The Oscars have been and gone, reports suggest that the Berlinale’s Summer Event may be on the rocks, and sofa-bound cinephiles are facing yet another month of depressing dependence on new streaming releases. Mercifully, several May titles do stand out, with shared themes of villainy and evildoing.
The banner release is Disney+’s Cruella (May 28), which will skip theatres in Europe and go straight to streaming on May 28. The House of Mouse continues its shameless wave of live-action adaptations with this prequel that charts how 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil turns from wannabe fashionista to The Devil Wears Dalmatian. Beyond the early comparisons with 2019’s Joker, Cruella poses the perennial question: Do we really want this? Much in the same way no one needed villain-humanizing origin stories delving into why Darth Vader vadered or why Hannibal Lecter likes eating people, finding out the hows and whys behind Cruella’s darker side once again risks demystifying what makes antagonists fascinating and terrifying in the first place: a tantalising sense of the unknown.
Cruella seems like another textbook case of Hollywood cynically cashing in, a ubiquitous tactic that might result in a film that is, charitably speaking, lacking storytelling ambition. Still, considering the fact that Disney’s villains have always been their most interesting characters, the promising trailer showing director Craig Gillespie embracing a certain punk aesthetic, as well as the eye-wateringly good cast – featuring Emma Thompson, Mark Strong and Emma Stone taking over from twerker extraordinaire Glenn Close for antagonist duties – we’re tentatively hoping that this might actually be worth watching.
Other films on our radar come courtesy of Netflix. Despite reports that Disney+ has surged in popularity and that Netflix has experienced a sharp slowdown from its pandemic-driven gains, users of the streaming giant have nothing to worry about, as it continues to release major titles. One tentatively auspicious title is The Woman In The Window (May 14), a psychological thriller directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna). The film was supposed to be released last year and, in a depressingly familiar scenario, its theatrical release was cancelled due to the pandemic (and because it reportedly needed some sizeable changes due to poor responses in test screenings).
This paranoia-fuelled huis-clos, featuring murder and gaslighting, is based on the bestselling 2018 novel of the same name by A.J. Finn, which sees an agoraphobic psychologist suspect foul play when her recently befriended neighbour disappears. The rollcall (Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Julianne Moore) is impressive and if the Rear Window-echoing marketing is anything to go by, this could scratch audiences’ Gone Girl itches. Fingers crossed.
Elsewhere, the streaming behemoth should delight horror fans this month with the dual helping of Army Of The Dead (May 21) and Oxygen (May 12). The first sees Zack Snyder continuing his busy month – alongside the DVD / BluRay release of his exhausting Justice League cut – with a zombie-heist film set in a world where Las Vegas is ground zero for a zombie outbreak. A group of mercenaries takes the ultimate gamble by heading inside the quarantine zone for a heist that should make the Ocean’s Eleven gang swoon. The marketing boasts an intriguing neon colour palette and the cheeky tagline: “Always bet on dead”. We see what they did there, and if this big gory fun is anything as decent as Snyder’s surprisingly strong 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, dead-heads should be in for a treat.
The second is another huis-clos, this time from French filmmaker Alexandre Aja. Oxygen looks like a lean mystery box contraption with a sci-fi twist, one with a timely feel considering our currently confined lives. The premise sees a woman (Mélanie Laurent) waking up in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, needing to find a way out before running out of… the clue’s in the title. Those already burrowing deeper inside their sofas from that claustrophobia-inducing description alone may want to give this Buried-style survival thriller a miss, but considering Aja’s track record for giving audiences the willies (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes), this promises to be suffocatingly good.
It’s worth noting that Mubi have an excellent line-up in May, with the likes of Céline Sciamma’s tender transgender story Tomboy (online on May 2), the heart-breaking animation film Mary And Max (May 12) and Banksy’s (genuine?) mockumentary Exit Through The Gift Shop (May 13). Our top pick though is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (May 15). The French provocateur followed up his 2016 terrorism-themed thriller Nocturama by exploring the origins of zombie myths with this 2019 film. Shuffling between 1960s Haiti where a man is brought back from the dead to work on sugarcane fields, and a modern-day upper-class all-girls boarding school in Paris where a Haitian girl confesses an ancient family secret to her new friends, this cerebral slow-burn is uniquely intriguing and frustrating in equal parts. Influenced by the story of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who claimed to have been turned into a zombie by ancient voodoo practices, the director abstractedly addresses colonialist tensions with his bi-temporal narrative framework. There’s an eerie beauty in this time-jumping film, and while a less stilted approach to the storytelling might have elevated it, Zombi Child remains a memorable watch and one well worth seeking out.
Finally, there are two very promising miniseries coming out this month: Joshua Zeman’s The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (May 5, Netflix) and Barry Jenkins’ ambitious The Underground Railroad (May 14, Amazon Prime).
The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness is another Netflix true crime docuseries, one which focuses on one of America’s most notorious serial murderers. Across four episodes, it delves into the multiple shootings across 1970s New York committed by David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and challenges the official narrative by examining the claims that he was not a lone killer. The trailer sees Joshua Zeman use archival news footage, draw on interviews, and explore journalist and ‘Ultimate Evil’ author Maury Terry’s decades-long investigative claims that the nightmare didn’t end with Berkowitz’ guilty plea in 1977. Lone gunman? A textbook case of Satanic Panic? Was Berkowitz not the sole perpetrator of the Son of Sam killings? The answers are coming.
However enticing that sounds, the one we really can’t wait to watch is the historical fiction drama, The Underground Railroad. Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, teamed up with the Amazon for his latest project, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning historical fiction novel. Set in an alternative timeline, the 10-episode miniseries follows an escaped slave fleeing the South to find freedom, and promises an expansive portrait of slavery and the train system (a literal-take embodiment of the real-life network of abolitionists and safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom in the early 1800s) that ferries slaves to safety. Considering Barry Jenkins’ track record in exploring African-American identity, it certainly looks like one of the year’s most impressive releases may not be a movie.
There we have it. Happy streaming to you all, and keep praying to the cinematic deities that kinos reopen soon and that we may finally get the Summer edition of this year’s Berlinale.