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Posts Tagged ‘Amanda Plummer’

The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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It seems like every time I go on t’internet these days, Twitter is aflame with news that some TV sensation or other of yesteryear is making a comeback: last week it was Twin Peaks, at the moment it’s X Files, a Babylon 5 movie is in the works – can a thirtysomething update of Buffy be very far off? I remember the 70s nostalgia boom of the early-to-mid 90s quite well; the prospect of a 90s nostalgia boom just makes me feel dispiritingly old.

I had an oddly similar sensation while watching Michael Winterbottom’s 1995 movie Butterfly Kiss the other day, which was slightly odd given that I’d never seen it before. But some combination of factors means that it just reeks of a particular time and place.

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The lead is Amanda Plummer, who at the time was fairly fresh from Pulp Fiction (if there’s a bigger mid-90s zeitgeist touchstone, I can’t think of it). In time-honoured style, the American Plummer has been imported to give some kind of cachet to a modest British film. She plays Eunice, whom I can only describe as a wandering lunatic, following the motorways of Lancashire in pursuit of her (probably non-existent) partner Judith, leaving a trail of slaughtered checkout workers in her wake.

However, for some reason she makes a connection with one of these women, Miriam (Saskia Reeves), and opts not to beat her to death. Attracted to this mysterious stranger, despite the fact she is clearly unhinged, Miriam takes her home and the two of them hook up and set out on a blood-spattered odyssey up and down the M6…

Now, on paper, the names involved in this film suggest it must be interesting – Michael Winterbottom has carved out a niche as one of those wild talents who is always worth following, while the film is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also has something of a reputation (even if that thing he did on telly with the trees and fairies wasn’t much cop). If nothing else, then, Butterfly Kiss shows us that everyone had to start somewhere, because this movie is not especially distinguished in any department.

Having said that, I suppose any lesbian serial killer road movie has a certain degree of originality going for it (there’s a dash of sado-masochism thrown in, too, just in case the movie didn’t seem niche enough already). There is sex and death aplenty, if either of those things are your bag, but apart from them nothing in the film really makes an impression. If the more provocative content is intended to counterpoint the central relationship between Eunice and Miriam, it doesn’t work, mainly because neither character is remotely believeable.

You can’t really blame either actress, both of whom do the best they can with the material. Well – I say that, but I rapidly found Amanda Plummer impossible to take seriously, and actually rather annoying, simply because her accent is literally all over the place: it roams from country to country and region to region throughout the film. Was this an intentional choice or is this simply how English people sound to her? I’ve no idea: apart from this her performance is okay, but then she does rather specialise in playing characters with, shall we say, atypical pathologies.

Saskia Reeves has the benefit of playing a less-outlandish character, but the script demands she behave in a wholly incredible way: Miriam may be sheltered, naive, and just a little bit thick, but that still doesn’t explain why she decides to invite a certifiable loon back to the house she shares with her infirm mother. You could probably argue they are both lost souls drawn together by mutual need, but the script doesn’t sell this idea and it just comes across as melodramatic. I have to say the treatment of Reeves and her mother seems just a little bit patronising to me: they are both working class and poorly educated, and the film treats them primarily as pitiful, victims in the making.

Then again, finding any sort of deeper theme to Butterfly Kiss is challenging: the characters are wont to talk about things like good and evil, God and sin, but not in any really consistent way. It’s all a bit teenage poetry-ish, or perhaps like a very bad episode of Cracker; I may be getting old, but lines of dialogue like ‘It’s never easy to kill someone, especially if you love them’ seem to me to be more trite than profound. The conclusion of the film is, I suspect, intended to be a poignant moment of love and loss – my reaction was more along the lines of ‘one down, one to go’.

To be honest, watching this film I was repeatedly reminded of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and on one level the two films have basically the same plot: serial killer acquires new partner and takes them on quasi-romantic road trip. However, Sightseers is – if you ask me – vastly superior. Not only is it a very effective black comedy, but the characters actually make a bit more sense, too. But much of Butterfly Kiss feels either derivative – some reviews inevitably compare it with Thelma and Louise – or vaguely like other films which have been made since, especially Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, which also focuses on an intense, somewhat twisted relationship between young women from different backgrounds. Mostly it just feels very much of its time, though, partly due to the 90s-tastic soundtrack: Shampoo, Shakespear’s Sister and Bjork all feature, though most prominent are the Cranberries.

In the end I can’t say I enjoyed this film much – it feels like it’s straining too hard to be gritty and provocative, but it just ends up being pretentious and melodramatic. This is one of those slightly strange examples of a film where a lot of people turn up and do something sub-par by any of their standards.

 

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