This Is a Movie Review: The Coen Brothers Sing ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and Other Tales in This Western Anthology

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Surprisingly, Perhaps Hilariously, Deadly Gunfire

Release Date: November 8, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/November 16, 2018 (Streaming on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a Buster Scruggs problem. That is to say: Buster’s not in it enough! That can be the trouble with anthology films in which no characters appear in more than one segment. This issue can be alleviated, at least somewhat, if there are multiple memorable roles. But when Tim Blake Nelson saunters into town in his white cowboy suit, guitar in tow, he immediately wins us over with his storytelling aplomb, extreme self-confidence, and superhuman marksmanship. As Buster’s is the first story, he sets a rollicking, self-aware tone that makes us want to spend as much time with him as possible. Alas, it is not meant to be. But surely, he could have been a narrator or a wandering troubadour throughout! As it is, though, his arrival brings us pleasure, while his quick departure only leaves us hungry for more.

The other segments are more scattershot, but if you believe that the Coen brothers’ droll humor belongs in a Western setting, then you should find enough to enjoy. The three chapters immediately following the titular kickoff – in which bank robber James Franco gets his comeuppance, Liam Neeson puts on a travelling show, and Tom Waits goes prospecting for gold, respectively – wrap up before they are able to have much of an impact. It gets better and deeper with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays a single frontierswoman who must summon an unexpected amount of independence, while also dealing with a surprising, but perhaps promising, marriage proposal. It’s actually quite sweet, but then a Coen-style cruel twist of fate swoops in, leaving you a little devastated but narratively satisfied. The concluding chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is more of a tone piece than anything else, with a group of strangers in a carriage on its way to somewhere resembling purgatory, or maybe even Hell. As one of the passengers, Tyne Daly is a force of nature to bring us home, but even she cannot quite protect us in this harsh landscape. It’s an otherworldly approach befitting filmmakers who are heavily influenced by the Old Testament God, and while I may find The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a minor Coen effort, it is not without plenty to chew over.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Recommended If You Like: Coen brothers comedy in general, but can deal with scattershot results

Grade: 3 out of 5 Color Plates

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Big Sick’ is the Best Romantic Comedy in Years

Leave a comment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter

Director: Michael Showalter

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Adults and Comedians Talking Like Adults and Comedians

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)/Expands July 14, 2017

The Big Sick follows the classic rom-com template in a lot of ways despite not  resembling any other entry in the genre in any obvious fashion. But if you look close enough, that formula is there. There’s a meet-cute, a dramatic misunderstanding, and a climactic reunion. It is usually that middle portion when lesser rom-coms start to become annoying or even offensive, but when the miscommunications happen because one half of the central couple is in a coma, the struggles along the way to that happy ending become a lot more understandable.

Based on the real-life courtship of comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who plays a fictionalized version of himself) and his co-writer/now-wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is an astute portrayal of culture clash, modern romance tics, and the workaday stand-up comedy lifestyle. Kumail hits it off with Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she kinda, sorta heckles him, they go back to his place so that they can hook up and he can show her some cool obscure genre flicks like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (she teasingly takes him to task for testing her pop culture tastes). Soon enough they are basically inseparable. Alas, Kumail has been keeping Emily a secret from his parents because he comes from a traditional Pakistani family that practices arranged marriage, so any future with her comes with a risk of being ostracized. This would all be enough conflict on its own, but on top of that, just after they break, Emily succumbs to a mysterious illness that leads to doctors placing her in a medically induced coma.

Classic rom-com humor tends to spring from witticisms and oddball characterizations, but The Big Sick’s most hilarious elements come from its knack for outrageous joke-telling. This is called playing to your strengths. Nanjiani is one of the most top-tier funnymen around today, and the rest of the film’s core stand-up crew are played by some reliable comedic heavy hitters (Kurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham). The Big Sick wins you over because it goes broad and plentiful with its emotions. Every moment of worry over Emily’s health is counteracted with a big guffaw.

Nanjiani and company further distinguish themselves within the rom-com mold in how the make-up and reunion portion plays out. Kumail and Emily find themselves back to each other thanks mostly to the work he puts in with her parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). Romano brings the soulful gravitas he has made his specialty in his dramatic roles, but his comic chops are just as sharp as the young guns around him, and Hunter is the same spitfire we have loved for so long (her confrontation of a racist heckler is one of the film’s best scenes). While Kazan is unconscious for much of the narrative, she does not get shortchanged in the deal (SPOILER ALERT that is kind of given away by one of the film’s co-writers being alive), as she and Kumail still have to hash everything out once she is awake, which justifies the fairly lengthy running time (right around 2 hours). Ultimately, you can feel that every element of the story is in the right place; surely some elements were fictionalized, but the emotional truth is always full-to-bursting.

The Big Sick is Recommended If You Like: Knocked Up, Master of None, Ruby Sparks

Grade: 5 out of 5 Drop Ins