Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Double Bill: A Boy and His Dog (1975) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

God the cinema could be a grim old place in the mid-70s. Carrie, Chinatown, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Where the Marvel age swigs and chokes on life like Cola from a shaken-up can, 70s filmmakers chewed it like a Fray Bentos pie, in a grinding search for meaningful meat. 

Even arriving armed with this knowledge, you can’t help but be struck by the sheer bleakosity of these two movies. Neither finds much to like about people, or hope for existence in general. That doesn’t make them bad; each is compelling enough - but they’re certainly not leading candidates for repeat viewing: A Boy and His Dog is a relentless depiction of an ignorant rapist wandering grotty, post-apocalyptic ruins. The Man Who Fell to Earth is the tale of an alien visitor who is corrupted, exploited and forgotten by modern America.

Sounds fun, huh? 

OK, so they're not Christmas movies, but there are things in there of interest, and though they explore what are very different worlds, they share common interests. For instance, both are fascinated by

Love and Sex

Johnson and Bowie portray characters whose sexuality make the toes curl, although in very different ways. It's a fair bet that A Boy and His Dog would never get made today, with its sex shop, sweaty-palmed atmosphere and ignorant, horny antihero. Partly successful in its depiction of male lust - frustrated and violent on the surface, sanitised and industrialised underground - it's deeply cynical about romance. Here love is a punchline, sex either a weapon or part of an endless cycle of needful urge and fleeting relief.

The Man Who Fell To Earth has an equally bad attitude to love, but comes at it from the androgynous perspective of string thin Mr Newton and his doomed, destructive thing with Mary-Lou. Their relationship can be touching at times, but drives them both crazy as they realise it's built on a lie and that worse, the truth offers nothing better. An attempt to make love with Newton out of his man disguise fails, and though bound together by circumstance, there is soon nothing left between them but resentful dependence. Still, Man Who Fell to Earth does offer a glimmer of hope in Farnsworth's gay relationship, which seems to be genuinely loving and respectful, however briefly it's glimpsed.

Man and Boy

Both films explore how power must assimilate or crush those outside its control.

Lou Craddock only admits outsiders to his bunker in order to pump them for their seed. Then he disposes of them, before their minds can infect his people; a bunker population locked in hypnotised submission, compelled to reenact  nightmarish small-town American group activities: fetes, parades and weddings.

The Man Who Fell to Earth has different sorts of oppressive forces; greed and accumulation. Peters is the agent of a faceless corporation that is driven by a desperate need to absorb Newton's "World Enterprises". He badgers Farnsworth into selling Newton's business, over and over. When it becomes clear Farnsworth won't budge, Peters has him tossed out a window instead.

Both Vic and Newton are kidnapped by these powerful forces, strapped to hospital beds and humiliated with tests and procedures. Both escape, returning to wastelands, and reconnecting with friends they'd meant to leave behind.

Bryce and Blood

The movies have a fraction more time for these friendships than for love. Blood the dog and Newton the alien forgive much of human nature - and these are some pretty wretched examples of humanity: Bryce the conceited lech-turer, out for fame and cash and Vic the simple-minded animal. Both Blood and Newton forgive these despicable men, even when abandoned by them. The message seems to be that friendship, even with a monster, is preferable to isolation.

Dave and Don

Each film's lead is an unforgiving one. Vic is probably one of the least sympathetic roles in cinema, based as it is on an ignorant sexual predator - a similarly revolting protagonist to another canine title, Man Bites Dog. It's remarkable Don Johnson took the role - he must have known it would do very little for his Hollywood leading man prospects.

Bowie's performance, meanwhile, comes across like a confession, his spindly, naked frame starkly illustrating the "ten grams a day" he was doing during the shooting of the film. He genuinely looks like he could be carried up stairs by Mary Lou and it is quite something to see him exposed like that.

Whatever you think of the films, each actor made a very brave choice indeed - braver even than choosing Fray Bentos for dinner.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Casting charisma

Some roles cast themselves

The last day of the summer holiday is a difficult, listless sort of time. The last free moments are precious, but it's hard not to fritter them away brooding on the mundane tasks to be tackled, like the waiting outlook inbox and the fucking ironing. Well, the hell with it. There's half a duty-free Toblerone in the fridge, and as long as there's a triangle left I consider the holiday still on. Let Monday wait.

Instead, here are a few thoughts on some of the TV that's been flickering on Mrs and Mr Wallace's box this year, most of which was consumed over late dinners during what's been a tiring 2015. Light telly has been an essential antidote to punishing work schedules, so while series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad went unfinished, and meaty fare like True Detective and House of Cards passed us by, weak minestrone like

24: Live Another Day 

found its way onto our plates.

24's nag was flogged to a pulpy skeleton well before this latest retread, and Live Another Day felt every bit as tired as you might expect, rolling out the same knackered old nonsense we've seen too many times.

The only thing that held our interest through the slow early episodes were one or two stand out performances. This is a common trick for 24, which has a distinguished history of casting interesting actors - helping it to overcome flabby middle sections and pedestrian scripting through sheer force of personality.

The likes of Penny Johnson, Joaquim De Almeida, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Gregory Itzin kept audiences coming back for more, and Live Another Day is no different.

Michelle Fairley, Michael Wincott and William Devane make it just about worth persisting. Their talents are utterly wasted (it really is poor when you give the President Alzheimer's and fail to make anything of it) but they provide just enough energy to drag the wheezing Bauer vehicle over the finish line. I'm not saying 24 gets everything right (Stephen Fry is just horrible as the Prime Minister) but you have to at least give the show credit for going all-out to cast charisma. Other shows like


fail badly in these stakes.

Someone who may or may not be related to me is a huge fan of this show, and I have watched a fair bit as a consequence. Don't get me wrong, I know this show is not intended for me, but it grates how little strength is to be found among the players - with the honourable exception of Hayden Panettiere, who has tremendous fun chewing up her supporting cast and spitting their flesh at the camera.

Are you my lunch?
It's a frustrating ensemble. Nobody is expecting quality storytelling from escapist hooey like this, but the producers could learn a lot from 24, casting one or two parts on the basis of magnetism as opposed to gorgeousness.

The part of Teddy Conrad, a scandal-stained Nashville politician, is a case in point. It's played by Handsome University graduate, Eric Close, who just doesn't have the chops for the gig. This is perplexing, after the show so quickly dispensed with the services of Powers Boothe, a man who fair sweats sleaze and regret. The writers obviously felt there wasn't room for two politicians: fine, but who the hell voted to keep Close? Boothe could have ruled this thing alongside Panettiere while the pretty folk played their rubbish country. Instead Nashville's makers couldn't wait to kill him off, preferring to invest all baddie duties in the part of Jeff Fordham.

OK, fine, but there are two problems with such a move: First, nobody called Jeff can be intimidating. Second, they again recruited poorly. Oliver Hudson isn't terrible, but in the absence of good lines the part cries out for a heavyweight, a pillar of strength to help Panettiere prop up all the flimsy glitz. James Woods, nut that he is, was surely available? Failing that, Peter Weller? Bill Duke? Michael Ironside? Carl Weathers? I'm just flicking through IMDB here...Might an older, grizzled face help balance all that wretched youth and glamour?

The trick of good casting, surely, is to make a part feel written with the actor in mind, regardless of pedigree. Maybe unknown or unexpected choices could have worked just as well. That is certainly the case with


which was recommended by the brother. At first its casting choices seem deeply odd. I recalled seeing posters for it on the Underground and instantly dismissing it, on what seemed like decent grounds.

Johnny Lee Miller's brilliant turn in Trainspotting never progressed into an interesting movie career, and Lucy Liu, save a great appearance in Futurama, only flickered on the radar for dated telly like Ally McBeal and nightmare pictures like Charlie's Angels. Further, transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern day New York conjured up all manner of scornful preconceptions.

Then we watched the first season and it all made perfect sense. Theirs are the only parts that really matter (although Aidan Quinn provides decent back-up and could clearly do a lot more) and their unlikely pairing just clicks. It seems like the most natural thing in the world after the first episode, but really it was a brave move to put these two together, a risk that pays off handsomely. Their rapport is crucial to the success of the show, elevating it from the white noise of formulaic US crime TV into addictive, watchable fun. If you haven't seen it and need something easy on the little grey cells, do check it out. It'll give you solid evening entertainment, and perhaps make you appreciate the unsung art of Casting Direction all the more.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)

The great thing about iplayer is that it has has a narrow selection of movies, which is a nice alternative to the scrolling endlessness of Amazon Prime and the like. The streamer is compelled to give more consideration to the black and white business on offer. There are gems to be found.

The Quartermass Xperiment is one such. Not a classic, by any means, but creeping close mainly through Val Guest's direction and some extraordinary music from James Bernard, who knew Benjamin Britten, was a classmate of Christopher Lee. and went on to compose Hammer tunes for movies like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out. Guest went on to do all sorts, including The Day The Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth.

The film has a spooky, taut atmosphere and rich, noir look. There are wonderful long, swooping shots over spotlit night scenes and through a beautiful, harsh London. There are powerful images - of the V3 rocket ship, its nose buried in the earth; of its grainy, flaring black box footage; of the lights going out on Battersea Power Station; of Quartermass walking through dots of light.

There's no room for personal feelings in science, Judith

The cast, well they're a bit odd. The cause is Quartermass himself. Casting Brian Donlevy was an outrageous decision, however you slice it. Hammer hired him to market their movie for almighty US dollars, and presumably he possessed some quality a bunch of clueless Englishmen thought quintessentially American.

They were right. He couldn't be more American. And that's the problem. Donlevy's otherness among all the Britishers is richly bizarre. With his long face, bullet shape and rat-a-tat Hollywood delivery, he seems like he would be far happier hunting communists than kicking about London with these goddam limeys. His presence creates powerful tremors in the English setting, as if everyone is performing during an earthquake.

His character is entirely out of sync. Nobody ever refers to Quartermass as 'Doctor', or 'Professor', or explains how the hell he fits. All we know is that he is some kind of freelance Nasa, whose every hare brained scheme the public are delighted to swallow. The British characters happily accommodate him, but take care to talk him out of his more vulgar ideas (like deploying 'dynamite and flame throwers' when the creature gets loose in Westminster Abbey).

The performance certainly can get very funny. There's a wonderful passage between Quartermass and Doctor Briscoe. The Doctor explains the condition of Victor Carroon, the broken shell of an astronaut they rescued from a crashed spaceship: Victor's bone structure has changed, his skin is falling off, and he's clinically dead. Victor's wife enters the room and asks how Victor is doing. Quartermass replies: "He's coming along fine."

When they're not being knocked about by this Yank Tank, the rest of the cast are very good. Richard Wordsworth is excellent as Victor, pulling off a Boris Karloff Thing with aplomb. There's a splendid, lively turn by Harold Lang as Christie. Jack Warner is hugely likeable and despite a weak part shows why Dickson of Dock Green would last for over twenty years. 

Twitter says that X: The Unknown, a kind of sequel, is also on iplayer. That's tempting, but it's worth also considering Rififi, a French noir that was originally screened alongside Xperiment. Rififi was directed by Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted for UnAmerican Activities. Who knows, maybe it was DonLevy who shopped him to the Feds?