The Big Lebowski

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

19/11/18

The release of a new Coen Brothers movie is always something to look forward to but, in what is fast becoming a trend, this classy anthology of Western-themed stories has gone directly to Netflix. Early talk of a simultaneous theatrical release doesn’t seem to be much in evidence and, ironically, if ever a Coen Brothers’ film deserves to be viewed on the big screen, this is the one. With its gorgeous location photography and scenes that pay homage to veteran directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a veritable feast for the eyes and is hardly done justice by the modest screen we have at home.

Still, this being a Coen Brothers movie, we aren’t going to let the opportunity to see it pass us by, even if we’re obliged to watch it on an iPad.

The Coens have always proudly displayed their evident love of the Western genre. There is, of course, True Grit, a superb remake of one of John Wayne’s most successful oaters; but even the likes of Hail Caesar and The Big Lebowski have gleefully sported cowboy characters, strangely at odds with the times in which the action is set – and what is No Country For Old Men but a contemporary Western, replete with violent gunplay and frantic chases across arid landscapes?

The conceit of TBOBS is that it’s presented as a book of short stories, each one complete with an accompanying Frederic Remington-style illustration that directly refers to the action. The stories vary greatly in tone: from the titular, singing-cowboy spoof, in which Tim Blake Nelson portrays a kind of psychopathic Roy Rogers, to the dour and savage Meal Ticket, in which limbless actor, Harrison (Harry Melling), struggles to make a living as he tours his oratory skills around a succession of frontier towns, while his impassive minder (Liam Neeson) watches and draws up his merciless plans for survival.

If the stories have a theme in common it’s that all of them deal with different aspects of death. There’s also the overriding conviction that most characters in the old West were ruled by cold-blooded self-interest. Even The Gal Who Got Rattled, the closest this film has to offer us in the way of a love story (and arguably the most compelling of the six tales), is haunted by a powerful sense of tragedy.

This is one of the Coens’ finest achievements, a brutal, bloody compilation laced with a thread of the darkest humour imaginable. And, if I’m being honest, who knows how well this would have fared at the cinema, where six part Western anthologies are as rare as hen’s teeth and where, so often, it’s mediocrity that succeeds in putting bums on seats?

That said, if you should be lucky enough to live near a cinema that’s actually screening this little gem, mosey on down there and grab yourself a Stetson-full. Or just go to Netflix. The simple truth is that whatever sized screen you end up viewing it on, this is filmmaking of the highest calibre.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Repo Man

28/09/18

Some films are evergreen.

A recent viewing of The Big Lebowski, for instance, reconfirms for me its absolute quality, unaffected by the passage of time, and its worthiness to be considered a true cult movie. Other films do not weather the years quite so convincingly.

I first saw Alex Cox’s Repo Man on its release in 1984, when it felt edgy and ground-breaking. I certainly wasn’t the only critic with that opinion. Cox, of course, went on to consolidate its considerable success with his next film, Sid and Nancy, before flushing his career spectacularly down the toilet with the awesomely bad Straight to Hell (perhaps Straight to Video would have been a more appropriate title).

But a midnight screening at the Cameo is enough to persuade me that an opportunity to reassess Repo Man on the big screen is something I shouldn’t let slip. Oh dear.

This is the story of disaffected punk, Otto (Emilio Estevez), who quits his safe job at a supermarket in order to work with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the titular antihero who earns his bread and butter by snatching back automobiles from owners who have failed to keep up their repayments. At first, Otto is hostile to his co-workers, who he views as establishment figures, but as he comes to know them, so he begins to settle into their unconventional routine. We also meet some of Otto’s former punk friends, who are happily robbing and brawling their way around LA, with no apparent motivation other than to avoid boredom. Meanwhile, the rather strange Doctor Parnell (Fox Harris) is driving a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu around the city. There’s something hidden in the boot of his car that a lot of people, including Bud, are very eager to get their hands on. Could it be the evidence of an approaching alien invasion?

What seemed so subversive back in the day, now looks kind of clunky and artless. The action sequences are decidedly sloppy and there are sections where the actors are clearly improvising their lines and not making a very good job of it. Sure, there are still some nice touches peppered throughout – I love the world building here: the anonymous packaging in the supermarket with some canned products simply labelled ‘food,’ a clever attack on the rise of consumerism – and I still rather like Tracey Walter’s turn as Miller, the ex-hippie car mechanic who seems to have the answers to all of life’s mysteries at his oil-stained fingertips. Estevez is a beguiling presence too, but sadly not beguiling enough to carry the film.

Watching it again after so many years, I can’t help noticing that for long stretches of time, my attention is wandering (and not just because it’s past midnight). Frankly, this isn’t anything like as good as I remember from my first viewing. It may simply be that I’ve changed over the intervening years, that I’ve become more demanding, but whatever the reason, this really isn’t working for me.

And that’s a shame. We often like to carry a torch for the movies that first sparked our passion for the cinema, but in this case the torch has been well and truly extinguished.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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