VOD PICKS

September 2011

VIDEO ON DEMAND PICKS — SEPTEMBER 2011

Bill Cunningham New York (New Video) — Richard Press’s documentary about legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is just utterly, utterly excellent. It was a particularly welcome surprise for someone such as myself who was born with a blistering aversion to anything remotely “fashion”-oriented. As a warm portrait of a gem of a man, it wears its suit very well. But as a celebration of fashion as a creative personal act, it wears it even more dashingly. (Available on VOD, iTunes, as well as on DVD or at Amazon Instant: BUY/RENT)

Earthling (FilmBuff) — Clay Liford’s ambitious sci-fi drama has a WTF? quality about it that is alternately confounding and mesmerizing. If you’re looking for something different than the typical low-budget American indie fare of late, Earthling is worth checking out. (Available on Cable VOD)

Essential Killing (TribecaFilm) — Jerzy Skolimowski’s stripped down story of survival earned Vincent Gallo a Best Actor award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival for his silent, primal performance. As committed as it was, I nonetheless found it impossible not to view this movie through an unintentionally slanted prism. Basically, since Gallo’s character never speaks and therefore never officially distinguishes himself as a native Afghani, I have come to the conclusion that Essential Killing is actually a movie about one of those renegade Americans you read about who abandons his native land in order to join the Taliban cause in the Middle East. Or, another perhaps more amusing way to interpret it is as a direct metaphor for Vincent Gallo’s own herculean quests to get his movies made. (Available on Cable VOD)

Gabi On The Roof in July (Lantern Lane/Warner Bros.)— I’m a big, big fan of director/actor Lawrence Michael Levine and producer/actor Sophia Takal’s Gabi On The Roof in July, a film that has the superficial facade of mumblecore but is, in fact, a much more carefully orchestrated and acted portrait of young adults making their way in New York City. This is one of those tricky, deceptively accomplished productions featuring characters that might rub viewers the wrong way, but that’s the point. Deeper and more impressive than it might seem on its micro-budget, digital video surface, this marks an impressive arrival of a talented filmmaking duo. (Available on Cable VOD, iTunes, and at Amazon Instant)

Hesher (Newmarket) — The always reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt dives headfirst into his role as a crass longhair who takes a troubled young boy under his wing. Throw in a grieving Rainn Wilson and a nerd-glasses-wearing Natalie Portman, and you have the strange concoction that is Spencer Susser’s debut feature. (Available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video)

Logan (Gravitas Ventures) — **Unexpected Pick Especially From Me Because I Hate Fun, Etc.** Logan begins as a story about a shaggy haired moppet who wants to be a filmmaker but then takes an odd twist before twisting back on itself and making you question just how far a children’s film can go as it brings up suicide, Christ mythos, filmmaking and calling a ginger a Hobbit. Definitely check this one out if you approved of my similarly spirited picks of Fred The Movie and Glenn, The Flying Robot in previous VOD reports. Your local liquor store owner will be grateful. (John Lichman)

Meet Bill (Gravitas Ventures) — One of many contenders in the “why is my life/marriage/world so mundane and boring” category is quickly snapped out of place for a few reasons: 1) it has no Spoon soundtrack (sorry Stranger Than Fiction); 2) it doesn’t star Will Ferrell (see: example 1 and  Everything Must Go for starters). Instead, Aaron Eckhart is the titular Bill, whose opening monologue is delivered into a bathroom mirror as he laments his age and his upcoming family trip to hunt elephants. “Who wants to shoot an elephant,” he asks. “I’m probably going to have to shoot an elephant.” But Bill is being quietly tormented by his in-laws due to their social standing—and his cheating wife—and holds the type of job title at the family-run mega corporation bank that screams nothing more than nepotism (“Executive Vice President of Human Resources”). Eckhart shines in these types of roles, which require a grandiose personality trapped behind a candy-colored shell (Bill’s addiction is sweets, yet his plan to escape his family-in-law’s velvet prison is a doughnut store franchise). Couple that with one of those rare supporting casts that inevitably grows better over time—Logan Lerman, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudekis, Todd Louiso, Timothy Olyphant—and you have a variation of the genre that’s more than watchable. (JL)

Rebirth (Oscilloscope) — In addition to being a technical and conceptual marvel, Rebirth is a graceful testament to humanity’s ability to persevere in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It’s neither falsely uplifting nor unnecessarily deflating. By reflecting the noble spirit of these heroic everyday New Yorkers, it finds grace and eloquence in a tragedy that, one decade later, continues to haunt us all. Read my full HTN review here. (Available on Cable VOD)

A Screaming Man (Film Movement) — For the first half of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man, you might think Haroun’s sole mission is to deliver one of those poignant little personal fables that feel warmly contained within their own worlds. But something happens along the way. The news reports of civil unrest that filter through the background of so many early scenes maneuver their way into the forefront, to the point where the film’s scope widens dramatically. But here’s the trick, and it is what most likely resulted in its winning of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival: Even as that external scope widens, A Screaming Man retains its small, personal, internal purpose. Haroun’s deft balancing act between an actual civil war and the civil war in one’s man mind is a quietly groundbreaking achievement. Read my full HTN review here. (Available on Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Bresnan, RCN, Brighthouse, etc.)

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (TribecaFilm) — Belonging to the same spirited camp as documentaries like Winnebago Man or Best Worst Movie, Matthew Bate’s film starts off as straight comedy, then gradually shifts into something more dramatic and thought-provoking. In 1987, recent college grads Eddie and Mitch moved from the Midwest to San Francisco, only to discover that their next door neighbors were a ceaselessly bickering couple of legendary proportions (Peter was an effeminate gay man; Ray was a rampant homophobe???). With no end in sight, Eddie and Mitch picked up a microphone and began to record these glorious rants on cassette tapes, which spread like a virus and resulted in an eventual CD release in 1991, where the cult phenomenon spread even more widely. In the present day, Eddie and Mitch reunite to try to solve the mystery of why in the hell these diametrically opposed men lived together for so long. The deeper they dig, the more ethically murky their quest becomes (and personally, the more unlikeable they become as subjects). Shut Up Little Man! raises interesting questions about privacy and voyeurism, but its at its best when it simply celebrates the insanity of Peter and Ray’s raucous drunken poetry. (Available on Cable VOD)

Troubled Water (Film Movement) — Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s third feature, Troubled Water (DeUsynlige), garnered both the Jury and Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature at the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival. Well deserving of both, it’s an arresting probe into morality and forgiveness that leaves one stunned not only by its emotionally stark performances, but also by the film’s complex, musical structure that quietly underlies the narrative and binds everything together. Making his acting debut, Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen plays Jan, a church organist recently released from prison who is haunted by a crime he committed as a teenager for which he refuses to take full responsibility. Thinking it harmless folly, Jan and a friend ran off with a young child in a stroller; however, they were caught by surprise when tragedy accidentally struck. Legally held responsible for a murder he did not physically—nor intentionally—commit, Jan finds himself caught between guilt and innocence, never quite sure how to reconcile the youthful ignorance of his intentions and their unintended, fatal consequences. Read Cullen Gallagher’s full HTN review here. (Available on Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Bresnan, RCN, Brighthouse, etc.)

Weekend (Sundance Selects) — Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is an incredibly special film. Over the course of just a few short days, it covers so much ground in its exploration of homosexual identity—beginning with having such flawlessly, deeply realized characters—that I actually believe strongly in this movie’s potential to become a mini-breakout hit. A gay friend jabbed to me, “It’s a gay movie for straight boys,” and though I disagree with that sentiment—I know gay boys (and straight gals) who love it too—in some ways I hope he’s right. Weekend probably won’t change the minds of true homophobes and general simpletons, but by making these characters so three-dimensional and their relationship so compelling, it has a piercing, lingering power. (Available on Cable VOD)

The Weird World of Blowfly (Gravitas Ventures) — Ah, the behind-the-scenes music documentary. We’ve been spoiled recently thanks to films like Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Hit So Hard, and Thunder Soul (in a less “woe be unto the rock gods” way). But that’s what makes The Weird World of Blowfly such a fun oddity. Clarence Reid, an R&B songwriter who went out on his own as a dirty-mouthed “rapper”—the argument for him being the very first rapper is like determining who officially originated the Blues—eventually sold away all his rights for a tiny sum. He got shafted, as nearly every act since the 1980s has benefited by using cheap samples of his classic tracks. Which leads director Jonathan Furmanski on an awkward journey of sorts: he’s got a treasure trove of material, but is unable to access a lot of it. He follows modern day Blowfly around—now showing the bitter results of constant touring and struggling to get what’s rightly due to him—but much of this just comes off as sad and frustrated. Of course, Reid has every right to be angry. But for viewers, we merely hear stories of Blowfly’s previous greatness without the archival proof to back it up. (JL) (Available on Cable VOD)

4th and Goal (Gravitas Ventures) — As football season begins, unleashing the annual party that consists of well-paid, muscular brutes donning their helmets and padded uniforms in order to hut-hut-hike! the autumn away, Nina Gilden Seavey’s documentary about six young men trying to make it into the NFL under the tutelage of City College of San Francisco’s legendary coach George Rush is yours for the VOD taking. Likely, this film will only appeal to the sportiest of sports heads, though it does capture the struggle to succeed in a rarefied profession quite well. (Available on Cable VOD)

Have Not Seen Yet But Recommended Based On This One-Minute Trailer Alone

The Black Power Mixtape (Sundance Selects) — (Available on Cable VOD)

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