Schlock and Awesome: A deep dive into Amazon Prime Video's catalogue

Schlock and Awesome: A deep dive into Amazon Prime Video's catalogue

True story. I rarely buy stuff on Amazon these days. Given the strength of the local DVD/Blu market, and the willingness of some outlets to offer all sorts of crazy deals, I rarely have enough cash left over to splurge on imports. 

So, when I went back to Amazon a couple of months back to treat myself to a copy of Scream Factory’s ‘Raising Cain’ Special Edition, I was somewhat taken aback to discover you could only buy it if you were a subscriber to Prime Video.

Luckily for me, Amazon had been offering a free one month trial subscription to Prime Video so I decided to take the plunge and see what the service had to offer. Sure, I already subscribe to two other perfectly good streaming services (Stan and Netflix, if anyone was wondering) and sure, I’d heard nothing but bad things about the movie selection on Amazon, but… it was one month for free. FREE I TELLS YA!

My plan - spend the month watching films that I’d never seen before that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see elsewhere and then weigh up whether or not it was worth the monthly spend. And so, my month-long quest began… with a two day deep dive through Amazon Video’s catalogue to work out what I’d put on my hitlist.

Like Netflix and Stan, the Prime Video browse function is a challenge to navigate. But, unlike Netflix at least, it appears to show you the entire catalogue, rather than just selected titles determined by an algorithm that really is not conducive to a pleasant viewing experience. After two days (I was primarily scrolling through the catalogue and, later, watching films on my train rides to and from work each day), I’d pretty much gone through the entire Amazon movie catalogue and come up with a hitlist that would take far more than a month to wade through.

At the prestige end, there were titles like ‘Out of Africa’, ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in America’… all titles I’d been keen to see but - for one reason or another - never got around to.

At the trashy end, there were titles like ‘Skyscraper’ (a ‘Die Hard knockoff starring Anna Nicole Smith), ‘Shadow Warriors’ (a film where Hulk Hogan leads an elite Navy SEAL team to rescue Shannon Tweed from evil drug lords) and ‘Baby Snatcher’ (a TV movie featuring the combined talents of Veronica Hamel, David Duchovny and Michael Madsen). Needless to say, there was plenty to grab my attention here. And not just for the prospect of glorious, 90’s style nudity or the possibility that Fox Mulder might be playing a child abductor, either.

Then, there was the middle, which is where I started with Bruce Willis in ‘Mercury Rising’ - a film that reunited ‘Malice’ director Harold Becker with leading man (well, technically, villain. But he had that kickass ‘You want to know if I have a God complex’ speech. So he led, baby) Alec Baldwin. It’s a solid movie from a simpler time, where Bruce Willis wouldn’t sleepwalk through roles and is so predictable you can actually recite dialogue before the characters even utter it. A fun, passable waste of time.

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From there on I went to the other extreme… with an 80s gem I’d never even heard of, but was quite delighted to find called ‘Split Image’ starring a sleazy James Woods (Editor’s note: yes, the use of sleazy here is redundant. But we kept it in. Because Woods is, well, really sleazy) an earnest Brian Dennehy and a creepy Peter Fonda. It’s the story of a father (Dennehy) who’s desperate to get his son back from a religious cult, headed by Fonda. Woods plays the deprogrammer charged with kidnapping the son and undoing the brainwashing undertaken by Fonda and his crew. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (who is here more in ‘Wake in Fright’ mode than ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ mode), it’s a genuinely unsettling, cracking tale, with an ending just as ambiguous and haunting as that other cult classic (in that they both have cult followings and are about cults) ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’. 

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While I could go into detail about all of my cinematic adventures, I’ll spare you the agony of hearing my thoughts on ‘The Two Jakes’, ‘Eaten Alive’, ‘Nightmare Concert’ (beyond saying I never realised Lucio Fulci had wanted to remake ‘Stardust Memories’) and ‘Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2’.

Here are a few other highlights from the month:

‘Out There’: From the director of Full Moon’s sci-fi Western ‘Oblivion’ comes the incredibly low budget story of an alien invasion, where most of the money appears to have been spent on getting Billy Bob Thornton, Bobcat Goldthwait and other cool actors to appear in one scene each. Fun, but oh-so-cheap.

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‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’: The debut feature of the Soska Sisters (‘American Mary’, the upcoming ‘Rabid’ remake). A fun, pitch-black no budget comedy that heralds the arrival of a new, great talent.

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‘Model By Day’: Easily the trashiest of my Amazon Video watches. Stars Famke Jansen as a supermodel who, by day, poses for the cameras and by night fights crime as a latex clad kung fu vigilante. I’m not making this up. She’s spurred on to fight the evil criminal element after one of her friends gets carjacked and does so under the guidance of her wheelchair bound kung fu teacher, Master Chang (played by the distinctly non-Asian Clark Johnson. Who is awesome. But not the first person, or the millionth, who you’d think to cast as a character called “Master Chang”. It’s every bit as awful as it sounds, but deliriously so. (As a side note, this was the first time I really noticed the ‘X-Ray’ feature on Amazon Video, which can bring up trivia and cast info as the movie is playing. Hilariously enough, the only trivia it had to share about this magnum opus was that Famke Jansen would rather forget the experience altogether. I can’t blame her, but would beg to differ.

Then, just as I was mid-way through ‘Ordinary People’ (Robert Redford’s haunting, subtle and incredibly well acted drama about a family’s attempts to cope with the loss of loved one), I realised my month was nearly up, and there was no way in hell I’d finish the film.

So, reluctantly, I headed over to the ‘My Account’ menu to shut off my account when those devious bastards did something I never expected.

THEY OFFERED ME A SECOND MONTH. FOR FREE! And so, my one-month expedition into the Amazon was suddenly doubled. And, I was truly getting lost in all of the amazing titles available for my viewing pleasure.

Since month one had been all about the movies, month two was going to be solely devoted to their TV offerings. And here is where Amazon Video comes into its own. While its range of original titles isn’t quite as vast as Netflix’s, it does give the streaming giant a run for their money in the quality stakes with some truly incredible, original programming on offer, such as:

‘The Tick’ - a darker, grittier reboot of the 2001 comedy starring Patrick Warburton and based on Ben Edlund’s comic. This time, Peter Serafinowicz plays the titular hero, while Griffin Newman plays his unwilling sidekick. Extra points for casting the always creepy Jackie Earle Haley as a supervillian. It’s funny, it’s dark and it’s genuinely unpredictable. 

‘Goliath’ - Billy Bob Thornton plays Paul Newman and William Hurt plays James Mason in David E Kelley’s ‘The Verdict’, if it were written by John Grisham. It’s a truly riveting series that, like ‘Fargo’, makes you realise just how fucking amazing an actor Billy Bob Thornton is. Plus, it’s always good seeing William Hurt amp up the menace, which he does here brilliantly.

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‘Jean Claude Van Johnson’ - OK, so I’m only a passing fan of Jean Claude van Damme, but I absolutely love this piece of batshit insanity. The premise - that van Damme was really using superstardom as a cover for his real work… international man of mystery - could easily have gone horribly, horribly wrong. But, it’s handled brilliantly. Van Damme offered up enough self-deprecating gags to win me over (in all honesty, the series had me when JCVD described ‘Timecop’ as ‘you know, like ‘Looper’, only a thousand times better’) and the series is so completely bonkers that a subplot involving van Damme’s doppelgänger (a developmentally challenged individual by the name of Filip, who talks like Mr Bean) is one of the least batshit crazy things this series has on offer.

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‘I Love Dick’ - the only Amazon series to not win me over… featuring Griffin Dunne, Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon in a bizarre love triangle. The characters were obnoxious and dull and, while normally I’d be prepared to give it more than one episode, I was on a schedule here. One month, no waiting and no ‘give it a few episodes to see how it plays out’ breaks for this little black duck.

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‘Comrade Detective’ - at first this one sounds more clever than funny. The premise is that Hollywood superstar Channing Tatum has personally funded the restoration and broadcast of a 1980s cop show made in Romania at the height of the Cold War, and he - along with a slew of other big names - have redubbed it for re-release (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Kim Basinger, Nick Offerman and Daniel Craig are just some of the names who’ve provided their voices to this piece of insanity). And while it takes a while to warm up to (voice cameos - and the obvious overdubbing of the ‘original’ performers - can be quite distracting), there are genuine joys in watching two Romanian cops chase down an evil capitalist killer who is trying to undermine communism all while wearing a Ronald Reagan Halloween mask.

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‘The Night Manager’ - OK, so I’m late to the party on this one. But this John Le Carre adaptation featuring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie is just dynamite. A subtle, slow burn of a spy thriller that works brilliantly.

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“Red Oaks’ - it’s the ‘Mad About You’ reunion you never realised you wanted. Paul Reiser and Richard Kind each have supporting roles in this 80’s-set coming of age tale that has loads of heart and plenty of laughs. Think ‘The Wonder Years’ melded with ‘Caddyshack’.

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‘American Gods’ - ye gods. If ever there was a more apt combination of source material and adapter than Neil Gaiman’s incredible fantasy novel and ‘Hannibal’ series creator Bryan Fuller, I don’t think I’ve seen it. A hallucinatory, surreal experience that just has to be seen to be believed. I honestly can’t imagine how they could do a second season without Fuller. 

 

So, in a nutshell, that’s my experience with the world of Amazon’s Prime Video. 

If I had to, I’d liken the experience to going to a video store. Not a successful franchise like a Blockbuster, more like one of those seedy, always seeming like it’s about to go bust video stores that has, like, two new releases (Prime Video still promotes ‘Ted’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ in its featured titles) but an amazing selection of weekly rentals. Sure, you have to look. But there’s not only some delightful trash, there are hidden gems, some solid prestige titles and some material that you may need to look up, but will be all the better for finding it. 

So, yeah I’m now subscribing to three streaming services. I’m hooked on  Prime Video, and there’s enough films to keep me interested. After all, I’ve still got to see how Anna Nicole Smith rescues all those hostages from that high-rise. 

Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don
Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead
Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema
that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of
places.