John Mahoney

Barton Fink

1991

20th Century Fox

Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen are quite simply masters at what they do; which is making entertaining movies that have a lot more going on than you see the first time. They’ve made some of my favorite films such as “Raising Arizona”, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, and the magnificent “Miller’s Crossing”, which is one of the best gangster movies ever made. If you haven’t seen any of their movies, you need to rectify that error and Netflix them.

BARTON FINK was written when the Brothers Coen suffered writer’s block while working on the screenplay for “Miller’s Crossing” and all I can say is this: if this is the kind of story they came up with when they were blocked, they oughta get blocked more often.

Barton Fink is a New York playwright enjoying success on Broadway with his latest play in the year 1941. His agent wrangles a deal for Barton to go work in Hollywood. Capital Studios is offering Barton $2,000 a week to write movies for them. And back in those days, $2,000 a week was a fortune. Barton doesn’t want to go but his agent wisely advises him that if he takes the deal, he can put food on his table and keep a roof over his head while Barton writes the stuff he really wants to write. Barton finally accepts and goes out to Hollywood where he takes a room in The Hotel Earle, a really odd establishment that seems to have only two employees; a decrepit elevator operator who appears to be nearly ossified and the cheerful desk clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi)

Barton immediately catches writer’s block since he’s never written a movie script before. Hell, he doesn’t even go to movies and his first assignment is to script a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery. Barton seeks help from a variety of characters such as the alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub)

Part of Barton’s problem is that his thinking too much is getting in the way of his job. You see, he claims he wants to write about the common man but he actually knows bupkis about his intended subject. This is pointed out in a series of scenes with the producer Ben Geisler who replies to Barton’s dilemma with exasperation: “What do you need to know? It’s a wrestling picture! It’s not  Hamlet!”

Geisler has a terrific scene where he takes Barton to lunch and advises him to talk to another writer and Barton asks where does he find a writer in Hollywood. Geisler replies with one of my Top Ten Favorite Lines Of All Time; “This town is lousy with ‘em…throw a rock and you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink…when you throw that rock…throw it hard.” I watch Tony Shaloub in this movie and in “Monk” and it’s amazing to me that it’s the same actor playing these characters.

Barton has a next-door neighbor in the Hotel Earle, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows who tries to help Barton out with his writer’s block. Hell, Charlie figures that you can’t get more common man than him, but he soon finds that Barton is more interested in ranting about his own theories on what the common man wants than actually finding out what the common man thinks. The theme of Barton’s ignorance about what he thinks writing is supposed to be runs through the entire movie and is handled in some very funny scenes. There’s one in which Barton having a picnic with Mayhew and his secretary and Barton is spouting hyper-intellectual felgercarb about writing and how it’s this divine calling and he cannot separate himself from his art. Mayhew gives him this really pitying look and says;  “I just like making things up.”

But BARTON FINK isn’t just about a writer’s trials and tribulations in Hollywood. It’s also about a grisly, horrifying murder and a frightening revelation concerning the jovial, amiable Charlie Meadows that just may have infernal origins. If you’ve seen BARTON FINK then you know exactly what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for those of you who haven’t. But at the same time BARTON FINK is also a very funny movie and sometimes you don’t know if you should be laughing or not. And indeed, there are scenes where Barton himself doesn’t know if he should be taking the people he’s talking to seriously or not.  Such as two police detectives who appear to take a perverse delight in the way they verbally ping-pong their interrogation of Barton back and forth like Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s On First?”

One of the fun things about this movie is that there’s always something new I see every time I view it (which is about once a year) and I delight in the performances of John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis and John Mahoney (who delivers the funniest rendition of ‘Old Black Joe’ I’ve ever heard) as well as the way the story is told. Jon Polito is also on hand playing the virtual slave of a fierce studio boss (Michael Lerner) And if anybody can figure out just what the final scene of the movie is about, email me and give a brother a clue, wouldja?

116 minutes
Barton Fink is rated R for language and mature themes. There’s no graphic sex in the movie and the implied violence is more grisly than any violence we actually see.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

2001

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Produced by Don Hahn
Associate Producer: Kendra Holland
Written by Tab Murphy, Gary Trousdale, Joss Whedon, Kirk Wise, Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel

I remember reading a bunch of articles in various movie magazines such as Cinescape and Cinefantasque a couple of months before ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE hit movie theatres.  Most of the articles were gushing on and on about the producers hiring the same linguist who created the Klingon language for Star Trek to create an Atlantean language for the movie. Now, you have to wonder why the producers went to all that trouble since the Atlantean language is heard on screen for maybe 30 seconds and written Atlantean is hardly seen.  And in any case, the main character translates it for the rest of the characters (and thereby for us, the audience as well), so what’s the point of going to all the trouble to invent a new language? After seeing ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, I figured it out: the producers had to do something to justify the incredibly thin and tired story. After spending all that money on a brand new language and the animation, they probably didn’t have much left over to pay one good writer. Which may explain why there are six credited writers: my guess is that they were so bored with trying to write this story that they just passed the script around in a sort of round robin: whenever someone got tired of writing, they just passed it on to the next poor sucker in line.

Milo Thatch is the grandson of the great archeologist Thaddeus Thatch and the old man has passed down his dream of finding Atlantis to Milo. However, Milo is stuck working as a janitor, frustrated beyond words because he can’t get anyone to believe his theory and finance an expedition. Maybe the fact that he has absolutely no evidence that Atlantis exists has something to do with it. And one day, outta nowhere, with no forewarning or setup, this crazy old millionaire shows up and drops into Milo’s lap a book that shows him where Atlantis is and has even built a submarine and hired a crew to help Milo find the Lost Empire. Now there are so many things wrong here that I audibly groaned when I saw this scene. But I digress….let’s just simply go on ahead with the rest of the story, okay?

Milo meets Commander Rourke and his second-in-command, the beautiful and calculating Helga and a colorful assortment of multi-national specialists in various fields (doctor, communications expert, demolitionist, etc) that made me sit up and pay attention for a while since I thought that they were going to be a crew of goofy, eccentric but supremely skilled and capable sidekicks like Doc Savage’s Amazing Five or Buckaroo Banzai’s Hong Kong Cavaliers. No such luck. They’re on board mostly for comic relief, except for the black doctor and Latina teenage mechanic who actually have interesting back-stories.

They get on board this way cool submarine that looks like a 19th Century prototype of The Seaview from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and find Atlantis in record time, losing most of the crew and the way cool sub and from there the movie continues on a limp and predictable path as Milo finds that Commander Rourke and his crew are really out to steal the magnificent giant crystal that powers Atlantis. And I’m not giving anything away here because almost right from the first time we meet Rourke he’s whispering in ominous asides to Helga and we’re shown mysterious crates full of oversized guns being loaded on board the sub. And so Milo has to appeal to the better nature of the mercenaries to get them to change sides and help him save Atlantis from Rourke.

The animation is absolutely spectacular, especially the opening sequences where we see Atlantis sink and the ending, which is a terrific action sequence, but that’s all I can recommend in  ATLANTIS:THE LOST EMPIRE. At 95 minutes, it zips by in a bewildering daze. Atlantis is found in the first half-hour of the movie and there is absolutely no time to get to know the secondary characters and/or their motivations. In a desperate attempt to give the characters some dimension, the filmmakers stick in a scene where the characters sit around a campfire and actually tell Milo their back-stories. But by then, it’s too late. I wasn’t interested in what happened to any of these characters and was only in it for the eye candy of the outstanding animation work.

And it’s a shame because the voice work is also quite good. There’s a real problem when the bad guy of a movie is more charismatic and appealing than the good guy, but that’s what happens here. James Garner does such a good job as Rourke that I found myself hoping he’d pitch Milo off a cliff and actually get away with stealing the crystal. Michael J. Fox is his usual energetic self as Milo. Leonard Nimoy voices The Atlantean King and there’s other familiar voices such as Cree Summer, Phil Morris, John Mahoney, Claudia Christian, Jim Varney and Don Novello all of who no doubt jumped at the chance to collect a nice voiceover check while waiting for a live action movie or TV show guest spot.

It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE and I realize that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I have a hard time believing that even kids would find this material exciting or thrilling.  And let’s face it…you don’t blow up a way cool sub like that in the first 30 minutes of your movie…any kid will tell you that.  And there’s just too much metaphysical New Age mumbo-jumbo involving crystals and mysterious life-force energies and all kinds of mystical double-talk that does nothing but try to make you think that there’s something going on here. ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE could have been a smashing Edgar Rice Burroughs/Jules Verne type of adventure and all the right elements are there. My advice to the producers is: next time, forget about creating new languages and tell a good adventure story.  My advice is to go Netflix George Pal’s “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” if you want to see a really good movie about Atlantis.

95 minutes
Rated PG and that’s a stretch. I’d have given it an outright G.