BLOGS

I Want My VOD: April 2012

by Ethan Alter April 20, 2012 6:00 am
I Want My VOD: April 2012

With nothing significant opening in theaters this weekend (we're choosing to ignore The Lucky One), check out your VOD options instead.

God Bless America
If you had told us at the dawn of the 21st century that '80s pop-culture relic Bobcat Goldthwait would morph into the writer/director behind some of the most provocative and darkly hilarious screen comedies around, we would have patted you on the head and pointed you in the direction of an awful little movie called Shakes the Clown (his directorial debut) to illustrate why exactly that was a crazy thing to say. But that was before Goldthwait made his return to filmmaking with 2006's Sleeping Dogs Lie, a thoughtful and very funny meditation on the secrets we keep from our loved ones lest we lose their affection disguised as a scatological comedy about bestiality. His follow-up, 2009's World's Greatest Dad, was even more daring, following a father (Robin Williams, in one of his best-ever performances) who tries to transform his son's reputation from asshole to closet genius after the kid accidentally kills himself.

The anger and cynicism that pulsates beneath those films is at the forefront of Goldthwait's latest feature, God Bless America, which stars Joel Murray (brother of Bill and Brian-Doyle) as Frank, a middle-aged divorcee suffering from a terminal brain tumor and a deep fury at the sorry state of contemporary America, with its mindless reality TV shows, celebration of bad behavior and increasingly uncivil national discourse. After witnessing one public humiliation too many, Frank finally has his Howard Beale moment and sets out to show the rest of the country just how mad as hell he's become by killing society's worst offenders... you know, spoiled teenagers, bloviating right-wing talk show hosts and people who talk in movie theaters. During his cross-country murder spree, he acquires a sidekick in the form of Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Christina Ricci), an equally bloodthirsty teen girl eager to shake up her boring life. (Where other directors might studiously keep their relationship platonic, Goldthwait does at least raise the specter of an age-inappropriate romance, although he even he ultimately avoids pushing the envelope too much by entering full-on Lolita-territory.) In terms of its scope and message, God Bless America is Goldthwait's most ambitious movie yet and, unfortunately, it's also the weakest of his past few efforts.

In contrast to the tight, focused storytelling on display in Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad, this film unfolds in a scattershot, episodic fashion that doesn't benefit the characters or the comedy. And while the film is clearly out to achieve the same level of satiric outrage that powered the Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet classic Network, it lacks both the serio-comic consistency (and the dazzling ensemble cast) to pull it off. (Not to mention that one of the many reasons for Network's longevity is its astonishing prescience; with its jabs at American Idol and Twilight, God Bless America already feels dated.) Still, if the movie doesn't hang together as a whole piece, there are a number of individual scenes -- like the aforementioned movie theater assassination -- that are strikingly on-point in their mixture of humor and rage, tapping into the profound sense of dissatisfaction that seems to have permeated the culture within the past few years. The finished product may not be polished, but it does absolutely reflect the cracked comic vision of its creator. (Available via Magnolia on Demand and iTunes; opens in limited theatrical release on May 11)
Best Scene: Early on, Frank sits alone in his living room and flips through the TV channels, passing one horrible reality show after another. No wonder he's so filled with rage.

The Giant Mechanical Man
If The Office really does lock its doors for good at the conclusion of this season, at least Jenna Fischer can look forward to a healthy career of being the best thing about otherwise fair-to-middling indie movies. Following up her star turn in last year's A Little Help, Fischer headlines this small-scale romantic comedy (directed by her real-life husband, Lee Kirk) as a woman stuck in a funk she can't get out of. After suffering the twin losses of her temp gig and her apartment, Janice (Fischer) is forced to move in with her overbearing adopted sister (Malin Akerman) and her geeky husband (Mad Men's Rich Sommer) -- who desperately want to fix her up with their obnoxious author pal (a hilariously smarmy Topher Grace) -- while she figures out her next move. One night, she happens to catch a news story about a street performer Tim (Chris Messian), who regularly dons silver paint and climbs atop stilts to portray his signature creation -- a giant, mechanical man. But his version of streetwalking also doesn't pay the bills and, in addition, it costs him his girlfriend, Pauline (Lucy Punch). So both Tim and Janice wind up applying for menial jobs at the local zoo, where they strike up a friendship that blossoms tentatively into romance. Little does Janice suspect, however, that this friendly guy is also the giant mechanical man she saw on the boob tube... not that she'd seem to care about that revelation one way or the other, but Tim still feels he has to keep it a secret, if only to give the movie a third act. Kirk's wispy screenplay is light on conflict and memorable moments, but the cast -- particularly Fischer and Grace -- elevates the film to a pleasurable diversion. Mainly it's just nice to remember that Fischer is actually a charming, lovely screen presence when she's outside of that accursed Scranton office. (Available via most On Demand service; opens in limited theatrical release on April 27)
Best Scene: Fischer and Grace's horrendous first date, which even her oblivious ex-boss Michael Scott would recognize as a disaster.

Penumbra
An interesting take on your typical home invasion horrorshow, this Argentinian thriller begins with the invadee -- a harried businesswoman named Marga (Cristina Brondo) -- actually welcoming one of the invaders into her home. To be fair, she does think that he's the realtor she's hired to sell the ugly, old apartment and he doesn't disabuse her of that notion, informing her that he's got a client who will pay top dollar for the place provided she's ready to part with it that afternoon. Turns out that "client" is actually a group of religious nuts that he's part of and who are planning an... um, unique celebration to mark the upcoming solar eclipse. Unfolding in almost real time, Penumbra depicts Marga's gradual realization that 1) These people are definitely not interested in buying the place and 2) She's in deep, deep trouble. Making skillful use of their limited setting, directors Adrián García Bogliano and Ramiro García Bogliano construct a mousetrap that their heroine has seemingly no hope of escaping. (They even find a convincing way to take her cell phone out of the equation that doesn't involve signal problems.) The final twist is entertaining as well, suggesting that this particular cult may not be so crazy after all... (Available via IFC on Demand, iTunes, Amazon Streaming, Xbox Zune and PlayStation Unlimited)
Best Scene: Marga desperately turns to an elderly neighbor for help, only to see her supposed savior unwittingly pass her back into the hands of her captors.

All In: The Poker Movie
Based on the hyperbolic testimonials crammed into Douglas Tirola's overly reverent documentary, you'd think that poker was more than a card game -- it's practically an entire religion. And while it's certainly true that there are thousands of professional and amateur cardsharks out there that worship at the altar of poker, All In doesn't completely make the case as to the game's importance on the global stage. Mainly, their bluster comes across as hot air that carries with it a powerful odor of self-importance and stale cigarette smoke left hanging around from an all-night poker game. If you're able to ignore their delusions of grandeur though, All In does provide a fairly comprehensive history of the game, from its origins in 19th century New Orleans to its outlaw days in the '70s to the poker boom that hit in the late '90s and continued with the introduction of online poker -- a habit so addictive, it should be classified as an illegal drug. Tirola sits down with a number of poker's biggest names (including Chris Moneymaker and Amarillo Slim -- and if you recognize both of those names, you are a true blue poker fan) as well as such personalities as sports writer Bert Sugar and Matt Damon, star of Rounders, which is consistently cited as the single best poker movie around. (We'd go with The Cincinnati Kid personally, but Rounders has its charms.) The film also ventures into the ongoing government crackdown on online poker, which Tirola clearly and unapologetically frames as an infringement on personal liberty, granting no screentime to potential counterarguments. And why should he? All In is a film made by poker lovers, for poker lovers; it's a love letter, not a rigorous piece of journalism. But hey, at least it wears its bias on its sleeve. (Available via most On Demand services)
Best Scene: Poker champ Henry Orenstein describes how he developed the idea for the so-called "hole cam," which revolutionized the way poker tournaments were broadcast on TV by allowing viewers to peek at the players' cards.

The Fields
A '70s era coming-of-age story dressed up in horror movie clothing, The Fields follows a seven-year-old boy whose estranged parents (Faust Checho and Tara Reid... yes, that Tara Reid) drop him off at his grandparents' isolated homestead for the summer, located next to an enormous (and creepy) series of cornfields. Left to his own devices much of the time, the kid's already overactive imagination leaps into hyperdrive as the strange late-night noises emanating from the fields combine with gruesome news reports about the Manson murders to put him in a near-constant state of fear and paranoia. And, as it eventually turns out, those fears may be justified. Mostly avoiding predictable Boo! moments, directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni instead admirably attempt to let the film's setting and atmosphere drive the horror. And there are a few scenes that are creepily effective, most notably the boy's hallucinatory visit to an abandoned fairground that deliberately echoes the 1962 no-budget horror classic, Carnival of Souls. But to get to those moments, you have to wade through performances that range from campy (Cloris Leachman's wisecracking grandmother) to incredibly stiff (Joshua Ormond and, it almost goes without saying, Reid), as well as lots of flat dialogue and cheesy visual flourishes. Atmosphere is great and all, but you've got to have at least some substance to back it up.(Available via iTunes starting April 24th; also available on DVD and Blu-ray)
Best Scene: Grandma staying up late to watch the actual Carnival of Souls on TV. Now that's what a great atmospheric horror movie looks like.

No Room for Rockstars
Former Prince collaborator Parris Patton rode shotgun on the 2010 edition of the annual Vans Warped Tour -- a massive, multi-city summer music roadshow -- and distilled his roughly two-month long trip into this 97-minute documentary. Be warned, though: if you're expecting the punk rock version of Woodstock, you might just want to invest in a a ticket to this year's tour, which kicks off on June 16. Because while there's plenty of music heard in the film, Patton is far more interested in what's going on behind-the-scenes, devoting much of his time to hanging with the roadies and the struggling bands just trying to make ends meet. The film's title, in fact, is taken from an offhand comment made by one of those hard-working rockers, who claims that the Warped Tour is no place for those musicians that insist on first-class treatment. That's borne out in the way the various groups that pass through Patton's frame pound the pavement to sell their CDs and fight to bring their A-game to every single onstage performance in an effort to stand apart from the rest of the headbanging pack. Mostly absent from the proceedings are the front office folks that organize and run the tour, which is a shame, particularly since several of the musicians Patton profiles express frustration with the way its managed. That's the sort of debate between the forces of art and the forces of commerce that might have allowed the film to explore the current state of the rock music industry more fully than it winds up doing. Because while Patton captures the way the endless grind of touring weighs on bands, the larger story behind tours like Warped -- including falling ticket sales and changing audience demographics -- mostly gets left out of the conversation. On the other hand, those viewers and aspiring rockers that are purely interested in what it takes to ride along with the Warped Tour will probably be satisfied with Patton's version of the event. (Available via iTunes; expands to general VOD services on May 15.)
Best Scene: The members of the band Forever Came Calling -- who weren't official Warped acts, but followed the tour around, performing wherever and whenever they could -- break down in tears after a long, hard day selling CDs that no one wants to buy.

Also on VOD:
Movies on Demand: Get an up close and personal look at the brave new world of MMA via Fightville, a documentary that follows a group of aspiring fighters as the train and hunt for that elusive breakout match.
IFC on Demand: After introducing the world to a real American Psycho, director Mary Harron returns to the horror genre with The Moth Diaries, in which a troubled private school student begins to suspect that the new girl in her class may be a vampire.
Magnolia on Demand: Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, Kevin Macdonald's Marley aims to be the definitive authorized documentary about the iconic Jamaican singer.

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