This week’s low-profile VOD releases involve apocalyptic cults, unhinged cops, and oozing blood, but nothing is as frightening as the new movie from the director of Money Plane.
Who Invited Charlie? (VOD and select theaters February 3): A pandemic-set take on movies like What About Bob? or You, Me and Dupree, this amiable but listless comedy alternates between awkward humor and awkward sentiment. Adam Pally plays the title character, an affable loser who crashes the Hamptons pandemic retreat of his former college roommate Phil (Reid Scott). Soon Charlie is meddling in Phil’s business and his relationships with his wife (Jordana Brewster) and teenage son (Peter Dager). It’s weird to watch a movie that seems nostalgic for the early days of lockdown, from wiping down groceries to job furloughs to banging pots and pans for healthcare workers. Director Xavier Manrique and screenwriter Nicholas Schutt rely on the pandemic for easy pathos but ignore it when it’s not convenient. Charlie proves to be less wacky and abrasive than he first appears, and the filmmakers tone down the humor in favor of sappy drama in the plodding final act. Grade: C
Frankie Meets Jack (Tubi February 3): Actor-turned-director Andrew Lawrence secured a place for himself in the bad-movie hall of fame with 2020’s hilariously inept Money Plane, and this bland Hallmark-style rom-com is disappointingly tame in comparison. Lawrence’s brother Joey stars as Jack, a veterinarian with a cartoonishly narcissistic fiancée who’s obviously wrong for him. Jack and perpetually single reporter Frankie (Samantha Cope) connect over their shared love of dogs, and the movie mostly just marks time until their inevitable coupling. Director Lawrence borrows shamelessly from more popular rom-coms, interspersing When Harry Met Sally-style testimonials from long-term couples and casting himself as an inscrutably accented wedding planner straight out of Father of the Bride. Stars Lawrence and Cope, who wrote the screenplay themselves along with Jen Bashian, have minimal chemistry, and only the late Anne Heche livens things up as Frankie’s roommate’s eccentric mom. Somehow, even the dog acting is bad. Grade: C-
Woman of the Photographs (Select theaters February 3; VOD February 7; Blu-ray March 14): Solitary photographer Kai (Hideki Nagai) has a mundane, ordered existence until social media influencer Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) literally falls into his life. That may sound like the set-up for a cute romance, but everything about Japanese writer-director Takeshi Kushida’s film is surreal and disquieting, from the cranked-up sound design full of whooshing and slurping sounds to the almost parasitic central relationship. Kyoko goes home with Kai and moves right in, and he never objects (or indeed says anything at all). Injured from her fall, Kyoko discovers renewed online attention by posting pictures of her cuts and scrapes. Kai and Kyoko are both consumed by the act of staging and retouching her photos, and Kushida blurs the lines between the aesthetic and the erotic. The sexualization of open wounds recalls David Cronenberg’s Crash, but Woman of the Photographs is more meditative than intense. Sometimes it’s a little too opaque, but it’s compelling even when it’s baffling. Grade: B
Line of Fire (VOD February 7): There’s nothing believable in this Australian thriller about a cop seeking revenge against a journalist who hounds her after her son’s death. Reporter Jamie Connard (Samantha Tolj) is unethical and insensitive, pestering police officer Sam Romans (Nadine Garner) at all hours after Sam’s son is killed in a school shooting, thanks in part to Sam’s inaction on the scene. Still, there’s no justification for the extreme vengeance Sam seeks in retaliation for some aggressive phone calls and sensationalistic online reports. Sam goes full Jigsaw on Jamie in the movie’s second half, and any moral ambiguity is lost, in favor of an absurdly grim, violent battle of wills. Neither main character is worth caring about, so Line of Fire becomes an ugly march toward death, with the stars competing for the most anguished response to the situation. The filmmakers seem to think they’re making a profound existential statement, but that’s just window dressing for cheap exploitation. Grade: C
Daughter (VOD and select theaters February 10): Usually the presence of Casper Van Dien isn’t a promising sign for a low-budget movie, but he’s impressively menacing in writer-director Corey Deshon’s assured, unsettling debut feature. Daughter takes place almost entirely within a nondescript suburban house, an unassuming location for the man known only as Father (Van Dien) to carry out his twisted doomsday scenario. He’s collected a “family” of kidnapped victims, including the title character (Vivien Ngô), who’s just been abducted as a replacement for the previous Daughter after she became too disobedient. Father’s apocalyptic philosophy focuses on his “son” (Ian Alexander) as the savior of a poisoned world, and Deshon conveys the all-consuming power of his vision as it warps the lives of his conscripted followers. Shot in evocative 16mm, Daughter immerses the viewer in an eerie world within the house’s beige interiors, making Father and his warped ideas scary and mesmerizing, right up to the chilling final shot. Grade: B+