Long-Title Reviews: “…Buster Scruggs,” “Bad Times at…” “Nutcracker and…” “A Star…” “Old Man and the Gun” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

By | November 20, 2018

Is it just me, or are film titles getting longer? I guess with so many new films being released, they need a way to stand out…

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs…The Coen Brothers are back with their Old Testament approach to narrative: creating fascinating characters only so they can torture them for the high-crime of existing. Out of these six Western stories, only one has anything approaching a happy ending, and that’s after the main character almost dies from a gruesome gunshot wound. For an example of how their misanthropy actually gets in the way of their filmmaking, just look at the title story (the most joyful and also the shortest, not coincidentally): we meet Tim Blake Nelson’s interesting and compulsively watchable character only to part his company only a few minutes later. And the middle stories (featuring the cruel dispatching of a limbless actor or a grizzly Oregon trail trek) seem to derive a weird pleasure in seeing their character’s suffer. Grade: B-

Bad Times at the El Royale…Unfairly ignored at the box office, this twisty film manages to keep things interesting despite (or perhaps because) a leisurely runtime that lets the thrills breathe, developing a slow-boiling sense of dread that goes off at exactly the right times. It also assembles a uniquely interesting cast (Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jeff Brides, Jon Hamm, and Chris Hemsworth are clearly savoring some of the juiciest roles they’ve had in years) and actually gives them something interesting to do. Grade: A-

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms…A decent holiday spectacle (loved Missy Copeland’s dance sequences) but also somewhat generic and unmemorable. Mackenzie Foy (so good in “Interstellar”) will likely get better roles in the future, and the most exciting thing on screen is Keira Knightley, enjoying one of the liveliest roles she’s had in a long time. It’s the first time I’ve seen her do something truly different in ages. Grade: C+

A Star is Born…It’s great to see any film for adults do such robust business, and a film that isn’t fantasy, sci-fi, or horror based without a wizard, superhero, or zombie in sight? Well, damn…I just wish I had enjoyed the end result a little more afterwards. The film holds you in its spell while you’re watching it, but it doesn’t really stay with you days later. Still, if Lady Gaga isn’t nominated for Best Actress, there’s no justice: she’s vulnerable, strong, romantic, pragmatic, yearning, and scorchingly sexy. Grade: B+

The Old Man and the Gun…Every blue moon, you don’t want a movie to do too much. It’s okay to just sit back and enjoy a well-crafted, easy going film and the pleasure of its company. This is one of those movies (quite possibly Robert Redford’s last), and I especially enjoyed seeing the positive interracial romance between Casey Affleck and Tika Sumpter. Grade: A-

Can You Ever Forgive Me?…A stealth gem that really, really works. Between this, and “American Animals,” it appears obscure literary treasures are quite the crime film trend. Melissa McCarthy has rarely been better–here, playing real-life author Lee Israel, a character who probably shouldn’t be nearly as likeable as she is. Lee isn’t nice, isn’t smooth, isn’t a particularly good friend or lover, and I could’ve spent 10 hours watching her. As a bonus, McCarthy has great chemistry with Richard Grant, savoring his best role in years. Grade: A

 

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