Between a long Easter weekend off work and being knocked off my feet by a painful gout flare-up (damn those tasty crawfish!), I have seen a lot of movies in the past few days. Too many, even. My normal process for this blog is to give each film a full, individualized review, but it would take me way too long to clear out this backlog before I could move onto new material. And since that sounds like more work than fun, it’s time for some spring cleaning. So, here are a few brief, to-the-point reviews of new releases I’ve seen over the past week, ranked from best-to-least-best.
You Won’t Be Alone
Between Border, November, Tale of Tales, Field Guide to Evil, Lamb, The Other Lamb, and Hagazussa, there has been an entire industry of traditionalist folktale cinema that has emerged in the wake of The VVitch – not to mention the folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that collects them all like Pokémon. It’s easy to take You Won’t Be Alone for granted in such a crowded field of similar titles (which vary wildly both in quality and in creativity), but it still manages to be uniquely unnerving. I’m not sure how many coming-of-age folktales about shapeshifting, bodyhopping witches (i.e., Wolf-Eateresses) you’ve seen in your lifetime, but this was my first. I’m also willing to bet it was the first ever to be set in 19th Century Macedonia.
Over the course of the film we watch Old Maid Maria, the most feared Wolf-Eateress of all, train a child in the art of stealing life & likeness from human & animal victims alike. Raised in a cave without much direct human contact (in a futile attempt to avoid this apprenticeship), the child learns how to relate to other people by unconvincingly pretending to be a Normal Human in variously shaped, gendered bodies. Meanwhile, Old Maid Maria chides her for not rejecting humanity entirely and just snacking on human flesh for sustenance. If You Won’t Be Alone is meant to be dealt with as a horror film, it is Imposter Syndrome Horror, where you never feel like you fit in with any community while everyone else seems to excel at it effortlessly. Or maybe it’s just a nightmare scenario where Freddy Krueger is your adoptive mother. If it is not a horror film, then it’s a confounding supernatural drama about all the various ways life can be miserable unless you luck into a well-nurtured youth. I greatly enjoyed being perturbed by it, even its brand of eerie, back-to-basics folktale has become a matter of routine in recent years.
The clever dual-purpose title Dual refers both to human cloning and to duels to the death. Karen Gillan stars as a woman who has herself cloned so her memory can live on past a terminal illness, then is forced to duel that clone when she unexpectedly recovers. It is a comedy of passive aggression, wherein Original Sarah finds herself annoyed with how much shinier Clone Sarah’s hair is, or how she weighs slightly less, or how much more accommodating she is to friends & family – all great motivation for killing her. It’s also a comedy of isolation, taking a macro view of all the commodified ways we’re supposed to maintain our bodies & our relationships in an increasingly passionless, distanced world.
Director Riley Stearns hammers away at the same flat, matter-of-fact line deliveries and overall comedic bitterness he played with in The Art of Self-Defense. Characters speak in clipped, emotionless stabs; they text with abrupt punctuation. Instead of satirizing the absurdity of traditional masculinity this time, though, he chisels at the absurdity of the self-care industry, from gym training to support groups to talk therapy. Call it The Art of Self-Improvement. Dual is a squirmy little black comedy about all the little ways you hate yourself and your life, with no chance for genuine change no matter how hard you try. It’s funnier than it sounds.
The Pink Cloud
The Brazilian sci-fi chiller The Pink Cloud is also a dark film about isolation & passive aggression, but you need to get past the cosmic coincidence of its premise to contend with that. Without reason or explanation, pink clouds rapidly appear across the globe, killing anyone who breathes them within seconds and tinting everything a pale Millennial Pink. It’s a purely supernatural event, as the poisoned air does not pass through gaps in windows and cannot be safely filtered through masks. The clouds exist simply to force everyone inside, communicating only through social media and purchasing necessities through a system of drones & tubes. Stuck at home for years, we watch one couple fall in and out of love after hunkering down together when the clouds interrupt what was supposed to be a one-time hookup.
I’ve seen plenty of accidentally pandemic-relevant sci-fi & horror films over the past couple years (Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, Little Fish, Spontaneous, etc.), but this is the first one I’ve seen outright apologize for the coincidence. I understand the impulse to include a title card that emphasizes the film was written & produced pre-COVID, since it includes many dead-on parallels to our last couple years of isolation & rot – from major cultural shifts like the new class system of work-from-home jobs vs. “essential” service work to the emergence of boredom-inspired fads like adult roller-skating. The filmmakers had a lot on their minds about climate change, depression, and the general isolation of modern living, so it must be frustrating to see their work reduced to a pure-COVID metaphor. Still, there have been enough of these accidentally-relevant genre pictures over the past couple years that it’s impossible to not be a little reductive about their collective emotional impact. File this particular accidental-pandemic-chiller under the same anti-romantic subcategory as Vivarium, although it’s more melancholic than abrasive.
Michael Bay returns to basics with a retro, regressive thriller about two tough-guy criminals who steal an ambulance during a botched bank heist (one out of medical desperation, one out of greed), and enter into a wild police chase around Los Angeles in the clunky vehicle. Ambulance is a typical 90s Bay thriller in all of the exact visual, visceral, and political ways you’d expect, except with two major updates: flamboyant exploitation of drone-camera tech and a wild-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The cameras are piloted by young, professional drone racers, adding a nauseating velocity to even the pre-car-chase establishing shots, often for no discernible reason. Gyllenhaal matches their gonzo energy as the ambulance heist’s main villain, playing the role as part criminal mastermind, part Nic Cagian freak show.
Gyllenhaal and the drones are enough to make Ambulance feel novel & exciting, but maybe not enough to fully justify the feeling of being bashed in the skull for 135 relentless minutes. I was more obliterated by it than I was “entertained”, but I suppose that’s exactly what Bay’s paid to do. He’s good at his job, the bastard.
If you are somehow unaware, Aline is an unauthorized Celine Dion biopic in which 57-year-old French comedian Valérie Lemercier plays the Québecian chanteuse from ages 12 to 54, with the aid of shoddy CGI. I’ve been greatly anticipating Aline since professional smartasses Kyle Buchannan & Rachel Handler sang its uncanny praises at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, so it was bizarre to watch the Event Film in an otherwise empty suburban megaplex. I cannot imagine what it would be like to stumble into it totally unprepared for Lemercier’s de-aged “transformations”, but it turns out that’s not really a valid concern, since most people don’t even know this curio exists. Even the posters & trailers emphasize the gobsmacked blurbs from Handler & Buchannan at Cannes as its only selling point, making it clear who is likely to show up at the theater – freaks like me.
Aline is an odd mix of surrealist geek show & genuine biopic cliché. Most movie nerds will compare it to the unconvincing early-years play acting of Walk Hard, but it reminded me more of the absurdist artificiality of Annette, sometimes slipping into the broad crowd-pleasing appeal of a My Big Fat Québecian Wedding. Questions of its sincerity & intent will linger with me for a while, but it does nail the only two things I know about Dion: she makes goofy faces, and the age she met her late manager-husband is alarming. The movie constantly references “Aline Dieu’s” age, so we know exactly how old she is within the drama (helpful, since her face remains a static 57-years-old throughout), which only makes you dwell on the discomfort of her romance with her middle-aged divorcee manager. When she is 12, she huffs his cologne as a private kink. When she is 17, she lusts over a picture of him that she keeps tucked under her pillow. When she is 20, she initiates their first, fully consensual consummation. It was already a deeply strange, unsettling dynamic in real life, so it’s oddly appropriate that this “work of fiction freely inspired by” it is also deeply strange & unsettling.
I don’t pay much attention to DC Comics’ straight-to-video animated features, but I was impressed enough with the visual imagination & propulsive energy of Batman Ninja to keep my eye out for similar releases. Unfortunately, Catwoman: Hunted is not nearly as ambitious of an anime take on the DC brand as Batman Ninja. It features one of the coolest comic book characters of all time doing her usual thing (jewel heists, cat puns, bisexual seductions, etc.), and it throws everything from demons to ninja assassins to mech-suit warriors in her way. And yet the result feels tame in comparison to the last time the company dipped their toe into anime waters, which is a shame.
Thankfully, Catwoman: Hunted avoids total stylistic tedium by borrowing some jazzy cool from Cowboy Bebop. There’s a jazz infused retro-futurism to it that makes for a fun novelty (who wouldn’t be curious to see Catwoman in a Cowboy Bebop crossover?), even if the whole thing feels pleasantly slight & forgettable. While not exactly the cat’s pajamas, it is purrrfect viewing for a lazy afternoon (followed, of course, by a cat nap).