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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.

The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.

The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.

The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.

Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.

Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Get Out (2017)

get-out-2017-2After years as a brilliant sketch comedian, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror, and if this gifted comic mind only wanted to make suspense thrillers from now on, that would be mighty fine. This is the first horror movie in years that left me buzzing, feeling charged and anxious, anxious to share with others so they too can feel the full effect of this live wire of a movie. It may be my favorite theatrical horror film since 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, and what they both have in common is a knowing understanding of their genres and expectations, a delicately balanced sense of tone, and a funhouse of darkly clever surprises. This is a movie rich with commentary, suspense, payoffs, and it all begins by exploring the dread-filled everyday existence of African-American men in this country as a waking horror movie that cannot be escaped.

Before even going further, I advise most readers to go into Get Out with as little knowledge as possible, which I understand means delaying reading this review. I can accept the loss of eyeballs knowing that more people will go in with an even greater ability to be surprised (I’ll avoid significant spoilers below, so fear not, dear reader).

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time. He’s worried that Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) hasn’t mentioned that he’s black. She assures him that her rich, wealthy, and liberal family won’t care in the slightest. Rose swears her parents are the least racist people she can think of. Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a retired brain surgeon, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist who volunteers to help Chris stop smoking, and Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is obsessed with martial arts and lacrosse. They also have black housekeepers, which Dean says he hates how it looks. It isn’t long before Chris’ sense of unease starts to make him rethink this weekend getaway and whether or not something sinister is under the surface.

landscape-1475698470-screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-41406-pmEarly on, Peele tips his hand to the sharp social and genre criticism. In the opening scene we watch Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man, walking around lost in a tony suburban neighborhood. He checks his phone for an address when a lone car drives past him, stops, and turns around, pulling up next to Andrew and idling, blasting the old song “Run Rabbit Run.” He takes one look at the situation and immediately turns around, heading in the opposite direction. “Not today,” he says to himself, clearly providing voice to the audience’s apprehension. And yet, he’s incapacitated, and abducted by masked assailants. Even self-awareness and avoidance will not be enough for this man to survive if captured within the crosshairs of modern White America. He becomes another horror victim just like we might see splashed across the news all too often.

Peele’s biting social commentary is ever-present but it never outpaces the genuine fun and entertainment from his genre storytelling. It’s a condemnation of the fallacy of a post-racial society and an exploration of the uncomfortable burdens African-Americans are disproportionately expected to bear in general. Rose’s family is all too happy to show off how seemingly inclusive they are. Rose’s father confesses, with no legitimate conversational prompting, that he would have voted for Obama a third time (trust me, there’s a lot of people in the camp, Dean). Yet he seems to enjoy awkwardly inserting recitations of “my man” while also trying to openly explain why he has eerily subservient black housekeepers. Rose’s antic brother seems to hungrily size Chris up as a physical challenge to battle, openly admiring his “genetic gifts.” Despite their self-styled liberalism and protests to the contrary that race doesn’t matter, the family can’t help but treat Chris like an other. Race “doesn’t matter” to people who have the position where it might not matter, the same going for those who elect to be “color blind.”

This stifling sense of condescension and pandering is best exemplified in a deeply awkward sequence where Chris is introduced at a party to the whole older majority-white neighborhood. One man informs him he likes Tiger Woods. Another says being black is hip. A woman squeezes his muscles in transparent lust. Another asks what the “African-American experience” is like and whether Chris feels being born black is an advantage. All through this meet-and-greet gauntlet, Chris is holding his carefully crafted smile, trying to shrug off the mounting discomfort, and being told not to make a big deal out of it. After all, these are well-educated liberals, the “good ones.” They can’t be racist too.

get-out-trailer-screen2Get Out is also an excellent example of a movie that straddles a precise tone to perfection. Peele has a carefully refined comedy sensibility, but I was genuinely awed in his ability to go from sardonically funny to creepy funny to just plain creepy. There’s an increasingly heightened sense of dread from the get-go. It’s like any other horror premise where our protagonist goes into the house they shouldn’t and combats a host of horrors be they supernatural or superhuman. In this case, the scary scenario is white people. There’s a general off feeling about the Armitage estate and this is best encapsulated with their hired help, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They seem to be in a robotic daze, smiles plastered to their faces, their tone of voice disquietingly calm and meticulous. Even the antiquated and culturally incongruous vocabulary they employ contributes to their unsettling vibes. Something is wrong here. There is a remarkable scene where Chris speaks with Georgina, and she hovers closer to him to apologize. Peele keeps the camera locked on his actor’s faces in extreme close-ups and he has a damn good reason for it. Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year) tries to reassure him all is normal and in one mesmerizing moment the camera fixates on her as she repeats “no,” each time a different reflection, her eyes tearing up as she tries to fight back subverted emotions. It feels like you’re watching twenty emotions and impulses fighting for dominance behind an impassive mask of compliance. Peele magnificently finds ways to keep his elements intensely upsetting while still finding room to laugh and break tension and increase tension.

While more a suspense thriller than a traditional horror film, Peele proves himself shockingly adept at a genre that I would have assumed outside his comfort zone. The shot arrangements and the natural development of tension shows clear knowledge and affinity for the horror genre; Peele knows when to hold onto a moment for extra suspense, when to pull back, and especially when to litter the camera frame with something to draw the eye. Peele has a great eye for his troubling, surreal visuals. When Chris is hypnotized and instructed to “sink into the floor” it’s like he’s falling into an inky void while his consciousness plays out on a square, like his life is a movie only he can watch from a distance. You feel the helplessness but it’s also a beautiful and beautifully unnerving image. There are a few jump scares accompanied by loud musical stings but the far majority of the movie is the overwhelming discomfort and dread marvelously kept at a continual simmer. I was squirming in my seat for long stretches and started backpedaling in others, and I can’t remember another movie in years affecting me that well. It’s partly the terrific execution of his genre elements but also partly because I liked the protagonist and had no idea what would happen to him next, which is the foundation of all horror. The last act cranks up the genre elements but Peele has brilliantly structured his script, laying out all the pieces he’ll need that provide an array of payoffs when we’re breaking for the finish line. This is a movie that knows how to satisfy all audiences, rest assured.

The actors are pitch-perfect and Kaluuya (Sicario, Black Mirror) delivers a star-making performance. He has to wear his own mask to deal with the small and large iniquities of whether or not these people are sinister or whether they’re just oblivious cretins. Chris is a black man expected to mind his manners and to laugh away the casual ignorance afforded by the oblivious privilege of others. He can never be unaware as the lone black man in a sea of white faces. It’s a position I think many people in the audience will be able to relate to and hopefully others can empathize with. Kaluuya has some standout emotional sequences where he digs deep to show the real depth of a character others fetishize or dismiss. Kaluuya is also British and you’d never know it. The Armitage family clan are each their own slice of weird. Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) is exploding with thinly veiled smarm and great comic awkwardness. Keener (Capote) is chilling in her icy WASP den mother role with her weapon of choice, and hypnotic aid, being a literal silver spoon. Williams is like her blithely privileged character stepped out of HBO’s Girls, and her flippant attitude to Chris’s perspective belies something familiar and darker. The other best actor in the movie is LilRel Howrey (The Carmichael Show) who play’s a friend to Chris that works for the TSA. He’s a reliable and reliable crude source of comic relief but he’s also our ally on the outside, and he behaves like an intelligent investigator trying to save him. I was actually applauding his sensible steps to see through the sinister conspiracy.

maxresdefault-3It’s been hours since I saw Get Out and I’m still buzzing from the experience. I was unprepared for how genuinely unnerving and invigorating the movie was as a horror thriller, character piece, but also as a trenchant social satire on race. Jordan Peele has established himself as an immediate visionary in the world of horror, taking the black protagonist who might usually be the first to get killed in a Hollywood slasher flick and widening the boundaries of horror. The real-lie horror film is day-to-day existence in the United States as a person of color. Get Out was conceived in the Obama era but has even more renewed resonance under the beginnings of the Age of Trump. I remember people saying that America now existed in a post-racial world, but we live in the kind of world that takes a call for innocent black lives to stop being executed by police officers and transforms it into All Lives Matter. It’s a hazardous world and Peele has created a marvelous movie where the insidious, ever-present force that cannot be escaped is not a maniac with a chainsaw or some cranky ghost, it’s white society itself. As the news has indicated, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland and numerous others, there isn’t exactly a safe territory to escape to. Danger and death can come at any moment as long as a larger society perceives black skin as a threat first and a person second. Get Out is a timely movie but also timeless, thanks to how brilliantly conceived, developed, and executed Peel’s movie performs. This will make my top ten list for the year. Simply put, stop whatever you’re doing and go out to go see Get Out as soon as possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

True Grit (2010)

It may sound like sacrilege to some to remake True Grit. What can the Coen brothers add? Can Jeff Bridges fill in the boots of John Wayne? Those familiar with the 1969 original will recognize many of the same elements and a solid 70% of the dialogue is the same owing to the fact that both films come from the same source, Charles Portis’ novel. Where the Coens step out is placing the story’s focus on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old seeking vengeance for her dead father. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is a rascally often drunken cynic, so it’s easy to get swept up in the amusing character, initially played by the Duke and now played with great gruffness by Bridges. But the Coens know this is Mattie’s story, and apologies to Kim Darby, but Steinfeld looks like a 14-year-old. Every second onscreen reminds you how truly vulnerable she is, that is, until she opens her mouth. Steinfeld is remarkable and so self-assured. She holds her own with the stars. This is a young actress that has a bright future in Hollywood.

The Coens have put together such richly drawn characters, so it’s a tremendous pleasure just to watch the people interact, luxuriating in that old West speaking style that actors chew over like gumbo. It takes a while for the film to assemble its pieces, but once the gang is underway you just want to spend. As anyone who has ever seen a Coen brothers’ picture, the movie is technically flawless. Whether it be the sumptuous old west cinematography by the best man in the industry, Roger Deakens, the stirring score by Carter Burwell, impeccable sound design, or the overall languid yet authentic pacing of the whole film. There are moments of offbeat humor, moments of quiet tension, explosions of brutish violence, but I had to ask what it all added up to. It’s a good time spent with some nice characters, but it’s hard to shake the idea that the movie falls short of greatness. The Coens can’t be expected to make a masterpiece every time they step behind a camera. But the films that fall short of the M-word generally can be slotted in the “mostly very good” category (O Brother, Burn After Reading). You’re left with a somewhat sour resolution and it starts you thinking whether or not the film had anything substantial to say about vengeance, friendship, community, or a legion of topics. It turns out, True Grit is a solid two hours of great actors working through an entertaining story. For any other filmmaker, that would be all you could ask for. For the Coens, it means the film only can be classified as “very good.”

Nate’s Grade: B+

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