Tag Archives: 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).


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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).


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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).


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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).


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