The Lure (2015)

It opens with two men and a woman, drinking and having fun on a dark, murky beach. Two young mermaids, a strawberry blonde and brunette, appear at the surface. They serenade the men, casting a seductive spell, and are invited to come ashore. The woman lets out a piercing scream. The screen fades to a sublime sea-green as the disco beat of “I Feel Love” throbs in the background. My friend leaned over and whispered to me, “You love this movie already.”

And I did. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure has everything I could possibly want in a film: mermaids, singing, murder, tragic romance. It is a singular vision and wholly unique experience; you have never seen a movie like this.

The duo, two sisters named Golden and Silver, become part of a Polish family and join a nightclub band, transforming from two-legged bipeds into mermaids, onstage, to an enthralled audience. The songs are hypnotically staged, with pulsating electric lights pacing the stage as the mermaids gently sway in an oversized champagne glass, or rocking out and driving an audience into a frenzy.

The Lure is more than the no-holds-barred pleasure party depicted in its trailer, however. Golden and Silver come to face struggle and even heartbreak as they adjust to life on the land. The neon vibrancy of the club is a powerful contrast to the bleakness of their quiet ballads. Golden immediately finds love, but learns that winning the man in her life comes with sacrifice. Silver is left lonely, and fears her longtime bond with her sister is in jeopardy by Golden’s newfound romance.

Here is where the true gravitas of The Lure comes to the surface. Without feeling open-ended and vague, there are several nuggets to contextualize Silver and Golden’s story, and broaden the universe we find ourselves in. While a somewhat minor character, a former merman Triton, who has cut off his tail and lost his horns, is the only such creature we encounter, and as a horned being, is leagues away from the King Triton-esque image we have of these creatures.

The uncertain background of the mermaids is also alluded to when the duo first gets to the club. The owner asks how they learned such good Polish, and they respond that they learned it at the ports in Bulgaria. We have no other hints of where they are from, how old they are, though they mention that they eventually want to swim to America. The idea of these vagrant, potentially ancient, beings coming ashore and wreaking havoc makes The Lure all the more chilling and deliciously sinister.

While not for everyone, packing a fair share of gore, disco, and nudity, The Lure is a delightful treat if you can open your heart to an otherworldly dark fairy tale. I would gladly once again give in to its seductive siren song.

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Work, Work: Repetition and Circular Songwriting in “Hamilton”

Look at where you are. Look at where you started.

Most songs, whether on the radio, on stage, on film, follow the basic “Verse-Chorus” structure. If the Chorus is the “thesis,” or point of the piece, the Verse is the “body paragraph,” providing specifics, examples, additional color to flesh out the key message of the Chorus.

The music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton shatters this convention. Its score can be described as less like a traditional book musical, and more like an opera, set to a hip-hop, R&B, and pop score. A few numbers fit within traditional song templates (there are nearly 50 songs), while the bulk of it is more on the operatic side, with musical moments and ideas presented, then swirling to another phrase, then back again.

Hamilton is almost the anti-musical, presenting what I consider “circular” songs: presenting one single instance, frozen in time and/or inviting us in media res, flooding us with context, then snapping back to the present. They have elements of the traditional “Verse-Chorus” template, but have a unique structure all to their own.

One example of this is the terrific introduction to The Schuyler Sisters. Three high-class ladies hit the New York scene, introducing themselves by name: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters.” Led by Angelica, the trio rebuffs men’s romantic advances for more intellectual pursuits: discussing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, politics, and gender equality. They all agree that “History is happening in Manhattan, and [they] just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.” The song expands, as a hearty ensemble joins them for another chorus before we lock back into the opening refrain: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters!”

Not only is this song immensely entertaining, but it leaves a considerable impression for essentially starting and ending at the same place – the opening “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy” introduction, rather than the song’s chorus. In the narrative proper for this show (excluding the opening number), literally the first words out of each sister’s mouth is her name – seemingly the basest level of introduction. The song turns out to be anything but, as we learn more about the different personalities, attitudes, and minds of these modern, well-rounded women. The reaffirmation at the song’s conclusion, their re-introduction, nails this home. They’re at the same place they were when the song started, but we’re not – three minutes later, we’ve been remarkably introduced to the Schuyler Sisters.

This songwriting in media res is even more profound for Angelica’s lead song Satisfied. She toasts the marriage of Eliza to Alexander Hamilton: “A toast to the groom, to the bride, from your sister who is always by your side. To your union and the hope that you provide, may you always be satisfied.” The number then literally “rewinds,” back to when Angelica first met Hamilton. She reflects (via rap) how quickly she judged him before passing him off to the instantly-smitten Eliza, regretting her choice now that the former has fallen for him herself. At the same time, however, she reminds herself that as the oldest sister, she has a responsibility to marry rich and look out for her sisters’ happiness. To have taken Hamilton for herself would have broken both 18th century codes.

The liquid piano line glides us back into the present, as she repeats her toast from the beginning – but now weighed down by the understanding and acceptance of her choice. Her tongue-twisting rap and rapid turn of phrase illustrates how quickly her mind works and all the thoughts and fears running through as she realizes, all in one instant, she will never be satisfied.

The traditional approach would have been each song concluding with the main Chorus, but instead, the songs wrap around back to their introductory phrases. The Schuyler Sisters and Satisfied are just two examples of how Hamilton turns the musical on its head, from classical “move-the-story-along” songs, to literally stopping the narrative action, working backwards to contextualize a key moment, then moving forward.

The effect of each song is less from a “message” driven home through a Chorus, and more in the reaffirmation of the opening phrase. To hinge a song on the repeating of a single phrase once, rather than multiple times (as a Chorus would have been), is an admirable exercise in restraint and creates an even greater musical impact. Hamilton is a remarkably rich score with terrific numbers, but these “circular” songs stand out among the best for their uniqueness and memorable power.

Weekly Round-Up: June 05-11, 2016

This week had a few jumbled viewings, as I fell asleep and had to resume no fewer than three films. I watched:

  • Tangerine (2015) – Outrageous, hysterical, and ultimately moving story of friendship between two prostitutes in a sun-bleached vision of Hollywood. Fully fleshed out characters and strong performances anchor what would otherwise be a camp-fest, into a well-grounded window into another world. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) – Special screening at the Hollywood Bowl, with the music performed live by an orchestra with singing by Jodi Benson (the real Ariel), Rebel Wilson (as Ursula), and Darren Criss (Prince Eric), among others. Another highlight was the opening acts, of Brad Kane (the real Aladdin) and Susan Egan (the real Megara). Here’s a post reflecting on my experience. REQUIRED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – I’ve seen this four times now, and each time I uncover something new in this wonderfully rich film. It’s a heavy one thematically, touching on racism, sexism, discrimination, politics – but it balances them all beautifully in a labyrinthine mystery. REQUIRED.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Had a hard time getting through this one. A male outsider comes to a northwest mining town, followed by professional Madame, and they pair up to start a high-class whorehouse. I went into it with enthusiastically (I enjoy the other Altman films I’ve seen), but I cared little-to-nothing about these characters or their slow-moving plotlines. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016) – Spooky paranormal thriller combines standard “jump” moments with some creative scares, all enriched by a quality story and stylized visuals. The Warrens are back and taking ghost-hunting to an international level, traveling to London to help a desperate family rid their house of spirits. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Player (1992) – I’m still brewing about this one. I loved the first half of the film: a studio executive being pursued by a frustrated writer, all while balancing his paranoia with the chaos and cynicism of show business. I fell off during the second half, where it gets into an unnecessary love story, but it all circles around to a twisty ending I appreciated. So, opinion is still TBD…

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?

Tangerine (2015)

Pulp Fiction meets Spring Breakers in the triumph Tangerine, a sun-bleached revenge tale that’s as outrageous as it is touching.

Sin-Dee has just been released from a month-long stint in prison, and is catching up with her best friend Alexandra at the donut shop. Alexandra accidentally slips that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester has been cheating, the catalyst that sets the action in motion.

Sin-Dee stomps away on a ruthless mission to find Chester and/or the girl he’s been cheating with. She scours food stamp lines, hotel-room whorehouses, and taxicabs for any information to solve the mystery. She eventually finds the girl, Dinah, and literally drags her by the neck throughout Los Angeles to confront Chester with her evidence in hand.

Tangerine
Don’t mess with Sin-Dee.

Alexandra, trying to avoid the “drama,” embarks on her own mission, passing out flyers for her performance that night while earning some extra cash at work (prostitution). In one of the film’s more outrageous moments, she and a regular client conduct a transaction in a gas station car-wash – complete with gushing soap, trickling waterfalls, and the hand-dry treatment.

Tangerine is noteworthy largely for its subject matter – the two lead characters are transgender prostitutes, stopping at nothing to get what they want. This movie introduces us to people and places who frankly aren’t in the movies, and opens our eyes to a gritty underworld with passionate, irritable, and incredibly human characters.

In addition to the vibrant persona and world of Tangerine, it’s just plain good filmmaking. It’s an undeniably entertaining revenge story, that’s hilarious, tragic, insightful, and moving – all at once. Set against the backdrop of a heartless Los Angeles, Tangerine is a complex and touching testament to the power of friendship.

Weekly Round-Up: May 08-14, 2016

Two weeks ago, I saw:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Ambitious mega-sequel tying together plot elements from the far reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plus introducing charismatic new characters in Scarlet Witch and The Vision. I had some trouble following what was going on but I overall enjoyed it (though I don’t understand how Iron Man can let his tech run wild so many times!). RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – I enjoyed this film slightly more this second round, though it could certainly use an editing job. At its best, it’s terrifically emotional even though at times it seems to not know where it’s going. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ant-Man (2015) – If this film had come earlier in the MCU I might have liked it more, but I couldn’t take the “buggy” qualities very seriously. Michael Pena is great as Ant-Man’s friend though, who tells outrageous long-winded stories (which surprisingly drive the plot forward). NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Sorry Winter Soldier, but Civil War is the new greatest superhero movie. A key element to this star-studded affair is the showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, but its core theme that actions have consequences is a mature and complex one, heightening the superhero film to new heights. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Palm Springs Weekend (1963) – Silly teeny bopper flick about college kids who go on vacation to Palm Springs, where they drink booze, gamble, get arrested, and even fall in love. I adore these kinds of movies but acknowledge that they’re not for everybody. RECOMMENDED if you like baby boomer kids getting into trouble.
  • Friday the 13th (1980) – One of the dumbest horror movies to generate its own franchise, I admit I had a terrific time seeing this on a big screen, for the very first time, this past Friday the 13th. It was an outdoor screening at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where the audience whistled with each love scene and cheered every time a camp counselor was slashed. NOT RECOMMENDED, but this movie is probably REQUIRED if you’re a horror buff.

What did you see two weeks ago? Did you fall victim to Friday the 13th?

Weekly Round-Up: May 01-07, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Possibly the greatest superhero film ever made, this episode features the First Avenger under pressure from a staggering bureaucracy, as the threat of a mysterious figure looms closer. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Carnival of Souls (1962) – Occasionally spooky mystery/horror about a young woman who apparently survives a car accident, then moves to Utah where she is pursued by, and drawn to, the undead. There were some interesting shots, but this mostly felt like typical “B” movie material to me. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – I love the most recent Pixar film, and got a ton out of the audio commentary by director Peter Sohn and other members of the creative team. Their discussion of how this film, with less dialogue, presented a greater “acting” challenge for the animators was particularly insightful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – This film clicked with me much better this time around, through its likable characters and now-iconic soundtrack. While this is certainly part of the MCU, it feels so accessible since it starts (mostly) from scratch with (mostly) new characters to the saga. RECOMMENDED.
  • Selena (1997) – Well-rounded, terrifically cinematic biopic of the late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. Jennifer Lopez shines in the title role in a deservedly star-making performance. RECOMMENDED.
  • Joy (2015) – This played even worse on home video than it did in the movie theaters. The sum of Joy‘s parts is significantly greater than the whole, which is a soppy convoluted mess. The scenes of Joy Magnano at QVC are still cinema magic, however. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Jungle Book (2016) – The latest Disney live-action film also improved for me upon a second viewing, with a greater appreciation for the adaptation of narrative elements from the animated classic into live-action. I’m still knocked out by the outstanding visual effects. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Revenant (2015) – The worthier winner among the Best Picture nominees, I was reminded how this film is true, challenging, innovative art. Tom Hardy almost steals the show as the monster Fitzgerald, but Leo’s performance acting mostly solo, and pretending to be brutally mauled by a bear, is nothing short of astonishing. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: April 24-30, 2016

This felt like one of my bigger movie weeks in some time – last week, I saw:

  • That Thing You Do! (1996) – Entertaining kaleidoscope of the 1960s music scene, about the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder band. RECOMMENDED.
  • Carol (2015) – This is a tough one; I loved the production of Todd Haynes’s latest melodrama, from the exquisite costumes and perfect period sets to the passionate musical score and sensual camera work, but the story and script had me rolling my eyes. I have a very hard time believing anybody would want to have an affair with the lifeless character portrayed by Rooney Mara. Mostly well made, but ultimately this flick is NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013) – I love the characters and world of Thor, but this sequel didn’t hold up as well as the original. There was plenty going on, it just wasn’t as engaging or interesting as I’d come to expect from the gang. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) – I can’t get enough of these movies, but I can see why an outsider would think that they’re all the same. (They pretty much are, to be fair.) Still, there’s plenty of creepy moments and enrichment of the mythology that I’d nonetheless rate this one RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: March 27 – April 02, 2016

  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Fiercely brilliant political puzzle, following a troubled Korean War vet piece together what happened overseas as a senator’s sensational Communist accusations sweep the presses. Slightly slow at times but an overall masterwork, driven by sophisticated dialogue and genuine suspense. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Another one that’s easy to make fun of, but this chapter in the saga provides a nice glimpse into everyday life of the Republic and passionate music by John Williams (to accompany romantic dialogue of varying quality). RECOMMENDED.
  • Brooklyn (2015) – Steadily soaring in my favorite films of the past decade, this love story continues to wow me with its intelligent dialogue and nostalgic setting. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see three weeks ago?

Weekly Round-Up: April 03-09, 2016

  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005) – Certainly the strongest of the prequel trilogy, this chapter follows the young Anakin Skywalker on his path to becoming Darth Vader. Ian McDiarmid steals the show as Senator/Emperor Palpatine in all his cackling glory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Spectacular sequel, with a terrific cast of new characters and respectful restraint for bringing back familiar faces. One of the finest films of 2015, and maybe just maybe my favorite Star Wars film. REQUIRED.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) – My favorite movie. Got to see this as a Throwback Thursday screening at El Capitan Theatre, with producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise speaking about the film’s production. REQUIRED.
  • The Jungle Book (1967) – Bizarro yet truly inspired Disney film bringing together the dark romance of the jungle with swingin’ jazz music. Like Pinocchio, this features a cast of memorable villains, notably the dry wit of Shere Khan and the subtle predator King Louie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?