CHARACTERSCURA: Movie Reviews of The Hero and Moscow Never Sleeps by Howard Casner

First, a word from our sponsors: I wanted to say thank you to everyone who contributed to our Indiegogo campaign for 15 Conversations in 10 Minutes. We did very well due to you folks. For those who weren’t able to give, keep us in your thoughts. And if you are able to contribute in the future, contact me and I’ll tell you how. I will even honor the perks on the original campaign.

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.


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Sam Elliott, the go to guy to cast as a love interest for older women, has a somewhat limited acting range. His technique, generally speaking, is of him taking a stance, cocking his head a bit, and delivering a line with a twinkle his eye. And there often seems to be very little variation on this approach.

But you know what?

I don’t care. I just love seeing him on the screen. Maybe it’s his mellifluous voice that could calm a tornado (somewhat satirized here in the opening and closing as he does a voice over for a BBQ ad). Maybe it’s his sincerity. Maybe it’s just his ability to be on the screen with seemingly little effort.

I just like him. Read the rest of this entry »

GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO: Movie reviews of The Tribe and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 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:


tribeThe Tribe is a new Russian film in which all the characters are deaf and speak in sign language (and not just any ole sign language, but a particular Ukrainian dialect of sign language, which means, from what I understand, that of those of you who can read western European sign language, only 20% will be able to understand it).

But as presented by writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, it is also a movie in which there are no subtitles. Which means, most of you will probably never really know exactly what anyone is saying.

In other words, The Tribe is a silent film without intertitles. The only sound, in fact, is that of the ambient kind (I can’t even recall the use of music in the background). Slaboshpitsky even exaggerates this sound of feet shuffling down corridors, body parts slamming into each other while having sex or conversations, doors creaking; one might go so far as to say that the ambient sound used here is, well, extremely ambienty.

At first, I found this to be an interesting aesthetic exercise. And people have reacted very positively to it. When I first heard about it at AFI last year, people were very excited and kept recommending it. It has won some very prestigious awards (including three at Cannes). And when I saw it in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater, it was a sold out crowd on a Sunday night.

At the same time, other AFIers expressed certain doubts about the film and I fear I must be honest and say I also have some of those selfsame reservations. Read the rest of this entry »

Of Mice and Frenchmen: Moview Reviews of Ernest & Celestine and Mauvais Sang by Howard Casner

ernest-and-celestine-2012-snoutypig-004In Ernest and Celestine, the Oscar nominated animated film from France, anthropomorphized bears dwell above ground, live like humans (one owns a candy store), and claim that mice fairies will come by in the night and leave money whenever a cub loses a tooth.
Meanwhile, anthropomorphized mice dwell in the sewers and steal bear teeth to use as dentures. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of THE MONUMENTS MEN and DATE AND SWITCH by Howard Casner

As I watched The Monuments Men, the new George Clooney film about trying to save stolen art during World War II, the word that kept coming to my mind was “jaunty”. Yes.  It’s a very…jaunty movie, with a, well, jaunty plot, and jaunty characters played by jaunty actors and all backed by a very jaunty score, a wonderful bit of musicality by the wonderful Alexandre Desplat that kept reminding me of the Colonel Bogey march from The Bridge on the River Kwai—it’s that jaunty.


Is The Monuments Men any good?  I can’t say that exactly.  But I can say that it’s very enjoyable and entertaining enough and rarely drags.  But it’s really not a lot more than that as much as it tries to be.


The screenplay by Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov (who has done good work in such films as Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March) is little more than a series of episodes.  At the same time, I’m not sure exactly what all these episodes really add up to in the end.


In fact, by the time it was over, I wasn’t really sure what the Monuments Men, the actual real life counterparts, did in saving stolen art that wouldn’t have been done had they not been around.  It seems like just about everything that happened in the story would pretty much have happened the way it did with or without their intervention.


Even Clooney and Heslov seem to suspect this as they add on a ticking time bomb of a climax trying to get some art out of a cave before the Russians get there.  I’m not saying this didn’t happen exactly the way it did here, but it feels more like a creation of the writers to come up with some sort of tension when there really wasn’t much of it in the first place.  It’s a fun bit, but is really milked and ends up coming across about as realistic as the ending of Argo.


And then there are all those speeches given by Clooney’s character Frank Stokes (yeah, he not only co-wrote it, he stars in it as well) trying to justify what they did and that saving art is not only just as important as saving a human being, it’s actually kinda more important (maybe, maybe not, I don’t know, it’s a bit mudded as far as I’m concerned).


The issue here is that every time he gives one of these speeches, he seems more and more desperate in his reasoning and becomes less and less convincing.


Of course, in full disclosure, I’m of the camp that says a thousand Mona Lisa’s can burn if it would cost one life to save it.  We can make new art that will equal old smiley face, but a particular human being can’t be replaced.  So every time an officer refused to help Stokes in his quest, I kind of sympathized with the officer (or as one of them put it, and I paraphrase, “I’m not going to write home to a soldier’s mother and tell her that her son died because we tried to save a steeple”).


The directing by Clooney (yes, he not only co-wrote it and stars in it, he also directed it) gets the job done.  And it has a fun (or as I put it earlier, jaunty) cast with Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob  Balaban, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville as the men and Cate Blanchett as the French partisan who helps them (I guess there weren’t any French actresses available at the time).


True, it’s a white bread acting approach to filling the roles as opposed to something like The Dirty Dozen (in The Monuments Men, everybody is cool; in The Dirty Dozen, they’re insane psychopaths), but, hey, whatever gets an audience into the seats.


However, if you want to see perhaps a slightly more profound movie that takes a few more chances about the same subject matter, I would strongly recommend checking out The Train, a movie about a German trying to take art out of Paris that meets resistance in the Resistance.  It stars Paul Scofield and Burt Lancaster and is a far more interesting film.



I don’t know what it is about Nick Offerman, but whenever he comes on screen, I just sort of relax.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s because he always plays these same calm teddy bear types, but he’s sort of the father I would always have wanted even if no one else on the screen, including his kids, understands how lucky they are.


Offerman is actually more of a minor character in the new teen com bromance rom com, Date and Switch.  But he’s a welcome addition as are Megan Mullaly and Gary Cole as the other parents who haven’t a clue even when they do.


The story is actually a variation on American Pie in which two BFF’s, Michael and Matty, vow to lose their virginity before prom but Matt throws a spanner into the wicket when he reveals to Michael that he’s gay.  So now, not only does Michael need to do the dirty deed, he has to figure out what he wants to do about his friend, and Matty has to figure out what he wants to do about being gay.


Date and Switch is cute and charming.  It’s basically almost nothing but staircase wit (the screenplay is by Alan Yang) with the champagne quality of the dialog and all the frothy bubbles it emits getting more than its fare share of laughs.   And that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.


At the same time, the wit is backed up by staircase acting.  And though this gives the movie many enjoyable and entertaining moments, it’s actually not as great a combination as you might think, because Nicholas Braun as Michael and Hunter Cope as Matty deliver the clever dialog as if it had been rehearsed to within an inch of its unnatural life (the direction is by Chris Nelson).


I mean, they’re good, they’ve very good.


The problem is that they’re too good.


With the result that though everyone tries their damnedest, they just can’t quite reach the delirious naturalism of something like Superbad.


And it probably doesn’t help that the lead actors look like they’re about to graduate from college, not high school.


And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Yang going out of his way to make sure the audience knows that Matty may be gay, but he’s really no different than anyone watching and only wants to live his life as a stereotypical straight person, looking down on most other gay people and the bars they attend.


There are also various twist and turns along the way (none of them particularly surprising or unpredictable) and the whole things works it way out with a pleasing formulization.


It may not be as much fun as the foam party the characters attend at one point, but it’s not a bad night out either.

Movie Reviews of THE KINGS OF SUMMER and THE BLING RING by Howard Casner

The Kings of Summer is the new coming of age film by writer Chris Galetta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It’s very sincere and heartfelt in the tradition of such movies as Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club. But in the end, how you feel about it all will probably depend on how you feel about the central teenage characters. Personally, I thought they were a pair of drama queens and ungrateful little shits who didn’t know how well off they were. So I guess you know where I stand.

Both Joe and Patrick, the aforementioned teens, act like they’re from homes headed by Joan Crawford. Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is stuck with the nightmare of parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) whose worst crime is that they would fit right in on any network sit com. They give him hives (just like most network sit coms give me). Joe (Nick Robinson, late of Mud) has a father, Frank, (played by Nick Offerman) who is portrayed with a bit more depth—he’s still recovering from the death of his wife. Joe helps him through it by taking hour long showers and, when his father complains, standing nude in front of him. Frank’s biggest sin is wanting to have a family game night so Joe can meet the new woman Frank is dating. Well, all I can say, folks, is call child welfare services before any of them get out the wire coat hangers.

So, beset by the slings and arrows of, etc., that they believe they are receiving from their parents, the two callow youths run off to live in the woods where they can be their own boss. But they do it in the manner of Henry David Thoreau who made sure he was close enough to civilization to receive a constant barrage of visitors and near enough to his brother so his sister-in-law could do his laundry once a week (in The Kings of Summer, the pair have people over for game night and are within walking distance of a Boston Market).

The only aspect of the screenplay that seems to support the boys’ view of their horrible childhood is how little effort the parents put into trying to find them. I would think that this lack of interest would be even more upsetting than the hives Patrick gets. At the same time, it must be said that this section of the screenplay isn’t that believable, both that the authorities don’t put a lot more effort into it and that the kids couldn’t be found very easily (this all might have made more sense if the parents knew exactly where their sons were and decided to just let them work out their issues on their own).

But nothing in the film is really that believable. It all seems a bit pushed, a bit forced, a bit too romanticized, from the house that’s built in the woods (in less time than it takes most people to build a doghouse); to the third musketeer in their band of merry-men—to mix literary references (this is Biaggio, played by the Al Jolson-eyed Moises Arias who is unsure of his sexual orientation and is therefore used as comic relief—he’s actually the only one I sympathized with since his father didn’t even seem to know he had taken off); to the parents who are written with the attitude that they were never the confused, young, alienated kids their children are (there is almost always a whiff of hypocrisy in these films where the adults are ridiculed and made fun because they don’t love or understand their kids; but the writers, former kids all, don’t feel they have to do the same for the parents, and who probably now act more like the parents they write about than the kid; at the same time, credit must be given where credit is due—Offerman, Mullally and Jackson are excellent).

In the end, character arcs are fulfilled and life lessons are learned (especially never play Monopoly with either Joe or Patrick, who, apparently, are the sorest losers in the world), with formula being the real king here. But the whole thing is done with so little tension and conflict that the filmmakers have to force an ending by bringing in a deux ex machina in the form of a cotton head since nothing the characters are doing are ever going to resolve anything. Vogt-Roberts even seems to instinctively understand how little drama there really is here; he uses all sort of directorial flourishes like slo-mo shots, montages and constantly cutting away to nature to cover up what seems to be lacking at the core of it all.

The Bling Ring, the other coming of age film to come out this year, this one written and directed by Sofia Coppola (based on a Vanity Fair Article by Nancy Jo Sales), is filled with drama queens and little shits just like The Kings of Summer. But the difference is that that’s the point. Where The Kings of Summer is a romantic fantasy, The Bling Ring is a dark comedy that, as all good dark comedies do, becomes more real than reality.

The Bling Ring is another of Coppola’s dissection of the idea of celebrity (all of her films, except for her first, The Virgin Suicides, has some connection to this idea—even in Marie Antoinette the tragic queen isn’t looked at from a political point of view as much as if she was an 18th century version of Lindsay Lohan). The movie chronicles the true story of a group of entitled kids who break into the homes of and steal from various celebrities who are out of town on film and modeling shoots (some of the biggest revelations here are that celebrities are some of the worst when it comes to locking their doors; none of them seem to have live in help or very large families; and one of them wears high heels large enough to fit the male lead, though which of the celebrities has man feet, that I will not tell you). This is a group of psychopathic Bugsy Malones whose chutzpah is only overshadowed by their sheer stupidity; they upload pictures of their booty on Facebook, as if it never entered their head that adults even know what social media is.

The story begins in the same way that so many of these teenage tragedies do: a depressive with issues of self loathing (Marc, a gay teen who is school attendance challenged, played by Isarael Broussard with a series of hang dog looks) meets a sociopath (Rebecca, played by steely eyed Katie Chang). As happens in any self respecting film noir, an innocent is seduced by a femme fatale; think Double Indemnity with a lot more acne.

If nothing else, The Bling Ring is highly entertaining. It never lets go once it grabs you. The story seems too ridiculous to be believable, but like a train wreck, you just can’t look away. Coppola has gathered a first rate cast of young people to play her jackal-like pack of juvenile delinquents. I am even not ashamed to say that I didn’t recognize Harry Potters’ sweet Hermione, Emma Watson, as a self-absorbed teen with a messianic complex with delusions of grandeur. She steals the show with as much ease as she steals Paris Hilton’s purse.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that Coppola doesn’t explain or pass judgment on her characters (this was also a criticism I remember at the time Martin Scorcese released Goodfellows). I have to admit I don’t quite get this. If you have to have Coppola tell you that these people are morally reprehensible and what they are doing is wrong, then the problem probably isn’t with Coppola, it’s probably with you.