This week’s minor VOD releases feature an unlikely friendship in Luxembourg, a queer detective in Dublin, and a super-soldier hanging out in a hotel bar.
Io Sto Bene (IndiePix Unlimited and virtual cinema September 15; DVD October 10): Curmudgeonly senior citizens can befriend headstrong young people anywhere, including Luxembourg, which submitted this lackluster drama as the country’s official selection for the 2022 Oscars. The connection between elderly Italian retiree Antonio (Renato Carpentieri) and recent Italian immigrant Leo (Sara Serraiocco) doesn’t even get the proper time to develop, since writer-director Donato Rotunno devotes substantial time to Antonio’s early years in Luxembourg after arriving from Italy in search of work. Young Antonio’s personal struggles aren’t particularly engaging, and they don’t meaningfully relate to Leo’s own difficulties as an aspiring musician. Instead, those drawn-out flashbacks just distract from the potential cross-generational connection. Carpentieri and Serraiocco have an appealing rapport when they get screen time together, but their sweet, understated friendship is barely starting by the time the movie is over. The title translates to “I Am Fine,” and that generic expression of adequacy captures the movie’s inoffensive blandness. Grade: C+
Barber (VOD and select theaters September 22): Nobody gets a haircut in this solid, small-scale Irish crime drama, which stars Aidan Gillen as Dublin private investigator Valentine Barber. A concerned woman hires Barber to find her missing granddaughter, whose disappearance has been dismissed by the police as a case of a troubled runaway. Barber has a lot going on in his personal life, too, including a teenage daughter recovering from a traumatic brain injury after a car accident, as well as his clandestine romance with a married man. Director and co-writer Fintan Connolly takes a subdued, matter-of-fact approach to both the criminal investigation and the queer content, exploring social issues in what one character calls the “new woke Ireland” but never sensationalizing them. The mystery is pretty basic, and the movie sometimes plays like an extended TV pilot, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Gillen’s lived-in performance as the weary but upstanding Barber would be a welcome sight on TV every week. Grade: B
Condition of Return (VOD and select theaters September 22): The prominent presence of Dean Cain and the focus on churchgoing would seem to indicate that this is a faith-based movie, but if that’s the case, then it has a pretty messed-up perspective on faith. The core is the interplay between AnnaLynne McCord as a captured mass shooter and Cain as a psychiatrist evaluating her mental fitness to stand trial. She recounts the increasingly ludicrous story of her life leading up to her decision to open fire inside a Catholic church, killing 13 people, while he easily falls for her Hannibal Lecter-lite quid pro quo requests to divulge details about his own life. It’s laughable when the doctor refers to the killer as “very smart,” especially when we’ve seen her attempting to summon the devil by Googling “how to summon the devil.” The acting is atrocious, the theology is incoherent, and the harsh lighting makes it all look like a cheap soap opera. Grade: D
Dark Asset (VOD and select theaters September 22): Government scientists implant a powerful microchip in the brain of a former elite military operative, and are shocked when less than a minute after being activated, he takes out his guards, bypasses the chip’s fail-safes, and escapes the top-secret facility. That’s the level of sophistication in this moronic action movie starring Byron Mann as the super-soldier known only as John Doe. John spends most of the movie sitting in a hotel bar flirting with the beautiful Jane (Helena Mattson), giving her the rundown on the entire history of the classified enhancement program. The series of vignettes make Dark Asset feel like a recap of a franchise that doesn’t exist, and the plot keeps doubling back so that eventually the movie is recapping itself. The minimal action is unremarkable, Mann and Mattson have no chemistry, and Robert Patrick looks justifiably embarrassed to be there as the sinister doctor who’s out to recapture John. Grade: C-
The Curse of Willow Song (VOD and DVD September 26): It takes about an hour for the supernatural elements in writer-director Karen Lam’s film to arise, and even then it’s not clear whether Willow Song (Valerie Tian) is actually cursed, or what the nature of that curse might be. She’s certainly had a rough life, though, and as the story begins she’s recently been released from prison and is recovering from a heroin addiction. Ordered to stay away from her drug-dealer brother but with nowhere to live, she accepts his girlfriend’s offer to crash in an empty warehouse they’re looking to sell. That’s where some kind of swirling dark mist starts to surround her, possibly as a manifestation of her anger and frustration. Shot in stark black-and-white, Lam’s film is a mildly engaging social-realist drama that turns into a dissatisfying horror movie, ultimately undermining the effectiveness of both approaches. Tian gives Willow an appealingly gritty determination, but it’s not enough to hold the movie together. Grade: C