Les Girls Encore: Movie Reviews of The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Aquarius, Denial and Christine by Howard Casner

For questions: hcasner@aol.com

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I am now offering a new consultation 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?  FosCheck 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


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rev-3In my last review, I mentioned that a number of films opened with women as the central character. This week, this trend continues with five more. And now that fall is upon us and productions companies and distributors are going to begin release of films to qualify for the Academy Awards, we should see a number more as everyone races for a Best Actress nod.

The lesson I suppose is don’t look for female driven movies from Hollywood and the studios, but from independent and art films and the prestige pictures at year’s end.

The Handmaiden is a new import from South Korea, one of the two countries that, along with Romania, are producing the most interesting films internationally. It is based on Fingersmith, a thriller by Welsh (and lesbian) writer Sarah Waters that in the novel takes place in Victorian era Britain, but has been switch to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea because, well, little is more universal than murder and other nasty deeds.

To show how pretentious moi can be, The Handmaiden is as if James Cain wrote Victorian pornography using a Rashomon type structure. Read the rest of this entry »

HOT AND COLD: Movie reviews of Words and Pictures, Cold in July and Chinese Puzzle

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

words and picturesOfttimes of late, and not so late, I get into a discussion/argument/knock down drag out fight as to whether the director or the screenwriter is more important to the success of a movie, or even to the existence of a movie. The conflict usually boils down to which is more important, the visual or written aspects.

It’s a silly argument, at least it should be, because the answer is that both are important and neither should be denigrated (and are often so intermingled that you can’t even tell what part of the film resulted from one over the other). It’s a pretty obvious conclusion, though you’d be surprised as to how many people don’t go for the obvious. Read the rest of this entry »


Birth of the Living Dead is a rather delightful little documentary about a subject that is in many ways not quite so delightful: how the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead came about. It’s tight, to the point, and has at its center the grand old man himself, George A. Romero, who comes across more like a youthful imp pulling a prank rather than the maker of a movie that reached into the core of our beings and found something new and original that scared the hell out of us.

The movie has two major through lines. One is how to make an independent film. The other is how a low budget, second rate horror film that, in a perfect world, would never have found its way out of the bottom half of a double bill at drive-ins and dive movie theaters managed to become one of the most important horror films of all time (let’s face it, from a strictly objective viewpoint, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was right at the time: it’s “a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.”).

But both through lines are significant life lessons for up and coming filmmakers. As a DIY project, Romero and his fellow producers were incredibly resourceful: everybody did double duty (producers, make-up artists, even Romero himself doubled as actors and sometimes redoubled as zombies); they asked all their commercial clients to play the living dead; they knew someone who owned a meat packing plant, so they used him in the movie so they could have entrails for ghouls to feast upon; they had a local newscaster play a newscaster in the movie with the result that he wrote his own copy and got them permission to use the station helicopter to do aerial shots; they cast the host of the local, late night scare fest movie program, and he gave them free plugs and the audience weekly updates. It’s amazing and even inspiring just how resourceful Romero and the others were in taking advantage of whatever they could in order to get the film made.

But they were also very lucky. Though Romero does admit that there was always something of the movie that is a reflection of the political unrest of the time (especially the news footage of the Viet Nam War), they cast Duane Jones, a black actor, in the lead, a character that was never specifically stated to be black; they cast him because he was a strong actor. And that accidental stroke of color blind casting suddenly gave the film a much deeper resonance: now it was not just a movie that grew out of attitudes toward the war, but also out of attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. And the fact that the movie was never rewritten to accommodate Jones’ race just made the racial aspect of it stronger.

And it’s the amateurish, non-professionalism that makes the movie rise above what it is. It’s a bad movie in which the factors that make it bad make it not just a good movie, but a classic. The flat acting, the black and white shaky cinematography, the graininess, everything that makes it something that a studio wouldn’t touch, make it seem so realistic, it really gets under your skin and makes it very difficult to forget.

And all the while, Romero is just sitting there laughing and laughing and laughing about the absurdity of the whole enterprise.

Kill Your Darlings is a movie about a group of people who hate everything pretentious, pompous and conceited, yet whose every action and whose every utterance that pours forth from their mouth is pretentiousness, pomposity and conceitedness incarnate. The problem is that I’m not quite sure that writers Austin Burn and John Krokidas, who also directed, intended this.

The film is based upon the true story of the murder of David Kammerer by one Lucien Carr while Carr and other beat darlings Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac tried to craft a new literary vision in 1944 at Columbia College in New York City. It’s a great subject and the movie is certainly not without interest. But it also never really comes together in a very satisfactory way either. At times it feels like it’s going for the painfully nostalgic feel of the early scenes in the movie and TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited, scenes that reveled in the halcyon days of Cambridge in the 1930’s. But Burn and Krokidas can’t seem to get that tone, or even any tone, quite right. The ingredients all seem to be there (the late nights in Harlem at jazz clubs; the benzydrine and drug induced rebellions; war time New York in the overcast fall and winter; the wonderful costumes and set design; the fear of being found out gay), but Krokidas can’t quite seem to find the right rhythms and style.

Neither can Dane DeHaan in the key role as Carr. DeHaan is just never convincing enough as someone who seems to think he’s the heir to Oscar Wilde (except in the boudoir, which is, in many ways, his fatal flaw). His performance seems forced for too much of the film. And without a strong Carr, there’s little for the movie to hang itself onto.

Everyone else does a credible to excellent job. Harry Potter has put a lot of effort these last few years in making us forget he’s Harry Potter. Daniel Radcliff gives a very solid and often empathetic performance of a budding genius. There are some marvelous supporting turns here (David Cross and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s parents; Broadway legend John Cullum as a curmudgeon professor who recognizes talent even when he doesn’t want to see it; Michael C. Hall as the desperate and doomed Kammerer; and Jack Huston as a Jack Kerouac with eyes that have sparks coming out of them). In the end, though, it’s Ben Foster who wins the acting honors in a witty and spot on performance as the future novelist William Burroughs.

The movie does do one interesting thing. It starts off making one character seem to be the sociopathic predator and then reveals that no, that person is really no more than a sad, pathetic wreck of a human being, while the apparently sad, pathetic wreck turns out to be the true sociopath. It’s a neat little trick and it helps make the last third of the movie the strongest and most riveting section. But in the end, it’s not really enough and the movie falls short of what it might have been.

15 Years and One Day is Spain’s entry in the 2014 Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Ostensibly it’s one of those old warhorses about an older person and a younger person finding their lives intertwined with the result that both are inevitably and forever changed. Ostensibly, I say, because if that is the point, the movie has one of the more unusual structures for such a sub-genre. The grandfather isn’t even introduced until after a third of the movie has gone by and the grandson subsequently ends up in a coma for about a third of the remainder. So just when they were supposed to have interacted in order to change each other is a bit of a mystery. There’s also some subplot about the death of a teenage bully, homophobe and sociopath in the making (an immigrant, the bad guy du jour, natch), which is never quite convincing. In other words, the film, written by Santos Mercero and Gracia Querejeta, who also directed, is what we call a bit all over the place and can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be about. With newcomer Aron Piper as the grandson; Maribel (Y Tu Mama Tambien) Verdu as the mother; a strong Tito Valverde as the grandfather. Also with Belen Lopez as a police officer who, for some puzzling reason, keeps shrugging off the grandson’s actions with a boys-will-be-boys attitude when the grandson is so obviously a teenage Dexter. She also seems to suggest that a gay youth who killed someone in self defense while being physically assaulted and gay bashed (and threatened with rape) is in deep do-do; that perhaps is the scariest part of the movie.