Robert Sean Leonard

In the Gloaming (1997, Christopher Reeve)

In the Gloaming is a qualified success. If you’re trying to go for humanizing a guy dying of AIDS while his upper middle class White yuppie family is slow to realize he’s a dying person who they probably ought not to avoid because they’ll regret it… it does that job. Gloaming is an hour-long HBO movie, based on a New Yorker story, all set in and around Glenn Close and David Strathairn’s picture perfect home in Westchester County, New York. Straithairn presumably works in the city, but it’s never actually clear. Doesn’t really matter. Just they’ve got enough money to have a gorgeous house but no servants.

And son Robert Sean Leonard has come home to die.

The film’s a series of what you know the filmmakers would prefer you think of as vignettes, as Close bonds with Leonard while Strathairn gets pissy. Close has to overcome the fear she’s responsibility for Leonard being gay because she was nice to him as a kid. She wasn’t as nice to his sister, Bridget Fonda, who grew up to be too much of a yuppie even for Close, off married with child, but the son and husband don’t come around because AIDS is gross and so’s Leonard being gay. But it’s okay because Fonda’s going to cry when he’s dead? Maybe. Not resolved. The vignettes are more like clips of the character development without any follow-up. Like when Strathairn, finally coming to terms with Leonard’s impending death, thinks it’s a good time to go for some martial relations with Close. No follow-up on that one.

Plus Whoopi Goldberg’s just around as the nurse, who eventually makes Close feel better about herself.

The film’s… comprised. Screenwriter Will Scheffer does not have the chops to make the strained manners of the bourgeois somehow say more than if Strathairn actually sat down and had a conversation with Leonard. They talk a lot about how it’s going to happen, then never does. Because Strathairn’s a terrible guy, even though he grows tomatoes for Close to cook him even though he doesn’t like tomatoes much. But we’ve got to understand Strathairn’s position–he just wanted what must be a macho man in Westchester County 1997, a tennis playing gardener man. Instead he got son Leonard, who went off to Berkeley and became gay. Meanwhile, why doesn’t anyone love Fonda enough, she’s doing her part, working full-time and wearing pantsuits and being mean to her own son so he doesn’t turn out gay.

Yes, Gloaming is from 1997. Yes, it’s from HBO. Yes, it’s from a New Yorker story (but 1997 New Yorker so… I mean… right?). But it has a lot it’s not willing to address. Scared to address. Leaving Strathairn, Fonda, and Goldberg with somewhat pointless parts. Fonda’s scary good as the shittiest human being and Goldberg’s at least likable. Strathairn’s just tiresome. He’s a one note caricature, with some “details” thrown in to round him. Doesn’t work.

So after two paragraphs dunking on it, why is In the Gloaming a qualified success?

Because the stuff with Leonard and Close, as they bond and work through his imminent mortality—mind you, they don’t get real character development in the script because of that vignette structure–it’s great work from Close and Leonard. The script limits them, sure. But Reeve works the hell out of their scenes together. And it resolves their relationship just right. Then ruins it with the actual last scene, which is an eye-roll and a half.

But Leonard and Close. They’re real good. They do so much with… not so little, but so… comprised a material. They refuse to let it limit their performances, which is cool.

Reeve’s direction is fine. He likes crane shots and doesn’t get to do enough of them. Good photography from Frederick Elmes. David Ray’s editing is a little too hurried, which is strange because of the the oddly manipulative nature montages–it’s like HBO is slamming their affluent viewers over the head with, “It could be your sons too, White women ages 45-55 who like Glenn Close!”—but then Ray’s got no sense of cutting when it comes to the dialogue scenes.

It’s like Reeve tried to direct it as a stage adaptation but without the play backbone.

Very heavily Scottish-influenced Dave Grusin score, which is weird (and figures into the plot); it’s a good score, it’s just a lot.

But it’s definitely a missed opportunity overall. It’s aged like flat root beer.

So, technically, earnestly, but unenthusiastically:

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Reeve; teleplay by Will Scheffer, based on a story by Alice Elliott Dark; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by David Ray; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Andrew Jackness; costume designer, Jane Greenwood; produced by Nellie Nugiel; aired by HBO.

Starring Glenn Close (Janet), Robert Sean Leonard (Danny), David Strathairn (Martin), Bridget Fonda (Anne), and Whoopi Goldberg (Myrna).


The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman)

I don’t know how to start talking about The Last Days of Disco. I was going to start with saying I first saw it ten years ago (I first saw it on video), but then I realized I probably first saw it eleven years ago and eleven doesn’t have the same ring. People do like things in ten. Then I was going to start with saying I didn’t understand why it isn’t better known or better appreciated, but I guess I do know why it isn’t better known or better appreciated. It’s an unabashedly superior film. It was the first Whit Stillman film I saw and I still don’t think either of his previous works suggest he’s capable of this level of filmmaking.

Where Stillman excels–in terms of the script–is in creating this self-aware (which really comes into play for a joke near the end) envisioning of the disco era. Because he doesn’t deal with any of the modern (in 1998) disco stereotypes, except to point out they are stereotypes, Stillman’s disco club really is, as one character puts it, the greatest club ever. It’s impossible not to think so, not to understand why the characters have to keep going back, even though they talk about never going back. They’re part of a phenomenon and Stillman makes the audience part of it too. In some ways, it really reminds me of the new Star Wars movies–really, it does–because whether or not someone can dance (just like in Star Wars they don’t have any discernible lightsabering skill) doesn’t even fit into it. Stillman fills his dancing shots with as many recognizable faces as possible and leaves it to the viewer to come up with the reason Kate Beckinsale and Matt Ross are dancing next to each other, even though Ross is there with Tara Subkoff. These little narrative tricks, ones Stillman did exhibit in his previous films, make Last Days of Disco feel like a confrontation experience. To say it’s a film requiring a lot of brain power from its viewer is an understatement–Stillman’s composition alone (or Mark Suozzo’s occasional, beautiful score) requires the viewer to pay very close attention.

Which isn’t to say Stillman makes Last Days of Disco particularly dense or heady. He just forces, with his composition, a kind of attention–I think the only thing I’d compare it to is Barry Lyndon. You have to notice the tree outside Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s apartment. You miss something if you don’t.

The acting is all spectacular. Seeing the film again, I remember when I had high hopes for Mackenzie Astin’s acting career. Sevigny gives an amazing lead performance. She’s quiet in so much of the film–most of the talking comes from Beckinsale (as a spectacular bitch–she’s just fantastic in making this dislikable character utterly compelling) and Chris Eigeman. I was talking about how good Sevigny is in the film… got sidetracked, sorry. She’s so quiet, just watching, looking, and then Stillman gives her these big–but quiet–moments and she nails all of them. The acting from her and Beckinsale is simply amazing, from the first moment they walk into the film.

Also great is Matt Keeslar, who I’ve longed supported (starting with seeing him in this film). He gets the closet thing to a male protagonist role in the film. He’s great–walking through it with a bemused look–but then Stillman throws all sorts of character revelations at him and he handles every one perfectly.

The supporting cast–Burr Steers, David Thornton (both have some great lines)–is excellent.

I think the first time I saw The Last Days of Disco, I watched it a lot and made other people watch it. I haven’t seen it in eight years, which is way too long to go between viewings.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, John Thomas; edited by Andrew Hafitz and Jay Pires; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Ginger Tougas; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Chloë Sevigny (Alice), Kate Beckinsale (Charlotte), Chris Eigeman (Des), Mackenzie Astin (Jimmy), Matt Keeslar (Josh), Robert Sean Leonard (Tom), Jennifer Beals (Nina), Matt Ross (Dan), Tara Subkoff (Holly), Burr Steers (Van), David Thornton (Bernie) and Jaid Barrymore (Tiger Lady).


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