Friday, January 18, 2019

More Coen brilliance, only slightly marred

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018), on Netflix, is a set of six stories from the “Old West,” at once super authentic and great parodies…… The first is the story of Buster Scruggs itself, the singing cowboy (Trim Blake Nelson) who is as neat and trim and wholesome as a good cowboy can be. But be packs a deadly punch. Mocked as a featherweight Buster has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve and under his white hat and decimates his enemies to a pulp, all with an ah shucks smile on his face. The sketch is entirely hilarious..… In the second story, Near Algodones, a bad guy (James Franco) robs an isolated bank on the lonesome prairie. But he has no idea of the skills of retribution by the straight-laced teller (Stephen Root). The best line is when Franco is strung up on a gallows for a second time (having been cut down by a sympathizer earlier), turns to another thief facing his maker and quips “first time?”…..The third story Meal Ticket features a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his legless performer (Harry Melling), who roll from town to town where the actor spouts soliloquies to befuddled if transfixed audiences. But the impresario runs across a technically advanced form of entertainment that will save the hassle of transporting a deformed human. Melling is especially good as the otherwise deaf and dumb performer but the story is a hackneyed treatise on capitalist mechanization…..As with the fourth story, All Gold Canyon, which is as brilliant a narrative as it is boring eco-cliché. Tom Waits is an aging prospector who enters a bucolic valley, seemingly untouched by man. The animals, living in bliss, decide to vanish and the prospector begins digging test holes, eventually locating a gold seam. He’s attacked – get it, man’s violence against man, continuing nature’s disruption? All turns out well, especially as Corrupt Man leaves and the valley returns to bliss…..The Gal Who Got Rattled, about characters on a wagon train heading to Oregon,  is the most complex and best acted of the stories and comes with a startling and unsettling ending……Finally, The Mortal Remains is the most opaque. Several characters of wildly different personalities ride a stagecoach with a ghost-like driver as they speed into darkness, with a series of arguments peppered by tall tales and outrageous witticisms…..Like the Coen’s others films, these six stories are marked by perfectionist detailing in costume and setting, and dialogues marked by the kind of formalized arcane speech common in the late 19th century. Kudos to the Coens but two of the sketches are unfortunately marred by political messages.

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