film fatales #120: the sit-in: harry belafonte hosts the tonight show (yoruba richen, 2020)

Several times during The Sit-In, we are reminded that the week when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show was largely buried in the history of television. Yoruba Richen, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, emphasizes this because she believes Belafonte's hosting stint was an important moment in television ... she wants to ensure that it is forgotten no longer. She succeeds ... The Sit-In will be there for anyone who wants to discover (or rediscover) the week that was. It's a noble, even necessary, endeavor.

And Richen does what she can with the existing material. But here she is let down, which is unfortunate for her audience. First, she explains that in the 1960s, networks like NBC regularly recorded over tapes, so that, in the case of Belafonte on The Tonight Show, only segments from two of his five episodes exist today. So a look at the guest lists for his episodes is impressive, but we only get a handful of those guests. The truncated list remains impressive ... The Sit-In features Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who tells a joke!), Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nipsey Russell, and others. But a lot of the brief (75 minutes) running time of The Sit-In consists of interviews with people who express surprise that these episodes existed at all. I'm always glad to hear from Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg, but their contributions to The Sit-In are extended beyond usefulness. Understandably, given the absence of much footage from the event, but it becomes a bit repetitious.

Richen does a good job of placing the episodes in the context of 1968, and ultimately, The Sit-In is a helpful, if incomplete, addition to our understanding of our history. It's not a classic, but you take what you can get.

la casa de las flores

La Casa de las Flores is a telenovela made by Manolo Caro for Netflix. I just finished Season 1, which came out in August 2018 (there are two more seasons). It was my first telenovela, although it is often referred to as a "millennial telenovela", which is what it sounds like (think Jane the Virgin). I've often heard that watching telenovelas is a good way to improve your Spanish, and we've got a (fingers crossed) trip to Spain coming in October, so I went for this one. And it's an eyeopener.

La Casa de las Flores centers on an upper-middle class Mexican family, de la Mora, that owns a popular flower shop called "La Casa de las Flores" and a cabaret of the same name. Outwardly, the de la Moras are an exemplary family: patriarch and matriarch, two daughters and one son. Of course, the surface is deceiving. The father has a mistress of long standing ... they have a daughter who seems to be a pre-teen. The mother regularly smokes weed she grows herself. The eldest daughter was once married, and has a son ... her marriage ended when her ex came out as a trans woman. The younger daughter has been living in New York with her African-American fiancé. The youngest son is beginning to accept his bisexuality.

In the first minute of the show, the mistress hangs herself in the flower shop. It turns out she was doing shady things with the father's money, and he ends up in prison, setting in motion the plot for the first season.

La Casa de las Flores is a solid mixture of humor and emotion, all presented in the exaggerated manner of telenovelas. I did not recognize any of the actors. Verónica Castro, who plays the mother, is a major star in Mexico, as a singer and as a telenovela star, and her addition to the cast was a major coup for Caro. The emerging star, though, is Cecilia Suárez, who was in a couple of scenes in Sense8. It's silly to call her "emerging", of course ... she was in her late-40s when the series began, with a long, award-winning career in film. She is called the muse of Manolo Caro, appearing in nearly all of his works. She plays Paulina, the eldest daughter, and the performance of Suárez has led to the character becoming a cult figure. Paulina's speech patterns are impossible to forget once you've heard them. Wikipedia explains:

The character's languorous speech pattern, which is often slowed down even further to enunciate syllable by syllable, became popular among viewers, spawning the '#PaulinaDeLaMoraChallenge' on social media. In the challenge, fans upload videos where they imitate Paulina's voice, often with some of the character's lines. The challenge was started by Mexican actor Roberto Carlo, with the stars of Cable Girls being the first to take it up. When Netflix and Suárez responded with their own version of the challenge on Twitter, it became a trending event on the website, based on popularity and coverage; at this point, there were over 69,000 fan videos of the challenge. The response to the challenge is one of the only times that Suárez has spoken in Paulina's voice outside of the show. She initially said Netflix restricted her from using the voice, but clarified this as being "a suggestion" that she follows to not break the magic of the fiction. Scholar Paul Julian Smith has noted that videos of Paulina's memorable lines recorded from the show have been uploaded to the Internet by fans and received hundreds of thousands of views.

After watching an episode, I found myself imitating Paulina, even though I'd be speaking English and she spoke in Spanish.

I can't compare La Casa de las Flores to other telenovelas, since I haven't seen any of them. But I'm guessing the addictive quality of the show is shared with others in the genre. You never know what it going to happen next. Add to that the "millennial" trend, and I couldn't get enough of La Casa de las Flores.

the switch (bobby roth, 1993)

This is the twenty-third 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 23 is called the "Tangerine Dream Week".

You know how every film nowadays seems to go for that retro synth sound aesthetic? Well these folks are a big reason why that's a thing. As a German electronic band, Tangerine Dream lent their musical style to a number of films that gave the 80s its signature sound.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

I can't say this was a disappointment. I can blame myself for an uninspired pick. I could have picked Michael Mann's Thief with James Caan, or William Friedkin's Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer. Instead I chose The Switch, directed by Bobby Roth. Roth has had an interesting career, directing countless TV series and movies. He has also done a few independent films, a couple of which I have fond memories of (The Boss' Son and Heartbreakers). Most importantly for my purposes, it turns out The Switch was a TV movie, and it shows. It doesn't look cheap ... Roth is an efficient pro who makes good use of what in retrospect are clearly only a few sets, and the cast is full of underrated actors, many known mostly for their television work (Gary Cole, Craig T. Nelson, and Max Gail, not to mention Kathleen Nolan, who starred on The Real McCoys and was later president of the Screen Actors Guild, and Hinton Battle, who had a memorable appearance in the Buffy musical Once More, With Feeling). Beverly D'Angelo has a fairly substantial part, although for some reason she is uncredited. Put it all together, and there is no reason why The Switch would be a bad movie. And that is true ... it is not a bad movie.

I can't go much further, though. It begins with the dreaded words, "based on a true story", which never bodes well. It's the story of Larry McAfee (Cole), who is quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. At first, he fights for the right to end his life ... by the movie's end, he has found meaning and wants to live. (Ironically, McAfee died a couple of years after the movie was released.)

Roth and company do what they can, but they are held back by the realities of television in the early 90s. Nowadays, we're used to productions like Game of Thrones, with big budgets and bigger ambitions and big-screen cinematography, but The Switch has the 1.33:1 aspect ratio then standard for TV, and Roth makes extensive use of closeups, I'm guessing because in 1993, with our small TV screens, closeups wouldn't seem oppressive, but in fact be welcomed.

The is nothing wrong with The Switch, and the people involved gave it their best. No one seems to be just cashing a paycheck. Beyond that, there is no particular reason to run out and watch it.

If you can't resist, her is the entire movie on YouTube:

Oh, and Tangerine Dream? I suppose the soundtrack was OK ... I didn't really notice it, to be honest. On the other hand, it was hard not to notice the appearance of Bruce Springsteen's "Human Touch" a couple of minutes in.

film fatales #102: jane eyre (susanna white, 2006)

This is the fifteenth "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 15 is called "Miniseries Week".

As we move into our holiday hiatus, I wanted to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on specific holidays this year, I want you to use this week (and the weeks in between this and the return from break if need be) to tackle a miniseries. They're essentially just long movies anyway. These things can range in length, from the runtime of your average film to over a dozen hours depending on what you're looking for. So don't feel too daunted with this challenge, and enjoy the break!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen miniseries. Try looking here or here for starters.

It's part of every adaptation of a classic. The first thing everyone wants to know is, who plays the main characters? Indeed, that's how we keep them apart in our memories. I've seen at least three Jane Eyres, and while I could distinguish them by year (1943, 2006, 2011) or director (Robert Stevenson, Susanna White, Cary Joji Fukunaga), I remember them as the one with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, and the one with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. The approach taken by the film makers matters, the use of the original text is crucial, but to some extent, this Jane Eyre, like the others, is about the casting as much as anything. And yes, there are other characters besides Jane and Rochester, but no one remembers the adaptations by the actresses who played Mrs. Fairfax (for the record, Edith Barrett, Lorraine Ashbourne, and Judi Dench).

Both Wilson and Stephens look the part in this BBC mini-series version. Jane Eyre shouldn't be too pretty, and here Ruth Wilson is presented as a plain woman (which is no reflection on Wilson, a lovely-looking woman who is made up so her looks match the character). Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) is suitably brooding, and as with Wilson, he does a fine job in his part. It's Wilson's show, but Stephens keeps up throughout the four hours. Wilson's performance belies the fact that it was only her second on-screen role (the other being a supporting character in a television series).

The production gets most things right. The story is fairly faithful ... the early parts of the novel are offered in a rather hurried manner, but nothing crucial is missing. Screenwriter Sandy Welch, a mini-series veteran, earned an Emmy nomination for her work here. The film looks properly gorgeous, and while it's out of my field of expertise, the costumes were well-received.

My wife is the Jane Eyre super-fan in our house, and she proclaimed herself satisfied. This version rewards both those who have memorized the novel and those who have never read it.

tv 2020

Watching the Euphoria "Christmas Special" reminded me that it's about time for a recap of the year in TV. Euphoria hasn't been on for awhile ... Season Two will get here eventually, but the virus has made it nearly impossible to get back to work. So we're getting two tweener episodes that take place after Season One/before Season Two. The first featured Rue (Zendaya) in a tailspin after her love Jules (Hunter Schafer) left on a train. (Jules will be the focus of the second episode.) Rue goes back on drugs, and the episode we just got consisted almost entirely of her and her NA sponsor dealing with the situation. I was reminded of the Velvet Underground. That band made some of the most discordant music ever, but they also had lovely songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" which carried more power for being the vicinity of the discord. Euphoria so far is not a show for everyone. It's over the top, excessive in so many ways. Because of this, though, the Christmas episode was kinda like "Pale Blue Eyes" ... it carried more power for being in the vicinity of Season One's craziness. We got a two-person, one-set hour, perfect for filming during a pandemic, with both actors (not just Zendaya but also Colman Domingo as her sponsor) putting together award-worthy highlight reels. Domingo got to be a bit more showy, but Zendaya, who was the youngest person to ever win the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy for her work in Season One, played this special episode low key. We had to watch her face to see what she was going through, and she was going through a lot. I'm excited to see what else Euphoria has in store for us.

Meanwhile, some shows I wrote about this year, and a few I didn't.

The 100. I loved this in spite of itself. The fans were, shall we say, interesting.

Agents of SHIELD. "This final season is a delight, as they use time travel as an excuse for some great looks at the past."

Better Things. "These things are in alphabetical order, but this is the best of the shows. If you only binge one series from this list, this is the one. Pamela Adlon is a genius."

Devs. "While it tended to be obscure, that seemed appropriate for a show that was about philosophical truths."

Gentleman Jack. "It's created by Sally Wainwright, who also created the terrific and dark Happy Valley. The lead is played by Suranne Jones, who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of, despite her acting for 25 years. Well, I've heard of her now, and I won't be forgetting her soon.

GLOW. "It doesn't get much more surprising than this. GLOW, based on a cheesy rassling show ("Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling") from the 80s, is funny, entertaining, and works as drama, as well. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin are great as the leads, but the whole cast delivers. There is still one more season to go." (Sad editor's note: the final season was cancelled due to the pandemic.)

High Fidelity, High Fidelity. "From a Nick Hornby novel to a film with John Cusack, always very guy-oriented. This version benefits greatly from 1) making the main character a woman, and 2) casting Zoë Kravitz in the role. She's the best thing about it, although the supporting cast is appealing, as well. Never quite essential, but often fun to watch." Winner of this year's Karen Sisco Award.

Hot Ones. Not really a TV show, I guess ... I'm not talking about the game show on regular television, I'm talking about the YouTube sensation. I look forward to each weekly episode as much as I do any other show on this list. The premise is simple: invite a celebrity to eat ten wings with increasingly hot sauce, and then pump them with questions when their guard drops because they are too busy reacting to the heat. Host Sean Evans is a masterful interviewer who regularly gets compliments from his guests. Among the guests in recent seasons: Zoë Kravitz, Jessica Alba, The Undertaker, Daniel Radcliffe. Watch out for Da Bomb.

I May Destroy You. "What matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella."

Lovecraft Country. Mini-series version of a novel by Matt Ruff that was mostly faithful to the novel while turning the book's stylistic touches into filmic flourishes. Occasionally great, never less than good.

Outlander. "Outlander has pulled off a fairly rare feat: its fifth season was on a par with its first."

Perry Mason. "The recreation of 1932 Los Angeles is strong, and Tatiana Maslany delivers in every one of her scenes. Perry Mason is not yet a great show ... it may never be a great show. But it's a lot better than I anticipated, with room to grow."

The Plot Against America. "Anything David Simon does is worth your attention. Here, he and Ed Burns offer a miniseries based on the Philip Roth novel about an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 and America turns fascist. As you can imagine, it feels familiar in 2020. Great cast, great writing, great world creating."

The Queen's Gambit. Not quite a trifle, with fine performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Marielle Heller. Made chess nerds seem almost cool.

Vida. "A show that was ignored by too many people ... Hopefully, it will be discovered in future years."

Watchmen. "Watchmen is timely ... its made-up world is like our own in worrisome ways (including the fact that in the world of the show, Robert Redford is president). It's also oddly prescient, in a rather backwards way: while the universe of the show is an alternate one, it hinges on the actual events in Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, which has been in the news of late."

music friday

Continuing the theme of artists I've seen live over the years, with a slight nod towards the events of the week.

We saw Randy Newman in 1976. To put that in perspective, this was five years before Randy got his first Oscar nomination. The video is from later, but the album it comes from was the most recent for Newman when we saw him, Good Old Boys.

Dana Carvey isn't known as a musician, although his "Choppin' Broccoli" will always be a favorite. When we saw him, he was opening for ... I think Mink DeVille, although I could be wrong about that. He was maybe 22 years old, known in the Bay Area but almost ten years from Saturday Night Live. He didn't go over too well that night ... hard to be an opening act anyway, much less a stand-up comedian when the crowd came to hear music. My wife wrote him a note on a napkin to let him know at least one person appreciated him. Fast forward to 1996, long after SNL made him a star and Wayne's World solidified his stature, when Carvey was given a weekly show on ABC, which featured an enormous array of soon-to-be-famous talents like Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and Robert Smigel. The show was canceled after seven episodes, with one episode not even shown. It was considered controversial at the time. Here is the first skit from the first episode:

We saw the Tom Robinson Band in a club in 1979. I was such a fanboy for guitarist Danny Kustow that I brought a sign gushing over him ... I got to go backstage after the show, where the band signed it.

I also saw the Dead Kennedys in 1979, opening for The Clash, a performance that was noteworthy for Jello Biafra jumping into the crowd and emerging with most of his clothes torn off.

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":

once more with feeling

I have an entire category on this blog devoted to musicals. Including this post, I've only written about 20 musicals ... 20 in more than 18 years. It's been more than 10 months since the last one (Swing Time). It makes me wonder why I have a musical category (I think someone requested it).

It's not that I don't like musicals. I placed three of them in my Facebook Fave Fifty list some years ago, with a few others that could be called musicals if we're speaking broadly. But the most recent of those three musicals was 1972. And I haven't watched more than a handful of 21st-century musicals. I watch concert movies, but I'm not sure those count. In my wannabe hippie days in the early 70s, I watched lots of 30s musicals ... was a bit obsessed by them, to be honest. But nowadays? Nope.

But I did watch a musical on November 6, 2001. Liked it a lot. Have watched it since, even going to a theater for an audience-participation midnight showing. You might not call it a musical, but I do. It was an episode from Season 6 of Buffy called "Once More with Feeling".

If you have Hulu, you can watch the episode there. In the meantime, here's the soundtrack, courtesy of Spotify:

the fourth karen sisco award

This is kind of embarrassing.

In 2010, I invented something called ... well, let me just cut-and-paste from the standard opening I've always used:

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Last month, I gave the Sixth Karen Sisco Award to High Fidelity, which had just been cancelled after one season.

The problem is, it was actually the seventh Sisco Award.

You see, in 2014, I gave the award to The Bridge, which I said made it the fifth recipient. Check out the post, it's called "The Fifth Annual Karen Sisco Award".

Except it was only the fourth winner, which would have been obvious if I'd read my own post.

Two years later, I gave the award to Agent Carter, which was the real fifth recipient. Except somewhere along the way I'd forgotten all about The Bridge, so I said Agent Carter was the fourth winner.

In 2017, I gave the award to Sweet/Vicious, which was the actual sixth recipient. What was that post called? You guessed it, "The Fifth Karen Sisco Award: Sweet/Vicious".

So, to recap, here are the various Karen Sisco Award winners, correctly listed for a change:

1. Terriers (2010)
2. Lights Out (2011)
3. Luck (2012)
4. The Bridge (2014)
5. Agent Carter (2016)
6. Sweet/Vicious (2017)
7. High Fidelity (2020)

Part of me thinks this makes The Bridge the ultimate Karen Sisco show ... forgetting about it is as Sisco as it gets.

I'd like to be able to suggest you go out and stream The Bridge, but it isn't currently on any of the platforms (you can buy it on disc). Of course it's not available ... if I can't even remember it existed, I can't very well complain about its inaccessibility. Sweet/Vicious is also only available on disc.

Of the others, Hulu has Terriers and High Fidelity, Lights Out is on Amazon Prime, Luck was on HBO so you can find it on one of their outlets, and Agent Carter is hanging out on Disney+. Enjoy your binge watching.

i may destroy you

I've been trying to come to terms with Michaela Coel's astonishing series I May Destroy You, and I've realized I may never get there. Coel turned something from her own life (she was sexually assaulted) into a work of art that is unflinching. I May Destroy You is hard to watch ... Coel is not afraid to show humans at their worst as well as their best, and at times I feared for the future of the human race. But the discomfort you feel when watching the show reflects the very real trauma that Coel, and her fictional character, an author with writer's block named Arabella, have suffered. If we weren't uncomfortable, Coel would have failed.

Arabella's actions over the course of the season are often hard to explain, hard to accept. But, as with the show as a whole, Coel isn't just trying to get the audience to understand what she went through. More to the point, she is working her way through the experience, and yes, she hopes we understand, but she doesn't tailor her writing to please the audience. And there isn't going to be a direct line through which Arabella resolves her feelings, no matter that viewers might prefer that to be the case. She inches towards the finish, two steps forward one step back, and as she struggles, we struggle as well. But since she is willing to show Arabella as not just nice, we are angry with her as often as we are sympathetic. At times, we are angry and sympathetic at the same time.

I was hoping for some resolution at the end ... I don't think I was alone. Coel doesn't exactly resolve anything, but the final episode perfectly establishes why resolution isn't necessarily what Arabella (and thus the show) needs. Arabella goes through a series of what-if scenarios involving her attacker, and I admit, I got vicarious excitement from the scenario where she beat the man to a bloody pulp. But what matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella. Coel doesn't give us a by-the-numbers autobiography ... she goes deeper, showing us her emotional journey without needing to exactly match events in her life.

Coel is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as Arabella's best friends. Both characters are as finely drawn as is Arabella, equally balanced between good and not-so-good behavior. Life is complicated in I May Destroy You, as are the characters.

I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten to the bottom of my feelings about the show. But it will be hard to forget it.