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Peter Askin's
A Good Marriage
Opens October 3, 2014

Screenplay by: Stephen King adapted from his short story “A Good Marriage” from the collection “Full Dark, No Stars”

Starring: Joan Allen, Anthony LaPaglia, Kristen Connolly, Stephen Lang

Screen Media Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.

What would you do if you found out, by accident, that your husband is a serial killer? That he raped, tortured and killed a dozen women? You’d call the police, right? Not so fast. Let’s say you’ve been married for twenty-five years, your husband is an esteemed professional, and you have two kids who adore him and look forward to being proud of him for the rest of their lives.

This is the question that Stephen King asked himself in composing the novella, “A Good Marriage,” from the collection “Full Dark, No Stars,” upon which he bases his screenplay. He chose a relatively unknown director, Peter Askin, whose year 2000 comedy “Company Man,” is about a high-school teacher during the 1960s who becomes an international spy and plots to overthrow Fidel Castro. There’s little that’s comic in “A Good Marriage” but there is considerable tension, a number of scary hallucinations per Stephen King trademark, but nothing futuristic here.

It helps greatly that Joan Allen, now age 55, gives a terrific, nuanced performance as a woman who spends half the picture pondering what she should do about her popular husband, a good father, and well-regarded accountant. She has enough evidence of his hanky panky during his business trips and you can’t be blamed if you want to yell, “Don’t be stupid! Call the police!

The action takes place in Stephen King’s home state of Maine, in an upper-middle class household with that stereotypical white picket fence, separate room for washer and dryer, pretty view of the surrounding grass, but, strange to say, no dog in sight. Not even a bark in the neighborhood, one which is the scene of celebrations such as a party in which the leading man is praised to the sky for his work, looked up to by his two sons, and viewed warily by his conflicted wife.

Darcy Anderson (Joan Allen), married to Bob Anderson (Anthony LaPaglia), celebrates their twenty-fifth anniversary with lots of champagne and a good-night roll in the hay, depicted graphically albeit with a blanket covering half of Darcy who likes to be on top of things. Darcy does not care for TV fare involving the torture of a woman, so imagine what she feels when she discovers a stack of victims’ ID cards in the garage while looking for batteries. When Bob finds out that his wife knows all, she makes him promise not to kill again while for her part she will put the news completely behind her.

But of course she doesn’t, and presumably he doesn’t. The cat-and-mouse game dominates the second half of the movie the audience wondering when he will kill his wife, while we wonder whether his wife realizes that she may be awaiting the slaughter. Is she passive, or just passive-aggressive as her husband accuses her of being? And who is that disheveled man (Stephen Lang) with a pronounced limp and baggy clothes who appears to be stalking her? Could it be that she has it all wrong, that this suspicious looking fellow who parks outside her home is the real murderer, known as Beadie?

Rated: R. 103 minutes © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online



Scott Frank's
A Walk Among The Tombstones
Opens Friday, September 19, 2014

Screenplay: Scott Frank, novel by Lawrence Block

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Robert Boyd Holbrook, Ruth Wilson, Sebastian Roche

Universal Pictures
Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoe
s

“People are afraid of all the wrong things,” says the tagline, this taken from the mouth of one of the kidnapper-killers who, noting a headline about fear of the upcoming Y2K (a potential computer shutdown said to take place when the year 2000 rolled around). Obviously the greater fear is that someone near and dear to you might be kidnapped, tortured and killed, which sets the movie in motion under the direction of Scott Frank—the scripter for the unlikely Marley and Me about a neurotic dog. There is a cute Jack Russell in the movie and a cute African-American kid who chooses to play detective, but as the Scudder series by Lawrence Block goes, A Walk Among the Tombstones is arguably the most labyrinthine and ponderous. A Walk is overlong, the teen gumshoe is too cute by half, and the plot, with its theme of revenge, is too much like that of the standard-bearers of the genre. But Liam Neeson’s always reliable performance saves the picture, as he hammers out a role of an ex-alcoholic, unlicensed private investigator who works to do people favors rather than as a steady employment.

In this case, he gets the word from Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), that he wants the two men who kidnapped, tortured, and killed his wife tracked down and handed over to him for appropriate punishment. Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is not concerned about the man’s shady profession (drug dealing), but does take the job, reluctantly, when he discovers that the murderers will not be content with just one victim. He is determined to track down the two, disgusted that they killed the drug dealer’s wife despite receiving the $400,000 ransom as ordered. When a fourteen-year-old girl is kidnapped, Scudder is driven to rescue her, insisting that the kidnappers prove that she is alive, and setting up a scenario to ensure that when the money is exchanged, the frightened teen is released.

The plot takes in quite a number of events and quirky personalities, such as the caretaker of Brooklyn’s celebrated Greenwood Cemetery, who keeps a crew of pigeons on his roof as a hobby and who knows more than he at first admits about the kidnappers. Much is made of TJ (Astro), the black teenager whose parents did not want him and who lives on the streets and in a shelter rather than accept residence with foster parents. An aspiring detective himself, he spends his days in the public library, either sleeping or poring over newspaper clippings, giving Scudder information that he gleans from the microfilms.

Writer-director Frank spares no graphics as Scudder, and we in the audience, listen to phone conversations of the vicious killers who take joy not only in kidnapping and killing but in chopping victims into parts and stuffing them into bags for dumping at the cemetery. Much of the action takes place in the rain, giving the movie a nourish ambiance, even providing something else to fear—the teen has sickle-cell anemia, a condition that can become fatal under conditions of such bad weather.

Just as the novel is part of the Scudder series, we can expect moviemakers to follow up A Walk with a number of sequels.

Rated R. 114 minutes. (c) 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



David Fincher’s
“Gone Girl”
Opens Friday, October 2, 104

Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Emily Ratajkowski, Missi Pyle, Casey Wilson, David Clennon, Boyd Holbrook.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival

The Ben Affleck voice-over that provocatively opens David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is at complete odds with the lovely image of Rosamund Pike’s head, unless you’re married, in which case wanting to crack your spouse’s skull open is certainly something you might have thought about one or two times while staring at its loveliness. Of course that impulse usually goes away quickly and you realize just how much you love him or her and how much you’d miss him or her. And how much you’d hate jail! So you suck up whatever reason it was you had that terrible/wonderful thought in the first place and you have a drink. Or three. (If you live in suburbia, five.) Anyone who hasn’t had this impulse, I would argue has never truly been in love. And Affleck wants to crack her skull to “get answers.” Do we forgive him now?

Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike) were madly in love. Once. Now, five years into the marriage, they have issues. Major issues. They no longer seem to like each other. And then, Amy disappears. Is she dead? Murdered? Did Nick do it? I will not give much more of the plot away since one of the so many delights of experiencing “Gone Girl” is not knowing where the perfectly crafted, non-linear narrative is going. The film is structured with just enough information divulged to keep us on the edge of out seats as the revelations escalate and the suspense builds, swirls and mindfucks us several times over!

Gillian Flynn has crafted a dense screenplay, based on her own wildly popular novel and David Fincher, the master filmmaker who gave us one of the best and most significant films of our time, “The Social Network,” directs in his outrageously keen, in-touch-with-the-times manner. It’s the Finchification of pulp, which is basically crafting his own twisted neo-Noir satire once again seeming to work within and defy genre expectation simultaneously. So we are given a dark thriller with camp moments that is also a meditation on obsession, love, marriage and, most especially, attraction.

Set in a small town in Missouri (anytown USA, really), Nick and Amy have had to deal with economic woes, parental illness and whether they want children or not—issues that most couple go through and that can weigh heavily on a marriage. They moved from NYC to Nick’s hometown, which did not sit well with Amy, who comes from money, having been exploited by her parents in a series of children’s books called, “Amazing Amy.” To say she’s psychologically damaged would be like saying Joan Crawford was a troubled mother.

Nick runs a bar, which Amy bought for him, with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). When Nick is accused of her murder, Margo is right at his side ready to help in any way she can. There was never any love lost between the two women. Margo: “Whoever took her is bound to bring her back.”

We hear much of the couple’s backstory via Amy’s diary entries but all is not what it appears to be and when the media gets involved, minds are instantly swayed, only to be swayed back. The film insightfully comments on the fickleness of the public as well as that small group of TV and Internet “journalists” who make their living off “tragedy vampirism.”

“Gone Girl” is an actor’s dream since they all have something meaty to play.

Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit play the detective and officer on the missing Amy case. Both are perfectly snarky with that expected touch of “Fargo.”

Tyler Perry rocks his roll as Nick’s defense attorney while Missy Pyle has just the right amount of skeaze in the Nancy Grace-eque TV gossipmonger.

Carrie Coon, Emmy-worthy on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” is terrific here and the definition of a true supporting character and actor.

Neil Patrick Harris nails the freakish, stalky ex-boyfriend (who has heated floors in his home)!

Ben Affleck shows just how capable he is as an actor when he works with an inspiring director, giving one of his best performances. Is Nick a superficial asshole? Perhaps he’s bored? Could he have killed his wife? Affleck keeps us guessing, but never at the expense of character cohesion. And watching him manipulate the media, when he sees that public opinion is reaching “Cry in the Dark” levels, is a treat and marries the role with the actor.

Rosamund Pike is simply astonishing. Reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and both Turners (Lana and Kathleen), Pike’s performance hits like a meteor, late in the film as we learn more and more about who Amy is. We understand her and unlike Alex Forrest (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”) she does not turn one-dimensional in the final reel. If anything, we are perplexed but transfixed. And the attraction between Pike and Affleck is palpable.

Pike’s brilliance (her “peak,” if you will) comes as a shock only because she hasn’t been on anyone’s radar. Sure, she’s been superb in supporting roles in films like, “An Education,” “Made in Dagenham,” “The Libertine” and “Pride and Prejudice,” but seeing what she accomplishes here is like a jolt to the senses. Pike takes on this highly ambitious and potentially catastrophic part and gives it her fearless all. She is mesmerizing and manages to etch a truly spellbinding, multi-faceted portrait of an unhinged woman who is trying to figure out what she really wants and who she really is. It’s, arguably, the performance of the year to date.

Part of David Fincher’s magic lies in how meticulously put together his film is paying homage to director’s like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock whose motion pictures were precise and pristine. But he messes with that precision and pristineness poking fun at what is expected from the Hollywood film via deft, deceptive editing (via Kirk Baxter), enigmatic camerawork (by Jeff Cronenweth) and an erratic, fascinating score (by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross).

The score, in particular, deserves special mention because it sometimes overwhelms the dialogue making us aware that we are watching a film but it’s also commenting on the nature of different versions of how things happen. For example, in the obligatory “getting to know one another” scene between Nick and Amy, the conversation is the expected stuff most people say when they’re in the early stages of “like.” But the other, more sinister thing at play here is that Fincher doesn’t want us to be privy to everything being said, since in reality one can never been certain about accuracy after the fact. Each member of the couple has their own take on the he said/she said spectrum.

“Gone Girl” is an extraordinary achievement that had me at “cracking her skull.”

Tickets for the upcoming New York Film Festival range in price from $15 & $25 for most screenings to $50 & $100 for Gala evenings. Film Society members receive a discount on tickets as well as the benefit of a pre-sale opportunity.
Visit filmlinc.com for more information.


 

 



Jason Reitman's
Men, Women & Children
Opens October 1, 2014

Screenplay: Jason Reitman

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, Emma Thompson
Paramount Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoe
s

The Internet is one of the ten great inventions of all time, comparable to the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, according to the writers in a recent New York magazine article. Like the wheel and fire—which between them have caused no small number of tragic and painful deaths—the ‘net has not been an unmixed blessing. The invention has been responsible for 24-hour bullying with attendant suicides and a loss of communication and writing skills. As Jackie Mason said way back in a Carnegie Hall show, “People in New York have been known to e-mail complete strangers climbing Mt. Everest, but they don’t even say hello to their neighbors in the elevator.”

The failure to communicate has been with us and the topic of literature, theater and film before even IBM filled a room with computers during the seventies. But Jason Reitman, who wrote and directs “Men, Women & Children” would like to point out the ways this wonderful, but flawed, invention has disrupted families, focusing on one suburban community filled with dysfunction. And he does quite a job, with the able help of a staff of visual effects people who follow all the transcriptions from computers and i-phones with titles spread across the screen to allow all of us in the theater to eavesdrop on the most intimate conversations.

Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen which (as the Amazon site says) involves “porn-surfing fathers to World of Warcraft-obsessed sons, from competitive cheerleaders to their dissatisfied, misguided mothers,” Kultgen clicks open the emotionally treacherous culture in which we live. While it’s true that the characters in the movie, and perhaps in the books as well, come across as the sum of their quirks rather than wholly fleshed-out individuals, this alleged weakness turns out to be a strength, as it concentrates its satire on those very quirks without needing to delve into wordy backstories, flashbacks, and time-consuming conversations. The quirks are the people.

Pulling the junior-high students of the book into high school—perhaps to allow Reitman to make use of actors who are at least eighteen years of age—the director known for “Thank You For Smoking” (one of the great satires of modern cinematic times) and “Up in the Air” (a piercing, yet comic, look at the tragedy of employment firings)—travels to a bland, all-white suburb whose inhabitants are anything but relaxed, middle-class adults with "Leave-It-To-Beaver" teens.

The story is framed by Emma Thompson’s overlong narrations about how the Earth looks like a ping-pong ball from outer space, making our lives irrelevant from a cosmic viewpoint.

As one of the strongest characters, Jennifer Garner performs in the role of Patricia, who could stand in as an archetype of controlling mother. We’ve had this sort of character ever since Mrs. Flintstone stood at the wall of her cave with a club to ward off horny teens lusting for her daughter. In this case, she believes that if she watches over the Internet and i-phone exchanges of Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), her daughter, Brandy would never get into trouble. Did she never hear of guys and gals talking to each other directly in school and setting up dates? But oh, in the Internet age, people are supposed to communicate only through their machines. We don’t know why Patricia is so controlling, but should we care? The important thing is that some in the audience might find her familiar when looking back at their own childhoods. Do we know why Brandy seems the only person who reads books in addition to sending out her own texts? Doesn’t matter, but Brandy does turn out to be a hero to her boyfriend, Tim (Ansel Elgort),a principal character whose mother had abandoned the family leaving him under the care of his angry dad, Kent (Dean Norris—“Big Jim” from TV’s “Under the Dome”).

Not as ethical as Brandy is Joan Clint (Judy Greer), who is so eager to satisfy the wish of her daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), for a career in TV that she pimps her out on the Internet, using her camera to pose the teen in seductive poses. She is also a parent-without-a-partner, getting together with Kent, who comes across as awkward in getting back into the dating game after his own wife flew the coop.

Adam Sandler appears in his most serious role as Don Truby, the male half of a dead marriage, whose wife Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) seeks excitement from an escort service, with Don following on that path with his own adventure with paid women. Elena Kampouris rounds at the principal cast as Allison, an emaciated, anorectic teen encouraged in her neurosis by favorable comments on her figure, though she is headed for tragedy after a hookup with a callous football player.

It’s a different world from the 1950’s, not only in the way all teens are wired, in one case a girl communicating with a recent hookup by email even though she stands ten feet from him inside the school. The problems these families face are not caused by the Internet. People still communicate face-to-face all around the country, using mobile devices as accessories. But “Men, Women & Children” serves as an excellent example of fine ensemble acting, the people coming together credibly at different points in the movie with some crackerjack dialogue courtesy of the writer-director. There are melodramatic moments, but no car crashes (one of the faults of wired communication, or rather of the illegal ways that drivers become riveted to their machines rather than to the road).

The entire project is controlled, even to the point of anesthesia, as some performers speak in monotones, and all in the quiet murmur associated with folks of a higher socio-economic class. Money may bring happiness if spent in the right ways, but Reitman, or rather Chad Kultgen who wrote the book, appears to believe that the more you spend on communication equipment, the less joyful you’ll be.

Rated R. 119 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Matthew Warchus'
Pride
Opens Friday, September 26, 2014


Screenplay: Stephen Beresford

Starring: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine

CBS Films

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? From outright hostility toward gays, from families throwing their children out of their homes upon discovering their sexual orientation, we now have at least the more progressive states endorsing not just gay rights but gay marriage. To think otherwise nowadays marks you as some sort of reactionary, denying marriage equality to a people that allegedly make up ten percent of the population. While a large part of the world still considers homosexuality a crime punishable by sentences as severe as death, Great Britain during the 1980s was divided, with macho organizations like coal miners unmistakably in the camp of homophobes. This would change, as we find out from Matthew Warchus’s feel-good movie “Pride,” which is based on actual events during a prolonged strike of the National Union of Mineworkers, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher determined not to give in, but to break the organization of perhaps the hardest-working people in her country.

Beginning in June 1984, as Stephen Beresford’s script tell us, Joe (George MacKay), a twenty-year-old naïf training to be a chef and who is a closeted gay, joins the London Gay Pride March, sporting a camera just received as a gift from his parents—who had no idea of their son’s sexual orientation. The small group of diverse people, mostly young, form LGSM, or Lesbians, Gays Support Mineworkers, choose at random a small Welsh town that is the home of striking coal miners and begin to take up a contribution to be used principally for food for the union members. Characters like Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Gethin (Andrew Scott), a bookstore owner, and Jonathan (Dominic West), an actor get together with Steph (Faye Marsay), who is the only lesbian in the club.

When the brass at the union want nothing to do with the prospective ally, the band bus themselves to Onllwyn in Wales and are welcomed by Dai (Paddy Considine). As the gays collect money in buckets, they are met by the obligatory bashers who, if the LGSM are lucky are simply spat upon, though one of their number ultimately lands in the hospital after a severe beating. The mineworkers themselves seem unanimous in rejecting their new benefactors, but of course as the story progresses and as the two groups get together and socialize over beer, they realize that “the other” is human as well. An elderly miner played by Bill Nighy and a community leader played by Imelda Staunton (whom you remember as the abortionist in Mike Leigh’s 2004 film “Vera Drake”) add zest to the proceedings, which yield not only the new camaraderie between miners and “perverts” (as the gays call themselves to “own” the pejorative) but a new entente between one young man and his family.

Though the feel-good aspects of “Pride” cannot compare to the uplifting climax of “Whiplash” (the year’s best movie to date), superb ensemble acting make this a fun movie to see for the whole family (if that includes reasonably mature kids).

Rated R. 119 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 



Shawn Levy's
This Is Where I Leave You
Opens Friday, September 19, 2014

 

Screenplay: Jonathan Tropper, novel by Jonathan Tropper

Starring: Jason Bateman, Tiny Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne

Warner Bros.

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes


We’re all familiar with mother-in-law jokes, but check out this gag: An obituary notes that the gentleman at the moment of death “was surrounded by his family, and also by his loved ones.” You choose your friends, not your family. Does this mean that you will like your friends more than your own kin? It’s likely, especially since you can, without bad conscience, move to another location and desert your pals. You can do the same with family, not seeing your folks for years on end, but the absence may make you feel guilty. Such is the case with the Altman circle, two generations (three if you add the little kid, Cole (Cade Lappin) who carries his portable potty around as though it were a security blanket). The key expression thrown about particularly by middle-aged Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is “it’s complicated.” While not original, it best describes the movie thematically, a picture that is based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel, which deals with the Foxman family—name changed by screenwriter Tropper, adapting his own book, to Altman.

This is Where I Leave You is the kind of movie that dares you not to identify with at least one of the characters. Family blood notwithstanding, everyone in the Altman family is an individual. So, which one are you? Could you be Judd Altman, who anchors the story, a man who is now jobless since he caught his boss, Wade Beaufort (Dax Shepard) in bed with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer)? Might you identify with Wendy Altman (Tina Fey), the family sister who has shaped the destinies of her sibs, a bossy woman but one in a loveless marriage? How about Paul Altman (Corey Stoll) whose cell phone vibrates each time his wife is ovulating, a woman who loves her husband but, looking around at how everyone appears to have a child or two is climbing the walls with envy and frustration?

If you’re particularly lucky, you will relate to the family matriarch, Hillary (Jane Fonda), a psychologist who is about to go on a book tour, and in the typical Jane Fonda fashion is free of repressions. She thinks nothing of embarrassing one of her brood by announcing penis anecdotes, will certainly not cover up her “bionic” breasts when her more repressed son Judd turns red with embarrassment, and has a surprise in store for the family during the concluding moments. In one scene she implicitly compares a family member to her newly departed husband who, she reminds all, was “hung.”

It’s unlikely that the Altman circle would have been brought together were it not for Hillary’s husband’s death and the requirement that Jews get together for shiva (Hebrew for “seven) for one week under the same roof (filmed by Terry Stacey in Great Neck). Never mind that dad was an atheist and mom was not Jewish at all. But this is not a claustrophobic experience: the individuals peel out for reasons of their own: Judd, to get together with his high-school crush Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), an ice skating teacher, Phillip Altman (Adam Driver), who has a good business sense and heads around town in his Porsche—but is the family immature jerk, and Wendy, who in a maternity clinic shows her skill with a solid left hook.

For a movie to involve an audience, the family should have universal resonance, and how could this not? After all, just about every character trait short of serial murder is covered by this large group. Still, while this is billed as a dramatic comedy, there are no big laughs and few tears, much of the action simply plowing ahead with considerable melodrama, a few comic situations, and much soul searching about what might have been. This is a switch for its director, Shawn Levy, better known to the public for his raucous comedy Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in 2009 and mock detective drama Pink Panther.

Rated R. 103 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 


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