David Bowie

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is an endurance test. The film runs 138 minutes and has a present action of… dozens of years? Eventually Candy Clark and Rip Torn are in old age makeup, milling about the film from scene to scene, like being forgotten by it would be worse. Everyone’s a drunk by the end, their lives ruined throughout. Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those rare pictures where if it were more melodramatic, it might get better mileage out of the script and cast.

But director Roeg rejects melodrama. He rejects exposition as well, which you need for melodrama but you also need for character development. Torn’s in the film from near the start–his self-destructive university professor subplot is initially juxtaposed against the main one–and Torn stops getting any character moments. He doesn’t get to develop. He gets established, a little more in-depth than other cast members, but then he stops perturbing. He just ages. With makeup assistance.

Clark doesn’t even get that initial setup. She gets one memory, but it doesn’t inform her character at all. She’s initially a big plot foil, then she’s background. Eventually her life is ruined off-screen, just like Torn’s.

Only Buck Henry gets any active resolution, along with the film’s most overt reference to him having a male love interest. That reference comes at the very end, after setting Henry up as a bifocaled visual punchline for an hour or so. Maybe longer. Time loses meaning at some point during Fell to Earth. You’re just waiting for Roeg to get around to something.

He doesn’t, of course, which is sort of the point. You can suck the energy out of any story, no matter how fantastical.

The whole thing revolves around David Bowie’s eclectic genius recluse millionaire who arrives out of the desert with some gems of technical ingenuity. Those gems lead to patents, patents lead to attorney Henry. Then it’s off to New Mexico (again) for Bowie, where he meets Clark and begins his reluctant descent into hedonism.

Bowie’s performance is rather flat. Not unlikable, sometimes rather sympathetic, but always flat. For a while, it’s Clark’s job to give the scenes some buoyancy. She’s got to make up for Bowie’s flat affect. Eventually, Roeg doesn’t even bother having Clark do it. By the time she’s caked in old age makeup, it’s in her scenes without Bowie where she gets to show that buoyancy. Only in scenes not needing any.

It’d lead to a third act drag if the whole thing didn’t drag.

Roeg wants Man to operate without the story having to be the compelling part. Each individual scene has its own internal logic–especially when Bernie Casey, as either anti-capitalist American government agent (Bowie’s inventions are just too good and they’re throwing the economy out of whack) or a rival company man. Casey’s got this whole setup with his family, juxtaposing him against Bowie, who’s temporarily abandoned his own.

About the only thing Casey has in common with Bowie is the butt shots. Roeg goes all out with nudity in Man Who Fell to Earth–initially all Torn is doing is rolling around naked with his female students, which ends up being the most interesting character development in the whole movie–and it gets rather tiresome. It never goes anywhere. The long lingering shots of Bowie’s emaciated form? They’re just long lingering shots.

Technically, the film’s more than competent. Excellent photography from Anthony B. Richmond, decent editing from Graeme Clifford. Roeg’s direction is sort of tedious, just like everything else.

The Man Who Fell to Earth builds until it stops building–pretty much with the introduction of Casey–and there’s nothing to go in the place of that building. Working up some sympathy for Bowie, maybe, but it’s far too late.

When it finally does getting around to stopping, it finally embraces Bowie as the rock star–the beginning of the film, with stranger in town Bowie bewildered by a desolate American town, could be the opening for a Bowie concert film with him ambling around before the show. Only it’s not much of an embrace, because Roeg never wants the film’s pulse to get too high.

The film tries hard with some of its symbolism, some of its dramatic echoes (though, really, with this one I’m being polite), but nothing else. Roeg’s sense of scenic sensationalism wears off. There are only so many times you can be shocked by everyone in the cast except Henry running around naked.

Roeg’s so dramatically restrained, he can’t even get Man to a pretentious state.

The acting’s okay, most of the time. Torn’s probably the best. At least, once people’s regular appearances become more sporadic, Torn’s the only one you’re happy to see again. Clark’s eventually just around to scream and cry. And tumble around naked with Bowie in proto-MTV music videos.

Henry might be better if the exagerrated bifocals didn’t get in the way. Well, that change and some better writing. Mayersberg’s script–or Roeg’s direction of it–doesn’t give the actors much to work with.

Roeg’s got problems with verisimilitude (the film’s got none), which is more than clear during the flashforward third act. In its place, he has his flat, protracted artiface. It’s exhausting. And Man Who Fell to Earth should be anything but.

Also, frankly, Clark doesn’t shoulder the weight of the picture puts on her. Her character’s too thin, her performance is too thin. Old age makeup a performance does not make.

The film doesn’t completely flop until the finale, when Man shrugs at the idea of adding up to anything for any of the cast–everyone lies to one another throughout, so much so their actions seem “dramatically” (quotation marks because drama would help too much) mandated versus naturally occuring.

Again, if Roeg had just like the natural melodrama come through–and maybe had a better production design than Brian Eatwell–Man Who Fell to Earth might be something other than an exasperating, if inoffensive, waste of time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley; released by British Lion Film Distribution.

Starring David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Bernie Casey (Peters), and Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth).


The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)

A lot of The Hunger is so exquisitely directed by Scott, it almost seems like there’s nothing the narrative could do to mess it up. His Panavision composition is precise, fixated on the small detail, whether it’s David Bowie’s stubble or Catherine Deneuve’s sunglasses. These details become larger than life, filling the frame, but Scott and photographer Stephen Goldblatt want their actual size to be far more important, always haunting the viewer. The Hunger’s filmmaking is all about precision, whether it’s the direction, the photographer or Pamela Power’s thoughtfully hectic editing. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas’s script, which eventually undoes most of the filmmaking.

The Hunger is a very tight story. David Bowie is a vampire. He is getting sick. Catherine Deneuve is his master. There’s no description of the vampire logic in The Hunger, which is initially charming and then grating. It gets grating about the time it’s clear Scott’s style can’t carry the film, somewhere around the second half. Anyway, Deneuve finds out about aging scientist–she’s a scientist who specializes in aging, she’s not aging herself–aging scientist Susan Sarandon. Bowie tries to go to Sarandon for help. After some complications and revelations, Sarandon herself is afflicted.

The simple problem with The Hunger is the script. The more complex problem with it is how little Scott cares about the script. David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve manage a classical tragic elegance. Sarandon brings this modern elegance. Scott loves the dark elegance of it, he doesn’t care about the story. The film rushes through any of its “science” scenes, which come across as so ludicrous Bram Stoker wouldn’t have used them in 1897. But when Scott’s got to show the science–regardless of how stupid Davis and Thomas explain that science–Scott is able to make it look good. He stumbles occasionally in the third act, which is way too rushed both in terms of present action and runtime, but Scott’s even able to visualize the dumb ending pretty well. It’s just too bad he can’t save it. Once Sarandon stops being the protagonist of the film and its subject, The Hunger slips and doesn’t recover. It handled changing protagonists from Bowie to Sarandon, but when it tries to hand off to Deneuve, the third act rush is too close and it’s a big fumble.

Lots of mixed metaphors and so on in there but The Hunger’s a little hard to rip on. It deserves it–the bad finish just makes the previous missteps more obvious, especially in the case of Cliff De Young. He’s Sarandon’s fellow aging scientist and also her boyfriend. He gets nothing to do, not even in the scenes where the other scientists have something to do, and then he gets a couple big moments. Scott doesn’t direct either of those scenes well. It feels like a different picture.

Good music from Danny Jaeger and Michel Rubini. Some great special effects. Good performances from Bowie and Sarandon. Deneuve’s fine until the script passes the buck on her as a protagonist (and, subsequently, even as a character). Effective supporting turn from Beth Ehlers. Dan Hedaya is out of place as a grizzled cop. Dan Hedaya should never be out of place as a grizzled cop.

It’s a beautifully made film. Shame about that script.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Pamela Power; music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini; production designer, Brian Morris; produced by Richard Shepherd; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Susan Sarandon (Sarah), David Bowie (John), Catherine Deneuve (Miriam), Beth Ehlers (Alice), Cliff De Young (Tom), Rufus Collins (Charlie), Suzanne Bertish (Phyllis) and Dan Hedaya (Lieutenant Allegrezza).


Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson)

Every so often, Labyrinth plays like an episode of “Fraggle Rock” with special guest star David Bowie. Oddly, the film starts Bowie heavy but pretty soon he’s just popping in to remind the viewer he’s still around. His performance is terrible; his singing sequences are fine, especially how capably he acts with all the puppets.

It’s important too, because there’s nothing to Labyrinth without the puppets. Henson knows how to direct the puppets and his company knows how to make living creatures with them. It’s a shame none of this attention went into the story, which apes The Wizard of Oz more than a little.

Except Jennifer Connelly’s lead is unlikable for a long, long time. There are all sorts of hints at how her adventure in the magical goblin land relates to her real life, but the metaphors are undercooked. The film’s goal is more about showcasing what Henson and company can do.

And they can do quite a bit. Labyrinth is absolutely gorgeous. While the Alex Thomson photography doesn’t especially impress, John Grover’s editing is amazing.

Connelly is likable enough–eventually–but she doesn’t really have a character to play. Labyrinth doesn’t even spend time making the fantasy world seem real, which becomes clearer and clearer. Henson just needed to slow down and enjoy himself. Or maybe he really didn’t want to do anything with human actors.

Problems aside, there are some truly wondrous creature creations in the film and it goes by fast. Just way too fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; screenplay by Terry Jones, based on a story by Dennis Lee and Henson; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by John Grover; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Eric Rattray; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring David Bowie (Jareth the Goblin King), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah), Toby Froud (Toby), Shelley Thompson (Stepmother), Christopher Malcolm (Father), Natalie Finland (Fairy), Shari Weiser & Brian Henson (Hoggle), Ron Mueck & Rob Mills (Ludo) and Dave Goelz & David Alan Barclay (Didymus).


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

The Last Temptation of Christ opens with a passage presumably from the introduction to the novel, as it’s the novel’s writer talking about his own feelings. It’s an odd choice, since it somehow removes the drive for the picture from the filmmakers and puts it on someone else.

It’s a very intentional move from Scorsese; Last Temptation is full of very intentional moves. While the film did have a relatively low budget, it still has an amazing crew–Michael Ballhaus’s photography is masterful and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is sublime (particularly for the first half).

Scorsese and Ballhaus open with muted colors. Willem Dafoe’s narration has to carry the fantastical elements until the journey of self-discovery picks up and color finally leaks in. The supporting cast–Harvey Keitel in particular–also lend to the mundane feeling. Keitel might be playing Judas, but he’s also the stand-in for the viewer. The approach works.

The film has two major transitions. First is when Dafoe and company get to Jerusalem the first time. Instead of journeying about, Last Temptation becomes all about getting to the crucifixion. That change probably isn’t anyone’s fault… at some point it has to be about getting to the cross. Still, Scorsese could have paced it better.

Then the cross itself, when Scorsese respectfully apes 2001. The end does save the picture, but there’s definite rough road.

Great music from Peter Gabriel, excellent lead performance from Dafoe, strong supporting turns.

Even with its problems, Last Temptation’s mostly magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Peter Gabriel; production designer, John Beard; produced by Barbara De Fina; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Verna Bloom (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Andre Gregory (John The Baptist), Gary Basaraba (Andrew, Apostle), Victor Argo (Peter, Apostle), Michael Been (John, Apostle), Paul Herman (Phillip, Apostle), John Lurie (James, Apostle), Alan Rosenberg (Thomas, Apostle), Leo Burmester (Nathaniel, Apostle), Peggy Gormley (Martha, Sister of Lazarus), Randy Danson (Mary, Sister of Lazarus), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Roberts Blossom (Aged Master), Barry Miller (Jeroboam), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate) and Juliette Caton (The Angel).


Into the Night (1985, John Landis)

Into the Night is so strong, even Landis’s bad directorial impulses can’t hurt it. One impulse, casting a bunch of directors (including himself) in roles, only fails in the case of Paul Mazursky. Mazursky has a reasonably sized supporting role and he gives a terrible performance.

The other bad impulse is casting as well. Dan Aykroyd shows up in a small role as Jeff Goldblum’s friend. Aykroyd plays it absurdist, like an “SNL” sketch; it would work if the movie were absurdist, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s straightforward, if stylized.

The only other thing wrong with the film is Ira Newborn’s awful score. No idea if he’s a Landis regular.

Besides Ron Koslow’s deceptively brilliant script, the two lead performances are outstanding. Goldblum’s regular guy insomniac is fantastic. He’s so good, it’s hard to believe Michelle Pfeiffer is even better as the sort of mystery woman who takes over his life. Koslow never gives pay-off scenes showing how Goldblum’s life has changed because of the encounter because there’s just no time for it. A pay-off scene would break the realism of the timeline Koslow and Landis create. Into the Night’s not real time and doesn’t attempt it.

Pfeiffer has moments of startling depth and captivates. Since he’s floundering without a specific ailment, Goldblum doesn’t get those opportunities.

Bruce McGill, David Bowie, Irene Papas and Clu Gulager are outstanding in supporting roles.

Landis’s direction is so strong I can’t believe he directed it.

Into the Night’s wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; written by Ron Koslow; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, John J. Lloyd; produced by George Fosley Jr. and Koslow; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Ed Okin), Michelle Pfeiffer (Diana), Dan Aykroyd (Herb), Bruce McGill (Charlie), David Bowie (Colin Morris), Richard Farnsworth (Jack Caper), Vera Miles (Joan Caper), Irene Papas (Shaheen Parvici), Kathryn Harrold (Christie), Stacey Pickren (Ellen Okin) and Clu Gulager (Federal Agent).


The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan)

Oh, good grief. The Prestige is in IMDb’s top 250 movies? It’s so bad, I’m actually going to say something nice about Christopher Nolan in a second here. I’ve never heard of source novelist Christopher Priest and no one I know has ever mentioned him to me, so I’m guessing he’s pretty godawful, which probably means the atrocious, idiotic plotting of The Prestige isn’t Nolan’s fault. The terrible writing of the scenes, well, that defect is surely Nolan & Co.’s, since it’s a stable of all his cinematic endeavors, but the asinine, illogical plotting… maybe not his fault.

The best performances in the film are from Rebecca Hall (big shock), David Bowie (ok, a little surprising), Andy Serkis (again, surprising) and Hugh Jackman–well, Hugh Jackman with a caveat. With The Prestige being Nolan and Nolan apparently being the twist ending zeitgeist with M. Night Shyamalan falling on hard times, the twist ending makes it impossible for Jackman, in his role as the protagonist, to actually give a good performance (imagine Jack knowing he was Tyler the whole time), but there’s a little bit where Jackman gets to do this humorous impersonation (with a fake nose) of himself and he’s hilarious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.

Christian Bale’s terrible (he’s not supposed to be a psychopath in every movie, is he?), Scarlett Johansson’s atrocious, Michael Caine’s not as bad as I figured. Johansson’s English accent is occasionally hilarious.

Nolan’s composition isn’t bad but the fragmented narrative is, as always, pinheaded.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by David Julyan; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Aaron Ryder; released by Warner Bros. and Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Robert Angier), Christian Bale (Alfred Borden), Michael Caine (Cutter), Scarlett Johansson (Olivia), Piper Perabo (Julia McCullough), Rebecca Hall (Sarah Borden), David Bowie (Tesla) and Andy Serkis (Alley).


August (2008, Austin Chick)

August clocks in, with end credits, at eighty-four minutes. I didn’t know the running time going in, so I wasn’t thinking about it. I would have guessed, just based on the perceptive passage, around two hours. My wife, not being a fan, probably would say three and a half. Doing a good movie in ninety minutes has gotten, for whatever reason, to be near impossible in the last forty-odd years. Doing a great one in under ninety, in New York, with a limited cast, has actually gotten a little easier in the last few. I’m thinking of Looking for Kitty.

August does a couple things, a couple important things. First, it fulfills Josh Hartnett, whose career has been in a mainstream paralysis the last six years. He’s the whole show in August, playing an unlikable, unsympathetic alpha male selling a useless internet product before the technology for it even exists. His character thinks he’s Prince. I’d seen some previews and they don’t properly represent his performance (August is, as the next point will clarify, difficult to sell). He’s fantastic.

The second thing it does is more and less important. August is a character study. I kept waiting for it not to be a character study, I kept waiting for it to go bad once it started getting great, but then the last scene came around and it became clear how Chick was ending the film.

August is set in August 2001. The World Trade Center only appears in one establishing shot. What Chick and writer Rodman do with that setting is rather unexpected. The film also has a lot of financial hyperbole–most of the conversations in the film are about Hartnett and brother Adam Scott’s company’s financial condition, not the most riveting to audiences. But it’s a character study.

As a director, Chick was one of my initial problems with August. His composition kept bothering me. It was like he was wasting a quarter of the screen (August is Panavision aspect, a quarter off would make it fit for HD). Then, after the first time shot using the entire screen, it became clear he was using that empty space. He was using it all along, but I guess I was just too suspect to give him the credit. I thought it was getting lucky.

The rest of the cast is good (even David Bowie). Since it’s all about their relationships with Hartnett, Adam Scott and Naomie Harris have the best parts. Scott and Hartnett only mildly resemble each other around the eyes (and it’s only at the end Chick uses close-ups), but August has one of those good, difficult brother relationships. Harris is the ex-girlfriend; she and Hartnett only have three scenes, but they’re all excellent. The other supporting cast members–Andre Royo, Robin Tunney, Rip Torn, Caroline Lagerfelt–all good.

August is definitely the sum of its parts–Nathan Larson’s music, awkward in the trailer and, I’m sure, on its own, is an essential element–as is Andrij Parekh’s cinematography. Chick makes an eighty-four (sorry, eighty-nine… with end credits) film, shot on limited locations (I figure the driving sequence was either the most expense or illegally done), about three weeks, expansive.

At some point, I guess somewhere after the twenty minute mark, I thought how nice it would be if August were great, then dismissed it. I’m not sure if I’m happier with the unexpected surprise or if I’m mad I’m so defeatist about film. But considering August, there’s no reason to be quite so cynical.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Austin Chick; written by Howard A. Rodman; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Elisa Pugliese, Clara Markowicz, Josh Hartnett, Charlie Corwin and David Guy Levy; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Tom), Naomie Harris (Sarrah), Adam Scott (Joshua), Robin Tunney (Melanie), Andre Royo (Dylan), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Mo), Laila Robins (Pivo), Caroline Langerfelt (Nancy), Alan Cox (Barton), David Bowie (Ogilvie) and Rip Torn (David).


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