Archive for July 1991

V.I. Warshawski

July 26, 1991

As inelegant as its title. As Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, the Chicago detective from Sara Paretsky’s popular mystery series, Kathleen Turner wears gorgeous dresses that are forever getting messed up; didn’t it occur to anyone on this film that a woman in V.I.’s line of work might opt for clothing less inhibitive of movement — sweats, perhaps? (The V.I. of the books isn’t a fashion plate.) In the script, a shoddy synthesis of some of the books, a snotty little girl (Angela Goethals) hires V.I. to find out who killed her father. Thus a potentially great movie heroine becomes maternal and protective, and Turner can’t get her bearings in the role; the very qualities that make her a serviceable V.I. — gutsiness, brassiness — render her entirely unconvincing as a mom figure. Turner does put a spin on the rote castration jokes, and she’s fun when she’s decking people. The film reaches climax during the opening credits, when director Jeff Kanew pans over Turner’s drop-dead legs. This was to be the first in a series of V.I. detective comedies, but it tanked — badly. Which is probably why you haven’t seen any major motion pictures based on Sue Grafton or Patricia Cornwell. A similar attempt 21 years later, One for the Money, based on Janet Evanovich’s popular series, didn’t fly either. I pictured Turner watching the trailer for that and snorting, “Bitch, if I couldn’t do it…”

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

July 3, 1991

By now, of course, you’ve either seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day or made up your mind to miss it. Reviewing it at this point is like reviewing the paint job on a roller coaster. I won’t bother with the plot here, largely because there really isn’t one. T2 is, for all its flash and fury, a rehash of the brilliant 1984 original, lacking that film’s tautness.

But still! I enjoyed T2 as much as I did the other two great American entertainments of 1991 (The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise, for those keeping score). And it’s unquestionably a top-drawer sequel, with all the mayhem and power $100 million can buy; it’s a big monster toy. James Cameron, who directed both Terminator films, is a genuine visionary, an obsessional maximalist; even if you find nitpicks here and there — and you do — T2 still bowls you over. Cameron may only make preposterous, excessive epics laden with hardware, but nobody does it better. In T2, he’s in his element — he has huge toys to play with.

The violence in Cameron’s films goes so far past what you’re used to that it becomes bone-crunching slapstick. Example: When the good Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the older, weaker T-800 model, and the evil Terminator (Robert Patrick), the ominously bland and frighteningly resourceful T-1000, first meet about half an hour into the movie, they spend a minute or so throwing each other through walls. No, wait. Go back and read that again. Throwing each other through walls. These are not flimsy walls, either; these are concrete walls. “Excessive” is the word that keeps popping to mind.

Example: When the thirteen-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong) — destined, in the possible future, to become the leader of a human rebellion against the Terminators — tries to escape the T-1000 via motorcycle, the cyborg just trots after him. On foot. And almost catches him, even though the kid is burning rubber. Later, the kid’s still peeling on the motorcycle, and the T-1000 comes after him in a huge truck. Now, the kid is in an embankment, and the truck is on a bridge some twenty feet above. Doesn’t faze the T-1000. He floors it, drives through the railing, crashes with gargantuan bang and metal shriek onto the pavement below … and keeps roaring after the kid. Excessive.

Example: Arnie, the good and noble Terminator sent to the past by John Connor to protect his mother and his younger self, has promised the kid that he won’t kill anybody. Fair enough. When confronted with what appears to be the entire Los Angeles police department, Arnie doesn’t retreat and doesn’t go back on his word. He just carefully, precisely shoots the cops’ kneecaps off, one cop after another. Funny, right? But wait. In a later shot, we see a bunch of the poor cops limping or crawling to their cars. Great touch. Hilarious. Also excessive.

Example: The T-1000 is driving another massive rig — this one full of liquid nitrogen. Arnie hops onto the hood, whips out a gigantic machine gun, and empties it into the T-1000’s face, point blank. Excessive? Hell, yes.

The point? At a James Cameron movie, you see things you never get to see. Physics and logic are minor issues for him. If you’re a guy, do you remember all the sadistic things you did to action figures as a kid? You’d bury ’em, throw ’em in the street so they’d get run over, toss ’em off the roof or down some stairs or chuck ’em against the side of the house, and they’d be back for more, because you’d pretend that, say, Han Solo was still alive even though you smooshed him with a brick yesterday. That’s the essential appeal of the Terminator movies. Cameron invites us boys to join him in smooshing very expensive action figures. Also cars and trucks.

So what do women get out of his films? Simple. In most of Cameron’s movies, there’s a strong heroine. Aliens had Sigourney Weaver; The Abyss had Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio; and both Terminator films have Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, John’s violently protective mother. Though Hamilton did little in the original except run and suffer, she’s ferocious and feral in this outing. Powerfully built, with years of combat training from all the mercenaries who’ve been in and out of her bed, Sarah may be a more efficient warrior than Arnie. Without expecting applause, Cameron avoids making his heroines into mere Rambettes. He thinks women can be heroic on their own terms. A revolutionary idea.

T2, like Cameron’s other movies, isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ve talked to people who just snort with disdain (“Yeah, right“) when I recommend T2. By so doing, they’re passing up one of the more electrifying bits of filmmaking in many recent summers, but to them, I guess, T2 represents mindless violence, the emblematic example of the big stupid blockbusters we get every summer. Well, yeah, it’s that too, but much more. Cameron has used some of that $100 million to mount a horrifying — and meant to be horrifying — simulation of nuclear holocaust. That should, if nothing else, help the pacifists in the audience feel less guilty. And Cameron has done something else: He’s made the finest violent anti-violence movie in years.

Consider: Arnie doesn’t kill anyone — even before he has promised not to. In the 1984 film, Arnie was the killer, but he was also a malicious hoot: because he was so absurdly implacable, audiences laughed at the vicious things he did. If you laugh at this stuff, it doesn’t have to mean you’re demented or laughing at real death and suffering, because, of course, it isn’t. Cameron pumps himself up, exaggerating everything. In T2, you laugh at two single-minded robots doing major damage to each other without pain or emotion. Cameron has liberated the action film from any false empathy. We are spectators, never asked to identify with anyone, and the movie is a fireworks grand finale that never stops.

Which brings me to the final reason to see T2. Remember The Abyss, with its glob of seawater that could imitate people’s facial expressions? T2 uses the same technology to create a T-1000 that can do … well, anything. Ooze through bars, reconstruct itself from tiny drops of liquid metal, mold its hands into lethal spikes; anything. I’m hard to please — I’ve seen pretty much everything Hollywood’s special-effects whiz kids can do, or at least I thought I had. Throughout T2 I sat stunned, gaping at the mind-bending computer effects that are inarguably worth whatever they cost, and with a relentless circus like this one who gives a damn about the budget?

We are lucky, in these dull and barren days of lukewarm cinema, to have James Cameron to expand the possibilities of movie fantasy, to stretch the screen till it rips. He’s the only action director I can think of who can forge beauty out of hardware, elegance out of chaos. At its best — which it hits often and hard — T2 is a masterfully sustained symphony of violence.

Barton Fink

July 2, 1991

Barton Fink, the nightmarish, grisly, and very funny black comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, defies description. It’s beyond description. What is it about? Well, it’s about writer’s block. It’s about pus. It’s about mosquitoes and desolation, and mosquitoes as symbols of desolation. It’s about a sealed cardboard box just big enough to hold … a severed head. Mostly, it’s about Barton Fink (John Turturro), a New York playwright. It’s 1941, and Barton’s first play — Bare Ruined Choirs — is a hit. Hollywood takes notice: there’s a fresh new voice out there, the voice of the common man. Capitol Pictures, headed by the boisterous exec Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in a juicy caricature performance), hires Barton to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery; they put him up at the dingy Hotel Earle in Los Angeles.

Of course, when Barton sits in front of his immense black Underwood, the words won’t come. He tries to find his way into the script the same way he began the Odetsian, nobility-of-the-common-man play that got him this job, but he can’t shift into Hollywood-hack mode. It just isn’t in him. He’s the only one who knows how wrong he is for the assignment, yet he plugs away at it, because the money is good — $1,000 a week. So he tries to prostitute his talent, and he can’t even do it, and the world is slowly pressing down on him.

In the early scenes, the Coens — Joel as director, Ethan as producer, and both of them as cowriters — capture the dead-end squalor of Barton’s surroundings, which mirror his inner decay. His hotel room, with its gangrenous peeling wallpaper (oozing with a gluey substance that strongly suggests semen) and its mosquitoes giving off a maddening buzz at all hours, is lighted (by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins) to look like a Florida swamp. You get itchy just looking at it. Lipnick offers to put Barton up at a nicer place, but Barton declines: The dismal room is his last contact with grubby, inner-city realism. He’s the artist as masochist — to Create, he must Suffer.

And suffer he does. One night, Barton’s fitful work is interrupted by noises from the room next door: a man crying, laughing, muttering to himself. Concerned and a bit annoyed, Barton calls the hotel bellboy and complains. Within minutes, the man from next door looms in Barton’s doorway, his face pink with fury. He’s big, beefy Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a lonely insurance salesman who at first nails Barton with a hot, accusatory stare: You got a problem with me, pal? In time, though, Charlie turns apologetic and friendly, offering Barton a swig from his flask. They become buddies, though Barton soon wishes they hadn’t. Charlie is amiable enough, but he seems to be rotting. The pus that trickles from his infected left ear is like the slime that oozes from the wallpaper. Something’s not quite right about Charlie.

Barton Fink also considers the real Barton Finks of old Tinseltown — the serious novelists and playwrights who tried to play the Hollywood game and were broken in half. A subplot introduces a figure Barton is in danger of becoming: W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a Faulkneresque rummy who cranks out bum screenplays, drowns in booze when the “lit’ry” muse won’t come, and leaves most of the writing to his secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis). The fates of Mayhew and Audrey are the film’s turning point, after which Barton Fink becomes a chilly, surreal horror movie.

Barton Fink is fascinating in a creepy way, and so are the performances. John Turturro, who’s made a career of being disagreeable (Five Corners, Do the Right Thing, the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing), isn’t likable here, either; he speaks in strangled tones and lets his sunken eyes bulge behind his nerd glasses. (He also sports an Eraserhead ‘do that makes him look a bit like Ethan Coen.) His Barton Fink is a stubbly rat in a maze: tormented, furtive, miserable. Yet Turturro finds the manic-depressive comedy in Barton; you don’t resent his passivity or his slouching around as if chained to the floor by his neck. Barton, potentially a drag, is a painfully funny character thanks to Turturro.

John Goodman has the zestier role. Like Turturro, he’s worked with the Coens before (Raising Arizona), and their camera worships him. Most of his line readings are a bit stiff, and after a while I realized it was by design: Charlie the salesman talks without believing what he’s saying — they’re just words. Goodman brings weight to the movie, and not just physical. He shows you the terrified emptiness behind Charlie’s joviality. And in the end, when he cuts loose, he’s as touching as he is frightening; I can’t think of another actor who could have brought off the apocalyptic finale without looking ridiculous. Working with the Coens must unleash something primeval in this teddy-bear comedian. He puts on a ferocious show.

And so, once again, do the Coen brothers — two highly original filmmakers working at their peak. Barton Fink won’t be to every taste: It’s austere and airless, and sometimes a little too gleeful about putting the nails to its protagonist. But there’s no film like it, there never will be another film like it, and it’s everything the Coens’ detractors hate and everything their fans love. Frame for frame, this is a paranoid masterpiece.

Life Stinks

July 2, 1991

Mel Brooks tries to be Chaplin, both as actor and as writer-director, and the result is bad Mel Brooks. Brooks’ only good moments here come early, when — as the rotten billionaire Goddard Bolt — he’s amusingly lofty and disdainful, with his dinky mustache and predator hairpiece; we almost expect him to reprise his line “It’s good to be the king.” After Brooks is stripped of these accoutrements as part of a bet (he has to survive on the streets without money for a month), the movie slackens, and not much later it dies; you hardly sense its passing. The newly scraggly Brooks falls in love with a beautiful bag lady (Lesley Ann Warren, in an awful performance), who seems to have mood teeth — they sometimes alternate between yellow and white within the same scene. In the film’s masterstroke of fatuity, the lovers twirl in an elaborate song-and-dance number — and it isn’t played as parody. Nothing is, really.

Life Stinks was part of the ceaseless summer-of-1991 glut of redemption movies (see also Regarding Henry and The Doctor), and those of us who had faith in Brooks’ irreverent sensibility and hoped he would turn this stupid subgenre on its head were profoundly disappointed — it’s pretty much a straight redemption movie. What’s worse, Brooks seemed to have lost even a basic grasp of comedy. About 90% of the jokes elicit blank, polite stares, not laughs. The film is as raggedy and forlorn as its hero. Perhaps because of its suicidally unappealing ad campaign (and its title), the movie bombed. A solid cast of back-up comedians (Stuart Pankin, Howard Morris, Billy Barty, the mighty Jeffrey Tambor) do what they can.