A STUDY IN SCARLET and TALES OF HOFFMAN: Movie reviews of Lucy and A Most Wanted Man by Howard Casner

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lucyRicky Ricardo: Lucy’s actin’ crazy. Fred Mertz: Crazy for Lucy, or crazy for ordinary people?

               I Love Lucy

First, I must begin by being absolutely clear so that everyone knows where I stand. Lucy, the new sci-fi thriller written and directed by French filmmaker (and some people use that term loosely in this context) Luc Besson is a terrible film.

I mean, c’mon. You know it. I know it. We all know it’s terrible. It’s silly, nonsensical, preposterous, absurd, often makes no sense and is not remotely believable, even for an unrealistic fantasy sci-fi thriller.

Which is also, in m any ways, a redundant way to state it because, well, gees, I mean, c’mon, it’s a Besson film, for Christ’s sake.

But with that being said, it may very well be a…dare I say it…I dare…great terrible movie. Read the rest of this entry »

BRAIN DEAD: Movie Review of Transcendence by Howard Casner

Transcendence5-600x338Transcendence (or perhaps more aptly titled Trance-enduscence), the new sci-fi thriller written by Jack Paglen and directed by Wally Pfister (a first feature for both, though Pfister was the cinematographer on many Christopher Nolan films), is about a scientist, Will Caster, who tries to turn the world into a dystopian Eden when his brain is uploaded into a computer.

The basic structure is as familiar as any standard piece of Victorian literature, the period when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, a horror story about an egotistical scientist who tries to play God by creating a man out of a bunch of miscellaneous parts from dead bodies. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of THE LEGO MOVIE and IN SECRET by Howard Casner

In a perfect world, if someone went to the bigger of the big shots, the higher of the higher ups, the muckier of the mucky-mucks, at a studio and pitched them the idea of making a movie based on Lego blocks, he would have been hung, strung and quartered in such a way as to be sure that he could never have progeny so such a suggestion could never be made again (I  mean, just think how much pain and suffering we would have avoided if they had done that for Battleship).  But alas and alac, this is not a perfect world.


And to demonstrate just how imperfect this world is, not only did someone go to some big shot, high up mucky-mucks at a studio and pitch it, the studios said okay.  And to demonstrate even more concretely how imperfect a world we’re stuck in, the damn thing that resulted from such a preposterous and inexcusable idea is a fun, exciting, clever little film with more wit that you’d expect from a piece of block plastic and a funny group of yellow bodied puppets.


Is The Lego Movie any good?  I don’t know.  The movie never stops long enough for you to come to a conclusion one way or the other.  From the opening shots of our hero Emmet getting out of bed and singing an annoyingly upbeat song (annoying because it’s catchy and exciting and makes you want to stand up and jump around to it) to the huge battle scenes to the final tug at your heartstring moments, the movie rushes by as if it were all the outtakes from a Fast and Furious movie.


I mean, it has more energy than a nuclear power plant, than Michael Jackson on speed, than the wattage of a Shirley Temple smile.  If you looked up “forward momentum” in the dictionary, it would have a picture of this movie next to it.


It’s certainly not perfect.  The screenplay is both witty and clever, and even a tad on the brilliant side at times, while at others it’s a bit clunky.  The attempt to set up Emmet as a guy so ordinary no one knows who he is doesn’t quite click, and it’s unclear how this view of his character parallels his real life counterpart.  And the changes of hearts at the end seem a little forced.


And one is also just a bit alarmed that the writers, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also directed) and Dan and Kevin Hageman, know so much about Lego’s and seem so immersed in their history and place in pop culture that they can come up with tons of inside jokes.  Are they now e-mailing their parents and telling them, “See, I told you those hours we spent in the basement playing with these things rather than learning about world history and algebra or watching porn would pay off some day”.


But what is the point of quibbling (other than apparently it’s just what I do—ask my friends).  What can I really say about it except go, have fun, eat some overpriced popcorn.  It’s worth it.  The Lego Movie is one of the funnest, mostest entertaining time wasters you’ll see all year and there’s no point in fighting it.


I do think, though, that I should weigh in on the controversy from some conservative media outlets that the movie is an attack on big business.  I didn’t see it.  I mean, I saw it in Jason Segel’s The Muppets.  Like who couldn’t tell that was a pretty on the nose attack on Trumpers of every size, shape and form.   And I suppose one can see why some would automatically jump to the conclusion here that The Lego Movie is Stalinist plot to overthrow the minds of American younth in that the bad guy is called Lord Business.


But it seems obvious from the context that the conflict in the movie isn’t between the proletariat who control the means of production and the nasty, old capitalists (and I’m not mentioning names, Koch brothers) who exploit labor and would make slavery legal again if they could.  The conflict seems more between creativity and seriousness, taking chances and playing by the rules, being a child and being a rigid adult, having fun and being all business (uh-huh, uh-huh, get why the bad guy’s called who he’s called now, get it, get it?).


With the voices of Chris Pratt as Emmet; Will Farell as Lord Business; Liam Neeson as good cop/bad cop; Elizabeth Banks as Wildstyle/Lucy; Morgan Freeman making fun of his god complex as Vitruvius; Todd Hanson making fun of Ian McKellan’s god complex as Gandalf; and Jonah Hill brilliantly cast as Green Lantern.



In Secret is the umpteenth version of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, about a young woman, Therese (who else), who joins forces with her lover Laurent, an amoral painter, to off her inconvenient husband, the weak and near impotent Camille (which at one time in movie history was as not just a good reason, but a laudable one, to off a husband).


The screenplay is by the director Charlie Stratton adapted not from the book, but from a play version by Neal Bell, which may, perhaps, be one degree too separate for the movie’s own good because I’m afraid this particular version of Therese… never really catches fire and feels very safe and tame, not even up to Masterpiece Theater or Merchant/Ivory standards of engagement.


It’s a movie about people ruled by sexual passion, or the lack thereof, but the fucking and screwing is just this side of PG 13 (in fact, in spite of the almost Puritanically filmed couplings, the most sexually charged moment is a scene where Laurent talks dirty to Therese and Camille as he’s painting the poor hubby’s portrait in the after style of Ivan Albright’s Dorian Gray).  It’s a movie with a shockingly violent act at its center, but the act takes place off screen or in vague flashbacks.  It’s a movie that takes a full and vibrant character from the book and turns her into a poor, pale, pallid, boring imitation of a victim.


And perhaps that’s the one area where the movie really goes wrong.  Of course, it’s a matter of personal interpretation, but in the book (as well as the marvelous TV production with Kate Nelligan and Oldboy’s Chan-wook Park’s vampire version Thirst), Therese is anything but a victim and her benefactor Madam Raquin and her sickly son Camille are not evil sociopaths, just incredibly boring members of bourgeois, sucking the life out of the life that Therese thinks she deserves.


But in making Therese little more than a victim, it sucks the life out of the character even more than Camille and Madame Raquin do in this version of the story.  In fact, I always thought of Therese Raquin as a 19th century forerunner of such great film noirs as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice (which to a great degree, have the same basic plot) and Therese a forerunner to such femme fatales as Phyllis Dietrichson and Cora Smith.


Elizabeth Olson stars as Therese, but there’s a certain blandness to her that doesn’t help here and there’s little flesh and blood she can bring to a character that has no real flesh and blood in the first place.  Jessica Lange as Madame does what is required of her, while Tom Felton has a nice change of pace roll from bully to bullied as Camille.  Oscar Isaac gives the strongest performance, but even he is hampered by an uninteresting screenplay.

Movie Reviews of NOW YOU SEE ME and THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK by Howard Casner

Now You See Me is a very enjoyable shaggy dog story about magicians. However, the biggest sleight of hand by writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt and director Louis Leterrier is how they’re able to make the audience overlook what is at times an unconvincing and questionable plot and go along with the often preposterous goings on, and like any spectator at a Las Vegas Show, love every minute of it.

The story opens with four practitioners of the art of prestidigitation receiving mysterious summonses from a total stranger—and they actually show up at the time and place requested—why?, well, you’re so busy looking at everything else going on you don’t notice that there is no convincing reason given. From there it proceeds to a story that too often depends on predicting how people will act in situations where actions of people can’t possibly be predicted. And as a friend pointed out, you would think that if they were as great at the art of illusion as they claim, the group would come up with better getaway plans than simply running away (there’s a lot of running here, more than in an episode of Dr. Who).

But it’s hard to focus on such minor pickinesses when you are caught up in a story that rarely stops to catch its breath; has a plot that is clever and filled with sly and dazzling magic tricks (well, except for whenever hypnosis and mind control is used—these sections never felt convincing); and is headed by a first rate cast who is given a whirlwind of staircase wit in which everybody’s snarky attitude only makes them more ingratiating than alienating.

The gang of four is lead by Jesse Eisenberg as J. Daniel Atlas and you can tell how much Eisenberg’s star has risen in that he plays the magician in the opening with the least interesting magic trick and yet he’s given the most screen time and is made the leader of the act made up of the other three. His manic line deliveries, that are unmistakenly Eisenberg’s and no other, are backed by a Greek chorus made up of Isla Fisher, David Franco and Woody Harrelson, all of whom deliver their lines as if they were acting in a restoration comedy.

Mark Ruffalo uses his hangdog looks to great effectiveness here and elder statesmen Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do what elder statesmen do—the same thing as the others, but with a lot more ease. Melanie Laurent is also on board. She is given nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it. Well, she is there as the love interest to Mark Ruffalo, but unfortunately, magic can only go so far, and the people involved could never make this part remotely believable.

The Future Folk is a blue grass music duo who dress in space suits pretending to be aliens. They’ve been entertaining bar crowds in NYC for many years now (they have a certain campy quality like that of Flight of the Concords). The movie, The History of Future Folk, is a tongue in cheek “origin” story of the singers and how they came to earth and became musicians. The duo is made up of Nils d’Aulaire (General Trius) and Jay Klaitz (Kevin) and while their music is clever and upbeat and catchy (and not enough of it is played in the film), the movie that’s been made about them (written by John Mitchell and directed by Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker) feels tepid and unimaginative, as tepid and unimaginative as the emotions that register on d’Aulaire’s face.

The basic idea is that a comet is headed toward the Future Folk’s home planet, so Trius is sent to earth to wipe out civilization so his home planet can come and live here; but he is overcome by the beauty of music, something that doesn’t exist on his planet (leading to one of the movie’s more effective campy ideas since the music he hears is the type played in a Target). He decides to stay and become a singer and start a family. The pacing is slow and the plot turns run of the mill (it’s an example of the movie’s clunkiness that you don’t find out until half way through that Trius has been trying to contact his home planet since his arrival, but hasn’t been able to, leaving you to think for the majority of the film that this guy’s a real douche for deserting his planet as it’s about to be destroyed).

The most pleasing performance is probably given by April L. Hernandez as Carmen, who has the perkiness of a Rosie Perez. Her role is to fall for Kevin and only a talented actress could make this remotely convincing (in one scene Kevin paralyzes her with a spray and then kisses her against her will, and no one seems to think there is anything creepy about this). Onata Aprile plays Trius’ earth daughter; she’s the cute as a button little girl in What Maisie Knew.

Movie Review of OBLIVION and THE ATTACK by Howard Casner

Oblivion is the new Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster, a description that may seem triply redundant.  Basically, it’s a bunch of “who didn’t see that coming” and a couple of “no real surprises there” and a few too many turnings to my friend and asking, “do you have any idea what’s going on here” (his reply, “I think so”, probably isn’t the sort of confident response the writers, Joseph Kosinski—who also directed, Karl Gadjusek and Michael Ardnt, were hoping for, though in their defense I don’t know whether I found the story hard to follow because it’s convolutedly written; or because I was so bored my mind kept wandering and I missed a plot point here and there; or both).


The basic premise has to do with some sort of yadda, yadda, yadda in which the earth it attacked by aliens and the moon is blown up making the earth uninhabitable.  After winning the war the people of earth moved to…no, you know what?  Forget it.  I’m sorry, but I’m not going to summarize it.  It’s just not worth it the money they’re paying me (okay, no one’s paying me anything, but it isn’t worth the money they would pay me if they were paying me, which they aren’t, so…).


Anyway, suffice it to say that our world is now one of those apocalyptic wastelands.  But even worse, it’s now filled with bland characters saying bland things in a bland plot.  I’d say the CGI is stunning, but we’re now grading on a curve and it’s no worse and no better than any other recent apocalyptic film (though I think the scenes of Cruise on a motorcycle speeding across the New York City desert looked a bit, well, cheesy to me).  The thumping, thunderous music by Anthony Gonzales, M.8.3. and Joseph Trapanese may not be great or original, but it’s nice to have someone trying to create a little tension here.  The production design by Darren Gilford includes a streamlined, glass house suspended in the sky (I’d say it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but this one is an engineering marvel).   The cast includes Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman for reasons as impenetrable as the plot (I hope it was for the paycheck).


The ending is a bit odd.  For a movie that seems to want to hold up the uniqueness of man and the importance of their survival, it finales on the dubious moral note (and a rather offensive one to me) that the death of a man is irrelevant as long as he has a clone hanging around.  It’s also borderline ludicrous since all I could think is “boy, is Julia…” (oh, right, uh, see, Julia is this character who..okay, she’s, uh…no, you know what, again, forget it, I’m not going to explain this part of the plot either), “boy, is Julia going to be surprised when all the other Tom Cruises show up”.   I could also make a joke about Tom Cruise and clones and isn’t he one already, etc., but I won’t since that sort of humor is beneath me.


If you must see an apocalyptic movie, don’t see this one, see It’s a Disaster.  Even if you musn’t see an apocalyptic movie, see It’s a Disaster.



What would do if you discovered out of nowhere and with no hint or clue to prepare you that your spouse was a terrorist.  No, take it a step further.  What would you do if he or she is a suicide bomber and has just killed a large number of people, including children?  That’s the basic premise of the new, breathtaking drama, The Attack.


Amin Jaafari is a Palestinian and a secular Muslim fully integrated into Israeli society.  He’s also a celebrated and well known doctor working at a major hospital.  The story begins with him receiving the most prestigious award one can receive as a doctor.  The next day, after a bomb explodes, he’s on the front lines in the ER, refusing to let even one child die.  He’s a saint.  No, the writers Ziad Doueiri, who also directed, and Joelle Touma are trying to do a little bit more here.  Amin is a credit to his race.  At the award ceremony he gives a speech Hattie McDaniel would have been proud of at the 1939 Oscars.  He’s Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s coming to Dinner.  And though you like and admire him, there is also something about this noble doctor that makes you squirm just a little bit.


And then it happens.  After the blast and the hard day in the ER, Amin is called back to the hospital to identify a body; his wife, who is suspected of being the person who set off the bomb that sent all the people to the hospital that he saved.  He’s then taken in for questioning, but eventually released when it seems clear he had no idea that his wife was involved in anything.  The story is then about his trying to understand why his wife would do what she did.


The Attack is not a perfect film.  It has structural issues.  When Amin finds out about his wife, he has to go through the denial stage of death twice.  First he has to accept that his wife is dead, then he has to accept that she did what the authorities claim she did.  This slows the pacing down a bit because until he does that, he can’t go on his Citizen Kane/Mask of Dimitrios quest of going from person to person to find the answers he needs   The result is a middle section that tends to stall for awhile.   But the forward momentum soon recovers, grabbing you like the first part of the movie does, refusing to let go.


Amin is played by Ali Suliman who gives a masterful and deeply empathetic performance as the beleaguered doctor.  By the end, his character is abandoned by everyone, both the Palestinians whose cause is not his cause, and the Israelis who claimed they would never desert him, but eventually make him realize that he will always be a Palestinian to them.


The Attack is a movie that should be seen.  Oblivion is one that should not.


Tell me what you think.