Watch these new movies on VOD.
The ABCs of Death
On the heels of last year's terrific V/H/S, Magnolia is premiering another horror anthology on VOD before a theatrical run, this one offering 26 three-to-five minute short films, each of which depicts a crazy, bloody or improbable (and sometimes all three) death that's keyed to a letter of the alphabet. (For example, A is for Apocalypse, B is for Bigfoot... you get the idea.) The ABCs of Death distinguishes itself from its predecessor in two ways: first, the found footage aesthetic isn't a requirement here, which allows each of the 26 filmmakers to make their individual shorts using whatever style they want. Even better, where the V/H/S shorts were all American-made, this one is truly an international enterprise, with directors hailing from such countries as Japan, Spain, France and Thailand. Sadly, that's about the only positive thing I can say about this anthology, which loses its sense of innovation early on and quickly becomes wearisome and tedious. Don't get me wrong, there are a few shorts that work; Nacho Vigalonda's apocalypse-themed short has a darkly hilarious closing gag and the entries from Japan are especially memorable, if only because they're absolutely bonkers. (Yoshihiro Nishimura's Dr. Strangelove-by-way-of-Dead Alive short Z is for Zetsumetsu is the most bizarre thing I've seen in recent memory.) But what's striking is that even though the directors have been given complete freedom, so many of the shorts wind up being the same. At least three installments involve death by toilets (including in Ti West's uncharacteristically cheap and exploitative M is for Miscarriage), violence against animals (dog lovers should make sure to avoid Marcel Sarmiento's D is for Dogfight) and children is rampant, and testicles and/or anuses are subjected to constant abuse. It's as if the filmmakers are competing with each other to see who can be the most transgressive instead of the most creative. (I don't get offended easily, but Timo Tjahjanto's rancid, puerile L is for Libido left me fuming, to the point where I very nearly turned off the movie out of spite.) But shock value by itself is almost never scary... if anything, it's just an easy out for the lazy mind. And that's what disappointed me more than anything else about The ABCs of Death; despite all the work that must have gone into assembling these 26 films, it's just so goddamn lazy.
(The ABCs of Death is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and iTunes and will open in theaters in March.)
Would You Rather
In the classic '80s tradition of using holidays and other big events as the basis for a horror movie (think Mother's Day and Prom Night), Would Your Rather strives to put a frightening spin on the titular party game where players are forced to choose between a pair of embarrassing and/or outrageous options. You know, stuff like "Would you rather spend five minutes in heaven with Neil or walk around the block without your pants?" Needless to say, in the context of this particular movie, the options are a lot more... well, deadly in nature. So why would anyone play this version of the game? Well, because the party host -- a wealthy psycho named Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) -- is careful to recruit players who are desperately in need of money. If they compete and win, a big payday is in store, one that can make all their problems go away. That's certainly why down-on-her-luck Iris (Brittany Snow) allows herself to be talked into going along with this insane scenario. She's currently looking after her leukemia-stricken brother and their lack of health insurance has made keeping his disease at bay a costly endeavor. So she shows up on Lambrick's doorstep to compete in his game and is ushered into the dining room, where she meets her fellow contestants, whose ranks include Dollhouse's Enver Gjokaj, My Name is Earl's Eddie "Crabman" Steeples and ex-porn star Sasha Grey, who still acts like she's in a porn movie, just without all the sex. The rest of the movie largely plays out within that one room, as Lambrick guides the players through a series of "Would You Rathers" that forces them to choose between stabbings, electrocutions and, finally, murder. (It's kind of like what 12 Angry Men might have been like had Henry Fonda pulled out a piece and persuaded the jurors to change their minds at gunpoint.) As an exercise in fear and tension, Would You Rather doesn't really work; the dialogue is too corny and the characters' behavior too predictable (you'll likely the guess the order of the casualty list within the first five minutes). But if you've ever wanted to watch a group of semi-famous TV actors sit around a table torturing each other... here you go.
(Would You Rather will be available via IFC on Demand starting February 8)
One of the hallmarks of low budget action movies are extended sequences that take place in air ducts and interchangeable bunker-like locations, because those settings typically require little in the way of manpower and money. This cheaply made Australian import follows the same M.O. but writer/director Justin Dix at least comes up with a good reason why the action is limited to a series of small, confined spaces. Crawlspace takes place entirely inside an underground military facility, where scientists have been conducting top secret genetic experiments. Naturally, something has gone wrong and an elite army team is sent in to mop up the mess, a mess that turns out to hinge on a young woman, not-so-subtly named Eve (Amber Clayton), who had been a test subject in a new program that was supposed to produce a new breed of psychically-enhanced soldiers. Romeo, the leader of the rescue squad, knew Eve in her previous life and refuses to leave her behind as they fight their way back to the surface... even when it becomes clear that her loyalties may have changed. Although the big action set-pieces suffer from murky cinematography and chaotic choreography, the sci-fi tinged story is actually fun (if a tad predictable) to watch unfold. Dix may be a mediocre director, but he and his co-writers Eddie Baroo and Adam Patrick Foster could totally have a career penning genre novels if they wanted.
(Crawlspace is currently available via IFC on Demand)
It's weird enough watching Rob Lowe acting in a political satire not named Parks and Recreation. The fact that one of the politicians that his character -- a savvy, seasoned and cynical campaign manager named Paul Turner -- is aiding in return for big bucks has the last name "Perkins" (as in "Ann Perkins") just makes it stranger. It doesn't help that any random episode of Parks and Rec is a funnier and more incisive look at the absurdity of American politics than Knife Fight, a flabby feature that covers the same ground that many other, far better movies have already trod. Director Bill Guttentag splits his time between three of Paul's clients, a Southern governor (Eric McCormack) in the mold of John Edwards; a Senatorial candidate (David Harbour) with John Kerry's military record and Bill Clinton's libido; and, finally, a doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) who decides to enter her state's gubernatorial race, but seems to lack the will (or, to put it in the movie's terms, the lack of morality) to win. Aiding Paul on the ground is his long-suffering assistant, Kerstin (Jamie Chung), whose idealism is slowly, but surely being drained away the longer she sees how the proverbial sausage is made behind the scenes of power. (Other well-known TV personalities turning up for a scene or two include Julie Bowen as a dogged TV reporter in the mold of Diane Sawyer and Lowe's old West Wing co-hort Richard Schiff as Paul's go-to guy for malfeasance.) The actors play their familiar types with aplomb, but there's no escaping the fact that everything that Knife Fight has to say about politics has been said countless times before, oftentimes by Aaron Sorkin or someone imitating him.
(Knife Fight is currently available via IFC on Demand and is also playing in limited release)
French musician and filmmaker Quentin Dupieux first made a name for himself on these shores three years ago with the instant cult favorite Rubber, an off-the-wall action movie starring -- I kid you not -- a telepathic tire who causes mayhem and falls in love with a flesh-and-blood woman in an isolated desert town. Wrong is more straightforward in some respects in that it features a human being and not a rubbery wheel in the lead role. But in terms of plot and sense of humor it's just as strange, unfolding in a manner that can perhaps best be described as free-associative. When ordinary guy Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) discovers that his beloved dog has vanished, he embarks on a surreal journey that includes overly flirtatious pizza shop employees, a pet detective who is only a little like Ace Ventura and, best of all, the acid-scarred, self-help guru Master Chang, played by a game William Fichtner. It goes without saying that the movie's warped comic sensibility won't be for everybody and if you aren't on its wavelength, its 94-minute runtime might feel like an eternity. But if it grabs you early on (personally, I was hooked following a scene where Springer shows up at his office, where a steady downpour of rain falls from the ceiling without explanation or comment) you'll want to see what other strange avenues Dupieux will venture down during the rest of the movie. Someone hook this guy up with Tim & Eric already.
(Wrong is currently available via DirecTV and other VOD providers)
Day of the Falcon
A Lawrence of Arabia-style epic depicting the origins of the Middle Eastern oil boom, Day of the Falcon follows two warring desert tribes whose futures are forever changed by the arrival of Texas oilmen interested in getting at the sticky black stuff that lies beneath their land. On one side, you have the forces of Sultan Amar (Mark Strong), while on the other is Emir Nesib (a sorely miscast Antonio Banderas); years ago, they arrived at a truce whereby Amar's sons, Auda (Tahar Rahim) and Saleh (Akin Gazi) would come to live with Nesib. With the arrival of the oil money, the Sultan hopes to modernize the region, plans that the now-grown Auda endorses, but his biological father isn't too keen about. To insulate himself against any retaliation, the Emir marries Auda off to his own daughter (Freida Pinto), but another clash is inevitable and soon warfare has broken out again. If your eyes glazed over reading that plot synopsis, that's par for the course with this lumpy, overstuffed period drama, which boast sweeping backdrops, but nothing particularly interesting going on in the foreground. Director Jean-Jacque Annaud has a history of churning out these kinds of handsome, but stultifying period epics, including the World War II-set Enemy at the Gates and the Brad Pitt Gets Spiritual drama Seven Years in Tibet. It says something this his most compelling movie to date -- 1988's The Bear -- featured an almost all-animal cast. Maybe he needs to stick to nature movies; I know I might have preferred Day of the Falcon more if it was about a falcon, as opposed to these largely uninteresting homo sapiens.
(Day of the Falcon is currently available on all VOD platforms)