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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

So Hail, Caesar! is a film with virtually no plot, but it gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to adapt the styles of films from the ’40s and ’50s into their weirdo universe?

Hell yeah. Sign me up!

The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans (including myself) a little worried. Its release was moved out of the 2015 award season and dumped into February—usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic usually reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.

In truth, this movie probably will score the highest with diehard Coen fans—those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered writers’ block all the way back in 1991.

While there are obviously nods to Barton Fink, the film Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! features a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.

It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand $100,000 in ransom money.

Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in increasingly hilarious wardrobes), navigating the latest scandal of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.

The plot is paper-thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old-timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams-style pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly-type musicals and more. The film includes of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast. The movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.

The Coens have a way with making minor moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is easily one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. A close second is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s something wrong with you.

In a show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career-best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented—the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.

I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Coen Brothers have made films raging from dark-comedy works to Westerns—yet they all have a distinctive, specific Coen Brothers feel. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is loosely based on Dave Von Ronk, a Greenwich Village folk singer who tried—and failed—to captivate audiences in the early ‘60s.

The story begins in a café. After performing, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told by the owner that a “friend” is waiting for him outside. When he steps outside, he’s beaten up by a stranger. The struggling musician—his new record isn’t selling—sleeps on the couches of his friends, and he’s trying to come to terms with the suicide of a former collaborator and friend. He ponders returning to the Merchant Marines.

Inside Llewyn Davis has some of the dark humor typical in a Coen Brothers film, and the comedy relief is always perfectly timed to break the moments of intense heartbreak you feel for the struggling Llewyn.

The musical performances also make the film worthwhile. Isaac’s work is fantastic. (He performs solo and as a trio with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.) Other music performances come from the likes of Nancy Blake and Declan Bennett. The soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis is indeed worth remembering.

The Coen Brothers can do no wrong, it seems, when it comes to making good films that separate themselves from previous efforts. There is no doubt that this one is going to bring home some awards; in fact, the nominations have already been pouring in. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews