In this week’s low-profile VOD releases, John Leguizamo goes to prison, drag queens get murdered, and a teenage girl turns into a bee.
Dark Blood (VOD September 10): John Leguizamo gives a powerful performance in this grim, intense Colombian prison drama. Leguizamo plays Misael Rodriguez, who’s been arrested for killing a man he claims was abusing his young son. As Misael awaits court proceedings, he adjusts to conditions in the dingy, dangerous prison, where he’s somewhat inexplicably targeted by a volatile, vicious guard. Writer-director Harold Trompetero piles on the misery for Misael, but it rarely feels gratuitous; he takes his time laying out the details of Misael’s case, which grows more disturbing with each new revelation. There are small moments of grace among the prisoners, and Trompetero’s naturalistic style gives the movie a sense of immediacy and authenticity, making judicious use of jump cuts to convey occasional manic desperation. The guard’s erratic actions can seem frustratingly random (and their depiction could come off as homophobic at times), but the arbitrary cruelty is part of the point. Misael can’t escape the brutality, and neither can the audience. Grade: B
Death Drop Gorgeous (VOD and select theaters September 10): A movie about murder among drag queens should be campier and more fun than this often tedious thriller, which mixes scenes of gross-out weirdness with long stretches of dull character interaction. At best, Death Drop Gorgeous is like a cross between RuPaul’s Drag Race and Troma, combining the transgressive thrills of both drag and underground horror. Unfortunately, meek bartender Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) is the main character, rather than any of the livelier patrons or employees of the Providence gay bar where he works. Someone is killing people associated with the bar, but business must continue, including various drag shows. The drag queen characters, especially the aerobics-obsessed Janet Fitness and the ennui-afflicted Tragedi, are amusing, although the audio in almost all of their performances is out of sync. The excessively gruesome kills are amusing as well, but the pacing in between those elements is, well, a drag, and the killer’s motivations are thematically and narratively muddled. Grade: C+
Giddy Stratospheres (VOD September 14): Writer-director-star Laura Jean Marsh effectively evokes the London indie-rock scene in this 2007-set drama, but superficial nostalgia is about all that her movie has going for it. Barely an hour long before closing credits and an extended outtake reel, Giddy Stratospheres is a sort of morning-after story about weary scenesters Lara (Marsh) and Daniel (Jamal Franklin) heading to Lara’s grandmother’s funeral following a night of hard partying. Marsh aims for a melancholy tone as her characters battle hangovers both physical and existential, but the silly comedy often gets in the way of the heavy emotions. Halfway through the movie, Marsh throws in a cheap, melodramatic twist that undermines the character-building, and the movie never recovers. The music (from bands including Le Tigre, The Rapture and Franz Ferdinand) is great, of course, and there’s some wistful appeal to the way that Marsh captures a point in time. She’s less successful at capturing genuine emotions within that period. Grade: C
The Influencer (VOD and DVD September 14): The world of social media influencers is an easy target for satire, and this crime comedy hits all the most obvious beats with perky and demanding beauty vlogger Abbie Rose (Kasia Szarek). After signing an endorsement contract with an ethically questionable cosmetics company, Abbie is targeted by a group of terrorists/activists, who kidnap her and force her to create videos that further their agenda. Szarek plays Abbie as sometimes vapid and whiny, sometimes jaded and savvy, and the result is a character who’s neither a sympathetic victim nor a detestable grifter. The kidnappers suffer from similarly inconsistent characterization, and their master plan disappointingly amounts to convoluted stock-market manipulation, explained via a monotonous series of charts. The opening credits feature some clever social media-inspired design, but overall the movie’s knock-off versions of various online platforms are unconvincing. The tone lurches from goofy to violent, and writer-director Meghan Weinstein never hones in on a coherent message or viewpoint. Grade: C
Royal Jelly (VOD September 14): If there’s one thing that angsty goth teens love, it’s bees. Or at least that’s the case for high school outcast Aster (Elizabeth McCoy), who’d rather spend time tending to her hives than dealing with her mean-girl half-sister. Aster seems to meet a kindred spirit in rebellious substitute teacher Tresa (Sherry Lattanzi), who rescues Aster from being tormented by bullies and brings her to a remote farm/apiary. But Tresa has sinister plans for Aster, which involve mating her with one of Tresa’s sons and turning her into some sort of human/bee hybrid. Writer-director Sean Riley clearly doesn’t have the budget for elaborate creature transformations or even more than a handful of scenes with actual bees, so most of Royal Jelly involves either teenage bickering or off-putting psychosexual manipulation. The movie gets increasingly bizarre as it goes along, eventually rivaling esoteric Bee Movie memes for incomprehensibility and annoyance. Grade: C