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 ****

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave no Trace

There is no trace of any falseness in this father/daughter relationship.

With only a few minutes before the start of Leave No Trace, the only thing I knew about the film was that it starred Ben Foster. Then I realized it was directed by Debra Granik, who made my favorite movie of 2010, Winter’s Bone. This got me excited and eager to watch her newest flick, and I am happy to say it did not let me down at all.

I will leave very little room for what happens, because it is one of those great films that you need to see with little knowledge going into. Therefore, I will just give the basics. Will (Ben Foster) is living on his own with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) after returning from military service and suffering from PTSD. The best way to cope for Will is to be as far away from culture as possible, with the exception of his daughter.

Like great film artists, Granik paints with the finest of brushes for characters. Events happen, and they are introduced to people in the world but father and daughter don’t react the same way. The same can also be said for the look of the film, which is luscious to say the least (it had me thinking if any other film had used natural light with negative results, which is not the case here).

Something else about the film I truly enjoyed was the rating of PG. I don’t recall any swearing, but the most is the thematic elements and some thematic material (involving injuries that are bad but not gruesomely so). A friend of mine took his preteen daughter, who I hear is now obsessed with survival skills.

The only two movies I know for sure I have seen Ben Foster in for sure was 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Hell or High Water (2017). In both films, he was the character we loved to hate on. That is far from the current case. He gives us a damaged guy beyond repair, with only his daughter to possibly help fight his personal demons.

This brings us to Thomasin McKenzie. It is admittedly hard to say how great her performance is, only since I have yet to see her in anything else. It is far easier to say how affective her performance is. We see a character arc in Tom that is so relatable we can almost touch it.  She may not get awards consideration, but Granik did direct Jennifer Lawrence to an Oscar nod in Winter’s Bone. So if anything, it will surely launch her career.

This is one of the year’s very best films.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

My predictions for the 89th Academy Awards…

my-oscar-predictions

 

Every year at the Oscars, there is one battle that never fails to occur: the battle between my heart and my mind. After a few years of proof that my mind is often the better judge (since I missed Best Picture two years in a row), I am feeling a little more confident in my predictions this year (though my heart is still having it’s say).

As always, don’t forget you need to worry about all the catagories (even Best Documentary Short).

My predictions are…

 

Best Picture

atogt

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

I feel confident in saying my two year drought in the main catagory is over. Nothing is stopping La La Land from winning Best Picture (if you had to pick a movie for second place, it would be Moonlight).

Will win/Should win: La La Land (95% sure)

Could Win: Moonlight (not really though)

 

Best Director

director

  • Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

 

The Directors Guild is (for the most part) the best to predict Best Director, and they awarded it to Damien Chazelle. With La La Land and 2014’s  Whiplash, it is clear Chazelle is not going anywhere. Expect him to win on Oscar night, and become the youngest winner in the history of the catagory.

Will win/Should win: Damien Chazelle,  (95% sure)

Could win: Barry Jenkins, (very unlikely)

 

Best Actor

 

atogt

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington, Fences

This is one of the main races of the night, between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington (Ryan Gosling would be trailing behind in third). Affleck has won many of the early awards, but Washington got the SAG award (which he had never won before, crazy as that sounds). Both performances (as well as the other three) are wonderful, but there are two factors left to bring up.

The first is of Affleck’s alledged accusations of sexual abuse, which has apparently caught up with him. The second is, with everyone fighting the “Oscars so white”, it looks like the edge is being given to Denzel, but barely.

Will/Should win: Denzel Washington (70% certain)

Could win: Casey Affleck (perhaps even Ryan Gosling)

 

Best Actress

 

atogt

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  • Ruth Negga, Loving
  • Emma Stone, La La Land
  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Natalie Portman and Emma Stone are the only performances I have seen so far. What Portman did was pretty much bring the late Mrs. Jackie Kennedy back to life. Still, no performance touched my soul more so than Emma Stone did in La La Land (capped off mainly when she sang “Audition”). She won the SAG award, which seems to have cemented her status in riding the “La La” train to her first Oscar.

Will win/Should Win: Emma Stone

Could win: Natalie Portman

 

Best Supporting Actor

 

atogt

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel, Lion
  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

I feel no one has been giving much love to Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea. He shows a wonderful growing talent that reminded me of Timothy Hutton’s Oscar winning performance in Ordinary People (1980).

Still, expect the win to go to Ali for Moonlight. Despite being only in the first third of the film, it is the one that you remember the most after the film ends.

 

Will win: Mahershala Ali (90% sure)

Should win: Lucas Hedges

Could win: Dev Patel

 

Best Supporting Actress

aaa

  • Viola Davis, Fences
  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

 

Truly, this is the easiest catagory of the night. While I admired all the performances (especially Naomie Harris), it is clear that Viola Davis will win for her electric performance in Fences. Done deal.

Will win/Should Win: Viola Davis (100% sure)

Could win: Naomie Harris (in an alternate universe)

 

Best Animated Feature Film

atogt

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

Every year the Oscars seems to have at least one upset,and I am banking on Kubo and the Two Strings beating Zootopia (which is favored). Why? First, Zootopia has no other nominations while Kubo and the Two Strings has two. Second, both Zootopia and Moana are Disney, which may split the vote. Finally (and this is my heart taking control), Kubo was my favorite movie of last year, and I will be so happy if it wins.

 

Will win/Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings (60% sure)

Could win: Zootopia

 

Best Foreign Film

atogt

  • Land of Mind (Denmark)
  • A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
  • The Salesman (Iran)
  • Tanna (Australia)
  • Toni Erdmannn (Germany)

After the visa ban by President Trump, Asghar Farhadi is planning on boycotting the Oscars. This could help his film The Salesman win an Oscar (he won in this catagory for 2011’s masterpiece A Separation).

Will win: The Salesman (75%)

 

Best Original Screenplay

atogt

  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • The Lobster
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • 20th Century Women

While La La Land brought the old school musical and meshed it with the world of today, expect the win to go to Manchester by the Sea. It is very rare to see a movie where tragedy meets with comedy so well, but that is what Kenneth Lonergan did.

Will win/Should win: Manchester by the Sea (80% sure)

Could win: La La Land

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

atogt

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hidden Figures
  • Lion
  • Moonlight

This may be the only catagory that Hidden Figures can get a win, but expect it to go to Moonlight.

Will win: Moonlight (85% sure)

Could win: Hidden Figures

Should win: Fences (which would make it a posthumous win for August Wilson)

 

Best Costume Design

atogt

 

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

 

Will win/Should win: Jackie (75% sure)

Could win: La La Land

 

Best Original Song

atogt

  • “Audition”, La La Land
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, Trolls
  • “City of Stars”, La La Land
  • “The Empty Chair”,  Jim: The James Foley Story
  • “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana

Lin’Manuel Miranda could possibly get his EGOT if both songs from La La Land split the vote. While that is possible, expect the Oscar to go to “City of Stars”, a song very difficult to get out of your head (not that you would want to anyway).

Will win/Should win: “City of Stars”, La La Land (75% sure)

Could win: “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana

 

Best Original Score

atogt

  • Jackie
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Passengers

Another easy one. Check off La La Land, which is easily a staple in my Itunes library.

Will win/Should Win: La La Land (95% sure)

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

atogt

  • Fire at Sea
  • I am Not your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America
  • The 13th

I have only seen Life, Animated, but I have heard nothing by praise for O.J. (the movie, not the man).

Will win: O.J.: Made in America (85% sure)

Could win: The 13th

Should win: Life, Animated

Best Documentary Short

atogt

  • 4.1 Miles
  • Extremis
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

Will win: Joe’s Violin (70% sure)

 

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

 

ATOGT.jpg

 

  • A Man Called Ove
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad

Will win: Star Trek Beyond (80% sure)

 

Best Production Design

ATOGT.jpg

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

Will win/Should win: La La Land (80% sure)

 

Best Film Editing

ATOGT.jpg

 

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

Will win/Should win: La La Land (85% sure)

Could win: Hacksaw Ridge

 

Best Cinematography

atogt

  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Silence

Will win: La La Land (80% sure)

Could win: Moonlight

 

Best Sound Editing

atogt

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Will win: Hacksaw Ridge (70% sure)

Could win: La La Land

 

Best Sound Mixing

atogt

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Will win: La La Land

Could win: Hacksaw Ridge or Arrival

 

Best Visual Effects

atogt

  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Doctor Strange
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Will win/Should win: The Jungle Book (85% sure)

Could win: Doctor Strange

 

Best Animated Short

ATOGT.jpg

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

Will win/Should win: Piper (75% sure)

Could win: Pear Cider and Cigarettes

 

Best Live Action Short Film

ATOGT.jpg

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

 

Will win: Timecode (60% sure)

 

Comment and share your predictions.

 

And the Oscar Nominees (and my thoughts) are…(2017)

oscars-2017

In years past, the president of the Academy would be accompanied by some known movie star and announce the list of the nominees to the movie going public. This year, it was streamed live with interviews with past Oscar winners and nominees such as Jennifer Hudson, Ken Watanabe, Gabourey Sidibe (I forgot she had comic chops), and Jason Reitman. It was a nice change of pace.

Here are the nominees (and my thoughts)…

Best Picture

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

 

Thoughts: I wish a tenth spot would open up for Silence, but overall, nothing too surprising here.

 

Best Director

  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
  • Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

 

Thoughts: Again, no love for Scorsese on his work for Silence, but each of the nominees were no surprise to me. Sad though there was no room for Denzel Washington for Fences.

 

Best Actor

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington, Fences

 

Thoughts: No surprise, as these were the five heavy hitters (sorry Tom Hanks. Tough year.)

 

Best Actress

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  • Ruth Negga, Loving
  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
  • Emma Stone, La La Land
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

 

Thoughts: Here was the category that surprised me. As of now, I have only seen two of the nominees (Jackie and La La Land). Huppert’s surprise win at the Globes probably helped her here, as did Streep’s speech at the Globes (and the obvious fact that she is Meryl Streep). Still, the biggest surprise is Ruth Negga, who was probably the reason there is no nominations for Annette Benning (20th Century Women) or (more shockingly) Amy Adams (Arrival).

 

Best Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel, Lion
  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

 

Thoughts: Despite a Golden Globe win in this category, Michael Shannon’s co-star, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, did not get a nomination. I was very happy though for Lucas Hedges, who did spellbinding work in Manchester by the Sea. This one may be a tight race.

 

Best Supporting Actress

  • Viola Davis, Fences
  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

 

Thoughts: No surprise, and the main category I can predict right here and now. This is a clear win for Viola Davis.

 

Best Animated Feature

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

 

Thoughts: Either Zucchini or The Red Turtle would explain why Finding Dory was not on here, which did not surprise me at all.

 

Best Cinematography

  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Silence

 

Thoughts: Nice to see Silence recognized for at least one category.

 

Best Costume Design

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

 

 

Best Documentary

  • Fire at Sea
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America
  • 13th

 

Thoughts: I am very happy that Life, Animated was recognized, though I have heard nothing but praise for O.J. (the movie, not, you know, the player).

Best Documentary Short Subject

  • Extremis
  • 4.1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

 

Best Film Editing

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

 

Best Make Up and Hairstyling

  • A Man Called Ove
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad

 

Best Original Score

  • Jackie, Mica Levi
  • La La Land, Justin Hurwitz
  • Lion, Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran
  • Moonlight, Nicholas Britell
  • Passengers, Thomas Newman

 

Best Original Song

  • “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, Trolls
  • “City of Stars”, La La Land
  • “The Empty Chair”,  Jim: The James Foley Story
  • “How Far I’ll Go”, Moana

 

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Land of Mine, Denmark
  • A Man Called Ove, Sweden
  • The Salesman, Iran
  • Tanna, Australia
  • Toni Erdmann, Germany

 

Best Production Design

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

 

Best Animated Short Film

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigareets
  • Pearl
  • Piper

 

Best Live Action, Short Subject

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

 

Best Sound Editing

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

 

Best Sound Mixing

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

 

Thoughts: Yes, a Michael Bay movie is nominated for an Oscar.

 

Best Visual Effects

  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Doctor Strange
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Roge One: A Star Wars Story

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Arrival, Eric Heisserer
  • Fences, August Wilson
  • Hidden Figures, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
  • Moonlight, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney
  • Lion, Luke Davies

 

Best Original Screenplay

  • Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan
  • La La Land, Damien Chazelle
  • The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
  • Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan
  • 20th Century Women, Mike Mills

 

Congrats are in order to La La Land for tying All about Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) with 14 nominations. More importantly, congratulations are needed for the Academy for no longer having to hear about “Oscars so white”.

The 89th Academy Awards will take place on February 26th, 2017. Jimmy Kimmell will be hosting.

My predictions will be announced in the weeks to come.

 

Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as brothers in “Hell or High Water”.

Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, is another great film that I walked in knowing virtually nothing about (something my dad always liked to do). All I knew about it was the stars, and it was about two brothers who had to rob banks.

That is putting it very mildly. Set in West Texas, the brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard. The younger Toby (Chris Pine) is divorced, trying to make something for his sons to live on. His older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is recently out of jail, and…well, to say he is reckless is a gross understatement.

The film opens with them having to rob a couple of banks. We learn this is because of a plan Toby had after the bank foreclosed on their land (to be honest, I do very bad with banking terms, so I could be wrong). The film eventually becomes a great game of cat and mouse, as they are pursued by soon to be retired Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who (as Hamilton loves to point out) is part mexican, part American Indian.

That is as far as I will go with the plot, except to say it is a refreshing feeling to know some screenwriters in Hollywood can still give us screenplays that are original and intriguing. My hats off to the screenplay, done by Taylor Sheridan (his only other credit was last year’s underrated gem, Sicario.)

There are two main reasons to see the film. The first is the chemistry Foster and Pine have together as the brothers. While Pine’s Toby is clearly the brains behind the plan, it is also clear he may not be cut out for this sort of thing at the moment (unlike big brother Tanner, who relishes in all of it. The exception is when they make a gas station stop). Still, Toby is determined, and is beyond convincing to quit. It is also visibly clear that these two still love each other, and are really the only person each other has left in the world.

The other reason is Jeff Bridges. I am starting to believe that Jeff Bridges is becoming one of the few actors in Hollywood that is impossible to dislike (think Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman). His character is able to spit out racist comments one moment to his partner, but you know that it is not because he is a bigot. It is a performance that I fear will be overlooked at Oscar time, which is a shame, because it deserves recognition.

Parents, the movie does have one sex scene (just after Tanner is talking to a pretty girl at a welcome desk), but it is blurry and out of focus (still audible though). The language is what you would expect in an R rated film, and there is some violence. Basically, the rating is justified, though very mature teens may be ok.

For those who can handle it, and wish to see a film with powerful acting, a gripping story, and stunning visuals, look no further than Hell or High Water. In a summer of some forgetful films (though I did not see all of them), Hell or High Water is one of the few diamonds in the rough.

Overall: Four Stars ****