This month's VOD offerings include a Blair Witch meets Ghost Hunters scary movie, a tale of audio verite and an action movie based on a form of Japanese puppet theater.
Cleverly connecting the Blair Witch first-person approach to horror with those ghost hunter reality shows cluttering up the airwaves, this indie ghost story offers some decent scares once you get past the somewhat labored set-up. While taping the sixth episode of his new cable TV series Grave Encounters, Lance Preston and his team of paranormal experts/professional charlatans takes their cameras into the dilapidated wards of the long-abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, where a number of mentally ill patients turned up dead or vanished without a trace. Local legend has it that their ghosts still roam the hallways, but after visiting supposedly haunted hot spots around the country and finding nothing, Preston and the rest of his crew know that local legends are general B.S. That is, until they lock themselves inside Collingwood for a night and experience some up-close-and-personal encounters with a variety of ghastly, ghostly and generally pissed-off spirits. Much of Grave Encounters covers the same ground as typical haunted house movies, but writer/directors the Vicious Brothers execute the scary moments well and toss in an interesting twist about halfway through that pushes the film into House of Leaves territory. (By the way, when is that fantastic book being brought to the big screen? If done right, it'll be one of the scariest films ever made, guaranteed.) And because of its reality TV aesthetic, this is also one of the rare horror films that actually plays better at home than in the theater. Now if only some of these phantoms would go haunt those annoying folks over on Ghost Hunters... (Available via Movies on Demand; also out in limited theatrical release.)
Best Scene: When the desperate-to-escape crew breaks through a set of locked Exit doors that supposedly lead to the outside and instead find... well, you're gonna have to see for yourself.
Politics of Love
Hey, someone finally remade that old Michael Keaton/Geena Davis romantic comedy Speechless! Okay, so Politics of Love isn't exactly the same movie. For starters, its central odd couple, played by The Shield's Brian White and Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat, don't work as political speechwriters. They do, however, bat for opposite sides of the political spectrum; specifically, she volunteers for Obama while he stumps for McCain. She also comes from a crazy family that includes a boisterous stepmom (Loretta Devine) and a grouchy dad (Gerry Bednop) and they both have the requisite annoying best friends and irritating co-workers that always plague our heroes in rom-coms. What neither of them possesses, unfortunately, is much chemistry with the other. And that's a shame, because both stars are attractive and likable and do their best to make the thin material they've been handed by writer Gary Goldstein play onscreen. When a political comedy is less amusing than an average primary debate, you know something's gone wrong. (Available via most video on demand platforms and on iTunes; also out on DVD on September 13.)
Best Scene: When a fundraising car wash turns into a Bollywood-style musical number, complete with the easy-on-the-eyes Sherawat gyrating in a soaked-through shirt.
Shut Up Little Man!
If you grew up listening to The Jerky Boys, you'll get a kick out of Matthew Bate's documentary about a crucial moment in the history of what's often referred to as audio verite -- audio-only recordings of real people that aren't aware that the conversations they're having (be they prank calls or privation discussions) are being captured on tape. In 1987, Midwestern transplants Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. Raymond Huffman moved into an ugly pink apartment building in San Francisco. No sooner had they unpacked than they overheard their next-door neighbors -- a pair of older men -- engaging in a loud, rambling argument that included the oft-repeated phrase "Shut up little man!" These fights occurred over and over again on a daily basis and, rather than move out, Eddie and Mitch did the next most logical thing: they hit the "record" button on their cassette player. Loath to keep these epic battles to themselves, they made copies of the tapes to share with friends and soon the recordings became must-listens amongst audio verite collectors and fans of cult items in general. And remember, this was back in the days before the Internet, which meant that this particular "viral" phenomenon couldn't be accessed by merely clicking on a link to hear a streaming audio file. Speaking with many of the principal participants (though neither of the older men on the recordings, who died sometime in the '90s) Bate ably tracks the metamorphosis of these audio tapes -- which grew to encompass CDs (that you can still purchase online), comic art drawn by renowned writer/illustrator Daniel Clowes, a stage play and an aborted feature film project -- while also illustrating how they contributed to the spread of more recent audio misadventures, such as the infamous Christian Bale rant from the Terminator Salvation set. (In fact, Shut Up, Little Man is a great companion piece to last year's doc, Winnebego Man, about the Winnebego salesman whose profanity-laced tirades made him a viral video phenomenon and now a YouTube sensation.) It's an entertaining, comprehensive look at a slender, but significant slice of pop culture history. (Available via Movies on Demand; opening in limited theatrical release on September 16.)
Best Scene: Eddie and Mitch recounting their first exposure to their neighbors' peculiar pastime.
I can't in good conscious recommend this bizarre mash-up of Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, a typical John Wayne western and the '60s Batman TV series to general audiences, but midnight movie fans as well as graphic artists will appreciate the style of the picture, if not the substance... mainly, because there's not much substance to be found at all. Set in a distant future when guns have been outlawed and most folks carry around blades for protection, two lone strangers (Josh Hartnett and Japanese rock star Gackt) turn up in a border town ruled by a dapper gang of red-suited warriors that answer to crime lord Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman... because, really, who else would you cast as a character with a name like that?) 118 minutes of sword fights and fisticuffs ensue, occasionally punctuated by a few dialogue sequences that pretend as if there's an actual story going on. (There isn't.) What's most interesting here are the visuals, which have been designed to mimic the look of a traditional form of Japanese puppet theater. As a result, the sets are boldly colorful and deliberately artificial, backgrounds often pop up and fold in on each other like cardboard cut-outs and the cast (which also includes Woody Harrelson as a saloon keeper, Kevin McKidd as Perlman's chief enforcer and Demi Moore as his lover) deliver broadly theatrical performances. (I guess I could add that Hartnett and Moore are about as wooden as puppets, but that just seems too easy.) Writer/director Guy Moshe uses a mixture of computer graphics and practical effects to achieve the film's distinctive look. His visual imagination is to be commended -- it's shame that the disjointed narrative he's concocted turns the movie into such a slog. (Available on most video on demand platforms; out in limited theatrical release on September 30.)
Best Scene: A car chase shot from a top-down angle that's a direct nod to the arcade game classic Spy Hunter.
Beware the Gonzo
I know, I know -- the last thing we need is another high school comedy about a savvy, sarcastic teen outcast and the war he declares on the popular kids around him. But thanks largely to an appealing lead performance by newcomer Ezra Miller, Beware the Gonzo ain't half-bad; while it covers familiar ground, it does so with a light touch and a sensitivity to the fears and insecurities that the typical high school's geek population experiences. Miller plays Eddie "Gonzo" Gilman, an aspiring journalist that wants to explore more serious subjects in the pages of his private school's student newspaper than pep rallies and ribbon cuttings. So he launches his own upstart paper (and accompanying website), which exposes the institutions dark underbelly, from what's really in the cafeteria lunch meat to which mean girl is a closet bulimic. While bringing these stories to light makes Gonzo a hero to the student body -- and earns him the attention of gorgeous outcast Evie (Zoë Kravitz) -- it also makes him a target of the administration and the most popular kid in school, Gavin Riley (Jesse McCartney). Because this kind of zero-to-hero arc is inevitably followed by some kind of a reckoning for our out-of-his-depth hero, the film's third act is a lot more contrived and a lot less enjoyable that what comes before. But teen viewers in particular should give Gonzo a chance -- overall, this is one of the better high school comedies to come along since the 2004 double bill of Mean Girls and Saved. (Available via Movies on Demand; currently playing in limited theatrical release.)
Best Scene: When the first issue of Gonzo's paper hits stands and gives his motley crew of outsiders a real Revenge of the Nerds moment.
Also on VOD This Month
IFC On Demand: John Landis returns to the big screen with the period British comedy Burke and Hare starring geek favorites Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, while The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 provides an eye-opening view of the Black Power movement through archival footage shot for Swedish television.
Magnolia on Demand: Sam Shepard plays an elderly Butch Cassidy in the Western Blackthorn, while Alan Tudyk and Taylor Labine play the one pair of backwoods rednecks that aren't murderous psychopaths in the horror spoof, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.