SPIRIT GUIDES: Movie Reviews of Doctor Strange and Hacksaw Ridge by Howard Casner

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Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  FosCheck out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013.  Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r


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rev-3Two films have opened of late with heroes who tune into spiritual forces for guidance in their lives, forces outside the natural world around us.

The first is Doctor Strange, the latest, for those of you who have moved to Mars, Marvel comic book hero, a Rodney Dangerfield of a character because he never gets any respect from devoted Marvel readers. When they muse over why this movie may not be quite as good as others in the canon, they sigh and tend to say, well, he only appeared in the back of the comic, you know.

And they are to some degree correct in their assessment. Certainly Doctor Strange the film doesn’t come up to the level of the original Iron Man or some of the X-Men movies. But it’s not as bad as they claim either. Read the rest of this entry »

FUHGEDDABOUDIT: Movie Reviews of Coming Home and Black Mass by Howard Casner

First, a word from our sponsors: I am now offering a new service: so much emphasis has been given lately to the importance of the opening of your screenplay, I now offer coverage for the first twenty pages at the cost of $20.00.  For those who don’t want to have full coverage on their screenplay at this time, but want to know how well their script is working with the opening pages, this is perfect for you.  I’ll help you not lose the reader on page one. 


Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r


and check out my Script Consultation Services: http://ow.ly/HPxKE



In 1942, Ronald Colman played a character so shell shocked by the trenches of World War I that he walked out of the hospital where he was recovering, having no idea who he was.

He was taken in by a singer in a vaudeville house (Greer Garson), fell in love and the two married. Then years later, he suddenly, out of nowhere, remembered who he really was, but totally forget that his wife existed. He discovers he’s the scion of a wealthy family and eventually runs for political office, not knowing that his secretary is actually his wife.

This movie is Random Harvest and is perhaps the most romantic and delirious use of amnesia in film. But amnesia has always been a useful tool of storytelling, whether romantic (here and in Law of Desire) or in thrillers (Mr. Budwing and Mirage) or comedy (The Hangover and 50 First Dates).

coming homeComing Home, written by Jingzhi Zou and directed by Yimou Zhang, falls into the more melodramatic end of the spectrum like Random Harvest. It’s unabashedly sentimental and relishes in a sort of 1930’s studio romanticism tone and style, though the grittiness makes it more Warner Brothers than MGM. Read the rest of this entry »

REEL MEN, REAL MEN, PART ONE: Movie reviews of Foxcatcher, Rosewater and The Imitation Game by Howard Casner

First, a word from our sponsors. Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r



imitation oneIt’s November, which means we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, are fast approaching awards season, which in turn means distributors, producers and studios are bringing out a bunch of stunt performances, or as we vulgarly call them in the vernacular, bio-pics, to qualify for the Academy Awards (among other competitions).

And this year is not only no different, it may actually set a record as it’s quite possible that three of the five female nominees for best actress Oscars will be for movies with characters based on real people and the male category may have up to four.

So please join me for the first installment of Reel Men, Real Men.

Foxcatcher is a movie about a poor younger man with daddy issues who becomes entangled in the life of a wealthy older man with mommy issues. The filmmakers seem determined to raise all the goings on to the level of Greek tragedy, but I’m not convinced it comes close to anything remotely Sophoclean. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BASTARDS by Howard Casner

John Ridley and Steve McQueen (writer and director respectively, and no I’m not going to make any sort of joke about how great McQueen was riding motorcycles away from Nazis—that sort of thing is so beneath me) have achieved two things in their new film 12 Years a Slave: they have created one of the most beautiful films about slavery that has ever been made, while also creating one of the ugliest and most realistic movies about slavery that has ever been made. I suppose one might say that they even achieved a third thing here: they managed to create a film in which these two seemingly opposing aesthetic approaches actually support and deepen each other. Not an easy feat and the main achievement in this often hard to watch biopic of a free man who is abducted and sold into slavery.

There is much to like here. As was said, it’s both beautiful and horrible to look at. And there is some amazing use of percussion and sound in the thrilling music score by Hans Zimmer. The technical aspects of the film, the set design, the costumes, etc., are first rate. In fact, if someone called this movie brilliant, I’m not sure I could really argue the point. It’s quite an achievement and an experience not easily forgotten.

So why, at the end of the day, was I never quite emotionally involved in this story of Simon Northrop, the free man betrayed and bound into bondage? Why did I find myself getting antsy at times (and not during the scenes of violence and degradation the slaves were put through—those were the last places where I got antsy)? And why, oh, why (and I say this in fear of getting condemned to criticism hell forever), why do I prefer Django Unchained?

I think there are several reasons why 12 Years… didn’t quite work as well for me as it did for many, many others. The first is that it didn’t seem to take movies about slavery anywhere that it hadn’t gone before. Well, true, it’s the most realistic and grotesque depiction of that ignoble institution, and must be given credit for that. But is that enough? In the end, does the movie say anything more than, well, that slavery is bad, just as every other movie about slavery has also so said? It may have proven its thesis more than others, but again, I’m not sure that that alone is quite enough. It’s worthy, very worthy, for that, but is it any more than that?

The structure also felt a bit static as well. There didn’t seem to be any real rises or falls to the story. Instead, in many ways, it was just one horrifying scene after another, all pretty much on the same level of tension, with a plot that didn’t really seem to be heading in any clear direction. Of course, Ridley and McQueen were trapped to some degree by the subject matter. How do you depict twelve years of slavery that revolves around someone who has no choice but to be reactive rather than active and still keep the story going forward in an exciting and riveting manner when there is no real end game within the character’s control?

It’s not easy. Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski had the same issue but were more successful in their movie The Pianist, also a movie about someone so trapped in a situation he could do little but react. I think, though, that what made the difference there is two things: in the Pianist, we were constantly aware of what that character was doing to survive on a daily basis (whereas for Northrop, this didn’t seem as strongly dramatized; in fact, whenever he did do something to try to fix his situation, it often felt like it was more an afterthought thrown in by the writers rather than something integral to the structure of the story).

The second is that The Pianist had a structure dictated by a time-line series of events: Poland before the invasion, the German enforcement of anti-Semitic laws, the Warsaw ghetto, the central character escaping before he could be taken to a camp, his hiding in Warsaw during the war, and then the war ending and his life in Russia. But in 12 Years…, Ridley and McQueen couldn’t quite find the same sort of structure; Northrop is freed before the Civil War, and there wasn’t much difference in one year from the next, unlike in the Pianist (and when a difference, an interruption in the status quo, could be dramatized, like Northrop’s two years spent with a more “kindly” master, Ridley and McQueen leaped over it as it were insignificant).

I also felt there was something amiss in the characterizations. To be ruthlessly honest, I found it rather odd that the white characters were the most complex and psychologically intriguing here. The personas played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (and even those played by actors like Bryan Bratt in much smaller roles) all seemed to have more depth than the slaves. The main exception to this is perhaps Lupito Nyong’o as the mistress of Fassbender’s slave owner (who plays the part as if her life depended on it; it’s an often terrifying performance), but she has relatively little screen time. In fact, what really surprised me is that in a movie about slavery, so much time was spent on the Strindbergian relationship of Fassbender and Paulson’s characters, a husband and wife who find no end of enjoyment in torturing each other.

And there is that dialog. As far as I can tell, it was well written. That didn’t seem to be the issue. For me (and here in full disclosure I must reveal that my friend who saw the movie with me disagreed most fervently on my assessment), none of the actors ever appeared comfortable with the archaic phrasings and rhythms (it never seemed to roll trippingly off their tongues), unlike, say, the actors in True Grit, who attacked their outdated patois with great gusto, as if to the wild west born, or the actors in Topsy-Turvy, who sounded as if they actually grew up in Victorian London. Everybody recited their lines almost as if they needed at least another week of rehearsal for it to feel natural. And that’s when I found myself getting antsy; when the torture and degradation stopped and I had to actually listen to these people talk to each other for extended periods of time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrop with a great deal of empathy. He is a fine actor and is getting all the praise he deserves for his skill here. But in the end, I never quite became emotionally involved in it the way, I’m sure, Ridley and McQueen wanted me to be. I am more than willing to accede that this is all on me. But as much as I appreciated the experience, and it is an experience that should be experienced, it just didn’t quite come together for me.

Bastards is the new, kinda, sorta neo-noir written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis, who also directed (the two often collaborate on their screenplays). I call it kinda, sorta, because it often feels like an early draft, a movie that hasn’t been fully thought out.

It focuses on two people: Raphaelle, the mistress to LaPorte, a powerful businessman, and Marco, a freighter captain who leaves his post to move into a flat above Raphaelle in order to seek revenge against LaPorte, who he blames for all the problems his family has recently undergone (their daughter used as an SM victim, her vagina horribly injured; his brother committing suicide; and the family business going bankrupt). There’s a ton of potential here and the opening horrifying scenes are appropriately puzzling and intriguing (why are those EMT workers crowded around this building; why is this young woman walking naked down the street in high heels; why is the wife blaming the police for the death of her husband who committed suicide). What more could one ask from a neo-noir?

But about half way through, it feels like the story stopped going anywhere that exciting. And it’s this focus, or what might be more accurately called a lack of one, this splitting of the plot between the two people, that seems to be the chief problem. The whole effectiveness of the story gets muddled because in having the narrative derive from two different viewpoints, the story becomes so split, there’s not enough time to fully develop either character, either through line, until the film seems to be flailing to come together in an exciting and emotionally involving manner. The result is a climax that seems to come just as the story was really getting going, making the whole enterprise meaningless, which was then followed by a scene dramatizing the daughter’s SM experience shot, for some mind boggling reason, as if it were an MTV video. If it all means something, or the finale was supposed to come together in a revelatory way, let’s just say it all escaped me.

The movie stars hang-dog looking Vincent (La Mustache, Mademoiselle Chambon) Lindon as Marco and the handsome Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of you know how and you know who) as Raphaelle. They are both excellent and have a nice chemistry together. The whole movie has an effectively moody feel to it, emphasizing the noir of its genre. It has a fantastic set up. It has every ingredient a film of this type should have. Except the correct recipe for putting it all together.

Movie Reviews of ENOUGH SAID and THE FIFTH ESTATE by Howard Casner

There is a sculpture in Chicago in front of City Hall. It’s by Picasso. It’s okay. I thought it was rather derivative and that there wasn’t anything that special about it. To be honest, what I thought when I first saw it was that Chicago paid a fortune to get the great artist to create a sculpture just for the city and all we got was…a Picasso. And I thought we deserved more.

I have now seen every one of writer/director Nicole Holocener’s movies, and I’ll definitely keep on seeking future ones out. I’ve enjoyed them well enough, and her dialog and characterizations are strong, insightful and full of empathy, something most movies seem to lack these days (though I do wish she would do something about her flat and routine visual style).

At the same time, though, I am finding myself, well, wanting more than enjoying them well enough. I find myself so wanting her to take a leap forward, so wanting her to make her Annie Hall, her Dogma, her Raising Arizona or Fargo, her Pulp Fiction, her Lost in Translation. Instead, what we’re getting here, in her new film, Enough Said, is…a Picasso. And it’s a good film, but it’s also just…a Picasso.

The basic story revolves around Eva (a perky Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a divorced mother who makes a living as a masseuse, who meets two people at a party: the refined, somewhat snobby poet Marianne (Catherine Keener, and what movie by Holocener would be complete without Keener in it) and the less refined, teddy bear Albert (James Gandolfini in his next to last film performance, which gives the whole thing an unintended, but somewhat, whimsical sadness to it). Marianne hires Eva to massage her and the two become good friends. Albert asks Eva out and they become lovers. What Eva quickly finds out, but the others don’t know, is that Eva and Albert are bitter, bitter, bitter exes who keep telling Eva how awful a mate the other one was.

In other words, the basic set up is a farce and it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, the pacing is anything but. And after while, I found myself antsy because all I was waiting for was the big reveal. And it took what seemed a longer than necessary period of time to get there.

I’m also not sure I fully bought the relationships either. And I don’t mean the present tense ones. The more Marianne and Albert talk about each other behind each others’ backs, Eva never seems to ask the most logical question of the story: why did they ever get married in the first place? They seem to be the last two people who would ever go out on a first date, must less tie the knot.

Eva and Albert’s relationship is a bit more convincing because both Louis-Dreyfuss and Gandolfini work very hard at it and there is a sweet chemistry to the two of them. At the same time, I sometimes got the feeling they started a relationship simply because there wasn’t anyone else around. In the end, the most convincing couple in the room are Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), Eva’s best friends and comic relief. They seem so right for each other and Collette and Falcone give razor sharp performances, they’re the kind of couple who get each other even when they get on each other’s nerves.

In the end, maybe Holocener isn’t that interested in making that leap forward. That may not be the direction she wants to go in. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe that’s okay. And maybe it’s just a prejudice of mine that artist’s should take leaps forward. But god, I so wish she would. We have enough Picassos.

The Fifth Estate, written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, is a hi-tech espionage thriller disguised as a bromance, or a bromance disguised as a hi-tech espionage thriller. I’m not sure which. I’m not sure I want to know.

For those of you just returned from the Antarctic, The Fifth Estate is about the Private Lives relationship (you know what I mean, can’t live with, can’t live without type thing) between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg, the creators of the king of all hacker sites Wikileaks. And what a relationship it is, too. Like any good Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, they meet cute; flirt; get jealous of each others’ lovers; try to sabotage each others’ relationships; cheat on each other; have make-up sex (in the form of releasing a shocking video of the American military shooting and killing unarmed civilians and journalists—it was good for me, was it good for you, too?). The love affair metaphor here is so heavy handed that it is embarrassing and even cringe worthy at times (you almost want to yell at the screen, “get a room, already, why don’t you”). At one moment I expected Assange to say “You complete me” to Berg and Berg to say to Assange, “I wish I could quit you”. The only place it really deviates from formula is that unlike most rom coms, The Fifth Estate has an unhappy ending as Berg, like any good starter wife, gets traded in for a younger model.

If this movie had been made in the 1950’s, I would have expected it to star Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck and Zachary Scott or Fred MacMurray. Instead we have Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange (with shocking white hair as if he were an elf extra in the Lord of the Rings) and Daniel Bruhl as Berg. There’s absolutely no chemistry between the two and their characters just never come to life (though I have to say in Cumberbatch’s defense, he is stuck with imitating someone with one of the dullest speaking voices in some time).

And poor Berg. After giving some solid and satisfying performances in such films as Good Bye Lenin!, The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, he just can’t seem to find a role that suits him. And it doesn’t help that here he can’t get any more heat going with his co-star than he could with Chris Hemsworth in Rush, another Beatrice/Benedict relationship that also couldn’t get off the ground (or out of the starting gate).

It’s all so unfortunate. Because when the film focuses on the actual Wikileaks story, it’s rather exciting. Condon’s direction just refuses to let the action lag and the whole thing is filled with a bunch of fun visuals to keep the tension, well…extremely tense. But whenever the thriller returns to the love story, the whole thing sinks like the Titanic, taking its two stars with them.

I must say, though, it does have an interesting supporting cast. Some surprising people keep popping up, like the future Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi; Mike Leigh refugee, David Thewlis; Downton Abby ex, Dan Stevens; and the wonderful Moritz Bleibtrau, one of Germany’s best actors (Run, Lola, Run; Munich; and the Baader Meinhoff Complex).

It also has Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as U.S. state department officers who, for some reason, always feel a tad out of sync with the rest of the movie. Part of this may be because they are too familiar of actors for their roles. But part of it may be because they give the most vibrant line readings and their platonic romance is infinitely more believable than Cumberbatch’s and Bruhl’s.