In this week’s minor VOD releases, family conflicts unfold in Syria, Appalachia, and the Pacific Northwest, but the most rewarding drama comes from a bunch of people named James Bond.
Devil’s Peak (Select theaters February 17; VOD February 24): In 2016, Australian filmmaker Ben Young made his feature debut with the brutal, disquieting thriller Hounds of Love, and he’s struggled to find a worthy follow-up project. The biggest problem with Young’s latest effort is the flat, charisma-free lead performance from Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, which drags the entire movie down. Penn plays the scion of a rural North Carolina crime family, trying to break free from his sadistic drug-kingpin father (Billy Bob Thornton, sporting a dyed-black goatee that looks like it belongs on Steven Seagal). The setting and the plot are thinly sketched, and the suspense and thrills are minimal. The supporting cast includes Wright, Jackie Earle Haley, and Hounds of Love’s Emma Booth, but they all come off nearly as lost as Penn. By the time the story culminates in a poorly motivated shootout, it’s hard to care about who makes it out alive. Grade: C
The Other Fellow (VOD and select theaters February 17): A documentary about various real-life people named James Bond sounds like a cute gimmick, but director Matthew Bauer finds some surprisingly insightful angles in his exploration of nominative identity. There are the requisite jokes about martinis and womanizing, but Bauer also delves into how names can shape lives, from a Black James Bond charged with murder whose name influences the media coverage of his case, to an abused woman who uses the ubiquity of the name as a way to hide her young son from her abuser. Bauer also tells the story of the unwitting ornithologist whose name was appropriated by Bond creator Ian Fleming, connecting the modern James Bonds back to the original. The structure can be a little haphazard, but the individual stories are fascinating enough to hold the viewer’s interest on their own. Taken together, they present a tapestry of experience that 007 himself could never hope to capture. Grade: B+
Lamya’s Poem (VOD February 21): Writer-director Alexander Kronemer’s well-intentioned but forgettable animated fable is the kind of movie that is destined to be shown in classrooms on slow days. The title character (Millie Davis) is a 12-year-old girl living in Aleppo as the Syrian civil war tears her hometown apart. Before she and her mother flee the city, she receives a book of Rumi poems that provide her with comfort and hope. Kronemer parallels Lamya’s story with the story of young Rumi (Mena Massoud) fleeing the 13th-century Mongol invasion, and he connects the two characters in a mystical dreamworld that’s never clearly defined. With its blandly educational tone and unremarkable animation, Lamya’s Poem is never as rousing or inspirational as it’s meant to be, and the relationship between Lamya and Rumi is muted and underwhelming. As a tool to provide rudimentary information about current events to young viewers, Lamya’s Poem is passable, but it lacks the sense of wonder needed to make a lasting impression. Grade: C+
The Welder (VOD February 24): Get Out has inspired an entire subgenre of muddled horror movies that think they have something profound to say about racism, and The Welder is a particularly egregious example. Suffering from PTSD after a hazily depicted field incident, military veteran Eliza (Camila Rodriguez) travels with her boyfriend Roe (Roe Dunkley) to a remote ranch for some quiet relaxation. Instead, they encounter the ranch’s creepy owner (Vincent De Paul), who leers at the mixed-race couple (she’s Latina, he’s Black) and eventually subjects them to horrific experiments inspired by his twisted sense of racial harmony. The movie’s sense of justice is just as twisted, and director David Liz is better at building vague unease than he is at delivering social commentary. The final act is so jumbled that it ends up essentially endorsing the villain’s point of view, undermining the previous character development for the protagonists and rendering the majority of the plot a waste of time. Grade: C-
Who Are You People (VOD and select theaters February 24):. Writer-director Ben Epstein never quite balances the jarring tonal shifts of his coming-of-age drama, especially in his efforts to redeem a key character after revealing a startling secret. Fed up with her judgmental parents, sullen teenager Alex (Ema Horvath) runs away to find the man she believes is her biological father, a mechanic and recovering addict named Karl (Devon Sawa). The familiar arc of the angry teen connecting with the taciturn adult shifts into overwrought melodrama in the third act, with the return of Alex’s mother (Alyssa Milano). Epstein seems to be aiming for a message about forgiveness, via Karl’s peacemaking religious cousin (Yeardley Smith), but the themes get lost in the repetitive, overheated confrontations. No one comes off well, and the intended catharsis is a letdown. The titular question never gets a satisfactory answer, for the characters or for the audience. Grade: C