RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN: Movie Reviews of Rules Don’t Apply and Allied by Howard Casner

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rev-1Rules Don’t Apply, the latest, and from what I understand, the last film from Warren Beatty who wrote, produced and plays famous recluse Howard Hughes here, has some charming moments in the first half.

The story revolves round Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, who has the looks, charisma, but a lot more talent than B-movie actor Audie Murphy) who is one of Hughes’s many drivers who escort one of the billionaire’s many starlets around Los Angeles. The starlet assigned to Frank is Marla Mabry (Lily Collins).

Both are quite religious (Hughes chose his drivers from church goers as a guard against them trying to bed his starlets). They say grace before meals, watch The Billy Graham Crusade on television, and attend church every Sunday. And not only do they do this unapologetically when others are around and in the streets where they might scare the horses, Beatty himself presents this spiritual side of the characters just as unapologetically. Read the rest of this entry »

WHAT HAPPENED TO ONE THROUGH FIVE: Movie reviews of Big Hero 6 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 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.



big heroI’m sure you’ve heard the old joke, the one about the guy who said, “I’m not going to see Henry V because I haven’t seen the first four yet”?

Well, don’t worry, fair filmgoers, Big Hero 6 is not a sequel (though believe me, to paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be sequels). It’s more an origin story of a group of X-Men like super young adults set in a city named San Fransokyo (so called because it’s an alternative future where Japanese immigrants rebuilt the city where I left my heart after the 1906 earthquake).

Big Hero 6 is a fun and satisfying enough animated movie, especially in the first half where it tends to show a bit more heart and emphasizes emotional resonance over the more prevalent action oriented approach of the second half.

True, it’s fairly familiar and almost Disney paint by number. I mean, c’mon, you gotta know that a mother or father or mother figure or father figure to the central character is going to die early on because, well, it’s Disney, and the only thing that studio likes more than making animated movies that rake in a ton of money is trying to traumatize pre-teens in the first fifteen minutes of their films (unless it’s about a dog, then they wait until the last fifteen). Read the rest of this entry »

ALL I WANT IS LOVING YOU AND MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC: Movie Reviews of Lucky Them and We Are the Best! by Howard Casner

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.


lucky-themLucky Them is a movie about someone who is supposed to find someone, but doesn’t really want to find him. It’s a movie about a writer who never seems to really want to write. It’s a movie about someone making a documentary film who doesn’t really want to make one.

Now, within the context of the story and characters, all of this makes perfect sense.

At the same time, because no one wants to really do anything, then nothing really gets done. The plot never really moves forward. The story never really goes anywhere.

And it takes a very long time for none of this to happen. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of SPRING BREAKERS, DORFMAN IN LOVE and GINGER & ROSA by Howard Casner

There is a scene in Spring Breakers, the new bikini noir written and directed by Harmony (Gummo, Trash Humpers) Kline, where you think it’s all finally going to come together.  In it, Alien, a white rapper/Scarface wannabe (a surprisingly amusing James Franco), plays a sentimental Britney Spears’ song on a white piano that overlooks the ocean while three of the spring breakers, model thin college students dressed in more than skimpy two pieces, sing along, dancing ballet like movements while holding assault rifles the NRA would be proud of, and wearing pink ski masks.  It’s absurd, ridiculous, preposterous, unlike almost anything you’ve seen before, and you think, this is it, this is the moment when it all becomes something.


But it doesn’t.  It just doesn’t quite make it.  And in the end, that’s what the whole movie is.  Ambitious. Daring.  An unapologetic attempt to do things differently.  And just one scene after another where you think it’s going to blossom, but never does, finally falling apart by the end in one big, flailing, frustrating mess.


Spring Breakers is a movie that starts out being about one thing and then changes horses in mid stream.  It begins as a story about Faith, a college student who attends Christian youth meetings.  She’s warned that Satan will tempt her, but God will always giver her the strength to withstand him.   She’s not sure she buys it, but she can’t let go of it either.  So when three childhood friends (who all ended up at the same  college, which I thought was a neat trick, but sure, why not, let’s go with it) ask her to go on spring break, she agrees, even though she’s warned that the three friends are really sociopaths (and they are).  And of course, they do what any group of proud sociopaths do before spring break: they rob a restaurant to pay for it (and get away with it to boot, but it’s the sort of movie where the police only show up at the convenience of the plot).  And then on spring break, after a very, very, very, very, very, very (well, you get the idea) long time, they finally meet Satan, the aforesaid Alien.


The group describes themselves as miserable.  But they’re not miserable because of their situation.  They’re miserable because they’re, well, miserable people.  But the movie is written and directed in such a way that you’re unclear Kline realizes this; you don’t know if he’s commenting on how self-deluded his characters are, or if he’s playing it straight.  In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, it reminded me of a screenplay I once gave feedback on and described as an incompetently written drama  only to find out the author thought it was a comedy—I really couldn’t tell the difference.  (At one point, Faith asks “why is this happening”—it’s hard to take someone seriously who is so self-deluded, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure whether I was or wasn’t suppose to take her seriously; I was the only one laughing in the theater).


So everything is set for a highly stylized, semi-satiric morality play.  And then at the halfway mark, Faith leaves.  She goes home.  A very wise move on her point it must be said, but still, she never comes back.  So if she isn’t what the story was about (as everything up until that point suggested), then was the point of the first part of the movie?  Why did we even watch it?  Kline actually does this two more times (changes the intent and direction of the story), until it feels as if he had no clear concept in the first place, that he didn’t really know what was going on and what he was trying to do.   And the whole thing finally reaches an ending so absurdly ridiculous that one is just amazed at the preposterousness of it all.


I suppose that’s the point. But in the end, the finale is just one big long cliché.  In fact, the whole movie is just one long cliché after the other.  But Kline doesn’t do anything with them except present them at face value.  He doesn’t comment on them.  He doesn’t use them to make a point.  He just treats them as if it is enough that they are clichés—which may be a bit too ironic and post modern even for me (sort of like someone copying the Mona Lisa so well you can’t tell the copy from the original and presenting it as an original work of art).


Spring Breakers is visually stunning.  But it falls into the category of recent films like Stoker and On the Road and to some degree The Silence in which it feels as if the filmmakers think character, story, ideas are irrelevant.  As long as it’s all told visually, that’s all that’s necessary.  But the more I see of movies made like this, the more I’m becoming less and less convinced that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.



At one point in the movie, Dorfman in Love, Dorfman (played by the cute and charming Sara Rue) is described as a cliché…a Jewish accountant.  The description is half right.  She’s a cliché, but not because she’s a Jewish accountant, but because she is a…well…cliché.  A walking, talking, double taking cliché.  In fact, one of the things that this light, breezy rom com has in common with Spring Breakers is that it is one cliché and formulaic contrivance after the other.  And like Spring Breakers, it’s unclear whether writer Wendy Kout and director Brad Leong realize this.


Kout’s screenplay is sincere and well meaning.  She shows all the appropriate empathy for her characters and the story fits all the correct troupes found in the more popular books on screenwriting.  But it’s also a movie you’ve seen a million times before.


Dorfman in Love is about a woman whose journey is to find herself, to liberate herself from the stereotyped roles she’s been assigned, to free herself from the bourgeoisie trap she’s found herself in, to really discover who she is.  But in this movie, that journey is basically defined as finding a boyfriend (at that point I almost tossed my hat up in the air and said, “That’s it, I’m outta here”).  One of the oddest interchanges is when Dorfman’s father (played in an appropriately grumpy manner by Elliot Gould, though his performance, like so much of the acting, is a bit too on the nose) tells her he’d be happy once she is married and has children.  This upsets Dorfman, though I wasn’t sure why since this seemed to be the goal she had set for herself as well.


Dorfman in Love is a movie in which the heroine is encouraged to be brave and take chances and really experience the world and have an adventure; noble goals, to be sure, but which, within the context of this movie, means taking the L.A. Metro rather than driving, and then walking around downtown (I suppose the demographic aimed at here are readers of Joan Didion).


There’s something about Dorfman in Love that is very reminiscent of Georgy Girl, Lynn Redgrave’s rise to stardom movie about another non-thin young woman looking for love.  But while Georgy Girl is set against, and is a commentary on, the swinging sixties and the changing morality of the time, Dorfman in Love seems more set against the middle brow, urban middle class lifestyle reflected in off-Broadway plays of twenty to thirty years ago (plays that often won Pulitzer Prizes for reasons I never understood).   Dorfman in Love just feels a bit dated.


The movie is bright, at times funny (the best line is when Rue runs down the street past some winos and one says to her “Change?” and she says, “I’m trying, I’m trying”).  But perhaps the most ironic thing about it is that after it was over, I so wanted to go back and watch the anarchy and failure of Spring Breakers rather than the safe, works on its own terms, formulaic Dorfman.



Ginger & Rosa is writer/director Sally Potter’s touching and empathetic character study of Ginger, a young teenager growing up against the rise of nuclear weapons and the protests against them in 1962, England.  It’s a milieu affected very deeply by World War II, even at that late a date.  People still bear scars of that time.  And the whole country still looks as if it is affected by the rationing (everything is bleak and everyone wears coats and heavy clothing whether they are inside or out).


There’s much to like here.  The period detail is quite nostalgically wonderful and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography has an effective cold warmth to it (he’s also worked on such movies as Red Road, Fish Tank and The Angels’ Share).  Elle Fanning (of Super 8 and Somwhere fame) is quite marvelous in the lead role.  And the most interesting actors keep popping up:   Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s long suffering mother; Alessandro Nivola as her not long suffering, but wants everyone to think he is, father; Oliver Platt and a sly minx of a Timothy Spall as a gay couple who are also Ginger’s godparents; and Annette Bening as a no-nonsense war protester (you kind of want to stick around just to see who else might put in an appearance).


The movie doesn’t always work as well as it might.  It’s basically a chamber piece, a boulevard drama, but though it has many effective moments, it could use a bit more of the tension of a Henrik Ibsen/August Strindberg play.  And the constant references to the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world never quite convince.  I suppose the idea is that Ginger is spouting this outward conflict so she doesn’t have to face her inner and more immediate conflicts.  But whenever anyone talked about the danger of the bomb, the lines never felt comfortable on anyone’s lips and seemed a bit clunky, more a distraction than an integral part of the drama.


But in the end, it’s a satisfying and often moving portrait of a young girl learning that contrary to appearances, life goes on and there’s always hope for a future.


The Oranges, the new film written by Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and directed by Julian Farino, feels as if it’s about a group of suburbanites who would like to be in a John Updyke book, but can’t seem to get up the energy for it. It’s a character study of three marriages, two straight ones as well as the Boston or faux homosexual one of the two husbands. And if you don’t know which one is of most concern to the writers, then you obviously have never heard the term bros before hos. The movie is all about what happens when one husband starts an affair with the other husband’s daughter. At least I assume it’s an affair. No sex is shown and it all ends up being a bit cute and cuddly, as if they were afraid the Lifetime channel might not want to air it. The whole thing is narrated by Alia Shawkat, who plays the daughter who doesn’t have an affair. Exactly why this character was chosen for this somewhat thankless task is a bit unclear. The movie is filled with scenes she doesn’t see first hand and she never seems to learn anything of any significance. The movie might have been interesting if it had been about her realization that nobody likes or cares about her because she’s too plain and dull to be of any importance (so unimportant that even her father prefers the daughter across the street). But alas, twas not to be. The leads are played by Allison Janney, Oliver Platt, Catherine Keener and Hugh Laurie. All are very good, but apparently all are here because no one has come up with the idea of using them for a movie version of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance yet. Maybe next year.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (the new documentary directed by Lisa Immordine Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng) is about the ground breaking American fashionista that revolutionized the way we thought about what we wear though the pages of Harper’s Bazarre, Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the movie, Vreeland is portrayed as Auntie Mame meets Anna Wintour: someone who cries out Live!, Live!, Live!, but still makes her assistants cry. It’s based on an as told to biography written by George Plimpton and is narrated by two people pretending to be Plimpton and Vreeland reading excerpts of the book and the interviews. The actor playing Plimpton is fine, but Annette Miller, as Vreeland, is a bit much at times. She has the voice of Lauren Bacall coupled with the vocal inflections of Bette Davis. I’m not convinced the film rises about what is, a fairly standard bio doc, but it is highly entertaining and at times fascinating (though one does get a chill here and there when Vreeland seems to see her sons as utterly unimportant to her life).