John Turturro plays a Clifford Odets-styled playwright with a mean case of writer’s block after moving to LA to his first screenplay for a big Hollywood studio. Part “Eraserhead” and part “Naked Lunch,” “Barton Fink” is like whitefish on sand.
The neo-noir-styled story takes place around the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. If that little factoid is lost on most audiences, it nonetheless provides the Coens with a sense of societal dread that comes through in every frame of the picture.
It's telling that the Coens famously wrote the script for "Barton Fink" while working through a troubled process during the writing of "Miller's Crossing." Written in just three week's, "Barton Fink" is a minimalist black comedy that relies on John Turturo's nerdy portrayal of the title character to keep the audience on the side of an ostensibly unlikable writer. Turturro's keen sense of comic poker-faced physicality — think Harold Lloyd — runs counterpoint to the lurking evil of John Goodman's insurance salesman Charlie, who occupies the hotel room next to Barton Fink.
Made on a relatively small budget of $6 million in 1991, "Barton Fink" was a box office flop in spite of winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. You couldn't call this movie a polished filmic work of art, but it is a diamond in the rough that kept the Coens creative juices flowing. "Barton Fink" falls into the category of misses that the Coen Brothers have vacillated between for the whole of their career. It's still better than "Intolerable Cruelty" and "Hail, Caesar!" combined.
Rated R. 114 mins. (B) (Three Stars — out of five / no halves)
Writer/director Paul Bartell plays a (possibly closeted gay) L.A. wine collector with plans to open a restaurant with his hot-to-trot nurse wife (Mary Waronov). The platonic pair blunders into an unusual way of capitalizing on the early '80s swinging lifestyle of copious sex and drugs when they run BDSM ads in the local smut rag to attract wealthy perverts that they murder for their cash and cars. Cannibalism beckons.
“Eating Raoul” is an hilarious black comedy loaded with transgressive elements — Nazi-themed BDSM sessions, you bet. Paul Bartell is clearly cut from the same weird wood as John Waters. The vibe here is identical to "Serial Mom." What fun.
Who is "Raoul," and does he get consumed, you might ask. Well, you've got to watch the movie to find out the answer to that little buried lede.
Made on a non-existent budget, here is a kick right in Hollywood’s bloated butt. There is noting politically correct about this comedy, and that’s exactly why you should watch it right this minute, that and because Mary Waronov is out of this world.
Rated R. 90 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)
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Talya Lavie’s 2014 black comedy, about a woman’s place in the Israeli Army, plays like a cross between “Reform School Girls” and “Catch 22.” Lavie skewers religious and military indoctrination in the context of psychological and physical abuses levied against female soldiers by male and female officers alike.
Writer-director Lavie takes inspiration from Jean Vigo's once banned 1933 film Zero For Conduct, about bourgeoning rebellion in an all boys boarding school, to transpose a narrative drawn from her experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Although this movie might play as light comedy to Israeli audiences, the film echoes systemic abuses of female soldiers in the American military where rape is a common occurrence.
When our rebellious heroine soldier Zohar (Dana Ivgy) attempts to lose her virginity to a fellow soldier, she requests that he “be more gentle.” His callous response, “I’m combat, baby” speaks volumes about the sexist effect of his military training. Zero Motivation is a troubling movie in spite of its primarily comedic tone.
"War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing." —Edwin Starr
Not Rated. 97 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)
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Robert Altman is the undisputed champion of multiple characters. No other filmmaker in history even comes close to juggling so many characters, and extracting so much personality from each one. Every Robert Altman film is akin to watching a perfectly devised kaleidoscope of unique motivations, behaviors, and character traits.
Altman opens the film with a virtuosic tracking shot to rival Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” in which characters reference the cinematic technique. This is sly stuff. The movie could have been called “Hollywood Eats Itself.”
So it is in “The Player” (released in 1992) that Altman roasts the Hollywood system with loving authority. The story revolves around a Hollywood studio whose insipid motto is “Movies Now More Than Ever.”
You couldn’t ask for a more rollicking black comedy. Michael Tolkin’s screenplay (based on his own novel) gives Altman all the narrative ammunition he needs to take trick shots at Hollywood’s kneejerk money-pandering system that [currently] trades exclusively in superheroes and sequels.
Tim Robbins is perfectly cast as Griffin Mill, a slick Hollywood studio producer and narcissistic sociopath if ever there was. He’s in danger of losing his embarrassingly high-paying job to Peter Gallagher’s up-and-comer Larry Levy. He has other problems too.
Griffin gets pitched thousands of movie ideas every year. Of the 50,000 scripts that get submitted, only 12 get made into films. He makes 125 phone calls a day. If that number drops to 100 Griffin isn’t doing his job, which obviously requires him to say ‘no’ a lot. Making enemies comes with the territory. A rejected writer sends Griffin a stream of angry postcards that escalate into a direct death threat against the studio vice president.
Griffin is understandably rattled, but thinks he can resolve the matter by tracking down the menacing screenwriter (a man named David Kahane — played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and promising to give his script a shot. However, things don’t go as planned after Griffin discovers Kahane’s location from the writer’s artistically inclined girlfriend. Naturally, Kahane is in Pasadena for a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.”
Here is a film-lovers’ movie that serves as a hilarious time capsule of early ‘90s Hollywood culture of conspicuous consumption. Garish ties, pastel-colored shirts, and double-breasted suits proliferate smoggy Los Angeles. The movie also serves as a who’s who of the era’s celebrities. It seems like every actor living in L.A. is in the movie. I’m certain there isn’t another movie in the history of Hollywood with more cameos. Everyone from Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, and Bruce Willis to Julia Roberts, Gary Busey, Cher, and John Cusack show up on screen. The supporting cast is even more impressive. Richard E. Grant, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Gina Gershon, and Fred Ward each make indelible impressions.
“The Player” was an instant classic when it was released, and it stands up to close scrutiny. There’s a dark joy in the film that is just so much fun to revel in. Robert Altman was a trenchant satirist of American culture, and a truly gifted storyteller. Both traits are on full display here.
Rated R. 124 mins. (A+) (Five Stars — out of five / no halves.
A Killer Vacation
Lovebird Serial Killers Take On Northern England
Blacker than the La Brea Tar Pits, director Ben Wheatley’s dark comedy about a couple of serial killer lovebirds is an exquisitely funny movie. Wheatley, the director of recent British crime dramas “Down Terrace” (2009) and “Kill List” (2011) proves to be well suited to farce, albeit of the pitch-black variety. Based on a well-polished script developed by the film’s leading actors (sketch comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), “Sightseer’s” unconventional tone is charged with a dollop of budding romance. Tina (Lowe) lives at home in England’s Midlands region with her domineering mother Carol (Eileen Davis), who is still getting over the death of her beloved dog Poppy. Against mum’s wishes, Tina is eager to go on vacation with her new suitor Chris (Oram), a “ginger-haired” schlub with a camper trailer and a low threshold for minor injustices. Chris is all politeness and smiles around the sickly Carol, but mum isn’t buying his façade of niceness.
Chris has a laundry list of Northern England tourist attractions, such as the Crich Tramway Museum, for the couple to visit. While riding in a historic tram, Chris witnesses another passenger thoughtlessly tossing a wrapper on the floor. Not one to suffer such indignities lightly, Chris asks the offending man to pick up his trash. The man refuses. Within moments, karma strikes. While backing up the camper, Chris accidentally runs the guy over, killing him. Victory. Chris and Tina get a bonus in the guise of the man’s freshly orphaned dog Banjo — a carbon copy of Poppy.
Tina isn’t troubled much by the event; in fact she rather seems to cotton to the idea. Before long, the couple is taking turns at bumping off unpleasant people they come across on their journeys, which is to say just about everyone they meet. What started out as an “erotic odyssey,” digresses into an all-out killing spree with no end in sight.
Much of the absurdity comes from the way the Chris and Tina judge one another even while one-upping the other. The gawky chemistry that Alice Lowe and Steve Oram share is a hoot even without the added element of skullduggery in which their characters indulge. The gaudy sweaters they wear approach a mythic level of hideousness last seen in the Beatles' mocumentary "Help." They’re not attractive people, but the movie makes us root for their romance nonetheless.
A singular flashback which reveals Tina’s involvement in Poppy’s demise a year earlier fills in a crucial piece of backstory about Tina’s inelegant aptitude for murder. A question arises as to just which member of the homicidal couple is the leader in their killing binge.
“Sightseers” maintains a formal quality of gallows humor rooted in the style of such early Ealing Studio black comedies as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). For as reprehensible as their actions are, we get a charge out of seeing how and whom the couple will knock off next.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Charlie Chaplin bought and adapted the story idea for his 1947 black comedy from Orson Welles, who wanted to cast Chaplin in the title role of a serial killer based on the French “Bluebeard,” Henri Désiré Landru. Ever the master of his own artistic vision, Chaplin was never a collaborator.
Sadly, Chaplin’s reputation as one of the world’s best loved and most influential film artists had been irrevocably tarnished. Chaplin’s pattern of marrying underage women created one scandal after another and constant fodder for the tabloid and international press. His outspoken support for the alliance with the Soviet Union that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II got him painted as a communist by careerist political hacks. The huckster designers of the House on Un-American Activities Committee looked on Chaplin’s association with such leftist luminaries as Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler — whose works were banned in Nazi Germany — with the same contempt as the Nazis.
For Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin created a sophisticated ‘30s era antihero far removed from his trademark Little Tramp — a veritable Snoopy-doll of 20th century cultural iconography. Simultaneously ethical and unethical, the snappily dressed Verdoux exists as an extraordinary challenge to capitalism’s status quo during its seismic swing toward fascism.
After squandering 35 years as an “honest bank clerk,” Verdoux uses his hard-earned knowledge to invest the money he steals from noxious women he marries and murders with his preferred method: poison. He counts their cash with the same pragmatic technique he used as a clerk. Verdoux thus emulates, on a much smaller scale, capitalism’s method of doing business.
Through the butchery, he maintains a personal life. Verdoux visits his invalid wife and young son to provide for their wellbeing. He clearly loves them. They enable him to rationalize his obsessive need to overcompensate financially for the next economic depression that is sure to come. Verdoux’s addiction to ill-gotten financial gains mirrors that of his former bosses. The satire is at once transparent yet opaque.
The carefully manicured upturned mustache he wears accentuates the pursed lips that Verdoux uses to charm new conquests. Chaplin’s ever-present command of body language and vocal range is spellbinding. From his ever-present delicate hand gestures to his flawless enunciation of every word, Chaplin inhabits his character as a man of purposeful contradictions rather than a confused hypocrite.
As he did with his unforgettable theme-stating monologue in “The Great Dictator” (1940), Charlie Chaplin the dramatist brings “Monsieur Verdoux” to a crescendo with a speech that informs the audience of its author’s dramatic intentions.
The “cruel and cynical monster” explains himself before a court.
“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces, and done it very scientifically?”
Verdoux describes himself as an “amateur” by comparison with capitalism’s ruling class. “Monsieur Verdoux” finds Charlie Chaplin deconstructing his Little Tramp into an all-in-one entertainer, murderer, and victim. A more committed idealist you will never find.
Not Rated. 124 mins. (A+) ( Stars - out of five/no halves)
An eight-year absence from filmmaking pays off in spades for writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes — whose feature debut “Mean Creek” made a splash in 2004. Drawing on elements from his own marriage, Estes crafts a snazzy black comedy that frequently dips into the realm of the absurd if not surreal territories of a bent reality.
Tobey Maguire makes for one hell of an anti-protagonist as Dr. Jeffery Lang, a physician whose marginal approach to life means that he cheated his way through medical school. You couldn’t call him likeable, but Maguire manages to keep the audience on his character’s side nonetheless. The filmmaker certainly punishes his wrongheaded protagonist plenty for his sins — some of which are of the indirect variety.
The ingenious narrative kicks off with Dr. Lang taunting the audience in voice-over about how little things like a cheese plate, a bottle of poison, a kidney, and a porn website conspired to crush his ten-year marriage. A piano falls from the sky to smash Jeffery into a pancake. By the end all of the puzzle pieces fit neatly together. And so we have the enjoyment of watching a human “rat” get his gradual comeuppance from a variety of sources.
Marred-life for Jeffery revolves around caring for the worm-rich sod he recently had laid in his backyard. Every night raccoons attack the yard, overturning the sod into a mass of dirt lumps. Jeffery imagines that the sod is at the root of troubles with his attractive wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). The couple hasn’t had sex in over six months, and even then it was “make-up” sex. A shouting match fight puts a real-life tone to the expertly devised comedy at hand. Bitterness and acceptance come with the territory.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its accomplished rendering of every single character. Everyone, from Jeffery’s kooky next-door neighbor Lila (hilariously played by Laura Linney in her funniest performance to date) to his basketball practice pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), registers as a leading character. Kerry Washington shines in a juicy role as Jeffrey’s old college pal Rebecca Mazzoni, the wife of Ray Liotta’s theme-carrying character Peter. Ray Liotta is enjoying something of a career comeback between his impressive performance here, and Andrew Dominik’s Cannes Festival favorite “Killing Them Softly.” Liotta’s contribution to the film’s centerpiece scene of public-spectacle retribution for Jeffrey is a real barnburner.
Such sophisticated ensemble black comedies don’t come around often.
“The Details” reflects America’s modern day cynicism derived from its Government-articulated categorical imperative of rewarding corruption — reference the Bush/Obama two trillion seventy billion dollar bailout as a reward to banks, on top of the many billions of dollars the same financial institutions stole with illicit tactics such as credit default swaps. The movie is essentially a comedy of errors that could have been avoided with a more responsible intentionality.
Jeffery can’t get a building permit to make home renovations, so he attempts to placate his neighbor so she won’t report him when he goes ahead with the plans anyway. The one altruistic thing Jeffery does — his one redeeming gesture of profound personal sacrifice — gets rewarded with a shocking bit of misinterpreted violence. Even the act of expressing a vicious wish comes back to haunt him.
Jacob Aaron Estes has made a plucky movie that challenges its audience to examine their own less than ethical behaviors. Just as it is in life, it’s all fun and games until someone looses their household.
Rated R. 91 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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