Monday, August 08, 2016

VODepths: 'Observance,' 'Blood Shot,' 'New Cops'

I get a lot of PR emails about movies being released on VOD, which has become a vast frontier of obscure, strange, low-budget, niche-oriented movies, with even greater variety and oddity than the physical direct-to-video market, which it has essentially usurped. Occasionally I review more high-profile VOD releases for Las Vegas Weekly or Film Racket, but for the most part these emails just go into a folder and then get deleted, and for many of the movies, I never read anything about them from any media outlet. But I have a fascination with these unexplored corners of cinema, so I'm launching this little feature here, periodically rounding up obscure VOD and streaming releases that I've been sent for review (generally unsolicited), hoping to find hidden gems. Here are a few from recent months.

Observance (Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Tom O'Sullivan, dir. Joseph Sims-Dennett) This slow-burn psychological horror movie is a bit torn between completely arty abstraction (along the lines of something like Upstream Color) and more straightforward scares, and its creepy atmosphere is more effective than its ultimately frustrating plot. Farris plays a private investigator holed up in a dingy apartment spying on a woman (King) across the street, and slowly going mad in the process. Details about the woman and her mysterious boyfriend slowly come to light, as director and co-writer Sims-Dennett focuses on the often gross physical and mental deterioration of Farris' Parker. Sims-Dennett (working with cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson) has a real eye for striking, disturbing images (especially unsettling close-ups of everyday objects), but in the end they add up to less than the sum of their parts. Parker discovers just enough secrets to make the plot intriguing, only for the movie to give up on providing any real answers. The performances and style are enough to carry it through, but the end result is a little disappointing. Available on Vimeo.

Blood Shot (Dominic DeVore, Kate French, Skyler Day, dir. Drew Thomas) Originally known as Channeling, Blood Shot has experienced the time-honored direct-to-video technique of getting a more sensationalistic title to grab attention. The new title promises something a lot more gory than this social-media thriller, which is actually an interesting counterpoint to current major studio release Nerve. Although its budget is much, much smaller, Blood Shot has a more solid understanding of social media in many ways. Like Nerve, it posits a new online sensation that seems plausible -- in this case contact lenses that serve as GoPro-like cameras for people to broadcast their lives online -- and builds a thriller around it. The thriller plot, in which military veteran Jonah (DeVore) returns home from the Middle East to figure out who killed his brother, a popular "caster," is convoluted and not very interesting. But the movie's use of social media is clever, especially in a more subdued subplot about Jonah's younger sister (Day) that deals with slut-shaming and online trolls. The writing isn't quite good enough to overcome the budgetary limitations, but the movie manages to be more convincing than Nerve on what was probably less than a tenth of the budget. Available on Amazon.

New Cops (Timothy Morton, Jimmy Kustes, Beau Shell, dir. Timothy Morton) Co-star and co-writer Kustes actually emailed me directly about this movie, which is available on No Budge, a site run by indie filmmaker Kentucker Audley. No Budge hosts a bunch of micro-budget, no-name indie shorts and features, most of them available to watch for free (it also has limited runs and paid VOD releases of slightly more recognizable indie fare). At 52 minutes, New Cops doesn't quite qualify as a feature; Morton and Kustes label it a "labor of laziness," pieced together from footage shot over a period of years, and it has a certain ramshackle charm, especially for fans of the early, incredibly low-fi films in the mumblecore movement (like Audley's Team Picture, which co-starred Morton). Morton plays an aimless man who endures an irritating house guest (Kustes), watches the titular, nonsensical show-within-the-movie (shot with equally poor camera work and harsh lighting) and has dreams or visions in which he's the president of the United States. Mostly he worries that his girlfriend is cheating on him. None of it really goes anywhere, and the general lack of continuity (because of the years-long production schedule) keeps it from being coherent at even a basic level. But Morton and Kustes lean into that by making it a surreal, dreamlike story about a man adrift in his own life. It's more than a little tedious to watch, but every so often there's an unexpectedly funny or weird moment. Maybe if Morton and Kustes overcome their laziness they can put their talents into something more watchable next time. Available on No Budge.

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