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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+

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Maybe the American public just doesn’t care for the jolly green giant. The second incarnation of a big screen Hulk flick is better paced, with more action sequences and better special effects, but I just kept shrugging my shoulders the whole time. I was never truly engaged by the movie at any point. Edward Norton fills the role of Bruce Banner for the second go-round and does an admirable job. The climax involving one giant CGI monster battling another giant CGI monster gets tiresome. This is a fairly middle of the road movie that might pass the time but does little else with style.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Good Girl (2002)

Jennifer Aniston, a Friends favorite, has been getting attention for her less than attractive turn in adultery with The Good Girl. However, the movie’s biggest flaw is Aniston herself. The Good Girl can try and make her look as disheveled as they can, and they can try and make her wear as much unflattering baggy clothing as possible, but in the end we’re still watching Mrs. Brad Pitt groan about the purgatory that is Middle America. An actress of better caliber could likely pull off the rub, but alas, Aniston is not quite that actress yet.

Aniston narrates the disenchantment as Justine with her dead-end job working at a Wal-Mart-esque chain store and her dead-end marriage to perennially stoned house painter Phil (John C. Reilly). She longs for an escape and a change of pace from a grind where there appears none. Then one day a new teenage co-worker named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into her life and seems to represent the danger and vitality Justine has felt missing in her life for so long. Her affections are at first stalled in apprehension, but soon Holden and Justine are ducking into motels and finding excuses to get busy in the stock room. But soon enough the honeymoon ends. Justine learns more distressing items about the emotionally dependent and unstable clerk, like his real name is Tom (“Tom is my slave name” he tells her). What once seemed exciting is now becoming more perilous to cover up.

The Good Girl then descends into blacker territory with some unexpected turns, but also some more unbelievable moments. When confronted by Phil’s best friend Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson) about her infidelity she is given a rather unpleasant ultimatum that she gives in too way too easily. The longer the affair and messy cover up continues the more audience loyalties shift toward the victim, Phil. He admits he isn’t the smartest man or the best husband, but his feelings are authentic for his wife. And the more the audience views him the more they see that he truly does love Justine.

And again, we have to come black to that road block of a lead. A more accomplished actress could pull off this bittersweet role with aplomb and believability. A better actress could have slowed down the audience shift in loyalty away from her unfaithful protagonist. The supporting cast of The Good Girl has a lot more bite to them. Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) now seems to be an expert in the disturbed youth. Reilly starts off as a loaf but transforms into a sympathetic character that has his own touching moments of unannounced affection to Justine. Nelson gives the film some of its funniest moments along with the lethally deadpanned Zooey Deschanel. The lone stereotype in the bunch is played by Mike White (who wrote the film) as an overly enthusiastic Christian do-gooder.

It’s a pity The Good Girl has its anchor around the neck of Aniston and willing to go as far as she will take it, because The Good Girl is indeed a good film with some wicked moments of comedy and a well-written story. It’s just that Aniston’s acting limitations gravitate what could have been a better film.

Nate’s Grade: B

O (2001)

“I did what I did and that is all you know. From here on out I say nothing.”

The story behind O has become more infamous than the film itself. The film has had twelve different release dates and was actually finished in 1999. It had the dubious nature of having the themes of jealousy and violence set in high school around the time Columbine had polarized the nation. Miramax subsequently kept pushing the film back until it finally jettisoned it over to Lions Gate films, the same people who rescued ‘Dogma’ when Miramax felt it was too hot to handle for corporate parent Disney. Finally now O is getting the release it has waited for.

O is the modern update of Othello but is by no means in the same brethren of the bubbly Shakespeare ripped teen comedies proliferating the screen big and small. O is a serious tale told with earnestness in its portrayal, and with its conviction and refusal for exploitation, executes the best modern day transition of Shakespeare to date. What better setting for lust, jealousy, love, betrayal, murder and tragedy than a high school? It is almost chilling how well the tale translates to the high school setting, particularly with the notices of race and jealousy.

Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student at an all white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. Odin is the senior leader of the school’s basketball team and an all-star in the making. Odin, or “O” as the crowd chants at games, is dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the dean. She’s a spitfire but they love one another with great intensity. Everything seems to be going well for Odin with school, his relationship, and his team entering into the state playoffs. His coach (Martin Sheen) proclaims his love for Odin like a son at a pep rally with the denizens in the stands cheering along. Everyone appears to be cheering for their popular hero, except for Hugo (Josh Hartnett).

Hugo is the coach’s son and perennially looked over on the basketball team. He looks at Odin and is fueled with jealousy for the admiration and love his father would rather bestow on him than his own son. Dinner at home is a more a cold silence than a family activity. Hugo is jealous of all the things Odin has that he cannot have and some that he will never have. So he sets forth in motion a plan to bring the downfall of the popular kids he despises. Hugo enlists the aid of gullible Roger (Elden Henson) who’s picked on heavily from the same people Hugo wishes to topple. Hugo coaxes Mike (Andrew Keegan), ousted form the basketball team after a staged fight with Roger, that the best way to regain the good will of Odin and his father is to cozy up to Desi and convince her. He then plants the seeds of doubt in Odin with Desi. He draws Desi’s roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) into the scheme by seducing her into stealing a rare handkerchief that Odin had given Desi as a show of love and commitment.

With every pawn somehow moving in the directions Hugo wishes the jealousy boils, love turns to heartbreak, and the game ultimately ends violently. It isn’t called “tragedy” for nothing folks.

Othello is, at its heart, the tale of a villain and his masterminding. The center figure is not on our hapless Moor or his lovely Desdemona, but on the treacherous Iago as he plots the tragedy of those around him with woeful precision. Shakespeare’s Othello has quite possibly the greatest villain in all of literature with Iago. He is a man who positions an elaborate staging of jealousy, insecurity, mistrust, and ultimately murder – and all this time he is given center stage to propel his masterwork. And it’s exciting, giving genuine evil a face, a name, and more importantly than anything else, a vicious intelligence to play out. This is why Othello transcends its problems in story staging and character turning points, because it is a tale told from the hands of its most essential leg: the villain.

Hartnett takes the reigns of the picture and gallops with them with great care. Though shot and filmed years before many of his latest pictures, O shows Hartnett in his most methodical and enticing acting turn. He portrays Hugo smoothly giving equal shades of bitterness and envy with his sullen performance. Harnett is so invigorating as the villain that one almost sides with him, but that is the attraction of evil. O decides to pump more motivation for its villain than Shakespeare had included, and it works in a startlingly believable way. A student plotting the demise of a more popular and athletic student and seeking the love of an inattentive father – maybe this is why Miramax shelved it for two years. The motivation in this setting is totally believable to a chilling point.

Phifer is a charming presence and reflects the descent of Odin with good emotion. One can feel the rage just resonating from him during a slam dunk contest which he brings down the backboard and sternly glares at Desi in the stands. His final declaration with all the chaos that has swarmed around him is almost heart breaking. Stiles, on the other hand, is not given too much to work with but seems to make decent use out of her part. Sheen blusters about like the spawn of Bobby Knight, but shows a more frightening side in his ambivalent relationship to his son.

O is deftly directed by Tim Blake Nelson who might be more well known as the “other” chain gang member in O Brother where Art Thou? Nelson periodically adds little touches of great artistic exchanges that elevate O into something more than another teen film. It even achieves a certain level of poignancy and power as Hartnett is led away and speaking reflective about his deeds to the audience. The script from debut screenwriter Brad Kaaya drops Shakespeare’s prose but for the best. The film has a greater sense of realism and authenticity when the main characters aren’t talking in iambic pentameter.

The film isn’t perfect by certain means. Hugo’s plot seems a tad too elaborate and easily achieved, and Odin seems to fall for some questionable pieces of doubt. I mean, what else will an old hanky be used for in a modern film? But these faults can be blamed on Shakespeare as much as the principals involved behind the film. Despite these minor stumbles O is indeed a great film that deserves to be seen and thought over afterwards.

Nate’s Grade: B+

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey comes the latest from two of the most talented and imaginative minds working in the business. ‘O Brother’ has all the things that go into making a good Coen brother film. It’s full of Coen regular like John Turturro, John Goodman, and Holly Hunter among others. It includes elements of wackiness like a KKK color Guard rally where they march into spelling KKK. It even has the great wit with dialogue being handed over to the overly verbose leader of the gang on the run Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney looking and sounding like Clark Gable). On top of this you get a wonderful blue grass soundtrack that is selling surprisingly phenomenal, and cinematography that is astonishingly beautiful. Yet, with all these positives, O Brother Where Art Thou? is a mid-level Coen movie. The comedy of the film is missing a lot when it should be there, replaced with pretty images or very pretty songs. Still, a mid-level Coen brother’s movie is much better than most anything out there today. It seems to aim to be a pleasant movie, and it achieves that finely. O Brother is a fun experience with the right person but not necessarily something that has a lot of rewatchability. Especially if you have bought the soundtrack.

Nate’s Grade: B

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