Archive for Richard Gere

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.

The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

The Side Effects Of Side Effects

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Today’s post is written by a Shadowplay guest blogger, my partner Fiona Watson. Unavoidably, it contains major, though non-specific, spoilers for Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS, so you should only read if you’ve seen the movie or else don’t intend to.

David had asked me in my (in)capacity as a sufferer of mental illness, (specifically mixed state bipolar disorder) to write something about Side Effects, but it turned into something a bit bigger. The subject of the presentation of mental health issues in film is vast and is probably more suited to a dissertation than a blog piece, so please forgive me for the rather fragmentary, scattershot feel to this piece.

Let’s get something straight first. I like Steven Soderbergh films. I like them very much. I liked his pandemic opus where Gwyneth Paltrow gets the top of her head sawn off. Who wouldn’t? I liked his female mixed martial artist actioner starring Gina Carrano, a woman who can actually do all the amazing things her character’s required to do, including kicking the crap out of then murderizing the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender. Nice. I’m chomping on my specially rhinestone-encrusted bit to see his HBO Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra. But oh, Steven Soderbergh, did your swan song from cinema have to be Side Effects?

I always become infused with excitement and hope when someone makes a film tackling mental illness. It’s a subject close to my malfunctioning brain and heart. I had my first depressive episode in 1994. Since then I’ve had recurrent visits from The Black Dog.  Many years can go by when I’m perfectly fine. Then The Dog rears its ugly head, eyes blazing and seizes me in its slavering jaws, tossing me around like a rag doll. Trust me. I’m well qualified to talk about this subject but I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice.

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And so I turn my expert eye on Side Effects. My excitement is always tempered with concern. Have they got it right? The answer is that for half of this film’s running time, they do get it right, before (SPOILER ALERT) the thing devolves into Basic Instinct with psychiatrists and lesbians and lesbian psychiatrists. Now to be fair, it’s not Steven Soderbergh’s fault he didn’t make the film I wanted to see, a serious study of psychiatric disorder and its treatment in the modern world. What we have instead is a twisty turny thriller. Nothing wrong with that and it delivers very well. Rooney Mara, an utterly fabulous and compelling actress, is great, and her low-key, low affect, unshowy performance is commendable. She nails the deadening, wading through molasses physicality of depression perfectly.

But the big surprise is how good Jude Law is. What is particularly impressive about his psychiatrist character is his ambiguity. Apparently this doesn’t play well with test audiences. ‘Is he good? Is he bad? Is he both? I can’t handle both!’ Catherine Zeta Jones is also very effective as the other psychiatrist. As the whole world must know by now, CZJ has Bipolar II. It’s my belief she never would have revealed her mental health status had it not been on the verge of being leaked to the press. So she made the announcement herself in a pre-emptive strike. In fact she recently gave an interview where she pronounced herself fed up with being the Bipolar Poster Girl du jour, and who can blame her given the circumstances behind it being made public?

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On the whole, I enjoyed the film but left feeling short-changed. The trouble is — major spoiler alert — plot twists reveal that nothing that happens in the film happens due to mental illness, drug side effects, or the pharmaceutical industry. The first half sets us up to think about these issues, but the second half negates them. The Black Dog is a Red Herring. And while the film performs its narrative tricks well, if you do think about the story afterwards, you will probably come to the conclusion that no real person would embark on a criminal conspiracy of the kind seen in this film.

There are very few films (in the English language) that tackle the subject of mental illness head on and with any degree of accuracy. The only film in which I’ve ever seen psychomotor retardation —  where you physically slow down in speech and movement like a clockwork toy winding down — was Mike Figgis’s Mr Jones which I’ll come back to later. Nicole Kidman’s turn as Virginia Wolfe in The Hours was laughable. In reality Wolfe would become so manic she’d dash around the house talking gibberish at high speed, hallucinating talking birds and her dead mother. When she crashed with depression she was basically catatonic and took to her bed for weeks on end. All I could see was an actor moping around in a prosthetic nose. Not good enough. She didn’t even give us the monotone voice that comes with psychomotor retardation. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if there’s a more accurate representation there and it’s the adaptation that’s at fault. The world is crying out for a full and accurate Wolfe biopic, with all the highs and lows laid bare.

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And speaking of ‘real life’ characters, what about the largely negative critical reaction to Keira Knightly’s performance as Sabina Speilrein in A Dangerous Method? The emphasis was solely on The Chin. The Chin was jutting out at a weird angle. The Chin seemed to have a life of its own, wandering about in a carefree fashion. What would The Chin do next? Almost everyone agreed that Keira and The Chin were over the top. What those journalists didn’t know was that Spielrein’s behaviour was one hundred times more weird and unpredictable than the few hysterical tics Cronenberg had decided upon. Maybe sometimes it’s necessary to edit the truth.

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One recent film that gives us the highs but edits the lows of bipolar disorder is Silver Linings Playbook. It’s great on mania but it barely touches on depression. I put it to you that the reason for this is that no audience wants to pay to see Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence sobbing inconsolably and so lacking in energy they can barely lift a fork. And if there was an audience that would, it would be quite select. It might be more palatable if Bradley Cooper took his shirt off (more than he does already), ditto Jennifer Lawrence. In fact you could probably model an entire franchise out of Jennifer Lawrence crying and having difficulty eating her dinner if she was bereft of outer wear. But I digress. Watching someone being depressed just isn’t entertaining and that’s the crux of the problem. The reality of mental illness is horrifying and gruelling, and your average punter wants to be entertained, not bludgeoned over the head with troublesome ‘facts’.

However, one brilliantly conceived scene, a ‘meet cute’ over the dinner table with the leads swapping pharmacological anecdotes gets a big seal of approval from me. “Gooble Gobble. Gooble Gobble. One of us. One of us.” (I wonder what my ‘seal of approval’ would look like?  Perhaps a blister pack with a smiley over each compartment.) Later on, Bradley and Jennifer go to a diner and we have another marvellous scene where she tells him all about her “slut wife” status. In psychiatric parlance, Jen had become ‘hypersexual’ in the aftermath of her husband’s death. This is a (little discussed) symptom of bipolar disorder. In the past she would have been labelled as a nymphomaniac. A subject matter that enormously subtle, uncontroversial film maker Lars Von Trier will be tackling in his next feature. Hopefully, Lars will be making another appearance later in this article. He will be arriving by camper van because of his fear of flying so he could show up at any moment. Or not at all.

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Remember back in the mists of three paragraphs ago when I mentioned  I’d be back with something more to say about Mr Jones? Well here I am. And here he is. In all his buff, manic, silver foxy, highly compromised glory. If ever a film felt like it had been cut to ribbons to appease queasy producers it’s this one. According to rumour, the producers of Mr Jones said, “I know this could cut the running time a bit, but could he be a Manic rather than a Manic Depressive?” All of this must have been rather depressing for Mr Figgis, because he does manage to squeeze in the aforementioned psychomotor retardation – Gere wanders pitifully and very, very slowly through the city, unable to even wash. He finds himself in a building which looks like a Music Academy. This building exists in the past (at least that’s my reading of it) and each room is an echo from decades before. The sounds become cacophonous. Everything becomes more chaotic. This is a very skillful evocation of the confusion, sensitivity to noise and horrible nostalgia of manic depression. Somehow he makes it back to his apartment where Lena Olin and her hair are waiting for him.  He ends up slumped on a stool in a shower, naked and grubby, while an annoyingly cheerful psychiatric nurse sings at him (“C’mon let’s make a round!”) and hoses him down. Depression on its own just doesn’t put bums on seats. Richard Gere charging into an orchestra recital and taking over the conducting DOES.  Well a few bums anyway. Mr Jones was not a great box office success. Realistic depictions of psychiatric suffering just don’t create revenue. A shame since this is probably Gere’s finest performance to date.

If you want to experience that kind of thing you probably have to look outside of English language cinema. Or get yourself sectioned. Oh look here comes Lars! He’s just parked the camper van! “Hi Lars! How’s it hangin’?!” I have yet to see Lars’ Melancholia. Von Trier and his leading lady Kirsten Dunst have both made their statuses as depressives public. For someone who’ll happily confess to feeling sympathetic towards Nazis, Von Trier is surprisingly tight-lipped about the details of his depression and anxiety. What kind of treatment regime is he on? Does he even have one? Charlotte Gainsbourg has a very convincing panic attack in Antichrist, which I felt he must have coached her through in some detail. Perhaps we have to look to Lars for an unexpurgated cinematic representation of depression, when he’s finished dabbling in hardcore depictions of the life of a ‘Nymphomaniac,’  a descriptor which no longer exists in the DSM.

Because even in the arthouse sector, mental illness isn’t seen as box office unless you edit the reality down to something more appealing.