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

This week’s minor VOD releases feature teenagers exploring their feelings via filmmaking and activism, plus a French-Canadian hitman, a kid with superpowers, and a talking handkerchief.

Dusk for a Hitman (VOD April 19): The second movie in the past year and a half to tell the true story of a French-Canadian mob enforcer-turned-informant in a style heavily indebted to Goodfellas, director and co-writer Raymond St-Jean’s film is a bit more stylish than 2022’s Confessions of a Hitman, but its lead character is less engaging. Donald Lavoie (Éric Bruneau) is an unrepentant killer who has no hesitation about offing anyone his boss Claude Dubois (Benoît Gouin) orders him to take out, including his own partners. Donald begrudgingly cooperates with the cops only after Dubois puts a bounty on him, and he seems to have no interest in justice or honor. That makes him tough to care about, despite Bruneau’s gritty, often intense performance. The period detail of Montreal in the late 1970s and early 1980s is impressive, and St-Jean stages some suspenseful set pieces, but the scope of Dubois’ criminal enterprise is vague, making both the betrayal and its aftermath somewhat rote and anticlimactic. Grade: B-

Hanky Panky (VOD April 19): Clearly everyone had a good time making this bonkers horror comedy that pits a sentient handkerchief against an evil alien hat, but that sense of fun only occasionally comes across. Mostly, directors Nick Roth and Lindsey Haun seem like they are frantically throwing in every ridiculous idea they could think of, and the result is more exhausting than amusing. Roth and Haun are both among the actors playing a group of friends spending a weekend at a remote snowbound cabin, where they start getting picked off one by one in familiar horror-movie fashion. The story eventually encompasses interdimensional beings, cult rituals, and hallucinogenic drugs, with a bunch of random pop-culture references (everyone is named after Cheers characters, for some reason) that serve no purpose, narratively or comedically. The horny hanky voiced by Toby Bryan gets annoying quickly, and the human characters are only slightly less grating. The endearing “let’s put on a show” energy only counts for so much. Grade: C

Max Beyond (VOD April 23): It’s not nearly as insulting as it used to be to say that a movie looks like a video game, but most actual modern video games look better than this lifeless animated sci-fi debacle, which was created with video-game software Unreal Engine. In an undefined dystopian-ish future, a generically evil corporation is keeping superpowered kid Max Walker (Cade Tropeano) captive, to tap into his powers to access alternate realities. Max’s older brother Leon (Dave Fennoy) comes to rescue him, and Max keeps shifting into new realities in search of one where Leon succeeds. That makes the basic plot repetitive and dull, but director and co-writer Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull can’t rely on spectacle, since the animation is so hideous and ungainly. The plastic-looking characters are stuck with frozen, pained facial expressions, and no one ever seems to be touching the objects they’re interacting with. It might be possible to overlook those flaws if you’re immersed in gameplay, but as a passive viewer, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Grade: D

The Moon and Back (VOD April 23): Grieving teenager Lydia Gilbert (Isabel May) is a little too realistically insufferable in writer-director Leah Bleich’s intermittently heartwarming dramedy. It’s a loving tribute to the power of filmmaking, as Lydia discovers an unfinished screenplay that her late father Peter (Nat Faxon) was working on before he died, and decides to make it into a movie as part of a college application package. Never mind that Lydia knows nothing about making movies, or that the only equipment she has is her dad’s vintage camcorder — when Peter’s screenplay is a massive intergalactic epic. The scrappy, low-fi production is The Moon and Back’s most enjoyable element, as Lydia recruits reluctant collaborators, including her childhood best friend and her guidance counselor, to bring Peter’s vision to life. Lydia’s journey from sullen, inconsiderate loner to generous team player is less compelling, although Missi Pyle gives a warm, likable performance as Lydia’s endlessly patient mom. That patience eventually pays off, for both the character and the audience, with a sweet, low-key finale. Grade: B-

Alam (VOD April 26): An unfortunately timely film about the struggles of Palestinians in Israel, writer-director Firas Khoury’s debut feature is more of a coming-of-age story than a political drama, which makes its political message more effective. It’s grounded in the life experiences of Palestinian teens living in Israel, away from the harsher realities of existence in Gaza or the West Bank, but still subject to harassment and indoctrination, especially around the time of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. Shy, brooding high schooler Tamer (Mahmood Bakri) initially joins the activist cause simply to spend more time with a girl he likes, and he remains ambivalent even as he gets more involved with protests and civil disobedience, including a plan to replace the Israeli flag atop his school with a Palestinian flag. Khoury captures the aimless lives of teenagers figuring out their individual identities, and while Alam is sometimes slow and meandering, it conveys a level of authenticity that cuts through abstract political arguments to something more immediate and moving. Grade: B

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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