GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO: Movie Reviews of Theeb, The Peanuts Movie and The Night Before by Howard Casner

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theebTheeb is Jordan’s entry in the Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards.

I think that it was stated best by one movie critic I heard on NPR: If you only see one Jordanian film this year, this is definitely the one to see.

Theeb is a first rate coming of age story. It’s what one might term a big little film. The plot in many ways is simple, but the background at times, the vast deserts, the wide vistas, the looming mountains, the huge backdrop of nothingness seen against an endless sky, gives it the feeling of a Lawrence of Arabia, Jr. (and parts of that movie were filmed on location there). Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of DON JON and CONCUSSION by Howard Casner

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it.
Preston Sturges: Sullivan’s Travels

I recently saw two films written and directed by people who took some interesting and unique looks at sex and relationships in the new millennium. But though one welcomes the filmmakers’ attempts at exploring such “taboo” topics (as much as anything can really be considered “taboo” anymore), and though both at times offered bold and challenging takes on their subject matter, neither one really came together in a totally satisfying way. In fact, I suppose one could say that each ended on something of a limp note, which I suppose is appropriate for stories about pornography and prostitution.

The first, Don Jon, stars (in the title role), is written by, and is directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which seems to fit perfectly with a movie about someone who masturbates a lot. It’s obviously a labor of love (and self love) on Gordon-Levitt’s part and it’s not without its pleasures, not all of which are onanistic.

It begins by making some incredibly forceful and insightful observations about sex. It certainly offers one of the best defenses of indulging in the viewing of adult filmmaking that I’ve ever heard. It even goes so far as to suggest that Nicholas Myer type movies are no more than porn for women (and again, makes a very, even scarily so, convincing argument for it—neither are remotely realistic looks at sex and relationships, and both are pure fantasy).

It then really goes for the jugular in what it has to say about male/female relationship (perhaps the most honest, if not depressing, view I’ve heard in some time, whether you agree with it or not). Men only want women for sex (even more alarming, in this metrosexual world, men don’t even need women to cook and clean for them—a revelation that causes Don’s girlfriend, played by a dynamic and dynamically sexy Scarlett Johansson, to freak out when she finds out that Don does his own housework; she knows a threat when she hears it). Meanwhile, women, knowing this, use sex to manipulate men into doing whatever they want. And the winner is whoever is most skilled at manipulating the opposite sex (sort of a bastardization of Shaw’s theory of the life force).

There are actually very exciting ideas, worthy of debate. Worthy of being asked. And Gordon-Levitt definitely asks them, and with a certain viciousness beneath the humor. But his ultimate answer is…well, rather conventional, even unoriginal, as it all kinda goes soft as the blood flows out of the organ in the second half.

This is because of Julianne Moore, playing Esther, a character who is, well, not really a real person, but more a construct needed to resolve all the issues brought up in the first half. Now, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she is no more than a construct because Moore is so good in the role, acting in a totally different, down to earth style from everyone else (if truth be told, Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Tony Danza-as the steroid looking dad-and the others are fun, but they do tend to push things dangerously close to becoming caricatures). Moore plays a woman who has lost both her husband and child. Fair enough. But what makes her a construct is that she also plays someone who has more insight into sex and relationships than a Ph.D. in psychology would have, speaking in calm, motherly homilies while getting Don to change his hair style (she’s just as manipulative as Johansson’s character, but is less confrontational about it).

And at this point, Gordon-Levitt as a writer starts to cheat. When Esther asks Don why he likes porn, he doesn’t give her all the cogent arguments he gave at the beginning of the film. He gives her only one. And with that, a movie that started out giving us a very convincing case as to why the missionary position is the most unfulfilling one for men, becomes a movie that embraces that position as the only one than can deliver true sexual ecstasy (there’s one scene that suggests that Don is starting to question his church’s teachings; maybe so, but he still ends up embracing its positions on, uh, well, positions?).

But I have to applaud Gordon-Levitt. He went for the trifecta in making his film and even if he didn’t get a home run, he still ended up with a movie that is handsomely produced with some fine performances and some very funny scenes, as well as a film that makes some astute observations about sex.

Even if it does peter out in the end.

Concussion, written and directed by Stacie Passon, has a different set of issues. The story is about Abby, a typical stay at home mom type with the added twist that her significant other is also a woman. Abby gets hit in the head with a ball and is rushed to the E.R. As a result, she begins questioning the rather Stepford like existence she’s been leading and finds herself drifting into the life of a prostitute.

Well, actually, that’s part of the rub. You see, the only way I would have known most of this is because I was told this before the movie began.

Concussion is one of those movies that begins in the middle of act one. We know nothing about Abby or what she’s like before the accident, so we have no context to judge what happens to her afterward (we don’t even see the accident itself). So is she a nice, lovable Donna Reed type who turns into the Wicked Witch of the West, or was she always the Wicked Witch (as she seems from the first scene) and after being beaned, she slowly begins to mellow and become nicer and more open to life as she drifts into the world’s oldest profession? I don’t know. I mean, even after half the movie had gone by and Passon seems to imply it’s what is behind Curtain No. 2, I still wasn’t sure.

And none of the other characters are any help, damn them. No one remarks that Abby is acting different in any way, which suggests, ipso facto, that there is no change. And if there isn’t, then what was the point of the accident, as well as the title?

The whole thing seems highly influenced by Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, also about a middle-class housewife (played by the great Catherine Deneuve) who is unfulfilled and becomes a lady of the afternoon. Concussion doesn’t reach the level of Bunuel’s film (what movie could). But Passon is also not that strong with pacing and the movie is a bit slow in parts. One of the ironies is that Bunuel never really shows the sex (it’s all suggested and kept off screen), while Passon fills the screen with a series of encounters that are dwelt on in a protracted manner. But Bunuel’s film seems so wicked and erotic, while Passon’s seems listless and emotionally uninvolving.

Concussion also goes soft in the same way Don Jon does. Abby seems to find a new freedom, a new way of looking at life. She becomes her own person and finds new ways of relating to people, all of which start to look good on her (Robin Wiegert as Abby is often very appealing in the way she struggles to come to terms with how she is changing). But when the secrets seep out, suburban morality once again rears its head and Abby opts for the comfort of Cheever/Updyke normality (at least I think that’s how Concussion ends—there’s a quick flash of Abby with some of the other characters that may indicate a different ending, but it went by so fast, I couldn’t tell if it was a flashback or a flashforward).

In Concussion this return to normality is symbolized by a wrap around porch. In Don Jon, it’s symbolized by the missionary position. But a rose by any other name, I guess.

Movie Review of LINCOLN by Howard Casner

The first thing I asked my friends when we left Lincoln, the new bio-pic of our Civil War president, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg (together again after Munich, like Astaire and Rogers and Bogart and Bacall) is, “Why wasn’t Matthew McConaughey in the film; he’s been in every other movie this year, and every other actor in the world is in up there on the screen, so, what, he’s too good for Spielberg?”  One friend suggested he was actually cast as John Wilkes Booth, but his part got cut.  Another suggested they just couldn’t find a place for him to take off his shirt and bare his rear end.  I don’t know, but I think TMZ should look into it.


In the 1930’s through 1950’s, during the height of the studio system, Lincoln is what would have been called a prestige picture, something that places like Warner Bros. and Paramount would produce not to make money, but to convince the public they didn’t just make escapist fare and trash that only appealed to the lowest common denominator (while winning Academy Awards).   A prestige picture was made to earn the respect of the public and the critics (while winning Academy Awards).   They were made so that Darryl F. Zanuck could point to it and say, “See, I do know art when I see it” (while winning Academy Awards).  And if you’ve ever seen The Life of Emile Zola, Wilson, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Judgment at Nuremburg, you know what I’m talking about.  You don’t see this as much from studios anymore, quite possibly because they no longer want your respect, they just want your money.


I’m sorry.  I can’t say Lincoln is that good a movie.   It’s often entertaining.  The basic story is quite fascinating and an important piece of history.  The acting is first rate.  But it also has all the faults of a prestige picture, or the three S’s as I call them:  solemn, self important and self aware that it’s good for you, like, you know, castor oil.


Tony Kushner’s screenplay is, if truth be told, a disappointment for me and possibly even the chief culprit here.  Kushner is perhaps the greatest U.S. playwright today.  He provided a dark and exciting screenplay for Munich, but this time round the dialog often felt flat, expository and on the nose (and stagy—at one point, Abe and Mary have an over the top argument that is acted and shot in such a way that I expected the act one curtain to descend at any moment).  During the opening scene where Lincoln talks to two black soldiers and then two white soldiers, my heart sank—was it all going to be as clunky as this?


Well, no, not quite.  At the same time, there is also some marvelous stuff here, some true wit and fun scenes (especially when Kushner pushes for contemporary parallels like lobbyists or an hysterical scene when Tommy Lee Jones as  Thaddeus Stevens interacts with a Representative who is willing to change parties if it will save his job—sound familiar?).  And there’s a powerful scene when Lincoln, fed up with everyone telling him why they can’t get enough votes to pass Obamacare (oops, sorry, I mean the 13th Amendment), he pounds his desk in fury and tells them to stop excusing themselves, but just get the damn thing passed.  But at the same time, as the story focused more and more on finding the votes for the 13th Amendment, it also became more and more like Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776, but without the songs (and ponytails, as my friend said, to which I said, but with the same bad wigs).


It must also be admitted that Steven Spielberg’s direction rarely helps, but only seems to emphasize the artificiality of the proceedings, especially when he does things like have Lincoln roam a battlefield choked with dead bodies and all you think is, “how beautifully it’s all laid out”.   The story also goes a scene too long and undercuts what could have been a more haunting ending.  And the ending that is chosen doesn’t really work.  It’s understandable that Kushner and Spielberg didn’t want to go for the same old, same old, but their choice here probably wasn’t any better.


And, yes, in spite of everything that may be wrong here, it’s almost impossible not to get teary eyed when the amendment passes.     And it does make its goal: it has prestige coming out its whazoo.


And then there’s the acting.  Daniel Day-Lewis plays Honest Abe and he is quite remarkable, there can be little dispute here.  Tall, gangly and wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders (when he’s not wearing a shawl), he shuffles through the role as if he was to the White House born.  But it must be said that it’s Jones who steals the movie with some of the cleverest line readings of his career (not always easy with the somewhat stilted dialog often provided the actors here).   And other thespians like Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt more than earn their paycheck.


The remainder of the cast tends to hearken back to epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told, where you would go, “That’s Claude Raines, that’s Jose Ferrer, that’s Charlton Heston, that’s Shelly Winters” (well, if you’re my age, you would).  At the same time, it’s a little different here because you’re more likely going, “Hey, it’s that geek from Breaking Bad, it’s that lieutenant from Law & Order, it’s that mobster from Boardwalk Empire, it’s that British guy who hung himself in Mad Men, and who is that soldier in the opening, I know who that is, just give me a sec, OMG, that’s Lukas Haas”.    It’s easy to understand why so many known faces are in this epic.  Like the actors in The Greatest Story Ever Told, they probably thought that if they were in a movie of such religious fervor, it would insure them a place in the afterlife.   Of course, I don’t know what that portends for McConaughey, but not everybody can be one of the chosen, I suppose.