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 ****

If Beale Street could talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk

Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James)

There is so much rarity that oozes out of If Beale Street could talk that at times it is hard to describe. Here is a romantic drama that does not rely on fantasies or hopes but on the pluses and minuses of reality. No other tag line has rung more true for a 2018 film: “Trust love all the way”.

Based off the book (which I am hoping to read soon) by James Baldwin and written for the screen by director Barry Jenkins (whose last film, Moonlight, won the Oscar for Best Picture), we meet the young lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Alfonso (Stephan James), or “Fonny”. She is 19. He is 22. They have known each other since they could take their first bath together as kids. Their lives in  New York are marred with troubles, but they remain faithful, even when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Things get a little more complicated when we find out that Tish is pregnant. While her family is supportive, his family is…well, to say they are against it is putting it very mildly. The scene between the two families sets the absolute mood of the film.

The movie is told sometimes in flashback (as told by Tish), showing her relationship with Fonny before his arrest. The rest shows their attempts to get Fonny out of jail, but certain complications arise (and they don’t come cheap). Thankfully, Tish has very supporting parents. While her  dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) is there for his daughter, it is clearly the mother, Sharon (Regina King) who is the should Tish leans on the most. Every scene King is in explodes with talent, proving she is a strong contender for best supporting actress in the next few months. That would not be the films only nomination, as it also has possibly the best musical score I have heard in 2018.

The film also supplies other strong performances, but the crystal clear heart of the film is the chemistry between the two young leads. Layne plays Tish as soft-spoken, but not one who will let you step on her toes. James allows us to see Fonny (as Tish hopes all call him) as a young man who knows the hardships of life, but still is kind-hearted.

Parents, the movie is rated R, and should be. While there is a lot of swearing (including racial slurs), there is not much violence. There is, however, one of the more longer sex scenes (nearly five to seven minutes) that occurs and has nudity. Mature High Schoolers and up.

There are some parts of the movie that seem a little off (I am not sure yet how I feel about the trip that Tish’s mother makes, despite how undoubtably heartfelt it is), and the outcome of the movie may not be for everyone. I was fine with it. The message was simple: Even in the worst of circumstances, you must, in all honesty, trust love. All the way.

 

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

Vice (2018)

Vice

Christian Bale as Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

 

Very few actors do as well as Christian Bale when it comes to immersing into a character, and his take on Dick Cheney in Vice is no exception. It is a knockout performance, but it is one that I wished were in a better movie.

The film begins by telling us that the makers of the film did the best they could since Cheney is such a private man. As is the case with most biopics nowadays, we get a bit of jumping back and forth thru points of history (though thankfully it is not too confusing). We see the beginning of the marriage of Dick and his wife Lynn (Amy Adams, who always does even better work when working with Bale), his meeting of Donald Rumsfeld (an oddly cast Steve Carrell), and his workings all the way to the post of VP to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).

The biggest flaw I feel the movie does it is goes for more exaggeration over realism. That is not to say some of the exaggerated parts aren’t funny (such as rolling credits a little too soon). I knew little about Cheney going in, but enough to know how much the man has suffered from heart problems over the years. Eventually, too many heart attack jokes can be pushing it.

Still, none of this takes away from the acting, and while most are well cast (even Tyler Perry does well as Colin Powell), it is clearly all to show more proof how ridiculously talented Christian Bale is as an actor. Yes, the make up department did a fabulous job, but acting is far beyond make up or even imitation. It is about connecting to one’s inner feelings, which Bale is always great at doing (though at some times, it seems he isn’t. This is not because he can’t, but because Cheney struggles to).

Parents, the movie is rated R for good reason, as it is filled with swearing and footage of violence. High School and up.

It seems that the only thing harder than playing Dick Cheney would be making a film about him. Director Adam Mckay (who won an Oscar for helping write 2015’s The Big Short) has given a movie that, even with a wonderful lead performance (and a nice post credit scene), seems a bit too off-putting.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars ***1/2

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 ****

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 ****

Roma (2018)

Roma

The family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is closer than blood

It should come as no real surprise that a lot of the original films by Netflix are not that good. Some (at least ones I have seen and heard of) are pretty terrible. I would say that Roma is not one of them, but that is a putrid understatement. Here is one of the best films of this or any year, and to say it is not worth seeing because it is not in english or in color would show how shallow you are as a movie goer.

Like many brilliant films, Roma is both simple and complicated. It tells the story of a maid named Cleo (a stellar performance by Yalitza Aparicio). She lives in Mexico City during the 1970s, making her living as a maid for a middle-class family consisting of four children and a grandmother. Something happens in Cleo’s life that she is unsure how to respond to, and turns to the family’s mother Sofia (a rather overlooked performance by Marina de Tavira), who is struggling with the absent father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Their relationship is one of the corner stones of the film. The rest is worth finding out for yourself, though I will mention that the film’s true star is its director Alfonso Cuaron (whose last film, Gravity, won him the Oscar for Best Director).

Drawing from his own personal experiences, there is an oozing of authenticity in every frame of the film (more on the look of the film in a bit). There is a sense that Cuaron (who also wrote the script) went through nearly pain staking detail in every crevice of the story, making us feel like (at times) we are not even watching something fictitious at all.

Now on to the visuals. This is undoubtably the most beautiful film of 2018, and paints pictures better than anything CGI could even dream of. I admit I was a little surprised to find that Cuaron did the cinematography (I assumed it would be his collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the three-time Oscar winner of Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant, for 2013-2015). Yet as stated before, he pays close attention to every detail. It reminded me of works from masters like John Ford and Yasujiro Ozu. He even makes a scene of cleaning up dog crap look gorgeous.

Parents, this is not a movie for kids. There is graphic nudity (frontal male), though not sexual, and a good amount of swearing and some violence. High School and above.

There is so much glorious work in this film that I want to talk about but know that it is best for you to find out (there is one scene in a hospital that is more intense than any of its kind I have ever seen). The only bad thing about this being a Netflix film is that it may pressure you to just see the film on your computer (or worse, a cellphone). This movie was made to watch on as big a screen as possible. As my good friend Kenneth said, “Friends don’t let friends watch Roma on a cellphone!”

 

Overall: Five 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 ****

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can you ever forgive me

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) does what she can to survive.

I made a startling realization about half way thru Can You Ever Forgive Me?: It was the first time I had seen Melissa McCarthy on the big screen (I would later find out the only other film I had seen her in was 2010’s abysmal  Life as We know it, which I don’t remember her being in. I take it she would be thankful for me for that.)

Oh, I have seen plenty of her clips online from movies like Bridesmaids (which she got an Oscar nomination for) as well as her skits on Saturday Night Live, so I knew enough going into this film that this would be a change of pace for her. Change of pace is a gross understatement. The fact that her Lee Israel swears a lot is really the only thing even close to resembling Melissa McCarthy. The performance is nothing short of revolutionary, and will surely be in the Oscar conversations for the next couple months.

Based on a true story, Israel is a struggling writer living in New York in the early 1990s, whose books have been all but forgotten. Her biography on Fanny Brice is a dead end, there are an abundance of flies in her apartment, and her cat is sick. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) invites Lee to her party, and we see right away people skills are not in Lee’s skill set.

By accident, Lee comes across the letter of a famous writer, and realizes she can do well at impersonating them as she writes fake letters, later selling them to collectors. The only person she informs her plan to is her homosexual writer friend Jack Hock (an equally great performance by Richard E. Grant), who is not the best drug dealer out there. The chemistry between Grant and McCarthy is near magic.

The rest of the supporting cast is spot  on (including Ben Falcone, real life husband of McCarthy), but the unsung heroes in my mind are screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. The dialogue is as near perfect as it can be. They deserve Oscar consideration right along Grant and McCarthy.

Parents, the R rating is justified, as there is a lot of swearing that I would think no middle schooler has heard before in context (at least I hope not). There is no sex in the movie, but we do see some rear male nudity. High School and above.

The title of the film comes from a letter from author Dorothy Parker, one of the many authors that Lee Israel tried to impersonate. In a way, it is also fitting to some of the roles Melissa McCarthy has had throughout the years (I know, I never saw them, but I can only speculate from what I have heard). It may have taken some time, but after her performance here, I can safely say I can forgive her.

 

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

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 ****

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Beautiful Boy

The only thing nearly as strong as the father/son relationship is the chemistry of the actors.

 

I left Beautiful Boy with a decent amount of disappointment, mainly due to director Felix Van Groeningen, also a contributor to the screenplay. A lot of the story (especially the first half) is rather jumbled in the way of timelines. Yet that does not stop me from recommending the film.

The film tells the true story of Dave Scheff (Steve Carell), whose son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) has recently graduated High School yet dived into the world of drugs (mainly crystal Meth). He spends time between his dad’s house and his mom (Amy Ryan). His dad has remarried Karen (Maura Tierney), with whom he has two kids.

I mentioned before how the time lines are jumbled, since we see Nic at different stages in his life. It would be okay to show different times in Nic’s life, if it made sense to the viewer, which it sadly did not for me.

It is clear as day that the film’s saving grace is the acting. Regardless of screen time, every actor puts their best foot forward (even those in small roles like Oscar winner Timothy Hutton). Carrell first started out as a comedy actor (and still does so very well), yet he managed to cross the line into drama with such ease it is hard to sometimes remember we are looking at Michael Scott or Brick Tamland . His performance is (for the most part) very subtle and nuanced, playing a dad who clearly loves his son, even to the point that he would share a joint with him.

Chalemet is the stand out. He had a breakout year last year with his Oscar nominated work in Call me by your name as well as Lady Bird (both Best Picture nominees). When watching him in Beautiful Boy, it is hard to find any of those characters here. It is the true definition of sublime acting, proving he could very well be at the Oscars again soon.

Parents, the R rating is deserved. There is a good amount of swearing, plenty of thematic drug use, and one sex scene that seemed rather tacked on. High School and above.

There should be no doubt how troubling drug addiction (or any for that matter) is to a soul. Everyone in their life suffers as a result. This is one of the main things that make Beautiful Boy worth watching. That and the powerful performances. I only wish the approach was different.

Overall: Three Stars ***