Goodbye, Nicolas Roeg


Sadly, the death of director Nicolas Roeg was announced on Saturday. He was ninety.

Roeg made some of my very favourite films including Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, where he cast David Bowie as a melancholy humanoid alien, after seeing his coke-addled appearance on Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary in 1975. A typically inspired (and brave) decision.

Roeg’s works often featured visual pyrotechnics along with non-linear storytelling. He was a unique talent, often cruelly ignored in his latter years, his 2007 adaptation of the Fay Weldon novel Puffball being his final cinematic outing.

As a tribute to the great man, I thought I’d repost a review from another site where I called Roeg ‘very likely the greatest living British director’. Here’s my thoughts on his 1983 movie Eureka, which starred Gene Hackman and his one-time wife Theresa Russell.

Nicolas Roeg

Eureka (1983)

Considering some of the visually stunning films he has directed such as Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg is a strangely neglected name in cinema nowadays.

Time Out did though recently name Don’t Look Now as the greatest ever British film, while Performance was named seventh on the list. Danny Boyle is a huge fan, as are Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai.

How many British directors today could be called visionaries? Maybe Jonathan Glazer, whose last film Under the Skin resembled Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in many ways. Possibly Lynn Ramsay too but not many names spring to mind. Roeg is undoubtedly a visionary, capable at his best of making experimental, intelligent and provocative films that often spoke to audiences beyond the arthouse but despite this, he has only a single directing credit to his name since the mid 1990s.

In addition to his obvious facility with visuals, he has also often demonstrated a real gift for risk taking – I doubt after seeing an super-emaciated and coke-addled David Bowie in the BBC documentary Cracked Actor that any other director would have decided to offer the singer a lead role in their next film but Roeg did and in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he coaxed the finest ever performance from Bowie on the big screen.

Made early in the decade of Greed is Good and with a screenplay by Paul Mayersberg based loosely on a book by Marshall Houts, Eureka baffled the studio execs at MGM, as well as many potential distributors and some of the few cinema goers that got the chance to actually see it during its long delayed and highly limited run.

Eureka 1983

Like much of Roeg’s work this is a multi-layered movie. Many of his trademark characteristics are on display including his use of quickfire and intriguing visual juxtapositions. Early in the film, for example, a smiling man, who is sat shoeless on a icy street blows his brains out which cuts immediately to fireworks and later we see almost dreamlike footage of Jack, a gold prospector played by Gene Hackman, in a cavern hacking out a stream of gold while tiny flakes of the substance swirl all around him repeatedly intercut with shots of Jack’s consumptive former lover Frieda dying in the bordello she runs.

The usual esoteric Roeg ideas percolate throughout the script. At a dinner party, Jack’s son-in-law Claude Malliot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer), wears a shirt decorated with symbols from the Kabbalah and takes part in secret voodoo ceremonies (don’t ask me the connection between the two). Frieda, played by Helena Kallianiotes, appears to be able to see into the future while his wife Helen (Jane Lapotaire) – who bears a definite resemblance to Frieda – reads tarot cards. Various motifs and themes appear or are discussed: numerology, the stars, reflections, alchemy.

Over the end credits Jack’s voice is heard reciting some poetry by Robert Service with the key line: ‘it isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold’ and this sums up his life when we rejoin him twenty years after his moment of fantastic fortune, by which time he is the richest man in the world, owning a opulent home on a private Caribbean island paradise.

Here, Helen is terminally bored and much too fond of the bottle for her own good while their headstrong daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) has married a man who McCann despises and believes is a gold digger of a very different kind to himself.

Eureka - Gene Hackman

A battle rages between Jack and Claude over the affections of Tracy and problematically this is a battle where it’s hard to work out who you want to win: McCann is sometimes racist, pig-headed and prone to repeat his boastful mantra of ‘I never earned a nickel from another man’s sweat’, while Claude, is vain and lazy and worse still, a coward who fled from his native France rather than stand against the Nazis but who likes to think of himself as superior to Jack and takes great pleasure in lecturing to him: ‘You didn’t earn the gold, Jack. You took it from Nature. You raped the Earth.’

Like Hackman, Hauer is superb here and the film also benefits from relatively minor but powerful turns from Joe Pesci playing Mayakofsky, a scheming and ruthless mobster desperate to build a casino complex on McCann’s island while Mickey Rourke is in terrific form too as his lawyer Aurelio D’Amato.

There will be blood and when it comes at the end of the second act it will come in the form of one of the most savage murder I have ever seen in a film.

Sadly, though, the final part of Eureka is a disappointment, featuring mainly an extended trial that struck me as being more appropriate for a play than a Nic Roeg film. Theresa Russell, who was Roeg’s wife at the time, doesn’t pull off the impact required to make this section come alive the way the first act clearly did but despite this, I was very pleased to see the movie again and those first twenty or so minutes are as dazzling, mysterious and engrossing to watch as just about any section of Roeg’s better known works.

Laws of Gravity: 1992 (American Indie #1)

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Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Jon

Low-budget independent movies were becoming increasingly big news in the early 1990s. Inspired by sex, lies and videotape and Slacker, a new generation of independent filmmaking talent began to trickle out, their work showered with plaudits and picked up by respected distribution companies.

This conveyor belt of talent included Tom Kalin (Swoon); Hal Hartley (Trust & Simple Men); Carl Franklin (One False Move); Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede); Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup) and, of course Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs).

Set in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint district, Laws of Gravity was another example of this trend. I saw it just after it had debuted in Britain at the Edinburgh Film Festival and thought it might just make a breakthrough of sorts. At any rate the career of its Boston born director Nick Gomez was obviously one to keep a close eye on.

Laws of Gravity and Reservoir Dogs were the two independents that stood out for me around this time and I penned gushing reviews of both a few years later for a fanzine that called it a day a matter of only weeks after its one and only issue was printed up and then just about universally ignored. I can’t find my copy anywhere, which is maybe be a blessing in disguise. I might have been just too gushing.

Much was made at the time of the fact that Laws of Gravity was made on an ultra-low budget. A figure of $38,000 was bandied around, albeit this rose significantly when the movie was blown up from 16mm to 35mm for festival screenings and its theatrical release. Even then, compared to big Hollywood studio standards, the film still cost peanuts. Soon it would become almost a badge of honour to have maxed out your credit cards, participated in medical testing studies and stopped eating for several months in order to get your film made on the paltriest sum imaginable.

After editing Hartley’s Trust – where Edie Falco (The Sopranos) earned an early role – Nick Gomez decided he wanted to write and direct. As part of filmmaking collective the Shooting Gallery, he penned a script for Laws of Gravity within three weeks but used this only as a blueprint.

Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Denise

He utilised actors he already knew like Edie Falco (as Jimmy’s girlfriend Denise) and Adam Trese and gathered them together, rehearsing extensively, letting them immerse themselves thoroughly into their parts. Before too long, he was on the streets shooting his film – which he did in only twelve days.

This is the story of two twenty-something mooks, told over the course of three days. Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese) hang around on street corners, flogging off stolen goods like ghetto-blasters for whatever they can get. Their lives are directionless. Jimmy owes money and is on probation. Jon thinks its a clever idea to skip a court hearing.

The macho bravado displayed by the pair is shared by just about every guy here and repeatedly spills over into violence, usually in a local Irish bar where Jimmy and Jon like to hang out.

Jimmy has opportunities but he refuses legit employment. The nearest he gets to a job is looking after Jon, this being pretty much a full-time occupation. He tries to advise Jon and sort out the problems that Jon inevitably finds himself in because, as he puts it, he’s ‘more diplomatic’.

Not that he’s any kind of Kofi Annan figure, though.

Jon, who resembles a smaller Christian Bale, has one thing going for him, Celia, his long-suffering girlfriend (Arabella Field). Not that he remotely appreciates her, slapping her around repeatedly, even in front of pals like Jimmy.

When an old pal Frankie (Paul Schulze), returns from Florida with a trunkful of firearms in his stolen car and tries to interest Jimmy and Jon in them, viewers should pretty much sense how the film will end.

Let’s just say that testosterone levels rise even further.

Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Jon with guns

A visit to neighbouring Williamsburg (when it housed more Hispanics than Hipsters) almost escalates into real trouble. It’s avoided this time round but you sense that this is only a temporary reprieve.

It’s a gripping ninety minutes albeit uncomfortably close to Mean Streets – Jon is even referred to as Johnny Boy at one point. During an interview with Hal Hartley just after the film’s release, Gomez went as far to speak about sampling Scorsese. Many critics resented this aspect of Laws of Gravity but the action comes more from the earlier life of the young director than from Scorsese’s breakthrough hit.

Like Mean Streets, the hand-held camerawork gives the film a terrific sense of immediacy. From its opening shots of Jimmy waking up the acting is remarkably naturalistic. It almost feels like you’re watching real people rather than actors.

The dialogue might lack the flash and rapid-fire pop culture zing of Tarantino’s debut but it’s equally effective, working especially well when the actors simultaneously blurt out dialogue in a manner that suggests it’s been improvised.

Greene is especially good, portraying Jimmy perfectly, at the end of his tether with Jon but determined to ensure that he does what he thinks is the right thing out of his misguided sense of loyalty. I’m guessing Tarantino was impressed too. He cast Peter Greene as Zed in Pulp Fiction and a line from The Gold Watch sequence of that movie gave the aforementioned fanzine its name – Zed’s Dead, Baby.

Despite predicting that Greene was really going places, this somehow never quite happened although he’s appeared in a long list of films and TV dramas since. Few of these have been as good as Laws of Gravity although Clean Shaven features a wonderfully intense performance from him that demonstrates his talent to the fullest.

Laws of Gravity isn’t Citizen Kane or Chinatown but, along with One False Move, it is one of the most under-rated indies of the 1990s.

Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) – New Waves #4

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Une Femme est une Femme

And now something from the Big Daddy of cinematic new waves, the French Nouvelle Vague, and a movie I mentioned last week.

‘It was my first real film,’ Godard once declared, although during the 1970s he also denounced it as a ‘bourgeois experiment’. I disagree with him on both counts. Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) was his first real film and if Une Femme est une Femme really was a ‘bourgeois experiment’ then I’ll take it over any of his output from his interminably dull and often impenetrable political period.

My initial interest in Godard was perked through being a fan of punk band Subway Sect and learning that their singer Vic had taken his stage surname after the French-Swiss director. When I discovered that a film by him was being screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre, I decided to investigate. This was Une Femme Est Une Femme.

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Une Femme Est Une Femme opens in attention grabbing fashion. It announces that it won two major prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and then elongated words flash up in red, white and blue and dominate the screen. These include cast members, influences, genre and more.

Godard Opening Credits Typography

A voice off camera (which we’ll soon recognise as belonging to the star of the film) exclaims: ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ And we’re off.

That star was Godard’s new wife Anna Karina. She plays Angela Recamier, a Danish striptease artist who works at a dowdy Parisian club called the Zodiac. Early on and dressed as a sailor, she performs a coquettish routine, singing:

‘People always wonder why / People stare when I pass by / But it isn’t hard to see / Why the boys all go for me.’

It certainly isn’t.

Anna Karina - Une Femme Est Une Femme

Une Femme Est Une Femme is usually said to be Godard’s tribute to the Hollywood musical, but don’t expect Singin’ in the Rain or anything resembling a musical in the traditional sense. This little number is as close as you’ll get to that.

Don’t expect a complicated plot either. Angela suddenly decides she wants a baby, and she wants one fast. Her boyfriend Emile (Jean Claude Brialy) also wants a baby but not so fast. He’d rather wait and get married before even starting to think about children. Waiting in the wings is Emile’s pal Alfred, who is also in love with Angela and who she might just think is father material too. You wouldn’t blink an eye if the same scenario was played out today in some kooky indie drama or sitcom but before the 1960s started to properly swing this might have been considered somewhat contentious.

Alfred Lubitsch is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and the Lubitsch part is his name is intended as a little homage to German director Ernst Lubitsch, best known for his sophisticated comedies like Design for Living (the plot of which resembles Une Femme Est Une Femme). This is a movie with levels of cinematic self-referencing that might even make Quentin Tarantino raise an eyebrow.

Alfred mentions that he wants to watch À Bout de Souffle on TV, while later he just happens to be standing in a bar next to Jeanne Moreau. ‘How goes it with Jules and Jim?’ he asks the star of that film. ‘Moderato,’ she replies, Belmondo and Moreau having recently starred together in Peter Brooks’ Moderato Cantabile. Marie Dubois from Shoot the Piano Player by Godard’s fellow new wave pioneer François Truffaut also makes a cameo appearance as a friend of Angela. And guess which film they discuss?

Like À Bout de Souffle, this is very playful. It breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. Sometimes explanations of the film’s narrative are superimposed onto the screen and, as Alfred and Angela walk along a Paris street, Angela announces that she’d like to be in a musical and suddenly she is, although without Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly with choreography by Bob Fosse, which she also wants.

Anna Karina with red umbrella

Emile rides his bike around the flat. After an argument with Angela, the pair refuse to talk to one another and instead thrust books with insulting titles like Monster and Get Stuffed! into one another’s faces. There are sight gags and non-sequiturs and everything is charming bar when Alfred and an ex-landlord hurl abuse at one another.

Cahiers Du Cinema summed it up as ‘Cinema in its pure state’. It says little but says little so stylishly and in such a innovative manner that it’s still very enjoyable. Few actresses have ever looked as luminously beautiful as Anna Karina and, while smoking is a highly addictive and unhealthy, Jean-Paul Belmondo proves conclusively that it can also look amazingly cool. Well, if you’re Jean-Paul Belmondo anyway.

Belmondo & Karina

This are many highlights although but my favourite scene is Alfred and Angela sitting together in a bistro listening to Tu t’laisses aller by Shoot the Piano Player star Charles Aznavour on the jukebox. There’s no dialogue as the song plays, just close-ups of the pair and shots of the record revolving. Alfred blows smoke upwards towards the ceiling. Angela fidgets, sips Dubonnet, looks into a mirror and contemplates a photo that Alfred has decided to show her. The acting here is understated yet superb.

Decades after seeing my first Jean-Luc Godard movie at the GFT, Vic Godard was invited to select a movie for a Monorail Film Club presentation at the same venue, before taking part in a Q&A about Jean-Luc Godard and European cinema.

He chose to screen Pierrot le Fou, which is a better film than Une Femme Est Une Femme but really, all his early work should be seen if possible. If you’re thinking of seeking out anything he was involved in after he embraced Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, then be prepared to be bored and baffled rather than breathless.

* If you like Une Femme Est Une Femme you might also like the work of François Truffaut. Very roughly speaking, Godard and Truffaut were to French cinema in the 1960s what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were to British music.

If asked what would be a perfect introduction to the Truffaut filmography, I would choose either The 400 Blows or Jules and Jim.



Daisies (New Waves #3)


Daises 1966 poster (Unknown Artist)

Věra Chytilová’s Daisies came out in 1966, the same year that The Velvet Underground recorded their debut album. Each was seen as absolutely radical on their release.

Nowadays The Velvet Underground & Nico is much revered, a staple of Greatest Ever Albums lists and the subject of near unanimous critical accolades. Daisies? Well, even all these years later the jury is still out on it. For the British Film Institute it’s ‘undeniably a masterpiece’ while Time Out London moaned: ‘As an allegory it lacks any resonance, as a movie it stinks.’

Dedicated to those who ‘get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce’, it’s certainly a film that once seen will never be forgotten.

From its opening credits featuring footage of devastation such as aerial bombardments and collapsing buildings juxtaposed with images of some metal shifting gears in motion to the soundtrack of stop/start drums accompanied by a bizarre bugle call, Daisies demands attention.


This is dizzying stuff, a dazzling and frenetic film that makes even an early Jean-Luc Godard French New Wave movie like Un Femme Est Une Femme look almost conservative. Sedmikrásky, to give it its Czech name, comes over like some Dada performance from the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 crossed with a drug fuelled psychedelic happening.

Yeah, I feel the director could have been reined in at times and found the frequent changes of colour a little tiresome – some scenes were shot in luscious colour, other scenes in black and white, others were tinted various colours by a number of filters. Almost as if the director wanted to use every single camera effect she had at her disposal for the sake of it. Sometimes arbitrarily within the same scene.


Maybe this is to parallel the infantile way the two leads behave throughout the film. Certainly if they were given access to a camera, this might well resemble the kind of movie they might make.

By any standards, though, it’s a remarkable work and even more remarkable when you consider the backdrop to its making. Okay, I’m no expert in Eastern European history, but here’s a little background.

After being occupied by the Nazis, Czechoslovakia had Communism foisted upon it in the wake of WWII. Inevitably, the film industry suffered through censorship. Even though the authorities did like the idea of their films being feted internationally (and the subsequent hard currency this would bring into the country), they couldn’t stomach anything that might be seen as critical of the regime.

The Nová Vlna (New Wave) directors were typically far from pro-Communist but as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it in his book Making Waves: ‘Rarely were films made which were a deliberate provocation to the authorities, but they gave offence none the less.’ Even their non-confrontational stance could prove controversial. ‘Film-makers were trying to be apolitical in a situation when being apolitical was not an option.’

Daisies, though, did obviously set out to be confrontational. As Chytilová explained in Journey,Jasmina Blažević’s documentary portrait of her: ‘I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake.’

A salvo against the dogmatic brand of bureaucratic government imposed on her country, Daisies tells the story (of sorts) of two girls, Marie I and Marie 2, played by non-professional actors Jitka Cerhová (brunette) and Ivana Karbanová (strawberry blonde with floral headband & also seen in the right hand side of this blog’s header). Without any real discussion, the girls conclude the world is bad and, therefore, they should be bad themselves. Equally coquettish and irritating, the Marie characters – who assume many different names throughout – are given no depth and could even be interchangeable.


The girls behave badly. They lead older men on then abandon them once meals have been paid for. They visit a cabaret bar where a vaudeville act is performing and steal alcoholic drinks from everyone around them and cause havoc before being thrown out by the manager. They steal from a woman who is shown to be friendly towards them. Most famously, they stumble into a banquet hall where a mammoth array of delicacies has been laid out on platters and plates, presumably for a gathering of bigwig party dignitaries.

The Maries mush up the food and devour it with their hands. With the gargantuan appetites they display throughout the film it’s a wonder they’re not absolutely obese. They slug back wine and glug Johnny Walker Red label. Plates are broken. Bottles are smashed. They parade over the tables, stepping directly on to the feast – ruining more than just a stomped-upon bed of lettuce with every step.

Daisies ends with a spectacular food fight.


The Communist authorities were never going to approve of content like this, but the climax somehow riled them more than any other aspect of the film. Labelled as ‘depicting the wanton’, this ensured that it would earn a ban.

Jitka Cerhová, interviewed in French newspaper Libération years later, recalled: ‘You can’t imagine how these scenes, where we threw down the table and the platters of a sumptuous banquet, were shocking in a country where people waited on line for hours in front of grocery stores.’

Sadly, Chytilová struggled to find any approved work as a director in her homeland for years. At one point in the mid-1970s, the woman dubbed the ‘First Lady of Czech Cinema’ even resorted to writing to then President Gustav Husak, begging for her right to direct. She pledged her allegiance to ‘socialism’ and argued against criticisms of her work including Daisies, which she described it as a ‘morality play’, suggesting that her film should be interpreted in a completely different light – the bad behaviour of her two leads reflected the lives of apathetic young people when they’re ‘left to [their] own devices’. The two Maries and their ‘malacious pranks’ could be due to their lack of work and undeveloped political consciousness.

Yeah, right.

The letter worked. In 1977, she was allowed to direct The Apple Game, which I have yet to see and which isn’t currently available to buy in Britain.
Daisies, though, has just came out as a region free Blu-Ray from Second Run.

Extras include two separate audio commentaries (which I haven’t yet heard), a 20-page booklet, and Journey – the aforementioned documentary.

For anybody interested in the Czechoslovak New Wave, groundbreaking female directors or experimental cinema of the 1960s, this is something you’ll want to get your hands on.

* If you like Daisies then you might also like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which also displays a strong surrealist influence. The screenplay was adapted by director Jaromil Jireš, along with Ester Krumbachová, who also had a hand in writing Daisies. Oh, and the score is one of the magical you could ever hope to hear.

For more on Daisies: http://www.secondrundvd.com/release_daisiesBD.html

When Harry met Debbie (Harry)

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This week I’ve been reviewing a couple of films for another site. Hitler’s Hollywood examines the blatant propaganda employed by the Nazis once they seized power in Germany in 1933. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, this made for some particularly painful – but enlightening – viewing, especially when seeing excerpts from films whose main purpose was to scapegoat Jews.

The other film was Lucky, the cinematic swan song of Harry Dean Stanton. A film about mortality that features a ninety year old man and eschews any real action or (outward) conflict, this is another movie I’d highly recommend.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Harry was featuring in big cult successes like Paris, Texas and Repo Man (both from 1984). Back then he was around the age I am now, and as you can likely guess from that statement, Lucky might make you meditate on your own mortality.

Lucky recently enjoyed an overdue theatrical release in Britain, by which point Harry had sadly died. It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in Britain on the twelfth of this month and comes along with a number of very welcome extras, most particularly Sophie Huber’s impressionistic 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.

Harry Dean Stanton - Partly Fiction

Here we follow Harry around his home and haunts in Hollywood. He sings a bunch of songs like Blue Bayou and Danny Boy and it would have to be admitted, his croon could best be described as ragged.

It’s impossible to imagine this frail old-timer delivering lines like speed snorting Bud did in Repo Man: ‘An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A Repo Man spends his life getting into tense situations.’

Inevitably, we’re shown clips from that movie and some of the two hundred plus others he acted in during his long career like Cool Hand Luke, Alien and The Straight Story.

David Lynch & Harry Dean Stanton - Partly Fiction

No natural raconteur, Stanton is cagey about his private life, albeit he does admit to being something of a ladies man and tells the story of losing an unnamed girlfriend to Tom Cruise. Without wanting to go all gossip magazine, that’ll be Rebecca De Mornay.

Possibly to help open him up, he’s filmed meeting up with pals like Straight Story director David Lynch, who also appears in Lucky, and Kris Kristofferson, who Stanton acted with in Cisco Pike and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Debbie (or Deborah as she’s styled here) Harry also makes an appearance.

Although always liking the song, until watching Partly Fiction, I hadn’t realised that Debbie had name-checked him in I Want That Man: ‘I want to dance with Harry Dean / Drive through Texas in a black limousine.’

How cool is that? Debbie Harry writing a song about you and it going on to become her biggest solo hit?

Harry Dean, unfortunately, didn’t pick up on the fact himself for a number of years. Eventually, Debbie gave him a call and the two immediately bonded, striking up a long-lasting friendship. Or was it more than that? She phones him again midway through the documentary and gets a little flirty. Lucky ol’ Harry Dean Stanton.

Deborah Harry - Partly Fiction

While shooting the breeze with David Lynch, Harry is asked how he’d like to be remembered. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ he replies without any hesitation.

Maybe this kind of thing didn’t matter to Stanton, but I’ll remember him very fondly anyway. He was one of the most consistently good American actors of the past fifty years and, as one of the most consistently good American critics Roger Ebert once put it: ‘No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.’

Partly Fiction is an occasionally fascinating watch though far from essential. Along with Lucky, though, it makes for a great package.

More Harry Dean in the near future, folks.