The keenest-eyed among you may have noticed a curious absence in your routine last week: no VOD column! Apologies abound for this unforgivable transgression, the consequence of technical issues aplenty that will, with any luck, not happen again. Welcome instead to what we can call This Fortnight on Demand, a compensational compendium of the best—and in one case very, very worst—the last fourteen days have to offer the streaming connoisseur. It’s a good period for playing catch-up, some very notable 2012 releases among the batch below, and some very worthy independent documentaries which might otherwise have escaped your eyes are crying out for their deserved audience. My incessant desire to find a linking theme for each issue has this to offer: wolves. You’ll see what I mean.
A lesser known 9/11 drama, 8:46 takes the form of a broad ensemble piece, showing a wide range of lives and relationships in New York City the night and morning before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Intercutting between a vast number of people in the hours before the tragedy, it seeks to highlight in detail the simple humanity of those whose lives were lost and destroyed. There’s an underlying presumptiveness to 8:46, as though its subject matter alone is enough to make it a work of poignancy and depth, and any traces of confident filmmaking which might appear along the way convenient bonuses. The reality is that this is a dull collage of unconvincing fragments, staid direction and bland performances revealing what is essentially a meaningless series of standard domestic conflicts and interpersonal adversities. 8:46 is less a tribute than a manipulation, sneaking a stack of shoddy stories in under the pretence of tribute. AVOID IT.
Victor of the inaugural Academy Award for Best Makeup, John Landis’ classic teen horror-comedy deserves commendation as the definitive werewolf movie, its transformation sequence by Rick Baker not just one of the most accomplished uses of special effects in cinema, but a truly horrific and disturbing moment that perfectly attests the film’s incredible ability to tread the line between its genres with a degree of skill to put most such genre hybrids to shame. As genuinely scary as this scene and many others are, An American Werewolf in London also functions as a hilariously silly romp, its marvellously charismatic central performance crucial to its sheer likeability as the film’s antics grow wilder and more madcap. All the while, the madness finds solid ground in its tragic gravitas, the underlying ideas of alienation and unsure identity making this not just an enjoyably fun monster movie, but an assured character study too. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
All but dismissed upon its original release, the primary complaint levelled against Elles appeared to be at its inability to consummately tackle the theme of prostitution at its core, its story that of investigative journalist Anne who explores, and gradually becomes fascinated by, students who sell their bodies in order to pay their tuition fees. True, the scenes where the film follows Anne’s subjects fail to offer a full portrait of their life and the effect of their work upon it, but I see it as a mistake to assume this is the film’s concern. Elles, like Shame and The Piano Teacher before it, is much more the story of how the empty materialism and emotional repression of modern society can lead to dark and ugly forms of expression, an idea harrowingly conveyed in Juliette Binoche’s searing performance. Imperfect though it is, Elles deserves the chance its unfairly maligned status might sadly deprive it of. Try it out. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
There may not be words enough in the world to describe how despicably unfunny a comedy is Exit Strategy. It would take decades of dedicated invention to even approach enough of a venomous vocabulary with which to condemn its sheer hideousness and the lamentable casualness of its misogyny. Jameel Saleem is the evicted boyfriend forced to move in with his girlfriend, a fate among the worst imaginable because—y’know—women are awful! It’s perfectly fine for a film to feature so despicably heinous a human being, but to tout him as a hilarious, loveable rogue whose multitudinous flaws it’s the girlfriend’s responsibility to adapt to is just unbearably repugnant. Exit Strategy might conceivably be a less offensive film had it at least the decency to raise a chuckle, but Saleem’s screenplay is of the most wretched sort there is, his self-congratulatory “humour” making all the more ignominious this facile show of blatant subjugation. UNWATCHABLE.
The kind of independent offering that screams quirk at the top of its lungs, Goats features a shaggy-haired David Duchovny as Goat Man, casual drug user and de facto father-figure to the teenaged Ellis, the film’s protagonist. His departure for an out-of-state prep school is the focus of the film’s tensions, primarily with self-obsessed mother Vera Farmiga and suddenly interested biological father Ty Burrell. Fine performances abound, but Goats is a shambled mess of a film, its pedestrian dramatic efforts indistinguishable from the majority of its indie brethren, the pained striving for comedy falling almost entirely upon deaf ears. The collection of badly-written characters, silly humour, and vain navel-gazing nonsense at the heart of the story make Goats an often unfathomably dull viewing experience, a shameful waste of its strong cast and the genuine potential for something more meaningful at the heart of this story of growth. SO-SO.
Making sound use of a plethora of extravagant sets and a wide cast of white-haired, wizened old men, Nanni Moretti gives us Habemus Papam, a wryly comic drama centred on the newly-elected pontiff, who decides while introducing himself to the world that he is unworthy to represent God on earth. Michel Piccoli is the heart and soul of the film as the reluctant pope, his a story of lost youth and long regrets lamented while on the run from his new army of admirers and caretakers. It’s a film with an infectious sense of rue to it—or at least half of it is—for as engaging as Piccoli and his story are, Moretti divides the narrative between this and a disposable side-plot featuring himself as the papal psychiatrist who, in the interest of secrecy, is locked up with the gathered cardinals. Dull, invasive, and not nearly funny enough, it makes average fare of what might otherwise have been a touching tale of crisis. WORTH WATCHING.
Kevin Macdonald’s comprehensive documentary on the life and work of Jamaica’s most famous export offers an overview that will have fans and outsiders equally intrigued, Marley’s expansive runtime allowing a leisurely revelation of the political and social circumstances that allowed the reggae artist to become not just a local phenomenon, but a worldwide one too. Incorporating archival interviews with Marley himself as well as plentiful new ones with family, friends, and cultural experts, Macdonald weaves a rich tapestry rife with detail, yet at the same time it’s hard not to wish Marley were a more incisive portrait, the coverage of its subject’s perhaps lacking role as a father not half as in-depth as the trailer suggests. The film feels very much a biography rather than an analysis, and though it achieves precisely its aims, there’s a certain disappointment to how unambitious these are. A perfectly interesting, engaging documentary, if not a terribly challenging one. RECOMMENDED.
One of the most uplifting films to adorn these pages since their inception, The Eyes of Me is a coming-of-age documentary with a twist: it follows the fortunes of four visually impaired youths over the course of a hectic school year. Growing up is hard enough with the power of sight; stripped of one’s vision it becomes a struggle as physically daunting as emotionally. It’s a shame that the four-part structure of the film makes parts of it lag where others soar: inevitably one segment stands tall above the others, and were it a film of its own it might have been that much greater. Still, each of the stories have their merits, be it in one of the kid’s efforts to gain independence or another’s simple desire to have a role in the school play. Lovingly made with a great deal of respect for its subject matter, The Eyes of Me is an uneven yet impactful story of brave young people. RECOMMENDED.
Short, sweet, and admirably to the point, this TV documentary follows a guilt-ridden escapee of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as he returns to his native land in an effort to discover the remnants of the country’s formerly vibrant musical culture, left ravaged by the genocide’s particular focus on the educated populace. Somewhat standard in its presentation, The Flute Player finds its finest successes in the immensely difficult mental processes of its chief subject, whose fortune in living where so very many died haunts him throughout his journey, making him feel constantly obligated to do all he can to salvage this lost tradition. This tragic sensibility makes a fitting counterpoint to the film’s upbeat musical renditions, which livelily suggest the culture that was, and abundantly evidence the healing power of music and its profound ability to bring together a people, no matter how fractured and scarred they might be. RECOMMENDED.
By far the greatest cinematic surprise of the year for many, The Grey emerged not as the “Taken with wolves” action thriller its marketing appeared keen to make it seem, but rather as a strikingly introverted, brooding consideration of man’s mortality and our relation as a species to the big bad world around us. Loved though he might be for the sheer awesomeness of his late-career emergence as an action hero, Neeson’s new direction is looked upon with all too many laughs, a reaction The Grey is sure to disavow. His is one of the year’s most accomplished performances, a deliberate and ingenious deconstruction of his newfound persona through which writer/director Joe Carnahan ruminates on the intimacies of masculinity in the face of true peril. Playing one of a group of oil-workers stranded in wolf-infested wastelands, Neeson is stunning in his range, snarlingly stoic in one moment and humanly fragile the next. What a surprise. What a film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.