Notes of a St. Louis VOD Viewer

CA VODHow many of these films might we have gotten in a theater if VOD weren’t an option for distributors?




CA white-bird_500

It’s a late November/early December tradition for me to go crazy. That’s the time of year when my movie viewing really comes to a head: All of the big year-end press screenings of the awards-bait movies come within a window of a couple of weeks; I try to catch up on anything I’ve missed throughout the rest of the year on home video or video on demand; SLIFF just ended; non-movie-related holiday stuff starts eating up time; and so on. The point is, I see a ton of that calendar year’s releases in a very short amount of time, and through it all, in the back of my head, I’m trying to piece together other, related things: what’s going to be on my year-end top 10 list (and in what order), who and what I’m going to nominate and eventually vote for in the St. Louis Film Critics’ awards (this year announced on December 15), and the like. But beyond all of that, even, it’s a stereotypical tendency of film critics to look for trends in the things they’re seeing, even when there aren’t necessarily any.

Of the above glut of things to do around this time of year, the newest addition to the list is catching up with titles on VOD. My first inclination is to complain about this, as I much prefer seeing things in the theater or at least on physical media—and also, I am useless with, and kind of hate, computers. But that complaint would be both easy and misguided of me, as most of the titles I catch up with on VOD are ones that I plain old wouldn’t’ve seen on time for year-end consideration in the past. Recent years have yielded stuff like Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renee, and Kevin Barker’s great music doc The Family Jams (featuring Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom)—the latter of which I still would never have seen if I were waiting for a physical release, although I saw it on VOD years ago. This year, I’m still looking forward to watching Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, both of which I’ll watch by the time I’ve written my various lists, but neither of which I’ve seen yet as of this writing, as I like to hold out as long as possible on the off chance I’ll get to see them theatrically.

CA listen-up-phillip_L2014 has already seen me amping up the number of VOD films I watch at the end of the year, though. Where in most previous years I’ve only seen one or two films per annum that are in VOD limbo at the end of the year, this year I’ve watched a bunch, with more yet to come. And it all makes me wonder what it is about these films that their distributors think doesn’t make them warrant a bigger theatrical push: All of the films in this column got at least a short theatrical run in more populous American cities. In almost every case, it is presumably their relative lack of marketability, and the suspicion on the distributor’s part that the movies won’t make enough money for theatrical. Which I get, of course. Movies are a business. But how many of these might we have gotten in a theater around here if VOD weren’t an option for distributors to dump them to?

A glaring one to me is the new Gregg Araki film, White Bird in a Blizzard, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and hit VOD weeks before it got a theatrical run in any market. I’m a fan of Araki’s, though I missed his golden period in the early ’90s when he was heralded as the best hope in new queer cinema, with releases such as 1992’s The Living End and 1993’s Totally Fucked Up. The first film of his I saw was Mysterious Skin at its 2005 U.S. premiere at Sundance, and from there I started playing catch-up. As of this writing, I’ve seen seven of his films, and like them all to varying degrees. (My favorite is 2007’s Smiley Face, which every stoner I know thinks is over the top, and every non-weed-smoker thinks is an amazingly accurate depiction of their stoner friends. That is to say, it’s a divisive film.)

White Bird in a Blizzard is no exception to my admiration of Araki’s work. It fits in his oeuvre like how Red Hook Summer fits into Spike Lee’s: It is basically an encapsulation of many of the filmmaker’s known preoccupations, with a line-crossing ending, so that it ends up feels like a parody of the director’s work, except made by those directors themselves. In White Bird’s case, this means a late-’80s vibe, more overt sexuality than you’re used to seeing in neutered-ass Hollywood films, a good soundtrack, gorgeous young people in nearly every role, and that vague thing people like to classify as “gay interest,” mainly in regard to themes, but really in an overall sense, as well.

So why didn’t White Bird in a Blizzard get much of a theatrical release anywhere in the country? The answer seems counterintuitive: It stars Shailene Woodley. Woodley’s had an incredible year at the box office, playing the lead in both Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, and she’s one of our best young actresses besides: She presumably nearly missed getting an Oscar nomination for her work in 2011’s The Descendants, and also turned in great work in last year’s The Spectacular Now.

So what’s the problem again? Uh, the aforementioned overt sexuality: Woodley’s naked in this movie, which seems to be about the only thing it has garnered any press for. Movies that are mainly sold on nudity and nothing else tend to do a lot better on home video (or, in this case, on demand) than in theaters, and since that’s all anyone seems to want to talk about, distributor Magnolia likely saw fit to cut their losses and just stick the thing on VOD—hence its unusual VOD premiere ahead of a scant theatrical run (if anything, VOD releases tend to be day-and-date, and not actually in advance of theatrical). It’s a shame, as Woodley’s very good in this film (she always is), and if it were anyone else but her, the press wouldn’t have been so fixated on the nudity, and it could very well have gotten a better theatrical push as a result.

CA awkward-moment_RAnother young actor who has had a strong 2014, and who again features in both The Spectacular Now and Divergent, is Miles Teller. Among other things, he is the star of Whiplash, one of the more-beloved films this year (by those who have seen it—I don’t feel like it’s really found its audience yet). But did you see his other 2014 films? This leads me to another category of strangely maligned films: the romantic comedy. I hate the big, stupid, Hollywood-pushed romantic comedies as much as the next person, but feel like the genre on the whole doesn’t get a fair shake. There are certainly good romantic comedies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, anyone?), but people tend to not think of them as such, no matter how much they might follow the tropes. 2014 has seen the release of at least three above-average romantic comedies that were effectively dumped by their studio: That Awkward Moment, What If, and Two Night Stand.

Now, don’t get all excited: None of these three are flawless, and all of them at least occasionally grate in their storytelling devices. Still, That Awkward Moment, while getting a decent theatrical release, did not screen for St. Louis press, What If didn’t screen for St. Louis press and was the subject of one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent memory, and you would likely not know that Two Night Stand even existed unless you troll VOD new releases on a regular basis. All three have good casts: Moment stars Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron, and Imogen Poots; What If Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan; Two Night Stand Teller and Analeigh Tipton. Tipton, who, unlike Woodley and Teller, has had something of a bad year. Two Night Stand is a New York–set romantic comedy that got dumped by its distributor, and she was also the star of the New York–set romantic comedy TV show Manhattan Love Story, which made the news for being the first new show canceled this season (it got the hatchet after four episodes had aired).

I haven’t seen Manhattan Love Story, but Two Night Stand is a mostly charming film that plays not entirely unlike Knocked Up, if only the thing keeping the main couple together was a snowmageddon that traps the girl in the boy’s apartment rather than an accidental pregnancy. And it’s the directorial debut of Max Nichols, son of the late Mike Nichols. In this way, it calls to mind another too-overlooked good romantic comedy (though this one more in the YA vein), The First Time, directed by Jon Kasdan (son of Lawrence) in 2012 and starring The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien.

Are any of these films going to knock you on your ass, lamenting the culture that neglects these to VOD? Probably not. Are any of them going to make my top 10 list, awards consideration lists, etc.? I seriously doubt it. But are they better than 90% of the crap that actually does get released in theaters? You bet they are. And because of that, my habit of trolling VOD options when I’m trying to tie up loose movie-watching ends in November and December is only going to grow. | Pete Timmermann

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