Thursday, March 6, 2014

Riske Business: Adam Hearts Video On Demand

My favorite trend in the film industry recently is the proliferation of Video On Demand. While mainstream cinema has become homogenized and branded to obscene degrees, the most interesting and original movies out today are more readily available than ever before. If you are not watching a movie on VOD every week, you are missing out on some of the best cinema in recent years.

This is the first year that I’ve been keeping track of my ranking of the year’s movies as the year progresses. Thus far, I’ve seen 21 of the 2014 releases. Eleven of those 21 are movies that either debuted on VOD or will during the year (I was lucky enough to see a few at film festivals and special screenings). Of those 21 movies, eight of my 10 favorite to-date are VOD movies. It’s getting to the point where at any time there are at least one or two movies on VOD that sound interesting enough to rent.

Many of the VOD movies are refreshingly conversation-ready. I have almost nothing to say about Ride Along or RoboCop after I watch them, but even a VOD movie that starts well and goes off the rails like Grand Piano is something I want to talk about with people who have also seen it. VOD movies have lots of personality and idiosyncrasy, so a movie like Cheap Thrills is going to illicit a reaction out of you whether it’s positive or negative.
VOD is also legitimizing direct-to-video (DTV) in many ways. A movie like Enemies Closer would have been straight-to-video if not for VOD and odds are I would have ignored it (I am a snob when it comes to DTV and usually don’t watch those movies, it’s one of my few flaws as a dedicated moviegoer). The same goes for Cheap Thrills, Nurse and Love and Air Sex. The funny thing is these same movies probably would have played in theaters if this were the 1990s. Van Damme movies like Enemies Closer used to come out sometimes twice a year. Cheap Thrills would have gotten a Very Bad Things type of release. Nurse would been a horror movie that played a two week run at the mall theater and Love and Air Sex would be marketed similar to Reality Bites. It’s so sad that these movies won’t get their day in court (so to speak) in mainstream or even indie theaters. Luckily, the beacon of hope that is VOD is around to rescue these movies from obscurity.

Furthermore, I am thankful that many of the VOD titles don’t go to a micro-budget graveyard after their on-demand run concludes. With the boom of Netflix Instant, many of these movies (especially the ones distributed by Magnolia) are finding a second life. I am so happy to hear friends and F-Heads tell me they caught up with Drinking Buddies or A Band Called Death because they were able to stream it from their Xbox 360. I don’t even care if they enjoy it. Just knowing that they had access to it is a small victory. And isn’t it great how undiscriminating Netflix streaming audiences seem to be? There’s a site I check called that lists the 50 most popular movies streaming on Netflix in the past 24 hours. The top of the list always consists of the movies that have just been made available. It doesn’t matter if it was a blockbuster like The Silence of the Lambs or a tiny movie that debuted on VOD like Best Man Down. It’s all about what’s new, which results in word-of-mouth for these smaller movies that they wouldn’t have otherwise received.

You know what else is great about VOD? It’s a safety net for directors that can’t get a distribution budget from a major studio or indie offshoot. I’ve seen some great independent movies in the past few years and it’s reassuring for me to know that if Lance Hammer ever wants to follow-up Ballast or Andrea Arnold has another Fish Tank up her sleeve, there is a place where these movies might get picked up and made available to the public. The same goes for other directors of smaller movies such as Robert Siegel (Big Fan), Sylvain Chomet (The Illusionist) or Dan Eckman (Mystery Team).
VOD is also a safe haven for directors who have had movies that either critically or financially shit the bed. For example, Richard Kelly probably couldn’t get another studio movie. But on VOD? He could probably get something released. Sofia Coppola can have box office bomb after bomb and still find a home on VOD. And Stuart Gordon or Don Coscarelli movies will always be around because one of the VOD outlets will realize that this director’s horror brand is worth them picking up the distribution investment.

I love VOD so much that it’s getting to the point where I am anxiously awaiting to hear what movies coming out of film festivals are getting picked up by IFC or Magnolia because it means I’ll be sure to get a chance to see them. And lastly, VOD is also giving smaller movies that don’t have awards aspirations, but rather seek mostly to entertain, a chance of finding an audience. The Fox Searchlights of the world only care about studio-approved awards indies or being that twee summer breakout. This leaves many movies potentially orphaned and without a platform. VOD fixes that.

Here are a few suggestions of movies to seek out on VOD. All are at least interesting and most are very good.

Alan Partridge: A very funny Steve Coogan comedy in the vein of Hamlet 2. Now available on VOD.
At Middleton: A sweet romance starring Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga about strangers who meet and grow attracted to each other while on their kids’ college campus tour. Now available on VOD.

Cheap Thrills: A provocative and darkly funny black comedy with great performances from Pat Healy and Ethan Embry. Now available on VOD.

Enemies Closer: A no-nonsense action vehicle with a great villain turn from Jean Claude Van Damme. Now available on VOD and available March 11 on Blu-ray and DVD.
Grand Piano: In the vein of Phone Booth if it were more fun and technically ambitious. Now available on VOD and coming in May to Blu-ray and DVD.
Happy Christmas: Joe Swanberg’s new holiday comedy starring himself, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber and baby Swanberg. Not as good as Drinking Buddies, but funny and worth seeking out. Due on VOD later this year.

Life Itself
: A well-made, sometimes tough-to-watch documentary about the late, great Roger Ebert which improves on every aspect of the memoir of which it is based. The highlights include a lengthy segment of the movie that sheds more light on Gene Siskel than any other movie or writing I had seen before. Coming this summer to VOD.
Love and Air Sex: Not a complete success, but a relationship comedy that knows what it’s talking about. Admittedly, I am a sucker for this movie because it was filmed on location in the wonderful Austin, TX, but even if you have no interest in that, the movie features a funny supporting performance from Sara Paxton. Now available on VOD.

Nurse: This movie is fucking bonkers. I love it and any other Hansel & Gretel fan probably would, too. Still available on Amazon Instant Video and coming in April to Blu-ray and DVD.
The Sacrament: My favorite movie of the year so far is Ti West’s new cult thriller based on the real-life Jonestown mass suicide. It’s a scary and unforgettable movie. Coming to VOD on May 1st.


  1. Im yet to brave the world of VOD. Im not completely sure how it works but i think its only through iTunes rentals over here, which works out to be the price of my monthly Netflix subscription for one movie rental. So, i dont tend to use it that much. Might look into it further at some stage.

    Glad you mentioned Alan Partridge. I love that movie. So very funny.
    (regarding a fist-bump): "Some say its more hygienic than a handshake, but whose to say you cant get shit on your fist?"

    1. There's something about the way Steve Coogan just says things that makes me laugh. I even thought it was funny when he says "I'm going to lay down a rhythm track".

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    3. "Guys, guys, cool it with the cross talk, your supposed to be professional broadcasters."

      Its the perfect character for him though. while Coogan is great a lot of the time, he is never as good as when he is Alan Partidge. Its the combination of the arrogant and ignorant histrionic Englishman with the sympathetic fool. He is completely unlikeable but you do like him, and (sort of) want him to succeed but are just as happy when he fails. Or thats how I see it anyway.

      Have you seen any of his other Partridge projects?

    4. No, this is my first Alan Partridge experience. Any suggestions for next best?

      I completely agree - it's the arrogance thing combined with how dumb and offensive he is. It reminds me of his character in Hamlet 2 in a lot of ways.

      "That was Neil Diamond... truly the 'King of the Jews'.

    5. "Never, Never criticise Muslims, only, ONLY Christians. ... and Jews a little bit."

      Oh, its all good. Probably closest to the movie would be "Mid Morning Matters", its the webcam view of the Alan and Simon radio show. My favourite though is "I'm Alan Partridge", its the show that introduces his broader world including Lyn and Michael. I used to prefer Season 2 but its broader more sitcomy style hasnt aged as well as Season 1 with its slightly more subtle approach. And then most die hard fans tend to prefer the original show "Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge" which is what blew him (and Coogan) up in the UK in the 90s. There is a chronology or sorts to his story throughout the different series, nothing that is a prerequisite but its all so good you cant go wrong.

      Let me know what you think if you give any of it a go, im really keen to hear your thoughts,

    6. Oh, and another thing. Something I've been wondering, without being familiar with the character or his world was there anything you felt you were missing out on with the movie or did you find it all well enough self contained?
      I think it was self contained enough, but I can't tell because I know it so well.

    7. It felt pretty self-contained. I think what helps is that the Alan Partridge character resembles the Coogan character in Hamlet 2 and especially the David Brent/Michael Scott combo on The Office.

      I'm sure there were in-jokes I missed but I didn't feel left out like I did when I watched Serenity before watching Firefly, for example.

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  3. I love how VOD is becoming more popular. I'm trying to wrangle up a few friends to check out Nymphomaniac P1 this weekend. It's nice not having to put on pants to watch a movie sometimes.

    1. I watched that yesterday. What did you think? I was alright with it. Sort of tough to have an opinion on it without seeing part 2.

  4. Just caught "I am a Ghost" on VOD. Hadn't read a thing about it but it turns out to be one of the best damn ghost story/haunted house movies I have seen in a long time! Highly recommend it. I echo the sentiment, Adam. Had it not been for VOD I would have never had the chance to see films like this. It's such a great feeling randomly picking a movie that I know nothing about nor seen a trailer for. Sure, some are awful, but finding those one or two gems is worth it. Plus, I never mind contributing to the low budget filmmaker, and VOD gives me that opportunity.

    1. Looks good. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.