The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is actually 6 distinct stories. The first one opens in spectacular fashion, Buster(Tim Blake Nelson) mounted on his horse, strumming his guitar, his pleasing singing voice echoing off the mountains around him. When he rides into town, he lives up to the second part of his illustrious reputation: he’s the best gun slinger in town. And indeed. no matter how jaded a western, shoot em up, action hero connoisseur you are, Buster has some moves that will impress you. This opening vignette sets such a strong tone, and an enjoyable one, that its abrupt shift left me confused and grief-stricken, and maybe even bored.

We turned the movie off halfway through. But that opening part really stayed with me. It did such a good job establishing the movie as one to watch that  I succumbed to the MV5BMjQwNDI4MTA3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQ1OTEzNjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,960_AL_pressure and made attempt #2 the next night. I rewound to the beginning and what I found was: yes, the switch between the first and second chapter is brusque, and because for me unexpected, I had lost interest when I failed to keep up. In this second portion, James Franco is a bank robber who gets the ultimate sentence for his crime. Our first extended look at his face is perhaps one of the most striking portraits of a man I’ve ever seen on film. The editing is astonishingly economical: the story is told not so much quickly as efficiently. But during my second watch, with all guns firing, not only was I less confused, I was incredibly impressed.

Joel and Ethan Cohen know what the hell they’re doing. If their movie isn’t speaking to me, I should damn well know that it isn’t their failing as writer-directors, bu mine as a viewer. Subsequent chapters start the likes of Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan. They all tell their own stories about brutal and unforgiving life in the Old West.

The Coen Brothers have been at this a long time yet they’ve still got the ability to surprise. Their brevity inspires them to experiment in yet more ways, crafting stories that are compelling exhibitions of their dark humour and signature style. Did I like this movie? No. I fecking loved it. It took me two tries to get there mind you, but it was fecking worth it.

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The Death of Stalin

You know that feeling when everyone’s on a band wagon, and it looks like a nice wagon, it probably has bales of hay and ribbons and shit, maybe even a thermos of hot cocoa nestled in there somewhere. A damn nice wagon, and all  your friends are on it, everyone you like and respect. And you’re just standing on the side of the road like a dummie, waving at the wagon that probably has speakers blasting cool music and everyone’s got spiked punch and they’re whispering juicy secrets to each other, the kind that make them raise their eyebrows. But you’re not on the wagon. The wagon’s having its wagon parade without you. You are a lonely loser, unworthy of wagons.

Anyway, this is what it feels like to be me today. And by today I mean for the past month, ever since I watched the movie everyone’s been talking about it, and didn’t like it.

MV5BNWI0MjZkN2EtMTE5MS00MDYxLWE1ZDAtOTMwYTY2YjI1OTI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_It’s 1953 and the awful dictator Stalin has just died unexpectedly, and left quite a stain on a very nice rug. All of his cronies spring into action, each filled with fantasies of how he might benefit from the situation. Most bypass grief or even basic respect and go straight to power mongering.

It’s supposed to be this wonderful, hilarious political farce. It stars Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs, among many, many more. Big titles, small men. And everyone was raving about it!  And the thing is, I wasn’t bored by it, I just wasn’t entertained by it. So I feel like I failed. For some reason (perhaps its 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes), I can’t dismiss it, can’t find fault in the movie. Instead I’m blaming myself for being a bad movie watcher (distracted? grumpy? too obtuse to appreciate the humour?) and I’d resolved to simply not write about it so that no one would know my secret shame. No one could look down on my from atop that rockin’ wagon and point their judgy little fingers at the lame movie reviewer who couldn’t get her shit together.

So there it is: apparently a very good movie that I was not very good at enjoying. This is not the first populist movie I’ve failed to love, and it likely won’t be the last. Possibly you’ve got a movie or two housed among the skeletons in your closet. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to reveal yourself (no, please do, please confess your movie sins!) but I’m thinking of starting up my own little reject wagon, possibly more like one of those little red flyer ones, with tinsel on it, or streamers. Not too festive of course, but not totally oozing with shame either. A recovery wagon, for losers like me, losers like us, who occasionally just hate the fuck out of movies for no reason.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

For the life of me I cannot get the title of this movie right.  I’m so used to Wreck-It Ralph wrecking stuff, not breaking it.  So I’m trying to adjust to this relatively small change, but it’s been tough, and that must mean I’m getting old.

In related news, my knee started hurting this week for no reason at all.  Granted, it worked out just fine because I used my knee pain as a convenient excuse to storalph-breaks-the-internet5p cleaning the kitchen and start playing Red Dead Redemption 2, but still.  Making me feel even older is that I just learned it has been six full years since Wreck-It Ralph was released and I never would have guessed it had been so long.

Just like in the real world, six years have passed for Ralph (John C. Reilly), Princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and the rest of the gaming gang, who have all settled into comfortable routines inside Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade.  Sure, the routine may be a little boring, but Ralph is happy with his predictable days and nights, wrecking (sorry, breaking) Fix-It Felix’s building by day, and hanging out with Vanellope at night.  Vanellope, on the other hand, feels trapped by her routine, having mastered the three available race tracks in her game.  When Ralph tries to alleviate Vanellope’s boredom by building a new track, things get both wrecked and broken, and Ralph and Vanellope are forced to explore the arcade’s newly-installed internet in search of a new steering wheel for Vanellope’s game.

Of all the things in the world besides my knee (which is feeling much better, thanks for asking, though if Jay asks tell her I need a few more days off to fully recover), there is probably nothing that makes me feel older than not knowing any of the memes that have come out in the last decade, except for the select few that Jay has taught me about after realizing I had no idea that (insert hilarious meme) was a thing.  And, as you may have guessed, there are a lot of memes referenced in Ralph Breaks the Internet.  The nice thing is, I felt like Ralph (with some minor help from the creative team) went out of his way to ensure I didn’t feel old for not knowing that (bee puns) were a thing.  Ralph simply made me laugh at his bee pun, and at all of his aprincesses4ttempts to help Vanellope get her new steering wheel.

Ralph’s antics would have made for a decent sequel just on their own, but Ralph wasn’t alone.  Every one of the supporting players in Ralph Breaks the Internet make their own contribution to the comedy.   I was particularly impressed at how the Disney princesses were incorporated, not (just) as a shameless product placement but as a way to teach Vanellope about her hidden princess talents.

The only criticism I might make is that the movie probably included a few too many characters and references, and ends up a bit long as a result.   But don’t ask me what I would have cut out, because everything that’s here is consistently good and often great.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is a very clever and accessible comedy that will provide plenty of laughs for everyone, regardless of age and regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of a screaming goat.  What a wonderfully comforting thing that is (the accessible comedy, not the goat’s screams).  It made me feel young again, a feeling that should last until my next random ache.  Meaning I may need to see this one again very soon.

 

Instant Family

Ellie and Pete are happily married and finally starting to make a profit flipping houses. They seem content, but an offhand comment has them reevaluating their future. Are they really that couple who will never have children?  Ellie (Rose Byrne) feels ready to be a mom, but Pete (Mark Wahlberg) worries he’ll be an “old dad.” That’s how they come to consider adoption – it’s not altruism or idealism, it’s a solution to a problem: older kids need homes too, and adopting them is kind of like making up for a few lost years.

Pete and Ellie take a fostering class, where the teachers (a very hilarious Octavia MV5BOWZlNDE0ZTItZjViZC00YjI5LWFiYTItNDgwMzc3MjViZThkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_Spencer, and the always hilarious Tig Notaro, playing her straight(ish) woman) let their students know that they’re in for some VERY hard work. Ellie and Pete end up fostering (with the hope to adopt) not one but three siblings, the oldest of whom is a dreaded teenager. And it turns out that ‘hard work’ is putting it almost hysterically mildly. Parenting is hard. Foster parenting is the stuff movies are made of.

Writer-director Sean Anders wrote this script based on his own experience with adoption. It’s heart-warming and wholesome in a PG-13 way, the kind of way you almost instinctively want to dismiss or diminish. But the truth is, this movie exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. It’s funny, consistently funny, not uproariously, but good for lots of thigh slaps and chuckles (it netted a few tears from my corner as well).

Mark Wahlberg plays the exact same guy he does in all the rom-coms, and I suppose Rose Byrne does too, but she’s so much more magnetic and facile. Spencer and Notaro add a lot of light to the proceedings, as does Margo Martingale, although, when does she not?

This story is told rather conventionally, and Anders has no great directorial tricks up his sleeves. But when a script is doing its job as ably as this, you don’t need so much artifice. I’ve seen too many uneven comedies lately where the good jokes are buried under long stretches of monotony and under-cooked story. This, finally, is a script that’s been adequately work-shopped  before bringing it to the screen. The audience rewarded it not just with easy laughter, but with applause, and how often does that happen?

Dirty 30

Kate is reflecting on her life, as one tends to do on or around milestone birthdays. A string of no-good, very bad, choose-celibacy dates has left her a little dismayed.  Good thing she’s got two reliable best friends, Evie and Charlie, to walk her back from the ledge – particularly when her high school teacher mails her a letter she once wrote to her future 30 year old self. The letter brims with a conviction that rankles; 15 year old Kate never doubted that she’d have love and babies and professional success. She’s going to need both friends and about a gallon of wine to come back from those bounteous predictions. But it’s a chance encounter with an old high school rival that pushes Kate from sad to mad. And mad can be solved with tequila shots and a blowout party.

The party goes off the rails, as you knew it would. It’s peopled with old flames, new flames, current high school students, current high school teachers, and of course, eventually, the cops. It includes antics such as yoga-enabled keg stands, bubble baths, TPing, unhygienic body shots, dentistry, and juicy secrets. It’s got grossly misspelled tshirts and banners, and a cake that’s about 8 sizes too small. Mostly, though, this is a movie about Kate (Mamrie Hart) and her two besties, Evie (Grace Helbig) and Charlie (Hannah Hart). Their chemistry is good enough to make you miss your own best friends.And while you’ll understandably want to skip the rager, and the white russians (does anyone seriously drink those?), a couple of bottles of wine are always appropriate.

For my 30th, I was in New York City. I saw Wicked on Broadway, drank a couple of bottles of wine at a terrific Italian place, and had a carriage ride around Central Park. What did you do – or can you even remember?

 

 

The New Romantic

Blake’s lackluster love life just got her fired. She used to be the sex columnist for her college newspaper, but since she can’t remember the last time she even gave a hand job, her readers have lost interest in her sex life, and maybe she has too.

Conveniently for both the script, and her sudden interest in gonzo journalism (prize money is at stake), the VERY next night she tapped to be the third party in a sexual tryst where two of the positions were be paid, hers included.

Prostitute? Gold digger? An older, wealthy man “helps” a young woman out, in exchange for sex and the good, easy parts of a relationship – dates but not feelings, essentially. MV5BNWVkNDc2NDAtMzg5Ny00NDNlLWI5MmItZDRlOTY5YjFiMTY5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA5NDQ1NjU@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,957_AL_Rather than cash, she gets paid in designer hand bags and trips to Paris. Wait. Is this sounding a little too much like sex with Sean? Not that Sean has ever bought me a sex moped. A “ho”ped if you will. But bags and trips for sure. So there’s a gifty element to almost any relationship. And Blake wonders why we’re so squeamish about gold diggers anyway. History is filled with patrons.

The New Romantic is an entertaining if enjoyably predictable introduction to the sugar baby lifestyle choice – a world I knew little about, and to be honest, I hadn’t often thought of this side of the equation. Sugar Daddies are a known quantity. In this case, Ian claims not to know what women want, and he has enough money to not spend the energy figuring it out. It hurt my feelings a bit that the rich old man is played by Undeclared’s Timm Sharp, who is younger than Sean, but I guess this is our new reality. Ian doesn’t play games; he makes faithful transactions. He even seems to like Blake (Jessica Barden), which is confusing for her. Blake is young enough to confuse money and its trappings for romance. After dating broke college boys, fancy french restaurants and conflict-free diamond tennis bracelets seem awfully chivalrous. Of course, where some men may expect sex after such “chivalry”, Ian feels entitled – he’s owed, because technically, he’s paid for it. So that one time you try to beg off and realize that your No doesn’t hold salt, it’s a bit of a wake up call.

This movie is a sweet surprise and Jessica Barden is a big part of its success. Director Carly Stone has a light touch. For the most part it’s fun and flirty – which makes the few weightier scenes all the more noticeable. The New Romantic features an actually likeable Millennial and a forthrightness about her particular dating woes, told in a way that makes us all feel a lot less judgmental. And it also might make you wonder if you’re underpaid for all that milk you’ve been giving away.

Certain Women

Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer in smalltown America. She has a client who got a raw deal from his work after an injury. But since he took their initial offer of compensation, there’s not much she can do. Of course, for months he’s refused to believe her, and only hearing the same words from a man seems to do the trick. That is, until she gets a call  in the middle of the night that he’s taken someone hostage and thanks to an ineffectual crime response in Montana, it falls to her to defuse the situation.

Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband are trying to build their dream home. AMV5BMjE4MDE3NzA3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA5OTA1NzE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_ conversation with an elderly gentleman who may or may not have some soapstone to sell exposes some cracks in the foundation of her marriage. Are they even on the same page?

Fresh out of law school,  Elizabeth couldn’t bed certain she’d land a good job so she started taking anything she could get. That’s why, despite landing a position with a law firm, she’s also driving 4 hours each way twice a week to teach an adult education class where the students don’t seem to quite appreciate what they’re doing there. Her only real connection is with an unenrolled student, a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who’s just wandered in off the street, curious. Curious about people, not the subject. The rancher and the teacher will converse over greasy spoon fries after class.

These three stories only intersect in the vaguest, merest of ways. Certain Women is more about the female experience in this tiny town, and what it’s like to be breaking new ground, literally and figuratively. Director Kelly Reichardt gives us these stories like she’d give a gift. She has uncommon skill at finding compassion and nuance in the smallest of everyday stories. We feel like we know her characters. There aren’t a lot of big, bold happenings, but the attempts at connection, and in fact, the missed opportunities left me bereft. Certain Women tugs so subtly at your heart. It’s full of tiny moments that you can hoard and love in whatever capacity you feel best.