The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

* * * * 1/2

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

The stories were originally going to be broken up, and producer Netflix was originally going to package them separately, as a TV series. I don’t know what discussions lead to the current format, of a single feature film, but suspect it may have to do with the stories’ disparate running times. The shortest feels around ten minutes, the longest at least half an hour; a TV series so comprised would have been radical, and perhaps ran the risk of being off-putting. As it stands, the experience of watching all in one sitting, as I did, is enormously rewarding, as the stories are well placed to thematically resonate and enrich each other.

The first, titular story, and the one that follows, are both very very funny and pretty violent, and seem designed to deconstruct the myth-making, “balladeering” of the old west. But as the film goes on, the stories grow in length, deepen in characterisation and darken in mood, and, while the sudden threat of fatal violence remains ever-present, the thematic focus shifts to language, such that the final story is essentially all dialogue, and all about words.

The Coens just love words with this film, and you’ll love them loving them. The lovely conceit of the whole seems to be that, while the American western frontier was coarse and rough in action, it was dignified and stately of tongue. This theme is spectacularly illustrated in the film’s final minutes, which fuse New World frontier law with Old World stately decorum while also nodding to an entire, hidden realm of unorthodox lifestyles. The final face we see is fearful, not just of potential violence, but of a love that dare not yet speak its name, and of society itself.

Suburbicon

157855A baffling misstep from director Clooney.

* * 1/2

George Clooney’s sixth feature as a director, Suburbicon is an unsatisfying movie. Adapted by Clooney and his longtime professional partner Grant Heslov from a Coen Brothers script, it attempts to be a black comedy noir, a satire of 50s/60s-era United States suburbia, and a statement on US race. It only succeeds at pulling off the first, and even then, only just, without much aplomb.

The noir plot feels very, very much like early Coen Brothers, and, as it turns out, that’s what it is – their screenplay has been dated to 1986. They’ve surpassed themselves many times over since then, and this story feels like a draft of their future abilities, an exercise, or at the very least an obviously nascent work. Themes that continued to intrigue them are here in abundance and character types they love are present in basic, unshaded form, but they themselves have done this type of stuff so much better since, and often. The obvious (and very thematically similar) masterpiece is Fargo, which has now inspired three seasons of an homage/pastiche television show; The Man Who Wasn’t There also may have drawn some of its characters from the draft versions present here. Ultimately, this part of the film – and this is the part that sort of works – feels, at its best, stale and redundant.

Worse – much worse – the racial story is incredibly, sloppily undercooked. The motivations of black families moving to all-white suburban enclaves, and the organised tactics used to drive them away, is fascinating and rich fodder for its own movie. Unfortunately, shoehorned around the edges of the main story as it is here, this emotionally and historically weighty element is hurried and simplistic, coming off as exploitative and cheap. Clooney is a political man, and has directed at least two movies which are directly political (and good), so his almost childish attempt at a statement here is simply baffling. This entire strand should have been left on the cutting room floor, for it simply and blatantly does not work. That would have left a pretty brief movie, but it may at least have been fun, if redundant; Suburbicon’s flaws ruin the fun.

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Hail, Caesar!

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**** (out of five)

The Coen Brothers’ 1950s-set Hollywood Studio comedy is an endlessly, effortlessly entertaining flight of fancy. If they only created it to delight themselves – which is how it possibly comes off – I have no beef with that.

Structured as the day in the life of the fictional Capitol Studios’ Head of Physical Production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the episodic structure allows the Coens to gently – lovingly – satirize Ben Hur, On The Town, Manhattan melodramas, singing cowboy pictures and water ballets while also glancing at communist screenwriters, rival sibling gossip columnists, the rise of the Californian aerospace industry and Carmen Miranda. It’s all a colorful hoot.

The real Mannix was not the head of a studio but rather a mob-connected studio “fixer”, and while Brolin’s character shares attributes with the infamous heavy, the fanciful way he’s named is representative of the film’s whole alternative-universe, take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt aesthetic. George Clooney plays a Charlton Heston type – but one who is swayed by communism. Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly, but hardly the Gene Kelly, and Tilda Swinton plays identical twin sister columnists who are barely disguised substitutes for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – who weren’t related. Perhaps the most delightful performance comes from the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, who plays a Kirby Grant Jr. style singing cowboy forced to not only join the cast of a picture where he has to speak – “to other people!” (not horses) – but also to foil an extortion scheme.

It’s all very silly and all very Coen at their lightest. It’s extremely easy to digest, pretty as a picture, and constantly gently amusing with a few huge belly laughs. If you really don’t care for Hollywood history I suppose it would be possible to hate this gorgeous, loving pastiche; the more you care, the more gags there are to tickle you. I was tickled pink.