Friday, February 12, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: 99 HOMES (2015); MI-5 (2015); and FREAKS OF NATURE (2015)

(US/UAE - 2015)

Despite critical acclaim and some major pre-release awards buzz, 99 HOMES fizzled in theaters, topping out at 691 screens and grossing just over $1 million. Directed and co-written by Ramin Bahrani, the film takes place in the greater Orlando, FL area circa 2010, after the housing bubble burst and foreclosures were big business. Unable to hold on to his home is unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who supports his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax). Sheriff's deputies and a team of movers are present when constantly-vaping real estate foreclosure vulture Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at Dennis' front door to begin the eviction. Powerless to fight the system despite being given 30 days to appeal, Dennis moves his family into a motel filled with other foreclosure families and when he's unable to find a job, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from Carver to do repair work on his properties. Carver admires Dennis' persistence and the way he stands up for himself, especially in confronting one of Carver's men who stole some of Dennis' tools during the eviction. This leads to Dennis being complicit in Carver's various scams and schemes in the way he takes advantage of federal government loopholes to maximize his own profits, and before long, Dennis is essentially Carver's right hand, evicting good people in the exact position he once was, but doing so for the sake of supporting his family and doing whatever he needs to do to repurchase the family home.

Basically a housing bubble redux of WALL STREET, 99 HOMES is sincere in its look at hardworking people victimized by the system and by bad luck, and the performances of Garfield and especially Shannon are excellent. Shannon even gets a big Gordon Gekko-style "Greed is good" speech about how "America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners." There are powerful moments throughout, particularly the agonizing and intense sequence where Carver coldly and methodically has Dennis and his family forced out of the house, and a heartbreaking one later on when Dennis has to evict a frail and obviously mentally-diminished elderly widower who just keeps helplessly repeating "We had a reverse mortgage...my wife signed the papers..." These scenes are very effectively done and are certain to get your blood boiling, but Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi give Dennis a far too familiar character arc. He doesn't tell his mother he's working for the man who evicted them, and she doesn't seem to question anything as long as he keeps getting paid, and Dern is saddled with playing a character too dim and oblivious to garner much sympathy. Of course, the more money Dennis makes, the more seduced he is by Carver's Mephistophelian appeal, which extends to him leaving Lynn and Connor in a dangerous situation at the motel to go to a swanky, boozy party with Carver and some hot women that of course results in a drunk Dennis with his head in his hands as he ponders What I've Become. 99 HOMES becomes far too predictable in it second half, especially with a by-the-numbers subplot about a deal with an even bigger real estate mogul (Clancy Brown) and Carver's plan to discredit and sabotage one man's (Tim Guinee) attempt to avoid foreclosure. There are moments of gut-wrenching power in 99 HOMES, but there's also a lot of formulaic melodrama. Overall, it's a good film, but not the great one the early buzz predicted. Bahrani dedicates 99 HOMES to the late Roger Ebert, who championed the filmmaker when he was just starting out and spoke very highly of his 2005 indie breakout MAN PUSH CART(R, 112 mins)

(UK - 2015)

A feature-film spinoff of the ten-season BBC television series SPOOKS (retitled MI-5 in most areas outside the UK; the film's UK title is SPOOKS: THE GREATER GOOD), MI-5 is a fairly standard-issue espionage/terrorism thriller, with enough action and genuinely suspenseful set pieces to make it worthwhile, even if it doesn't exactly blaze new trails in its genre. Recurring series director Bharat Nalluri and writers Jonathan Brackley and Tim Vincent stick to the style of the show, but make it accessible for the uninitiated, primarily by relegating most of the participating series stars to minor supporting roles or killing them off not long after they're introduced. Though the series featured the likes of Matthew Macfadyen and David Oyelowo in its earliest years, its only constant throughout its decade-long run was Peter Firth (EQUUS, LIFEFORCE), who reprises his role as Harry Pearce, the no-nonsense head of MI-5's counter-terrorism unit. MI-5 kicks off with a botched convoy transport of apprehended terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) ends up with several agents dead after Pearce lets Qasim go free in order to minimize the risk of civilians getting caught in the crossfire. Decommissioned and with his career and reputation ruined, Pearce publicly jumps from a bridge into the Thames but it's all a ruse that his superiors, namely MI-5 Director General Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerney) quickly see through. As a fugitive Pearce goes on an off-the-grid hunt for Qasim, Mace calls in rogue agent and former Pearce protege Will Holloway (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harington) to track down his disgraced one-time mentor.

What follows are the usual shifting alliances and double crosses, with Pearce and Holloway engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse while acknowledging that they're both on the same side, while also dealing with old grudges since it was Pearce who decommissioned Holloway from MI-5 and derailed his career. Pearce is convinced that someone in his unit tipped off Qasim's people about the convoy transport, and of course, he's right. The problem is, Mace and his deputy director Geraldine Maltby (Jennifer Ehle) think the traitor is Pearce. Journeyman director Nalluri, who's spent most of his career in British TV (TORCHWOOD), but has also helmed a variety of features including the 1998 LA FEMME NIKITA ripoff KILLING TIME, 2000's THE CROW: SALVATION, and 2008's minor arthouse hit MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, does a solid job with the action sequences and the intense climax is very well-handled save for one dodgy-looking CGI explosion. Of the holdovers from the TV series, only Firth and McInnerney get any significant screen time, with Harington, Ehle, and Tuppence Middleton (JUPITER ASCENDING) as another agent helping Holloway, being new additions to the MI-5 universe. MI-5 doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, but it's engaging, it moves fast, and it does exactly what it sets out to do. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

KITCHEN SINK was a horror spoof script by Oren Uziel (22 JUMP STREET) that spent several years on Hollywood's "Black List" of best unfilmed screenplays that floated around town waiting to get the green light. Something clearly got lost on KITCHEN SINK's way to becoming FREAKS OF NATURE, a dreary and almost completely laughless slog that was shot in 2013 and spent two years on the shelf before Columbia decided to cut its losses and quietly snuck it into 100 theaters last October. Co-produced by Uziel's buddy and two-time Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill and featuring a cast of all-star comedy ringers, FREAKS OF NATURE is a total misfire that, aside from maybe two lines and a couple of throwaway sight gags, makes SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE look like SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Set in the small town of Dillford, FREAKS presents a society where vampires (the rich and privileged), zombies (the destitute dregs of society) and humans (the middle class) co-exist. The film doesn't do anything more with the class struggle notion than that, instead focusing on three high-school protagonists: affable, sensitive, baseball-playing stoner Dag (Nicholas Braun) and his hapless attempts at romancing Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens), who keeps him in the Friend Zone but likes his access to weed; nice-girl Petra (BAD TURN WORSE's Mackenzie Davis), who lets stud vampire Milan Pinache (Ed Westwick) transform her only to break her heart immediately after; and geeky loser Ned (Josh Fadem), who finds love with zombie girl Jenna (Mae Whitman) and lets her turn him into one of the walking dead if it means no longer putting up with his braying jackass of a jock brother (Chris Zylka as Seann William Scott as Stifler). Chaos erupts when an alien invasion (aliens, vampires, zombies, and eventually werewolves figure in, hence the original KITCHEN SINK title) turns Dillford into a war zone, which means Dag, Petra, and Ned (played by actors in their late 20s to early 30s) end up barricading themselves in the school basement in a half-assed re-staging of THE BREAKFAST CLUB, because that's what makes a great horror spoof.

Some very qualified comic performers are wasted in nothing supporting roles: Denis Leary as the asshole owner of Dillford's chief source of income--the processed-meat riblet factory (one of the very few laughs comes from him crowing about firing Dag's mom after she tried to unionize his zombie workforce); Patton Oswalt as a paranoid survivalist hiding in a bunker with his elderly mother; Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack as Dag's hippie parents; Ian Roberts and Rachael Harris as Ned's parents; and Keegan-Michael Key as a perpetually angry vampire high-school teacher who's burned out after dealing with 97 years of apathetic students. If you make it to the end, you'll hear Werner Herzog as the voice of the alien leader, announcing their peaceful intentions by quoting Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," which might sound amusing, but in the context of this disastrous failure, is emphatically not. A comedy that throws in everything except the kitchen sink and comedy, FREAKS OF NATURE is staggeringly awful. A documentary about what went wrong here in the hands of director Robbie Pickering would be far more interesting than anything in the finished product, but hey, garbage in, garbage out. Doesn't matter. Audiences grading it on the horror fanboy's "everything is awesome" curve and insisting it's this week's new genre classic will scarf it up and ask for seconds. (R, 93 mins)

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