I realized a couple years ago that as much as I enjoy watching Christmas themed movies in December, I also enjoy scary movies in October. The advent of Halloween at the end of the month always seems to make me want to watch my favorites. Here is a list of some of the ones I am likely to watch this month.
The Exorcist is my favorite horror movie ever. The idea of evil in a young girl doing battle with a pair of flawed priests is perfectly played. Through the first two acts where the reality of the situation sinks in until the third act battle in the bedroom tension slowly ratchets up. The pyrrhic victory is a classic horror twist from the days of Poe. I’ve watched this movie over a hundred times and when the possessed little girl talks in Father Damien’s deceased mother’s voice the hair rises on my neck, every time.
Fright Night captures the hybrid comedy horror genre which was popular in the 1980’s. The story is of a vampire who moves in next door to a teenager in suburbia. Charley tries to get people to believe a vampire is killing people. He turns to the local host of the late-night horror television show. Through the first half it is all played for laughs. It shifts when the vampire sees Charley’s girlfriend who is a dead ringer for his long-lost love. Things become decidedly tense as Charley and the tv host try to save her.
The Hunger is the most mature vampire movie I’ve seen. This is not the teenage angst of the Twilight vampires. This is the seduction of a sophisticated vampire. Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon turn this 1983 tale into an erotic horror movie. Director Tony Scott marries stunning visuals to it all.
The fist time I saw Rosemary’s Baby as a teenager I realized what a perfect horror movie it is. Told from the perspective of a young woman who has moved to New York City with her new husband. As she interacts with the oddly attentive neighbors, she senses something is not quite right with her pregnancy. This all leads to a final act where a mother’s love overcomes the horror of the situation.
As October ends, I watch the movie which bridges my two movie seasons, The Nightmare Before Christmas. From the delightfully twisted mind of Tim Burton this is a tale of both Halloween and Christmas. Every holiday has its own town. The head of Halloweentown Jack Skellington discovers Christmastown. He decides he wants to take over Christmas this year. After kidnapping Sandy Claws he stamps a spooky spin on Christmas. It is a movie which celebrates the inherent joy of both holidays. A perfect end for October and scene setter for December.
The last year has been an interesting one for rock music. With everyone confined to their home studio and YouTube there was a tendency to turn inward. I enjoy those peeks into a songwriter’s psyche but in the summer, I want something different. I want songs which make me drum on the steering wheel and shout the lyrics into the wind from my open window. The last year has seen us confined to drumming on the sofa and hoping we aren’t singing too loud through our headphones. One of my most reliable purveyors of the kind of big music I want has been Jack Antonoff’s band Bleachers. Their latest “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night” has given me a dose of the good stuff.
I became aware of Mr. Antonoff in 2009 as part of the band fun. Even then they were making music in the style I mentioned. As that band went their separate ways, he formed Bleachers in 2014. There are songs off the previous two albums which are on my permanent summer playlist. I was ready to let this new one add another.
In truth Mr. Antomoff has been releasing the album a song or two at a time since last November. By the time the full album was released at the end of July this year five of the ten tracks had already been released. I still like listening to a whole album letting one track lead into another. So even though I knew half the material placed in order there was some different shading to them.
Mr. Antonoff has become particularly adept at these big songs you can imagine a call and response happening at a concert venue. Here those songs are “How Dare you want More?”, “Stop Making this Hurt”, and “Don’t go Dark”. That was what I expected.
What was new to me was a realization the Mr. Antonoff is as much a Jersey guy as Bruce Springsteen. I am not sure I would have made that connection except that Springsteen himself joins Mr. Antonoff on “Chinatown”. It has echoes of “Born to Run” in the best ways with Springsteen along to provide the vocal version of that. As the song closes with a repeated refrain of “I want to run.” It becomes clear.
Mr. Antonoff is becoming a force in music through his producing of some of the biggest stars. I hope he keeps Bleachers producing music because he has a voice I want to hear every couple of years.
For almost thirty-seven years Alex Trebek was the host of the television game show Jeopardy! If you’ve ever read stories of contestants or heard Mr. Trebek in numerous interviews you heard the same thing. He would tell contestants prior to taping “You are the star of Jeopardy!”. For every show he hosted that was the case. He knew and innately understood this was a show where the intelligence of the contestants was the prime directive. Not placing the spotlight on the host. Which is why this current guest host as auditions is a failure.
Since the beginning of the year there had been a series of guest hosts. They came from all different places. They were able to shepherd the game professionally, but it never felt like any of them understood the contestants were the stars. They were too busy campaigning. There was one big, surprising exception to this.
A couple weeks ago they decided to name the executive producer of the show Mike Richards as permanent host with actress Mayim Bialik as host of special episodes in primetime. Then the children who inhabit the internet had to get to work tearing down those choices. They succeeded in driving Mr. Richards off the show and out of a job entirely. In the meantime there was unseemly campaigning from those the internet wants to have the job. For most of the last month all you’ve heard about in relation to Jeopardy! is nonsense about the host.
Current 18-Day Champion Matt Amodio
What makes all of this particularly annoying is nobody has mentioned the current 18-day champion Matt Amodio. He will be returning when new episodes begin to air. He is the third highest money winner in the history of the game. He plays an aggressive game hunting for Daily Doubles and betting big when he finds them. He is on the kind of streak Mr. Trebek loved to see and applaud. Have you seen a single story about him heading in to the new season? No you haven’t. You have heard every jerk trying to shove their way into the role forgetting who the star of the show is.
I did mention an exception. When ex-player Buzzy Cohen was named as guest host to oversee this years Tournament of Champions I expected more of the same stuff as the other guest hosts. Especially because as a player he was an extroverted look-at-me type. Except when he took his place behind the podium, he remembered who Mr. Trebek told him were the stars of Jeopardy! and he acted like that. He gave each champion their opportunity and space to thrive in the annual tournament of the best. Of every single guest host he was the only one who remembered who is important on Jeopardy!
I don’t know who they’ll eventually pick but I hope someone paints above their dressing room mirror, “You aren’t the star of the show, they are!” Until someone takes that to heart this is going to be a failure.
Just as I hope those who visit Colognoisseur find my opinion to have some value, I have critics who I like a lot. Much of the books, music, movies, and television I partake of comes from when there is a consensus among them. Every once in a while, I walk away baffled at what they are praising. This was my experience with the TV series “The White Lotus”.
The reason I was so interested was HBO had given critics the entire series for them to review. Most of the time they only get a few episodes. Almost uniformly they wrote of this satirical look at class in America. It was created by Mike White who also created one of my favorite series “Enlightened”. That was a sharp commentary on the business world that I enjoyed. I thought this could be similarly illuminating.
The premise is The White Lotus is an exclusive resort in Hawaii. Guests are brought there to have a luxurious vacation experience. The show focuses on a pair of newlyweds. A neurotic woman there to spread her recently deceased mother’s ashes. A family headed by a woman who created her own company accompanied by her family. Their stay is overseen by the manager of the hotel. In the prologue in the first episode you learn somebody dies. The following five episodes reveals who it was.
Here was my dilemma. By episode 5 I was hoping all of them were the body in the box. This was a collection of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. Every single one of them. The only sympathetic character is the woman who runs the spa. Her story ends in tears because one of these selfish rich people didn’t give a damn about this person.
I am not sure what Mr. White was after. After nearly six episodes of these characters throwing emotional shrapnel not caring about the collateral damage. They all walk away without any illumination. Oblivious to the horrible people they are. Even when it seems like a couple of them might learn something the moral becomes “the money/status is too important to give up”.
I get that might be realistic, but I watch television to see a story with an arc. This story starts out with a bunch of assholes and ends with a bunch of assholes except one is in a coffin. I wish I had these six hours back.
There is one passion of mine that I haven’t really written about in this column. I adore spicy food and hot chili peppers. For most of my life I have sought out the hottest most spicy sauces and peppers. In Colognoisseur HQ I take ghost peppers and infuse them into my olive oil. It adds a kick to everything I make using it. My favorite is it turns boring old popcorn into my kind of popcorn without having to sprinkle anything on it. There are shelves of bottles of hot sauce. I use sriracha instead of ketchup. All of this makes me sad to say I didn’t discover the YouTube show Hot Ones until eighteen months ago.
That happened as I had a clip from “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” where he and Priyanka Chopra Jonas sat across from Sean Evans as he had them eat increasingly spicy chicken wings. Their reactions were what you might expect as the wings got to the far end of the heat scale. This made me seek out Mr. Evans’ show.
The premise is like the clip I found. Mr. Evans has a celebrity sit at a table with him as they eat increasingly spicier chicken wings. After each wing he asks a question, and they give a reply. The fun kicks in around wing 6 for most installments. It is there where the heat of the sauce moves into territories most people do not eat.
The difference in reactions run from DJ Khaled having a meltdown in season 1 to the recent season 15 appearance of singer Lorde who barely reacted. What you find in the middle is once the heat level rises the interview subjects have funny reactions to the queries.
Through it all Mr. Evans is a genial enabler convincing them to keep going past their tolerance levels until they reach what is called “The Last Dab”. An off the charts specially made sauce just for the show. There are now over 200 episodes and only a baker’s dozen has failed to make it all the way to the end. That is due in part to Mr. Evans. He is the overlooked secret ingredient in the show’s watchability. He is never mean. His staff finds some great interview questions which are not the typical celebrity Q&A’s. I am not sure if it would be as successful with any other host.
If you need to find a quick bite of video fun, start queuing up episodes of Hot Ones. You’ll keep going long after episode 10.
One of the things I really like about the existence of the streaming services is it can provide a place for unconventional stories. The ability to think outside of the strictures of the usual storytelling tropes. When a series finds glorious purpose in it you get something that looks like “Loki”.
Loki is the third series released on Disney+. Just as the first two series did it follows one of the supporting characters. This seems to be one of the strategies for this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The big characters get their own movies. The others get series on Disney+. This allows for the broader story to be serviced by these series. They can take the time to set up the contours of a future plot. Loki seems to be the series which is meant to do that for a significant portion of what has been announced to be coming.
The story for the series picks up right after what we saw in Avengers: Endgame. Loki steals an infinity stone and escapes his captors. He ends up in the clutches of the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Their job is to “prune” variations to the timeline so that it runs true to its design. Loki is processed through the TVA and is about to be obliterated. That is until Agent Mobius asks him to help him on another case of timeline variation. When the God of Mischief is let loose in the timeline the expected chaos ensues.
Written by Michael Waldron he wanted to do a version of time travel unique to this character. Over the six episodes we are introduced to multiple Loki variants. All of them sharing a penchant for unconventionality. The Loki we know played by Tom Hiddleston spends a lot of time with a female variant called Sylvie played by Sophia di Martino. The relationships between Loki and Agent Mobius played by Owen Wilson and Sylvie form the central triangle to the series.
When it is Agent Mobius and Loki it feels like a riff on the type of movie when a police officer uses a criminal to catch one. Think 48 Hrs. When it is Loki and Sylvie it reminds me of the story of twin dangerous operatives temporarily working together. Think Mr. and Mrs. Smith. For all that I am referring to movies of the past Mr. Waldron and the three actors give their own spin to these plots.
By the time we reach the final episode things are set into motion not only for a Season 2 but also in the wider MCU. So far Marvel Studios is three-for-three in their live-action series. Each has made me happy to spend a few weeks with each of them.
Once we are finally through the pandemic there are going to be a lot of things which will have changed. In the past month I’ve realized one big one for me. I don’t think I’m ever going back to a movie theater. That is because the experience has come to my own living room. Which I have surprisingly found out works great for me.
Prior to all the quarantine lockdown Mrs. C and I went to the movies a couple times a month. We had the rewards cards for both theater chains we patronized. We were the highest level in both. I enjoyed seeing action movies on IMAX and smaller independent films with an audience I could share the emotional journey with. If you asked me in January 2020 if I would consider not returning to a movie theater, I would have thought it unthinkable. Eighteen months later it has become preferable.
The last few weeks have sealed the deal for me. I watched “Black Widow” a Marvel movie I would’ve gone to see on IMAX. On my big flat-screen it was fine. Were there a couple scenes I thought might have been cool on the giant IMAX screen? Sure, but it wasn’t that much different. The upsides were we could watch it whenever we wanted. No waiting for a showtime. We could hit pause for a bathroom break. No sliding back into my seat and asking Mrs. C what I missed. As for popcorn and drinks, I have that down to a science already. I like my home-made versions way better. This is going to be the problem for movie theaters. All they have left to sell to a consumer is the experience on a big screen. I suspect there are others who share similar feelings to me.
I’ve really come to realize this as in the last two months I’ve watched F9, Cruella, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and The Suicide Squad. The summer movie season has arrived in my living room. We would have gone to a theater to see all of these, but we didn’t have to.
I worry that this is going to lead to significant downsizing of movie theaters. My love of movies was born in a dark room with a projector flickering in the back. Does the love for the art form come through for those whom the home experience is their introduction? I hope so. Otherwise there is going to be some other downsizing going on.
It may come to the point where I will have to support my local movie theater or see it close. Honestly, that might be the only thing that gets me in a theater seat.
For the rest of this year my theater of choice is the living room at Colognoisseur HQ.
I do love the readers of this column. You are an endless source of discovery for me. A few weeks back I wrote about how I enjoy the kind of fiction which combines a whodunit in a fantasy setting. A reader wrote to me to tell me about a version of a whodunit set in a steampunk world. I looked it up and soon after downloaded “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djeli Clark. It didn’t disappoint.
This is the first novel featuring Mr. Clark’s characters who work at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in 1912 Cairo. He had written three previous short stories with these characters. A Master of Djinn is the first novel-length adventure. Agent Fatma, who is the narrator, is assigned to the case when a secret brotherhood is killed. The group was dedicated to Al-Jahiz who opened the way to the magical realms. This is a great detective story as Fatma works her way through the case.
As with all stories in this genre there is a memorable cast of supporting characters. One of them is Agent Hadia who is assigned to help on the case. She is the ostensible rookie assigned to the grizzled vet. Her job is to ask the questions the reader has so Fatma can answer them. Too often an author just lets that happen. Mr. Clark broadens Hadia’s story enough that she feels like these books going forward should be called “Fatma and Hadia Casefiles”.
The other part of this is setting the book in Egypt. Most steampunk takes place in more recognizable settings. The better to enjoy the differences of the steam-powered contraptions. Mr. Clark has much more fun putting most readers at the disadvantage of not knowing ancient Cairo very well. He is an historian in his non-fiction life. That shows throughout the book as the Colonialism of the time is a considerable presence.
If you need a fun read over this last part of the summer take yourself to steampunk Cairo.
I have written frequently about how much I enjoyed growing up at the same time rock-and-roll did. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s there was a crazy kind of possibility to everything. Musicians could try to do almost anything. The summer of 1969 was the eye of this particular storm. Most think Woodstock was the defining moment. Thanks to Ahmir Thompson better known as Questlove of The Roots there was another equally impactful moment now having a moment to be seen in the documentary Summer of Soul.
Summer of Soul chronicles the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival in NYC from June to August 1969. Producer Tony Lawrence would oversee six weekly concerts over that time. They would draw over 300,000 people in total to Mt. Morris Park in Harlem every Sunday. The shows were recorded to video, but they were never given the same treatment as the Woodstock footage. These tapes were “lost” until Mr. Thompson “found” them and made this movie. They are a time capsule with a soundtrack of some of the greatest soul music acts of the time. They also show the wider vision of the societal change happening.
It begins with the music. Many of those who are still around are given the opportunity to watch their performance from back then. One of my favorite passages is seeing Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis watching their Fifth Dimension show which was the headliner one of the weeks. They speak about the importance of an act seen as “white” playing on a stage in Harlem. They speak about the background behind their perception of the crowd. Finally the camera lingers on their beaming faces as they watch their younger selves singing on that stage.
Sly and the Family Stone use their performance as a warm-up for their show at Woodstock a week later. The temperamental leader of the band is who he is. Yet once they start playing, they are amazing. Gladys Knight and The Pips, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Mann, and BB King are equally compelling.
One thing the movie does not shy away from is showing the black activism of the time. Rev. Jesse Jackson leading the show on Gospel Week. Preaching to the crowd from the stage weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Nina Simone seemingly grows into her power as an activist on that stage. Hers is one of the most impactful segments. She realizes her voice on a stage as a musician can have impact. The crowd lifts her up with validation.
There is some time given to why it has taken fifty years for this to be seen. It comes down to no movie distributor felt there was an audience. In 2021 there is not only an audience but a message which still retains its relevance. It just means this movie makes this summer a new Summer of Soul.
As I was watching the February 20, 2021 episode of Saturday Night Live I realized I no longer know what’s going on across the music spectrum. It began with the musical guest Bad Bunny. I thought both songs were great and spent some time learning more about it. That’s not that unusual there have been many acts I’ve seen for the first time on SNL. What killed me was a skit in the show.
The set-up is a bunch of guys are playing pool. One of them asks them to play a particular selection on the jukebox. What comes on is this very pop song which the guys all sing along to. This happens as they all say liking the song doesn’t reflect poorly on their manliness. As the skit went on, I had zero idea what the song was. I went to Twitter to find out it was “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo and was the current number one pop song. It was a super catchy song once I knew it existed.
Olivia Rodrigo on SNL May 2021
She would be the musical guest three months later. The first song was her doing “Drivers License”. It was the second song she performed “Good 4 U” which made me pay attention. This wasn’t a song about teenage heartbreak this was a song about teenage rage. She stomped around the stage supplying a perfect pop punk vocal to a backing band all in with her. Suddenly, I was interested in what her forthcoming album “Sour” might sound like.
What I found was a group of songs split between the sadness of breakups interspersed with that pop punk personality I saw. After listening to it a lot this summer I’m admiring of the punky part. I also admire the songwriting across the board. She can alternate her voice between pop princess and angry young girl effortlessly.
Right from the first track “Brutal” the former Disney star confounds expectations. If they thought this would be an album of Drivers License-like pop this song sets them straight. It isn’t until the later stages of things that she gets back behind the piano to sing of heartbreak. None of it feels forced or cynical. It is just the type of musician she wants to be.
That second song from SNL “Good 4 U” is still my favorite on the album. I even have a mash-up with “Misery Business” by Paramore. Where the two songs tell a complete story. Ms. Rodrigo and Hayley Williams have a similar style of singing. That Ms. Rodrigo holds her own shows her potential.
The reason I know less of the popular music is because on Satellite Radio I can narrow cast to my preferred alternative music. What made me incredibly pleased was to hear “Brutal” played on that station. It fit right in. If I were still ignorant, I would have thought she was a new alternative act.
Ms. Rodrigo is a talent I am looking forward to watching grow. If you’ve never heard of her, it is worth making the effort to give her a listen.