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

This week’s minor VOD releases include sharks on a plane, serial killers at a summer camp and inside a snowed-in car, and racially charged dramas exploring social issues in Italy and the U.S.

No Way Up (VOD and select theaters February 16): Shark-attack B-movies are all about putting sharks in places they don’t belong, and in No Way Up, that means the sharks are on a plane. How does that work? First the plane has to end up at the bottom of the ocean, following a surprisingly harrowing and effectively staged crash sequence. The suspense is mostly gone after that, though, once a handful of survivors find themselves in a dubiously explained air pocket, awaiting rescue. As sharks make their way through a hole in the fuselage, the survivors bicker and bond, attempting to stay alive and devise an escape plan. The sharks remain mostly offscreen, and the kill scenes are underwhelming. Colm Meaney makes the most of his brief appearance as the token semi-famous co-star, playing a grizzled bodyguard dedicated to saving his client, but the rest of the performances are less convincing. By the low standards of low-budget shark movies, this is still only barely passable. Grade: C

The Legionnaire (Film Movement Plus February 16): The dilemma at the center of this stark Italian drama may be a bit contrived, but director and co-writer Hleb Papou makes it work. Main character Daniel (Germano Gentile) is torn between two worlds, as an officer in the riot unit of Rome’s police force, and also the son of a Cameroonian immigrant who still lives in a quasi-legal squat in an abandoned apartment building. Daniel’s brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) leads the group of impoverished tenants fighting to get legal recognition, putting the siblings on opposite sides of a potentially violent clash when Daniel’s unit is ordered to clear out the building. That raid doesn’t arrive until the finale, leaving plenty of room for more subdued family drama, which Papou depicts with honesty and nuance. The cast includes real residents of a squatters’ community, lending authenticity to a story about the changing face of Italy. The plot builds to a somewhat empty anticlimax, but the larger context remains fascinating. Grade: B

Kemba (BET+ February 22): Prison reform activist Kemba Smith is the kind of person whose life story gets adapted into prime Oscar bait, and this BET original production doesn’t have the resources to do her justice. Smith herself is an executive producer, but that doesn’t stop the movie from engaging in cheap melodrama, especially in its first half, which focuses on Kemba (Nesta Cooper) getting romantically involved with a dangerous drug dealer (Siddiq Saunderson). Kemba’s descent from upper-middle-class college student to abused fugitive plays out like a bad soap opera, which makes it tougher to invest in her subsequent crusade against the mandatory minimum laws that sentenced her to prison for nearly 25 years just for being in the vicinity of drug trafficking. Cooper brings some grit and determination to the role, but what should be a grand inspirational story is instead sparse and stilted. The requisite closing clips of the real-life subjects demonstrate that Smith would have been better off producing a documentary. Grade: C

Cold Meat (VOD and select theaters February 23): The majority of this tense thriller takes place inside a stranded, snowbound car with just two characters, but director and co-writer Sébastien Drouin keeps it engrossing, thanks to layered character development and strong performances from his two stars. The beginning feints at a different kind of threat, as waitress Ana (Nina Bergman) is harassed by her volatile ex while seemingly hapless diner customer David (Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech) looks on. But David poses the real danger, and once Ana’s ex is gone, David kidnaps her and traps her in the trunk of his car. When the car gets stuck in a snowstorm and David is injured, the tables turn, setting up a bitter confrontation between two desperate people. There’s a vague supernatural angle that doesn’t amount to much, but otherwise Drouin finds clever ways to keep the characters and the audience on edge, stripping a familiar serial-killer narrative down to its bare essentials. Grade: B

Camp Pleasant Lake (VOD and select theaters February 27): There’s a promising idea at the core of this dreadful slasher movie, which takes place at a summer camp that’s become notorious for its association with grisly murders decades earlier. New owners have reopened the camp as an immersive horror attraction, but of course the attendees start getting killed for real, as the original masked murderer returns to take revenge. Writer-director Thomas Walton rounds up an impressive range of B-movie mainstays, including Jonathan Lipnicki, Michael Paré, Robert LaSardo, Andrew Divoff, Devanny Pinn, and The Nun’s Bonnie Aarons, but they fight for screen time with a nearly inexhaustible parade of awkward, interchangeable supporting players, presumably the result of crowdfunding backers rewarded with onscreen appearances. The poorly paced plot is haphazard and nonsensical, with little to no suspense, and the minimal gore is unlikely to satisfy even undemanding horror fans. Walton misses his chance to subvert horror-movie tropes, instead settling for a rote, desultory recitation of the obvious. Grade: D+

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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