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I Want My VOD: August 2013

by Ethan Alter August 29, 2013 6:00 am
I Want My VOD: August 2013

New movies from Brian De Palma and Billy Bob Thornton are more than worth your VOD dollars this month. Paul Schrader, on the other hand, not so much.

Passion
Essentially run out of Hollywood following the epic floppage of his 2006 period crime picture The Black Dahlia and experiencing an equally rough go of it in the independent realm after his Iraq War drama Redacted was mostly ridiculed and/or ignored, Brian De Palma decamped for Europe (specifically Germany) and got back to doing what he does best: sexy, seductive and enjoyably silly erotic thrillers. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace headline this particularly daffy concoction as two driven women with very different ideas of how to rise up the corporate ladder in a male-dominated global advertising giant. While bi-curious Christine (McAdams) plots and schemes to land her coveted job -- a position at the company's New York headquarters -- her underling Isabelle (Rapace) believes hard work and dedication will win the day. Guess who turns out to be right? (Hint: If you guessed Isabelle, you're clearly not cut out for the corporate world.) After enduring her boss's various personal and professional humiliations, Isabelle decides to get A) mad and B) even, setting the stage for a third act that involves -- what else? -- murder most foul. Although one could theoretically accuse Passion (a remake of the 2010 French film, Love Crime) of being little more than a loose assemblage of De Palma's greatest hits (up to and including a lengthy split-screen sequence) repurposed in a vaguely new form -- his own Trail of the Pink Panther if you will -- it's got plenty of wit and style to burn and the lead actresses are clearly having a great time, particularly McAdams, who is basically playing a corporate version of Regina George, one of contemporary cinema's great villains. (That's not hyperbole, by the way -- I dare you to come up with a better mean girl or boy.) Here's hoping that Passion turns out to be De Palma's Match Point -- a prelude to a late-career European renaissance.
(Currently available via iTunes and other OnDemand services)



The Canyons
If Passion is an example of the erotic thriller done right, The Canyons proves how the genre can be manhandled with the wrong combination of talent. I'm not specifically speaking of screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader, who actually turn out to be kindred collaborators, with both of their longtime career obsessions -- the superficiality of the wealthy, the unholy hell that is L.A. and the dark side of sexual kinkiness -- dovetailing quite nicely. Too bad they've hung those obsessions on such a boring, self-serious story populated by an under-rehearsed cast that appears wholly lost for much of the film's runtime. In the case of the movie's star, Lindsay Lohan, she seems not just artistically adrift, but mentally MIA as well; her body is present, but her mind is elsewhere. Not that Ellis's thin script provides her with much incentive to stay engaged. Lohan plays Tara, the kept woman of wanna-be Hollywood player Christian (porn star James Deen), who secretly manages to get an ex-boyfriend (Nolan Funk) cast in one of her new lover's movies. But she hasn't covered her tracks as well as she's hoped, as Christian eventually connects the dots and his inner rage monster rises to the surface, claiming several victims. Shot quickly and cheaply, The Canyons has a certain seedy charm at first, but as the movie drags on (and on… and on…) it just grows wearisome and rather sad -- a film that wants to shock and surprise, but inspires yawns instead. The only positive takeaway is that, based on his suitably cruel and caustic performance here, Deen could absolutely be one of those porn stars who makes the leap to the mainstream, playing the good-looking, but dark-hearted villain that populates any number of studio action movies. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch can't play every comic book bad guy after all.
(Currently available via iTunes and IFC on Demand)



Jayne Mansfield's Car
In the wake of an epic behind-the-scenes battle over his fascinating, if flawed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and the little-seen Daddy and Them, Billy Bob Thornton abandoned the director's chair for well over a decade. Now with Jayne Mansfield's Car, he finally steps back behind the camera to show us all what we've been missing. That's not to imply that this '60s-era seriocomedy about an unexpected family reunion is a masterpiece of the highest order. But it is a gentle charmer, one that has the same unhurried pace, strong ensemble work and authentic Deep South regional flavor that made Thornton's breakthrough film, 1996's Sling Blade, such a striking debut. Set in small-town Alabama, the movie stars Thornton's regular collaborator Robert Duvall as Jim, the patriarch of the Caldwell clan, whose wife abandoned him and their children several decades ago and moved across the pond to the U.K., where she started another family with an upper-crust Englishman named Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). Upon her death, her will requested that she be buried in her native Alabama, which brings the Bedfords into direct contact with the Caldwells for the first time. Naturally, things are awkward at first, but as the two families get to know each other, attachments start to form between various personalities, including wounded war veteran Skip Caldwell (Thornton) and free-spirited Camilla Bedford (Frances O'Connor) and uptight Phillip Bedford (Ray Stevenson, in a really strong dramatic turn) and ex-beauty queen Donna Caldwell (Katherine LaNasa). Even Jim and Kingsley find common ground in their shared affection for the woman who is now gone from both of their lives. Though the film's structure and pace is on the lumpy side, with Thornton frequently pausing the narrative in order to give each member of his talented ensemble a big dramatic speech or scene, Jayne Mansfield's Car is generous in spirit and subtly attuned to family dynamics. It's evidence that Thornton's first few directorial efforts weren't flukes.
(Currently available via most OnDemand services)



I Give It a Year
Unsteadily perched between one of Hugh Grant's mid-'90s Brit rom-coms and a contemporary Judd Apatow vehicle, the feature directorial debut of longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator Dan Mazer stars Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne as a pair of newlyweds who discover mere months into their marriage that they've probably made a terrible, terrible mistake. Where hard-driving businesswoman Nat (Byrne) values order and ambition, stay-at-home author Josh (Spall) is happy to play it as it lays and has a flair for landing himself in embarrassing circumstances. Further tempting them away from their wedding vows are two more appropriate love interests: handsome corporate shark Guy (Simon Baker) and endearingly goofy Chloe (Anna Faris), Josh's ex-girlfriend whom he never officially broke it off with before getting hitched to Nat. Mazer's history with Ali G., Borat and Brüno comes to the fore in some of the movie's broader moments of shock comedy, like a honeymoon slideshow that Josh assembles for Nat's uptight parents, but forgets to leave out some of the randier snapshots they took together. But due to commercial considerations he's also mindful -- too mindful -- of the standard Britcom conventions, saddling Josh with a kooky best bud (Stephen Merchant) who can always be counted to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the standard race-to-the-airport/bus depot/train station climax that is legally obligated to end every one of these farces. (To his credit, Mazer does subvert this cliché a bit just before the movie cuts to black.) Never quite as fresh and funny as it wants to be, I Give it a Year coasts by on the appeal of its ensemble (particularly the always-delightful Faris), but mostly leaves you wanting to watch either Four Weddings and a Funeral or Knocked Up again.
(Currently available via iTunes and most OnDemand services)



Sparrows Dance
In a romance that could only happen in IndieLand, Sparrows Dance depicts the love story that develops between an agoraphobic actress (Marin Ireland from Homeland) who spends her days hiding from the world inside her small New York apartment and the hipster, jazz-playing plumber (Paul Sparks from Boardwalk Empire) she reluctantly lets through the door to fix her overflowing toilet. Fortunately, the movie is less obnoxiously twee than that plot synopsis makes it sounds, although tweeness certainly remains on the menu. Writer/director Noah Buschel does an effective job establishing the self-imposed confines of the actress's world, allowing viewers to fully adjust to that environment before introducing the gentleman caller. And while Sparks's plumber initially comes across as a reject from 2 Broke Girls -- the kind of caricature that the other caricatures on that risible series laugh at -- his relationship with Ireland humanizes him, as her more grounded performance steadily sands away some of his adopted eccentricities. While the narrative slenderness of Sparrows Dance suggests it would have made a stronger shot than a full-length feature, it manages to make this unlikely premise believable.
(Currently available via iTunes and most OnDemand services)

Also on VOD:
Despite a cast that includes reliable comics like Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry and Keegan Michael Key, the horror spoof Hell Baby -- written and directed by Reno 911 cohorts Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant -- is sorely in need of more laughs. Currently playing on the art house circuit, David Lowery's outlaws-on-the-run drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints is also available on your TV thanks to IFC on Demand. And Lynn Shelton's follow-up to My Sister's Sister, Touchy Feely stars Ellen Page and Rosemarie DeWitt is now viewable in advance of its September theatrical launch.

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

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