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

This week’s fringe VOD releases feature multiple poorly managed murder cover-ups among bull-riders, college students and cult members, plus a lovely sojourn to a surrealist restaurant in Spain.

Ride (VOD and select theaters June 14): Before belatedly turning into a low-level crime thriller, director and co-writer Jake Allyn’s debut feature is a turgid family melodrama. It takes a while just to work out the relationships of the main characters, Texas ranchers with a long history as rodeo cowboys. C. Thomas Howell growls and grumbles as former bull-riding champion John Hawkins, whose 11-year-old daughter is in need of expensive cancer treatment. John’s son Peter (Allyn), also a former bull-riding champion, was just released from prison, and John’s estranged wife Monica (Annabeth Gish) is the town sheriff. The cast members, including Forrie J. Smith as John’s father, all seem to be the wrong ages for their characters, and Allyn makes every interaction into an anguished, overwrought battle of emoting. The rodeo scenes look fantastic, accompanied by a rousing post-rock score by Those Who Ride With Giants, but the personal drama is a grim slog. Both the eventual desperate crime and its aftermath are presented with confusing obtuseness that Allyn mistakes for emotional resonance. Grade: C

Queen Rising (VOD June 18): The queen who rises here is Madison (April Hale), survivor of both a childhood with an abusive stepfather and an infamous series of campus slayings during her college years. Now working as a teacher, she’s convinced by her hunky, seemingly sensitive colleague Greg (Xamon Glasper) to let him turn her experiences into a book, but he obviously has ulterior motives. With its soap opera-level plotting and acting and its disingenuous message of violent female empowerment, Queen Rising comes off like Tyler Perry’s Promising Young Woman, leading up to two heavily telegraphed yet incoherent twists. There are flashbacks nestled within flashbacks, serving only to obscure the fundamentally uninteresting narrative. Director Princeton James stages all of the action with generic indifference (Madison gets a foreclosure notice on letterhead from “The Bank,” and her sister’s dorm room is adorned with a poster that simply reads “University”), indicating as little enthusiasm for making the movie as the audience will have for watching it. Grade: D+

Waiting for Dali (VOD June 18): The leisurely pace of this Spanish dramedy matches its setting in a sleepy seaside town where brothers Fernando (Ivan Massagué) and Alberto (Pol López) attempt to lay low following Alberto’s run-in with the law. Set in 1974, Waiting for Dali deals with the political repression of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, but the social commentary is mostly background for a character-driven story about professional and personal passion. In the tourist town of Cadaqués, veteran chefs Fernando and Alberto are hired by flamboyant restaurateur Jules (José Garcia) to cook at his Salvador Dali-themed establishment El Surreal. Jules is obsessed with getting local resident Dali to eat at El Surreal, and that mission inspires Fernando’s culinary creativity. Director David Pujol previously made documentaries about both Dali and renowned restaurant El Bulli, so he understands his subject matter, but more importantly, he builds strong relationships among complex, engaging characters. It’s as enjoyable to spend time with them as it is to take a trip to Cadaqués. Grade: B

Invited (VOD June 21): The pandemic fueled far too many ill-conceived movies set over video chats, but director Navin Ramaswaran and writer Monica La Vella use the format effectively in this often disturbing horror movie. It’s heavily influenced by the likes of  Unfriended and Host, as a group of people slowly realize that something is not right during their initially friendly online get-together. Ramaswaran sometimes stretches the found-footage format too far, but Invited mostly sticks to the computer screen of recovering alcoholic Linda (Martina Schabron), who’s signed on for the Zoom wedding of her daughter Jessica (Beáta Imre). The wedding, which takes place in a strange church in Russia, is immediately suspicious, but Jessica’s family and friends play along, until they can’t possibly ignore the ritual’s gruesome aims. Ramaswaran and La Vella find smart ways to keep all the characters involved in the horrific developments, and while the acting can be shaky, the participants’ mounting dread is clear. The scattered story gradually fizzles out, but there are plenty of creepy moments along the way. Grade: B-

It’s Not Over (VOD June 25): It’s hard to tell who’s meant to be the hero or villain of this laughable thriller, since everyone behaves in a stilted, off-putting manner that indicates they could easily be a secret sociopath. At first, the abusive husband of photographer Sarah (Weronika Rosati) is set up as the bad guy, but he quickly dies in a mysterious accident, paving the way for Sarah to be with her lover Max (Gianni Capaldi). Max ominously snoops around Sarah’s apartment and shares his unhinged speculation with his father (Christopher Lambert), and soon Max is dead, too. That leaves Sarah, tormented by “The Tell-Tale Heart”-like visions, but there’s no sense of either malevolence or remorse in Rosati’s performance. There’s no feeling of righteous vengeance from Lambert, either, just what looks like mild irritation until the final nonsensical twist. Writer-director Alessandro Riccardi shoots in threadbare, harshly lit spaces that make the movie look like it takes place inside a stock photo, and the performances and dialogue are equally empty and artificial. 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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