Lisa Reviews A Palme d’Or Winner: Barton Fink (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen)


With the Cannes Film Festival underway in France, I decided that I would spend the next few days watching and reviewing some of the previous winners of the Palme d’Or.  Today, I got things started with the 1991 winner, Barton Fink.

Directed by the Coen Brothers and taking place in the mythological Hollywood of 1941, Barton Fink tells the story of a writer.  Played by John Turturro, Barton Fink is a playwright who has just had a big hit on Broadway.  We don’t see much of the play.  In fact, we only hear the final few lines.  “No,” one the actors says, in exaggerated “common man” accent, “it’s early.”  From what we hear of the reviews and from Barton himself, it seems obvious that the play is one of those dreary, social realist plays that were apparently all the rage in the late 30s.  Think Waiting for Lefty.  Think Hand That Rocks The Cradle.  Think of the Group Theater and all of the people that Elia Kazan would later name as having been communists.  These plays claimed to tell the stories of the people who couldn’t afford to see a Broadway production.

Barton considers himself to be the voice of the common man, an advocate for the working class.  He grandly brags that he doesn’t write for the money or the adulation.  He writes to give a voice to the voiceless.  When his agent tells him that Capitol Pictures wants to put Barton under contract, Barton resists.  His agent assures Barton that the common man will still be around when Barton returns from Hollywood.  There might even be a few common people in California!  “That’s a rationalization,” Barton argues.  “Barton,” his agent replies with very real concern, “it was a joke.”  Barton, we quickly realize, does not have a sense of humor and that’s always a huge problem for anyone who finds themselves in a Coen Brothers film.

In Hollywood, Barton meets the hilariously crass Jack Lipnik (Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner).  Lipnik is the head of Capitol Pictures and he is sure that Barton can bring that “Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.  Barton has never wrestled.  He’s never even seen a film.  The great toast of Broadway finds himself sitting in a decrepit hotel room with peeling wallpaper.  He stares at his typewriter.  He writes three or four lines and then …. nothing.  He meets his idol, Faulknerish writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), and discovers that Mayhew is a violent drunk and that most his recent work was actually written by his “secretary,” Audrey (Judy Davis).  He seeks help from producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), who cannot understand why Barton is having such a difficult time writing what should be a very simple movie.  Barton sits in his hotel room and waits for inspiration that refuses to come.

He also gets to know Charlie Meadow (John Goodman).  Charlie is Barton’s neighbor.  Charlie explains that he’s an insurance agent but he really sells is “peace of mind.”  At first, Barton seems to be annoyed with Charlie but soon, Barton finds himself looking forward to Charlie’s visits.  Charlie always brings a little bottle of whiskey and a lot of encouragement.  Charlie assures Barton that he’ll get the script written.  Barton tells Charlie that he wants to write movies and plays about “people like you.”  Charlie shows Barton a wrestling move.  Barton tells Charlie to visit his family if he’s ever in New York.  Charlie tells Barton, “I could tell you some stories” but he never really gets the chance because Barton is usually too busy talking about his ambitions to listen.  Charlie tells Barton, “Where there’s a head, there’s hope,” a phrase that takes on a disturbing double meaning as the film progresses.  Just as Barton isn’t quite the class warrior that he believes himself to be, Charlie isn’t quite what he presents himself to be either.  Still, in the end, Charlie is far more honest about who he is than Barton could ever hope to be.

When it comes to what Barton Fink is actually about, it’s easy to read too much into it.  The Coens themselves have said as much, saying that some of the film’s most debated elements don’t actually have any deeper meaning beyond the fact that they found them to be amusing at the time.  At its simplest, Barton Fink is a film about writer’s block.  Anyone who has ever found themselves struggling to come up with an opening line will be able to relate to Barton staring at that nearly blank page and they will also understand why Barton comes to look forward to Charlie visiting and giving him an excuse not to write.  It’s a film about the search for inspiration and the fear of what that inspiration could lead to.  Towards the end of the film, Barton finds himself entrusted with a box that could contain his worst fears or which could cpntain nothing at all.  There’s nothing to stop Barton from opening the box but he doesn’t and it’s easy to understand why.  To quote another Coen Brothers film, “Embrace the mystery.”

There’s plenty of other theories about what exactly is going on in Barton Fink but, as I said before, I think it’s easy to overthink things.  The Coens have always been stylists and sometimes, the style is the point.  That said, I do think that it can be argued that Barton Fink’s mistake was that he allowed himself to think that he was important than he actually was.  Self-importance is perhaps the one unforgivable sin in the world of the Coen Brothers.  Like most Coen films, Barton Fink takes place in a universe that is ruled by chaos and the random whims of fate.  Barton’s mistake was thinking that he could understand or tame that chaos through his art or his politics.  Barton’s mistake is that he tries to rationalize and understand a universe that is irrational and incapable of being explained.  He’s a self-declared storyteller who refuses to listen to the stories around him because those stories might challenge what he considers to be the “life of the mind.”

Barton Fink is a film that people either seem to love or they seem to hate.  Barton, himself, is not always a  particularly likable character and the Coens seem to take a very definite joy in finding ways to humiliate him.  Fortunately, Barton is played by John Turturro, an actor who has the ability to find humanity in even the most obnoxious of characters.  (As obnoxious as Barton can be, it’s hard not to want to embrace him when he awkwardly but energetically dances at a USO club.)  Turturro has great chemistry with John Goodman, who gives one of his best performances as Charlie.  It’s putting it lightly to say that most viewers will have mixed feelings about Charlie but the film makes such great use of Goodman’s natural likability that it’s only on a second or third viewing that you realize that all of Charlie’s secrets were pretty much out in the open from the start.  Michael Lerner deserved his Oscar nomination but certainly Goodman deserved one as well.  The rest of the cast is full of Coen Brothers regulars, including Jon Polito as Lerner’s obsequies assistant and Steve Buscemi as Chet, the very friendly front deskman.  And finally, I have to mention Christopher Murney and Richard Portnow, who play two of the worst cops ever and who deliver their hardboiled dialogue with just the right mix of menace and parody.

Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, defeating such films as Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Lars Von Trier’s Europa.  It also won awards for the Coens and for John Turturro.  It’s perhaps not a film for everyone but it’s one that holds up well and which continues to intiruge.  Don’t just watch it once.  This isn’t a film that can fully appreciated by just one viewing.  This isn’t a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.  This is Barton Fink!

Horror Film Review: Fallen (dir by Gregory Hobilt)


“Time is on my side….” sings an ancient Sumerian demon, who is apparently a huge fan of the Rolling Stones.

“Do you like cream?” asks a possibly crooked detective who is played by a slightly less heavy than usual James Gandolfini.

Donald Sutherland walks through a shadowy police station and flashes his big smile.

A detective played by John Goodman talks on the phone and makes cheery jokes while investigating a brutal murder.

A demon jumps from person to person, possessing everyone for a matter of seconds, just so he can freak out one specific person.

“Beware my wrath,” a white-haired businessman says to Denzel Washington.

There’s no way to deny it.  1998’s Fallen is a film that’s full of strange moments.  Some of it works and some of its doesn’t but it’s never boring.  Denzel Washington plays John Hobbes, a Philadelphia detective who has achieved a small amount of fame as the result of capturing serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas).  Reese asks to see Hobbes before he’s executed and it turns out that, for a man about to pay the ultimate price for his crimes, he’s in a surprisingly good mood.  Before he goes in the gas chamber, Reese chants something in Aramaic.

Soon, new murders are being committed in Phladelphia.  Hobbes and his partner, Jonesey (John Goodman at his most Goodmanesque), suspect that the killer is a copycat, trying to capture some of Reese’s notoriety for himself.  Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the daughter of a detective who committed suicide after being accused of committing a series of murders, tells Hobbes that the new killings are actually being committed by a demon named Azazel.  Azazel can jump from body to body and can compel people to do terrible things.  Gretta asks Hobbes if he belives in God.  Hobbes says it’s hard to have faith when you deal with murder every day, a somewhat clichéd line that Washington makes work through the absolute conviction of his delivery,

Denzel Washington is the key to this film’s success.  Sure, there’s a lot of murders and a lot of twists and a lot of possessions and there’s a lot of scenes that are shot from the point of view of the demon but, in the end, Fallen works because Washington is absolutely convincing as a man who is facing an evil that is beyond human understanding.  Washington gives a very naturalistic and grounded performance, one that keeps an element of reality in Fallen regardless of how messy the story may get.  When it becomes apparent that the demon is going to try to harm his brother and his nephew, Washington’s fury feels real.  When Hobbes discovers that the demon has gotten to one of them, Washington’s underplayed reaction makes the scene even more poignant and painful.  It’s hard to imagine Fallen being anywhere near as effective with an actor other than Denzel Washington in the lead role.

Fallen is a twisty movie.  The demon moves quickly and it always seems to have a backup plan.  He manipulates Hobbes into doing some things that are so terrible that you’re not sure that Hobbes is every going to recover, even if he does somehow manage to defeat Azazel.  Hobbes and Azazel are worthy adversaries and, as a result, the film gets away with a lot of stuff that wouldn’t otherwise work.  Even the use of Time Is On My Side pays off, as the one character who you don’t want to hear sing the song suddenly starts doing a Mick Jagger impersonation and you’re just like, “Oh no, what’s going to happen now?”  The film’s high point is a lengthy sequence where Hobbes stands on a busy street and watches as Azazel jumps from body to body.  Everyone who passes Hobbe gives him a death glare.  It’s a frightening moment, one in which Fallen captures the intensity of a nightmare.

I watched Fallen earlier today.  I can’t really say that I was expecting much from it but I was surprised.  It’s actually one of the better horror films that I’ve watched for the first time this month.  It’s big and strange and creepy and it’s got Denzel Washington doing what he does best.  What more could you ask for?

The Babe (1992, dir. by Arthur Hiller)


John Goodman. He’s a good actor but not a very convincing baseball player.

Last night, I watched The Babe, which starred John Goodman as Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, the first of the great sluggers, and the holder of the career home run record from 1935 to 1974. He was the type of player that I wish The Rangers had right now because we’ve got a 22-27 records right now and the only bright spot is that we’re doing better than the Angels.

The Babe starts in 1902, with George Herman Ruth getting dropped off at reform school and learning how play baseball from Brother Matthias (James Cromwell) and then follows Ruth through his career, his first failed marriage, his attempts to become a manager, and his eventual retirement from the game. At first, everyone makes fun of the Babe because he’s not very sophisticated and all he wants to do is hit the ball. Then he shuts them all up by knocking ball after ball out of the park. Babe Ruth was a big man, like John Goodman. But he was also a great athlete. Goodman looked like he was in pain every time he had to swing the bat. Maybe that explains why Goodman plays the Babe as if he never actually enjoyed one minute of playing baseball.

The Babe is like a highlight reel of famous anecdotes. Babe Ruth hits his first home run in the Big Leagues. Babe Ruth promises a sick child that he’ll hit two home runs. Babe Ruth calls his shot. Babe Ruth hits three homers during his final game. In real life, Babe Ruth retired after he injured his knee. In the movie, he retires after he hears an owner talking about how having Babe on the team is only good for selling tickets to the rubes. All the famous Babe Ruth stories are here, along with all of the drinking and the womanizing. The movie never digs too deep into what made Babe tick or what it was like to be the most famous and popular athlete in America. It never even really explores how Babe Ruth changed the sport of baseball. Watching The Babe, you would never know that home runs weren’t even considered to be an important part of the game until Ruth established himself as someone who could hit one ball after another out of the park. The best baseball movies make you feel like you’re either out on the field with the player or you’re in the stands with the fans and they make you want to stand-up and cheer with every hit and every run across home plate. The Babe never does that. There’s no love of the game in The Babe.

6 Actors Who I Hope Win An Oscar In The Next Ten Years: 2021 Edition


We talk a lot about which performers and directors have been snubbed at Oscar time.  For movie lovers, that’s an important subject.  We all know that great actors like Peter O’Toole, Cary Grant, Albert Finney, and others all went to their grave with several nominations but not a single competitive Oscar to their name.  Just last year, Kirk Douglas died at the age of 103 without having ever won a competitive Oscar. And certainly, over the past few months, the pandemic has made us far more aware of the fact that everyone is going to die someday.  We always talk about how certain actors are overdue for their first Oscar but sometimes we forget that being overdue doesn’t always translate into an eventual win.

With that in mind, here are 6 actors who I sincerely hope will have won their first Oscar by the time 2031 rolls around:

  1. Bill Murray

Bill Murray is not only a beloved cultural icon. He has also, in later yeaes, developed into a really good actor. He was previously nominated for Lost In Translation and he probably should have won. (He lost to Sean Penn, who was good in Mystic River but who would also later receive a second Oscar for Milk so it’s not like Penn would have never won an Oscar if Murray had won in 2004.) There was a lot of talk that Murray would be nominated for On The Rocks and, if not for this year’s extended eligibility window (which allowed Judas and the Black Messiah to compete with 2020 films despite being released in 2021), he probably would have been.

Bill Murray probably would be a popular winner and I know everyone would look forward to seeing what type of speech he would give. Standing in Murray’s way is that he tends to be pretty mercurial when it comes to accepting roles and he often seems to be more content to do brief cameos than to play the lead or even a major supporting character. Still, hopefully, either Sofia Coppola or Wes Anderson will write a perfect role for him in the next few years and Murray will get his shot. (They’ve never worked together but I’ve always felt that Murray and Paul Thomas Anderson would be an interesting combination.) Murray is 70 years old and not getting any younger so let’s get this done.

2. Jesse Plemons

It sometimes seems as if Jesse Plemons has come out of nowhere to suddenly become one of the busiest character actors around. Of course, that isn’t quite true. He started out on television, appearing in Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad. (He was terrifying in Breaking Bad.) He’s gone on to become a very busy character actor, appearing in everything from Game Night to The Irishman. Over the past few months, he’s appeared in Judas and the Black Messiah and i’m thinking ending things, giving shockingly good performances in both. (Interestingly enough, both roles were the type of characters that Philip Seymour Hoffman used to specialize in playing.) It honestly feels like it’s less a case of whether Plemons will win an Oscar as much as it’s simply a case of when.

3. Oscar Isaac

Oscar Isaac is a perennial on this list. Again, he just seems like one of those actors who is destined to win eventually. Someone just needs to give him the right role.

4. Ben Foster

The fact that Ben Foster has not only never won an Oscar but that he hasn’t even been nominated is somewhat amazing, to be honest. He’s been giving good and unpredictable performances for so long that I think there’s probably a danger of people taking him and his talent for granted. He deserved a nomination for his fascinating villain in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. He deserved an Oscar for his turn in 2018’s Leave No Trace.

5. John Goodman

Again, this is another actor who I’m always surprised to be reminded that he has never received an Oscar nomination, despite appearing in important supporting roles in several acclaimed films. Goodman, like the before-mentioned Bill Murray, isn’t getting any younger so someone needs to write this actor an award-winning role and they need to do it now.

6. Michael B Jordan

I almost didn’t include Jordan on this list, just because it seems so obvious that the man is destined to win an Oscar someday. He may get his chance next year with his lead role in Denzel Washington’s Journal for Jordan.

Who would you put on the list? Who would you take off? Have an opinion? Let us know in the comments and have a wonderful Oscar Sunday!

Music Video Of The Day: Good Golly Miss Molly by Little Richard (1991, directed by ????)


Little Richard, R.I.P.

John Goodman’s in this video because it was released as part of the promotional campaign for King Ralph, a film where John Goodman becomes the King of the United Kingdom.  I’ve never seen the movie but I get the feeling that everything I need to know about it is right there in the idea of John Goodman ruling the UK.  The movie was directed by David S. Ward but I don’t know if he was also responsible for this music video.

As for the song, this is one of Little Richard’s best known and also one of the most important and most-beloved of the early rock tunes.  You have to wonder how many listeners, in the 50s, were aware that Little Richard was singing, “Good Golly Miss Molly/You Sure Like To Ball” or if they were even aware of what the lyric meant.  I’ve heard several covers that, intentionally or not, modify the lyrics to “Good Golly Miss Molly/You Sure Have a Ball.”

Enjoy!

(Not Quite A) Mardi Gras Film Review: The Big Easy (dir by Jim McBride)


One of the more surprising things about the 1987 film, The Big Easy, is that there aren’t any big Mardi Gras scenes.

Don’t get me wrong.  Several characters in the film mention Mardi Gras, usually in a semi-mocking way.  And there is a scene in a warehouse where Ellen Barkin and Ned Beatty walk past some fearsome looking floats which Beatty says are being stored there until Mardi Gras.  But that’s pretty much it.

Despite not having any huge Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is essentially a cinematic love letter to New Orleans.  (In fact, one could probably argue that the film is so in love with New Orleans that, by not including any big Mardi Gras scenes, the film is saying, “There’s more to this wonderful city than just beads, boobs, and people throwing up i the streets!”)  While the film does have a plot — technically, it’s both a romantic comedy and a crime drama — the plot is ultimately less important than the city where it takes place.  The Big Easy was shot on location in New Orleans and the camera loves every single street, building, and bridge to be found in the Crescent City.  The Big Easy loves the distinctive music and dialect of New Orleans.  Even more importantly, The Big Easy loves the attitude of New Orleans.  This is perhaps one of the most laid back and nonjudgmental crime films to have ever been made.

Dennis Quaid plays Remy McSwain, a Cajun police detective with a nonstop grin and a cheerfully corrupt nature.  Today, we tend to associate Dennis Quaid with playing grim-faced authority figures and serving as the commercial spokesman for Esurance so it’s interesting to see him here, playing a lovable, charismatic, and undeniably sexy rogue.  Remy may be corrupt but he doesn’t mean any harm.  For the most part, he just takes the occasional bribe and sometimes looks the other way when it comes to certain crimes.  He used at least some of the money to put his younger brother through college so really, how can you hold his lack of ethics against him?

Ellen Barkin plays Anne Osborne, a state district attorney who has been sent to New Orleans to investigate allegations of police corruption.  Anne is serious about doing her job and exposing corruption.  At the same time, she also finds herself falling for Remy, even when she has to prosecute him on charges of taking bribes.  It doesn’t take them long to become lovers.

Together, they have great sex and solve crimes!

Actually, in this case, they really do.  The film opens with the murder of a local mafia boss.  (“We call them wise guys,” Remy says, at one point.)  When more drug dealers start to turn up dead, Remy’s boss, Captain Kellom (Ned Beatty), suspects that a gang war has broken out.  (Two of the drug dealers are found with their hearts missing from their bodies, which leads to a lot of talk about how one of the city’s biggest drug kingpins is into voodoo.  It’s not a New Orleans films without a little voodoo.)  Remy, however, has reason to believe that the murderers could be cops!

As I said before, the film’s plot is less important than the city where it takes place and the people who live in that city.  Director Jim McBride and screenwriter Daniel Petrie, Jr. do a good enough job with the crime plot but it’s obvious that they’re most interested in taking Remy and Anne and surrounding them with a host of eccentric, identifiable New Orleans characters.  As a result, the film is full of memorable performances from character performers like Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie.  Even Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans district attorney whose attempt to frame an innocent man for the murder of John F. Kennedy inspired Oliver Stone’s JFK, makes an appearance as himself.

Even without any big Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is an entertainingly laid back tribute to New Orleans.

Icarus File No. 4: Captive State (dir by Rupert Wyatt)


Does anyone remember Captive State?

Captive State came out in March and, before it was released, it seemed like it had the potential to be something special.  The trailer looked good.  The cast was impressive.  Perhaps even more importantly, the film was directed by Rupert Wyatt, who did such a good job with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  Surely, if anyone had the talent to create a convincing film about life under an alien dictatorship, it would be Rupert Wyatt!

In fact, my only reason for concern had to do with when the film was being released.  March seemed like a very strange time to be releasing a big “event” film.  Don’t get me wrong.  A March release isn’t as bad as a January or even a February release.  I mean, unless your film is a romantic comedy, you definitely do not want it to be released in either one of those two months.  Those months are where studios dump their worst films so that they can die a quiet death.  March, on the other hand, is when the studio releases films that have the potential to be a success but which they’re still not expecting to set the world on fire.

Of course, there have been exceptions to that rule, as both Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) and Jordan Peele (Get Out) can tell you.  So, as Captive State’s release date approached, we were left to wonder.  Would this be another case of a film being better than it’s release date or would this be just another forgettable but not terrible movie that the studio probably spent a bit too much money on?

Captive State, sadly, turned out to be more of a case of the latter than the former.

The film opens with Chicago being invaded in 2019.  Significantly, unlike other recent invasion films, this one doesn’t spend too much time on the invasion itself or Earth’s initial attempts to fight back.  Instead, it jumps forward eight years, to 2027.  The aliens are in control of Earth, though the aliens themselves claim to only be “legislators” who are governing the planet for our own good.  While the majority of Earthlings just seem to be resigned to accepting being conquered as their new normal, there are a few resistors.  There’s also quite a few collaborators.  The tricky part of life in 2027 is figuring out who you can and can not trust.

There’s a lot of characters in Captive State and, at times, it can be difficult to keep track of how everyone’s related and who is working for who.  However, that seems to be intentional on the film’s part.  Rather than telling a conventional tale of alien conquest, Captive State sets out to be a serious exploration of what life would be like for the people living under the thumb of not just an intergalactic dictatorship but actually any dictatorship.  The Legislators rule by fear.  The collaborators have their own individual reasons for collaborating but, now that they’ve declared which side they’re on, there’s no going back for them.  One way or another, they’ve sealed their fate.  The same can be said for those in the rebellion.  Meanwhile, most people are just trying to not get caught in the crossfire.

And the thing is …. you want the film to work.  It’s an intriguing idea and how can you not respect that fact that Wyatt wanted to try to do something a little bit different with his story of alien invasion?  But sadly, the film never works the way that you’re hoping it will.  The film tries to do a lot in just 109 minutes.  In fact, it probably tries to do too much and, as a result, there’s little time to get to know the characters, the majority of whom come across as being underwritten and with murky motivations.  Captive State hinges on the actions of a detective played by John Goodman but the film itself doesn’t seem to be sure of who Goodman’s supposed to be.  Hence, the film’s final twist seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s hard not to feel that the ideal way for Captive State to have told its story would have been as a 10-episode miniseries on HBO.  Trying to stuff all of this into under two hours of running time just doesn’t work.

And it’s a shame, that it doesn’t.  Ambition should never be faulted.  If only the results, in this case, lived up to the ambition.

Previous Icarus Files:

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Maximum Overdrive
  3. Glass

Music Video of the Day: Wild Wild Life by The Talking Heads (1986, directed by David Byrne)


In 1986, David Byrne of Talking Heads directed his very first feature film.  True Stories took place in the fictional town in Virgil, Texas and, as Byrne himself put it, it was “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.”

Some people love True Stories.  I am not one of them.  However, not surprisingly, the film did have a killer soundtrack.  The best known song to come off of the True Stories soundtrack was Wild Wild Life.  The video for Wild Wild Life takes place at what appears to be a karaoke bar, where different performers lip sync to the song while dressed up as their favorite performers.  One person is dressed up like Billy Idol.  Another does Madonna.  Jerry Harrison imitates Prince.  Be sure to keep an eye out for a young John Goodman, who co-starred in True Stories and who damn near steals this video with his energetic performance.

Wild Wild Life subsequently won the award for Best Group Video at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Insomnia File #36: Punchline (dir by David Seltzer)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 12 midnight and couldn’t get to sleep, you could have turned over to Movies TV and watched the 1988 film, Punchline.

Sally Field is Lilah, a New Jersey housewife who, in between getting her children ready for school and helping her husband (John Goodman) throw dinner parties, is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian.  Everyone says that she has a lot of stage presence but she struggles with her material.  She’s even resorted to buying jokes from a seedy man who hangs out in a grimy diner.

Tom Hanks is Steve Gold, the youngest member of a family of doctors.  When we first meet Steve, he’s getting kicked out of medical school for cheating on an exam.  That’s probably for the best, though.  Steve doesn’t want to be a doctor.  He wants to make people laugh!  Every night, he performs at a comedy club known as the Gas Station.  Audiences love him almost as much as he hates himself.

Together … they solve crimes!

No, actually, they don’t.  I wish they had but they don’t.  Instead, in the tradition of A Star is Born, Steve ends up mentoring Lilah and helping her develop her own voice as a comedian.  Lilah attempts to balance her loyality to her family with her friendship with Steve.  It’s not always easy, largely because Steve isn’t exactly emotionally stable.  On stage, Steve may be in control but offstage, he’s frequently selfish and self-destructive.  Complicating things is the fact that, even as he watches her talent threaten to eclipse his own, Steve thinks he might be falling in love with Lilah.

Punchline is an uneven movie, largely due to the fact that, while one role is perfectly cast, another one most definitely is not.  Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks is believable as a stand-up comedian.  It’s not just that he’s obviously comfortable on the comedy club stage.  Hanks also shows that he knows how to tell a joke.  To put it simply, he has good timing.  As played by Tom Hanks, you can look at Steve Gold and imagine people actually paying money for him to make them laugh.

But then you’ve got Sally Field.  At no point is Sally Field believable as a stand-up comedian.  That’s not so much a problem at the beginning of the film when Field is supposed to an inexperienced amateur.  But, as the film progresses, we’re asked to believe that Lilah could conceivably win a spot on television over Hanks and there’s nothing about Field’s performance that suggests that would be possible.  When we laugh at Sally Field’s jokes, it’s because she’s Sally Field and she’s talking about multiple orgasms.  However, the comedy club audience doesn’t know that she’s Sally Field.  Instead, they just know that she’s a comedian who has absolutely no timing.

Much like The Comedian and the Showtime TV series I’m Dyin’ Up Here, Punchline is one of those films that really goes overboard with the audience reaction shots.  The only thing worse than listening to an unfunny comedian is then being assaulted by a shot or the sound of an audience dying of laughter.  If someone’s not funny, showing some random guy doing spit take isn’t going to help.  One thing that directors rarely seem to take into account is that laughter is rarely neat.  It’s rare that a huge group of people both start and stop laughing at the exact same moment.  There’s usually a stray chuckle or two to be heard, both before and after the punchline has been delivered.  Even Tom Hanks, who actually is funny in the movie, is sabotaged by one scene where a group of patients at a hospital are way too amused by his act.

The film’s a bit too long and it takes its dramatic moments way too seriously but it’s almost worth watching for Tom Hanks. Hanks plays a real bastard in Punchline but you still care about Steve because he’s a likable bastard.  As you watch the film, you hope Steve becomes a star even if he doesn’t really deserve it.   I mean, he’s Tom Hanks!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco

Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2017: Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets (dir by Luc Besson)


Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets is another film, much like The Dark Tower and this year’s Transformers movie, that I watched in a state of total and thorough confusion.

More than once, I asked myself, “What the Hell’s going on?  Who are those people?  Why are they blowing stuff up?  Why are they shooting at each other?  Who’s fighting who?  Wait, is he a good guy or a bad guy?  Is Valerian human or alien?  WHAT’S GOING ON!?”

But I have to admit that it really didn’t bother me that Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is an almost totally incoherent movie.  After all, Valerian is a Luc Besson film and Besson has always been a supreme stylist above all else.  That’s not to say that there’s nothing going on underneath the glossy visuals of a Besson film.  It’s just to say that Besson is one of the rare directors where the subtext is usually less interesting than what’s happening on the surface.

Take Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  It takes place in the far future, on Alpha.  Alpha used to be the International Space Station but now it’s become a floating city where the inhabitants of a thousand different planets mix and socialize.  It’s a very cosmopolitan city, one where the only disturbance comes from obnoxious human tourists who are all either extremely British or extremely American.  Now, you could argue that Besson is making the argument that Alpha is meant to represent France but, if you spend too much time doing that, you’re going to miss just how amazingly Alpha has been visualized.  It’s not just that everyone in the movie says that Alpha is home to a million different creatures.  It’s that when the film travels to Alpha, you take one look at the screen and you believe it.

The film’s plot … well, this is where it gets difficult. It gets off to a truly brilliant beginning, with an intergalactic summit that takes place while David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays in the background.  After that, the film’s visuals were so amazing that I have to admit that I was usually too busy taking it all in to pay much attention to what was actually going on.  Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are members of the special police force that has been created to protect Alpha and apparently the rest of the universe as well.  Valerian has strange dreams about a primitive race of people who live on a beach.  Laureline frets about Valerian’s recent proposal of marriage.  They’ve both been assigned to track down a creature, the last of its species, that is currently being sold in a black market.  It all links back to some secrets concerning their superior (Clive Owen) and a plot involving intergalactic refugees.

And, obviously, if you’re someone who insists on finding political subtext in every movie that you watch, there’s a lot to be found in Valerian‘s story about space refugees and government cover-ups.  But, honestly, none of that is as interesting as the effort that Besson has put into making his flamboyant universe come to life.  Valerian may be narratively incoherent but visually, it come close to proving Lucio Fulci’s theory of “absolute film.”  The plot is less important than the film’s visuals and how you, as the viewer, reacts to those visuals.  Even Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne seem to have been cast less for any acting ability they may have and more because the boyishly rugged DeHaan and the achingly pretty Delevingne both compliment the film’s visual scheme.  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is cinematic pop art.