NEW FILMMAKERS SEE THIS FILM: Movie Review of Midnight Special by Howard Casner

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rev 2Midnight Special, the new neo-noir/sci-fi film, opens at night with a throbbing music score backed by hypnotic drums.  It grabs you by your neck and just won’t let go for the next ninety minutes.  At first, the story seems to be about the abduction of a little boy, but it soon becomes clear that it’s much more complicated than that.  The boy was adopted by the leader of a religious cult that makes its base in a private compound in Texas and the ones who have taken the boy from them is the boy’s biological father and the father’s closest friend.

So what is really going on and why do so many people treat this child as if the future of the human race depended on him?  And why are the FBI after him as well?

Midnight Special is the sort of film every aspiring screenwriter, director and producer should be seeing, but I often suspect aren’t.  It should be studied and emulated. That is, if you really want a future in the industry, whether your goal is the tent pole films of a major studio, or the more personal films that one sees on the independent circuit. Read the rest of this entry »

HOT AND COLD: Movie reviews of Words and Pictures, Cold in July and Chinese Puzzle

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.

words and picturesOfttimes of late, and not so late, I get into a discussion/argument/knock down drag out fight as to whether the director or the screenwriter is more important to the success of a movie, or even to the existence of a movie. The conflict usually boils down to which is more important, the visual or written aspects.

It’s a silly argument, at least it should be, because the answer is that both are important and neither should be denigrated (and are often so intermingled that you can’t even tell what part of the film resulted from one over the other). It’s a pretty obvious conclusion, though you’d be surprised as to how many people don’t go for the obvious. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of OUT OF THE FURNACE and AFTERMATH by Howard Casner

I had a friend who once worked in a dive hotel in Chicago.  It was a pretty wretched place to be employed, but he revealed a universal truth to me that he learned during his time there: no matter how bad things are, you can always find someone or something to look down on.  In his particular case, no matter how awful working at the hotel was, my friend and his fellow employees would tell themselves, well, at least we’re not working at the *, a hotel down the street that God only knows how was even one step lower than the one he was at.


I thought of that as I was watching Out of the Furnace, the new action/thriller written by Brad Inglesby and Scott Cooper and directed by Cooper.  Only a few weeks before, I had seen Nebraska, another film about an under the weather America.   But no matter how bleak and despairing the situation was for the Grant family in that first film, at least they didn’t have the problems of the brothers Russell and Rodney Blaze (played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck respectively).  The Grants could always tell themselves that at least they didn’t have to deal with “inbreds” (or who we called hillbillies when I was growing up—though the Clampetts these people are not).


The world of Out of the Furnace is far, far bleaker than the one inhabited by Bruce Dern.  And to add insult to injury, …Furnace is in full color (no romantic distancing of the subject matter here).  The economy of the working class neighborhood in …Furnace is not the best (and a little odd—Russell tells Rodney in one scene that he can give him a future by getting him hired at the local steel mill, while in the next scene, he tells his Uncle the mill’s going to close soon with the jobs being sent to China).  The weather looks overcast even on the most summery of days.  And everybody’s eyes reflect deep depression and/or despair, no matter how wide their smiles are.


And on top of it all, there’s those creepy, crawly sociopathic inbreds (which in this movie is pretty redundant), headed by the psychopathic Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson, which also might be a tad redundant).  Like cockroaches, they’ve come to the big cities (or bigger cities) to spread their filth and disease.


Out of the Furnace is a well made movie in many ways.   The cinematography paints a depressing world of a working class with little hope.  The sets all have that remarkably realistic lived in look.  The costumes feel store bought or taken out of a closet.  There is a patina of sincerity and hard work by everyone involved that colors the whole thing.  It’s difficult to just dismiss it.


But it never quite works.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that it is structurally wobbly.  The movie ultimately is supposed to be about the relationship of the two brothers.  But too much of the film (especially the first third), almost solely focuses on Russell, his relationship problems and what happens when he drunkenly hits another car killing a little boy and ends up behind bars.  None of this really has anything to do with the siblings, and I was never quite sure why the writers went there.


But this unbalanced emphasis leads to other problems.  First, by not fully dramatizing Rodney and his issues, Rodney never comes to life like he should (at one point, he has a big speech about how awful Iraq was and what it did to him and how it made him the reckless person he is now; but so little time has been devoted to Rodney, he sounds more like he’s offering excuses rather than convincing reasons).


Second, it robs the story of a solid build. For quite a long time, the story just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and it takes a bit too long for it to really get started.  The authors try to get around that by having DeGroat arbitrarily show up in a couple of early scenes, but it doesn’t really do the trick.  The movie just seems to meander along with no real purpose for far too long.


And the authors depend a bit too much on clichés.  Rodney is going to do that one last fight that will pay off his debt and then he will do whatever his older brother tells him, settling down and working at the mill.  The last fight twist is so reminiscent of every other western, police drama and boxing movie, it’s hard to see it as anything but the authors’ struggling for some sort of teary-eyed empathy from the audience.  And it’s not remotely believable.  There is no way, based on the movie up until then, that I’d believe Rodney will settle down if this fight goes right.  His character hasn’t been set up for that.


How much you like …Furnace will probably depend on how much you like the acting.  It’s basically divided into two camps, the very, very, very methody approach (very) of Bale and Affleck (I mean, they meth all over the place).  Most people have loved their performances, but for me, they were hit or miss (with a few cringe worthy moments), with expressions and line readings that call attention to themselves and often throw the rhythms of their dialog and their relationship off.


Because of this, for me the acting honors are actually stolen by two supporting characters who simply relax into their characters and never push it: Sam Shepard as the brothers’ uncle and Tom Bower as a bartender who doesn’t want any trouble, but finds it anyway.


The ending is also a bit too ambiguous.  It’s understandable in many ways that Russell decides to take the law into his own hands (his frustration at the way the authorities handle his brother’s death is convincing).  But by doing so, it leads to the demise of someone totally innocent.  So how are we supposed to feel about Russell’s final success in avenging Rodney’s murder?  Russell may not have killed the character DeGroat did, but he’s just as responsible and nearly as guilty for it.  But the writers chose to turn this second victim into chopped liver and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about that.



Aftermath, the new Polish film written and directed by Wladyslaw Paskikowksi (who also wrote the great Andrzej Wajda’s powerful Katyn), has reviews from 11 top critics on  Meanwhile, All is Lost has 42, Philomena has 39 and the aforementioned Out of the Furnace has 40.  Why is a mystery to me, since this film is easily as good, or far better, than those three, as well as many, if not most, other films playing right now.   In fact, Aftermath seems to have snuck into town with no fanfare to herald it, ignored by one and all in the critic biz.  And it’s a shame.


Of course, I have no right to cast stones here.  It had been playing a month, bouncing from one art house theater to another, before I got around to seeing it, and kudos to the audience who has been keeping it alive.  Because Aftermath is a powerful and moving film about how two brothers are affected by a dark secret involving their small Polish village and their family during World War II.


The story basically resolves around Franciszek Kalina who is returning to his home town of Gurowka after not having been back for twenty years (one reason is that he didn’t dare return while the country was still under Communist control).  He’s back because his sister-in-law and nephew suddenly showed up on his doorstep in Chicago and he wants to know what his brother, Jozef, did to send them packing.   And it soon turns out that Jozef has somewhat of an unusual obsession—after a rain storm has washed away enough mud to reveal that a road has been paved with gravestones from a Jewish cemetery, Jozef has been moving the stones to one of the fields in the family farm.  But his actions are not supported by the town.  And why is the central secret driving the story.


Franciszek is played by Ireneuz Czop and Jozef by Maciej Stuhr and they both give strong and empathetic performances.  They have rather typical character arcs.  At the same time, they are just unusual and interesting enough to be compelling.  Francizek is very anti-semitic (he calls Jews Yids and blames them for the problems he has getting ahead in Chicago in the construction business—they control it all, you see) and he thinks that Jozef is ridiculous in what he’s doing.  Meanwhile, Jozef, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, feels guilty over what happened in the village and feels the need to make amends (even though he doesn’t know what the amends are for and anyway, he wasn’t even alive at the time).


As the story goes on and deeper secrets are revealed, the brothers change places.  Francizek becomes the one who is obsessed with revealing everything and getting those gravestones into that field.  At first it’s for no other reason than when people keep telling him not to do something, he’s the sort of person who just has to do it.  But eventually, it’s the horror of what happened that takes over and he soon feels compelled to do what is morally right.
Meanwhile, as the deeper truths are uncovered, it’s more horrifying than Jozef ever imagined, and he becomes the one who now wants to stop, to not dig any deeper, to keep what happened in the past in the past.  But some things can never be forgotten and the sins of the father sometimes have no choice but to be visited on the sons.


Aftermath is not an easy film to watch, but it’s a worthy one.

Movie Review of In the House, Mud and To the Wonder by Howard Casner

In the House, the new film from writer/director François Ozon, is a movie where you wait an hour and forty-five minutes for the other shoe to drop…and it never does.


The basic premise revolves around Germain, a somewhat bitter high school teacher, who assigns his literature class an essay about what they did over the weekend.  The results are depressingly high schoolish until he reads one from student Claude who writes about his attempts to insinuate himself into the household of a fellow student who has an ideal, Andy Hardy/Donna Reed middle class home.  The essay is condescending and laced with wry observations, but it shows talent.  It also ends with “(to be continued)”.  As the film goes on, Claude gets inside that household and writes more and more (to be continued) essays until Germain is so hooked that he not only spends extra time with Claude, he also helps him in ways that will come back to bite him in the ass.


The movie starts out well and even makes your mouth water at the possibilities here.  Just what is this Claude up to?  And why is he involving Germain?  But alas, these are the shoes that never drop.  And as the story continues, often backed by a thrilling music score by Philippe Rombi that makes you think something exciting is transpiring on screen even when it isn’t, the more and more puzzling the whole thing becomes.  Not only do we never find out exactly what is going on, it kind of ends with the idea that nothing was ever going on at all in the first place.  But if so, then what was the point of it all?


Equally puzzling, and I think one of the major problems with the movie, is that as Claude continues on with his soap operic observations of this family, the better Germain (as well as his wife who also starts reading the essays) thinks Claude’s writing and story is becoming, when in actuality, the less and less interesting, the more banal, boring and clichéd, it turns out to be.  Let’s face it, Claude was never going to be mistaken for Proust, but still it’s just difficult to believe that Germain continues to have such a high opinion of his student the more he reads.  Even more puzzling is that as the essays pile up, the more obvious it is that Claude is at times just making things up (if he’s not, then he’s even a worse writer than he appears).  But this never seems to dawn on Germain, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the film.


It must be said that though the actors never quite sell the premise and plot turns, their performances are still first rate.  Frabrice Luchini, a character actor with a face that Walter Mathau would be proud of, plays Germain with a certain hang dog loopiness.  Kirsten Scott Thomas plays his wife and it’s one of her sharpest performances.   Ernst Umhauer is Claude with a smile just this side of Damien in The Omen.  Also in a blink or you’ll miss it cameo is Yolando Moreau, proof that even in France, as over here, if you win the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress but don’t look like Catherine Deneuve, you’ll still be stuck having to play parts insultingly unworthy of you.



The conversation I had with my friends after seeing Mud, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle by writer/director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), went something like this:  Them: “What did you think”, Me: “I think it moved a little leisurely”, Them: “A little?”, Me: “All right.  It was as slow as molasses”, Them: “Thank you”.


Yes, Mud is not the most forward momentum of movies.  And in a way that’s rather surprising given the basic subject matter.  Ellis, a young teen, and his best friend go look at a boat that has lodged in a tree after a recent flood, but discover that someone is living there, the title character Mud, who is in town to rescue the woman he loves and take her away before he is killed by the bounty hunters hired by the father of the woman’s boyfriend Mud killed after the boyfriend beat up the woman.  Sounds pretty much like a ticking time bomb of a premise to me, but the movie tends to get diverted along the way with the teen’s problems with his parents who are drifting apart and his attempt to win the heart of a girl who is out of his league, until the tension all gets a bit waterlogged since Nichols just can’t get as much energy flowing for his other through lines as he does for the one concerning Mud.


But there’s also something else missing from the heart of this movie.  One of the major leit motifs here is that Mud is constantly described as a liar and nothing remotely as he presents himself.  The woman he loves says it; his substitute father figure says it; even Mud says it, until at one point even Ellis himself screams it at him.  Yet, oddly enough, the one thing that Mud never does is lie.  Everything he tells Ellis is pretty much exactly on the level with not one whiff of misrepresentation.  Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Mud does tell a whopper once.  When Ellis yells out at him that women aren’t worth loving, Mud tells him that’s not true.   Except that within the context of the movie, Ellis is right and Mud is lying.  All the women in the movie do nothing but declare their love for a man, then stab him in the back.   I suppose that Nichols might be saying that the nobility of the male of the species resides in the tragedy of their continual decision to fall in love in spite of how unworthy their beloveds are.  Still, it all seems a bit odd to me.


The point, though, is that this sort of throws Ellis’s journey off a bit.  The audience is being set up for Ellis to learn some big secret about Mud,  a lie that will change Ellis forever and help him on his journey to adulthood as is the wont of coming of age films.  But there is no secret.  It’s all a red herring.  And Ellis learns something about life, but it has little to do with the title character.


The movie is lovely to look at with languorous vistas of sunsets and open waters and there’s a nice feel for small town life.  It has a slam bang climax that’s not that believable, but is incredibly satisfying emotionally.  The acting is solid, though it’s Sam Shepard as the father figure who gives the most interesting performance.   Tye Sheridan as Ellis is capable.  And McConaughey does his McConaughey thing, though this time he only strips down to his bare chest.  Oh, yeah, uh, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon are in it, too.



Tortuous.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it.  Writer/director Terence Malick’s new film To the Wonder is…tortuous.  Directed/filmed/edited in the same style employed for the central section of his last film The Tree of Life, a series of quick glimpses and expressionistic scenes, To the Wonder starts out somewhat hypnotically with gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  But it’s not long before one quickly realizes that there ain’t a lot going on here and what there is, isn’t that original or interesting.  In fact, the best way to summarize it might be to say that there seems to be some sort of story here, but Malick is desperately determined not to tell it.  It concerns a man’s relationship with two woman, one a French citizen he brings to America with her child and whom he grows tired of, the second an old flame that he has a fling with and whom he grows tired of.  As the film goes on it begins to resemble more and more a classical music video that one might find on a PBS station after its daily schedule is over.   And the aesthetic approach, the snippets of scenes sewn together with a somewhat impressionistic, improvisational feel, seems as if it’s not there to bring more insight and depth to the relationships semi-dramatized in the movie, but chosen to cover up the idea that there’s really nothing of interest going on.   The characters are played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (who seem to spend much of their time quietly avoiding each other while living in a house they can never seem to finish and is filled with boxes and suitcases that are never fully unpacked—I think this is what is called symbolic), with Rachel McAdams as the old girlfriend and Javier Bardem as a rather unimpressive priest who does little but walk around in existential agony, though not in as much existential agony as I was in watching the movie.


Tell me what you think.