This month, choose between John Carpenter's first film in a decade, a chilling tale of home invasion and Paul Giamatti in bad period costume.
John Carpenter's The Ward
For his first feature in almost ten years, horror maestro John Carpenter heads back into the loony bin, the same setting that produced Halloween's Michael Myers some thirty years ago. Set in a gloomy asylum sometime in the early '60s, the plot follows a troubled young girl named Kristen (Amber Heard) who starts to suspect that she and her fellow residents (including Mamie Gummer and Danielle Panabaker) are being haunted by a pesky poltergeist with revenge on its mind. Repeated attempts to escape just win her electroshock treatments and stern talking-tos by the head doctor, played by Jared Harris from Mad Men. Carpenter's enough of a pro to wring some modest suspense out of the location and B-movie veteran Heard caterwauls like a classic '70s scream queen, but the movie suffers from a repetitive structure and an eye-rollingly silly final twist. Past triumphs like Halloween, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China assure that Carpenter's reputation as a genre master will remain intact, which is good because The Ward doesn't exactly find him working at the top of his game. (Available on demand via select cable providers. Check listings.)
Best Moment: The asylum's resident ghost pays a visit to Kristen mid-shower, in a scene that's part Psycho and part Porky's.
When he's assigned to review a series of restaurants in North England for a prominent London paper, actor and comic Steve Coogan (played by... actor and comic Steve Coogan) reluctantly brings along his semi-good friend Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon) along for the ride. In between lavish, multi-course meals at picturesque eateries and brisk walks through the English countryside, the duo discuss the state of their lives and careers and bicker over which of them is more successful. Did I mention that this movie is actually a comedy? And a really funny one? Originally broadcast in the U.K. as a six-episode television series, The Trip has been boiled down to a roughly two-hour feature and it doesn't feel as though much has been lost in translation. Genuinely close pals in real life, Coogan and Brydon are very convincing fre-nemies onscreen. You never know if they're about to deck one another or hug it out over a pint. (Available now via Movies on Demand and IFC on Demand starting June 22.)
Best Moment: Steve and Rob compete over who can do the best Michael Caine impression. It's a tough call, but my vote goes to Rob.
Casting Paul Giamatti as John Adams in that HBO miniseries was improbable enough, but the poor guy looks completely out of place wearing the crown of England's King John in this medieval action film that's like The Alamo meets Braveheart. Having just signed the Magna Carta, John decides to re-assert his authority by cracking down the suddenly emboldened noble class. One baron (Brian Cox) leads a small army to a remote castle where they prepare to make a last stand against the King. James Purefoy plays a soldier in the Knights Templar, torn between his sense of duty and his desire to survive, while Kate Mara slinks around in various corseted outfits as the lady of the manor, who can't help but be drawn to the moody, brooding knight. The drama is perfunctory at best, but the siege sequences are mostly well done and boast a surprising amount of gore, from severed hands to arrows through the eye. Still, if you want a medieval adventure that's both bloody and and consistently gripping, stick with Game of Thrones. (Available on demand via select cable providers. Check listings.)
Best Moment: King John's initial assault on the castle, which leaves many of the rebels dead and their supplies vastly depleted. Kidnapped Even the hardiest of viewers will have their nerves tested by this tense Spanish thriller in which an ordinary family becomes prisoners in their own house when three masked robbers break in. In a scenario that bears more than a passing resemblance to that infamous home invasion case in Connecticut a few years ago, the father is escorted at gunpoint to a nearby ATM while his wife and daughter are subjected to mental and physical abuse back at home when one of the thieves decides to go off-script. Truth be told, co-writer/director Miguel Angel Vivas could be accused of taking too much pleasure in his victims' pain. There's a point at which all the cruelty on display makes the viewer want to turn away instead of sticking around to see what happens next. On the other hand, Vivas does prove that he's got the directing chops to make the jump to Hollywood. If Lionsgate ever decides to reboot their Saw franchise, he's the guy to do it. (Available via IFC on Demand)
Best Moment: The climactic scene when you think that everyone's safe... which of course means that no one is.
Also on VOD This Month:
Magnolia On Demand: Gonzo Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike (the twisted mind behind Audition, one of the scariest films of the past decade) tackles the samurai genre in 13 Assassins, while the Norwegian creature feature Trollhunter follows a group of student filmmakers that set out to shoot a film about a bear tracker only to discover that the guy is in pursuit of much bigger game.
IFC On Demand: Actor Dermot Mulroney (not to be confused with Dean McDermott) makes his directorial debut with Love Wedding Marriage a romantic comedy about a marriage counselor (Mandy Moore) who starts to doubt the power of the institution when her parents announce they're getting a divorce. Hailing from Germany, The Wave (also available via Movies on Demand) chronicles the disturbing fallout of a high-school teacher's decision to run his classroom like an autocracy.
Movies on Demand: Nic Cage cashes another paycheck in Season of the Witch, Ed Helms apologizes for The Hangover Part II with the well-meaning indie comedy Cedar Rapids and Liam Neeson tries to convince January Jones that they're husband and wife in the twisty thriller Unknown.