Archive for Matthew Modine

Butcher’s Bill

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2020 by dcairns

Let’s never forget that this is the second time a Republican government presided over an epidemic and did nothing, and in fact Trump’s four months of inaction (followed by months of ineptitude) pale beside the Reagan administration’s conscious decision to ignore AIDS for years, as the cases climbed from hundreds to thousands, with an eventual international death toll estimated at forty million.

Hollywood also ignored AIDS, until Jonathan Demme’s PHILADELPHIA, written by Ron Nyswaner, and AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, directed by Roger Spottiswode and adapted by Arnold Schulman from Randy Shilts’ book. Both came out in 1993, the latter produced for TV by HBO (Hey, Beastmaster’s On!), but receiving a limited theatrical release here in the UK.

You can see why Hollywood was afraid: you could probably rewrite Robert Greig’s speech from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to explain why unphotogenic fatal diseases that disproportionately affect a minority group might not appeal to a mass audience. It wouldn’t even be certain that a film on the subject would please a gay audience: PHILADELPHIA took brickbats for being squeamish about gay sex, with only a single, chaste kiss between the central lovers. And I think any praise it receives should be mingled with criticism that it took so long to appear. So you can’t win.

I have to rewatch PHILADELPHIA because I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I must say, the Spottiswode film, which I’ve only just seen, strikes me as its superior. Not in terms of decoupage — Demme had been continually improving for years when he made PHILADELPHIA, and his visual style is elegant and dramatic. But in terms of story.

It’s counter-intuitive that a diffuse, multi-character narrative would be more emotional and compelling than a tight, controlled, personal one, but in fact there’s precedent: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is more frightening than TITANIC. And the sorrow is situated in the correct place, in the plight of a lot of real people rather than in a couple of fictional ones. The victims are not reduced to an exciting backdrop, or pushed offscreen altogether. In a story about something that impacted many, many people, a single protagonist probably can’t stand in for all of them.

The writers and director of ATBPO each have their own Scylla and Charybdis to negotiate, and they managed it with varying degrees of skill. The script has to create an urgency to a story that unfolds over years, in different countries and different strata of society. This it manages: it’s undoubtedly a flaw that one notices obvious bits of compression, where two dramatic bits of news arrive in a single scene. We know this is contrivance and condensing of a more scattered reality. But it works.

They also do a really fun thing, closing a scene with a character being discussed who we haven’t met yet, and somebody saying something that makes us excitedly think, “Oh, this next person’s going to be interesting!” and then of course in the next scene we meet them and they perform a bit of characterful stuff that shows what they’re like. Again, contrived, perhaps, but gracefully contrived and very entertaining.

Spottiswode doesn’t overcome his difficulties as neatly. We’re back to “the tracking shot in KAPO” again — twice in the first sequence, as Matthew Modine stumbles upon the Ebola outbreak, he pushes in on the actor’s horrified face, adding surplus drama to something that’s already dramatic on its own, something that wants to feel like documentary. Later, the flashbacks Modine experiences to this scene are carefully written to add a personal dimension to his professional struggle to get funding for AIDS research, but executed with soapy music and dissolves that make the thing very, well, TV-movie-like. I’m surprised by the ineffectualness of the technique, since Spottiswode is a former editor. Only at the end, when he uses cuts for his flashbacks, does a sense of PTSD immediacy get going, which even overpowers the efforts of Carter Burwell’s score to switch the channel to Hallmark. (I was amazed it was Burwell — I love his stuff, usually.)

There are potentially good ideas — the San Francisco gay community’s Halloween parade turns ominous with shots of men in skeleton/death disguise — a risky image to linger on, but a legitimate notion — but it doesn’t want clunking musical emphasis. It gets it.

The most effective scenes are therefore the dialogue/acting ones. The starry cast — this is like the GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD of disease movies — all get points for committing to do this. You can be sure Richard Gere’s agent cautioned him. Alan Alda gets to play a bastard, building on his excellent work in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and helping set a pattern of typecasting that continues to this day. Modine is his usual sincere, unshowy self — I really like him. Ian McKellan unfortunately can’t do an American accent but he’s always welcome. There are nice bits for Anjelica Huston, Phil Collins (!), Bud Cort and BD Wong.

Several of the less famous names are just as impressive. Jeffrey Nordling is outstanding as Gaetan Dugas, the so-called “patient zero” of AIDS. In a way, the movie is perhaps too scared to deal with this figure in more than a couple of scenes, because he’s that dangerous character, an unsympathetic victim who knowingly infected numerous men — at least according to Shilts’ book. But a new documentary, KILLING PATIENT ZERO, casts him in a very different light. Nordling is so charismatic, I’d have loved to see more of him.

The movie is powerful, informative and compelling enough to survive a closing montage with Elton John singing and WAY too much focus on celebrities. I was ready to overlook quite a bit because of the movie’s courage and lucidity and compassion.

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON stars Pvt. Joker; Capt. Benjamin Frankin “Hawkeye” Pierce; Professor Ernst Lodz; Joëlle, la scripte; Dr. Chuck; Palmer; Buster; Harold Chasen; Leslie Slote; Dixie Dwyer; Tess Trueheart; Morticia Addams; Sephus Purcell; Walter Abundas; Vincent Van Gogh; The Lazy Woman; Captain Ken Narlow; Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr; Clark; Col. Stonehill; Gandalf; Allen Dulles; W.W. Beauchamp; Terry the Toad; Edwina Cutwater; Dr. Henry Wu; and Lee Iacocca.

Wayne, Bane & Michael Caine

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2012 by dcairns

Fiona wasn’t sure she wanted to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. I said I’d go myself, but she forbade me. So we eventually saw it together (and in IMAX) and in fact she liked it best of all three films — mainly for Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman/Selena Kyle, the only reliable source of humour and sexiness. She was  fan of Michelle Pfeiffer’s work in the role, but Hathaway, though less feline, is more woman-shaped, a fact Nolan even accentuates by having her ride a motorcycle in the doggy position.

This one does seem to me to succeed better than the previous two films, and in fact it could be argued that Nolan’s series defies most if not all historical precedent by improving from film to film.

There’s nothing maybe as extraordinary as Heath Ledger’s remarkable Joker — but to my own surprise I enjoyed Tom Hardy’s Bane, with his ridiculous voice (sounding at times, more in phrasing than accent, like James Mason talking into a polystyrene cup). For a man who’s been through so much (spending his life in the world’s worst prison, having his face smashed off), Bane seems to be constantly very, very happy — I’m judging more by his vocal delivery than by his facial expressions, admittedly. He’s quite inspirational in that way. Of course, he does murder almost everybody he meets. I’m reminded of James Coburn’s diagnosis of CIA assassin Godfrey Cambridge in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST — “That’s why you’re so well-balanced: you can get out you’re hostility by actually killing people!”

The film is dotted with favourite actors — Nolan even finds a good use for Matthew Modine, an appealing thesp who seemed to go out of style once his eternal boyishness ceased to match his biological age — and striking faces (stand up, Burn Gorman).

Fiona always maintained that Christian Bale’s Batman voice is that of the dog who can say “sausages” (and “Anthony” and “a jar”) —

It’s nice here to see Bayle given what seems like more talking scenes as Bruce Wayne, who talks like a person and doesn’t require a cheerful northerner to manipulate his jaw muscles.

I did feel a bit sad for Michael Caine, who does too much blubbering in close-up — the kind of big emotion that would play less unpleasantly from a distance. I’ve never had any desire to see Caine blubber (Billy Wilder suggested that strong emotion is best filmed from behind). Incidentally, Alfred the butler in the comics is usually written as a sardonic geezer who masks his devotion to Bruce Wayne with his cutting wit — make him sentimental and the character really loses all depth.

The film is generally better at emotion on the grand, operatic and epic scale rather than the human — which is true of most blockbusters these days, but particularly Nolan’s. Still, it matters than Nolan can deliver the excess required to do this kind of thing well, as attested by the opening aeroplane stunt (featuring a welcome Aidan Gillen) which is gloriously absurd yet put over with po-faced conviction.

Nolan’s shooting and cutting of action has been a talking point throughout this series. There was a cunning plan behind the incoherent cutting of the fights in the first movie — make the audience as confused as Batman’s enemies. The trouble with that idea is that an action movie audience would rather see a stunning action sequence than be plunged into the confusion felt by the third goon from the left just before the caped crusader punches his lights out. The second film was altogether less messy, although by delayed effect it picked up most of the bad reviews for confusing staging (I think only the truck chase really lost me), though I’d agree there was room for improvement.

This time round, we get a chance to see the fights in wide-ish, waist-high shots that actually last more than one punch. Unfortunately, Bale or his stuntman in that heavy outfit can’t really move as fast as we always imagined Batman should be able, so the fights (some set in broad daylight) feel clunky at times. And Batman has a disconcerting way of going in without a plan and getting his ass kicked. The Batman written by Grant Morrison in the comics would never do that, and certainly not twice in a row with the same opponent. It not only makes the character seem dim-witted, and it’s dramatically unsatisfying to see him fail to learn.

But I’m being a touch over-critical — I enjoyed the movie’s sweep, and felt the plot delivered some good surprises that shouldn’t have been possible with such  well-known mythos. Some of this is done by changing character names, and some of it might not have worked if I were more quick-witted, but it felt satisfying to me to find a couple of familiar comic book figures, hiding in plain sight.

“Why so serious?”