June 2021 Viewing Diary

La Notte (1961; d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
Pauline Kael included La Notte in her infamous essay titled “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties”. Now you can debate her on this opinion – and I think she’s off (although I think it’s a hilarious title). She also has a point. All that wandering around being dissociated, melancholy, and beautiful. Anyway, my favorite of Antonioni’s “sick soul of Europe” films is L’Eclisse, but this one is fascinating. Jeanne Moreau’s wandering reminds me of Carroll Baker’s wandering in Something Wild – released the same year. I should write a column about Women Wandering Around Cities Aimlessly – I was practically writing it in my head during this re-watch.

Caveat (2021; d. Damian McCarthy)
This movie freaked me out. The rabbit especially. No thank you. I reviewed for Ebert.

A Very Murray Christmas (2015; d. Sofia Coppola)
If this is not your kind of thing, if you don’t automatically vibe with it, or if you DON’T think, “Oh my God this is exactly what I needed. This is a drink of water in the middle of a huge DESERT” … that’s fine. To each his own. I also suspect that if you aren’t automatically on board with this kind of thing, nothing I say will change your mind. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind anyway, I’m just saying. For ME, this is what I needed, need, and will continue to need. Always. There’s something old-fashioned here, in its reflection of old-time variety shows – which I miss – but it’s pierced with melancholy, a bittersweet loneliness that is then overcome by a sense of collective experience. If you’ve seen the film – or variety special – or whatever you want to call it – then you know what I’m talking about. The whole thing is, dare I say, WHOLESOME, even with the presence of people like Bill Murray and Chris Rock. People show up, sometimes as themselves, sometimes not, and share their talents. There’s a fragile scaffolding of plot, but Coppola doesn’t worry about it. She lets the event unfold, using the Carlyle as a home base, which gives the whole thing a very rich and textured atmosphere. Then … there’s a huge ridiculous production number, involving George Clooney pouring martinis, Miley Cyrus dressed up as a sexy reindeer/Santa’s-helper-elf, and Bill Murray in a tux. With Paul Schaeffer at a white baby grand. The best thing is: none of this is IRONIC, even though Bill Murray is the King of Irony. He brings his world-weary side, but he also brings his innocence and openness. It also gives him the space to sing, and he loves to sing. I mean, this just hits the spot for me, and it’s a very specific spot.

The Last Seduction (1994; d. John Dahl)
I saw this in the movie theatre. I still remember Roger Ebert’s review. Linda Fiorentino is an outlaw actress, and mainstream long-term success has eluded her. I know she still works, but I wish she was in more. She had her moment though. She’s the reason to watch this. If you miss flat-out villains – if you are sick of hearing about villains’ boo-hoo backstories – if you LOVE watching, say, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity … Fioerntino’s performance is a welcome tonic. This woman is just so so BAD and Fiorentino has so much fun.

Skater Girl
I loved this! It’s on Netflix. I reviewed for Ebert.

Tropic Thunder (2008; d. Ben Stiller)
Watched with Allison. Another one I saw in the theatre. “What do you mean ‘you people’?” “What do YOU mean, ‘you people’?” Simple Jack is just SO wrong but the critiques all around are spot-on. Simple Jack in the prison camp? RIDICULOUS. Plus: a balding Tom Cruise, dancing.

La Piscine (1970; d. Jacques Deray)
This was the first movie I saw IN A MOVIE THEATRE in over a year. AND it was at the Film Forum in New York. I was as excited as if I were going to a Broadway opening. I went to the first show of the day (and I’ve seen this movie many times, it’s a favorite). They’re still social-distancing there, so certain seats are blocked off. There weren’t many people there anyway. It was 11 am or whatever. And so I settled in to watch this movie peopled by IMPOSSIBLY glamorous individuals, all of whom seem to be suffering from some kind of malaise, boredom from their own glamour? Satiated with too-much-ness? Delon is so good, but so is Schneider. The movie has a tactile feel to it, their bronze skin, the sun is so hot, the pebbles they step on, the cool interior of the house. It’s all so vivid. I was just so happy to be in a movie theatre, you don’t even know.

Undine (2021; d. Christian Petzold)
I saw Christian Petzold’s latest, at the IFC Center in New York, my SECOND movie in a movie theatre. One of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. I now wait for his latest with as much anticipation as I do, say, Sofia Coppola. I’ve written about him quite a bit. My first review for Roger Ebert, wayyyy back in 2013, was of Barbara, starring the great Nina Hoss. I loved Barbara. Also loved Yella, Transit and especially Phoenix. Undine is a modern-day mermaid/water-nymph story. From the very first scene, you are pulled in to this strange tale of mystery and romance and revenge. Paula Beer plays Undine, and she is a very unnerving presence, and Franz Rogowski (who also starred in Transit) plays Christophe, the man who falls in love with her. Beautifully shot, this story is filled with a very true sense of “the uncanny”. Alongside all of this – as is true with all of Petzold’s films – is a sense of Germany’s past and present and future, particularly about the architecture of Berlin, and how it shows the legacy of the past. Petzold’s films all take place in “the aftermath”, as in: the aftermath of the division of Germany, and how the once- bifurcated country grapples with coming together, and grapples with history. He’s such a rich filmmaker, and his films are really ABOUT something.

Holler (2021; d. Nicole Riegel)
I saw this directly after Undine, also at the IFC Center. Two movies back to back in the same theatre. It was a hot day in New York, Allison was working, and I had nothing to do until later that night. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long long time. I decided to see Holler because I was so intrigued by Matt Zoller Seitz’s review. Holler had not been on my radar at all. I hadn’t even heard of it. I’ve been pretty out of touch. So I thought, “what the hell, why not” and bought a ticket for the next show. And my God I am so glad I did. This MOVIE. Matt really captures what I found so special about it too – and not just special but RARE nowadays and PRECIOUS. It feels like it was made in 1974, 1975 – and that is HIGH praise. This is an uncompromising film – and by that I mean, the first-time director (!!!! Cannot believe this is her first film) did not soften the story, and you can just TELL that she made the film SHE wanted to make. As Matt points out, Riegel is not an outsider to this world. She grew up poor, she had no privilege, she had nothing. She GETS what it’s like to have nothing, and so this is a film portraying people who have nothing by a filmmaker who’s actually been there. And so her perspective is different from, say, a filmmaker born and raised middle-class. You can FEEL that difference. I can’t say enough good things about the performances, particularly the two leads, who play siblings – Jessica Barden and Gus Halper. I’ve written about this before, here and elsewhere, but so many films about siblings just don’t get it right. I don’t believe that the actors grew up together and/or are related. The most egregious example is Bridges of Madison County – those brother-sister scenes are TERRIBLE (I love the rest of the movie) … but here, the bond between brother and sister is palpable, real, tremendously vital, and central to the whole thing. Austin Amelio, as the guy who owns the scrap yard, doing illegal shit on the side, is terrific and Becky Ann Baker brought me to tears almost every time she appeared, not because her character was sad or her situation was sad, but because she is an example of what character actors bring to the table. For a second I thought she must have been a local, a person with no acting experience, who just was “right” for the part. She’s that real. But no, Baker is a veteran actress. THAT’S technique. I literally believed she was an amateur – !!! Again, I can’t say enough good stuff. And the ending touched me so much I walked back to Allison’s literally in tears. My heart was exploding. See this movie. I miss this kind of cinema.

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
And now for something completely different … Allison is very very involved in this franchise – emotionally, I mean, and so we watched a bunch of recent episodes. I will say this: I watched the very first season of the franchise, the mighty Real Housewives of Orange County, and after that I lost interest. The first one is the best because that world is so so STRANGE, so “other”, a rarified world playing by its own rules. The New York one, yes, everyone is filthy rich, but it’s still a recognizable world. What was fascinating about the gated community in the first one was how it’s TRULY La-La Land. Camille Paglia is not wrong about this franchise! Regardless, I got very sucked into what was going on, and Allison provided running commentary, and I was so happy to be there with my best friend, doing what we love to do, because it’s been over a year.

Scott Peterson binge-watch
And then we binge-watched all the recent specials on the developments in the Scott Peterson case. We watched the 20/20 episode, we watched the Hulu doc, and we watched the 48 Hours. I know I’m not alone when I say I was convinced the guy was guilty – I think I even posted about it here back in the day – but the new evidence is very very convincing. And so now here is my take: He is a prick with a TERRIBLE personality, he is a cheater, but he may very well not be a murderer. If he didn’t do it, then this whole thing has been an appalling miscarriage of justice, and the media has a lot to do with it. We shall see. The one thing that did always strike me was how there was no actual evidence that he did it. No crime scene at the house, no evidence in the truck, or even in the boat. No sign of a struggle anywhere. He was convicted WITHOUT all of that. I mean, obviously, the whole thing looked very VERY suspicious, but … 75% of that is because he has such a shitty personality. Anyway. We had a blast going down the rabbit hole.

Top Chef (2020)
I was at my sister’s and they are very VERY into the recent season of Top Chef, and while I was there, the new episode aired. We watched together, and Siobhan and Ben filled me in on various backstories of all of the contestants. And now we have a winner, and apparently it’s all controversial now for various boring reasons. But it was fun. I haven’t slept over at my sister’s in over a year too.

I Carry You With Me (2021; d. Heidi Ewing)
This is a beautiful and memorable tale, told in a very interesting way. I reviewed for Ebert.

A VERY creepy horror-monster-movie about … mushrooms taking over the earth. I reviewed for Ebert.

Sabaya (2021; d. Hogir Hirori)
This hasn’t opened yet: a harrowing documentary about a tiny organization in Syria, who attempt repeatedly to rescue the Yazidi girls kidnapped by ISIS to become sex slaves (“sabaya”). The film is haunting, gripping, terrifying, and makes many of the problems we keep shouting about over here look … ridiculous. These MEN – Yazidi men – who organize very VERY dangerous raids into Al-Hol, a camp in Syria, where many of these women are being held (and hidden) – these men are legit heroes. They utilize infiltrators, girls who enter the camp, to live among the Daesh, and to gather intel for the organization, intel like “there is one girl being held in this particular tent on the south-east corner of the camp”, and shit like that. These infiltrators are heroes too. They do this, knowing they could be killed if discovered. But many of them were sabaya too. The rescued women transported back to the organization’s HQ are traumatized beyond belief. Many of them have been held in captivity for 5, 6 years, enduring horrors. One girl they rescue is 9 years old. These people are fucking monsters. Hirori is a Kurdish filmmaker, who embedded himself within the rescue organization, going along on the midnight raids, filming everything. Very very dangerous.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957; d. Billy Wilder)
I’ve of course seen this many times. It’s great.

Notorious: Ghislaine Maxwell (2021)
I HAD to watch it, of course. I don’t want to put a picture of that evil bitch on my site.

The Lost Weekend (1945; d. Billy Wilder)
Ray Milland gives a tremendous performance as the alcoholic wannabe writer, who goes on a binge one weekend, nearly losing everything. It’s a very honest film about alcoholism, and gets so many of the details right. I had forgotten the scene where he gets the DTs, it is nearly as horrifying as what Yves Montand experiences in Le Cercle Rouge. I said “nearly” because nothing is more horrifying than that scene in Le Cercle Rouge. It should come with a trigger warning. But the DTs scene in The Lost Weekend is also HORRIFYING, and so well done. This is a great film.

Scarface (1932; d. Howard Hawks)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen this. Everyone is so good. The casting … that Warner Brothers lot had so many great character actors, who feel like they just rolled in off the street, who feel like they go home at night to a tenement on the Lower East Side. Everyone is so real. The sibling relationship here – Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak – is so disturbing, and frankly incestuous. She basically says it: “You’re not acting like a brother. You’re acting more like—” This is a brutal film and still imitated to this day. There’s a sequence that is clearly the inspiration for the famous scene in Good Fellas where Ray Liotta is given a front-table seat at the Copa Cobana.

The Public Enemy (1931; d. William A. Wellman)
Not only is this a gritty honest film, it’s also a good history lesson about what Prohibition did: it basically created organized crime. The film lays out that progression in a ripped-from-the-headlines way. Wellman was so down-to-earth, so tied to reality. This is the movie, of course, with the famous grapefruit-into-the-face scene, a moment of such shocking violence it puts many a gun battle to shame. The LOOK on his face! It’s very frank about everything, about the sexual precocity of the little street kids, about the predators who draw them in further to a life of crime, about holing up with women in crappy hotels – you can even hear the sex going on in the next room in one scene. It’s also ahead of its time in its portrayal of child abuse, and what it can potentially do to a child. It’s not an EXCUSE for the later criminal behavior, but it sure is an explanation. Nobody is born bad. This is a great film.

Avanti (1972; d. Billy Wilder)
It’s been years since I’ve seen this. Billy Wilder is so good at “milking” scenes for humor, for the “button” to close things out, for that little extra something that makes a scene pop. Things like this image of Clive Revill, who plays the endlessly resourceful concierge of the hotel, and Jack Lemmon, who plays a hotel guest. I mean … this is a funny image. It’s never commented on, it’s just a visual joke from Wilder – stuff like this, where you never miss an opportunity to add a little joke, a little twist, is one of the hallmarks of Billy Wilder’s style.

Eat (2011; d. Janicza Bravo)
I actually watched all of her short films that were available, in preparation for Zola, but wanted to share this one: It’s so so good.

Zola (2021; d. Janicza Bravo)
Highly-anticipated, its release delayed by Covid. It’s finally here. So far, it’s one of the best films of 2021. I reviewed for Ebert.

Baby Face (1933; d. Alfred E. Green)
One of the films that actually prompted the powers that be to go, “Yeah, we need to put a stop to this and create a Production Code.” It’s that out there. Still. It makes no bones about what’s happening. A woman (Barbara Stanwyck) sleeps her way to the top, ruining lives in the process. Not because she’s some noir-monster or a floozy but because of where she came from and what she had to do to survive. Men have been nothing but awful to her. Her father was her pimp, setting her to work since she was 14 years old. She has been brutalized repeatedly – and probably by her father as well. The signs are all there. It’s perfectly understandable that she would look at men and have no pity for their ruination. They deserve it.

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11 Responses to June 2021 Viewing Diary

  1. Biff Dorsey says:

    I was lucky enough to see “Baby Face” at a Pre-Code festival at the Castro some thirty years ago and the audience lapped it up like cream. It helped that the organist played a frenzied version of “(You’ve got the cutest little) Baby Face” to prime the crowd. Stanwyck forever!
    The only comparable audience reactions I’ve experienced were a first run showing of “What’s Up Doc? and a revival of “The Merry Widow”, also at the Castro. When Chevalier made his entrance singing “Girl, Girls, Girls”, the place went bonkers.

  2. Scott Abraham says:

    Having Real Housewives define Orange County for the rest of the world is just lovely sometimes. (sigh)

  3. TraceyK says:

    I think we lost something when pre-code movies were sanitized.

    • sheila says:

      I agree. There is so much to be said for the movies that followed – the great late-1930s films – Code firmly in place but people got away with a lot of shit anyway. But nostalgia for that era is … I mean, when you read what was actually in the Production Code, it’s harder to be nostalgic. The Code addressed sexuality and violence, of course, but it didn’t only do that. It said that there could be no negative portrayals of cops – or basically anyone in authority. It banned any suggestion of “miscegenation” – It wasn’t just about protecting the public from too much salacaiousness or criminality – it was an ideological document, meant to uphold the status quo. It’s racist, as well.

      For example – watching Baby Face – it’s immediately apparent that the relationship between the two women – one white, one black – is a relationship of equals. The white woman doesn’t abandon her black friend – just because she has an opportunity to get out and rise in society. Chico comes with. She is her “maid” eventually – but really she’s a maid in name only. This is a friendship between two survivors.

      This kind of thing – any portrayal of racial reconciliation – was banned from film. Sam from Casablanca is a notable exception.

  4. Jim Reding says:

    I miss Linda Fiorentino too. She was such a strong presence (remember her in After Hours?). I remember many critics pushing for her to get an Oscar nom for The Last Seduction, basically begging the Academy to veto their trivial “premiered on cable” rule.

    Re: Tropic Thunder, this story may be redundant as I’ve shared it at least once on Twitter, possibly in a thread that stemmed from one of your posts. Seeing it for the first time was one of the best theatrical experiences I ever had. It was one of those free radio station promo pre-release screenings, and the auditorium was packed. A local DJ walked out, did a short intro, then they dimmed the lights, and-with no trailers in front-launched straight into the Booty Sweat “commercial.” We spent a few seconds with our collective jaws on the floor before it clicked that it was actually the opening of the movie.

    • sheila says:

      Jim – it took me literally a month to get back to this thread. But I love your comment!

      // basically begging the Academy to veto their trivial “premiered on cable” rule. //

      Yes I remember this well! I seem to recall Ebert writing a piece on that – saying how ridiculous it was – and he was certainly prescient about where the industry was going.

      // and-with no trailers in front-launched straight into the Booty Sweat “commercial.” //

      Oh my God, lol.

  5. dollymix says:

    I’m a huge Sofia Coppola fan and I can’t believe I never knew about A Very Murray Christmas. (Particularly since I just watched On The Rocks and saw a lot of discussion about how it was her reunion with Bill Murray, who she made Lost In Translation with.) Look forward to catching up!

    • sheila says:

      Dolly! I’m so excited to pass on the knowledge of this whimsical weird little Christmas special! Apparently it was Bill Murray’s idea and so he collaborated with Coppola to make it happen. It’s this soft sad little special, but also funny with a host of great guest spots! Enjoy!

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