“Sisters” and Brothers

Recently I finished the novel   The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. (Haven’t seen the movie based on the novel yet but certainly cannot argue with the casting of the two brothers. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly should be just about perfect in the roles.)

The book reminded me of the film Joel and Ethan Coen made for Netflix. In fact, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have been a more coherent and unified narrative. Don’t get me wrong. I have seen and enjoyed of the Coen brothers oeuvre over the years (if not always understanding their choices) but in my (possibly flawed,although I doubt it) opinion, Buster could have benefited from Mr. DeWitt’s discipline and sense of purpose.

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe,  a burly hitman   looking after his ailing mother (Judith Roberts) while coping with a severe case of PTSD caused by a triple whammy of childhood abuse, FBI raids and the horrors of military combat. His “job” is rescuing  underage girls from sex traffickers. which he dispatches with a ballpeen hammer. (Obviously, this bleak, brutal film is not for squeamish viewers).

Writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin) bases her screenplay on a novella by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death.) While the book offers glimpses of Joe’s method and madness (well, sorta) Phoenix and Ramsay use only the actor’s eyes and facial expressions  (partially hidden by a ferocious beard) and judicious use of millisecond flashbacks. to conjure up the character.  (Phoenix has less than a page of dialogue). The actor meets the challenge with another fierce and focused character study. (This is, after all, the  same performer who famously pulled out a sink from a wall while filming I Walk the Line. According to showbiz legend, he was not expecting the prop sink to completely give. Rather than call for another take – as I’ve seen in countless DVD extras- the actor masked his surprise and completed the scene in character.)

Ms. Ramsay shows scenes of brutal violence while Rosie and the Originals’ exquisite oldie “Angel Baby” and Engelbert’s syrupy “After  the Lovin’ ” play on the soundtrack.  This has been interpreted by several reviewers as examples of Ms. Ramsay’s midnight black sense of humor.

In one riveting scene, the carnage is shown as viewed on the building’s security cameras.

 Not to start including spoilers in my “reviews ” at this late date but there is a scene towards the end of the film that may make you doubt the truth of Joe’s point of view. (He is not the most reliable narrator, after all.) 

Yes, it is bleak. Yes, it can be violent. However, if you can handle it, You Were Never Really  Here is worth viewing (it’s now available on DVD) for the force  of Phoenix’s performance and the skills and unique touch of the Glasgow-born Ms. Ramsay (surprisingly, this is only her fourth feature-length film since her 1999 debut Ratcatcher.  In addition to the films already mentioned, her resume also includes 2002’s  highly acclaimed Morvern Callar. Needless to say, this   is onewriter/director who chooses projects carefully and on her own terms.

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Lynne Ramsey




Strictly for Coenheads

Ballad of Buster Scruggs may work for completist Coenheads but those of us who appreciate the brothers’ films (but hopefully retain most of our critical faculties) may find these six slim stories comprising what has been called “a revisionist western ” somewhat underwhelming.

For this viewer ,who has seen most of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films dating back to 1984’s Blood Simple, it may be their most lightweight effort to date. Yes, even slighter than Hail Caesar.

Tim Blake Nelson in “Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

The opening gambit with Tim Blake Nelson is fitfully entertaining. And there is a bit in one of the other snippets in which James Franco says “First time?” with a rope around his neck that is kinda funny (in a dark sorta way)  As for Zoe Kazan, she would seem to be a natural for the Coens’ skewed version of cinematic reality. (The wonder is that it hasn’t been done before.) But that is the extent of this viewer’s tolerance for this latest effort by the Coens (streaming exclusively on Netflix at the time of this posting.)

It’s almost as if these “stories” were sitting in a drawer somewhere. There wasn’t enough there for a complete movie but they were too developed to throw out . Along came Netflix with their reputation for deep pockets and hunger for prestige projects, like Orson Welles’ chaotic, unfinished Other Side of the Wind. (Perhaps that is the future of affluent streaming services like Netflix – to fund projects that would normally never be fully realized.)

Naturally, film critics  genuflect at the mention of the Coens’ name (the lone dissenting voice in the rottentomatoes.com website seems to be The New York Post) although the British newspaper The Independent calls the resulting film “superbly crafted but frustrating” and goes to say the Coens feed us “tasty morsels rather than a full meal. ” 

I didn’t fully appreciate the Coen’s peculiar touch until I saw another  “revisionist western” by another brother act, David and Nathan Zellner, who are allegedly fans of Joel and Ethan’s work.

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Damsel is toplined by Robert Pattinson and the always estimable Mia Wasikowska. Mr. Pattinson seems determined to distance himself from the pop cultural  furor surrounding his characterization in the Twilight movies (he was surprisingly convincing in Good Time by yet another brother team, Benny and Josh Safdie, but I think he should leave the western genre alone – unless his line readings in this movie were meant to be flat. It’s hard to tell).

The critics and most of the users seemed to like this one,too, but for this viewer, my thoughts on this movie can be summed up by the headline for the review in Newsweek magazine:: NEW WESTERN COMEDY GETS LOST IN THE WOODS

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Oh No! Not the Z-Word Again!

A  different spin on the zombie movie genre?                                                                 I know, I know, you’ve heard that before.   

  But THE CURED really is a zombie movie with a difference.

I mean, what would happen if zombies (there I go using the “z-word” again, to quote Shaun of the Dead) were turned back into normal (that is to say, non-people-chomping) people again?

That’s the premise of this movie written and directed by an Irishman,David Freyne (in his feature film debut) and set in Dublin. 

Anyway, a virus has infected 75% of the population, turning them into z’s (Relax, fans of The Walking Dead, that still leaves 25% to kick up a little homicidal mischief.)

Life isn’t so good for those who have been cured, either.

“This is worse than jail. They’re treating us like lepers,”moans one of the former zombies who have taken the cure.

A former lawyer (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) and ex-z is shunned by his parents and reduced to a cleaning job. He doesn’t take it well.

Abbie, a single mom with a child (her hubby is chomped to death)  is played by Ellen Page (once referred to by one “reviewer” as “that tiny little Canadian”). Senan (Sam Keeley), Abbie’s brother-in-law, is also struggling with his zombified past.

Ellen Page (as if u didn’t know)

It isn’t long before the resentful Cured are mounting a protest against their conditions, as if Ireland hasn’t had enough Troubles in the past.  (One metaphor fits all  oppressed minorities.)

The film has a low budget look to it (although there are enough companies listed in the opening credits.)

Ms. Page fully commits to the role (she is listed as one of the producers) and the rest of the cast do their best. The result is, well, a zombie movie with a difference.




Trying To Pull The Woolrich Over Your Eyes?

She extinguished her cigarette in the remains of the chop suey.  “So much for that. To go back: Is there love at this table?”

Probably at every one of these tables, I told her, except perhaps  the one at which the Cantonese cashier was sitting by himself. I already knew that I could use a term like “Cantonese” when speaking to Bernice.

Here. I’ll put  it this way. I don’t feel love: now is there love at this table?”

 Half-love,” I remarked. Said she: “I’d rather have a baked apple.”

No, the above quote is not from the attempted novelization of some long-lost Tarentino screenplay. It’s actually from a 1932 novel called “Manhattan Love Song” by Cornell Woolrich, regarded by many as the godfather of what came to be known as noir.

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Cornell Woolrich

Copyright 1932 by Cornell Woolrich  First Pegasus Books edition 2006


Gloria Grahame and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

I can accept that the great Annette Bening did her best to bring Gloria Grahame to life and I understand that Ms. Bening believes she is portraying the legendary film star to the best of her ability – but, sorry, there is only one Gloria Grahame as anyone who has seen the genuine article on screen can attest. (Watching her go toe-to-toe with Bogie in the noir classsic In a Lonely Place, an achievement in itself, should have gained her lasting fame, let alone memorable performances in The Big HeatThe Bad and the Beautiful and many others.)

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Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in 1950’s “In a Lonely Place

However, Ms. Bening does succeed in conjuring up the spirit and vivacity of the late star and perhaps that is enough. I can’t think off the top of my pointed head who   could do a better job. (I prefer to think of this film as a homage rather than a straight-ahead biopic.)

The only time I could accept Ms. Bening as an aging Gloria Grahame is in the poignant scene in which the dying actress and her young beau read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” together (easily one of the highlights of the film.)

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Annette Bening (as Gloria Grahame) and Jamie Bell (as Peter Turner) in FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL”

The screenplay, by Matthew Greenhalgh (who has done serviceable jobs bringing other real-life protagonists to life – doomed Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in Control and a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, for example) is based on a memoir by Mr. Turner, who , as a young man, had a romantic relationship with Ms. Grahame in the last years of her life.

It is ironic, perhaps, that the film based on the final years of Ms.Grahame’s life didn’t fare much better at the box office than what happened to her career in the end.

The term “star-crossed” could have been invented just for her.

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What the Other Half Watches: THE EXCEPTION

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Lily James in a blink-and-you-miss it and totally unnecessary nude scene is about the only exceptional thing about a wannabe thriller? love story? somewhere in between? movie about an available young woman (James) and a reluctantly good Nazi , played by a big slab of beef named Jai Courtney. (Clicking on imdb, after I had already written this, I see that Mr. Courtney ‘s resume includes , besides the ill-fated Suicide Squad and Terminator Genisys – you guessed it – Beef. )

And, sorry , but despite his best efforts, I did not believe the great Eddie Marsan as the malevolent and much-feared Heinrich Himmler.

However, female (and some male) viewers may agree to differ. My niece recommended this movie and her father dutifully spooled it for us. Yes, if you’re paying attention, this is one of the movies I saw at my sister’s house.




Being Weird For Its Own Sake?

While watching Episode 8 of David Lynch’s recently rebooted “Twin Peaks” I was as awestruck as most viewers but at the same time I had to wonder: How was the atomic bomb and its resulting horrors connected with the main narrative? (Short answer: it wasn’t)

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Showtime (which hosts the series) and other streaming services have proved to be more receptive to directors with an alternative sensibility. Long-standing fans of Mr. Lynch (Lynchians?) (Peakers?) claim to see inside references to previous Lynch works but I wonder whether it is necessary to have seen the original series (I did not) and previous films (I did see Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway – that last film lost me completely) to enjoy it . Ambiguity, or straight-out surrealism, seem to be a speciality where Mr. Lynch is concerned. The film-maker goes out of his way to thumb his nose at traditional methods of story-telling and his  followers love him for it. 

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David Lynch At Work

With “Twin Peaks: The Return” he may have made his most polarising film to date.Twin Peaks defies ultimate analysis, and ultimate judgement. That’s its secret and mystique, and why it’s back after 25 years, as a reminder that TV — like art — doesn’t have to be reduced to nuts and bolts, or to specific meaning either.” writes Verne Gay in Newsday. On the other hand, Dann M., one of the “audience reviewers” on the Rotten Tomatoes website simply calls it “Artistic douchebaggery at its worst …”  (Mr. M is in the minority – the series got a 82 per cent audience approval rating on RT.)

I shudder to think what a film-maker like Terence Malick would produce if he was given the same funds and artistic freedom as David Lynch. (Even some critics have given up on Mr. Malick’s latest release Song to Song ).

There is an old saying, something about the thin line separating genius from insanity. Paraphrasing that for  television, is there a thin line between genius and a movie or TV series that is weird for its own sake?  When will the average viewer know it? (Don’t get me wrong – I like “The OA” as much as anyone). Certainly not from the critics who claim to see profound truths in just about everything.


A Man’s Gotta Do etc.: 12 STRONG

I didn’t know they still made movies like this anymore. (I almost expected the ghost of John Wayne to pop up with a steely grin of approval.)

This time it is Thor leading the charge (actually, star Chris Hemsworth is Australian) and the battleground is Afghanistan.

Sure, I know it’s a true story but its depiction is a tad too “rah rah- a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” for me.

“Hi. My name’s Chris Hemsworth. But most people just call me Thor. (Hey, that rhymes with war. and speaking of war ……”

And in true pre-#Me Too fashion, the little women in this movie wait for their man to come home with the actresses portraying them getting scant screen time to make room for the guys’ heroic deeds.

Which is probably just as well.

The true stories of what happened to some of the women who joined  the U.S. military may not be as entertaining but it is factual – there is plenty of source material in the documentary The Invisible War – although they were obviously deemed unfilmable by the hawks of Hollywood.