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Posts Tagged ‘David Bowie’

Looking ahead to the biggest films of the summer, it’s a fair bet that the latest iteration of Jurassic Park (which appears to focus on people fleeing from dinosaurs and a volcano) will be somewhere near the top of the list. On board for this latest excursion into peril-based running is one of the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as the wacky mathematician. I wonder if there is any correlation between who is fronting a Jurassic Park film and the actual quality of the movie? I always felt that of the original three, the ones with Sam Neill were rather better than the one headed up by Jeff Goldblum (although I suspect Goldblum will be in the heritage cameo slot this year, with Chris Pratt once again doing most of the heavy lifting, heroically speaking).

I mean, I like Jeff Goldblum a lot, and I know that if he’s in a movie then I’m going to enjoy his bits if nothing else. The fact that he seems to be enjoying a bit of a profile spike at the moment (Isle of Dogs, Ragnarok, and the new Jurassic Park) is great. As a movie veteran, he has developed into a great character performer; but looking back at his career one can’t help wondering if he was ever quite cut out to be a leading man in the conventional sense.

Recently making an appearance on the local version of a world-conquering streaming site was John Landis’ 1985 film Into the Night, a black comedy which was really Jeff Goldblum’s first leading role. Exactly what genre (or subgenre) this film belongs to is a curious matter we will return to shortly; suffice to say that it seems to me to be a quintessentially 80s movie.

Goldblum plays Ed Okin, a disaffected executive at an aerospace engineering company in Los Angeles. He is suffering from severe insomnia, which causes his work to suffer, and this in turn results in him discovering his wife is having an affair. Shocked and uncertain, he finds himself driving out to the airport around midnight, perhaps contemplating flying off to parts unknown. He arrives there just in time to meet Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman-on-the-make who’s just returned from Europe. The guy meeting Diana is killed by a quartet of hoodlums of Middle Eastern origin, and they seem intent on taking a similar interest in her. Needless to say she hurls herself into Ed’s car and begs that he drive her out of there.

Ed, naturally, has no idea what’s going on, and just wants to conclude their association and go home (he seems to have been startled out of his ennui),  but – inevitably – events conspire to keep them together. (Plus, every time she says ‘Please stay with me for a little while longer’, he seems just a little too willing to agree.) It turns out that Diana has got herself mixed up in a dodgy deal involving the heritage of the Shah of Iran and some jewel smuggling, and now various heavies of Iranian, French, and British origin are on her tail. Can either of them get through the night in one piece?

Careers go up, careers go down; Goldblum had been appearing in films for over ten years by 1985, and was just on the verge of breaking through to genuine stardom (he appeared in The Fly the following year). Pfeiffer wasn’t quite so well established, being mainly known for Grease 2 and Scarface at the time, but was just beginning the run of movies that would lead to her becoming one of the most successful actresses of the late 80s and 90s. John Landis, on the other hand, had already directed The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but from the mid-80s on he would struggle to consistently find creative or commercial success. You could argue that Into the Night marks the onset of this: Landis’ previous movie, Trading Places, made $90 million; Into the Night made less than eight.

There were quite a few films with a similar theme doing the rounds in the middle 80s. I’ve heard this described as the ‘yuppie nightmare’ or ‘yuppie in peril’ subgenre, but the thing is that this seems mainly used to describe films like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and Bad Influence, straight thrillers concerning the ‘[insert noun] from hell’ – the one night stand from hell, the room-mate from hell, or whatever. I think that Into the Night represents something a bit odder and more obscure, which I would refer to as ‘yuppie-led-astray’ movies (a different subgenre – or perhaps subsubgenre?). Into the Night came out in early 1985, Scorsese’s After Hours appeared later the same year, and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was released in 1986: all of them concern outwardly successful but quietly unhappy men who find themselves involved in a series of misadventures after encountering a free-spirited young woman.

As Into the Night was the first of these films off the blocks, it can hardly be that people were already sick of the idea when it came out, so its relative lack of success must be due to something else. One of the elements of the film singled out for criticism by directors at the time is the fact that it is stuffed with cameos by Landis’ friends and acquaintances from the film-making world. If you really know your stuff you can spot people like Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Rick Baker, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg, all making small appearances. I’m not sure this is necessarily a huge problem, as it’s only distracting if you have a genuinely encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – I’m a big fan of Jack Arnold’s films, for example, but I had no idea what he looked like until I found out he’d been in this film.

More of a problem is the sense that the elements of the yuppie-led-astray film are here in embryonic form but haven’t quite fully developed yet. The best of these films have a strong sense of time about them: After Hours takes place in the course of a single night, Something Wild over a single weekend. You would expect Into the Night to follow the same pattern, with the main action of the film all happening in the course of a night and the climax, perhaps, coming at dawn. This is not the case – about two thirds of the way through, a new day dawns, and there’s about ten minutes of plot before the protagonists decide to nap through until the following evening, which is when the rest of it takes place (the conclusion is not great, and the film ambles to a close rather than actually having a strong climax). Maybe they just ran out of money for night shooting; certainly the production values of some parts of this film resemble those of an episode of The A Team or The Rockford Files rather than a genuine movie.

I think it may just be that John Landis wasn’t quite a good enough director to pull off this kind of movie, as they require a level of wit and subtlety that you don’t necessarily associate with this director, except perhaps in American Werewolf. There are some rather embarrassing slapstick hoodlums in this movie, one of whom is played by Landis himself; in one particularly tonally-off moment a gag where they struggle to get through a door, which is not funny, is followed by them pursuing and then murdering a fleeing woman, which would never be funny. There is a definite problem with pervasive misogyny in this movie, I would say: most of the women in it are, if not actually prostitutes or mistresses, then defined by their attractiveness. There’s also a fair degree of gratuitous nudity in it, all female of course.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer is required to get every stitch of kit off for a couple of brief sequences, but she manages to rise above this, not to mention a generally underwritten part, and delivers a convincing and effective performance as a recognisably human character. You can see why she became such a big star. Can the same be said for Jeff Goldblum? Well – here’s the thing about the protagonists of yuppie-led-astray films; they are by nature hapless everymen, audience identification figures plunged into peculiar and unexpected worlds. Goldblum is a fine performer, but he is almost always the quirky one, the slightly off-kilter character. In this film he has to rein all of that in and be the most normal thing in the movie, basically spending nearly two hours reacting to the more eccentric characters around him (and some of them are highly eccentric: David Bowie cameos as an extremely polite moustachioed English hitman). And you can’t help feeling, what a waste of potential. This isn’t to say Goldblum is bad in this film, but you’re just aware he can be much better when he isn’t so badly miscast.

Into the Night is basically one of those odd movies which has a certain kind of curiosity value and passes the time in a not too objectionable manner. The thing is that everyone in it is much better in other, more famous movies; it’s not the director’s best work, either; and this whole style of story is handled much, much better in other movies (my recommendation would be Something Wild, which is darker, stranger, sexier, and more emotionally engaging). Just about worth watching though, particularly if you like Goldblum and Pfeiffer.

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We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.

One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.

the-prestige-2006

I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.

The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…

Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.

I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.

But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.

It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.

The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.

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