Philip Seymour Hoffman

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 Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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21/11/15

Another day, another dystopia.

So, one of the biggest movie franchises of recent years grinds inexorably to its conclusion and the overriding question is this: is there another blockbusting series in the cinematic universe that is so monumentally dull? Seriously, I know this series isn’t really aimed at somebody like me, but my goodness, it moves so slowly and when you find yourself sitting there thinking about what you might have for breakfast tomorrow, that’s surely not a good sign.

At the film’s start, Katniss Everdean (Jennifer Lawrence) is nursing a bruised throat, delivered courtesy of her old squeeze Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) now a brainwashed wreck thanks to the fiendish ministrations of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Enlisted to lead a mission into the heart of the capital, Katniss enlists alongside her other squeeze, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). And guess what? Peeta goes along too, despite the fact that he keeps trying to kill members of his own squad. Go figure.

What follows is a long series of misadventures as the team are systematically despatched by bombs, bullets and er… oil. In between, we are treated to Katniss trying to choose between her two suitors. Will it be hunky Gale or unreliable Peeta (and if you have to think about that, for very long, then you haven’t really absorbed the message thus far)?

To be fair, there’s a decent sewer-set action sequence towards the final third (though the attacking creatures look like they’ve been drafted in from a far better film, Neil Marshall’s The Descent) and then there’s some more explosions before we’re treated to a ‘surprise’ twist which only the visually impaired won’t have seen coming. And of course, this being the final episode, there’s a syrupy coda, which seems intent on undermining the kickass female role that Lawrence has worked so hard to develop.

Of course, one cannot deny the financial success of this series – people are suggesting that together with the Bond and Star Wars franchise, it will single-handedly restore the fortunes of the cinema industry. But the supposed wisdom of the ‘political messages’ incorporated here are little more than fridge magnet sentiments – and it’s particularly galling to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen moments wasted on this bombastic sludge.

At least the series is finished – that is, until author Suzanne Collins decides to rewrite the first book from the point of view of President Snow. Don’t laugh, it seems to be the prevailing trend.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney