THE MARRIAGE GO ROUND: Movie reviews of The Wedding Plan, The Lovers and The Dinner by Howard Casner

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Just some quick reviews to get caught up on my movie going which has been curtailed to some degree due to health issues, but now I feel closer to my old self. Now if I could only feel closer to my old self of thirty years ago, everything would be wonderful. But, ‘tis not to be.

One subgenre of film I usually detest is the romance where the female central character has no other goal in life than to find a husband and who believes that her life will always be incomplete without a man in it.

Usually when confronted by such a personage, I always want to yell “get a life” at the screen.

However, I also always say that there are always exceptions and so it goes that Michal, the focus of writer/director Rama Burstein’s new film The Wedding Plan, is just such an exception. Read the rest of this entry »

Moview Reviews of FROZEN and PHILOMENA by Howard Casner

Frozen is a fairy tale about a kingdom that is in, well, let us say, deep doo-doo. There is no one to rule it and it has been, well, frozen (hence the title) over. But since this is a story with two females at the center, the real focus of the story is on whether the younger one will find the right man for her life and the older one will learn to hide a power she has, a power that makes her one of the most powerful people in the world, a power that no one else has (there is actually something similar here to the television series, Bewitched, in which the wife, who is obviously the more talented of the two in her marriage, has to suppress her true abilities in order to be a normal woman—I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby).

I’m sorry, but I really don’t get it. I really don’t. Is this really the message we want to send our daughters (and I use daughters in a more catholic sense, I don’t have any myself)? I mean, this is a movie in which the rulers of a kingdom die, leaving their two daughters as heirs, but neither of the daughters are taught how to rule. In fact, one of the more ridiculous aspects of the film is that everyone talks about how important this port city, this Arendelle is, yet no one seems to be running the place. For years. And no one is grooming the next in lines to take over. It’s mind boggling.

But since both characters are future queens and/or potential mates for kings and princes, shouldn’t the story be about them learning how to become princesses and queens? Shouldn’t Elsa (voice by Broadway songstress Idina Menzel), the older sister with the power to freeze things, not be hidden away in solitary confinement, but taught how to control her power and/or how to use it for the good of the kingdom, even if she must hide it to some degree for fear of being thought a witch, since she will eventually take over the throne?

And shouldn’t Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the younger sister, also be taught how to be to the manor born? Instead all Anna seems to learn how to do is become incredibly annoying (and I mean, incredibly; dude, she is like on of the most annoying characters I’ve seen on celluloid for some time now). I’m surprised the two ever learned how to read and write, the screenplay is so shoddy in this area. But no, the story is not about how women can learn to be effective rulers or groomed to take on power positions, but about how important it is to find a boyfriend and how important it is not to stick out as a strong female.

Even at the end when Elsa learns how to rein in the more dangerous aspects of her abilities, all she does with it is create a skating rink. No, really. I am not making this up. The ruler of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the area, and her main contribution as queen is…a skating rink. I mean, sure, it’s a pretty neat little rink, I grant you that, but, I mean…c’mon. Here the author (screenplay by Jennifer Lee from a story by Lee, Chris Buck and Shane Morris—Buck and Lee also directed) goes to all the trouble of giving her lead character this incredible power that at the end turns out to be rather worthless when it comes to her calling as a queen. So what’s the point?

Look at it this way. If the two central characters were male, do you really think the plot would work itself out remotely like this?

And since this is an animated tale and since this is Disney, it is also a musical. And I don’t know where to start here. The songs were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and they all sound like rejects from Wicked, the style feels so similar (as do all the songs to each other). Now I love the songs from Wicked as much as the next person (well, based on the person sitting next to me, probably more), but that approach here actually never meshes with the style of the story (it should, since both are fantasies, but every song in Frozen just seems to belong in another film). And the lyrics are so simplistic, I wasn’t just agog, I was often mind numbingly agog. I realize the movie is meant for children, but, I mean, c’mon, so was The Lion King. What’s worse, they all seem to be anthems and give new meaning to the word “stop” in the phrase show stopping. And I swear, with Menzel voicing Elsa, I kept expecting her to start belting out Defying Gravity at any moment (or maybe I just so desperately wanted her to so we could have a decent tune).

I do have to admit that there was one part of the film that I did find myself laughing at and quite enjoying and that was the character of Olaf (Josh Gad), an anthropomorphized snowman who always looks on the bright side of things even when he can’t find the bottom part of his body or he’s stuck through by an icicle. It’s gimmicky, true. But it’s also one of the few things in this ice storm of a movie that was actually quite heart warming.

It should be noted, though, that at the screening I went to, the movie was preceded by a sorta, kinda new Mickey Mouse cartoon. It starts out with the Steamboat Willie Mickey of the early 30’s and has Minnie Mouse, a cow with lots of udders and a really bad, bad guy who wants Minnie. At one point, the animated characters start breaking through the 2D black and white and enter a movie theater, becoming fully colorized 3D characters (like in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo). The interplay between the two worlds is genius and the whole thing is hysterical fun. I highly recommend it. It almost makes the whole thing worth the price of admission.

The movie Philomena is definitely a story that deserves to be told. I’m not quite sure, though, it’s gotten the telling it really deserved. It’s written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (which is kind of an ironic name when it comes to the movie, but more of that later) and is directed by Stephen Frears (but a long way from The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, I’m afraid; will we ever that side of Frears again?).

Steve Coogan also stars in the film, playing Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced journalist who is also one of those atheists with an unpleasant, offputting personality (you know, the Bill Maher type). In fact, he’s so unpleasant and offputting that whenever the screenplay turns to a debate on religion (and it does quite often because the character is unpleasant and offputting and that’s just the way it goes), the whole thing not only comes to a crashing halt, it comes to an embarrassing and clunky one as well. Judy Dench (the title character) plays one of those older women who gets laughs because she says things about sex we don’t think that women her age should know about, much less say (yes, that old warhorse is still employed for cheap giggles these days, I guess).

As a teen, Philomena got pregnant and was put into a convent run by an evil Abbess. How evil was she? She was so evil, that when Philomena had a breach birth which could have killed her baby, the Abbess refused to interfere (the baby was saved by a younger nun with a heart). The Abbess then forces Philomena to be an indentured servant for four years to pay back the cost of the birth while selling off all the babies born at the convent to American couples who are the only ones rich enough to afford the $1,000 cost (okay, so she’s not Hannibal Lechter evil, but still, she holds her own, I’d say, and I told you Pope’s name was ironic). The basic plotline is that Philomena and Martin join forces to try and find Philomena’s son and in the process all the familiar tropes and character arcs are employed (Martin becomes a kinder, gentler athiest and Philomena becomes more cynical about the church).

I’m making the movie sound terrible, and it’s not. It’s perfectly…okay. There’s nothing that special about it, but you do want to stick around long enough to find out how it all turns out and it does take a few surprising turns. Coogan and Dench work hard at their rolls, though Dench easily comes out the winner here. But the screenplay is uninspired and the movie is obvious, manipulative and cloying. This doesn’t mean that your throat doesn’t catch and your eyes never fight off those tears, but generally speaking that is not due to any of the actions of the behind the scenes people involved, but the story itself, which is often horrifying and moving in the historical details it provides.


Byzantium is the new vampire flick written by Moria Buffini and directed by Neil Jordan.   Neil Jordan also did that other vampire flick, you know the one, uh, Interview With the… something or other.  Let’s just say that he’s come a long way since then.


The story is about two women, mother and daughter, trying to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as vamps are wont to do these days.  But because of the relative times in which they turned, the two masquerade as sisters.   They are on the run from a brotherhood who want to eliminate them because women are not allowed to be vampires (yes, Gloria, the whole thing has a somewhat feminist slant to it; not only are they female vampires in a male vampire world, the mother takes over a group of prostitutes from a twitchy, male pimp).   The daughter is played by Saoirse Ronan, who played the title role in Hannah, and her mother/sister is played by Gemma Arterton, who played Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Both are more than quite good (Ronan is especially riveting) and are quickly gaining a reputation for playing characters you would not want to meet alone in a dark alley…or in broad daylight on a public street for that matter.


They are backed up by a slew of British B listers, including Daniel (Made in Dagenham) Mays as a hapless, shaggy dog looking motel owner;  Sam (Control) Riley, as a sympathetic vampire (giving a much better performance than he did in the recent outing, the somewhat embarrassing On the Road); Johnny Lee (Elementary) Miller as a woman hating cad; Tom (In the Loop) Hollander as a well meaning teacher; and Maria Doyle (Orphan Black) Kennedy as a fellow teacher.   All provide much more than adequate support.


To say Byzantium is a poetic mood piece is an understatement.   It lives, breathes and exults in its moodiness.  It’s filmed with dark, muted colors.   The scenes always feel overcast, even during the day.  There’s a menacing atmosphere in every shot set as it is against a fun fair, the dark streets of a coastal city and an ominous looking deserted, broken down pier.    And it takes its moody time in telling its tale.  Of course, there’s the rub.  How you react to it will probably depend on how you feel about the pacing.  If you like it, you will probably think of it as deliberate.  If you don’t like it, you will probably think of it as sloooooooooow.  I loooooooooooved it, so that’s that.



Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar’s new film I’m So Excited opens with a wonderful Saul Bass like set of titles that felt like it had that perky and fun feel so often associated with an Almodovar film, especially, to quote Woody Allen, the early, funny ones.  Unfortunately, that was the last wonderful thing about it.   The movie never gets off the ground.


I know, I know.   That was a really groaner of a pun.  But I think I’m more than in the right since the whole movie is sort of one big metaphorical groaner of a pun type thing.  The basic premise is as fabulous as the three gay flight attendants that serve everyone’s needs (everyone’s).  A commercial airline has taken off for South America, but when one of its landing gears won’t work, they must make an emergency landing.  But to do so, they have to find an appropriate airport.  This requires them to go around and around and around…and around, in circles, not getting anywhere.  On top of that, the flight attendants have drugged everyone in second class so they won’t cause any trouble, leaving the first class passengers wide awake to deal with their personal soap opera like problems.  Yes, indeed.  The whole shebang is a metaphor for Spain today as it tries to grapple with their disastrous economy, beset by a variety of scandals.


But to reiterate: it’s a fabulous idea that, very sadly, just doesn’t work.  And it’s easy to see why, and in a “if it was a snake it would have bitten you” way.  Almodovar begins the whole rigmarole in the middle of act one.  There’s no set up for the characters and their conflicts and much of what set up there is takes place off screen (like the drugging of the second class passengers).  Because of this, we have no idea who anybody is or why their actions matter or why their actions are funny (everyone seems terrified of one particular passenger, but why is unclear until almost half way through the movie).  And though the movie is suppose to be about the passengers on board, at a couple of points, the whole movie stops to go back down to earth to follow the actions of the lover of a famous actor who is also on the plane.  The screenplay has no focus, no shape, no discipline.  Normally, that would be positives for an Almodovor film; but here, I’m afraid it’s not—it actually takes focus, shape and discipline to create a satisfying lack of those.


With Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in cameos for some reason as unclear as most of the plot.



The movie The Look of Love (written by Matt Greenhalgh and director Michael Winterbottom) also opens with a wonderful title sequence, this time one that seems inspired by James Bond films.  But also like I’m So Excited, that’s just about the last wonderful thing about it too.


The Look of Love is the based on the true story of Paul Raymond who became Britain’s richest man by building up an empire of erotica (not pornography as he has to keep telling people who for some reason, just don’t seem to believe him).  The movie gives us the facts of his life; it gives us the fashions and styles of the various periods; it gives us erotic sex, including such oddities as a British farce Raymond produced that has as part of its set a swimming tub inhabited by naked women who have nothing to do with the play’s plot (it was a huge hit).  What it never gives us is a reason why anyone wanted to tell this story.


And like I’m So Excited, it’s also incredibly clear (see snake comment above) why the movie doesn’t work.  By the time you get to the end, it becomes apparent that the movie was supposed to be a study of Raymond’s relationship with his daughter (played by Imogene Poots) who died from a drug overdose.  But since half the movie doesn’t deal with this relationship (especially the half before she’s even born), the movie never seems to be going anywhere or to have any real purpose to its existence.


The cast does what it can with the material.  Steve Coogan, as Raymond, who was excellent in the recent What Mazie Knew, is as bland and dull as his character is written here.  But the movie does better in the supporting area, including Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners, almost unrecognizable in Sgt. Pepper hair and mustache, as the jingle writer who marries Raymond’s daughter; Chris Addison from In the Loop, also unrecognizable as Raymond’s right hand man and photographer; James Lance as Raymond’s attorney; and David Walliams of Little Brittain in a witty performance as a randy vicar (Matt Lucas can also be seen in a blink and you’ll miss him scene as Divine).


At one point, the movie has a scene between Raymond and the illegitimate son (Liam Boyle) he’s never met.  It’s a painful study of awkwardness and suggests everything that the movie could have been, but wasn’t.



You Aint Seen Nothing Yet is the latest from legendary director Alan Resnais.  It’s about a stage director who dies and in his will invites a number of the legends and soon to be legends of France’s acting community to an isolated mansion (including Mathieu Amalric, Hippolyte Giradot, Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azema and Lambert Wilson).  There the director’s attorney shows them a new production of a play the director staged many times, Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice (though the play seems to be a combination of two of Anouilh’s stage works).  All the invitees have at some time been in a production of this play under this director’s direction, so as they watch the play they begin to act out the parts themselves.


This is actually the most interesting aspect of the film, watching the way different actors would say the same lines; seeing actors who are far too old for the parts (since they originally played them when they were younger) still giving convincing performances; seeing the setting switch from the director’s home to modified sets.


But this movie never quite comes together.  I suspect whether it works for you will depend on what you think of the play within the play they are performing.  As was said, it’s a combination of two of Anouih’s works (adapted by Resnais and Luarent Herbiet) and though it starts out well, it eventually becomes almost incomprehensible until you lose all emotional connection to Orpheus and his doomed lover.


After the play is over there are a couple of surprise endings that aren’t that surprising and aren’t that interesting.  Perhaps it’s best to say that the whole thing just went over my head.

Review of the Movies WHAT MASIE KNEW, THE EAST and HANNAH ARENDT by Howard Casner

What Maisie Knew is the lovely, at times magical, even transcendental, new movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. The description might seem a little odd, even ironical, since the movie is a study of a vicious and acrimonious divorce by two people who would feel right at home in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

What Maisie Knew is Kramer v. Kramer as seen from the eyes of the true victim in stories like this, the child. Maisie is still in pre-school. She’s old enough to know that something is going on, but not old enough to know exactly what it means. Hence, she spends most of her time playing her reactive role with all the cuteness and charm the directors can get out of her. Maisie’s parents divorce and then each remarry. But they don’t remarry because they’re in love or want a relationship—they remarry in order to gain the upper hand in a custody battle. Not only that, they each marry someone younger than they are with what seems to be the express purpose of having a live in babysitter. If it weren’t so damn serious, it would be a comedy; but it’s not. It’s just sad and pathetic.

But Maisie is a lucky little girl. Her situation is terrible, but in the two people that her parents marry, she finds a loving couple who are willing to put Maisie first. Another of the ironies here is that her “babysitters” are better parents than her parents are. And she has a happy ending. I’m a little ambivalent about that, if truth be told. It’s straight out of Kramer v. Kramer and I Am Sam, both of which had resolutions that grew out of sentimentality and wanting to please the audience; as a result, neither were remotely believable or satisfying. And the ending of What Maisie Knew also seems a little pat and formulaic (the ending in the book by Henry James—yes, this is an adaptation of a novel by that Henry James, one of the more original adaptations of a Victorian novel, if nothing else—and the characters of the “babysitters” are handled differently). At the same time, I think What Maisie Knew comes much closer to earning its fairy tale ending than those earlier child custody films. And one just sighs with relief as the credits come up.

The actors are made up of a cry of players who handle their parts with great skill. Julianne Moore as Maisie’s mother plays the character given the least sympathy, the working woman who is neurotic and unhappy because she is a working woman; but she gives a marvelous performance nonetheless. Steve Coogan demonstrates that he can play drama as well as comedy with ease. Joanne Vanderham plays the new wife of Coogan’s character (Maisie’s governess) and has one of those accents where you never want her to stop talking. Alexander Skarsgard makes good use of his gangly body, awkward teeth, and goofy looks as the person who can relate to Maisie on her own terms since he is basically a child in a man’s body. And Onata Aprile is Shirley Temple ingratiating as the long suffering Maisie.

Early on in the movie The East, Patricia Clarkson, who plays the boss of the central character, Sarah, says something to the effect that Sarah reminds her of her when she was young. At this point, I thought, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”. And it was as The East quickly became a rollercoaster of clichés and formulaic, second hand plot turns.

Sarah is played by Brit Marling and in many ways, she has done something of genius. Not getting the parts she wanted in movies, or parts she felt were worthy of her, she decided to write her own parts and produce her own movies. The result was the highly imaginative and deeply moving Another Earth. Since then, she has made two other films in this manner, Sound of My Voice and now The East, neither of which have apparently risen to her debut attempt. This really isn’t all that unusual. Someone once said that everybody has at least one story in them. I would hate to think this is true of Marling, not after Another Earth, but to be ruthlessly honest, the omens are not favorable at this point.

Sarah is an up and coming, hungry to prove herself, agent at a private intelligence firm. She is to infiltrate a group of eco terrorists. Two things happen that always happen in movies driven by formula and cliché. First, Sarah becomes empathetic to the terrorists’ cause. But second, and even worse (because it’s the most insulting cliché of all), since she’s a woman doing a man’s job, she has to find herself romantically conflicted as well. I told you it was a bumpy ride.

The strongest aspect of the films are the jams (what the terrorists call their missions), attacks that are ironic in the way they go after their target (the first is to take an anti-toxin with deadly side affects and slip it into the champagne at a party by the manufacturers in order to give them a…wait for it…taste of their own medicine). There is something clever, if not straight out poetic, about these attacks on the 1%, and they’re directed as if they were in a Hitchcock film. And the general background of eco-terrorism has a certain feeling of realism to it. But what seems strange is that if that much thought was given to this part of the film, why couldn’t as much thought be given to character, dialog and plot?

The supporting characters are played by talented actors like Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. But you leave wondering why they took such flat, expendable and unchallenging rolls in a small independent like this. Even worse, almost all the actors have to at one point give that speech, you know the one, about what drove them to do what they are doing, invariably reducing their motivations to pop psychology. Page has an especially painful one to sit through where she emotes that her reasons for becoming a terrorist was not to save the environment, but because she has daddy issues.

What started as a story about eco-terrorism and big brother spying at the end becomes a love story, and not a particularly convincing one at that. Even worse, there’s a coda during the credits where Sarah is shown going off and changing the minds of all her fellow agents. It’s ridiculous and preposterous. If you see the movie, be sure you keep that seatbelt on until the very end.

Hannah Arendt is a biopic of the Jewish German philosopher who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel for the magazine The New Yorker. Like so often happens when someone writes a lengthy and intensive article about a sensational subject, it’s usually only one or two small sections that get focused on once it is published. For Arendt, it was a suggestion that Eichmann had no real feeling about Jews, was not exactly anti-semitic, but was only following orders; and that Jewish leaders, by helping organize their people, contributed to the number of deaths, whereas if they hadn’t cooperated at all, far fewer people would have died. In many ways, her most memorable contribution to the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust is the idea that Eichmann’s attitude (that he was no more than a petty bureaucrat and that he was not in many ways essentially evil, but was just doing his job), is a reflection of the idea of the “banality of evil”, controversial at the time, but now commonly accepted.

In talking about the movie, there are two aspects to be covered. One is the aesthetics of the film, i.e., just how good it is as a movie. Another is the ideas it tries to communicate. On the first, the movie is perfectly all right and gets the job done. It’s not much more than that, and in some areas, a little worse. The strongest aspects of the film are whenever it focuses on Germans when they are speaking German. Whenever there are Americans speaking English, the movie becomes clunky and sometimes almost surreal.

The film is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of the filmmakers who contributed to the German new wave of the 1970’s (which also gave us Herzog, Fassbender, and Wenders), and written by von Trotta and Pam Katz, and it’s possible they just weren’t that comfortable when it came to the scenes with the American characters. Everything that happens in the U.S. feels forced, with the actors’ emotions pushed just a little too much. Almost no non-German actor seems comfortable in their roles, with line readings that feel a little faked, as if they were dubbed. Even an actress as talented as Janet McTeer, who plays author Mary McCarthy, can’t seem to overcome a certain awkwardness to her scenes. In fact, only Nicholas Woodeson, as New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, looks relaxed in his role, giving the exact amount of restraint to be convincing.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah, though, tears into the part with a fury. She fully invests in the role and is at times mesmerizing and charismatic, even when the philosophical arguments go over one’s head. Sukowa has been in many a von Trotta film from the early years and hopefully this collaboration will continue.

When it comes to the themes of the movie, the ideas of Hannah Arendt, I and my friend had a very intense discussion afterwards, so if nothing else, the movie is intellectually stimulating. We both questioned some of the Arendt’s conclusions (that it’s a fact, not an opinion, that the Jewish leaders only helped enlarge the number of Jews that died—how could anyone know that for a fact; and that Eichmann was only a petty bureaucrat—well, as any of us who have dealt with bureaucrats know that, petty or otherwise, there are ones who do nothing; there are ones who do their job and no more; and there are those who go at it with a vengeance, going way beyond their job description, which seems to be the category Eichmann fell into, something Arendt doesn’t seem to recognize).

But what really struck me is that, as her critics suggested (at least to me in the audience), she wrote her article without any concern about the consequences of it. Even she basically admits that. She’s a philosopher and, as such, all that matters is her ideas and being honest about them. In fact, from her perspective, it wasn’t her place to worry about anything else. She was just doing her job. But isn’t that the excuse Eichmann used?