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.

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.

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.”

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.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

BETTER THINGS (2016-2022)

(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.

BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)

(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)

Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.

Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.

It makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.

No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.

I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.

Season 1 Trailer:

Final Season Trailer (for the brave):

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.

DIETLAND (2018)

DIETLAND was a one-season wonder from Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MAD MEN, UNREAL) based on Sarai Walker’s novel. The show was canceled too soon, but was one hell of a ride, something that starts as DEVIL WEARS PRADA that turns into a woman-focused FIGHT CLUB.

DIETLAND is unabashedly about fashion-and-capitalism, faux-feminism and body positivity and faith and, while it’s uniquely about women, it wildly resonates.

I would have loved to have seen a second season, as I’m sure it would have been absolutely bonkers in all the right ways, and certainly take place in the future, but I’m happy that there’s at least one season.

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