HUMANITY AT ITS BEST AND WORST: Movie Reviews of Sicario and The Martian by Howard Casner

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Sicario, the new thriller about the drug war written by Taylor Sheridan (a first film) and directed by French Canadian flavor of the month Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoner, Enemies), is, in many ways, two movies for the price of one.

The first is an action/adventure film full of car chases and gun battles and plot twists (many of which, if truth be told, I found just a tad tenuous at best) of the action/adventure variety.

The second is a treatise on the drug war.

The first film is often quite successful and impressive. The second is, at least from my perspective, quite shallow and unconvincing.

This means that for much of the time, Sicario is definitely and highly entertaining. Sheridan and Villeneuve, along with the incredibly soaring cinematography of Roger Deakins (one of our finest today), the film editing of Joe Walker, and the heart throbbing music of Johan Johannson, have crafted an edge of your seat story that never really stops and never really lets you stop watching. Read the rest of this entry »

BIG THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES: Movie Review of Ant-Man 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.


and check out my Script Consultation Services:



ant manWhen word came down that they (and we all know who “they” are even if we don’t know who “they” are) were making a movie based on the Marvel character of Ant-Man, well, let us say that there was a bunch of groaning and/or unintentional laughter followed by, “Oh, you’re serious”.

Among my comic book geek friends, Ant-Man, a superhero who could miniaturize to the size of the referred to hard working insect, as well as control them, had never been taken that seriously.

With the name not really helping much.

And when I first saw the previews, I didn’t see any additional reason for optimism. They seemed fairly, well, lame.

So now I’ve seen the movie itself and I have to say…it’s not bad and actually has some worthy virtues to speak of.

Who’d have thought it?

The basic premise is that an ex-con (but don’t worry, one of those heroic ones, a computer hacker robin hood, so that way we can cheer him on) gets lured into a life of superherodom by a retired scientist trying to stop an-ex intern, now owner of the scientist’s former company, from exploiting the scientist’s technology of shrinking objects and people and selling them to the highest bidder for world domination purposes (with that neo-Nazi group HYDRA somehow managing to have the most moolah to do it after being so soundly defeated by Captain America and Co. a year or so ago—where do they get their funds? The Koch brothers?). Read the rest of this entry »

Moview Reviews of AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE PAST by Howard Casner

I’m not sure what the biggest crime in the new, based kinda, sorta, but who knows how much on a true story movie American Hustle is: the ABSCAM scandal at the center of the plot or those awful, awful fashions we use to wear at the time (some people may think that Michael Wilkinson’s designs are exaggerated for comic affect, but I tell you, they seem painfully close to the real thing to me).


I have to be honest, I did have some trouble with the film at first and for me the issue was Christian Bale in the lead as Irving Rosenfield, a con-man with a fake comb over (got symbolism?).  I have always had issues with Bale, and it’s really not his fault.  But I always felt he was trying way too hard to be Daniel Day-Lewis and he couldn’t quite carry it off.  Where Day-Lewis seems to disappear into his roles, Bale always seems to be saying, “look at me pretending to be someone not remotely like myself”.   And it’s always been a stickler to me when it came to his films.


I also don’t think it helped that the movie started with a rather loooooong introduction via voice over that just never seemed to stop.


But as the story gained traction and the supporting cast made their presences known, I forgot all about Bale’s calling attention to his talent as much as I forgot about Rosenfield’s comb over, which I think says a lot about both, actually.


And such a supporting cast: Amy Adams as his girlfriend and partner in crime who revels in showing off her side boob as much as her rather convincing, fake English accent (well, it’s better than Irving’s hair); Bradley Cooper as an over eager government agent who, somehow, miracles of miracles, is the only one who looks good in the period clothes and hairstyles (and he’s a much better dancer here than in Silver Linings Playbook); Jennifer Lawrence, riotously hysterical as Irving’s bi-polar wife; Jeremy Renner as a corrupt, but well-meaning mayor with a pompadour that looks like it’s about to take over the world; and  in smaller roles, Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering boss and Michael Pena as a fake sheik.


If nothing else, American Hustle is one of the most deliriously entertaining movies of the year.   The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell has a fun, frantic 1930’s farcical feel to it.  It seems to revel in the amorality of it all; in the ridiculousness of the situations; and, perhaps most pleasurable of all, in the incredibly neurotic relationships of the characters until the whole thing feels like a Warner Brother’s pre-code movie starring James Cagney in the con-man lead; Carole Lombard as his partner in crime; Jean Harlow as his wife; Clark Gable as the government agent; and Warner Baxter in the cameo as the corrupt mayor.  Throw in a few character actors like Edward Everett Horton as the agent’s boss and Mischa Auer as the fake Sheik, and your back in the days of “more stars than there are in heaven”.


American Hustle also has some of the strongest and most interesting female characters in awhile.  In this, the movie also harkens back to the 1930’s in it’s portrayal of women as alpha females who attract men because they are alpha females (rather than today when alpha females are often ridiculed and put down by screenwriters) and in its portrayal of men who are as willing to make as big of emotional fools of themselves over women as the women are over the men.  And if anything, the women are far more in control of their emotions and destinies than any of the alpha males here.


It’s an attitude I feel is often missing from today’s rom coms (because no matter what else it is, American Hustle at the core is really a love story between two con artists).  Of course, Singer and Russell still had to go into the past to pull it off, but at least they didn’t have to go eighty years to do it.


And the film feels like a step forward for Russell whose last couple off films (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), though entertaining, felt a big tame and familiar, even formulaic.  Perhaps there’s something about the story itself and the screenplay that took over.  Whereas the earlier films felt like standard tropes and familiar arcs directed with an anarchic, chaotic style, American Hustle feels like a story that is all anarchy and chaos directed in, well, an anarchic, chaotic style.  It refuses to let itself be put in a box and Russell didn’t force it, but let it be what it needed to be.



The Past, the new movie by writers Massoumeh Lahidji and Asghar Farhadi, who also directed (Farhadi gave us the searingly intense A Separation), feels like a table with a leg missing.  It has three dynamic and powerful performances from Bernice (The Artist) Bejo, Tahar (A Prophet) Rahim and  Ali  (who has done a lot of other things, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with him, but his hairpiece is far more convincing than Bale’s) Mosaffa in a sort of love triangle.  And their intensity carries the film for quite awhile.  But in the end, they are let down by a story that doesn’t quite hold up.


It took me awhile to figure out where things went wrong, but it happens about a third of the way through.  In the first part, the story gains a lot of tension as Ahmad (Mosaffa) comes to France to finalize a divorce with his wife Marie (Bejo), only to find out that she’s not only living with a younger man, Samir (Rahim), she’s pregnant by him, and Ahmad’s oldest daughter is virulently against the relationship for reasons she won’t say.


And then the movie takes a completely different turn and begins to focus not on Ahmad, but on the daughter and why she’s against Marie and Samir’s upcoming nuptials, all having to do with Samir’s wife who is in a coma after trying to kill herself.


Now at first glance, this may sound like an interesting turn of the screw.  But the problem is that this part of the story has nothing to do with Ahmad.  By the time the movie is over, you even wonder why he’s in the story at all.   In fact, almost as suddenly as he arrives, he disappears from the story for a good while as the other characters grapple with secrets being revealed.


There’s only one possible dramatic justification for Ahmad’s inclusion in the story and that is to get his daughter to confess a secret.  But that’s not really enough of a justification for him to be a part of it all, and so the structure seems wobbly and the forward momentum slows down as you’re no longer sure where the story is going.


Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, had a similar structure.  It starts out as a family having issues and then changes course when they hire a caretaker, but she gets thrown out of the apartment by the husband, has a miscarriage and the story becomes about what really happened.  But even there, the outcome of the story affected every single character.  Everybody in the film was inextricably linked to that one incident.  Here, Ahmad is more chopped liver and has nothing to really do.


The film is titled The Past and I’m not quite sure why.  At one point, Samir talks about the need to forget what has come before in order to get on with the future.  But that’s not really what the film as a whole has been about.  And when Samir has his speech, it feels tacked on, as if the writers had suddenly remembered what they had named their story, and now suddenly felt a need to justify it.

Movie Review of END OF WATCH by Howard Casner

End of Watch (written and directed by Training Day’s David Ayer) is basically the 21st century version of Adam 12, but instead of the bland, slightly robotic offspring of Jack Webb’s Joe Friday from Dragnet, we have two bullying, near psychopathic officers with messianic complexes (or asshole pricks as we say in the vernacular). I’m not sure it’s an improvement, but I am glad that LAPD police cars still have the words “to preserve and protect” in quotation marks as they did in Friday’s day (this last is an in-joke for anyone who’s seen Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself).

The movie is basically a series of episodes over a year or so in the life of Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), two partners who banter like the best of them. And that is the strongest aspect of the movie. Gyllenhaal and Peña act their characters for all they’re worth, playing off each other’s lines with a well, practiced feeling of improvisation. Ayer has a definite ear for how his characters talk and relate to each other.

But still…these are one scary set of dudes, bro. I mean, these dudes are scary. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet them in a well lit alley, much less a dark one. And that’s not the worst of it. There’s only one thing worse than asshole pricks. That’s asshole pricks that are always right.

And man, are these guys amazing or what? Well, the movie opens with a wild chase scene where the two officers force the other vehicle to crash and then take the two bad guys out with the greatest of ease. They answer a call on abducted kids and they find them tied up with duct tape in a back closet (no fool these guys, they can see through a drug addict’s paranoia like no one else). They decide to stop a truck on a routine traffic violation and are almost shot, discovering drug money in the process. They make the enemy of a cartel by answering a noise complaint and discovering a house trafficking in illegals. But most amazing of all, they save three children from a burning house with a single bound (well, a double bound, they actually go back for the third kid). Man, after awhile, it was like watching Meryl Streep’s life story in the Defending Your Life.

I mean, are these guys insufferable, or what? At the same time, Ayer does do something very well here. As much as you want these guys to get their comeuppance, when you realize how it’s going to come, you find that’s it’s really the last thing you want. And the ending is powerful (in spite of the fact that it, like many of the action scenes, are based on the cliché that people only get shot when it’s convenient for the plot). It socks you in the gut and you repent of all the awful things you’ve been wishing on these guys up until then.

The story is based on the conceit that Brian is filming everything. Well, sort of. Sometimes it seems obvious that what is happening is not being, or couldn’t be, caught on a camera. In addition, Brian is doing it for a school project, in spite of the fact that he never goes to school; never does homework; and never finishes the project. So in the end, the conceit is so inconsistent and arbitrary, one wonders why Ayer used it in the first place. At the same time, there are some scenes that, because they are filmed this way, give the whole enterprise a stronger feeling of realism.

The supporting cast has some unusual suspects in it. Anna Kendrick plays Brian’s girlfriend and then wife, Janet, and America Ferrera plays Orozco, a fellow officer. Both are both very good, but it may be unclear exactly what they are doing here in supporting roles. Kendrick is an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air, and Ferrera has won numerous awards (including an Emmy and Golden Globe) for her TV series Ugly Betty. Is this really the best that filmdom can do for these two talented actresses? Just throw them away in some minor role in an independent film? Is this really the state of American movie making today?

In the end, how one feels about End of Watch will probably depend on how much one can stomach the central characters. I guess I’m a pussy. For me, they were so obnoxious and annoying I found myself identifying with David Harbour, one of their fellow officers and bullying victims, who keeps warning them that they are playing with fire and are going to get burned. He’s out of the picture half way through, but I sympathize: I couldn’t figure out who was worse to deal with, the bad bad guys or the good bad guys.