THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). A handful of Coen Brothers films have achieved some measure of cult status (Raising Arizona, for instance), yet nothing has come close to enjoying the outsider appeal earned by The Big Lebowski. Its standing as one of their most beloved efforts admittedly puzzles me — offhand, I can think of at least a half-dozen Coen efforts I would rate above it — yet it's nevertheless an imaginative and sharp-witted comedy that wears its eccentricity well. Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, an unkempt pothead known as "The Dude." An avid bowler — he spends his days knocking down pins with his buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) — The Dude finds his life turned upside down when a couple of thugs mistake him for L.A.'s other Jeff Lebowski: the incapacitated millionaire (David Huddleston) whose sexpot wife Bunny (Tara Reid) has apparently been kidnapped. To describe the movie as a shaggy-dog story wouldn't exactly be accurate — it's more like a whole kennel of shaggy-dog stories, as the Coens introduce a slew of characters and ideas without bringing a sense of closure to most of them. Yet for all its rollicking humor, my central complaint remains the same as when I first screened it back in '98: Goodman's character, the ill-tempered Walter Sobchak, is abrasive rather than amusing, and the time spent on his tiresome antics results in less screen minutes for such truly unique characters as a snooty avant-garde artist (Julianne Moore) and a Hispanic pedophile named Jesus (John Turturro).
Blu-ray extras include Universal's U-Control interactive function (featuring interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and even a counter of the number of times "Dude" is said in the movie); an interactive trivia game; a 25-minute making-of featurette; two pieces (totaling 20 minutes) in which cast members discuss the characters; a 14-minute peek at the annual Lebowski Fest; an interactive map of the movie's L.A. locations; and photos taken by Bridges during the film's production.
HOSTAGE (2005). Opening with a stylized, eye-popping title sequence, this adaptation of Robert Crais' novel then settles into familiar crime territory with the introduction of Bruce Willis (in good form) as Jeff Talley, an LAPD hostage negotiator whose botching of a tense standoff leaves him with innocent blood on his hands and prods him into moving to a sleepy community where the crime rate hovers around zero. But once three ruffians attempting to steal a car end up killing a police officer and subsequently taking a family hostage, Talley finds himself back in the sort of situation he would like to avoid. For a good while, director Florent Siri and scripter Doug Richardson do their pulpy material proud, with a real attention to both exposition and execution. But as the storyline gets more crowded (another gang of villains ends up holding Talley's own family hostage), the attention shifts from individual character detail and psychological chess matches to outlandish developments and ludicrous resolutions to the various plot strands.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Siri; a 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; five minutes of deleted scenes; and two minutes of extended scenes.
ROUNDERS (1998). Matt Damon's star power gets pumped up to full volume in this satisfying — if not exactly fresh — drama from director John Dahl (The Last Seduction). Damon plays Mike McDermott, a brilliant poker player who swears off the game after losing a bundle of money (including his law school tuition) to a sleazy card shark known as Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, never allowing a ridiculous Russian accent to obscure his otherwise good performance). But when his reckless friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison and steps right into a mountain of debts owed to some dangerous characters, Mike finds himself drawn back into the game in an effort to earn enough dough to solve all their problems. The "good buddy, bad buddy" symmetry harkens back to the days of James Cagney-Pat O'Brien pictures, but Rounders is stylish enough to make us forgive the narrative conventions, and there's some genuine tension in watching Mike figure out how to stay one step ahead of everyone else. John Turturro, Martin Landau and Famke Janssen score in supporting roles, although Gretchen Mol gets saddled with the deadweight part of Mike's sweetheart, whose only function is to berate her boyfriend every time he even thinks about picking up a deck.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Norton, Dahl and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman; separate audio commentary by professional poker players; a 5-minute behind-the-scenes short; a 6-minute featurette on poker; and champion poker tips from four professionals.
SWINGERS (1996). The film that introduced "You're money" to the common vernacular has built itself a nice cult following in the 15 years since its debut, as well as serving as a springboard for lucrative careers for Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. Favreau, who also wrote the script, stars as Mike, a struggling stand-up comedian in Hollywood who spends his nights hanging out with other guys who dream about hitting the big time. But Mike's employment problems don't compare to his romantic ailment — namely, that he's still mooning over his ex-girlfriend back east. Egged on by his best friend Trent (a funny, swaggering turn by Vaughn), Mike tries to get back into the dating game, but he blows it at every turn: If he's not busy rambling about his ex to a potential lover, he's annoying another woman by leaving her a stream of rambling phone messages at 2 a.m. Swingers isn't really much more than a series of skits, but what makes it such an enjoyable watch is that Favreau and director Doug Liman perfectly capture the give-and-take camaraderie that exists between Mike, Trent and their other buddies. As in real friendships, allegiances shift, tempers flare, and someone is always the odd man out when it's time to play a game of video hockey.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Favreau and Vaughn; separate audio commentary by Liman and editor Stephen Mirrione; a four-part, 49-minute making-of piece; 14 minutes of deleted scenes; and the short film Swingblade, an amusing spoof placing Billy Bob Thornton's Slingblade character in the Swingers milieu.