All posts by tfuglei

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs


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.


The Predator


The 80s are bathed in a nostalgic glow these days, with music, fashion and certainly movies getting replayed, rehashed, sequeled and rebooted at a brisk clip.  Two totems of the cinematic end of the phenomenon, tough guy alien attack classic Predator and funny/violent writer/director Shane Black, have been yoked together in a Hollwyood laboratory to hopefully mine some gold from the fond memories many fans have of the franchise and filmmaker.  Black appears on the surface to be a perfect fit to breathe new yet familiar life into the Predator universe; the scribe of The Last Boyscout, Lethal Weapon and more didn’t just craft some of the most memorable action movies of that decade, he actually played a blink and you’ll miss it soldier in the original film itself.  After seemingly taking a decade or so off, he’s come roaring back in recent years with the successful Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys, his skills in crafting action and doing it with good bawdy humor seemingly undiminished with age and the passage of time.

So how does this perfect pairing work out?  A great deal of that will depend on your love of the franchise and your feelings about what Shane Black does—personally I found Iron Man 3, for example, to be a delightful exercise in Shane Black hijacking a major franchise to make a Shane Black movie.  Jokes and action are plentiful, and standards and expectations are undercut in any given scene.  Others find it to be horrid on all levels, and I expect that kind of sharp division to meet The Predator.  While the original had a joke here and there, the main point of John McTiernan’s film was sci fi action, shot through with some genuinely gory and horrific moments.  At the end of the day, it’s a monster movie buried in shell casings and explosions.  Black clearly knows and respects the source material—we have jungles, chases, and no shortage of carnage—but he’s put together a thrill ride that is unmistakably his own.

This, of course, means jokes.  Lots of them which, based on the crowd I screened the film with, land quite nicely if you’re game.  His beloved Christmastime setting, on display in most of his other films, has been updated to a more appropriate holiday.  Black added a plucky kid to Tony Stark’s adventures, a very bright and knowing beyond her years daughter in The Nice Guys, and here we get Jacob Tremblay’s Rory, the brilliant autistic son of our gruff hero, Army Ranger sniper Quinn, played by Boyd Holbrook.  Quinn’s clearly there to fight, but ultimately Rory is something of a lynchpin to the story, and is given some nice if occasionally clichéd moments to shine.  The camaraderie of the original team fighting this creature is replicated here with a goofier group of soldiers, but as in Iron Man 3 Black subtly uses the cadre to reference PTSD, not to mention a government response that can’t in any way be trusted.  The feds are commandeered by a preening and dangerous Sterling K. Brown, who recruits and tosses aside people as he sees fit—most notably, Olivia Munn’s scientist, Casey Bracket, who inevitably ends up with our ragtag band of heroes, including a Tourette’s Syndrome toting Thomas Jane and an R rated joke spewing Keegan-Michael Key.

The Predator plays out as more of a chase movie than a hunt, which might feel off to some adherents to the original.  It also doesn’t appear to have the kind of budget that this kind of endeavor usually gets in this day and age.  That said, you can tell Black has great love for Predator and shows it near constantly, be it a clever nod to previous entries in the franchise, a jaw dropping kill, a tarnished tough guy hero moment or a clever burst of unexpected action.  He’s made an assured thrill ride of a film here, inevitably setting the stage for a sequel through some expansions of the mythology that are both goofy sci fi and honest to everything that’s come before it.  Any viewers who hold the 80s classic as sacrosanct will probably find more than a few things to complain about; the rest of us will grab the popcorn and settle in for a fun time.


BlacKkKlansman with Ron Stallworth


Spike Lee’s return from the relative wastelands of Hollywood hired gun director culminates with his latest film, the extremely timely and satisfying BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth. The first African American officer to join the Colorado Springs Police Force in the 1970s, he somewhat inadvertently stumbled into an undercover operation into a small but dedicated batch of Ku Klux Klan members.  As Stallworth himself told it at a special screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Denver, he almost destroyed the investigation from the get-go by using his real name when he first decided to contact the group and impersonate a Caucasian when speaking with them over the phone.  Still, he hatched a plan with a Jewish officer nicknamed Flip to show up for physical meetings to put forward a white face to attach to “Ron Stallworth,” and the result was a unique takedown of this vile organization that would see the two rise to the attention and affection of none other than Grand Wizard David Duke himself.  Lee’s film demonstrates his wide ranging power as a masterful, confident director: It’s a clinic on tone, skipping effortlessly from comedy to drama, suspense to action, all with a laser hot gaze on the broken racial past and present America carries around like a foul albatross.

Ironically, Stallworth almost killed the project before it got off the ground with a hilarious and awkward first meeting with Lee.  Having seen the book’s adaptation to film fall through several times prior, he was heartened when Jordan Peele signed on to direct.  Then Peele reached out to say he’d decided to produce it instead, which left Ron crestfallen until the filmmaker said “and Spike Lee’s gonna direct.”  Ron and his wife flew out to New York and found themselves at 40 Acres And A Mule headquarters, ready to meet one of their heroes.  When Spike stepped out of his office, Stallworth said “man, you’re a little guy!”  Lee pivoted and walked back in, shutting the door behind him.  Soon the two came to bond over their lack of social filters, and everything was back on track.  Stallworth had always wanted his favorite actor, Denzel Washington, to play him in the film, but Denzel’s 62 years didn’t quite match up with a rookie cop role.  As the policeman noted, it wasn’t settling to instead see his son, John David Washington, land the role; it’s a true breakout for an up and coming actor we’ll be seeing plenty more of in the years to come.  You’ll hear echoes of his father’s cadences on the regular, but John David more than holds his own in a complex portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing while alienating his community thanks to the badge he carries.  Adam Driver also does fine work as his partner in snookering the racists, and their story underscores the important notion of allies in the war against prejudice and hate that Lee weaves in and out of the story, all the way up to the final, somewhat controversial shot of the film.  Those who feel Lee’s other work can put whites at arm’s length should be heartened here; it’s all hands on deck time, and the good guys can come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

BlacKkKlansman brought swoons to the Cannes Film Festival this past May, receiving an unprecedented 6 ½ minute standing ovation as well as the Grand Prix Award.  Stallworth said John David Washington smiled and waved on the red carpet afterwards, but crumpled into a ball of tears once they reached the limousine. Ron’s wife noted they were actually more pleased with its win of the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, a social justice focused body comprised of clergy from around the globe that noted the film was “a wake-up call about continuing racism not only in the USA, but for the wider world”, which “condemns the misappropriation of religion in the cause of hatred.” Coming on the heels of these heady victories, Stallworth said to Lee and Washington something about their chances for Oscar gold.  Both the director and star howled that “you never say the word out loud, you’ll jinx it!” Then they jumped out of their chairs and started doing a dance in a circle to ward off 30+ years of bad Academy Award luck.  Based on the audience response—truly, there was laughter and tears in equal measure—Spike may want to dust off his tuxedo and book a spring trip to Los Angeles.  BlacKkKlansman is a triumph of cinema that stands tall next to his best work, and the best that American cinema has to offer in any year.




It’s fashionable to bemoan big studio budgets flowing only towards flying men in tights and spaceships zipping around long, long ago, but what about the little studio budgets?  Are they now beholden to a genre long cast aside by critics but a guilty to proud pleasure of many film fans worldwide, horror?  Writer/director Ari Aster seemed resigned to this as modern gospel in a post screening Q&A session this week, telling the audience he graduated from film school in 2010 loaded with ideas for serious R rated thrillers and family dramas, only to find little to no interest in such scripts until he went ahead and married them to the spookfest tropes which, at a fraction of the cost of the latest Marvel movie, reliably make small studios large profits.  I’ve always found horror to be one of the best ‘big tent’ film forms around, allowing for drama, romance, comedy and any number of fantastical examinations of otherwise land-locked subject matter.  Aster apparently has too with his relentlessly dark debut film, Hereditary, albeit with a hint of recalcitrance lurking like a sour spirit around a few corners.

One of the best gifts A24 gave to this movie is a marketing campaign that lays out the broad concept and vibe but tells the audience next to nothing about what actually happens in this film; it’s a gift most two minute trailers refuse to offer, instead hammering out the three acts of a story plus half of the big payoffs, fed to us by a clunky four quadrant spoon.  Trust me when I say you don’t know what you’re in for with Hereditary, and I won’t be spoiling the fun here.  A quick description might look something like Dario Argento’s Ordinary People.  We are introduced to a family grieving the loss of a mysterious, withholding grandmother, but quickly come to realize they’re grieving a normal, happy family life that never quite materialized for them, too.  Father Steve (Gabriel Byrne) quietly goes through the day to day motions of keeping house up and family together, but he’s often shown wistfully gazing into the distance over a glass of scotch, perhaps envisioning an escape that he knows will never come.  Mother Annie, played with bracing immediacy by Toni Collette, uneasily splits the difference between fierce matriarch and wanton disruptor.  Son Peter (Alex Wolff) pursues a semblance of teen normalcy through an increasingly sad set of eyes, and Milly Shapiro’s Charlie, the youngest child and only daughter, has an otherworldly presence that makes one question whether or not she arrived on the right planet at birth.

It’s not doing the film a disservice to leave this character summary as a plot description, because Hereditary really does read like a sad family drama above all else—Aster is clearly taken with the characters, their interactions and history, which does a fine job of investing the viewer so that we’ll care when things worsen—and worsen they do.  The transition into the supernatural horrors we all know are coming is fairly seamless, although the sheer breadth of well known cinematic nightmare tactics employed, not to mention scenes and concepts borrowed from earlier pillars of the genre, might ultimately be a little off putting to those who swim in these dark waters often.  It’s all very effectively woven together—Aster’s a talent to watch, for sure—yet by the end one almost feels the director has taken a kitchen sink approach to the scares in order to get something, anything approaching what he originally wanted to create into the multiplexes.  That said, what he’s gotten is a very well acted and shot thriller, deeply rooted in character and proud to swing its influences around like a well knotted noose.


A Quiet Place


By his own admission, John Krasinski isn’t a “horror guy.”  The affable paper product salesman from The Office expanded his repertoire to include an ecology-centric drama with Matt Damon and some gun toting military hagiography for Michael Bay, but to think of him as the mastermind behind what may well be the year’s best horror thriller was a stretch, even for he himself to believe.  However, the actor went through a life altering event that’s speared hearts with existential dread throughout history:  He became a parent.  Every mother and father knows the many joyous moments of having children are also spiked with a multitude of anxieties and fears.  Their health, safety, and future are all perilously stacked in your lap, and when they’re grown you may come to discover all your efforts preparing them to stand on their own two feet are futile in the face of a harsh world.  Krasinski wrapped these sensations together into a small, simple and striking monster movie concept to deliver A Quiet Place, which like recent predecessors from new horror directors such as It Follows and Get Out, sticks a very harsh landing in its own right.

As effective as those two films were in delivering slow build creeps and racial justice messaging, respectively, neither put you on the edge of your seat the way A Quiet Place does.  With its sterling sound design and lengthy passages of a family needing to make next to no noise in order to survive, the film draws a silent theater audience inside its world to an almost unnatural degree.  I guarantee it’s a shared experience at the movies unlike any other, and in many respects is more immersive than a big budget 3D IMAX affair.  Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen grabs us and holds us with plenty of closeups.  And the cast, led by Director Krasinski and wife Emily Blunt, are as steadfast and sympathetic as you can imagine.  They lead a nuclear family through a monster filled wasteland, where ropy menaces that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Stranger Things come running—very, very quickly—at any significant sound.  Their lethality is established early, and while our heroes are granted a variety of dialogue filled moments, the creatures are never far away and always on the hunt.

For a young filmmaker who professes neophyte status in the genre, Krasinski certainly builds a thrill delivery device with seeming ease.  He draws us into this menacing little universe in no small part by focusing on what planted the germ of the concept in the first place, family.  The parents and children teeter between functioning at a high level considering the circumstances and being obliterated in mere seconds throughout the film, as the elders try their best to impart the smarts and sense to their children necessary to survive beyond them.  It’s a quick, easy and utterly effective metaphor, bundling every danger that could befall your child into a species of predator that can pop into their lives and end them at any moment.  Is this broad concept new to horror?  Of course not.  But adding the tweak of silence and a bevy of good acting makes A Quiet Place one of the most intense movies to come along in years.  Internet scolds may pick and pry at the edges of the film’s logistics here and there, yet the dark, pulse pounding movie magic cast throughout this thriller is strong.

A Quiet Place 1

Ready Player One


Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel Ready Player One has been dividing geek fandom since it hit the stands; for some it’s a delightful menagerie of 80s pop culture, and for others it’s warmed over name dropping with little originality.  The book is actually somewhere in the middle, a decent concept in these increasingly virtualized times that often lacked compelling characters and followed the pat three act arc so closely it’s got a magical cyber key to demarcate each one.  Cline received a rare blessing indeed when Steven Speilberg’s schedule actually lined up to allow his directorial involvement with the project to go forward, and we the audience are now treated to more than a few dollops of nostalgia mixed in with whip-crack visuals and a streamlined adventure fable that will inspire more than a few ear to ear grins.

Credit is due to Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn as well; digging through the variety of movies, characters and music the considerable Time Warner archive has to offer, they’ve swapped out a majority of the book’s references for new ones, completely trashed entire quests in favor of newer and better ones, and even managed to make the central love story pop—certainly moreso than it did on the page.  A game cast spends the majority of its facetime behind motion captured avatars, but in the real world (a surprisingly small-feeling backlot set of dirty streets and the offices of Corporate Evil Personified) we enjoy our time with the likes of Olivia Cook as the plucky Samantha and Ben Mendhelsohn, well on his way to being cast as the villain in every film from here on out.  New additions include TJ Miller’s alternately ominous and hilarious virtual henchman and Hannah John-Kamen as the IRL enforcer.  Our main hero, Parzival/Wade, isn’t much more than a video game hero writ large himself, but there’s more than enough going on at all times that we never feel too cheated by a fairly two dimensional lead. Readers of the source material who feel out of sorts after the significant changes to the early missions will be comforted by the spectacular finale, which keeps the important bits from the book and adds a few delights on top.

Spielberg injects just enough heart and soul into Ready Player One to make it the rarest of birds, a film adaptation that improves upon the book in any number of ways.  As an architect of much of the cultural magic that the book celebrated, he seems a natural choice, but in fact it’s his longstanding mastery of the mass entertainment that makes him the perfect fit.  He knows where to drop a joke, how to make use of a Hollywood classic or two, and when to keep things moving forward almost despite the digital barrage of characters and action swirling around every inch of the frame.  Cline’s been writing a sequel that no doubt will give another filmmaker the opportunity to step into this playland in a few years, but I’ll be surprised if it lives up to the gleeful ride Spielberg and his cohorts have cooked up here.


Black Panther


Shoehorned into an already well stuffed Marvel sequel (and…let’s do Giant Man!) in the successful Captain America franchise was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it origin story for T’Challa, better known to fans as The Black Panther.  A marvelous mid 60s creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this hero defined aspirational black culture—a king from the fictional African country of Wakanda, rich enough in natural resources and groundbreaking technology that the influence of the white western world was not only unnecessary, but actively avoided.  Despite the rush job in Civil War, that film did a fairly good job of introducing Chadwick Boseman in the role, giving him a tragedy to rise above and an enemy to vanquish.  Considering the popular reaction to the character and an increasingly diverse Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that the Marvel Machine would give Black Panther his own film.  The biggest questions for the production probably revolve around how well such a film would balance action movie hijinks with themes of racial justice and history;  I’m glad to report that Boseman, director Ryan Coogler and an extremely talented cast of supporting characters storm through thrilling paces and deftly deal with a variety of elephants in the room using equal parts style, humor, character and heart.

Boseman, coming off an underappreciated turn in last year’s Marshall, has quickly joined his DNA with that of the Wakandan king and protector.  He strikes a perfect balance between heroic swagger and humble duty to his people, and as noted early and shown often, it’s a tough job that will take more than birthright to master.  He’s aided by a cadre of magnificent women, a sister, a lover and a lieutenant who exhibit mastery in their respective fields of science, spycraft and soldiering.  There’s an ongoing debate over what kind of role in the world a hyper advanced but secretive nation should play, which along with many nice touches including but not limited to some fun tech upgrades (this is Marvel, after all) to T’Challa’s classic costume end up serving as subtle but overarching metaphors on race and society, both from the past and very much today.  This leads to one of the best-conceived and executed villains of the MCU, Killmonger, played with anger and menace by Michael B. Jordan as the natural corollary to T’Challa’s thoughtful grace.  All heroes must pass a variety of trials by fire, and Killmonger brings both physical and spiritual obstacles to batter our protagonist with that truly lead to a transformative character arc while illustrating several complicated dichotomies between the foes.  The rest of the players involved soar—even Martin Freeman as the overwhelmed CIA operative Everett Ross gets some heroic notes—and by the time the dust has settled, we’re staring at what may become one of the most popular Marvel heroes to ever splash across the silver screen.  As names like Hemsworth, Downey Jr. and Evans age/expense out of their seemingly iconic roles, Boseman and a few other young upstarts appear to be more than ready to take on whatever challenges Marvel Studios cook up for their ever-expanding fictional universe.