Monday, November 28, 2011

Flick of The Day:The Big Lebowski

It would be hard to argue against the Coen Brothers as the most consistently entertaining and talented film-makers of the last 25 years. They have consistently delivered great cinema across many genres, from their debut with the suspenseful thriller Blood Simple to the gangster epic Millers Crossing, the darkly comic Fargo and their Oscar winning western True Grit. Perhaps their best work, or at least their most quotable and comic picture is 1998's The Big Lebowski. Today's flick of the day, it is a deeply funny comic riff on a Raymond Chandleresque caper.
Jeff Bridges, in a once in a lifetime performance, is Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski, a layabout bowler and a Creedence Clearwater fan in 1991 Los Angeles. The Dude spends his days bowling and arguing with his two friends, ex-surfer Donny played by Steve Buscemi and Vietnam vet cum psychotic Walter played by the incomparable John Goodman. Arriving home one evening, he walks in on two hoodlums looking to collect a debt owed by a Jeffrey Lewbowski and his trophy wife Bunny to a Jackie Treehorn. One of them decides to urinate on The Dude's rug when the case of mistaken identity becomes apparent. The Dude decides to contact the big Lebowski and get compensation for his soiled rug. He is quickly drawn into a web of double crosses as he seeks to get to the bottom of the disappearance of Bunny Lebowski involving a trio of German nihilists, a pornographer,  a teenage car thief, a private detective, an artist who describes her work as "strongly vaginal" and Dude's crazy friend Walther.

The Dude: And, you know, he's got emotional problems, man. 
Walter Sobchak: You mean... beyond pacifism?

This is a gem of a movie, an absurdist take on the kind of hard boiled detective tales so often set in Los Angeles and penned by the likes of Chandler and Hammet. It has the kind of gleefully bizarre cast of characters that one only encounters in a Coen Brothers picture. Bridges' The Dude is a latter day stoner Philip Marlowe and his interactions with his crazy Vietnam obsesses friend played by Goodman are a highlight of the film. 

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter? 
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There's nothing to be afraid of.

Less of a cogent tale then a series of encounters between The Dude and the oddballs which populate Southern California. In that sense, it is perhaps the most quotable film of all time with so many witty one liners, it is difficult to pick your favourite. Add this to a series of bizarre dream sequences  set to the music of Kenny Rogers and you have a film that really can't be missed.

The Dude: Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man. 
Malibu Police Chief: Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town. You don't draw shit, Lebowski. Now we got a nice, quiet little beach community here, and I aim to keep it nice and quiet. So let me make something plain. I don't like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don't like your jerk-off name. I don't like your jerk-off face. I don't like your jerk-off behavior, and I don't like you, jerk-off. Do I make myself clear? 
The Dude: [after a pause] I'm sorry, I wasn't listening. 

A commercial failure on its release in 1998, perhaps because its unstructured tale of idiocy clashed with the kind of crowd attracted to the Coen's work after the roaring success of Fargo. In the years since, it has come to be seen as the true classic it is and indeed has spawned a whole cottage industry of Dude related paraphernalia and even a festival.

Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.

Ultimately, this is the kind of film you either love or hate. You either buy in to the bizarre circumstances and run with it or you don't. It is a brilliant film held together by a fine ensemble cast and with perhaps the best script the Coens have ever written. A real must see.

Da Fino, Private Snoop: I'm a brother shamus! 
The Dude: Brother Seamus? Like an Irish monk? 
Da Fino, Private Snoop: What the fuck are you talking about?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Flick of The Day: Pater

I have often pondered the cultural divide between nations, particularly when it comes to cinema. It often appears that European cinema is far more cultured and worldly than the standard multiplex fare created in Hollywood but then perhaps that  is just a perception formed by the fact that we tend to only see the higher quality films from Germany, France, South Korea, etc exported to our shores given the costs of subtitling and release. I am sure each of these countries produce plenty of dodgy action and schlock horror flicks. We just never see them. That said, there is undoubtedly a wildly different attitude in cinematic taste from country to country. The less developed a country, the less developed its tastes though this is not a hard and fast rule. Since the dawn of cinema, it was the art form of the poor working classes. Imagery transcends language barriers in immigrant communities so much easier than other forms.
With this in mind, today's flick of the day is Pater, an experimental narrative from France which received an inexplicable 17 minute standing ovation at Cannes and yet will probably never receive a cinematic release outside of France. A matter of national taste surely.
From director Alain Cavalier and actor Vincent Lindon, two doyens of the French avant garde cinema comes this experimental political satire. Over a serious of lunches and meetings over the course of a year, the two men take on two characters and create a narrative around them that is at once compelling and complex. Cavalier becomes the President of France, an ageing politician looking to retire. Lindon is his new Prime Minister. Together they aim to change France forever by instituting a maximum wage in France. As the meetings progress, they become more drawn into their tall tale and the characters they have created, ad libbing conflicts and speeches they will give as they lurch from one policy decision to another. 
While never likely to be a commercial success outside of France, there is an interesting film here. Filming with handheld cameras and playing without a script, this is as much about film making as it a story.  It is interesting to see talented people become drawn into roles they have invented and driven from the beginning. At one point, Lindon acknowledges this, saying that he now walks down the street wondering why the nation doesn't consult him on important matters like his character.
I think it probably says much about France that this film was such a success at Cannes. As a nation, they would seem to have more time for the arcane and the odd then other nationalities I can think of. Alain Cavalier has long forged his own path in French cinema and it is a testament to his talent that he can attract an actor of the calibre of Vincent Lindon to such a non-commercial project. While not to everyone's taste, it stands up as piece of cinema if not as a piece of entertainment.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Ides of March

The political thriller is very much a phenomenon of the 1970's when films like All The Presidents Men, The Parallax View and The Candidate took advantage of the cinema going public's cynicism and lack of public trust in the wake of the Watergate scandal. For the first time, people began to question the character of their political figures with a degree of circumspection. This kind of introspective and downhearted view of America gradually disappeared during the Reagan era, when the enemy was no longer within but in the left wing ideology of films like Salvador and a former flick of the day, The Killing Fields. Today's flick of the day, The Ides of March, then is very much a throwback to a different era from its stark opening credits to its dark hearted ending, and all the better for it.
George Clooney makes a welcome return to form as a director after 2008's misbegotten Leatherheads with this extremely well acted old school thriller. The cast is stellar, Clooney himself is the idealized Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Morris on the cusp of victory in the primaries. His campaign is guided by the hard bitten campaigner Paul, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and the idealistic Stephen Myers, played by current Hollywood golden boy Ryan Gosling, most recently seen in Drive. Together they are engaged in a bitter war with the opposing strategist played by the ever reliable Paul Giamatti. A great ensemble cast but this is very much Gosling's movie. He holds the screen in a manner that at once confirms him as an actor of note, if his previous performances in Blue Valentine and Lars and The Real Girl were not enough.  Stephen is approached by Giamatti to switch sides in the final days of campaigning for the Ohio primary and neglects to tell his boss Paul about it. He soon finds himself on the outside looking in but not before discovering a dark secret involving a staffer played by Evan Rachel Wood with tragic consequences that could derail Mike Morris's campaign.
Adapted from a play called Farragut North by Beau Willimon, this film's theatrical origins are evident from early on with some long dialogue heavy scenes. This is no bad thing though for it allows the actors to really put some meat on the bones of their characters, something so often missing from modern thrillers. Gosling gives a very powerful performance as an idealistic young man, a true believer who sees his innocence completely dispelled. The best scenes are the one on ones between Gosling and each of the other leads. A tension filled scene in a Hotel room between Gosling and Hoffman, a look behind the curtain of idealism between Giamatti and Gosling and finally a dark late night game of verbal chicken between Clooney and Gosling. Each scene gives the sense that Clooney deliberately built the film around his actors, giving them the opportunity to show off their considerable talents. 
Ultimately though this is a drama, and a downbeat one at that. By the end, everyone including the audience is stripped of their innocence and the films ends quietly and ambiguously. Indeed, at the screening I attended nobody moved as the credits began to roll which I have always taken as a sign of a film hitting its dramatic targets. 

Tom Duffy: Get out, now. Or otherwise... 
Stephen Meyers: Otherwise, I'll end up like you? 
Tom Duffy: Yeah, you end up being a jaded, cynical asshole, just like me.

It could be argued the film is deeply cynical about the American election system though my personal view is that it is if anything more realistic than one would care to imagine. A fine drama, backed up by a superb male cast who make the best of their roles and Clooney deserves credit for having the gumption to cast himself as the slickly packaged candidate, a role so perfect for him that  you could easily see it ruined by casting somebody else. A fine film and well worth your time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Flick of The Day: George Harrison Living in the Material World

The Beatles are one of the cultural touchstones of the 20th Century and their story has been told many times across numerous formats. It is refreshing then for director Martin Scorsese to look at this in a different light by examining the life and times of perhaps the most interesting member of the group, George Harrison in his new documentary Living in the Material World, which is today's flick of the day.
Music, and particularly that which he enjoyed in the 60's and 70's has long been an important part of the work of Martin Scorsese. There is an obvious love there for his favourite artists which comes through in his use of music. This passion is put to good use in this enjoyable and in depth look at George Harrison's life. It opens with his youth in Liverpool, a warm and loving family upon which he built his life. Moving on to his life with the Beatles, we see in depth how it shaped him as a man. Each of The Beatles look impossibly young at the beginning and haggard by the end, perhaps a metaphor for their time together. It becomes apparent that it was but a small part of Harrison's life. For his part, he set out to live his life in a spiritual manner and his life after The Beatles was at the heart of this. Scorsese is at pains to emphasise this aspect of his life and it shines through as the strongest aspect of the film. 
If Harrison had a credo, it was to live life to the fullest and just the once. He would probably have no time at all for people sitting around dissecting his every decision. However, this is the level of depth the documentary goes into without really giving us great insight. There is a wealth of footage, and any fan will find much to enjoy as each major event is well documented and ultimately what you are left with is a portrait of a man who lived life to the full, made the best of his gifts and was rich in friends. The number of people who speak of their love for George is an incredible cross section of talented individuals. From Eric Clapton to The Pythons to Jackie Stewart, he seemed to attract people from all walks of life.
All in all, this is a worthy look at an interesting man and if the picture has a flaw, it is that despite all of the footage and the interviews and an obvious attempt to examine his spirituality, you aren't left with a complete portrait. Yet it comes in at over 3 hours and 20 minutes running time, leaving you with a feeling that focusing on less in more detail might have created a fuller portrait of the man. That said, there is much here to enjoy and Scorsese seems to really care about Harrison, rarely is their a negative word about the man. We never really examine his heavy drug use post The Beatles and rarely are events stitched together with the kind of cogency required of great documentaries. However, it is fascinating all the same and well worth a look.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Flick of The Day: Man on the Moon

It is 27 years since celebrated American comedian and performer Andy Kaufman passed away aged 35. By an conventional measures, Kaufman was an oddity. Not really a comedian, indeed it was a tag Kaufman himself shunned, his often bizarre performances combined music and outlandish complex practical jokes that only he was in on. His life story was made into a film starring Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon, which is today's flick of the day.
It would be hard to find an actor more suited to portraying somebody as wilfully different as Kaufman than Jim Carrey. Carrey long known for his rubber faced comedic roles, gives his best performance in a serious role by becoming fully immersed in the all too brief life and times of this American icon. The film skirts all the major incidents in Kaufman's life, from his beginning as an improvisational stand up that didn't do jokes to his elevation to Saturday Night Live and the incredibly popular sitcom Taxi, a role incidentally which Kaufman detested. It is a classic tale of rise and fall, Kaufman was the kind of performer whose style boggled the minds of your average audience in the late 70's and early 80's and as his performances became more outlandish, his star waned. Perhaps best remembered for his wrestling matches and feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler, the film reveals that it was another one of Andy's in-jokes and that he and Lawler were firm friends. For a man so in love with life, it was a tragic end when he succumbed to cancer.
While Carrey's is a justly lauded performance, this is a fine cast all round. Courtney Love continues on from her fine work in The People Vs Larry Flynt as Kaufman's devoted partner, reminding us all that once upon a time she was more than the perpetually addled widow of Kurt Cobain. Kaufman's former Taxi colleague Danny DeVito is equally strong as the manager who made him a star while Paul Giamatti shines as his comrade in arms.

Andy Kaufman: You don't know the real me. 
Lynne Margulies: There isn't a real you. 
Andy Kaufman: Oh yeah, I forgot

The film eschews any attempt to get to the bottom of why Kaufman was man he was in favour of a run through of his life. This lack of insight lets down the hard work put in by Jim Carrey, though it is hard to critique too much given that he never wrote about himself or revealed very much during his life. 
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is the night when Saturday Night Live hold a phone poll to decide whether Andy would be allowed to return to the who and he loses. The film-makers play around with history, with the implication being that his fellow cast members did not want him back though as Eddie Murphy put it on the night:

"Now Andy Kaufman is a friend of mine. Keep that in mind when you call. I don't want to have to punch nobody in America in the face"

Ultimately this is a tale of regret, of a life cut short in the prime. Those who burn brightest, burn the shortest. That said, the film is genuinely funny and at times I felt baffled by the audiences who would stare agog at Kaufman's antics and not see the joke in front of them. Perhaps he would have found a deeper and longer lasting fame in the modern world where increasingly bizarre is the new normal.
A worthy film about the life of an extraordinary man, this is definitely worthy of your time for the performances alone. Of the man himself, perhaps comedian Richard Lewis summed him up best:

"No one has ever done what Andy did, and did it as well, and no one will ever. Because he did it first. So did Buster Keaton, so did Andy"

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Flick of The Day: Barney's Version

Last week we reviewed Sideways starring Paul Giamatti, which was an adaptation of a 2004 novel by Rex Pickett. Today's flick of the day is another Giamatti film and another literary adaptation, Barney's Version. Based on the celebrated work by Canadian author Mordechai Richler, it is a story of some breadth and humour.
Giamatti is Barney Panofsky, a Canadian Jew who is recounting his life story to us in flashbacks as his mind falters in old age. It begins as a young man in Rome in the '70s where he hangs out with a loose group of arty intellectual friends while he works as a salesman. We see his doomed first marriage to the mentally unstable Clara, his return to Montreal to become a low rent TV producer and his equally unstable second marriage to the bitchy princess referred to only as The Second Wife and played ably by Minnie Driver. He has the misfortune of meeting and falling for the love of his life Miriam at his marriage ceremony. As he extricates himself and pursues Miriam, he is accused of the murder of his best friend who goes missing though there is no evidence of this. Throughout all this his endearing working class father Izzy, played by Dustin Hoffman stands by him and is always there to offer sound advice. As we see Barney in old age, his good humour and a life well lived carry the film through.
The dry humour of Richler's novel really shines through as the film takes a satirical look at Montreal's Jewish community. In Giamatti, they have the perfect actor to play Barney. With anyone else, Barney could come across as a bit of a depressive and Giamatti really drags the life of the character to the fore, something important in a biographical tale. Barney is passionate in his pursuit of Miriam and loves her to the very end, he enjoys a fine cigar and a drop of whiskey and is religious about the ups and downs of his favourite ice hockey team.

Barney Panofsky: ...and I'm just gonna keep talking here, 'cause I'm afraid that if I stop there's gonna be a pause or a break and you're gonna say 'It's getting late' or 'I should get going', and I'm not ready for that to happen. I don't want that to happen. Ever.  
 [they pause]  
 Miriam: There it was. The pause. 
 Barney Panofsky: Yeah.  
 Miriam: I'm still here.

The film is a love story and a life story and as Barney moves from the vitality of his youth to the complacency of middle age and ultimately his mental decline, the film becomes less humorous and more sentimental. This is not meant as a criticism however as it never wallows in it and yes when Barney's end comes, it is sad and a downbeat ending but ultimately the message comes through that Barney gave life his all and enjoyed himself.. This is a powerful lesson and a satisfying ending.

Miriam: We can be friends now, can't we?  
 Barney Panofsky: No. We can't.  
 Miriam: I'm here for you if you'll let me. We had a beautiful marriage, but it's over. I want you to be at peace with that.  
 Barney Panofsky: Have I ever given up when it comes to you?  
 Miriam: Never.  
 Barney Panofsky: So what makes you think I would start now?

In the end, this is a very good film and a worthy adaptation. Giamatti dominates the picture and quite rightly won a Golden Globe for his performance. Dustin Hoffman deserves plaudits for his down to earth portrayal of Izzy. Funny, poignant and true, this is as good a story as you will see all year. Giamatti's performance is such that you can't but fall for him and care about the decisions he makes, genuinely hoping for the best. That is film-making.

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