All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

BLOOD SIMPLE

Grade: A-

For its fifteenth birthday, the brothers Coen have put together
a recut and refurbished version of their first feature, a
deliciously decadent, delightfully twisted and masterfully
macabre tale of death and double-dealing in a remote Texas
town. “Blood Simple” remains a nifty modern reworking of the
conventions of film noir; and though it was shot in only
eight weeks on an obviously meagre budget and doesn’t have
the technical sheen of later Coen productions like “Miller’s
Crossing” (1990), “Barton Fink” (1991), “The Hudsucker Proxy”
(1994) and “Fargo” (1996), it nonetheless boasts a host of
stylistic flourishes that still grab the eye and tickle
the funnybone. (The cinematographer was Barry Sonnenfeld,
who’s since gone on to directing duties in his own right, of
course.) The final confrontation, for instance, is staged with
such icy precision that it remains staggeringly effective. And
the whole thing is shot through with a streak of mordant humor
that, once experienced, won’t easily be forgotten.

The plot is the old stand-by about the older fellow who suspects
his young wife of being unfaithful to him. In this case the
suspicious spouse is Marty, a wonderfully sleazy bar owner
played with malevolent relish by Dan Hedaya, and the wife, Abby,
is portrayed, in her screen debut, by the plain, gawky Frances
McDormand; Abby’s paramour–for Marty is, indeed, right about
her–is dim but good-natured Ray (a career pinnacle for John
Getz), whose hapless attempts to do the right thing make him a
typically imperfect hero. Marty hires a supremely odious
private detective to prove his mate’s guilt, and then to bump
off both her and her lover; this utterly rancid fellow is
played with seedy glee by M. Emmet Walsh. But the dick,
as it turns out, has sneaky plans of his own, and his
duplicitous schemes lead all the characters into a lusciously
serpentine plot involving multiple deaths, deceptions and
misapprehensions. Following the strands, especially when
they’re presented with such style and dark humor, remains a
joyous cinematic experience, not unlike the thrill one gets
watching a first-rank Hitchcock film.

The improvements the Coens have made on the reissued “Blood
Simple” involve some tightened edits, an enhanced sountrack
and sharpening up the images; apart from a marvelously
tongue-in-cheek intro by restoration “expert” Mortimer Young,
nothing new has been added to the mix. But then, no additions
were needed. “Blood Simple” remains as seductively nasty a
bit of business as it was back in 1984. What the sparkling
new print makes even clearer than before, however, is exactly
how sanguinary the picture is; even by contemporary standards,
it positively oozes with the titular red stuff. If that
bothers you, be forewarned; otherwise, don’t miss this
chance to see the Coens’ cheerfully perverse classic once more
on the big screen.

DISNEY’S THE KID

F

Moviegoers thinking back on last summer’s surprise smash “The
Sixth Sense” might expect that another picture pairing Bruce
Willis with a young boy would be a great idea. Big mistake.
Instead of a spooky, unsettling ghost story, “Disney’s The Kid”
is a forced, frenetic farce which tries to be both comedic and
touching, but fails on both counts. It proves only that Spencer
Breslin, the tyke on display here, is no Haley Joel Osment;
that neither scripter Audrey Wells nor director Jon Turteltaub
is in the same league with M. Night Shyamalan; and that Willis,
who’s capable of giving solid, laid-back performances, is as
awful as ever when he strains and pushes too hard (this is one
of those smarmy, irritating turns in which he seems to be
smirking and peeking out of the corner of his eyes at the
audience, as if to say “Look, I know this is crap, but you’re
the ones who are paying to watch it”).

The picture basically hearkens back to the mercifully brief
rage of a decade or so ago, when theatres were filled almost
continuously with alternately shrill and maudlin flicks about
kids changing places with adults. Penny Marshall’s “Big”
(1988) was certainly the best of the bunch; but “Disney’s The
Kid” is more akin to such drek as “Like Father, Like Son”
(1987) and “Vice Versa” (1988). The conceit is that a mean,
misanthropic image consultant is, on the very verge of turning
forty, miraculously visited by his own eight-year old self,
with whom he gradually bonds (so what else is new?). In the
process of aiding one another, the two engage in a series of
slapstick escapades, some time-travelling that makes one long
for “Back to the Future,” and–needless to say–an incredibly
mawkish finale involving an incomprehensible “Field of Dreams”-
like twist. Though there are occasional episodes spotlighting
Emily Mortimer as Willis’ obviously smitten assistant and Lily
Tomlin as his inevitably long-suffering, wise-cracking
secretary, the focus remains resolutely on the star and his
miniature alter-ego, and the sad truth is that the two don’t
strike any cinematic sparks. Both man and boy pull out all the
stops, to be sure, hamming it up fiercely in virtually every
scene, but Wells’ script (incoherent even on its own silly terms)
and Turteltaub’s sledgehammer directorial technique assure that
they won’t be able to lift the picture above the level of a
clumsy, insipid fable about a baby boomer’s desperate need to
recapture the innocence of his youth.

That this subject can actually be handled gracefully and well
was shown more than forty years ago in Rod Serling’s 1959
episode of the old “Twilight Zone” series called “Walking
Distance.” That short piece showcased Gig Young as an unhappy
executive who was magically transported back to his home town,
where he tried to give his younger self the benefit of his
later experience. Poignant and ethereal, that show puts this
sappy piece of sentimental drivel to shame. (It also boasted a
haunting score by Bernard Herrmann which stands in marked
contrast to the insufferably perky-and-saccharine music
provided by Marc Shaiman here.)

Check out Serling’s aging 25-minute playlet, and you’ll
immediately see what’s missing from this crass, manipulative
misfire. “Disney’s The Bomb” is more like it.