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 ****

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 ****

Silence (2016)

silence

Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) trying to spread hope, as well as gain it.

Movies can be divided into two categories: ones you can watch over and over again, and the others that are best watched at least once. If I had to pick which categories to put Martin Scorsese’s newest classic, Silence, into, my first gut reaction would be the latter. It is brutal, gritty, and hard to watch much of the time. Yet it is also a movie that has so many moments that are open to interpretation that you would need to see it more than once.

The story seems simple, yet when it is a Marty Scorsese movie, it is always so much more than that. During the 1630s (and when was the last time you saw a movie made during that time?), two missionaries named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who had a great 2016 after working with Mel Gibson on Hacksaw Ridge) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) venture out to Japan to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). There are obviously great set pieces and beautiful imagery, but the situation that these two are in take any hope out of it. The authorities are cracking down hard on anyone proclaiming themselves to be christian. Even a hint of it in your life would mean your death, unless you were willing to step (“trample”) on the image of Christ.

The title of the movie holds many meanings. For one, it is about how Rodrigues and Garrpe seem to think how Silence is the only thing they have responding to their prayers. On the other  hand, it could also mean that the movie itself has (as far as I could tell) little musical score, if any at all. All we hear are wails of Christians dying, the waves of the sea, the drops of rain (and sometimes blood), panting from exhaustion, and so on.

The acting is extremely effective. It would be hard for you to watch this movie, and think that it is about Kylo Ren (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and “the Amazing” Spider-Man going to save Qui-Gon Jinn/Oskar Schindler/Bryan Mills (Taken)/any of the other roles we associate with Liam Neeson. Instead, you are thinking of how these two young priests are starting to realize, little by little, that they are going in way over their head.

Parents, it should come as no surprise that this movie is definitely not for kids. There is no sexuality (some rear end nudity of the Japanese), or really any swearing. It is mainly due to the violence, which is generally revolved around the torture that the citizens have to endure. High School and above only.

I admit the movie does tend to go on a little bit, but it still does not change my view that Silence is another movie to mention in Scorsese’s immaculate resume (I admit I have not seen all of his movies, but who can argue against titles like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas?) Silence also proves its title with the effect on the audience. No talking, no cellphones ringing, just the still audience absorbing the screen (there was a time when I had to move my hand to make sure it was getting circulation.)

It may have come out just at the end of 2016, but Silence is still clearly one of the year’s very best films.

 

Overall: Four and a half Stars **** 1/2

Taken (2008)

taken

Liam Neeson in his now immortal scene from “Taken”

There is at least one meme I know of with Liam Neeson and a reference to his role in Taken. I am not sure 100 percent how it goes, but it is along the lines of “He saved over 1000 Jews, he helped train Batman AND Anakin Skywalker, and you dare to take his daughter?!?!” This is what I knew when I finally got around to seeing Taken, and it is far from brilliant, but it is still somewhat entertaining.

The movie would easily have been forgotten weeks after it was released if it were not for Liam Neeson. The role of Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent whose daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped on her trip in Paris is one that Neeson is still being known for almost a decade later (even so that he was in a great commercial a few years back for Clash of Clans).

There are no doubt the action scenes are well done, but it is the plot that had me stroking my chin in not the most positive ways. I understand there is a problem with underground sex trafficking in the world, but what a chance that both Kim and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) are not only kidnapped for this, but are done so barely after they even get off the plane.

I also had a little trouble with believing the friendship between Mills and his former associate (at least that is what I think he was) Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin). There is a dinner scene that, while somewhat well done, is highly improbable to me.

Parents, this is a not a movie for kids. Despite the PG-13 rating, it is one that could have easily been rated R. There is obviously some violence and some swearing (though I don’t remember any F bombs dropped), but the fact that the movie talks about sex trafficking may be too much for a middle schooler. High School and above only.

Still, if you have not seen the film, it is worth watching mainly for Neeson. There were times I was remembering another movie character who was more determined than ever to get a family member back: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers (1956), which, compared to Taken, is like comparing Disney World to a block party. Nevertheless, if Liam Neeson is reading this, I will tread lightly and say his performance is worth seeing the movie just by itself.

I would not be smart in making him mad.

Overall: Three Stars ***

Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in “Love Actually”.

No matter how big the movie buff you may be, there is always at least one movie that escapes you and you have to catch up to see it (Roger Ebert said at one point he had never seen The Sound of Music). Well, over a decade late, I have finally caught up with seeing Love Actually, and I am glad I did.

That is not to say it is a perfect film. The movie centers around multiple couples in their love lives, and, for the most part, it works. The main reason why is that the director (Richard Curtis) used some of the best thespians at the time. Not movie stars, but thespians. They include (but are totally not limited to) Hugh Grant (playing the prime minister), (the late) Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney,  Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley. The film also has appearances by young soon to be stars such as Chiwetel Ejiofor (a decade before he made 12 Years a Slave), Martin Freeman (before he was Bilbo Baggins or Sherlock‘s Watson) and Andrew Lincoln (in the days before playing Rick on The Walking Dead).

It would take too much time for me to write down what each character is going through, and would ruin the surprise to those who may not yet have seen it. My personal favorite is of Colin Firth’s Jamie, a writer going through a breakup and meets a new house keeper named Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). The movie also gives us a look at “puppy love”, which I have always been a sap for.

If I had to cut a story, I would cut two of them. The first is with Martin Freeman’s John and Joanna Page’s “Just” Judy. I cared for these characters, and liked the acting. What I did not care for was the fact that they had to be porn stars. The other involves the character of Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall). Again, the acting is good, but, unlike most of the other stories, he is not looking for love, but sex. It does not add to the movie I feel.

Parents, the movie is not for kids, although (mature) High Schoolers and above would be ok. Just be wary, there is a lot of nudity that does not need to be in the film.

In the end, the film does wrap a big enough blanket around me that gave me a nice, fuzzy, cozy feeling. It ends with one of my personal favorite songs (“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys), making you look at airports in a different way.

There is a scene in the film where a girl is singing “All I want for Christmas is you” by Mariah Carey. For the longest time, this song was on the Christmas radio station in my car so much I have grown to despise the song. Love Actually made me love the song. That alone is quiet the accomplishment.

Overall: Four Stars ****