3 WOMEN: The Unknown Girl, Battle of the Sexes, Mother!

For questions: hcasner@aol.com

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There have been many examples of siblings sharing writing, directing and even producing credits from the Maysles to the Tavianis to the Wachowskis. Perhaps the most successful pairs artistically are the Coens and the Dardennes.

However, though the Coen brothers output is often quite breathtaking with wonderful highs (Fargo, True Grit, No Country for Old Men), they are far more erratic in quality of output (Hail, Caesar!, Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers).

Few filmmakers, however, have had the consistency of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, Belgium brothers that first made their name in the U.S. with their Cannes winning film Rosetta, about a young women desperate to get employment, and they cemented their reputation with such triumphs as La Promesse, The Son, L’enfant and most recently Two Days, One Night.

Now we have The Unknown Girl, one of the finer films so far this year. Read the rest of this entry »


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



spectre 4In the most recent 007 thriller Skyfall, James Bond was beset by mommy issues as a metaphoric brother played by Javier Bardem tried to destroy M, his metaphoric mother, because she always loved Bond best.

Now in Spectre, the new 007 thriller, Bond is beset by daddy issues. You see, Bond’s father died in a skiing accident. His “adoptive father” and “brother” died two years later in an avalanche (lesson here? don’t go to a winter resort with 007). And his present day metaphoric father, the new M, has to disown him at one point.

However, Blofied, Bond’s new enemy, who is actually his old enemy (but you’ll need to see the movie for that), is actually that “brother” who isn’t actually dead, and who killed his own father and is now trying to take over the world because, well, daddy always liked Bond best.

Somehow it’s funnier when the Smothers Brothers perform this routine.

Spectre is not the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond films. For those keeping score, it’s better than Quantum of Solace, but not nearly as good as Skyfall. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of In the House, Mud and To the Wonder by Howard Casner

In the House, the new film from writer/director François Ozon, is a movie where you wait an hour and forty-five minutes for the other shoe to drop…and it never does.


The basic premise revolves around Germain, a somewhat bitter high school teacher, who assigns his literature class an essay about what they did over the weekend.  The results are depressingly high schoolish until he reads one from student Claude who writes about his attempts to insinuate himself into the household of a fellow student who has an ideal, Andy Hardy/Donna Reed middle class home.  The essay is condescending and laced with wry observations, but it shows talent.  It also ends with “(to be continued)”.  As the film goes on, Claude gets inside that household and writes more and more (to be continued) essays until Germain is so hooked that he not only spends extra time with Claude, he also helps him in ways that will come back to bite him in the ass.


The movie starts out well and even makes your mouth water at the possibilities here.  Just what is this Claude up to?  And why is he involving Germain?  But alas, these are the shoes that never drop.  And as the story continues, often backed by a thrilling music score by Philippe Rombi that makes you think something exciting is transpiring on screen even when it isn’t, the more and more puzzling the whole thing becomes.  Not only do we never find out exactly what is going on, it kind of ends with the idea that nothing was ever going on at all in the first place.  But if so, then what was the point of it all?


Equally puzzling, and I think one of the major problems with the movie, is that as Claude continues on with his soap operic observations of this family, the better Germain (as well as his wife who also starts reading the essays) thinks Claude’s writing and story is becoming, when in actuality, the less and less interesting, the more banal, boring and clichéd, it turns out to be.  Let’s face it, Claude was never going to be mistaken for Proust, but still it’s just difficult to believe that Germain continues to have such a high opinion of his student the more he reads.  Even more puzzling is that as the essays pile up, the more obvious it is that Claude is at times just making things up (if he’s not, then he’s even a worse writer than he appears).  But this never seems to dawn on Germain, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the film.


It must be said that though the actors never quite sell the premise and plot turns, their performances are still first rate.  Frabrice Luchini, a character actor with a face that Walter Mathau would be proud of, plays Germain with a certain hang dog loopiness.  Kirsten Scott Thomas plays his wife and it’s one of her sharpest performances.   Ernst Umhauer is Claude with a smile just this side of Damien in The Omen.  Also in a blink or you’ll miss it cameo is Yolando Moreau, proof that even in France, as over here, if you win the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress but don’t look like Catherine Deneuve, you’ll still be stuck having to play parts insultingly unworthy of you.



The conversation I had with my friends after seeing Mud, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle by writer/director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), went something like this:  Them: “What did you think”, Me: “I think it moved a little leisurely”, Them: “A little?”, Me: “All right.  It was as slow as molasses”, Them: “Thank you”.


Yes, Mud is not the most forward momentum of movies.  And in a way that’s rather surprising given the basic subject matter.  Ellis, a young teen, and his best friend go look at a boat that has lodged in a tree after a recent flood, but discover that someone is living there, the title character Mud, who is in town to rescue the woman he loves and take her away before he is killed by the bounty hunters hired by the father of the woman’s boyfriend Mud killed after the boyfriend beat up the woman.  Sounds pretty much like a ticking time bomb of a premise to me, but the movie tends to get diverted along the way with the teen’s problems with his parents who are drifting apart and his attempt to win the heart of a girl who is out of his league, until the tension all gets a bit waterlogged since Nichols just can’t get as much energy flowing for his other through lines as he does for the one concerning Mud.


But there’s also something else missing from the heart of this movie.  One of the major leit motifs here is that Mud is constantly described as a liar and nothing remotely as he presents himself.  The woman he loves says it; his substitute father figure says it; even Mud says it, until at one point even Ellis himself screams it at him.  Yet, oddly enough, the one thing that Mud never does is lie.  Everything he tells Ellis is pretty much exactly on the level with not one whiff of misrepresentation.  Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Mud does tell a whopper once.  When Ellis yells out at him that women aren’t worth loving, Mud tells him that’s not true.   Except that within the context of the movie, Ellis is right and Mud is lying.  All the women in the movie do nothing but declare their love for a man, then stab him in the back.   I suppose that Nichols might be saying that the nobility of the male of the species resides in the tragedy of their continual decision to fall in love in spite of how unworthy their beloveds are.  Still, it all seems a bit odd to me.


The point, though, is that this sort of throws Ellis’s journey off a bit.  The audience is being set up for Ellis to learn some big secret about Mud,  a lie that will change Ellis forever and help him on his journey to adulthood as is the wont of coming of age films.  But there is no secret.  It’s all a red herring.  And Ellis learns something about life, but it has little to do with the title character.


The movie is lovely to look at with languorous vistas of sunsets and open waters and there’s a nice feel for small town life.  It has a slam bang climax that’s not that believable, but is incredibly satisfying emotionally.  The acting is solid, though it’s Sam Shepard as the father figure who gives the most interesting performance.   Tye Sheridan as Ellis is capable.  And McConaughey does his McConaughey thing, though this time he only strips down to his bare chest.  Oh, yeah, uh, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon are in it, too.



Tortuous.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it.  Writer/director Terence Malick’s new film To the Wonder is…tortuous.  Directed/filmed/edited in the same style employed for the central section of his last film The Tree of Life, a series of quick glimpses and expressionistic scenes, To the Wonder starts out somewhat hypnotically with gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  But it’s not long before one quickly realizes that there ain’t a lot going on here and what there is, isn’t that original or interesting.  In fact, the best way to summarize it might be to say that there seems to be some sort of story here, but Malick is desperately determined not to tell it.  It concerns a man’s relationship with two woman, one a French citizen he brings to America with her child and whom he grows tired of, the second an old flame that he has a fling with and whom he grows tired of.  As the film goes on it begins to resemble more and more a classical music video that one might find on a PBS station after its daily schedule is over.   And the aesthetic approach, the snippets of scenes sewn together with a somewhat impressionistic, improvisational feel, seems as if it’s not there to bring more insight and depth to the relationships semi-dramatized in the movie, but chosen to cover up the idea that there’s really nothing of interest going on.   The characters are played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (who seem to spend much of their time quietly avoiding each other while living in a house they can never seem to finish and is filled with boxes and suitcases that are never fully unpacked—I think this is what is called symbolic), with Rachel McAdams as the old girlfriend and Javier Bardem as a rather unimpressive priest who does little but walk around in existential agony, though not in as much existential agony as I was in watching the movie.


Tell me what you think.

Movie Review of SKYFALL by Howard Casner

I suppose it’s come to the point where, when talking about a new James Bond movie, one feels compelled to start with rankings.  Well, Skyfall is not as good as Casino Royale, but it’s far better than Quantum of Solace.


Now that that’s out of the way, whatever else Skyfall is, it’s very enjoyable and exciting, expertly acted  (with a sharp, little turn at the end by that old curmudgeon Albert Finney) and extremely well made.  You will be more than entertained.  At the same time, I also feel I should start out with a bit of deconstruction; so fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Obama may have been reelected POTUS, but Skyfall is definitely in the Romney camp.  It’s a movie that pits the old white guys against women and minorities.  Yes, I’m prepared for the ridicule and accusations of taking an escapist film a bit too seriously, but there was still for me a slight, uncomfortable tang of misogyny, homophobia and racism simmering somewhere slightly below the surface.  None of it on purpose, I’m sure, but I still maintain that it’s in the air, lingering around like an afterthought of perfume.


Skyfall is about a crisis at MI6, which at this point is run by M, played by stalwart Judy Dench.  She is the cold, distant mother who works outside the home and considers her job more important than her children.  In fact, she’s willing to sacrifice them Medea like to achieve her goals.  As a result, one (a tres amusing Javier Bardem, in equally tres amusing blond tresses that first made me think of Donald Trump and then wonder if the carpet matched the drapes) turns out to be gay and can’t handle the situation so he does what all gay men do when their mother turns against them—go mentally unstable and vow revenge (the Norman Bates route), while her other son (Daniel Craig, as stoically handsome and damned sexy as ever), grows up straight to do what every good hetero son does when caught in the same situation, bury his emotions deep within himself until he can’t create a meaningful relationship with anyone of the female persuasion (or as he’s more commonly known, James Bond).


Now the old white guys want to take MI6 back.  And M can find little support.  Even the token female on the inquiry board into M’s performance is a bitch and is more unforgiving of M than the men, with M’s only support coming from a condescending old white guy (Ralph Feinnes, not given a lot to do emotionally except for one scene where he finds himself rising to the occasion of a gun battle; but hey, it’s a paycheck).  But will the OWG’s win?  That’s the real question—not whether Craig will defeat Bardem, a conflict which is only there to distract the audience from the real apocalyptic issues facing the survival of the nation.


Okay, now that I’ve had my fun and left all my friends rolling their eyes at me, I do reiterate that Skyfall is enjoyable and exciting.  Sam Mendes, perhaps a long ways from American Beauty here, does a very commendable job as director, keeping all the various elements together, by hook and by crook if he has to.  The film opens with a riveting chase and fight scene choreographed to within an inch of Bob Fosse’s life, followed by a title sequence that would put Saul Bass to shame.


After this, though it never gets boring, the story does slow a bit.  This is mainly for two reasons.  The first is that the writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, keep bringing up some claptrap about the real crisis at MI6 being that the intelligence agency is stuck in the past and that the old must make way for the new (these scenes always felt forced and were never that convincing, especially since one can hardly imagine a more up to date and with the times organization than the computerized MI6 presented here).


And this emphasis seems a bit misplaced.  Much more interesting are the psychological make ups of Bardem and Craig’s characters, each of them given a traumatic past that is suppose to have made them what they are today.  But so little time is devoted to these much more complex aspects of the story, that these through lines don’t really have the emotional resonance one wished they would have had.


The second reason for a slight tediousness here is that the story, at least at the beginning, feels a bit made up as it goes along.  The action sequences and look of the film tend to overpower character and clarity of plot, so that even if the set pieces are pretty neat, a little energy seeps out when one scene doesn’t clearly lead to the other.  In fact, one almost gets the idea that the writers were given a group of locations (wonderful, amazing, startling to the eye and other senses locations—a skyscraper overpowered by electronic billboards; an isolated pagoda styled casino that feels like it’s floating in air and is lit by a million candles; an abandoned building on a deserted island with an Ozymandias statue in its courtyard; Winston Churchill’s bunker sans cigars), and told to create a story around it.   One has to give them credit for doing as well as they did (though one could wish for a bit more wit) and as the story goes along and once Bardem’s fey villain is introduced, the story gets tighter and tighter and marking time is replaced by true excitement.


The ending is a bit of a mixed message.  The old ways of hunting rifles and primitive knives win the day over the more modern weaponry of hand grenades and choppers (both of the flying and shooting kind).   But the symbol of Britain’s past, a huge, decaying monstrosity of a mansion in the middle of nowhere (or the English countryside as it’s more commonly known), is reduced to rubble.   So out with the old and in with the…old?


Because the final scenes say it all.  The gay man dies; the women are removed from their places of greatest skill (an expert female marksman is reduced to being a, wait for it…secretary—but, hey, even if she can’t type, at least she has a great figure for the men to ogle over); all racial minorities have been put in their place; and a typical father figure, as reserved, white and straight as 007 himself, takes over…all as the Founding Fathers intended, if the Founding Fathers had founded England, which they didn’t, but the principle’s the same.


Let the eye rolling commence.