John Goodman

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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Atomic Blonde

 

 

22/08/17

All those idiots who perpetually bleat that there could never be a female James Bond might care to check this out. If there were any lingering doubts that Charlize Theron can convince as an ass-kicker after Mad Max: Fury Road, then this should dispel those notions completely. Here she plays MI6 agent, Louise Broughton, a kind of Jane Bond figure who apparently subsists on a diet of neat vodka-on-the-rocks and cigarettes, whilst rocking a series of 80s fashions and performing extreme chop socky moves to the strains of classic rock songs. (This is the second film this year to use Flock of Seagulls’ I Ran to excellent effect. Just sayin’).

It’s November 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to take a permanent dive. Broughton is sent over to Berlin to team up with fellow agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), a man who presents such a dodgy persona, it’s a wonder he can find his own reflection in a mirror. Somebody – Code Name ‘Satchel’ – has procured a list of British agents and their nefarious dealings during the Cold War, a list so incendiary that it mustn’t be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Broughton’s job is to find the list (and hopefully Satchel) and bring them both back to Blighty. But it isn’t an easy task when she can’t trust anybody…

What this basically boils down to is an excuse for a series of bruising action sequences, in which Broughton takes down what seems like a whole army of men, using any weapons at her disposal – a stiletto heel, a frying pan, a bunch of keys – she’s not fussy, she’ll employ anything that comes to hand. The highlight here is a long fight scene on  a staircase. Shot in a continuous take, it sets the bar high for pain and punishment and there’s no doubt that director David Leitch, fresh off John Wick: Chapter Two, knows how to stage a convincing punch-up. I loved the fact that people don’t emerge from one of these skirmishes with a polite spot of blood at the side of their mouth, as we so often witness in this kind of film – no, we regularly see Broughton’s bruised and swollen face and limbs and we quite understand her habit of taking occasional ice baths.

Rather less successful, however, is the plot, which is so labyrinthine as to defy all understanding. Virtually every character we meet is double-crossing somebody else or working for somebody else or pretending to be somebody else. By the conclusion, I thought I had a handle on most of it but I wouldn’t want to testify to it in court – or indeed, in the kind of rigorous debriefing that is used as the framework for Atomic Blonde. There are excellent supporting roles from the likes of Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and John Goodman, as various men in suits, but this is undeniably a showcase for Theron’s star power and she makes the most of it.

A simpler plot would certainly have made this a better film, overall, but action junkies will love the fights and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find them thrilling. If Leitch can marry those superior action chops to a simpler, more convincing storyline, who knows what might be achieved? Here, he manages to win on points rather than achieving a knockout blow. But it’s certainly worth the price of a ringside seat.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Kong: Skull Island

11/03/17

I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year,  was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.

This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.

Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).

OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).

At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.

This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

10 Cloverfield Lane

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25/03/16

You have to hand it to J.J. Abrams. The original Cloverfield was arguably one of the best shakey-cam horror films ever, a creature feature that starred a giant alien, venting its wrath on New York (with particular reference to the Statue of Liberty). Interestingly, Abrams managed to sneak the film out under the radar, meaning that nobody had an inkling about its existence until the first trailers appeared in cinemas. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s somehow managed to repeat the trick, despite all the attention focused upon him because of a certain little Star Wars movie. So how does this film (produced by Abrams and directed by Dan Trachtenberg) relate to the first story? Well, interesting question…

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) falls out with her boyfriend, climbs into her car and drives off into the night. Then she’s involved in a sudden and quite shocking accident. When she wakes up, she’s being kept prisoner in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard (John Goodman) who tells her that there’s been an ‘attack’ above ground and that everybody up there is dead. She’s then introduced to Emmett (John Gallagher Jnr) a local guy with a broken arm, who has taken refuge with Howard and pretty much confirms his story. The three of them, it seems, could be stuck down there for years, but luckily Howard has laid in plenty of provisions… including a selection of jigsaw puzzles.

The film divides, more or less, into three distinct sections – the first third is a mystery (what really is going on above ground? Is Howard telling the truth or is he actually some kind of power-crazy nut job with a hidden agenda?) Part two slips effortlessly into psychological thriller territory, as Michelle  discovers some unpalatable truths about Howard and plans her escape. And part three… well, it would be criminal to give too much away, but suffice to say that the film, brilliantly scripted by John Campbell and Matthew Stuecken) expertly and repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you, until you barely know what to expect next. Despite its cross-genre nature, its a riveting ride from start to finish.

As good as the first film? Yes. It’s so different and yet, in its own way, it’s another absolute corker. Go see it and be prepared for surprises.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Trumbo

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16/02/16

Despite a couple of well-deserved Oscar nominations, Trumbo didn’t trouble the multiplexes for very long at all – perhaps it was a tad too political to draw in the crowds, even with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the lead role, but you can still catch it on the big screen at independent cinemas (it’s showing at Home, Manchester until the 23rd Feb.) It’s essentially a biopic of screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo and if the name doesn’t mean an awful lot to you, certainly some of the movies he wrote will – Roman Holiday, anyone? Spartacus? Exodus? 

The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo is one of the most respected and successful screenwriters in the Hollywood cannon. He is also, like many of his friends,  a member of the Communist Party. As the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee comes into being, such people are increasingly regarded with hostility and suspicion. They are seen by many as the ‘communist threat,’ secretly planning to overthrow the USA. Such suspicions are further fuelled by the scurrilous (and openly racist) rants of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa (played here with venomous relish by Helen Mirren.) Trumbo is the man with the guts to stand up to the committee and for his pains is imprisoned for several years, even though he hasn’t actually broken any laws. On his release, his career in tatters, he’s  obliged to ghostwrite cheap movies for the unscrupulous producer Frank King (John Goodman) for a fraction of his former salary. He goes on to create similar opportunities for his other friends who have been similarly shafted, in each case ascribing authorship to a non-existent screenwriter. But when one of his films, The Brave One, is nominated for an Oscar, it’s clear that something has to change…

Biopics are tricky creatures, but Director Hal Roach does a good job with this one, aided no end by a scorching performance by Cranston  – his chain-smoking, wisecracking personification of the great man never fails to entertain, even as it informs. Roach has also made a decent fist of casting actors to play movie icons – Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson and Dean O Gorman’s turn as the young Kirk Douglas is extraordinary – just check out the sequences from Spartacus where he interacts on screen with Woody Strode – you literally cannot see the joins.

More importantly, perhaps, Trumbo takes a cold hard look at one of the most shameful eras in American history – and with the irresistible rise of Donald Trump to provide contemporary resonance, its message has never been more timely. Do take the opportunity to see this film, it’s really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney