FINDING ONE’S VOICE: Movie Reviews of Sing and Slash by Howard Casner

For questions:

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.


and check out my Script Consultation Services:


rev-1Sing is an animated comedy about a koala bear producer about to lose his theater to the bank. To save his theater he comes up with what he seems to think is the most brilliant and original concept ever in the history of furrykind, though original and brilliant are very loosely defined here. He will hold a singing competition (now, I know that stories like this do take place in alternative universes, but it may still be a bit hard to believe no one has come up with American Idol, The Voice, or even Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour yet).

But actually, it’s not that bad an idea on the koala’s part. And in the end, there is nothing that wrong with the film. It’s perfectly pleasant and fun at times.

At the same time, it never really grabs hold of you either. Read the rest of this entry »

ONE HOSPITABLE PLANET DOWN…8.8 BILLION TO GO: Movie review of Interstellar 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.



interstellarI had a very disturbing thought after watching Interstellar, the new thinking man’s sci-fi blockbuster by the Nolan brothers, Jonathan and Christopher (who also directed).

Earth is on its last legs and our only hope is to find another planet that we can move to. In other words, we’ve destroyed this world, but no worries, we’ll just pack up shop and move to another one and start all over. That is, until we use that one up and have to move again, I suppose. And again. And again.

I guess it’s no big deal. After all, we still have a possible 8.8 billion planets to make our way through. Which means that it’s a problem I won’t have to worry about in my lifetime.

But I’m not sure here. I guess when all was said and done, I didn’t find the ending to the movie to be as glorious a paean to the human spirit as much as I think I was supposed to. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET by Howard Casner

The first two thirds of The Wolf of Wall Street, the new fevered dream about evil doings in the stock market, written by Terence Winter and directed by Martin Scorsese, is a roller coaster ride of sex, drugs and (no, not rock and roll, though there is a lot of that thrown about in the background, along with a marching band in their underwear) greed.


This is Scorsese at his glorious best.  It’s a return to (do I dare use the “f” word; I mean, it’s such a “c” word; okay, I’ll do it) form (the “c” word, if your dirty mind didn’t guess it, is “cliché”).  It’s the Scorsese of Raging Bull, New York, New York, and Goodfellas.  The Scorsese that will pull every directing trick he can out of his bursting at the seams bag and explode it on the screen.


It’s the old Scorsese where you felt (pardon the vulgarity) that when there was fucking on the screen, he was banging away himself; that when people were stuffing white substances up their noses, he was using hundred dollar bills to do the same; that when people are conning the life savings out of poor hapless people, so was Scorsese (well, maybe that’s one screw turned too many, but then again, maybe it does sort of apply here in a way).


But as splendid and invigorating as his directing is, I think this movie demonstrates one very important aspect of Scorsese’s talent.  Scorsese is a great director, but he’s only a great filmmaker when he has a good screenwriter at his back.


I mean, to be ruthlessly honest and in full disclosure, I have not cared for a Scorsese film, outside a few documentaries, since Kundun.  But I never thought the issue was Scorsese’s direction.  No matter the film, he seemed as in command of the screen as ever.


But what always seemed to let him down was his screenplay.  Scorsese has always been one of America’s finest directors, but he has also been one who seemed especially dependent on his screenwriter.  And over the last number of years, he has careened like a pinball from bad screenplay (The Gangs of New York), to perfectly okay, but nothing great screenplay (The Aviator, The Departed), to awkwardly written and it just doesn’t work screenplay (Hugo), to perfectly dreadful screenplay (Shutter, or is it “shudder”, Island)—and most of the time with the movies ending up in tilt.


But here it looks like Scorsese may have found someone to save the day in Winter, a writer who also has many an episode of the TV series The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to his name.  Winter has created fascinating and fully realized characters, a narrative that is turn the page captivating, and dialog filled with wit and energy.


It is Winter (unless someone else came in and rewrote the screenplay behind his back, which does happen, I guess, but I’ve no reason to believe it here) who has come up with such priceless scenes as the hero Jordan Belfort’s first day selling penny-ante stocks where he mesmerizes his hapless fellow workers; the scene where his future second in command Donnie Azoff will quit his job if Jordan can show him a $72,000 pay stub; a talk about marrying first cousins; a riotously funny incident where a quaalude kicks in at just the wrong time; a scene where…


Actually, I could go on and on, I loved the writing so much.  But the scene that really stands out as a remarkable piece of authorship is the pas de deux between Jordan and his father where the father (played effectively in a change of pace role by former meathead turned director Rob Reiner) comes into Jordan’s office furious over some expense reports and then stays for a private conversation concerning what Jordan likes in prostitutes.  It’s the sort of scene where a screenwriter could die happy knowing that he has written it.


Again, for the first two thirds of the movie, the film is captivating and frequently surprised me.  Winter and Scorsese would often structure a scene the same way: it would start out hysterically funny (as in the marching band scene) and then suddenly turn ugly and revolting, often ending up looking like a homage to Hieronymous Bosch.  It’s obvious that Scorsese is fascinated by these Alpha-male wannabees.  It’s equally obvious that he is also disgusted by them as well.


However, it must be said, though, that it’s also equally obvious that it’s not always easy to tell when Scorsese’s fascinated by them and when he’s disgusted by them, something that will lead to problems in the last act.


And like so many end of year films, the movie is cleverly cast.  I mean, who would have thought that of all the people who came out of the Seth Rogan/Judd Apatow School of Performing Arts that it would be little Jonah Hill of Superbad that would end up showing the most interesting and exciting acting chops?


With Hill’s performance in Moneyball and this one as Donnie, he’s demonstrated that there is much more to his ability than adolescent frat movies (and I have nothing against adolescent frat movies, some of my best friends are adolescent frat movies).  He’s a whirling dervish of a character actor going powder filled nose to powder filled nose with Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan.  And they make some of the most beautiful timing together of the year.


DiCaprio, for his part, gives an equally strong performance in the title role.  He may not be quite as convincing when he tries to play poor working class, everyday, normal Jordan, but once the cocaine hits the nose, there is nothing stopping him from commanding the screen.


And both are supported by excellent performances from a cast including Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, Christine Ebersole, and Fran Lebowitz (basically playing the same character she played regularly on Law & Order).


But then it happens.  We reach that final third.  And then things stop working as well as they were earlier.  And I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  First, Jordan not in command of his empire of the sun, but stuck ala Charlie Sheen at his mansion, complete with a tracking bracelet, just isn’t very interesting; he’s back to being the Jordan in the opening scenes, and there’s just not a lot for DiCaprio to work with here to keep the energy up.


However, more important, I think Winter and Scorsese make a very serious misstep here.  Everybody involved in the making of the movie keeps claiming that, even though at times Winter and Scorsese seem to be celebrating what the characters are doing, they aren’t really condoning how these characters act and what these characters have done.  And I believe it.


But where Winter and Scorsese go wrong is that they ultimately make the story about what Jordan does to Jordan, what he does to himself.  But that’s not really what Jordan’s story is about.  The story is about what Jordan has done to the American economy and the myriads of people whose lives he destroyed.  But that aspect of the story doesn’t interest Winter and Scorsese for some mind boggling reason.  In fact, all of that is chopped liver as far as they are concerned.


All the two really care about is Jordan.   But Jordan, though fascinating, isn’t really a character worth caring about in the end.  It’s his victims who are worth caring about.  It’s sort of like doing a movie about, I don’t know, the notorious Civil War prison Andersonville and having the important aspect of the story be about Henry Wirz and what he did to himself, while completely ignoring the 13,000 POW’s who died there.


And after all, isn’t Jordan’s drug taking and sexcapades really the least of his sins?  I mean, if that’s the worst that Winter and Scorses can bring themselves to accuse Jordan of, there’s something really screwy with the morality here and it’s not all on the screen.


So the writer and director had a chance to rise above what their movie ultimately was, but they bunted instead.  And thus the mighty movie stumbles and to a certain degree fails as it approaches the finish line.  For Winter and Scorsese, it’s enough for them to just show that Jordan ended up in a country club prison playing tennis and after being released, becoming a second rate huckster on second rate TV shows in Australia, drumming up business on how to become a salesman.


With the result that rather than a movie that shows us what a monster Jordan became, we have a movie that, to quote a friend of mind, says little more than “sex is good, until it isn’t; drugs are good, until they aren’t; greed is good, until it isn’t”.


And in the end, Winter and Scorsese get conned by Jordan Belfort as much as the American public did.


And it’s a shame.

Movie Review of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and ALL IS LOST by Howard Casner

Dallas Buyers Club, the new, inspired by true events movie about the AIDS crisis, has basically the same plot outline as Schindler’s List. In Spielberg’s movie, Schindler, a gentile, takes advantage of an oppressed minority, Jews, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. In Dallas Buyers Club, virulently homophobic rodeo rider, hard living, electrician Ron Woodruff takes advantage of an oppressed minority, mainly homosexuals, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

And I’ve only just begun. In Schindler…, Ralph Feinnes plays a Nazi who runs a concentration camp that is responsible for the death of who knows how many Jews. In Dallas…, his counterpart is played by Dennis O’Hare, a doctor who runs a hospital that joins forces with the pharmaceutical company (the Nazis in this piece) that is responsible for the death of who knows how many people with AIDS because of the way medication is dispensed (with money the ultimate arbiter). Schindler’s right hand man is a Jewish accountant. Woodroof’s is a drag queen. And In Schindler…, the concentration camp commandant has a mistress, a Jewish woman caught between two worlds. In Dallas, it’s a female doctor caught between two worlds.

Okay, I’ve had my fun. I just couldn’t resist. And in the end, I think it’s safe to say that Dallas… hardly rises to the level of Schindler… But Dallas… does help shed light on a shameful moment in U.S. history where prejudice and homophobia, as well as pharmaceutical greed, determined how a plague was to be treated.

The film itself, with a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and direction by Jean-Marie Vallee (who gave us both the wonderful and emotionally rich semi-autobiogrpahical dysfunctional family drama of C.R.A.Z.Y. and the surprisingly effective, epic dysfunctional family drama of Young Victoria), is not as impressive as one would like. It’s a bit draggy (pardon the pun) in parts, with scenes of clunky, even embarrassing, dialog. And the movie often seems to do little but cover the basics and get the story told. Some of the characters, like the female doctor, played by Jennifer Lawrence, seem to have no reason to be in the movie at all and it shows in the performances (Lawrence has nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it; at one point, she claims to have been a friend to one of the main characters, but you have to take her word for it, because there’s little to indicate it in the screenplay here). And Vallee doesn’t’ do much as the director except get the job done.

But it does have two factors in its favor and they are the performances of Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, the drag queen.

I have to be honest. I have never been that impressed by McConaughey as an actor. He is perfectly fine in what he does, but I have just never responded to his thespian abilities the way others have. I’m perfectly willing to admit it’s me and we all have those actors who just don’t work for us the way we would like. But what I have admired about McConaughey is his brilliance in picking pitch perfect parts for himself as well as his incredible work ethic. He’s like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford on steroids—I may not be a great actor, damn it, but I’ll work so hard at it you won’t be able to tell the difference.

And Woodroof is perhaps the perfect McConaughey role, as perfect as Atticus Finch was for Gregory Peck. It feels a part written expressly for the actor and he goes at it tooth and nail, including losing so much weight he looks as skinny as a Hollywood starlet desperate to be hired. He may still be little more than good ol’ boy Matthew, but isn’t that exactly what you want for the role?

Jared Leto, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable and seems to just relax into his role, completely disappearing into it as if he was to the too plungy neckline born (a joke that will only make sense if you see the movie, and yes, Rayon, it is too plungy). His performance is made all the more poignant and deeply moving in the one scene where he doesn’t appear in drag, donning a business suit to seek help, as well as say goodbye, to his embarrassed father.

The film also refuses to stint in informing the audience how the pharmaceutical companies used the epidemic in order to make money off their medications, manipulating and controlling the FDA, and coercing doctors through medical studies to use their drug (here AZT) and to ignore all others. It’s an infuriating story that still needs to be screamed from the hospital tops. (To be even more infuriated, if that is your want, see the movie Fire in the Blood

All in all, I can’t say that Dallas Buyers Club rises above what it is. But as hit and miss as it may be, it is a real eye opener and delivers enough of the goods to make it worthwhile.

All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie (I think there are some others involved here, but I’m not aware that anyone really cares that much about them), starts at the end. Redford delivers a voice over informing the audience that it’s over, that he’s gotten himself into a situation he can’t get out of and he’s sorry, but that’s just the way it is. The movie then goes back eight days to begin from the beginning.

So basically what we have here is a story in which all we do is wait an hour and a half to find out if a man lives or dies. And how you respond to the movie will probably depend on how interested you will be in what Redford’s character has to do to survive. For me, there’s not really much going on of great interest here. The boat that Redford’s character is using to sail in the middle of nowhere gets hit by a lost cargo bin full of tennis shoes and from then on out, it’s him against the elements. If you like that sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing you’ll like, but I didn’t find anything that original and fascinating about it all (well, there is one exception—I thought it incredibly clever how he makes water—no, I don’t mean urinates, I mean, actually desalinizes sea water) and after awhile I was desperately hoping a tiger might show up, whether it was all in the character’s head or not.

Redford has been praised for his performance here. This puzzles me a bit. For the most part, he’s just doing this and that to survive, showing no emotion or inner life at all. In other words, it’s a role that actually requires an actor not to act, which is actually so far so good and would seem to be a part that would be just the thing for him. But when Redford is actually required to display his art, to show emotion, to let the audience in on what is going on inside (like the moment he yells “fuck” in frustration at the universe), it was embarrassingly unconvincing and I cringed. In fact, this may be one of his weakest and least interesting performances of his career.

The screenplay and direction is by J.C. Chandor. He does little with either role as far as I can tell. He did much better with his previous film Margin Call, a chamber piece full of claustrophobic scenes filled with people trapped in offices. Here, where the background is the wide open seas with endless horizons, he can’t seem to really bring anything new and/or exciting to what then really ends up being just another routine entry in the man trying to survive against nature genre. And Chandor gets trapped by his ending. If Redford’s character survives, it really is just another run of the mill genre piece. If he doesn’t, then the movie has no reason for existence.

One thing that did come to mind here is the recent (to me mind boggling) critical approach to film that says that the movie that is the most visual with the least dialog is better than that other kind. But for me, this film is the proof that such a critical approach is no guarantee of a better film. All is Lost is visual, all right. In fact, that’s about all it is. One could even call it an exercise in minimalism. However, in the end all it really seems to prove is that less is not necessarily more.

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 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.