Film Reviews by Glenn Turner

Glenn Turner is a Chicago-based web developer who, if you’ve ever played a crossword puzzle via an app or online, has probably had a hand in delivering it to you. In his free time he watches and reads and thinks and writes too much about media at mediaclature.com.

June 18, 2022 Review of Relative

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 with love-of-his-life Sarah (Heather Chrisler).

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 you’re reading this before June 18th, 2022, the Wilmette Theatre has a screening of it on June 18th, including a post-film Q&A with Smith and Heather Chrisler!)

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.
 

June 7, 2022 Review of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

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.
 

April 12, 2022 Review of Everything Everywhere All At Once

I’m an easy laugher and an easy crier when it comes to film viewing, but it’s very rare that I do both at the same time. The Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, who previously helmed the very bizarre but surprisingly affecting SWISS ARMY MAN) EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE had my face wet and aglow more than a few times.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (henceforth referred to as EVERYTHING) is an absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-boggling high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, read no further and just go see it, preferably on the largest screen possible. (Although, if you do read further, I promise no major spoilers.)

EVERYTHING is all about Evelyn (see what they did there?) played by a never-better Michelle Yeoh — and that’s saying something, as her career is vast and multi-faceted and brilliant — who helms a laundromat with her overly joyful husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who you may remember as INDIANA JONES’ Short Round) that is currently being audited by the IRS, specifically by Deirdre (Jaime Lee Curtis, clearly having the time of her life). Meanwhile, Evelyn is trying to mediate matters between taking care of her addled, elderly father (the illustrious James Hong), and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her daughter’s girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), all while personally bemoaning all of the options she could have pursued over her life, including singing and acting, instead of tending to a struggling laundromat where her husband keeps slapping googly eyes on everything.

When heading up in an elevator in a non-descript IRS building to meet Deidre and iron their financial matters out, Waymond’s disposition completely shifts; he pops an umbrella to obscure a security camera, and then gives her the barest of instructions and information, which ultimately results in: right now, I’m not your husband; I’m the same person, but from a different, splintered universe, and I need your help. Evelyn’s then walked through the process of accessing her multiverse personas, explicitly through silly, surreal actions.

Matters escalate and what ultimately follows is a very heady trip through not only a mid-life crisis, but a personal reckoning with family. And hot dog hands, which happen to exist in a universe in which people play pianos with their toes. (I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a Tarantino riff. Notably, Uma Thurman is thanked in the credits.)

While EVERYTHING feels a tad too long at almost two-and-a-half-hours, none of that time is wasted. It is jam-packed, almost overstuffed, with so many ideas, so many effusive, brilliant visual gags, so much hurt between Evelyn and Joy, so much enthusiasm from Way, so many brilliantly choreographed and executed fight sequences, that it’s hard to say what they could have cut. The film is an embarrassment of riches, a treasure-trove of cinematic appreciation, but also a surprisingly thoughtful take on hope and love and humanity and of aging and of missed opportunities. While I’m prone to crying and laughing too much at a film, it is an astonishing achievement, and one worth being exuberant about.

Lastly, buy an everything bagel before diving in, and save it for after. You’ll thank me later.

March 17, 2022 Review of Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

Documentaries are by far the most undersung filmmaking genre — no doc has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture — and short documentaries have the worst of the lot. Some of these filmmakers have spent years and years filming their subjects, then whittle their hundreds of hours of footage into a publicly-palatable half-hour. It’s a shame that the Academy are pushing this group of nominees to the sidelines for the 2022 broadcast because these filmmakers — even when they make something that doesn’t quite cohere — invest so much time and work and emotion and empathy into their subjects.

AUDIBLE

AUDIBLE is the latest from filmmaker Matthew Ogens, best known for his documentary CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO which followed around a set of Los Angeles costumed superheroes, but it’s also produced by Peter Berg, of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS fame. Like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, AUDIBLE focuses on a high school football team, but this is an all-deaf team from the Maryland School for the Deaf. While the doc dives into how they communicate on-and-off the field, it excels at emphasizing the empathy and a specific kind of bonding that is rarely found in even the closest of social groups. Its use of subtitles, and insistance on displaying them, is also worth banging the drums for.

LEAD ME HOME

From longtime documentary workers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk, LEAD ME HOME is an affective look at the homeless situation in tech-boom cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, where tent cities are now very visible, as captured by their drone footage and contrasted by all of the modern construction work.

One of the more heartbreaking stories is that of Patty, who solely has her dog to keep her sane and safe from an abusive partner, and there are a litany of publicly posted signs stating ‘No dogs allowed’ in any space she would otherwise be able to use to bide the night.

 

THE QUEEN OF BASKETBALL

“Have you ever heard of Lucy Harris?” That’s the question posited from Ben Proudfoot (THE OX) and it’s a good one, as she was a revolutionary basketball player in a pre-WNBA era. Presented in a very face-forward Errol Morris way, this is an effortlessly pleasing doc that imbues Harris’ charms while also detailing how limited options for sport careers were for women — honestly, still probably are — even those courted by the Jazz.

“Long and tall and that’s not all.”

THREE SONGS FOR BENAZIR

A disheartening, slightly faltering, look at Shaista, an under-educated Afghanistan trying to escape from the opium trade by enlisting in the army. While well-shot and well-shaped by Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, especially when it comes to capturing the surveillance state that Shaista percieves, it leaves you wanting something a bit more thanks to a rather perfunctory end. Sadly, sometimes that’s just how spending years with a subject will work out.

WHEN WE WERE BULLIES

The documentary that dares to ask the question: “What if bullies were the victims all along?”

It’s a doc from prolific short film director Jay Rosenblatt that wants to examine mob mentality, youths’ desire to fit in — even if it means violence — but instead pivots to slight interviews and then almost completely writes out the actual victim. The hand-crafted animations used to set, and reset, the tableau of the bullying incident that incited the impetus for the film inject some liveliness into the film, but then leans far too heavily on it.

 

 

Despite the Academy’s sidelining of these works, you can still see them in the theater, as these shorts are currently playing in the Chicagoland area at the WILMETTE THEATER — https://www.wilmettetheatre.com/ — 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091, USA!
 

March 12, 2022 Review of Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

You can tell that the Oscars are returning to some semblance of normalcy when they start inexplicably removing airtime for the remaining less-glamorous categories. Case in point: the Academy recently announced that the winners in a number of categories, including editing as well as the three shorts categories (Animated, Live Action, and Documentary), would no longer be announced live during the primary broadcast. As noted by many film professionals —

 

 

— this feels like a betrayal by the Academy, that they’re whittling away what’s supposed to be a celebration of  everything that makes cinema unique to make room for more stars, singers and half-baked skits.

It’s an especially egregious sin concerning this year’s Live Action Short nominees, as the short films are mostly a banner crop of emotionally affecting works:

ALA KACHUU (TAKE AND RUN)

ALA KACHUU is from German-Swiss filmmaker Maria Brendle and opens with Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova), a young Kyrgyz woman living in a small rural town, arguing with her mother, trying to convince her to allow her to head to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to take an exam that could garner her a higher education scholarship. Her mother is dead set against it, espousing that Sezim find a husband instead, and forbids her to take the exam, especially underscoring her personal disdain for the woman Sezim would be staying with.

Sezim is undeterred and opts to run off to take the exam, to stay with her independently minded friend and get a job at a bakery. She glows as she eases into this new life, one of personal  responsibility and individuality, and even learns how to drive a car.

While locking up the bakery at the end of the day, she gets a call from her friend, happily noting that her exam results are in! And then Sezim is grabbed by several young men, thrown into a car, and instead of living her best life as a free woman in the city, she’s forcibly married to her kidnapper, a man who doesn’t shy away from the fact that he wanted to abduct her co-worker, not herself.

Brendle tells this horrifying, but all too common, tale with an energetic verve that tugs at the viewer, while also leaning hard on visual burdens. It’s a hard watch, but one worth putting yourself through.

ON MY MIND

From 2002 Academy Award Live Short winner Martin Strange-Hansen (for THIS CHARMING MAN/DER ER EN YNDIG MAND) comes this piece about a man who just wants to sing a song for his unseen wife at a bar. At first, it feels like a one act stageplay, almost an exercise in character desire and denial, but then it turns the corner and reveals itself in a way that will clutch at your heartstrings. Especially noteworthy is how the film utilizes breath in ways that won’t cause you to wince in a pandemic way.

PLEASE HOLD

PLEASE HOLD, from Mexican-American director KD Davila, is the sort of dystopian depiction of the modern prison system that could easily be a BLACK MIRROR episode, or at least would be if that reality weren’t already here and prisoners weren’t unfairly detained and nickel-and-dimed until they’re bled dry. Starring Erick Lopez (CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND’s Hector), Davila’s use of visual confinement as well as the all-too-real sort of digital interface is particularly Kafka-esque.

 

THE DRESS

THE DRESS is credited as being written and directed by Tadeusz Lysiak, but allegedly he collaborated with actor Anna Dzieduszycka, who plays the lead Julka. Julka is a little person working as a maid in a Polish hotel, someone who is thirsty with desire — as visually expressed by her constant diet of slim cigarettes and booze — and seems to hit it off with a trucker, who schedules a date with her the next time he swings into town.

Dzieduszycka is brilliant in the role, but THE DRESS falters near the end, pivoting to prove an unnecessary point. Despite that, the first two-thirds are a fantastic character study, but you’ll know when you should bail.

THE LONG GOODBYE

Not to be confused with the Raymond Chandler work of the same name, THE LONG GOODBYE is a piece from director Aneil Karia (LOVESICK, SURGE) and penned by Karia and lead Riz Ahmed (SOUND OF METAL, THE NIGHT OF). It made the streaming rounds many moons ago, but deserves to be seen on screens larger than one’s phone as it’s a visual whirlwind of a large British South Asian family enjoying their day together, at least until those outside turn on them.

As with many of these works, THE LONG GOODBYE is not a traditionally fun watch, but it’s an important and engrossing one. Short films can summarize a lifetime we’d never be able to imagine within a fraction of the running time, and it’s a shame that the Academy has opted to relegate them to the sidelines. However, you can still see them in the theater, as these shorts are currently playing in the Chicagoland area at the WILMETTE THEATER — https://www.wilmettetheatre.com/ — 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091, USA!
 

March 7, 2022 review of the 2022 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 

The Oscar Animated Shorts category can be trying under the best of times, as all too often it’s chock full of overly-sentimental pablum, but thankfully this year’s crop of nominees are supremely intriguing, thoughtful, experimental entries that play with the form. It’s also surprisingly wall-to-wall not-safe-for-work so, if you’re thinking about taking youths to see it, you might want to think twice.

The stand-out piece is AFFAIRS FROM THE ART, from the well-regarded Joanna Quinn & Les Mills; it’s fifteen minutes of a sister/mother/wife observing her very eccentric, very oddball sister, narrating her memories all the way as she also visually impresses her own personal obsessions. Think: a more vibrant, more personal Bill Plympton-ish work, reverberant lines and thrilling mouth animation in a wildly stylized way, while still disclosing a very personal, private story.

Then there is the deeply skewed BESTIA from Hugo Covarrubias, about a Chilean fixer and her dog, all full of ceramic glistening, awkward pauses, and — as you might pick up by the title — it features perhaps the more tawdry sort of ‘downward dog’ you could imagine.

BOXBALLET is one of the two most ‘traditional’ animated shorts, from Anton Dyakov, as it traffics in the usual sort of physical dynamics of animation: a brusque and formidable bruiser intertwines with a lithe, tiny dancer, accompanied by a rugged ‘Russian brutalism’ aesthetic and a minimal amount of dialogue.

It wouldn’t be an animation category without an obligatory Aardman (WALLACE AND GROMMIT, SHAUN THE SHEEP, CHICKEN RUN) contribution, the second of the ‘traditional’ animated shorts. ROBIN ROBIN is centered around a robin adopted and raised by mice, all framed by a Christmas story. It’s cute; it’s fine; it won’t change your worldview, but it is adorable in the Aardman tradition of wide eyes and plush fur.

Lastly, there’s THE WINDSHIELD WIPER from Alberto Mielgo — best know for his work on LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. THE WINDSHIELD WIPER is an extraordinarily well-executed but emotionally faltering piece of CGI that hews closer to videogame aesthetics than what one would normally consider an Oscar-nominated animated piece. There’s an extended scene with two people standing next to each other in a grocery store, swiping left/right on a Tinder-esque app until they swipe right on each other, but they never lock eyes. Yeah, it’s that sort of thing. What it lacks in substance, it makes up for in stylization.

None the less, this is one of the more intriguing Animated Shorts categories I’ve seen in some time, and it’s well-worth venturing out for! If you’re in the Chicagoland area, they’ll be playing at the Wilmette Theater(https://www.wilmettetheatre.com — 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091, USA) come March 10th!