Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Craig Milne reviews his ten favourite films, Part 2

The Big Lebowski
USA/UK 1998
Director: Joel Coen
Screenwriters: Ethan and Joel Coen
Runtime: 117 mns
Certificate: 18
DVD Distributor: Universal Studio Home Entertainment

Choosing this film was excruciatingly difficult as any number of the Coen brothers’ films could have been on this list. Including Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski would have made for a very limited list indeed, so The Big Lebowski gets in purely because it makes me smile from ear to ear whenever I see it. Fargo is grittier, more exciting, and almost as funny, so it receives a very honourable mention, but the idiosyncrasies of The Big Lebowski and its eccentric charm make it impossible to leave out.

The noir influences of the movie shine through in every scene, but replacing the sharp suited, tough Humphrey Bogart character with a sandal wearing, burnout hippie skews the angle of the film into delightfully farcical territory. One of cinema’s most endearing and enduring cult icons, Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), becomes embroiled in the schemes of his millionaire namesake as he seeks compensation for a soiled rug. The ensuing tale of kidnap, car theft, pornography, treachery, bowling and nihilism verges on the nonsensical. By the climax of the movie, one cannot help but wonder, as the Dude surely does, ‘what would have happened if he’d just cleaned the piss of his carpet?’

The movie is a surreal comedy of errors with a vague plot and incomprehensible characters rushing by as the Dude tries in vain to keep up. His jaw flaps at every idiotic twist, while his well meaning but unbalanced friend Walter (John Goodman) infuriates him to the point of insanity. Like a massive rambling train of thought that loses its point every ten minutes, The Big

Lebowski’s laugh a minute quote marathon seems to go nowhere, yet it arrives at a beautifully humbling, poignant conclusion. Fargo has the brains in the Coen brothers’ collection, but The Big Lebowski has so much warmth and heart, it wins hands down every time.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
USA 1998
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox
Runtime: 118 mns
Certificate: 18
DVD Distributor: The Criterion Collection

There are literally thousands of reasons why Twelve Monkeys, Brazil or Monty Python and the Holy Grail should be Terry Gilliam’s entry on this list. But it would be terribly dishonest of me not to include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It makes me laugh so hard I cannot breathe. The warped tale of Hunter S. Thompson’s savage trip to Las Vegas (first told in his book of the same name), with his borderline psychotic attorney, sets off at amphetamine fuelled pace and relentlessly burns a path through wrecked hotel rooms, hallucinatory casinos, bars, diners, motorcycle races and Debbie Reynolds concerts. Trying to find ‘the American Dream’, Thompson (Johnny Depp), under the alias Raoul Duke, and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), take excess to new levels, consuming more drugs than should be humanly possible, and creating total mayhem wherever they go.

Not that the film in any way glorifies excessive drug use. Its brutal portrayal of the ill effects of narcotics in several scenes shows a dark side to drug use that is quite often truly frightening. Scenes where Gonzo makes wild and incoherent accusations of Duke while waving a razor sharp hunting knife in his eye may be amusing, but there is always the suggestion that things could go badly wrong. The signs of violent crimes being committed are everywhere, although never actually seen: it would betray the original text to show them being committed. But there is acknowledgement that things are not as they seem, and that no one is in control.

Thompson’s distinctive, cryptic, vitriolic writing captures an atmosphere of wanton defiance and disobedience in the uncertain times of the early seventies. It is so rare to find a decent movie adaptation of a book, but to find one that takes the unhinged genius of the book and creates a film of equal merit is rare. The brilliantly psychedelic imagery, the hallucinatory effects, the non-stop barrage of visual distortions and the incomprehensible dialogue all capture the madness of Thompson’s unique literary style. Coupled with the inspired casting of Johnny Depp as the enigmatic writer and Benicio Del Toro as his corpulent accomplice, the chemistry of the movie is perfectly balanced between the sublime and the ridiculous. The legend of Hunter S. Thompson is brought to life with intensity, ferocity and dark, twisted mirth by Gilliam and his stars, and for all its stomach churning moments it is one of the funniest movies ever made.

Read Part 3 tomorrow!

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