HER



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Ah, AI’s that become sentient.   If there is one very important lesson to learn from movies, it’s that this is never a very good idea.  The argument:
In Electric Dreams, that 1984 movie that gave us a fun disco tune (“it’s got a good rhythm, I can dance to it, I give it an 8”) and a computer, Edgar, that achieves full sentience after having champagne spilt on it, Edgar falls in love with his owner’s girlfriend (a pre-Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen) and tries to kill his rival (with Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort providing Edgar’s voice). 
In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a super computer links up with a Russian one in an early form of détente and takes over the world, threatening to launch some nuclear missiles if everyone doesn’t do what he says (voice artist Paul Frees is the voice this time ‘round).
And who can forget Demon Seed, in which a computer that controls every aspect of a state of the art futuristic house imprisons Julie Christie (in a “was she really that desperate for work that she needed to do this film” role) and forces her to have sex with him so he can reproduce (no, I am not kidding, and the voice work this time is the soothing toned Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn, and though it’s more than a bit campy, it’s actually not as bad as I make it sound and is better than it has any right to be). 
And I won’t even mention 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.
In the new sci-fi, rom com Her from writer/director Spike Jonze, the AI here, Samantha, doesn’t do anything like that.  No, she does much worse.  She non-surgically removes the heart of our hero, Theodore, from his chest cavity; throws it on the ground, splat; and stomps on it until there’s nothing left.
The future world painted by Jonze in this movie is not a particularly optimistic one.  Perhaps the biggest dystopian aspect of it is that men are back to wearing high wasted, Humphrey Bogart style pants (for some reason, the Donna Karen’s of the future didn’t get the memo that pants that cover the belly button look best when worn with suit jackets of some sort); long sleeve shirts that have pockets that are screaming out for those plastic protectors our grandfather’s use to wear; ugly sweaters than could win every Christmas contest; and ironic mustaches worn unironically.
But just as bad are the women.  I mean, they are a pretty weird and awful group in Jonze’s view of things to come.  There’s Theodore’s soon to be ex-wife who has left him for some vague reason she claims is Theodore’s fault; a phone sex hook up with someone who has a really sick fetish you will not believe; an emotionally bonkers blind date who freaks out for no logical reason at all; and Samantha who, well, you know.   Even Amy, Theodore’s best friend, is a little odd, making a documentary about her mother that we’re suppose to laugh at. 
I found it all a little dispiriting myself.
But in the end, how you feel about Her will probably depend on how you feel about the growing relationship of Samantha and Theodore.  It never worked for me and there are several reasons for this.  Though I had no issue with Samantha’s exponential growth in knowledge and emotion, I felt that Theodore’s growing relationship with Samantha was too equally exponential.  He seemed to accept everything far too easily and go along with it all far too quickly to be believable.
What might have helped was if I had a better context for Theodore and his loneliness and life of quiet desperation (such as why his wife was divorcing him), as well as a better context for these OS’s and why he would purchase such a contraption.  Theodore just sees an ad for one and buys it.  No research, no investigation, no asking of friends.  It seemed so impulsive for someone who I would never describe as being remotely impulsive. 
In fact, one of the issues I had with the movie is that Theodore is the central character, but it seems to be Samantha’s story.  She’s the one who learns something, who grows, who goes on a journey—but her journey is all off screen and never really dramatized.  Instead, we follow Theodore who only seems to learn that women, whether of the real or artificial intelligence kind, will just stab you in the back and leave you bleeding to death.  But is that really the point Jonze is trying to make here?
And because I never bought this central relationship, my mind wandered and I began questioning other, less important aspects of the story, such as how someone who is basically a few steps up from someone who writes greeting cards could possibly afford a huge apartment with an incredible view of L.A.; how someone at his wage level could even afford an OS at all (he doesn’t even wait until the price comes down like people do today for computers, phones and TV’s, and I wonder what the monthly fee would be for something like this); and why, when Sam sends some of Theodore’s writings (he works for a business that composes letters for people) to a publisher, the first reaction Theodore has isn’t, “you can’t do that, I don’t own the rights to any of them”. 
I know.  I’m the Grinch here, I fully admit it.  I’m sure I missed the point and need to have my head examined.  But the whole thing just never came together for me.
The acting is quite strong, I admit.  Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead with a post nasal drip and “nerd” glasses (his character’s name is Theodore after all) and he again fully disappears into his role (has he somehow become our Daniel Day-Lewis without our even noticing it?).  Amy Adams as Amy has nothing to do and proceeds not to do it, but she’s always a welcome addition.  And there’s just something about Scarlet Johansson’s voice as Samantha that reminded me of Jane Fonda’s early kitten roles that’s a lot of fun. 
At the same time, I kinda felt the best and most fun performances were given in smaller roles like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s overly friendly, but ingratiating, boss, and Brian Cox as a somewhat pompous Gore Vidal like OS.  And did anyone know that there was a Cher impersonator in the movie?  It says so in IMDB, but I think I blinked and missed her.   It should also be noted that we now have an actor in Portia Doubleday who rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for most Dickensian name.
I also liked Jonze’s habit of suddenly cutting to a silent montage of scenes from Theodore’s past.  There was something moving about this in a way I never found the movie as a whole to be.  And whose ever idea it was to use Shanghai as the future L.A. deserves a bonus (though I did catch the exit sign in Chinese lettering at one point). 
But in the end, I pretty much knew how it was going to resolve itself and I found few surprises along the way.  It’s like watching your best friend dating someone you know is bad for him, but there’s nothing you can say or do, you just have to see it through.  So I did.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS


I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer of sorts.  I love folk music.  I mean, I luuuuuuuuuuuuve it.  I still have CD’s of The Kingston Trio and I had a two album set of Phil Ochs until I disposed of my stereo.  On Pandera I have a Judy Collins radio station on call.  I grew up listening to those melancholy songs of deep despair and whenever I listen to them now, I just feel a huge pang and ache of beautiful nostalgia.  I can still hear the pain in all of it.  Even John Denver, whose songs at the time were sometimes made fun of for being too cheery and optimistic, today sound as dark and depressing as the rest of them.
So I guess that makes me sort of a dork when it comes down to it.  It’s my moment of geek, I guess you’d say.  But it’s possibly my favorite genre of music even after all these year.  So I might be a tad prejudiced in favor of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, from the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen and one of the finer films of the year.
Llewyn Davis, the title and central character, is a singer of that particular brand of music.  But, in many ways, he’s also a victim of very bad timing.  First, he’s a folk singer in New York in 1961, but he’s a solo act.  The folk singing field is burgeoning, but only for groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, Mary, performers with polished acts that are outwardly, rather than inwardly, focused.
Davis had a partner at one time and they recorded an album.  But the partner killed himself and now Davis is singing stag, delivering haunting and heartfelt songs of despair that are more inwardly focused.  He’s very good.  There should be no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed.  But his kind of folk singing won’t break through for a year or two with the arrival of Bob Dylan, the success of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rise of the singer songwriter.   So while the album with his partner did well, his solo effort has failed miserably.
And when he makes his way to Chicago to see an influential manager (played by F. Murray Abraham who gives a remarkable performance in a very small role; his acting mainly consists of just sitting there with what seems to be blank looks on his face, while at the same time expressing more depth and emotion than more theatrical performers in larger roles), Davis is turned down because he is not commercial enough.
He’s also just a few years too soon for the movements that made folk so popular: the rise of the hippies; the Viet Nam war; and the Civil Rights moment.  The songs and performances of Davis’s time were strongly apolitical after Pete Seeger was accused of being a Communist which led to the break up of the group The Weavers.
Davis is also a victim of bad circumstances.  He has a crooked manager.  He is accused by the wife of his best friend of being the father of her baby, even though he wore condoms and as far as she knows her husband could be the father, but still he feels forced to do anything to get money for an abortion (including making a bad business decision).  He is haunted by the death of his partner, traumatized to the point where he can’t bring himself to take on another one.   He is doing so badly, in fact, he has no winter coat and has to beg people for couches to sleep on at night.  And he has this cat that…, well, you’ll have to see the movie for that.
This is not to say that Davis, the human being, is perfect.  He’s incredibly self-absorbed and has difficulty feeling anyone else’s pain (which is both ironic and appropriate for the sort of internal kind of folk he sings).  He looks down on everyone (I always felt the Cohen’s were a bit too misanthropic and ridiculed people in an often unkind way, but either I’ve gotten so used to their style, or they’ve taken the edge off, or it could be that Davis is so imperious that I just can’t look down on the other characters the way he does).  And he always seems puzzled as to why he is not the center of the universe.   Yet for me, I still felt he was more sinned against than sinning.
I’m not sure what has happened to casting directors this year.  I’m not saying they’ve been falling down on the job before now.  But films this year have shown some of the most imaginative and witty casting in some time.  I first noticed this with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (of course, his movies have always been brilliantly cast, no matter how good or bad they were), but it has continued on through such films as Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and now Inside Llewyn Davis.
The title role is inhabited by Oscar Isaac in what is termed a breakout performance.  Relatively new to movies (his myriad of parts have been relatively small until now), he gives a very empathetic performance of a man who keeps struggling even when he’s no longer sure what he’s struggling for.  John Goodman finally has a role that’s not a John Goodman part and he makes the most of a haughtier than Davis, drug addicted poet that imparts a very acute observation about the death of Davis’s partner (with a driver played by Garrett Hudland who is basically playing the same part he played in On the Road, and as weakly).
Justin Timberlake seems to be having fun satirizing himself a bit as Davis’ overly upbeat best friend whose voice is a bit reedier than the hero’s.  Carey Mulligan, as the wife, gives more depth to a somewhat misogynistic role of a woman who thinks she’s been scorned, when she hasn’t (she breaks through the anger of the character and makes her part more real and sympathetic that it comes across at first).  And Adam Driver has a very droll role as the third part of a trio singing a novelty song, providing some very funny background recitative (though perhaps a song that is a bit too harmonic to be as novelty as it is suppose to be).
And it’s all played out against a strong feel of period and place in the design of costumes, sets, dialog and overcast cinematography of never ending snow.
In the end, Inside Llewyn Davis may be little more than a character study and like other movies of the same vein made by the Cohen brothers (like A Serious Man), I’m not sure what it all adds up to.  But also like A Serious Man, I’m not sure I care.  I was just too riveted by Davis and his story to try to make it add up to anything.  And whenever the characters broke into song, I was flung back into those early days of rapture.   The film is as haunting and moving as the lieder that punctuate the action.  What the Cohen brothers may not have achieved intellectually, they have more than made up for instinctually and emotionally.

SAVING MR. BANKS



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When Emma Thompson first appears on screen as children’s author and Mary Poppins’ creator P.L. Travers (sorry, that’s Mrs. Travers to me) in Saving Mr. Banks, she’s pinched face, irritable, unpleasant and deeply unhappy, possessing the personality of the second nanny in the horror film The Omen. 
I know she’s an unlikable human being, so unlikable she probably makes dogs run for their lives just by glaring at them.  But from the first moment I saw her, I loved her and was on her side.  I mean, she has one of the best “save the cat” moments in recent films.  When she can’t get her suitcase into the overhead rack and a mother with a baby comes to her rescue and offers to move her own bag to give her room, Travers responds by asking whether the child is going to be a nuisance since it’s an eleven hour flight.  Now, if you can’t adore someone like that, then you just don’t have a heart.
I suppose part of her immediate appeal to me could be because I’m a screenwriter as well, and so I could easily identify with her fears of what a producer might do to her beloved creation Mary Poppins.  And she has good reason for these fears, with the constant complaints from authors whose novels and plays Hollywood has, well, what’s a good PG-13 word for it—misinterpreted, distorted, altered, disfigured, twisted, warped, raped, sodomized up the anus cavity with a heated iron rod like Edward II…but I digress. 
But it’s not just that.  There’s more to it than just that.  When she arrives in Los Angeles and steps off that plane, she’s confronted by a constant barrage of “it’s a small, small world” happy people with toothsome smiles out of The Sound of Music and a city so brightly lit with mind-numbing sunshine, that all I wanted to do was slap those merciless grins off of everybody’s faces and ask God to do to the city what Mark Robson did to it in Earthquake.
So when she constantly throws her Noel Coward-like snarky comments at one and all; or school teacherly corrects the screen and song writers of the movie to be when they make the somewhat dubious claim that Dick Van Dyke is one of the greats; or she gets so frustrated she throws the screenplay that has so disgusted her out the window, I was yelling “you go, girl” (well, no, I didn’t yell it, I was in a movie theater, after all, but you know what I mean).
And then it happens, the exact same thing that happens to Travers in the movie.  The charm of Disneyland and Los Angeles just wears you down and you have no choice but to succumb to it all.  It’s inevitable.  And there’s no shame in it because it happens to god bless us one and all who transpose themselves to this bright and shining city on the sea. 
And so, like everyone who has come before her, by the end of the film, Travers has embraced the sordid cheeriness of the City of Angels and gives up fighting for control of her story, letting “Walt, you have to call me Walt.  Mr. Disney is my father” turn her no-nonsense, all business nanny into a singing, dancing, twinkling (“and the magic word is”) Julie Andrews.
Saving Mr. Banks is the Hitchcock of 2013.  Based as was Hitchcock on a true Hollywood story of the making of a classic movie, it also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the facts.  But also like Hitchcock, it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.  The screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is witty and bright and full of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (OMG, believe it or not, that did not come up wrong on spell check; spell check actually has that made up word in it) energy and John Lee Hancock’s direction is taut with expert timing.  
It’s not perfect by any means.  The psychology is simplistic and obvious, and there are scenes that aren’t as convincing as they might be, as when Don DaGradi, Mary Poppins’ screenwriter, gets Travers to tap her toes and dance with him (calling Joseph Campbell, calling Joseph Campbell, I think a couple of steps in the hero’s journey got left out here).   And some of the visuals are painfully on the nose (as the change in Travers’ fashion from sensible, brown tweed to free flowing blue and white cotton after she signs over her creation’s life to Disney’s implacable will). 
But gosh darn it all to heck, it just doesn’t matter.  You can point out the problems and bewail and bemoan it all, but that won’t stop the whole thing from winning you over and thoroughly delighting you.  Even when it doesn’t work, oh, my, does it work.
The cast is one of the finer ones of the year.  Both Emma Thompson, as Travers, and Tom Hanks, as Disney, seem to have had something of a Renaissance here.   Neither has really been doing anything of real note lately.  Thompson had been hiding out in small supporting roles in such movies as Brideshead Revisited, Pirate Radio and seasonal revivals of Love Actually.  But now she’s back in a lead and she’s brought all her glory with her. 
And Hanks, who had been making some of the most painfully uninteresting movies of late that a major actor could make (Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Larry Crowne), gives the second of two remarkable performances this year, first in Captain Phillips, and now in Saving Mr. Banks, where he brings a mythic Walt Disney down to earth (and does one of these impersonations where whenever I think of the original, now all I’ll see is Hanks).
Maybe both just needed to go through a period of adjustment as they grew older and had to reinvent themselves in order to reinvigorate their careers (most actors do). 
But the movie also has some of the most imaginative casting in supporting roles as well, from Wes Anderson refugee Jason Schwartzman as one half of the Sherman brothers song writing team (B.J. Novak is also solid as the other half); Kathy Baker, who really has nothing to do as Disney’s secretary, but she makes the most of it anyway (she has a terrific bit at the end where she’s laughing as Disney comes into the office because she knows something he doesn’t); and perhaps most wonderful of all, Collin Farrell, who gives a magical and haunting performance as Travers’ dipsomaniac father in the moving and heartfelt flashback episodes.
So in the end, is Saving Mr. Banks a good movie?  Sure it is.  Even very good, I’ll venture to say.  Is it more than that?  God, no.   But like Los Angeles and Disneyland, it’s easier not to fight it and just enjoy the hell out of it.  It’s the only way you’ll get out alive.  Just ask Mrs. Travers.

The Best Films of 2008 or the Howies


Top Ten Movies of 2008

Best Picture: Reprise

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Antartica

Che

The Counterfeiters

Edge of Heaven

In Bruges

Let the Right One In

Love Songs

Tell No One

Waltz with Bashir

 

Honorable mentions:

 

The Dark Knight, Wall-E

 

Special mention for Documentary:

 

Man on Wire

Helvetica

 

A Special List of Movies only shown once in L.A. (at film fests, etc.) in alphabetical order:

 

Before I Forget

The Chaser

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

The Headless Woman

Solitary fragments

Summer hours

 

Special Award for Best ensemble:

 

Doubt (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Note: I know this is cheating, but it freed up spaces on the best acting lists.

 

 

Best Actors of 2008

Best Actor:


Jacques Nolot – Before I Forget

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Francois Cluzet – Tell No One

Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder, Iron Man

Karl Markovics – The Counterfeiters

Sean Penn – Milk

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Collin Farrell – In Bruges, Cassandra’s Dream

Benicio del Toro – Che

Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler

Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon

 

 

Best Actresses of 2008

Best Actress:

Melissa Leo – Frozen River

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Juliette Binoche – Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours

Sally Hawkins – Happy Go Lucky

Maria Onetto – Headless Woman

Kirsten Scott Thomas – I Have Loved You So Long

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Angelina Jolie – Changeling

Kate Winslet – The Reader; Revolutionary Road

 

 

Best Supporting Actors of 2008

Best Supporting Actor:

Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Josh Brolin – Milk

Ralph Feinnes – In Bruges, the Duchess, The Reader

Gilles LeLouche – Tell No One

Eddie Marsan – Happy Go Lucky

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road;

Diego Luna – Milk

 

Best Supporting Actresses of 2008

Best Supporting Actress:

Penelope Cruz – Vicki Christina Barcelona

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Kathy Bates – Revolutionary Road

Lisa Kudrow – Kabluey

Elza Lyberstein – I Have Loved You So Long

Amy Poehler – Hamlet II

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Marissa Tomei – The Wrestler

Hannah Shygulla – Edge of Heaven

 

Best Direction of 2008

Best Director:

Che – Steven Sodenbergh

The rest in alphabetical order

 

The Chaser – Hong-jin Na

The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan

The Good, the Bad, the Weird – Ji Woom-Kin

Reprise – Joachim Trier

 

Honorable mention:

 

Jon Favreau – Iron Man

 

Best Screenplays of 2008

Best Screenplay:

Reprise – Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Antarctica – Yair Hochner

The Counterfeiters – Stefan Ruzowitzky

In Bruges – Martin McDonagh

Tell No One – Guilliame Canet, Harlan Coben

AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE PAST



I’m not sure what the biggest crime in the new, based kinda, sorta, but who knows how much on a true story movie American Hustle is: the ABSCAM scandal at the center of the plot or those awful, awful, what the hell were we thinking, fashions we use to wear at the time (some people may think that Michael Wilkinson’s designs are exaggerated for comic affect, but I tell you, they seem painfully close to the real thing to me).
I have to be honest, I did have some trouble with the film at first and for me the issue was Christian Bale in the lead as Irving Rosenfield, a con-man with a fake comb over (got symbolism?).  I have always had issues with Bale, and it’s really not his fault.  But I always felt he was trying way too hard to be Daniel Day-Lewis and he couldn’t quite carry it off.  Where Day-Lewis seems to disappear into his roles, Bale always seems to be saying, “look at me pretending to be someone not remotely like myself”.   And it’s always been a stickler to me when it came to his films.
I also don’t think it helped that the movie started with a rather loooooong introduction via voice over that just never seemed to stop.
But as the story gained traction and the supporting cast made their presences known, I forgot all about Bale’s calling attention to his talent as much as I forgot about Rosenfield’s comb over, which I think says a lot about both, actually. 
And such a supporting cast: Amy Adams as his girlfriend and partner in crime who revels in showing off her side boob as much as her rather convincing, fake English accent (well, it’s better than Irving’s hair); Bradley Cooper as an over eager government agent who, somehow, miracles of miracles, is the only one who looks good in the period clothes and hairstyles (and he’s a much better dancer here than in Silver Linings Playbook); Jennifer Lawrence, riotously hysterical as Irving’s bi-polar wife; Jeremy Renner as a corrupt, but well-meaning mayor with a pompadour that looks like it’s about to take over the world; and  in smaller roles, Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering boss and Michael Pena as a fake sheik. 
If nothing else, American Hustle is one of the most deliriously entertaining movies of the year.   The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell has a fun, frantic 1930’s farcical feel to it.  It seems to revel in the amorality of it all; in the ridiculousness of the situations; and, perhaps most pleasurable of all, in the incredibly neurotic relationships of the characters until the whole thing feels like a Warner Brother’s pre-code movie starring James Cagney in the con-man lead; Carole Lombard as his partner in crime; Jean Harlow as his wife; Clark Gable as the government agent; and Warner Baxter in the cameo as the corrupt mayor.  Throw in a few character actors like Edward Everett Horton as the agent’s boss and Mischa Auer as the fake Sheik, and your back in the days of “more stars than there are in heaven”.
American Hustle also has some of the strongest and most interesting female characters in awhile.  In this, the movie also harkens back to the 1930’s in it’s portrayal of women as alpha females who attract men because they are alpha females (rather than today when alpha females are often ridiculed and put down by screenwriters) and in its portrayal of men who are as willing to make as big of emotional fools of themselves over women as the women are over the men.  And if anything, the women are far more in control of their emotions and destinies than any of the alpha males here.
It’s an attitude I feel is often missing from today’s rom coms (because no matter what else it is, American Hustle at the core is really a love story between two con artists).  Of course, Singer and Russell still had to go into the past to pull it off, but at least they didn’t have to go eighty years to do it.
And the film feels like a step forward for Russell whose last couple off films (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), though entertaining, felt a big tame and familiar, even formulaic.  Perhaps there’s something about the story itself and the screenplay that took over.  Whereas the earlier films felt like standard tropes and familiar arcs directed with an anarchic, chaotic style, American Hustle feels like a story that is all anarchy and chaos directed in, well, an anarchic, chaotic style.  It refuses to let itself be put in a box and Russell didn’t force it, but let it be what it needed to be. 
The Past, the new movie by writers Massoumeh Lahidji and Asghar Farhadi, who also directed (Farhadi gave us the searingly intense A Separation), feels like a table with a leg missing.  It has three dynamic and powerful performances from Bernice (The Artist) Bejo, Tahar (A Prophet) Rahim and  Ali  (who has done a lot of other things, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with him, but his hairpiece is far more convincing than Bale’s) Mosaffa in a sort of love triangle.  And their intensity carries the film for quite awhile.  But in the end, they are let down by a story that doesn’t quite hold up.
It took me awhile to figure out where things went wrong, but it happens about a third of the way through.  In the first part, the story gains a lot of tension as Ahmad (Mosaffa) comes to France to finalize a divorce with his wife Marie (Bejo), only to find out that she’s not only living with a younger man, Samir (Rahim), she’s pregnant by him, and Ahmad’s oldest daughter is virulently against the relationship for reasons she won’t say.
And then the movie takes a completely different turn and begins to focus not on Ahmad, but on the daughter and why she’s against Marie and Samir’s upcoming nuptials, all having to do with Samir’s wife who is in a coma after trying to kill herself. 
Now at first glance, this may sound like an interesting turn of the screw.  But the problem is that this part of the story has nothing to do with Ahmad.  By the time the movie is over, you even wonder why he’s in the story at all.   In fact, almost as suddenly as he arrives, he disappears from the story for a good while as the other characters grapple with secrets being revealed.
There’s only one possible dramatic justification for Ahmad’s inclusion in the story and that is to get his daughter to confess a secret.  But that’s not really enough of a justification for him to be a part of it all, and so the structure seems wobbly and the forward momentum slows down as you’re no longer sure where the story is going.
Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, had a similar structure.  It starts out as a family having issues and then changes course when they hire a caretaker, but she gets thrown out of the apartment by the husband, has a miscarriage and the story becomes about what really happened.  But even there, the outcome of the story affected every single character.  Everybody in the film was inextricably linked to that one incident.  Here, Ahmad is more chopped liver and has nothing to really do.
The film is titled The Past and I’m not quite sure why.  At one point, Samir talks about the need to forget what has come before in order to get on with the future.  But that’s not really what the film as a whole has been about.  And when Samir has his speech, it feels tacked on, as if the writers had suddenly remembered what they had named their story, and now suddenly felt a need to justify it.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, CAMILLE CLAUDE 1915 and THE GREAT PASSAGE



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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment in the trilogy that four writers, including director Peter Jackson, have carved out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Basically, it’s just more of the same (even with the ton of plot added that’s not in the book).  The story’s structure seems based on the Perils of Pauline and/or a ride at Disneyland, but the effects aren’t that special anymore (though the dragon Smaug himself has some nice moves, but, god almighty, is he in love with his own voice or what?); the characters are becoming less interesting; and I’m not even sure why people are doing half the things they’re doing anymore (why does Gandalf leave; why does the necromancer care if the dwarves kill Smaug and get their treasure back; why did they need Bilbo along on this trip—I’m sure there are reasons, but I just don’t know what they are now).  No one dies (at least no non-Orc does) because the twists and turns seem borrowed from every James Bond movie in which the secret agent is not immediately killed, but left to die so he can escape to defeat the villain de jour.  Orlando Bloom as Legolas probably has the funniest line in the film when he tells Evangeline Lily as Tauriel that if he was an Orc, she’d be dead; since none of the Orcs seem capable of killing a mosquito with an atomic bomb, this statement is highly questionable (you even begin feeling sorry for the monstrous creatures since they just can’t seem to catch a break—they’re more easily slain than the zombi in Night of the Living Dead). 
In the new movie Camille Claudel 1915, about the sculptress and ex-mistress of the artist Rodin, Camille resides in a mental institution where there are only two sorts of patients.  There are the severely, and I mean, severely mentally retarded, severely autistic, severely psychotic (who are used by writer/director Bruno Dumont both for sympathy and horror as in Todd Browning’s film Freaks) and there’s…Camille, who barely seems to have a thing wrong with here.  That’s right; there’s no Snakepit gradations of mental illness here; no highly functioning people who think they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ; no mere sufferers of nervous breakdowns; no schizophrenics on the level of John Nash.  They’ve either made a complete, in for a penny, in for a pound, break from sanity, or they’re, say, well…Camille.
I’m afraid I had no emotional connection to Camille and her situation.  I believe this was mainly because I had no context for what was happening to her.  Is she someone who is mentally unstable and can’t be left alone (she does show signs of unreasonable paranoia and does think she still has an emotional relationship with Rodin, though they haven’t made contact for twenty years), or is she a poor creature more sinned against than sinning?  From Camille’s perspective, she’s a complete victim, but since every criminal in jail claims to be innocent and everyone confined to a mental hospital thinks they’re sane, her testimony is hardly objective.  So what are we to think of her?
 In the earlier 1988 version of Camille’s story, we clearly see Isabelle Adjani in the title roll slowly losing her mental stability and achieve a complete psychotic break.  But we have no such help here.  And it seems to affect Juliet Binoche’s performance.  Though she plays the part with a ton of energy, she also seems a bit at sea, as if she, herself, is unsure whether to play Camille as someone who is seriously ill or someone who has been put away because she is an inconvenience.
This is Dumont’s seventh film.  His first two films, Life of Jesus and Humanité, seemed so refreshing in their honesty and emotional power, suggesting an exciting new talent.  But since then, his films seemed to have lost something.  For both 27 Palms and Flanders, like this movie, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to convey, I wasn’t sure why he wanted to make the movie, I wasn’t sure what interested him about the subject matter.  Sad to say, the emotional connection he had with his characters and the audience in his first two films seems to be slowly, slipping away. 
The Great Passage, the new movie from Japan written by Kensaku Watanabe and directed by Yuya Ishii, is that country’s entry in the 2013 Oscar category for best foreign language film.  It’s about the publishing of a new, from scratch dictionary and, sorry to say, is about as interesting as reading one (yeah, who didn’t see that joke coming).  The basic premise is the creation of a “living” dictionary that adds modern slang and common words with a more relaxed style to writing the definitions.  The project will take more than ten years to complete, which basically means that when the reference work is released, this “living” dictionary will be dead as a dodo and hopelessly out of date.  How you react to the movie will probably depend on whether you find the cast of characters to be eccentrically appealing on the level of a Cohen Brothers film or an Ealing comedy or not.  I didn’t.  Perhaps it’s best to say it’s no Ball of Fire and let it go at that.

CONSULTATION PHILOSOPHY, FEES and TESTIMONIALS


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First, I’m on Instagram. Follow me and I’ll follow back. Next, yet still another testimonial for my screenplay coverage service:

This is for my 20 pages for $20.00 level:

When you think you’ve written a good script with a good story, who do you turn to get it reviewed? Friends, Family? Most of the time they respond with “This is great!” or “Excellent Story”. Unless your friends understand screenwriting most of these accolades are pretty meaningless, in part because they are not honest reviews. I had been looking for someone to give me honest feedback. I was talking to a friend and she recommended Howard as the best person at any price. I reached out to Howard and in two days I received the best, accurate, and honest review of my short screenplay that I could have ever hoped for. If you are looking for someone to pat you on the back, I would stick with family and friends. If you are looking for an accurate, meaningful, and honest review I recommend Howard Casner.

Thomas Tierney, Avalon Falling

[A] very big thank you for blowing my mind with your notes on Beyond Our Skies. I am flabbergasted by your ideas and I will definitely take every one of them into consideration. For the longest time I just felt so stuck with the story and knew something was missing. You really helped point out every potential avenue I could take in resolving the issues. Thank you so much for your help! Can’t wait to send you the next script (I just have to write it first).

Bryan Mora, Beyond Our Skies

I have received a new review of my coverage services. It’s very lengthy, so I’ll share a couple of excerpts first:

“Howard was insightful and like a film encyclopedia”, “Someone bringing solutions not more confusion to the table”, “Howard’s a nice guy who knows a ton about movies and helps you come up with solutions and his prices are very reasonable.” There’s more below.

Howard was insightful and like a film encyclopedia.

Let me give you a couple examples.  I gave a subtle film reference to a 1961 French Film, Lola but never said the film’s name.  When I met with Howard, he said the film by name and then went into details about the Director, Jacques Demy’s and his other great film Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  I was to say the least impressed, this dude knows his stuff.

Also you know how when in college you asked a professor a difficult question and they reply… that’s an excellent question, you should think more about it and yet they never answer the question.  Annoying “AF” right?  I have worked with some other film consultants and they’ll say, well you need to change this or that scene or here’s your screenplay’s problem.  They say okay, now go think about that.  They don’t help you come up with ideas.  It’s annoying “AF” right and you leave more confused and further away from your goal of making a sellable screenplay than before.  This is NOT a good way to walk away from a screenplay consultation.

Well the very first minute my awesome film partner (Cindy 🙂 and I met with Howard… he went right into ideas about how to fix certain holes in the story.  He literally said, ok, I’ve been thinking about your opening and here’s an idea I have.

I was like Hallelujah!!!!!!!!  Someone bringing solutions not more confusion to the table.  Thank YOU!!!

Howard’s a nice guy who knows a ton about movies and helps you come up with solutions and his prices are very reasonable.  He rolls up his sleeves with you and gets down into the dirty little details of how to make your story the best it can be.  Not grand cinematic overtures but the details, big and small and that is incredibly helpful.  He’s also generous and giving with his time which is huge.  Not like one consultant who literally like 61 minutes into a 60 minute consult was hitting me up for more money.

Though he didn’t give my screenplay… the coveted Highly Recommend (yet, after rewrites…fingers crossed)… but I do Highly Recommend Howard.  Howard really helped me and offered solutions to get me on the right track.  Walking out of his consultation I felt focused and inspired.  And that my friends is how it should be.  Thanks Howard!!

Eric Weiss, The Friend Zone

 

More testimonials:

Thanks so much Howard – you make great points, and it’s very helpful!  Will start doing a rewrite with these things in mind…I think your prices are amazing for your time and quality, so I will definitely refer people to you and also plan to be in touch more in the future as well!

 

Michelle Ehlen – Maybe, Someday

 

$20.00 for 20 pages service:

“Finally, I’ve found quality feedback! The notes I received on the first 20 pages of my screenplay were eye opening.  It can be difficult to see what’s missing or unclear when you’re close to a project but Howard’s notes were objective, thorough, and detailed in a way that helped me to recognize the mistakes I was making before I got too far along. He even gave great suggestions on how to improve my weak areas. I highly recommend his services and will be back for full coverage when I finish my script.”

Theresa Drew – Gideon

For my regular $50.00/5-6 pg. coverage

“I am grateful for finding Howard to do coverage for me.  He hones in on what works, what doesn’t and makes a ton of suggestions for improvement.  He gives an honest assessment as to how marketable your screenplay might be.  Since I’m writing a comedy he has also thrown a number of jokes my way. I’m still digesting his second round of comments.”

Martin Bard, Flies on the Wall enterprises, LLC

And many more below:

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My short film 8 Conversations in 15 Minutes 58 Seconds will premiere at STUFF, the South Texas Underground Film Festival on January 27th, 2019 http://www.stuftx.org/

RATES

My charge for script consultation is:

$125.00 – five to six pages of notes and a one hour one on one consultation

$50.00 – five to six pages of notes

$20.00 – first twenty pages

Turn around time is one week or less.

Revising, script doctoring and ghost writing beginning at $1000, depending on credit and the difficulty of the revising/doctoring.

Consultation on a regular basis: $50.00 an hour with a six hour minimum.

Check out the second edition of my e-book published on Amazon: More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/mv1M30lUom3

 

PHILOSOPHY AND APPROACH

When providing coverage or script consultation, I am a firm believer in not providing feedback based on a set of rules one gets from a popular book on screenwriting. All coverage should be based on the idea of trying to make a script work on its own terms. I don’t care if a character is active, passive, or reactive, but only if the story works. I don’t care if there is a three act structure and the first act ends on page 30, but only if the story works. I don’t care if the central character has a character arc, but only if the story works. I am a great advocate of writers trying to break the rules and find new ways of communicating their visions.

I began doing script consultation in 2003 for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition. That year and for the next three years I discovered the first place winner. I quickly became one of their top readers. In addition, I have read for the Slamdance Teleplay Competition (where I discovered the first place winner the first year) and the Horror Screenplay Competition. Also through Slamdance, I originated and co-produced the Slamdance on Stage reading series in which the winners of the competitions were provided staged readings of their scripts at different legitimate theaters around town.

At the present time, I provide coverage and am a reader for the Big Break Final Draft Screenplay Competition and the various ISA (International Screenwriting Association). I have also read for Here! Networks/Regent Entertainment, Creative World Awards, the African Film Commission Screenplay Competition and been a judge for the Great Gay Screenplay Contest.

I have also ran two different writing groups in Los Angeles.

 

My testimonials:

Michelle Atkins, who won the Nicholls this year for her screenplay Talking About the Sky, gave me a great shout out as a script consultant in her interview with Scott Myers for Go Into the Story. Among other things she said, “What Stephen King calls your ideal reader…”. Check out the interview at http://ow.ly/733G30bKwwQ. Thanks, Michelle.

In addition, a screenplay I did coverage for is a Nicholls Finalist. Talking About the Sky, by Michelle Atkins. Congratulations, Michelle, well deserved.

 

I am also thrilled to announce that Thailand chose as its entry in the 2015 Oscar foreign language film category, Josh Kim’s How to Win at Checker’s (Every Time).  I am proud to say that I did script consultation on this film and received special thanks in the credit.

Getting coverage from Howard allowed me as writer to step back and look at the screenplay from a wider perspective. Not only did Howard highlight problem areas, but he brainstormed ideas to help solve them. He is definitely a source I plan to come back to with future projects.

Josh Kim, How to Win at Checkers Every Time

 

As someone who’s written coverage, and also a winner of both Page and Fresh Voices competition, one might question my need for additional coverage of my material. The reality is that we all need it and Howard Casner is above average in his ability to evaluate material and spot deficiencies that might elude even the most experienced writers. Though I have professional representation, it is tough to find unbiased and intelligent coverage before going to market. The old joke about “My mother says my script is great!” certainly applies here. You need independent honest perspectives to grow as a writer. Mr. Casner’s coverage is about as good as I’ve seen. While no single reader’s coverage and thoughts should shape your material, his voice is worthy of a careful listen. *Highly recommended for new writers and seasoned veterans.*.

R.E. Brody – The Burning Sea

 

This is the third time I’ve sent something to you, and you have been incredibly spot on every time. Thank you so much. I’m revising another script at the moment and working on new one too. You can bet that I’ll be in contact with you regarding notes/feedback.

Kathy Reaume – Driver’s Training

 

Howard’s feedback showed a complete understanding of the world, I created. It was very helpful to me in fleshing out a stronger journey for my main character, and their relationships with other characters. His comprehensive proofreading notes are superb, and I highly recommend his services to screenwriters of all levels.

Linda Andersson, Residual Evidence

 

Have Howard look at your script before you send it anywhere! I was so close to my project and felt like it was more polished than it had been several drafts ago. But Howard was able to identify some key structural and plot issues that really make a difference. He’s objective, insightful, and turns it around fast. He’s a real professional, and his feedback is invaluable if you want a script that works.

Renee Lukas, The Grim Reaper

 

I highly recommend Howard Casner. He has the distinct ability to hone in on particular problems areas of a script. I’ve sent him two scripts now for review. Each time he was able

to pick up on the problem areas that I needed to revise. His advice was spot on. For both scripts that he’s reviewed for me, I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Howard was able to analyze what I wrote and let me know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m looking forward to working with him on some of the writing projects that I’m currently in various stages of writing. If you want a second eye to pick on possible problem areas or to just let you know if your idea/premise is interesting, please consider using Howard. He definitely has the right touch.

Kathleen Resume, The Pirate

 

I took a few days to let your script coverage sink in. I feel like I have this great moment of clarity. In a lot of ways, I feel like I grew as a writer reading through your observations and notes. From act structure to narrative through line, you helped me hone in on what I’m trying to say with this story and I’m hopeful I can elevate this premise to a new level and that is because of you. Your recommendations are also a life saver! No way would I have been able to see the potential plot twists you created, and that alone was worth the price. You gave me hope in this story and I am so rejuvenated and ready to tackle this again!

Bryan Mora, Dead Man’s Party

 

Thank you so much. Great coverage and great tips on how to make my story resonate more!

Jake Iorio, Being Man

 

I have read all the…reviews and I ditto the sentiment. I was actually a little skeptical given I had several reviews in the past with not so good results. Howard is tough, honest and clear with his review. He knows what the heck he’s talking about [re] story. I truly appreciate him and FINALLY finding someone who talks the proper language. I will run all my scripts through him in the future. I have to be honest, you are the first person who actually knows what the heck he’s talking about [re] story. I paid hundreds to others. I truly appreciate you and FINALLY finding someone who talks the proper language. THANK YOU THANK YOU!

Brenda Jellits, Wisp

 

I wouldn’t dare produce a screenplay without first having Howard provide coverage. He has the most uncanny ability to not only point to the issues and questions that plague my subconscious while reading or writing a script, he goes so far as to provide creative and compelling solutions for each problem. He is a most potent secret weapon. Worth every penny.

Alan Ritchson (Ludusary, The Pact, The Twelve)

Actor (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Blue Mountain State; Smallville

 

I wanted to reach out as it has been a couple of months since you did my coverage on my TV pilot, Joe Hollywood, based on Joseph Kennedy’s time in Hollywood.  I wanted to touch base and give you an update, after receiving your very though coverage and recommendations, I went back and made some important changes in the script. A few weeks ago, a lit manager reached out to me as he liked my pitch and requested my script. He really liked my pilot and asked for more scripts…that narrative throughline totally changed my script, brilliant man!

Jane Henning (Joe Hollywood)

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TESTIMONIAL For my $20.00 for 20 pages

 

[T}hank you howard! these are super great notes as always and has give me more ideas.  [O]nce i get the full script done i’ll definitely send it over when you are free. [I]’ll keep you updated. and thank you again

Josh Kim, The Folding City

 

$20 is a steal for this type of coverage. Howard, you are truly THE BEST. I would NEVER even consider submitting anything you hadn’t given me feedback on… and I would NEVER consider using anyone else for coverage… EVER! Even my screenplay being shopped right now — something as seemingly minor as a synopsis. Thank you for looking it over for me.

Michael Davidson, Chasing Monarchs

 

Great feedback on the first twenty pages. He anticipated all the problems of the script without reading the whole thing.

Mark V. Bedard, The Haunting of Harrington House

 

Howard’s insights on the first 20 pages of my screenplay were very insightful and pinpointed exactly what areas I needed to work on. His words of encouragement also showed me I was on the right track.

Jordan Brandes, Into the Fire

 

I have gone through your notes, and I must say, they are priceless. I’ve wasted lots of time and money on some consultants that sound established, but cannot measure up with you.

Chidi Ezeibieli – Phate

 

Howard’s coverage brought knowledge and perspective to my romantic comedy screenplay. His suggestions made sense for structure and for plot. Learned a lot about the process — a worthwhile investment for any screenwriter.

Vincent Paterno – Stand Tall

 

Yes, I just took the 20 for 20 Casner Challenge. Very pleased with the results. Howard’s got a keen eye for detail.”Michael Arturo, How Ignatious Fumbo became a Rock Star in 2048

 

Other Testimonials

Thank you so much for your great notes. It’s one of the best coverage I have ever gotten. I do appreciate it. I would like to use your service again in the near future.

Shintaro, The Girls Who Wait for God

 

I want to thank you for your incredible “Spot-on” review of my script. Every issue you brought to my attention was extremely helpful in pointing out the flaws the writer (myself) may not see until someone else reads the script…I will absolutely call on you again for your services. I appreciate that you explain the flaws and give suggestions on how the fix the issue. I’m not looking for a pat on the back when I pay for a review. I’m more interested in the problems the script may have and how to correct them. You are extremely talented when it comes to showing an alternate view without trying to tell me how “you” would write the script.

Chris Roberts-The Courier

 

Howard’s notes were fabulous: shrewdly analytical while offering a great mix of creative suggestions. He really works his tail off and, as a writer himself, definitely knows how to communicate with fellow scribes.

Guy Francisco-Granny Land

 

What I have learned from Howard Casner’s consultation has proven itself to be invaluable.  I truly believe that his skill and honesty has made me a better writer.  Believe me when I say I mean every word of it.  I will be asking for more consultations in the future.

Ferris E. Jones, Published Author and Screenwriter, Last Weekend in L.A.

 

Howard was the fresh pair of eyes that my script needed. It’s clear that he has a passion for what he does, and gift for it. Thanks to his notes and comments, I find myself re-energized, with a clear understanding of what needs to be done to take my story to the next level.

Keith Gillum, Sweet Warrior

 

I got some notes from Howard Casner on my unfinished screenplay that helped me reboot the effort. I like what I got but I am (and thus the story) pulled in too many directions. Howard’s notes should help my focus. Now I just have to remember to take it in bits and not be overwhelmed by whole … which wasn’t whole anyway.

Tim Lane, Peanut and Cracker Jack

 

Howard’s coverage is everything that you would expect from an experienced writer and script reader, and then more. Not content with simply exposing the issues that undermine a story’s potential, his perspicacious feedback is both constructive and challenging, compelling the writer to reassess the quality and content of the script. In one word, professional.

John Hӧrnschemeyer, Baring All

 

Howard is true to his word, he judges a screenplay on the merits of the story it wants to tell.  I would recommend for anyone who wants to write films that risk going beyond the Hollywood three-act structure.

Bryce Richardson, Zero Bucks a Night

 

Howard really knows his stuff….he gives valuable and specific suggestions…insightful and constructive. I’m really glad I used his services and I will use them again for my next script. Thanks

Dimitrios Kafidas, WHO LAUGHS BEST,  LAUGHS FIRST

 

Great coverage Howard. Way more than I expected. Thoughtful, intuitive and very detailed. You picked up on nuances I hoped to make, and others I perhaps could have. I am now finally fired up for rewrite. Loved your service. So very worth it.

David Graham, The Wardrobe

 

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!

Thanks to Howard’s very helpful notes and rapid turn around, I just optioned my screenplay, 101 Ways to Survive the End of the World!

Tracee Oles Beebe, 101 Ways to Survive the End of the World

 

I recently sent a script to Howard for coverage and I had a short deadline. He responded with promptness and professionalism. I received the coverage in three days and he was spot with many of his notes. He provided ideas to improve the script all tidied up in an 8 page report. We also spoke by phone for about an hour. Very responsive. I am currently implementing 3 or 4 of those ideas and hope to submit the script in the next couple of days. I will use and recommend Howard for future coverage. Thanks Howard.

Charles Pisaeno, Byer’s Bog

 

Thank you for your precise and professional notes on my screenplay “Among Thieves.” You’re right: it took a lot of work to get it right but I’m very proud of the results.

Doug Winningham, Among Thieves

 

I just received feedback from Howard, and I must say, I was thrilled. He is thorough, honest, and insightful, and supplied 8 pages of detailed and valuable notes. Not only does he pinpoint a problem, he gives suggestions as to ways to solve them, and offers a fresh perspective on the work! I will definitely be using Howard again.

Joanne Wannan, Honeymoon in Rome

 

I’m so glad I found Howard Casner. His feedback for my screenplay was the best I’ve ever received. He shined a light on what worked, but more importantly, on what didn’t. His notes were thorough, pointed, and his vantage point clearly addressed problem areas in my script. Some of which I knew existed, and others that I didn’t see.

It’s apparent he has a wealth of knowledge and a true talent for processing a story, then verbalizing how to elevate it. You get the sense that he truly enjoys providing feedback and isn’t just going through the motions, and that is priceless. After reading his coverage, I was inspired to immediately dive back in for rewrites to see where this story can go. That’s exactly where you want to be after receiving feedback.

With murky waters out there when it comes to getting professional coverage, it’s exciting to know that such a resource is available. I’ll definitely use Howard again and I highly recommend his services to anyone wanting a unique, honest and insightful angle on your project. Thanks Howard!

Adam Franklin, Vandals

 

 

 

OUT OF THE FURNACE and AFTERMATH


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 rottentomatoes.com.  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.

OUT OF THE FURNACE and AFTERMATH



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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 rottentomatoes.com.  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.