Previous month:
September 2020
Next month:
November 2020

film fatales #96: the lure (agnieszka smoczynska, 2015)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 8 is called Women Directed Horror Week:

When people think horror creators, a lot of the big names tend to be men. Carpenter, Hooper, Romero, Craven, Argento, etc. And sure, these men have created some fantastic works, but it often leaves horror films directed by women underappreciated. In an effort to combat this, let's round out October by observing the greatness that female-driven horror has to offer.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film directed by a woman.

Well, this is an odd one. In the end, it's delightful, in a gory sort of way, but I admit for much of the film, I thought it was just plain loony. After seeing it, I felt positive, and thinking about it made my impression even more so.

I assumed it was a horror film ... that's the challenge, after all. The front of the Blu-ray box gives little hint of what is coming, although I see now that the mysterious, vague character is a mermaid. Reading the back of the box only prepared me for what seemed impossible:

This genre-defying horror-musical mash-up ... follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland. Their tantalizing siren songs and otherworldly auras make them overnight sensations as nightclub singers ... [a] darkly feminist twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid".

It might be that last part that got me ... how could Disney fit into this? The answer is that he can't, because Agnieszka Smocznska, in her debut feature, is up to things that would never enter the Disney world.

Horror-musical ... I wasn't encouraged. But in fact, it works. Part of it is that while the mermaid sisters do cast a bit of a spell on people, no one treats them as anything other than beings with a special talent. There is no hatred of the other ... once it is learned they can sing, they get a job in a nightclub, and if their legs sometimes transform into a tail, well, all the more interesting.

In its fantastic way, The Lure tells a simpler tale than the above would suggest. One of the mermaids wants to become human, and both of the sisters are regularly confronted with the restrictions placed on young women who want to decide their lives for themselves. Yes, as mermaids they are accepted, but a mermaid who wants to be human is not.

Often a movie will be described as "Like X, only Y", so a movie like Midnight Special is "Like Close Encounters, only dark". I don't know how to make that work with The Lure. It's like Near Dark, only the story takes off from The Little Mermaid, and there's sex like in The Hunger, and oh yeah, its audaciousness is kinda funny at times. I often complain about movies that require multiple viewings to "get them". In the case of The Lure, I look forward to another viewing, just to take in its wonderful oddness.

music friday

Last week, I wrote that I was "going to turn Music Friday into a random look at concerts I've attended over the years." The choices aren't really random this week ... Bruce Springsteen has a new album out, so I'll showcase Bruce and three acts I saw with him.

One thing the pandemic does is prevent us from going to concerts. I've seen Bruce 36 times, and more than most musicians, his music benefits from the live setting, such that I've never been able to really judge one of his new albums until I've heard it live. And that's not going to be happening for a while. So any response I have to Letter to You is partial. For now, I'll repeat what I said on Facebook ... the sound is interesting in its retrograde feel ... it always sounds like old-school Bruce, but it never sounds like the same old school ... one song sounds like it came from Working on a Dream, another from The River, another from some random Tracks era. Based on sound alone, it's obvious why some people are so taken with it. (And I'll add, where's Soozie?)

Bruce famously drops in on the shows of others. We got to experience that once, in 1981, when Bruce turned up at a small club for five songs with Gary U.S. Bonds when Bonds was touring behind his Bruce-enabled comeback album, Dedication.

1978 was the greatest year of my musical life, when we saw Bruce three times during his legendary 1978 tour.  He would close with this Gary U.S. Bonds number ... we saw him sing it on five different occasions:

While Bruce has appeared with other performers as part of benefit shows, we only saw one person open for him at a regular Bruce concert: John Wesley Harding. It was the first time in 20 years that anyone had opened for Bruce. Harding has written four novels under his real name, Wesley Stace.

We saw Bruce on his 39th birthday as part of an Amnesty International show. Joan Baez was one of the many artists who appeared, and she sang him "Happy Birthday". She was in the crowd in 2006 when we saw him with the Seeger Sessions Band ... she came onstage to help sing "Pay Me My Money Down". Here is Baez with Mercedes Sosa in 1988:

Finally, here is the Seeger Sessions Band with "Pay Me My Money Down":

geezer cinema: rebecca (ben wheatley, 2020)

Something about Rebecca connects with people. The novel has never gone out of print. This 2020 movie is the second based on the novel ... the first, in 1940, directed by Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, won the Best Picture Oscar. By my count (using Wikipedia) there have been six adaptations for television, and five versions on Old-Time Radio. The novel's author, Daphne du Maurier, adapted the book as a stage play. There was an Austrian musical version, and an opera. So yeah, there's something about Rebecca.

And it's impressive that Rebecca is still part of the zeitgeist, and that an arguably secondary character, Mrs. Danvers, has become iconic. 

So it's no surprise that Netflix gives us another Rebecca. And some things work well. I'm not an expert on costuming, but I felt like the clothes were appropriate for the characters, including the dress Mrs. Danvers uses in her attempt to destroy Mrs. de Winter. Kristin Scott Thomas dominates the film once she makes an appearance, in a good way ... I may have referred to Mrs. Danvers as arguably secondary, but Scott Thomas is having none of that. Director Ben Wheatley seems most comfortable with the character of Mrs. Danvers ... without Danvers/Scott Thomas, this Rebecca would be a bit too boring.

I initially thought Armie Hammer was the most boring part of the movie, but in retrospect, I think that's unfair. Maxim de Winter is boring in this movie. Lily James is fine, although the transition in her character from unassuming to a woman who takes charge isn't as marked as it might be ... James never seems unassuming.

It's been awhile since I saw Hitchcock's version. My memory is that I liked it, but the 2020 edition shouldn't really need to worry about being compared to an 80-year-old movie. What I found myself comparing it to was Guillermo del Toro's 2015 film Crimson Peak, and Rebecca falls short in that comparison. Rebecca has not gotten very good reviews, which may keep some people away. I'd say if it sounds appealing to you, go for it ... it's not that bad. But "not that bad" isn't a very high standard.

creature feature: the curse of frankenstein (terence fisher, 1957)

The film that introduced Hammer Films to horror. British television star Peter Cushing played Baron Frankenstein, Christopher Lee was the monster, and Hazel Court began her career as The Queen of Scream (although she had been in movies for more than a dozen years), setting the standard for Hammer heroines, big screams and big cleavage (Court's autobiography was called Horror Queen). Frankenstein is far more the center of this film than is the monster, and Cushing is as good as anyone has been as the Doctor. Lee is hampered by his makeup, which was created shortly before shooting began, looked cheap (albeit ugly enough), and didn't give Lee much chance to draw our sympathy the way Karloff did.

The biggest problem with the film is that the first half, wherein Frankenstein works to perfect his ability to create life, is kinda boring. It was a big hit in its day ... some attribute this to its being in color, thus letting audiences get a better experience when watching the gore. As you might expect, the gore, however shocking it was in 1957, barely raises an eye today.

There's nothing really wrong with The Curse of Frankenstein. The acting is good, and for such a low-budget film, it has an attractive look to it. But all in all, nothing special.

The quick shot of Peter Cushing looking into the magnifying glass brought this scene instantly to mind:

billie eilish, h.e.r., and adele

On Saturday, Billie Eilish performed a live-streaming concert. It was amazing ... Eilish was in fine form, but the thing that got people's attention was the special-effects production. While Eilish, Phineas, and their drummer spent the entire show on one stage (this wasn't apparent at first), a group of effects wizards transformed the visuals with every song. I don't know how they did it ... I was halfway through the show before I realized Billie wasn't going anywhere, that there was really only one trick, to make the stage look like something other than what it was, but there was a new version of the trick for each tune. It was an imaginative way to accept that a virtual live-stream concert is not the same as a live show with an excited audience.

There was nothing unusual about the setlist:

Bury A Friend / You Should See Me In A Crown / My Strange Addiction / Ocean Eyes / Xanny / I Love You / ilomilo / No Time To Die / When The Party’s Over / All The Good Girls Go To Hell / Everything I Wanted / My Future / Bad Guy

Eilish was good enough, the show would have worked fine without the effects, and "No Time to Die" remains a killer. It wasn't entirely "live" ... there were backing tracks, but that kind of added to the artificial presentation. She also pushed a message of "VOTE!", and via effects had a couple of songs where fans on the stream were shown on big video screens singing along. For much of what remained of Saturday, Eilish was a topic of discussion, pretty much all of it positive. It would be great to offer some video examples, but as of this writing, they are all being taken down as quickly as they go up.

Later, on Saturday Night Live, Adele appeared as the host. Adele hadn't been on American TV since 2017, and her last album came out in 2015. But she's been missed ... as Rolling Stone said, "Adele Reminds the World Why We Need Her More Than Ever". When Adele sings, she doesn't need special effects ... her voice is her special effect. (Billie Eilish, a different kind of singer, startles us when she hits the high note in "No Time to Die", but Adele hits those notes regularly. Neither is better, but different.)

She insisted in her monologue that she was only hosting, that she wouldn't be singing. There was a musical guest for that, H.E.R., and she was great:

But SNL and Adele got sneaky during one skit, and it got more admiring chatter than even Eilish's remarkable show.

The winner was the audience, entertained and more by three vital women artists.

the king of marvin gardens (bob rafelson, 1972)

Some years ago, Criterion released a box set of films from BBS Productions. BBS stood for Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Stephen Blauner. They were part of the emerging "New Hollywood". The films included in the box set give a sense of what BBS was about: Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, The Last Picture Show, A Safe Place, and The King of Marvin Gardens.

I saw The King of Marvin Gardens when it came out, and didn't think it was the equal of Five Easy Pieces, also directed by Rafelson and starring Nicholson. It seemed that Nicholson was miscast as an introvert who hosts a radio show where he tells stories. Bruce Dern played the "Nicholson" part, the extrovert with dreams. Looking back, I'd say that Dern was always capable of a variety of roles, and he isn't out of place here. And Nicholson has gotten some praise for his performance here, although I remain mostly unimpressed. For one thing, the long monologues that his character gives are boring and obscure. It's hard to believe any radio station would play his show. Also, I think he gets praised too much for not being "Jack Nicholson".

Ellen Burstyn gives everything she has to her part as an aging prostitute, but as Kael noted, "Ellen Burstyn works valiantly, but her role is a series of florid gestures", which isn't the fault of the actress.  Julia Anne Robinson rounds out the main cast ... she was just getting started in her career, and she sadly died soon after the film was made in a fire. Scatman Crothers livens things up when he appears. And director of photography László Kovács does his usual job of making a movie look great, whether the movie is good or not.

I wrote of A Safe Place, "It does make me nostalgic for that period of American movies, and its experimental nature is worth praising. But I could barely stay awake when I had to actually watch it." Much the same can be said for The King of Marvin Gardens, although I had no trouble staying awake, and thought it was OK where I really disliked A Safe Place.

music friday

Feeling the need to change things around to keep my attention, I'm going to turn Music Friday into a random look at concerts I've attended over the years. Might last one week, might last one year, who knows? Obviously, I'll repeat myself at times ... been writing here for 18 years, I've probably told these stories more than once. Here are four artists to start it off.

The J. Geils Band. I think I saw them four times. They were a big favorite of mine in my factory years ... saw them once a year from 1975-1977, then added one more show in 1982. This video is from the show I attended in 1977:

The Clash. Saw them five times, including their first-ever show in the USA. Those shows were from 1979-1984, with the last one being what I think of as the Faux Clash after Mick Jones was kicked out of the band. The night after that first U.S. show, they played a show in San Francisco with little advance notice. I wasn't there, but I was there the night before, so this is as close as I can get to my own experience seeing them for the first time.

The Blasters. Saw them once. This is one where memory serves me poorly. As I recall, it was early on, and they played at Slim's in San Francisco. But Slim's didn't open until 1988, by which time The Blasters had effectively broken up. So I don't know when I saw them, I don't know where I saw them, but I saw them. Once you've seen Phil Alvin's facial grimaces, you don't forget them, no matter how bad your memory gets.

Finally, here's another one where I was actually at the show on the video. This was at the first Bridge Concert, an annual charity show put on by Neil Young and his wife Pegi. While these shows went on for 30 years and took place at a venue close to us, I only went to two ... the ones Bruce Springsteen played at. One thing about these multi-act shows is you see people you might have missed otherwise, which is how I was able to add Don Henley to my list of musicians I've seen, even though I never much liked Don Henley.

bloodsucking bastards (brian james o’connell, 2015)

This is the seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 7 is called Vampires of the New Millennium Week:

These creatures are immortal, both in life and in film. Sure they've been around forever, but what have they been up to lately? Maybe you'd like to find out.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen vampire film released in 2000 or later.

Bloodsucking Bastards has some similarities with Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's remarkable directing debut from 2018. The comparisons, though, are almost all in favor of the later film.

Both movies show contemporary office work environments that are boring and repetitious. Both feature supernatural angles. And that's where things go downhill for Bloodsucking Bastards.

Riley's fantasy/farce is filled with pointed social commentary that doesn't get in the way of the film. Bloodsucking Bastards has little subtext at all ... it's a vampire movie in an office setting, and that's about it. Which means the vampire story better be good. And, I regret to say, it's not. Sorry to Bother You is also loony, usually in a good way, but in any event, Riley was willing to try anything. Brian James O'Connell's film was much more straightforward. He makes ingenious use of his low budget, and attracts actors who fit their roles and do well by them. But the slow buildup is more slow than buildup, and the revelations of the plot aren't all that unusual for a vampire movie.

Part of me thinks it's unfair to compare the two movies. But as I was watching Bloodsucking Bastards, I kept thinking of Sorry to Bother You, and I never thought I was seeing a better movie. Oh, and it's a comedy. Among the other possible choices for this week's challenge were Let the Right One In, a favorite of mine, and Only Lovers Left Alive, which I also preferred to the one I ended up with.

geezer cinema: the trial of the chicago 7 (aaron sorkin, 2020)

This is a trivia note that amazes me: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the 13th movie I've seen with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (A River Runs Through It, The Lookout, The Brothers Bloom, (500) Days of Summer, Inception, Premium Rush, Looper, Lincoln, The Interview, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out, Project Power, The Trial of the Chicago 7).

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is simultaneously excellent and disappointing. Aaron Sorkin's magic touch with dialogue turns up here, which is always a good thing. He knows how to construct a courtroom drama. Some of the casting is inspired (Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman). It's an important story, and it has relevance today.

Some of the best writing I've seen about the film comes from Rennie Davis, one of the 7, on his Facebook page. He wrote enough that it took three posts to get it all out.

He begins by thanking the creators. "Any support we can give to today’s generation standing up to self-serving government authority is my reason for promoting this film." But he thinks that other than Hoffman, Sorkin doesn't really get the characters right. "I encourage all my FB friends to see the movie for its remarkable impact, but I can still wish the producers had realized the best movie possible could only be made by conveying the story just as it happened. Creating fictional characters that never existed to create a drama that moves apart from the actual event will always fall short of the real humor, inspiration and courage of the Chicago 8 defendants." And he adds:

Understanding that the Sorkin film was never intended to be a replica of the actual trial is a good way to watch the Trial of the Chicago 7. That way you feel no need to knit pick its inaccuracies. Netflix told me I should think of the movie as a painting rather than a picture. Okay. That's another way to see it.
I write these three posts so my FB friends can remember what actually happened in Chicago and that putting government on trial is needed again today.
Sorkin foregrounds some characters at the expense of others. My wife pointed out that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were the ones most of us knew at the time, along with Bobby Seale. But even if that is true, all of the defendants were important. John Froines and Lee Wiener were barely in the film. Tom Hayden was presented as the one who contested the ideas of the others, to the extent that he comes across in a negative way compared to them. He rises to the occasion in the end, but it's puzzling why he was shown this way in the first place.
As the film ends, we get an update on what happened to the real people in the trial. Following that, we learn about the eventual future lives of the people. We read about Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden. But the others apparently weren't important enough for even that little part of their story.
So yes, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is gripping, and the overall presentation is close enough to make the events matter to those who weren't alive, while allowing older viewers a nostalgic look at their past. It's not a replica. I was engrossed from beginning to end, but yeah, I could have used a bit more replica.

soccer on tv

I've written occasionally about soccer on U.S. television, and how it has changed so much over the years. Television changes too, of course, which leads me to the match I'll be watching today in a little bit.

It's a Champions League match between Chelsea and Sevilla. Chelsea includes American wonderkid Christian Pulisic, who is all of 22 years old now, so I guess he's no longer a kid. He is still a wonder. He is recovering from an injury, and it's not certain he will play.

I am watching it on CBS All Access. It's a premium channel, meaning you pay to watch it. We've subscribed and unsubscribed a few times, because it's the home of Star Trek: Discovery, and my wife is a fan. They also have the U.S. rights to the Champions League in English. Long ago, there was no soccer on American TV other than the weekly Soccer Made in Germany, which ran on PBS for a dozen years. Now, there's no escaping the sport. Today alone, there are eight Champions League matches, one MLS match, six Copa Libertadores matches, a Confederation Cup match from Africa, and two matches in the CONCACAF League. At other times, we can watch the English Championship league, the Mexican league, the Europa League, Serie A, the Bundesliga, La Liga from Spain, and the English Premier League, the English language rights to which are owned by NBC.

Some of the above requires money to watch ... some of it ends up on NBC itself. I can't bring myself to buy one-league packages, although I get most Premier League matches as part of my cable package, as well as most Spanish-language networks. CBS All Access is a little different, though, since it offers more than just soccer, so I'm not just paying to watch Chelsea-Sevilla.

It's impossible to find the time to watch it all ... heck, it's almost impossible to find out where to watch, given the multiple options (for this I rely on LiveSoccer TV). The confusion is felt by non-soccer fans as well, because it's almost impossible to find TV series you want to watch ... you really have to pay attention to know if you are looking for the broadcast networks, the cable channels like FX, premium channels like HBO and Showtime and Starz, or streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock ... you get the idea. Our choices are overwhelming.

But I really notice when it comes to soccer, because we've gone from an almost complete absence on our TVs to now, when there is barely a match anywhere in the world that isn't being shown in the States.

Meanwhile, here's a video titles "100+ Players Humiliated by Christian Pulisic":