1. White Reindeer (Directed by Zach Clarke. Starring Anna Margaret Hollyman, Joe Swanberg)
For fans of: Dark Christmas movies, Bad Santa
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
In the pantheon of great Christmas movies, the ones that stick out the most are those that simultaneously embrace and defy the holiday spirit. Gunning down German terrorists may not be a yuletide tradition, but Die Hard's sweet and affecting reunion at the end suits its Christmas Eve setting. A foul-mouthed, alcoholic curmudgeon who plays Santa at local malls in order to rob them would certainly end up on the naughty list, but Bad Santa nonetheless embraces warm-hearted holiday themes by the end. And somewhere in the canon of naughtier-than-nice Christmas films lies Zach Clark's White Reindeer, a pitch-black comedy about how punishing the holiday season can be when your life falls apart.
It's early December, but the holiday spirit is already high in the Barrington household because the film's heroine, Suzanne — an eager young real estate agent — gets news from her husband, a successful meteorologist at the local news station, that he got offered a new job in Hawaii. Things take a sudden turn for the worse when Suzanne comes home the next day to discover her husband shot to death after a botched home robbery. Then Suzanne learns at his wake that he was having an affair with a stripper named Fantasia.
White Reindeer's plot chronicles the next month of Suzanne's life as she grapples with her husband's death and infidelity. Taking place in the dull suburbs of northern Virginia, Suzanne enters into a series of peculiar encounters that take her out of her comfort zone. She strikes up a friendship with Fantasia and goes out with her hard-partying friends, downing drugs and shoplifting from the mall. In one of the film's funniest scenes, she invites herself to a new neighbor's housewarming party, which turns out to be a little different than what she thought she was signing up for.
White Reindeer walks a fine line between dry, bittersweet humor and morbid melancholia without ever coming off as too comical or too depressing. But underneath its bleak narrative tone, White Reindeer is weirdly charming. Ultimately, the film is about the unlikely friendships we strike up in the unlikeliest of situations. And like Die Hard and Bad Santa, it takes some unwrapping of narrative layers to discover the theme at the film's core.
2. Some Velvet Morning (Directed by Neil LaBute. Starring Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve)
For fans of: Terse stage dramas, Roman Polanski's Carnage, In the Company of Men
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
There's an early moment in Some Velvet Morning where Fred (Stanley Tucci) — an aggressive lawyer who just left his wife — is about to leave the home of Velvet (Alice Eve), his ex-lover. And then there's another. And another. That's the rhythm of Some Velvet Morning, which hails from writer/director Neil LaBute: A nonstop exercise in uncomfortable moments involving a painfully unceremonious reunion between two estranged lovers. All you'll want is for it to be over. But that doesn't mean Some Velvet Morning is a bad film; it's just a film that revels in making its audiences feel as uncomfortable as possible. In that regard, it's great.
Arriving unexpectedly with suitcases in tow on Velvet's doorstep, Fred doesn't waste any time: He just left his wife after 24 years of marriage, and it's basically because he can't stop thinking about Velvet, who ended their affair years ago. As the only two actors in the film, which unfolds in real time as one long (nearly 90-minute) conversation at Velvet's house, we learn a great deal about the history of their relationship. She's a high-end prostitute who was dating — or, perhaps, just “seeing” — Fred's son at one point or another. The conversation quickly devolves from polite chit-chat to a more hostile exchange when Fred keeps probing why Velvet broke things off with him. All the while, Velvet keeps reminding Fred that she's late for a lunch date with a friend, adding an extra level of anxiety to the narrative.
Some Velvet Morning's strength is in its writing. LaBute, who's no stranger to writing for the stage, employs a very theatrical approach to the narrative. Though the dialogue in the beginning might come off as overly expository, before shifting gears into unbearably awkward mode, it's all to serve the purpose of the film's jarring ending, which will surely leave you feeling like you need to take a shower. Still, Some Velvet Morning is a remarkably acted and written drama, and well worth the time of anyone intrigued (and strong-stomached) enough to check it out.
3. Artifact (Directed by "Bartholomew Cubbins." Starring Jared Leto)
For fans of: Music documentaries, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
When you can watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $2.99
Cinephiles know Jared Leto best for his critically acclaimed roles in films like Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. But music fans know a different Jared Leto: The frontman for the alt-rock band 30 Seconds to Mars. After a pair of successful studio albums released via industry titan EMI Records, the band was ready to start work on a third one. But they decided they wanted out of EMI, which hadn't given them a dime. EMI's response? Slapping them with a $30 million lawsuit.
Artifact — which was directed by Leto under the Seussian pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins — documents the band's legal struggles as they begin writing and recording the follow-up to A Beautiful Lie. Taking place over the course of a year, Leto captures the endless battle against faceless suits at the top of EMI's chain of command. It's a classic us-vs.-them story of a struggling band getting royally screwed by their money-grubbing record label.
Except that there's one crucial difference: 30 Seconds to Mars is no struggling band. Indeed, the fact that Leto is a successful actor raises some eyebrows as to the true desperation of their situation. Also, Leto is certainly far from the first musician to have been screwed over by a record label, and he's definitely not the first to have his band's trials and tribulations documented on camera. (Sam Jones' film about Wilco, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, is a far better portrait of that.) But Leto presents the film as if this is some sort of new revelation. He makes grand pronouncements about how the music industry is a money-sucking business as if that hasn't been common knowledge for ages.
There's an unintentional irony in Artifact that deftly sums up why it fails so much: Most of its footage depicts the band wallowing in self-pity while lounging around Leto's posh L.A. dwellings.
30 Seconds to Mars fans will certainly clamor for Artifact, but everyone else — particularly those who are fans of Leto's acting — would be smart to avoid letting this vanity project taint your perception of an otherwise excellent actor.
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