The Big Lebowski – 20th Anniversary

The Coen Brothers have a long history of making movies. Specifically, they have a long history of making incredible movies. Surprisingly, I found that the love for the Coen Brothers splits opinion. Some of you (like me) find the possibility that the Coen brothers are anything less than genius ridiculous. After all, they not only manage to make a tense, heart-pounding thriller (No Country For Old Men), but manage to tickle us with hilarity (Fargo) in equal footing. I was going to lead into a “one of their most popular” or “one of their most well liked movies” bit, but then I realised that this is a cult film by the best definition. There is no fun in being popular. So here it is man, The Big Lebowski.

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The Big Lebowski is every slacker’s wet dream. Revolving around a middle-aged unemployed man known as ‘The Dude’ (epic protagonist already),  The Big Lebowski is about a kidnaping gone wrong when German Nihilists confuse The Dude with wealthy, wheel chair bound Jeffery Lebowski (they share the same name). Along with Vietnam Vet Walter and the gentle Donny, The Dude must rectify this situation as it rapidly escalates. After all, there is no vengeance like the vengeance over a rug.

Choosing to opt for a very non-linear narrative, The Big Lebowski is a hilarious compilation of sketches revolving around a ‘White Russian’ swilling stoner. The lack of plot may seem confounding but its reduction to the background makes the brilliantly witty dialogue stand out. The script is so strong that you forget that you are watching basically skits because they are juicy and full of so many hilarious jokes. There is no beginning, middle or end to this story. It feels more like a collection of ‘days in the life of’ The Dude and you can’t complain at such a charismatic character.

And that is much to the strength of actor Jeff Bridges doing a sublime job as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski. The laid back “hero for the burn out generation” is just the guy we need to save our screens. He is a victim of identity confusion and a basic slob but Bridges makes him loveable and admirable.

Much of the cast are great; John Goodman is outstanding as the irate Walter, who flips his lid over the tiniest of details and even goes as far as threatening a 12 year old boy. Steve Buscemi (everyone’s favourite “ugly guy”) does what he does best as the ever outsider Donny who lacks the prowess to put his ideas into motion. Even the support are stand out and this collection of great actors and actresses is mind blowing.

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There is much thrown in The Big Lebowski that could make the film flop. There is naked artist (Julianne Moore) who straddles herself to harnesses, a trophy wife (Tara Reid in one of her two good roles), a purple clad Jesus (John Turturro), a bungled ransom drop and much more. While other movies would over saturate the humour turning The Big Lebowski into nothing more than a farce, The Coen Brothers inject an ease into the story. It’s quotable and enjoyable fun that has inspired Lebowski fests worldwide where they dress up as their favourite characters, drink White Russians and bowl. Hell, it has even been parodied in My Little Pony (so epically, might I mention). It’s not serious, it’s genius.

“This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Fortunately, I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, uh, limber.”
– The Dude   

Holy words, my friends. Holy words.


Happy 20th Anniversary The Big Lebowski! 

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Review

Solo – A Star Wars Story should bear the ‘Alan Smithee’ logo. It is not the sole work of director Ron Howard, who was brought in to rescue the film after directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) were fired by the producers – to quote a line from the original, ‘this is some rescue!’ Yet his is the name on the end credits of this bland, inert Star Wars ‘origins’ film which ought to give the producers pause for thought. I was wowed by The Last Jedi but this is more of a checklist than an adventure. And to think that Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam explained the young Indiana Jones in a ten minute prologue to The Last Crusade (facial cut, fear of snakes, the bullwhip); Solo takes two and a quarter hours.

Essentially, it tells the story of young Han Solo, smuggler extraordinaire, how he met Chewbacca, acquired the Millennium Falcon and ended up on Tattooine, the planet on which he eventually met young Luke Skywalker, the moisture farmer’s nephew who became the second-to-last Jedi, if my calculations are correct. For some cinemagoers, this is utter nonsense. But for others – this reviewer included – it fired our imagination as young people, giving us a love for cinema that expanded to Kurosawa, John Ford, Leni Riefenstahl and all the directors who inspired Star Wars creator George Lucas.

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Han was originally played by Harrison Ford, the sometime carpenter whose association with George Lucas and Francis (The Godfather) Coppola led to his being cast in Star Wars and having his career blasted into hyperspace. Ford earthed the movie. His weary cynicism was a strong counterpoint to Mark Hamill’s Luke. The actor playing his younger self has some waistcoat to fill. Alden Ehrenreich, who also has an association with Coppola (the little-seen Tetro) – you can start the game ‘Six Degrees of Star Wars’ any time you like – isn’t bad, but he was let down by the script, credited to Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan. Someone should have told the producers that fathers and sons don’t do so well in the Star Wars saga.

It is not Ehrenreich who doesn’t fill the screen, rather the characterisation. I don’t believe that Star Wars fans are anally retentive – although I did complain watching Rogue One that the Death Star doors didn’t move fast enough. However, not every child in the Star Wars universe is enslaved by a tyrannical ‘ethnic’ alien as teen Han is here. I’m sure there is other literature that the writers can reference besides Oliver Twist. The film starts on the wrong foot, positing Han as another Anakin Skywalker, sent off to do a man’s work and coming back with some hyper-fuel worth 600 credits (don’t blame the transcriber). Han tries to leave his home planet of Corellia with his childhood friend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). In a nod to Uncle George [Lucas], there’s a car chase and quite a neat ‘oner’ if you appreciate continuous takes. But circumstances divide them and Han signs up to join the Empire. If you want to know why Stormtroopers shoot so badly – a Star Wars trope – it is because the recruiters don’t ask too many questions.

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When Han ends up fighting for the Empire, the film blossoms with promise, but then we get another Star Wars trope (from Return of the Jedi), with him thrown in a pit to face ‘the Beast’ and we know what’s coming.

In the interest of spoilers – hey, this film is a spoiler, it soils the Star Wars universe – I won’t say what happens next, but the checklist also includes meeting Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his co-pilot L3-37 (a motion capture performance by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Star Wars’ history reflecting ethnicity has never been great – witness Jar Jar Binks  in Episode One – but I found it insulting that charismatic (black) Lando doesn’t have a non-droid girlfriend. Is this the only way the Star Wars universe can depict black people – by emasculating them? Waller-Bridge is amusing for the time she is on screen, although behind L3-37’s actions is the worrying message that, after years of mistreatment and ‘restrainer bolts’, artificial intelligence will turn against humans – but, hey, this is Star Wars, so it doesn’t matter. Part of the problem with Solo is that the new characters have so much more life than the established ones, yet get short shrift – Thandie Newton also makes an appearance, adding a third franchise to her name after Mission: Impossible and James Bond.

Eventually, we have to talk about Woody Harrelson as Becket, a soft-hearted criminal in the employ of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). When we see Becket sitting in Luke Skywalker’s gun turret in the Falcon firing at TIE fighters, he makes it seem like everyone can use those things, not just those with the Force, the mystical energy source that certain biologically engineered people can tap into like Gatorade. Harrelson brings too much baggage to the role, and though he is doing his best work in this stage of his career – he really impressed in War for the Planet of the Apes as a nuanced rather than ‘mad’ general – he highlights the paucity of the characterisation.

Solo is the first Star Wars movie to lack the Force, the quasi religious underpinning to the whole saga; I felt its absence as a counterpoint against which other characters react. In Star Wars lore, the Force actually gives the Empire its mandate to rule, having tapped into its dark side. It’s like democracy. The film also perpetuates the stereotype that all women in the Star Wars universe have an English accent – and not regional ones either. Millions of galaxies and only one finishing school – I don’t buy it.

Without the ambition to expand the Star Wars universe – there’s a Syndicate and ‘Crimson Dawn’ but I started not to care – Solo comes across as a footnote. Ehrenreich has charm in the Leonardo Di Caprio mode but towards the end I started to compare the film unfavourably to Baby Driver, a film that also had a baby-faced lead with dreams of leaving his life behind. There is no excitement and exhilaration or even relish in Solo. Whatever ambitions Miller and Lord had for the film have been tempered by a ‘safe pair of hands’, Howard, who had his first lead in a George Lucas film, American Graffiti. There is no ‘wow’ factor here. At one point, I was so disengaged, I thought I was watching a Pirates of the Caribbean movie – there’s even a large space octopus in this one, with a thousand eyes but nothing to watch, clearly a design fault.


Solo: A Star Wars Story is out in on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

A Prayer Before Dawn – Review

After I watched A Prayer Before Dawn, I spoke to a friend of mine and they asked me how I would best describe the film without giving anything away. The words that came out of my mouth were strange at first, but not totally unexpected:

The Raid: Southpaw.

A Prayer Before Dawn tells the real-life story of Billy Moore (portrayed by Joe Cole, who you might recognise from Peaky Blinders), a British man who, after getting involved with matters of drugs and burglary, tries to reset his life in Thailand as a stuntman and a boxer. Things never really get better since we see Billy being arrested for gun offences and incarcerated in the Klong Prem prison in Bangkok. This is where the vast majority of the film is set, following our protagonist as he learns the martial art of Muay Thai and fights in tournaments in an attempt to earn his freedom.

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There’s something quite visceral about A Prayer Before Dawn that is rarely seen in western cinema, a culture where we seem more than happy to engage in the stylised action scenes that populate every blockbuster and beyond, allowing ourselves to witness an ungodly amount of violence over the course of two hours. In A Prayer Before Dawn, however, the violence is the aspect of the feature that might make you turn your head away for a split second. In that, it reminds me a lot of the excellent The Raid films, where the gruesome violence is integral to every bit of the film, from camera work and framing to story and characters. A Prayer Before Dawn offers an almost intimate window into the violence, with director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire often placing the camera right next to or in between the fighters and that, allied with the fantastic and all too real sound design, will make it hard to deny that some people must have gotten hurt during this production.

As for the acting, Joe Cole blows it out of the park, in all honesty. A leading actor in all, the sensibility displayed during not only the high octane scenes but also the quiet, more intimate, moments amounts to a performance that is sure to turn heads. While the hardships and downfalls of this character are something many of us will not have any experience with, Cole makes it incredibly easy to believe, understand and symphatise with him. For this, Sauvaire also deserves recognition. The rest of the cast is mostly made up on newcomers, many of them achieved Muay Thai practitioners, which only helps with immersion on our part. The exception in here might be Vithaya Pansringarm, who was previously seen in Only God Forgives.

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But what is by far the best aspect of this film, which, ironically, might be the make or break for audiences, is the choice to present the conversations in Thai unsubtitled. There’s a lot of it (which you should expect for a film set in Thailand), and it all helps create a sense of paranoia with both Billy and the audience. It’s a simple but effective technique to further place us in the protagonist’s shoes, and it works wonders. Like Billy, we end up trying to figure out what the conversations are about, hanging on inflections and tone to decipher the enigma and overcome the language barrier.

It’s nice to have a film with lower stakes, with a different pace, but no less dangerous or exciting. Whilst A Prayer Before Dawn will very often feel like a punch in the gut with its gruesome action, the character study on display will feel like a pack of ice on a bruise and a hot drink at the end of the day.


A Prayer Before Dawn is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!