Month: October 2016

The Lord of the Rings: favourite movie moments

I had a week off work some time ago, so I decided to rewatch all three extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back. Much like the movies themselves, it was an epic undertaking that started at around 9am and, with various breaks, came to the conclusion at almost midnight. I’m happy to say that they are still marvellous films and crème de la crème of the fantasy genre. I thought it would be fun to do a personal Top 10 moments from the trilogy and talk about the scenes or moments that, for various reasons, stayed with me the most. I also realised, when doing the list, what a huge part Howard Shore’s incredible score played in making many of them memorable.

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The Big Lebowski

the-big-lebowski-1I didn’t get to see this Coen brothers cult comedy upon its release in 1998, partly because a film critic I more or less trusted gave it a tepid review – this was back in the dark ages of dial-up internet when I only just tiptoed into the world of online film criticism. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t watch it then, because it took me a while to really “get” the Coens and their brand of offbeat humour. I remember watching Fargo and thinking, meh I can’t see what the fuss was all about, whereas now I’d probably appreciate it more, so here’s another movie on my re-watch list.

Jeff Bridges plays the Dude, a laid-back unemployed slacker in Los Angeles who demands very little of life indeed outside of pot, White Russian drinks and bowling games with his equally eccentric buddies. He also favours comfortable casual wear and has to be one of the most shameless manspreaders in cinematic history. One day a pair of goons invade his house mistaking him for a millionaire who happens to bear the same name; they realise their blunder but not before one of them urinates on the Dude’s carpet. Deciding that it’s only fair to ask for compensation, the Dude visits his loaded namesake and gets sucked into a whirlwind plot involving kidnapping, three Germans with a pet marmot and the millionaire’s loopy daughter (Julianne Moore).

The story is really more of an excuse to hang around with a bunch of fun wacky characters and for Coens to display their knack for visuals and dialogue. There’s an inspired bit of weirdness when the Dude hallucinates surreal bowling-inspired worlds, and a rather queasy shot from within the rolling bowling ball. Jeff Bridges’ turn as the Dude has become iconic and it’s easy to see why; it’s such an effortless, relaxed yet detailed performance and you can’t help but love a character who remains so chilled, amiable and Buddha-like in the face of mishaps life throws at him. No matter who he interacts with, he is always himself. John Goodman is also pitch-perfect as Walter, the Dude’s friend and his polar opposite, a proud Vietnam veteran who can get aggressive and volatile, especially when people around him disrespect the rules. Their partnership makes for one of the funniest chalk-and-cheese pairings in recent memory. Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Philip Seymour Hoffman also pop up in hilarious supporting roles. It’s a movie that has oodles of love for its characters and the kind of loose shaggy charm that makes you forget that not much actually happens and the loose ends just sort of flap there. It’s a hard kind of movie to pull off successfully but the Coens are masters at it.

Mulholland Drive

mulholland-driveRed curtains and eerie Angelo Badalamenti score? Must be a David Lynch movie! Despite being a massive Twin Peaks fan, I’m not all that familiar with his filmography, so I decided to watch this movie which was also a big breakthrough for Our Own Naomi Watts. I was prepared for off-kilter weirdness, but it’s safe to say the movie exceeded my expectations on that front and messed with my head like few films ever had since… well Twin Peaks probably. There’s something about the Lynch brand of horror – the distortion of the mundane, the vivid unsettling imagery – that really gets under my skin.

The movie starts off as a conventional thriller – a young beautiful woman with dark femme fatale looks (Laura Harring) survives a car crash at Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles and suffers a complete memory loss. She wanders around in a daze before taking refuge in a random apartment, where she is found by Betty (Naomi Watts), a sweet and impossibly wholesome Midwestern girl fresh off the plane who’s come to LA to seek fortune as an actress. Betty takes pity on the stranger, who calls herself Rita after a Rita Hayworth movie poster she sees in the apartment, and they try to piece the mystery of Rita’s identity together. Meanwhile, other characters with no obvious connections are introduced: a hotshot Hollywood director (Justin Theroux, looking like a younger prettier version of JJ Abrams) is pressured to cast a certain starlet in his movie or else; a hitman bungles an assignment by piling up more corpses than necessary; two men find something terrifying behind a diner.

Without spoiling anything, there comes a point where everything, and I mean everything, is turned on its head and rearranged like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – not in the way of, say, Memento where you can hope to piece everything together if you watch the film again and pay attention. I could make a broad guess as to what really happened in Mulholland Drive, but in the end the movie operates on a non-logic of dreams and nightmares, with details and scenes which are probably not meant to be explained at all. What it all amounts to is an utterly unique experience from a filmmaker with his own distinct and twisted vision. While not strictly speaking a horror movie, it has a perfectly executed reveal scare that frightened the living daylights out of me, while my personal most unsettling moment is in its own way even more disturbing. While at the airport, Betty says farewell to an adorable old couple we assume she made friends with during the flight. They wish her all the luck in the world and it’s all very heart-warming. A minute later, the movie cuts to the couple sitting at the back of a taxi, with the frozen smiles on their faces that look more like horrible leers. This sudden subversion is random, unexplained and utterly creepy.

Naomi Watts’ career really took off with this movie and she’s brilliant here, playing what is initially almost a parody of a perky, plucky, bright-eyed wannabe actress. Harring on the other hand is, knowingly, the stereotypical sultry mystery woman. They’re both familiar types, for the movie to toy with. For viewers who like their movies to make sense and who get annoyed by unexplained details and subplots that go nowhere, Mulholland Drive would be a frustrating experience. If however you surrender to its weirdness and just go with the flow, it’s a trip.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

aliceAn earlier Martin Scorsese film that’s something of a departure from the other films of his I’ve watched, which might as well have been rated “M” for “Manly”. Not that his movies lack memorable female characters, but they’re usually side characters in very masculine stories and are rarely the focus. Other than having a female protagonist, this movie is also an interesting exception in how low-key it is. There are no gangsters, famous boxers or extraordinary stakes or highs and lows in sight – it’s basically a slice-of-life comedy-drama about a recently widowed woman and her twelve-year-old son, shot in a restrained and unshowy manner which suits it perfectly.

At the beginning of the movie, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is married to a surly, brutish truck driver who is soon killed in a road accident. Even though her life with him consisted mostly of trying to get out of the way of his bad temper, her new independence finds her disoriented, confused and quite broke. So Alice decides to leave their New Mexico town and go back to California with her son, with the hopes of reviving her dream of being a singer. Her money trouble force them to stop in Arizona, first in Phoenix where she finds a job singing in a bar, and later in Tucson where the scarce opportunities force her to become a waitress. There, she also meets a local divorced farmer (Kris Kristofferson), who could be a genuinely nice guy or just yet another man whose temper flares up when he feels that he’s not shown respect.

There’s not much story as such, and what is there doesn’t necessarily pan out the way you’d expect, except maybe for the ending which you can guess from looking at the DVD cover. For instance, one could easily assume that this is going to be a rags-to-riches story about Alice becoming a singer, but it’s made obvious that while she’s attractive and appealing as a performer her singing abilities aren’t good enough to really take her places. The pleasure of the movie is more about following Alice’s experiences and relationships with other people, chief of which is her sassy-mouthed son Tommy. It’s refreshing to see a mother-son relationship portrayed in such an unsanitised way and while Tommy can be a pain in the ass he comes off as a real kid rather than an annoyingly precocious movie kid. There are many great true-to-life moments such as when Tommy repeatedly tries to explain a bad long-winded joke with the intensity and determination young kids have, to the point where Alice starts to cry from exhaustion. Other memorable characters include Harvey Keitel as a deceptively nice younger man Alice hooks up with in Phoenix; a foul-mouthed fellow waitress Alice develops a genuine friendship with (female friendships as a rock in women’s lives get a nice portrayal here); and the very very young Jodie Foster as a tomboy delinquent who befriends Tommy.

Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for her performance here and she does a fantastic job with a plum role that made me think of an article I read once that pined for great complicated female characters in the movies rather than just Strong Female Characters. I liked that Alice was allowed to be weak and messy at times, and to feel ambivalent about the loss of a husband who both stifled her and made her feel secure – a realistic emotion especially considering the times and the shift in women’s lives they heralded. The film is also frequently funny and does a great job juggling comedy and sadness, sometimes within the same scene. There’s a loose rambling quality to it that some might find uneven and unfocused but I personally found quite endearing.

Alexander (Director’s Cut)

alexanderWatched Oliver Stone’s much-maligned historical epic about Alexander the Great, the famous Macedonian king who conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks by the age of thirty. It’s a messy film with a miscast lead, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as its reputation (and 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating) would have me think. I haven’t seen the original theatrical release so I can’t tell if this version is an improvement; apparently there are four different versions floating around with the last Ultimate Cut adding 40 extra minutes… that would have made for a very long night in front of TV.

Just to get it out of the way, yes Colin Farrell is not convincing as either Alexander the Great, or a natural blonde for that matter, unless ancient Greeks counted peroxide as one of their contributions to the world. He’s a charismatic actor whose performances I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, but he’s just too ordinary, too one-of-the-guys to portray a truly extraordinary figure. Apparently there was once a competing Alexander biopic in the works with Leonardo di Caprio starring and Baz Luhrmann directing, and while I don’t necessarily think that di Caprio would have been a good Alexander he’d have nailed that larger-than-life, mad-eyed quality at least. Another hindrance is the fact that the film has no real psychological grip on its elusive subject. Stone wants to both demystify Alexander and glorify him, and instead of being multi-faceted and complex Alexander simply feels all over the place. To Farrell’s credit though, as much as he’s miscast he’s never boring to watch and there’s a real energy to his performance.

The film is narrated by Anthony Hopkins, who plays the elderly Ptolemy, once a trusted general of Alexander and now ruling over Egypt from Alexandria. Fun fact I didn’t know, this was one of the many Alexandrias founded during Alexander’s grand trek across Asia. Like many biopics, Alexander attempts to cram in the entire story from childhood to death, and in fact starts off with the scene of Alexander’s death that feels like a nod to Citizen Kane. Then it’s over to Alexander as a young boy, the son of king Phillip II (Val Kilmer hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow) and his wife Olympias (Angelina Jolie), who is, er, eccentric to say the least, keeping snakes in her quarters and telling Alexander that his real father is god Zeus. Jolie, despite a silly “exotic” accent, is a delight playing a totally over-the-top bonkers character, so I can overlook the fact that she doesn’t look much older than Farrell’s grown Alexander – it’s little wonder the poor guy has mommy issues, to put it mildly. After a while, the film shifts quite abruptly to Alexander’s decisive battle at Gaugamela where he thrashed the forces of the Persian king Darius, a strange fast-forward which I only realised later was an excuse to tell the rest of Alexander’s family drama in recurring flashbacks rather than a chronological order. I’ve no idea what purpose it served, other than to space out Jolie’s scenes throughout the movie.

Alexander’s bisexuality is addressed in the sort of coy way mainstream Hollywood allows: Alexander exchanges embraces and meaningful looks with his closest friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and is shown hopping into bed with a pretty Persian guy, but the full-on sex scene is reserved for his Persian wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). As a result, both relationships feel sidelined. There’s a believable chemistry and tenderness between Alexander and Hephaistion, but the movie won’t go any further into their bond and Hephaistion remains a peripheral figure without much personality. Roxane is introduced as a spirited firecracker of a woman, but after one night of unbridled passion she is relegated to her tent as a disappointing barren wife.

The big battles of the film are both spectacular and frustrating – much of the action is too chaotic, I could never tell what the heck was going on, and the random subtitles during the Gaugamela battle were no help whatsoever. But the fighting scenes have scope, oomph and energy, there’s gorgeous armour, camels, horses, and even battle elephants later on – with one slow-motion horse vs elephant shot which is both awesome and ridiculous. The film ultimately doesn’t manage the balance between Alexander’s military and political career and his personal life, despite the almost 3-hour running time: both halves of the man are sketchy and incomplete. Yet Alexander has grandeur and sense of ambition that’s rare these days, and if it’s a failure it’s a fascinating stab at greatness.