It’s been at least a decade since Chinese actress Bai Ling’s heyday in English-language films, but since then she’s joined the ranks of the direct-to-video all-stars, as evidenced by her, uh, distinctive performances in two of this week’s minor VOD releases—one alongside fellow VOD titan Michael Paré.
Lockdown (VOD and DVD May 10): A trio of escaped inmates take over a police station in this often hilariously inept thriller. Director and co-writer Massimiliano Cerchi seems unable to keep even basic facts straight about the characters and their circumstances, and there’s no tension in the standoff between the hostage-takers and an FBI agent played by Michael Paré. The FBI’s strategy for resolving this dangerous situation is for three agents to sit in a room and take phone calls, while the unhinged criminals have free rein to torture and execute their captives. The acting is horrendous, from Bai Ling’s hyperactive yelling as a prostitute caught between the cops and criminals to Chanel Ryan’s clumsy, amateurish delivery as an FBI subordinate. The rudimentary sets look flimsy and fake, and the minimal action is so poorly staged that no blows ever land anywhere near their intended targets. The filmmakers put about as much effort into crafting the movie as the FBI puts into keeping innocent people safe. Grade: D-
Adieu Lacan (VOD May 10): French psychologist and philosopher Jacques Lacan is a staple of academia, and this dry, tedious drama about him often feels like a cinematic adaptation of a textbook. It’s actually an adaptation of two works, a novel and a play, by Brazilian author and fellow psychologist Betty Milan, who appears here as the fictionalized Sariema (Ismenia Mendes). The emotionally troubled Sariema travels to Paris in 1974 to study psychoanalysis with Lacan (David Patrick Kelly), who also serves as her analyst. The black-and-white movie takes place almost entirely with these two characters in a single room, as they talk in circles and then overexplain every observation via monotonous voiceover. The performances are mannered and stilted, and the movie isn’t even a useful lesson about Lacan’s ideas. It takes place over the course of several years without giving any sense of the progression of the characters’ personal lives, then ends with a shrug and a whimper. Grade: C-
A Taste of Blood (VOD and Blu-ray May 10): The American release of this Argentinian horror movie has been mangled in a couple of distracting ways that hinder its effectiveness. Only some of the characters have been dubbed into English, while the rest speak the original Spanish dialogue with subtitles, even in their scenes together. The soundtrack has also been augmented with songs by rock bands signed to the American distributor’s record-label division, regardless of whether they fit with the eerie atmosphere that writer-director Santiago Fernández Calvete aims to create. Some of that atmosphere comes through in this loose adaptation of a novella by 19th-century Russian writer A.K. Tolstoy, about a family menaced by a vampire-like creature called a verdulak. There’s some old-world folk weirdness to the story, even though it’s been transplanted to the present, but much of the movie is slow and repetitive, with thinly developed characters who make baffling choices. It’s caught between literary tradition and B-movie cheesiness. Grade: C
Tankhouse (VOD and select theaters May 13): It’s no surprise that director Noam Tomaschoff and his co-writer Chelsea Frei drew on their own experiences for this good-natured comedy set in the world of experimental theater. Tucker (Stephen Friedrich) and Sandrene (Tara Holt) are professional and romantic partners in New York City who are booted from their theater company after an elderly audience member dies during one of their “immersive theater attacks.” They head to Sandrene’s hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, where they’re pitted against Sandrene’s former high school drama teacher (Richard Kind) for the chance at a residency in the city’s historic theater. They gather the typical group of outsiders and misfits for their new troupe, and the plot proceeds predictably. But the performances are lively and entertaining, and Tomaschoff has a knack for self-deprecating theater humor, like a Gilbert & Sullivan-themed street battle. It’s as much a tribute to pretentious artistes as it is a takedown, but it’s all delivered with warmth and wit. Grade: B
Night Caller (VOD May 13): Writer-director Chad Ferrin pays homage to vintage horror in some satisfying and some questionable ways in this grimy serial-killer story. Telephone psychic Clementine Carter (Susan Priver) gets a call from a raspy-voiced man she senses is about to commit murder, and he continues to taunt her as he goes on a killing spree. Ferrin makes use of some impressively gruesome practical effects in the murder scenes, and the movie is more visually inventive than a typical micro-budget horror production. The supporting cast includes recognizable genre players like Steve Railsback, Kelli Maroney and, yes, Bai Ling, all having fun with the ridiculous material. But the plot is haphazard and the pacing is sloppy, too often shifting focus away from the central dynamic. The eventual explanation of the killer’s motives relies on some distasteful depictions of trans identity, reviving certain horror tropes that would be better left in the past. Grade: C