Mystery

Sabotage

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2014

Albert S. Ruddy Productions

Directed by David Ayer

Produced by Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, Paul Hanson and Palek Patel

Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer

I’m going to put my neck out there and say that I truly and honestly admire Arnold Schwarzenegger for what he does in SABOTAGE. This is a Schwarzenegger who realizes that he would look downright silly trying to do the same kind of action movie he did back in the 1980’s. He can’t be the One Man Army Killing Machine anymore. Sure, he’s still in better shape than 90% of us but he’s no kid anymore. And he doesn’t try to hide it unlike the other two members of The Holy Trinity of Action Movie Heroes. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis are still trying to convince us they’re still able to pull off stunts they did 30 years ago. But not Schwarzenegger.  He’s got respect for our intelligence. Oh, he still does physical stuff but nothing like the stunts he did in say, “Commando” or “Eraser” These days he’s relying a lot more on story, characterization and supporting casts to give his movies weight.

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SABOTAGE isn’t a movie he could have made back in the 1980’s. He had to wait until now to make a movie like this where he could make his age work for him and for the character he plays. Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t Schwarzenegger doing Hamlet (and I still say he should have done it. Who in their right mind wouldn’t pay to see that?) but he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself.

John “Breacher” Warthon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) ramrods an elite team of wildass DEA agents. These agents are just one notch above being full blown renegades. A couple of them (Sam Worthington and Max Martini) appear to have severe psychological issues while Lizzie (Mireille Enos) is the team’s loose cannon, brazenly flaunting her drug habit and sexual promiscuity in the faces of her boss, her teammates and her husband (Worthington)

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During a raid on a cartel safehouse, Breacher and his team help themselves to $10 million of the cartel’s money and blow up the rest to cover their theft. They hide the $10 million but when they go to recover it, they’re pissed off beyond words to find it’s gone. In the meantime, the DEA has somehow found out about the stolen money. Breacher is put on a desk job and his team suspended pending an investigation. Six months later and with no concrete evidence tying them to the money, Breacher and his team are reinstated.

Turns out that isn’t a favor at all as a couple of team members are gruesomely killed and there’s only two possibilities: either the cartel is killing off Breacher’s team in revenge for stealing their money or it’s a team member who is killing his (or her) partners to keep all the money for themselves. Either way, Breacher’s stuck in the middle. Unable to trust his team or the DEA, he has to rely on the help of Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) the homicide cop assigned to the case. But can Inspector Brentwood trust Breacher? Because during the course of her investigation she discovers that Breacher just may have more motivation than anybody else on his team to steal and kill for the money.

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By now you should have tumbled to the fact that Schwarzenegger isn’t playing his usual good guy. In fact, this may be the closest we’ll get to see him playing a bad guy as Breacher nor his team are likeable characters. In fact, they’re all really not much better than the criminals they go after. But that’s okay by me. I don’t need my characters to be likeable. As long as I understand their motivations for doing what they do, I’m cool.

The supporting cast in SABOTAGE is an unusually strong one for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and yet another sign that you’re not getting your usual Schwarzenegger Shoot-Em-Up. Terrence Howard and Josh Holloway are members of Breacher’s team while Harold Perrineau is a cop partnered with Brentwood and provides the movie with much needed comedy relief. Believe it or not, it’s Sam Worthington who walks off with the acting honors in this movie as well as Mireille Enos. Their characters are complicated enough to deserve a movie of their own. They’re married DEA agents who have long ago surrendered to corruption and spiritual degradation in the pursuit of justice. Mirelle Enos just about steals the movie from everybody in sight during the third act.

What else? Oh, the violence…seriously, this just may be the most violent movie Schwarzenegger has made and considering his track record, that’s really saying something. Director David Ayer is not interested in cartoon violence or the glorification of it. The violence in SABOTAGE is amazingly cruel, bloody and horrifically messy. And Schwarzenegger has got quite the potty mouth as well. I gave up counting after his twentieth F-bomb.

So should you see SABOTAGE? If you’re a longtime Arnold Schwarzenegger fan like me you probably already have. But if you haven’t, give it a chance. It’s not his usual action movie and has far more of a mystery thriller aspect than the trailers would lead you to think. I appreciate him always trying to expand the range of what he can do in films and I think that with movies like this and “Escape Plan” in which he also played a different kind of character than we’re used to seeing, he’s showing that Arnold Schwarzenegger still has a lot to offer us.

109 minutes

Rated R

 

True Confessions

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1981

United Artists

Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler

Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn

Based on the novel “True Confessions” by John Gregory Dunn

Hard as it is to believe, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall have only appeared in one movie together; TRUE CONFESSIONS. “Godfather Part II” doesn’t count because they shared no scenes in that one. That fact really doesn’t have a thing to do with this review. I just threw that in because I could have sworn that DeNiro and Duvall have appeared in more movies together. And it is a shame that they didn’t do more work together. They play brothers in this movie and do an excellent job of convincing me that they are. But DeNiro and Duvall are such great actors they can easily convince me of anything.

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Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert DeNiro) is an ambitious force to be reckoned with in the Los Angeles archdiocese of the 1940’s. His thirst for power is well known but as he directs it into projects beneficial and profitable to the church, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack) allows him free reign. Homicide Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) is the older brother who is proud of his younger sibling’s position and influence but worries about the shadier people he gets involved with. In particular one Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning) a major and powerful contractor Desmond has worked closely with. But Tom’s knows Armstrong’s true nature as Tom used to work for Armstrong years ago as a bagman when Armstrong ran a prostitution ring.

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When Tom and his partner (Kenneth McMillan) catch a particularly brutal murder involving a dead prostitute found cut in two in a vacant lot, their investigation leads Tom to think that Armstrong may still be involved in prostitution. Tom follows a very dirty trail that leads him to a porno movie ring and a sleazy director the murdered prostitute worked for.

In the meantime Desmond attempts to cut his ties with Armstrong which isn’t easy. Armstrong’s lawyer (Ed Flanders) warns Desmond that Armstrong is a genie who won’t be put back in the bottle. And to further complicate things, there’s some evidence that Desmond knew the murdered girl. Once Tom finds out he has some hard choices to make. Can he continue to investigate the murder without involving his brother in a scandal that may destroy his career?

TRUE CONFESSIONS isn’t your high octane action thriller. It’s a quiet exploration of a world where deals involving millions of dollars and affecting thousands of lives are made on golf courses and in dimly lit offices. The backrooms and the boardrooms are where the real rulers of Los Angeles work and the Spellacy brothers are right in the middle of a web of corruption and deceit. What I like about the movie is that the script is smart enough to not let the brothers off the hook for their past lies and indiscretions just because they’ve now found out they do have a moral center. Tom’s past as a crooked cop is continually brought up and thrown in his face and Desmond wrestles with a crisis of faith. Is he serving God or his own pride?

It’s easy to think that TRUE CONFESSIONS could be taking place at the same time the stories of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” are playing out as it looks that good and the period detail just as authentic. But TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a character study and dramatic exploration of the corruption infecting the souls of the Spellacy brothers than a hard-boiled mystery. In fact, there’s a surprising moment where Tom confesses to his brother that he really doesn’t care if Armstrong killed the girl or not. There’s another reason he wants to see the man hang and it’s got more to do with the sins Tom helped him commit in the past than any real sense of justice that needs to be served today. And Desmond slowly comes to realize that his true worth to the church is how many dollars he saves, not souls.

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Both Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall are working at the top of their respective games here. DeNiro had just won his Academy Award for “Raging Bull” and Duvall would win one a year later for “Tender Mercies.” The relationship between the two brothers is an interesting one more for what the brothers don’t say to each other when it needs to be said and only comes from their lips years later in a ending scene of such elegant redemption and sadness.

There’s plenty of solid supporting work here. I enjoyed seeing Kenneth McMillan get to play a good cop for a change. Ed Flanders as a lawyer is as dangerously polite and gentle as a razor. Burgess Meredith plays Desmond’s mentor and ironically his fate in the movie turns out to be his protégé’s as well. Look for Dan Hedaya and James Hong in small but pivotal roles.

Charles Durning has a good showcase here of his talents. Armstrong can be jovial and happy-go-lucky one minute. Then it’s as if he flips a mental switch and becomes murderously menacing. Maybe his character did kill that girl. Maybe he didn’t. But he sure has the temperament for it. And look for the scene where he dances at a wedding. My Better In The Dark co-host Tom Deja mentioned to me how impressed he was with Durning’s dancing ability in “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and I suggested he check out this movie just for that scene alone. Durning’s a big man but he seems to become totally weightless when he dances and his face is so full of sheer happiness you can’t help but grin when he does his merry little Irish jig.

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So should you see TRUE CONFESSIONS? If you’re a fan of Robert DeNiro and/or Robert Duvall, yes. If you like murder mysteries set in 1940’s Los Angeles, yes. Just don’t get too involved in wanting to know who done it. TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a why they done it and how it still affects and resonates with them years later.

Rated R

108 minutes

 

 

Hammett

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1982

American Zoetrope/Orion Pictures/Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures

Directed by Wim Wenders

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola

Screenplay by Ross Thomas and Dennis O’Flaherty

Adaptation by Thomas Pope

Based on the novel “Hammett” by Joe Gores

I want you guys to do me a favor, okay? If sometime in the future, after I’m dead and gone and somebody, for whatever obscure reason wants to make a fictionalized movie about me and my adventures, make sure they watch HAMMETT first, okay? Because that’s exactly what I would want a fictionalized movie about me to be like.

HAMMETT tells you right from the start that it’s a fictionalized story about Dashiell Hammett, the writer who totally redefined the hard-boiled detective novel in America. He created Sam Spade, The Continental Op and Nick and Nora Charles. His Continental Op novel “Red Harvest” has been cited as the inspiration for movies such as “The Glass Key” “Yojimbo” “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Last Man Standing” as well as my own “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.” Dashiell Hammett had the benefit of authenticity in his work, having actually worked for The Pinkerton National Detective Agency for about eight years. He claimed that the characters in his stories were all people he actually knew or encountered in his work as a detective. And during the course of the events of this movies we see where he got the inspiration for certain characters in his stories. We also get a damn good mystery yarn to boot.

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But when we see Samuel Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) in this movie, he’s put his Pinkerton days behind him. Suffering from tuberculosis and alcoholism he’s living in San Francisco and has made a reputation for himself as a pulp writer of detective/thriller stories. One night after finishing a story he’s visited by his old Pinkerton partner James Francis Xavier Ryan (Peter Boyle) the guy who taught him everything he knew. Sam’s out of the game but Jimmy calls in an old marker and soon Sam Hammett finds himself helping Jimmy look for a Chinatown whore named Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei.) Jimmy made this out to be a simple missing person case but it’s far from that. Crystal Ling is also being hunted for by pornographic photographer Gary Salt (Jack Nance) and Chinatown ganglord Fong Wei Tau (Michael Tau.) And if that wasn’t enough Police Detective Lt. O’Mara (R.G. Armstrong) strongly suggests that Hammett forgets he ever heard the name Crystal Ling.

Sam would love to leave this whole dirty business alone but Jimmy has gone missing, along with the manuscript of his latest story. Assisted by librarian/sometimes girlfriend, the wonderfully named Kit Conger (Marilu Henner) and the cab driver Eli (Elisha Cook, Jr.) Hammett navigates the convoluted hidden government of San Francisco, run by The Cops, The Crooks and The Big Rich to find out what happened to Jimmy Ryan and the secret of Crystal Ling.

I cannot say enough about how much I love HAMMETT which to me successfully invokes the spirit of classic film noir from the 30’s and 40’s despite being a color movie. And most of it is due to to the outstanding performance of Frederic Forrest who should have won an Academy Award for Best Actor for this movie that year. There are so many touches of Humphrey Bogart in his performance…too many to name but if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not an imitation, far from it. But you’ll have to see the movie to understand what I mean.

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And it’s a writer’s movie in that we see how how in putting together this mystery, Hammett incorporates it into his fiction. We see surrealistic scenes where Hammett’s reality blends with his imagination that I could really identify with because it’s happened to me.

The supporting cast is outstanding with the exception of Marilu Henner who I put in the same class with Robin Givens. They’re actresses who everybody tells me are supposed to be sexy but to me work too hard at being sexy instead of just being sexy. Know what I mean? Lydia Lei is terrific as Crystal Ling and she has a scene with Frederic Forrest that ends up with her saying: “I did such wicked things” and you totally believe his response. David Patrick Kelly as a gunsel is reminiscent of the same character played by Elisha Cook Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon”

In fact, all of the characters in HAMMETT have echoes to characters we’ve seen in other movies based on this great writer’s works and in a way, that’s a large part of the enjoyment of HAMMETT. It’s one of my favorite movies and I’m betting that after you see it that it will be one of yours as well. It’s available for streaming on Netflix. Enjoy with my heartiest blessings.

97 minutes

Rated PG

 

 

Zero Effect

1998

Columbia Pictures

Directed and Written by Jake Kasdan

Produced by Lisa Henson

“TV pilot on steroids” is a phrase you’ve probably heard me throw around either here at The Ferguson Theater or on an episode of Better In The Dark. But just in case you haven’t, here’s what I mean by that. Sometimes I watch a theatrical movie and the way the situation and characters are presented and constructed feels like the filmmakers are  setting up a television series. You know what I mean. How many times have you seen a movie in a theater and thought “That would be a great TV series!” Too many times to count, I bet.

That’s the way I felt after having watched ZERO EFFECT recently. I remember watching this on VHS years ago and appreciating it as being a really ingenious and unique variation on the concept of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. The mysterious and brilliant Daryl Zero is a character that would be right at home on the USA network along with the other offbeat characters headlining their popular shows.  I discussed this movie briefly on the BiTD Facebook page and was made aware that there actually was an attempt to turn ZERO EFFECT into an NBC TV series starring Alan Cummings as Zero but it didn’t catch on. And that’s really a shame as ZERO EFFECT has tremendous potential as a series. I’d certainly watch it every week.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world’s most private private detective. He never meets with his clients, preferring to deal with them through his legman/assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller.) And that’s a good thing because Daryl Zero is…well, nuts. He’s horribly inept in social situations, downright rude and mean, lives on a diet of canned tuna fish, methamphetamines and Tab while writing truly terrible folk songs (although truth to tell, I actually kinda like “Let’s Run Off And Get Married.”) But give him a case to work on and he suddenly transforms into a coolly confident, smooth, totally fearless professional investigator whose courage and near superhuman gift of observation while maintaining a emotionless objectivity toward his client and other people involved guarantees that he will solve the case.

His latest one seems very simple and Steve Arlo doesn’t even think it’s worth their time. Millionaire Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) has lost the key to a safety deposit box and it’s vitally important that he find it as it’s linked to a complicated and elaborate blackmail scheme. And indeed, Daryl Zero figures out that the blackmailer is Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) an EMT who works out at the same gym as Stark with ridiculous ease.

Arlo figures that wraps everything up but not so. Zero is intrigued as to why Gloria is blackmailing Stark and continues his investigation. This forces him to interact with Gloria and threatens to compromise his cherished objectivity as he finds himself strongly attracted to Gloria.  In the meantime, Arlo is resisting Stark’s repeated attempts to pressure or bribe Arlo into betraying Zero and giving Stark the name of the blackmailer so that Stark can have that person killed. He also is getting pressure from his girlfriend Jess (Angela Featherstone) who wants him to quit working for Zero and start working on them getting married.

Now before The Spoiler Police starts in on me because I revealed the identity of the blackmailer, let me explain that who is doing the blackmailing is nowhere near as important as why Stark is being blackmailed and that turns out be the real mystery that has to be solved. That and the mystery of his own emotions as Zero finds himself doing some very unexpected things contrary to his nature as he gets closer and closer to Gloria, irresistibly drawn to her as she’s the only person he’s ever met that can get into his head.

Bill Pullman is really amazing as Daryl Zero. Pullman is an actor who for years has danced on the edge of being a major star but never could seem to find that one role to put him over the top. When we first meet Daryl Zero he seems like such a weirdo it’s impossible to imagine he could be the kind of detective Steve Arlo describes to Stark as being so brilliant that in one hour and without ever leaving his home he locates a missing man the FBI hadn’t been able to locate for eight months. But once he’s on the case he turns into a totally different man and Pullman sells the transformation.

Ben Stiller is one of the most frustrating actors I’ve ever seen on screen. When he’s cooking on all burners he can be excellent. But when he’s bad he stinks like a houseguest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home. Fortunantly we get the former Ben Stiller here. Steve Arlo is continually frustrated by Zero’s bizarre, manic mood swings and method of operation but he also cares for him and is fascinated by the man’s personality. Stiller does an excellent job here and I think gives one of his all-time best performances.

Since the plot of this movie is loosely based on “A Scandal in Bohemia” you can kinda guess where the relationship between Gloria and Zero is going to go and you’d be right. Kim Dickens is absolutely charming as Gloria and during the course of the movie I grew more and more to understand why Zero is becoming intrigued with this woman. In recent years I’ve been wondering why Ryan O’Neal is slowly morphing into William Shatner and I believe it may have started here. There are scenes where O’Neal’s mannerisms and way of delivering his lines are uncannily a lot like Shatner’s. He even looks like Shatner at times.

So should you see ZERO EFFECT? If you’ve never seen it and if you’re a fan of characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Adrian Monk, Jacob Hood and Gregory House then you’ll enjoy ZERO EFFECT, trust me. Enjoy.

116 minutes

Rated R

The Long Goodbye

1973

MGM Home Entertainment

 Directed by Robert Altman

Produced by Jerry Bick

Screenplay by Leigh Brackett

Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler

When Robert Altman is cooking on all burners as in say, ‘MASH’, ‘The Player’ or ‘Cookie’s Fortune’ he’s a director to be reckoned with and you sit back and just revel in how many characters he effortlessly weaves in and out of whatever story he’s telling.  I’m a big fan of his ‘Popeye’ which is a comic book movie that even fans of comic book movies fail to remember but I think is a jaw-droppingly amazing piece of work.  ‘Nashville’ I could never quite get into but it’s widely regarded as his masterpiece while ‘Quintet’ and ‘3 Women’ are quite baffling and addictively dreamlike.  I don’t get what they’re about but for some reason I’m compelled to watch them anytime they’re being aired.  And then there’s the movie we’re talking about now: THE LONG GOODBYE.

I guess the best way to start off discussing THE LONG GOODBYE is to say that while it’s based on the classic 1954 Raymond Chandler novel of the same name featuring the iconic private detective Philip Marlowe, it’s set in 70’s Los Angeles.  So I think  I’m pretty sure in saying that a whole lot of the movie is a departure from the source material.  In fact, I’ll put myself out a limb and say I’m damn sure it is because probably the most memorable thing about this private eye/mystery movie is that nobody really seems to care about the mystery, if it gets solved at all or who done it, why they done it and how they done it.  It that respect, it shares something with a previous Philip Marlowe movie adaptation: the classic Howard Hawkes directed ‘The Big Sleep’ filmed with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall back in 1946.  That movie’s story was so convoluted that at the end there were two murders still unsolved and even Chandler himself had to admit that he didn’t know who killed the victims.  You watch THE LONG GOODBYE and by the end you realize that there’s a whole lot you don’t understand about who did what to whom and why.  But if you like Robert Altman or Elliott Gould or just like to watch a movie with a bunch of smart ass characters trying to out-smart ass each other, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this one.

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Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is your typical private eye: he lives like a slob, takes the cases nobody else wants and lives by a personal code of honor that is unexplainable.  You either get it or you don’t.  One hot summer night he’s woken up by his cat and has to go out to buy the only kind of cat food the finicky bastard will eat.  When he comes back home with the cat food Marlowe finds his old buddy Terry Lennox (former pro baseball player and author of ‘Ball Four’ Jim Bouton) waiting for him.  Terry’s had a fight with his wife, which isn’t unusual, but Terry’s request that Marlowe drive him to Tijuana is.  Still, Terry’s his boy so Marlowe does him the solid.

Turns out that Marlowe might have been better off giving Terry his couch for the night.  The cops are waiting for Marlowe when he returns home and haul him into jail as an accessory after the fact in the murder of Terry Lennox’s wife.  Even though Marlowe maintains that Terry wouldn’t kill his wife, he still can’t forget that Terry had some serious looking scratches on his face and hands and he did seem to be in an awful hurry to get to Mexico.  The cops turn Marlowe loose after Terry himself turns up dead, supposedly a suicide.  Even as Marlowe is trying to deal with this and find out exactly what happened the night Terry showed up at his apartment, he’s hired by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) to find her brilliant but alcoholic writer husband Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) who’s gone missing.  And if that wasn’t enough, Terry’s ‘business partner’ Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) leans on Marlowe a whole lot since it seems that Terry took off with $350, 000 of mob money and since Marlowe was the last to see him…

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Now when I lay it out like that you think that THE LONG GOODBYE is more or less your typical private eye movie but it isn’t. At times you’re not sure if Altman, Gould and the rest of the cast are taking this thing seriously since the whole movie is really carried by the definitely bizarre, eccentric and downright nutty characters that populate the story.  Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe leads the pack as he wisecracks at every opportunity and chain-smokes with a relentlessness I admire.  There’s even a scene where he’s hit by a car and is lying in the street with his still burning cigarette firmly in his lips.  In true private eye fashion he doggedly follows the trails of what seems to be three unrelated cases and finds that they all lead back to his friendship with Terry Lennox and that night he drove him to Tijuana.  And when he does put the case together and finds out who is behind it all and why, the ending is a true surprise.

But to get there…boy, is it a long strange trip.  Marlowe’s cat is a unusual character in its own cat like way but there’s also the five beautiful blonde girls who live next door to Marlowe who insist on exercising in the nude and whose only activity seem to be making and eating huge amounts of brownies (if you were around in the 70’s, you’ll know why) and a security guard who does impressions of 30’s/40’s movie stars and the slimy Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) who has some kind of strange hold over the normally bombastic and dominant Roger Wade…well, I trust you get the point by now. THE LONG GOODBYE is not your typical gumshoe movie and if you expect a straightforward mystery, you’re not going to get it here.

You’ll probably enjoy things like Elliott Gould’s decidedly eccentric and quirky performance as Philip Marlowe that is unlike that of any other incarnation of Marlowe.  The story is definitely convoluted and I had to watch the movie three times until I felt I finally understood the connections between Terry Lennox, his wife’s murder, Roger Wade and his wife and Marty Augustine’s missing mob money.  I think you’ll also get a kick out of the music score which consists of the theme song ‘The Long Goodbye’ being played in a variety of styles from R&B, Muzak, disco, jazz, blues and even a version sung over a car radio by Jack Sheldon who sang many of the classic ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ and ‘Multiplication Rock’ songs.  And don’t tell me you don’t know who Jack Sheldon is.  Does ‘Conjunction Junction’ ring a bell?  And keep your eyes open for none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself as one of Marty Augustine’s goons in one of his first (might even be his first) movie roles.

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So should you see THE LONG GOODBYE?  Depends.  If you’re a fan of the quirky and offbeat, I’d say yes.  If you like Elliott Gould or the films of Robert Altman, I’d say yes.  If you’re a fan of private eye/suspense/mystery/detective movies, I’d say no.  After all, this isn’t a movie that all that concerned about who done it, why they done it and how they done it as it is with evoking a mood and a style.  It’s a movie that is solely concerned with us taking a look at these characters and what they do during a crucial few days in their lives.  I do admit, though, it’s a movie where you can easily imagine the characters having lives that continue long after the movie is over.

Rated R

112 minutes

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.