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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Well, they took the lens cap off, but not a film for the suicidal
The Coen brothers occasionally come off as teenage boys ripping the wings off of flies for the sheer... humor of it. "Buster Scruggs" is one of those occasions.
If your point is the pointlessness of human relations, then your film might very well be pointless. C'mon, Coens. We get it. Everybody dies. And you two are frequently amused by the pain and suffering that precedes the deaths of other human beings. Fine. I guess there's nothing objectively wrong about that approach to storytelling. The writing instructor John Gardner once counseled his students to be aware that some of their readers might be contemplating suicide, and to proceed with humanity, empathy, and, perhaps, a point. But that was just the opinion of someone with humanity, empathy, and a point. The Coen brothers are free to make their brand of ironic film school-like drivel all they want. You see, greed is a thing (news flash), and people kill because of greed -- and our clever Coen brothers can even fashion a punchline when those killings happen. At least two of the episodes in "BS" are literally just set-ups to a punchline. (I just saved you two hours and 13 minutes.)
The Coen brothers have avoided the sociopath path a few times in their career. "Fargo" with its wonderful female protagonist had some humanity along with the funny deaths. "No Country for Old Men" explored the burden of violence on the decent. I think that was more Cormac McCarthy than Coen brothers. "The Big Lebowski" was a romp, and original. "Hail, Caesar!" was a romp, but unoriginal.
More frequently in the Coens' career it's been a matter of finding the funny last image seen by a dying human being. A leaky sink in "Blood Simple." A bullet wound in one's body in "Buster Scruggs." Funny stuff. If you're a clever prepubescent boy with a movie camera but no conscience.
I will credit the film for not mucking up its look. Of course, it is hard to make some of the most beautiful locations on earth look ugly, but to their credit the Coens avoided the temptation to do so (because... irony). Three stars for that.
Orson Welles once told a film school class that every film is a political statement. That seemed a bit pretentious to me at first, but I think at heart he was right. Comedies and musicals provide sheer joy -- something for the political order to protect. Mysteries and thrillers warn against the dark side of human nature -- something for the political order to protect against. Dramas explore our humanity -- again something else for the political order to protect. But with the Coens nothing is worth anything. You may think that the one life you have is at least worth living, but nope -- to the Coens anything that might give life meaning, even if for only a moment or two, is fodder for cackling derision. And when everything is meaningless there's really nothing for anyone, whether an individual or the political order, to protect. In Coen World, you're nothing more than a punchline.
Red Sparrow (2018)
Russian bots and apologists hate it -- Americans who know spy movies will enjoy
Spy movies in a le Carré vein can be judged on how well they handle issues of deceit and personal loyalty. "Red Sparrow" does a solid job of creating a plot that's complex, making us wonder who's deceiving whom, without being so jumbled it doesn't make sense. Solid performances, directing, and -- this I admire -- clear and impactful editing of fight scenes earn this a solid recommendation from me, an aficionado of spy movies. 4 stars out 5, 8 out of 10 for IMDB.
The film is violent and sexy in the way "Marathon Man" was in the '70s, and while there's no villain here as memorable as Laurence Olivier's Nazi dentist Zel, there are some nice supporting characters. Performances are first rate. Accents didn't bother me one bit. This is an American film geared toward English-speaking audiences. It doesn't need to have dialogue in Russian, as one clueless reviewer suggested. (I think there was one line in Russian at the beginning) Gimmicks like the one used at the beginning of "The Hunt for Red October" -- Connery et al speaking Russian until the moment the camera pushes into Connery's mouth and then pulls back and the rest of the movie is in English -- are fine, but not necessary. We've been there and done that. It's good to just get going with the story with dialogue we can understand.
I love non-realistic Bond movies for their action, humor, and production value, and I also love gritty spy films like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and "Three Days of the Condor" (even though Condor is a pure political statement -- unrelated to the actual world of CIA in any way). "Red Sparrow" falls somewhere in-between Bond and grittier '60s and '70s spy films. If you're a puritan who hates male and female nudity, then stick with Nickelodeon. And if you're a Russian kleptocrat's lackey who hates the way this film portrays the bankruptcy of modern Russia, then stick with... I don't know... "Battleship Potemkim."
Reviewers who give "Red Sparrow" one-star either have an agenda unrelated to film reviewing on their minds, or they don't know what they're talking about. "Red Sparrow" is a worthy entry in the spy movie canon.
Brilliant acting, directing... and a script by Alvin Sargent to be studied and treasured.
"Julia" holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the first times I read a screenplay before seeing the film and was completely enthralled -- in suspense and moved to tears. Notice how characterization drives the slowly building suspense culminating in a fantastic third act devoid of pyrotechnics or gimmicks. (Never mind that the story is almost 100% fiction; this is adaptation at its finest.)
A well-deserved Oscar-winner for Alvin Sargent, the script belongs on any screen writing student's bookshelf alongside "Chinatown" and "Ordinary People" two other Oscar-winners from the era.
Confession - by "era" I mean from my USC screen writing class, where I also read terrific scripts like "Marathon Man" (the Hoffman-Devane-Keller lunch scene a textbook example of "reversal" writing), "Breaking Away" and "Cutter's Way."
The Night Before (2015)
A Movie to Make You Hate Movies
Horrible script, flat performances, directionless direction. I sat through this entire travesty because, well, sometimes you want to know what all the fuss with "Plan 9 From Outer Space" was about. This movie has everything: Actors standing in place reciting meaningless, unfunny dialogue. A camera that occasionally and for no reason repeatedly encircles the three leads. Every "shock" cliché that's been in far better efforts of the last 20 years. In fact, it's not that this is a movie that will make you hate movies, it very likely will make you hate life. Highly recommended (to my enemies). Everyone else, skip this one; you'll be happier on your death bed.