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

This week’s minor VOD releases struggle to make the most of stars like J.K. Simmons and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who are outshone by a midlevel scream queen and a Mongolian sex-shop clerk.

You Can’t Run Forever (VOD and select theaters May 17): J.K. Simmons must be a loving husband and father, because it’s hard to come up with any other reason he’d star in this clumsily shot, poorly paced thriller. It’s a Simmons family affair, directed and co-written by his wife Michelle Schumacher, co-starring his daughter Olivia Simmons, scored by his son Joe Simmons, and produced by his brother-in-law Randle Schumacher. Only one member of the family delivers, though, and even Simmons himself isn’t doing his best work as a confusingly motivated spree killer. Wade (Simmons) pursues teenager Miranda (Isabelle Anaya) into the Montana woods after killing her stepdad (Allen Leech), but Schumacher isn’t satisfied with a simple chase between two characters. She throws in extraneous victims, excessive yet rote traumatic back story, and meandering subplots for Miranda’s other family members. Simmons has moments of chilling menace, but most of the time he’s curiously subdued, as if Schumacher didn’t want her husband to seem too scary. That’s just one of the many ways this awkward, amateurish movie misuses its resources. Grade: C

Faceless After Dark (VOD and select theaters May 17): A horror-movie actress is stalked by a blade-wielding fan who breaks into her house while wearing the villain’s mask from her most famous film. It seems obvious where things will go next for C-list star Bowie Davidson (Jenna Kanell), but co-writer Kanell and director Raymond Wood subvert expectations, making the incident into a catalyst for Bowie’s descent into full-on psychopathy. That transition doesn’t entirely work, which makes the rest of Faceless After Dark tough to buy into, as Bowie abruptly shifts from mild career frustration into homicidal rage. Kanell is a veteran of cult horror movies including Terrifier and The Bye Bye Man, and the movie’s takedown of toxic online fandom is specific and honest. It’s also repetitive and obvious, and Wood’s stylized touches don’t make up for the thin plotting and nonexistent characterization. Recent festival-favorite indie films I Blame Society and The Columnist have taken on similar material with more humor and creativity. Kanell shares their righteous fury, but she channels it less effectively. Grade: C+

Darkness of Man (VOD May 21): Unlike his onetime action-star peer Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme has maintained an admirable level of integrity and dedication in his late-career projects. One thing that Seagal and Van Damme now have in common, though, is starring in a film from direct-to-video workhorse James Cullen Bressack, who has previously turned out “geezer teasers” featuring Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. At least Van Damme is no tease here — there may even be too much of him, as Bressack saddles him with constant hard-boiled narration that he’s not quite equipped to deliver. He fares better when he’s called on for brooding and punching as ex-Interpol agent Russell Hatch, who’s sworn to protect the teenage son of his late informant/lover. That puts Russell in the crossfire of a war between Russian and Korean gangsters, which plays out as lumbering and dull, with mediocre action, murky visuals, and shaky supporting performances. Van Damme immerses himself in his world-weary character, but the rest of the movie is just another assembly-line DTV product from Bressack. Grade: C

Dead Wrong (VOD and Blu-ray May 21): It’s not easy to make viewers think that the likes of Rob Schneider and Chet Hanks are too good for the movie they’re in, but that’s what writer-director Rick Bieber accomplishes in this dreadful, thrill-free thriller. Bieber throws in so many disjointed introductory scenes that it’s not clear who the protagonist is meant to be until around 40 minutes into the nearly two-hour running time. That’s when the plot finally shows up, as father-to-be Billy Evans (Derek Smith) launches a nonsensical scheme to score easy money by staging the kidnapping of his own newborn child. Nothing about his plan makes sense, and neither does the retribution he eventually incurs from crime bosses played by Hanks and Joshua Bitton. The portrayals of criminals come off as cartoonish playacting, and the attempts at emotional resonance are just as laughable. There’s no excitement or suspense to the haphazard way the story unfolds, with no characters worth caring about. Whatever Bieber thought he was aiming for, he was … well, refer to the title. Grade: D+

The Sales Girl (VOD and Film Movement Plus May 24): A much different slice of life in Mongolia than the Mongolian movies that typically make their way to the U.S., director Sengedorj Janchivdorj’s coming-of-age dramedy is a sweet if somewhat overlong story about a young woman finding her place in the world. Timid college student Saruul (Bayarjargal Bayartsetseg) agrees to fill in for an injured classmate at her job, working behind the counter of a sex shop. As she helps the often equally timid customers and bonds with brash owner Katya (Oidovjamts Enkhtuul), Saruul becomes more comfortable in her own skin and builds the courage to go after what she wants. Refreshingly, that doesn’t just involve sexual exploration, and Janchivdorj is equally interested in Saruul’s inner life and artistic aspirations. The friendship between Saruul and Katya is funny and heartfelt, and while the plot can feel a bit aimless and episodic, the individual moments are generally appealing and insightful. Occasional surreal musical interludes break up the low-key scenes of daily life. Saruul earns her newfound confidence, and the movie earns the audience’s confidence, too. 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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