NO COUNTRY FOR BLIND MEN: Movie Reviews of Hell or High Water and Don’t Breathe by Howard Casner

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rev-2At one point in Hell or High Water, the new bank robbery movie that takes place in Texas, as younger brother Toby (Chris Pine) goes into a convenience store, his older brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), requests a Dr. Pepper. Toby returns with a Mr. Pibbs, to the consternation of the aforementioned sibling.

I’m not sure if the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is from the Lone Star State, but I do have a feeling that only a native son would understand the egregious wrong that has been committed here.

In a recent review, I mentioned that we have George Lucas to thank for utilizing a bad guy that everyone can hate with no political incorrectness: Nazis. But as this movie quickly indicates, there is one bastion of evil that comes a close second: banks.

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The action/adventure/war movie Lone Survivor, written and directed by Peter Berg (who seems desperate to make Taylor Kitsch, who he has directed before in Friday Night Lights and Battleship—at least we can’t blame him for John Carter of Mars, into a star for some reason), is a film of ironies.


It’s a celebration, even an exaltation, of the abilities of the elite fighting team Navy Seals; yet the mission dramatized here is a failure, and not just a failure, but a spectacular one at that.


It’s a movie that emphasizes the day to day details and procedural-like realism of war as it is being waged today; yet the deaths are filmed heroic, mythical, epic even, shot in stylized and loving slow motion.


It’s a movie that at first glance seems to be a Howard Hawksian study of men participating in a life or death situation as a way of life, but with character studies that are too minimalist for that.  Yet it’s this minimalism that also gives the story some of its power.


It’s a movie filled with top named actors, yet it’s the sound effects and stunt men who are the real stars.


It’s a movie that takes place during one of the most political divisive of U.S. wars, yet the story has almost no political context at all and seems to take place in an every war atmosphere.


Lone Survivor is a movie that establishes its goals early on (from the previews actually) and goes after them with the ruthless intensity of a rabid dog that won’t let go.  The technical aspects, from the sound to the editing to the cinematography to the sets and costumes, are first rate.  The acting is strong (the aforereferenced Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, who are all rather good, especially that Foster dude).


It’s a movie that cannot really be faulted.


At the same time, it’s a movie that takes a true story of tragic proportions and reduces it to little more than an extremely well made hyperrealist popcorn piece of entertainment.


Which may or may not be your cup of tea.



There is something about folk music that reaches down deep into our souls and really reveals, even revels in, the pain and suffering of what it means to be human, as well as exalts in the joy that one sometimes finds in life as well.  It’s a music that reminds us that we, as human beings, never essentially change—that what we were in the beginning, we are now and always shall be.  And it’s a type of music that can fill in for us when we can’t express clearly our own feelings.


Two movies in 2014 used folk music as a way of deepening their exploration of their heroes, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, with a central character who can only communicate his real feelings when he’s singing, and now The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s entry in the foreign language film category for the Academy Awards.


The Broken Circle… revolves around Didier, an atheist who plays and sings lead in a blue grass/folk band (whose big number is, ironically, the spiritually inclined Will The Circle Be Unbroken), and his love for Elise, a young woman who believes in an afterlife and who becomes his partner in life and his partner in music.


And they do make beautiful music together, both on and off stage.  There is something tremendously exciting when they are both singing their songs of profound emotional resonance in front of a crowd.  And there is something equally exciting about their simple love for one another.  And out of this union of both music and love they create a child, Maybelle, a bright and lovely little girl.


But then something happens that endangers their circle and threatens to break it down forever.  At age seven Maybelle develops cancer.   And then…


The performances by Johan Heldenbergh as Didier (who also co-wrote the play the movie is based on, along with Mieke Dobbels) and Veerle Baetens as Elise, are deeply empathetic portraits of parents who have something happen to them that no parents should have to experience.  Nell Cattrysse as their little girl gives a touching performance.


The screenplay by Carl Joos, Charlotte Vandermeersch and the director Felix Van Groeningen, does whatever it can to eschew sentimentality.  And Van Groeningen’s swirling direction of the camera never lets us sit still for long.  Their movie paints a rich portrait of two people living a bohemian life of music.   And when the screenplay itself no longer feels it can adequately share the emotions of the moment, the characters break into song, allowing the movie to express what mere language can’t always share.


And it has music that is so strong in emotion that it points up the one flaw of the movie.  Didier and Elise have arguments of anguish and guilt, accusing the other of complicity in what happens to Maybelle until Didier has a breakdown on stage.  It’s not that the arguments don’t ring true.  They are ridiculous and over the top.  But we’ve all heard arguments like these before, where people are fighting over something that they are not really fighting about.


But these scenes also fall flat.  They are never quite as believable as the rest of the movie.  They are a bit predictable and even clichéd.  They can never quite come up to the emotional heights of the music.  And they are somewhat of a letdown.


And yet, in spite of that, The Broken Circle… is emotionally devastating, a heartbreak of a movie that leaves you speechless when it’s over.


Birth of the Living Dead is a rather delightful little documentary about a subject that is in many ways not quite so delightful: how the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead came about. It’s tight, to the point, and has at its center the grand old man himself, George A. Romero, who comes across more like a youthful imp pulling a prank rather than the maker of a movie that reached into the core of our beings and found something new and original that scared the hell out of us.

The movie has two major through lines. One is how to make an independent film. The other is how a low budget, second rate horror film that, in a perfect world, would never have found its way out of the bottom half of a double bill at drive-ins and dive movie theaters managed to become one of the most important horror films of all time (let’s face it, from a strictly objective viewpoint, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was right at the time: it’s “a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.”).

But both through lines are significant life lessons for up and coming filmmakers. As a DIY project, Romero and his fellow producers were incredibly resourceful: everybody did double duty (producers, make-up artists, even Romero himself doubled as actors and sometimes redoubled as zombies); they asked all their commercial clients to play the living dead; they knew someone who owned a meat packing plant, so they used him in the movie so they could have entrails for ghouls to feast upon; they had a local newscaster play a newscaster in the movie with the result that he wrote his own copy and got them permission to use the station helicopter to do aerial shots; they cast the host of the local, late night scare fest movie program, and he gave them free plugs and the audience weekly updates. It’s amazing and even inspiring just how resourceful Romero and the others were in taking advantage of whatever they could in order to get the film made.

But they were also very lucky. Though Romero does admit that there was always something of the movie that is a reflection of the political unrest of the time (especially the news footage of the Viet Nam War), they cast Duane Jones, a black actor, in the lead, a character that was never specifically stated to be black; they cast him because he was a strong actor. And that accidental stroke of color blind casting suddenly gave the film a much deeper resonance: now it was not just a movie that grew out of attitudes toward the war, but also out of attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. And the fact that the movie was never rewritten to accommodate Jones’ race just made the racial aspect of it stronger.

And it’s the amateurish, non-professionalism that makes the movie rise above what it is. It’s a bad movie in which the factors that make it bad make it not just a good movie, but a classic. The flat acting, the black and white shaky cinematography, the graininess, everything that makes it something that a studio wouldn’t touch, make it seem so realistic, it really gets under your skin and makes it very difficult to forget.

And all the while, Romero is just sitting there laughing and laughing and laughing about the absurdity of the whole enterprise.

Kill Your Darlings is a movie about a group of people who hate everything pretentious, pompous and conceited, yet whose every action and whose every utterance that pours forth from their mouth is pretentiousness, pomposity and conceitedness incarnate. The problem is that I’m not quite sure that writers Austin Burn and John Krokidas, who also directed, intended this.

The film is based upon the true story of the murder of David Kammerer by one Lucien Carr while Carr and other beat darlings Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac tried to craft a new literary vision in 1944 at Columbia College in New York City. It’s a great subject and the movie is certainly not without interest. But it also never really comes together in a very satisfactory way either. At times it feels like it’s going for the painfully nostalgic feel of the early scenes in the movie and TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited, scenes that reveled in the halcyon days of Cambridge in the 1930’s. But Burn and Krokidas can’t seem to get that tone, or even any tone, quite right. The ingredients all seem to be there (the late nights in Harlem at jazz clubs; the benzydrine and drug induced rebellions; war time New York in the overcast fall and winter; the wonderful costumes and set design; the fear of being found out gay), but Krokidas can’t quite seem to find the right rhythms and style.

Neither can Dane DeHaan in the key role as Carr. DeHaan is just never convincing enough as someone who seems to think he’s the heir to Oscar Wilde (except in the boudoir, which is, in many ways, his fatal flaw). His performance seems forced for too much of the film. And without a strong Carr, there’s little for the movie to hang itself onto.

Everyone else does a credible to excellent job. Harry Potter has put a lot of effort these last few years in making us forget he’s Harry Potter. Daniel Radcliff gives a very solid and often empathetic performance of a budding genius. There are some marvelous supporting turns here (David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s parents; Broadway legend John Cullum as a curmudgeon professor who recognizes talent even when he doesn’t want to see it; Michael C. Hall as the desperate and doomed Kammerer; and Jack Huston as a Jack Kerouac with eyes that have sparks coming out of them). In the end, though, it’s Ben Foster who wins the acting honors in a witty and spot on performance as the future novelist William Burroughs.

The movie does do one interesting thing. It starts off making one character seem to be the sociopathic predator and then reveals that no, that person is really no more than a sad, pathetic wreck of a human being, while the apparently sad, pathetic wreck turns out to be the true sociopath. It’s a neat little trick and it helps make the last third of the movie the strongest and most riveting section. But in the end, it’s not really enough and the movie falls short of what it might have been.

15 Years and One Day is Spain’s entry in the 2014 Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Ostensibly it’s one of those old warhorses about an older person and a younger person finding their lives intertwined with the result that both are inevitably and forever changed. Ostensibly, I say, because if that is the point, the movie has one of the more unusual structures for such a sub-genre. The grandfather isn’t even introduced until after a third of the movie has gone by and the grandson subsequently ends up in a coma for about a third of the remainder. So just when they were supposed to have interacted in order to change each other is a bit of a mystery. There’s also some subplot about the death of a teenage bully, homophobe and sociopath in the making (an immigrant, the bad guy du jour, natch), which is never quite convincing. In other words, the film, written by Santos Mercero and Gracia Querejeta, who also directed, is what we call a bit all over the place and can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be about. With newcomer Aron Piper as the grandson; Maribel (Y Tu Mama Tambien) Verdu as the mother; a strong Tito Valverde as the grandfather. Also with Belen Lopez as a police officer who, for some puzzling reason, keeps shrugging off the grandson’s actions with a boys-will-be-boys attitude when the grandson is so obviously a teenage Dexter. She also seems to suggest that a gay youth who killed someone in self defense while being physically assaulted and gay bashed (and threatened with rape) is in deep do-do; that perhaps is the scariest part of the movie.