This week’s minor VOD releases range from a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller to a virtual ballet to a comedic drug trip to a grab bag of horror short films.
American Insurrection (VOD and select theaters October 8): There’s nothing subtle about the set-up for director and co-writer William Sullivan’s dystopian drama, which takes place in a future U.S. commandeered by a right-wing militia known as the Volunteers. They’re literally branding anyone who isn’t a straight white male, which is why a group of friends is hiding out in a remote farmhouse, waiting for a signal from a resistance group to guide them across the border into Canada. The periodic flashbacks to the rise of the Volunteers don’t fill in a lot of details, and the world-building seems to mostly be cribbing from The Handmaid’s Tale. Sullivan devotes far too much time to tedious interpersonal drama, which seems especially superfluous given the perilous circumstances. But the acting is strong, and even when the political commentary is blunt, the stars make it believable. There’s enough substance to their performances to make it all the more frustrating that the story never really comes together. Grade: C+
Spirit Quest (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray October 12): Writer-stars Brent Lydic and Tip Scarry create a believable portrait of a pair of friends who travel to the desert and take a bunch of drugs, which is to say that spending 90 minutes with them is insufferable. The friends each have vaguely defined issues that they need to work through, but the circular, meaningless dialogue never contains any insights. Instead of getting these two guys to delve into their emotions and open up, Lydic (who also directed) and Scarry throw them into a series of sketch-style interludes, recasting them as monks or hippie outlaws or talk-show guests. The humor never goes beyond the level of cliched drug-trip sequences in bad comedies, and the deliberately nonsensical plotting and occasional hallucinogenic visuals just make it seem like nothing the characters do or say matters. It’s hard to have your mind blown by revelations when there’s no recognizable point of reference for what’s being revealed. Grade: C
Grave Intentions (VOD October 15): Plenty of genre anthology films are cobbled together from unrelated shorts picked up at film festivals, but Grave Intentions is an especially haphazard example. Ostensibly a horror movie, it’s tied together by a clumsy framing sequence hosted by the proprietor of an occult store, even though only one of the segments features anything even close to the supernatural. The individual stories range from Twilight Zone-style morality plays to experimental nonsense, and none of them are particularly satisfying. Star Joy Vandervort-Cobb kills time between segments by prattling on about magic in a questionable Caribbean accent, consistently failing to connect her ramblings to any of the shorts she introduces. There’s some star power in the opening short “The Bridge Partner,” based on a Peter S. Beagle story and starring Beth Grant, Sharon Lawrence and Robert Forster—in what’s technically his final onscreen appearance, although it was shot in 2015. Just like everything else here, it’s a misleading tease without any substance behind it. Grade: C-
Coppelia (VOD and Blu-ray October 19): While Coppelia was conceived before the pandemic, it still serves as a valuable calling card for the Dutch National Ballet at a time when live performances remain scarce. This isn’t just a filmed performance, though—it’s a hybrid of live action and animation that expands the world of the ballet in a way that wouldn’t be possible onstage. This reimagined version inspired by the classic ballet features choreography by the DNB’s Ted Brandsen, with new music by Maurizio Malagnini. It still tells the story of a sinister inventor who creates a lifelike artificial woman and interferes with the love between shy Swan (Michaela DePrince) and her beloved Franz (Daniel Camargo). The hand drawn-style backgrounds are lovely, although some of the fully CGI creations (including Coppelia herself) look a bit awkward. When the movie focuses on graceful dancers in a colorful environment, it’s delightful, but it goes astray in the climax as the sometimes crude animation overtakes the human choreography. Grade: B-
Dashcam (VOD October 19): Not to be confused with Rob Savage’s same-named festival-favorite horror movie, this Dashcam is a conspiracy thriller in the vein of The Conversation or Blow Out. Main character Jake Caul (Eric Tabach) even shares a last name with The Conversation’s protagonist, and he’s similarly obsessive as he attempts to piece together evidence about a possible political assassination. A video editor for a local New York City TV news station, Jake inadvertently receives confidential recordings pertaining to the deaths of the state’s former attorney general and a police officer, at a supposedly routine traffic stop. Much of the movie takes place inside Jake’s apartment, and writer-director Christian Nilsson generates substantial suspense from the merging and amplifying of video and audio files. Jake’s own ambition for an on-camera job heightens his willingness to take risks, and lends complexity to the story. The movie falters a bit when Jake heads outside in the final act, but it remains committed to its stark, unforgiving worldview. Grade: B