The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit”)

As is the case with many of Academy Award-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coens’ projects, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a six-part Western anthology that leads audiences through the heart of the unforgiving American Frontier, is a worthy addition to the Coens’ darkly funny cinematic canon, which includes classics like “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski” and lesser-known gems like “A Serious Man.”

Do not, however, go into the Coens’ newest horse opera thinking they are going to deliver another “True Grit” or “No Country for Old Men.” It’s evident from those critically acclaimed films that they have the Western genre down pat, but “Buster Scruggs” is a different kind of movie altogether. Like “The Sisters Brothers” — another unconventional and philosophical cowboy dramedy that hit theaters a couple of months ago — it’s a unique and unpredictably screwy ride.

Of the film’s six vignettes, the one that would win an Oscar on its own in the Best Short Film category is the 20-minute opening segment, aptly called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and featuring actor Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) as the title character, a neatly dressed outlaw and “songbird,” who trots into town on horseback with his guitar only to find a heap of trouble waiting for him at every turn. With the Coens’ whip-smart dialogue and Nelson’s confident and wildly fun performance, “Buster Scruggs” starts off incredibly strong.

While the rest of the segments don’t reach the heights of the first, all of them offer viewers something special — a series of fantastic yarns spun with distinctive themes, pacing and colorful characters. In the segment “Near Algodones,” an unnamed cowboy (James Franco) walks into a dusty bank to rob it but finds his neck at the end of a noose when the teller (Stephen Root) fights back.

In “Meal Ticket,” The Impresario (Liam Neeson) serves as the caretaker to The Artist (Harry Melling), a limbless thespian who recites dramatic verse for townspeople across the Old West until his traveling companion discovers he might have a new plan. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a young woman named Alice Lonabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is left in an uncomfortable position when her brother dies on the Oregon trail. Her future is uncertain until wagon train guide Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) offers her a start at a new life.

Made significant by the Coens’ clever screenplay, the gorgeous photography by five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and the beautiful score by two-time Oscar-nominated composer Carter Burwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), “Buster Scruggs” is an epic delight.

Hail, Caesar!

February 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Bridge of Spies

October 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”)
Written by: Matt Charman (“Suite Francaise”), Ethan Coen (“True Grit”) and Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”)

Bringing Oscar winners like director Steven Spielberg, actor Tom Hanks and the screenwriting duo of Joel and Ethan Coen together feels like the producers of the Cold War drama/thriller “Bridge of Spies” are just showing off. While the combination of Spielberg and Hanks hasn’t always been a perfect pairing the last three times out (“The Terminal” is still one of Spielberg’s weakest films), odds will always be in their favor based on talent alone. With “Bridge of Spies,” Spielberg delivers some solid, mature storytelling that rarely wavers. It might be one of those second-tier Spielberg films that really won’t make or break any kind of legacy he has built throughout his career (think “War Horse” and “Amistad”), but even Spielberg on autopilot is pretty damn good.

As a history lesson on espionage during the Cold War, Spielberg and company keep the tension high and the story at a level that won’t go over too many heads (unlike other recent spy thrillers like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “A Wanted Man,” which might take a couple of viewings to let all the nuances sink in). In “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks plays James Donovan, an American insurance lawyer who is called upon to defend British-born Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who has just been captured by the CIA. James takes the case, although he knows there will be a lot of baggage that comes with it. How is he supposed to defend someone when the American judicial system and the court of public opinion have already condemned the man? James’ responsibilities become more complicated when an American pilot and an American student are taken prisoner in the Soviet Union and the CIA asks him to take the lead in a prisoner exchange with the enemy. These backroom dealings are straight to the point and make for some entertaining and thought-provoking scenes.

“Bridge of Spies” asks important, timely questions about how the U.S. has handled war criminals throughout history, but never preaches to the audience with political statements or underlying messages. It plays out like a theatrical production would in the Situation Room. The dialogue is palpable and it’s easy to hang onto every word James and Rudolph speak. It’s this relationship between these two characters that, while spending only a few scenes together, feels like there’s actually something important everyone is fighting for.

Unbroken

December 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson
Directed by: Angelina Jolie (“In the Land of Blood and Honey”)
Written by: Joel Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Ethan Coen (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Richard LaGravenese (“Water for Elephants”) and William Nicholson (“Les Miserables”)

As inspirational as any real-life war biography can get, the survival story of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who sadly passed away this year at the age of 97, is the kind of hero-worshipping film that would be difficult for any American to resist. Think of something like last year’s “Lone Survivor” or this year’s “American Sniper.” A real patriot has to love these movies, right?

Spanning from Zamperini’s childhood to the end of WWII, “Unbroken” features Jack O’Connell as Zamperini during his time as an Olympic track star to his service in the U.S. military where he survived a plane crash, 47 days in a life raft and two years as a prisoner of war in Japan. While much of the first half of the film is beautiful to look at (credit cinematographer Roger Deakins for his work in the air and ocean) and the life raft scenes are incredibly harrowing and intense, the same can’t be said of the narrative that focuses on Zamperini’s life once he is taken prisoner on enemy soil.

These scenes, which feature Zamperini pitted against his cruel torturer known as “The Bird” (Miyavi), are lacking in sentiment from the get go. Miyavi, while menacing enough to make his character believable, isn’t written with much depth. Instead, screenwriters seem comfortable enough in the rest of the story to keep Bird as a cliché antagonist who wields a bamboo stick with authority. In one scene, Zamperini and Bird, after some time apart, are reunited in a way that should have felt devastating, but comes off as diagrammed and impassive.

Directed with complete respect by Angelina Jolie from a Coen Brothers’ script adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, there is surprisingly little emotional impact from such an incredible story. Jolie has made a film to admire because of its heroic subject, but not one that honestly captures a character like Zamperini more than skin deep.

True Grit

December 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld
Directed by: Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)

While the Coen brothers have dabbled with western themes in a few of their past films including “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country for Old Men,” the duo has finally tightened up their boot straps and given us their own dusty, old-fashioned take on the genre with such craftsmanship you would think they’ve been doing it for years. Without comparing the film to John Wayne’s original of 1969, the Coen’s version stands on its own with noteworthy performances by Jeff Bridges as a marshall out to get his man and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who steals just about every scene she is in.

A Serious Man

November 4, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
 
If there ever was a film to support the theory that no matter how bad things may seem, there is always someone worse off than you, it’s “A Serious Man.” Academy Award-winning directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) take that central theme and create their best dark comedy since 1996’s brilliant, accent-filled “Fargo.”

In “A Serious Man,” the Coens feature their most defeated film character in Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor who’d feel on top of the world if he could just make it back to rock bottom. It’s almost as if Larry is cursed. The film’s opening scene, which is set in 19th century Eastern Europe, supports that idea as we see a Polish couple invite what may or may not be a “dybbuk” into their home for soup. A dybbuk is a harmful spirit in Jewish folklore.
 
While the Coens leave the fate of those characters to interpretation, Larry appears to have met his fair share of dybbuks in his lifetime. Set in 1967, he is disrespected by his soon-to-be bar mitzvahed son (Aaron Wolf), who smokes marijuana and listens to Jefferson Airplane, and his ungrateful daughter (Jessica McManus), who is saving money for a nose job. Larry’s troubles start at home but hemorrhage into his work environment.
 
Along with an aggravated wife (Sari Lennick) pushing for a divorce so she can marrying family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and a slouchy brother (Richard Kind) camping out on his couch and spending most of his time in the bathroom draining the cyst on the back of his neck, Larry’s job also has him wound in knots. One of his students is trying to bribe him for a passing grade and someone has been sending defaming letters about him to the panel in charge of granting him tenure. Slowly but surely, everything Larry has worked for is being pulled away from him.

Despite his problems, Larry is determined to get his life together and to be taken seriously. His longsuffering disposition, however, tells a different story. Larry is pushed around by everyone and accepts it as second nature. His only hope is to find spiritual guidance by setting an appointment to speak to an always-occupied senior rabbi.

“A Serious Man” is an obscure piece of work that very well may be the most provocative film to hit theaters this year. While it is painfully funny, the Coen brothers have also conjured up some uncomfortable questions about faith and religion and dragged them into an unremorseful parable that’s sure to ruffle the feathers of all God-fearing men.

In Coen fashion, the duo controls the film in every aspect. They allow you to see only what they feel is vital. While they may shroud the surface, the emotional intensity still penetrates through each character and scene in both aggravating and mesmerizing ways. One could almost see the Coens winking at each other during the making of “A Serious Man.” It’s all so outrageous, yet so personal. It’s the type of film that will have you talking about it long after the credits roll. Why do bad thing happen to good people? The Coens might not offer answers, but enlightenment is overrated. For them, it’s the tormenting that conveys the most though-provoking ideas about man’s place in the world.

Burn After Reading

September 2, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”)

It would only be natural if you flinched a bit when you found out the recently Oscar’ed Coen Brothers would return to the comedy genre after their success with the suspenseful and fascinating “No Country for Old Men.” Not since 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” has the genre been good to them, although some may argue “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a minor triumph.

Still, “Intolerably Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” were not up to form for directors who had helmed one of the best dark comedies of all time in “Fargo.” It’s good to see them slowly finding that niche again in their new film.

In “Burn After Reading,” the nation’s security is in jeopardy (well, sort of) when employees of a local fitness center, including Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), find a disc they think contains top secret CIA information.

With a bitter, recently separated ex-spook named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) on their backs, Chad and Linda decide they are going to milk their discovery as much as possible and see how far blackmailing someone can take them.

Linda, who’s tired of trolling on internet dates sites for the perfect man, has been longing for a few plastic surgery procedures her insurance refuses to cover so she can be more attractive, while peppy Chad is simply excited about being a part of the adventure. Academy Award winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) plays Harry Pfarrer, a delusional governmental employee with food allergies who’s been sleeping around with Osborne’s cold wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Relationships continue to cross paths in this comedy of errors as the Coens write up a breezy little spoof that pushes the plot in bizarre and sometimes unbelievable ways.

The main problem with “Burn” is that the Coens haven’t developed characters as much as they have created caricatures of real people. It’s different when we’re talking about eccentricities like John Tuturro’s Jesus Quintana in “Lebowski” or even Clooney’s grease-loving Everett in “O Brother” because they seem to be in this completely different world devoid of any sanity. In “Burn,” however, many of the characters feel too manufactured in Anytown, USA. Their exaggerated stupidity can be endearing, but most of the time you’re thinking how no one can possibly be this dumb and needy.

Still, the Coens recipe for humor laden with violence is second to none and all the principal players give enjoyably jovial performances. It really is the Coen’s funniest film since giving us The Dude 10 years ago.