PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Big Lebowski Limited Edition (A)
U.S.: Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998, Universal, Blu-Ray
The Big Lebowski, that class-by-itself, goofball masterpiece by the Coen Brothers -- once damned as a shiftless, bone-lazy movie that went nowhere slow, now hailed (rightly) as one of the great cult or un-cult movies of the '90s, the '80s the '70s or whatever -- is a fabulously funny and edgily dark comic movie tribute to the time-wasters and layabouts and oddballs of the world. Especially the ones in Los Angeles, a city that the Coens catch here with devilish bite and angelic wit -- with its pants down and its mean streets lit fashionably sunny, menacingly dark.
It's a goddam ode to all those guys who are too laid back or too off-the edge to work out some halfway normal existence -- embodied here in that fantastic creation of the Coens and star Jeff Bridges, that man among men and that dude among dudes Jeff Lebowski -- who indeed prefers the name "The Dude" (or His Dudeness or Duderino) and always corrects people who get the wrong moniker.
The Dude is...well, what can we say? He's the Dude! And he's, like, man, as laid-back and groovey-schmoozy-loosey-goosey as a Dude can be. He's Santa Monica Boulevard with no red lights, on a sunny, windy day. (We love it! We love it!) He's the Farmer's Market and Hollywood Boulevard at 10 p.m. To quote probably the Dude's favorite expression: Take it easy. (A song by the Eagles, by the way, a group the Dude hates.)
The Dude -- maybe not Bridges' finest hour (though for me, it is), but certainly his finest 117 minutes -- is the story of a '70s sort of guy in a '90s sort of world -- more precisely in the world of L.A. on its upper ends and seedier fringes during the Persian Gulf showdown era of 1991. It even has a Busby Berkeley number, choreographed to Mickey Newbury's "Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In." (Top that, all you would-be hipsters.)
It's also a great modern neo-noir, a sort of thriller that plunges the Dude -- along with his two bowling buddies, wired-tight Vietnam vet and truculent Jewish convert Walter Sobchak (John Goodman, in his finest 117 minutes too), and quiet ex-surfin' Donny Karabatsos (Steve Buscemi), in what turns out to be a post-Vietnam (though for Walter, that war never really ended) version of a Raymond Chandler-Phillip Marlowe private eye-prowling-the-higher-brackets-and-the-sleazy-side-too L.A. detective story, with the Dude as a detective who can't really detect much, but gives it a try -- and Walter as his sidekick/enforcer, the most unfortunately explosive muscle a mean-streets sleuth could have.
The Big Lebowski is introduced and at the end, kissed goodbye by the wonderfully sonorous voice of mustachioed Westerner Sam Elliott, as a mellow old cowpoke who gives us the lowdown on the Dude, accompanied by the Sons of the Pioneers and their big hit "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" -- ushering us into a tangled plot where the Dude is mistaken for another, much richer Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston as the real Big Lebowski), a phony philanthropist who has Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his shit-eating grin of a secretary. Julianne Moore is his artsy daughter and a sort of femme fatale, Maude Lebowski.
Yeah, man. What a show. The writing is razor sharp and so is the filmmaking, and Roger Deakins shot it immaculately, and the soundtrack, supervised by T-Bone Burnett, is fantastic -- ranging all the way from Mozart and Korngold to Debbie Reynolds singing "Tammy" to Dean Martin singing "Standing on the Corner" and Nina Simone singing "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," to Booker T. & the M.G.'s and to Townes Van Zandt covering that great underperformed Rolling Stones classic "Dead Flowers." ("I won't forget to put roses on your grave....")
Then and now, people who don't like The Big Lebowski (the movie, not David Huddleston) seem to think it's as much of a time-waster and a layabout -- as disorganized and messy -- as the Dude himself. It's not. It's as sharp and dead-on a picture of L.A. as you'll see ever: of its rotten upper crust and its laid-back under culture, and especially of it's well-lit bowling lanes. It's funny as hell. And it has a rich subject: L.A. today and yesterday, and the unwaged war between the haves and have nots, and how to get through the day wearing yesterday's shirt, and how to keep your hot-tempered buddy Walter from getting everybody killed, and how to avoid cabs whose drivers play the Eagles.
As for Jeff Bridges.... Well, some people were born to dance and some were born to kill, and some were born to love you. But Jeff Bridges was born to play the Dude. Bridges never played Han Solo, though he would have been terrific, and it would have made him a lot of bread, and maybe gotten him a lot of well-paying gigs, just like Harrison Ford. But it wouldn't have gotten him The Big Lebowski, and that's the better gig, the better legacy. The main gig, man. The other actors are super, sometimes great, especially Goodman. But Bridges is beyond great, beyond wonderful, beyond Mombasa. He's the Dude. His Dudeness. Yeah. Take it easy, man. But take it.
Coming to America/Trading Places Comedy Double Feature (B)
U.S.: John Landis, 1988/1983, Paramount
Two of Eddie Murphy's better comedies, both directed by hang-loose helmer and directorial party guy John (Animal House) Landis.
Coming to America (B-)
U.S.; John Landis, 1988
Eddie Murphy as an African prince, searching for a bride in America. Not bad: One of his more restrained and even romantic performances. The cast includes James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding Jr., and lots of cameos, ranging from Trading Place's Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, to the usual Landis in-crowd of directors.
Trading Places (B)
U.S.; John Landis, 1983
Saturday Night Live vet Murphy was never better than in this rich man/poor man swap comedy in which he plays a street guy who trades places with rich boy (and fellow SNL vet) Danny Aykroyd, as part of a nature-vs.-nurture argument between billionaire buttinskies Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. With Jamie Lee Curtis as a well-stacked hooker, Jeevesian butler Denholm Elliott, Alfred Drake, Jim Belushi, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota, with his old SNL partner Tom Davis.
Four Film Favorites: The Dirty Harry Collection (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1971-83, Warner, Blu-ray
I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell the truth, in all this excitement, I kinda lost count myself. But, being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and could blow your head clean off... ("Dirty Harry" Callahan, 1971).
Those of us who think Clint Eastwood is a first-rate actor as well as a great producer-director have 1971's Dirty Harry to offer as evidence. Could anyone have played that part -- the foul-mouthed, rebellious, short-fuse cop Harry Callahan -- better? (Including the actors to whom it was offered before Clint: John Wayne, Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra?) Only Eastwood's Man With No Name (in the Leone films) has more charisma in this type of role; only George Carlin has a dirtier mouth.
The follow-ups in the series are a mixed bag, mostly good, and you're better off with one of the sets that has all five Dirty Harries, including The Dead Pool, which has, after all, a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Patricia Clarkson and Jim Carrey. But Sudden Impact (Go ahead. Make my day.) is another classic. And they all have their moments. Like this one: ...You gotta be askin' yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya? Punk?
Dirty Harry (A)
U.S.: Don Siegel, 1971
Best of the bunch: a genuine cop-noir masterpiece. The movie where Clint chases a Scorpio killer in San Francisco (Andy Robinson) and recites the italicized speeches above and below, twice. With Harry Guardino, John Vernon, Reni Santoni and John Larch.
Magnum Force (B)
Ted Post, 1973
Maybe to spike complaints that the first movie's Harry was a vigilante cop and perhaps a fascist, this one has Harry going up against a cell of vigilante cops in his own PD. A good one: John Milius worked on the script, and the cast features Hal Holbrook, Mitchell Ryan, David Soul and Robert Urich.
The Enforcer (B-)
U.S.: James Fargo, 1976
The weakest Dirty Harry movie in my opinion, even though it introduced, as Harry's first female police-partner, Tyne Daley, later the lady cop of Cagney and Lacey. With Guardino and Bradford Dillman.
Sudden Impact (A)
Clint Eastwood, 1983
The darkest and most violent of all the Dirty Harrys, with Harry going up against a female serial killer and rape avenger played by Eastwood's longtime lover and frequent '70s costar Sondra Locke. (Yeah, I know: It ended badly.) The second best Dirty Harry, co-starring Pat Hingle, Dillman and Michael V. Gazzo as a very unlucky Mafioso.