The dynamic duos in this week’s low-profile VOD releases include Tunisian cops, scuba-diving sisters, dog-loving paramours, and butt-obsessed rappers.
Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation (Select theaters August 18; VOD August 22): It would probably help to have a working knowledge of Tunisian history to get the most out of director and co-writer Youssef Chebbi’s moody crime drama, but it’s eerily mesmerizing even without a full understanding of the context. There are hints of the supernatural as Tunis police detectives Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) and Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) track an apparent serial killer who is burning people alive, a reference to the self-immolation that inspired the country’s 2011 revolution. Fatma is ostracized by most of her colleagues because her father is a key figure in the commission investigating atrocities under the toppled authoritarian regime, but she’s still determined to solve the case. Chebbi favors striking long shots that often focus on seemingly irrelevant background elements, and the story is elliptical and ethereal, even as the characters gather and analyze evidence on a slow and contemplative journey toward a mystifying but unsettling resolution. Grade: B
Puppy Love (VOD and Freevee August 18): As recent dog-focused romantic comedies on free streaming services go, Puppy Love has a slight edge over Tubi’s Frankie Meets Jack, thanks to higher production values, more charismatic stars, and cuter dogs. It’s still mostly a slog, though, as Nicole (Lucy Hale) and Max (Grant Gustin) discover after their fiasco of a first date that their dogs have hit it off, and Max’s dog Chloe is now pregnant with puppies. They agree to guide the dog through the pregnancy and delivery, and of course their sniping gradually turns to affection. The aggressively vulgar humor is jarring in such a bland, innocuous romance, coming off as desperate rather than edgy. The plot meanders through various unfunny set pieces, with minimal obstacles to the inevitable coupling. Hale and Gustin have decent chemistry, but their characters are often abrasive, and there’s a weird undercurrent of COVID denialism to the subplot about the anxious Max needing to let go of his pandemic precautions. Grade: C-
Bootyology (VOD August 22): This mockumentary about a pair of doofus white rappers who are revived in the present day after being accidentally frozen in 2006 could itself have been unfrozen from an earlier era, when it might have starred Pauly Shore and/or Jamie Kennedy. Instead, musicians Chris Lightbody and Spencer Yaras star as the Booty Boys, who suddenly disappeared just before releasing their first album. A documentary crew discovers them in a bar’s walk-in freezer behind cases of Zima, and a record-label A&R rep is convinced they’ll be the next big thing, as determined by a proprietary algorithm. The jokes about these clueless dudes discovering how the world has changed are as repetitive as the Booty Boys’ songs, which are exclusively about butts. Lightbody and Yaras, who wrote the songs and co-wrote the screenplay with director Joe Eddy, effectively recreate the terrible pop-rap of the ’00s, but there’s barely enough material here for a five-minute sketch, let alone an entire feature film. Grade: C
Brightwood (VOD and DVD August 22): With just two actors, a nature trail, and a “No Swimming” sign, writer-director Dane Elcar creates an immersive, ingenious sci-fi world that he sustains for nearly the entire running time. Bickering married couple Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke) head out for a morning jog while arguing about Dan’s drunken behavior from the previous night and the general deterioration of their relationship. After circling a local pond, they discover that the path back to the road seems to have disappeared, and they’re stuck in an endless loop. It’s a somewhat obvious metaphor for the monotony of their marriage, but Elcar deftly balances the personal drama and the surreal situation, as Jen and Dan start encountering apparent alternate versions of themselves. The mechanics of the time loop are more impressionistic than logical, and Elcar eventually writes himself into a corner, leading to a confusing, anticlimactic ending. There’s plenty of engaging strangeness leading up to it, though. Grade: B
The Dive (VOD and select theaters August 25): Sisters May (Louisa Krause) and Drew (Sophie Lowe) are so unlucky on their undersea dive off a remote beach that it’s sort of surprising they never encounter any sharks. A remake of a 2020 Swedish film, The Dive is more grounded and realistic than most shark-attack movies, although the mishaps that befall the main characters become almost laughable as they pile up. The majority of The Dive is gripping, capitalizing on a basic human fear as May becomes trapped under fallen rocks with dwindling air. Drew can still make it to the surface, so the movie becomes a race against time as she looks for ways to free May and get help, while repeatedly diving back down to keep May stocked with spare oxygen tanks. Director and co-writer Maximilian Erlenwein provides just enough personal details on the sisters to give a sense of their relationship, without distracting from the suspense and danger. He delivers a tense survival thriller that needs no sharks to convey the terrors of the ocean. Grade: B+