Modern cinema is changing, and so is the way we watch it. For years, a direct-to-video release was interpreted as a sign that a film was a flimsy shadow of its big-screen theatrical cousins, lacking the support, production values, or overall quality required to secure it a theatrical release. But the rise of video-on-demand platforms like Amazon Instant and iTunes have offered top-tier filmmakers and actors a chance to put out high-quality films without the hassles and expectations that come with a major studio release. With a boom that's making VOD as relevant and vital as the titles on your local cinema marquee, you can stay home and watch brand-new films for cheap instead of paying $15 to catch them in a theater. This weekend, for instance...
1. The Canyons (Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Lindsay Lohan, James Deen)
For fans of: Cinemax, Lindsay Lohan's tabloid escapades, Bret Easton Ellis' massive ego
When you can watch it: Beginning Aug. 2 on Amazon Instant, Digital Download, VOD
There are scenes in the long-awaited The Canyons — a Kickstarter-funded film that gained instant notoriety for including a four-way sex scene featuring Lindsay Lohan — that recall Tommy Wiseau's cult classic The Room. Whether that's an endorsement or a reason to avoid The Canyons probably depends on your tolerance for the overall, so-bad-it's-good ineptitude that has turned The Room into a cult classic that plays in packed midnight screenings to this day.
Unfortunately, The Canyons is more muddled than Wiseau's perfectly misbegotten project. While The Canyons director Paul Schrader seems, at times, to be trying to create his own so-bad-it's-good cult classic, The Canyons also occasionally displays sudden flashes of masterful auteurism. Is The Canyons a campy joke on filmmaking itself, or a pulpy, stylish critique of Hollywood ennui? In the end, it's neither. Whatever Schrader's ultimate intention really was, one thing is clear: The Canyons is a mess.
Still, for all its flaws, The Canyons isn't quite the epic trainwreck we were all expecting, or the one that seemed to be heralded by Stephen Rodrock's terrific New York Times article. Instead, it's tonally all-over-the-place, perversely subdued, and often boring, with one caveat: Lindsay Lohan is great in it. She puts it her all in this performance, and it shows. Her real-life antics over the past several years give her character's seasoned cynicism of the Hollywood lifestyle an air of authenticity.
Lohan stars as Tara, a Hollywood transplant who's dating the devilish and calculated Christian (porn star James Deen) — a man who serves as a barely functional B-movie producer to keep his trust fund income flowing. When Christian finds out Tara is cheating on him with former flame Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) — who Christian recently cast as the lead in his new movie — he tailspins into sexually charged psychological cat-and-mouse game with Tara and Ryan.
The film opens with gorgeously framed shots of abandoned movie theaters, and the final shot of the opening title sequence shows the decaying, desolate interior of a once flourishing cinema — a genuinely fascinating image for a film that breaks the Hollywood mould. There are certainly some interesting things going on in The Canyons, but the film's potential is quickly squandered by stiff performances from the supporting cast and a mawkishly hackneyed screenplay filled with tinny, cringe-worthy dialogue.
Ultimately, The Canyons is either Schrader's fundamentally flawed love-letter to what the movies once were, or an equally flawed hate-letter to what the movies have since become. Whatever the case, it's a letter best left unopened by everyone except the perversely curious.
2. Europa Report (Directed by Sebastian Cordero. Starring Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, Anamaria Marinca)
For fans of: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, philosophical science-fiction
When You Can Watch: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
It's easy to be cynical when a sci-fi film attempts to go for brains over brawn. Last year's not-quite Alien prequel Prometheus set the stage for a brainy, philosophical quandary examining the mysteries of the universe, but ultimately devolved into a series of illogical cliches. But where Prometheus abandoned its hard science-driven narrative for a more fantastical creature-feature approach, director Sebastián Cordero's breathless found-footage sci-fi thriller Europa Report fully commits to the scientific logistics of deep-space travel. The results are harrowing, claustrophobic, and altogether terrifying.
After a recent NASA report finds that one of Jupiter's moons, Europa, contains large underwater lakes, the corporate entity Europa Industries sends a team of scientists and astronauts to the planet to see if they can find evidence of life on the icy moon. The film kicks off with a testimonial from Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the chief scientist behind a privately funded deep-space mission, promising he'll explain exactly what went wrong. With several cameras strategically placed throughout the spaceship's interiors and exteriors to stream all aspects of the expedition back to ground control, the film breathes new life into the tired found-footage aesthetic.
For a film made on a meager micro-budget, Europa Report is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Vast shots of the empty space surrounding Europa's orbit juxtapose with the Kubrickian machinery of the interstellar spacecraft that becomes a nightmarish trap for the six astronauts on board. For half of the film, we see the live feed being streamed to ground control, before a technical failure severs all communications with Earth and leaves one astronaut dead. As the ship lands on Europa to carry out its mission and return to Earth, the narrative only slightly loses its 2001-like edge. The presence of mysterious bioluminescent creatures begins to push the film into slasher flick territory as the remaining crew begins to dissipate, one by one, but Cordero smartly makes sure the real threat in internal, with the astronaut's spaceship falling apart at every turn.
Europa Report abandons its philosophical inquisitiveness in its third act, but it doesn't quite fall apart. The narration remarks that we've seen things that permanently change our understanding of the universe. Europa Report doesn't quite change our understanding of how smart sci-fi works — but it certainly reinforces it.
3. Drinking Buddies (Directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston)
For fans of: Frances Ha, Cyrus, Fox's New Girl
When You Can Watch: Now Available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
Joe Swanberg might be the most prolific filmmaker of the last decade — but unless you have an ear to the ground of the indie film world, chances are you've never heard of him. A pioneer of the mumblecore movement — a subgenre of American independent cinema that favors micro-budgets, non-professional actors, and improvised dialogue — Swanberg's made 15 films since 2005, including six in 2011 alone.
Though mumblecore was once considered the vanguard of the underground indie film movement, it's since gone mainstream, with prominent figures like Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass getting thrust into the Hollywood limelight. But Swanberg had mostly kept true to his roots — until now. With his latest, Drinking Buddies, he's operating with his biggest budget to date (which is, to be fair, still a minuscule $1 million) and employing a cast of mostly well-known actors: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, and Jason Sudeikis. But the influx of Hollywood talent hasn't warped his mumblecore sensibilities. The result is a mostly charming, slight, and sometimes frustrating revisionist rom-com for the millennial generation.
Drinking Buddies centers on Olivia Wilde, who gives her most natural performance to date, and Jake Johnson, who plays into the charming slacker-type he's so masterfully accomplished in New Girl. The friends work together at a hip Chicago craft brewery, and their outrageously flirtatious relationship is only exacerbated by the outrageous amount of booze they both consume. They're pretty much a match made in heaven — or would be, if they weren't already in other relationships.
Johnson's Luke is locked in a long-term relationship with Jill, played by an unusually flat Anna Kendrick. Her tame, reserved nature is no match for Luke's freewheeling, let-the-good-times-roll way of life. And Kate is going on month eight with the Cool Older Guy Chris (Ron Livingston), who seems to live more at Jill's speed than Kate's. And that's where the film's biggest dramatic arc arrives: Things become messy when Chris makes a pass at Jill during an ill-planned couples retreat while Luke and Kate are off elsewhere, boozing the day away.
Of course, with Swanberg, the biggest moments in the film come from what the character aren't saying. Sometimes, a character's fumbling of words, their tone, or their gestures say more than any eloquent monologue could. But that's also where Drinking Buddies tends to frustrate. Those not familiar with this typical mumblecore aesthetic will become annoyed with these character's lack of communication. Clearly, Luke and Kate are perfect for each other — but at a certain point it becomes apparent that Swanberg is less intent on having them confront the mounting sexual tension than he is with playfully teasing us about it.
Drinking Buddies is deliberately slight. The characters have no big revelations, and there are no big romantic gestures. (Lloyd Dobler would not be caught dead anywhere near a Swanberg film). Instead, what we're left with is not unlike a cool lager: Crisp and refreshing, but nothing fancy.
Next time on Sofa cinema: Director David Gordon Green returns to the arthouse with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in Prince Avalanhce; Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara go on the run from the law in Ain't Them Bodies Saints; Rosemarie DeWitt plays a massage therapist who develops a sudden aversion to touching people in Touchy Feely; Brian De Palma pits Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace against one another in the twisty crime thriller Passion.