Quick Takes: Spring Cleaning 2022

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.

Dual

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-ImprovementDual 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.

Ambulance

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.

Aline

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.

Catwoman: Hunted

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).

-Brandon Ledet

The Alien Movies Rated and Ranked

Alien (1979)

An exquisitely fucked up mutation of the Roger Corman creature feature.  So many dirt-cheap horrors in its wake have aimed for its exact quietly eerie mood and inspired only frustrated boredom in the attempt.  Here, every scare is a sharp knife to the brain no matter how familiar you are with what’s coming.  I still can’t look directly at Giger’s goopy sex monster without shivering in pure disgust all these sequels & knockoffs later.  Like the original Terminator, it’s got a reputation of having been surpassed by its louder, better-funded spawn, but I don’t believe that’s true for a second.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Far from the scariest entry in the franchise, but easily the most fun.  The whole thing plays like a live-action cartoon, and its blasphemous disinterest in series lore is a refreshing blast of fresh air after watching Fincher take everything so relentlessly serious in its predecessor.  Great creature gags, some endearingly goofy character work, and a wonderfully imaginative eye from Jeunet, as always.  Big fan.

Prometheus (2012)

Fantastic mix of ludicrous retro sci-fi pulp & elegant visual artistry.  I am forever in love with the idea of humans asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response.  Still kicking myself for allowing the negative word-of-mouth to talk me out of seeing it in 3D on the big screen when I had the chance.

Aliens (1986)

I’ll always have some philosophical hang-ups with the way Cameron simplifies & normalizes the subliminal nightmare fuel of the first Alien movie for much more familiar blockbuster entertainment.  It’s still great as a standalone action movie though!  Stan Winston’s wizardly creature effects are especially praiseworthy, affording the xenomorphs an exciting feeling of agility that matches the increased momentum of the shoot-em-up action sequences.  I’ll never buy into the myth that this & T2 are somehow superior to their predecessors just because of their slicker production values, and the Director’s Cut’s sprawling 154min runtime is a crime against all reason & good taste.  And yet pushing back against its hyperbolic reputation comes across as contrarian blasphemy, when the truth is it’s just a solidly entertaining popcorn movie and that’s a pleasure in itself.

AvP: Requiem (2007)

This is widely understood to be the worst Alien film, but I thoroughly enjoy it as dumb-fun teen horror. If nothing else, it’s impressively efficient and Mean. The gore gags are plentiful & cruel, maintaining a consistently entertaining rhythm of nasty, amoral kills. It’s like a modern throwback to the Roger Corman creature feature, with a suburban-invasion angle that brings some much-needed novelty to two once-great franchises that were running out of steam. I honestly believe that if it featured warring alien creatures that weren’t associated with pre-existing series, it wouldn’t be nearly as reviled. It probably wouldn’t be remembered at all, though, so maybe it’s for the best that it ruffled horror-nerd feathers.

Alien Covenant (2017)

Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes back down to the level of a body-count slasher.  This prequel/sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise.  Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), this easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has maintained a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand has eight films into its catalog.

Alien³ (1992)

Really pushes the limits of the dictum “There’s no such thing as a bad Alien movie.”  Even the revised Assembly Cut is an excessively dour bore, and the only thing that breathes any life into the damned thing is the continued instinctive terror of Giger’s creature designs (though the green sheen of the early-90s CGI isn’t doing that aesthetic any favors).  Its only illuminating accomplishment is helping make sense why Jeunet was hired for the next entry in the series, as it often looks & feels like one of his steampunk grotesqueries with all of the Fun & Whimsy surgically removed. Otherwise, it just coasts on the series’ former glories.

AvP: Alien vs Predator (2004)

Maybe the most frustrating movie in the Alienverse for being deliriously stupid fun for its final 20 minutes or so, but not worth the effort it takes to get there.  The restorative praise for it in Horror Noire had me hoping for a different reaction than I had in the theater, but this viewing was mostly a repeat: bored out of my skull for the first hour and then cheering on its climactic team-up sequence as if I were watching the creature-feature Super Bowl.  Appropriately, that’s also a pretty accurate summation of Paul WS Anderson’s entire career; there’s just enough unhinged, goofball fun to keep your rooting for him even though he fumbles the ball every single game.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: 2021 Oscars Catch-up

There’s usually very little room for surprise on the morning Oscar nominations are announced, but this year really did catch me off-guard.  I was amazed that even though I watched over 80 feature films released in 2020, only four were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals.  Usually, I’ve seen at least a dozen without trying.  And of the four films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy.  Judas and the Black Messiah was decent-enough, but I honestly only watched it because I knew it would be nominated.  Meanwhile, Borat 2 was meh, Shaun the Sheep 2 was bleh, and Emma. was one of my personal favorite films of the year but was only nominated for Best Costuming & Best Makeup awards – which feels like the Academy on autopilot, treating it like a standard-issue costume drama.  Looking at the 42 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important.  Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now.  Hard to tell.

Knowing that I’ll end up watching this year’s Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I used that moment of surprise as an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me.  I set a couple rules for myself: only movies I could access for free or via a streaming service I already subscribe to (so no outrageous $20 rentals of films like The Father or Minari) and only movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing (so no enduring whatever the fuck is going on in Mank).  Usually on this website, we post a ranked list of films we’ve reviewed that happened to be nominated for Oscars.  This year, I have a ranked list of movies I watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb.  It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony.  Enjoy.

Pinocchio

Nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Holy shit, this rules.  Matteo Garrone applies the same dark fairy tale wizardry he established in Tale of Tales to a much more widely familiar story.  The uncanny prosthetics & CG effects make the old feel new again in a deeply unsettling, uncanny nightmare that had me laughing and recoiling in horror, often in the same moment.  Shocked I loved it as much as I did; bummed it was so readily dismissed by online film nerds for ~looking weird~.  It does look weird, as more movies should.

I should confess that I have whatever defective gene makes Roberto Benigni funny, so I found his tragic-comic Geppetto wonderfully effective.  Regardless of that much-mocked casting choice, this is some deliciously dark Movie Magic.  Easily the best discovery of my Oscars Catch-up, and so far it’s the one title from last year I wish I’d seen before our Best of 2020 list-making ritual.

Sound of Metal

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Editing, and Best Sound

I really connected with this on an emotional level in a way I did not expected to, especially after a year where so few straightforward dramas cut through the constant background chaos churning around in my head and the world outside.  The disability and addiction narratives aren’t realms I personally know, but the D.I.Y. music scene and the struggles with explosive anger & codependency are definitely a world I recognize, and Riz Ahmed’s performance feels true enough to them. More importantly, it’s just a solid drama on its own merits.

For all its modern-world authenticity, it actually reminded me a lot of traditional Old Hollywood melodramas, particularly an Ida Lupino picture I reviewed recently called Never Fear about a dancer who’s rapidly paralyzed by polio.  Nothing wrong with some broadly traditional structure, though, especially when it still hits so effectively. 

Time

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fourstar.jpg

Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

This one did help clarify why I hadn’t seen many of the major Oscar noms this year: they’re emotionally tough!  It’s not so much that they’re Homework, but most of my major blind spots tackle dead-serious subjects I would’ve been reluctant to engage with in a year that was already difficult enough to get through without filling my free time with discomfort watching.  This one’s a prison abolitionist doc about a Louisiana woman’s decades-long, uphill battle to get her husband released from Angola.  I’m glad the Awards Season ritual finally pushed me to watch it; it’s as deftly crafted as it is emotionally draining.

Listening to Fox Rich advocate both for her husband and for wider prison reform in present-day footage is powerful in itself, but it’s the poetic use of her decades of home video recordings that really weighs on the heart.  You watch her family age in her husband’s absence in a way that constantly emphasizes exactly what he’s missing out on, often directly addressing him just to fill him in on the smallest details of their day-to-day life.  Looks great, feels awful.

Tenet

Nominated for Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects

I resisted Nolan’s urging to spread a lethal virus by waiting to see this for free on a borrowed library DVD with the subtitles flipped on.  Turns out it’s a dumb-fun action movie with the absurd intellectual self-esteem of a freshman Philosophy student. I had a ton of fun with it.  Reminded me of the eerie, off-putting mutation of the modern action film in Gemini Man, in that it’s just slightly off in a way that’s compelling but difficult to pinpoint. Also reminded me of that episode of Wonder Showzen that stops halfway through to run the same gags backwards.

Its nomination for Best Visual Effects feels totally deserved, especially in a year with so few genuine blockbusters.  I was tickled by the hyper-convoluted dialogue in lines like “We’re being attacked by the future, and we’re fighting over time,” but during the backwards-fighting sequences I was genuinely wrapped up in the spectacle of it, no questions asked. At least no questions that matter more than watching stuff get blowed up real good (and then un-blowed-up even gooder).

Love and Monsters

Nominated for Best Visual Effects

An adorable creature feature about a young coward’s travels with a heroic stray dog across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to reconnect with his long-distance girlfriend. Shares a lot of weirdly pandemic-relevant dark humor with last year’s Spontaneous, although maybe without the same emotional heft. I probably should not have been surprised they also share a screenwriter.

Its coming-of-age neuroticism is cute enough on its own, but it wouldn’t be much without the inventiveness & grotesqueness of its creature designs. There are about a dozen uniquely nasty beasts spread throughout, and that variety was a smart choice in keeping the novelty alive once you settle into the rhythms of the plot. The dog could’ve also used an Oscar Nomination for Best Boy, though; quite the snub.

Crip Camp

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is threehalfstar.jpg

Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

A historical documentary about a hippie-run summer camp for kids with disabilities, tracking how its radically inclusive environment inspired its alumni to protest for Disability Rights in their adulthood.  Straightforward in its presentation, but in a way that’s smart to stay out of the way of the inherent power of its subject.

The overload of archival footage is the true wonder.  It has so much to work with that it can just hang out with the campers as they joke at length about a genital crabs infestation going around the bunks or debate whether they should eat lasagna for dinner. It lets the kids be kids (which is exactly what it’s praising Camp Jened for doing in the first place) then clearly demonstrates how empowering that can be as they grow into themselves. Unfortunately, its conventionality gradually overpowers its exciting first hour the further it gets away from the camp, but it’s still solid overall as both portraiture & political advocacy.

Judas and the Black Messiah

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is threehalfstar.jpg

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Music (Original Song), and Best Cinematography

Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old.

If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics.  At least it’s not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform.  Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s police-state execution is a genuine, real-world good.  The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.

Da 5 Bloods

Nominated for Best Music (Original Score)

I initially avoided this because I’m generally bored by the Vietnam War Movie template to the point of total numbness. Instead of dodging the redundancy of genre, this one dives headfirst into it — directly commenting on its tropes & untruths. It’s revisiting & unpacking Vietnam War Cinema as much as it’s picking scabs leftover from the war itself.  Which means there are Apocalypse Now-themed dance parties, Rambo jokes, and deliberately corny helicopter warfare.  No CCR needle drops, though, thankfully.

Can’t say I completely overcame my genre bias here, and I’m not convinced the movie overcomes the hurdle of Netflix Flatness either.  Still, I’m always on the hook for Spike Lee’s messy multimedia jabs at all ugly corners institutional racism, and this particular topic opens up a wide range of opportunities for his deliciously unsubtle political commentary. Would’ve been much more excited by an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay over Best Original Score.

Another Round

Nominated for Best Director and Best International Feature Film

Look, I only have enough capacity to care about one self-amused film about pathetic men’s midlife crises at a time, and right now that space is occupied by Deerskin.  This one’s mildly engaging once it heats up, but it’s a chore getting there. The wonderful, much-praised ending almost felt like earning a lollipop for enduring a doctor’s visit.

To be fair, it does a good job of covering all the positives & negatives of social & antisocial alcohol consumption, but I kinda found that to be a mundane topic at this length — almost as much as the macho fears of losing virility in old age.  It’s fine overall, but considering it in the context of Awards Season doesn’t do it any favors.

Nomadland

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is twohalfstar.jpg

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (France McDormand), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Best Editing

It’s an undignified ritual, but every Oscars cycle I end up watching something mediocre solely to be in tune with The Discourse.  Everything I’ve heard about this film’s muddied labor politics, Malickian awe with the American landscape, and emphasis on rugged individualism had me convinced it’d leave me either bored or annoyed.  I watched it anyway because it’s pretty much a lock for Best Picture, like a rube.

It was mostly fine.  Not exactly for me, but I knew to expect that.  The corporate sponsorships & celebrity protagonist occasionally had me rolling my eyes, but I do think it’s critical enough about America’s complete lack of a social safety net to get by okay.  The poetry it finds in life off the grid and the vastness of the West is completely lost on me, but that’s more a personal hang-up than a fault of the movie’s.

It’ll probably win Everything, then promptly be forgotten – another ritual that happens every Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet