Day: March 24, 2011

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.

Full Metal Jacket

1987

Warner Bros.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr

Based on the novel “The Short Timers”

Occasionally the subject of Vietnam war movies will come up when I’m having one of my well known heated discussions about movies with friends and family. Everybody will start slinging around their candidate for best Vietnam war movies and while everybody knows and loves “Platoon” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter”, you don’t hear many people today mention movies like “Hamburger Hill” (which has some excellent work by Dylan McDermott and Courtney B. Vance) or “Who’ll Stop The Rain” or even the movie that was billed as “the best war movie ever made” when it first opened in 1987, Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET

Now saying that FULL METAL JACKET is “the best war movie ever made” is really stretching a point as far as I’m concerned. It’s not even the best Vietnam War movie ever made. That honor most certainly has to go to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” And if you really want to be blown away, watch the Redux version. Yeah, it’s a whole hour longer and some may say that the French plantation sequence isn’t necessary but screw ‘em, I enjoyed it anyway. And as far as pure story goes, “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill” have FULL METAL JACKET beat. But you really should see it because Stanley Kubrick made it and it is a remarkable vision of The Vietnam War. In fact, if you’re in the mood for a Vietnam War movie marathon, rent all the movies I’ve mentioned so far and watch them in this order:

The Deer Hunter
Platoon
Full Metal Jacket
Hamburger Hill
Apocalypse Now Redux
Who’ll Stop The Rain

Trust me on this, it makes sense to watch them in this order because by watching the films that way you get a sense of how the madness of the war exponentially increased and how it infected the American consciousness thereby causing the collapse of the diehard values of the 50’s and 60’s held onto by The United States. It was painfully obvious that everything was changing day by day and nobody was really all that certain of what was going to happen tomorrow. But that’s enough of my half-assed social commentary. Onto the movie review….

FULL METAL JACKET begins with one of the most brilliant and profanely hilarious sequences in movie history as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) addresses his raw recruits on Parris Island, which is where The Marine Corps trains their troops. R. Lee Ermey actually was a Marine Drill Instructor for thirty years and it was a stroke of genius on Kubrick’s part to have Ermey basically play himself since Ermey brings an outstanding level of realism to the role. And at the same time, he’s as funny as Richard Pryor on his best day. He seems to have a bottomless well of profane insults and obscene descriptions for his men that are at the same time outstandingly creative and yet mind-numbingly hilarious in their dehumanizing effect and he never repeats himself once as far as I could tell. One of the recruits actually has to pay a pretty stern price for laughing while Hartman is berating another recruit and I couldn’t blame the guy one bit ‘cause if I’d been standing there, I’d have been laughing my ass off. Ermey is simply wonderful in the role and he has a scene where he finds some contraband food in the footlocker of one of his recruits and the cat just simply loses his mind. The scene has even more power if you do your research and find out that R. Lee Ermey’s dialog is this movie was actual things he used to say to his real-life recruits. Suddenly it doesn’t become so funny.

Hartman in particular latches onto one overweight recruit he names Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) since the poor slob can’t even tie his shoes right and heaps a whole bunch of abuse on the hapless bastard.  Hartman ruthlessly drives the recruit to the breaking point in his efforts to turn him into a soldier worthy to serve in Hartman’s beloved Marine Corps with horrifying and tragic results.  The conflict between Hartman and Gomer Pyle is witnessed by one Private Joker (Matthew Modine) who is there to become a journalist.

Joker confuses his superior officers because while he claims he is a killer and fully intends to be “the first kid on his block to get a confirmed kill” also blatantly wears a peace symbol on his helmet. Joker is the character we follow through the movie as he goes through basic training and eventually sees combat along with his buddy Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) who is a photographer but also is insanely hot to see his share of the action. Rafterman’s constant mantra to Joker is: “I wanna get in the shit.” The two men hook up with a platoon that is involved in The Tet Offensive and this leads to the last third of the movie where the platoon engages in a bloody confrontation with a sniper in the flaming ruins of Hue City. And by then, Rafterman, Joker and the platoon are most certainly all in a world of shit.

FULL METAL JACKET isn’t a movie with a straightforward plot or story and it feels very loose to me as a result. There’s no sense that we have a story that we’re following from beginning to end and in fact, some scenes don’t really end. They just fade out and go to the next one and maybe that’s what Kubrick was trying for in order to make us feel that The Vietnam War didn’t have a beginning or end. It just went from one outrageous horror to the next. And Kubrick isn’t known for being a director who concentrated on his actors anyway. Despite this, there are some great performances in the movie, especially from Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio who plays Gomer Pyle. In fact, the first hour of the movie is so dominated by their performances that after we leave the Parris Island training sequence, the movie loses some of its energy since there’s no actor in the movie that comes close to the level D’Onofrio and Ermey achieve in the beginning. Although Adam Baldwin as a half-crazed M-60 machine gunner and Dorian Harewood as a member of the doomed patrol come awfully close as you can see that they’re acting their asses off. They’re both very good actors and their roles are solid pieces of characterization. I especially liked how even though Baldwin’s character shows blatantly open racist attitudes toward Harewood, he’s the first one to object when Harewood’s character is shot and the platoon leader orders that they leave Harewood behind.

But even flawed Stanley Kubrick is way better than most directors at the top of their game and FULL METAL JACKET is a five star package of entertainment on a lot of levels. The dialog is simply great and I love the look of the film. It’s simply amazing to me that Kubrick filmed this entire movie in England (Kubrick hated to fly and he insisted that he film his movies in England and he got what he wanted) The combat scenes in Hue City give the movie a very distinct look from other war movies that are usually filmed in the jungle since combat in a city is waged in a radically different manner from combat in the jungle.

So should you see FULL METAL JACKET If you’ve seen it already, you’re probably a rabid fan of the movie and don’t need any further convincing. But if you haven’t, by all means, rent the sucker and enjoy. As I’ve said, the first hour with Ermey and D’Onofrio is absolutely riveting and even though the rest of the movie doesn’t measure up to the beginning, it’s a classic war movie that I recommend highly.

116 minutes
Rated R. And it deserves it. There’s no sexual scenes in the movie but these are guys in the middle of a war and they speak like guys in the middle of a war so if you have sensitive ears, be warned. And when there is violence, it’s graphic. How many times I gotta tell you? It’s a war movie.