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.

Kill the Messenger

October 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta
Directed by: Michael Cuesta (“Roadie”)
Written by: Peter Landesman (“Parkland”)

As print media continues its slow decline into becoming increasingly more obsolete, it is always fun to see a film tackle the seemingly lost art of the tenacious newspaper reporter out to break a story wide open. In “Kill the Messenger,” it just so happens that the target of this exposé is the United States government.

Based on a true story, “Kill the Messenger” follows San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) and the huge story he uncovers in the mid-90s. After following trails led by the girlfriend of a drug dealer, Webb discovers that the CIA knowingly allowed cocaine into the U.S. and allowed it to be sold in order arm rebels in Nicaragua. Once Webb releases his story, praise is soon met with scrutiny and danger as his career, family and life hang in the balance.

In the lead role, Renner gives his best performance since 2010’s “The Town.” It’s a role that is equal parts aggressive and vulnerable, both of which Renner excels at, elevating the material in the process. While there are good supporting performances from actors like Oliver Platt and Rosemarie DeWitt, “Kill the Messenger” unfortunately doesn’t make much use of his sprawling cast of great actors. Actors like Andy Garcia and Michael Sheen briefly appear and are gone in an instant, failing to make a lasting impact.

For the most part, the true-to-life story in “Kill the Messenger” is very intriguing, though it does tend to ebb and flow more than one might like. Scenes at the beginning of the film where Gary is putting together the initial pieces of the puzzle allow for the tenacious character traits to reveal themselves, setting the table for the rest of the film. These scenes also establish the tone as the film becomes very sharp and even a bit witty, especially in the scenes with a lawyer character played fantastically by Tim Blake Nelson.

As Gary begins to dig deeper into the conspiracy, he sets out on a journey to uncover the truth, which is where the film begins to lose a bit of its luster. These segments feel tenuous and while Renner carries them and character actors shuffle in and out, the scenes and story feel a little slight overall. The momentum is regained, however, and the strongest points of the film happen when Gary is under a smear campaign from competing newspapers. It is here where Renner is able to show his emotional range, from the fear for his life to the frustration of having people question his journalistic integrity. It’s an interesting study of and asks important questions like, “How much power does the government really have?” It’s an issue that is still extremely timely today.

Towards the end of the film and sprinkled throughout, director Michael Cuesta flirts with the larger implications that the CIA and the government heavily contributed to the crack epidemic that began in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. It’s a worthwhile connection of a social issue that ultimately has its impact blunted by a lack of exploration. Though the film may not connect on every level it sets out to, a mostly well-driven narrative and a great performance from Renner make “Kill the Messenger” a story worth telling.