Sunday, February 10, 2019


[As I do from year to year, I'm going to try and get down as many Oscar-nominated films as I can before the big show on March 4.]

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. [Up for best adapted screenplay, 2 others] [Mild spoilers that get hotter as we go.] I have frequently said the Coens must be stoners, and I mean that neither as a dis nor as a backhand compliment so much as a description of what their work suggests. They have the stoner's voluptuary taste and feeling of randomness -- they seem to keenly feel things and notice details other people wouldn't. Sometimes this gives them a fresh, unexpected perspective that lights up a scene -- as we all saw recently when a lot of people were playing the Danny Boy clip from Miller's Crossing in honor of Albert Finney. (And of course it's apparent in all of The Big Lebowski, the first of their films that I really got.) But they also let their enthusiasms lead them down side roads and alleys and sometimes far, far from the point.

For 18 minutes their omnibus film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is brilliantly on point. The old-time kid's western storybook framing device launches, and we get the gunslinging balladeer himself hilariously tall-taling and Mike Finking his way through some spectacular showdowns -- brilliantly funny and violent -- without mussing a hair or missing a beat; even when his number finally comes up, his eloquence does not fail, but rather ascends (along with Buster himself) in song.  It's as if the Coens had taken the childish notion of The Old West -- the kind kids of the storybook era knew, with bloodless gun-battles and happy-ending cliffhangers -- and run it through 50 years of New Westerns, leaving the old storybook innocence spattered with Peckinpah blood, wised-up and absurd, but still mythic.

That's the high point, though. Not that the other stories aren't good, they're just not as inspired, and exhibit a mean streak that saps the pleasure from even the Coens' abundant inventiveness. The story of the bank robber who escapes justice only to be captured by fate is clever  -- but it's also right out of O. Henry and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The celebrated "Meal Ticket" episode is a dark and compelling conceit, but finally just depressing. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" cooks up a wonderful Oregon Trail sorta-romance between a marooned Midwestern maiden and a comically noble cowboy -- only to cut it brutally short because, well, I guess because that's life, pardner. "The All-Gold Valley" ends more happily but no more cheerfully. By the time we get to the big, dumb death-metaphor of "The Mortal Remains," I felt like this is what O Brother Where Art Thou would be like if they hadn't known enough to let go of Homer.

It all looks great -- Bruno Delbonnel, who did the Simon & Garfunkel cover look for Inside Llewyn Davis, makes a series of gorgeous, living tipped-in four-color plates here, and Carter Burwell's majestic music would make Jerome Moross proud or maybe jealous. All the actors are wonderful, but I give the palm to Tom Waits as the greatest successor to Gabby Hayes, Tyne Daly who knows how a lady should be treated, and Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan for the sweetness they bring to the hard trail.

A Star is Born. This old war horse always pleases me one way or another -- whether with old-Hollywood glammah or with the outrageous 70s excess of Barbra and Kris. I was surprised how straightforward and muted this Bradley Cooper version is -- it really looks like an actor made it, with the scenes played for maximum honesty and the dialogue super-naturalistic to the point of being frequently hard to make out (which makes sense as Jackson Maine, the latest incarnation of the drunken, doomed star, is losing his hearing). I was going to say that he even cut the big confrontations and set pieces from the earlier versions but looking back I see they're all still in there -- they just evolve so naturally, without announcing themselves (like Ally's manager telling Maine what's what), that you don't feel the build-up. It's almost John Cassavettes' A Star is Born. Cooper's insight seems to be that the story's so strong you don't have to force it. And he's right.

Maybe they let Cooper make this movie in such a minor key because Lady Gaga as Ally supplies more than enough major-chord glammah to pull the crowds with her big splashy song numbers; they're not my thing, but they by God convince you she's the star you're watching get born. The best thing I can say about her acting is that she doesn't get blown out of the water by the big boys she's running with here. Sam Elliott, in particular, is not only great in the customary Sam Elliot way of just being Sam Elliot, but his scenes of brotherly blood and iron with Cooper are tough and true. And Cooper, who was amazing in American Sniper, is amazing here playing a different kind of damaged case. The one drawback in his performance is mainly a wound to the film: his Maine is so buried in his pain -- squint-faced, greasy-haired and grin-armored; you can smell the booze on him -- that you wonder what Ally sees in him -- she acts the enabler with him at first, sure, but her behavior with her dad (Andrew Dice Clay! Who's very good!) shows that she's not a sucker. But I bought that he was able to get this far and not much farther without cracking, and that finding Ally was like getting a glimpse of his own soul after it being long away, and it helped him go a few more miles than he might have. I wouldn't give up Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett for this, but it's a worthy entrant.

No comments:

Post a Comment