In this week’s minor VOD releases, kids journey to an ersatz fantasy world, a psychologist confronts a serial killer, and a non-binary musician navigates romance.
All Man: The International Male Story (VOD June 6): For a certain generation of gay men, the International Male catalog was a coming-of-age touchstone, a glimpse into a world of toned, often scantily clad male models ostensibly selling fashionable attire. Directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed explore the origins and cultural impact of International Male in this straightforward but engaging documentary, featuring interviews with many of the company’s key players, as well as celebrity commentators like Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears. The history of International Male, founded in 1970 in Southern California, is intertwined with the history of gay culture in the U.S., and Darling and Reed make a case for its importance in terms of representation and acceptance. All Man glosses over some of its thornier issues, including the catalog’s lack of racial diversity and the marginalization of gay employees after a sale to a major mail-order conglomerate, but it succeeds as a celebration of an unlikely vehicle for gay liberation. Grade: B
Under My Skin (VOD June 6): It’s not entirely clear what writer-director David O’Donnell means to say about non-binary identity by casting four different actors in the main role of this romantic drama. The portrayal is also lopsided, since one performer (Yellowjackets’ Liv Hewson) overshadows the other three, in screen time, talent, fame, and chemistry with co-star Alex Russell. Russell’s straitlaced lawyer Ryan falls for Hewson’s moody singer-songwriter Denny and attempts to be supportive as Denny struggles with gender identity, eventually coming out as non-binary. Chloe Freeman, Lex Ryan, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez play Denny at various other times, and while their performances are solid, they undermine the connection between Denny and Ryan and create a distancing effect for a character whose portrayal is meant to be empathetic. There are other half-formed subplots and themes that never come together, and the sweet central romance gets lost in the muddled messaging. Grade: C+
The Secret Kingdom (VOD and select theaters June 9): Australian filmmaker Matt Drummond cobbles together elements from a variety of fantasy classics for this chintzy adventure into a green-screened realm of questionable special effects and even more questionable character arcs. Carrying his golden compass, 12-year-old Peter (Sam Everingham) follows his younger sister Verity (Alyla Browne) into a, well, secret kingdom via a portal under a bed in the mysterious old house their family has inherited. There, they encounter the requisite grand prophecies, delivered as excruciating rhymes by off-putting, stiffly rendered creatures. There’s far more exposition than action, without a primary villain to balance out the cloying kid protagonists. Everingham and Browne are stranded in the CGI muck without any other human actors to interact with, and they’re not up to carrying both the narrative and emotional weight. A final reveal aims for inspiring sentiment but just comes across as sappy and manipulative, turning the previous 90 minutes into an elaborate, pointless metaphor. Grade: D
The Last Client (Viaplay June 12): The bulk of this Danish thriller functions as what could have been a two-person stage production, set in a single location as a stand-off between psychologist Susanne (Signe Egholm Olsen) and her new client Mark (Anton Hjejle), who reveals himself as a serial killer. There are some effectively tense moments as Mark becomes increasingly threatening and Susanne realizes the deadly situation she’s gotten herself into, but following a heavily telegraphed mid-film twist, the story gets more and more outlandish, culminating in an absurd, laughable finale. Hjejle is sufficiently menacing as the psychopath who blames everyone but himself for his sadistic actions, but Olsen overdoes the hysterics, losing the grounded sense of an unsuspecting woman in peril. The further the action gets from Susanne’s office, the more overwrought and unconvincing the movie becomes. Director and co-writer Anders Rønnow Klarlund adds in some dubious morals about the ethics of adoption alongside his sensationalistic crime story. Grade: C
Bone Cold (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray June 13): A clumsy PSA about military PTSD disguised as an action-horror movie, writer-director Billy Hanson’s overlong debut feature never settles on a tone or genre. A pair of covert American military snipers (Jonathan Stoddard and Matt Munroe) trudge through a snowbound mission on the Ukraine-Russia border, in a story that was obviously conceived before recent current events. While they work to take out a separatist militia leader, they also seem to be stalked by a strange, hidden monster, which might as well have “symbolism” written in big letters on its chest. The military action is tedious and repetitive, and the meditation on guilt and trauma is haphazard and confused, especially after one sniper returns home still haunted by the mission. The meager production values and shaky performances hinder the efforts at social commentary, which become more heavy-handed as the movie progresses. Hanson’s honorable intentions aren’t enough to make up for his artistic shortcomings. Grade: C