The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Git along, lil’ doggies.

(2018) Western (NetflixTim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jefferson Mays, Prudence Wright Holmes, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, Jordy Laucomer, Brett Hughson, Thea Lux, Danny McCarthy, Harry Meling, Jiji Hise. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers have been one of my favorite directors going back to Raising Arizona. Their mix of cynicism and quirky humor have made even the lesser efforts highly watchable. When they’re on their game, there are none better.

They have always had a soft spot for the American West – many of their films are set there, if not out and out westerns – and this, their newest film is an anthology of six tales set in the old West. The opening tale which gives the movie its name features Nelson as a singing cowboy who turns out to be a cross between Gene Autry and Clint Eastwood. There are moments of horrific violence and wicked humor which ends in an unexpected way. This is my favorite segment of the six (and the shortest) and ranks right up there with some of their best work ever.

“Near Algodones” stars Franco as a bank robber and keeps up the momentum. Franco plays the luckiest – and most luckless – thief ever. While less unexpected than the first segment, it nonetheless is entertaining. “Meal Ticket” starts the film overall towards a darker turn. It stars Neeson as an impresario who employs an armless and legless thespian (Meling) who does soliloquys in a wagon that converts into an impromptu stage until…well, you need to see for yourself.

“All Gold Canyon” features Tom Waits as a prospector who strikes it rich but then must do battle with a claim jumper. It’s loosely based on a Jack London short story. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman (Kazan) traveling with a wagon train who is looking for love – and finds it. I also liked this segment, nearly as much as the first one. Finally, there’s “Mortal Remains” in which a group traveling in a stagecoach are treated to a tale told by a foppish bounty hunter (O’Neill). In many ways this is the deepest segment from a philosophical standpoint but it does make for an odd way to end the film.

This isn’t as cohesive as the best Cohen brothers movies are – it couldn’t be, given that it’s an anthology – but when it is at its best (the first and fifth segments) it is a riveting piece of filmmaking, from the beautiful cinematography in “All Gold Canyon” to the ironic wit in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” There is a definitely cynical tone here; it feels like over the past decade the films of the Coen boys have taken the point of view that there is nothing to recommend most people and the best thing we can do with our lives is die. I think I hold out a little more hope than all that, but they at least make their cynicism entertaining. Although I wish I could have seen this on the big screen, Netflix subscribers should make a point of adding this to their queue if they haven’t already seen it.

REASONS TO SEE: Has all the quirkiness you come to expect from the Coen brothers. The opening chapter is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Waffles between hysterically funny and bleaker than bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest film the Coen brothers have ever directed, and the first to be shot on digital media.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rustler’s Rhapsody
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sonata

Barney’s Version


Barney's Version

Hey did you hear this one? A man walks into a bar and...oh never mind.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Mark Addy, Macha Grenon, Paul Gross, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Thomas Trabacchi, Cle Bennett. Directed by Richard J. Lewis

All of us live two different lives; the lives that everyone sees, and the ones we actually live. It is when you see our own version of our lives that you begin to see us as we truly are.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a television producer for a horrible soap opera called “O’Malley of the North.” He smokes Montecristo cigars, drinks far too much and is crude and curmudgeonly to one and all. He has good reason to be; he is divorced and his ex-wife married a putz; to make matters worse, a retired police detective (Addy) has recently published a book that essentially accuses him of murder. That can ruin your entire day.

Barney wasn’t always like this. Once he lived a Bohemian existence in Rome with fellow artistic types like Leo (Trabacchi) – a gifted painter, and Boogie (Speedman) a gifted writer and even more gifted junkie, and then there’s Cedric (Bennett) who’s gifted at….well God knows what. Barney is getting ready to marry Clara (Lefevre), a gifted painter and poet who is, well, more Bohemian than most if you get my drift. Most everyone thinks this is a terrible mistake, with Boogie hissing “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife” but Barney got her pregnant, so he’s willing to man up and do the right thing. 

Except when the baby is stillborn and turns out to be as black as, well, Cedric, it puts an awful crimp in their relationship. When Barney blows off a reconciliation dinner with Clara (mainly because Boogie, in a stupor as usual, forgot to give Barney the invitation), the consequences are severe.

Barney returns home to Montreal where he is set up with and eventually marries the daughter (Driver) of a sour but wealthy man who disapproves of basically everything Barney is. Barney’s dad, Iz (Hoffman) is a lively Montreal detective who cheerfully admits his career didn’t advance because of his Jewishness. It doesn’t seem to bother him that much; he’s just glad to be there for his son, who is certainly a chip off the old block.

At his wedding reception, Barney meets Miriam Grant (Pike), a beautiful and erudite New Yorker who works in the radio business. Barney is immediately head-over-heels smitten with her, going so far as to follow her to the railway station, offering to take her on his honeymoon with him. She naturally declines but Barney continues to woo her in the intervening years. 

Meanwhile, Boogie’s addictions are getting worse, much to the dismay of Barney’s nameless wife because Barney takes it upon himself to care for his addled friend. One day he returns to their country lakeside property to find Boogie schtupping his wife. While Barney feigns indignity, he is actually delighted. Now he has the ammunition he needs to get the divorce he wants, leaving him free to pursue Miriam which, as it turns out, won’t take much. 

However, the problem is that Boogie has disappeared after a loud and violent argument with Barney and the now former Mrs. Panofsky said in her statement that he had threatened to kill Boogie, leading a particularly brutish detective to beat the crap out of Barney until Iz intervenes. Still, things are looking up for Barney despite the cloud of the investigation that hasn’t even yielded up a body much less a crime.  

Soon Barney and Miriam are together as it was meant to be. They make a family with daughter Kate (Hopkins) and son Michael (Jake Hoffman). A neighbor on the lake where their country house is located, Blair (Greenwood) even has radio connections and is able to get Miriam some work. However, when things are at their best is often when things are about to come crashing down about your ears. 

This Canadian production, based on the last and arguably the best novel of distinguished Jewish-Canadian author Mordecai Richler (he of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fame) has already been distinguished in that Giamatti won the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Actor in a Comedy (which by the way is not really an accurate classification for this movie). Unfortunately, Giamatti didn’t get an Oscar nomination, largely because the field was so strong this year but he could easily have done. His portray of Barney Panofsky is unforgettable and might even be a better performance than the one he gave in Sideways.

He has a strong backing cast. Dustin Hoffman is still as elfin and charming as he’s ever been and Iz Panofsky goes right up there in his pantheon of memorable characters, which is saying a lot. He is absolutely incandescent whenever he gets onscreen. Likewise is Rosamund Pike, a wonderful British actress who is just now beginning to get noticed over on this side of the Atlantic. As with Giamatti, this is her very best performance to date. As the long-suffering Miriam she puts up with her boorish husband and perhaps comes closest to understanding him of anyone until he makes the one transgression that she cannot forgive.  

While there are comedic elements, this is most certainly not a comedy. It’s very painful to watch in places and I spent the last 20 minutes in tears as I watched things fall apart. Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things we can’t have – not because they are unobtainable, but because we don’t have the wisdom and maturity to recognize how to keep them. It is true that the ending of Barney’s Version is very sad, but the movie is not about that; rather, it’s about the journey and taken as a whole, this isn’t a tragedy, not really.

REASONS TO GO: Giamatti, Hoffman and Pike all deliver standout performances. This critic was moved to tears by basically the last 20 minutes of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense and hit too close to home for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language; a goodly amount of it in fact, and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Izzy Panofsky and his grandson Michael are played by, respectively, Dustin and Jake Hoffman who are father and son in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: This is playing in limited release and is worth seeking out on the big screen; however chances are you have a better shot at seeing it on home video, streaming or on-demand.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Tuck Everlasting

War


War

Jason Statham and Jet Li prepare to face off in the tension-free climax.

(2007) Crime Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Kane Kosugi, Luis Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang, Nadine Velazquez, Andrea Roth, Matthew St. Patrick, Mark Cheng, Terry Chen. Directed by Phillip G. Atwell.

There are Asian martial arts movies, and then there are American martial arts movies. Asian ones tend to be way over the top, nonstop action sequences with plots that are almost an afterthought, more of an excuse to move the story from one action sequence to the next. American martial arts movies tend to be grim thrillers with double and triple crosses, lantern-jawed heroes and more guns than fisticuffs. 

War is an American martial arts movie with a pair of FBI agents – Crawford (Statham) and his partner Lone (Chen) who are monitoring a Triad smuggling operation into San Francisco when all Cleveland breaks out. Gunmen have come on the scene and turned it into a war zone. Lone wants to take a closer look, but the more cautious Crawford wants to wait for backup. Still, a closer look might not be a bad idea, so they go in and encounter a great deal of carnage. When Crawford spots a single bullet casing, he realizes that this is the work of the near-legendary assassin Rogue (Li), who was trained by the CIA and then turned on his handlers, becoming a mercenary for hire. By this time, however, it’s too late – Rogue shoots Crawford and is preparing to deliver the coup de gras when Lone rescues Crawford and shoots Rogue in the face, apparently killing him.

But of course, in an action movie, even people who are shot in the face don’t die, and a none-too-pleased Rogue pays Lone a visit, murdering his entire family and setting his home ablaze. Crawford is devastated by the fate of his partner.

Three years later, Crawford has obsessed over bringing the elusive Rogue to justice, but Rogue has fallen off the radar. His obsession has cost him his own marriage, as his wife (Roth) is happy to remind him. Still, even without Rogue, Crawford has a great deal to keep him busy. In addition to the Triads, run by Chang (Lone), the Japanese Yakuza have moved into the area, whose boss is the Japan-based Shiro (Ishibishi) who sends his daughter Kira (Aoki) to prepare his American operations for his arrival. 

Chang and Shiro are blood enemies; Shiro engineered the massacre of Chang’s family in Hong Kong and stole millions of dollars of art and artifacts from their home, all of which he has sold save for two ancient miniature statues of horses, made of gold. Shiro wants to sell these last two items as well, but nobody in Asia will buy them now that Chang has once again risen to prominence. So, he decides to sell them in America. Unfortunately, Rogue – now back on the scene – has apparently switched sides, having left Shiro’s employ for Chang’s. This act alone sets off a chain of events that leads to an all-out war between the Yakuza and the Triad, with many innocents caught in the crossfire. For Crawford, none of this matters – his chance to administer final justice to Rogue is at hand.

Where to begin here? This is a completely wasted opportunity. Statham and Li are two of the most charismatic action stars today, but most of their action sequences require little of them but to snarl and shoot. The script is a hodgepodge of action thriller cliches and forced twists and turns. The only real interesting twist here is Rogue’s identity (revealed in the final reel); the ending is terrible and essentially reveals that all the drama evolved from one of the main characters’ completely out-of-character actions. This plot point is so preposterous that you can only throw popcorn at the screen and boo or hiss, or whatever it is you do to reflect your displeasure at movie theaters. 

Statham and Li were both coming off of terrific performances, Li in Fearless and Statham in Crank, but they seem oddly flat here. The whole movie is building for their climactic encounter, but when it finally comes, it’s anticlimactic. There is almost no fighting nor is there any chemistry. Interestingly enough, the two would spend time on the same side in last summer’s The Expendables.

Atwell is making his feature debut; previously he directed music videos and quite frankly, he has problems keeping the story flowing over the length of the film. The whole subplot involving Benny (Guzman) and the plastic surgeon (Rubinek) is superfluous and unnecessary, much as having both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” in the same sentence is. While on the plus side he doesn’t have the tendency of most music video directors to use endless quick-cutting and surreal or symbolic passages, he doesn’t really show he has an aptitude for action.

That’s not to say that the movie is totally without merit. There are some nice sequences with Statham and his FBI team, and Aoki makes for a menacing baddie but for the most part, this is just wasted opportunity.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice sequences. Lots of bullets flying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little or no chemistry. Plot is too cliché or overloaded with twists. Ending is preposterous. Soundtrack is barely listenable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence, some of it fairly gruesome and also a good deal of sex, some of it fairly gruesome.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title for the movie was originally Rogue which Screen Gems changed to avoid confusion with a killer crocodile movie that Dimension was releasing more or less at the same time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track and a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Miss Potter

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past