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.

MADE FOR LOVE (2017)

I love adaptations. Part of it’s the writer in me, as I love to scrutinize how a work is transformed to fit a different medium. However, truthfully, most of it boils down to the fact that, as a youth, my parents wouldn’t allow me to watch anything racy or violent or swear-laden so instead I simply read the novel adaptation of a PG-13 or R-rated film instead which, as you might suspect, played fast-and-loose and often were far more taboo than the source material.

That said, a lot of modern adaptations disappoint me. (To be clear, we’re mostly talking about comic/novel to film/tv adaptations, because the heyday of film-to-novel adaptations has long passed.) They often hew too closely and lose their luster, or go wildly off-the-rails. Rarely is there an in-between.

I first watched MADE FOR LOVE and loved it and immediately ordered Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel of the same name, curious as to how they’d handle the interiority of runaway wife Hazel Green. However, given how thrilling plotted and substantial the series was I figured they mostly followed the novel’s template and goosed a few scenes to play better visually.

That is not what they did. Instead, showrunner Christina Lee (SEARCH PARTY) enlisted Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the controversial novel TAMPA) to join the writers room and run with the core concept of Nutting’s novel: a desperately unhappy wife Hazel Green decides to leave her brilliant-but-psychopathic billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol upon being told of his plan to ‘merge their minds together’ via a chip implant in her head. Hazel breaks free of his isolated work compound, leaving all of her belonging and any money behind, so she has no option but to crash at her widower father’s trailer home. Shortly after being introduced to her father’s partner — a sex doll named Diane — she realizes that Byron had already implanted the chip in her head.

So far, the source material mostly mirrors the adaptation, however, this is where it slowly starts diverging. Since I’m comparing and contrasting the two — I have yet to watch MADE FOR LOVE season two, so this will only refer to the first season — I’ll be noting specific plot points and character traits for both the series and novel, so if you want to go in blind, best circle back to this later. If you just want to know if it’s worth reading the book, regardless of whether you did or did not watch the show, I implore you to do so.

The first sign that the show is its own creature is that: in the novel, her father has to use a Rascal mobility device to get around, whereas in the show he’s very mobile.

The second sign is how the book handles Liver, who on the show is a handsome twenty-something working at a local bar, brewing beer at night, outside, shirtless, arms covered in foam up to his elbows. In the novel, he’s has forty years on Hazel, and they quickly fall into a very friendly, physical relationship, partially due to the fact that they’re cranks.

The third sign was that I kept waiting for Alissa to add a possibly more sympathetic side to Byron, even if it feels like he was pretending to do so — akin to the show. However, he remains a monster all the way through.

Similarly, Hazel is fleshed out a bit more and comes across as smarter and more aware than she is on the show, but also has an array additional issues that lead to her living life as a fuck-up.

There are also some minor changes with how Byron can access Hazel’s experiences. Unlike the show, where he has a direct live feed 24/7, in the novel he downloads them once every 24 hours, which significantly alters the tension dynamic.

Most importantly, while dolphins factor into the novel, they do so in a wildly different manner, and feature a con-man Jasper who hooks women into his orbit, bleeds them dry and moves to another town. At first it feels completely unnecessary, but Alissa manages to weave it all together in a smart manner. I do wonder if they may touch upon that in the second season (which I have yet to watch).

Lastly, the endings of each could not differ any more, but both are quite satisfying within the context of each work. (I’d argue the end of the novel would work as the end of the first season, but not vice versa.)

While the show is an amusing thrill ride that happens to examine human desire, tech and surveillance culture, and more, the novel touches on all of that but is mostly concerned with Hazel and Jasper’s personal journeys and growth, of reckoning with guilt and poor decisions, all while trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like. Both are vastly different and both have a lot that they want to say, and both are worth your time.

WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR (2021)

(Cinemas, VOD) WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR was often described as creepypasta during its film fest tour last year, which — fair, given that it’s about (mostly) teens performing ritualistic summoning acts based on internet content, and then recording themselves online to document the results of said acts — but I find it more to be a character drama lined with horror elements, as opposed to a modern technological horror tale.

(As usual, I’ll keep spoilers light, but if the above sounds appealing to you, perhaps just watch the film and read this after!)

To summarize: ‘Casey’ (an astounding debut from Anna Cobb) is a high-school teen who lacks a mother, hides in a bedroom attic from an asshole father whom is rarely home, and has no friends. She loves horror and darkness and is -extremely online-. She decides to take ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’, which consists of repeating ‘I want to go to The World’s Fair’ three times over — Bloody Mary/Candyman style — then pricking your thumb and bleeding onto a screen, and lastly, watching the ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’ video via said screen, all of which she records via her very underwatched online channel.

What happens next is questionable for all involved, but it always involves some sort of physical transformation. While this could be construed as a teen puberty allegory, it has more depth.

(It’s at this point that I should note that the director, Jane Schoenbrun, is trans, but hadn’t started transitioning when she started writing the script. I highly recommend reading her spoiler-free interview with IndieWire’s Jude Dry)

‘Casey’, based on her videos, hears from an older male-presenting person known solely as JLB (the memorable character actor Michael J Rogers), who constantly frets about her. Matters escalate, but in ways you wouldn’t suspect.

At the center of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is a meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation, not in thrills or scares. (Although it does have a few of those.) While some would write this off as a COVID-centric film — apart from a sole snippet in one scene, no two major players act alongside each other — it’s also about how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work, and I can’t wait to see more from Jane.

Lastly, I’ll note: this may seem antithetical for an -extraordinarily online- work, but try to make the effort to see it in the theater if possible. The use of negative space, of silence, of punctuational sound — especially rain — and most certainly of hard-cuts to loading animations is so goddamn effective when blown up and taken out of a smaller screen context. It becomes almost overwhelming and daunting in a way that one rarely thinks about, but one that is certainly intended.

“I swear, some day soon, I’m just going to disappear, and you won’t have any idea what happened to me.”

THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)

(Netflix) A haunting film — adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal from the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante — about what’s doing right for you, even if it’s wrong for everyone else, and living with the repercussions of your actions.

I am not the right person to write about this film that is fundamentally about the hurt of motherhood; mothers who don’t feel parental; of a personal reckoning. It features both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, it fucked me up and I loved it, and I am disappointed it wasn’t discussed more prior to the Oscars. Instead, I will link to others talking and writing more insightfully about the film than I could:

Linda Holmes & Neda Ulaby for the POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR podcast: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1064901091 (Transcript, and I especially love Neda’s take on it as a horror film.)

Sheila O’Malley for RogerEbert.com: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lost-daughter-movie-review-2021

Alissa Wilkinson for vox.com: https://www.vox.com/22869285/lost-daughter-netflix-review-explained

Esther Zuckerman questions Gyllenhaal about the film for thrillist.com and it is a supremely insightful and brilliant look at film and the process of completing THE LOST DAUGHTER: https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/netflix-the-lost-daughter-maggie-gyllenhaal-inspirations

“But just this idea that women do make work that’s different than men. And what’s that mean? And what does it look like?”

YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022)

If forced to describe YOU WON’T BE ALONE, the first film from Goran Stolevski, in a simple log line, I’d say: it’s equal parts Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD, Virginia Woolf’s novel ORLANDO and Sally Potter’s film adaptation, and Angela Carter’s THE BLOODY CHAMBER and Neil Jordan’s adaptation, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. (Then again, every single one of those works were very formative for me, so I’m perhaps not the most reliable narrator for this write-up.)

While that may sound very specific, it doesn’t quite do YOU WON’T BE ALONE justice. Set in 19th century Macedenoia, it’s about a young girl promised to a wolf-eateress named Maria (a ruthlessly great Anamaria Marinca) — for all intents and purposes, a witch — by her mother to account for being set fire to at the hands of their community. Her mother then forces her daughter into an enclosed cave for the rest of her youth, in an attempt to prevent the witch from absconding with her and turning her into a wolf-eateress/witch.

Once the feral girl is grown, Maria kills the mother, takes on her disguise, and abducts Biliana (Alice Englert, who also appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG), predictably changing her into a witch with the hopes that she’d be the daughter she never had.

What follows are a number of physical transformations, of Biliana exploring her humanity but in a rather flailing way, and often being disappointed by the results, all portrayed by depictions of fundamental elementals; hair, water, fire, earth, blood and skin.

It’s a bewildering work, one far more sensitive than I thought it’d be, with a wildly roaming camera that knows how to sit still when necessary. It’s visually astounding while also being quietly desperate; a stunningly heartfelt first film.

Favorites of 2021: Films

Here are my favorite — note, not what I feel are the best — films of 2021, in alphabetical, non-prioritized, order:

BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY

“I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent”

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

BENEDETTA

“[U]ltimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.”

CENSOR

“[A]n extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up.”

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

A surprisingly sincere triptych from Wes Anderson.

JOY RIDE

“We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.”

THE SOUVENIR PART II

“I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.”

SPENCER

I’ve had the goddamn hardest time getting people to watch this film, solely because of Kristen Stewart, but hell, the way she casts her eyes … I wish folks would just watch the trailer and see her transformation.

“You are your own weapon.”

[…]

“Will they kill me, do you think?”

TITANE

“I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.”

Missed:

  • ANNETTE
  • CANDYMAN
  • CYRANO
  • DRIVE MY CAR
  • MEMORIA
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY
  • NINE DAYS
  • PASSING
  • PLAN B
  • RED ROCKET
  • SHIVA BABY
  • TEST PATTERN
  • THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
  • ZOLA

JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU SEASON THREE (2021)

(adult swim/VOD) One of my favorite episodes of TV within the past five years has been JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU’s -The Life of a Jack O’Lantern-, which was an early ep in the first season of the show.

The show introduces itself as Joe Pera (Joe Pera) acting as sort of a meek male, acting as a life instructor, trying to bestow his overly-earnest life lessons via a pseudo-docu-drama format. If that sounds a little too arch, a little too meta, it’s played utterly sincerely and with a straight face. It’s not for laughs, although there are a number of them, usually at Joe’s innocent antics. (For example, when he discovers THE WHO’s -Baba O’Riley-.)

While the first and second seasons of the show normally focus on Joe’s observations — apart from a few asides, including an exceptional season two finale where Joe learns a lot about his fellow co-worker/girlfriend Sarah Conner (Jo Firestone, also one of the show’s writers and not Linda Hamilton) — the third season backgrounds him in lieu for the ensemble they’ve built over the past two seasons, such as his best friend Gene and Sarah Conner. It’s a perfect example of a show’s creators and writers realizing ‘oh, we have something special here’ and exploring further, rather than following a rigid formula.

Season three is still on-going, but there’s one episode where Sarah comes home drunk from a meet-up she was invited to, and the entire eleven minutes of the ep are dedicated to Joe just listening to her recount the tale of her night, while also trying to feed her to sober her up. It’s the closest I’ve seen TV approach to say, the realism and tone of a Jim Jarmusch film.

It also helps that Sarah is an extraordinarily complicated character, with far more depth and a far more scarred life than Joe, and to watch him accept her for her complexities is a beautiful thing.

It’s also goddamn hilarious when it’s not pulling at your heartstrings. For example, this singular exchange from a career woman magician Sarah meets at a wine party:

“We need more women in STEM. And by that, I mean skateboarding, television, e-sports, and magic!”

LAMB (2021)

(Cinemas) I would argue that this isn’t horror — not even what people like to qualify as ‘A24 horror’ or ‘elevated horror’ (sigh) — but it’ll be labeled as such no matter what I say, so I consider it game and I want to write about it, so here we are.

In my eyes, LAMB is a high-concept relationship drama concerning a husband and wife who farm the lands and raise sheep. Apart from their sheep, their sheepdog, and their cat, they only have each other, but there’s something missing.

The first act goes to great trouble to obscure what the twist is, so I’ll respect that. I will say: I don’t think it’s a twist worth hiding.

What is a big deal is the fact that this feels like an A24 Béla Tarr film, one not too far removed from the previously recommended THE TURIN HORSE. Rightfully so, as Tarr was one of the executive producers of the project. It’s quiet, mannered, under-explains itself, but is full of existential threats. (It is a tad more optimistic than THE TURIN HORSE. Just a tad.)

Lastly, Noomi Rapace delivers an amazing performance. Without her ability to oscillate between hardened to tender and loving, this film simply would not work. (I’ll note that she was also an Executive Producer for the film.)

As usual with any work that I hesitate to pen a full summary, I suggest skipping the trailer — although I should state that the trailer quickly gives away the twist, and it has a completely inappropriate needle-drop — but here it is:

TITANE (2021)

(Cinemas) TITANE is the second feature from Julia Ducournau, who previously wrote and directed the sisterly cannibal tale RAW (2016), and while RAW was exquisitely executed, TITANE is a masterclass in controlled filmmaking.

I won’t describe the plot — I personally don’t believe in spoilers, but while TITANE is deadly serious (although it does have a number of quality laughs), it’s also an extremely wild ride that I think is best viewed without knowledge of a plot summary — but I will give two very sparse character sketches of the two protagonists: 1) Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle, who plays this role like a seasoned pro) is a 32-year-old dancer who had a skull injury when she was young and still lives with her parents. 2) Vincent (Vincent Lindon) is the captain of a large firefighter group whose young son went missing a number of years ago.

What Ducournau does with TITANE is nothing less than astounding. You may see something onscreen or hear something that has you scratching your head, wondering why that was there, and a few minutes later, it becomes very aware in a way that makes you feel like the film respects you, as opposed to the film thinking it’s so clever.

It’s also surprisingly concise — apart from a few indulgent (with a reason) scenes, the film has very little fat. While at first that facet is a bit jarring, it creates a tempo that unnerves.

It’s impossible to discuss the film without noting how difficult it can be to watch, for a litany of reasons. I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.

This is a work that film scholars will inevitably be discussing for some time to come, for better or for worse — frankly I’m still unpacking the film — but it is definitely memorable.

The trailer is properly enigmatic, but maybe don’t watch it if you’re going to see it within the next few days. (Slightly NSFW):

THE ORCHID THIEF (1998)

Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF is a real-life character profile of one John Laroche, a plant dealer working for a Florida Seminole plant nursery. Laroche has a plan — a heist, really, even though it’s sanctioned by his Seminole nursery boss — to lead a few Seminole co-workers into Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand, land that Seminoles have the legal right to take wild flowers from, and leave with several ghost orchids which Laroche will then clone and he and the Seminoles will profit from. Laroche sees it as a win-win.

Unfortunately, he and the workers are caught, and then the legal rights of the Seminoles are called into question.

While it sounds more like a legal thriller, the case simply simmers in the background for the bulk of the book. Instead, it’s really Susan Orlean trying to understand the personal and zealous obsession of orchid collectors, as well as scrutinizing the growers and dealers who live as aberrant fringe elements in an inhospitable environment (mirroring the deviancy and adaptation of orchids themselves), while also spotlighting the tenacity of the Seminoles to live on their own terms.

Over the better part of a year, Orlean travels to orchid shows, swamps, nurseries, and encounters some savvy strange folk, some natural inventors and businessmen, others are oddities that eke out an existence. The line connecting all of her subjects? They all want more flowers, and they want more -interesting- and -different- flowers. It’s never enough, despite the fact that the flowers often die due to undesirable conditions or lack of knowledge as to how to sustain them. It’s not enough to see the orchids in their natural habitat — it’s a need for possession and ownership.

Orlean’s claim in this investigation is that she’s trying to understand this obsession, but I think she does. She’s there to collect stories, collect enough to make an enticing piece — not unlike some of the orchid events. It’s what she’s done as a journalist for THE NEW YORKER her entire life. She puts herself in severely unsafe situations for the sake of her collecting, not unlike Laroche.

It’s a fantastically woven and admirable work; a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events and personas that embody themes both small and large, personal and political, beautiful and ugly.

http://www.susanorlean.com/author/books/the-orchid-thief/