VODepths: What to See (and Avoid) On Demand This Week

This week’s minor VOD releases feature college students figuring out their lives via underground fighting and bus driving, plus solitary men going mad over money and screenplays.

American Fighter (VOD and select theaters May 21; DVD/Blu-ray May 25): After he was an American wrestler in 2016’s American Wrestler: The Wizard, Iranian immigrant Ali Jahani (George Kosturos) is now an American fighter in American Fighter (maybe next he’ll progress to American Gigolo or American Beauty). In need of money to bring his sick mother to the U.S., college student Ali turns to the most reliable source of secondary income: illegal underground fight clubs. Although it trades high school wrestling for unregulated bare-knuckle brawling run by criminals, American Fighter is still mostly a hokey underdog sports drama, with multiple training montages set to cheesy music. Set in 1981, the movie has nothing to say about U.S. relations with the Middle East, and the period detail is shaky at best. B-movie regulars Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery face off as a shady promoter and Ali’s grizzled mentor, respectively, but like the uninspired fight scenes, they’re barely even going through the motions. Grade: C-

Drunk Bus (VOD and select theaters May 21): Set in 2006 seemingly for the sole purpose of including flip phones, this coming-of-age dramedy recycles plenty of genre clichés, but features likable characters and strong sense of place. Ozark’s Charlie Tahan plays recent college graduate Michael, who still lives near his Ohio alma mater and has a job driving the “drunk bus,” which loops around campus every night, mostly transporting inebriated party-hoppers. Michael has standard slacker problems, including a fixation on his ex-girlfriend and a lack of career ambitions. When the bus company hires an imposing, tattooed Samoan named Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa) as security for Michael’s route, the two become pals, with Pineapple helping Michael out of his existential rut. Drunk Bus is aimless and sometimes repetitive (a little Pineapple goes a long way), but it’s also light and funny, capturing life at a mid-level university where everyone is stuck in their own kind of holding pattern. Grade: B

The Retreat (VOD and select theaters May 21): There are some potentially intriguing ideas in this otherwise rote survival horror movie, which involves a vacationing couple being stalked by killers out in the middle of nowhere. The plotting is completely generic, but the central couple are lesbians who’ve been lured and targeted by homophobic militia types broadcasting their kills on the internet. There’s a bit of social commentary around the edges, but most of the movie is the standard running, hiding and fighting, albeit competently delivered, with some decent suspense in the violence-filled finale. Stars Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen have strong chemistry, although their relationship arc is a touch predictable and underdeveloped. Director Pat Mills previously helmed The Christmas Setup, Lifetime’s first-ever LGBT Christmas romance movie, and The Retreat similarly plugs queer characters into a familiar, comfortable formula. Grade: B-

Digging to Death (VOD and DVD June 1): Things never turn out well for movie characters who randomly find a bunch of money, but that doesn’t stop David (Ford Austin) from deciding to keep the nearly $3.5 million in cash he discovers buried in the backyard of the fixer-upper house he just bought. The money is buried right next to a corpse, in case it wasn’t clear that there are some bad vibes associated with it. Not much happens in the movie’s first half (aside from some fakeout visions of the corpse coming back to life), and then way too much happens in the second half, when David experiences a largely unmotivated descent into madness and violence. Austin, who’s onscreen alone much of the time, throws himself into his performance, but he’s hammy and overwrought when he should be somber and anguished. Nothing about David’s ordeal makes much sense, from his initial decision to his final destructive act. Grade: C-

Open Your Eyes (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray June 1): It’s clear from the start that something isn’t quite right with screenwriter Jason (Ry Barrett), who initially appears to be the only person living in his apartment building and who frequently experiences missing time. He’s entirely focused on completing his latest screenplay, though, and for a little while Open Your Eyes seems like it’s going to be about a writer losing his grip on reality. But the screenplay, like pretty much everything in the first two-thirds of the movie, is just a distraction to mark time before writer-director Greg A. Sager reveals what’s really going on, which connects to Jason’s mysterious neighbor Lisa (Joanna Saul). The movie is dull and tedious leading up to the twist, which Sager then drags out for 20-plus minutes, robbing it of any shock value. The acting is mediocre, the production values are minimal, and there’s maybe 5-10 minutes of actual story in the 100-minute movie. Grade: D

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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