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.

Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

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My high school yearbook quote in 1997 was from the Pulp song Bar Italia “If we get through this alive, I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” I thought that line was ever-so-clever, as it denotes the drudgery of high school and also because no one knew who Pulp was.  Until reaching college, I was alone in my fandom of Pulp, despite the fact that they are one of the greatest English bands of all time and were wildly popular in Europe when I was a teen.  I randomly found out about them from alternate radio and their music has been a lasting part of my life ever since.  The music has a movie-like grandiosity, with knowing, darkly humourous lyrics which intrigued me as a young woman. I may not have been able to directly relate to the song I Spy, with such lyrics as

“You see you should take me seriously/Very seriously indeed/Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks/Smoking your cigarettes, drinking your brandy,messing up the bed you chose together/And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon and catch us at it in the front room”

yet I sure was excited by the delivery. Such honesty about adult life and the trouble of it all, paired with lush music, was too much to resist.

The documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets(2014), directed by Florian Habicht, is an exploration of how the band Pulp evolved as well as the city they hail from, Sheffield, England. This is not a concert film or even a strict biographical overview, it’s more of a series of portraits of the residents of Sheffield and how the band Pulp fits into the city. There are multiple interviews with Sheffield residents young and old and how they feel about the band. All generations are equally proud of their hometown band, with varying levels of knowledge of their musical output. Some amusing episodes involve an older woman critiquing why Pulp is better than Blur and a young girl hearing Disco 2000 for the first time and meekly stating that it might be good to dance to.

The interviews with Jarvis Cocker and the rest of the band reveal some insights on their relationships and how their sound changed over 20 years. We see the drummer Nick Banks, who coaches his daughter’s soccer team, complete with Pulp-sponsored kits, looking like a fairly normal guy. Keyboard player Candida Doyle speaks of how an early diagnosis of arthritis lead her into music, which helped her to overcome her affliction. The other band members are shown to be equally regular, or Common People, even Cocker to an extent. Jarvis is obviously the most noticeable member of the band and speaks about how celebrity was not much to his liking.  For such a revered and celebrated band, this documentary almost makes them seem like a humble outfit from a small city who just happened to stumble into stardom. A very interesting stylistic choice for both the band and the director; too self-deprecating to admit their own excellence, they downplay their successes and strive to still be of a Sheffield-mindset.

The cinematography displayed in this film is masterful. Not to be unkind, but Sheffield, England is a little rough around the edges. The camera captures the housing schemes, graffiti and fish markets with crisp clarity. Sheffield may not be the most aesthetically pleasing city; the people are the real draw.  The most engaging portion of the film is a vignette in which a diner full of elders sing Help the Aged.  Hearing the lyrics “Help the aged/One time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue” sung with playful gusto by a group of white-haired seniors is delightful and touching.

Pulp is a band which never went with the trends and produced their own unique sound and style, not unlike the city of Sheffield.  The elderly, the young, the outcast all collectively gained understanding and comfort from Pulp’s music. The farewell concert the band plays in Sheffield is interspersed within the daydream scenes of Sheffield, a quant portrait of music and regular life. I wanted more songs and was left with a bit of longing. As Cocker states, being on stage is the closest thing to living in the moment.  “NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.”

A few of my favorite songs:

Sunrise from the album We Love Life

Seductive Barry from the album This is Hardcore

Underwear from the album Different Class

 

Duran Duran: Unstaged by David Lynch

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With the concert film Duran Duran: Unstaged (2011) David Lynch produced a true movie theater experience.  This is not a film to be watched on a tv; this deserves a space which brings people together, as a live concert would. On September 10th, 2014 the film was shown theatrically for one night only and the reception at the Tivoli Theater in Kansas City, where I viewed it, was electric. Never before have I been to a film in which the audience danced, sang along and clapped like it was a live show. I went in as a Lynch fan and left incredibly impressed by Duran Duran’s musical prowess and their legions of devoted fans.

The first thing I noticed which was different from other films was crowd noise pumped into the theater previous to the movie starting. Lynch specifically had the murmur of a live audience playing as people were taking their seats, to set the mood like an actual show would have.  Then the lights went down and the film came up with no previews. The beginning showed Lynch filmed with a swaying camera and him speaking about having many dreams about Duran Duran. Then he said something to the effect of “When I snap my fingers, the concert will start”. He snapped and then the fun began; the stage filled with the members of Duran Duran and the concert started.

The show itself was a very tight set featuring guest artists joining the band(Beth Ditto, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance and Kelis) and Lynch superimposed images over the band and sometimes completely obliterating them, showing the images alone. This sounds like an easy and cheap concept, yet it worked splendidly. The Duran Duran fans were super stoked and literally sang along with every song. I, as a casual Duran Duran listener, was mesmerized by the images, the music and the enthusiastic audience reception. Before the film, I thought it would be a bit of a goof; within one song I was totally convinced that this was a great idea.

The images which Lynch used were sometimes very literal and sometimes completely absurd. During the song ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ illustrations of wolves were flashed on the screen. During ‘Ordinary World’ a stream of blue exhaust cascaded from the side of the screen over the band. This was very simple, very fitting for such a lovely song. During the interstitial pieces when Simon Le Bon would banter with the audience and his band mates, fire was often superimposed over his talking. What the symbolism of fire over Le Bon talking is, I have no idea, but that was not the wackiest image of the film. The high-point of the film was when the band played ‘Come Undone’. If you recall the music video, well, Lynch’s interpretation was leagues away from that. I believe he took the lyrics “Can not forgive from falling apart at the seams” literally. The images which were placed over this song included a charcoal barbecue grill, filled with hot dogs, being methodically hit with a spatula. Also stuffed animal mice and other puppets mouthed the lyrics. Those images surely do lend themselves to the idea of ‘coming undone’ mentally and were unexpected and highly amusing.

I am pleased that I was able to experience this film with a theater full of people. David Lynch and Duran Duran created a unique theater experience; something that will not be replicated ever again. Truthfully, since I am not a Duran Duran super fan, I would have watched a little on DVD and probably would have become disinterested after a few songs. With this special event, I was drawn into the joy of the fans and also the quality picture and sound design.  It was as near to a real concert as one can get (minus the obligatory can’t-handle-their-drugs collapsing fan) plus the added absurdity of Lynch’s vision. A strange and unusual pairing David Lynch and Duran Duran may have seemed, yet it sure did turn out to be a whole lot of fun.

Old (Film) School: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Originally written on February 20, 2003

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Author’s Note: This essay discusses in part Nicholas Ray’s film ‘Johnny Guitar’. I rarely caution against viewing films, yet unless you feel it is completely necessary, skip ‘Johnny Guitar’. Plainly, this is a poorly constructed and acted  film. If you want to watch an excellent Ray film, I implore you to make ‘In a Lonely Place’ a priority. That film is highly disturbing and in my estimation contains Humphrey Borgart’s greatest performance. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown(1988), directed by Pedro Almodovar, introduces a surprising and refreshing take on how women are represented filmically. The film uses the American melodrama Johnny Guitar (1954) as the genesis for the tale of heartbroken Pepa(Carmen Maura). From an American tale of heartbreak and loss emerges a story of female empowerment this is distinctively Almodovar.

Vienna(Joan Crawford) from Johnny Guitar is used to parallel the life of Pepa. Vienna is a strong woman who struggles to gain her financial independence without a man. Pepa used her own talents to further her career, but her lover was at her side for a portion of the time. The fact that Ivan(Fernando Guillen) and Pepa are dubbing Johnny Guitar at the time of their breakup is used to remind Pepa of her sadness and how life cannot always imitate the movies.

In Johnny Guitar, Vienna plays it sly with Johnny(Sterling Hayden), until she finally breaks down. She does not want him to think she was waiting for him, even though she was. Pepa, on the other hand, calls Ivan several times with the desperation of a dying woman. Even though Pepa is much better off(financially, socially, and in relation to gender roles) than Vienna, she acts much more impulsively and erratically due to her broken heart.

The contrast of these two female leads is stunning when viewed in the context of time and history. The character of Vienna exists in the outlaw West, yet owns her own business, is the boss of several men and wears pants. To pull back even further, this film was produced when women did not have many career aspirations, would not have been the boss of men and rarely wore pants. Pepa, conversely, is a successful woman living within the relatively open space of post-Fascist Spain. Pepa’s behavior seems like a throw-back to olden times, especially since she wears a series of dresses, tracks down her lover’s other woman and throws tantrums involving fire and beds.

The way that Vienna and Pepa ultimately deal with their men is divergent from what is expected. Vienna takes back Johnny, after some resistance, despite his unexplained absence. Pepa decides to forsake Ivan, even though she is pregnant with their baby. Conventional wisdom would dictate that since Pepa was so obsessed with Ivan, she would take him back. Yet Almodovar gives Pepa a modern spirit by allowing her the right to her own life.

Pepa’s declaration of independence from Ivan is meant to illustrate that women should not take back dishonest men, even if they love them. One can ponder that Vienna really wanted to be rid of Johnny the second time around, but since this was a film set in the 1840’s and produced in 1954, this was not a viable option. Almodovar allows Pepa the ability to express her violent emotions toward Ivan through such acts as spying, spiking gazpacho and throwing phones. Pepa realizes that reconciliation with Ivan would only jeopardize her happiness and that of the pending child.

One of the probable messages that Almodovar was trying to convey by departing from the Johnny Guitar model, was that women should not stay beholden to toxic men. The majority of  men in Women are less than stellar fellows. Ivan is a womanizer and his son Carlos(Antonio Banderas) appears to be a fledgling one. The Shiite terrorists, the police and even the mention of the “Crossroads Killer” shows that Madrid is not populated by savory men. The telephone repair man and the Mambo Taxi driver are the only benevolent males that are found along the way.

The female characters of Women are not saints by any means, but are made to look more sympathetic than the men. The women’s misery and dissatisfaction is shown as a by-product of their relationships with distrustful men. Pepa is crazed because of how Ivan treated her. Candela(Maria Barranco) is a wreck because of the terrorists and as she says, “Look how the Arab world treated me. I sure didn’t deserve that.” Lucia(Julieta Serrano) is particularly dejected, due to her psychosis, which was partially caused by Ivan. Even Marisa(Rossy de Palma) is more fulfilled sexually by her own mind, than by her stuttering fiance.

The tragedy of women’s lives is a topic that Almodovar embraces with warmth and understanding. Pedro knows that in our secret fantasy worlds we may want Johnny Logan to sweep us away, but this is not a healthy situation. Almodovar gives us what we need, which is a portrait of a woman who can overcome heartache and still prevail in the long run.