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.

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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.

 

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.

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