VODepths: What to See (and Avoid) On Demand This Week

Isolated characters find themselves trapped at a Thanksgiving party, in a cult compound, inside a tenement building, in a fantasy world and in real-life pandemic quarantine in the latest selection of fringe VOD releases.

Friendsgiving (VOD and select theaters October 23; DVD/Blu-ray October 27) A lot of funny people try very hard, only to generate meager laughs in writer-director Nicol Paone’s feature debut. Malin Akerman and Kat Dennings play a pair of recently single friends whose plan to have a quiet Thanksgiving wallowing in mutual self-pity is sidetracked when various other friends and family members invite themselves to join in. Soon the subdued holiday is a full-on party, packed with various little character dramas. Akerman brings some emotional depth to her role as a woman expected to hold everything together while raising a newborn alone, but Dennings is more whiny than sympathetic as a newly out lesbian still hung up on her first-ever relationship with a woman. Aisha Tyler, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen (among others) fill out meandering scenes that feel like they were constructed from aimless improv, and the Hollywood-set movie is full of cliched jabs at LA stereotypes. Grade: C

Welcome to the Circle (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray October 27) If you encounter mysterious danger while camping in the woods and are then “rescued” by three beautiful, serene women dressed all in white, you have definitely been kidnapped by a cult. That’s what happens to Greg (Matthew MacCaull) and his daughter Samantha (Taylor Dianne Robinson) in what starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense. Writer-director David Fowler seems to be aiming for an eerie, unsettling Midsommar vibe, combined with the sci-fi mindbending of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless and a little of Riley Stearns’ cult deprogramming drama Faults. But all of those movies are better at creating a foreboding atmosphere around memorable characters, while Welcome to the Circle relies on repetitive, meaningless mystical pronouncements and irritating characters who mostly just yell at each other. There are a handful of creepy moments involving doppelganger mannequins, but the overall effect is annoying rather than disturbing. Grade: C

Darkness in Tenement 45 (VOD November 3) There are some timely, uncanny parallels between writer-director Nicole Groton’s film and the ongoing pandemic situation, but Groton’s storytelling is too clumsy to deliver any incisive social commentary, and the performances and production values are uneven. Set in 1953, Darkness starts with an intriguing set-up, using news clippings to establish that New York City has been evacuated in anticipation of a potential Soviet chemical attack. A handful of residents remain in a rundown tenement building, unsure of what dangers lurk outside. Casey Kramer gives a harrowing performance reminiscent of Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist, as a stern taskmaster who uses the chaos as a chance to seize power. But the other characters, including Nicole Tompkins’ troubled protagonist, are less clearly defined, and the scattered narrative (including a weird subplot about a teenage resident’s incestuous desires for his sisters) never lives up to its initial promise. Grade: C+

Emily and the Magical Journey (VOD and DVD November 3) The magical journey of neglected kid Emily (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) takes her via an enchanted book to a fantasy world called Faunutland, which looks to be populated by fewer than a dozen creatures and requires a chosen hero to retrieve a special crystal and restore harmony. Exactly why Faunutland needs saving and how the crystal will accomplish this is obscured under vague ethereal proclamations from sprite Nightinglar (co-writer Jenny Lampa), and Emily’s mission involves minimal peril or adversity. It’s hard to convey the necessary epic scope on such a small-scale production, when characters just wander around the same limited patches of wilderness. Director Marcus Ovnell at least delivers some creative practical effects for the creatures, including a friendly monster that looks like a cross between a Minotaur and Snuffleupagus, and is more horrifying than heartwarming. Emily appears to learn no lessons and experience no emotional growth, but Faunutland is saved anyway. Grade: C

Love in Dangerous Times (VOD November 3) The age of Quarantine Content is upon us, from TV series like Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona and Netflix’s Social Distance to indie productions like this mediocre romantic drama, which is more notable for its mere existence than for any of its narrative elements. Shot in April and May 2020, Love in Dangerous Times already feels more than a little dated, especially when it suddenly shifts to footage of racial justice protests near the end. There are sweet moments in the mostly online connection between mopey actor and playwright Jason (Ian Stout) and more upbeat teacher and ex-pro athlete Sorrell (Tiffany Groben), but their romance remains underdeveloped, competing for time with subplots about Jason’s conflicts with his brother and father and his struggles with writer’s block. Director/cinematographer/co-writer Jon Garcia effectively expands the story beyond video-chat screens, but the result still feels more like a vlog entry than a fully formed feature film. Grade: C+

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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