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

Singing Vikings, predatory frat boys, bickering siblings, and a weird Croatian uncle are the stars of this week’s low-profile VOD releases.

The Uncle (Film Movement Plus July 5): Something is clearly not right about the Christmas celebration hastily prepared by a Croatian family for their visiting uncle from Germany. They go through what seems to be a rehearsed series of interactions, indicating Communist-era Yugoslavia, only to be interrupted by the uncle’s ringing cell phone. After he leaves, the family frantically rushes to get ready to do it all again the next day. The reason behind this endless Yuletide playacting is eventually partially revealed, but what’s most unsettling about the first feature from writer-directors David Kapac and Andrija Mardešić is how easily the characters accept such a bizarre, demented routine, under the avuncular threat of the title character (Miki Manojlović). Once the stakes are established, the events become a bit repetitive, but Kapac and Mardešić keep adding to the tension, maintaining suspense within their deadpan comedy. The absurdist scenario is reminiscent of early Yorgos Lanthimos, while the sheer sadism recalls Michael Haneke, but the result is more humane and at times more affecting. Grade: B+

Freydis and Gudrid (VOD July 7): It’s easy to admire the ambition on display in composer Jeffrey Leiser’s directorial debut, which is an epic Viking opera staged on a modest indie-film budget. As a piece of music, Freydis and Gudrid is energetic and grandiose, although lacking in memorable melodies that might stick with viewers. It’s less successful as cinema, despite some gorgeous black-and-white images of the Icelandic landscape. Almost none of those images have any actors in them, and virtually the entire movie consists of characters standing around awkwardly in front of green-screened backgrounds, as they bombastically sing their feelings at each other. The plot, adapted from Norse historical sagas, is suitably primal and majestic, and most of the stars have powerful voices. Leiser emphasizes the female title characters, offering a welcome alternative to macho Viking lore, although there’s little depth to the characterization. The technical limitations would be easier to overlook onstage, but Leiser provides just enough cinematic splendor to make the clumsy execution more glaring. Grade: C+

Because We’re Family (VOD July 12): There’s meant to be a rich family history at the center of this bland dramedy, but writer/co-director/star Angela Stern gives little sense of her characters’ lives beyond their limited personal interactions. It makes sense that Stern adapted the movie from her own stage play, because it often feels sealed off from the outside world. Still, there are some affecting moments in the story of three adult siblings reuniting after their mother’s death and working out their mild family conflicts, and Stern and co-director Christine Nyhart anchor the drama as a pair of bickering but ultimately loving sisters. The male stars, including C. Thomas Howell as one sister’s husband, are less effective, and the child actors might as well not even be there. Stern structures the movie around holidays, so that the family comes together at Halloween, falls into disarray at Thanksgiving, and reconciles at Christmas. It’s rote and simplistic, but ultimately harmless. Grade: C+

The Blue Rose (VOD and select theaters July 12): It takes a high level of skill to pull off what writer/director/star George Baron aims for in his debut feature, and he doesn’t quite have what it takes. Baron draws heavily on the works of David Lynch (even throwing in a Ray Wise appearance) for his surreal take on 1950s-set noir, in which a pair of detectives investigate a suburban murder. Well, maybe “investigate” is too strong a word: Detectives Dalton (Baron) and Lily (Olivia Scott Welch) wander through various inexplicable locations having even more inexplicable conversations with strange people, eventually ending up in a mental institution where they confront their inner demons or darkest fears or something. The brightly lit, often flat-looking cinematography fails to conjure up the kind of haunting imagery that Baron needs to make an impression, and the performances can’t bring life to the elliptical dialogue and confusing motivations. For impressionistic artistry like this to work, it needs to evoke more than just a recollection of better, more assured movies. Grade: C

Guys at Parties Like It (VOD July 12): The protagonist of this exercise in empty provocation writes “#MeToo” in blood on the floor of a frat house toward the end of the movie, in case anyone was unsure about the intended takeaway. It’s not like directors Colton David Coate and Micah Coate are delivering some major feminist statement here, though: The opening scene hints at saying something interesting about the mingling of sex and violence, but most of Guys at Parties Like It consists of familiar gross frat-party antics, while supposed easy mark Mary (Monica Garcia Bradley) is lured into a compromising position with unhinged pledge Brad (Anthony Notarile). There’s no plot momentum or character development, and everyone behaves according to basic, lazy stereotypes of campus immorality. Once the violence starts, it doesn’t convey a sense of righteous vengeance or even gleeful destruction; it’s just a glum, scolding march of abuse and carnage, culminating in that smug final hashtag. Grade: C

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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