologues instead of “showing.”

In the end, this reviewer felt that the film should have been about the cult, not the outside interlopers. More material was to be gained by doing so and would provide the audience greater understanding of each faction in the film. As it is, even the title “Red State“is an ungainly play at immature political commentary.

Rating: 2 / 5

Ender’s Game, a science fiction film by Gavin Hood

(Although we have a few comments to make regarding the film as a whole the majority of this review will be dedicated to the story’s adaptation from page to screen.)

Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game takes a science fiction classic and visualizes it with dazzling realism and originality. The opening is rough and plagued by hokey dialogue but as the story progresses it gradually comes into its own, culminating in arguably the most breathtaking climactic end battle in all of science fiction to date, although the penultimate battle scenes leading up the climax feel truncated, making the third act feel rushed. Asa Butterfield (the principal lead) delivers a performance that becomes increasingly impressive as the film progresses.

photo poster of the film ender's game by writer/director gavin hood, the minimalist review being written by james gilmore

As both writer and director, Hood impressively adapts difficult material to the silver screen, improving notable segments from the book such as the battle school sequence and simulated battles, and correlating Mazer Rackham’s final battle with Ender’s active progress during the course of the main plot.

However, some adaptation decisions were more poorly chosen, such as the near total absence of Ender’s older brother, Peter, who features so prominently in terms of theme and character development (for Ender) but is almost completely absent from the film, despite his being referenced often. As written, the character of Peter should have been omitted altogether to prevent unnecessary dilution of the plot. Also the psychologist character whose presence remains strong throughout the story is so poorly written and spouts redundant dialogue and concepts that are not illustrated in the film, especially earlier in the portions. So much more could have been done with the character to both expand and draw out Ender’s character but very little is ever utilized. The character ends up as a bloated element of fat filled with hot air.

Ender’s Game’s greatest weakness is its botched final reveal. By showing an additional point of view (an excellent adaptation choice) the filmmaker expands on the world of the story but presents the new information in a way that prematurely gives away the ending, thereby lessening the potential impact of one of the greatest reveals in science fiction history.

Despite its shortcomings, Ender’s Game is an enjoyable cinematic journey through an original world tantalizing to viewers who are fans of science fiction. Ender’s Game was adapted from the widely known novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card.

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

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

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

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