RELATIVE (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official trailer:

Red band trailer:

HAPPENING (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X (2022)

On paper, X (2022) sounds like sexploitation by way of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: it’s 1979 and a group of Houston-based porn filmmakers head out to the boonies to shoot what they think will be -the- artistic home-video porno breakthrough, only for it to become their ultimate nightmare.

However, writer/director Ti West has always been supremely measured and thoughtful when it comes to his take on horror. The standout scene in his breakthrough film THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL consists of two minutes of protagonist Samantha (an ebullient Jocelin Donahue) dancing to THE FIXX’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ as it plays on her WalkMan, as opposed to the spectacularly nightmarish set-pieces that close the movie. West knows how to imbue emotion and heartfelt sincerity into his films in ways that few genre filmmakers do, and X is a clear case of this, even down to a similarly adorable music break.

Without spoiling anything, yes, X is lurid, is sensationalist, and definitely luxuriates in the sort of capitalist free love that existed at that time (at least, on film) but the soul of the film is about desire, to want and be wanted and feel hands on you; of coupling reciprocity. West is making the slasher subtext of physical, usually knife-centric, intimacy into text.

It also helps that West is ruminating in all of his cinematic influences: from John Ford to Jean-Luc Godard to Hitchcock, every scene — practically every shot — takes an established, recognizable visual motif and then skews — or skewers — it.

X is a wild but surprisingly sentimental ride, one that could revel in nastiness but opts instead to be an array of character pieces that also happens to be a rather thrilling, blood-soaked 90 minutes.

Lastly, I’d like to note: one facet of X’s production studio A24 that I love is that they encourage their auteurs to send out a newsletter reflecting on their film, and West’s one regarding X is worth a read.