The major movie studios created a lot of hubbub last month by releasing some of their bigger spring films early on video-on-demand, in response to the nationwide COVID-19 shutdowns. Lately though, the home video market is starting to settle down, falling back into its usual mix of recent theatrical hits and smaller independent films.
Sometimes it’s those indies that are the real gems in any given week of the VOD release calendar. And sometimes … well, not. Here’s a quick rundown of five of this week’s lower-profile titles, ranked from surprisingly good to easily ignorable. Movies are available at most major digital retailers: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and Apple’s iTunes (or Apple TV).
“Sea Fever” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and in the months since, this moody Irish monster movie has taken on a new relevance. Set aboard a fishing boat, the film stars Dougray Scott as a desperate captain who leads his crew into forbidden waters. When the vessel gets snagged by a strange leviathan, it’s up to visiting marine biology student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) to figure out what this beast actually is, and why its ejecta is poisoning the ship’s water supply and infecting the men and women aboard.
Writer-director Neasa Hardiman mostly keeps her debut feature at the level of a claustrophobic psychological thriller, saving her special effects budget for a few breathtaking undersea views of the glowing, multi-tentacled beastie. But after a fairly sedate start, the movie gets increasingly grim and violent.
Throughout, Hardiman takes the time to consider how these people got into this mess largely through a combination of arrogance, ignorance and ill-preparedness. Then she focuses, step by step, on the extreme measures they’re going to have to take to get out.
Back at TIFF, many viewers read “Sea Fever” as a metaphor for climate change, with Hardiman critiquing humanity’s unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices for survival. Nowadays, the lessons in this imaginative and gripping film seem to have multiple applications. Available April 10. Not rated. (1:29)
Early in the quiet crime drama “Stray Dolls,” an Indian immigrant named Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) arrives at a run-down motel managed by Una (Cynthia Nixon), a shady Russian who both hires her to work as a maid and rooms her with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), a runaway who does odd jobs with Una’s thug son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo). At first, these characters conform to types; but as Riz and Dallas get to know each other, director Sonejuhi Sinha reveals that these women are capable of the unexpected.
Sinha and her co-screenwriter Charlotte Rabate eschew sensationalism to perhaps too great of a degree. “Stray Dolls” lacks some narrative momentum, as the characters drift from petty crime to petty crime and party to party. But the film has a remarkable sense of place, bringing to life the seedy motels and sketchy nightclubs where people live and work outside the scrutiny of the law — and deal with the dangers that come with that kind of freedom. Available April 10. Not rated. (1:37)
“We Summon the Darkness”
References to 1980s pop culture abound in “We Summon the Darkness,” a well-acted horror-comedy that works better as a retro slice-of-life than as a genre film. Alexandrio Daddario, Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth are all terrific as a trio of best buds, who meet up with three hard-partying metalheads in the parking lot outside a rock show. The movie’s opening half hour is a funny and tense character study, about six boozy youngsters flirting with each other in a remote rural community rocked by reports of ritual satanic murders.
Inevitably, the evening takes a dark and bloody turn; and eventually, the original sextet are joined by new arrivals, including Johnny Knoxville as a fiery televangelist. But director Marc Meyers (working from an Alan Trezza screenplay) never seems as committed to the “kids getting butchered out in the sticks” part of this story as he is in the “Metallica fans hanging out and swapping stories” part. “We Summon the Darkness” is fine throughout; but it peaks in its first third, when nothing much is happening beyond some very good actors recreating the small-town rock ’n’ roll lifestyle of the recent past. Available April 10. Rated: R for bloody violence, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual references. (1:23)
The Lost Husband
It wouldn’t take much adjusting to convert the romantic drama “The Lost Husband” into a Hallmark Channel Original. Based on a Katherine Center novel — adapted to the screen by writer-director Vicky Wight — the film hits all the usual “boy meets girl in a quaint little community” marks. Leslie Bibb plays a recent widow trying to restart her life with her kids on her aunt’s goat farm, where she has an alternately antagonistic and intimate relationship with a rugged rancher played by Josh Duhamel. All these characters have secrets and hang-ups they have to work through before they can live (and love) happily ever after.
Yet while nearly everything about “The Lost Husband” is pat and predictable, the movie’s easy to watch. Credit the charisma and polished professionalism of Bibb and Duhamel — along with the strong supporting performances of Nora Dunn and Sharon Lawrence, who play the heroine’s feisty aunt and estranged mother, respectively. The pace here is more leisurely than a TV movie, but the actors add a touch more depth. Romance fans should appreciate the effort. Available April 10. Rated: PG-13, for some suggestive references. (1:49)
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind
There are probably two ideal audiences for writer-director Michael Mazzola’s docu-essay “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind.” One is people who’ve fallen down internet rabbit holes, looking for proof that the governments of the world are hiding both the existence of extraterrestrials and their ultimate mission. The other group will be all those who just think “UFOlogists” are crackpots, and may be amused by how dryly academic the film is, as its interview subjects soberly connect wildly disparate incidents from recent world history.
Both factions though ought to agree that this “Close Encounters” is overlong and rambling — more concerned with disconnected anecdotes than making a compelling case or telling an interesting story. Not rated. (2:00)