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Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a silly, mood-shifting shaggy-dog anthology that feels at once structurally ambitious and almost perfunctory.




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Photo: Netflix

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been beholden to the themes and paradoxes of the western: the brutality and injudicious pursuit of wealth, the sovereignty of violence, the feeling of ostracization, that me-against-the-world anti-heroism. The libidinous treachery and revenge gone awry in their brooding, ballsy debut, Blood Simple, is steeped in a noirish bastardization of western archetypes, and the sun-scorched Midwestern vistas and bumbling malfeasance of Raising Arizona wouldn’t be out of place in one of Anthony Mann’s productions. And, of course, there’s their first proper foray into the genre, True Grit, a film with obvious reverence for the works of Mann, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. With No Country for Old Men, their stoical and sparse adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, they transposed a classical chase story revolving around money to modern America, making a sublimely restrained modern western that, like the films of Sam Peckinpah, cogitates on the nature of violence without postulating any easy answers.

The Coen brothers’ newest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a paean to the western, a silly, mood-shifting shaggy-dog anthology that feels at once structurally ambitious and somehow inchoate, almost perfunctory at times. It comprises six separate stories, concerning a mélange of typical reprobates and shoot-you-in-the-back gunmen. There are also a few innocent souls, though most of them suffer at the hands of the reprobates and gunmen. (Zoe Kazan, playing the film’s one true innocent, leads the most fully developed story, about a pair of siblings who join a caravan to Oregon.) Despite the slapstick humor and typically wry banter on display, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sees the Coen brothers at their most misanthropic, depicting humanity as a kind of pestilence, nothing more than a bunch of malefactors and murderers who will, given the chance, fuck you over. Death pervades these stories, seeping into each narrative like blood into a garment.

The Coens work within the formula and architecture of the western, not challenging or revitalizing or revisioning as much as simply reveling. This anthology’s six vignettes vacillate between tones and types, from screwball to the funereal (the final moments, which will likely spur much conversation, hark back to Edgar Allan Poe as much as they do to any classic western). There are parodic jaunts through familiar territory and more earnest, traditional tales. The first and most playful section, from which the film’s title is culled, stars Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson as a crooning guitar slinger and preternaturally gifted shootist who talks and blasts his way through the American frontier. He has a bevy of nicknames, but his wanted poster is adorned with the moniker “The Misanthrope,” to his chagrin. Garrulous and trenchant, he’s as fast with his quips as he is with his pistols, and embarks on long, deadpan soliloquies, addressing the audience directly with a wink, musing about this and that as he blows the fingers off of someone’s hand.


In the opening moments, a shot from the point of view of the inside of a guitar lets us know that this is an exuberant, mischievously silly story, though it is, like all of the others, rife with corpses and mottled with computer-generated blood. It’s a fun, often uproarious 20 minutes, with some of the most unrepentantly lugubrious sight gags of the Coens’ career, but Buster lacks any sort of mystique. He’s a husk in a white hat. There is, here and in most of the other stories, a lack of deeper insinuation, a lack of curiosity. In their best films, the Coens mine the depths of loneliness and egotism and frailty and solipsism. If there are ripples emanating from each action in No Country for Old Men, here every action leads, simply and invariably, only to bullet wounds and sardonic quips. It’s the kind of sophomoric misanthropy of which the filmmakers have long been accused by naysayers.

After the first story, the film grows more tepid. James Franco and Stephen Root appear in the second section, which opens with Sergio Leone-inspired augmented sound and painterly stasis before erupting into slapstick histrionics. It feels as if the Coens wrote a clever one-liner, then crafted a sketch around it. (It is, admittedly, a damn good line, delivered with moribund apathy by Franco, though you may feel disappointed at the feeling that the film is, only two stories in, already starting to drag, like a corpse tied to a horse.) Another story, about an armless, legless thespian (Harry Melling) and his reticent consort (Liam Neeson), feels like a rejected episode of Tales from the Crypt, though it’s elegantly shot and, in certain melancholic moments, recalls the sad, sublime weirdness of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

Tom Waits, looking and sounding like Nick Nolte after a long night, appears as a gold prospector in the segment based on the Jack London story “All Gold Canyon.” He emerges from verdant trees, like an unwanted apparition, and, upon seeing a glistening stream snaking its way through flaxen fields, begins to dig holes in the bucolic, beauteous little swath of paradise, searching for gold. The moment brings to mind William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” which features a frenzied, more experimental section about man’s usurpation and destruction of land. The story’s insolence toward standard grammar and breakdown of syntax reflect the inner turmoil of a character who’s reached an unpleasant epiphany—the formal, accessible prose of the story giving way to unfettered emotional crisis. Seeing a gorgeous pastoral oasis piebald with holes in this film brings to mind a quote from the story: “…that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with their plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness…”


Waits’s prospector mutilates nature in pursuit of wealth, the way men maim and kill each other in that same pursuit. As the man grumbles to himself, digs holes, sifts through dirt, digs more holes, the audience is left to wait for the inevitable ironic twist and abrupt burst of violence. And that predictability saps the story of any profundity. Again, a few sharp one-liners seem to be anchoring a meandering story that, however beautifully filmed, fails to linger in the mind, dissipating quickly like all that gunsmoke.

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Screenwriter: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 132 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Soundtrack



2019 Oscar Nominations: The Favourite and Roma Lead Field, Bradley Cooper Snubbed for Director, & Cold War Surprises

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced today and The Favourite and Roma led the way.



The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma led the nomination count with 10, followed by Adam McKay’s Vice and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born with eight, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther with seven, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman with six.

Cold War made a strong showing, with Pawel Pawlikowski claiming his first nomination for best director. Notably snubbed in the category was Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly, whose Green Book is considered the favorite to win best picture after its victory at the Producers Guild Awards. Elsewhere, Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy) had to make way for Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) in best supporting actor, while Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) snagged a spot in the best actor race thought to be reserved for John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman).

See below for a full list of the nominations.


Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)


Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Best Costume Design
Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns
Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots

Best Sound Editing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place

Best Sound Mixing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Star Is Born

Best Animated Short
Animal Behaviour
Late Afternoon
One Small Step

Best Live-Action Short

Best Film Editing
Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman
John Ottman, Bohemian Rhapsody
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Patrick J. Don Vito, Green Book
Hank Corwin, Vice

Best Original Score
Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther
Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons

Best Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep
End Game
A Night at the Garden
Period. End of Sentence.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Best Production Design
Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, Black Panther
Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton, The Favourite
Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas, First Man
John Myhre and Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns
Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Cinematography
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Matty Libatique, A Star Is Born
Lukasz Zal, Cold War

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Mary Queen of Scots

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Adapted Screenplay
Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, and Eric Roth, A Star Is Born
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Best Original Song
“All the Stars,” Black Panther
“I’ll Fight, RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.



Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.


Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.


Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.



Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”


Watch Stay below:

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