PASSING THE LIGHTSABER: Movie Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Howard Casner

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sw 3The new Star Wars film (Star Wars: the Force Awakens to be exact) has a simple theme: the only thing that can stop a bad guy with the force is a good guy with the force.

All in all, I would have to say that this new entry in the franchise is both better than the original Star Wars and not as good as the original Star Wars.

It’s better acted than what is now known as A New Hope; the dialog is a bit more pithy and witty; the characters are somewhat less one-dimensional; and the special effects less cheesy.

But there’s one thing the original space opera had that the new one doesn’t, can’t and will never have. Read the rest of this entry »

IS IT REAL OR IS IT MEMOREX: Movie reviews of Ex Machina and True Story 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.


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ex machinaA critic once said that when you get down to it, there aren’t that many plotlines; after all, Frankenstein and Pygmalion are basically the same story.

This came to mind as I was watching Ex Machina, the new sci-fi drama written and directed by Alex Garland (who also wrote the very involving Never Let Me Go and the highly successful 28 Days Later…). For my money, what he’s done is basically combined both Mary Shelley and George Bernard Shaw’s seminal works into one narrative.

It’s intriguing. But for me, I also found it a bit slow, unfocused at times and, well, to be ruthlessly honest, more than a bit creepy in ways that may not have been intended.

The last is because the more I think about Ex Machina, the more it seems to me that what the movie is about is not what the movie is about. And what the movie is really about made me very uncomfortable. Read the rest of this entry »

STRANGER DANGER: Movie Reviews of The Guest, The Two Faces of January and Copenhagen 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.


The-Guest1Have you ever been in a room full of people and someone tells a joke and you’re the only one who doesn’t get it?

Well, okay, I never have, I’m not usually that obtuse (it’s been touch and go sometimes, but usually I manage to roll my eyes in at least a smattering of understanding, though there was that one about the elephant and the oversize wedding ring…anyway).

But still, that’s what I felt like as I was watching The Guest, the new thriller about a stranger who shows up on a family’s doorstep claiming to know their late son. 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 Review of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS by Howard Casner

I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer of sorts.  I love folk music.  I mean, I luuuuuuuuuuuuve it.  I still have CD’s of The Kingston Trio and I had a two album set of Phil Ochs until I disposed of my stereo.  On Pandera I have a Judy Collins radio station on call.  I grew up listening to those melancholy songs of deep despair and whenever I listen to them now, I just feel a huge pang and ache of beautiful nostalgia.  I can still hear the pain in all of it.  Even John Denver, whose songs at the time were sometimes made fun of for being too cheery and optimistic, today sound as dark and depressing as the rest of them.


So I guess that makes me sort of a dork when it comes down to it.  It’s my moment of geek, I guess you’d say.  But it’s possibly my favorite genre of music even after all these year.  So I might be a tad prejudiced in favor of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, from the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen and one of the finer films of the year.


Llewyn Davis, the title and central character, is a singer of that particular brand of music.  But, in many ways, he’s also a victim of very bad timing.  First, he’s a folk singer in New York in 1961, but he’s a solo act.  The folk singing field is burgeoning, but only for groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, Mary, performers with polished acts that are outwardly, rather than inwardly, focused.


Davis had a partner at one time and they recorded an album.  But the partner killed himself and now Davis is singing stag, delivering haunting and heartfelt songs of despair that are more inwardly focused.  He’s very good.  There should be no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed.  But his kind of folk singing won’t break through for a year or two with the arrival of Bob Dylan, the success of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rise of the singer songwriter.   So while the album with his partner did well, his solo effort has failed miserably.


And when he makes his way to Chicago to see an influential manager (played by F. Murray Abraham who gives a remarkable performance in a very small roll; his acting mainly consists of just sitting there with what seems to be blank looks on his face, while at the same time expressing more depth and emotion than more theatrical performers in larger rolls), Davis is turned down because he is not commercial enough.


He’s also just a few years too soon for the movements that made folk so popular: the rise of the hippies; the Viet Nam war; and the Civil Rights moment.  The songs and performances of Davis’s time were strongly apolitical after Pete Seeger was accused of being a Communist which led to the break up of the group The Weavers.


Davis is also a victim of bad circumstances.  He has a crooked manager.  He is accused by the wife of his best friend of being the father of her baby, even though he wore condoms and as far as she knows her husband could be the father, but still he feels forced to do anything to get money for an abortion (including making a bad business decision).  He is haunted by the death of his partner, traumatized to the point where he can’t bring himself to take on another one.   He is doing so badly, in fact, he has no winter coat and has to beg people for couches to sleep on at night.  And he has this cat that…, well, you’ll have to see the movie for that.


This is not to say that Davis, the human being, is perfect.  He’s incredibly self-absorbed and has difficulty feeling anyone else’s pain (which is both ironic and appropriate for the sort of internal kind of folk he sings).  He looks down on everyone (I always felt the Cohen’s were a bit too misanthropic and ridiculed people in an often unkind way, but either I’ve gotten so used to their style, or they’ve taken the edge off, or it could be that Davis is so imperious that I just can’t look down on the other characters the way he does).  And he always seems puzzled as to why he is not the center of the universe.   Yet for me, I still felt he was more sinned against than sinning.


I’m not sure what has happened to casting directors this year.  I’m not saying they’ve been falling down on the job before now.  But films this year have shown some of the most imaginative and witty casting in some time.  I first noticed this with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (of course, his movies have always been brilliantly cast, no matter how good or bad they were), but it has continued on through such films as Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and now Inside Llewyn Davis.


The title role is inhabited by Oscar Isaac in what is termed a breakout performance.  Relatively new to movies (his myriad of parts have been relatively small until now), he gives a very empathetic performance of a man who keeps struggling even when he’s no longer sure what he’s struggling for.  John Goodman finally has a role that’s not a John Goodman part and he makes the most of a haughtier than Davis, drug addicted poet that imparts a very acute observation about the death of Davis’s partner (with a driver played by Garrett Hudland who is basically playing the same roll he played in On the Road, and as weakly).


Justin Timberlake seems to be having fun satirizing himself a bit as Davis’ overly upbeat best friend whose voice is a bit reedier than the hero’s.  Carey Mulligan, as the wife, gives more depth to a somewhat misogynistic roll of a woman who thinks she’s been scorned, when she hasn’t (she breaks through the anger of the character and makes her part more real and sympathetic that it comes across at first).  And Adam Driver has a very droll roll as the third part of a trio singing a novelty song, providing some very funny background recitative (though perhaps a song that is a bit too harmonic to be as novelty as it is suppose to be).


And it’s all played out against a strong feel of period and place in the design of costumes, sets, dialog and overcast cinematography of never ending snow.


In the end, Inside Llewyn Davis may be little more than a character study and like other movies of the same vein made by the Cohen brothers (like A Serious Man), I’m not sure what it all adds up to.  But also like A Serious Man, I’m not sure I care.  I was just too riveted by Davis and his story to try to make it add up to anything.  And whenever the characters broke into song, I was flung back into those early days of rapture.   The film is as haunting and moving as the lieder that punctuate the action.  What the Cohen brothers may not have achieved intellectually, they have more than made up for instinctually and emotionally.