December 2023/January-February 2024 Viewing Diary

The Golden Bachelor
Watched – in great hilarity – with Karen and Allison during a raucous sleepover, and Carol pulled up on FaceTime. So we could watch together. The whole thing is so ridiculous.

Maestro (2023; d. Bradley Cooper)
I didn’t know much about Leonard Bernstein except 1. his music and 2. Tom Wolfe’s ruthless “Radical Chic”. Once you read “Radical Chic”, you cannot un-read it. Naturally, it is not covered in Maestro. Had a great time going to see this in New York with Mitchell, Allison and Eric at the Paris Theatre. There was a line down the block. The joint was PACKED. I was disappointed by the film in some aspects – the usual biopic reasons: there wasn’t enough focus on the work and how he worked. But I also loved it in other aspects. Biopic tropes are like a centrifugal force. But still, it’s impressive and clearly a passion project for Cooper. That really reads.

Uppercase Print (2020; d. Radu Jude)
Radu Jude is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. I hadn’t seen this one and it was streaming on Criterion so I checked it out. It’s 3 hours long, an adaptation of a stage play, taken entirely from secret police transcripts and documents during an investigation into the identity of the person covering walls with graffiti slogans like “Freedom and Liberty”. The lengths the secret police went to – bugging apartments, constant surveillance – is psychotic. The “culprit” was just a kid sick of living in a dictatorship. The kid was inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland. He was not alone. He wanted the same kind of movement in Romania. The kid was treated like an enemy of the people. His life was ruined. His family’s life was ruined. When people express concerns about “cancel culture”, sometimes it’s because they know how it can actually play out in real life when wielded by the State. Radu Jude filmed this like a play – perhaps reflecting the original production? I don’t know. – where people step out of the shadows to tell their side of the story. Every single word spoken is from the massive police files. Imagine the resources devoted to this, the vast architecture of bureaucrats necessary to investigate graffiti. Imagine a government that scared not just of freedom of expression but freedom of thought.

The Taste of Things (2023; d. Tran Anh Hung)
I adored this film, mouth-watering food, beautiful understated performances, a mood of tenderness and care. It was very moving. I reviewed for Ebert.

Memory (2023; d. Michel Franco)
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Peter Sarsgaard onstage at the Jacob Burns Film Center, after a screening of this beautiful new film about a man suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Co-starring Jessica Chastain, Memory is extremely poignant, without sentimentality. It’s not designed to tug at your heart strings. Franco’s style is unobtrusive in a way: he films without too much interference in the visual imagery, not a lot of cuts or closeups. Scenes play out in one. This gives his work a sense of “this is really happening right now”. It was great to get to talk to Sarsgaard – to a packed house! Great crowd! Finally got to meet long-time “regular” here, Todd, whose comments have always been so amazing, and we’ve also corresponded quite a bit. It was so great!

All of Us Strangers (2023; d. Andrew Haigh)
I was wrecked by this one, so much so that I wasn’t sure how to approach my review. I didn’t even know what to say. I don’t think this has happened in my entire time reviewing stuff for Ebert. I really had to pull my shit together, and at some point I had to just admit I failed. Here’s my review.

Stranger Things (2017)
Still working through Season 2 with my niece. I haven’t had as much time as I would like to do some real binge-watching. Now that I’m settled into my new place, I think I need to institute some sleep-over binge-watch parties. I think the show is amazing. My niece gave me an “Eleven” cup for Christmas. It’s hilarious.

Wings of Desire (1987; d. Wim Wenders)
A masterpiece.

Beyond Utopia (2023; d. Madeleine Gavin)
This and 20 Days in Mariupol were the top docs of 2023. Both show unbelievable footage, footage dangerous and life-threatening to those participating in it, footage important to show the world, footage worth risking your life for. Getting people out of North Korea is not just daunting, it seems almost impossible. The smuggled footage in North Korea itself is haunting and dystopian. The pain is beyond imagining. The network of smugglers and spies and drivers and safe houses required to get people from China down into Thailand, a “safe” country, is a whole cottage industry (and ripe for exploitation by bad actors). You watch this one small family, and what they go through after crossing the river into China – the arduous journey – through mountains and jungles – evading capture … I mean, the fact they are willing to put themselves through all that tells you all need to know about the conditions in North Korea. I have nothing but admiration for the people who have devoted their lives to helping people get the fuck OUT of that concentration camp of a nation.

Paterno (2018; d. Barry Levinson)
A reminder, as if we needed one, of Al Pacino’s stature as an actor. It’s a great late performance. He was great as Hoffa too in The Irishman, but Hoffa was in his wheelhouse: big talker, charismatic, loud, blustering, etc. Pacino could play Hoffa in his sleep. But Paterno? A repressed retiring obsessive passive guy afraid of conflict, except on the football field? None of this is in his wheelhouse. A guy who never throws a temper tantrum? Who never lets off steam? The amount of restraint Pacino had to wield as an actor, to avoid his usual tricks, to nOT allow himself any crowd-pleasing Al-pleasing catharsis … THAT is why he is a great actor. It was so great to see Kathy Baker too: they have one scene together close to the end that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You have to be a hell of a good actor to pull off that scene because on the surface they are saying one thing, but underneath, she is saying everything. And he is caught, struck, trapped, by the implications of what she is saying. He understands that he does not understand at all what has happened. It’s like he breaks, finally. But you can barely SEE the break, because this man is so repressed. It’s such a great acting lesson, this performance, and should be studied as closely as his performance as Michael Corleone.

Happy Valley (2014; d. Amir Bar-Lev)
A follow-up to Paterno. The story is so infuriating I needed to take a shower after watching these two things back to back.

Society of the Snow (2023; d. J. A. Bayona)
An extremely effective telling of the crash in the Andes, with a Urugyan and Argentinian cast – many of whom have no acting credits (or very few). The arduous nature of the shoot is apparent in every frame: it’s impossible to tell how they even GOT some of the footage. All kinds of psychological and philosophical questions are impicit in this story: there’s a reason we keep coming back to it. Roberto and Nando are awe-inspiring figures: they had the mental toughness to set out for Chile across the Andes – starving and dehydrated – with no mountaineering gear, or mountain-climbing experience. But it was that or death. Brave brave boys. I reviewed for Ebert.

The Settlers (2023; d. Felipe Gálvez Haberle)
An incredible directorial debut. In it, he grapples with Chile’s brutal past of colonialism and genocidal violence. I reviewed for Ebert.

You Hurt My Feelings (2023; d. Nicole Holofcener)
I had somehow missed this one in the rush of last year, despite loving Holofcener’s films, and loving Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (their collab Enough Said is to be treasured on its own, even without the poignant fact that Jim Gandolfini gives a performance revelatory in ways none of his other performances are. Holofcener was the one who gave him that chance. So good.) :I really love the premise of You Hurt My Feelings. A wife overhears her husband talking to a mutual friend about the book she’s just written. She’s insecure about it already and he’s been supporting her through the writing process. Unfortunately, she hears her husband say the book is not good and he doesn’t know what to tell her. Her whole world shatters. Her marriage teeters on the brink. It’s a total CRISIS. Maybe she’s over-reacting? Sure. But … life is made up of these ruptures, and we don’t always approach everything with the proper amount of perspective, especially if you’re a writer or an artist. She feels betrayed and embarrassed, and Louis-Dreyfuss does not hold back. She’s literally cringing with agony and shame every time she thinks about what he said, and his “betrayal” of her. Great cast. Loved it.

Close Your Eyes (2023; d. Víctor Erice)
I watched this in preparation for the National Society of Film Critics vote, since one of our categories is for films awaiting U.S. distribution. This was one of the titles floated about. It’s been 30 years since Erice directed a feature film. The man is 82 years old. He’s only directed four films. After watching Close Your Eyes, I would put it at the top of my list of 2023 films, PERIOD, even though it’s only been shown at festivals (so far). Close Your Eyes is an investigation into a disappeared man, but it’s also about ghosts and memories, about about the impermanence of life (and art). It’s about filmmaking, about directing. It’s innovative cinematically and deeply sad. You can’t make a movie this melancholic without having lived a long long life. The sadness is about goodbyes: the finality of them. And yet the film is not dreary or glum. It’s alive and rich and vivid. Leonardo Goi wrote about it for MUBI.

Safe in Hell (1931; d. William A. Wellman)
I’m not sure how I had never seen this one before. I love William Wellman’s films. It’s a crazy mix of Pre-Code gangster and Tennessee Williams Camino-Real gin-soaked end of the road. With a wild ending of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. I am not familiar with Dorothy Mackaill’s work, she was new to me, so that’s always fun. As with all Pre-Codes, this story is told without coyness or euphemism. The lead character was basically abandoned into a life of prostitution – she had no choice – and when she flees to some tropic island to escape, the sense of sexual threat is palpable. She won’t be able to hold off all those men for long. It’s ugly. The ending isn’t really Pre-Code, it’s more Victorian melodrama, making Safe in Hell a strange brew. I dug it.

Sometimes I Think About Dying (2024; d. )
A quiet strange little movie. I liked the parts of it more than the whole. Worth checking out though. I reviewed for Ebert.

The Servant (1964; d. Joseph Losey)
A masterpiece. Chilling. Dirk Bogarde at his chilly destabilizing very best. James Fox as the posh prick who descends into … filth, really, and madness. The women, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig – polar opposites – both fascinating, alluring, scary. A Chabrol-esque La Ceremonie feeling of dread. And the way it ends …. This film is as brutal about class – maybe even more so – than Parasite. The two films have a lot in common.

Threads (1984; d. Mick Jackson)
A nuclear winter BBC television event. I wrote about this – and two other television dramas from 1983-4 – on my Substack.

American Nightmare (2024)
I had somehow missed this story. I don’t know how! It is truly terrible. And terrifying. You can still feel the trauma in those interviewed.

The Passaic Textile Strike (1926; d. Samuel Russak)
A very important and groundbreaking film which I had never seen in its entirety before (although much of the footage was familiar). The film was produced by the Workers Communist Party and the International Workers Aid organization to raise awareness about the textile workers’ strike in Passaic, which started at one plant, and then spread to other plants. The clashes with police were violent. All of this was caught on camera. In 1926, you got your news primarily from newspapers, which is great, but there’s nothing like actually SEEING something unfold in motion, seeing what it looked like, actual people. The textile workers were on strike for a year. It was a standoff. The film starts with a fictional narrative, to draw us into the strike itself, give it a personal feel. Stefan, a Polish immigrant, works in the textile mill, saving enough to bring over his wife. She arrives, hopeful to be there in the land of plenty, away from the pogroms and oppression in Poland. To her dismay, though, she finds nothing but slums and poverty, poor working conditions, failing health. They have children, but eventually things are so tough their 14-year-old daughter drops out of school and starts working at the mill (where she is groomed and then raped and then fired by the big boss man. The film does not pull its punches.) Nothing improves and Stefan’s health fails. He dies, leaving his family unprotected, with no way to put bread on the table. This is the prologue. The implicit message is: “This is just one story of many.” The rest of the film is documentary footage of the strike. It’s incredible. The whole thing’s on YouTube.

The Song of the Shirt (1908; d. D.W. Griffith)
A short film by Griffith about the trials and tribulations of women who work in a shirt factory. Eerily, the film pre-dates the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 – a tragedy which galvanized the entire labor movement in America. (I am assuming the title of the film is taken from the famous Thomas Hood poem, about a broken-down seamstress.) Griffith was a virulent racist, but he also made tons of films sympathetic to the plight of the (white) poor. One doesn’t cancel out the other, of course, but the racism needs to be acknowledged, not ignored. Compared to the prologue fictional scenes in Passaic Textile Strike, the poverty in Song of the Shirt looks genteel, but the film is still an attempt to highlight inhumane and unsafe working conditions for the women who toiled away in these shirtwaist factories.

Children Who Labor (1912; d. Ashley Miller)
Clearly there’s a theme here. This 1912 melodrama addresses the barbaric practice of hiring children to work in factories. Cheap labor. Children died. Easily. They suffered, were injured, died of malnutrition, exhaustion. This film shows a desperate family who have no choice but to send their child to work. (Factories stopped hiring men since children were cheaper.) The children are treated appallingly. The rich boss is seen at home, fat and complacent, as his adorable children run around the house, allowed to be kids. All that changes when the rich little girl gets separated from her family and is taken in – kindly – by the very same poor family, whose daughter has gone to work in the factory. A case of hidden identities. So now the little rich girl is going to work in her dad’s factory. Will the mistake be eventually righted? Will the little girl be returned to her parents? Will the evil industrialist have a change of heart once he sees how it’s affected HIS child? Listen, it’s a melodrama, but it has a very serious purpose.

Labor’s Reward (1925; produced by the American Federation of Labor)
There’s this whole world of labor-focused films, produced by labor organizations … and so clearly I have been dipping my toes into this rich archive. Many of these films are lost, damaged beyond repair, like the majority of all silent films … but some have survived. Only one reel of this one has survived, and it’s on YouTube. It gives a good feel for it: the factory scenes look and feel real. Location shooting. Not a cleaned-up set like Griffith’s. The downtrodden workers, facing poverty, injury, no workers’ comp, start to murmur amongst themselves about perhaps unionizing.

The Day After (1983; d. Nicholas Meyer)
I wrote about this nightmarish generational-trauma-bonding television event on my Substack.

Special Bulletin (1983; d. Edward Zwick)
See above. This is way scarier than Day After, although not scarier than Threads. Also wrote about on my Substack.

The War Game (1966; d. Peter Watkins)
Also wrote about in the Substack piece. A pre-cursor to the 1983-4 juggernaut. A pseudo-documentary. No professional actors. Incredibly effective.

Testament (1983; d. Lynne Littman)
I didn’t see this in 1983, but I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review (my parents kept collections of his reviews around: it was my film school). 1983 was also the year of The Day After and Special Bulletin. This gives you an idea of how RATTLED the world was with the ratcheted-up war rhetoric flying back and forth between Moscow and Washington. Testament is so powerful, so quietly devastating, even without ever showing the blast. We just see the aftermath. And it’s quiet, and relentless. The unthinkable becomes normal. This normal family with its normal problems have to adjust to something beyond comprehension. Lynne Littman didn’t direct all that much before or after Testament – some television here and there – but Testament was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (and was nominated/won all kinds of other awards). The film has a haunting staying power.

Panic in Year Zero (1962; d. Ray Milland)
If 1983 was jittery, then 1962 was even more so. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for one. Panic in Year Zero was directed by actor Ray Milland, who also stars. It was distributed by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, as a sci-fi movie (heh). A nice suburban family, mom, dad, and two teenage kids, get into the car and drive into the mountains outside Los Angeles to go camping. They have a little camper van, this is the thing they regularly do as a family. While driving through the mountains, they lose the radio, and suddenly they notice all kinds of strange activity on the curvy mountain road: cars zooming in the other direction. They pull over, get out, look behind them in the general direction of Los Angeles, and see a massive mushroom cloud rising. The gender roles in this movie are crazy. Dad immediately goes Alpha male, ordering his family around, hunkering down in commando fashion, assuming all of civilization is going to break down, and it will be every man for himself. He buys basically an arsenal of guns. He ignores his wife’s pleading to calm the hell down. He basically goes vigilante. It’s so tiresome. The only place civilization is breaking down, bub, is in your own car, because you are being such a bully! Jean Hagen plays the mom, and Frankie Avalon (!) and Mary Mitchel play the teenage kids. The family eventually hides out in a cave in the camping ground, and there are juvenile delinquents on the loose and … etc. So the nuclear bomb that went off just over there is … secondary to doing battle with the crazy kids out on a joyride. It’s bizarre! Meanwhile, there’s this weird sort of propaganda about gender roles, and conceding to how dad wants to do things, even though Dad is clearly Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down losing it.

True Detective, Season 1, 3, 4
I’m the last to the party. As clicked in to what’s going on as I am, I have a talent for avoiding buzz. I am AWARE of the things I missed, but beyond the title, I don’t know much. I was years late to Mad Men, for example. There were years where I didn’t even have a television. My television was basically used for movies, on physical media. I know this is hard to comprehend but … my movie-watching is so intense and, you might even say, extreme … I was fine with NOT being up-to-date on TV shows. I am actually used to not having television in my life. Of getting to things on my own timeline. Which is more and more possible in the streaming era. But there are plenty of ground-breaking shows I just never participated in. I finally caught up with Breaking Bad, but after it stopped airing. And don’t even get me started on X-Files. I basically just missed it during its entire original airing (although, weirdly, Mulder and Skully had infiltrated my consciousness anyway). So. True Detective. I knew about it, and I also knew I would probably love it. I love all those people. McConaghey. Woody Harrelson. Mahershala Ali. I got inspired to check it out after being a guest on Ryan and David’s Adult Film podcast, and both of them mentioned loving it. As usually happens with these things, within about 20 minutes of the first episode, I knew I’d be clearing my schedule to binge the whole thing. Full disclosure: I skipped Season 2. With all the interest of the plots – and they were all extremely gripping – the real thing that stands out is the acting, and the space cleared in this series for well-known actors to give truly great performances, of a kind of depth and complexity not really present in the movies right now, sadly enough. Matthew McConaghey outdoes himself, far out-pacing his other work – by a long shot – and the final scene of Season 1 … he outdoes himself again. I was like, “Okay, that is some of the finest acting I’ve ever fucking seen.” Still blown away. And Mahershala Ali … my God: he has to play the same character at three separate points of the timeline: young, middle-aged, old. Even more fascinating, he was such a difficult man, prickly, tough to reach, not ingratiating … and yet you, the audience, adored him. The physical work is so good. The character work is exquisite. This is not amateur hour. You need great actors to pull all this off. And so the series is a master class for actors and acting. If you’re into the craft of acting, this series is a great teaching tool. I just finished Season 4, and I’m feeling similarly about Jodie Foster’s work. I think she has limits as an actress, and here, the limits serve her. And Kali Reis is fantastic, and these two make an amazing pair onscreen. They’re very similar as actors, even though Foster is a pro, and Reis is, comparatively, very green. (I reviewed the film Catch the Fair One, which was my introduction to her.) They both present as so tough, impenetrable really, formidable. And that’s all fine and good. It’s cool to see people who seem authentically tough. But … without vulnerability, that kind of acting can only go so far. You just get the attitude, you don’t get what’s motivating it, or what’s underneath it. When Kali Reis breaks down, you feel like the world is ending, because you can see how much it costs her, to be strong all the time. The same with Foster. I’d like to write more about this so I’ll save it for later. But I just loved watching these two together.

Lone Star (1996; d. John Sayles)
This gorgeous film has been out of circulation for decades. It was not streaming anywhere and if I’m not mistaken it never made it to DVD. Maybe it did? But I feel like if it had, I would have bought it. Because this film made such a huge impression on me when I first saw it – in the theatres – that I still remember scenes, images, shots, vividly. It’s like my experience with another “lost” (for a long time) film What Happened Was…. There are a lot of “lost’ films in the mid-90s when technology switched from VHS to DVD. a lot of current things did not make the cut. I was in grad school and I went to go see Lone Star up at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (RIP). I saw so much great stuff there. Welcome to the Dollhouse. Burnt by the Sun. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Like I said: the mid-90s was a hell of a time to be a moviegoer! I was totally enraptured by Lone Star, its intricacies, the characters, the sense of a small town and fluid borders, the clear political message told with a humanist approach, the way things tied up in the end … but then was left ambiguous, ambivalent, the two lovers sitting on the hood of a car, staring up at an abandoned drive-in movie screen. Elizabeth Pena! Her best role! And it was the first time I encountered Chris Cooper. Matthew McConaghey too had just hit it HUGE, and there he was in a small role. I think I went to go see Lone Star by myself and I remember writing about it in my journal afterwards. Even back then I was keeping a movie diary, only it was all analog. Because I never saw it since then, it’s taken on kind of a mythological space in my head, similar to my feelings for What Happened Was… And so how exciting, what a thrill, when Criterion announced it would be releasing the film. I love it when they take on THESE types of films, major works lost or hidden for whatever reason, works needing restoration, a little love and care. Yes, it’s great to come out with a new version or a 4D version of an old classic … but something like Lone Star, long out of circulation, is different. Finally, it’s back with us. We get to be with it again, see it again. I really loved Domino Renee Perez’s booklet essay for the Criterion release. Sitting down to watch it again had this whole ceremonial aspect. I got myself positioned, I had my drink, my blanket around my knees, I cleared the deck, I turned my phone off. Listen. Lone Star is back with us. Attention must be paid.

The Promised Land (2024; d. Nikolaj Arcel)
This shares some similarities with The Settlers, although it’s not genocidal in nature. But it is about the “settling” of an inhospitable landscape, and the dogged determination of one man to create something out there on the heath. But at what cost? It’s based on a true story with some obvious fictionalizations, but I dug it. I reviewed for Ebert.

Orchids and Ermine (1927; d. Alfred Santell)
Colleen Moore stars as Pink, a flapper with dreams of being rich. She’s kind of a bore about it. She wants to wear orchids and ermine all day every day! Instead, she’s a switchboard operator at a posh hotel, watching oil millionaires and their ermine-stole-clad mistresses strolling by. Shenanigans ensue. This is the classic “common” girl pulled above her class by love. A millionaire falling in love with a peasant. But of course he’s in hiding, not letting anyone KNOW he’s a millionaire. And so Pink, too, is redeemed because she’s fallen in love with HIM and not his money. Moore is adorable, feisty, funny.

With Babies and Banners (1979; d. Lorraine Gray).
I tripped over this in my dig into films about American labor. The film was made possible by the Women’s Labor History Film Project, and profiles the Women’s Emergency Brigade during the huge GM sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1936. The men holed themselves up in the factory, refusing to come out. The power was cut. The water shut off. Their wives at home, living completely traditional “housewife” lives, finally got together and decided to do something to help the strike. They organized supply chains, they made food (I mean, soup kitchens worth of food), they delivered the food to the windows of the factory – they faced harassment, jeers, all the rest. This documentary, made in 1979, features a reunion of the women who made up the brigade, all old women, to talk about this experience. What an incredible film. I was intensely moved by it. I highly recommend taking the time to watch:

Street Scene (1931; d. King Vidor)
Based on the award-winning play by Elmer Rice, this Pre-Code takes place mostly on the stoop of a single building in New York City, populated by lower-working-class immigrant families – Italians, Jews, Poles – and their struggles to survive. Not much has been done to the script: it still feels like a play, with people hanging out the windows to chat with people below, and people running in and out of the door. The struggles are all different, but all connected to the economic status of the people living in the neighborhood. Sylvia Sidney – that glorious actress, who worked all her life, but whose heyday was Pre-Code – plays a young woman living in the building, being “courted” by her rich co-worker who basically wants her as a “kept woman”. She, though, is in love with the dreamy Jewish boy, whose parents are constantly yelling at him from out of the window. A wonderful ensemble drama.

The Crowd (1928; d. King Vidor)
I’ve seen this masterpiece multiple times, the most memorable one being at the IFC Center in 2014, as part of my friend Farran’s book launch (her wonderful novel Missing Reels, which opens with an epigraph from the film’s intertitles.) Another memorable time was in 2022 when Farran, Charlie, and Ted went to go see it playing at the Walter Reader. A packed house. Going out into such a huge crowd was still a novelty then, and there was a giddy sense of celebration in the simple pleasure of meeting up for a movie and then going out for drinks. If you get a chance to see The Crowd in a theatre, please do so. It plays like gangbusters. And that final scene … There are so many good sequences but the final scene moves into surreality and becomes a blistering critique of all of modern life in its heartlessness and inhumanity. It’s breathtaking.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941; d. Sam Wood)
Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, paired up again after one of my favorite movies ever, The More the Merrier. In this one, Coburn plays the owner of a chain of department stores who goes undercover in the shoe department to discover the working conditions of his own employees (who appear to hate him, and actually burned him in effigy). Unionizers meet up in secret. Jean Arthur and the union leader are a couple, and they take this elderly man into their confidence. Hijinx ensue.

Blue Collar (1978; d. Paul Schrader)
I can’t even believe this movie exists, to be honest. It seems like it wouldn’t be allowed. It still feels radical.

Here (2024; d. Bas Devos)
What a beautiful quiet thoughtful movie. I keep thinking about it. I reviewed for Ebert.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017; d. Macon Blair)
I remember watching this when it came out and adoring it. I really like Macon Blair (loved Blue Ruin), and this is his directorial debut. Melanie Lynskey stars as a kind of downtrodden nurse’s assistant who comes home one night to find she’s been robbed. Her grandmother’s silverware was stolen. She feels violated. The police won’t do anything. So she goes on a search for justice. She ropes in her crazy neighbor, an isolated weirdo played by Elijah Wood. This is a madcap caper, in a lot of ways – with some legitimately laugh-out-loud funny performances/moments – but even more impressive is the mood is sustained. And it’s a difficult mood to sustain. It’s not strictly a comedy. There’s a strain of anger, and also this overall sense of malaise/dissatisfaction (I mean, look at the title, after all). I had forgotten a lot of it – how it resolves itself – and it was fun to re-discover what the hell happened. Really love this film.

Players (2024; d. Trish Sie)
A throwback rom-com. The secondary characters make this film. I reviewed for Ebert.

Waking the Dead (2000; d. Keith Gordon)
God, this fucking film. I saw it in the theatre when it came out because my friend Ted told me about it. We have talked about it many times since. It’s haunting, weird, intense. I love it so much.

Child of the Ghetto (1910; d. D.W. Griffith)
Another Griffith short about the plight of the poor. Another Griffith short about the plight of seamstresses. Seamstresses had it bad.

Lily of the Tenements (1911; d. D.W. Griffith)
Newsflash from Griffith: Seamstresses are in Peril! Melodramatic, with some twists and turns, a seamstress struggles to keep up with her work, and her lecherous boss clearly has ideas in his head. Griffith is caught up in melodrama. There’s usually a deus ex machina. There’s a woman in danger, and a hero arrives at the very last moment. The End.

Work (1915; d. Charlie Chaplin)
Hilarious. When he falls through the open manhole cover, I freakin lose it. I love the mockery of the hoity-toity couple who hire him. They are clearly total trash. They abuse their maid – whom they don’t even need – there is a giant bear skin rug in their way too small foyer – and they seem completely shocked at these two dirty handymen who show up at their home and wreak havoc. Granted, if you hired a couple of guys to paint the walls and they completely wreck your house, you could be excused for being a little, how you say, upset.

Spotlight (2015; d. Tom McCarthy)
I reviewed for Ebert. I have some go-to films when I want to just chill. They’re often “procedurals”. They’re often newspaper movies. I love Shattered Glass (see below). I love The Post. I love Zodiac. It may seem weird that I would pop on Zodiac to “chill”. There’s a comfort in knowing the movie so well. And I know Spotlight really well. I think it’s excellent. So I watched it again.

From the Submerged (1912; d. Theodore Wharton)
Chicago locations, which is fun! This is a short film dealing with issues of hardship, suicide, class distinctions, privilege … it’s a lot for a short film! Basically there’s a rich guy who lives like a homeless guy, hating the privilege into which he was born, finding it soulless and alienating. He is about to throw himself off a bridge when he is saved by a caring woman who happens to be passing by. Even though he does go home to his rich family, and takes up with a rich cruel woman, he can’t forget the kindness of the woman who saved him.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961; d. Daniel Petrie)
Re-watched in honor of Sidney Poitier, who passed last month. He’s so MAGNETIC, but everyone is so good here. The film lives or dies on its ensemble work, an ensemble in this one cramped location. The script is airtight. It almost plays itself, it’s that good.

The Exit of the Trains (2020; d. Radu Jude)
See above comments in re: Radu Jude. I was avoiding this one because it is 3 hours long but I sat down to watch. It’s a tough one. But at a certain point, I realized what the film was doing was paying tribute to everyone who lost their lives in the pogrom of June 29, 1941: every story was identical, and hearing it over and over again over 3 hours was its own devastating critique. Jude uses an army of voiceover actors, reading the transcripts of survivors and family members, who had to watch their husbands, sons, dragged out of their homes and taken to the “police station”, where they were shot, or put onto “death trains” where they all suffocated. Horrifying.

Dublin Murders (2019)
Finally caught up with Dublin Murders – which I admit I avoided because I love Tana French’s books so much. I often come to things years late (see: True Detective, Mad Men). OR, I am WAY early. I am rarely on time. The TV adaptation is made up of the first two books in French’s Dublin Homicide squad series, In the Woods and The Likeness. I think The Likeness doesn’t fare as well here as In the Woods, mainly because the book works through the accumulation of details making up the intimate cult-like environment in that weird old house with those students. The series can’t accomplish this because they condense the timeline. But In the Woods fares beautifully. Granted, it’s not the same thing as reading the book, so don’t just watch the series and think you understand. lol

Sarah Greene is fantastic (I loved her as the mum in Normal People), and The Likeness allows her to really show her skill, playing the double role. But Killian Scott (who changed his name from Killian Murphy, for … obvious reasons) is such a standout. The character of Rob / Adam is so difficult. Rob is traumatized but the trauma is running the show to such a degree he’s not even aware of it. He legitimately thinks he’s fine half the time. So how do you play not knowing you are a total MESS? How do you play a man whose unconscious runs his whole life, without him being cognizant of it? There are tells. His treatment of women, for example. It’s right there in front of him. His coldness about sex. But then, he’s so warm and open with Cassie. So he’s a confusing person. Nobody says “Why exactly do you treat women like this?” Eventually though, it can’t be ignored and he trashes the most honest relationship in his life because he can’t ask the questions that need to be asked.

Over the 8 episodes, Scott tracks the disintegration of Rob’s entire personality: his ego, his coping mechanisms – all of it dissolving, shattering, leaving him unprotected. You love this character so much, just like you love him in In the Woods, and you want to know SO BADLY what happened in the woods – but if you can’t remember, you can’t remember. The book, in a way, is about somehow coming to peace with not knowing.

I am so impressed with Scott’s work. I need to see more of it. By episode 7, he was so broken down he has regressed to the age when the event happened in his childhood. His mannerisms, behavior, whole attitude, is childlike. You don’t know how he will ever put himself back together. The damage done to him has been so profound. It’s a really good performance. I already want to watch it again so I can study how Scott does it, because the transformation is gradual, the disintegration happens piece by piece … until it happens all of a sudden and he’s in free fall.

Shattered Glass (2003; d. Billy Ray)
A fave. I know it by heart and I am never sick of it.

The Vow (2020; d. Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim)
Look at the body language of the woman to his left. She could not be more closed off. And yet she’s there, participating, listening, but her body is TELLING her she is not safe. You can SEE it. I watched this when it first came out. I think Seduced is better because it really goes into HOW this happens – not just with this group, but with all high-control groups.

Ferrari (2023; d. Michael Mann)
Loved it. It’s probably too late now, but just in case: this one should be seen in the theatre!

Boston Strangler (2022; d. Matt Ruskin)
I admired this film so much and put it in my “top” list for last year. In former times, i.e. better times #sorrynotsorry, a movie like this would have been in theatres for a month, a month and a half, and would have picked up steam through word of mouth, good reviews. More people would know about it. It wouldn’t be lost in the maw of “content” rotating across the main pages of streaming services. Ugh. It’s a really good story, Zodiac-like in its intensity and mystery, with a fascinating duo at the center, played by Carrie Coon and Keira Knightley. The true story of the “girl reporters” who worked the case. It’s terrific.

Never Let Me Go (2010; d. Mark Romanek)
I saw this in the theatres in its first release and haven’t seen it since. My memory of reading the book is pretty visceral. So DEPRESSING. With Ishiguro’s typical restraint: the restraint a way to contain/suppress the massive feeling, which you saw in his Remains of the Day too. I think the approach of the film is correct: it takes a while for the rules of this world to reveal itself, since the main POV is children, who’ve never known anything different.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (2020)
A re-watch. The Vow got all the press, all the attention. Believe me, I watched it and I think it does a great job, for what it’s trying to do. But Seduced is better, and also more important. The Vow focused on the upper echelon of people, the people involved in propping up this cult, justifying it to outsiders, keeping it running. I’m glad those people got out, saw the light. But their position was a lofty one. It’s the difference between Mike Rinder and a rank-and-file Sea Org member. One is elite, the other anonymous. Seduced is different. India Oxenberg got caught up in this thing, and her mother, Catherine, went public with her concerns, using her own celebrity to shine light on this cult and what it was doing. Seduced is about India and Catherine, both of whom are interviewed extensively. The big-wigs of The Vow are turned into minor characters. Seduced also brings in all kinds of cult and mind-control experts, to explain HOW this happened, and how high-control groups operate, and how vulnerable the brain is. This was the missing piece in The Vow. Seduced actually wants to help others. I think it does a very good job in using these experts to explain different events, to explain NLP and mind-control tactics, used by the leaders of this group, and how vulnerable peoples’ minds are. I admire India so much for her transparency in discussing these potentially very embarrassing subjects. She’s done a great service with this docuseries.

The Potemkinists (2021; d. Radu Jude)
In Jude’s amazing 2018 film I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, he interrogates the history of Romania, but more so the myths and lies it tells to itself. This is his territory: it’s where his creativity lies, and it’s creativity spiced with humor, absurdism, surrealism, and insightful political satire: I mean, even beyond satire. He lamPOONS things. National narratives are erected to obscure or even invent a truth. National narratives are designed to control. These are dangerous Orwellian concepts. As Orwell laid out in 1984: Real power does not lie in controlling the present. Real power comes when you can control the PAST. Millions of lives are impacted directly by invented national truths. Jude goes after these truths. He explored this as well in 2022’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, in my Top 10 of that year, although Bad Luck Banging was more about Right Now (in fact, it’s one of the most Right Now films I’ve seen in the past 5, 6 years, where every filmmaker appears to be trying to comment on our current moment. Nobody nailed the absolute STUPIDITY of Right Now better than Jude in Bad Luck Banging.) In all Jude’s work, history looms alongside the present, but it’s not DEALT with in an honest way. Truth doesn’t just EXIST in and of itself. This makes sense considering Romania’s 20th-century history. Living for decades under the monstrous personality cult surrounding Nicolae Ceaușescu distorts reality. The past is destroyed, lied about. The present is obscure. There’s no valid way to get trustworthy information. The personality cult surrounding Ceaușescu rivaled and in some cases surpassed the personality cult of Stalin. So Jude, a very Right Now guy, attempts to piece together what the hell happened. The Potemkinists is a short film showing a sculptor (Alexandru Dabija) pitching a new sculpture idea to a government bureaucrat (Cristina Draghici). The bureaucrat is distinctly unimpressed. They climb up these concrete steps to a famous ridiculous statue overlooking one of those monstrous canals built during the Stalinist years (millions died building these fucking things). The statue was erected to honor Communist Youth or some such bullshit, and the sculptor wants to re-do it. He wants to reveal the truth behind Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin — which, famously, ends in solidarity, where all the warring Russians realize they are brothers and comrades and shouldn’t be shooting at each other. But the REAL story (which I was unaware of) was that these mutinous sailors found asylum in Romania. In 1905, this was a clear act of aggression against Russia, and a slice of forgotten history. The sculptor wants to re-make the monument to Communist bullshit to honor the sailors – AND Romania – for its act of rebellion. The bureaucrat is distinctly NOT into it. The film is 18 minutes long and is spliced together with shots from Battleship Potemkin. I point you to J. Hoberman’s excellent essay in Art Forum about the film. It’s streaming on Amazon!

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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41 Responses to December 2023/January-February 2024 Viewing Diary

  1. Jim Reding says:

    Blue Collar includes what is possibly the most physically uncomfortable death scene I’ve ever seen. It may not be what we typically think of as graphic, but my memory is that it quickly becomes apparent what’s going to happen, then it continues to play out, going on and on and on as the victim struggles, powerless to stop it. I’m curious if it truly lasts that long, or if my brain has upgraded it over the past decade or so.

    I feel like I’m typing in code here, but it seems like it’s fairly late in the movie, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone else. Maybe it’s silly to worry about spoiling a 45-year-old film, but it feels so underseen and under-discussed. It’s not like I’m commenting on the climax of Star Wars or something. Lol

    • sheila says:

      Jim – hey! yes, you’re right – it’s an excruciatingly long scene and extremely upsetting. It feels like it goes on forever. Really well done too – at least in terms of filming/acting it. Such a helpless feeling.

      and I agree – more people should see this movie!! I remember some years back Ava Du Vernay tweeting something like “there’s a movie with richard pryor and harvey keitel called Blue Collar??? why didn’t I know this?” and she got ROASTED for it – which, to me, is totally ridiculous. Everyone sees everything for the first time at one point. Not everyone has every movie in their head. Good for her for discovering it and Tweeting about it. Jesus God, people complain about the stupidest shit. She was EXCITED about discovering this movie. Jesus.

      but anyway – I agree – it’s underseen and under-discussed totally.

      The final freeze frame is just devastating. the movie is still so bold and angry – really smart about how the system is just rigged against us.

      thanks for reading and commenting!

    • sheila says:

      I had forgotten about the whole plot point where Pryor’s wife basically borrows the neighbor’s kids to act like they’re HER kids, because he claimed more kids on his tax return? and the neighbor’s like, “uhm, sure, here you go, here’s my 4 kids.”

  2. “Like I said: the mid-90s was a hell of a time to be a moviegoer!”

    Wow, isn’t that the truth…that was the last time that I really felt I COULD be a moviegoer regularly. Much of it was life, of course–a kid in 1999, then a series of employment-related and other disasters such that we didn’t really start to feel like we’d regained solid footing until around 2012 or so–but the movie industry didn’t help any, allowing the cost of a night at the movies to balloon to the point that I felt like I was buying hockey tickets just to go see whatever new Disney thing was out….

    As always, a compelling list, almost none of which I’m familiar with! I didn’t even know about the two Joe Paterno movies…that’s a subject I have to avoid religiously in certain circles, as one of my oldest friends went to PSU and he’s firmly on the “Joe Pa did nothing wrong at all and what happened to him is the single greatest miscarriage of justice in sports, ever” camp. I’m also glad to see you’re into STRANGER THINGS, though…that show really does seem to capture a lot of the feel of that kind of town in that particular period (I grew up in one). I’m interested to see how it wraps up, because as I recall it, there was a distinct change in mood in the 80s, right around when the currently-filming final season is supposedly taking place.

    • sheila says:

      // that was the last time that I really felt I COULD be a moviegoer regularly. //

      Gosh, that’s so true. so sad.

    • sheila says:

      The “Joe Pa” nickname is sickening!!

      I think the movie does an amazing job – it condenses the action to the couple of days in between the revelations coming out, and Paterno resigning/stepping down. It’s Paterno and his family holed up inside his house trying to figure out how to respond. So it’s not like a start-to-finish type thing. It’s almost like a play.

      The three actors playing Paterno’s kids – who KNOW he needs to step up and say something – who KNOW his limitations emotionally – are excellent. At least in this rendition, only one of the sons actually reads all of the accusations – and he’s like “Jesus Christ this is BAD and we have to completely deal with it with total transparency because this shit is EVIL.”

      It’s not like “Joe Paterno’s moral dilemma” – it’s more like – all of the people around this limited man – trying to yank him into reality. And because it’s Pacino – he gives it this tragic stature.

      It’s REALLY good.

      • Jessie says:

        you say above re: Paterno
        It’s not like “Joe Paterno’s moral dilemma” – it’s more like – all of the people around this limited man – trying to yank him into reality. And because it’s Pacino – he gives it this tragic stature.
        that sounds FASCINATING. I’m looking forward to seeing this very much!

        what an interesting roster of movies you’ve done for RE lately, many of which seem to revolve around quiet people! How do assignments work, I’m curious – do you feel like you have an explicit or implicit niche?

        your review of The Taste of Things makes it seem like it’s 10 minutes of the middle of a Merchant Ivory film expanded to two hours which, I hope it’s clear, sounds truly wonderful.

        • Jessie says:

          oh whoops I didn’t mean to interrupt this thread haha sorry!

        • sheila says:

          Jessie – hi!!

          I saw Paterno when it first came out – so this was a re-watch and – while I clearly perceived that this was a great performance from Pacino – I don’t think I fully understood just how great it was. He’s a great actor, but he has his limitations – or maybe he’s hired mostly to do the things he’s good at – the explosive chatty stuff – and he’s so DISTINCT, so imitate-able – that even he gets pigeon-holed. It happens. A role like Paterno is a big risk! and here he is, in his 70s, taking a risk like that. And if you had never seen any of his other famous roles – you might think Pacino was this retiring shy repressed guy. Like, it’s so authentic. I love it when this happens – I love late-stage risks like this. With Paterno, Pacino can’t rely on any of the things he normally uses – his normal tools – like garrulous-ness, domination, aggression, being the center of attention, being loud – all of those things are denied him in this role. He can’t use any of them. He retreats almost totally – into such a state of denial you wonder if maybe he has dementia?

          So when the moments of revelation come – like in the scene with his wife – and in the CRUSHING final shot – it’s astonishing. He peels back the mask of this man – the denial he HAD to construct – this limited unquestioning man, very smart in some ways (football) and very very stupid in other ways (everything else).

          Pacino!! The subject matter is so disgusting that it makes you NOT want to re-visit this, but I think the performance definitely makes it worth it. I feel the same way about De Niro in Killers of the Flower Moon – De Niro is a different kind of actor, he is more of a “cipher”, he doesn’t have as much natural personality as Pacino – De Niro is kind of personality-less – and so he has been able to play roles of more variety, because there’s just less there to get out of the way, if that makes sense. All of that being said, what he does in Killers of the Flower Moon is something he’s never done before. He’s played evil men before – but not like THIS.

          So it’s thrilling to see these octogenarians still taking risks at their age – still finding new things to explore. so inspiring!!

        • sheila says:

          oh God, Taste of Things.

          // 10 minutes of the middle of a Merchant Ivory film expanded to two hours //

          hahahaha!! this is exactly right!!

          and you know how we talk about how much we love movies/shows that highlight “competence”? Taste of Things is a Utopia of competence. Would love to hear your thoughts on it once you’ve seen it!

        • sheila says:

          and in re: assignments from Ebert:

          There have been a couple of times I’ve requested to review something – but not often. A lot of the times, something needs to be reviewed, and I’m just the one who takes the slot. But I feel like there is sometimes rhyme/reason:

          I get a lot of music documentaries – so I think they think that’s in my wheelhouse because I have a wide interest in music and music history. I also seem to be assigned stuff where the acting is important – I mean, acting is always important but sometimes it’s MORE important. So, like, May December. I had a feeling I’d get assigned that one. Because really the acting is the whole THING there – and it’s a movie ABOUT acting.

          • Jessie says:

            hi!
            I know the Oscars are the Oscars but it is CRAZY to me that May December got almost no love; especially Melton. Talk about a performance that carries the meaning of a film. I’m so glad for this young actor that he received so much well-deserved celebration from critics’ circles etc! Thank you for indulging my curiosity – I felt like the assignments were all vibing with each other over this period!

            Love reading your thoughts on Pacino and limited men, the performance of a limited person (Moore in MD!). We are so lucky these giants are still interested in the medium. I looked at the trailer for Paterno and it seems much more chaotic and flashy than I expected – Riley! – and it’s from 2018?! Literally where is the time going. Will definitely be back when I’ve caught up with all these titles. Competence and process are pure catnip.

          • sheila says:

            // it is CRAZY to me that May December got almost no love; especially Melton. //

            it’s just ridiculous. I’m so glad he’s been scooping up the awards everywhere else like you say – but the absence of May December overall is wild. Sometimes I just don’t get the criteria.

          • sheila says:

            “limited” – Moore in MD. yes!! It’s so tricky, it seems to me, to play people like this. People who legitimately do not know what is going on – not just because of denial. Denial might be part of it for sure -but it’s not conscious denial. It’s this deep down refusal to look. How do you PLAY that? It’s fascinating to me. Characters like that obviously are not usually the main character of a story because … there’s no way IN to them. That’s what I thought was so unnerving about May December – by the end I was like “okay so … I guess for her it’s not all that deep. and that’s the scariest thing of all!!”

            The Paterno trailer misrepresents it, lol. it really is this quiet family drama, the kids putting the pressure on Dad to make a statement, acknowledge it, SOMEthing. all as he sits in the den watching football. basically not GETTING what is going on. It’s chilling!!

            and yeah, Riley!!

    • sheila says:

      Stranger Things – I’m curious how they are going to deal with the AGES of these actors in the next season. I mean, aren’t some of them in their 20s now??

      I love the group dynamic. and it’s so fun watching it with my 15 year old niece who just cannot believe these kids are roaming around with no paternal supervision – even to the point that a fugitive child from the government is literally living in the basement – and the parents never find out because they never go downstairs. Ha!! She’s just blown away by that aspect of it.

  3. OH! I forgot to mention that MAESTRO is high on my list of films to see, because Leonard Bernstein has always been one of my musical heroes. His books on music are of almost Biblical stature to me, that’s how formative they were when I read them as a young classical-music-obsessed teenager. Some aren’t easy to find anymore, though. I do wonder if there should be another attempt at a filmed bio of him, one that centers the music more than this one apparently did, from what I’ve read.

    • sheila says:

      Kelly – I will be really curious to hear what you say about Maestro. Many people I trust absolutely adored it – and I certainly didn’t hate it. But his life was so dramatic – all of those lovers and all of the chaos – that the biopic kind of gets drawn into all that stuff – and the wife is really the center. How does the WIFE deal with being married to this man?

      which – I am sorry – is the least interesting part of the story. Most biopics fall into this trap. Bernstein’s wife was an accomplished interesting woman blah blah but Bernstein is the genius. And … sorry, when you marry a guy like that, you shouldn’t be shocked that he sleeps with all of your friends, male and female. lol

      There are a couple of sequences where he is conducting – one a choir – and one an orchestra – and these sequences are just magnificent. My favorite sequence comes at the very end – when he’s coaching a young conductor on what he is doing wrong, and how to improve. Here is what the rest of the movie was missing – process. I don’t know anything about conducting! Show me more! What makes a good one? What makes a bad one? Teach me!! It was such a great little moment!

      I also wish there was more on his devotion to teaching the American people – and kids – about music. I’m not sure how you would convey that – but honestly that’s his legacy, not the fact that he was bisexual. (sorry.)

      I am being mean to the movie. It’s really not bad. But I was frustrated by some aspects of it.

      I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts and I am totally open to the possibility that I have missed the point. My friend Mitchell loooooved it and he has great taste so I could be wrong!

      • I’ve heard basically two camps on this movie: Your view that MAESTRO focuses on the least interesting aspect of Bernstein’s life, and that it focused on the MOST interesting aspect of Bernstein’s life. Without having seen it, I must admit that I am temperamentally attuned to your view; surely the story of the closeted gay/bi man in 20th century upper-class America has already been told a lot (2002’s FAR FROM HEAVEN deals with this in part), but the story of one of the country’s greatest musicians in the 20th century? That has NOT been told, not really…the guy who stepped in to conduct the NY Philharmonic at a moment’s notice when the great Bruno Walter got sick; the conductor who championed Gustav Mahler’s music when Mahler was pretty much of a punchline, living in the same skin as the composer who wrote WEST SIDE STORY and ON THE TOWN…the conductor who made himself an ambassador of classical music to the world, the one who took his NY Philharmonic to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War (his thoughts on the media response to that tour, on BOTH sides, are fascinating)…the conductor who went to Berlin to lead a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth after the reunification, in which he actually CHANGED Beethoven’s lyrics? That’s what I’d like to know about. And maybe some of that is in the movie, which I will watch. I’m certainly not saying by any means that Bernstein’s sexuality or marriage should be erased, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to look at this man’s life from the vantage point of a film. I’ll see!

        • sheila says:

          Kelly – now I REALLY want to hear what you think since you have so much knowledge!

          A lot of what you mention is covered – although West Side Story is basically skipped over – like maybe there’s a line devoted to it – but nothing about that process. Or On the Town – except for one very good surreal sequence where he is basically IN one of the numbers, kind of a dreamlike thing. But – nothing about being the guy who WROTE those scores. It’s a weird omission.

          Instead, we get all these scenes with his wife looking on sadly as he cavorts with men. I said this about Priscilla (the movie) – and this might sound mean but: unhappy marriages and bad husbands don’t look a million different ways. They have about 3 variations. Whether the guy is a bricklayer or a President. Having wealth just makes it all even MORE the same. So Priscilla – who was only married to Elvis for 4 years, for God’s sake – is just not the most interesting center – even though her story IS weird. for sure. But still: Elvis was Elvis, but he was a bad husband in the usual ways husbands are bad. This is why I appreciated Baz’s movie – because it was interested in what I am interested in: the confluence of forces and influences that created Elvis, and what it FELT like to be HIM. I’m sorry – Priscilla deserves respect and nothing against her – but HE’S what’s interesting. I mean, it’s not even comparable. Many many many women have had a version of Priscilla’s experience in marriage – but NO ONE has had the experience of being Elvis. so … what’s the better story?

          I felt the same thing going on in Maestro. The relationship with his wife was really the central story. and like you say I’ve seen it before. It was an important partnership – and she was an interesting woman (way more interesting than Priscilla) – but … what about West Side Story?? lol

          // who championed Gustav Mahler’s music when Mahler was pretty much of a punchline //

          see, I love stuff like this – I don’t know anything about it but I would love to learn more!

        • sheila says:

          // the one who took his NY Philharmonic to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War (his thoughts on the media response to that tour, on BOTH sides, are fascinating) //

          Very curious about this story as well!

          Can you recommend a good biography? Have you written a lot about him on your own site?

  4. James says:

    Unf, Never Let Me Go hurts so good. The fatalistic capitulation the three main characters embody has always fascinated me. One likes to think “if I were in their situation, I would have tried harder to get out of it,” but who knows.

    It is funny how a piece of work can shape your relationship with a single word. Growing up, several friends and I had read “The Giver,” where the children are scolded to never use the word “starving” when they’re merely hungry, and it resonated enough that we never used it. Similarly, NLMG has colored the word “complete” for me, since it’s essentially a synonym for “die” after donating too many times. I still prefer not to use it in active voice (“I completed,” “she completed”), but passive is OK (“the project was completed”), 15 years after reading the book.

    Chiming in on Maestro: The beginning courtship period was exciting. Even though the actors were much older than their characters during this black-and-white phase, they embodied the breathless enthusiasm of first love pretty well. (Plus they’re at a party with Comden and Green!) I had started watching Maestro out of diligence, and definitely perked up in these first scenes. Aaaannnnd then it turned into the typical biopic slog.

    • sheila says:

      James – hi! thanks so much for reading. I love your comment!

      // One likes to think “if I were in their situation, I would have tried harder to get out of it,” but who knows. //

      I know!! What would happen if someone opted out? Would they be punished? There’s such a fatalistic feeling to it – they don’t even question their fate. The book is written in such a specific way – on the surface it just sounds like a lot of endless gossip about teenage relationships. But there’s something “off” about it. You can’t put your finger on it. (I read the book without knowing the premise. I just love Ishiguro.) And then you realize why. I’ve hesitated to re-read it because the first time was so damn upsetting.

      I love your thoughts on certain words being associated with certain books. That’s so true! “completed” is chilling. also the word “care”, that one stood out too.

    • sheila says:

      // Plus they’re at a party with Comden and Green!) //

      Ha! Yes, I loved seeing them! I think that opening sequence – where he has to race out of bed and onto the stage, basically with no rehearsal – was really well done. And I liked the dream sequence – where he was basically in the choreography of On the Town – and it was a metaphor for being torn in different directions by his sexuality, etc. I thought that was innovative – I wish there had been more of that kind of experimenting with form. Biopics are so LITERAL, it drives me crazy!

  5. Barb says:

    I was excited to see that Jodie Foster was in the latest season of True Detective, though I have only seen season 1. Might have to catch up! I also heard that they were going back to the King in Yellow? That season of tv has haunted me for years, and I agree, it’s McConaughey’s best work. Say “time is a flat circle” to me, and I’ll be right back at that table!

    Still somewhat obsessed with Stranger Things, and really excited to hear more of your thoughts – I hope they can finish strong.

    Thinking about your comments on movies vs tv, I realize that, maybe I’m not much of a movie person anymore. It actually hurts to say this, as I was also someone who kept a handwritten movie diary for many years. But I think I can count on my hands the number of movies I saw in 2023 and not run out of fingers – Oppenheimer. Talk to Me. Ummm… There are weeks when I check the listings and nothing appeals. I have nothing against a good sci fi, superhero, or horror flick, but I miss movies targeted towards thoughtful grownups. More and more, I feel like that sort of storytelling is happening in the tv world, with the added benefit that, when done well, the shows offer the space and air for growth and nuance in the writing and acting.

    • sheila says:

      Barb – // I also heard that they were going back to the King in Yellow? //

      Yes, I heard the same thing!

      apparently a lot of fans of the original threw hissy fits about season 4 – and the original creator too was Tweeting criticisms of it – which I thought was VERY unprofessional. It reminded me a little bit of the response to Daisy Ridley et al in Star Wars – like, fans just couldn’t go with it, they didn’t accept it. How DARE the franchies … what, introduce a girl into the mix? So silly. Clearly the series has already established that the “true detective” isn’t necessarily the same character. It’s an anthology series. Like, here is season 4. it’s starring women. Do you not want to watch because it’s starring women? WTF is wrong with you?

      But like I said, I went into it without knowing all the gossip. I knew Season 1 was revered – and I had been told to avoid Season 2 – which I did. But I DUG Season 3 and I really dug Season 4. The cinematography and location of Season 4 was just phenomenal.

    • sheila says:

      // I miss movies targeted towards thoughtful grownups. //

      I know what you mean and it’s definitely a problem! But there were quite a few good movies last year – Past Lives, Fallen Leaves, A Thousand and One, The Unknown Country, Blue Jean, Anatomy of a Fall, You Hurt My Feelings, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt- Fair Play! I loved Fair Play! – they are all very different, but challenging and for adults. It’s just the distribution system is so different now – unless something’s on your radar, you can so easily miss it. I put up my 2023 roundup and some poor guy was like “I literally have heard of only 4 of these.” and that’s not his fault! I see more movies than most people but I hope I can point the way towards good things that might not pop up on your algorithm or might not make it to the theatres. and – sadly – no one goes to the theatre anymore. I do! But I get that most people don’t.

      I was thinking as I watched Jodie Foster in True Detective that this was the best role she’s had in YEARS – and she was able to develop this fairly awful character over 8 episodes – so she got to really explore and show all these different sides – given time to craft this character and then dismantle her. It was very satisfying! and that’s something movies in general can’t do – there’s just not enough time!

      • Barb says:

        I agree, it’s very difficult to keep up with the fractured distribution system and the deluge of content. Add into that the fact that the big theater chains (we have AMC here) have become so risk adverse that they will pack all of their screens with multiple showings of only 3 – 5 new releases, and it gets even worse.

        It’s partly my own fault, too – we do have an art house theater here that recently bought and renovated a local cinema that they use to show a mix of new releases and revival showings. My son saw Amadeus there last night, in fact! I suppose what I really miss is the feeling of having a wide range of options available on any given weekend.

        I hadn’t heard the kerfluffle about True Detective, though it sounds typical of fannish discourse (what? I can be cynical!) A whole lotta angst over something not being exactly how you want.

        • sheila says:

          // Add into that the fact that the big theater chains (we have AMC here) have become so risk adverse that they will pack all of their screens with multiple showings of only 3 – 5 new releases, and it gets even worse. //

          I know!! It’s so frustrating! Thre’s just no variety – at least in the big multiplexes, which I guess was always the case – but at least there were some options!

          // we do have an art house theater here that recently bought and renovated a local cinema that they use to show a mix of new releases and revival showings. //

          I love that! It’s one of the main things I miss about living in NYC – having so many arthouse theatres (not as many as when I first moved there in the 90s – but still, quite a few) where I could see the films I wanted to see – from Iran, Romania, etc. I don’t WANT to wait for streaming for these. I WANT to see them in the theatre!!

          But it’s great when smaller cities or even small towns get an arthouse scene going on – I mean, going out to see Amadeus at a local theatre is so cool!! There are a couple of theatres like that in my state – and it definitely provides nice alternatives to AMC where five screens are showing the new Trolls movie – and probably not to capacity crowds!

        • sheila says:

          // though it sounds typical of fannish discourse (what? I can be cynical!) //

          lol

          yes, we have gone through that 10 times over with SPN. I tiptoe back onto Twitter (I refuse to call it X) and I can’t believe the arguments still going on between the usual suspects!

          I’ve actually been thinking (send help) of doing a rewatch of the last season. I honestly don’t remember much – except for maybe the final 3 episodes – I only watched it the once!

          With all of the disappointment of the last 4 seasons – I do feel like they stuck the landing. I liked that last episode. I feel like they lost so much ground in the Dabb years that it didn’t have the impact it might have had if it had come at the end of season 10 – but I still thought it was very moving. I’d like to watch again now that I have a little bit of distance.

          I’d be curious to hear what you think about Season 4 of True Detective!

  6. Todd Restler says:

    Sheila! It was so great meeting you (finally!) at Jacob Burns – and what a perfect place for us to meet! I’m lucky as you said to have that place close by. I’ve seen Q&As with Tod Field after TAR and Alexander Payne after The Holdovers just to name a few – it’s always so fun there.

    I really enjoyed Memory and your great Q&A with Peter Sarsgaard. He said that Jessica Chastain hardly talked to him off screen! If I could have asked one more question, it would have been – How do you know how your co-stars like to work?

    We know actors have their own processes – does he get an email from his agent -” Hey, I just heard from the director, only address Jessica by her characters’ name and don’t look her directly in the eyes.”? Or does he just figure that out on set when they meet? That was so interesting to me.

    That movie is a great example of what you can do with great actors and a great script. Filmed in 19 days on location for little money – wow.

    The scenes were allowed to breathe. Another thing Peter (it’s Peter now) said that was so interesting is that on big budget movies, there is so much money at stake that everything in the filmmaking is micro-managed down to the second, so that there really is no room for improv or “happy accidents”. I am thinking of the conversation in the bathroom where his character fell into the tub! So great.

    They both gave wonderful, nuanced performances – those characters really linger in my head. I also absolutely loved Merritt Weaver as Jessica Chastain’s sister. She is someone that has always stood out to me, usually in small roles (Michael Clayton, Into the Wild). She’s great and I hope she get bigger parts.

    Some thoughts on the other films:

    Beyond Utopia : Oh my goodness. Probably the bravest act of filmmaking I have ever seen. I am pretty speechless on this, and I am never speechless. Just incredible. I hope it can lead to change, or at least more awareness.

    Testament – I am pretty sure on saw this only once on TV and it devastated me like everyone else. I don’t think I have seen it since. The one moment that lingers in my mind is when she finds the answering machine message – and she knew. Writing and acting . Acting and writing. A small and simple story which becomes monumental in it’s universality.

    Lone Star – Thank goodness for Criterion. I am so glad you have been able to contribute to their wonderful collection. I just got One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress recently, and will grab this one next. Physical media is so important to me. Great to see some of these titles that deserve to be rediscovered in all their glory. How good is Chris Cooper? Sayles doesn’t get talked about enough. I think City of Hope is a masterpiece and I feel like I am the only person that has seen it.

    Blue Collar – I only saw this one about a year ago. I had never even heard of it two years ago, then I started seeing it pop up on “Underrated 70s movies” lists, and hearing about it on a Podcast here or interview there. It’s weird how something like this can “bubble up”. A Paul Schrader movie with this cast? Sweet! But it was hard to find. Then one night, it was just on one of the cable movie channels.

    Holy crap. They would NOT make this movie today. You might get whacked for trying. I’ve mentioned how much I love the Lumet movies like Serpico and Prince of the City – films that show how things REALLY work. Blue Collar feels like it was written this morning. This movie is amazing and frames the central issue of then AND now – Ownership vs. Labor, in a realistic yet funny way. And how it’s ALL intertwined with corruption. The union dues are used as a slush fund for the mafia loan sharks? Sounds about right. “You just thought being a union rep would be easy Zeke. Now you know. It’s hard work!”

    This may be the best that Kotto, Keitel, and Pryor have EVER been in a film, and that death scene mentioned is an all-timer. I could re-watch just the opening credits all day on a loop, and feel all that heat and sweat. What an incredible film. We tend to think of movies like 2001:A Space Odyssey as “masterpieces”, with good reason. Blue Collar is a masterpiece.

    Spotlight/Zodiac – All day everyday. It’s the acting I think we’re are attracted to most. The big roles, sure, but the small ones too. The victims in Spotlight. Rachel McAdams’ mom. Jamey Sheridan. The guy near the end of Zodiac that made the movie poster who invites Jake G into his house. John Getz. Clea Duvall. Chloe Sevigny. Movies like this go from good to great “in the margins” as I like to say. I have a working theory that the Zodiac killer is actually John Carroll Lynch. He would have been about 7 years old at the time of the murders. Nobody can act that good.

    Shattered Glass – Back to the beginning, Peter Sarsgaard here gives one of my all-time favorite performances. Period. And if Chloe Sevigny were in every single movie I’d be fine with that.

    • sheila says:

      Todd – hey! so much to discuss!

      My first thought is that when you’re an actor, you get used to adjusting to other people’s vibes/energies. If you’re a good collaborator, you kind of go with it. I remember Kelly McGillis saying that Harrison Ford basically never talked to her offscreen during the whole filming of Witness. Patricia Neal said the same thing about Paul Newman in Hud. Sometimes it made them feel insecure (because they weren’t as big stars). But – what was onscreen was intimate and deep and alive – so none of that was dissipated in off-screen chit-chat – which I totally get.

      Not everyone works the same way – and as an actor you work with literally 100s of people and you just have to go with it. There are interesting stories about Laurette Taylor in rehearsal for Glass Menagerie. In rehearsal, she could barely be heard – she’d wander around with the script, basically half-heartedly murmuring the lines. her cast members who had no idea what she was doing were truly alarmed. Where was the performance?? Why wasn’t she even trying?? Well, she didn’t rehearse the way the others did. she was seeping the part and the play into her – she didn’t work like “okay let me try some different choices” – Brando was the same way. He just didn’t rehearse at full volume. This can be difficult for other cast members who are trying to “craft” their performance during rehearsal – getting ready for opening night. And then of course Laurette Taylor and Brando were world-class onstage – giving performances that blew their more technical cast members away. What lOOKED like just wandering around and mumbling was actually very very serious work – it just didn’t LOOK like it.

      so you definitely have to be flexible!

      • Todd Restler says:

        Wow that Witness story! I love actors obviously and am fascinated by how they are able to do what they do. Physically, mentally, all of it. There was obviously a method to Ford’s madness, he wasn’t just being a dick. This woman SHOULD be wary of him, uncomfortable around him, and only gradually feel safe with him, if at all. Why should he be her best friend off camera? What would that get them? Better to save the relationship for the cameras.

        I love this stuff. You have to be a certain type of person to be able to work effectively like this.

        • sheila says:

          // There was obviously a method to Ford’s madness, he wasn’t just being a dick. //

          Absolutely! The “not knowing” someone can translate to uncertainty on film – which can also translate to desire, whatever. Some of this kind of awareness can be dissipated if you’re doing normal chit-chat off-camera.

          These two people in Witness do not know each other – we see their entire relationship onscreen – and also they come from two totally different worlds. So there’d be this weird “am I being appropriate” or “what does he/she think of me” thing – and I think not talking to each other means every single reaction you have to that other actor is onscreen.

          McGillis talked a lot about how she felt so out of place and uncomfortable during that shoot – which is sad – but also kind of amazing, since she gives such an earthy grounded performance. You would never ever guess she didn’t feel comfortable.

          so yeah I think it’s complex!!

          Ford wasn’t mean or rude to her – just kept his distance.

          I think actors can of course go too far with this.

          I was always amazed to hear that Debra Winger and Richard Gere despised each other – or, she despised him – and yet …

          It’s one of the wild things about a movie camera. It picks up FEELING and ANY feeling can be interpreted as another feeling. Like Rita Hayworth in Gilda talking about how “hate” is the most exciting emotion – and yet what we see is this amazingly sexual woman. so “hate” is interpreted as love or at least desire. So Winger and Gere not at all getting along – showed up onscreen as insane chemistry.

          and they DID have chemistry – only it was negative chemistry! but to us the audience it’s the same thing.

          Kind of wild how that happens.

          You know how you watch an onscreen romance and there’s zero chemistry and it’s all kind of uncomfortable? Like the actors somehow don’t click and they don’t do the necessary work to make the damn thing PLAY. It really is up to the actor to use whatever you have – even if it’s negative emotions – in service of the story.

    • sheila says:

      // I also absolutely loved Merritt Weaver as Jessica Chastain’s sister. //

      I am a huge fan. Have you seen Unbelievable?

      Talk about different acting styles – there she is paired with Toni Colette – who is also an excellent actress – they’re just so DIFFERENT – and to see these two different styles and ways of working is fascinating. I keep meaning to write about it. Merritt Weaver underplays to the point where it doesn’t even look like anything is happening. She is never in a rush. She never pushes. Toni Colette is more extroverted in her style – she’s more “performance” based. And she’s brilliant.

      And side by side it’s a great acting lesson – that there are a million different ways to get to the destination and the “results” will not look the same. But it’s all the same process!

      • Todd Restler says:

        I have NOT seen Unbelievable. I’ll check it out! I love Toni Colette too! Such different energies, I get what you’re saying. “Chemistry” between two actors is such a weird thing, it’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it.

        I would say Weaver is a more emotion based actor. She feels deeply and it shows on screen. Colette is more cerebral, more calculating and self-aware.

        Not that they couldn’t play characters that are the opposite of this. But I think there is nothing wrong with actors playing to their strengths. Why WOULDN’T they play to their strengths?

        Does any of that make sense? I have trouble articulating about actors since I find what they do to be so magical.

        • sheila says:

          I think Colette can be hugely emotional – Sixth Sense! But what she’s doing in Unbelievable is different – maybe because of the character she’s playing, a confident ballsy brassy extrovert – maybe a little bit threatened by this less experienced cop (Weaver) coming into her investigation. So the performance is all show. The character is “making a show” of her authority – but that’s only because she HAS authority. It’s really interesting what she does – and sometimes frustrating – which is all a part of the normal reaction to someone throwing their authority around.

          But because of this “all show” aspect of the character – when that show drops, when she drops in to her vulnerability – OR when she really gets angry and determined – it is THRILLING.

          She’s like a conductor in a way. She’s created this character and she’s very conscious of when to allow the audience in deeper – and when to keep the facade up. It’s masterful!

          And then on the opposite side you have Weaver – whose quiet gravitas and almost monotone whisper – gives this feeling of deep thoughtfulness, a detective (they both play detectives) always thinking, and always thinking before she speaks. And so on the opposite side of the spectrum: when Weaver “loses it” – it’s freakin exhilarating – because she’s kept the charavter so under control we never see that this woman is capable of losing her temper. but she IS.

          I love the series – I’ve watche dit a couple of times, even though it is very upsetting. Great storytelling! Great cast of character actors. I think you’ll dig it.

    • sheila says:

      // Physical media is so important to me. //

      It’s more and more essential every day. We’re full on in the dystopia. If we rely on these corporations to be good stewards of our art – not our media, not our content (gag) – then we are idiots and we deserve what we get – which is NOTHING. Of COURSE these entities aren’t going to care about these more obscure titles being available, or making sure their catalog is available – they don’t value it. they only value money. so we – the people – have to take matters into our own hands. at least DVDs are still being made!

      I loved Mudbound on Netflix – and – until Criterion took it on, it literally didn’t exist at all in physical media form. why would Netflix put it out on DVD, which means just a one-time purchase? so of course they’d hold it captive on their platform.

      it’s really really bad.

      also there’s the issue of these platforms sometimes EDITING stuff. I’ve noticed this with Supernatural – sometimes these episodes are actually TRIMMED when I’ve seen them on Netflix. also, music has been changed (because of music rights, I’m sure). So I have the box sets – because I want the original versions that the directors intended.

      Ugh. I feel really strongly about this!

    • sheila says:

      oh my God the opening credits of Blue Collar are the BEST.

      I agree. It’s a masterpiece.

      It’s realistic as hell – and devastating. You believe in this friendship – it’s basically class solidarity across difference – we are all in the same boat “down here”, regardless of being different sexes, races, whatever. And class solidarity across difference is Enemy #1 to the powers that be. I think “they” (there’s always a “they”) fear that more than anything else. The way the system is set up to divide us from each other, to keep us at each others’ throats. George Carlin used to talk about this. As long as we “down here” are tearing each other apart, the rich are free to do whatever they want to do, and pile up all the money. They LOVE that we’re fighting with each other.

      amazing film. Criterion should put out Blue Collar!!

      • Todd Restler says:

        George Carlin is a great call. His stuff on politics and religion is funny, yes, but it’s also some of the great social commentary of the past 50 years. I hate being bullshitted to. And after growing up with Watergate, reading Catcher in the Rye and 1984 and Animal Farm, watching Serpico, Prince of the City, etc. Well, it’s hard not to feel like it’s ALL bullshit. A never ending series of shell games to distract you while they steal your dinner. Blue Collar tackles all this head on.

        I feel like Blue Collar is an incredibly important film and I have no idea why it’s so obscure. That oddly seems to be changing. Criterion would be great – I am not sure how they get the rights to some films but not others. They seem to have a relationship with David Cronenberg and now Scorsese for example, but other directors seem notoriously absent from their collection (Lumet?)

        • sheila says:

          Yes I am not sure the complexities of Criterion releases – I know that some countries are stricter with copyright, etc – and so there’s a lack of films from certain areas in the world. They get criticized for this from fans who don’t know the backstory – they’re not leaving out entrie swaths of the globe by design. Some stuff they just can’t get their hands on.

          Blue Collar seems like a shoo-in, though!

    • sheila says:

      // Peter Sarsgaard here gives one of my all-time favorite performances. Period. //

      Yup. It’s really a wonder. It shows what he does so well! so many other actors would have added “quirks” to the guy, would have tried harder to make the character “distinct” – but Sarsgaard just doesn’t put that pressure on himself. Have you seen Dopesick? It’s a similar kind of guy – a sort of “everyman”, who doesn’t have a lot of “personality” – may even be described as “boring” – the kind of guy who blends into the background – but who has a sense of what is right and what is wrong – and is dangerous when roused.

      Hayden is so so good too.

      Have you gone down the rabbit hole and tracked down Stephen Glass’ pieces for The New Republic? they are find-able on the internet. Reading the hackers piece it’s just .. WILD … that this one passed the fact check process.

      The only thing I think that rings false in the movie is how the co-workers all clap at the end – as he looks at the apology letter. There is no reason to congratulate yourselves. You failed. You all need to do some serious self-searching about – as Sarsgaard’s character says – “what we allowed to happen here.”

      The clapping was there to be a counterpoint to the clapping in the high school journalism class (or was the class even there?? I think not!) – but I still think it’s the only slightly off note.

      Everyone is so good. Chloe. Melanie Lynskey! Hank Azaria – excellent (RIP Michael Kelly).

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