First off, let’s shoot the elephant in the room with an irradiated reverse flow bullet: Nobody should be encouraging anybody to sit in a crowded room for two and a half hours in 2020, no matter how much blood, sweat and treasure has gone into the shiny object that would unite strangers in such an endeavor. Hard stop. Second, let’s imagine that instead of the supposed heady intellectualism that Christopher Nolan attacks the action movie genre with, perhaps on Tenet he cradled a bong for six months while playing Hitman 2 and strung together a series of game inspired missions while grafting some timey-wimey stuff—you know, some of that patented weird Nolan shit—onto the proceedings. Not likely part of his process, but as one watches the increasingly ludicrous and delightful setpieces of this film unspool at a breakneck pace, you have to wonder. The fact of the matter is games like that are inspired by the hoary old boy’s club film franchise of Bond, James Bond, so the bleed through feels pretty on point. We finally have Christopher Nolan’s 007 movie, and boy is it something.
The filmmaker’s rise from indie puzzle box darling to Spielberg level showman is well documented and mileage can vary wildly from viewer to viewer. After learning to shoot and cut action on the Batman franchise, he’s gone on to weld high concepts to big explosions time and again, blasting the audience with a combination of overwrought explication and dazzling visuals. After Tenet, it’s tough to see him quite topping this combo formula. As many have speculated, Tenet does indeed feel like a spiritual if not literal sequel to Inception, that bullet riddled thriller involved less with traditional crime than a downright magical ability to run around in other people’s dreams. Without getting into too much detail, this time it’s about time, the bending of, that is. We’re introduced to a crackerjack paramilitary agent played with cool to spare by John David Washington, a movie star growing up before our very eyes here. He’s on a complicated extraction mission that, in a Nolan-esque twist, actually serves as a test of sorts to see if he can level up to face the most dangerous challenge staring down humanity. Shadowy allies appear to guide him through a variety of international missions, all moving towards getting on the radar of a vicious Russian oligarch played with scenery chewing aplomb by Kenneth Branaugh. Nolan seems to hear his critics and flip bird in their direction as he slowly rolls out the tricky sci fi concept; several times the opportunity to explain what’s going on is gamely mocked by Washington or rushed through by a bored walk on player. It’s as if the filmmaker knows what he’s doing is mind boggling enough that if we just latch onto the broad concept, we’ll thrill to the ride.
But do we? I more or less did, watching Tenet at home as one should in 2020 and dissecting the film/game references with my son. While the IMAX level crazyness would have been great fun on a large screen and I hope to experience the film in that format someday soon, having the opportunity to throw around theories as we saw it brought the overwhelming insanity of the proceedings down to a manageable level. Not to say we chattered through the thing; I was often on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next. Probably the wisest choice made here is to latch onto that James Bond model. We have a super agent, we have a fanatical villain (Nolan leans in here like he rarely does), we have fortresses to be stormed and heists to be executed. We also have a refreshingly female heavy cast for this kind of exercise, and a diversity of faces not often seen at this big budget level of actioner. You’ll also find a variety of familiar thematic elements from Inception and elsewhere in this director’s resume on display: The threat of separation from a beloved child, the chance to start a new life without the baggage of the past, the need to punch and shoot your way through pretty much every situation. I’ll never agree with Nolan’s push to get people into the theater for Tenet or any other film in this, the toughest of years (to be fair, the film does encourage mask wearing at times). But after watching it I can see why this of all his films felt the most urgent to get in front of the masses. For better or for worse, we have the filmmaker’s obsessions writ large over every second of this movie.
Some 40 odd years ago, Steve De Jarnatt put pen to paper and started to craft what would be his cinematic masterpiece and final film (so far), Miracle Mile. The 80s classic was spiked with romance, conspiracy, violence and ultimately the end of the world as we know it thanks to a fictional nuclear annihilation everyone lived in constant fear of during the Cold War. As the poster boasted, it was a welcome blast, a genre smashup that keeps an audience guessing until the final reel because it juggled so much with such expertise. Some have stated the film achieved cult status instead of Oscar gold because its lengthy trip from screenplay to screen ended at the same time the Berlin Wall was coming down; in 1989, everyone was in the midst of a deep exhale as the animosity between world powers was on the wane and perhaps few felt they needed the reminder of how close we’d all been living to oblivion.
Fast forward to now and you’ll discover De Jarnatt’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. He’s dropped his first set of short stories on the literary world, and they’re a stinging balm for this planet, thrown into tumult the way it hasn’t seen for a century. Grace For Grace (a phrase taken from a standout story involving a whale, Her Great Blue) shows the writer remains fascinated with the edge of chaos we as a species exist on at all times, and how we as clumsy, mean, beautiful, messy and loving people handle it. The randomness of the universe, the many apocalypses hiding around every corner, are on full display here—a detoxing soldier fights a hurricane, an earthquake interrupts a mob hit, and in what could be the most De Jarnatt moment in all of his work, a little girl gaily skips over the heads of a theater full of people who are about to burn in a theater fire. And that’s just scratching the surface of the beautiful chaos revealed herein. The writer throws us into the middle of these nightmares and dreamscapes with little warning about what’s going on and certainly what’s going to happen next; the scenarios slowly but surely reveal themselves and almost always hinge on what direction human nature will drag his protagonists in when faced with challenges created by decades of their own behavior or the random cruelty of the universe—or, more often than not, the combination of both.
The delightful news? Far from some Ligotti style depression fest over how empty our existence is, De Jarnatt’s globe trotting tales celebrate his characters and their faults, deformities and mistakes. He does indeed, time and again, find the grace in humanity. Through these stories he shows a complicated but pure love for his fellow men and women. We fight, lie, fuck and fail, but we get up and try to do a little better the next day, and maybe even rise to the occasion when things go south—and things always go south. Perhaps one of the best in the collection, Escharotomy, highlights this complicated dance, as a supposed victim of a terrible crime seeks out her supposed assailant, a man burned head to toe not once but twice, who now roams forests decimated by flame to help nurse the wounded survivors back to health. It encapsulates the chaos we cannot control, the damage we inflict on ourselves and others, and the complicated, almost unknowable process of healing and loving despite it all. De Jarnatt delivers these fables with lively prose, equally as comfortable weaving wild tales as he is taking chances with language. Characters and moments bolt off the page and come to life in the reader’s mind, almost as if a great filmmaker is orchestrating a series of loosely connected cinematic vignettes before our very eyes. I don’t know if he’ll get behind the camera again, but no matter what creative endeavor he launches next, it’ll be well worth looking out for. Grace for grace, deed by deed.
There’s snakebit, and then there’s The Hunt. Originally slated for a September 2019 release, no less a cinephile than Donald John Trump took a rare foray into social media to browbeat the film and its studio into submission based on a hot internet take on the movie’s politicized update of the hoary classic The Most Dangerous Game: Rich liberals kidnap arch conservatives, turn them loose into a booby-trapped estate and pick them off with the finest firearms the Second Amendment will provide. Granted, nobody had really seen the film at that point, but in combination with several more reprehensible mass shootings arriving with their usual American regularity, the release was pulled. Not one prone to give up easily, producer Jason Blum moved the movie to March 2020, just in time for the worst crowd killing global viral pandemic in a century to sweep the globe and keep everyone at home. The most horrific part of my second screening was the woman three rows back who coughed every ten minutes or so. Under this rolling curse, there’s a scrappy little exploitation film to discuss, and believe me, it’s worth it.
Speaking of internet flashpoints, The Hunt comes from Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, writers who are currently celebrating a well received HBO series sequel to the seminal comic book Watchmen. Lindelof, however, is known for stoking massive cyber ire for everything from his controversial decisions on his hit series LOST to his having a hand in some Star Trek and Alien reboot action to, I don’t know, a casual comment he made about Olive Garden. A reprimand from the commander in chief was more of a brief blip in his career than anything noteworthy. It’s with that spirit he and his conspirators hatched this movie, a quick piss take on online partisan aggression that ultimately calls everyone on both sides of the largely artificial aisle to account for their petty behavior which, taken to its logical angry conclusion, of course results in violence porn of the first water. We start The Hunt on a private jet en route to the carnage, with smugmaster Glenn Howerton educating the plebes on caviar, rare champagne and how to quiver in the face of unexpected crisis. We’re on the ground and in the game before you know it—word to the wise, don’t form emotional attachments with any of the hunted too fast, no matter how familiar their faces are from some of your favorite tv shows. By this point the audience well knows this is a hard R bloodfest, albeit delivered with a near constant cheeky pluck. Director Craig Zobel strikes this tonal balance delivered by the rich screenplay and meager budget with aplomb. An unlikely hero rises out of the herd with a quirky central performance you won’t soon forget.
The irony of the scandal around The Hunt is that the filmmakers aren’t simply skewering conservatives or liberals (and make no mistake, if we’re doing the math the liberals are the clear villains here anyway). They’re skewering the online political culture of today, where everyone’s 100% correct in their personal take and everyone else is an insipid moron worthy of seething hatred. The hero of the piece is notable not only for their instinctive smarts and capacity for violence but for the fact that they have no political lean whatsoever that we, the viewer, are ever privy to. They’re just in it to survive. For the literary buffs, Orwell’s Animal Farm serves as something of a symbolic framing device, and you’ll get an update on the famous Tortoise vs Hare race fable that might give you nightmares. In the end, those looking for a bloody good satire with a satisfying turning of tables will find this fleet thriller delivers exactly what it promises, nothing more, nothing less.
Trope rolls off the tongue like a dirty word when discussing film. It reeks of stereotype, repetition and outright plagiarism; nobody wants to hear that their movie is based on tropes. But what if trope is embraced as a guiding principle to subvert the form and mesh two popular geek genres at the same time? Cousins Mark and Brian Gunn took a look at several iterations of Superman’s comic book beginnings and decided that collection of tropes might come together nicely with the horror genre—after all, a meteor crashing into earth with an invulnerable alien baby inside doesn’t actually lend itself to sunny predictions out here in the real world, does it? They’ve crafted a screenplay that deftly jumps between throwing a dark mirror in the face of the shopworn superhero origin story to working every twist and turn of the story like a classic monster movie. It’s a neat trick, pulled off with the help of a relatable cast and sturdy direction from David Yarovesky, telling a comic book tale using every horror movie trick in the book. And for the most part, it works.
I say for the most part because some tricks do in fact cross into the realm of truly overplayed trope—this movie has so many jump scares, based on the same trick (surprise surprise, the kid can move really, really fast) that you might be reaching for seizure meds by the end of it. Still, most of the scares are quite fun as we watch Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) overcome fertility problems thanks to a cosmic bolt that, in the very early going, appears to be nothing but a blessing. One of the grounding graces of Brightburn is this pair’s performances. Their small town red state world feels lived in and authentic, a place where everyone has a big house surrounded by bigger fields and a hunting rifle is a fine present for a 12 year old boy. The boy in question, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), hits puberty as the story truly begins, and we’re hit with another trope subversion as Superbad turns into The Omen. Dunn has the right look and acting chops to pull Brandon Beyer off; a cute urchin with just enough isolation to his presence that you could easily see him turning into the next school shooter, or, in this case, overpowering serial killer.
Make no mistake, the moments that would usually introduce challenging opportunities to discover heroic uses for newfound abilities here present themselves as a monster increasingly capable of terrorizing its prey before the kill. Over the course of its fleet runtime, Brightburn earns a big bloody R rating thanks to the sequences of increasingly violent mayhem, working the tropes of the horror genre while playing switcheroo with familiar superhero moments—those who’ve seen the likes of Superman Returns and Man of Steel will get a dark chuckle out of some of Brandon’s interactions with vehicles here—and a stomach churning third act reveal is slyly telegraphed from early on. The Gunn cousins, working with production support from James Gunn himself, no stranger to horror and comic book films, have gone all in on this queasy, nasty concept and reminded us all that yes, there are still strange, unexpected and satisfying corners of tropes to be mined for our cinematic dreams—and nightmares.
Much has been made of the Marvel/Disney money printing machine; they started with a scrappy set of b-list heroes, co-producing a mixed to positive bag of introductory films with Paramount, and really found their footing with Joss Whedon’s Avengers in 2012. The teamup went better than most expected, both creatively and financially, and since then it seems their 2-3 releases per year are the easiest guarantee that people will put down Netflix and actually get out to the theater en masse. It’s not all a love fest, though; some see their popularity as a death knell for serious cinema (despite an increasingly diverse set of offerings mirrored in the wide variety of Oscar nominees, not to mention the multiple platforms on which serious dramas appear in endless supply), a commoditization of childish nostalgia, and an assembly line style of storytelling. Regardless of the fact that there are plenty strong examples of writer/directors bringing their own unique voice to different properties, from James Gunn’s sassy and surreal Guardians to Ryan Coogler’s whip smart racial commentary in Black Panther, the hate is simple to find in various corners of criticism and internet comment sections. Still, what seems to be missed in the back and forth is that Marvel have crafted an extensive cast of characters that millions of viewers around the world relate to, look up to, and even love. The fights are fun, the effects often dazzling, but viewers wouldn’t spend so much time with these films if they didn’t care about the struggles and successes of the likes of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
Joe and Anthony Russo, and their frequent collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, cash in every bit of goodwill towards these heroes with Avengers: Endgame, the longest and easily most self indulgent film in the much ballyhooed Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tripling down on the notion of fan service, this movie isn’t made for the casual observer or the fly-by film buff. Unlike most of the other stories knocking around in the studio’s catalog, Endgame has no time for catching anyone up on current events. If you’re in the theater, you’ve likely seen every single film that preceded it, and of course are looking for some retribution and healing after the events of its predecessor, Infinity War. That film did a fairly marvelous job of bringing together a vast cast to do battle against the rare compelling Big Bad in the MCU, a mocapped Josh Brolin on a dark, twisted version of a hero’s journey. Our remaining protagonists—the original Avengers all survived, plus a few more good guys to round out the team—are looking for the same things as the audience, but have some competing views on how to go about them. It’s a very different film from a pacing standpoint than Infinity War: A dour, mournful opening, appropriate to the fallout from the villain’s success, takes its sweet time getting to the inevitable action and explosions. But we do get to them eventually, as the Avengers’ plan kicks into action, ostensibly to save the day but seemingly with the primary cause of redeeming a cross section of less than beloved sequels in the canon. It’s a trick that almost works on that front, and of course drives our heroes ever closer to success.
In the interest of skipping the ever-despised spoilers—and yes, there’s plenty to spoil, especially in the third act—we’ll circle back to character. It’s the bedrock of any good yarn, and uber producer Kevin Feige and his many collaborators understand this deeply. Some of these superheroes have only been around for a movie or two, but the main focus is of course on the original team and whether or not they can truly pull off a miracle or two. These are the ones Marvel fans have now spent many hours adventuring with, the characters whose strengths and weaknesses we know the best, the ones who’ve been there since the beginning. Watching the likes of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. rally in the face of their greatest challenge yet feels like a family reunion to those viewers who’ve been with them all along, and while the filmmakers lean into these feelings heavily in the face of some clumsy plot mechanics and pacing from time to time, Endgame does ultimately provide payoffs both surprising and expected to longstanding fans. No matter what defiant detractors may say about Marvel and Endgame, it’s more than likely Stan Lee is nodding down on this capstone to his cinematic empire in gleeful approval.
Rami Malek received the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award at the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival this past Friday, and rightly so. A pedestrian biopic of a beloved rock star is elevated to box office peaks and award season glory by his tender, passionate and commanding performance. Following a quick red carpet walk, Malek sat down with Hollywood Reporter correspondent Scott Feinberg for a lengthy Q&A covering his life, career and current hit film that may well propel the 36-year-old actor to Oscar gold. An hour and twenty minutes into a thoroughly charming discussion, Feinberg decided to heat up the room with a headline seeking dip into the seamy waters director Bryan Singer finds himself in. Framed with a clumsy “I know this will be uncomfortable and I shouldn’t be asking it but we’re doing this anyway” ramble, he brought up a recent article from The Atlantic accusing the filmmaker yet again with years of abusive sexual behavior toward young men and laid the whole mess at the actor’s feet, calmly but clearly demanding clarification from a man who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place. While Ramek’s response is well worth repeating and will be here, it shouldn’t overshadow the celebration of the many accomplishments that preceded it.
To begin, the actor discussed his unique heritage as an Egyptian American; his mother and father emigrated to the United States from Cairo not long before he and his twin brother were born, hoping their children would become doctors and lawyers as most parents do. A less than exotic upbringing in Sherman Oaks CA led to an even less exotic sounding theatrical education in Indiana, but Rami’s work ethic carried him all the way to a typical starving actor’s scrape for roles, which led to landing an agent and first screen role on The Gilmore Girls in the same week. He was off…to typecasting. 9/11 happened and he soon found himself playing Egyptian Pharaohs in kiddie fare alongside glowering Middle Eastern terrorists in any number of paranoid thrillers that boiled his identity down to his ethnicity, and while it made for exposure and a few paychecks he quickly decided it was time to turn down those roles and expand his horizons. Malek’s fortunes began to change with an audition for Tom Hanks’ HBO series The Pacific. Despite the intimidation of having Steven Spielberg himself handling camera duties during his initial meeting with the production, Rami nailed down the part of a Cajun soldier and made a lifelong friend of co-star Joseph Mazzello, who presented him with his Santa Barbara award and plays John Deacon in Bohemian Rhapsody. This role would become a powerful calling card for Malek; he noted that many of his following roles came from the exposure. One of the highlights of this period was landing a role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; he read for the Joaquin Phoenix role, which he didn’t expect to get, but lobbied the director hard for some part and ultimately ended up playing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Then came Mr. Robot—a title Malek assumed was only temporary but now loves. He expressed his love for writer-directors and the singular vision they bring to projects, singling out Anderson as well as Sam Esmail, a fellow Egyptian American who the actor noted seems to have clairvoyant powers when it comes to predicting dark societal trends. Asked about their shared heritage, Rami pointed out they are both dedicated to telling human stories no matter what the backgrounds of the people involved are.
When it came to Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek discussed the importance of deep preparation, since by his own admission he is no singer or dancer. That spurred him to take extensive lessons on both fronts, which served him well when he arrived on set to discover the first scenes to be shot were the thorough recreation of Queen’s famous Live Aid concert. Just like with the Spielberg-filmed audition for The Pacific, the actor gathered courage from his experience and dedication to preparation and was pleased with the results. At this point in the conversation, the moderator decided to lob a curveball and bring up “the elephant in the room,” carrying on at some length on the fall of the X-Men/Usual Suspects auteur and seeking comment. Rami visibly stiffened at the unexpected turn, but cleared his throat and let loose with an impassioned defense of the many other people responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody’s success and offered heartfelt sympathy for anyone victimized by Singer. “I’ve sat here and talked about how everyone deserves a voice and anyone who wants to talk about what happened with Bryan deserves to have their voice heard. In my situation with Bryan, it was not pleasant, not at all. And that’s about what I can say about it at this point.” The crowd cheered, and despite his claim to be done speaking on the subject, he wasn’t. “For anyone who is seeking any solace in all of this, Bryan Singer was fired. Bryan Singer was fired, I don’t think that was something anyone saw coming but I think that had to happen and it did.” More cheers as Feinberg, realizing he’d soured the occasion, finished up with a few softballs and then handed the floor over to Mazzello, who warmly embraced his friend and presented him with his award. Rami thanked the many people who’d helped him arrive at this night, including Feinberg, curtly saying “and what to say about Scott…thank you for your…thorough questions tonight.” Overall it was a delightful evening spent with a rising star in Hollywood, despite the sadly somewhat successful attempt to make it about someone who wasn’t even in the room and won’t be for any Bohemian Rhapsody related awards going forward.
Several days ago I found myself floored by the dense sound design work on Mary Poppins Returns; the whacky admiral neighbor’s promised hourly cannon shots were woven deeply into every scene, even when the codger was nowhere near the events playing out in front of me. Then I realized we were sharing a wall with an IMAX screening of Aquaman. That particular film, a long promised reformation of a belittled DC character writ bold and buff by Jason Momoa, is so full of explosions and noisy impacts that I might recommend earplugs. Horror stalwart James Wan knows the value of suspenseful silence shattered by a jump, so every time you can actually hear the score or a line is quietly delivered, expect the moment to be shattered with a laser beam explosion, bone cracking punch, or perhaps even a laser beam punch—I don’t remember one specifically but I’m pretty sure there’s a few. The director gets to throw in a dark and stormy night or two and definitely has fun with some creature features in the third act, but for the most part he plumbs the depths of four quadrant action hero movie tropes, throwing so much familiarity against the wall to see what sticks that one wonders if Time Warner did in fact show a bot 100 hours of sci fi/fantasy/comic book movies and made it write the screenplay. Amber Heard dutifully jumps into the pretty-face-who-kicks-ass love interest role, bouncing wannabe sassy one liners off the lead that clunk to the ground often enough to lend further weight to my bot theory. Momoa himself vanquishes powerful aquamen, dastardly pirates and monsters galore, but his greatest foe, the bag he can’t act his way out of, escapes their constant skirmishes unscathed. Patrick Wilson is marginally better as wet evil Legolas than David Thewlis was as secretly ripped evil God in Wonder Woman, so there’s that. Mentioning this sister film could start a dive into the various failings and follies of what the kids know as the DC Extended Universe, but before we drown over in that end of the pool let’s just say everything everyone’s favorite superheroine got right in her origin story movie is a thing Aquaman is stumbling over itself to replicate at every turn. Emphasis on stumbling.
And yet, like that Van Halen album you’re afraid to tell your music snob buddies you love to crank, Aquaman does in fact rock. Momoa is nobody’s Lawrence Olivier II, but the sole reason they cast him—his looking nothing like you remember Aquaman looking like—really does carry the day in most respects, his physicality and swagger dragging us somewhat gleefully through the mayhem. That mayhem is assembled with aplomb by Wan; the fight scenes are smoothly shot with small delights in each (loud, always loud) smash and crash, hinting that his days of mid budgeted demonic possession flicks may be ending as the tentpoles come courting. There’s just enough fun in seeing serious stars like Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman (and yes, the mighty Dolph Lundgren, clearly slumming here) floating around in their CGI costumes that their presence carries us through some painfully stilted exposition scenes. The CG universes developed here, derivative of everything from Avatar to (gulp) The Phantom Menace as they may be, really do make for such a delightful romp through a vast galaxy of eye popping realms that you start to remember DC comics do take fans further into fantasyland than just glum old Gotham City. Has Time Warner’s wannabe superhero megabeast finally started to catch up with, you know, the other studio that prints money off seamlessly integrated franchises? Hell, they didn’t even put out the best comic book movie of the month, and that one came from pretender to the throne Sony. But box office doesn’t lie—people are getting a kick out of it. In other words, despite the running list of deficits this thing racks up over its inevitably bloated runtime, Aquaman is a charmer.
With The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos offers less of an abrupt change from his previous films than a (Greek?) olive branch. The staccato, exact line readings and bizarre scenarios of The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer are ostensibly replaced with crisp but hardly dense period dialogue and a straightforward pitch black comedy set in the royal palace of England in the early 1700s. Perhaps it’s a function of turning writing duties over to other hands (Debra Davis and Tom McNamara), perhaps it’s the conscious choice to let his stars relax and play the parts more naturalistically, but in any case he’s landed on something approaching broad appeal with this female centric examination of power, love and cruelty. However, it’s not all that far off from Lanthimos’ usual examinations of people’s darker impulses, though; The Favourite is very much a natural continuation of what he’s been discussing with his films for years now. With a fierce cast, lush production design and tight pace, The Favourite deserves not only awards seasons accolades but large audiences as well.
Which is not to indicate it’s a teaspoon of sugar by any measure. As mentioned, the film is about power: The power dynamics of a society in which people can pass from the heights of royal luxury to being whipped like a dog in the blink of an eye. Emma Stone’s Abigail is intimately familiar with this as we meet her, being molested and shoved into shit as she ventures to the Queen’s castle in search of a distant relative who may be able to return her to a decent level of status after her father’s fall from grace has left her penniless and, worse, low class. Queen Ann, played with equal doses of sadness and mania by Olivia Coleman, is traumatized by loss and bears an almost Trumpian distaste for the details of her job. Fortunately she has Lady Sarah, her top advisor, companion, and truth serum, brought to life by a delightfully arch Rachel Weisz. Sarah gets to manage the political turmoil around a war with France while keeping up the appearance of the Queen’s supremacy, then her distant cousin arrives meekly seeking any employment available—which is of course to say Abigail is on a stealth mission to regain her lost stature. With these three powerful personalities increasingly wrapped up in each other’s orbits, the tension and gamesmanship quickly take their toll, which is reflected throughout in the increasingly frayed faces of the women (keep an eye on those faces—their evolutions provide one of the many visual treats on display).
Whereas Lanthimos cleans up some of the eccentricities of his prior works here, he still carries a deeply held distrust of and disgust with man’s selfishness and general misanthropy—it feels no accident that there’s about as much vomiting as sex in The Favourite. This satire of class ends as most of his previous films have, in a place where no good deed’s been done without ulterior motive, every act of seeming kindness comes with a sharp dagger hidden under voluptuous finery. I’m not sure if this is a new direction for the filmmaker or simply a refinement of his sardonic vision. In any case, it’s a smart, entertaining and nasty little marvel of a movie, one that may not light the box office on fire but one that will only grow in esteem as more viewers discover it.
The mere mention of Joel and Ethan Coen conjures many glowing descriptors: Auteurs, legends, geniuses. I’d add one more that gets overlooked—survivors. Talented directors who cut their teeth in the 80s and 90s continuing to find budgets and put out quality release after quality release in this day and age are sadly few and far between. Some, like David Cronenberg, have become cinematic guns for hire on other people’s ideas; others, such as John Dahl and Michael Lehmann, went the route of studio hand television episode directing long ago. Then we have the Coens, whose legacy is firmly cemented as they write and direct their original scripts and get wide release for them around the world. It’s worth noting the uniqueness of this situation, and perhaps worth a head scratch too as we see them boiling down their talents to the small screen for Netflix. Brief theatrical release aside, most viewers will experience The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs in the comfort of their living rooms, which might feel odd for these powerhouse filmmakers until you actually watch the thing. Anthologized into six standalone stories set firmly in the Western genre, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers are playing with the modern form of delivering (and binging) episodic content in one lump sum; The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan’s first and perhaps only season drop, and it’s a damn good one.
Perhaps the film is as close as we’ll come to a spiritual cousin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, another example of aged cinematic masters continuing to operate at the height of their powers on the dime of a television network. The Coen Brothers set about seducing the viewer quickly with a pair of vignettes that lean heavily on slapstick violence and their trademark flowery/folksy dialogue, first with Buster himself, played to perfection by cast regular Tim Blake Nelson, followed by James Franco’s snakebit bank robber going through any number of bad day scenarios. We don’t come to realize how dark the ruminations on mortality and the brutality of the wild west we’ve just seen are, thanks to the glib delivery, until the third story, Meal Ticket, takes us through a wintry treatise on art versus commerce that may be one of the bleakest stories Joel and Ethan have ever given us. The legendary Tom Waits, a rare treat on the screen, shows up as a persnickety prospector looking for the big score, and then we’re treated to an elegant and ultimately elegiac trip up the Oregon Trail with a young lady in search of her purpose and destiny. Finally, a twilight stagecoach ride finds a philosophically disparate bunch traveling to Fort Morgan, or perhaps someplace more menacing. While ostensibly stand alone, each tale takes a varying angle on the savagery of the era, so they ultimately play off each other in a typically beautiful, morose Coen Brothers symphony.
As we’ve seen with their previous dips into the genre, the Coen Brothers exhibit a love for every aspect of Westerns that’s evident in every frame of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs—the gorgeous scenery, iconic performances, suspenseful excitement and epic romances of films past are less nodded to than embraced in a warm two and a half hour hug. The very game cast, peppered with familiar faces and new ones, turns in excellent work at every turn, eliciting in equal part laughs, gasps and even tears. Longtime Coen production composer Carter Burwell provides a lush score, and Inside Llewyn David lenser Bruno Delbonnel executes Joel and Ethan’s exacting standards for impeccable visuals with gusto. Outside of Noah Hawley’s surprisingly well done ongoing riff on the Coen Brothers’ career with FX’s Fargo, seeing the original indie masters themselves slum on the small screen never seemed like a possibility, and certainly not an inevitability. Fortunately this likely one-off with Netflix serves as a reminder that Joel and Ethan Coen remain successful survivors in an ever changing film and television environment because their canon, like the Western itself, remains an American classic.