YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)

(VOD) YOU CAN COUNT ON ME is one of those early naughts small-scale family-centric indie films that you don’t see much of anymore. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (MARGARET, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), it’s about two middle-aged siblings, Sammy (Laura Linney, LOVE ACTUALLY but I’ll also say: TALES OF THE CITY) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo, I’ll just say BLINDNESS instead of HULK or THE AVENGERS), who have stuck together through thick-and-thin, but Terry is an addict and a bit of a selfihs asshole, and at this point in his life the film focuses on him circling back to needing the emotional and financial support of his sister.

It’s a quaint, heart-felt tale, sparsely told without much in the way of adornment unless you count the East Coast greenery, and worth your time. I wish there was more room for films like these nowadays.

However! YOU CAN COUNT ON ME sticks in my mind because it repeatedly utilizes the prelude in Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major — yes, the video misspells it as C Major, but it’s G Major — building and exposing more of it as the film goes on. It’s an exceptional incorporation of the work into the film, but it has the sad side-effect of reminding me that I completely failed at successfully performing it for my cello teacher for weeks on end, until I finally left for college and quit playing cello all together. (Not Bach or my cello teacher’s fault, obviously! I just didn’t have the chops.)

This is a roundabout way of calling attention to the little weirdsies (as Linda Holmes would say) that we have about artistic works. I can’t watch YOU CAN COUNT ON ME without flashing back to all of my failed attempts at this Bach piece, akin to both Sammy and Terry’s failures and trips during life. I’m sure that Longergan had his reasons for including this work in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, but all I can hear is a reprise of my teen years.

NEPTUNE FROST (2022)

(Theaters/VOD soon) In this age of cheap film production values, of 4K cameras in every pocket, toaster box CGI readily-available, it’s odd that truly out-spoken, revolutionary DIY works seem to be less visible now than they were during the 90s, when you only had shitty digital cameras or bought the unused 16mm heads or tails from local TV shoots.

This is only one of a number of reasons why Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s NEPTUNE FROST is such a welcome and radical musical, one that embraces a lo-fi, DIY ethic, while still shooting for the stars, for having a globally disruptive message and still being absolutely wildly engaging.

Part-fairy tale, part-post-industrial capitalist nightmare, NEPTUNE FROST sings a number of songs of specially anointed individuals that find each other and then work to upturn the world through their technical abilities. NEPTUNE FROST is one of the most vibrant, most effective posterworks to extoll what can be accomplished by a lo-fi look: the film mostly eschews CGI — apart from some CG-centric motion and interface design late in the film — opting instead for some radical costume design, glowing make-up, black lights, and dumpster diving for CRT monitors, raw electronics, and tactile keyboard pieces.

The physicality of the disparate look of the revolutionaries sets NEPTUNE FROST apart in ways that so many other films would falter. This is a film that should be spoken alongside of REPO MAN, of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and other lo-fi class-centric punk films. It is an effective call to arms, one that I hope finds its audience.

If you do get a chance to see it in theaters, please do so: the soundtrack is astounding, and you will want to feel it surround you.

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL (1966)

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL is a self-reflexive work of sorts: penned by POPULAR HOME magazine editor Robert Dougherty, it’s a recounting of “The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell”, straight from her mouth, according to Robert.

Dirty Helen Cromwell (Helen, from here on forth), was — for some time — a Milwaukee fixture from the Prohibition age. While she was reluctant to lay down roots anywhere, she did find a home in Milwaukee with her boozy outpost THE SUN FLOWER INN, which is where Robert first met Helen.

What follows is Robert jotting down Helen recalling a good forty years of ‘good times’ as a self-proclaimed ‘woman of pleasure’. In other words: a sex worker. There’s a moment where she wishes that the term ‘call girl’ was popular in her time.

The tales recalled in GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL are certainly those of a willful, self-possessed woman, one who isn’t a skin-flint, but values what remains in one’s pocket, while still living a remarkable life, one the that included all sorts of fashionable dovetailing, as well as shoulder-rubbing with Al Capone.

“My advice is not to accept initiations to these cruises if you aren’t prepared for certain eventualities.”

That’s about as dark as Helen deigned herself to deal with, but as one dives deeper into GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL and reads about the litany of dead husbands, and the brave face she plastered on, the harder the read becomes. This is a memoir/auto-bio where the absence of details are more damning than the inclusion; you can almost feel the hurt in certain eras of hers that she glosses over, ambiguous hurt that hits harder than when she discusses the death of one of her several husbands.

That said, yes, you do have to read in-between the lines for that. Otherwise, it’s a bold, brash tale of a bold and brash and gregariously singular woman who made her place in Milwaukee. That alone is reason enough to read her tale.

Purchase: https://feralhouse.com/good-time-party-girl/

THE TINDALOS ASSET (2020)

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s THE TINDALOS ASSET is the third and final novella in the TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy, a fitting bookend to their confidently wild portrayal of mostly scumbags trying to reign in — or perpetuate — horrors both otherworldly and extra-dimensional. Like the other two novellas, it’s an absolutely wild ride of clipped thoughts, traumatic events both past, present (and some future), all occasionally interrupted by bouts of depravity.

THE TINDALOS ASSET returns to The Signalman, the binding character of the series, while spending much of its time in other Dreamland agents’ heads. In several ways, both in setting and inciting events, TINDALOS feels smaller in scope, far more than the epic, wide-ranging state-of-the-world relayed via the second book in the series, BLACK HELICOPTERS. That feels strange to say, given that TINDALOS is centered around very apocalyptic events, but it primarily takes place in only three locales: a hotel room, and airplane, and by a body of water. Between the limited locations and the amount of exposition and dialogue expelled between the major players, TINDALOS often comes across more like a stage play, as opposed to the unseeable weird fiction it is.

That TINDALOS feels more insular and focused more on the headspace of its characters and their actions and motives, and this approach is to be applauded! Each act in this grand work has its own texture, its own litany of surprises. Don’t enter weird fiction hoping for more-of-the-same with every installment, because if you do? You should find a different genre.

After reading AGENTS OF DREAMLAND I noted: “To riff on the ‘it’s not a season of TV, it’s a 12-hour movie’ sentiment, the TINFOIL DOSSIER series is not so much three novellas, but a three-part novel.” I wish I’d taken my own advice and binged the novellas like a season of TV. Reading the three novellas over the period of a few months under a year proved to be too spread out. To those who read these as they first appeared, especially those who followed it via piecemeal through anthologies and the like, I salute you. I wish I’d read them all in one big gulp, but in time — instead — I’ll simply re-read them, hopefully shortly after being told the release date of a TINFOIL DOSSIER film or TV adaptation.

The complete TINFOIL DOSSIER: https://us.macmillan.com/series/tinfoildossier

THE NINE TAILORS (1934)

The moment I realized Dorothy L. Sayers’ THE NINE TAILORS was a special sort of murder mystery novel was when I encountered one passage and thought: “Wow, she’s really leaning hard on the details of this old church’s bells.” Ten pages later: “Cripes, I never knew that I wanted to know this much about bell-ringing!”

Sayers is best-known for her murder mysteries, specifically her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, featuring a rich, compassionate, gregarious but astute man who often finds himself surrounded by death. GAUDY NIGHT (the tenth Wimsey story, published in 1935, one a year after THE NINE TAILORS) is perhaps her best-known, but sadly, nowadays unless you’re attending an Edgar Awards afterparty, you’re probably unlikely to hear her name or accidentally stumble over a visual adaptation of any of her novels.

This is a shame — and something The Dorothy L. Sayers Society is trying to rectify — because, as THE NINE TAILORS exemplifies, she’s exceptional at weaving a engaging world, one dense with intriguing and idiosyncratic individuals, where actions are richly detailed, and each work is ornately penned to soothe even the most high-minded snob. In her hands, the murder contained in THE NINE TAILORS almost fades away as we’re drawn into this small town and its denizens.

In other words: THE NINE TAILORS is the complete package. It’s thrilling, it has depth, it goes unfathomably deep into the world of bell-ringing in ways that manage to be highly entertaining, and it sticks the landing in an amazingly satisfying way. It’s an absolute classic, one that should certainly not be overlooked by any mystery fan.

Read here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.512291

RELATIVE (2022)

(Theaters) Michael Glover Smith’s RELATIVE is a refreshing throwback family ensemble drama, the kind of indie film that traditionally centers around a homecoming during the holidays or a major family event.

In the case of RELATIVE, the inciting ceremony is a college graduation party for Benji Frank (THE WALKING DEAD’s Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest child of four who is described as a late-in-life miracle baby by his aged hippie parents, librarian Karen (TWIN PEAKS’ Wendy Robie) and retiree David (grand character actor Francis Guinan).

Living in Karen and David’s basement is their thirty-something asshole son, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), a veteran recovering from both PTSD and a four-year-old breakup.

Rounding out the family is Evonne (Clare Cooney) whose marriage and mental state appears to be strained, and Norma (Emily Lape, MERCY’S GIRL), who presents a cool, calm, and collected veneer to her family that all is well in her world, but that she pines for older times.

What follows isn’t as conflict-driven as you may think, but there is tension in the air as all of the characters find themselves at their own crossroads, exploring life-changing decisions all while under the comforting roof of the family home.

Smith is known for his paeans to Chicago and RELATIVE is no exception. It is primarily filmed in the far north regions of Chicago, mostly Rogers Park which happens to be Smith’s neighborhood. Rogers Park also houses RELATIVE’s family abode, and Smith takes great care to gloriously portray its interiors via several long pans, detailing hand-painted landscapes with inventively embedded lighting, all framed by the signature molding of 19th century Chicago.

Oh, and when the characters occasionally escape Rogers Park, they run off to Andersonville’s mainstay gastropub Hopleaf*, or happen to be in the nearby village of Wilmette.

If there’s one qualm I have, it’s that Smith hits a few dialogue refrains harder than I would have liked. There’s a repeated bit about ‘choosing soup’ that is clearly meant to be an insightful-but-also-comedic icebreaker, the kind ripped from real life, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nonetheless, Smith serves up a quiet, thoughtful depiction of a family, comprised of individuals who miss their old bonds, some who wonder about the unknown, while others are eager to exit. RELATIVE explores these familial bonds with aplomb while respecting the audience by exerting considerable restraint when it comes to revealing certain facets of the characters. While the audience is rewarded as matters wrap, Smith allows for some questions to linger and remain with you long after the film is over.

Trailer (although, if the above sounds appealing to you, skip it!):

  • While I understand the difficulty of finding a unique bar that was also open to allowing a film shoot while COVID reigned, as an Andersonville resident who often frequents Hopleaf, I couldn’t help but flinch while watching Benji eat pizza and drink wine in the venue. You head to Hopleaf for the mussels or, if you tire of those then a hot sandwich, and you wash it down with an eclectic Belgium draft beer.

THE PARASITES (1949)

I’m at the point in my life where I’m filling in the gaps of my favorite writers over the years, nabbing books of say, James M. Cain or, in this case, Daphne du Maurier, where — while staring at a barely read, two-bit book in second-hand bookstore — I mutter to myself: ‘Why don’t I have a copy of this already?’

Such was my case with du Maurier’s THE PARASITES, which frankly, is overdue for a proper film adaptation, as it’s a fantastic distillation of her approach towards inherited talent and du Maurier’s own festering cynicism towards the world.

THE PARASITES focuses on a piecemeal family: the father is a legendary singer, while the mother is an acclaimed solo dancer, and the two create heavenly works together. (It’s worth noting that these two somewhat mirror du Maurier’s parents, as her father was well-known actor/theatre producer Sir Gerald du Maurier and her mother was the acclaimed stage actress Muriel Beaumont.) Between the two, they have three siblings, the eldest being Maria, who grows into a mercurial actress, the result of a coupling between Pappy and an unnamed Vietnamese stage performer, who died shortly after birthing Maria; Niall, the product of Mama and a pianist who may or may not have died of tuberculosis; and Celia, the child of Pappy and Mama.

Maria is married to Charles, the heir to a Lord, who — at the opening of the novel — calls the three Delaney siblings out as ‘parasites’. The three spend the rest of the day mulling over exactly what he meant by it, diving deep into their past to investigate how they may have become such creatures. Maria reflects on her cavalier attitude towards her own offspring and her husband; Niall mulls over his uncommon attachment to Maria and his difficulties and dissonance with the tunes that lilt through his head; finally, Celia speculates about a world where she didn’t spend so much of her life living to serve others, and what may have happened if she’d indulge her illustration talents.

Du Maurier spends the bulk of the novel peeling away the familial onion layers, revealing the fact that this isn’t an ensemble character drama, but is in fact a murder mystery of sorts: who (spiritually) killed Charles? What was the motive? Who had the means to induce the final blow? It’s a novel that consists of processing, of personal scrutiny, of evasion and ultimately acceptance.

While it’s one of the least sensational novels of hers, THE PARASITES feels icily personal; the siblings are constantly skirting and circling around their issues in the way an overly invested author flinches as they see themselves on their page, mining their strife for drama, but not quite willing to strike the major veins. Given that that it’s a work that is primarily spent on a specific sort of self-reflection, that feels right and welcome and fitting, but those hoping for a neatly satisfying ending may be disappointed.

https://bookshop.org/books/the-parasites-9780837604107/9780837604107

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

Making a meta film like THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT, which centers around Nicolas Cage playing himself struggling with his acting career, can’t be an easy task. With such a long legacy of films, such a wide breadth of performances, not to mention Cage’s real-life idiosyncrasies and quirks, it seems foolhardy to try to convey the essence of Cage in under two hours. A serious-minded theme park might be more fitting.

If Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten, director and co-writers of UNBEARABLE WEIGHT were daunted by Cage’s oeuvre, it doesn’t show on the screen. Nicolas Cage is ‘Nick Cage’ who, apart from the name, barely deviates from his real-life counterpart as a quirky, intense, occasionally explosive, but extraordinarily compelling actor, known for his dedication to his craft.

‘Nick’ hits rock bottom after he fails to garner a meaty award-contending role and he declares to his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) that he’s quitting acting, but not before he takes a million dollar gig to make an appearance at an overseas birthday party. Unbeknownst to Nick, the party is a ruse by rich drug lord Javi Gutierrez (the always delightful Pedro Pascal), a Nick Cage superfan who has penned a script just for him, and hopes that by the end of the party Nick will attach himself to the film, and maybe — just maybe — Nick will also become his best friend along the way.

What follows is a pleasurable, occasionally visually kinetic, but very over-stuffed romp across the broader beats of action films that would have featured Nic Cage front-and-center. There’s a lot of sun, surf, sports cars, and high-speed shoot-outs, all peppered with riffs on Cage’s more off-beat roles, such as a few ADAPTATION-esque combative discussions with ‘Nicky’, his wild at heart younger self.

There’s an effortless charm to UNBEARABLE WEIGHT, partially because of the drugged-up interplay between Nick and Javi, but also because of how hard the film leans into Gormican and Etten’s favorite Cage films, adroitly adapting the beats of the likes of THE ROCK and CON AIR to a somewhat sweet bromance (and includes a slightly more problematic, but still very 90s ‘reconnect with my estranged ex via violent set-pieces’ subplot).

Some may be disappointed that UNBEARABLE WEIGHT doesn’t zig or zag as much as it could, or that it doesn’t subvert Cage’s persona say, in the way that JCVD (2008) lifted the curtain on the ennui of a similarly fictionalized ‘Jean-Claude Van Damne’. However, Gormican and Kevin Etten made this film to extoll Cage and recreate the glow his films exuded, and their script — plus the earnestness that Cage brings to the role of err, himself — sees them warmly meeting that goal.

Official trailer:

Red band trailer:

HAPPENING (2021)

(Theaters only/VOD soon) Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING (original French title: L’ÉVÉNEMENT), adapted fromAnnie Ernaux’s autobiography of the same name, may initially look like a slice-of-life character drama: It’s France in the early 60s and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a devoted student of literature, ready to buckle down and pass her final exams. Her parents are supportive, albeit overly industrious small bar owners and, after sunset, she enjoys a bit of the nightlife with her clique, while occasionally being glared at by her enemies.

In another film, that could be the opening of a quaint, comfortable ‘that one crazy summer’ movie. Not HAPPENING. Underneath its sun-washed gauzy palette of aqua blues and verdant greens is a tense, unwavering tale of a young woman under pressure as she realizes that she is pregnant in a country where abortion is outlawed and vehemently taboo. Anne is gravely aware of her ticking clock and she is determined to roll it back.

Anna gets to work and, as she goes from one failed plan to another, we see how her possibilities and her world shrinks. The already-tightly composed framing — shot in an 1.37 aspect ratio, closer to the boxed-in look of a standard definition TV show than a widescreen film — finds the camera inching closer in on Anna; rooms she inhabits feel smaller, more constrictive, she takes up more of the frame, her wide, defiant eyes inhabiting more and more of the screen. Her friends distance themselves, and those she talks to cower in fear of being jailed for simply hearing her broach the idea.

Anna’s solutions become more desperate, the world increasing hostile to her escape attempt, and the camera refuses to flinch or turn away, brusquely displaying her efforts through longer and longer takes. Her strength and vitality wane, exhaustion sets in due to the strain of the clock, the machinations of her body draining her, and she finds herself more and more emotional drained by her time spent lurking in the shadows.

Yet, during all of this, Anna unwaveringly brandishes her physical desires with confidence. That detail helps to set HAPPENNING’s scope to that of a steadfastly look at an unjust twist in a singular person’s life as opposed to one part of a grander coming-of-age tale or a film consisting of well-meaning scare tactics.

HAPPENING is an affecting work that resonates past the France of the 1960s, a headstrong tale of individual survival. Diwan, who is open about having had an abortion, had the following to say about why she adapted L’ÉVÉNEMENT:

“Lots of people told me in the industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, because we’re in France and we already have [a law legalizing abortion]?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker that comes to you and says they’re going to make a movie about World War II. Because I guess the war is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I mean, look at how many women died on that battlefield and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.”

FULL-METAL INDIGIQUEER (2017)

Joshua Whitehead’s FULL-METAL INDIGIQUEER’s title is a concise mission statement of his collection of experimental poetry focused on issues of Indigenous identity, queerness, digital literacy, pop culture, and more.

His words are interwoven with ornate use of non-alphanumeric type — often utilized to display pseudo-code or mimic machine-to-machine communication — as well as visual design motifs: echoed photocopies of photographs; an extended opening entitled ‘birthing sequence’ that initially appears to be a static iris-in on a collection of colons; stark line art; also unconventional use of whitespace.

In lesser hands, this approach could come across as gimmicky, but the design, formatting, and excessive use of punctional help to tease out the underlying tension of each piece, emphasizing fracturing, splintering, disassociation, dissonance, and more.

The result is an array of powerfully pieces that, as a whole, makes for a substantial and intensely emotional read.

https://talonbooks.com/books/full-metal-indigiqueer