In 2023’s first batch of low-profile VOD releases, kids fight aliens and get possessed, thieves travel through time, and a college senior searches for meaning in modern existence.
The Seven Faces of Jane (VOD and select theaters January 13): The kind of movie that was undoubtedly more enjoyable to make than it is to watch, this Roman Coppola-produced project takes an “exquisite corpse” approach to telling the story of the title character (Gillian Jacobs), who goes on a long journey (both mentally and physically) after dropping her daughter off at summer camp. Seven filmmakers (including Coppola’s niece Gia, Xan Cassavetes, and Jacobs’ Community co-star Ken Jeong) helm separate segments about Jane’s odyssey, with no knowledge of what the other contributors produced. The result is disjointed and repetitive, with two segments about Jane encountering ex-boyfriends (one played Community’s Joel McHale) and multiple nonsensical surreal interludes. Jacobs, who also directs the framing sequence, never crafts a consistent character from segment to segment, and Jane is such a blank slate that the movie would have been better off as a true anthology, without the expectation of continuity. Some group projects should just stay within the group. Grade: C
The Tomorrow Job (Select theaters January 13; VOD January 17): Writer-director Bruce Wemple crafts a semi-sequel to his 2016 micro-budget sci-fi film Altered Hours, expanding on the concept of a time-travel drug that allows people to exchange consciousness with their future selves. The drug has been refined enough that small-time crook Lee (Grant Schumacher) and his crew can use it to steal valuable information from 24 hours in the future. The time-travel mechanics are clever and reasonably cohesive, but the heist plot is a convoluted jumble of characters with confusing motivations and relationships. The more complicated the story gets, the more the movie loses momentum, and Wemple doesn’t have the resources to stage elaborate action set pieces to make up for the narrative shortcomings. He overestimates the audience investment in the protagonists, who aren’t nearly as cool as the bouncy “I love it when a plan comes together” music makes them out to be. Inevitably, the loose ends are spun as set-up for a sequel. Grade: C-
There’s Something Wrong With the Children (VOD January 17; MGM+ March 17): “Something” is about all that can be described as wrong with the vaguely creepy children for the majority of this bland horror movie. The possible possession of preteens Lucy (Briella Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle) is a catalyst for infighting among two adult couples on vacation at a remote wilderness retreat. The kids’ parents (Amanda Crew and Carlos Santos) are having marital difficulties, and there’s unspoken resentment between them and their child-free friends (Alisha Wainwright and Zach Gilford). Director Roxanne Benjamin hints that the possession may just be a manifestation of grown-up stresses and mental illness, but there’s never really any question of whether the title should be taken at face value. Benjamin relies on tired jump-scare music stings and cheap fake-outs, although the adult stars bring some bite to their characters’ internal struggles. The eventual descent into full-on horror is too little too late, explaining just enough to leave the audience frustrated. Grade: C+
Actual People (MUBI January 18): The spirit of mumblecore lives on in the debut feature from writer/director/star Kit Zauhar. Zauhar plays Riley, a New York City college senior facing uncertainty in every aspect of her life. While her peers are planning for jobs and grad school, Riley has no career prospects, and she’s recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend. Riley drifts through classes and parties, intermittently fixating on a fellow half-Asian Philadelphian with whom she has one brief hook-up. Zauhar proves herself a worthy next-generation successor to Lena Dunham or Greta Gerwig, making Riley equal parts endearingly vulnerable and maddeningly oblivious. There’s an appealing messiness to her interactions as she desperately searches for connection and meaning. There’s also plenty of deadpan humor that speaks to the relative naïvete of Riley and her peers without coming off as condescending. It’s a raw, emotionally resonant character study of a woman waiting for her “real life” to begin, while she’s been living that life the entire time. Grade: A-
Kids vs. Aliens (VOD and select theaters January 20): Director Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun) adapts his segment from 2013’s V/H/S/2 into a feature film, which feels padded even at only 75 minutes. The kids are so annoying that it’s a relief when the aliens finally show up to attack them and put an end to their obnoxious bickering. While the V/H/S/2 segment was presented as found footage, like everything in that franchise, Kids vs. Aliens is shot traditionally, with a neon-soaked, synth-soundtracked 1980s vibe (although it’s set in the present). Eisener aims for something like John Carpenter’s The Goonies, but his style is more of a Stranger Things knock-off, and his characters aren’t endearing enough to root for. The second half, as the kids take the fight to the aliens, features some impressive low-budget special effects, leading to an admirably brutal ending. There’s a lot of loud, chaotic enthusiasm, but not much coherence or excitement. Grade: C+