This week’s minor VOD releases offer Tom Skerritt and Robyn Lively the long-awaited chance to shine, while Jeremy Piven and a mutated rat deliver equally unconvincing performances as dangerous threats.
East of the Mountains (VOD and select theaters September 24): Move over, Clint Eastwood: This lovely, understated drama gives 88-year-old Tom Skerritt a rare leading role, as retired surgeon and lonely widower Ben Givens. Ben grabs his father’s hunting rifle and his dog Rex and heads to the wilderness outside his childhood home, determined to end his life before his recently diagnosed cancer is able to spread. But his concern for an injured Rex overtakes his self-pity, and he gets stuck in town while the dog recuperates. There, he befriends the local veterinarian, reconnects with his estranged brother, and gains some new perspective. It’s potentially sappy material that director S.J. Chiro handles gracefully, even when most of the supporting performers aren’t working on Skerritt’s still-formidable level. Like Eastwood’s Cry Macho or the Harry Dean Stanton vehicle Lucky, East of the Mountains feels like a deliberate swan song, an amiable, warm farewell for an actor getting a deserved moment back in the spotlight. Grade: B
Through the Glass Darkly (VOD and select theaters September 24): Veteran character actor Robyn Lively brings some grit and authenticity to the lead role of this ludicrous thriller. Charlie (Lively) is coming unraveled a year after the disappearance of her daughter, spending most of her time getting drunk and berating the local sheriff. When another young girl, a member of the town’s wealthiest family, goes missing, Charlie becomes both suspect and investigator, determined that the two cases must be linked. She’s also clearly losing her grip on reality, which could be a byproduct of her emotional distress, but instead is the set-up to a howler of a third-act twist that robs the story of most of its urgency. Lively does her best to ground the increasingly absurd story in something recognizably human, and director/co-writer Lauren Fash makes Charlie distinctive, as the lone queer woman in a small Southern town. But it’s not enough to overcome the outdated thriller plotting and cheap audience manipulation. Grade: C
American Night (VOD and select theaters October 1): An Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe serves as the MacGuffin in this tedious, convoluted Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie-style crime drama. Writer-director Alessio Della Valle fills the movie with tough-guy and femme-fatale posturing, courtesy of an overstuffed ensemble of B-movie regulars. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays an art dealer/forger/critic attempting to open his own gallery, Paz Vega is his lover/colleague, and Emile Hirsch appears as a crime boss who dreams of being an artist. Also, Jeremy Piven is a martial-arts expert, somehow. They all hang out in self-consciously cool locations bathed in excessive neon lighting. Della Valle tells the story via a confusing non-linear structure that obscures the actual stakes and involves watching a bunch of scenes multiple times, to no additional enlightening effect. The movie drags on toward two hours with characters yelling, quipping and shooting, double-crossing and triple-crossing each other seemingly at random, and then has the nerve to throw in a post-credits tease for more to come. Grade: C-
Val (Select theaters October 1; VOD October 5; Blu-ray November 2): Online horror short film creators Aaron Fradkin and Victoria Fratz branch out into features with a thin premise that probably should have remained a short. Fugitive Fin (Zachary Mooren) breaks into a lavish mansion where he surprises the title character (Misha Reeves), a high-end escort awaiting her next client. Terrified, desperate and suffering a head wound, Fin menaces Val with a knife and demands she hide him from the police, but he’s never really in charge. Decked out in a series of fabulous retro-sexy pin-up outfits, Reeves plays Val as a mix of sultry and condescending, and the more time Fin spends with her, the more he realizes that something strange is going on. Val builds slowly to its obvious, overused twist, but Reeves is so charming and seductive that she mostly compensates for the weak writing. The lurid visuals make Val a decent mood piece, even if it doesn’t amount to much as a narrative. Grade: B-
The Mutation (VOD and DVD October 5): Prolific B-movie filmmaker Scott Jeffrey, who’s directed 16 movies in the last three years, doesn’t challenge himself much with this creature feature about an overgrown mutated rat that escapes from a lab and causes chaos. Naturally, the police consult tattooed zoologist Allen Marsh (Ricardo Freitas), who promptly starts making eyes at the widow of the monster’s creator/first victim. The dialogue is full of pseudo-scientific nonsense delivered with a marked lack of conviction by the vaguely embarrassed actors. As has become Jeffrey’s trademark, the U.K. production makes a half-hearted effort to pretend it’s set in the U.S. (the cops work for the “United States Police Force”), complete with the cast’s variable accents. The creature is played by a dude in a fur-covered costume, looking more like the rabbit from Donnie Darko than a rat of any kind. There seems to be a slightly campier tone than in Jeffrey’s other movies, but that could just be another careless accident. Grade: D