Friday, 12 February 2016

DANCE FILM: Take the Lead (2006)

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Take the Lead (USA, 2006)
Directed by Liz Friedlander
Starring Antonio Banderas, Alfre Woodard, John Ortiz, Rob Brown 

Blackboard Jungle has an awful lot to answer for. It's been more than 60 years since Richard Brooks' Oscar-nominated drama set the template for the 'teacher tries to reach the kids' story, and since then we've been saddled with a multitude of miserably derivative delicacies. For every School of Rock, which playfully and self-deprecatingly moved the format on a little, there's at least a dozen films as creaky and as condescending as Dangerous Minds.
 
Take the Lead saddles itself with a double yolk by being both a Blackboard Jungle knock-off and a dance film, one of the most cliché-ridden and insubstantial genres under the sun. Step Up from the same year proved that some degree of innovation is possible within such tight paramaters, and the raw charisma of Antonio Banderas leads us to raise our expectations. But while it's not an especially awful film, it is also desperately unremarkable.
 
Since Banderas' performance was undoubtedly the main selling point for those marketing the film, it makes logical sense of start with him. Banderas has always been a deeply charismatic actor, capable of shifting from smouldering mischief to seething obsession in the blink of an eye. He's been in a fair few stinkers in his time - Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the later Spy Kids films - but like his Spy Kids counterpart Ricardo Montalban, his very presence is often enough to lift a production - and anyone who can hijack the Shrek series from under the main cast's nose deserves the benefit of any doubt.
 
In the case of Take the Lead, Banderas fulfils basically the same role as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Not only do their characters have the same dynamic, but they are both brought in to set the acting standard among the remaining cast of relative unknowns. Banderas begins very shakily, either unsure of what he is supposed to be doing or disbelieving that this is the kind of thing he has wound up being in following his recent success. He grows in confidence as the film rolls on, but there's still an odd feeling of him being too good or too big for the story. His is the sort of role for a break-out actor, rather than an established star (something which also prompted Pfeiffer's demise).
 
The biggest problem, however, with Take the Lead is not Banderas' performance, but the shaky ground upon which it is built. The true life story of Pierre Dulaine, who really did teach dance to underperforming schoolchildren, is an interesting and inspiring tale. It deserves to be approached in an unusual manner, i.e. befitting of its subject, rather than what interesting features there are being strapped down and put into a genre-shaped box like an act of forced contortionism. In short, a story this good should never feel this run-of-the-mill.
 
Some of the blame for this lies in the script. Dianne Houston's background is predominantly in television, having penned the script for the short film Override (Danny Glover's directorial debut) and a handful of TV movies. She's reasonably talented in her given medium, but the stakes of made-for-TV movies are often remarkably low, and she doesn't given Banderas or the other cast members any real feeling of significance. It feels like something that was flung together at the last minute around a number of set roles, like a well-lit but threadbare pantomime.
 
An equal share of the blame lies with director Liz Friedlander, who comes from a background in music videos and has also filmed episodes of Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries. As I stated in my review of Highlander, numerous great filmmakers have cut their teeth in music videos, such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The difference is that these directors used the medium to experiment visually while taking on all the technical nous that they could muster. Friedlander is more at the Russell Mulcahy end of filmmaking, with her sole feature to date being well-shot and possessing good dancing, but lacking a distinctive stamp.
 
To Friedlander's credit, the dancing sequences in Take the Lead are generally well done. Her camerawork and choice of angles are less off-puttingly frenetic than the later Step Up films, though it's hard to tell whether this is a creative choice or something that can be explained by the relatively slow pace of ballroom dancing (not every film like this has to look like Strictly Ballroom). Most of the performers are good dancers, some of them very good, and the longer shots means that we get to see more of their physical prowess in its raw form.
 
One of the common comments made about the Step Up series was that the films would have been a lot better if they had disposed of the plot entirely and just strung all the dance sequences together. Given how thin the plots of the films were - or, in the case of Step Up 3, virtually non-existent - it may sound like a compelling argument. And as much as I railed against this in my reviews, it does seem to be the fate of any dance film that what plot it possesses is either pushed into the background and forgotten. or reduced to the most over-simplified tosh possible.
Take the Lead has moments where its story does come to life, where you see the hardship and sense of transformation that you got in the best bits of Fame. When Friedlander focusses on the plight of LaRhette (a good performance by Yaya DaCosta on debut), we do begin to get a sense of how tough life really is for those less fortunate. For all the annoying scenes of the cast acting 'street' in a deeply cliched manner, we get scenes like this which give us something to invest in, and unlike Jon M. Chu, Friedlander has the self-assurance to keep us in these moments long enough to make them at least somewhat meaningful.
 
The individual performances outside of Banderas are admittedly very hit-and-miss. A couple of faces will be familiar, with Jenna Dawan getting less to work with than she did in a similar role in Step Up and Dante Basco being as unconvincingly threatening here as he was in Hook all those years ago. The others ultimately blur into one; like members of a pantomime chorus, they get odd lines to try and make their own but not enough by way of a character to make them stick in our minds when the credits roll. Banderas does his best to marshall them, and for little periods they do gel together as a group. But the whole film is one of little moments and neither it nor the cast ever really come together.
 
Take the Lead is a disappointly generic offering which seems incapable of having an original thought in its body. People who were turned off by the Step Up sequels' in-your-face approach may find it a more tolerable experience - at least on an aesthetic level - but its script is every bit as flat and insubstantial, and the direction and cast aren't strong enough to lift the material. It isn't the worst dance film you'll ever find, but it is one of the most achingly mediocre, and a clear indication of how stories like this should not be handled.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Football Factory (2004)

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

LETTERS OF NOTE: Bertrand Russell

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Sorry things have been a little quiet on the blog since the end of January. I am in the process of rectifying this, with my review of Take the Lead coming on nicely and a piece about Riding Lights' Easter tour of Crosslight also in the works. But in the meantime, until either project comes fittingtly to fruition, I am returning to the deep well of insightful correspondence that is Letters of Note.
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Bertrand Russell was a man of extraordinary intellect who fits the term of 'polymath' as well as Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Clement Freud before him. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, campaigned against Nazism and Stalinism, was sent to prison for protesting against nuclear weapons and delivered the inaugural Reith lectures for the BBC. But whatever subject he was tackling, one thing was consistent with Russell; his gracefulness, even when orchestrating the most withering put-down he could muster.
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In 1962 Russell, then in his late-80s, received a letter from Sir Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Mosley had largely retired from politics and was living in France, though he had recently returned to participate in a debate about immigration at University College, London, where he was seconded by the future historian-cum-Holocaust denier David Irving. Mosley's letter does not seem to have survived, but whatever was is in it prompted Russell to write back, stating calmly yet stridently how much he opposed Mosley's political views.
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You can read Russell's terse yet flowery response in its entirety here. For more on polymaths, I can point you to my tribute to Clement Freud from my days on The Warwick Boar. And if you want more philosophy, or just want to be inspired, you could do a lot worse than head over to Inspiring Philosophy on YouTube, or watch this video of theirs to which I lent my C. S. Lewis impression:
Daniel

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

COMEDY: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

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South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (USA, 1999)
Directed by Trey Parker
Starring Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes

In my review of The Simpsons Movie, I described the film as essentially an extended episode of the TV series, which was unlikely to bring the show a great deal of new fans. I argued that the film contained many of the storytelling patterns and character problems which the series has developed over its decades-long run, but that there was enough by way of ideas and humour - however scattershot - to see it through.
 
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is surrounded by problems on all sides, some similar to The Simpsons Movie, others very different. It shares its essential narrative characteristic of being an extended episode, but is also overshadowed by the subsequent visual development of the series, not to mention the kind of subjects it has since chosen to tackle. Even in the wake of Team America: World Police, there's something about the film which feels quant and old-fashioned, almost to the point where you could call it innocent. But it's still a very funny comedy which has already aged much better than its yellow-skinned counterpart.
 
The first challenge confronting us in South Park (as it will be known hereafter) is its visuals. Whether by accident or design, The Simpsons' creators held off from making a feature film until long after the series had become successful. By the time they finally caved in, whether because of fan pressure or pushy accountants, the technology had advanced to the point where putting it on the big screen made a little bit of sense. The upgraded animation gave the film a lift and fooled us - at least for a short while - that what we were seeing in the cinema was still extremely televisual. 
 
South Park's creators, by contrast, made the jump to the big screen relatively early. It's fair to say that Matt Stone and Trey Parker weren't sure how long the show would last; given the edginess of its content, they may have felt that if they didn't do it now, the show could have been cancelled and they might never get the chance. The downside to this is that the animation is very akin to the early series, before the show had really found its feet around the time of 'Scott Tenorman Must Die'. The rough edges may be part of the charm of South Park, but on the big screen its aesthetic limitations are more easily exposed. A complete facelift could have alienated its core audience, but given the time and the higher budget that the film enjoyed, it wouldn't have hurt to polish things up just a little.
 
No amount of visual polishing, however, can mitigate South Park's narrative shortcomings. The real appeal of the series at its best is not how far it goes with bad taste humour and taboo imagery: it's the ability of Stone and Parker to take a complex issue and examine it with great nuance in 20-odd hilarious minutes. Later series have experimented with two-parters, three-parters or even a series-long arc, but even after the show moved on from Kyle saying "you see, I've learned something today", that's still the quality which keeps audiences coming back.
 
That's all well and good when you've only got 20-odd minutes to play with, and Stone and Parker do deserve credit for hitting the mark so often with the ideas that they want to explore. But it becomes a problem when you're trying to make a film that's four times as long, but you don't have four times the story. Some of the padding is pretty blatant, insofar as you can see where the big moral showdown is going to come from and become ever more anxious when we don't get there as quickly as possible. You could cut out all the scenes with The Mole, including the musical number parodying Lés Miserables, and the film wouldn't suffer at all.
 
While its execution may be on the baggy side, however, the ideas of South Park are still rich and pertinent. While whole aspects of The Simpsons Movie have aged poorly because of its over-reliance on dated pop cultural references, the debates about censorship, political correctness and moral double standards have if anything grown in importance. Even before Stone and Parker devoted the whole of the last series to this kind of subject matter, this film is ample demonstration of their passion for personal liberty and free speech.
 
A recurring motif in South Park over the years has been the boys' parents getting the wrong end of the stick and coming across as more idiotic than their offspring. Sheila Broflovski epitomises two traits which her son Kyle and his friends see right through as foolish and nonsensical. The first is the classic double standard towards liberty: she only believes in freedom of speech when it's promoting the things she condones, and seeks to suppress such liberties under the banner of protecting people. The second is a pathological failure to accept blame for one's actions, at least until it is too late to be useful. Bringing on the apocalypse may be an extreme example, but her behaviour distracts from the real issues and seeks a quick fix to a far more complex problem.
 
As well as attacking those who would suppress free speech, South Park also makes an intelligent (and foul-mouthed) argument for the virtue of retaining this liberty. Fitting Cartman with a V-chip may be funny, and stop people from being offended, but it robs him of his freedom to choose and therefore a crucial part of what makes him human. When he turns his malfunctioning chip into a weapon, it's not just an excuse to swear for the hell of it; it's a violent expression of human free will, literally defeating the demons which would contain it. Rather like the "cock, asshole and pussy" speech in Team America, what on the surface appears to be shallow, crass and adolescent is actually pretty insightful.
 
The film also takes aim at many of the series' regular targets, including the US military, racism, xenophobia and the incompetence of governments, both national and global. But Stone and Parker also have enough self-awareness to take the mickey out of themselves along the way. The characters of Terrence and Philip have often served as avatars for how the series is perceived, and the hysteria over the duo's first full-length film is a sly, postmodern dig at how this film would be hyped ahead of release. It's Stone and Parker's way of putting themselves into the film without it seeming like they are holding up the action to make a clever point.
 
The music in South Park is both surprisingly good and contributes to the episodic feeling of the film. A handful of the songs have become classics among the fans, from the Oscar-nominated 'Blame Canada' to the tasteless 'Uncle F***a' and the leftfield 'What Would Brian Boitano Do?'. But like a lot of musicals, the story is too thin to stop the musical numbers feeling like set-pieces which could be heard in any order. The songwriting skill that would later produce The Book of Mormon is here in plain sight, but the script that goes along with it has some catching up to do.
 
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a funny if fault-ridden attempt to put the series on the big screen. Like The Simpsons Movie it is still a prisoner of its original format, hamstrung by its visual shortcomings and the lack of a consistent or expansive script. But for all its structural problems, the film makes up for it with a smart and subversive examination of still-pertinent ideas. It's hard to hold it up as any kind of benchmark considering where the series has since gone, but as a document of where we've come from, it still has appeal.

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NEXT REVIEW: Take the Lead (2006)

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

RIP Alan Rickman

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Last week was an extremely painful one for many of us. Merely days after David Bowie passed away, the news broke that Alan Rickman had died - at the same age of Bowie, and also of cancer. His death has prompted an enormous public response, with fans of Harry Potter leaving tributes at Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross station, and hundreds of videos popping up on YouTube for all to see. The news was especially difficult for my fiancee Aimee, who rated Rickman as her favourite actor and celebrated her 30th birthday on the day he died.
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Much of Rickman's reputation as an actor, and the subsequent tributes to him, have focussed on his uncanny ability to play villains. I'm not prepared to go entirely against the grain on this one; his Hans Gruber in Die Hard has become iconic, he's the very best thing about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and he's one of the most consistently compelling aspects of the Harry Potter series. But where lesser actors would allow those parts to become hackneyed or disappear into their costumes, Rickman applied his Shakespearean qualities to add nuance where he could - and where he couldn't, he would solve the problem by being memorably over-the-top.
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Besides, there was a great deal more to Rickman than his brooding presence or distinctive voice (caused by being born with an unusually tight jaw). His performance in Galaxy Quest is arguably the best thing about Dean Parisot's excellent sci-fi comedy, once described by Star Trek director J. J. Abrams as "one of my favourite Star Trek films". He perfectly captures the frustation of a talented, versatile actor who is tormented to be forever associated with one role, in a performance which both brilliantly channels Leonard Nimoy and gamely takes the piss out of himself.
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Whatever genre Rickman turned his hand to, it was always likely to lift the finished product above our expectations. He was a dab hand at period drama throughout his career, whether it was The Barchester Chronicles, Sense and Sensibility or his second directorial effort A Little Chaos. He was an adept singer, as evidenced in his excellent take on Judge Turpin in Tim Burton's masterful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And he had excellent comedic timing, whether in the gentle Love Actually or the far more provocative Dogma.
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Any of these efforts would be a fitting way to pay tribute to Rickman, who has left a lasting impact on British culture. I myself will be revisiting Sweeney Todd in the next few days and reviewing Die Hard later this year. If all else fails, I recommend this clip from QI of John Sessions impersonating Rickman with surprising accuracy. RIP.
Daniel

Friday, 15 January 2016

OVERRATED: Wanted (2008)

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Wanted (Germany/ Russia/ USA, 2008)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp

Angelina Jolie's career is as compellingly fractured as many of the characters she has played at her best. She has always been in her element inhabiting individuals who are in some way damaged, conflicted, morally ambiguous or self-doubting, something which is evident in works as massively diverse as Hackers, Girl, Interrupted and A Mighty Heart. Roles like this are a challenge to the image of Jolie which sells glossy magazines and generates online hits; they are roles where her talent makes the headlines, rather than her lips, her husband, or her leg at an award ceremony.
 
Against this series of impressive peaks, there are the multiple, incredibly mainstream troughs in Jolie's career where she has pandered to her image and taken roles that rely partly or solely on her looks. Given that she commands sufficient star power in Hollywood to have been given the chance to direct on three occasions, you can't be blamed for wishing she didn't choose a little more selectively. Wanted is one of the more bearably forgettable troughs, being unintentionally hilarious in parts and more visually engaging than the Tomb Raider series which made her a global star.
 
It is surprisingly difficult to make a grounded and interesting action thriller which is based on either a comic book or its marginally more grown-up cousin, the graphic novel. This becomes harder still when the source material is co-written by Mark Millar, whose work frequently prides itself in being lavishly over-the-top and in extremely bad taste. Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service were successful adaptations because Matthew Vaughn understood how OTT the tone and story were and embraced them with open arms, creating independently-spirited films which delivered blockbuster-quality visuals on a relatively low budget.
 
Wanted is inherently prevented from achieving this level of prowess on two fronts. Firstly, it is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who lacks everything that Vaughn has a director aside from a relatively short attention span. His previous works, such as Night Watch and Day Watch, are largely empty-headed and disposable, and his love of slow-motion in this film borrows far too heavily from the Wachowskis. If only he had borrowed some of The Matrix's philosophy whilst he was at it, this might have been a rather more interesting film.
 
The second problem that Wanted has in this regard is that it is, by its very nature, not independently-spirited. It's the product of a Hollywood system which now regards anything faintly related to comics as a bottomless pit to mine for potential franchises. In order to set up a potential series - a sequel is currently in development hell - the film has had to water down a lot of the edgier, more candidly bad-taste qualities which Millar and J. G. Jones' original miniseries possesed. What in Vaughn's hands could have been enjoyably ridiculous - kind of Flash Gordon on speed - is instead as tediously generic as a Jason Statham film.
 
The departures which Wanted makes from its source material are so vast in places that it should not really be considered an adaptation at all. All adaptations have to reposition or restructure things in order to translate them into the visual language of cinema, but Wanted takes as many liberties with the comics as U-571 did with the history of World War II. Ironically, the level of hackery in the script is so blatent that you don't actually need to be a fan of Millar's work to always spot where the changes has been made.
 
In the original miniseries the Fraternity was not a generic order of assassins which killed whoever they pleased (or were told to - we'll get to that). They were an army of supervillains who attacked superheroes and either killed them or brainwashed them into going after the people they were supposed to be protecting. Millar has always had a knack for subverting aspects of the comic universe with gleeful and contemptuous abandon; for every time he has overstepped the mark, in whatever fashion, his hatred of convention is something to be admired.
What we get in Wanted, by contrast, is a much more standard story about a relative nobody who discovers that his insecurities about the world around him disguise amazing powers, which he can manipulate and which allow him to be manipulated by others. If Neo from The Matrix was the embodiment of every average Joe endowed with special powers, from The Karate Kid to Warriors of Virtue, then Wesley is simply Neo but with panic attacks - and played by a better actor. The sub-bullet time visuals and recurring image of bullets and gun further reinforce the film's derivative nature; all you'd need is some leather jackets and putting Jolie in a latex catsuit and The Matrix rip-off would be complete.
 
But for all the disappointment that a film presents as an adaptation, the real jump-the-shark moment comes when the loom of fate is introduced. Because the film has diluted Millar's humour so much, mistaking dark comedy for general nastiness, it takes on a portentous tone in which its candidly comic-book moments are presented like excerpts from a serious drama. The loom of fate - which isn't in the original series - is presented as something of great significance which should be treated reverentially. But anyone who doesn't snigger or chuckle when they first see it is either a liar or wasn't engrossed enough in the plot to notice its silliness.
 
The sad thing is that, in the right hands, even something as silly as the loom of fate could have worked. The oracle in The Matrix trilogy didn't always make the greatest sense, but the Wachowskis at least tried to make her gift of foresight appear significant to what was unfolding. Vaughn or a more intellectually-minded director could have made it a symbol of oppression and played up the idea of the perfect system turning on itself a lot more. It could have been a rival of the precogs in Minority Report, another lose adaptation of a well-regarded work.
 
Equally, the idea of a rookie who turns on the people who trained him is an age-old trope that can be handled with dexterity. Batman Begins is a perfect example, with Bruce Wayne's rejection of Ra's al Ghul's nihilism early in the film playing just as much a part in the genesis of Batman as the death of Wayne's parents or his fall into the cave. But Wanted is far too interested in loud, empty spectacle to even consider approaching these tropes in an inventive way. It's too afraid that if it stops for more than ten seconds, its predominantly male, teenage target market will get bored, and so its pace never lets up for long enough to let us to think about anything we are seeing.
 
All that distinguishes Wanted in this regard is an unwelcome nastiness which steadily percolates through and turns the film into a revenge thriller. There's nothing on the level of the torture scene in Taken from the same year, insofar as the film doesn't try to make us think that the Fraternity's often reprehensible actions can be entirely justified on a moral level. But the combination of the final act and all the battering that James McAvoy takes beforehand all leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth.
 
In the midst of all this disappointment, it is possible to tolerate Wanted as a piece of utter tosh. It is better directed than the Tomb Raider films (which admittedly isn't very hard) and the sheer ridiculousness of some of its concepts are memorable in their own right (no, curving bullets isn't possible - Mythbusters proved it). Neither Jolie nor McAvoy come out of it very well, both being utterly one-note and superficial, but they are at least more charismatic than their counterparts in Watchmen. And unlike Watchmen, the tone is at least consistent, even if it's completely misjudged.
 
Wanted is a dull, empty disappointment which fails either to do justice to its source material or provide much genuine entertainment outside of it. The performances are rote, the script is largely bereft of wit (with most laughs being unintentional), the premise is far too generic and the visuals are too derivative to hold our attention. As a leave-your-brain-at-the-door action movie, it's watchable but unmemorable, and serves as proof that Jolie can and should do so much better.

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For more on Angelina Jolie's career, check out my WhatCulture! article here.

NEXT REVIEW: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)

Monday, 11 January 2016

RIP David Bowie

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Even without the wall-to-wall media coverage, it feels like the whole world has been in mourning today for David Bowie, who passed away aged 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer. Figures from across the musical world, from Tony Visconti to Iggy Pop and from Brian Eno to Madonna, have been paying tribute to one of the single most influential artists of the 20th century. Nash Bozard, of Radio Dead Air fame, posted a particularly heartfelt message on Facebook, arguing (with some weight) that in 200 years' time Bowie would be as highly regarded as Mozart.
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For me, Bowie remains one of my favourite artists. Long before I discovered The Who and Pink Floyd, I loved him far more than the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones: he balanced being weird, strange and off-piste with a talent for great songwriting, something which I feel John Lennon never did. I've been revisiting some classic tracks today (my favourites being 'Ashes To Ashes' and 'Julie', for very different reasons), and will probably marathon his back catalogue at some point to ease the heartbreak. And, like many others who've posted up their thoughts or gathered in Brixton to pay their respects, my thoughts have also turned to the numerous film appearances which Bowie has left behind, some of which I got the chance to explore in detail during my appearances on Lionheart Radio's The Movie Hour.
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Like his musical career, Bowie's filmography is a fascinating document of self-confident risk-taking. Even his biggest fans would struggle to defend every single choice that he made: Just a Gigolo is just plain terrible, Yellowbeard is a tragic mess and Arthur and the Invisibles was far too derivative. But Bowie never settled inot playing a specific, limiting range of roles, like Marlon Brando did in the later part of his career. He deliberately sought to wrong-foot his audience, and when it worked, he was utterly mesmerising. If Jessica Harper is widely considered to be the queen of cult films - Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, The Blue Iguana, Shock Treatment - then Bowie is a worthy candidate to be the king.
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There are any number of films in which Bowie appears which would make for perfect viewing at this tricky time. Labyrinth provides a sense of comfort and childlike wonder, even amongst all the tight trousers and bizarre Don Quixote references. Into The Night sees him stand out in an indulgent yet fun cameo-fest, with John Landis giving him the room to make a bit part into a who lot more. His Andy Warhol is one of the highlights of Julian Schnabel's otherwise insufferable Basquiat, as he delivers a performance which is both goofy and eerily accurate towards his late friend. In The Last Temptation of Christ, he goes toe to toe with a career-best Willem Dafoe, delivering a Pontius Pilate of multiple intriguing layers. And in The Prestige, he began with one of the coolest entrances of the last decade and kept on climbing from there.
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But for me, like many others, the definitive Bowie performance came in his first and arguably only leading role, as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth. When I reviewed the film some five long years ago, I admitted that it had problems: it's indulgent, slow-moving, makes little sense on a literal level and is something that, for reasons good and bad, could only have been made in the 1970s. But beneath its bizarre storytelling and often disturbing imagery, there's a powerful story about the destructive effects of materialism and self-interest. There's something about Roeg's film, and Bowie's performance in it, that is simultaneously accessible and out of reach: we can understand Newton's plight, but never fully get a handle on him, and that's what makes him so appealing and compelling to this day. Critics often attacked Bowie for just playing himself in films; ironically, the role which most reflected his state of mind at the time is also the most believable character he would ever embody.
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You can track down The Man Who Fell To Earth on DVD pretty easily, though you will need to have patience to give it the treatment it so richly deserves. You can hear me talk more about the film on The Movie Hour podcast here, in addition to episodes on Into The Night and Labyrinth. Suffice to say, I'll be getting my hands on a copy of Blackstar as soon as I can, and shall leave you with this dolorous yet darkly funny track, which closed Bowie's self-titled debut album. RIP.
Daniel