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).

SEE HOW THEY RUN (2022)

I am an unabashed Agatha Christie fan. I’ve read every Christie-penned Poirot novel. I’ve seen a live rendition of THE MOUSETRAP, albeit, not in London’s West End (although, not for want of trying). I’ve spent many hours watching adaptations of hers, partially because I’m simply fascinated with how folks adapt her works.

Folks nitpick her, saying she’s a sloppy storyteller, which due to possible Alzheimers, that’s fair concerning some of her later works, but when she was at the top of her game she was endlessly inventive, and constantly challenging herself and her readers.

I can’t say that SEE HOW THEY RUN is as ambitious as Christie’s best works, such as THE A.B.C. MURDERS or THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD or AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. However, it is slightly more ambitious than the Christie work it’s riffing on, THE MOUSETRAP, which is a very thin, very perfunctory murder mystery radio play — originally named THREE BLIND MICE, as Christie loves utilizing nursery rhymes and schoolyard songs — that Christie adapted into a short story. It then became the longest running theatrical play in history; perfect for dinner theatre, but not much else.

Famously, Christie sold off the film rights with the caveat that production could start shortly after the West End play closed. It’s still playing there to this day.

Instead of creating an adaptation of THE MOUSETRAP, SEE HOW THEY RUN is a meta-version of THE MOUSETRAP, where the murder mystery takes place during a production of THE MOUSETRAP. Not the cleverest conceit, but it’s serviceable enough to bring in a game — albeit underutilized — cast, which includes short-lived Adrian Brody, Sam Rockwell as the inspector, and the highlight of the film, Saoirse Ronan as the delightfully winsome Constable Stalker.

Frankly, I just want an entire series about Constable Stalker, and Saoirse’s endless enthusiasm practically sells the film in-and-of-itself.

That said, SEE HOW THEY RUN also has some stellar production design and camera work, and comes together far better than, say, Branagh’s tragedy of DEATH ON THE NILE, although it is a bit too tidy.

I can’t say this film will please everyone, but if you’re into Christie, it fits the playbill.

MAGGIE (2022-)

(Hulu) Within the first ten minutes of Hulu’s MAGGIE I thought: “Oh, the jokes are smart! And there’s SUPERSTORE’s Nichole Sakura! This feels pretty cozy and winsome, albeit a bit basic.”

As if in response, the show then started laying into folks named “Glenn with two N’s” which, if you haven’t read the About section of this site, is my first name. I did not react well:

“Well fuck you too, show. I didn’t want to like you in the first place.”

(I’ve had a hard past few months and had hoped this would be a slice of escapism, but apparently not!)

That said, I didn’t turn it off in anger, but let it wash over me and I’m glad I did because this rom-com has a quick wit and is far deeper than it may first appear to be.

MAGGIE, created by LIFE IN PIECES co-creator Justin Adler and alum Maggie Mull, centers around the titular Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a 30-something who has been psychic her entire life; she sees her visions via touch. It took a long time for her father, Jack (Chris Elliot) and mother Maria (Kerri Kenney) — those are some quality gets, folks — to believe that she truly could see the future, but they finally accept her, and she currently resides in half of the bungalow her parents own.

While her parents may have been skeptics during Maggie’s youth, her best friend Louise (the previously mentioned Nichole Sakura) was mostly there for her through high school, at least when she wasn’t studying night-and-day to get into med school.

In the first episode, Maggie is giving psychic readings at a party and one of the partygoers, Ben (David Del Rio), takes a shining to her, asks for a reading. Maggie obliges and sees a vision of herself marrying him, gets frightened and runs off.

The next night, while consoling Louise after a bad date, she runs into Ben, and Louise eggs her on to roll with it and Maggie does, right into bed with him.

The morning after, as Ben makes breakfast for her, Maggie sees another vision of him marrying someone else, and she rushes out.

Fast-forward a bit. Louise and Maggie are heading back to Maggie’s bungalow and they run into Ben. He explains that he and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Jessie (Chloe Bridges) are moving into the same bungalow as Maggie’s. Along the way, we meet Ben’s off-kilter sister Amy (UNDONE’s Angelique Cabral), who got married to people-pleasing partner Dave (WESTWORLD’s Leonardo Nam) at Burning Man.

The first half of the season is primarily concerned with Maggie and her love life in a way that recalls GILMORE GIRLS (Maggie :: Lorelai, Ben :: Luke) and, like GILMORE GIRLS, Maggie gets involved with bearded Daniel who is basically Max Medina in this situation, and it feels very formulaic, albeit with wildly vacillating tones; one ep in particular feels like a 90s three-camera sitcom.

Then the second half of the season kicks in and the show snaps into view. You realize that the psychic gimmick meant to individuate the show is essentially a stand-in for neurodivergent brains. The show fully leans into that and matters turns serious, without dialing down the jokes.

Without spoiling much, there is one moment where Maggie realizes that an important person in her life doesn’t believe that she is psychic, and she is absolutely crushed. It’s not just that she doesn’t feel seen, it’s not just that she feels this person doesn’t believe her, it’s not just that this person is utterly dismissive towards this foundational aspect of herself and her history, it’s also that she — an actual psychic — is blindsided by the news.

Anyone who lives with any kind of invisible issues can identify with the fear that you won’t be understood or believed. MAGGIE’s writers know it, and they are fully putting it on display.

One more example, although this has major spoilers for Episode 11 – ‘You Will Experience a Loss’:

Spoiler

Maggie is at a bachelorette party. She’s had an abnormal number of visions all day and immediately feels like she shouldn’t be there, feeling extra-sensitive. Nonetheless, she’s dragged onto the dance floor and bounced around like a pinball. As she pings off each tightly packed partygoer, every hit induces a vision until her world goes white, as if a flashbang has gone off in front of her. When her sight returns, she immediately grabs Louise and demands to ‘read’ her:

“What happened to no readings for friends?”

“NOW!”

Maggie drags her from the dance floor and presses Louise’s hands.

“What do you see?”

“…nothing.”

Yes, the classic ‘powerless’ trope. While this is a tried-and-true superhero trope — for the first half of the season I mused to myself: you could have saved yourself so much trouble if you’d learn from X-MEN’s Rogue and just wear a thick pair of long sleeve leather gloves — it’s surprising to see the device deployed in a rom-com.

The rest of the season deals with the fallout of her loss of her mystic foresight, of her grappling with being normal, of no longer being the one looked to for answers, to problem solve, to shoulder it all, while lamenting the perks of being psychic.

[collapse]

While the show tackles mental matters in a surprisingly far more interesting way than most, it does have a number of issues, such as the shifting tone, spotty ground rules of Maggie’s abilities, and the fact that Maggie’s voracious Black psychic mentor self-named Angel (DON’T TRUST THE B— IN APT. 23’s Ray Ford) seems to be the sole queer representation on the show.* While Ford knows how to calibrate his performance, this approach feels very dated, and hard to overlook.

If there’s a second season — and that’s a big if — I could see this show really coming together and become something special. The end of the first season raises more questions than it answers, and exploring the potentials of its mysticism could open up a whole new world.

  • It’s possible that there are passing mentions regarding other characters, but if so, I missed them or they weren’t prominent enough to count.

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.

RESURRECTION (2022)

(Theaters/VOD/Shudder soon) Horror films have been pilloried recently by so-called genre fans for works that they feel focus too much on personal trauma. Films like HEREDITY have been dismissed as over-wrought projected therapy that shouldn’t exist, solely because they prioritize emotional trauma.

That thought is preposterous. Horror as a genre, especially in film, has always been about reckoning with trauma. One of the first iconic horror films, THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, displays the cultural guilt of a post-WWI Germany. The noir horror/thrillers of the 40s grappled with post-WWII anxiety regarding gender, male displacement, and general PTSD. Atomic horror films of the 50s were born from nightmares of nuclear destruction. Slashers of the 70s were creations of the senselessness of the Vietnam war and even more PTSD. Slashers of the 80s inherit from the 70s, but turn reactionary in the same way as noir horror of the 40s with male anxiety towards women, and women being seen solely as prey. So much of 80s and 90s horror is based on the (lack of) reckoning with the AIDS pandemic.

SCREAM, as I’ve previously noted, opens with Sidney already being a survivor. That entire franchise is an ouroboros of media-centric trauma.

Horror has always been a safe space for reckoning with personal and cultural trauma, and it will always be one, allowing for works like RESURRECTION to exist.

That said, placing yourself in these spaces is often not a pleasant experience.


A post-film text to my wife:

“Why the fuck do I put myself through this?”


RESURRECTION is the second feature from NANCY, PLEASE director Andrew Semans, and fully features Rebecca Hall (CHRISTINE, THE NIGHT HOUSE) as Margaret, a successful higher-up at a pharmaceutical company and single mother to a daughter who is about to head off to college. Margaret has an intern who she recognizes is in a bad relationship and helps to ease her from the toxicity, as she recognizes the symptoms. Margaret appears to have it all, someone who has it all figured out and deftly navigates her career and life, at least until she sees ‘him’ again at a work conference.

The interloper — ‘him’ — is David (Tim Roth), a scientist friend of Margaret’s parents who worked on an expedition of theirs when Margaret was traveling with them as a teen. While being a lauded scientist, he’s also an expert in coercion, and thanks partially to the pre-occupied eyes of her libertine parents, Margaret and David became entangled.

It’s been years since Margaret has seen David, and she presumed him dead, but he then appears everywhere. She believes he’s stalking her, but then he reveals why he’s been appearing, and it has to do with the monstrous events that occurred in her past.

He then falls back in line with his prior behavior, gaslighting her, playing with her, and she falls in line, following his instructions, feeling powerless.


A follow-up text:

“(Don’t answer that question. This was just a bad idea in general.)”


A lot of digital ink has and will be spilled about the absurdity of the events portrayed in RESURRECTION, and how only an actor of Hall’s caliber could sell them but, as I was watching, I found it all too relatable. I’ll restrain from detailing the film any further, but if you’ve lived through even an iota of what Margaret has been put through, it feels too familiar.

Regardless of how you read the film, how real the events are or aren’t meant to be — Semans has gone on record as saying that it’s up to audience interpretation — the character of David appears out-of-nowhere and completely upends Margaret’s life. If you’ve lived with trauma, abuse, or persistent anxiety and memory recall, it will feel all too relatable. RESURRECTION absolutely nails that inscrutable feeling of someone who will always have some command over your life, whether they’re physically there or not. You are endlessly haunted by them. They will always follow you. They will always find you.


Horror as a storytelling genre is fundamentally about confronting the darkest depths of what people are capable of, but it’s also about how those entangled in those webs react. While horror works are often written off as cautionary tales, it feels like we’ve culturally progressed to a point of acknowledging that there’s no avoiding being harmed. You will be hurt. You will be abused. You will be taken advantage of, and you will be haunted by those who have taken advantage of you, and all you can try to do is what Margaret does, which is to recognize and rebuff, and then dig deep and tear asunder, even if those around you don’t understand your actions.

Hopefully you have friends and loving families, but if you don’t, you have fictional works like RESURRECTION to allow you to keep your head above water, reminding you that you are not alone, that it’s okay that you feel haunted, that you hurt, that you will not forget, even if you desperately want to.


POSTSCRIPT

I highly recommend reading Katie Rife’s piece on RESURRECTION which is a far better review than mine.


THE BEAR (2022-)

(Hulu/FX) I have a few issues with the first season of THE BEAR — mostly typical first season problems regarding tone and clumsy character dynamics — but you should watch it if you’re into claustrophobic, high-strung, hyper-local character dramas, especially if you’re a Chicagoan who seeks out restaurants or have worked in restaurants.

Also, I was relieved to see that it skews closer to half-hour eps for its eight ep run. (That said, wouldn’t be surprised if the runtimes ballooned in the second season.)

One notable facet is its use of lighting and set decoration as a cleansing arc throughout the season. THE ORIGINAL BEEF space goes from looking like mud to gleaming like a private hospital, and watch for how light increasingly floods the space, beaming around the characters.

Also noteworthy is that it’s one of the few works out there which starts out with a dude being traumatized in many ways, he tries to be better, realizes he’s still not great at it, but learns how to reach out. He’s willing to learn, and willing to change, in a city that is often resistant to change.

In other words, S2 could be great. “What do you call it?”

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.

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.