This week’s low-profile VOD releases travel the globe from the former raj of Sarawak to a hospital in Argentina to a graveyard in South Carolina to a sloth habitat somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard.
Edge of the World (VOD June 4): British explorer and military commander James Brooke is the kind of historical figure rarely celebrated in movies anymore, at least not with such blatant hero worship. Brooke ruled over the region of Sarawak (in modern-day Malaysia) for 27 years, and this movie, produced in conjunction with the Sarawak Tourism Board, presents him as a benevolent savior who advocated for his subjects and kept Sarawak independent from colonial Britain. Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings a bit of emotional intensity to his portrayal of Brooke, who reluctantly becomes ruler of Sarawak in 1841 via a confusing series of events, but takes his duties seriously once they’re bestowed upon him. And music video veteran Michael Haussman gives the movie a sumptuous look, no doubt aided by the Tourism Board’s resources. Edge of the World is still less nuanced and complex than Brooke’s Wikipedia entry, but it’s a respectable version of an old-fashioned kind of historical drama. Grade: C+
Blackstock Boneyard (VOD and DVD June 8): This bargain-basement horror movie is billed as based on a true story, but that’s a bit like saying Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is based on a true story. Yes, brothers Thomas and Meeks Griffin were real-life successful Black farmers in South Carolina who were falsely accused of murder in 1913 and then executed via the electric chair two years later. But they probably did not rise from the grave 100 years after that and kill the descendants of their accusers, plus a bunch of other people for the purpose of racking up a suitable slasher-movie body count. Blackstock Boneyard is only slightly tasteless in its representation of the Griffin brothers (who get their revenge and spare the truly innocent), but it fails in nearly every other respect, with one-dimensional characters, incoherent plotting, ugly cinematography, flat performances, and atrocious special effects. The Griffins deserve better. Grade: D+
The Unhealer (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray June 8): From noted trash auteur Martin Guigui (director of the much-litigated Raging Bull pseudo-sequel The Bronx Bull and the Charlie Sheen-starring 9/11), The Unhealer seems to be aiming for an ’80s Stephen King throwback feel, but wildly misses its mark. Bullied teenager Kelly (Elijah Nelson) finds himself imbued with supernatural powers via a traveling faith healer (Lance Henriksen). Kelly becomes invincible, with every attempt at harming him instead turning around against the attacker. (He’s also able to telepathically induce orgasms in his female classmates, although it’s not clear how that’s related.) Of course, Kelly goes mad with power, while a stereotypical wise Native American skulks in the background and admonishes him for abusing forces beyond his understanding. Half the actors seem to take the material seriously, while the other half go full camp, with Nelson giving a hilariously overwrought performance. None of it is remotely scary, nor is it ever self-aware enough to be clever or funny. Grade: C-
La Dosis (VOD June 11): More of a character study than a psychological thriller, this Argentinian drama about killer nurses barely generates any suspense until its last few minutes. The slow-moving story pits longtime nurse Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) against his charismatic new ICU colleague Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers), who immediately becomes popular and respected. Gabriel also infringes on Marcos’ territory of occasionally euthanizing terminal patients, although Gabriel is more zealous about it, taking sadistic pleasure in ending the lives of patients with more positive prognoses. Rogers makes Gabriel a seductive psychopath, but the movie is really about sad-sack Marcos, who’s been dumped by his longtime partner and resents being usurped at work. Portaluppi gives a sympathetic performance as a medical practitioner who believes he’s been doing the right thing, and the movie attempts to inhabit a moral gray area about mercy killings. But it’s too sedate to engage meaningfully with those questions, instead settling for surprisingly low-stakes conflict given the life-or-death issues at hand. Grade: B-
Songs for a Sloth (VOD June 15): Jack McBrayer voices a sloth who appears to the main character in his dreams, but this low-key comedy is more grounded and heartfelt than that odd premise suggests. Frustrated graphic designer Maxwell (Richard Hollman) discovers that his late father was financing a habitat for endangered sloths, which will fall into the hands of developers unless Maxwell and his brother and sister can raise substantial funds in a short time. So they start an online crowdfunding campaign, and Maxwell taps into his dormant musical talents to write a few songs about the importance of sloth rescue. McBrayer is amusing as the dream-sloth (embodied by a puppet), but the movie is really about Maxwell and his siblings dealing with grief and reconnecting with each other. The character beats are fairly obvious, but the three main actors (Hollman, Brian McCarthy, and Ava Eisenson) are charming, and the songs are catchy enough to leave you longing for a full-on sloth musical. Grade: B