The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (2017): A Crappy Christmas Special With Good Music


   They played this crap before “Coco.” I think one reason I wasn’t prone to like it going in is Pixar has amazing shorts, and this was around 20 minutes. Seriously, the best thing that is happening in regards to this film is Disney pulling it from theaters. This is a thing that should have existed as an extra on “Frozen’s” Blue Ray. I enjoyed “Frozen,” I think it beats “Tangled” and is up there with the rest of the modern greats of this new 3D Disney renaissance…I did not enjoy this though.

When it comes to Christmas or really any holiday specials I am pretty picky. The only one that I could stay is great are the different retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” and that is largely because they are about more than just trees, myths and gifts…they have a larger purpose and it is a man forced to grow and see the world beyond himself. This film has none of that depth, with the exception of only one scene that could have been 2 minute sequence in “Frozen 2,” when it eventually comes out.

That scene is where we see that Elsa and Anna shared pictures of of Olaf as “Do you want a Build a Snowman?” Was the only connection they had growing up since Elsa was under room arrest after those events. It is touching and if the movie had just been that it would have been great, instead we get Marketing^TM! Got to sell those Olaf dolls. Also the cast is all back so their voices sound lovely, even though the lyrics are awful and on the nose. (Holiday Tradition is repeated in every scene in what felt like at least 3 times).

Olaf isn’t bad but what he is used for is. He goes around the village collecting traditions so he can do jokes with Sven and so there will be more Olaf toys to market. Olaf appeals to everyone and the most important thing is stuff! God, I can understand if people hate the holidays after this short…Olaf is in everyone’s business and in the end has to be found because of his own mess up and in the end he was the tradition all along! This is a story with no consequences that is just there to remind you these characters exist and “Frozen 2” is coming!

After that they have a big feast on the lake and you know what, the fruit cake that was given in his search is dropped on him from the hawk who took it. Oh joy, more stupid humor! Buy that “Frozen” gear! They all have new costumes in this! Get Olaf with a bow tie! Look at Elsa and Anna’s new dress! Christmas is coming, better buy those new toys!

This should have been an extra in a DVD, ideally in “Frozen 2” or the “Frozen” re-release. This film crapped all over the beautiful shots Pixar usually makes and even took time away from developing characters in “Coco,” which is the best Pixar film since “Inside Out.” This film purely exists for marketing and my guess is it will sell a lot of Olaf dolls, because of course it will. If your theatre is showing it, skip it if you can and find out when “Coco” actually starts. If this is the new normal for “Pixar” openings Disney is on the way to ruining one of the best artistic companies they own.

Final Score: 5 / 10. 5 only because the voice actors and animation are good even if the writing and story are garbage.

Beauty and the Beast (2017): An Unnecessary Remake That Played it Safe and Needed Better Singers or to not be a Musical

   “Beauty and the Beast” is a great example of an unnecessary remake and illustrates some great examples of the musical adapted to film. I’ll get into more of what I mean on both counts, and this isn’t a bad film per-say, it’s enjoyable…but it isn’t exactly good either. This is nostalgia that dares to be anything more and because of that nostalgia it drowns any chance for greatness. I’ll say non-spoiler thoughts, since there are a few differences…but if you’ve seen the animated film you’ve seen a much better telling of this tale with much better acting, song and animation.

    This film was directed by Ben Condon, written by Stephen Chbosky and produced by Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman.

     The story is a tale as old as time and goes back to the animated introduction of the original 1997 animated film…With the Prince being turned into a Beast for turning down a beggar woman who is asking for shelter, who is in fact a sorceress who curses him and his servants. After we pick up with Belle (Emma Watson) and her inventor father Maurice (Kevin Cline) are outcasts in a small town visit that find their life changed when Maurice stumbles upon the Beast’s (Dan Stevens) castle and is thrown into the dungeon for trespassing. Belle leaves to rescue him as she fends off her own Beast in the arrogant town hero of Gaston (Luke Evans) who wants her to be his wife. She trades her life for her father’s as the prisoner of the Beast and the story unfolds from there.

The Pros: The World – The world is one that I like…there is magic, curses and a relationship between the people of the village and castle before the Beast and the castle is cursed. There is the potential for politics too, both in the castle and town that is never fully explored beyond Gaston who is one of the more compelling characters in the film besides LaFou and the Beast.

The Ensemble – The only time the music works in this film is when the entire ensemble is singing. It is only at that time that it capture the large musical feel of the stage musical and original animated film.

Added Backstory – The added backstory is fantastic! Gaston is a war hero with PTSD, LaFou is Gaston’s friend rather than simply a patsy who helps him stay balanced, Maurice is an artist who lost his wife to the plague and the Beat had an abusive father. These are all great things that made it so I enjoyed the film, even though I don’t consider the film good.

Okay: Actors With No Voice Training Singing – This film is done as a musical, and it cast Hollywood actors who by and large aren’t musically trained. It is obvious and it hurts the show since emotion is conveyed through song and when Emma Watson or Gaston is singing flat or goes off on a tangent it feels artificial and took me out of the film .

The Castle – The castle is large but feels small. It is connected by bridges but only feels large outside…inside it is all stairways and small rooms. Even the library is a disappointment and just looks like a study. This worked in scenes of intimacy but failed to show the magic of the original or to create a new unique magic.

The Cast – The cast is okay, they aren’t great…most of them can’t sing all that well when they are given solos and they feel cartoony, which feels weird in a live action film. The townspeople are all characters without any redeeming qualities, except those above who are given some depth at least…and others are written with modern day speech (Maurice and Belle) and feel like they were written for the actors and not the characters.

The Cons: Writing for Actors  not Characters – Belle is written as Emma Watson in this and it doesn’t fit the era. Some of the dialogue like “fearless” (how Maurice describes Belle’s mother) or Belle being persecuted for teaching a girl to read felt like they were writing for Emma Watson and not for Belle. Belle is a much more passive character and that doesn’t mean she can’t still be a feminist character, she is…but when the dialogue is all tell…it took me out of the story. Belle deserved a script written for Belle, not for an actress and icon.

The Failure to Take Chances – This was a film that failed to take risks. It didn’t go full musical since it failed to cast any good musical talent, it failed to be a stage play since it was playing nearly all the same beats from the animated film. There is no reason to see this film, just watch the animated one since it is so much better.

The Theme of Tragedy…That Went Nowhere – When Belle and the Beast are getting to know one another it is through love of books. Belle’s favorite is “Romeo and Juliet” a play on tragedy and failed love and later the Beast is reading “King Arthur” another failed romance. This doesn’t go anywhere though and they take the same ending as the animated film with happily ever after when there could still be bittersweet with them both having learned to love, but too late.

   This was a film that failed to be small and personal (the castle gave us the small feel versus the large feel of the original film) and failed to be large and magical…Because of this it felt like a made for television musical at times…and the fact that the only time the music was really great was when the ensemble was singing was troubling. The reason it’s troubling is this could have easily been avoided. They could have followed up on the theme of tragedy and given us a wonderfully tragic tale, they could have made it more like a play rather than a musical, or they could have recast it as a musical and in turn made it on par with the much better stage musical of the film. Instead they tried to do a bit of all of it and failed on all counts. Added backstory and some great performances by Gadd, Evans and Stevens were not enouhg to to save it. This was a fun fan nostalgia trip, for a fan of the original film, but it isn’t a trip I’d take again.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971): An Amazing Celebration of Magic, Childhood and Madness

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory poster

“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is a well deserved for a reason. I completely understand that when I did poll on which film to honor Gene Wilder should be reviewed that this was the one that won out. This film that really displays how brilliant, talented and creative Gene Wilder could be and why the world lost on of our greats. I can’t wait to continue going through his filmography and learning more about the history of this fascinating and talented man.

     The film was directed by Mel Stuart, written by Roald Dahl (who also wrote the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the film is based on) with help from David Seltzer and produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper.

         The story involves Charlie (Peter Ostrum) finding a golden ticket and winning entrance into the magical Chocolate Factory of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) with four other children. Things are not as they appear though, as both Wonka and the factory are full of unpredictability and danger.

The Pros: The World – The world is one full of magic that is close to ours but manages to satire ours through exaggeration. It is imagination and possibility and I can’t wait to read the book that inspired it all.

The Writing – Dahl’s writing is brilliant. He is one of my favorite authors and he did a great job making this screenplay. He knew his characters and how to adapt them and his world screen as he worked within the limitations given and in the process created a rich story full of drama and humor.

Snapshots of Humor – A psychologist trying to use a person’s delusions to find a golden ticket, a dictator in Paraguay, the homes of each of our children that aren’t Charlie…each of these is a snapshot of some sort of corruption that in using the golden ticket as the focal point provide a wonderful satire of the different forms of corruption.

The Comedy – The comedy is brilliant! Dahl’s dry humor and satire combined with Wilder’s wit, sarcasm and energy made this film most memorable as both a drama and a comedy.

The Oompa-Loompas – The Oompa-Loompas are refugees who work at the factory. They are fascinating as we see those who lost everything teach those who materially have everything. These guys are brilliant and I really like their songs and designs. The orange face and stark colors live in the popular culture now on what an Oompa-Loompa is.

Willy Wonka – Gene Wilder owns this role. Wonka is a man who you never know if he’s telling the truth or not. He comes in limping and after walks fine, and this was done by Wilder himself to make the audience question everything Wonka does. Wonka than proceeds to let peoples’ vices destroy themselves and he doesn’t care at all except to mock. This is a man who sees himself above it all and is living in his world of madness and imagination…yet he has a good heart, he rewards Charlie for doing the right thing and it is in his relationship to Charlie we see the compassionate core underneath the lies, sarcasm and trickery. He is easily one of my favorite characters in fiction and Wilder made the character larger than life and the best part of this film.

The Take on Vices – Each of the 4 kids are different vices. Violet is spite, Mike is anger, Veruca is greed and Augustus is gluttony. At different points Charlie experiences each vice but grows beyond them by choosing compassion and courage in the end, something they all lacked and each them is destroyed by their vice in turn in the Karmatic place of the Chocolate Factory.

The Good and the Bad in People and Children – Children are celebrated in this, but they aren’t idealized. 4 of the kids are little monsters and even Charlie can be a brat sometimes. Dahl was honest about what it means to be a child and it is in this work we see how they grow and that actions have consequences that will hopefully help the kids stuck in a bad place in their actions, to grow up.

Celebrating Creativity and Invention – The core of the story is a celebration of madness and creativity. Wonka’s world is pure imagination and what he is seeking is an heir with that same madness who can see the bigger picture.

Okay/Pro: The Music – The music is memorable and good but not great. I’d never seek out this music to listen to it on my own…it works for the film though with “Pure Imagination” being the best and most memorable song in the soundtrack.

Charlie – Charlie is flawed and it makes him human. All the other children and their parents are terrible, while Charlie in looking out for his family can become like the other kids too. Charlie is greedy or angry sometimes and that’s okay. It makes the good choices he makes all the better.

Grandpa Joe – I liked Grandpa Joe but since we never learn why he became bedridden it takes away from part of what drives him to get out of bed. I like how he is a mentor and father figure to Charlie though and that he calls out Wonka for not giving them the prize at the end as promised. He’s a stand up guy.

The Other Kids and Their Parents – The other kids are alright. Augustus is forgettable as his mother but the Teevee’s have an energy about them and the Salt’s are great representations of greed, while Violet and her huckster father are entertaining in their own way. I’m not putting them as a pro though since they aren’t complex. They are interesting but lack major complexity.

Okay: Pacing – The pacing is a little all over the place at times, with the scene where Charlie and Granpa Joe take the Fizz drink as the best example. Wonka and the group just go away when before every mistake that the kids make is recognized by the group as Wonka shames their for their vice. This is the only time where he holds off on shaming until after the tour is completed.

The Cons: Certain Songs – Certain songs go on a little too long or mess with the tone a little bit. “Cheer up Charlie” definitely goes on too long as does Veruca’s song. This is made up for the fact that musical isn’t terrible but I’d only describe music as memorable and good, but not great.

     There was so much that worked in this film and managed to push it up from good to great. The greatest credit goes to Wilder with his chaotic take on Wonka whose performance was full of anger, empathy, compassion and madness. There is a reason the film is called “Willy Wonka & and the Chocolate Factory” and not Charlie. Charlie maybe the main character but the action and drama all relates to the antics and choices that Wonka makes and the gambit he puts into play to find his heir.I can’t wait to read Dahl’s original book. Dahl having power over turning his book into film was masterfully done by the studio and with Wilder’s performance and Stuart’s direction a masterpiece of art that celebrates the very nature of art and creativity was born. The three men have all passed on now but their vision, their metaphorical Chocolate Factory lives on in the lives they touched and the art they created. R.I.P. Stuart, Dahl and so recently now…Wilder. To remembering the dreamers and the dreams they made.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

The Blues Brothers (1980): A Celebration of Blues and Satire of Music and Crime Films

The Blues Brothers

   Comedy is an interesting thing. There are sketches, stand-up, satire, slapstick and more and most films tend to take a combination of these minus stand-up. “The Blues Brothers” is a cult classic inspired by the SNL “Blues Brothers” sketch and you can tell it was once a sketch show. There isn’t enough characterization or characters here to really make it a great film for me, as comedy needs purpose and this one the purpose is mostly the music and not the characters as shown by which part of the film is truly great.

     The film was directed by John Landis who also co-wrote the film with Dan Aykroyd and was produced by Robert W. Weiss.

     The story involves the Blues Brothers, Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) bringing back their blues band after they have a religious experience that has inspired them to save the orphanage they grew up in. In order to do get there they will face Nazi, the band and the Police to try and succeed in their “Mission from God.”

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is really amazing. we get intimate shots of the brothers as well as some beautifully filmed action sequences along with some good use of comedic timing through how different shots are done. Stephen M. Katz did a great job.

The Action – The action sequences are a lot of fun and very much over the top. You have police and army men raiding buildings to get the Blues Brothers and huge police car pile ups that show just how insane the situations have become. Not to mention some well done car chases.

The Soundtrack and Stars – The soundtrack is beautiful and Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and the other stars of Blues and Soul do a fantastic job! As do Aykroyd and Belushi. Franklin and Charles had some of my favorite songs in the film.

The Blues Brothers – Belushi and Aykroyd have a great dynamic and the Brother’s relationship is the one thing that feels real. Jake is the one who gets into trouble and goes all out while Elwood is the simple guy who is always there and just wants to do the right thing. This leads to their belief on being from a mission from God as their belief in one another sustains them through the trials.

Okay: The Plot – The plot is simple, it’s the Blues Brothers getting the band back together to save the orphanage they were raised in. Sad thing is we learn nothing about their relationship to the band members except that they owe them a lot of money. We don’t get any history or anything and it brings down the plot.

The Cons: The Supporting Characters – Whether it is Carrie Fisher as a jilted lover of Jake, John Candy as the head cop tracking them or any of the other cameos…they are just there and don’t really serve a purpose beyond being a recognizable face. They don’t change our characters in any way and aren’t changed by them either.

Cameos – I loved the music but having big name stars appear just to sing songs does not make a good or memorable story. That makes me think more of a variety show or even “Sesame Street” not a big budget comedy or satire.

   I get why this is a cult classic and it is a film I’d recommend even though it isn’t a favorite and I wouldn’t call it great. The music in it is great and Belushi and Aykroyd are great…but they can’t carry the script Aykroyd helped write as he depended way too much on the comedic elements rather than letting character create drama and let the circumstances of story set up the comedy. These aspects and the fact that it is one giant cameo takes away from scenes that could have built the plot up or used the guest stars to better enrich the plot. It still feels like a giant sketch that is trying to be a film and not a film fully.

Final Score: 8 / 10