PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
The Big Lebowski: 10th Anniversary Limited Edition (A) U.S.; The Coen Brothers, 1998 (Universal)
Jeff Bridges' greatest acting creation, and the main man in the Coen Brothers' funniest movie, is Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski: ex radical activist, bowler, connoisseur of second hand rugs and the most remarkable and hilarious of all Philip Marlowe-inspired L. A. detectives (No, I'm not forgetting Elliott Gould) in the greatest Raymond Chandler-inspired neo-noir comedy we'll probably ever see.
Before our astonished eyes, the Dude wanders through a perfectly recorded '90s L.A. where he keeps, like Marlowe, uncovering the rich's guilty secrets and getting bashed and mauled by loony thugs and come-hithered by femme fatales. He's the centerpiece of a wonderful comic ensemble that includes John Goodman and Steve Buscemi as his bowling buddies -- motormouth Vietnam Vet Walter and silent, squelched Donnie -- David Huddleston as the other Lebowski, Julianne Moore and Tara Reid as some of the Lebowski women, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a smiling right-hand man, Sam Elliott as the Western cowboy-hatted narrator (What a drawl) and John Turturro burning up the screen as a perverted bowler named Jesus.
Most everything in this movie works, and if it doesn't quite work, it's pretty funny anyway. "The Big Lebowski" is called a cult movie but it deserves the biggest cult possible.
By the way, the real-life model for the Dude is a friend of mine: Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, a producer's rep and movie guy in L.A., a friend of the Coen brothers and lots of other people, and, like the littler Lebowski, a one-time signer of the Port Huron Statement and a member of the Seattle Seven. The last time I saw the Dude, we shared a funny cigarette together in his car at the Sundance Film Festival. The Dude's a great guy and he's proud of having inspired the greatest cinematic Dude ever. He should be. Right on, Dude. Extras: Featurettes.
Cool Hand Luke: Deluxe Edition (B+)
U.S.; Stuart Rosenberg, 1967 (Warner)
Paul Newman, the great American movie star and actor -- and racing car driver, food purveyor and philanthropist -- now ill with cancer, was the American movies' golden boy of the '50s, '60s and '70s. And for many of us, he always will be. One of the movies that gave him that special place was this 1967 chain gang drama, from the novel by one time convict Donn Pearce, with Newman as a charismatic war hero turned jailbird who inspires a barracks full of fellow cons to thoughts of freedom. Cinematographer Conrad Hall shoots the hell out of this movie and the great supporting cast includes Jo Van Fleet (as Luke's mother), George Kennedy (the 1967 supporting actor Oscar winner for his role here as Dragline), Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker, Harry Dean Stanton, Clifton James, Ralph Waite and, as the mean, soft-voiced jailer who says that "what we have here is failure to communicate," the incomparable Strother Martin. Rest easy, Mr. Newman. Extras: Commentary, documentary, trailer.
PICKS OF THE WEEK: NEW
The Fall (B+)
U.S.; Tarsem Singh
Fantastic and voluptuous, a fountain of wonders in the vein of a modern "Arabian Nights," this second feature by the Indian-born commercial/video expert Tarsem (Tarsem Singh) -- his first was the grisly shocker "The Cell" -- borrows its brilliant remise from a Bulgarian film, "Ho Ho Ho" (Zako Heskija, 1881), making marvelous use of it. At an L. A. hospital, an injured stunt man named Roy (Lee Pace) beguiles a small Romanian girl, Alexandria (the fascinatingly low-key Catinca Untaru) with a tall tale in which a Bandit King and his comrades traverse gorgeous landscapes all around the world while hunting down the tyrant Odious for vengeance and a stolen princess.
Roy, who draws his inspirations for all of his epic's characters from people in the hospital, or from his own nemesis outside, has a dark motive. He wants his rapt audience of one to steal him enough morphine pills to commit suicide. Tarsem's visuals spectacularly enhance this dreamlike story of the world within and without, and of the secret motives of storytelling and moviemaking. If you let "The Fall" grab you, you'll be spellbound. Extras: Featurette.
Israel; Joseph Cedar, 2007 (Kino)
A great Israeli war film. Based on the novel "Im Yesh Gan Eden" by co-scenarist Ron Leshem, and set in the 12th century mountaintop Beaufort military fortress in South Lebanon during the Israel army's withdrawal in 2000, it was directed and co-written by Joseph Cedar, a major figure in Israeli cinema who has already won two Israeli "Best Picture" Oscars, for 2000's "Time of Favor" and 2004's "Campfire." This is his best work to date: a powerful, intelligent war film, balancing gritty authenticity with artistry and sensitivity, while generating a strong anti-war message.
Through the film's striking maze of tunnels and bunkers inside the fortress, the moviemakers achieve a near-symbolic and allegorical presentation of the harshness of the soldier's lot (something that Cedar, a veteran who served at Beaufort, knows well).
The acting is intense, from co-star Oshri Cohen as the idealistic commander Liraz and Ohad Knoller as Ziv, the brooding bomb defusion expert, down to the smallest roles. The visuals are strong too. Austere, perfectly framed, and bristling with claustrophobia, the shadowy interior scenes often suggest the space ship corridor scenes in those visionary science fiction movies, Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris."
Cedar instills a feeling of horrific menace by never showing the enemy directly, and the ending of "Beaufort" is especially moving: a celebration of both wartime camaraderie and the eternal yearning for peace. (In Israeli, with English subtitles.) Extras: featurette, deleted scenes, trailers.
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS
Criterion Essential Art House, Volume One (Six discs) (A)
Various countries; various directors, 1938-1962 (Criterion Collection)
A budget anthology of six great Criterion Classics releases, shorn of their extras. They all are essential, but you might want the earlier versions, with Criterion's excellent extras, anyway.
Included: Grand Illusion (France; Jean Renoir, 1938) Four stars. Beauty and the Beast (France; Jean Cocteau, 1946) Four stars. Rashomon (Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1950) Four stars. Wild Strawberries (Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1957) Four stars. Knife in the Water (Poland; Roman Polanski, 1962) Four stars. Lord of the Flies (U.K.; Peter Brook, 1963). No extras.
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT RELEASES
The Forbidden Kingdom (B)
U.S. Rob Minkoff, 2008 ).
There's a long crazy joke kung fu epic sequence in Kentucky Fried Movie that manages to meld together both Bruce Lee and The Wizard of Oz for a smash climax. So, in a way, does this sumptuous adventure fantasy from the co-director of The Lion King (good) and the Stuart Little movies (Yecch). Michael Angarano, a kung fu move lover with machismo problems, winds up in ancient China, on a Dorothy-like quest accompanied by Jackie Chan (very charming as a drunken master) and Jet Li (very stoic as a monk who's also a monkey). Bingbing Li is the white-haired wicked witch. The script could have been better, but Chan, Li and the battle scenes make this one kick-ass fun. Extra: Featurette.
The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Wedding (C)
U.S.; Emily Holmes, 2008 (Disney)
The original 1989 Little Mermaid is one of my favorite Disneys, but this straight-to-video sequel, which returns voice actors Jodi Benson and Samuel Wright to their roles of li'l mermaid Ariel and crab Sebastian, is a disappointment. The plot is a stretch: dealing with the fight to end King Triton's banishment of music from his kingdom under the sea. And though this animation copies the original, it doesn't have the same zip or flair. . And why in the world didn't they reprise Sebastian's great Oscar-winning number "Under the Sea?" (Including a snatch of Harry Belafonte's catchy primo calypso "Jump in the Line" sung by Sebastian helps some, but not enough.) With the voice of Sally Field. Extras: Featurettes, games.
Kill Bill, Vol. One/Kill Bill, Vol. Two (B)
U.S.; Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004 (Disney)
Quentin Tarantino's forte is probably his mastery of tough guy dialogue, which, in movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, reaches heights of wise guy film noir grandeur. Here however he shoots a different kind of movie, with very little dialogue and an emphasis on action and visuals. Inspired by Sergio Leone, by Kurosawa's samurai epics and by other Asian action movies, he puts Uma ("Puma") Thurman in the center of a wild saga of revenge and kung fu, told in two parts and featuring pungent turns by David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Sonny Chiba, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox and Michael Parks. It certainly passes the time, but I wish Q.T. would get back to crime and crosstalk some day.
U.S.; Archie Mayo, 1942 (20th Century Fox)
Jean Gabin, the greatest French movie star of the '30s, left Vichy France far behind and traveled to Hollywood for this strange film noir set in a Southern California coastal fishing town. (Gabin's great poetic realist dramas with director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert, "Le Jour se Leve" and "Port of Shadows," were prime noir influences.) In it, Gabin's French-American drifter Bobo is tormented by guilt for a murder he may have committed, in love with crippled near-suicide Anna (Ida Lupino) whom he tries to save, and bedeviled by his exploitive friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell). Mayo, who directed Bogart in The Petrified Forest, is no noir master, but this film has a moody, eerie look and one splendidly nightmarish death scene. The script is by that fine novelist John O'Hara ("Appointment in Samarra"). Extras: Commentary by noir expert Foster Hirsch, "making of" featurette.
RECENT AND CURRENT BOX SETS
The 2007 Newport Music Festival Connoisseur's Collection (Ten discs) (B)
U.S.; Lawrence Karman, 2008 (Acorn Media)
Superlative music from the annual 2007 Newport Music Festival, a classical music event not to be confused with the storied Newport Jazz Festival or Folk Festival. The focus here is on chamber music from the romantic period (approximately Haydn to Brahms, with exceptions for Bach and a few others). Cinematically, the discs don't have much to offer; it's straightforward, ordinary shooting, and we never get to see much of the elegant old mansions and grounds that provide the stunning backdrop for the fest. (I'd suggest a short documentary look at them all on next year's set.) But musically, the performances are well-recorded, stunningly played and a real treat.
My favorites: 20-year old debuting pianist Adam Golka playing a mixed program of Chopin, Liszt, Schubert and others, pianist Eduardas Halim playing Schumann and Liszt, the all-female Colorado Quartet's 25tgh anniversary program of Haydn, Beethoven and Dvorak, and the connoisseur concert discovery program, with works by Hummel, Elgar, Wieniawski and the Dopplers. This is an expensive but worthy gift for real classical music lovers. Extras: Introductions by longtime festival director Mark Malkovich, bonus performances on every disc, booklet.
Errol Flynn: The Warner Brothers Collection (Four discs) (B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1940-50 (Warner)
Erroll Flynn started the 1940s as Warner Brother' big-picture and epic movie leading man and a legendary seducer known far and wide for the erotic exploits that inspired the catch-phrase "In Like Flynn." He started the '50s as a drunk and heroin addict whose star had fallen and who, prematurely aged, had only another decade to live.
But Flynn was a true movie star. Even at his dissipated worst he can, like his equally high-living buddy John Barrymore, hold the screen as if it were his birthright. These four Westerns were made in the years between, as his life went out of control and his health eroded. The best, despite a script that worships the old South, is Curtiz's exciting and gorgeously shot Virginia City, but the great, tough Western director Raoul Walsh had an uncredited hand in both San Antonio and Montana.
By the way, Virginia City has a keen supporting cast: Randolph Scott, Miriam Hopkins, Alan Hale and, in the role of a slimy, mustachioed Mexican bandido, the actor who, in a few years would succeed Flynn as King of the Warner lot: Humphrey Bogart.