BLUE CAPRICE and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>Over the weekend I saw two movies that have subject matter that define the word tension.  And yet, neither movie managed to really take that subject matter and create a riveting drama out of it.  Both stores were sincerely told by people who really seemed to want to do something different and personal.   But at the same time, if truth be told, it almost seemed as if the writer and director, in both instances, did everything they could to wring whatever tension there was out of their pictures.

Blue Caprice is a story inspired by the actions of the Beltway Sniper, a mass murder that eventually left ten people dead.  The reason I knew this was because the movie begins with a series of news reports about that awful time in D.C. history.  This was probably a wise way to start everything off, since that knowledge gave the film the main intensity it had.  If nothing else, one did want to know how beginning A led to ending Zed. 
In between those two letters is the story of Lee (Tequan Tichmond), a lonely teenager abandoned by his mother and living in Antigua who meets the sociopathic John (Isaiah Washington), who is on vacation with his three children, though he does not have permission to have them.  John is angry at the world because the court has taken away custody of his children; his wife has a restraining order against him; and his family has moved away and he doesn’t know where and can’t find out (all for good reason, as it more than turns out).  John then turns the younger man into a random killing machine for no more reason that a fit of pique, I suppose one might say.
This should be a picture filled with suspense and fraught with apprehension and dread.  But Ronnie Porto’s screenplay and Alexandre Moors direction is more than a bit leisurely.  Neither one seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere, but neither one has also found interesting enough characters or provided a strong enough story to justify the lackluster pacing.  It’s very handsome and technically well done, but it’s also all mood, with dark overcast skies and ominous silences (lots of ominous silences), that doesn’t add much to the forward momentum.  
The acting is solid and gets the job done, but the real standout is the criminally underused Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) who fully inhabits her role as a slatternly working class wife who seems to wear the weight of the world on her face. 
In the end, though everyone toils mightily to make something of the story, and one admires Porto and Moors for getting the film made (it’s a first feature for both), it still feels like one of those movies where you’re unsure why anyone wanted to make it.  Though it’s about a terrifying subject, it doesn’t quite feel like it has a reason to exist. 
The next film I saw was We Are What We Are, a charming family film about tradition, religion and cannibalism (Donna Reed and Fred MacMurray would be so proud).  Again, everyone seems to work hard.  It’s also handsomely done with some nice technical work (the costumes are exceptional), and there’s more mood than you can shake an overcast day at.   But it, like Blue Caprice, moves at a definitely decided pace.  It’s certainly in no more of a hurry to get anywhere that the other film, that’s for sure.
It’s about a family that has inherited a religion that is centered around the eating of human flesh.  But things begin to fall apart, as they are wont to do, when the matriarch dies after suffering a fit and a rain storm starts revealing the family’s deep, dark secrets.   There’s nothing particularly original or unique here.    The screenplay by Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle (adapted from a Spanish film) is a pretty standard movie about cannibalism when it comes to plot and the use of a cult is fairly clichéd (the filmmakers have nothing to say about religion; it’s just used as a boogeyman).   And the leisurely pacing by Mickle only emphasizes that there’s not a lot of there, there.
Mickle is strongest when it comes to the acting.  The creepiest part of the movie is the sight of the two young virginal daughters (played with convincing innocence by Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) with their pale skin, blonde tresses and tight, buttoned-up period dresses, the two speaking in angelic voices.   And Bill Sage as the patriarch is solid enough.  However, some of the damnedest people show up.  Kelly McGillis, once of Top Gun, seems to be making a career out of small, effective parts in these indie horror films (like The Innkeepers and Stake Land) and Michael Parks does a nice turn as a coroner.
Mickle and Damic have worked together on other films, including the more original and involving Stake Land.   But it may be unclear what exactly drew them to this particular story.  Like Blue Caprice, I’m not convinced the filmmakers have given us a reason why they wanted to make this movie or what they were trying to do. 
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

TESTIMONIAL FROM TRACEE OLES BEEBE for her screenplay 101 WAYS TO SURVIVE THE END OF THE WORLD


Just got my script notes from Howard Casner Script Consultation back for 101 Ways to Survive the End of the World and they are fantastic! Very helpful without being heartbreaking. If you are looking for professional coverage, I can not recommend him enough!

YOU WILL BE MY SON, THANKS FOR SHARING and A SINGLE SHOT



You Will Be My Son revolves around a father (played by The Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped’s Niels Arestrup, France’s Edward G. Robinson) who owns a vineyard that has a history and reputation second to few, and his son (played by Lorant Deutsch) who the father doesn’t love because the son just doesn’t have it in him to be the face of the wine company.    At first, the movie feels as if it’s going to be one of those been there/done that father/son dysfunctional stories that always seem to have more meaning for the filmmakers than the audience (and often makes me run screaming from the theater).  Because of this, the first third is a little hard going.
But then Paul, the father, does something.  When the manager of the estate is given six months to live, Paul goes behind his back and tells the manager’s son, shoe fetishist Philippe (who works at Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard in the U.S.), and Philippe immediately flies back (about the only person who is perhaps portrayed here as meaner than Paul is Coppola himself whose winery won’t give Philippe time off to visit his dying father and fires him when he decides to go anyway—I’m not sure I really bought it, but it was kinda fun watching the French stick it to the U.S. in such a sneaky, underhanded way).  At this point, it becomes clear what the movie is going to be about (though it might help to know a little about French inheritance laws) and the nastiness begins, as does all the real enjoyment.
The screenplay by director Gilles Legrand (mainly known over here as a producer, including such films as Micmacs, The Widow of Saint-Pierre and  Ridicule), Laure Gasparotto and Delphine de Vigan could have used a touch more Douglas Sirk melodrama (it’s all a bit too subtle at times) and I’m not convinced that Deutsch was the best choice for the wimpy son (I mean, he’s such a drama queen one finally begins to sympathize with the father—that might have been the point, but Legrand doesn’t quite pull it off as far as I’m concerned).   But it’s set against some of the loveliest French countryside you’ll see in some time and Arestrup and Patrick (La lectrice) Chesnais (as the manager) are first rate.
Overall, a very neat, effective and perverse little family melodrama with quite a few twists and turns that is highly satisfactory.   See it with your first born.
Thanks For Sharing is a movie about sex addiction that only wants to cuddle.  I’m not sure I see the point.  It revolves around three men (Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Josh Gad) who are all in the same support group and whose stories unwind in just about the formulaic way you think they will.   Everyone is very sincere and works very hard and the three leads, along with the significant others in their lives (Gwyneth Paltrow, Pink and Joely Richardson), say their lines as if they were written by Oscar Wilde (it wasn’t—screenplay by director Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston—Blumberg also wrote that other Mark Ruffalo starrer, The Kids Are All Right—I’m not convinced this is a step forward).  But no matter how sincere everyone is, nothing can hide the fact that the whole thing is rather routine, bland and boring.  It’s the sort of movie about addiction that actually makes you want to go out and have a drink.
A Single Shot is one of those movies about someone finding either drugs or money and what happens as a result.  Movies like this (A Simple Plan, Shallow Grave) are usually described as movies that do absolutely nothing, but do it very, very well.  A Single Shot, unfortunately, with all its strengths, only manages to do it somewhat well. 
But those strengths are often quite remarkable.  Director David M. Rosenthal and writer Matthew F. Jones have created an incredibly convincing small town mountain world where everyone knows everybody.  The daily details of this minor municipality have an incredibly realistic feel to them.  And both Rosenthal and Jones create a strong mood of despair: it never seems to do anything but rain and no matter how much wide shot country is shown, it all feels very claustrophobic.  
The movie stars Sam Rockwell and he, along with the rest of the cast (William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, Ted Levine and Jason Isaacs), give remarkable performances.  Almost no one is recognizable behind their scruffy beards; weather beaten, lived in looks; and less than Walmart quality clothes.  And they all sport accents so convincing, there is many a time when you can’t understand a word they’re saying, which is too bad, because Jones has given all the characters often strikingly beautiful lines full of local color, equipped with full blooded colloquialisms and figures of speech. 
In the end, the story never really quite comes together in a satisfyingly dramatic whole.  Part of this may be because the set up and execution is pretty familiar with a plot that’s not particularly clever.  And it’s a little hard to empathize with Rockwell’s character, as well as he plays him, because he never seems to be as stupid as he acts with this new found money (it’s a bit difficult to believe he doesn’t know he won’t attract attention by suddenly flouting hundred dollar bills around).  And the menace to the characters involved often seems just a bit too vague; in fact, the middle section feels a little slow in going anywhere.
But one could do far, far worse.  One could go see Prisoners.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR SCREENWRITERS: A Personal View


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Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay?  Check out the second edition of my screenwriting book, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader published on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y

Finally, I have published two collections of short stories, The Starving Artists and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FS91CKJ and The Five Corporations and the One True Church and other stories, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY5Z3CF

I’m not Moses, but still, what the hell:
1.                  Thou shalt not read a book or attend a class or seminar on how to write a screenplay until you have written two, preferably three, screenplays.
2.                  The only exception to Commandment One is a book on formatting.  Thou shalt read a book on that subject and pay very close attention to it.
3.                  Thou shalt see a movie outside your comfort zone at least once a week (preferably more).  This means foreign films, classic films, historically important films, films made before you were born, etc.
4.                  Thou shalt have a vision for your screenplay, a reason for its existence, even if you are writing it for filthy lucre; and thou shalt understand that you create the vision for the screenplay, not the director or producer.
5.                  Thou shalt also realize that though you do create the vision of the movie and are the cornerstone of any film, thou shalt be treated worse than anybody else. 
6.                  Thou shalt remember that stories should be character driven, not plot and concept driven, even when they are plot and concept driven.
7.                  Thou shalt not paint a picture of any scene, but give a reader just enough information that they may be able to paint the picture for themselves.
8.                  Thou shalt understand that action/chase/fights scenes are not the same thing as plot; formula is not the same thing as structure; and character description is not the same thing as character.
9.                  Thou shalt always seek out feedback and understand that what distinguishes a good writer from a bad writer is rewriting.
10.              Thou shalt understand that there are no rules and that what rules there are shalt be broken; that when something becomes the thing to do, it is time to do something totally different; and that there are exceptions to everything.

 

FIRE IN THE BLOOD and INFORMANT



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Fire in the Blood, a first movie written and directed by Dylan Mohan Gray, is one long irony of a documentary.  It’s about the immense power the pharmaceutical industry has and how they use that power in deciding who gets medication and who doesn’t, with the determining factor being how much money the pill-pushing companies can make.  In other words, the movie is about an industry devoted to saving people’s lives, but spends most of its time killing them.   It may not be murder, but I sure don’t know how someone can say it’s not manslaughter.
The subject of Fire in the Blood focuses mainly on the AIDS epidemic as it affected third world countries, especially India and countries in Africa.  People were dying, dying by the millions, because they couldn’t afford $15,000 a year for medication that could be sold for a dollar a day and the pharmaceutical companies would still break even.   They were dying because governments wouldn’t allow the importation of generic drugs.  They were dying, basically, because no one gave a shit about a bunch of non-white people living in areas of the world that most Westerners could do just as well without.  No one gets out of this with clean hands.  Its villains include often absurd patent laws; the WTO who chose industry over people; the U.S. and other Western countries, none of whom cared much since they had insurance to pay for it all and who had their own successful movement to lower medication prices. 
And it all ends with a pyrrhic victory.  The activists won their battle to bring drug prices down to a level where most people could afford them.  But it came at a cost.  The pharmaceutical companies aren’t stupid.  They basically traded their reduction in price for even tighter laws for future drugs.  So the next time something like this happens (and it will; as Albert Camus says in his book The Plague, the only meaning to the plague is that it will return), then the world will have to go through the whole thing again and millions will die so a few companies can make a fortune off of their deaths.
This is not an easy movie to watch.  It makes you angry.  It makes you furious.
But this is a movie you should see.
Informant is also a documentary, this time written and directed by Jamie Meltzer.  It revolves around Brandon Darby, a left wing activist who became an FBI informant and then a proselytizer for the tea party movement.   The description sounds fascinating and the movie is never boring exactly (though my mind did wander here and there).  It’s certainly an unusual journey and one does get caught up in how it all happened.
At the same time, I have my doubts that Informant works as well as it should.  And the main reason is that by the time it’s over, I couldn’t quite figure out why anybody wanted to make a documentary about this guy Darby in the first place.  I’m not convinced that Meltzer sold me on his pitch.
I think the initial problem is that Meltzer directs and writes his movie as if everyone already knows who Darby is and would automatically be fascinated by him.  But I’ve never heard of him so he is not of automatic interest to me; he’s not a given.   So when the movie starts with Darby talking to the camera (he talks to the camera a lot, a lot—can you say “mirror queen”) about his early life and how he became an activist during the aftermath of Katrina, half way through this section, I began to wonder why I’m being told all of this and what it has to do with the price of tea in China.    
It takes forever for the other shoe to drop.  And when it does, it happens after his return from a trip to South America in order to make contact with the socialist movement there and his realization that these people are perhaps not the nicest group of people in the world and that maybe being a left winger isn’t all it’s quite cracked up to me.  He returns almost having a nervous breakdown.
After that, he became involved with the protest movement aimed at the RNC convention.  But he has become distrustful of his co-agitators and is afraid that they may have mayhem on their minds, so he becomes an informant for the FBI.  Now here I’m ready for the big revelations to begin; how Darby betrayed everyone he knew and helped the FBI make massive arrests or other dirty deeds.  Instead he ended up informing on two small timers, unimportant nonentities,  that made a few Molotov cocktails they were going to chuck at some empty police cars parked in a lot.
Now I’m not saying these two doofuses didn’t do anything wrong or that I think they should have been allowed to throw the cocktails.  In fact, in many ways, though my heart goes out to them, I do kinda think they pretty much got what they deserved.   And exactly what went down is not exactly clear.  It’s pretty much a he said/he said scenario.  But as one interviewee put it, and probably most exactly, Darby didn’t entrap the two men, but they wouldn’t have made the cocktails if he hadn’t been there. 
My point is basically, well, is that it?  Is that all Darby did?  Betray a couple of poor schmucks who ended up getting a few years in jail?  And he then used that event to become a minor celeb in the tea party talking tour (it is amusing, though, how every time he talks about the incident he seems to Munchausen it up a notch or two)?  I mean, I was really expecting something meaty, something major.
Instead, we have a character study of someone whose goal seems to be to try to get as much attention as possible for himself, no matter how little he deserves it.  And it sort of seems that Meltzer may have walked into that trap just as easily as the two cocktail revolutionaries did.

PRISONERS



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For the 2011 Oscars, Canadian director Denis Villenvue’s film Incendies (a puzzle film about twin brother and sister who find out they are closer to their unknown father and brother than they thought) was nominated for best foreign language film.  In punishment for his sins, Villenvue was given the movie Prisoners to make.  
Actually, I don’t know if this is accurate or not.  As far as I really know, this was Villenvue’s pet project from beginning to end.  But it sure feels like proof of that anecdote by Michael Haneke who came to the U.S. and was presented with a screenplay so outside his purview, he asked (and I paraphrase), “Is this what Hollywood is?  You come here and they just give you whatever screenplay they have lying around in a drawer” (a viewpoint that seemed proven as far as I was concerned when the dynamic Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park was given the embarrassing screenplay of Stoker to make). 
There is one good scene in Prisoners, a routine thriller about child abduction written by relatively newcomer Aaron Guzikowski.  It comes early on with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (Loki?  Okay, sure, why not) interacting with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.  They talk about animal signs and fortune cookies and it has nothing to do with anything, but it is witty and fun.  But after that (and before that as well), everything goes downhill rather quickly.  It plays with religious imagery, but that all feels clichéd and under dramatized.  And the movie brings nothing new to the genre, seeming to have no real purpose for existence, even the purpose of a movie that does nothing, but does it very, very well.
Prisoners is a one note film.  It starts at a relatively high point of tension (even before anything happens) and pretty much stays there the whole time.  Everyone seems so angry in the film.  Hugh Jackman, trying a bit too hard to play against type as everyman working class father Dover, feels angry from the opening shot (both literally and figuratively, but you’ll have to see the movie to get the pun).   And the scenes with Loki at the police station are so filled with furious confrontation, it feels like an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I never knew how anyone could stand working with anyone in that show, they were all so unprofessionally mean to each other).  Even the weather is angry; it’s always overcast, raining or snowing.  And when there’s no place for anyone to go, when they do go there, it tends to become camp, over the top and unintentionally funny.
There’s only one really effective performance in the move and that is Wayne Duvall as the Captain at Loki’s precinct.  He’s one of those, I know I’ve seen him a million times before, though I can’t quite place where, actor.  And he is spot on.  But everyone else, Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, the unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Len Cariou (or maybe I just didn’t want to recognize them), and the unfortunately recognizable Paul Dano, just can’t do much with what they’re given.  At least Mario Bello, as Dover’s wife, is lucky enough to have a character so traumatized she takes sleeping pills and is out for most of the film.
Because I and my friends could never become emotionally involved in the movie (though our eyebrows got plenty of exercise as we rolled them over and over again), all that was left for us was to wait, and wait…and wait, until we find out who did it.  And because we could never become emotionally involved, all we did afterwards was pick apart the plot (a highly convoluted one by the time it’s over, a bit too clever perhaps than was necessary, but it did seem to hold together).  If we had been riveted by what was going on and so involved with the characters and what they were going through, we probably wouldn’t have cared about the details so much (especially a particularly hysterical one at the end where Loki has the choice of calling 911 for help or speeding to get a little girl to a hospital down a crowded freeway during a deluge of a rainstorm while in danger of blacking out from being shot—guess which one he chooses?).   
I do hope that as far as Villenvue is concerned, this was a take the money and run movie and that he’ll next return to his roots and make something that means something to him and not to some producer’s profit sheet.  We can only hope.