WITHOUT YOU I'M NOTHING
R, 1990, 90 minutes, HBO, $89.99.
Sandra Bernhard's punch lines pack the wallop of a prizefighter's jabs. Mike Tyson-toothsome, she is a real bruiser, a raunchy knockout in "Without You I'm Nothing." Adapted from her off-Broadway success, this impudent one-woman showdown with herself is as exposed as a plucked chicken. Bernhard, satirical, smart and extraordinarily plain, knows how to make an audience squirm. At once the bitter geek and the beautiful dreamer, she is her own ideal of what isn't acceptable. "Glad you can see how truly beautiful I am right now," she says, admiring herself in her makeup mirror a` la Harvey Fierstein in "Torch Song Trilogy." Like Fierstein, she plays a camp chanteuse with a quirky larynx and a closet full of secret longings and flashy clothes. A series of monologues, faux interviews and musical spoofs, the movie takes place in the Parisian Room, an upscale Los Angeles nightclub where an all-black audience reacts apathetically to Bernhard in her various personae. These icons, drawn from the American pop culture of the past three decades, straight and gay, white and black, got up in Chanel and polyester, can't seem to get no satisfaction. The silence is deafening and we empathize with the bony vamp, reliving our own unapplauded moments, the slights of life. Backed up by boy Harlettes and rhinestone cowboys, the act is less a cabaret than psychotherapy. Written by Bernhard and John Boskovich, it is ultimately about rejection, absolute and terrible. The audience has already left when she says, "Without you I'm nothing," -- a bald admission, plaintive as a clown painting. -- Rita Kempley
MY BLUE HEAVEN
PG-13, 1990, 96 minutes, closed captioned, Warner Home Video, $92.95.
Steve Martin and Rick Moranis play the unlikely buddies in this sleepy comedy directed by Herbert Ross from Nora Ephron's formulaic screenplay. Martin, a gangster turned informant, is relocated to a bedroom community outside San Diego, and Moranis, an underpaid but dedicated G-man, is assigned to baby-sit Martin until time for his trial. Joan Cusack comes between the male bonders as a district attorney who tries to lock up the former Mafioso and then have her way with the federal agent. A fusty divorcee, Cusack loses her inhibitions and gives up her relentless pursuit of Martin after just one merengue with Moranis, who looks like Peanut Boy beside the towering Cusak. The chemistry between Moranis and Martin is sexier. A numbing flub-up, "My Blue Heaven" can wait, as they say. -- Rita Kempley
GRIM PRAIRIE TALES
R, 1990, 87 minutes, Academy, $89.95.
Two men, strangers, are sharing a fire on a chilly night under the vast prairie sky.
"Wanna hear a story?" one of them asks.
Answering yes, the other man says he'd prefer a horror story, which meets with his companion's favor.
"I'll tell you a story so horrible that it'll make bats fly out of your ears and your tongue blaze like a Marrakech pig."
Ah yes, the fabled blazing Marrakech pig. How charming.
Wayne Coe's "Grim Prairie Tales" unfolds from this campfire encounter. One of the men, Farley (Brad Dourif), is a bland, rather fastidious city slicker on his way to Jacksonville to visit his wife and mother. The other man, Morrison (James Earl Jones), is a bounty hunter with tobacco juice on his teeth and something that looks like a black mop stuck on his head. He's the colorful one and the one who tells most of the stories. Never mind what they're about. Mostly nothing, and certainly not anything that connects them or comes to any point. Nor are they very scary. Since the movie devotes most of its screen time to the telling of these tales, the yarns have to engage us and they don't. The best part of the film is the bristling dialogue between Dourif and Jones, who banter and insult each other outrageously. When the camera focuses on these two the film is bearable, but all too frequently it cuts away. Both actors let it rip here, especially Jones, who punctuates his lines with a virtual river of expectoration. It's his most liquid performance. An accomplishment, I suppose. -- Hal Hinson