November 19, 2018

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Ballad_of_buster_scruggsThe Coen Brothers’ latest movie is a hoot. Its simple format is an anthology of six stories of the Old West, two of which (“The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “All Gold Canyon”) are based on stories by Stewart Edward White and Jack London, respectively.

The tone of the engrossing narratives goes from slapstick musical to black comedy to social satire to tragedy. and to elegiac poetry. Legend has it that the Coens wrote the stories 25 years ago, and stuck them in a drawer for a later date. If the Coen Brothers have been reliably hit or miss over all these past two decades (“The Ladykillers” and “Hail, Caesar!” are undeniable stinkers whereas “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit” are fantastic gems), “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a delightful cinematic buffet with something for everyone.

Hands turn the lush pages of the kind of book that kids in the ‘60s would have pulled down from their parents’ shelves to stare blankly at the beautiful color plates that introduce each chapter. No byline is present under the book’s interior title page, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” The narrative formality is punctured if you read quickly enough to absorb the humor on the dedication page (to Gaylord Gilpin) for telling these campfire stories that won the trouser-staining esteem of his listeners.

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Coen Brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson all but steals the movie right off the bat as the title character, a guitar-playing crooner who also happens to be the fastest gun in the West. Is there anything Tim Blake Nelson can’t do” Old Buster is a show-off with a pistol. He is one smooth customer and a snappy dresser. Suited up in his all white cowboy outfit and white hat, Buster is the cleanest cowboy or gunfighter you’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil the tale, but dirt does have a way of finding its level with blood.

“Near Algodones” is the second story. “Pan-shot!” cried the old man” is the text that sits beneath the color plate of an old coot running in front of a frontier bank with a shotgun in his long-johns with a bunch of metal cooking pans strapped to his body. Trying to figure out the meaning of each chapter-opening caption becomes a game the audience can’t help but play. James Franco dials up his best Clint Eastwood squint.

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“Meal Ticket” is the third installment in the movie, and for my money the weakest of the bunch. Nonetheless, Liam Neeson gives a damn good portrayal of a traveling impresario who earns a living putting on shows with an armless and legless actor (impeccably played by the great Harry Melling — of “Harry Potter” fame). Melling’s character recites great speeches and soliloquies that capture the hearts and imaginations of hardscrabble frontier folk who give up coins for a night’s worth of entertainment.

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“All Gold Canyon” savors the unpopulated landscape of a gorgeous valley where a gentle creek might just hold untold wealth for a grizzled white-haired prospector played by Tom Waits. It took me a while to realize that it was the legendary singer/songwriter in the role. This little yarn has it all. Wild animals, a dream of glory, and a couple of jaw-dropping surprises.

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“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most complex of the film’s stories. Alice Longabaugh (wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan) is girl on a wagon train headed for Oregon who finds tragedy, romance, and violence along the way. It doesn’t get more bittersweet than this.

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The movie wraps up with “The Mortal Remains,” a stagecoach ride to end all stagecoach rides. Five passengers (played by Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, and Chelcie Ross) trade verbal, and a few physical, jabs on their way to a place where all crimes are paid. You’ll want to watch the whole movie twice just to catch all of the clues in this brilliantly crafted tale of would-be redemption.

Rated R. 132 mins. (A)

Five Stars

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November 15, 2018

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Bohemian_rhapsody“Bohemian Rhapsody” achieves its dramatic goal of celebrating the unforgettable music of a groundbreaking rock band whose omnisexual lead singer Freddie Mercury remains a revered pop figure for many good reasons. As with any biopic, this film’s success relies on the ability of the actor portraying the film’s subject to inhabit that person entirely. Indeed, Rami Malek carries off a spitting-image portrayal of Freddie Mercury that wins you over from his first appearance as a singer whose signature overbite allowed Mercury a greater singing range. Who knew an overbite could be so musically effective?

As the filmmakers make clear, the title of the film isn’t “Freddie Mercury.” Fans may well quibble over this film’s sanitized rendition of Mercury’s voracious appetite for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. However, the movie displays the band’s unorthodox musical methods and interpersonal conflicts toward creating anthemic songs that you’ll be humming in your sleep for days if not weeks after seeing it.  

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Actor Gwilym Lee is unrecognizable in his portrayal of Queen’s guitarist Brian May. You can’t help but get a charge out of Lee’s spot-on portrayal of Queen’s charismatic guitarist. Mike Myers turns in an equally impressive act of disguise as Ray Foster, an EMI record label executive (a composite character of several EMI geniuses) who screwed up what would have been a lucrative deal with Queen had he endorsed their experimental approach to songwriting that birthed the film’s title track.

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Dramatic liberties are taken. Pet peeves will be had. I wish they had used the [actual] clip of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing their amazing “Under Pressure” duet. Would it have been too much of a cheat to let the audience revel in that dynamic musical moment in time? It certainly could have provided some insight into why Mercury abandoned his bandmates.

Enough splitting hairs, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a fun ride that will put a lump in your throat, a tear in your eye, and more than one terrific song in your heart. Go with it.  

Rated PG-13. 134 mins. (A) 

Five Stars

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November 14, 2018

GREEN BOOK

Green_book“There are some words they don’t allow to be spoken, sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” Elvis Costello had his finger on the pulse of verbal behavior modification when he wrote and sang those words on his blistering social attack song “Lipstick Vogue” back in 1978.

There is no small irony in the fact that actor Viggo Mortensen got his ass handed to him for using the N-Word (outside an alt-right rally or perhaps the Oval Office, the only socially acceptable treatment of a word unless spoken by a black person) during a post-screening Q&A for his film “Green Book.” Never mind that Mortensen used the word in the context of an intellectual public discussion about a historically relevant film set in the ’60s. Art be damned. Mortensen was immediately chastised. He apologized profusely and repeatedly for his offense. 

Still, the damage was done. Will Mortensen’s career suffer? Only time will tell. What seems evident is that he didn’t mean any harm, much less a racial slur, while talking about the thematic underpinnings of a period film for which he spent many hours preparing for and performing in. Still, no one’s BS detector went into the red.

By prohibiting anyone but black people from using the N-Word, identity-politics-infused white knight liberals have effectively ducked their responsibility and dodged accountability for America’s systemic racism, a grim vestige of slavery that continues the incremental genocide of blacks for well over a century following the Civil War.

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What the word meant was always toxic. Now it’s the post-linguistics: its spelling, its two syllables. It wasn’t always so. Jim Farber’s 1970 book “The Student as Nigger” asked questions about oppression and education, not race. Does the trigger-happy cop who shoots an unarmed black person fit the N-Word designation regardless of his or her race? You can’t ask that question anymore. Bette Midler got in trouble for merely referencing John Lennon’s iconic song “Woman is the Nigger of the World” in a tweet. It ain’t 1972 anymore. It should be acceptable to describe the Republican party as the most niggardly political entity on the planet, but you can’t say that even though the N-ly word has no relationship whatsoever. It derives from an entirely different language group than the N-word.

Ignoring the intentionality behind a speaker’s use of the N-Word ignores the contextual reality on the ground. It distorts debate in a way that emphasizes by contrast the persecuted class that the privileged liberal pretends to defend or protect.

Which brings us to “Green Book,” a softball period drama about racism in America as witnessed via a road trip shared by a black man and a marginally racist white man.

Directed by Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary”), this feel-good film is based on the real-life interactions between renowned black pianist Donald Shirley and Tony Lip, a foul-mouthed New York-born Italian bouncer whom Shirley hires to chauffeur him on a musical tour through the Deep South during the early ’60s.

The film’s title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for African-American road trippers (published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green between 1936 and 1966) during the era of Jim Crow laws. Throughout North America blacks were refused access to food, lodging, restrooms and all sort of other conveniences whites took for granted. Driving while black, of course, is still a de facto crime in many American counties.  

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Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) delivers an immaculate portrayal of a gifted black musician who has been buffered from the underclass experience of blacks in America. Donald Shirley spent much of his life in Europe, where he spent most of his waking hours being tutored in classical piano. Shirley lives in an opulent apartment inside Carnegie Hall — in the very building of the legendary auditorium. Shirley sits upon an elevated throne when taking visitors. Shirley’s bisexuality is a secret.

Donald and Tony develop a Pygmalion relationship. Heaven knows Tony needs it. However Tony has a few cultural lessons for his mentor as well. Little Richard and the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken come as pleasant surprises for Donald, who speaks in an affected manner that might have earned a punch from a musician such as Miles Davis who, in spite of having been raised in a wealthy family, had no time for putting on airs. It’s doubtful that Davis and Shirley ever crossed paths.

“Green Book” excels as a white/black bromance crafted to fit release at the start of the holiday season. Not every white cop in the ’60s was a racist pig. Still, it’s doubtful that Shirley would have survived a roadside incident that occurs in this movie if it had occurred in 2018. To say that “Green Book” is out of step with 21st century America is a vast understatement.  

“Green Book” isn’t all that interesting but for its inadvertent role as a potential conversation starter about Mortensen’s N-word-related chastisement — assuming anyone is willing to talking about it openly. Polite society can censor non-black people from using the N-Word but it won’t struggle against the ravaging effects of politicized and corporatized racism that intimidates, marginalizes and murders blacks every minute of every day.

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“Green Book” is an entertaining and respectable movie about racism but it barely scratches the surface of the problem. Viggo Mortensen’s experience shows why. America is afraid of facing and addressing its demons. Ruining the lives of people on the humanitarian side of the issue, like Viggo Mortensen, comes all too easily.   

Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (B) 

Three Stars

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