Sharks, forest fires, burglars and evil teddy bears trouble the characters in this week’s minor VOD releases.
Great White (VOD and select theaters July 16): In the post-Sharknado era, when seemingly every low-budget shark movie has a ridiculous gimmick and a pun-based title, it’s refreshing to see a movie that gets back to the basics of helpless people being menaced by dangerous, semi-realistic sharks. But “basic” would be a good way to describe this Australian thriller, which does away with the gimmickry yet doesn’t have much of interest to replace it with. After some rudimentary establishing scenes of husband-and-wife charter-plane owners Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden), the movie strands them in the middle of the ocean along with their latest clients and their cook/assistant. They’re slowly stalked by a couple of great white sharks, but most of the movie is a dull survival story about annoying people sitting in an inflatable life raft. The stock footage of coastlines, the CGI sharks and the central performances are all passable without adding up to anything particularly thrilling. Grade: C
How to Deter a Robber (VOD and select theaters July 16): Joining Home Alone and The Ref in the surprisingly robust subgenre of Christmas home-invasion comedies, writer-director Maria Bissell’s debut feature is a charming if slight coming-of-age story about an aimless high school graduate facing hard choices. Madison (Vanessa Marano) and her clueless boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) escape Madison’s overbearing relatives by crashing at a neighbor’s house, where they initially encounter a pair of inept robbers who’ve been raiding empty lakefront cabins during the holiday season. The first half of the short movie meanders through some low-key family comedy and a series of misunderstandings with the local cops, before Madison, Jimmy and Madison’s uncle (Chris Mulkey) are taken hostage in the latest robbery attempt. Bissell aims for a Coen brothers-style caper and doesn’t quite get there, especially when things turn violent, but Marano is fantastic as the Daria-esque Madison, whose contempt for everyone around her is an effective defense mechanism, both metaphorically and literally. Grade: B
Fire (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray July 20): Proof that cheesy, overblown blockbuster filmmaking knows no boundaries, this Russian box-office hit is an interminable succession of disaster-movie cliches. It’s a self-important tribute to the heroism of smokejumpers, focusing on a six-man squad fighting a forest fire that quickly expands out of control. The main characters are one-dimensional macho stereotypes, with perfunctory character arcs that serve mainly as filler. Of course the team leader’s daughter is dating the hotshot rookie he hates. Of course one of the firefighters will heroically but unnecessarily sacrifice himself as the score swells. Of course a pregnant woman will have to give birth in the midst of the fire. It doesn’t help that the U.S. release has been clumsily dubbed into English, adding an extra layer of emotional distance to the already simplistic character interactions. The special effects (incorporating some footage of actual fires) are suitably awe-inspiring, but they’re no match for the contrived, manipulative storytelling (which drags on for more than two hours). Grade: C-
The Nest (VOD and DVD July 20): Tip: If a creepy old man running a yard sale in the middle of nowhere offers your daughter a teddy bear with giant dead black eyes for free as long as she promises to love it, run away. Unfortunately that’s not how Beth (Sarah Navratil) approaches the situation, so she ends up with an evil teddy bear in her house. The bear makes disturbing chittering noises and seems to communicate telepathically with Beth’s young daughter Meg (Maple Suttles), who becomes sullen and distant. Suttles is awkward and affectless as Meg, although horror icon Dee Wallace livens things up as a neighbor ensnared in the teddy bear’s sinister spell. Beth is a recovering addict, and parts of the story seem like an allegory for addiction, or domestic abuse, or parenting a special-needs child, although never with any clarity. The ending delivers some impressively gross Cronenbergian body horror, but it’s a plodding, monotonous journey to get there. Grade: C+
Here After (VOD and select theaters July 23): After getting hit by a truck, smarmy douchebro Michael (Andy Karl) awakens in the afterlife only to be told that he can’t move on to the next phase of existence without a soulmate. It turns out that purgatory is just one giant singles bar, and Michael wanders New York City like a ghostly pick-up artist. Improbably, he eventually hits it off with the lovely Honeybee (Nora Arnezeder), although the fact that she’s still alive proves a slight impediment to their spending eternity together. Writer-director Harry Greenberger is far too enamored of his shaky premise, and it takes nearly an hour before Michael and Honeybee even meet. In the meantime, the characters themselves complain about the shoddy, inconsistent world-building, while Michael and his dead pal Angelo (Michael Rispoli) make misogynistic jokes, and Christina Ricci shows up a few times as Michael’s afterlife guide. Greenberger lurches from crass humor to cheap melodrama, somehow presenting both as if they’re profound existential insights. Grade: D