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By midlandsmovies, Dec 11 2018 01:29PM

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) Dir. The Coen Brothers

A 6-part anthology film that quickly ended up on Netflix, the award-winning Coen brothers are not immune to the modern day perils of the straight-to-streaming phenomena. However, like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, cinematic quality is there from the outset and this easily could have been more widely released in cinemas.

And given its quality it is a huge shame it wasn't.

The multiple, and magnificent, stories themselves are framed within the pages of a book and contain a range of tonally different shorts all set in the Wild West. The Coens’ dark humour and splashes of violence are well and present and the stories include a cocky outlaw played brilliantly by Tim Blake Nelson who sings (and floats) his way to heaven (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), James Franco’s bank-robber hanging by a noose (Near Algodones) and Liam Neeson’s impresario riding through towns with his actor Harrison who has no arms and legs (Meal Ticket).

The eclectic situations continue with Tom Waits’s grizzled prospector searching for riches in the wilderness (All Gold Canyon), a wagon train being attacked by natives (The Gal Who Got Rattled) and finally five people in a stagecoach that refuses to stop as it carries a dead body (The Mortal Remains).

With something for everyone, the yarns each have their own unique style and death and misery appear in all the tales. But the Coens haven’t scrimped on the comedy from annoying dogs, witty songs and characters trapped within their situations to humorous effect.

My personal favourite was The Gal Who Got Rattled with an excellent Zoe Kazan as innocent Alice Longabaugh and Bill Heck as the kindly and gruff Billy Knapp. That story could happily have been part of a longer film and the mixture of deadly attacks and sharp conversation was a highlight.

That said, each story has its own charms and for someone not keen on anthology flicks (see my Ghost Stories review here) the Coens have managed to weave 6 amazing stories into a cohesive and thematic whole.

Where Hail Caesar tackled Roman epics (and musical numbers) amongst its Hollywood setting, the Coens' influences here come from the American love of frontier films - another classic genre linking their modern takes within established cinematic history.

Not diverging greatly from their usual style, the death-obsessed duo deliver another historical romp with a great cast and amazing outdoor locations.


Mike Sales

By midlandsmovies, May 9 2016 05:04PM

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Narrated by a sardonic Michael Gambon, the latest from directing partnership Joel and Ethan Coen is a comedic look at the 1950s Hollywood studio system which includes light-hearted allusions to McCarthyism but plays out as a farcical pantomime of kidnapping mishaps akin to The Big Lebowski.

The plot sees Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, Head of Production at Capitol Productions, trying to keep scandals of its wayward stars away from the press. Enquiries from socialite journalists the Thacker sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton who is as great as she always is) about their dark secrets – including a ‘knocked-up’ Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran – are delayed as he deals with a recent kidnapping. A Kirk Douglas-esque George Clooney is drugged unconscious and subsequently held for ransom after being taken from the set of a prestige Roman Epic. This story of a communist “study group” of mostly underpaid (possibly black-listed) screenwriters is punctuated with parallel stories including the career of up-and-coming singing Western star Hobie Doyle who is hired for an artistic project despite his stunt background.

As livelihoods intersect, the stories come together as characters bumble their way through multiple takes on set and arrive at tender dinner dates under the eyes of the media and the film revels in these nods to the past throughout. From the (slightly) hidden homo-eroticism of the amazing tap-dancing musical number "No Dames!" sequence led by Channing Tatum to the iconography of historical epics from the period such as Cleopatra, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur, the Coens move from musicals other genres with ease. Their love for the period is obvious as they allude to a host of real-life Hollywood legends – Kirby Grant, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Carmen Miranda and so forth – which although obvious, are perfect as over-the-top stereotypes reflecting the OTT film performances from this Golden Age.

Funnily, some scenes were reminiscent of the recent, and much more serious, Trumbo and the Coens’ sense of time was equally amazing – none more so that the work done by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The colour grading on the Hobie Doyle’s film scene was phenomenal and enhanced by the brilliantly designed period wardrobe. Technicolour luminescence, precisely chosen LA film locations and rear projection helped sell not just the ‘films within the film’ but the film you’re watching itself. A great “meta” idea helped by tiny touches like Maddix’s Walt Disney-style moustache, a mermaid’s tail from a 50’s synchronised swimming team and suitably realistic backlot locations were a heartfelt tribute to the era.

The acting was also brilliant with a host of current Hollywood stars but cameos by Coen regular (and wife) Frances McDormand and a brief turn by Jonah Hill help flesh out an already stellar cast. Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney doing the 50s technical dance number was a joy as were the silly De Ville-esque religious monologues that Clooney spouts. The comedy peaks however with Ralph Fiennes’ as Laurence Laurentz who tries to coax a performance from Doyle’s hopeless efforts.

A homage, a pastiche, a tribute – the Coens’ ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is a masterclass in the technical but with warm comedic touches, a playfully simple narrative and heaps of laugh out loud moments, it also passes the audition to join those great films about films. With the look of an LA Confidential and a raucousness verging on a Carry On film, the Coens’ latest offering has all the ingredients of the bygone age it affectionately lampoons.


Midlands Movies Mike

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