In this week’s minor VOD releases, a former NFL player and an indie rock band indulge in their cinematic ambitions, but the best movie comes from a pair of seasoned comedic performers.
I’m Totally Fine (VOD and select theaters November 4): Stars Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales are the only actors in this sci-fi dramedy for the majority of its slim running time, and the relationship between their characters is all that director and co-writer Brandon Dermer needs to create a funny and affecting story. Vanessa (Bell) is mourning the sudden loss of her best friend and business partner Jennifer (Morales), spending a few days alone at a fancy vacation rental where they had previously planned to host a party celebrating their professional success. She’s surprised to discover someone who looks exactly like Jennifer but claims to be an extraterrestrial sent to study humanity. Dermer combines goofy odd-couple comedy with a sensitive exploration of grief and regret. Morales is often hilarious as the alien baffled by human anatomy and customs, and she and Bell have strong chemistry that builds to cathartic moments by the end. It’s a short, sweet story about friendship and the total weirdness of eyebrows. Grade: B+
1-800-HOT-NITE (VOD November 4): The title implies that this coming-of-age movie will be a raunchy comedy, and the opening scene shows a trio of 13-year-old boys giggling and stammering their way through a call to a phone-sex hotline. But things turn serious pretty quickly, as writer-director Nick Richey explores the troubled home lives of the three boys, particularly Tommy (Dallas Dupree Young), whose father and stepmother are arrested on drug charges. The boys’ “one crazy night” turns into a sometimes harrowing ordeal fleeing from cops so that Tommy isn’t placed in a foster home. There are still plenty of lighthearted moments, including a coed pool party, but even the further calls to the phone-sex number become increasingly somber, as Tommy reaches out for human connection. The tonal shifts are sometimes awkward, and Richey loses track of Tommy’s friends for extended periods of time, but Young carries the movie with a charismatic and empathetic performance as a kid forced to grow up too quickly, all at once. Grade: B-
Blood-Red Ox (VOD and DVD November 8): Bolivian director Rodrigo Bellott’s psychedelic horror movie crosses the line from surreal into incoherent pretty early on, and it never returns. It starts as a somewhat straightforward story of American journalist Amir (Mazin Akar) traveling to Bolivia to write an article about a nature preserve, bringing along his boyfriend Amat (Kaolin Bass). But the vague details about the characters’ goals and relationships are an indication that nothing is what it seems, and soon Bellott loses any semblance of a linear narrative. He jumps from Bolivia to upstate New York and back seemingly at random, throwing in poorly realized themes about environmental destruction and mental illness. The characters all have similar-sounding names and sometimes seem to be interchangeable, so there’s no way to care about their development. The movie could set a record for scenes of characters abruptly waking from apparent nightmares, which feature occasional strikingly disturbing images. Bellott never follows through on that imagery, though, undermining both the horror and the potential social commentary. Grade: C-
Vide Noir (VOD November 8): Fans of indie rock band Lord Huron may be disappointed to hear only a handful of songs in Vide Noir from the band’s 2018 concept album of the same name, and mostly just in short snippets. Frontman Ben Schneider wrote the screenplay, and Lord Huron makes an appearance in a nightclub scene, in addition to providing the score. Mainly, though, this is the muddled story of Buck (Victor Mascitelli), who’s searching for his missing fiancee Lee (Ashleigh Cummings) in the underworld of an unspecified city in an unspecified time period. The title refers to a powerful hallucinogenic drug, and director Ariel Vida (who helmed several Lord Huron music videos) creates a dreamlike, impressionistic quality that makes it hard to grasp onto any actual plot or character elements. The noir-style world exists somewhere in between Sin City and Streets of Fire, but the neon-cool look only counts for so much when there’s no emotional investment in anything happening onscreen. Grade: C
MVP (VOD November 11): It’s hard to fault the intentions of this vanity project from co-writer/director/star Nate Boyer, a military veteran with a brief stint playing in the NFL. MVP is essentially a feature-length promo for Merging Vets and Players, Boyer’s foundation that connects combat veterans with retired athletes. Boyer plays Zephyr, who’s returned from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with serious PTSD and is living in a group home for veterans. While working as a security guard, Zephyr meets former pro football player Will Phillips (Mo McRae), and the two bond over their shared difficulty adjusting to “civilian” life. The characters speak almost exclusively in inspirational platitudes, and the meandering plot seems to celebrate macho posturing as the solution for trauma. Boyer is a passable actor but isn’t up to the emotional challenge his own script creates for him, and the extended hero shots of Zephyr are more than a little self-indulgent. Whatever benefits Boyer’s charity work provides, they don’t extend to moviegoers. Grade: C-