Tag Archives: Zoe Kazan

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, but mine as a viewer. Subsequent chapters star 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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TIFF18: Wildlife

Joe Brinson’s family has just recently moved to Montana but his dad’s already out of work. You can tell it’s 1960 because father and son play football in belted khakis with their perfectly-pressed polo shirts neatly tucked in. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a lot of pride and believes he’s “just too well-liked.” Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) swallows whatever disappointment she feels with her husband out of work again after yet another move to a place she doesn’t want to be, and still manages to ask politely for his permission to find work herself. Joe goes to work too, part-time, as his father slides into depression. But when Jerry finally gets off the couch and goes to work, Jeanette finally lets her anger erupt. He’s going to fight the massive forest fires for a buck an hour, and she doesn’t think that’s worth risking his life for. When he goes anyway, the crack in their marriage fractures perhaps irreparably, and Jeanette goes off the rails.

Wildlife is a movie about people on the brink. The Brinson family are on the brink of financial ruin. Jerry and Jeanette are on the brink of divorce. With fires ever raging, theMV5BZjhiNzJkZjctZjY2Ny00YTdjLWIxMjYtNjQwZjVmNjFiNGRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,922_AL_ whole town’s on the brink of disaster. In 1960, the whole country’s on the brink of a sexual revolution, and women’s lib. But they’re not there yet. It’s shameful that Jeanette has to work instead of staying home with her son (who is 14 and never home). And they clearly don’t know how to do divorce; they forget the part about telling each other, and not committing adultery in front of the children. It’s a crazy time to be alive!

Paul Dano directed and co-wrote (with partner Zoe Kazan) Wildlife and the love and care show up on film, but he somehow holds back from showing us all the fancy tricks he can do, flexing his muscle with restraint instead. It’s impressive.

And given his pedigree I suppose it’s unsurprising how great he is with his cast. Carey Mulligan, to my  mind, turns out one great performance after another, but this still might be my favourite. It’s almost certainly the most complex. Jeanette is a woman ahead of her time. Her agency is startling, her behaviour a direct challenge to the values of 1960. The fact that her son (Ed Oxenbould) is a direct witness to her wantonness is often challenging, but Mulligan makes sure that Jeanette is given a humane treatment, while the script kindly paints the couple without heroes or villains – just two people forced to flaunt and rewrite the rules. It’s a sympathetic family portrait, if not quite an intimate one (we’re often at an emotional remove). And sometimes the story loses steam, but damn if Mulligan doesn’t just keep pulling me back in. All eyes on her.

The Big Sick

It’s hard to put a movie like The Big Sick into a box. If you heard romcom, you heard wrong. Not dead wrong, and not totally untrue, but you’ll have to shift your expectations. What you SHOULD and can expect from it: a very authentic and relatable experience, with lots of family drama, a little rom, and some definitely com.

It’s about how star Kumail Nanjiani met his (spoiler alert!) wife Emily, with whom he co-wrote the movie. So yes, they end up together. But you’d hardly guess it. In this only-slightly-fictionalized-account, they meet and fall in love rather quickly, but basically agree that there’s little chance of this being a long-term thing; she’s in grad school and The-Big-Sick-moviedoesn’t want a commitment, his fate involves an arranged marriage, sooner rather than later if his mother gets her way. They go their separate ways, and that might have been that had Emily (Zoe Kazan) not fallen ill with a life-threatening illness that left her in a coma. Her friends all busy with finals, they call him in to sit at her bedside while her parents fly across the country to be with her.

Kumail was a struggling stand-up comedian\Uber driver at the time, and he kept his relationship secret from his family, who expected him to marry within the culture, to a woman of his mother’s choosing. Emily’s parents, meanwhile, are not huge fans of Kumail’s, since he’s the guy who recently dumped their daughter after admitting that he’s gone a series of blind dates at his mother’s dining room table. Her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, actually add a very interesting dynamic to the whole thing. But though the script doesn’t gloss over any of life’s bumps (at times, it’s nakedly, shockingly honest), it also doesn’t cast anyone as the villain. It’s just people coming at things from different angles. Love is hard, and if you’re lucky, long. It takes work and compromise. It’s even harder and compromisier when a couple comes from different backgrounds, and may have different expectations of love and dating and marriage.

Bottom line: I cannot recommend this enough. While not a laugh riot, it’s cheeky and authentic and well-written, like show-offily well-written. Real people populate this film, and all the players are its equal. Nanjiani is great, of course, but unexpectedly great performances from Hunter and Romano, in roles much meatier than you might anticipate, really make this thing come together. You care about these characters, together and separately, which is 107% more than I care about the soulless, sequel-heavy pieces of utter balogna that dominate movie theatres this day. The Big Sick isn’t just a great movie, it’s a shining beacon of hope in a bleak landscape of unimaginative belly button lint. Producers, take note: more like this, please. On the double.