Blu Tuesday: Cops, Call Girls and Pulp Fiction

January has been pretty disappointing for movie fans thus far, both in theaters and on home video, but that cold streak appears to be finally coming to an end thanks to this week’s collection of new releases. Most of them aren’t particularly high profile titles (except maybe “End of Watch”), but they’re all worth seeing for one reason or another.

“End of Watch”

“Training Day” ranks pretty high on my list of the best cop movies ever made, so when I learned that writer/director David Ayer (who wrote the screenplay) would be returning to the genre with a found footage film, it definitely perked my interest. But while the idea is great in theory, “End of Watch” doesn’t work quite as well as you’d hope. The biggest problem is that Ayer isn’t fully committed to the found footage gimmick that he forces on the story, often relying on shots that clearly weren’t captured by any of the characters, surveillance cameras or dash cams, and it spoils the experience as a result. There really wasn’t a need to shoot the movie this way either, or at the very least, not draw so much attention to the fact that its heroes and villains are carrying around cameras the whole time. Despite these annoyances, however, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are so incredibly committed to their roles – striking an excellent chemistry and delivering some of the best work of both their careers – that it’s worth seeing for their performances alone.

Blu-ray Highlight: In addition to some short promos and deleted scenes, writer/director David Ayer sits down for a mostly enjoyable commentary track where he discusses the cast’s dedication to the project, criticisms about the found footage cheats and more.

“For a Good Time, Call…”

Continuing the recent trend of R-rated female comedies, “For a Good Time, Call…” is like a stick of cotton candy – it’s fluffy and sweet, but doesn’t have very much substance. Unlike the sugary treat, however, the film is harmless fun. The story is pretty formulaic, and you probably won’t remember much about the movie when it’s over, but it’s an enjoyable slice of mindless entertainment that’s anchored by a pair of likeable performances by Ari Graynor and co-writer Lauren Anne Miller. Though I’m a little surprised that the comedy wasn’t raunchier, it’s nice to see an R-rated film that doesn’t feel like it has to resort to crude humor for laughs. That doesn’t mean it’s not raunchy at times, but Miller and Katie Anne Naylon’s script nicely balances those moments with the charming relationship between its two leads. The film also features some great cameos by Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith and Ken Marino, and though that doesn’t make it any less forgettable, it’s not a bad way to spend two hours.

Blu-ray Highlight: The included audio commentary features director Jamie Travis, stars Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller, and co-writer Katie Anne Naylon in an enthusiastic discussion about making the movie, but it’s not particularly informative or entertaining.

“The Paperboy”

I’m one of the few critics that didn’t fall head over heels for “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” when it was released four years ago, and a major reason for that was director Lee Daniels’ poor execution of the material. Not only does his Oscar nomination seem like a complete joke in hindsight, but based on the reaction to his latest movie, it appears that he’s finally been found out with yet another appalling effort. “The Paperboy” is bad filmmaking through and through, from its ugly, slapdash script to the dreadful acting by its cast. You know something’s wrong when Macy Gray delivers the best performance, and though everyone involved is pretty bad (even Matthew McConaughey, who’s had a really good year), Zac Efron is the worst of the bunch. Nicole Kidman, meanwhile, just makes a complete fool of herself, whether it’s peeing on Efron or miming fellatio while John Cusack’s convict jizzes in his pants. There doesn’t seem to be a point to anything that happens over the course of the film, and even the outrageous stuff is dull. If you’re looking for a great pulp thriller that doesn’t pull its punches, watch “Killer Joe” instead.

Blu-ray Highlight: There’s not a lot to choose from here, but the interviews with the cast and crew – including director Lee Daniels and actors Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron – do shine some light on the making of the film.

  

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

Much like the month before it, October isn’t exactly overflowing with quality, but what it lacks in that area it more than makes up for with plenty of variety. Though there aren’t many films worth getting genuinely excited about, the schedule does provide some audience-friendly fare as well as an early look at a few potential awards contenders.

“TAKEN 2″

Who: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace and Rade Serbedzija
What: In Istanbul, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills and his wife are taken hostage by the father of a kidnapper Mills killed while rescuing his daughter.
When: October 5th
Why: Though it’s one of those sequels that doesn’t really need to exist, the original film was so much fun (not to mention made a decent bit of coin at the box office) that it’s not surprising Fox was so quick to greenlight another installment. After playing the helpless victim in the first movie, it’ll be refreshing to see Maggie Grace get in on the action this time around, even if all people care about is watching Liam Neeson kick ass and take names. Granted, the setup is ridiculous, as it’s hard to imagine the villains would have the resources to track down Neeson’s character, let alone know when he’s in a different country (a U.S.-based story would have been much more exciting), but it’s one of those details you just have to ignore in order to enjoy the movie for the action fantasy that it is.

“THE PAPERBOY”

Who: Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and John Cusack
What: A reporter returns to his Florida hometown to investigate a case involving a death row inmate.
When: October 5th
Why: Unlike most of Hollywood, Lee Daniel’s “Precious” failed to convince me that it was anything more than a well-made afterschool special, so I’m curious to see what he’s able to do with his latest film, a pulpy erotic thriller featuring a trio of dependable actors. Though it’s been awhile since Nicole Kidman or John Cusack did anything of note, you can never count them out, while Matthew McConaughey has been on a bit of hot streak recently. The wild card of the cast is undoubtedly Zac Efron, because despite the actor’s dogged determination to shed his “High School Musical” image with more adult roles, he’s yet to really prove that he has the talent to back it up. Reaction was pretty mixed when the movie debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (not terribly surprising considering the material), so you would be wise to approach it with caution.

“BUTTER”

Who: Jennifer Garner, Yara Shahidi, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde and Rob Corddry
What: An adopted girl discovers her talent for butter carving and finds herself pitted against an ambitious local woman in their small town’s annual contest.
When: October 5th
Why: A black comedy that takes place in the offbeat and seemingly trivial world of butter carving competitions? What’s not to love? The concept sounds like something that Alexander Payne might make (it’s especially reminiscent of his 1999 cult hit “Election”), but while that may speak well of the movie’s potential, it’s a little worrying that it’s take so long to get a theatrical release. Directed by Jim Field Smith, who also made the underrated rom-com “She’s Out of My League,” “Butter” played the festival circuit at the end of last year, but the Weinstein Co. hasn’t shown a lot of confidence in the movie by dumping it in October. With that said, however, the cast is awesome (Jennifer Garner is great at playing the uptight socialite), and the script by newbie Jason A. Micallef landed a spot on the 2008 Black List. That doesn’t guarantee it will be any good, but it helps.

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