This week’s minor VOD releases feature artsy takes on genre film (horror, sci-fi, spy thriller), plus Freevee’s dubious debut foray into original movies.
The Summoned (VOD July 7): Three famous people (a singer, an actress, a business mogul) and one normal dude show up at a blatantly sinister self-help retreat, so it’s not hard to guess which one of them will be targeted by evil forces. Good-hearted mechanic Elijah (J. Quinton Johnson) is the improbable boyfriend of country star Joplyn Rose (Emma Fitzpatrick), who’s dragged him to the remote facility run by renowned guru Dr. Justus Frost (Frederick Stuart, looking and acting like a sketch-comedy character). There’s not much therapy going on, but Elijah experiences plenty of disturbing nightmares and emotional manipulation, sometimes simultaneously. The interpersonal intrigue is fairly dull, but it has more substance than the ludicrous and abrupt turn into demonic horror, which relies on lots of convoluted rules about the selling of souls. Maybe there’s meant to be a message about moral integrity and class exploitation, but it gets lost amid the repetitive chases and silly, overheated dialogue. Grade: C
Diary of a Spy (VOD July 14): Allegedly inspired by true events, writer-director Adam Christian Clark’s espionage drama stars Tamara Taylor as the familiar archetype of the drunk, dissolute intelligence operative just coming off a mission gone horribly wrong. Back in LA, Taylor’s Anna is assigned to get close to Camden (Reece Noi), a low-level employee of the Saudi royal family. Of course, her faked feelings turn real, and things get complicated for both characters as they test each other’s loyalty and honesty. Clark seems determined to drain all possible suspense and excitement from the spy genre, and the dialogue is often so coded and vague that it’s impossible to tell what the characters are talking about. The connection between Anna and Camden is never convincing, and the stakes are so muddled that even life-or-death moments have little impact. Clark is so good at generating constant uncertainty that viewers may end up as adrift as the desperate characters are. Grade: C+
Gateway (VOD July 15): This Irish horror movie can be too obtuse for its own good, although writer-director Niall Owens creates such an effectively eerie atmosphere that the narrative inscrutability is easier to overlook. Gateway starts out like a low-key crime thriller, as a group of small-time hoodlums make arrangements to pay back a debt to a local boss. They locate an abandoned property they can use as a grow house for their modest marijuana crop, but it’s obvious from the start why this place has been left alone. The house is clearly haunted, and sure enough, one by one these guys are lured into violence by a strange doorway that plays on their trauma and insecurities. The particulars of both the supernatural presence and the characters’ personal backgrounds are often unclear, but Owens presents a series of unsettling images, augmented by a tense, roiling score, and the actors project a haunted vulnerability that makes their characters’ downfalls feel tragic. Grade: B
Karmalink (VOD and select theaters July 15): American filmmaker Jake Wachtel combines international and local perspectives in his Cambodia-set debut feature. He explores the intersection of science and religion with a story set in the near future, when many people are augmented with nanotechnology. That’s mostly out of reach for the poor residents of a village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where young Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak) is fixated on dreams of his past lives. He teams up with resourceful orphan Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith) to track down a gold statue that he believes his past self has hidden away. Wachtel creates an impressively matter-of-fact future world via judicious use of special effects, emphasizing the human collateral damage of technological progress. Most of the movie is a sweet, understated kids-adventure story, only losing its way in the final act when Wachtel attempts to bring disparate plot threads together in a grand philosophical statement that falls a bit short. Grade: B+
Love Accidentally (Freevee July 15): The first-ever Freevee original movie is exactly what you’d expect to get for free: A bland, obvious, pre-digested rom-com about two people who fall in love because the genre demands it. Brenda Song and Aaron O’Connell have no chemistry as workplace rivals competing for the same promotion at a poorly defined advertising agency. Thanks to a series of strained contrivances, they’re also engaged in a text-message courtship without being aware of each other’s identities. That means that the majority of the romance takes place with the characters in separate spaces, talking to their speech-to-text apps. The humor and the romantic obstacles are both so mild as to be essentially nonexistent, so that the eventual coupling is neither giddy nor cathartic. Director Peter Sullivan is a veteran of Hallmark Christmas movies, and Love Accidentally has the same greeting-card level of sophistication, without the benefit of holiday cheer. Grade: C-