A Collection of My Outside Work

I have had the luck to share my writing on other film sites I admire over the years. It’s always a pleasure to be invited to collaborate. The following is a list of essays I’ve written. Thank you for reading and enjoy!

wingsofdesire

From Pinnland Empire 

Misunderstood Masterpiece: Return to Oz

Misunderstood Masterpiece: Marie Antoinette

Two by Wim Wenders: Pina and Wings of Desire 

Introduction to The Cinema of Todd Solondz

A Movie for Christmas: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

A Movie for Christmas: Go

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From Cut Print Film

The Leftovers: Season One

The Leftovers: Season Two, Episode One ‘Axis Mundi’

Sunshine Superman

Lucky Stiff

Set Fire to the Stars

Unfreedom

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From The Pink Smoke

Five From the Fire

A Tribute to Jonathan Demme: Rachel Getting Married

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From Wrong Reel


DiG! podcast

The Cinema of Paul Verhoeven

The Leftovers: Season 3 Recap & Review

 

From Geekin.NYC

Westworld: Season 1 Recap

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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is basically the equivalent to what fanboys get all hyped up about with Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Star Trek, et al. This is a film for lovers of the 24 year old new-classic British television series and it delivers in spades of hilarity. Unlike crabby, never-satisfied fanboys, I have been a huge fan of this show since I was 14 and this adaptation did not ‘ruin my childhood’. The film is a loving callback to past storylines and propels our oddly-endearing, ridiculous fashion disaster duo on an adventure seeking the glamorous life.

The film has not changed the sheer heights of bad behavior and cluelessness which Edina Monsoon, PR guru(Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone(Joanna Lumley), best friend forever to Eddy, exhibit. No one falls out of a car or runs into a wall as well as this couple of expert comedy actresses. If the film had been only Pats and Eddy snorting coke, taking pills, drinking booze and smoking excessively, I would have been more than satisfied. Lucky there is a delightful scene just like I described, with some deep philosophical pot-talk, all while the pair are wearing onesie pajamas. Nearly every scene had me smiling from ear to ear because of how well the main actresses inhabit their characters, as well as the massive amount of callbacks.

Almost every character who was on the tv show is in the film; it’s a bonanza of cameos. Both character actors and celebrities alike pop up constantly, giving the film a touch of nostalgia and a nice tribute to past stories. One brief standout character actor moment that banged home the intense satire of this project was that of Mo Gaffney’s daffy, beyond belief Bo. Bo is the current wife of Eddy’s ex-husband and always has grandly ludicrous ideas about her life. Bo is now sporting an afro, wearing large elephant jewelry and professes that she is Black, that we are all from Africa anthropologically, despite being a hyper-white woman. A perfect jab at Rachel Dolezal, the peculiar, massively-misguided White woman who lied about being Black to gain a top spot in the NAACP. When a person acts like an ass in public, Ab Fab will make a tasty joke out of their idiocy.

Allusions to the television program may lead this film to be less resonant for newcomers than for the initiated. Subtle call backs include Eddy’s home being overtly decadent, but decorated with a massive Che Guevara print to show her supposed political liberalism. Bubble(Jane Horracks) the assistant is still as goofy and into carnival-esque costumes as before. Eddy continues to use people as fashion accessories, like her granddaughter Lola(Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) taking the place of Eddy’s conservative frumpy daughter Saffy(Julia Sawalha). Saffy does get one point of understanding from an unlikely crowd, yet continues to act as the mother-figure to her childish mother.  Patsy has one of the funniest callbacks, to a time of her life in the 1970s, which propels a major plot point to my great delight.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie serves to give the loyal audience and the beloved characters space for a romp we’ve been wanting for years. Patsy and Eddy are frivolous, fashion-obsessed, money-seeking women who are not overtly likeable yet are given endearing qualities to balance out their superficiality. There are a few points of reflection on their lifestyle and the fact that they are ‘women of a certain age’ who do not want to stop the party, as society tells older women to do. In all, this film is a love letter to strong female friendships, though dysfunctional, which are not present enough in general media. Patsy and Eddy are wackos whose lifelong friendship has made their lives more audacious than if they had settled down. Raise a glass of  Bolly to the women of Ab Fab, have a little nibble, put on your Pop-Specs; you’re in for a treat.

Wagner’s Dream

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Originally published in 2013

Wagner’s Dream (2012) directed by Susan Froemke documents the most recent production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Metropolitan Opera.  If one has even a passing familiarity to opera, the idea that a new staging of the Ring Cycle would be bombastic is obvious, but this film illustrates how much more grandiose this version is.  To be plain, this production could have been the equivalent disaster that the Broadway play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became.  How could an opera that is over 140 years old be a potential debacle? The documentary illustrates this fact clearly, to the extent that an opera novice will be excited and entertained by the production’s trials and triumphs.

The ambition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle cannot be understated, both historically and for present performances.  The composer never realized his complete vision for this massive piece; he passed away having only produced it once.  Any production changes, which Wagner hinted at making, have to be imagined by subsequent companies.  The Metropolitan Opera’s idea to bring Wagner’s dream vision to light was to contract French-Canadian stage producer Robert Lepage to oversee the massive undertaking. Lepage and his team aimed to build one set that would be used for the entire 16 hour Ring Cycle; a 90,000 lb. computerized and manually operated set dubbed “The Machine”.

What unfolds through the course of Wagner’s Dream are the trials that the Met encounters using “The Machine”, along with regular theatrical problems, like losing a conductor during the run and bringing in a new Siegfried a few weeks before opening.  It is fascinating watching the stage crew deal with the unruly, gargantuan set and the frustrations this puts upon the rest of the company.  The opera house had to be reinforced or the set may have collapsed the floor.  The singers, though accustomed to expressive acting in Wagnerian operas, are highly challenged by the set and have understandable arguments against even stepping foot on it.  At one point a Rheinmaiden is nearly crushed when the set moves into position and she is not correctly hidden in a crevice.  Having to navigate such a daunting set, as well as having to perform in one of the most difficult operas ever written, illustrates how utterly amazing the company is as a whole.

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The documentary is more an ode to theatrical innovation and efficient teamwork, than a tale about the Ring Cycle.  Audience members are interviewed throughout the film about their impressions of the newly imagined pieces. The reactions range from the upset traditionalist to the young “hip” opera-goer who doesn’t mind the deviation in set design.  Wagner’s Dream is swift in its treatment of the operas; the labyrinthine story is quickly explained with a few sentences.  The real action of this film derives from the overhanging audacious artistic vision of Wagner, Mr. Lepage and his team’s engineering feats and the enthusiasm of the crew and cast.  The sheer joy, energy and expertise which the Metropolitan Opera Company exudes, fills this documentary with a universal quality.  Opera is an unfamiliar art form for many; the backstage view presented helps to normalize and bring down to human scale the audacious task they hope to accomplish.

Author’s Note: I had the good fortune to procure one of the few remaining tickets for the May 11, 2013 performance of Gotterdammerung; the final performance of the entire production.  The words epic, entrancing spectacle do not even get close to describing how amazing this opera was.  “The Machine” is terrifying; it creaks and swings about wildly(there was even a short techincal stoppage during the first intermission due to it malfunctioning). The orchestra kicks complete ass; 6 harps! SIX!!  I spent Act 3 sobbing because it was so mind-blowingly beautiful.  Due to this being the very last performance, the stage crew took a bow.  “The Machine” lifted up and 50 or more stagehands emerged and started waving at the audience. They got the largest ovation of the day and damn, did they deserve it. I cried and cheered along with everyone else.  An amazing life experience; transcendent.

 

Old (Film) School: Androids: Death Watch, Blade Runner, & Alien: Resurrection

Originally written on April 26, 2001

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The technology of modern sci-fi films incorporates the need in humans to become more perfect. Androids and robots represent the perfect strength and dexterity that humans wish to gain. The artifice of the android also reveals the fear in humans of making a technology that is better than we could ever be.  Modern sci-fi films illustrate through artifice the weakness of humans and the superiority of the machine.

In the film Death Watch(1980), Roddy is a man who is equipped with cameras in his eyes so he can film anything he watches. Roddy is not technically an android but does possess machine parts that make him more powerful. Roddy’s camera eyes give him the advantage over unenhanced artists because he simply looks and shoots. Roddy is not encumbered by bulky cameras or equipment and is therefore superior to other humans in this respect.

The downside of Roddy’s camera is that it makes him less human. Roddy cannot be in darkness or his camera eyes will fail. To make sure his eyes don’t fail, Roddy takes a lot of amphetamines and learns to sleep with his eyes open. The inability to sleep properly makes Roddy vulnerable. Consequently, Roddy’s camera eyes become a liability as they finally render him blind. Roddy finds that technology can make a better human, but only up to a point. He realizes that spectacular technology does not guarantee human betterment, but instead human misery.

The replicants in Blade Runner(1982) represent both the fear and hope that humans hold about technology. All of the Nexus 6 models encompass incredible strength and intelligence. Their only downfall is their “accelerated decrepitude”. Other than the short life span, the replicants are built better and function better than human beings. This fact causes humans to fear them unless they are in the service of humans.

Roy Baty is the Ubermensch of the group of replicants. He embodies all the wondrous qualities of the artificial. Roy is incredibly strong, he is witty and clever, and he has the capacity to feel real emotions. Of all the characters in Blade Runner, Roy is the most human while obviously not being human. Roy feels deeply about the plight of his replicant friends and wants to help them live longer. When he realizes that is not going to happen, he kills Tyrell in a fit of passionate rage. Tyrell is obstensively Roy’s father and realizing that one’s own father cannot help is a huge blow to Roy. Though Roy’s killing of Tyrell is brutal, this act shows that he understands the finality of his situation and those of his friends.

Roy also has the capacity for forgiveness, which is a very human virtue. When he battles Deckard in the hotel he is ruthless up to a point. Yet Roy finally saves Deckard by pulling him up to the roof. The act of saving Deckard gives Roy a humanity that is lacking in the humans around him. The humans want only to kill the replicants who escaped to Earth, yet Roy saves a human anyway. It is heartening to see that a replicant can be compassionate as well as vicious.

The replicants are actually just like humans, except for the fact that they are stronger, smarter and live for less time. This is what scares humans about replicants; that they have the capacity to become so much like us, yet not at all like us. The superiority of technology over biology is probably why humans don’t want replicants on Earth. The replicants are a constant reminder that technology created by humans can produce advanced forms of artificial life but cannot be applied to humans. Humans want all of the special attributes that replicants possess, but they do not want to be artificial. It seems as if humans created a superior breed and then started to resent it. Through the replicants humans finally understood the fragility of biological life and this upset them greatly.

The android Call from Alien: Resurrection(1997) is an interesting example of technology. Call is very unassuming and does not reveal her true self until very far into the film. Call is supposedly programmed to care about people and to help them defeat the dreaded aliens. Ripley is amused by this fact because it seems as if the only one who cares about preserving life on Earth is a robot. All of the other people just care about saving themselves and getting off the ship, with fairly little concern about the aliens invading Earth. Even Ripley, who knows how horrible the aliens are, is somewhat sympathetic towards them.

Call is crushed when her companions find out she is a robot. Many of them make disparaging comments about her; one even calls her a toaster. Even in the far progressed future, robots are a novelty to humans. They are seen as freaks and are treated as such. This is why Call hid her real identity; hoping to be judged by her own merits, not by the fact that she was a robot. Yet in the end, Call reluctantly gave into her nature and used her wiring to save everyone.

The human experience is one of possessing a natural body and living in an artificial world. The androids and robots in sci-fi films represent this idea. We live in a world bombarded with technology and media. There is no place to hide from the mechanization of life. The humans best efforts to combat technology and to return to nature are futile, as this world is one of artifice. There is a constant philosophical question in the human mind as to what is real and what is produced. Androids are a proxy to understanding this question.

Technology is a perplexing issue for humans in sci-fi as well as in real life. In the book Screening Space author Vivian Sobchack observes that, “Immersed in media experience, conscious of mediated experience, we no longer experience any realm of human existence as unmediated, immediate “natural”.” (Sobchack, 237). This idea is applied very well to sci-fi films. In Blade Runner it is incredibly hard to differentiate between the human and the artificial. The technology produced in replicants is so human-like that a precise machine must be used to tell a human from a replicant. This is the human fear of technology; that we no longer have the ability to determine what is natural because there is no longer anything natural left in the world.

Sci-fi films represent technology as both beneficial and detrimental. Androids are extraordinary because they were made from humans to be so perfect. Their strength and perfection is a credit to our knowledge of science and its application. Androids also frighten people because they are so perfect that humans know they cannot live up to that level of engineered perfection. In essence, humans are afraid of anything that is different from themselves, of the Other. Humans attack difference due to a mixture of jealousy and ignorance. The ingrained human instinct to destroy Otherness is why humans are fearful of androids and artificial life in its varying forms.

 Works Cited

Sobchack, Vivian. (1987). Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

 

 

Quick Take: In the Turn

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In the north of Canada lives a little girl named Crystal who loves playing sports, as most children do. Despite Crystal’s enthusiasm for athletics, she is denied a place to play, simply due to biology and her school’s antiquatedly rigid definition of gender. In the Turn, directed by Erica Tremblay, is a documentary which marks Crystal’s challenging journey growing up as a transgendered girl, along with the heartening stories of a league of transgendered people who find community, acceptance and the chance to kick-ass through the sport of roller derby. The athletes profiled offer contrasting perspectives on how queer people live out their lives in a world dominated by cisgendered culture. The results are often grim, as in the case of Crystal’s struggles being accepted by her peers and how this affects her youthful worldview grievously. In whole, the emboldened spirit and optimism of the roller derby players and their encouragement of Crystal’s desire to compete are truly joyful. The humour and happiness of the transgendered athletes makes In the Turn a welcome confident picture that life can be normal for all, even when the stakes are stacked so high against a person at life’s outset. As one roller derby player remarks, “There’s a boring, boring life at the end of the rainbow.” This heartwarming documentary makes one believe this will be the future for Crystal and other kids like her; one of acceptance, compassion, love and of course, combative, adrenaline-inducing sports.

Quick Take: Actress

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Brandy Burre was a featured player on seasons Three and Four of The Wire, as political consultant Theresa D’Agostino, navigating the combative landscape of Baltimore’s bureaucracy. Years later Brandy remains an artist who similarly maneuvers herself through the difficulties of raising children, finding fulfillment in romance and continuing her career as an actress. Actress (2014), directed by Robert Greene, is a documentary which explores Brandy’s life negotiating differing social worlds with a hallucinatory gaze.  Arresting images of the actress and her surroundings invite the audience inside the world of an artist; the shifting haze of reality they mediate to share their gifts with us, as well as finding a balance towards personal contentment.

Captain EO

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In early March I took a lovely vacation to Florida to visit my parents and Disney World. I had a great time with Mom and Dad, exploring wildlife(manatees are sweet creatures) and touring such oddities as Ca’ d’Zan, the former mansion of the circus promoter John Ringling. The Alfonso Cuaron version of Great Expectations was filmed in part in that mansion, before it was restored by historical preservationists. The decrepitude of the long-forgotten mansion enhanced the shabbiness of the art direction of that film. The most peculiar and exciting film-related objet d’art I saw during my vacation has got to be the attraction Captain EO, at EPCOT Center in Disney World.

If you have never been to Disney World, you may not be aware that in 1986 Michael Jackson teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to create a short film attraction at EPCOT. Yes, you read that correctly; I am not making this up.  I remember seeing the film as a young girl and liking it. I did not realize until this trip that it was made by those masters of film. Can one imagine a hot director like Steve McQueen directing a short film with Beyonce for an amusement park nowadays? No, but back in the ’80s times were different and boy am I happy this merry trio made such a weird and wonderful production.

If you look closely at the picture of the poster, which I took, you will notice something very strange. The poster is housed within a regular old case and is damaged. The left-hand side is slightly ripped; this is decidedly un-Disney. Disney prides itself on creating magic within it’s parks. No details too small are overlooked; everything is pristine and as near to perfect as one can get. Unless one is at the Captain EO theater; then it’s like, ‘go see this movie or whatever, we don’t care.’ It’s abundantly clear that Disney was reluctant to bring back this film and did it only to placate Michael Jackson fans, after he passed. This is the ONLY place at Disney World in which you cannot buy a souvenir of the attraction. Gift shops abound at Disney World, but nary a small Captain EO t-shirt could be purchased to commemorate this film curiosity. Trust me, I tried to find anything; my husband and I viewed the film twice, but no luck with merch.

Instead of assessing this film with regular criteria, as it is a unique experience, I will give my notes on this film stuck in time. You enter the Captain EO theater and grab a pair of 3D glasses. Then all of the viewers stand in a pre-staging area to view the original ‘behind-the-scenes’ film on the making of Captain EO. I recall as a kid this area being very crowded. In 2015, it was a sparsely attended group consisting of Michael Jackson fans, Gen X-ers(me), parents with tuckered-out kids and random tourists who wanted to avoid the harsh sun. You then watch the production video highlighting the, at-the-time, advanced 3D camera used, the art designers and rehearsals with Solid Gold-style dancers. When the video ends, you are ushered into another theater with seats and the film starts.

The theater itself also shows the lack of care which Disney put into this returning attraction. In its original form, the theater was enhanced with plastic whip-like objects which would touch your legs and air jets which would blow back your hair at specific parts of the film. Additionally, there were lights within the theater walls that would flash, if a laser blast was on screen. In 2015, most of these elements are gone, simply taped over with duct tape. Finding two chairs together with fully functioning features was not easy. The only thing Disney took care of in terms of this attraction, was the film. To my eye and with my 3D glasses (some of them are warped; select wisely) the original 70mm print looks pristine.  At least they archived the actual film in the correct way; I’ll give Disney a pat on the back for that.

I will try not to spoil this child-like, sci-fi, music video bonanza for those who plan to visit EPCOT soon(I don’t see this film remaining much longer); I will highlight the memorable parts. After you put on your 3D glasses, the film starts with Michael Jackson starring as Captain EO, who is in charge of a rag-tag group of goofy space creatures on an important mission. Think pre-Jar Jar Binks-type characters and corny banter with Captain EO about doing a good job and believing in themselves. Little kids eat this stuff up, plus the 3D effects, so forgive the first few minutes of the film; it’s for the children. Then, inevitably, Captain EO’s crew crashes on an un-friendly planet and has to face their punishment for trespassing. This section was were the film greatly improved. The crew’s encounter with the Supreme Leader of this planet could be seen by children as ultra-terrifying. Think of a much scarier version of the Borg Queen; a villainous creature who is suspended in the air, made of tubes, with talon-like nails.  She sentences Captain EO and his crew is various awful punishments and then the magic starts.

Captain EO offers the hideous leader a gift before he and his crew serve out their sentences; a gift to unlock her inner beauty. This is when Captain EO becomes a straight-out Michael Jackson music video. His crew transforms into a band and he sings an original song ‘We Are Here to Change the World’ and it is glorious. It’s Michael Jackson at his best, at his peak; entrancing and really, really cool. I absolutely had one glove as a child and totally watched his videos all night when he died. I can’t deny that I was delighted by this film. He shots brutish robots with lasers and they become athletic back-up dancers; that was fun for my young self and remains so today. The film ends with a segue into ‘Another Part of Me‘, which was on the album ‘Bad’. Yes, a Disney attraction features a song off of one of the most popular albums of all time; that’s wild then and still is in the present. The finale of the film has the Supreme Leader transforming into a beautiful woman in colorful flowing garments, who just happens to be Anjelica Huston, waving to Captain EO and his crew. He has delivered on his gift of beauty and dances off the screen, to new adventures. The lights in the theater come back up and the Disney theater usher welcomes the audience back to 2015. Michael Jackson may be gone and Disney may not want to seriously invest in the upkeep of such a retro attraction, yet the peculiar enchantment of Captain EO prevails.