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Adam MacDonald's
Opens Friday, March 20, 2015

Screenwriter: Adam MacDonald

Starring: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, Nicholas Campbell, bears Chester and Charlie

IFC Midnight

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Uh, oh, John, there’s a bear coming toward us. We’ll never be able to run faster than him.”
“I don’t have to run faster than him, Peter. I only have to run faster than you.”

Sure, you’ve heard that one before, but I can’t think of a better way to introduce “Backcountry,” which is based on a true story of a pair of campers who get lost in the woods and are confronted by a hostile bear. Adam MacDonald, a Montréal-born actor who wrote and directs the psychological-horror narrative, draws tension from what is basically a two-hander out of his freshman offering in the director’s chair. “Backcountry,” which also features overlong conversations before the life-and-death confrontation in the style of “The Blair Witch Project”, is graced by two first-class performances by Jeff Roop as Alex and Missy Peregrym as Jenn, two yuppies who leave their known world of Montréal or Toronto to trek not only in the wilderness but across one particular pathway that’s off limits because of dangers. Writer-director MacDonald, whose script makes regular jabs at the stupidity of men while congratulating women for their caution, foreshadows some bad decisions as Jenn, reading from a tabloid quiz about male-female relations, takes umbrage at women who do dangerous things just to please their boyfriends.

That’s certainly the case here, as Jenn is a corporate lawyer who’d feel more at home taking in a movie than following her outdoorsy b.f. Alex in the Canadian wilderness. Ironically she is better prepared than he, carrying a cell phone, which he promptly hides because, hey, we’re supposed to be leaving civilization behind; and a flare, which he thinks almost comical; though both are at fault for doing without a map (he’s experienced, having navigated the stretch of land when in high school) and a compass. Macho men try to impress women but succeed only in arousing their contempt.

When Alex and Jenn run into Brad (Eric Balfour), who claims to be Irish and a tour guide, they are on their guard as he appears to act weird and busily flirts with Jenn, having been invited by her to share the many fish he has caught. Is he a rapist? A knife-wielding maniac? Strangely, Alex fears him more than Jenn, and Jenn is never going to hear the end of it for inviting him to the campfire.

When Alex has to cut off an entire toenail because of an injury, a nearby bear smells blood and feels the need to defend his territory. The rest is blood, guts, chicken wings and cherry pie.

Though Adam MacDonald throws enough gore to satisfy most fans of slasher movies, there are too many pauses between the two dangers (the bear and the so-called tour guide), testing the patience, perhaps, of the average moviegoer. But narrative aside, Christian Bielz makes his camera lenses virtually breathe in the open air wilds of Canada, specifically North Bay, Powassan, Restoule Provincial Park in Ontario and Squamish in British Columbia, the last location a popular tourist attraction about an hour’s drive from Vancouver and Whistler and an increasingly popular residence for people escaping the high cost of living in Western Canada.

Unrated. 92 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Sam Taylor Johnson's
"Fifty Shades of Grey"
Opens Friday, February 13, 2015

Universal Pictures/ Focus Features

Reviewed by Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes

Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel, from E.L. James’ novel

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden

One day while walking along Fifth Avenue in New York City with a friend, I stumbled upon the world-renowned pair of marble lions that stood in the Beaux Arts building at the entrance to the Public Library. “When would the lions roar”? I asked. “When a virgin passes by” my friend replied. After all these were the late 1960s, the “pill” and casual sex were “in” and virginity was definitely “out”.

So how do we explain Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a literature student who is about to graduate from Washington State University, but kept her virginity intact? Ana, the central character in "Fifty Shades of Grey," is unprepared for the basic things in life. When we meet her for the first time she is assigned to substitute for a sick friend and interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) in his ultra-modern Seattle office. Ana not only falls upon entering his office, she is unprepared without a tape recorder or a pen. She is intimidated by this overconfident man, and upon emerging outdoors she lets out an orgasmic moan and looks to the pouring heavens. In other words: Ana is infatuated.

What follows is their bizarre “courtship” that includes Christian’s emerging as an overly controlling person, with his passion for dominance/submission and sadism/masochism. He will even go so far as giving Ana a legal five page contract to sign, with detailed conditions of what she is to do, eat and where she is to live. Brave Ana takes it all in stride and in the first half hour of this creation she sends Christian an E-Mail of “thanks-but-no-thanks”. But alas she succumbs to this seducer’s power. He flies a plane like Howard Hughes, plays classical piano like Vladimir Horowitz, and dances like Fred Astaire. In the second half of film we are introduced to Christian’s “play-room”, filled with ropes, whips and chains, to which Ana has to report upon his command.

Cue audience unintentional laughter during the first half of Fifty Shades of Grey, and stare in disbelief at the screen during the second.

Dakota Johnson launches a credible performance as Ana, portraying a young student who read too many Jane Austen novels. She is not sexy but proves irresistible to Christian. Jamie Dornan, playing a twenty-six-year old C.E.O., is too “mature” for the role of Christian at thirty-two. His acting does not have the range required for Christian and he is cold, distant and too mechanical even in most passionate scenes.

Notable supporting performances are provided by Eloise Mumford as fun loving roommate Katherine, Jennifer Ehle as Carla, Ana’s supportive mother, and Marcia Gay Harden as Grace, Christian’s stiff mother.

Filmed beautifully by Seamus McGarvey Vancouver never looked prettier, with specific scenes shot in Gastown, Bental 5, The Fairmont Hotel and The University of British Columbia.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is scheduled to open during Valentine’s Day weekend, but if you don’t like what you see in 2015 do not despair. "Fifty Shades Darke"r is a scheduled sequel in 2016 and perhaps "Fifty Shades Freed" on a later date.

Rated R. 110 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's
Opens Friday, February 27, 2015

Screenwriter: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong, Robert Taylor

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for New York Cool. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.

If the producers were to choose an ironic title for this movie, that would be “Trust.” Every character with a speaking part is a con artist, and because it takes one to know one, each member of that select fraternity is onto every other. But there are exceptions, the biggest of the many twists being that one of the principal characters has gotten the other one wrong. Since none of us in the audience are presumably anything but honest, the revelation come up as some dandy reversals.

However important twists are to caper movies like this one, a few surprises here and there do not a riveting movie make, nor can Will Smith still be counted on to wow the audience as he once did. His partner in crime played buy Margot Robbie, so good as the gold-digging wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is on her way up.

Glenn Ficarra, whose “I Love You Phillip Morris” is about a cop turned con man who meets the love of his life, and John Requa, who scripted “Bad Santa” about a con man playing Santa Claus, are deep into their métier with “Focus.” As a con artist, Nicky Spurgeon is the head of a gang of con artists who can work the crowded streets of New Orleans and Buenos Aires. They are adept at lifting their marks’ watches, credit cards, identities, cash, and all the other things that make life worth living. Nicky becomes romantically involved with Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a beautiful blonde who uses her hot physical looks to lure men to her hotel room, then having them confronted by her “husband” who threatens to shoot them unless they turn over their possessions. Nicky is on to the duo who make the mistake of playing a game that’s as old as chess, but when Nicky and Jess team up because of both their physical attraction and respect for each other’s ability to purloin the goods, we wonder whether their feelings for each other are as genuine as they profess and whether the guy is conning the girl or vice versa.

Since Nicky is a compulsive gambler, he is not averse to betting one thousand dollars against Liyuan (BD Wong) in the home of the New Orleans Saints, wagering whether a pass will be completed, an extra point kick with cross the bars and the players will run for it or pass, but when the betting reaches $2 million, the movie veers off even more into fantasyland. When we discover the real identity of a guy with a shaved head (Gerald McRaney) who has been hostile to Nicky from the start, the older man, who has been protecting a multimillionaire scammer, becomes wholly unbelievable

Even so, it’s always fun to watch a pro at work, and Will Smith fills the bill as a guy who makes a good living on other people’s money. The scenes in New Orleans invite more emotional reaction from the audience, but this is perhaps because by the time we get to Buenos Aires, the picture has lost much of its steam.

Rated R. 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

David Cronenberg’s
“Maps to the Stars”

Opens Friday, February 27, 2015

Screenplay by Bruce Wagner.

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon, Jennifer Gibson.

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

Nothing is sacred in director David Cronenberg’s searing, nasty portrait of Hollywood, “Maps To the Stars,” even killing an adorable animal. And I am thrilled by his chutzpah.

This is about as black as comedy gets and what better subject matter to satire than tinsel town? Although many might say that the movie industry satirizes itself just by existing.

The demonic tale begins with a mysterious, burn-scarred Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving in LA and taking a limo, driven by actor/writer wannabe, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson in a nod to his role in the last Cronenberg enigma, “Cosmopolis”). Agatha, via a recommendation by Twitter-friend Carrie Fisher (in a neat cameo) becomes the personal assistant to former leading lady Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore).

Havana is a mess of insecurities, hyper-aware of her age in a city where youth is celebrated and anyone over thirty is considered obsolete. She is a survivor of sexual abuse and is haunted by her dead abuser. Havana’s agent is trying to get her an important (and close to home) role.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old superstar Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is currently filming the sequel to his monster hit, “Bad Babysitter.” Weiss’s callous mother Cristina (Olivia Williams) acts as his manager while his self-involved father, Stafford (John Cusack), has little time for him since he’s promoting his latest self-help book/DVD/tour.

To say that things unravel for all of the key players is a massive understatement. The situations become as ridiculous and over-the-top as the character names with the ending pushing the envelope pretty far and Karmic comeuppance being the name of the ghoulish game.

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner (“Wild Palms”) and Cronenberg have created a world where ego rules the day and someone’s tragedy means intense joy for another. Basically, Hollywood.

In a hilariously vicious scene, Benjie arrives at the bedside of a dying teen wondering how she got AIDS. When he is told what she has is actually Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma he is incensed wondering if it is even a disease since it has “Non” in the name.

Evan Bird steals all of his scenes as the obnoxious Justin Beiber meets Macaulay Culkin child star. He’s a teen devoid of humanity, but when we are given the full picture we realize he can’t really help what he is. Bird should have a very healthy career ahead of him.

“Y’know for a disfigured schizophrenic, you got the town pretty wired.”

Wasikowska (so effective in “Tracks”) is fascinating to watch. You never quite know what she may do next and that’s a refreshing treat.

And then there’s Julianne Moore giving another career-best performance—a down and dirty portrait of Hollywood petulance, privilege, paranoia and psychosis. Havana is a self-obsessed, Awards hungry creature and Moore is bewitching in the role. She takes chances like no other actress working today. She enraptures and enrages in the same moment. Give this woman an Oscar already!

Bruce Wagner’s script is malicious, but a bit too self-congratulatory. Luckily Cronenberg is there to distract from the “cool factor” and keep things deliciously brutal and brittle. No one in this particular sendup of the motion picture holy land is in any way likeable or behaves heroically or without thinking of themselves first. And that’s just fine because Cronenberg keeps you intrigued.

“A History of Violence” and “Dead Ringers” remains my two favorite Cronenberg films, but “Maps,” is great fun for those of us who have a demented take on what fun is.

And while not coming close to the most devastating portrait of Hollywood, John Schlesinger’s “The Day of the Locust” based on the brilliant novella by Nathanael West, “Maps” goes so far in its depiction of movie folk as a bunch of incestuous, self-involved, inhuman fiends that you might find yourself questioning what your favorite actors are really like the next time you watch them being interviewed on one of those glossy filler shows like “Entertainment Tonight.”

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.
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Rob Cohen's
"The Boy Next Door"
Opens Friday, January 23, 2015

Screenwriter: Barbara Curry

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, Ian Nelson, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth

Universal Pictures

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

When Judy Garland was twenty-two years of age she starred in “Meet Me in St. Louis” which takes place during the 1904 world’s fair. If you’re of a certain age or if you’re young and into musicals, you recall her singing Vincent Youman’s lyrics, “How can I ignore/ The boy next door/ I love him more than I can say…/And he doesn’t even glance my way.” How innocent were the musicals of the 1940s! And how innocent was Judy Garland’s little dance in front of a mirror, blouse and skirt covering every inch of her body, as she contemplates how to get noticed by the young man she adores. Compare that to J-Lo’s examining her body in the skimpiest of underclothing as she luxuriates in the thought that in her own 40’s she can attract a young man of 19! Times have changed. In fact “The Boy Next Door,” directed by Rob Cohen, famous for “The Fast and the Furious,” is so trashy that you may just yearn to return to those glorious days of musical showbiz moviemaking that came out of the golden age of Broadway entertainment.

Not that trashy means that Cohen’s movie, budgeted at fifty-four million dollars, lacks entertainment value. Barbara Curry’s dialogue can be expected to evoke guffaws from the audience for some unintentional humor, and audience members mostly below the age of thirty may cheer the hugely over-the-top climax which involves stabbings, shooting and burnings. Have I given away anything? Nope, because ten minutes into the movie, you’re way ahead of the characters in this oh-so-predictable psychological thriller.

Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) should have looked the other way or graded some of her advanced placement high-school student papers instead of looking at the handsome boy next door, Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) had just moved in the nabe from San Bernardino to take care of his uncle, who is scheduled for a liver transplant. This guy has everything. First, in real life, the actor is twenty-seven and is made to pass for nineteen. OK, that’s a stretch. He’s obviously as much as a decade older than his classmates. In short order, he’s fixing the Peterson car together with Kevin Peterson (Ian Nelson), who is Claire’s dorky son, advising him how to get a date with “the prettiest girl in school,” fixing the garage door, beating up the bullies who pick on the kid, and meeting Claire at a time of her vulnerability, as she is about to get a divorce from her cheatin’ husband (John Corbett). Her sister (Kristin Chenoweth) strongly advises her to get those divorce papers signed

So when a guy has bulging biceps, the ability to quote Homer from memory (convenient when he’s trying to impress an English teacher dealing with the classics), and is a mentor for her son tells her that she’s sexy (as in another musical, “Whatcha gonna do when a fella gets flirty, starts to talk dirty”), Claire is just a gal who can’t say no.

Noah will turn out to be a guy like Ted Bundy, charming at first, then turning gradually psycho. And the last thing a teacher wants to do is to fall for a psycho student if she values her job, her life, and her kid’s future. One of the picture’s pleasures is the bad luck that passes the way of Claire’s sister, a woman who keeps bugging Claire to get rid of her husband, to start dating, and whose voice resembles that of fingernails crawling down a chalkboard.

For cheap thrills, predictability, and some unintentional laughs, go ahead and have a look. Don’t forget: it’s January, and you’ll be getting what you expect to get in January.

Rated R. 91 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Marjane Satrapi's
"The Voices"
Opens Friday, February 6, 2015

Screenwriter: Michael R. Perry

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jacki Weaver, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick


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

There’s reason to be envious of schizophrenics. They’re never lonely. They hear voices whether the words come from imaginary people or their real dogs or cats. Now you can know exactly what your pet thinks of you. In “The Voices,” a schizo who happens to be the nicest serial killer you’ll see in the movies in recent years, knows that his cat considers him to be a loser and his dog, by contrast defends him—which is the way most dogs and cats feel about their human companions. He considers himself to be a good guy: a psychotic killer may indeed have high self-esteem and charm. Think Ted Bundy. All this makes for an intriguing look at a movie that like so many others (“Wild Tales” comes to mind immediately) mixes genres, in this case comedy with murder. It works, especially since Ryan Reynolds, who hears opinions impartially all about him, good and bad, comes across as nothing less than a good guy.

Iranian-born director Marjane Satrapi, best known for “Persepolis” about a young, outspoken Iranian girl during the unfortunate revolution in that country, this time tackles a theme removed from her previous work, a comic look at a fella who thrice kills people he knows and likes because his cat encourages him. The feline charmer notes that in its own case, he feels most alive when hunting and killing, which is true enough about creatures who prey on the weaker animals, so why wouldn’t this be a valid conclusion for the human animal? (Don’t we love to see films of extreme violence?) Further, the cat, Mr. Whiskers, advises Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) to stop taking his meds, which his court-appointed psychotherapist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver) insists that he swallow lest she reports him to the parole people, sending him back to the looney bin to which he was remanded after helping to kill his mom. (Norman Bates, anyone?)

And like a good industrial soldier he listens to the cat who advises that without drugs, life is groovy, a Technicolor kaleidoscope. Pop pill and the world turns gray. Maybe we’re better off living in gray, given that shucking meds in this case leads Jerry—who is made up to look like Anthony Perkins in “Psycho”—sends the man on a murderous path, attacking people he likes, who like him, and who want only the best for him. They include British- born co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton), Lisa (Anna Kendrick) from the accounting department where Jerry works in packing and shipping, and his psychotherapist.

Killing has rarely had such a comic look. Satrapi paints the workers’ uniforms in pink, and the credits appear in pastels. Don’t leave when you think the movie has concluded. A highlight occurs during the credits when Jerry, his victims and his parents dance to an upbeat tune as though to say that all is forgiven.

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

Simon West's
"Wild Card"
Opens Friday, January 30, 2015

Screenwriter: William Goldman from the novel “Heat” by William Goldman

Starring: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara


Reviewed for CompuServe ShowBiz by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes.

If this is the best script that William Goldman can scratch out from his novel “Heat,” either he is wrongfully reinterpreting his own work or at the age of eighty-three he is slipping. After all, Goldman, who has churned out Academy-award winning scripts, responsible for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All The President’s Men,” “Marathon Man” (which made us fear dentists even more that we are accustomed to doing), cannot seriously think that his script for “Wild Card” has any claim to originality. Fighting scenes lack credibility despite his use of a Hong Kong choreographer, and the principal character’s sidekick who may be modeled on Facebook’s Zuckerberg is too dorkish to be credible.

Using the standard-issue security professional Nick Escalante to fashion a noirish drama that at least does not outlast its welcome, Goldman’s story is directed by Simon West, whose “Con Air” finds a plane commandeered by prisoners and who locates a woman heroine in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” pursuing adventures to recover stolen artifacts.

“Wild Card” is yet another revenge fantasy thriller paired with a buddy drama, the two separate themes coalescing only marginally. Nick Escalante aka Nick Wild (Jason Statham) is sought out by a heavily bruised woman (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) who had been raped and beaten by a gangster (Milo Ventimiglia) and tossed out of a vehicle outside an emergency room. At the same time he is approached for assistance by Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), who like the cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” needs to be taught bravery. Kinnick had been nonplussed by an elderly man he saw in his home city with a sign on his back saying, “Please don’t hit me,” which sounds like a reversal of those taped messages that high-school kids would place on the backs of the bullied with the opposite goal. Kinnick fears growing old and facing the same degradation. He follows his new hero around to watch him take on three, four, five hoodlums. Nick never carries a gun and in one climactic fight scene he virtually laughs at the thugs carrying firearms as he takes them on with only his fists and a butter knife. For nutrition he relies on grapefruit juice (when he’s not imbibing vodka).

What romance exists is simply Nick’s friendship with several women in the Vegas gambling casinos where most of the action takes place—with one Cassandra (Hope Davis) serving as blackjack croupier actually hoping that she would lose to the big lug despite the latter’s bet of $500,000. (The big bet is Nick’s chance to live his dream, to retire in Corsica for which he would need a cool million, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson behind the Fotokem lens actually shoots brief scenes on that expensive island.)

“Wild Card” is essentially DVD fare though even those who wait for the video will find the action scenes too brief with too much rambling conversation.

Rated R. 92 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


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