Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Have I mentioned that I'm on Twitter? Yes, I am. My handle's @crunro, if you're interested. One of the handiest services I follow on there is Top Film Tip, an account that notifies followers of any films, good or bad, that will be shown on British TV that day, and when. It was from this account that I learnt that The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers' surreal comedy from 1998, would be shown on ITV4 at nine o'clock that night. I spent a good few minutes deciding whether to catch it or The Last Leg on Channel Four before coming to my senses and remembering what I'd be missing.

And so I turned off my laptop and settled down to watch the film in peace. The Sons of the Pioneers' Tumbling Tumbleweeds begins the film, as a tumbleweed drifts across California before settling in the Pacific Ocean, and Sam Elliot's Stranger starts his sultry and deep narration of the film. The Dude appears, smelling milk for his White Russian in a supermarket, in his dressing gown. He is quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide. What follows is an incredibly unpredictable, quirky and imaginative tale that is wonderfully odd and wonderfully Coen. In a remarkable case of mistaken identity, thugs break into The Dude's home, dunk his face in his own milk-soaked toilet bowl and befoul his rug, asking for money belonging to his namesake, big businessman Jeffrey Lebowski, and throwing him into a world of trouble and violence he would never approve of.

Every last character in The Big Lebowski has some idiosyncratic streak to them. As the story gets wider and wider and The Dude finds himself confronting stranger and stranger characters, from a feminist painter who works in the scud to German electronic music pioneers turned violent, ferret-wielding gangsters, the film just gets relentlessly engaging, an effect that lasts for a good while after the film has ended. This is why it has acquired a cult status that many directors only see in their dreams. At times, it is a difficult plot to follow, but how little that matters compared to the creativity and shadowy sense of humour it revels in. The Dude himself is one of my favourite characters in all of the cinema I've seen. He has achieved what most yearn for. He is unemployed, lazy, and he spends his time getting drunk on White Russians and competing in ten-pin bowling championships. He didn't ask for any of this trouble. He's a pacifist, and just wants the whole complicated story finished so he can return to getting drunk and bowling. He's just so damn cool. You know it from the moment he walks into a meeting with The Big Jeffrey Lebowski, capitalism himself, in sunglasses and shorts. He can pull off a cardigan so well that it's become an icon of easy living rather than a symbol of the elderly.

The soundtrack has rarely been bettered, too. It's something I don't usually pick up on when I'm watching a film, but I do remember Robert Zemeckis' Flight, despite being quite an enjoyable film overall, failed quite badly soundtrack-wise. It was strewn with cliches I didn't even realise were cliches, like Under The Bridge accompanying a drugs scene and Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine running under a scene in which the main character pours all his alcohol down the sink. The Big Lebowski is quite the opposite, using its songs to brilliant effect. The Gipsy Kings' superb cover of Hotel California makes an appearance, as does Kenny Roger's I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), which plays during one of the film's dream sequences. It is these dream sequences that really make the film for me. I've never witnessed a more spectacular or accurate depiction of what happens inside your head. The Dude flies, wide eyed, over Los Angeles on his lovely rug and through the legs of bowling pin-headed showgirls, with trippy images vaguely connected to his worldly obsessions. They are a few minutes of cinematic wonder.

It is this spectacular weirdness that makes this one of my favourite comedies and one of my favourite films. Nothing is expected, with the film spiralling through kidnap, conspiracy, death both deliberate and accidental, sex and contemporary dance. This is story writing at its most inspired.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Flight (2012)

We're slap-bang in the middle of the half-term holidays over here, and school holidays are essentially there to provide you with time to watch films. I worry for a time when school has finished and I'm between jobs, as that'll just result in days of non-stop film watching. If I read about a film I like the sound of, the holidays are the time that I can fulfil that ambition. So it was with Flight, the new Robert Zemeckis film which I've been meaning to see since its release late last year, which I went to see earlier today on a trip into Edinburgh with Connor, a pal who has little or no sense of social restraint.

After being introduced to my first proper KFC lunch - suspiciously tender chicken, not enough barbeque sauce - we stocked up on the compulsory cinematic snacks from the pound shop and headed for the ten to three showing in the Omni Centre, a food hall/Vue cinema in the centre of Edinburgh. We got two for one on tickets and headed for screen 10. We sat down on board Southjet flight 227 to Atlanta and braced ourselves for takeoff in worryingly stormy conditions.

Robert Zemeckis' new film Flight opens with a shot of a pair of boobs. This is something you should take into account if you are planning to go and see it with a member of your family, particularly a parent or parents. I would recommend taking a friend instead. These boobs are then shown to be attached to a fully naked air stewardess, who walks about the room, past the camera a few times, showing everything off. Do not go and see it with a family member. Go with a friend, and you can enjoy this scene quite happily. Denzel Washington proceeds to wake up in the same room. He finished a few beers and snorts some cocaine to wake himself up, before slipping on his captain's uniform and heading towards the plane he will be flying in a few hours time. Who Framed Roger Rabbit this is not. Flight marks something quite different from anything I've seen Zemeckis do before.

What follows from this rather hardcore first scene is nothing short of spectacular. It becomes clear that the plane Washington is behind the wheel of will not be touching down on an Atlanta landing strip cleanly. The plane rattles, shakes and nose-dives, and Zemeckis puts the cinema audience right in the seats of the passengers. I don't believe I've ever had a film experience this intense. Superb special effects and remarkable acting from all the crew and passengers on board had me clutching onto my seat with sweaty hands as the plane is flipped upside down and back again, before smashing into a churchyard with people bouncing off every surface. Yet, only six out of the 102 people on board are killed. Impressive by anyone's standards, and Washington's pilot, William 'Whip' Whitaker, is hailed as a national hero. But who should be blamed for these people's deaths? Was it mechanical problems or was it the negligence of a pilot who was both drunk and high?

This is the intriguing question that drives the rest of the film. As Whitaker puts it, no other pilot could have landed that plane like he did, with so few fatalities. Don Cheadle's lawyer shows later that when the airline put ten other pilots in the same conditions, simulated, none of them managed it. So should Whitaker be honoured for the way he handled the situation or punished for daring to fly? This is an interesting study on the nature of blame. Instead of focussing on the 96 people who survived the crash thanks to the pilot, it is the six who died that are the problem. The inquiry committee for the crash want to blame someone, rather than just deriding it as an Act of God. This means, even when there is clear evidence that it was a mechanical failure that caused the plane to go into a nosedive, it will be the pilot who will be convicted of manslaughter if he admits to being on cocaine and drunk at the time. It is, therefore, all down to Whitaker: how much will he admit to doing?

Flight really is a character study of Whip Whitaker, played magnificently by Denzel Washington. He is a proud man, who knows that he was the only person who could have landed that plane with anyone emerging alive afterwards. He is, however, deeply affected by alcohol and drugs, addicted to such a high extent that he can't bring himself to stop even when he is told his freedom depends on it. Washington makes the character, showing him as sympathetic and desperate though infuriatingly stubborn. He continually lets down the people who try to help him because of his dependency on substances. Whitaker is a fascinating character, and one who carries the film from beginning to end.

Zemeckis has been making CGI-animated films exclusively for over a decade now, and this is his return to good old live action. It has paid off well, showing that the director of Forrest Gump still has it in him to produce a really great study of one character's personality and how it affects the various hazards that life puts in their way. Well worth going taking the time out of my holiday to see.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

For the first time in far too long, my good friend Michael paid a visit to my house to embark on an adventure we'd planned a couple of weeks in advance: a Dark Knight marathon to celebrate the start of the half term holidays. The idea was infallible. We'd start at 7 or 8pm and watch Christopher Nolan's three Batman films back-to-back into the early hours of the morning.

But clearly, as you can see from the title of this post, such a thing was not to happen. The wonder of television (teacher, mother, secret lover) brought on wave after wave of watchable programmes, as Pointless became The Simpsons, The Simpsons became Britain's Brightest, and Britain's Brightest became - forgive me, it wasn't deliberate - Take Me Out. By the time these had finished, it was after ten, and although we were celebrating the holidays, neither of us was up for staying awake until about four. And so, I showed him the list of films I had stored on my Sky+ box, and from a list including Full Metal Jacket, The Departed and new addition The Shining, we went for John Hughes' 1980s teen comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Only about ten minutes into the film, Michael turned and muttered to me, 'This is a great movie.' It is a great movie. The concept could not be simpler. A teenager called Ferris Bueller, played by the brilliant Matthew Broderick, bunks off school for a day trip into Chicago. Recounting the storyline to another friend in a chip shop the week after, I realised how odd it must seem to someone who hasn't seen it, that an entire film could result from that plotline, but there it is.

As the film progresses, however, several different stories branch away from the original: Ferris, his girlfriend and his best friend muck about in Chicago for a day; Ferris' principal searches for him so he can prove truancy; the school rallies around the Ferris they believe to be dying of some unspecified disease ('I need a new kidney'); and Ferris' sister becoming increasingly annoyed with her brother's bluff. Hughes plays around with each of these trails, referencing some in others and generally just having fun with it. It risks becoming complicated, but Hughes carries it off easily whilst making sure the film never talks down to its audience.

The cast are flawless, too. Broderick has already become an icon of cool before the film finishes. It takes skill to play a character like Ferris Bueller without making him look pretentious, but Broderick's Bueller is laid-back and confident enough to pull it off cleanly. Alan Ruck's comic style as Ferris' best friend Cameron is still very impressive, with an acting ability to match. Mia Sara is not to be underestimated as Sloane, Bueller's girlfriend, and Jeffrey Jones is marvellous as Ed Rooney, the suspicious and unfortunate principal.

John Hughes was the undisputed emperor of the 1980s teen comedy, a category that has somehow morphed into its own genre. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the epitomes of this type of film, as it appeals to everyone who has ever been to school and dreamt of an unauthorised absence. It is intelligent, chirpy and iconic, with a flawless cast to play it out. This, White Chicks, is what is known as 'comedy'.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

Just over a week ago, my dad returned home from a curling tour of Eastern Canada, where he was part of the team representing Scotland in a bid to win the Strathcona Cup, a massive trophy that has been passed between Canada and Scotland for well over a century. When he emerged victorious, we had to give him a treat of some form. Someone mentioned the cinema, and he mentioned that he'd like to see Tom Hooper's new film version of Les Miserables.

And so the Munro family embarked on our first cinema trip together for a good few years, a pleasant thing to go and do. I had been secretly hopig to go and see Les Miserables at some point while it was in the cinema. While not typically a fan of musicals, I knew this would be a different type, as it takes a more operatic approach to the whole thing and never stops the singing throughout the entire production. Unlike many of the films I've looked at for this blog, I do actually have some background experience in Les Miserables. The Munros went to see it at the Edinburgh Playhouse when it was on a while ago, and I remember quite enjoying it. I remember very little of the cast or plot, though.

The film starts with a scene that would be rather difficult to stage in a theatre on the same scale. We are introduced to Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601, as he attempts to pull a ship into the harbour along with a few hundred other prisoners. This seems to be pre-revolution France's idea of community service. The slaves sing out in a powerful chorus, which isn't too hard to imagine happening in real life. Then Russell Crowe, in the costume of a Renaissance ice cream vendor, inexplicably joins in. This does nothing to heighten his menace, but I suppose it works in telling you to prepare to have your belief suspended like a king's head on a spike.

During the opening scenes of the film, you're still getting used to the whole non-stop song idea. This isn't helped by the way Hooper strings these scenes together, as if they're clips taken from a greatest hits from the movies DVD. It makes what's happening at the start a bit difficult to follow. Essentially, Valjean meets a friendly priest (who also sings) and settles down with him after being rejected from a few jobs because of his criminal record. Jackman's singing voice is impressive at the start, where its powerful angriness seems to fit in, but eventually it just seems misplaced when he is expected to be gentle and quietly emotional.

The sole exceptional performance in Les Miserables, both acting and singing, is Anne Hathaway as Eponine. Her version of I Dreamed A Dream is gritty and emotional, exactly how it should be. That's where the decision to cast professional actors rather than professional singer-actors appears to pay off. She won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA on Sunday for her efforts, and it looks like she may just get the Oscar in the same category on February 24. I wish her good luck.

The music in the film is the real triumph, however. It is lifted directly from Claude-Michel Schonberg's original score for the stage musical, and I believe that some of the songs in Les Miserables have the most rousing tunes ever written. They are designed to hit you deep, and still do so. Unfortunately, there is something about the film that just didn't work. Perhaps it's because it lacks the intimate setting of the theatre, but I felt the fabled 'chill-down-the-spine' a disappointingly small number of times. On a drive to Kilmarnock the day after the cinema, I listened to Bohemian Rhapsody on my iPod. I genuinely think I got a shiver more times during that six minute song than during the entire film. I don't know why. The reason you go and see the film is for the emotion of the story, but it just never completely breaks through.

Maybe it just takes time to get used to the characters. It never occured to me during the film that Hugh Jackman could ever be the definitive Jean Valjean. There are just other actors on the stage who fit the role better. Perhaps after repeat viewings this view would change, but for now, I'd say go and see the stage version. It's not got as big a budget, but that's exactly the point.

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Saturday, 9 February 2013

White Chicks (2004)

Last month, a bunch of girls at my school decided to organise a movie night, inside the school, to help them along with a hospitality course they were attending. In line with the course, they'd be preparing cinema munchies to sweeten the deal, and all for two pounds fifty. Not bad, you would think, and since it combined my two greatest loves of film and food, I snapped up a ticket before I even knew what the film choice would actually be. When it turned out the choice was between two gross-out comedies of the noughties, White Chicks and Stepbrothers, I remained cheerful, believing that something else would pop up on the night.

And would you believe it, something actually did! On entering the drama studio at the school, a makeshift cinema for the night, I found that the second Ace Ventura film was lying on the teacher's desk. That was a film I had on video as a youngster, and still manages to be relatively funny. This being a democracy, the film which we would end up watching fell to a vote after all the pleasantries and popcorn were handed out. I happily abstained, thinking Ace Ventura was about to come up. It never did. And totally inexplicably, the majority of the room went for something named 'White Chicks'.

It goes without saying, really, that White Chicks is one of the worst films I've ever seen. You could give a quick run down of the plot to Jedward (JEDWARD) and they could come up with a more satirical, mature and amusing script. The main joke of the film mocks transsexualism and transracialism, offering no more than the tired, awful stereotype of either group the story concerns: young, black, urban men and spoilt, dippy, blonde heiresses. Even Harold Camping would be able to predict where the plot goes, and the parts in which the film attempts a serious message about love are both embarassing and horrifically patronising to the audience. It insults many without even managing to be satirically offensive.

So why, then, did it win the vote? Why did I go home to check my Twitter and see schoolmates heaping praise on it, telling how watching White Chicks never fails to make them weep uncontrollably with laughter? I couldn't tell you definitively. I have no access to other people's senses of humour, unfortunately. What I could tell you, however, is that it is probably for the same reason that Tom Daley's diving knockout show, Splash!, has been recommissioned for a second series by ITV.

Enjoyment is something which, by its very definition, is pleasurable. It is, therefore, understandable that human beings should attempt to find enjoyment as often and as easily as possible, as it makes them feel a bit better about life and makes the forget (at least temporarily) about all the work they still have to do. In this case, it is very beneficial to the psyche to just relax, lower your intellect and let a film or TV show entertain you with jokes and displays that require no thought to understand and appeal to the deepest, most basic human processes of generalisation and humiliation. This is the reason people often only watch programmes such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent only at the audition stages. They allow you to make sweeping generalisations about the people taking part, and then let you enjoy seeing those generalisations justified.

I've done it, and it's not always a bad thing to do at all. If anything, it proves you're human, which is reassuring. You just have to be wary of it, as mental laziness won't get you very far. You just need to train yourself to snap out of it and not let it take over. That'll allow you to be entertained by the stuff you do have to think about, and that stuff is inevitably the stuff you will be most entertained by, and the stuff that you'll take the most away from.

It is that stuff, after all, that puts the 'Sapiens' in 'Homo Sapiens'. Enjoy White Chicks if you want to, it shouldn't do too much harm, just keep in mind that this is NOT the best the world of film has to offer. Get yourself out there, allow yourself to dedicate a bit of thought to a movie. You won't regret it, I promise.

Follow me on Twitter: @crunro