Archive for Rooney Mara

Worst Case

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by dcairns

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following –

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So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).

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All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider –

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.

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And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.

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.

Coffee and Cigarettes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2011 by dcairns

I almost but not quite regard the time I spent reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy as time wasted. I’d been told that I’d find them compulsive page-turners, but in reality, the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, struck me as weirdly draggy, as the author described shopping trips, love trysts, business affairs, all pedantically spread out over a one-year cycle like a Harry Potter book. The series only started to get exciting on the second book, and I don’t know what led me to even give it a chance, but it did develop into something gripping as Lisabeth Salander’s own story started emerging. The third volume is just ridiculous, with its albino giant invulnerable to pain (I guess he’s a kind of caricature of Swedish Nazism), but pretty good fun.

I stopped watching the Swedish adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO after it became clear that it was just going to repackage the book into an endless series of micro-scenes, none hanging around long enough to develop any dramatic meat on their bones — movie as stripped-down spine. So I was kind of wary of David Fincher’s Hollywood remake, a movie which could theoretically be dismissed as redundant by anyone who can read subtitles. Would this be another bland PANIC ROOM, or worse, a BENJAMIN boring bastard  BUTTON?

It’s not, but it’s not a FIGHT CLUB or SOCIAL NETWORK either — I’d say it’s work-for-hire in which Fincher has been able to invest some real interest, not purely as a technical exercise in grafting Brad Pitt’s head onto a dancing baby. Like the novel, it’s a pulp potboiler with pretensions, but Fincher uses cinematic language considerably more deftly than journalist Larsson used prose, at least in translation. With its slick surfaces (dig the Ikea torture chamber with its colour-coordinated power tools!) and gliding camera moves (resisting, this time, the urge to fly ghostlike through a kettle’s handle or a night club bannister), the movie is consistently pleasurable to the eye, and the soundtrack, not just Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor’s buzzing, throbbing score, but the whole mix, with its fifty different kinds of wind, is a triumph — this movie wants very badly to be seen on the big screen.

It’s not perfect: Fincher’s tendency to include a cutaway insert every time somebody picks something up, puts it down or throws it away, is a Svankmajer-like tic than gets a bit annoying once you notice it (and arguably detracts from the power of the one key object discarded in the last scene). One the other hand, Fincher can do restraint: he includes numerous slick shots of Salander’s bike slicing through Nordic nightscapes, but holds off a POV of onrushing road until the last act.

Performances: while it’s nice to see Geraldine James, Steven Berkoff and Martin Jarvis (!), the actress playing Salander naturally gets the lion’s share of one’s attention. It’s to Larsson’s credit that he somehow made the quasi-autistic, kickboxing, computer hacking, physics genius, bisexual bike riding damaged goods into a vaguely convincing pulp fiction heroine. Admittedly I didn’t really watch Noomi Rapace’s origination of the role, but I did glance at it as Fiona was watching, and found her riveting – if the film had been able to keep up with her, it’d have been a wild ride. Fiona declares the new version to be even stronger though, so there you have it: Mickey Rooney Rooney Mara is an even better Salander.

Daniel Craig is quickly becoming the go-to guy for those who find Clive Owen just a bit too effervescent, Liam Neeson too irksomely perky. But he works here, as Larsson’s transparent self-portrait business journalist / loverboy. At least he doesn’t look like a baby potato. Robin Wright makes the most of her scattered moments of screen time… the only odd thing about the acting is that the Swedish accents, already an odd choice to my taste, are somewhat inconsistent. Craig doesn’t really bother with one, Rooney’s is exemplary, and everybody on the TV news programmes sounds like the Swedish Chef. Also, the written matter seen in the film varies between Swedish and English, seemingly at random.

Stephen Zaillian’s script is largely faithful to the book, but prunes away much excess and tightens ingenuously. “At least you’re not going to prison,” is a brilliant line that not only hacks away an unproductive diversion in the book, but lets us know in advance that this has been done. Intact are all the uncomfortable little references to Blomkvist/Larsson’s poor physical condition, prefiguring his tragic/absurd early death right before his books saw print. And Zaillian wisely jettisons the whole discussion about suppressing the killer’s identity and never revealing his victims’ fates, in order to protect the Wennerstrom family business. This distasteful scene rather gave the lie to the whole book’s thesis, about the wickedness of misogynists or something. We’re meant to believe that the hero believes business interests are more important than letting the victims’ families know what became of their daughters. We’re also meant to believe he has the right to make that call, despite being in business with the Wennerstroms himself. And we’re meant to believe that Salander, herself a victim of misogynist violence, would go along with it. That’s one smart script edit right there — the question of publicity simply isn’t mentioned, and we don’t wonder about it.

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