YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN: Movie Reviews of Manchester By The Sea, It’s Only the End of the World and The Commune by Howard Casner

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rev-2You Can’t Go Home Again is, of course, the title of a posthumously published novel by Thomas Wolfe, and a phrase that has entered common discourse since. I’ve seen three movies lately that are about people returning home or using memories of their early years as the basis for their stories.

The basic premise of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s new film Manchester by the Sea revolves around Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor living in Boston who is very good at his job, but is a loner with a somewhat self-destructive personality. When he receives word that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, he returns to his home city of Manchester by the Sea, a fishing and tourist town. There he is shocked to discover that his brother in his will has requested Lee to become guardian to Joe’s sixteen year old son, Lucas. Joe has provided for Lucas’ expenses in his will and just needs Lee to return to Manchester to live.

Why Lee can’t return and the conflicts over how to handle this request make up the bulk of the movie and much of the heart breaking suspense is waiting to find out what happened that led to Lee’s present situation-you know it has something to do with his three children since they are only shown in flashback. The waiting is painfully unbearable at times. Read the rest of this entry »

AND THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY: Movie Reviews of A Most Violent Year and Mommy 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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most violentHow you feel about A Most Violent Year, the new neo-noir written and directed by J.C. Chandor, will probably depend on how you feel about the central character, Abel Morales, an up and coming entrepreneur; you know, the to dream the American dream type person, which in this case means playing with the big guys when it comes to the heating oil business.

He has worked long and hard to create a business than is not only as successful as others who have mainly inherited their companies, he is slowly encroaching on some of their territory. To make room at the top for him and his family, he has just signed a contract to buy his own storage facility, but has less than a month to come up with the remaining $1.5 million to secure it, which he expects to get in a loan from a bank.

He also wants to do it honestly and not break any laws, including taking money from his wife’s less than ethical family.   And honest he is. We know this because we are told this, over and over and over again. So I guess it must be true (and there’s no real evidence to doubt it).

In many ways there is much to admire in this young turk. What he’s doing isn’t easy and, as I said, it is the American dream, after all. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of THE GREAT BEAUTY and TOM AT THE FARM by Howard Casner

In 1960, Federico Fellini gave us one of the greatest films of all time, La Dolce Vita, a savage look at society Italiana at the time, as well as a heartbreaking character study of a journalist who, by the end of the movie, is totally and spiritually lost (La Dolce Vita also gave us the word Paparazzi for those who like to play Trivial Pursuit). It’s been more than fifty years since that seminal film found its way into cinematic history and today we have The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezze), from screenwriters Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino, who also directed. This time though, the movie is a much more vicious and savage look at Momma Roma’s inhabitants and the writer, a journalist, is totally and spiritually lost from the beginning of the film.

I think the comparison is very apt because The Great Beauty feels, in many ways, as if it were a sequel to that earlier film, that is, if the central character were still alive and only 65. When I told a friend this, his first question was, butis it like the neo-realist Fellini or the Fellini after 8 ½? His reaction when I said it was of the later was not the most of positives, but people should be forewarned. The Great Beauty is not like the Fellini of Rome: Open City (yes, I know, he didn’t direct it, but he was a writer on it, so there), La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. This is the wild and deliriously dreamlike Fellini of Amarcord, Roma and Cassanova.

In other words, there is precious little plot here. Instead, it is a series of visually stunning vignettes as the central character travels through various scenes of daily high life in Rome including some amazing and beautiful a cappella performances in unusual outdoor locations; a stage performer in the middle of nowhere who runs head first into the stone of a bridge to prove a point of some kind that is never really clear (which, I think, is the point, I think); a doctor who gives Botox injections in a cathedral like office while a crowd of desperate haves look on; and, perhaps most movingly, a dinner party honoring a 109 year old nun who has yet to be canonized, but everyone considers to be a saint, and who is going to climb the steps of a shrine on her knees.

Contarello and Sorrentino’s Roma is filled with the grotesqueries made famous by Fellini (though on a scale of one to ten, Fellini’s grotesqueries were a twelve while here we have maybe a seven; but that’s not a negative, just an observation). It’s a city filled with hypocrites and people who have lost their way and are floundering to find meaning in their lives, if they ever really had a way in the first place. It’s filled with people who travel from wild party to wild party because it’s the place to be (including one in which the guests start a dance train and our hero says, “I love the trains in Rome, they never go anywhere”—a bit on the nose, perhaps, but still a fun line). I think the easiest way to describe it all is that from Contarello and Sorrentino’s point of view, Rome is nothing but one big shallow and empty performance art piece crammed full of nothing but smaller shallow and empty performance art pieces.

Perhaps the only thing sadder than any of this is that in spite of all the shallowness and emptiness at the core of it, Rome still seems ten times more alive and creative and vibrant than Los Angeles.

Our hero, Jep Gambardella, is played by Toni Servillo, quite possibly Italy’s greatest actor who has given incredible performances in such films as Il Divo (as prime minister Giulio Andreotti), Gomorrah, The Girl by the Lake and Gorbaciof (as you know who complete with bald head and birth mark). For context, Jep is in many ways a modern day Truman Capote and Marcel Proust, two writers who spent much of their life in the midst of the rich, the influential, the movers and shakers, quietly observing and recording the foibles of the upper crust. In fact, Jep says his goal was to become someone who was not just invited to all the A parties, but he wanted to be the person who could make or break one if he wanted to.

But unlike Capote and Proust, Jep only wrote one book, a novel he penned when he was much younger. It was well received and basically was his calling card into the society he ended up being so much a part of. Why he never wrote another is something he will not tell anyone. But the reason is the reason for the title of the film.

As comically witty as The Grand Beauty is; as visually exciting and stunning as it is; as brilliant as Servillo is, the movie still falls a bit short. For one thing, one could question whether it really has anything new to say; it is basically La Dolce Vita, but La Dolce Vita has already been done. All the movie really says is that Rome hasn’t changed much in fifty years. I’m not saying that’s not a worthwhile observation, but still, it does kind of rob anyone of being able to say, so this is what Rome has come to, since it really hasn’t come to that, it’s always been that way.

And I’m not convinced that the movie really sold the cause as to why Jep never wrote another book. So little time is devoted to that episode in his life, it ends up feeling more like an excuse rather than a reason.

But The Grand Beauty is a great ride of a movie, a roller coaster of evocative sights, sounds and savagery. It may not be La Dolce Vita, but that doesn’t mean it should be missed.

Xavier Dolan, the writer/director wunderkind from French Canada, has now completed four films. His first was the semi-sorta-autobiographical I Killed My Mother, made when he was 18 (hence the wunderkind appellation). Since then he is responsible for Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and now Tom at the Farm.

In certain ways all four films are very similar in style. They are all visually stunning. Dolan has an incredible eye and every film has looked and felt different in aesthetic approach. At the same time, they have all had weak screenplays, except perhaps for the first one–the autobiographical one (which probably explains why it is the most successful film of the four; we all have at least one in us, don’t we, whether we’re a writer or not).

And Tom at the Farm is no different. It looks great, but the story, characters and dialog just don’t work and, as was often the case for the other films as well, are often ridiculous.

Tom at the Farm starts out well. It follows the title character (played by Dolan himself—Dolan often also produces, edits and does some designing on his films—or co- does it all—so he really has no one to blame but himself) as he travels from the city to the farm of his late lover, accompanied by a wonderful French version of The Windmills of Your Mind (Dolan knows his pop music—he made a brilliant use of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) in Hearbeats). His lover’s funeral is coming up, but the kick is that his lover’s mother doesn’t know that her son was gay and the lover’s brother, Francis (played by Pierre-Yves Cardinal, who gives the strongest performance in the film), is virulently and psychopathically homophobic and is determined to keep his brother’s queerness a secret.

At first appearance this does have all the makings of a first rate thriller (though as time went on, instead of Alfred Hitchcock, the film more constantly reminded me of Die, Die My Darling, Talulah Bankhead’s unfortunate coda, and not the most fortunate of references). And much of the early scenes are helped by the tense, dynamic music score of Gabriel Yared. But Tom… is also one of those movies where you can pinpoint the exact moment it stops working. And it’s early on.

At the funeral, Tom is suppose to give a speech and when he doesn’t, Francis traps him in the men’s room, takes him into a stall and starts slapping him around. Tom has three choices. He can leave and go back to the city. He can fight back. Or he can take it. And for some reason that I will never comprehend, Tom chooses multiple choice “C”. And at that point, the movie takes a turn from which it cannot possibly recover.

There are two problems with the choice Dolan has Tom make. The first is that it wasn’t remotely believable. Dolan doesn’t come close to selling it. But if we do buy it, then it makes Tom uninteresting, boring and unsympathetic; sort of, well, if that’s your choice, you pretty much deserve whatever happens to you, you went in with your eyes wide open. In fact, when this scene happened, I remember thinking, “That’s it, I’m done, I am so out of here”.

I suspect that there is suppose to be some sort of homoerotic tension between Tom and Francis that is suppose to explain all of their actions, no matter how ridiculous they seem. But if so, this tension never takes root. Dolan even goes to such extremes as staging a ballroom dancing scene between Francis and Tom, as Francis used to do with his brother—but the scene is not remotely erotic, it’s just weird, and the sexual tension is quite noticeably absent (I mean, if you want to see a sexually tense, homoerotic scene of two men dancing, check out the tuxedoed tango between Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbe in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange).

The plot becomes even more absurd and unbelievable when after being constantly browbeaten and threatened by Francis, Tom asks Sara, a friend and the woman his ex’s mother thinks was involved with her son, to come down. He asks a friend to come to a potentially life threatening situation. And Sara comes. And when Francis starts pulling his shit on her, Sara reacts the way Tom should have, but didn’t; she hits Francis back and pulls a knife on him. Okay, so far so good.

But get this. You are not going to believe this. I mean, you are really not and maybe you should be sitting down. After all that happens, Sara is driven to the bus to return home and there, with Tom watching, she gets happy drunk with this Francis (yeah, HAPPY drunk), and after Tom takes a walk, she has sex with this sociopathic asshole. No, I’m not kidding. This really happened. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either. But that’s how it went down.

I’m not sure why Dolan feels compelled to write his own screenplays. From what I can tell, it’s just not his strong suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, many if not most directors are not that great of writers. But every time I see his films, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like with a stronger author at the core. However, once again, I guess we will not find out.

Movie Review of LAURENCE ANYWAYS by Howard Casner

Near the beginning of the movie Laurence Anyways, the central character (appropriately enough called Laurence; isn’t it nice when that happens) who teaches literature, tells his students, to paraphrase, that Proust writes very long books in which almost nothing happens (which actually is very true), but that Proust’s prose covers up this fact (which actually is just as very true).  I think that something like this could also be said of Laurence Anyways, but not quite to the same success as A Remembrance of Things Past, I’m afraid.


Laurence Anyways is a visual stunner.  Exploding with pop colors reminiscent of the Crayola crayon mod world of the early sixties; sets crammed with hip, post modern retro furniture and props; and characters often stuffed into costumes of the over the top variety (though the Joan Crawford shoulders Laurence displays at the beginning and end may be a bit much even for being a bit much).  It’s all topped off with a camera style that jerks around in that roller coaster approach so popular now, often filming actors from behind, or blocked by something, or their faces partially cut off.  It’s like Frederico Fellinni at times (especially in a group of somewhat outrageous women who befriend Laurence), but without the badly dubbed sound.


The movie is directed by that French Canadian cinematic Doogie Houser, Xavier Dolan, whose first film, I Killed My mother, a somewhat autobiographical story about a boy and his mom (but quite different than Psycho, believe me), was a riveting coming of age story.  It’s only real fault was that Dolan was still in his nappies (well, a mere 18 years old) when he made it.  Talk about rubbing it in.


He next made Heartbeats, which was again a visual feast, but the story was a tad underwhelming.  It concerned a gay man and his bestest female friend who are both attracted to the same man, but don’t know if he’s homo or hetero.  If the plot sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the TV show Will & Grace had a similar story line.  The difference is that those two resolved the conflict in fifteen minutes.  Dolan took more than an hour and a half with a plot that never quite convinced.  Now with the addition of his new movie, I feel that, at least for me, Dolan is fast becoming more like Tim Burton, James Cameron and Terry Gilliam.   Their movies are ravishing to look at, even brilliantly directed perhaps, but a bit more than weak in the writing department.


I have two issues with the plot and structure of Dolan’s film.  The basic premise is that Laurence (pursed lip Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clement–Fred is female, which I assume is supposed to be ironic) are deeply in love.  Then Laurence lobs the grenade: he’s actually a woman in a man’s body.


At this point, the focus of the story gets more and more wobbly as it can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be about.  Is it driven by the difficulties a person in Laurence’s situation goes through and the conflicts that come up in his life because of it, as more than half of the story seems to be?  Or is it driven by the plotline of a man and a woman deeply in love, but due to circumstances somewhat beyond their control, will always be some sort of metaphorical ships in the night and never end up together as the finale and the rest of the film suggests?


Because of this uncertainty, the movie feels like it’s constantly bouncing back and forth between these two ideas until it seriously flounders for energy in the second half.   At that point, to be honest, I was just waiting for it to be over.


Connected to this is that when it comes to the idea of whether love will conquer all and whether these two people will manage to work past their differences and create a life with each other, there is no suspense.  Their love is doomed.  Dooooooooomed.  And for a very obvious and simple reason: Fred cannot make herself into a lesbian.  Laurence can make himself into a woman because that’s what he’s always been.  He’s not changing, he’s becoming his true self.  But Fred can’t will herself to be attracted to someone of the same sex.  It just doesn’t work that way no matter how many tantrums Laurence throws in order to get Fred to.


But there is perhaps an even more serious issue that overshadows those aforementioned.  Have you ever been in a coffee shop or restaurant and there’s a couple near by who are just a little too loud, a little too boisterous?  They think they’re the most interesting people in the world whereas you, and everybody else in the place, would just wish they’d shut up?  That’s what Laurence and Fred are like to me.  In fact, when Laurence said he was going to become a woman, all I could think was, well, it’s a better choice than the drama queen you are now.


So not only is the relationship of these two somewhat immature people doomed from the start, I found I didn’t like them or find them interesting enough to want them to end up together.  In the end, the only actor who really makes her mark is Nathalie Baye, the wonderful French actress who plays Laurence’s long suffering mother.  Her quite approach to interpreting her character is a welcome relief from all the self-centered chaos Laurence brings with him.