This week’s low-profile VOD releases feature co-workers falling in love, a mysterious organization bringing joy to kids on their birthdays, a fragile woman losing her mind in the desert, and thoriphants.
The Hating Game (VOD and select theaters December 10): The opening voiceover from Lucy (Lucy Hale) describes the similarities between hating and being in love with someone, so it’s not like this romantic comedy is playing coy about where things will go between Lucy and her co-worker Josh (Austin Stowell). Based on the bestselling novel by Sally Thorne, The Hating Game runs through plenty of creaky rom-com conventions, including forcing its main characters to share a hotel room and having them overhear conveniently misconstrued bits of conversation about each other. Still, it’s refreshingly upfront about the sexual attraction between workplace rivals Lucy and Josh, and it doesn’t string the audience along too much. Hale and Stowell are both attractive in a nonthreatening, fashion-doll way, and there’s nothing particularly surprising about how their romance develops. The Hating Game is slick and easy to watch, and would fit perfectly in a Netflix content row between similarly pleasant, forgettable rom-coms like Holidate and Set It Up. Grade: B-
Mosley (VOD and select theaters December 10; DVD December 14): With a title character whose name sounds more like a middle manager than a mythical creature, this animated New Zealand-China co-production creates an awkward mix of allegory and family-friendly adventure. Set in a fantasy world where sentient animals called thoriphants toil essentially as slaves for humans, Mosley features the thoriphant protagonist (voiced by writer-director Kirby Atkins) on a quest to find the fabled “uprights,” thoriphants who walk on two legs and have hands instead of hooves. It presents a muddled and misguided metaphor with some uncomfortable implications, alongside ugly character design and a poorly paced story. The fantasy world feels small and insular rather than grand and expansive, and the thoriphant struggle is too vague to be stirring. Atkins spent years bringing this movie to life, including casting his own seven-year-old daughter as the voice of Mosley’s deeply annoying child, and it has all the hallmarks of a passion project that only the filmmaker understands. Grade: C
The Darkness of the Road (VOD and DVD December 14): A single mother drives with her young daughter in the backseat of her beat-up car through a harsh, surreal desert landscape. It’s a striking opening for an ultimately frustrating film, which offers a series of increasingly nonsensical nightmarish encounters for protagonist Siri (Najarra Townsend). Ostensibly taking her sickly daughter Eve (Gwyneth Glover) to start a new life in California, Siri doesn’t get much further than an isolated service station before her car breaks down in the middle of the desert. There, she and hitchhiker Iris (Leah Lauren) are plagued by strange apparitions, while Siri suffers from what appears to be a mental breakdown. Writer-director Eduardo Rodriguez throws in periodic flashes of hospital beds and machinery to indicate that things are not what they seem, which also removes nearly all of the tension. The eventual reveal is sappy and underhanded, essentially invalidating everything that came before it, along with any lingering audience investment. Grade: C-
Achoura (VOD and DVD December 14): This Moroccan horror movie opens with title cards explaining the local holiday known as Child’s Night, which involves children wearing creepy masks and running wild, and seems like the perfect setting for a scary story. But the movie isn’t really about that holiday, instead just using it as a brief jumping-off point for a story about a demon that devours children, and has plagued a particular group of kids into adulthood. Director and co-writer Talal Selhami draws on horror touchstones like Candyman and It along with local folklore, and he comes up with some unsettling images, even if the special effects aren’t always up to the task of delivering them. But the story is clumsy and disjointed, haphazardly jumping between time periods, and its exploration of generational trauma never really lands. The movie’s unique cultural identity eventually fades away in favor of a generic, underwhelming boogeyman and a cheap final twist. Grade: C+
Mr. Birthday (VOD December 17): It’s hard to imagine that any kid would be excited to see a haggard-looking Jason London show up to their birthday party in lieu of invited guests their own age, but that’s what this inexplicable family comedy is selling. London plays Barry, a devoted single dad who does his best to cheer up his daughter when none of her classmates show up to her birthday party. That catches the eye of the mysterious, wealthy Mr. Jay (Fred Sullivan), who lives in the apartment building (or possibly hotel) where Barry works as a custodian. Mr. Jay hires Barry to be part of the International Birthday Network, a group that provides birthday cheer for friendless kids. Barry is pretty much the entire Network, though, and at times the movie plays like a 90-minute infomercial for a charity that doesn’t exist. No one behaves like a recognizable human being, although at least Eric Roberts has fun sleazing it up as Barry’s romantic rival. Grade: C-