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

Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold