WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (2018)

(AMC+/kanopy/peacock/Prime/VOD) Shirley Jackson has been lucky in that she had to suffer few terrible film adaptations — even THE HAUNTING (1999) is better than it needed to be and probably wouldn’t cause her to roll in her grave — and this adaptation of WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE is no exception. While it ramps up the spectacle a bit and cuts a bit of the fat, it’s completely faithful to a tale of two sisters, of abuse, of being castigated by locals. Oh, and it’s bolstered by an amazing cast: Taissa Farmiga as the younger Blackwood, Alexandra Daddario as the elder, and Crispin Glover as their uncle.

Stacie Passon’s take captures the vacillation between fear and comfort that I felt Jackson captured as an anxious person; Daddario is perfectly cast, with her almost-preternatural blue eyes, and Passon commands the atmosphere. The set design is pitch-perfect, and she even manages to keep Crispin Glover dialed-in.

“The world is full of terrible people.”

CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY (2022)

(Cinemas/Prime) I was one of the few folks who watched HBO’s GIRLS simply because it was from the director of TINY FURNITURE. I know that Lena Dunham is a rather polarizing individual in media, but I love her voice, while realizing that it is extremely selective, it is also very distinct.

CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is no different, despite the fact that it’s based on a children’s book that Dunham didn’t pen. It’s the story of a medieval youth, Catherine, often called Birdy (the brilliant Bella Ramsey, who stole every scene she was in on GAME OF THRONES as Lyanna Mormont), trying to navigate life while her alcoholic father (Hot Priest Andrew Scott) tries to sell her off to a suitor.

While that sounds rather tragic, it ultimately isn’t. It’s a carefully calibrated tale of life and emotion and struggles, and features Dunham’s quick wit and humor (as well as all of the trappings that come with her work).

BETTER CALL SAUL Season Six (2022)

Warning: spoilers ahead!

There’s a lot to unpack about the final season of BETTER CALL SAUL, so much so that one can almost forget about the foundation of the character of Saul Goodman and his issues with his brother, one of the best slow-burns I’ve ever seen on TV.

However, I want to call attention to one facet that I haven’t read much about: Kim’s shift. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) was always the heart and soul of the show, a brilliant workaholic who always wanted to do good, but was often drawn towards the thrill of darker places, towards the power she could enact through her smarts and her voice and brazen, bold blonde ponytail.

However, at the end of the series she goes brunette, trades her signature ponytail for bangs, and is now in a relationship with the most milquetoast dude in the world. That’s not the worst of it, though: she has relinquished command of her voice.

“Maybe?”

“I don’t know?”

“Perhaps?”

Past Kim was always declarative, decisive, but after seeing what her voice had wrought — the inadvertent death of Howard — she obviously made a conscious decision to stop using her coercive powers. Instead, she mutters indecisively or stuffs bland tuna fish sandwiches into her mouth. She even re-edits her own dull ad-copy on the website of the sprinkler supply company website she oversees.


What I have always loved about Kim is: she’s smart. She’s far smarter than Jimmy/Saul. Jimmy was the clever enabler, the slick man that made it fun for her to do bad things, and she finds that she -loves- to manipulate, loves toying with people, especially those she’s felt wronged by (and by simply being a woman in America, that list is very long).

By the end of BETTER CALL SAUL, we see her afraid of her own voice, her potential, her command, afraid of what she has wrought, afraid of what she’s capable of. She feels guilt, shame, but is still restless. We finally see her volunteer at a local legal non-profit, silently shuffling papers, a bit of a callback to her prior legal work. We see her telling her story, the events that lead to Howard’s death, through printed words, entirely unspoken but plain on the page.

Kim gets it. At the end of the day, it’s all about communication. And she checks out of it and checks into a life that doesn’t require it, for better or for worse.

BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE (2022)

Director Claire Denis routinely traffics in works about perceived emotional dishonesty and duplicity, and her BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE definitely delivers.

BLADE opens with middle-aged Sara (Juliette Binoche, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, THREE COLORS: BLUE, THE ENGLISH PATIENT) and Jean (Vincent Lindon, TITANE) frolicking in the water, arms entangled, all embracing, basking in the sun and sea.

They return to Sara’s tiny, artistically-adorned, open-concept flat in Paris, the camera barely able to contain the two of them.

Post-vacation, Sara trundles off to work as a radio interviewer, mask over her face, as this is a film that’s firmly placed during the pandemic. Right before she’s about to be temperature-tested, she catches a glimpse of François, a younger lover of hers, who has kickstarted a motorcycle with an even younger woman.

Later, we discover that Jean is a single dad, an ex-rugby player, someone who used to run jobs for François, and that one of François’s parties was what brought Sara and Jean together. We also learn that Jean eventually served some jail-time — it’s insinuated that he took the fall for François — but after Jean’s release, the two are still eager to work together again, and they start scouting for potential professional rugby players.

BLADE is the first dramatic film I’ve felt that properly captures, and capitalizes, on COVID. All of the major characters practice precautions in a very blasé way; there’s one moment where Jean apologizes to his mother — who is overseeing his son — for not giving her a hello kiss, as he wasn’t masked properly on the three-hour ride to her estate. Sara ventures into a crowded unmasked party, only to run from it shortly after. However, COVID itself is never named; it becomes background noise, an undercurrent that exacerbates the emotional tension.

Despite the intimate camera, despite the terse words and enclosed spaces, the specifics of these relationships are all vagaries. It’s a film that teases, that baits-and-switches, roping you in with the potential of mob-intrigue and sexual dalliances and the washed-out neons of the city, and while those components are there, BLADE is more about the interior lives and desires and pasts of the characters than audacious actions, leading to a more enigmatic but far more engrossing relationship tale.

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (2022)

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON, a stop-motion animated film from Dean Fleischer-Camp about a sentient shell that wears shoes could be yet another epic film in the Pixar vein, of an outsider thrust into the unknown to find their own community and the adventures they encounter while doing so.

Instead, it has more in common with smaller scale documentaries, such as the idiosyncratic GREY GARDENS, which shines a light on an off-beat mother and daughter inhabiting their dilapidated ruin of a home and how they eke out their existence.

MARCEL builds on the shorts that made the character internet-famous in the early 2010s — essentially, that of documenting the life of Marcel the shell (voiced by Jenni Slate) living in a house with his nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). The house they find themselves in is far larger than they need but it’s what they have, so they make the most of it while waiting for the next episode of 60 MINUTES to air so they can see fearless Lesley Stahl report on the latest notable of the prior week. Said house is an AirBnB, and apparently no one ever really takes note of them until the lonesome Dean rents out the space.

Dean ‘discovers’ Marcel and Marcel’s nana, and proceeds to film how Marcel manages to exist in this space that is not built around their needs, and he also details the circumstances that put Marcel and his nana into this place, namely:

A couple inhabited the place for a while, and they frequently argued. Whenever these outbursts would occur, whenever Marcel’s family would hear strife, they’d collectively meet in a drawer. This one last time though, one half of the couple went to collect their things, which also meant collecting all but Marcel and Nana, and they rushed out the door with Marcel’s family.

A more mainstream film would have turned this tale into Dean embarking on a cross-country trip to re-unite Marcel with each and every family member. Instead, Dean drives to the highest point in L.A., all while Marcel repeatedly gets roadsick, neither learning much of anything during the afternoon jaunt.

Despite being told in miniature, Marcel and MARCEL have high aspirations, but both are small voices, and both are better for it. This is a quiet film, both in tone and in scope, but it confidently speaks volumes. It’s a work about ennui and minor victories and emotional stumbles while also being about longing for an accepting crowd. It’s a melancholy, complicated film told simply, one that’s destined for cult status, simply because it defies tonal categorization or, perhaps, because it’s so cute, so initially innocuous, while ultimately being a measured existential tale, one so immaculately put together in a way that will almost certainly have you smiling through tears.

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 THE AVENGERS), who have stuck together through thick-and-thin, but Terry is an addict and a bit of a selfish 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.