Film & Video Reviews: November 1991


The Fisher King

After two straight films (Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) that left critics cheering but kept movie audiences at home, brilliant director Terry Gilliam has created a vision guaranteed to deliver box office success and great reviews, The Fisher King.

Built around the myth of “The Fisher King,” Richard LeGravenese’s script begins with Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), an obnoxious shock DJ comparable to Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio. Jack has everything going for him—a huge and lavish condo, a beautiful companion and a starring role in an upcoming “guaranteed hit” TV sitcom. Just as suddenly, Jacks life is shattered after a caller on Jack’s show shotguns a number of people in a trendy Manhattan night club after Jack’s “sage advice.”

Three years later, we find Lucas living with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl); owner of a run-down video store. Drunk and wallowing in self-pity, Jack uses Anne shamelessly, until, reaching rock-bottom, he decided to end it all by plunging into the East River with blocks tied to his feet. But fate has other plans for him as two assholes beat him up instead and try to set him on fire.

To the rescue come Parry (Robin Williams)—a schizophrenic obsessed with obtaining the Holy Grail and winning the hand of the awkward Lydia (Amanda Plummer).

After a night with Parry and other homeless people, Jack discovers the uncomfortable truth about Parry; he was once a professor in things medieval and especially the Grail myth, but a tragedy (directly or indirectly caused by Jack) resulted in his downfall.

Suddenly, Jack has a purpose in life; maybe if he can help redeem Parry’s life, perhaps Jack’s luck will change. What ensues is at times a gentle romance, a tragedy, an urban myth and more.

LaGravenese’s script mixes allegory and parable to deliver a punch more powerful than any number of “teary-eyed” films. Besides the main story, a more humane picture of the homeless is presented: a welcome change.

But the central focus, on Jack trying to help Parry, is touching and evocative. Mirroring the tale of “The Fisher King” Jack (the fool) attempts to obtain “the Grail” for Parry (the wounded king). But in so doing, Jack too, is healed of his sickness. In his quest, he begins to lose the selfish shell that is responsible for his undoing.

The performances are strictly first-rate and deserving of nominations for all. Robin Williams, as always, turns in an alternately manic and tragic performance as Parry, counter-pointed by Jeff Bridges’ Jack, doomed by his own ego. Likewise, supporting players Ruehl and Plummer are outstanding.

The lion’s share of praise belongs to director Gilliam, however. While the story is more conventional than any other project he’s done, Gilliam is restrained when needed and wildly innovative when called for. The camera angles, the set, the lighting, and the entire vision are strictly brilliant. Two standout scenes feature Parry pursuing Lydia through Grand Central Station as the subway crowd waltzed and the Red Knight chasing Parry through the darkened streets of New York. In fact, the Red Knight is so incredibly visualized that it should become a classic vision of film. In addition, minor touches like movie posters of Gilliam’s film in Anne’s store complete the package.

Much more could be said about this stunning movie, but the reader should be encouraged to see the film instead. In a sadly lacking film season, it’s rare to find a movie which combines all the necessities of good movie-making. Now that one has been found, the creative forces behind it deserve to reap some kind of reward.


Barton Fink

directed by Joel Coen

The last laugh is on those critics who charged that the last Coen brothers release, Miller’s Crossing, was too intelligent for American audiences.

The current Coen collaboration, Barton Fink, has earned all kinds of praise and was the biggest smash in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Surprisingly, you could interpret Barton Fink’s message as being the biggest affront to critics ever.

While Barton Fink is certainly open to interpretation, there is a minimal plot to follow: Fink himself (the always-superb John Turturro) is a pretentious playwright who sees himself as the voice of “the common man”—his plays received all kinds of acclaim from critics as the film opens. His world turns topsy-turvy after Hollywood beckon and he reluctantly comes.

Landing himself in a run-down hotel that appears to be straight out of The Shining, Fink can find no peace in which to write his first assignment—a Wallace Berry wrestling picture—because of mysterious sobbing/cackling emanating from the room of a traveling insurance salesman (the ever-spectacular John Goodman).

For advice, Fink seeks the influence of novelist-turned-screenwriter John Mahoney (playing an obvious parody of William Faulkner), only to find much of “his” work emanated from his “secretary” (Judy Davis). Also to his consternation, the movie studio’s executive (the wild Michael Lerner) shows all the confidence in the world in his writing ability, but perpetually “suggests” what conventions to uses (such as pairing Berry with either a love interest or an orphan).

Eventually, Fink becomes caught up in Berry’s life, including involvement in a possible murder in fact, two plain clothes detectives arrive to inform Fink that Berry is actually “Mad Man Muntz,” a mass murderer (say that three times fast!) from there, the spectator may find Barton Fink either delightful or frustrating. It’s certainly got its share of black humor, as well as some nearly-chilling horror. Surprisingly, it could go much farther over audiences’ heads than Miller’s Crossing.

However, if you’re interested, here’s how I saw it: as part sell-out fable (showing how Fink’s integrity slowly crumbles under commercial pressure) as well as a pot-shot at pretensions—not too surprisingly, Fink’s whole future is murdered by Berry, representing “the common man” to whom Fink never listens to. Barton Fink closes with on mystery unresolved (as to what is in the box Berry gives Fink) and another revealed (Fink sees the picture of the beautiful woman on a beach that rests on his wall, but in real life). The message: don’t let anyone’s ideas compact your reality into a frame. Dare to be a free thinker and let no one dictate your reality. What an eye-opening masterpiece.


Killer B’s:

Sex and Violence: The Works of Stuart Gordon

Perhaps no other American filmmaker is a frustrating as Stuart Gordon. While his early films may have given shock master Sam Raimi a run for his money, his films have gotten progressively more tame and less shocking as time rolls on.

Though he started off his career while in his late ’30s, Gordon came on to the scene like a pimple-face teenager—eager to offend and aim for belly laughs as well. Here’s a rundown of Gordon’s quick rise, to his sudden plummet:

Re-Animator (1985)

This adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Herbert West, Re-Animator teamed Gordon with producer Brian Yuzna, and established Gordon as a terrifically funny and gory director. Utilizing the magnificent Jerry Combs as his anti-hero, Gordon lets it all hang out—including blood, limbs and breasts. It’s a modern-day masterpiece of the B-horror genre. But he forewarned, the headless cunnilingus scene is not for the squeamish.

From Beyond (1988)

Gordon and Yuzna again teamed for another Lovecraft adaptation, this time involving the existence of an unseen dimension. Gordon this time uses Combs as a real hero, with Re-Animator’s unfortunate interest. Again, blood spurts at regular intervals and some of the eye-chomping antics are a real scream. Another classic though.

Dolls (1987)

Gordon and Yuzna’s last collaboration is a really disappointing fable. This time, Gordon spins a tale involving a doll-maker and his life-like constructs. Unfortunately, there’s none of the sex, violence or black humor that marked the other films. It’s not hard to figure out what’s wrong, when Gordon actually moves his camera away from a profusion of blood. From here, Yuzna regained favor by making the sheerly repulsive and magnificent Bride of Re-Animator.

The Pit And The Pendulum (1991)

Gordon teamed with the Roger Corman wannabe Charles Band for this adaption of the Edgar Allan Poe tale, Lance Henriksen (Aliens) stars as the infamous torquemada, but by the time we see any titillation (in the form of nudity and/or blood) this snore-fest is more than half through. Unfortunately, Gordon has continued to work with Brad since.

Robot Jox (1991)

This long delayed science-fiction film teamed Gordon with screenwriter Joe Halderman, one of science fiction’s brightest authors. You figure why the film, a cross between Rocky pictures and those zany Japanese large robot pics, wasn’t any good. Gary Graham from TV’s Alien Nation stars in this mess, which is virtually humorless. You know, if I didn’t know any better I’d swear Yuzna was the brain behind the Gordon-Yuzna team.


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Record & Tape Reviews: November 1991