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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Six paths, six stories, that all say the same bloody thing

dir: Coens


Usually I’d argue that anthology films are kind of a waste of time and resources unless you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of tapas instead of an actual meal, but, hell, it’s the Coens, it’s on Netflix, and I’d be a fool to not see it, considering the, I dunno, 14 or so truly great films they’ve made so far. It’s a reasonable bet to give them the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off most of the time.

Except when it doesn’t. But this is not one of those times. The fact that these stories are told in short story form, is the perfect delivery device for the overall package, because there’s no real connection between any of the stories, other than that people suck. It’s not the first time the Coens have ventured in the realm of the Western, but it’s the most recent, and probably the funniest. There is a certain mordent grimness as well, which befits the frontier setting, one which maybe implies man’s drive to ‘conquer’ the New World was an inherently deadly business.

Almost all the stories trade in death, in that death is either an element of the story, or the punchline to it, but not always. The last story, as far as I could tell, is entirely about death, with a number of people lead unawares to their final reward on a stagecoach, and yet they also argue about the nature of love, tedium, loneliness, the value of speaking the same language as someone you’ve shacked up with. All while the driver drives on.

The stories are bookended with images from a literal book being leafed through, as if these are all stories from the same book, by the same author, but really it’s mostly the Coens putting together some stories they thought up over the years (one of the stories is from Jack London, probably the best one, but who could tell) and making it look like there’s an overarching theme or connection at work.

There isn’t. Their only point is the same one they borrowed when they made No Country for Old Men, which is that there is no mercy, no divine grace, no power of prayer, no divine intercession on our behalf, and evil easily triumphs over good because it is way meaner and wants the prize more.

Again, except when it doesn’t. There is a wry approach at play here, where luck doesn’t really seem to go anyone’s way for too long, and misunderstandings lead to tragedy, or where venality wins out over virtue, but it’s not meant in a mean way, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn’t.

The first story, which shares the title of the movie, is about a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who looks like and sounds like the clear embodiment of all that jerks used to love about cowboy movies. Not only that but, like Deadpool, or any number of other characters who talk directly to the audience, this jerk tells us all about how wonderful he is, through his particular song and dance routine. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s quite handy with a gun.


The Hateful Eight

Hateful Eight

A weekend trip to the snow turns into a nightmare for a bunch of racists
and a black man who likes killing racist white people in Quentin Tarantino's
8th film, The Hateful Eight! Be sure to take your racist Trump-voting grandmother
along to enjoy it too

dir: Quentin Tarantino


I haven’t always loved his movies, but I’d be lying if I implied that I was anything less than excited whenever a new one of his movies comes out. Genuinely excited.

Remember what that was like: looking forward to a Tarantino movie? For some people that anticipation stopped just after Pulp Fiction, but me, well, I’ve liked most of the stuff he’s ever done. I know it sounds uncritical and fanboyish, but I generally do enjoy watching his movies. His movies about movies are just so movie-ish that a lot of the time I can’t help but love them as I’m watching them.

It doesn’t always pay off. It rarely pays off to have high expectations in life, I’m increasingly finding, especially when it comes to the films of Quentin Horatio Tarantino.

I generally feel sadness when I hear of people passing away. It’s a normal human thing. Even with people I don’t know. I was saddened to hear when Sally Menke died back in 2010.

Who’s Sally Menke, you may rightfully ask? She used to be the editor who painstakingly worked with Tarantino on his movies, up until Inglourious Basterds. That’s one of the reasons why the enjoyment in watching his flicks has ticked down somewhat for me since then.


The Lone Ranger

Lone Ranger

The dead bird is the smartest one out of the three of them

dir: Gore Verbinski

I was told to expect a disaster. We were assured it would be the absolute bomb – total dog of the year.

I wasn’t told that it was episode 5 of Pirates of the Caribbean, because ultimately that’s what this flick comes across as. With Trains!

Johnny Depp simply plays a more boring yet still over-the-top character than he does in the Pirates franchise, and the strongest similarity is that just like most of the character's actions in those nautically and intellectually wet movies, his character's actions here don't make a hell of a lot of sense most of the time either, but they’re meant to be entertaining. Meant is the operative word.

This possibly was meant to be like an origin story for a new Lone Ranger franchise, which strikes me completely as the triumph of wishful thinking over intelligence, but the horrible pre-release press and the dismal box office performance should have staked this idea before it had a chance to flourish.

This isn't a complete disaster, though, as irritating as Depp's Tonto might be, and as ill-considered as the idea was, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with resurrecting the squarest American hero of all time. The Lone Ranger may be a complete unknown to people under thirty, but who’s to say it was the wrong time for a comeback?


True Grit

True Grit

That's some mighty fine squint-acting y'all doing there

dir: Coens


Remakes are usually pointless. They’re often just emblematic of the risk averse nature of Hollywood, which wants only to shiny up the tried and true for profit and plaudits. This isn’t even the first time the brothers Coen have remade something: they did it before with The Ladykillers, receiving global yawns for their troubles.

But they’ve also made a career out of making films about other films, or at least films that don’t usually exist as separate, independent entities, but which exist on that ironic meta level as if to comment on the genre they’re indulging in at that given time.

True Grit is fairly straight ahead, down the line, and doesn’t indulge as much in their genre commentary; as in, it’s not like it either deconstructs the earlier flick starring John Wayne, or the Western genre itself. The story comes from a book, and they’ve stayed true both to the book and the earlier film, without indulging Jeff Bridges the way John Wayne was indulged by the makers of the earlier flick.

The real main character of the film isn’t Rooster Cogburn, played as a fat, drunken, vicious idiot by Jeff Bridges, it’s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl looking for justice. Or vengeance, whichever.


Django Unchained

Django Unchained

He looks like he's going to paint a portrait with the gun.
A portrait of... REVENGE!!!!

dir: Quentin Tarantino

So, saviour of humanity that he is, using the magic of cinema to correct or at least exact retribution for the crimes of the past, Tarantino does for the slaves in Django Unchained what he did for the Jews in Inglourious Basterds: he gets historical revisionist revenge, REVENGE!

I don’t know how much moral or philosophical thinking goes into what he does, but Tarantino doesn’t really strike me as a director who has an agenda beyond making films that look like and reference other films. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve enjoyed so many of his films (to wildly different degrees) that to criticise Tarantino for what he doesn’t do (come up with entirely and wholly new themes, aesthetics and plots/stories) ignores what he does do (makes entertaining and sometimes hellishly funny films).

With Django Unchained it’s an even thornier proposition. Sure, it’s entertaining, but I can see how the criticism of trivialising the legacy of slavery in the US is a theoretically valid one. It raises the hackles of the kinds of hackle-ready outrage merchants who thought getting a wholly symbolic and fantastical revenge on Hitler and his high ranking scumbags trivialised the Holocaust in his earlier film.




Of course this is going to be a good movie. Just look at the moustache on Viggo

dir: Ed Harris

Ah, westerns. Not nearly enough of them are still being made. And, in some senses, as with musicals, X-Men films and anything made by Baz Luhrman, you could argue that there is no goddamn need to ever, ever make any more of them ever again.

The western, however, unlike the other examples cited, deserves to have a continued existence. It deserves to survive, and prosper as a genre filled with awe-inspiring scenery, people killing each other with guns, and the rugged individualism Americans like to think they’re all heirs to.

It’s the most quintessential of American genres. You can make the argument that virtually all cinema and all genres originate in America, considering the birthplace of the cinematic art form, but then you’d be being awfully pedantic, and no-one likes sleeping with awfully pedantic people. So let that be a warning to you.

Whatever the argument’s merits, the irony is that despite the ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ that America has achieved as a country and in terms of civilisation, they still hunger to make and see films set in an era before everything was decided: before there were limits on anything, be it ambition, be it violence, or be it a complete lack of fences.


3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma

Men go bang bang with gun guns, everybody wins

dir: James Mangold


Do you have a hankerin’ for some good ol’ western fun? Gunslingers shooting each other, shooting injuns and making way for the railroads by shooting the landscape? Do you want to watch two titans of contemporary cinema use hokey Southern accents and shoot at each other and their enemies for two hours? Do you know the quantity of wood a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Then this remake of a western from the 50s could appeal to you. It’s a very simple premise: honest rancher is forced by circumstance to escort an outlaw to a train in a town called Contention, being the 3:10pm train to the prison in Yuma, Arizona. Along the way he has to fight off the crim’s gang, the Apache, and the criminal’s charismatic manipulations and seductions. All this he does to earn respect in the eyes of his teenage son, who sees him as a pretty pathetic paternal figure, and to make some money in order for his family to keep their ranch.

Christian Bale plays the heroic Dan Evans rancher role, and Russell Crowe plays the charismatic outlaw Ben Wade. As in the original, the two earn each other’s respect with various actions and arguments about right and wrong. Unlike the original, we wish the criminal would just kill all the nice people and ride off into the sunset with an attractive senorita draped over his saddle.


Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The

Assassination of Jesse James

Good job making Brad Pitt look like a legend from a bygone era, photoshoppers

dir: Andrew Dominik

Assassination is one of the most beautiful and mournful films you’ll ever see. It is long, and sad, from its first immaculately composed and photographed scene to its last. None of which will make it any more enjoyable an experience for the general audience that will be bored out of its collective fucking mind.

Though anyone seeing the film should know exactly what it’s all about from beginning to end from the title alone, what they might not expect is that the flick is really about both the deconstruction of a myth and the deconstruction of a person’s soul. Not a lot happens in the 160 or so minutes of screen time apart from the falling apart of a curiously larger than life persona.

These are the twilight years of Jesse James and his gang. At the advanced age of his mid thirties, James is plagued with physical and mental ailments that render him something of a paranoid wreck, and unknowable to the people around him. As the persistent voiceover keeps telling us, he trusts not a soul, and moves his family at a whim at the slightest hint of trouble. He moves between Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri, always restless, always harried even if the law is not on his trail.


Proposition, The

The Proposition

dir: John Hillcoat

I still have the soundtrack by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave ringing in my ears. For in truth that is probably the most successful part of the film.

This so-called Australian “Western” has little going for it except lovely postcard visuals, a melancholy tension, people with bad teeth giving good performances and a hell of a lot of brutality.

Let’s face it, the starting point of British colonialism in this country was anything but auspicious or pleasant for any of the people involved. The town of Banyon serves as the “hell” in the line uttered by one of the film’s many characters, “What fresh hell is this…”, though he is in fact talking about all of Australia.

Though the land has its empty natural beauty, it looks like what much of it is: hostile and inhospitable. Of course the film plays this up and makes it look like the first whities here must have been insane to stay. As well as being very dirty all of the time.

Many people star in this flick, many people were involved, and so it comes with many expectations. Maybe a stack of people are going to think it’s the bee’s knees. For me it was more like the flea’s disease.


Rustlers' Rhapsody

Rustler's Rhapsody

He maybe the hero, but he's not going to be a jerk about it

dir: Hugh Wilson

Charming movie with Tom Berenger. An affectionate spoof on those black and white singing cowboy movies, seen through today’s eyes. Starts in black and white. Very well done; top movie and excellent cast including Fernando Ray who was in all of Bunuel’s movies, and Andy Griffiths as the Colonel. A young Sela Ward (Wife/doctor in The Day After Tomorrow) plays the Colonel’s daughter.


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