We are living in a glorious time, folks. We are closer than ever to owning flying cars and personal jet packs. For a few hundred bucks, you can buy a computer that you wear on your face. And, thanks to technology that seems to improve almost daily, we can watch some of the best independent and limited release movies in the world without having to put on pants.
More and more movies are being released across Video on Demand (VOD) platforms in conjunction with — and in many cases, weeks prior to — their theatrical release. That means movie fans have more options than ever for watching films that might not enjoy the benefit of playing in hundreds of theaters alongside the wide releases from major studios. Plus, the options for accessing VOD content are multiplying at an impressive rate. Most major cable and satellite companies allow customers to access VOD movies directly through set-top boxes. You can find a great selection of indie releases on iTunes and Amazon. Both Xbox and PlayStation offer loads of VOD content from their respective market places that can be accessed through video game consoles. And even YouTube is getting in on the VOD game, making some releases available to rent directly through the site.
Living that VOD life has become more attractive for a variety of reasons (I’m looking at YOU — person in the movie theater who just HAS to text your bae in the middle of the movie — and YOU — theater owner who tries to charge me $4 for a box of Mike & Ikes I can get for a buck at Walgreens!). So, if you’re like me and always on the lookout for something great to watch from the comfort of your own home, here are four good-to-great flicks currently available on VOD:
Notable Cast and Crew: Directed by E.L. Katz; starring Pat Healy, David Koechner, Ethan Embry, and Sara Paxton.
Official Plot Summary: Craig [is] a struggling family man who loses his low-wage job and is threatened with eviction. In an effort to delay facing the music at home, he heads to a local bar and encounters an old friend. The two friends are roped into a round of drinks by a charismatic and obscenely wealthy stranger along with his mysterious wife. The couple engages the two friends in a series of innocent dares in exchange for money over the course of the evening, with each challenge upping the ante in both reward and boundaries. It seems like easy and much needed money, but the couple’s twisted sense of humor pushes just how far Craig and his friend are willing to go for money and cheap thrills.
The Skinny: The online buzz around Cheap Thrills had me excited to see this film, and it didn’t disappoint. The premise requires a slight suspension of disbelief, but once things start rolling, I found myself eager to see how the filmmakers would raise the ante from one scene to the next. This is the definition of a black comedy; it’s filled with some pretty terrible people doing some really terrible things. But everything is played with just the right amount of humor, ensuring the proceedings never take a nosedive off the cliff into completely irredeemable territory. Pat Healy is amazing as Craig, and Ethan Embry (who you may remember from Empire Records or, my personal favorite, Can’t Hardly Wait) plays a convincing low-life. It’s David Koechner, though, who steals the show. His most famous roles lean to the ridiculous and bombastic (think Champ Kind in the Anchorman films or Todd Packer in the U.S. version of The Office), but his performance here shows he has some real acting chops. If you like your comedies extra dark and a little bloody, you’ll definitely dig Cheap Thrills.
Notable Cast and Crew: Written and directed by John Stockwell; starring Jonathan Daniel Brown, Kenny Wormald, Ron Perlman, and John C. McGinley
Official Plot Summary: The true story of an Idaho teen dropout who builds a multimillion-dollar marijuana ring by trafficking drugs through the woods across the Canadian border. But his pursuit of the high life — complete with girls, guns, and vicious rival drug lords — may leave this ex-pizza boy in way over his head.
The Skinny: Of all the films on this list, this is the one about which I had the least amount of advanced knowledge going in. I knew this was based on an article that ran in Rolling Stone a few years ago, but that was about it. Jonathan Daniel Brown, who you may remember as the chubby JB from the recent house-party opus, Project X, plays the lead stoner, and he does a decent job of carrying the film. But Kenny Wormald as his friend/partner is the real star as far as I’m concerned. Apparently he played the Kevin Bacon role in the remake of Footloose and has popped up in some other dance-centric movies and TV shows. This was my first real exposure to him and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him blow up and start booking bigger roles in the near future. The movie checks all the boxes that a “wannabe drug dealer in over his head” movie should check, and director John Stockwell makes the movie look a lot better than this type of film has any business looking. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, Kid Cannabis might be a nice little fix to hold you over until Better Call Saul hits AMC later this year.
Notable Cast and Crew: Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier; starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, and Kevin Kolack
Official Plot Summary: This crackling indie thriller paints a darkly entertaining portrait of the unintended consequences of violence. Blue Ruin follows Dwight, a gentle Southern drifter who embarks on a long-simmering mission of vengeance when he learns of a convict’s recent release from prison. But after exacting retribution proves far more difficult than he imagined, Dwight finds himself on the run from an escalating cycle of bloodshed that threatens to consume him — if it doesn’t kill him first.
The Skinny: Blue Ruin is probably the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. I can’t overstate how great it is. It’s exactly what you hope for when you decide to watch an indie flick that hasn’t received a ton of mainstream attention. It’s visually arresting and filled with outstanding performances (Macon Blair as Dwight delivers one of those star-making performances where he’s so natural and so fully inhabits the role that it’s hard to believe he isn’t actually this character in real life). There is an overwhelming sense of tension that pervades the movie from the opening scene, and director Jeremy Saulnier manages to slowly ratchet up the sense of dread over the course of the movie until it’s nearly unbearable. While the body count is relatively low, the violence in the film is portrayed in realistic and shocking ways (the movie’s showcase “kill” reminded me of the depiction of violence in David Cronenberg’s 2005 film, A History of Violence). If you watch one movie from this list, make it Blue Ruin. It’s that good. And if there is any justice in this world, it will be on more than a few “Best Of” lists at the end of the year and catapult everyone involved in making it to superstardom.
Notable Cast and Crew: Written and directed by Ti West; produced by Eli Roth; starring AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Gene Jones, and Amy Seimetz
Official Plot Summary: The story of two Vice Media correspondents on an adventure with their friend to document his journey to reunite with his estranged sister. They track her to an undisclosed location where they are welcomed into the remote world of “Eden Parish,” a self-sustained rural utopia composed of nearly two hundred members and overseen by a mysterious leader known only as “Father.” It quickly becomes evident to the newcomers that this paradise may not be as it seems. Eden Parish harbors a twisted secret. What started as just another documentary shoot soon becomes a fight for escape and survival.
The Skinny: I really wanted to love The Sacrament. I’m a huge fan of Ti West’s films, especially The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and his segment in the horror anthology V/H/S. And while The Sacrament showcases the signature slow burn to insanity for which West is famous, it lacks the originality and “holy shit” moments that made those films great. On paper, the pitch for The Sacrament sounds great: A mockumentary depiction of the Jonestown Massacre for the YouTube generation, complete with plenty of handheld footage and the perfect (but kind of hilarious) conceit that the documentarians in the film work for Vice. That said, there just wasn’t anything about The Sacrament that elevated it to that next level for me. The story was too familiar. The plot didn’t hold any surprises or unexpected developments. And the ending fell flat. Gene Jones — who, prior to this was probably best known for his role as the gas station attendant who flips coins with Javier Bardem’s Bieber-haired antagonist, Anton Chigurh, in The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men — is amazing as “Father,” the leader of Eden Parish, but otherwise there isn’t a performance in the film that’s really worth getting excited about. If you’re a fan of Ti West or the “reality horror” genre, The Sacrament is definitely worth checking out, but lower your expectations a bit before going in or risk walking away a little disappointed.