WHITE MEN’S BURDENS: Movie Reviews of Suburbicon, Victoria and Abdul and Brad’s Status by Howard Casner

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Suburbicon, the new postmodern, neo-noir written by Joel and Ethan Cohen, Grant Heslov, and the film’s director George Clooney (perhaps two writers too many), is probably best described as if the Cohen brothers had adapted a James Cain novel with a bit of A Raison in the Sun tossed in for good measure.

The basic premise is that seemingly mild mannered middle class family man Gardner (Matt Damon) has paid some thugs to break into his house pretending to rob it, but in reality they have been hired to kill Gardner’s wheelchair bound wife (Julianne Moore) for the insurance money and so he can marry his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore redux), who has a set of perfectly good legs thank you very much. Read the rest of this entry »

NO MORE FUN AND HUNGER GAMES: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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


hg 1At the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, I was left with one burning question: was Alma Coin, leader of the revolution, trying to bring freedom to the land, or was she only seeking power?

Well, I have now seen The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and I have my answer.

And no, I’m not going to tell you because it leads to one of the most satisfying climactic scenes in movies for a while.

Of course, I should start off by saying that there is no way I will admit that The Hunger Games is great filmmaking. It certainly has a myriad of faults.

At the same time, I have found this franchise to be more intellectually intriguing, even fascinating, than others like it. There has always been something about the stories that stayed with me, something buried (a bit too much, I believe, at times) at the core of it. For me, The Hunger Games has always been a complex study of how a revolution begins, builds and bursts forth upon the land combined with the crowd pleasing wrappings of a commercial aesthetic.

It’s certainly no Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Yet, I find it more rewarding than Harry Potter if for no other reason than half the time I never quite new where the story was going when it came to Hogwarts and environs (especially in the last entry which, in spite of being split into two films, I’m not convinced it ultimately made a lot of sense). Read the rest of this entry »

NO MORE FUN AND HUNGER GAMES or THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED: Movie review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I 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



mockingjay 1Okay.

How to start.

Well, there’s really no point in putting it off.

At the risk of losing what little reputation I have (if I even have one); at the risk of inviting ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn from those who read my reviews who don’t already hold me in ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn; and at the risk of being reviled by serious filmgoers far and wide…

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I is not nearly as bad as the critics claim it is and is by far the best entry in the franchise to date, far better than the first two films. 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.

Review of the Movies WHAT MASIE KNEW, THE EAST and HANNAH ARENDT by Howard Casner

What Maisie Knew is the lovely, at times magical, even transcendental, new movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. The description might seem a little odd, even ironical, since the movie is a study of a vicious and acrimonious divorce by two people who would feel right at home in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

What Maisie Knew is Kramer v. Kramer as seen from the eyes of the true victim in stories like this, the child. Maisie is still in pre-school. She’s old enough to know that something is going on, but not old enough to know exactly what it means. Hence, she spends most of her time playing her reactive role with all the cuteness and charm the directors can get out of her. Maisie’s parents divorce and then each remarry. But they don’t remarry because they’re in love or want a relationship—they remarry in order to gain the upper hand in a custody battle. Not only that, they each marry someone younger than they are with what seems to be the express purpose of having a live in babysitter. If it weren’t so damn serious, it would be a comedy; but it’s not. It’s just sad and pathetic.

But Maisie is a lucky little girl. Her situation is terrible, but in the two people that her parents marry, she finds a loving couple who are willing to put Maisie first. Another of the ironies here is that her “babysitters” are better parents than her parents are. And she has a happy ending. I’m a little ambivalent about that, if truth be told. It’s straight out of Kramer v. Kramer and I Am Sam, both of which had resolutions that grew out of sentimentality and wanting to please the audience; as a result, neither were remotely believable or satisfying. And the ending of What Maisie Knew also seems a little pat and formulaic (the ending in the book by Henry James—yes, this is an adaptation of a novel by that Henry James, one of the more original adaptations of a Victorian novel, if nothing else—and the characters of the “babysitters” are handled differently). At the same time, I think What Maisie Knew comes much closer to earning its fairy tale ending than those earlier child custody films. And one just sighs with relief as the credits come up.

The actors are made up of a cry of players who handle their parts with great skill. Julianne Moore as Maisie’s mother plays the character given the least sympathy, the working woman who is neurotic and unhappy because she is a working woman; but she gives a marvelous performance nonetheless. Steve Coogan demonstrates that he can play drama as well as comedy with ease. Joanne Vanderham plays the new wife of Coogan’s character (Maisie’s governess) and has one of those accents where you never want her to stop talking. Alexander Skarsgard makes good use of his gangly body, awkward teeth, and goofy looks as the person who can relate to Maisie on her own terms since he is basically a child in a man’s body. And Onata Aprile is Shirley Temple ingratiating as the long suffering Maisie.

Early on in the movie The East, Patricia Clarkson, who plays the boss of the central character, Sarah, says something to the effect that Sarah reminds her of her when she was young. At this point, I thought, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”. And it was as The East quickly became a rollercoaster of clichés and formulaic, second hand plot turns.

Sarah is played by Brit Marling and in many ways, she has done something of genius. Not getting the parts she wanted in movies, or parts she felt were worthy of her, she decided to write her own parts and produce her own movies. The result was the highly imaginative and deeply moving Another Earth. Since then, she has made two other films in this manner, Sound of My Voice and now The East, neither of which have apparently risen to her debut attempt. This really isn’t all that unusual. Someone once said that everybody has at least one story in them. I would hate to think this is true of Marling, not after Another Earth, but to be ruthlessly honest, the omens are not favorable at this point.

Sarah is an up and coming, hungry to prove herself, agent at a private intelligence firm. She is to infiltrate a group of eco terrorists. Two things happen that always happen in movies driven by formula and cliché. First, Sarah becomes empathetic to the terrorists’ cause. But second, and even worse (because it’s the most insulting cliché of all), since she’s a woman doing a man’s job, she has to find herself romantically conflicted as well. I told you it was a bumpy ride.

The strongest aspect of the films are the jams (what the terrorists call their missions), attacks that are ironic in the way they go after their target (the first is to take an anti-toxin with deadly side affects and slip it into the champagne at a party by the manufacturers in order to give them a…wait for it…taste of their own medicine). There is something clever, if not straight out poetic, about these attacks on the 1%, and they’re directed as if they were in a Hitchcock film. And the general background of eco-terrorism has a certain feeling of realism to it. But what seems strange is that if that much thought was given to this part of the film, why couldn’t as much thought be given to character, dialog and plot?

The supporting characters are played by talented actors like Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. But you leave wondering why they took such flat, expendable and unchallenging rolls in a small independent like this. Even worse, almost all the actors have to at one point give that speech, you know the one, about what drove them to do what they are doing, invariably reducing their motivations to pop psychology. Page has an especially painful one to sit through where she emotes that her reasons for becoming a terrorist was not to save the environment, but because she has daddy issues.

What started as a story about eco-terrorism and big brother spying at the end becomes a love story, and not a particularly convincing one at that. Even worse, there’s a coda during the credits where Sarah is shown going off and changing the minds of all her fellow agents. It’s ridiculous and preposterous. If you see the movie, be sure you keep that seatbelt on until the very end.

Hannah Arendt is a biopic of the Jewish German philosopher who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel for the magazine The New Yorker. Like so often happens when someone writes a lengthy and intensive article about a sensational subject, it’s usually only one or two small sections that get focused on once it is published. For Arendt, it was a suggestion that Eichmann had no real feeling about Jews, was not exactly anti-semitic, but was only following orders; and that Jewish leaders, by helping organize their people, contributed to the number of deaths, whereas if they hadn’t cooperated at all, far fewer people would have died. In many ways, her most memorable contribution to the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust is the idea that Eichmann’s attitude (that he was no more than a petty bureaucrat and that he was not in many ways essentially evil, but was just doing his job), is a reflection of the idea of the “banality of evil”, controversial at the time, but now commonly accepted.

In talking about the movie, there are two aspects to be covered. One is the aesthetics of the film, i.e., just how good it is as a movie. Another is the ideas it tries to communicate. On the first, the movie is perfectly all right and gets the job done. It’s not much more than that, and in some areas, a little worse. The strongest aspects of the film are whenever it focuses on Germans when they are speaking German. Whenever there are Americans speaking English, the movie becomes clunky and sometimes almost surreal.

The film is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of the filmmakers who contributed to the German new wave of the 1970’s (which also gave us Herzog, Fassbender, and Wenders), and written by von Trotta and Pam Katz, and it’s possible they just weren’t that comfortable when it came to the scenes with the American characters. Everything that happens in the U.S. feels forced, with the actors’ emotions pushed just a little too much. Almost no non-German actor seems comfortable in their roles, with line readings that feel a little faked, as if they were dubbed. Even an actress as talented as Janet McTeer, who plays author Mary McCarthy, can’t seem to overcome a certain awkwardness to her scenes. In fact, only Nicholas Woodeson, as New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, looks relaxed in his role, giving the exact amount of restraint to be convincing.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah, though, tears into the part with a fury. She fully invests in the role and is at times mesmerizing and charismatic, even when the philosophical arguments go over one’s head. Sukowa has been in many a von Trotta film from the early years and hopefully this collaboration will continue.

When it comes to the themes of the movie, the ideas of Hannah Arendt, I and my friend had a very intense discussion afterwards, so if nothing else, the movie is intellectually stimulating. We both questioned some of the Arendt’s conclusions (that it’s a fact, not an opinion, that the Jewish leaders only helped enlarge the number of Jews that died—how could anyone know that for a fact; and that Eichmann was only a petty bureaucrat—well, as any of us who have dealt with bureaucrats know that, petty or otherwise, there are ones who do nothing; there are ones who do their job and no more; and there are those who go at it with a vengeance, going way beyond their job description, which seems to be the category Eichmann fell into, something Arendt doesn’t seem to recognize).

But what really struck me is that, as her critics suggested (at least to me in the audience), she wrote her article without any concern about the consequences of it. Even she basically admits that. She’s a philosopher and, as such, all that matters is her ideas and being honest about them. In fact, from her perspective, it wasn’t her place to worry about anything else. She was just doing her job. But isn’t that the excuse Eichmann used?