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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

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

Published in Reviews

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy like no other. Yes, two people fall in love—but that’s about all The Big Sick has in common with your average romantic comedy. This film is an amazing beast off in its own category.

Real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon penned the script based on their own courtship. Nanjiani plays himself, while the eternally awesome Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) steps into the role of Emily. Their story is incredible, and the way it is presented here—by a fine ensemble under the direction of the great Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris, Wet Hot American Summer)—results in one of the year’s best films.

Kumail is a standup comedian trying to make it in Chicago when Emily takes in one of his sets. The two wind up in bed together, with Kumail actually being the Uber driver who has to take her home. They have a good time, but they vow to never see each other again.

That doesn’t last long, and the two wind up in a relationship—one that Kumail keeps secret from his Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who are trying to arrange a wife for him. Things get complicated, and the two of them split. Things get even more complicated when Emily winds up in the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, and Kumail is called upon by her friends to check on her.

After an awkward hospital visit, Emily winds up in an induced coma, with Kumail informing her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). As Emily’s situation worsens, Kumail, technically her ex-boyfriend, spends a lot of time with her parents—and a lot of time coming to terms with his feelings for Emily.

Nothing you know about Ray Romano will prepare you for just how damn good he is as Terry, Emily’s sensitive dad. I mean, the man was funny on Everybody Loves Raymond, but who knew he could not only do drama, but more than hold his own with an epic Holly Hunter? He has a scene in Kumail’s apartment, where he reveals details of his marital tensions, that will stand as one of the year’s best-acted scenes. He’s a legitimate Best Supporting Actor Oscar contender.

Hunter is right there along with him when it comes to Oscar worthiness. Her Beth is a strong-willed person—so strong that she practically beats up a frat boy who is heckling Kumail at one of his gigs. Hunter is always good, but this role is her best in years. It’s also her funniest turn since playing Edwina in Raising Arizona 30 years ago. (Yes, Raising Arizona came out 30 years ago. Let that linger for a moment.)

Showalter—who actually spoofed romantic comedies when he co-wrote the script for 2014’s They Came Together starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler—rides the film’s shifting tones like an expert surfer. There are so many ways in which this movie could’ve gone wrong, but it’s never melodramatic or kitschy or cutesy. It deals with every relationship, cultural issue and family problem in an incisive way—all while making you laugh and cry. Hats off to Showalter.

Nanjiani, like Romano, has shown a stellar ability to make people laugh with past projects, but he delivers a range of emotions here that should lead him to dramatic roles for the foreseeable future, if he wants them. He is yet another Oscar contender—and even though her character spends a good chunk of this movie asleep, don’t count out Kazan, either, an actress of extreme power.

I don’t think I’ve ever before had to use my T-shirt sleeve to dab away tears from both laughing and crying while watching a movie in public. The Big Sick got me both ways—and it will get you, too.

The Big Sick is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Monster is a minimalist horror film that mixes elements of Cujo, Alien and Ghostbusters—the latter because the title monster looks a lot like a greasier version of the demon dog Rick Moranis transformed into in the comedy classic.

There’s nothing funny about the terrible road trip for Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and daughter Lizzy (Ella Balletine). They have a blowout on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere. Their car hits a wolf—a bloody wolf—and Lizzy makes the keen observation that something must’ve driven it to run in front of their car. Well, she’s very right: There’s a monster in the woods, and it wants to not only eat them, but anybody who tries to help them.

Writer-director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) has made a decent creature feature here, one that is as much of a mother-daughter drama (there are plenty of flashbacks showing their troubled times) as it is a flick about a monster. Kazan is damn good here; she continues to be one of the more under-appreciated actresses in movies today. (She must get some more higher profile roles!) Balletine is every bit her match as a daughter who has much more common sense than her mother.

The movie clocks in at 91 minutes, but it feels longer than that due to some stretches that are drawn out a bit. Still, it enough works to qualify The Monster as yet another decent movie in the resurgent horror genre.

The Monster is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing