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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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Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.

The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.

McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.

McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.

Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.

If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Book of Eli (2010)

Where did the Hughes brothers go? Albert and Allen Hughes have four movies to their names, one of them a documentary about pimps, and their last flick was 2001’s From Hell. I know that Jack the Ripper thriller underperformed at the box office, starring a pre-Pirates Johnny Depp, but was it enough to throw these guys in movie jail for nine years? The Hughes brothers are talented filmmakers, first evidenced by their debut feature Menace II Society, which they wrote and directed when they were only twenty years old. I actually really liked From Hell. I get that it isn’t anywhere as complex as the source material from famous comics scribe Alan Moore, but the movie was slick, stylish, twisty and twisted and satisfying (although, Heather Graham has the worst accent in the history of movies). Where have these brothers been all this time? Nine years later, the Hughes brothers take a whack at the popular genre of the moment –Apocalyptic Cinema. The Book of Eli kind of comes across like a Hollywood version of The Road. It’s all about duplicating the look, without getting too bleak, and failing to replicate the sense of humanity in desperation. Why worry about that when you can have explosions?

It’s been 30 years since the sun scorched the Earth. Food is scarce. Gangs roam the highways. The law is a forgotten concept. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a loner heading westerly and trying to make out a meager existence. He takes the boots off a dead man, hunts emaciated cats for food, and looks for a safe shelter from the blistering sun. He struts into a dusty town looking for clean water. The town is under the rule of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man in search of a very specific book for his own purposes. It just so happens that Eli is in possession of this book. Eli refuses to hand over his property, speaking about his mission to transport the book to where it belongs. Carnegie sends his thugs out to kill Eli and retrieve the book. Helping Eli is Solara (Mila Kunis), a teenage prostitute who feels Eli has answers that nobody else has.

What we have here is a post-apocalyptic Western. Denzel is the lone drifter that comes into a town besieged by lawlessness or a corrupt agency of power. He even has a fight in a saloon that doubles as a whorehouse. He takes on an unlikely younger apprentice and enforces his own moral code through a series of shootouts. It just so happens that in Eli, he also has a giant machete and knows kung-fu. This is pretty strict genre stuff, mixing in apocalyptic elements for some extra flavor. The Hughes brothers give everything an ashy grimy gloss, making the most of desolate locations they shot in New Mexico (“When you need some place that looks like the end of the world, film New Mexico!”). The sparse locations and desaturated cinematography do well in establishing an unforgiving reality of the landscape.

The Hughes brothers certainly have a sense of style when it comes to the camera lens, yet they don’t approach being too self-conscious with their visuals. There’s an extended fight sequence that plays entirely in silhouette. There isn’t an overabundance of special effects in the film to clutter up the bangs and booms. There is one shootout outside a home (with Michael Gambon no less) that mimics some of the unblinking camerawork of Children of Men, swinging from side to side throughout the escalating firefight. It’s a fun visual motif that thrusts the viewer in the middle of the action. Otherwise, the action is all fairly standard stuff. It?s entertaining to watch Denzel take out a bushel of bad guys time and again, but what does that add up to with such a worn out story and half-hearted characterization? The script by Gary Whitta is heavy on apocalyptic mood and light on details. Cue more ass kicking.

Washington is stoic, almost Eastwood-like in his grit. He’s an easy antihero to root for, the reluctant avenger that manages to slice and dice his way through trouble. I won?t say this movie forces Washington to stretch his reserve of acting muscles, but it is undeniably pleasing to watch him perform his own fighting stunts. Oldman hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play a scenery-chewing villain in quite a while. Let’s face it; Evil Oldman will always overrule Good Oldman. This man was created to play sociopaths that have no ability to control the volume of their voice. This man needs a chance to bellow once every movie. Kunis proved she was a capable actress in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but her role is fairly limited here to sidekick. She stares with her dark eyes and gets to hold a gun. That’s about it. The Hughes brothers have populated their post-apocalyptic world with familiar faces. Tom Waits is a merchant, Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) as the Number One Henchman, Jennifer Beals as the blind mother to Solaris, and Gambon as a well-armed homeowner with an appetite for human flesh. That?s a good stable of actors to fill out a bunch of stock roles. It certainly makes The Book of Eli more entertaining.

The religious element doesn’t dominate the film but it does serve as food for thought. You see the book of Eli’s in high demand is actually he King James Bible (my wife bemoans the prominence of the KJ, contending it is a poor translation). But you see, this isn’t any bible wrapped in leather with a metallic locked binding (all this for a Bible?); this is the LAST BIBLE ON EARTH. That is why Carnegie craves it. In the 30 years since the vague apocalyptic event, apparently mankind rounded up all the Bibles and burnt them, perhaps to express their displeasure with God. Eli operates on the premise that Denzel has the only Bible in the known world, which just seems downright silly. My wife is in seminary studying to be a pastor, so our position may be uncommon, but we have like 15 Bibles in various languages and translations from Greek to Hebrew to English to Latin. Did people search through every habitable dwelling, every library, and every hotel drawer? There have to be hidden Bibles out there. Even in this extreme setting, it seems to strain credibility to think that mankind is left with one copy of the most widely published book in the history of the world.

Ignoring this fact, the religious element remains nebulous even though the film chronicles the journey of the Christian text. God is referred briefly but mostly the talk steers around the ideas of “faith” and “fate” and “the right path.” Eli feels he has been chosen for a special mission, and so he trudges west with his eyes on the prize. Carnegie wants to use the Bible as a “weapon” to pervert people’s faith into giving him more power. He wants to abuse religion as a motivational force to expand the reach of his control. Here’s the thing though, Carnegie has control over a town already and rules by fear. This seems to be working fine for him. So he wants to rule by love instead, using the Bible to spread the Gospel of discipleship? It’s somewhat unclear what exactly Carnegie plans to use the text for especially considering that most of the remaining population is illiterate anyway. He could just as easily hold up any book (The Da Vinci Code is shown, why not that one? It even has “code” in the title) and proclaim it the Word of God. It’s not like these people, struggling just to eat and find water, are going to question the power structure.

Not content with being a competent genre film, The Book of Eli ends on one of those ghastly twist endings that forces you to rethink everything that came before it. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but this twist certainly leads a charge toward building a counterargument toward disproving it. I won?t get into particulars but it seems unlikely that Denzel would be as good a shot as he was if the twist holds up.

The Book of Eli has its share of thrills and some interesting visual style, but there isn’t anything here you haven?t seen in hundreds of other post-apocalyptic movies. The dusty landscapes, the biker gangs, the aviator goggles, the cryptic threats, the necessity for leather as a fashion statement. This isn’t a bad movie by any means; it’s just another entry in a cluttered genre that, with our renewed fascination of the end times, is only getting more cluttered. Washington and the assortment of actors put in fine work but it’s ultimately the story that lets them down. This is a by-the-books genre flick with a touch more style courtesy of the Hughes brothers and a touch more gravitas courtesy of Mr. Washington. My advice to the human race: stock up on Bibles. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic future, they will be more valuable than gold. Invest now while you still can. I got 15 of them and will entertain all offers.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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