David Thewlis

The Big Lebowski

24/09/18

The news that The Big Lebowski is celebrating its twentieth anniversary has a strangely sobering effect on me. Can it really be that long since I first saw it?  Twenty years? And then comes the knockout punch: my interest in the films of the Coen Brothers goes back much further than that.

In 1984, as a film reviewer and broadcaster for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, I saw their brilliant debut film, Blood Simple, and was lucky enough to interview them afterwards. They were a revelation, Joel and Ethan, these two nerdy kids with weird Minnesotan accents, who gleefully told me how they’d raised enough money to shoot the first three minutes of the film – and how they’d then shown that footage to a bunch of investors and asked them for the money to shoot the next three minutes – and so on and so forth.

I remember thinking that these two would go a long way, but I couldn’t then have guessed at the prodigious output they would eventually be responsible for – how their names would become the closest thing to a seal of quality that the movie world has to offer. Oh sure, we can all name Coen Brothers films that haven’t quite hit all the targets – The Ladykillers, anyone? Intolerable Cruelty? But the truth is, the Coens at their least effective are better than many directors at the top of their game.

Hell, The Big Lebowski isn’t even their best film, but it’s surely their most loved and the one most likely to be accorded the term ‘cult movie.’  At its heart is Jeff Bridge’s iconic performance as The Dude, a man who has developed slacking into a fine art. He may stand for many things we wouldn’t personally encourage, but we cannot help but adore him as he stumbles haplessly through this tale of mistaken identity, cowboy monologues, naked performance art and tenpin bowling. Mind you, there’s more than just Bridges’ efforts behind this beauty. John Goodman as Walter, a man perpetually boiling over with anger management issues, has surely never been better. And there are other, smaller roles featuring brilliant actors all giving it their absolute best – Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, all nailing what amount to little more than cameo roles and giving their characters life beyond the screen. There’s even a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance by David Thewlis that’s nearly worth the price of admission alone.

The plot? Well, now, that’s so throwaway, it barely merits a mention. It’s essentially an excuse to link together a series of comic set pieces, Busby Berkely-inspired dance routines and some of the most quotable one-liners in film history.

I’m clearly not alone in my admiration for Lebowski. The biggest screen at the Cameo Cinema is pretty much sold out on a Monday evening, proof if it were ever needed of the high esteem in which this film is held. When I originally heard about the re-release, I thought, ‘Nah, I’ve seen it so many times before… what’s the point?’

But who was I kidding? The chance of watching it again on the big screen overruled common sense. What else was there to do but put on my ‘Dude’ T-shirt and get on down there? Because this is a film you can watch time and time again, and still find fresh revelations. Plus, viewing it with an audience just reminds you how good it really is.

The Dude abides. He really does.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Anomalisa

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13/03/16

Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most original and intriguing films of recent years – Inside John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synechdoche New York, to name but three. When I tell you that Anomalisa is created using stop frame animation, you may have preconceptions of what it’s going to be like, but I’d advise you to go along with an open mind, because in my humble opinion, there’s never been another film quite like this one. To begin with, the animation techniques employed here are extraordinary, pushing the medium to its very limits. Sometimes, particularly in close up, it’s hard to believe that you’re not actually watching real actors. And there’s something about seeing such human tragedy enacted by puppets that somehow serves to amplify the reality of the situation.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is going through a long dark night of the soul. He feels alienated from his wife and young son and stumbles through a world where everyone seems to have the same face. This is doubly unfortunate, because he’s a motivational speaker and the author of a critically acclaimed self-help book aimed at business people, intended to teach them how to deal more effectively with their customers. Michael embarks on a trip to Cincinnati where he is to deliver a keynote speech and his journey unfolds in more-or-less real time, capturing the alienating experience perfectly – the meaningless chatter of a taxi driver, the disturbingly beatific gaze of a hotel receptionist, the disconcerting anonymity of a hotel room. Michael contacts an old flame, who he hasn’t seen for years, in the hope that he’ll rekindle some passion with her, but it ends badly. She clearly still harbours a grudge. Shortly afterwards, he chances upon Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) an avid fan who has come all the way from Akron, Ohio to catch his speech. Sensing an opportunity, Michael embarks on a clumsy seduction…

There are only three voice artists at work here – Tom Noonan handles all the other roles, male and female, a move which at first seems like an affectation, but as the story moves increasingly  into a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak condition of human interaction, it all begins to make a lot more sense. A fumbling and protracted sex scene between Michael and Lisa may perversely be the most realistic coupling ever committed to the big screen, and the bleak tragedy of the film’s conclusion is particularly resonant. I sat there mesmerised throughout.

Mind you, it’s not to everyone’s taste. A woman in the row behind us loudly proclaimed that it was ‘the worst movie she’d ever seen.’ Well, she’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but I have to disagree most vehemently. Anomalisa (co-directed with Duke Johnson) may just be Kaufman’s masterpiece and much as I liked Inside Out, I can’t help feeling that this was a more worthy contender for that animation Oscar. Go see what you think, but whatever you feel about the merits of Kaufman’s work, I think you’ll have to agree that this is a film like no other.

5 stars

Philip Caveney