NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and PRAVDA: Movie reviews of Steve Jobs and Truth by Howard Casner

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steve jobsThere’s a moment in Steve Jobs, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, when Steve Wozniak (who, it is suggested here, seemed to have done most of, if not all, the work on the Apple Computer which is what brought fame first to Jobs) lists all the things that Jobs cannot and did not do (such as write code). When he finished, Wozniak asks what seems to be one of the most appropriate questions of the entire film: Just what do you do?

In response, Jobs says that he’s the conductor that plays the orchestra.

Fair enough. But then I so wanted Wozniak to ask the obvious follow up question: So why do you get all the credit when you haven’t really done any of the essential work?

Because think about it. Quick, name five conductors off the top of your head. No, don’t google it, just do it. When I did, all I came up with was Bernstein, Toscanini and Stokowski. Now, quick, name ten composers who created the music these conductors, well, conducted? I immediately zipped through Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Copland, Verdi, Liszt and Stravinsky.

This last is especially interesting since at one point Jobs compares himself to Stravinsky, when to really be fully parallel, in this metaphor he’s Serge Koussevitsky. Who is Koussevitsky, you ask? He was the conductor at the premier of the riot inducing The Rite of Spring.

Never heard of him, right?

Exactly. That’s because conductors don’t create art, they interpret it. That is why the composer gets the credit, not the conductor.

If one was of a suspicious nature, one might wonder if sneaky little Aaron Sorkin wasn’t, in these scenes, taking more than a few potshots at film directors. After all, what do they do? Generally speaking, they don’t write the screenplay; they don’t design the costumes and sets; they don’t edit; they don’t create the cinematography; they don’t write the music; they don’t act; they don’t provide the money for it. Read the rest of this entry »

THRILLS BOTH CHEAP AND EXPENSIVE: Movie Reviews Cheap Thrills and Captain America: the Winter Soldier by Howard Casner

Cheap_Thrills_39320In the 2012 drama, Compliance, Pat Healy played a sociopath pretending to be a police officer who manipulates the workers at a fast food restaurant into do some pretty disgusting things (and I don’t mean to the food, though from what I understand, fast food workers wouldn’t need much manipulation for that in the first place).
In his newest movie, Cheap Thrills, he’s on the opposite side of the fence, playing a poor schnook being manipulated into doing disgusting things by a pair of sociopaths. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and ALL IS LOST by Howard Casner

Dallas Buyers Club, the new, inspired by true events movie about the AIDS crisis, has basically the same plot outline as Schindler’s List. In Spielberg’s movie, Schindler, a gentile, takes advantage of an oppressed minority, Jews, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. In Dallas Buyers Club, virulently homophobic rodeo rider, hard living, electrician Ron Woodruff takes advantage of an oppressed minority, mainly homosexuals, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

And I’ve only just begun. In Schindler…, Ralph Feinnes plays a Nazi who runs a concentration camp that is responsible for the death of who knows how many Jews. In Dallas…, his counterpart is played by Dennis O’Hare, a doctor who runs a hospital that joins forces with the pharmaceutical company (the Nazis in this piece) that is responsible for the death of who knows how many people with AIDS because of the way medication is dispensed (with money the ultimate arbiter). Schindler’s right hand man is a Jewish accountant. Woodroof’s is a drag queen. And In Schindler…, the concentration camp commandant has a mistress, a Jewish woman caught between two worlds. In Dallas, it’s a female doctor caught between two worlds.

Okay, I’ve had my fun. I just couldn’t resist. And in the end, I think it’s safe to say that Dallas… hardly rises to the level of Schindler… But Dallas… does help shed light on a shameful moment in U.S. history where prejudice and homophobia, as well as pharmaceutical greed, determined how a plague was to be treated.

The film itself, with a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and direction by Jean-Marie Vallee (who gave us both the wonderful and emotionally rich semi-autobiogrpahical dysfunctional family drama of C.R.A.Z.Y. and the surprisingly effective, epic dysfunctional family drama of Young Victoria), is not as impressive as one would like. It’s a bit draggy (pardon the pun) in parts, with scenes of clunky, even embarrassing, dialog. And the movie often seems to do little but cover the basics and get the story told. Some of the characters, like the female doctor, played by Jennifer Lawrence, seem to have no reason to be in the movie at all and it shows in the performances (Lawrence has nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it; at one point, she claims to have been a friend to one of the main characters, but you have to take her word for it, because there’s little to indicate it in the screenplay here). And Vallee doesn’t’ do much as the director except get the job done.

But it does have two factors in its favor and they are the performances of Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, the drag queen.

I have to be honest. I have never been that impressed by McConaughey as an actor. He is perfectly fine in what he does, but I have just never responded to his thespian abilities the way others have. I’m perfectly willing to admit it’s me and we all have those actors who just don’t work for us the way we would like. But what I have admired about McConaughey is his brilliance in picking pitch perfect parts for himself as well as his incredible work ethic. He’s like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford on steroids—I may not be a great actor, damn it, but I’ll work so hard at it you won’t be able to tell the difference.

And Woodroof is perhaps the perfect McConaughey role, as perfect as Atticus Finch was for Gregory Peck. It feels a part written expressly for the actor and he goes at it tooth and nail, including losing so much weight he looks as skinny as a Hollywood starlet desperate to be hired. He may still be little more than good ol’ boy Matthew, but isn’t that exactly what you want for the role?

Jared Leto, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable and seems to just relax into his role, completely disappearing into it as if he was to the too plungy neckline born (a joke that will only make sense if you see the movie, and yes, Rayon, it is too plungy). His performance is made all the more poignant and deeply moving in the one scene where he doesn’t appear in drag, donning a business suit to seek help, as well as say goodbye, to his embarrassed father.

The film also refuses to stint in informing the audience how the pharmaceutical companies used the epidemic in order to make money off their medications, manipulating and controlling the FDA, and coercing doctors through medical studies to use their drug (here AZT) and to ignore all others. It’s an infuriating story that still needs to be screamed from the hospital tops. (To be even more infuriated, if that is your want, see the movie Fire in the Blood

All in all, I can’t say that Dallas Buyers Club rises above what it is. But as hit and miss as it may be, it is a real eye opener and delivers enough of the goods to make it worthwhile.

All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie (I think there are some others involved here, but I’m not aware that anyone really cares that much about them), starts at the end. Redford delivers a voice over informing the audience that it’s over, that he’s gotten himself into a situation he can’t get out of and he’s sorry, but that’s just the way it is. The movie then goes back eight days to begin from the beginning.

So basically what we have here is a story in which all we do is wait an hour and a half to find out if a man lives or dies. And how you respond to the movie will probably depend on how interested you will be in what Redford’s character has to do to survive. For me, there’s not really much going on of great interest here. The boat that Redford’s character is using to sail in the middle of nowhere gets hit by a lost cargo bin full of tennis shoes and from then on out, it’s him against the elements. If you like that sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing you’ll like, but I didn’t find anything that original and fascinating about it all (well, there is one exception—I thought it incredibly clever how he makes water—no, I don’t mean urinates, I mean, actually desalinizes sea water) and after awhile I was desperately hoping a tiger might show up, whether it was all in the character’s head or not.

Redford has been praised for his performance here. This puzzles me a bit. For the most part, he’s just doing this and that to survive, showing no emotion or inner life at all. In other words, it’s a role that actually requires an actor not to act, which is actually so far so good and would seem to be a part that would be just the thing for him. But when Redford is actually required to display his art, to show emotion, to let the audience in on what is going on inside (like the moment he yells “fuck” in frustration at the universe), it was embarrassingly unconvincing and I cringed. In fact, this may be one of his weakest and least interesting performances of his career.

The screenplay and direction is by J.C. Chandor. He does little with either role as far as I can tell. He did much better with his previous film Margin Call, a chamber piece full of claustrophobic scenes filled with people trapped in offices. Here, where the background is the wide open seas with endless horizons, he can’t seem to really bring anything new and/or exciting to what then really ends up being just another routine entry in the man trying to survive against nature genre. And Chandor gets trapped by his ending. If Redford’s character survives, it really is just another run of the mill genre piece. If he doesn’t, then the movie has no reason for existence.

One thing that did come to mind here is the recent (to me mind boggling) critical approach to film that says that the movie that is the most visual with the least dialog is better than that other kind. But for me, this film is the proof that such a critical approach is no guarantee of a better film. All is Lost is visual, all right. In fact, that’s about all it is. One could even call it an exercise in minimalism. However, in the end all it really seems to prove is that less is not necessarily more.


The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie that is greater than the sum of its parts.  And there are three of them; parts, I mean.  And that’s probably the first thing you should know.  The writers Derek Cianfrance (who also directed), Ben Coccio and Darius Marder don’t really do that strong a job in preparing you for that so when the first part ends, you don’t really realize it’s just the first of three separate, but strongly connected stories and it can be a bit confusing for awhile until you figure it out (or unless you read reviews of the movie beforehand, which I didn’t).


The first part of the film concerns Ryan Gosling as a carnival motorcycle daredevil.  When he finds out he has a kid he never knew about, he does what anyone in his position would naturally do: he quits to become a bank robber.  Yes, it has about that much logic.  In fact, when the idea of robbing banks is presented to him, all you can think is, what could possibly go wrong with this plan; I mean, it’s genius, man, genius.  Actually, it is kind of.  The MO Gosling and his partner use is quite clever and they could have gotten away with it for a long time, until something happens that shouldn’t have.  But at the same time, this section is a bit too much been there, done that.   It’s a fairly typical story of a petty criminal that works out the way stories about petty criminals generally work out in movies like this.


In the second story, Bradley Cooper takes over as an ambitious police officer who brings Gosling down and Gosling is out of the picture (no, I’m not spoiling anything—I think you really, really need to know that Gosling is only in the movie for a short period; and my revealing it isn’t remotely the same thing as telling people that Janet Leigh gets killed off in the first part of Psycho—okay, maybe I shouldn’t have revealed that about Janet Leigh, but you get what I’m trying to say).  Anyway, this section is a bit more interesting, especially due to a cameo by Ray Liotto doing his psychotic bit as a dirty cop.  At the same time, I also think this section is a little off because it doesn’t focus on Cooper’s relationship with his son, which is basically what the movie as a whole is supposed to be about, fathers and sons.


Then there’s the third story in which the two sons of Gosling and Cooper (doe eyed, pouty Emory Cohen and sharp featured Dane DeHaan) meet and this section is deeply moving and powerful and almost makes the first two parts seem better than they are.  When the movie comes together here, it fills you with a sense of wonder and excitement as these two teenagers try to work out their fate without the benefit of knowing any of their true history, without the benefit of knowing they even have a fate.  We know so much that they don’t which gives their actions even more meaning than the characters realize they have.  And as the story works itself out in unexpected ways, there are times when the emotions are at times nearly overwhelming.



Early on in the movie The Company You Keep, Susan Sarandon, as a former domestic terrorist now in custody, tells ambitious reporter Shia LaBeouf that he is younger than she expected.  When he thanks her, she says it wasn’t a compliment.  In the same way, The Company You Keep is the Argo of this year.  Before Ben Affleck says thank you, it’s not a compliment.  There’s nothing that wrong with The Company You Keep except that the best thing you can say about it is that there’s nothing that wrong with it.  It’s entertaining enough and rarely boring.  But like Argo, it’s a movie that never really rises above what it is.


The story itself never exactly makes a lot of sense.  Thirty years before, a bunch of radicals, including Robert Redford, went into hiding after robbing a bank in which one of them shoots and kills a bank guard.  It’s all in protest of the Viet Nam War, but thirty years from 2013 is 1983 and the whole thing seems a bit out of whack with the space time continuum.   And the logic of the whole story never really gets much better (by the time the movie is over, it’s a bit muddled just why Redford’s character went into hiding since he was never guilty, he wasn’t even at the bank—it’s sort of like the actor in him wanted to have his cake and eat it too—play a bad guy without ever playing a bad guy).


The basic cast is made up of the old guard versus the new.  The ex-radicals are played by such luminaries as the aforesaid Sarandon and Redford, as well as Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot and the ubiquitous Stephen Root.  Jesus, it’s like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but filled with A list actors who are still working rather than B-list actors desperate for a job.   Only Susan Sarandon really comes off well, with a mesmerizing scene with LaBeouf where she defends her role in the protests of the, well, I was going to say 1960’s, but with that space time continuum thingy, I’m not sure, but at any rate, she’s hypnotic and really delivers.


The young guard is made up of LaBeouf, Anna Kendrick and Terence Howard, and all I can say is that Kendrick and Howard need to get a new agent.  Both are well respected actors with Oscar nominations, but if the best their managers can do is get them work playing second fiddle to LaBeouf, then drastic measures need to be taken.  At the same time, LeBeouf, himself, acquits himself well.  I don’t know what it is about him, but lately whenever I review him, I always seem to start with, he acquits himself well.  I think it’s because I’m never really convinced he is cast right; but he’s a solid actor, and he carries the movie on his unbroad shoulders rather well here.


It would be remiss of me not to mention that there’s also the inbetween guard with Chris Cooper in a nice quiet performance as Redford’s brother and Stanley Tucci as a rather odd newspaper editor who doesn’t think that the FBI somehow obtaining a warrant to search a reporter’s apartment isn’t remotely a news story.   I didn’t know how to react to that.


The screenplay is by Lem Dobbs and is often quite witty with a lot of clever dialog.  It’s directed by Redford in his usual bland style.



Eddie: the Sleepwalking Cannibal (no, I’m not making that up, that is the title) is a horror movie about a painter who is blocked but gets inspiration after a ten year dry spell when his housemate, Eddie, a mentally slow man he has taken in, starts sleepwalking at night and eating people.  The artist is so inspired by this muse (the violence brings out the creativity in him), that he starts manipulating Eddie to repeat his nocturnal activities.  It’s Roger Corman material, but with more style, wit and marginally better production values.  It’s a lot of fun and the story works itself out in a very satisfying manner.   It’s ridiculous and silly, but that’s the point (at least I hope it is).  The clever screenplay is by Boris Rodriguez (who also directed), Jonathan Rannells and Alex Epstein.  The painter is played by Danish transplant Thure Lindhardt who, to his credit, manages to take the whole thing quite seriously.