Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Bunch Of Blu Ray Blurbs For February

It’s time once again to tackle the growing stack of new release Blu rays that are cluttering up my desk. With a few exceptions, these are mostly titles that had a limited theatrical release accompanying their availability on VOD. These are films that slipped through the cracks of 2015, and mostly for good reason, but I enjoyed a few of them. One of them I liked quite a bit. Read on to find out which.

First up, I saw Peter Sollett’s sincere piece of Oscar bait, FREEHELD, when it played briefly at the Rialto in Raleigh last fall. It didn’t make much of an impact on me or audiences apparently so it came and went pretty quickly. Maybe it was too soon after seeing Julianne Moore deteriorate from Alzheimers in STILL ALICE, which she deservedly won an Oscar for, to see her grapple with another disease – this time cancer.

Anyway, in this well meaning drama based on real events, Moore plays Laurel Hester, a New Jersey cop who fights the Ocean County Board of Freeholders to have her partner of five years, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), inherit her pension after she dies. A no nonsense Michael Shannon plays Moore’s supportive longtime police-force partner, a flamboyant Steve Carrell joins in as a gay rights sctivist, and Josh Charles rounds out the cast as one of the conflicted board members.

FREEHELD isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just like a Lifetime TV movie but with big names. The cast is good (Shannon stands out but then he always does) and it’s certainly a noble effort, but it’s a bit bland and forgettable. However, what is notable is that Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short (also with the same name) that it was based on is included on the Blu ray/DVD edition of the film. In 38 minutes, the doc sums up everything much better than the full length feature and serves as a better tribute to Hester, who died in 2006.

Next up, horror meister Eli Roth brings us KNOCK KNOCK, which has been billed as a “erotic thriller,” concerning Keanu Reeves as a nice guy family man architect who makes a sexy mistake. That is, he is seduced then terrorized by a couple of young girls (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) who show up out of the blue when his wife and kids are out of town for the weekend. The film is a remake of a schlocky ‘70s exploitation flick called DEATH GAME, which had Seymour Cassell getting seduced then terrorized by Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp (Camp is one of the remake’s producers and puts in a cameo).

Roth’s take on the material is initially intriguing but becomes tiresome and as tortuous as the situation Reeves is enduring. Izzo and De Armas are more annoying than scary or sexy for that matter, and their moralizing motives for ruining Reeves’ life, and destroying his posh Hollywood house, are hardly convincing, particularly their taunts that he’s a one-percenter that needs to be taken down. I simply could not see the point of any of this ordeal. Also the movie gets major marks off for using the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” for the climax. It’s such a lame steal as the song was so definitively used as the ending of FIGHT CLUB that when it started up in this I was expecting to see buildings fall down. Maybe this is the film that confirms what I’ve suspected before – Eli Roth’s films just aren’t for me.

Funnily enough, “Where is My Mind” is also used in the next film I’ll be babbling about, Ben Palmer’s MAN UP, but it’s a distinctly different version – a piano instrumental – so doesn’t take you out of the movie as much. MAN UP is an affable British rom com that pairs Lake Bell, doing a fairly decent English accent, up with Simon Pegg, for a blind date. The thing is, the date was supposed to be Pegg being set up by his friends with another woman (Ophelia Lovibond), but Bell, happening upon their meeting place at Waterloo Station, is mistaken by Pegg for Lovibond, and Bell decides in the moment to go along with it. The couple hit it off over beers and bowling, but a run in with one of Bell’s old schoolmates (Rory Kinnear) threatens to blow her cover. Bell agrees to kiss Kinnear so that he won’t tell her stolen date, but when Pegg catches them (in the ladie’s room no less), the gig is up and Bell comes clean.

That’s not as much of a spoiler as you would think because it comes shortly after the half hour mark. So whereas usually the leads in these type movies start out hating each other and then gradually fall in love, this has them bickering and getting all competitive after the setup of them actually liking one another. Bell and Pegg have ample chemistry and although you know after some wacky mishaps they are going to finally come together at Bell’s parents’ (Ken Stott and Harriet Walter) 40th anniversary party that the film has been not too slyly building towards, it doesn’t take anything away from the movie’s abundance of charm. Kinnear’s hammy shenanigans did grate on me a little, but overall this is the rare rom com keeper.

At my first glance at the Blu ray box, I was like, didn’t Robert De Niro already make a movie called HEIST? Turns out, I was thinking about THE SCORE, a heist movie that De Niro made back in 2001, the same year that Gene Hackman starred in a similar film that was also named HEIST that I would mix up back then. As I see on IMDb, there have been a lot of movies called HEIST or THE HEIST throughout the years and I guess it’s fitting that this one uses the title because it’s such a generic by-the-numbers exercise that it really doesn’t deserve anything more original.

Despite that De Niro is prominently featured on the front and the spine of the Blu ray cover, the real star of Scott Mann’s HEIST is Jeffrey Dean Morgan who plays a casino card dealer who takes part in the robbery of a riverboat casino run by De Niro as a tough mob boss. Morgan reluctantly joins in the heist with his co-worker partners, headed by Dave Bautista, because his daughter is sick and needs expensive surgery. The plan doesn’t go off very smoothly and the crew are forced to hijack a city bus and take the passengers hostage. It’s pretty routine formulaic stuff, but it’s watchable enough I suppose for a C grade thriller.

Fairing much better is the horror comedy COOTIES, the directorial debut of Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, mainly because of its extremely capable comic cast. Elijah Wood heads the ensemble as a substitute teacher who on first day on the job at his hometown elementary school finds that the students are turning into zombies because of tainted cafeteria chicken nuggets. Wood took the position to get close to his old high school crush (Alison Pill), but she’s dating Rainn Wilson as the creepy PE teacher. 

The teachers, including Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, and Leigh Whannell (SAW co-creator who co-wrote this movie with Glee co-creator Ian Brennan, who also appears as the Vice Principal) are stranded inside the school and have to band together to fight the infected children. It’s a often violent and gory experience but it’s delivered with a goofball charm that’s pretty infectious (sorry). If you like the cast and have a thing for zombies, it’s a good bet. 

Elijah Wood also appears in Breck Eisner’s THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, a Vin Diesel vehicle that really bored me silly. Diesel potrays the immortal protagonist, who carries on his centuries old legacy of killing witches in modern day New York City, with the aid of Wood as the newest in a long line of Dolans (helper priests). Wood is replacing the retiring Dolan (Michael Caine, a welcome sight since I was unaware he was in the movie), but after Caine is mysteriously murdered the same day, Diesel and Wood, along with a friendly witch (Rosa Leslie) begin to unravel a plot by a squadron of supernatural witches to resurrect the Witch Queen or some such (my mind wandered). 

It’s a slickly made piece of horribly paced dreck, with no discernible spark to speak of. It also appears to take itself entirely too seriously in its misguided effort to form a franchise worthy mythology. Admittedly, Diesel isn’t my cup of tea (see my review of RIDDICK), but I’ll take another FAST AND FURIOUS sequel over this any day.

Finally, Jessie Nelson’s LOVE THE COOPERS, a Christmas ensemble comedy that made me cringe instead of crack up. It’s one of those all star dysfunctional family films, like the previous year’s THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, that failed to make much of a splash in its theatrical release last November, and it’s not very far into it that you can see why. John Goodman and Diane Keaton play the parents whose Pittsburgh house the family, including Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde, June Squibb, Alan Arkin, and Marissa Tomei, gathers at on Christmas eve, but this year everybody has their own kooky issues that get in the way of the holiday cheer. 

It’s narrated by Steve Martin, in a sincere effort to add some zing but that sadly doesn’t help generate any laughs. Neither does any of the other dialogue which feels strained or cutesy (or both) throughout. So, yeah, I really didn’t LOVE THE COOPERS. It’s a mishmash of overly sentimental and tired rom com tropes, but since it was scripted by Steve Rogers responsible for such mush as HOPE FLOATS, KATE & LEOPOLD, and P.S. I LOVE YOU, that’s hardly a surprise.

More later…

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