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

An animated pasta apocalypse, the 10th sequel to a forgotten 1990s family movie, and a thriller by one of the goofy stars of Brooklyn Nine-Nine all vie for the title of the most unlikely release in this week’s low-profile VOD offerings.

Dotty & Soul (VOD May 19): There’s so much trainwreck potential in writer/director/star Adam Saunders’ debut feature that it’s almost disappointing how dull and treacly it turns out to be. Rather than a tone-deaf disaster, Saunders’ film is merely an earnest if misguided message movie about tolerance and respect. Saunders plays tech mogul Ethan Cox, whose ride-share/self-driving car company is about to close a major merger when a photo of him in blackface at a Halloween party leaks online. Ethan’s top investor (David Koechner) advises him to step down as CEO and appoint a person of color to serve as a figurehead while Ethan runs things behind the scenes. But Ethan’s choice, elderly snack vendor Dotty (Leslie Uggams), proves herself far savvier than anyone expected, helping Ethan see the error of his ways and reconnect with his humble roots. There’s far more finger-wagging (sometimes literally) than comedy, and Saunders is so timid about anything possibly offensive that he misses every opportunity to be bold or original. Grade: C

Outpost (VOD and select theaters May 19): The State alum Joe Lo Truglio follows his peers Jordan Peele and Zach Cregger in making the move from comedy performer to horror filmmaker, although his transition is not nearly as successful. There’s still plenty of potential in Lo Truglio’s first film as a writer-director, which starts out as a grounded drama before rather abruptly shifting into full-on horror. Fellow comedy veteran Beth Dover plays a woman recovering from an attack by her abusive ex who decides that the best way to process her trauma is to take a position as a fire lookout in a remote Idaho forest. Left mostly alone with her thoughts, she experiences flashbacks to the attack and visions of violence, which eventually spill over from imagination to reality. Lo Truglio has found a striking location for a thriller, and Dover is strong as a woman under obvious mental distress, but the heightened horror elements never quite fit with the sensitive character study. Grade: B-

Pastacolypse (Tubi May 21): As crazy as its concept sounds, this Tubi original from Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator Matt Maiellaro is in its own way entirely formulaic, with a style familiar from decades of Adult Swim animated series. The 70-minute movie comes off like an extended TV pilot, and Maiellaro’s comedic approach of rampant random absurdity becomes tiresome at feature length. Fans of Maiellaro’s past work should still be amused by the story of celebrity chef Alfredo Manicotti (ATHF’s Dana Snyder) who reacts poorly to a worldwide ban on gluten, transforming himself into a sort of mutant pasta creature and creating noodle minions to destroy humanity. There’s some creative design for the pasta monsters, but the characters are mostly annoying, the plotting is haphazard, and the jokes are inconsistent. As a parody of post-apocalypse thrillers, Pastacolypse is pretty weak, and the prospect of more adventures for Alfredo’s plucky daughter/nemesis Emma Manicotti (Lauren Holt), as teased in the finale, isn’t particularly enticing. Grade: C

The Swan Princess: A FairyTale Is Born (VOD and DVD May 23): While we were out here living our lives, Sony has produced 10 straight-to-video sequels to 1994 animated box-office flop The Swan Princess, all from the original director (Richard Rich) and writer (Brian Nissen). The series’ 11th installment is mostly a prequel focused on Queen Uberta (Catherine Lavin), the mother-in-law of title character Princess Odette (Nina Herzog). Uberta rises to power and, uh, puts on a dog show, in a clear demonstration that Rich and Nissen ran out of ideas long ago. The story lurches awkwardly across 30 years to unnecessarily fill in gaps about the characters’ origins before moving the main story forward slightly in the third act. The rudimentary CG animation is hideous, full of stiff, dead-eyed characters and half-formed locations. The voice work and musical numbers are perfunctory at best, and the movie ends with a “To be continued …” title card that’s more of a threat than a promise. Grade: D

Cracked (VOD and DVD May 26): The horror-movie warning signs start almost immediately when Ruja (Chayanit Chansangavej) arrives back at her childhood home in Thailand following her artist father’s mysterious death, but she sticks around with her young daughter anyway. Director and co-writer Surapong Ploensang packs in vaguely scary elements that don’t fully come together, even after a rush of expository flashbacks once the true villain is revealed. Still, the large, empty, isolated house is sufficiently spooky, and a pair of obviously cursed paintings that Ruja’s father left behind serve as an ominous ongoing presence. The themes about generational guilt and class exploitation are muddled, and Ruja’s daughter’s vision impairment, periodically depicted via POV shots, never ties in with the larger narrative. Ploensang is good at crafting individual creepy scenes, but they don’t have much impact when so many of them are revealed as dreams or hallucinations. The resolution is as wispy and unsatisfying as the set-up. 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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