Steve Buscemi

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

 

Advertisements

The Death of Stalin

23/10/17

If there was a prize for ‘Most Unlikely Subject for a Comedy’, the death of Russian premier Joseph Stalin would probably figure on the list of prime contenders. I mean, how amusing can that actually be? But Armando Iannucci clearly isn’t interested in such preconceptions. Against all the odds, he’s fashioned a funny and subversive entertainment from this unpromising source, based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury.

It’s March, 1953, and Russia is cowering under the brutal regime of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. People can be rounded up and shot for the most spurious of reasons – perhaps they’re intellectuals. Perhaps they belong to the wrong organisation. Perhaps their faces just don’t quite fit. The atmosphere of paranoia is amply portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, where radio director Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), is forced to restage a live performance by a symphony orchestra, simply because Stalin has phoned up and asked for a recording of it – and unfortunately no such recording has actually been made. ‘Don’t worry,’ Andryev assures his bemused audience as he ushers them frantically back to their seats. ‘You won’t be killed. I promise.’

Armando Iannucci’s comedy of terrors is a brave and wonderfully assured undertaking, finding comic mileage in the absurdity of day-to-day existence under the jackboot of a tyrant – and from the unexpected possibilities that are unleashed when that tyranny finally comes to an end. When Stalin unexpectedly drops dead from a heart attack, the various members of his government begin the complex task of jockeying for position in the new order and the results are a joy to behold.

The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of authenticity, but to be fair, there’s no real attempt to make it feel authentic. Characters talk in a mix of accents from regional British to (in the case of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Krushchev) broad American, and the script misses no opportunity to go for a well-timed belly laugh.  

The cast is stellar – I particularly like Simon Russell Beale as head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, a smiling assassin who hides his vile nature under a mask of cheerful bonhomie. Jeffrey Tambour is also excellent as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, who suddenly finds himself simultaneously having to lead the country in its collective grief and incapable of coming to a rational decision about anything. Rupert Friend has a lot of fun with the role of Vassily, Stalin’s loose-canon, vodka-swilling son. But the film’s undoubted comic highlight is Jason Isaacs as straight talking ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union’, Georgy Zhukov, the hilarity aided no end by the fact that he talks with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. I’ve no idea why that’s so funny, it just is.

Okay, so this isn’t quite the comic masterpiece that some have dubbed it. The film suffers somewhat from the age-old problem of having nobody in particular to root for, since they all appear to be lying, double-dealing creeps – unless of course, you count Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, a concert pianist who seems to be the only person in the film brave enough to speak her mind about Stalin’s cruelty; but hers is a cameo role, acted out on the sidelines. The only other character we remotely care about is Stalin’s hapless daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who can only watch the carnage that unfolds in the wake of her father’s death and hope against hope that she’ll somehow make it out of there alive.

Weighing in at a relatively sprightly 106 minutes, The Death of Stalin is a clever and accomplished movie, well worth investigating. This is Iannucci playing to his strengths as a political satirist and mostly coming up with the goods. Interesting though, that despite a script peppered with crackling dialogue, the film’s funniest scene is an entirely visual one. Go figure.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney