Is There Balm in Gilead: Movie reviews of Aloha and Love & Mercy by Howard Casner

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alohaI’m not sure that I can really add to the general response to the movie Aloha (it’s 20% at and I don’t think the box office is of the more optimistic size), but far be it from me not to join in and kick a man while he’s down.

About three quarters of the way through the new rom com written and directed by Cameron Crowe (who also gave us the very good Almost Famous, Say Anything and Singles, but not much else since except for, well, Jerry “Show me the money” McGuire, but, no, I’ll stick with not much else since, thanks), I turned to my friend Jim and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to be honest: I have no idea what’s going on here”.

Jim laughed and sighed in relief because he had no more of a clue than I did.

The plot eventually does make sense; well, within the context of a not particularly well written movie it makes sense, but overall, as a piece of writing, it really makes little sense at all.

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THE MOORE THE MERRIER: Movie reviews of Still Alice and Maps to the Stars and why Julianne Moore will win the Oscar this year 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.


still alice twoJulianne Moore is destined to win the Best Actress award at the 2014 Academy Awards. It’s written in the stars (pun intended) as much as any plot in a drama by Aeschylus or Shakespeare. Far and wide it has been announced that it is Ms. Moore’s year. And who am I to argue with the stars, metaphorical or not?

Now, the question that remains is, “why”? What confluence of events, both within and without anyone’s control, has lead Moore to this momentous precipice?

I’m glad you asked. I shall try and enumerate the reasons.

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Movie Reviews of ADULT WORLD and AFTER THE DARK by Howard Casner

Adult World is kind of an odd duck of a movie.  One of the things that makes it so odd is that it has at its center one Amy, who has to be the most unrealistic, most unbelievable, most underdeveloped character in a movie in some time.


Of course, in her defense, this is because she isn’t a real person by any strain of the imagination.


She is, in fact, a construct, a thing created by the writer Andy Cochran to revolve the movie around and is no more flesh and blood and has no more dimensionality to her than, say, the sex toy that Alex, who manages the shop that provides the title for the film, blows up and can make speak.


Amy somehow graduated from college a virgin; has never been to a sex shop and is freaked out when she does so; has never come into contact with a transgendered person and is freaked out when she does so; and wants to be a poet for some reason that’s unclear and though she isn’t willing to do anything that helps make one such a person.  She has no concept of the real world or how it operates or anybody who is the least bit different from herself.


I would say she is naïve, but that would be an insult to people who actually are so.  I’d say she’s a college graduate with the level of innocence of a person entering high school, except she isn’t even realistic enough on that level.  I would say she is pretentious, but again, that would be an insult to all those of the pretentious persuasion.


She just isn’t anything.


But now here comes what makes the movie a really odd duck.


She is surrounded by characters that are so fully fleshed out, that are so impressively three dimensional, and that have such a depth and vibrancy to them that it puts most indie films to shame.  And I’m not just talking about those at the center.  The movie has one of those casts in which characters with only three lines and one scene come close to making just as much of a lasting impression as those the movie revolves around.


And to add oddity to oddity, all those characters are played by actors who are so good, they actually are able to treat Amy as if she is a real person rather than a badly programmed robot.


Some of these actors aren’t around as long as they should be.  Cloris Leachman and John Collum as the husband and wife owner of the sex shop bill and coo and then disappear.  But Evan Peters as Alex with his shaggy dog hairstyle and puppy dog eyes is quite disarmingly charming.   And Armando Riesco as the pre-op transsexual Rubia nearly steals the movie as only a diva in her own mind can.  But she can’t quite.


And that’s because John Cusack does so in his portrait of a bitter, world weary and cynical has been poet who wrote a wunderkind volume of verse at 18 and whose life has gone down hill from there.  He’s cruel and vicious and mean, but you can’t be mad at him for it because he doesn’t hide it; he fully lets Amy know what she’s getting into as she forces herself into his life begging him to be her mentor.  And he must have the greatest set of double takes and wide eyed starings in horror and amusement and incredulity since Jack Benny.


I don’t know how any of them did it; let’s just be thankful they did.


The movie is directed by Scott Coffey (who has a cameo as a bookstore owner).  He also wrote and directed another movie, Ellie Parker, which also spent an hour and a half humiliating a woman (and for reasons that still remain unclear to my mind).


But though Adult World has its mean moments, it’s nowhere near as misogynistically unpleasant as the earlier movie since the writer this time, Cochran, can’t bring himself to completely humble and debase his creation, but gives her an ending of sweet awakening.


And because of that, Adult World ends up being a rather good time.




I’m beginning to wonder if 2014 is going to be the year of the pretentious student.


First there’s Adult World.  But we also have After the Dark, which is about a group of the most pretentious students you’ll see in some time, who attend the most pretentious high school philosophy class you’ll see in some time, taught by not just one of the most pretentious teachers you’ll see in some time, but also one of the biggest douchebags with a touch of sociopathology about him to ever grace the celluloid in some time.


For the last day at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia, this teacher has them play a game: each is given an occupation.  The apocalypse is nigh, but there’s only room for ten people in the bunker, so who do you choose to go in and who do you leave out?  This is actually a cute little game I played once in junior high; it was kind of fun and it did provoke some thought, but no one took it as seriously as the writer/director John Huddles does here.


And boy does Huddles take it seriously.  He takes every aspect of this movie seriously.  So seriously it’s very hard not to laugh at times, as when the teacher’s bestest student calls him a great teacher (I would have spit took if I had been drinking; instead I just had to guffaw loudly and then immediately cover my mouth in embarrassment) or when said teacher tells said student they’d make a great couple (yes, he’s sleeping with her and she’s cheating on her boyfriend and if you think they’d make a great couple then you must think George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are the poster child for the sacrament of marriage).


The game is played three times, with variations impishly added by the teacher twice and once by a student, supposedly to make the moral issues more muddled and difficult.


But the variations are so arbitrary (and often not that logical—in one scenario teach wants everyone to start mating immediately even though any babies born would rob the bunker of the oxygen they would need to survive), and everything about the fictional set up feels so catch as catch can, that after awhile there just isn’t any point to it anymore.


In fact, the way the teacher capriciously plays out the various variations on a theme, the only real conclusion one can draw is that it doesn’t matter what they decide because no matter what they do or who they chose, they all die.


Which would be fine (I mean, it’s a bit existential, but it’s actually a pretty good philosophical lesson to learn), except that didn’t seem to be the point of the game or the movie.


And which still might be fine if we didn’t find out in the last twenty minutes or so that nothing that came before is what the story is really about.  You see, there’s this, you know, twist? at the end that reveals that the teacher had an ulterior motive for all his actions.


Even that might be fine, except that once you find out what it is, none of the story makes that much sense anymore; the teacher’s choices almost never seem to have convincingly reflected this secret goal of his.


The acting doesn’t particularly help.  Everyone is so on the nose in their emotions and line readings, with everything so obvious and overly telegraphed.  They may have been taught philosophy, but subtlety apparently was never on the curriculum.  I think it’s safe to say that in this movie, Huddles doesn’t show a particularly deft touch with actors.


And Huddles can’t always seem to get the tone quite right.  There’s a running joke about a poet that is too viciously filmed to be funny and too much of a punch line to be taken seriously.  (At the same time, Adult World Amy should be thrilled she didn’t attend this school.)


But there is one area that must be praised.  The movie is shot at Prambanan Temple at Yogyakarta; Mount Bromo, East Java; Belitung Island, Indonesia; an airy classroom; and inside a beautifully designed bunker that is so amazing I’m not sure I’d want to leave it even when it was safe to do so.


Huddles and his director of photography John Radel make incredibly brilliant uses of these spaces, often giving the movie an excitement and tension that the screenplay and acting can’t quite seem to do.   What Huddles can’t do with the actors, he outdoes himself with the staging, leaving us at times with scenes that often sore in emotional resonance.


So it has to be said that there are, well, some moments that are utterly breathtaking and have a certain emotional power to them.


With Bonnie Wright and Rhys Wakefield as the teenage lovers and James D’Arcy as the teacher who doubles as a douchebag.

Movie Reviews of Frankenweenie, The Paperboy and Sister by Howard Casner

Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie. The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton. Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist. Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car. While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that. The short was clever and refreshing. The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding). The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s). The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch. Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff. In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.

The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture). Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract). The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere. This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story. It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character. What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares. Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively. No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest. To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances. In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen). The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here. So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.

Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category. Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister. Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals. You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship. The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically. There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson. The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.