The great thing about the vast world of VOD is that it makes room for everything from serious examinations of religion to penis-chomping Icelandic vampires, as demonstrated in this week’s selection of underground VOD releases.
Buddy Games (VOD and DVD November 24): Josh Duhamel may be the quintessential generic bro actor, so it’s appropriate that he makes his debut as a director and co-writer with this shamelessly bro-tastic comedy. It’s a dumber, more vulgar, and less funny version of 2018’s Tag, which was also about a group of lifelong friends who come together for ridiculous childhood games (both movies even quote the same George Bernard Shaw line about playing and growing older). Six friends (played by Duhamel, Nick Swardson, Dan Bakkedahl, Dax Shepard, Kevin Dillon and James Roday Rodriguez) reunite after several years apart for the Buddy Games, a mix of summer camp-style challenges and teen-boy gross-out dares. They shit their pants, they unwittingly drink piña coladas mixed with semen, and, of course, they learn important life lessons. It’s the kind of movie that uses the phrase “blood, sweat, and beers” unironically, and thinks that’s the height of cleverness. Grade: D
Faith (VOD November 27): Underrated character actor Brian Geraghty gets a deserved spotlight in this affecting, contemplative drama about a devout Christian who experiences a crisis of faith following his teenage son’s suicide. Chris (Geraghty) is a central California farmer who’s never questioned his devotion to the church, which was passed down from his father and which he attempted to pass down to his son. But he finds no solace for his grief in prayer or worship, and he retreats from the church into drinking and isolation after separating from his wife Carol (Nora-Jane Noone). There’s not much of a plot here, and writer-director Eli Daughdrill is more interested in carefully pondering the meaning of faith than in guiding his protagonist to any kind of resolution. Faith is neither pro- nor anti-religion, simply depicting it as an accepted aspect of life for the characters, one that can be shattered but can also be rebuilt, if not entirely in the same form. Grade: B
Princess of the Row (VOD and select theaters November 27): The row that 12-year-old Alicia (Tayler Buck) is princess of is Los Angeles’ Skid Row, where she lives with her volatile, PTSD-afflicted father Bo (Edi Gathegi). A traumatic brain injury has left military veteran Bo unable to function or recognize his surroundings (except when he’s lucid at plot-convenient moments). Alicia rejects the overtures of a patient social worker (Ana Ortiz) and well-meaning foster parents (Martin Sheen and Jenny Gago), instead determined to somehow make a life for herself and Bo. Buck is both forceful and vulnerable as a kid forced to handle too much too early, but the supporting characters are thinly drawn, and Gathegi’s performance is all mannered tics. Director and co-writer Van Maximilian Carlson lays on the sentiment pretty thick, often pulling too hard on the audience’s heartstrings (most egregiously during an attempted-rape scene). He aims for uplifting, but only occasionally gets there. Grade: B-
Beast Mode (VOD and DVD December 1) Most of this horror-comedy is a dumb showbiz satire starring C. Thomas Howell as a Hollywood agent (or possibly a producer?) who accidentally kills his asshole superstar client (James Duval) and then tries to Bowfinger the situation by hiring a clueless lookalike to pose as the star. To cover up the doppelganger’s facial scars, Howell’s Breen Nash purchases some black market lotion that is, of course, cursed, and eventually it turns some people into monsters, although writer-directors Chris W. Freeman and Spain Willingham are more interested in hackneyed jokes about the superficiality and greed of the movie business. The performers (including stalwart character actors Ray Wise, James Hong, and Leslie Easterbrook) dutifully mug their way through the dopey dialogue, playing characters with names like Huckle Saxton, Trammel Steadfast and Pish Rudabaker. The horror isn’t scary, the comedy isn’t funny, and the characters are grating in both human and monster form. Grade: C-
Thirst (VOD and DVD December 1) What the world needs now is an Icelandic movie about a gay vampire who bites people’s penises off. There are almost certainly more severed penises onscreen in this absurd horror-comedy than in any other movie ever made, including one that soft-spoken vampire Hjörtur (Hjörtur Sævar Steinason) puts in a bun and eats like a hot dog. Hjörtur befriends troubled young woman Hulda (Hulda Lind Kristinsdóttir) after she defends him from some thugs, and his efforts to repay her go comically (and gorily) awry. Blood gushes, guts spill, and a vaguely defined Christian cult preaches the end of the world. It’s all a bit disjointed, but it’s still consistently amusing, and even sort of touching in the way that fellow outcasts Hjörtur and Hulda come together. Directors Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson and Gaukur Úlfarsson may be trying a little too hard to manufacture a midnight movie, but they have all the right ingredients. Grade: B