The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a strange thing. Originally conceived by the Coen Brothers to be a series for Netflix, something happened along the way, and the result is this over 2 hour film made up of 6 vignettes. Side note: to get a sense of how this might’ve played as a series, check out the beautiful to look at, pondering, and pompous The Romanoffs on Amazon Prime Video.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a ponderous thing, too. But it’s more silly than anything, at least at the onset, as the first vignette is so ridiculous (where the titular Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson, merrily goes on a singing and killing spree) I almost turned away from the rest. The second vignette wasn’t much better and equally absurd, though at least we get to watch James Franco get hung…twice. One wonders why they chose to show the weakest vignettes first, but patient viewers will be rewarded with the gold in the middle. Continue reading →
Be forewarned, Lean on Pete might be the name of a horse, but the film, a startling bit of gritty realism about the tough times of a nice kid, is about Charlie. Think of it as a modern-day country song version of Oliver Twist.
Slowly paced, beautifully photographed, and utterly devastating, Lean on Pete starts off as a “lonely boy and his emotional support horse” story that you think is going to turn hopeful and sentimental, but instead takes some shockingly dark roads into tragedy and suddenly morphs into one of those films about the resiliency of children and survival by equal parts misplaced grit and dumb luck. It does reward the empathetic viewer with a satisfying conclusion and sliver of hope…but all along I was riddled with fear that poor Charlie would be eaten up and spit out by this cruel, cruel world.
The early portions of Lean of Pete take place in Portland, and the Pacific Northwest setting reminded me of another film from this year about the resiliency of children, the meditative and earthy Leave No Trace. Continue reading →
There’s something sad at the core of Damien Chazelle’s historical hero epic, First Man, and it’s not just star Ryan Gosling’s dreamy pale blue eyes that look up longingly at the moon or the melancholy tones of Justin Hurwitz’s musical motifs punctuating the film’s sorrowful and soulful meditative moments. The film is constructed like a visual and aural tone poem, swinging from moments of breathless action and wonder to lyrical interludes of domestic intimacy, all shadowed by tragedy.
The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman. If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.” But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.
BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s. When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit. Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot. It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery). There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.
On the isle of Jersey, a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley – a revelation) emotionally enslaved by her manipulative and unforgiving family (headed by her posh, cruel, ice-queen of a mother played perfectly by Geraldine James) has a chance encounter with a guy from the wrong side of the sand dunes named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) that leads to a dangerous romance amidst the frenzied summer of a serial killer on the loose in Michael Pearce’s electrifying and disturbing directorial debut, Beast.
Beast is a classic sleeper film, having come presumably out of nowhere, and confounds all expectations of its tried and true “doomed romance” genre, here presented through the lenses of neo-noir and modern gothic. The less you know about the film going in the better. The complex psychological disturbances it displays (and transmitted exceptionally well by the cast, and most of all, by Buckley) need to be wrestled with, unpacked…not unlike the work one would do in therapy to better understand their past trauma and current motivations. For Moll, who is introduced to us through her own voice-over about the tragic fates of killer whales isolated in captivity (a chilling metaphor for what is about to unfold), being ostracized is clearly a trigger, but what the film accomplishes so brilliantly is confusion in the mind of the viewer. What are the true motives behind Moll and Pascal’s behavior? They compel us to sympathize with them even as we watch them careen into emotional and criminal mind-fields. Continue reading →
There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline. Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.
You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead. Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man). It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body). Continue reading →
Apparently marrying Emily Blunt can give a guy an ego the size of Will Smith’s. Case in point: John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who has the nerve to star and direct in his own horror allegory vanity project, A Quiet Place, and cast himself next to his wife (the future Mary Poppins) who is quite frankly pretty amazing in anything…no exception here. Krasinski (a usually amiable goofball) is pretty terrible as a serious actor, but he’s a decent little workmanlike director, and his wife and the two kid actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) give compelling performances that allow their characters and the action to rise above Krasinki’s and the screenwriters’ shortcomings. The film, though far from original in either theme (shhh…you gotta stay quiet to survive this post apocalyptic horror show run by marauding blind monsters who hunt by sound) or design (haven’t we seen these clicking gawky body-ripping creatures before…like, in everything…oh wait, they have really nifty ears here), ends up being above average for the genre.
The whole thing is overtly an allegory about parenting…but you know, the “parents need to be martyrs” and “father knows best” over-protective “the world is a dangerous place” patriarchal kind of parenting. Continue reading →
Seriously. Is the Death of Stalin funny? Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny? I’m asking for a friend.
Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?
Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev! He’s brilliant, as per usual. Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi). But is the performance…funny? I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how? Funny how it looks? How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?Funny ha-ha?
Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece. What’s his end-game? A correlation to Putin’s Russia? Trump’s America? Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos? Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading →
Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?
The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post. But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon! Bob Odenkirk! His comedy pal David Cross! Bradley Whitford!). So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.
But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading →