The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

the ballad of buster scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character.

 

Over the last decade or so, it seems the western has been making a very small comeback. While it has lacked in quantity of films, the quality of a good selection of them have been noticeable (Hell or High Water, The Hateful Eight, and Django Unchained, to name a few). If someone were to ask me which film makers are the ones to rely on keeping the western alive, my first response would be, without hesitation, the Coen Brothers (they did the wonderful remake of True Grit back in 2010). Their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (distributed by Netflix), is not their best film, but does have their signature flavors all over it.

The film is really six vignettes of stories of the old west. The first involves Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), one of the more charming singing gun slingers in recent memory. The second is about a bank robber (James Franco), who can’t always catch a break. The third is of an impresario (Liam Neeson), who travels with his limbless artist (Harry Melling) as they try to make money. The fourth is of a Prospector (Tom Waits), though elderly, still optimistic as he lives day by day. The fifth revolves around a wagon train and the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan). The final is of an encounter of five strangers on a stagecoach en route to a mysterious destination. The only true connection all six stories have in common is that they share the dark comedy, zaniness, and pure film making of the Coens.

Still, as I was watching, I was asking myself: do young people still watch westerns? And if not, what would be the movies to start them out on? I am afraid The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would not be a viable candidate. The lack of one plot (let alone one story) would probably not appeal to others. There are certainly lessons that can be learned and characters to connect to (my personal favorite was that of the old prospector in story four), and it certainly does not lack in the area of true grit (pun intended).

That all said, parents, this is not the best of films for kids. There is some swearing, and sexual dialogue (mainly in the fifth story), but the main reason for the R rating would be the violence. Kids see enough violence these days, but they may not get the comical reasoning behind all of it. I would say High School and up.

The more I think of it, the more I am happy that the film was not one story. After all, Christ told parables (never thought I would mention Jesus and the Coen brothers in the same sentence, but here we are). In the end, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a solid Coen brothers flick (though it does not rank alongside films like Fargo or No Country for Old Men), and is more than a decent western. Yet the classic westerns of old (Unforgiven, High Noon, Red River, and nearly any film by the legendary John Ford) are where Westerns really hit their peak. If you want to start kids off on Westerns (and I hope you would), start there first.

Old Westerns did not always go for realism so much as they went for art, imagery, and emotions. Consider the aforementioned John Ford (one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, not to mention winning more Oscars than any director in history). His eye for imagery is still unparalleled. He is a great introduction to the western because it brings the audience (whether new viewers or seasoned ones) back to the old west, where water was scarce, guns were a sign of manhood, and wearing big hats were totally cool. Throw in actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood, and you have a base for where people of any age (not just kids) can start to love the idea of westerns.

Eventually, that audience will arrive at The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

First Reformed (2018)

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Toller, the minister of the First Reformed Church.

 

The term “career best performance” is one I am not fond of. How do we know it is the best performance of a career, provided they will be in more films in the future?  Also, any audience member (critic or not) will not be able to see every film a certain actor (or actress) has starred in.

That all being said, it is hard to argue with those who have said that Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of his career in First Reformed. Even if the Oscars don’t come calling, it does not take away how authentic and down right brilliant he is. He stars as Ernst Toller, a minister at the First Reformed Church in present New York. The normal daily routine for Toller consists of reporting to his supervisors, waiting on the organ to be fixed, and taking care of the plumbing. He fails to see that he is also having a moderate drinking problem. His narration is from a journal he has decided to keep doing daily for a full year.

One day, he is visited by a member of the flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Her Husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a form of environmentalist (as is Mary), but also suffers from depression, and he seeks out the Minister after Mary becomes pregnant. His beliefs do become somewhat of an interest to Toller.

The movie is much more than just what happens to characters we meet: It revolves mainly on Toller’s own faith in God as well as humanity. Director/Writer Paul Schrader (who penned Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) gives us still shots with little to no movement (reminding me of that great Japenese master Ozu) yet still allows the story to boil with electricity.

As stated before, the performance by Hawke cannot be understated enough. He gives this character as much depth as any I have seen in a film this year. Consider the scene he has with Esther (Victoria Hill), a co-worker who it is hinted that Toller has had a history with before. This scene happens later in the film, and is the one where Toller completely draws the line. You will know it when you see it, and it is the one that would most likely be playing come Oscar night should Hawke get the (much deserved) nomination.

Parents, the film is not for kids. Though it is not a hard R, it does have some good amount of swearing and violence. The subject matter would be far too intense for anyone younger than High School age.

The movie does has flaws (though rather suspenseful, the last two minutes or so disappointed me a little). There is also a possibility that some may be turned off by the politics mentioned in the film. Thankfully, regardless of your beliefs, the performance by Ethan Hawke will appeal to anyone who likes cinematic acting.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Mary Poppins Returns

“Off we go!” with the new Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt)

 

“So long, Mary Poppins. Don’t stay away too long.”

So was one of the last lines of the 1964 classic that, 54 years later, is still arguably the best Disney live action film. Well, it has been over half a century since she graced our screens, and now we have Mary Poppins Returns, which does not live up completely to the original, but still is a delight to behold.

 

The sequel takes place about two decades after the first, during the great depression. It has been a year since the sudden death of the wife of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw). He still is a loving kind father to his three children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still trying to help him out, even when it is discovered that Michael has to repay a loan or they will lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane. Things obviously do take a nice turn when Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, more on her in a bit) swoops back into their lives.

As in the original, there is a plethora of characters. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a light keeper named Jack, who takes on the counter-part to Blunt. Colin Firth is effective as the villainous banker Wilkins, and David Warner has fun as Admiral Boom, who still keeps the time on the hour.

There are some points where the movie does have faults. The action scene toward the end does seem a little far-fetched, and there is one scene involving Meryl Streep that, although a blast, does seemed a little tacked on. It does not completely add to the story.

The key to the movie is Emily Blunt. The original film made a star out of Julie Andrews (and won her an Oscar): It is an immortal performance. That being said, if there was any pressure for Blunt stepping into the role, she does not show an ounce of it. She is so effortless in her performance it is hard to remember we had worries about her being cast in the first place. Simply put, Blunt is practically perfect in every way.

Parents, there are some thematic elements, but as long as your kids have seen the first one, they are fine.

I have yet to mention the cameos at the end. It may be known to you who they are, but I won’t say in case you don’t. What I will say is that these two (undoubtably) legends still have gas in the tank at their ages.

Apparently, there are much more people out there than I thought that don’t like this movie. After you see it, you response will be along the lines of “Can you imagine that?”

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Favourite (2018)

The Favourite

Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman)

 

“Well, it is fun to be queen sometimes”.

 

This quite the understatement, as Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), though suffering from gout, is really the character. She keeps over a dozen rabbits in her bedroom, races ducks, and is sometimes on the verge of insanity. She is also having an affair with her married helper Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) in one of the more bizarre comedies of 2018, The Favourite.

The palace life begins to see a change with the arrival of Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a very kind-hearted soul who ends up winning the affection of the Queen, to the spite of Sarah. The rivals play a back and forth game that changes the course of all involved.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos gives a movie that, in the end, does take some time to digest. There is dialogue that is laced in dark comedy that makes you smile (though you feel a bit guilty about it). The acting is right in your face wonderful. The one with the biggest character development is Stone, proving once again how much depth and talent she has. Weisz is seems to have (at times) less of a showier role, but shines never the less. Yet the star of the show has got to be Coleman, who has fun with every second she is on-screen, but still shows pathos in the dramatic scenes as well. In short, all three actresses are on their A game.

Parents, this is a film that is not for kids. There are shots of nudity, and a lot of sexual material (not just seen but also suggestive). There is also a lot of swearing, so the R rating is by far justified.

Even if parts of The Favourite are part truth, there is no doubt that this is one of the more original films of the year. It is not for everyone, but for those that can handle it, The Favourite is something else, in a good way.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Creed 2 (2018)

Creed 2

Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) stares into the face of the son of Ivan Drago, Viktor (Florian Munteanu).

As in all great sports films (including the 2015 predecessor), Creed II is not about boxing but about development of character. Perhaps the only reason why it is not as great a film as the first is because it is not as fresh, but it still packs a whallop.

The film begins as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, who is having a great year with this and Black Panther) has just won the belt and is more than in his prime. He has proposed to his longtime girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose music career is still going steady (despite the fact that she has in fact lost her hearing due to illness), and both are on the verge of starting a family. Even outside the ring, he is still looking for advice from his mentor/friend Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). There is still a vibrant electricity in their scenes together, filled with humor and heart.

All of this takes a back seat when Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby, who was recently in The Hate U Give) is set to promote a fight between Creed and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the infamous killer of Apollo. There is indeed intensity bubbling on the screen when we see the meeting between Rocky and the elder Drago. Ivan has been an outcast ever since his loss in the fourth film, and needs to win not only the promoted fight, but the respect of those he once considered family.

There is so much emotional baggage going into the ring for the audience (let alone the characters) that it is pretty impossible not to be invested in the action on-screen. Director Steve Caple Jr. handles the script as if it were a Hollywood relic (and rightly so). That is not to say the boxing scenes are boring. Far from it. He is smart enough to handle them with as much care as he does what happens outside the ring as well.

Parents, as long as your kids have seen the original films in the series (except number five), they are fine here. There is one mild scene of sensuality at the beginning, and some swearing (not to mention obvious violence), but I would say middle school and up is fine.

I left the film with one concern: where do we go from here? Topping off this face-off will be a hard act to follow, but one I will gladly pay for in a heart beat.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph Breaks the Internet

The mysteries of the internet await Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman)

When we first met the titular character in 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph, the atmosphere revolved mainly around that of the retro gaming world. Six years later, Ralph Breaks the Internet has jumped into the modern world. Thankfully, Ralph and his friends have remembered to bring along the warmth, charm, pathos, and humor back as well.

Still friends after the events of the first film, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have a mishap in Vanellope’s racing game which causes the player to break the wheel. They discover that the owner of the arcade Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) will have to shut the game down since the company of the game shut down and only one wheel is available for sale on Ebay (or the “Eboy”, as Ralph calls it). Thankfully, Litwak has also recently installed the arcade’s new WiFi, so Ralph and Vanellope take it upon themselves to travel to Ebay and get the wheel to save her game.

There are still some wonderful returning characters such as Felix (Jack McBrayer) and his wife Calhoun (Jane Lynch), but plenty of new characters to boot. Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) is the go to guy for answers (aka the search engine). The two key new standouts are Yess (Taraji P. Henson) and Shank (Wonder Woman‘s Gal Gadot). Yess is the diva who knows what is what when it comes to popularity on the internet, and Shank may be the only racer who can challenge Vanellope.

One of the best things an animated film can have is what I would call “rewatchability”. As in the first film, there are easter eggs a plenty to discover here. Perhaps the best part of the movie is when Vanellope has to travel to the Disney part of the internet (you will see why), and meets the Disney princesses. It is safe to say you may never look at the idea of a Disney Princess the same ever again.

Parents, if your kids saw the first film, they are fine with this one. The only thing they might feel confused of is about why adults are laughing as well.

Is it better than the first? My first response would be no (I admit it started off a little slow and does not have the freshness of the original), but it should not detract from how good the second film is. As was the case in the first, one of the best things about this film is that it actually has a message for kids. Even if you take away the humor, this is one of the better movies about friendship I have seen in some time, animated or otherwise. Disney has always been the best at bringing out the kid in all of us, and they did it again.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Green Book (2018)

Green Book

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali)

There is a sense of some old school magic in the real life story inspired film Green Book. This magic appears in (nearly) everything from the performances to the chemistry to the message to the drama as well as comedy. It has been a while since I had a warm glow inside after leaving the theater.

I doubt I was alone when I heard of the title. It refers to an actual book that was distributed in the Jim Crow era for African-Americans, letting them know which places would allow them to visit if they were to travel in the southern states. This is one of the last things given to Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian bouncer hired by musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to aid him through his musical tour in the south for two months. Lip assures him that, down south, “there’s gonna be problems.”

There should be no surprise when you realize the heart of the movie is the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. While Ali (who won an Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight) is much more subtle and nuanced, Mortensen (someone I always thought was very underrated as an actor) is much more out there. He eats a lot (and I mean a lot), probably does not know how to whisper, and can be rather ignorant at times. That does not, however, mean he is stupid. We don’t laugh at the racism, but at the situation in which they are said. Both actors give rather wonderful performances in their own right with each of their characters showing multiple layers as the film progresses.

Parents, this is one of the rare times I actually applaud the MPAA, because they could have easily made it rated R but thankfully it is PG-13. There is swearing (I think two F bombs and one use of the N word), a little violence (nothing graphic) and no real sexuality (aside from one scene that I am not sure if it was needed for the story). Middle School and above.

One of the bigger surprises is knowing that the film was directed by Peter Farrelly, who is more well-known for comedies like Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something about Mary (1998). Green Book (which Farrelly wrote with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s real life son Nick, who also has a minor role) has given a film that does have some speed bumps on the way, but delivers a film that crescendos to a very satisfying film that will make you want to go back and experience more than once.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Widows (2018)

Widows

Veronica (Viola Davis) directs her cohorts in what to do.

As someone who has lived his whole life in the suburbs of Chicago, I had mixed emotions to Widows. Is the city full of corruption? Sadly yes, but that does not detract from how well the mood and atmosphere is set in the film. It only adds to it.

After a robbery gone wrong leaves all involved dead, we see the grief unfold for one of the widows, Veronica (Viola Davis). Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) was the one in charge of it all, but when the wreckage was looked over, it is discovered that the money went up in flames as well. The money was stolen from one of the candidates running for the local district, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He warns Veronica that she has a month to pay him back. The plot thickens more when we learn he is running up against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is still under the thumb of his retired father Tom (Robert Duvall).

Of course, Veronica is not the only widow. She meets up with the others whose husbands died that night. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has lost her clothing store, while Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is going through her own emotional turmoil with little help from her mom (Jacki Weaver).

Ok, that is as far as I will go with the plot, since the movie has plenty of twists (especially one that I did not see coming) to discover for yourself. What is remarkable about the film is that each character could have had the movie told from his or her own point of view. All of them are so well written and acted it is as though the depth of the characters could not go any deeper. This is all due to the nearly perfect script by director Steve McQueen (whose last film, 12 years a Slave, won Best picture five years ago) and Gillian Flynn that is based off of material by Lynda La Plante.

It is close to impossible to say which of the actors would be in talks for Oscar consideration, because Widows is an ensemble film in every sense. Davis has always been a force of nature on-screen, and is no different here. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Debicki, who I have only seen recently in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017). Here she seems dumb, but shows more beneath the surface. My favorite would still probably be Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal’s brother and right hand man. To say he does all of Jamal’s dirty work is an understatement. I have a theory that, after Kaluuya was mistreated (to say the least) in 2017’s Get Out, he now gets to unleash that anger here, and it is fantastic to watch.

 

Parents, not for kids. Not at all. More than enough swearing, violence, and sexuality (two scenes, not to mention photographs showing hardcore details of a sexual act). The R rating is justified.

 

There are some moments in the movie that I would question (especially one with Linda’s character), but it does not take away much from this amazing thriller. Movies like Widows are why we sit at the edge of the theater seat.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Mid90s (2018)

mid90s

13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) has set his mind on skateboarding.

 

It would come as no surprise to me if there were many parts of Mid90s that are based off of events from Jonah Hill growing up. He was born in 1983, making him near the same age as the films protagonist, but it goes deeper than just that. The movie is not about a set of performances (all great), but on mood and setting. From super soakers to Walkman CD players (which I doubt I am the only one who does not miss) to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”, Mid90s is indeed its own form of period piece.

The protagonist is 13-year-old Stevie (newcomer Sunny Suljic). He lives at home with his mom (Katherine Waterston) and older brother Ian (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges). We see Stevie in that stage of life where what is “cool” isn’t anymore, and new interests must be found. He decides on skateboarding, and discovers a group of (mostly) older kids to hang out with.

The leader is Ray (Na-kel Smith), also easily the best skater of the bunch (and one of the best in town). His best friend is F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), called so due to his tendency to say that phrase followed by “That is Crazy!”. The youngest in the group (closest to Stevie in age) is Ruben (Gio Galicia), who is no longer the runt of the litter. The final member is Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so-called because it represents his IQ (or lack there of).

There are many things that work so well in Mid90s. Take for example the time it takes for Stevie to be excepted. There is clearly a care for the characters that Hill (who also wrote the film, his first ever directed) shows us in how he takes his time for them to develop. Stevie is clearly a nice kid, even trying to give his older brother a thoughtful birthday gift despite the fact that Ian lets out all his frustrations on his kid brother. Yet the movie is smart enough to know that Ian (who clearly has a thing for orange juice) does love his brother deep down, but has no one else to turn his anger on.

Parents, this far from a kids movie. There is clearly a lot of swearing, some violence and many thematic elements. There is also one of the most uncomfortable sexual content scenes I have witnessed in a long time, which involves Stevie at a party with an older girl. Nothing is really shown, but the atmosphere is very unsettling (and he describes what happens afterwards.) The R rating is more than justified.

Mid90s packs a lot into the short runtime of 85 minutes, but that does not at all take away from it. There are many clichés that could have occurred in the film, but are (for the most part) avoided. I urge my fellow millennials to search this film out like one may search out an old yearbook.

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate u give

After the death of her childhood friend, Starr’s life is forever changed.

It did not take long to see how preachy The Hate U Give would be, let alone how well-timed it has been released. I admit it took me a while to realize that maybe, just maybe, it needs to be preachy. It’s message is clear, and, for the most part, delivers it well.

No small part of that revolves around its main young star (pun intended) Amandla Stenberg (who, once upon a time, was Rue of The Hunger Games). She is Starr, who lives in one very run down neighborhood with her family. She informs us she was “nine years old when she had the talk” from her dad Mav (Russell Hornsby), about the statutes of the black panthers (not the Wakanda kind).

Flash forward to present day, where she goes to a private school (mostly white) since the public school is only a setting of chaos and trouble. She tries to live two separate lives, acting as “non-ghetto” as she can, even around her two friends Maya (Megan Lawless) and Hailey (former Disney Channel star Sabrina Carpenter). She even tries the act in front of her boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), who is not your typical movie boyfriend (which is a compliment).

One night, while at a party in her home neighborhood, she reunites with Khalil (Algee Smith), one of her best friends growing up (and first crush). Tragedy strikes when, after the party, he is pulled over and shot dead by a cop. The movie (based off of the book by Angie Thomas, which I will need to read soon) is far too smart to be about whether this cop is going to be arrested. It is far more than that.

There is grounded wisdom and solace that Starr gets mainly from her parents, which are played nicely by Hornsby and Regina Hall. We get also so very nice subtle work by Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the MCU) as the feared leader King, who once worked with Mav before the latter left it all behind. There is also Mav’s police officer brother Carlos, played by Common. Starr’s siblings are also nicely played, with Lamar Johnson as Seven, and TJ Wright as Sekani.

Parents, I have heard that the book does have some sexual content in it. There is not much of that here, aside from some kissing and mention of one character trying to have sex with a girl and failing (nothing shown). The PG-13 rating is mainly for the violence, swearing, and (most of all) the thematic situations. High School and up (maybe mature middle schoolers).

As stated before, the movie does get to be rather preachy at times. Perhaps I was just thinking a little too much of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing, which may be unfair to compare this film to (or almost any film to). Director George Tillman Jr. does do a fine job with direction and pacing, and the film does give more proof that young Amandla Stenberg is a light that will only get brighter as her career progresses.

It is as timely a movie as any out there right now, so yeah, it is definitely worth the watch.

Overall: Four Stars ****