Bowiefest Day Two – Review

Although opening night was a fantastic experience, today was the day that Bowiefest really got going. Four films back-to-back that feature David Bowie throughout – three of them in leading acting roles. What I wasn’t prepared for was how exhausting the day would be. Physically (9 hours in a cinema seat with only a 10 minute gap between films), but also mentally – the first three films were all over 2 hours long and had themes ranging from the treatment of POWs in Japan during WWII to the child sex-trade. Thank God I’ve got Labyrinth to look forward to tomorrow.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Nagisa Oshima’s first film for a western audience features Bowie as Jack Celliers; a rebellious Major in the British Army who surrenders himself to save a village and forms a complex relationship with his POW Camp Commander (also played by a ‘rock star’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto).

This is a fascinating clash of cultures on a number of levels, and the eponymous Mr Lawrence (played beautifully by Tom Conte) sums up the heart of the film towards the end saying “we’re all wrong”.

Bowie has said that this is his most credible performance, and it’s easy to see why. He’s not playing a version of himself here, rather he plays Celliers like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. This film is the perfect riposte to any lingering doubts about his acting ability.

The most interesting dynamic in the film though is Conte’s Colonel Lawrence (a British officer who speaks Japanese and tries to understand his Japanese captors) and Sgt. Hara, the Japanese second-in-command played by Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano in his first English-language film. The mutual respect is always on a knife-edge between these two soldiers, with Hara telling Lawrence during a particularly heartfelt scene that he would admire Lawrence “more if you killed yourself”.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a complex and layered study of duty, shame, and the unlikely relationships that develop during times of war.

The Man Who Fell To Earth

This film was Bowie’s first major acting role, and features him playing an alien who has come to Earth with the best intentions of saving his home planet, but who becomes seduced by the temptations of the human race. Sound familiar?

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a massively ambitious film from Nic Roeg, and it quite literally reaches for the stars. The story is a bit of a mess at times however, and its 139 minute run time is a sign that a stricter editor may have been able to pull together a tighter film.

Its saving grace is in the universally excellent performances. Bowie was cast by Roeg after seeing the Cracked Actor documentary, which featured the singer showing the signs of being a paranoid outsider that simply are Thomas Jerome Newton. Rip Torn is also captivating as the scientist who gives up his easy life of teaching and sleeping with students at a university to become Newton’s closest advisor.

There are a great number of brilliant ideas going on here, but the overall picture is arguably a little less than the sum of its parts.

Christiane F

Christiane F has been the real surprise of the festival for me. Directed by Uli Edel in 1981, this West German film follows the story of the title character as she goes from 13 year-old girl sneaking into a club called Sound to 14 year-old drug addict and, eventually, victim of the sex industry.

Shot on largely on handheld cameras, it’s a cinema verite look at a shocking underbelly in a modern (at the time) western city. The actors were almost all non-professional, and it’s incredible to think that Natja Brunckhorst (playing Christiane) was only 14 at the time of filming. I have not been punched in the stomach like this by a performance for a very long time.

Halfway through the film, the potential significance of the title is revealed, and the viewer spends the last half of the film feeling physically sick (on a number of occasions this is due to the shockingly realistic portrayal of drug addiction on screen), and by the end of the film I had to get out of the cinema just to catch my breath.

To compound my feelings, it was only after the screening I realised the film is based on the true-life memoirs of Christiane. This explains my feeling that at times this played out like an extreme public information video about the dangers of drugs. Christiane’s descent was predictable, with each step telegraphed at times – but it’s this predictability and inevitability which is at the heart of the films power.

An incredible experience.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s debut film about ‘vampires’ is very eighties, schlocky, and quite a bit of fun. Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam, an Egyptian immortal who drinks the blood of her victims – but without fangs, or an aversion to sunlight. Part of this films problem is it doesn’t know if it’s a vampire piece or not.

Bowie plays her current lover, a 300 year-old cellist who starts to age rapidly (with some fantastic make-up for the time – certainly better than the recent attempt on J. Edgar). He seeks out the help of aging-specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (a very young Susan Sarandon). However, when Bowie ‘dies’, Miriam decides to seduce Roberts and make her the new companion.

I’ll be honest, it was late, and I was tired, but this was a pretty ridiculous film. The very graphic sex-scene between Deneuve and Sarandon seemed to produce more laughs than anything else in the audience, and the last half-hour was even more ludicrous.

However, there was still a lot of fun to be had and as an insight into the work of the recently deceased Tony Scott it was most interesting.

A tiring day, but a very enjoyable one. It was great to see some films I’d not seen in years on the big screen – and in a couple of cases the scratchy film added to the experience. Christiane F in particular will stay with me for a very long time.

One day to go…

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