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

In this week’s low-profile VOD releases, an Azerbaijani mother and a 1960s counterculture scenester take on the patriarchy, a survivalist and a yoga live-streamer face unknown threats, and a couple of doofuses encounter aliens in the desert.

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg (VOD and select theaters May 3): If directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill intended this documentary to highlight the talents of model and actress Anita Pallenberg beyond her association with famous men, then they didn’t quite achieve their goal, since the bulk of the nearly two-hour running time is devoted to Pallenberg’s relationship with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. That leaves only about 10 minutes to cover the final 30-plus years of Pallenberg’s life, but despite that lopsided focus, Catching Fire is an often fascinating look at an unsung figure in 1960s counterculture, who participated in Andy Warhol’s Factory, appeared in films by Volker Schlöndorff and Nicolas Roeg, and sang backing vocals on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Pallenberg died in 2017, but the filmmakers get her perspective via an unpublished memoir narrated by Scarlett Johansson, along with interviews with Richards and their children. The standard approach of talking heads and archival footage doesn’t reflect Pallenberg’s unique, chaotic personality, but it’s a solid introduction to a woman who was too often undervalued and overshadowed. Grade: B

Banu (Film Movement Plus May 3): The parallels between the efforts of the title character (writer-director Tahmina Rafaella) to secure custody of her son and the culmination of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War may not be clear to viewers who are unfamiliar with the political history of Azerbaijan, but the interpersonal drama is compelling enough even without that added context. Rafaella’s film recalls the works of Asghar Farhadi and the Dardenne brothers in its naturalistic story about Banu’s seemingly impossible quest to find someone to testify to her fitness as a mother, in divorce proceedings against her wealthy, abusive husband. The repeated rejections are heartbreaking but eventually become monotonous, and the outcome is a little too neat after all the anguish that Banu goes through. There are constant background news reports about Azerbaijan’s imminent military victory over Armenia, which add to the sense of unease but may also muddle the urgent central narrative. Banu’s determination in the face of monolithic patriarchal resistance is all Rafaella needs to hold the audience’s attention. Grade: B

Mind Body Spirit (VOD May 7): There’s already been a horror movie about a cursed skydiving maneuver, so why not one about a cursed yoga pose? That’s what would-be wellness influencer Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) discovers in a worn-out hand-written book she finds in a secret room in her late grandmother’s house. Despite those horror-movie red flags, Anya eagerly embarks on the ritualistic practice outlined in the book, viewing it as a way to connect with her Slavic heritage and provide a unique angle for her planned online video channel. Writer-directors Alex Henes and Matthew Merenda take the silly premise seriously, and they get an excellent performance from Bartholomew, who effectively conveys Anya’s isolation and yearning for connection, as well as her darker impulses. The found-footage format is occasionally shaky, with some gimmicky interludes featuring fake wellness ads, but overall Mind Body Spirit is a disquieting slow build, showing its protagonist’s disturbing descent into obsession and possession, all in pursuit of holistic enlightenment. Grade: B

Foil (VOD May 10): A pair of obnoxious slackers travel into the California desert in search of aliens in this tedious, unfunny sci-fi comedy, which belabors both its rudimentary plot and its handful of repetitive jokes. Failed filmmaker Dexter (director and co-writer Zach Green) hooks back up with his lunkheaded high school buddy Rex (co-writer Devin O’Rourke) on the eve of their 10-year reunion, and agrees to ditch the event to accompany Rex on his extraterrestrial quest instead. They bicker annoyingly, both before and after meeting mysterious alien seeker Tom (Chris Doubek), who claims that a piece of foil he’s collected is part of a spaceship that crashed 60 years earlier. Set in 1997 seemingly solely to facilitate tired pop-culture references, Foil aims for Clerks with aliens and ends up closer to Yoga Hosers, dragging out its comedy-sketch premise for more than 100 minutes. Green and O’Rourke look like they’re having a good time, but none of that enjoyment translates to the audience. Grade: C

Lazareth (VOD and select theaters May 10): Ashley Judd acts so infrequently these days that it’s a shame this rare leading role for her comes in such a glum, generic post-apocalypse drama. The title refers to a woodland sanctuary where survivalist Lee (Judd) has retreated with her two young nieces following a deadly pandemic. She’s kept them safe and sheltered from the outside world for a decade, but the arrival of an injured stranger threatens their fragile peace. Now teenagers, Maeve (Sarah Pidgeon) and Imogen (Katie Douglas) are curious (read: horny) about the troubled Owen (Asher Angel), who seems to have escaped from a roving biker gang. Writer-director Alec Tibaldi creates an immersive atmosphere of dread in this shadowy environment, while working with familiar genre components. He throws most of it away for an equally familiar twist, which raises far too many questions and takes the focus away from the domestic tension. Judd struggles to play the domineering matriarch, and she’s often sidelined in favor of the teen coming-of-age story, another stock element that the movie fails to transcend. 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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