Butch Cassidy, a foul-mouthed teddy bear, and an accountant-turned-pop singer star in this week’s minor VOD releases.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (VOD March 17): The protagonist of Chinese filmmaker Wen Shipei’s stylish, noir-influenced debut feature eventually ends up with a bag of stolen money and gangsters on his tail, but the meditative drama initially takes precedence over the underworld intrigue. Late one night, air conditioning repairman Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) flees the scene after accidentally hitting a man with his car. (Exploring Xueming’s guilt over his actions is just as important to Wen as the crime story.) Although Xueming believes himself responsible for the man’s death, there’s more to the situation than he realizes, as Wen gradually reveals in a sometimes confusing nonlinear narrative. Xueming establishes a connection with the victim’s unwitting widow (Sylvia Chang), and the two actors share a sweet, understated dynamic. Wen makes the city of Guangzhou a perfect noir setting, giving it the vibe of a neon-soaked fever dream. The suspense and the anguish combine for an evocative, rewarding existential thriller. Grade: B+
Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch (Tubi March 17): Although the real-life Butch Cassidy’s gang was known as the Wild Bunch, it’s unlikely that historical accuracy was the main reasoning behind the title of this Tubi original from mockbuster factory The Asylum. Anthony C. Ferrante’s film hardly benefits from comparisons to classic Westerns Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, although it’s more respectable than might be expected from the director of the Sharknado movies. Ross Jirgl plays Cassidy as a bland pretty boy, and the low budget means minimal opportunities for shootouts and train robberies. Instead, there’s a lot of standing around in rooms talking, as Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo (Jeffrey Combs) tracks Cassidy and his gang. Combs delivers one impressively menacing monologue to Cassidy’s adoptive mother (Dee Wallace), but Ferrante mostly squanders the talents of the cast’s slumming veterans (including Bruce Dern). This Cassidy is so dull and stiff that it’s hard to imagine he could ever become a legend. Grade: C-
Last Sentinel (VOD and select theaters March 24): The director of a three-hour, Oscar-submitted Estonian historical drama seems like a strange choice to helm a post-apocalyptic B-movie, but Tanel Toom brings the right amount of solemnity to this surprisingly engrossing sci-fi chamber piece. The seas have risen to engulf nearly all land on Earth, leaving only two small continents that are perpetually at war with each other. In the middle of the ocean, four soldiers man an early-warning outpost armed with the last remaining nuclear weapon, and they go a little stir crazy as they await a relief crew and any word from home. Stars Kate Bosworth, Thomas Kretschmann, Lucien Laviscount, and Martin McCann make the most of Malachi Smyth’s sparse screenplay, and Toom gives the quiet scenes room to breathe—sometimes more than necessary. There are some shaky special effects, but the movie focuses more on personal relationships and philosophical quandaries than spectacle. For patient viewers, there’s plenty to explore. Grade: B
Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes (VOD and IndiePix Unlimited March 24; DVD March 28): The whimsy threatens to overload director and co-writer Tiago Guedes’ adaptation of his own play about an unusually tall 10-year-old girl nicknamed Giraffe (Maria Abreu). Working on a school report about her namesake animal, she’s infuriated that her widowed, unemployed father can no longer pay the cable bill. Joined by her teddy bear Judy Garland (played by adult actor Tónan Quito in a ragged bear costume), she wanders the streets of Lisbon searching for the money she needs for lifetime access to the Discovery Channel. It’s a bit Michel Gondry, a bit Calvin and Hobbes, with some commentary about Portuguese society that may have gotten lost in translation, along with Giraffe’s odd manner of speaking. Abreu is charming and sometimes heartbreaking as a girl who comes off as precocious and mature to adults, but is really just grieving for her lost mother. The quirks grow tiresome as the movie approaches two hours, but Giraffe herself remains endearing. Grade: B-
I’m an Electric Lampshade (VOD March 28): Usually when middle-aged rich guys spend some time at Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, they don’t foist their experiences on unsuspecting movie audiences, but that’s essentially what retired corporate accountant Doug McCorkle does in this bizarre vanity project. It starts out as a straightforward documentary, depicting McCorkle living out his rock-star dreams via a cheesy, rudimentary music video for his retirement party. But McCorkle and filmmaker John Clayton Doyle have bigger ambitions than that, and soon the movie blurs the line between fiction and reality, with surreal, dreamlike interludes as McCorkle travels to the Philippines and Mexico to reinvent himself as a Lady Gaga-style pop icon. The fantasy sequences are tedious and nonsensical, and the documentary elements are frustratingly incomplete, glossing over questions of McCorkle’s wealth and privilege to frame his story as inspirational and uplifting. It’s disingenuous and condescending, culminating in a lengthy concert that mainly showcases how utterly atrocious McCorkle’s original songs are. Grade: D+