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BARTON FINK (1998) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

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Stars – John Turutrro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner * Director- Joel Coen
* Released by Kino Studio Classics*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Coen Brothers seem to have a habit of alternately making good pictures and weird pictures. This is one of the weird ones but it is very good. Barton Fink has just had a hit on Broadway. It’s the forties and when Hollywood calls you run. Barton runs but he carries with him lots of trepidation, suspicion and a total lack of confidence. When he gets there Michael Lerner play the big cigar chomping studio boss to the hilt. He welcomes the boy, showers him with praise then gives him a wrestling picture to write for Wallace Beery. Once back as his hotel and staring at his typewriter Barton is unable to write. He suffers a bad case of writers block and the continual interruptions of his next door neighbor at the hotel. John Goodman is an outgoing gregarious salesman who always has drink ready and a big smile.

What strikes you right off the bat is the tremendous attention to detail that went into every aspect of this film. The hotel lobby takes you back in time. The colors, the furniture, the textures, and the costumes all look perfectly period and very real. We get these shots of the long empty hall on the floor where Barton is staying. Shoes are lined up outside everyone’s door to be polished. Steve Buscemi collects them on this wooden cart that rattles and shimmies with just the right touch. The actors and script draw a lot from real life. Aspects of writers Cifford Odets and William Faulkner who were seduced to work in Hollywood inhabit John Turutrro and John Mahoney’s performances. Every time Michael Lerner behaves in his over the top fashion he seems to be channeling Louis B Meyer or several others types. There is a classic Film Noir set up poured into the film that leaves Barton with a woman in his bed. He probably, no definitely should not have slept with her. Now she is dead and trouble is coming. The Coen brothers literally heat up he hotel. The thick wallpaper starts to peel off the walls. It gets very surreal. When detectives question Barton about the dead girl theysuggest that his pal next door just could be a serial killer with a habit of decapitating and sawing body parts off of his victims. Things spiral out of control in a whirlpool that is capped off by a huge fire in the hotel. Then there is that postcard that shows a lady sitting at the beach.

Some people may just reject the entire bizarre story. Others are free to concoct whatever works for them to see their way through the wacky tale. For me basically when Barton encounters a bad case of writers block and is unable to write anything past the first two sentences of a script we spend the next two hours inside his head as his mind rolls on. His more than fertile imagination conjures up a twisted and paranoid landscape. It’s a nice irony that for someone who supposedly cannot think up a simple plot to a wrestling movie he has no trouble spinning a tale that moves easily from illicit sex and severed heads to an entire hotel burning down around him. This is a beautifully made film with well thought out and executed acting from a wonderful cast. The other part of Barton Fink that really deserve your attention is the extraordinary soundtrack. There is a wealth of effects that go from the various sounds that feet make on floors and carpets to the parade of lunatics whose crying, coughing, wheezing, throwing up and lovemaking plague Barton during the picture. The sound shifts from irritating to intriguing so that by the last third of the film your ears have been set up to behave like twin detectives alert and prepared to pick up the subtle nuances on the track. Those who have a sound system as part of their home set up will really appreciate this. Even on a stereo TV the track will make you sit up and take notice. I am a big fan of creative soundscapes. It can add so much to a film. This one is flat out amazing.

Video – 1.66:1
The transfer works fine for this film. Detail is strong. Black levels are deep without any problem. Grain is readily apparent but never appears out of hand. The acid test for me is how a Blu-Ray renders fire. The hotel fire at the end of this look looks great. There is a good balance of the various flame colors, the smoke and the brightness. The long shots of the flame on either side of the long hallway look terrific.

Audio – DTS-HD Master 2.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
Even though just stereo the soundscape is incredible. We hear the insidious noises that seem to assault poor Barton throughout the film. There is someone crying in the next room when he is trying to go to sleep, someone throwing up in the bathroom stall at work and then some Olympian love making going on in another hotel room. We hear people inhaling loudly. There is often the swoosh of air coming in as a door is opened. The sound of feet walking on various surfaces always gets attention. Later on when Barton goes out to a nightclub to celebrate the sound of the big band playing hot jazz is loud and sassy. The brass section really shines. It is a delight to experience the work that obviously went into creating this sound design

Extras – - Interview with star John Turturro, – Interview with actor Michael Lerner
- Interview with producer Ben Barenholtz, – Interview with composer Carter Burwell
- Interview with sound editor Skip Lievsay, 8 Deleted Scenes, – Original theatrical trailer

Tuturro comes off very thoughtful. He measures his answers and his words. He’s thoroughly engrossing to listen to. We get a nice insight to the way he works as an actor and interacts with his directors. Michael Lerner is a hoot. He is over the top and will launch into various impressions at the drop of a hat. He’s a natural storyteller and a delight to spend time with. The guy is pretty outspoken, too!  Also of note is the interview with the composer and sound designer. They talk about how they divvied up the sounds – some done by effects, others by instruments.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent