MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Picks of the Week: Blu-ray. Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides; The Big Lebowski

 Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides (Blu & DVD Combos) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Rob Marshall, 2011 (Disney)


Johnny Depp isn’t acting at full pressure in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the fourth in the lucrative comedy pirate adventure movie series inspired by the great Disneyland theme park ride. But then, how may actors do? (By the way, if you’ve never visited Disneyland and taken that ride, you should. )

In his fourth go-round as Captain Jack Sparrow, the fey buccaneer, scourge of the seven seas and all the mascara shops in Hollywood, Depp might be accused of not trying too hard, of stepping back and letting director Rob Marshall’s production team and the CGI experts, and the rest of the cast (newcomers Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane as well as old salts Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally), and especially composer Hans Zimmer (more thunderously present here than pirate or sea movie composer since Erich Wolfgang Korngold) do most of the work.

In a way, that’s a fair complaint. Depp is coasting a little, even though, with designated lovers Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley having sailed off into the sunset, Jack is now both this “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” main leading man/romantic interest (with Cruz) and, as always, its scene-stealing comical/piratical character star.

Who could blame him? The “Pirate“ series may be at its height of its production expertise here, it may look better than ever, and it may have recaptured some of the initial light, breezy touch. But, script wise, it’s clearly running out of planks to walk. Not enough to hurt the movie financially — but enough to justify at least some of the fussilade of amusing critical blasts the picture has generated.

The movie’s central plot device is, not surprisingly for a Hollywood film, the Fountain of Youth — coveted by the decadently plump King George of England (played by Richard Griffiths), coveted also by King Ferdinand of Spain (Sebastian Armesto), and subject of a three-cornered chase by the roguish, gravel-faced Barbossa (Rush), sailing for King George; a seagoing Spaniard (Oscar Jaenada), sailing for Ferdinand; and the bottomlessly black-hearted, most evil possible pirate, Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, sailing for himself, damn your eyes!

Captain Jack has been shanghaied aboard Blackbeard’s ship, which he promptly incites to mutiny, and which also carries a zombie crew and the flashing-eyed temptress Angelica, Jack’s old flame and maybe Blackbeard’s daughter — played not by that other Anjelica, Depp’s recent unhappily-cast costar Ms. Jolie, but by the estimable Ms. Cruz. Also mixed up in all this is Jack’s longtime doormat, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), plus angel-eyed clergyman Philip (Sam Claflin) and the even more angelic-faced mermaid of Phil’s dreams, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), both doing secondary romantic duty, in the absence of Orlando B. and Keira K.

The Fountain itself, located (do we smell another ride here?) in a jungle landscape full of steep cliffs, tangled green foliage and rushing rivers, and in caverns and ruins that might have been drawn by Piranesi, requires a lot of stuff to unlock its secrets, including chalices and mermaid’s tears. (Syrena’s less teary, more predatory sisters, by the way, can turn into shark-like vampire-mermaids who attack pirates and sailors at will and maybe should be set loose on the Twilight series.) And eventually, we make the scene that Ponce de Leon couldn’t.

That’s a lot of characters and a lot of exposition, all devised by the series’ constant screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and repeated by their characters so lucidly and often that you‘ll never forget them. There’s also a lot of slashing swordfights, sea-going adventuring, rum-soaked escapades, and dives off cliffs, plus dashing romancing and swishbuckling antics by Jack. Jack’s designated godfather and role model, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (see this week’s New Movie DVD Pick), shows up again as Captain Teague; we still await the appearance of Mick Jagger as Edward Morgan, Charlie Watts as Francis Drake and Ronnie Wood as Long John Silver.

But one thing, this “Pirates” does have, despite its chaotic swordfights, is narrative clarity. If you don’t make unreasonable demands on the movie, it’s fun.

Rob Marshall, who’s taken over directorial duties from Gore Verbinski (last seen cavorting with Depp in their spoof Sergio Leone-ish western cartoon Rango), is a variable director, sometimes even inside the same movie. (Marshall didn’t win what would have been a dubious Oscar for Chicago.) But he’s brought along his production designer, John Myhre, and the whole film — despite an unusual number of scenes drenched in darkness (the oceans at night, the caverns) — has the rich luscious gleam of Hollywood rampant.

As for the acting, the actors all seem to be having a ball with their lines and parts, and it’s an inordinately deep and talented cast. (Have you ever seen McNally in Poldark?) The key to the tone is Depp, and even if he may be getting too used to this part, and even a little tired of it, he still can give Jack the right airy lift and playfulness. Cruz is also the kind of pirate lass to make you dream of doubloons and triploons, and McShane a suitable dastard of a bastard.

Twenty or thirty years from now, the Depp of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Dead Man will be more appreciated than he is now. But Captain Jack Sparrow will still be entertaining movie audiences, even if, by then, they’ve become nostalgia buffs. They’ll probably still like this new “Pirates,” or part of it, even if, like me, those same audiences forget most of it fairly soon after enjoying it, and leaving it.

A Treasure Chest of Extras




The Big Lebowski (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998 (Universal)

The Big Lebowski, that goofball masterpiece by the Coen Brothers — once damned by some 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 trip, a fabulously funny and edgily dark comic movie tribute to the time-wasters and layabouts and oddballs of the world. Especially the ones who live in Los Angeles, a city that the Coens catch here with devilish bite and angelic wit — catch it with its pants down and its mean streets lit fashionably sunny, menacingly dark.

It’s a goddam, foul-mouthed, fucking hilarious blow-away ode to all those L. A. 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, you know, as laid-back and off-the-charts cool 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 at 10 a.m. and Hollywood Boulevard at 10 p.m. and the Pacific Ocean, rolling in. He’s mellow as can be in an uptight world — except when he has to cope with his crazy pal Walter. To quote probably the Dude’s favorite expression: Take it easy, man. (Almost a song by The Eagles, 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 has almost everything, or as much of everything as 117 minutes will comfortably hold. For example: It has a Busby Berkeley-style number, with a blissed-out Dude strutting among a lot of Carmen Miranda-inspired chorus girls, with bowling pins instead of bananas in their hats, 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 hard-boiled/soft-hearted thriller that plunges the Dude — along with his two bowling buddies, wired-tight Vietnam vet and strict Jewish convert (from Polish Catholicism), Walter Sobchak (John Goodman, in his finest 117), 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-of-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/buttinsky, 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.” Elliott’s character — a Greek Chorus called The Stranger, who logs in a lot of bar time with the Dude — ushers us into a tangled plot where The Dude is mistaken for another, much richer dude (David Huddleston as the real Big Lebowski), a phony philanthropist who has Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his shit-eating grin of a secretary, Brandt, and Julianne Moore as Maude, his artsy quasi-femme fatale of a daughter.

They’re all on a Big Sleep trip: Hard-boiled, high-style, Chandler over Hawks, with the Faulkner-Leigh Brackett edges bleeding off into something that sometimes suggests David Mamet’s first script for Seinfeld. First the Dude is attacked by the uninhibited thugs of a local pornographer, Jackie Treehorn (the nonpareil and very hip Ben Gazzara), who’s somehow mixed up with the Big Lebowski’s missing wife Bunny (honey-haired Tara Reid, who drives a convertible with “Viva Las Vegas“ blaring out of the speakers), and various German nihilists skulking around.

The Dude gets tangled up in this mess, when Treehorn’s thugs, mistaking him for the other Lebowski, come in, demand money, shove his head in a toilet, and piss on his rug. When Dude tries to collect reparations for these indignities and for the rug, from his rich namesake, he gets damned as a bum, hired as a bagman, threatened and beaten some more (Just like Phillip Marlowe used to, in his day), and winds up in a shootout in the parking lot of the bowling alley where he and Walter and Donny spend much of their time, and where John Turturro, as Jesus Quintana, deviate egomaniac bowling ace, does a Last Tango in L. A., with tongue and bowling ball, that has to be seen to be disbelieved.

The Dude by the way, is an ex-Anti-Vietnam war activist, signer of the Port Huron Statement, and member of the Seattle Seven, just like our old pal Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, the Hollywood guy on whom the Dude is not-too-distantly based. So, what’s this shaggy peacenik doing with a truculent Vietnam War vet as his best friend? Peace and love, man, peace and love. Shared trauma. And one thing must be said: The three camaradoes’ (Dude’s and Walter’s and Donny’s) farewell scene is one of the funniest, most touching Pacific Ocean requiems you’ll ever see — and if you don’t laugh and cry, somewhere, maybe deep inside, as you watch it, well, you have no soul, man. No heart. No cojones. No razzmatazz. No inner Lebowski. Whatever.

Nah. It’s as sharp and dead-on a picture of L.A. as you‘ll see ever: a portrait in deep focus 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 schism 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 Raymond Chandler would play these days if he were a pothead instead of a boozer, and how to avoid cabs whose drivers play the Eagles. (To tell the truth, I like “Desperado,” especially when Linda Ronstadt sings it.) Joel and Ethan Coen, take a bow. (But you know you’d be lost without Roderick Jaynes, to cut it for you.)

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, as just about everyone knows by now, was born to play the Dude. Not even the Dowderino himself could have done a better Dude than this. No way, no how.  The other actors are super, sometimes great, especially Goodman. But Bridges is beyond great, beyond wonderful, beyond Mombasa. He‘s the Dude. His Dudeness. El Duderino. Well, yeah. Take it easy, man — but take it.

Extras: Documentaries; Featurettes; Jeff Bridges’ photo gallery.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon