Jeff Bridges

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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Only the Brave

13/11/17

The poster for Only the Brave suggests we are in for a good old-fashioned disaster movie, but director Joseph Kosinski is clearly more interested in the characters who made up the real life Granite Mountain Hot Shots – a bunch of hard-as-nails firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona. While this is no doubt an admirable attempt to flesh out some genuine heroes, it fatally flaws the story arc of the film, which keeps breaking off from the action to regale us with some macho prank the boys have indulged in. The result is that the story only occasionally generates enough heat to keep an audience fully hooked.

Things begin well enough with Supervisor Eric Marsh (James Brolin) champing at the bit as he tries to obtain ‘hot shot’ status for his crew of municipal firefighters. (Without that tag they will always be relegated to a support role whenever there’s a major fire). Meanwhile, young hothead and general drug abuser, Brendan McCulloch (Miles Teller) gets his girlfriend pregnant and, in a desperate attempt to clean up his act, decides to put himself forward as a candidate for the fire team. Marsh, recognising something of himself in Brendan, decides to give him a chance and before very much longer, the Granite Mountain boys have their hot shot status and are working around the clock in a series of extremely dangerous situations. Meanwhile, their long suffering wives and girlfriends must endure the knowledge that their partners might never survive the latest disaster…

There’s clearly a fascinating (and it must be said, tragic) real life story at the heart of this, but with over twenty firefighters on the team, it’s hard for us to differentiate between more than just a few of them. And, if you’re blessed with Jeff Bridges in your cast, it might be a good idea to give him something to do. The female characters, mind you,  barely get a look in. Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife, Amanda, has something approaching a decent role but poor Andie McDowell is left to sit around, looking glum.

The ending when we get to it, is admittedly devastating – but by then, most of our goodwill for the film has gone up in smoke as the script cuts back and forth, recounting details that we really didn’t need to know about. Also, there’s a tendency here to assume we understand the principals of firefighting. Scenes where the team are actually setting fire to areas of forest in order to prevent the spread of an approaching conflagration might have needed a little more explanation. As it is, we’re just left to assume.

Ultimately, Only the Brave is a powerful story, awkwardly told. While it generates the occasional spark, it never really fully ignites.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Kingsman: the Golden Circle

24/09/17

Marmite movies – you wait for ages and then two come along at once.

No sooner has the Twitterverse stopped ranting about Darren Aronfsky’s mother! than they are virtually foaming at the mouth over this sequel to Kingsman: the Secret Service. The way people talk about it, you’d think the original was some kind of cinematic masterpiece. It certainly wasn’t that, but it was, in my opinion, great fun – an adrenalin-fuelled Bond spoof. This first film covered the induction of straight talking street-kid, Eggsy into the suave and sartorially elegant ranks of the Kingsmen, a secret society pledged to defend the world from evil.

Inevitably perhaps, the sequel is bigger and flashier, with such a starry cast that Taron Egerton finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being third-billed in what is ostensibly his movie. Director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman have clearly decided, this time out, to pursue an even more audacious plot line, cranking the old silly-o-metre up to maximum override – in the process, I’m afraid, making the whole thing a tad too ridiculous even for my taste.

Drug kingpin, Poppy (Julianne Moore), based in a secret hideout in the South American jungle (aren’t they all?), is seeking to enslave the world with her own brand of opiates. She even inserts a special ingredient into her produce that turns its users into blue-veined freaks with a life expectancy of just a few days. While she’s at it, she also unleashes a series of vicious attacks on the Kingsman headquarters, killing off most of its key operatives. The only two survivors, Eggsy  (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong), head off to Kentucky and the headquarters of Statesman, the American equivalent of their own organisation. There, they team up with Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) in a bid to find an antidote to Poppy’s drugs and save millions of people from an untimely death…

As I said, the plot is so borderline-deranged, it’s hard for an audience to feel any sense of jeopardy – and no amount of guest appearances from the likes of Elton John, Jeff Bridges or Poppy Delevingne can prevent this from feeling like an over-inflated soufflé, all style and very little substance. It’s not a total write-off, mind you. Vaughan still has a winning way with an action set-piece and there are several here that periodically ramp up the excitement, but all too soon we’re back to robot dogs, people being made into hamburgers, Eggsy knocking around with a princess and introducing her to all his mates on the estate… and then there’s the little matter of a character who was murdered in the previous film still being alive. How do they explain that one? Well, they do try. I can’t help feeling that a storyline that kept a little closer to some kind of reality would help no end.

Look, here’s the bottom line. If you didn’t like the first film, you’ll hate this – and if, like me, you enjoyed the first one, you might just be willing to accept everything being ramped up to number eleven. But as far as I’m concerned, this is where I bale out.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

(By the way, what’s with the John Denver thing? Here’s yet another movie that employs Take Me Home, Country Roads for one of its key scenes – about the fourth or fifth I’ve seen in as many months.)

Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water

30/09/16

Brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are industriously robbing a series of small banks in West Texas and going to great lengths to conceal all evidence of their crimes. They aren’t doing it for the usual reasons, though, but in a desperate attempt to pay off a crippling loan on their late mother’s ranch, in order to secure the future of Toby’s two sons from his failed marriage. When the robberies come to the attention of aging Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, (Jeff Bridges), he resolves to solve one last case before he retires…

Hell Or High Water is a searing look at the underbelly of America, where ordinary people struggle to make ends meet and where the real criminals (at least in the view of writer Taylor Sheridan) are the bankers, who make a rich living from foreclosing on those who can no longer afford to pay for their homes. It’s a side of the USA we rarely glimpse in movie theatres and for that at least, it deserves our attention. There’s plenty here to enjoy. Bridges excels as the crusty-as-last-month’s-tortillas lawman, forever bickering with his Native American partner, Alberto (Gil Parker), while lamenting a way of life that seems as doomed as the ranchers we glimpse herding their cattle away from a raging brushfire. And can we really take wholeheartedly against the Tanner brothers, when they are in such a desperate plight?

This is an unapologetically elegiac story, as stripped and spare as the desert landscapes in which the events take place – but as with Sheridan’s previous script, Sicario, it’s almost exclusively a man’s world and you’ll have to look very hard indeed to spot a properly developed female character. Forget the Bechdel test – all we are offered here is a parade of hookers, harpies and harridans – a shame, because just like Sicario, this is an otherwise assured production, strong on action and the hard bitten verbal interplay between its main characters.

The ending hints at unfinished business but wisely leaves us wanting closure. It’s a lean, taut action movie but the inclusion of some decent female characters would have lent it more depth, and assured it a higher score from yours truly. It’s good, but ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney