movies

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may be a collection of short films about life in the Old West, but each chapter of the titular book within a film has a lot in common with each other—and in common with life today. Now, the Old West is much different from our contemporary lives, especially on a material and a daily-way-of-life level—but what has really changed? We still migrate in order to find a more prosperous life somewhere yonder. We still hope that we might catch a lucky break and strike gold, or at least a metaphorical gold. We still work ourselves to the bone and struggle to make it by, and sometimes go to drastic measures to stay alive. We still may be uncomfortable around others not quite like us, perhaps making us act in unthinkable ways. We still are depleting the land we settle on. Yes, it’s all pretty bleak stuff, but these themes are at the core of the anthology.

There is something very raw and unnerving about most of the vignettes in Buster Scruggs, but there is also something extremely transfixing. While the wry charm and dark wit that you’d expect from directing pair Joel and Ethan Coen remains, many of the stories leave you feeling cold, with your gaze paralyzed on the screen. (And no it’s not from watching the “Meal Ticket” segment, where Liam Neeson and Harry Melling do an excellent job portraying despair and exhaustion during a frigid winter.) Maybe it’s the thought of transporting yourself to that time and realizing you’d never make it, or on the flip side maybe you’d do exactly what these characters do in order to live another day.

“Meal Ticket” is especially dark, with an ending that you fear is coming all along but don’t want to believe will happen. But, oh boy, does it happen. Throughout the stories, the Coens cut away from some of the most brutal moments, but one easily fills in the blanks. These visual omissions don’t make it any less visceral of a viewing experience. Thankfully, after “Meal Ticket,” we go to Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon,” a somewhat more optimistic story—at least by way of soothing scenery and the simple enjoyment of watching Waits on screen with that scruff and deep growl hollering “Mr. Pocket!” over and over. The pleasantness, of course, is short-lived.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” is another standout, and seems to be leading toward a less-depressing outcome…until it doesn’t. It’s a reminder of the brutality that can accompany exploration and the unknown—and catching an unlucky break. And much like every life lived, an instant can change everything. Just ask doggo President Pierce!

Ultimately, Buster Scruggs is about survival. It’s about the hopes and wishes we have for the future if we survive, and, much scarier and even harder to cope with, the anxieties and fears that live with us in the moment as we survive, grasping to get to the former. Perhaps that’s the harshest realization from Buster Scruggs, that the Manifest Destiny permeating in the Old West was just as much intoxicating as it was fatal. And in the end, after enduring the fears and struggles and hopes, all that happened to these people was that they became ink to paper, bound in a book. Which, sadly (optimistically?), is all we can ever hope to become.

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“Solo” Soars

And now a spoiler-y, rapid-fire response to Solo: A Star Wars Story…

Initial thoughts straight out of the theater:

  • That was fun!
  • Alden Ehrenreich was great and exceeded my expectations in what is essentially an impossible ask and a thankless position to be in.
  • Beautifully shot and thoroughly impressed by the cinematography (kudos, Bradford Young!).
  • Loved Chewbacca’s entrance and the Wookiee appearances.
  • Hard not to like Woody Harrelson in this (or in anything, really).
  • Wish there was more of Thandie Newton, what a shame to not get more of the Val character.
  • L3 (aka Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a scene-stealer.
  • Pleased with the message of the droid liberation.
  • Donald Glover is clearly having a blast here (and he made me have a blast too).
  • Not sure I was completely jiving with Paul Bettany’s character, Drydon Vos, as it felt a bit too cliché and I was not about that silky blouse he had on.
  • Speaking of silky things, I did enjoy Lando’s wardrobe and loved how well Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra pulled off a wide-leg pant.
  • No thank you to that tentacle monster—we did not need this.
  • I totally dug the Darth Maul surprise, even though it also didn’t make any sense to me in the moment (this being from a Star Wars fan who pretty much only sticks to the movies and doesn’t venture too far into the other shows, books, or comics…so yeah, to me Darth Maul has been dead. You could say his onscreen death is a particularly bad case of being cut in half.)

More thoughts upon further reflection:

  • Did we really need this movie? Only time will tell to see how some of the peripheral developments play out in other movies, but again, did we need to see Han’s origins? Did this serve some bigger purpose other than an entertaining romp?
  • Really liked the moments where we see more of what day-to-day life is like for those in this galaxy and the struggles they face, which is something I think the newer Star Wars films since have done well. For example, seeing the lines at what looked like an immigration/border patrol station and knowing that Han has to enlist in the Imperial Navy to escape gives much more depth to the realities of life in this world.
  • Some have thought it’s too unbelievable that Han would be so romantic and idealist because of his love for Qi’ra, but seeing how that plays out and how he gets burned…maybe this very thing is what blackens his heart a bit and really makes him trust no one (except Chewie, of course).
  • Qi’ra represents an interesting story within this galaxy and one that seemed more worth telling in this film, but perhaps that means we’ll see her again soon.
  • And of course the burning What If of this entire film is wondering what a Phil Lord and Christopher Miller version would have truly looked like, as there were certainly elements of mild goofiness woven in that I could only expect would have been much goofier and included more plays for laughs throughout.
  • Even with what felt like some forced and overtly saccharine set pieces on heroism and rebellion, which I could only assume was more direction from Disney and/or Ron Howard, ultimately I was satisfied and thoroughly entertained by the fun heist film this turned out to be.

And I’ll leave you with this:

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Star Wars Coincides with Style and an Important Statement

Can we stop for a moment and discuss Thandie Newton’s Star Wars dress from the Solo premiere at the Cannes Film Festival?

At first glance the photographs aren’t super clear, but the word going around is that she wore a custom Vivienne Westwood gown made of a custom print featuring Star Wars figurines.

Many questions arise. Obviously she’s in the new film, but is she also a big Star Wars fan? And if that is in fact common knowledge, does that mean I may not be as big of a fan as I think I am?

Taking a closer look, you can tell that all of the photographed figurines featured on her dress are of black male characters that we’ve seen in the galaxy (from Finn to Mace Windu). Although this may not have been intentional, it’s a nice callback to the SNL sketch from the Donald Glover –hosted episode just a few weeks ago. But that aside, she’s clearly making a statement here as she is now the first black woman to be featured in a leading role in a Star Wars film. Get it, Thandie.

The sparseness in the design of the figurines is a reminder that there’s still more work to be done with representation in this franchise (although I’d like to think that Star Wars has often been ahead of the curve).

Another article claims the figurines featured on her dress are from her personal (!) collection—so if this is indeed true, when did she start collecting and how many does she own? Or do you think she may have just started collecting once she was cast in Solo?

Either way, it is a stunning dress with layered meanings and it just may be the most badass thing anyone has ever done.

2nd Annual RANKING of THE Year’s BEST PICTURE OSCAR NOMINEES BASED ON MY TEARS

It’s that time of the year again for…the 2nd Annual Movie that Made Lauren Cry the Most Awards! Where I confess all the times I cried (or didn’t cry!) while watching the year’s Best Picture nominees. Now, last year was a big one for my emotions. Let’s face it, we were just a month into Trump’s presidency, which really meant that most of the Oscar movies were seen between the period of the election and one month post-inauguration (basically the worst and most dreaded time period in recent memory—what a fun time for people’s feelings!). Cut to a year later and I am quite possibly dead inside and basically a socialist now. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m far more cynical and skeptical than ever before (but don’t worry, it was always there), so finding pleasure in entertainment in the past year was a desperate mission to find joy in something (can I get an Amen! for Star Wars and Thor?!), as well as a year of being super critical of all the BS that’s wrapped into not just Hollywood but all institutions and social constructs (y’all knew about Harvey, admit it!). So, even though I may still get teary-eyed from watching Adam Rippon figure skate or ugly cry while binging the new Queer Eye, something about these movies just didn’t hit the tear mother lode the same way as last year. But alas, I still cried at some and was able to feel *something* along the way to remind myself that I’m still a muppet human being. Here’s my ranking of the cry-iest movies, on a scale from “I feel nothing” (0) to “Holy crap, I’m going to die from dehydration” (10). Please comment below to let me know if Lucas Hedges crying also makes you cry! Oh and quasi-spoilers ahead…

 

  1. Darkest Hour
    Didn’t see it. Don’t want to. There’s another movie that covers the battle of Dunkirk that I’m assuming is far superior and it’s called…wait for it…Dunkirk. -2/10 Cries

 

  1. Phantom Thread
    Also didn’t see it (I promise this is the last one). Maybe I’ll see it some day, and maybe I’ll cry at all the sewing. Who knows! 0/10 Cries

 

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    This movie is TERRIBLE. If it wins for Best Picture I’m definitely going to send out a Mean Tweet and let everyone know how much I dislike it. Overrated, tone-deaf, and like, people just being racist and bigoted and violent because sure why not. Could ALMOST cry over how stupid it is. 0/10 Cries

 

  1. The Post
    This movie was fine. I liked it. Solid work from Spielberg, but not extraordinary. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually thought this was a great performance from Meryl Streep and deserving of the nomination—and that amazing gold caftan was an added bonus! Yet, no tears from me. 0/10 Cries

 

  1. Get Out
    Now is a good time to mention that the highest number of cries does not necessarily mean it’s my favorite film, because I think Get Out should win Best Picture, but it’s not exactly a tearjerker in the typical sense. However, Daniel Kaluuya is superb and that hypnotizing scene is mesmerizing and emotional as you not only learn about the character’s tragic past but also start to experience the concept of the “sunken place” and its layered meanings. Eyes got a little moist. 2/10 Cries.

 

  1. Dunkirk
    Harry Styles in peril? Cillian Murphy being a coward? Tom Hardy flying a plane and barely understanding what he says?? All of these are facts about Dunkirk. Only one of them made me misty-eyed. All said, this is a great WWII film, and you would have to be a monster to not cry a little during a WWII film…unless that movie is called Darkest Hour, and even more so if you haven’t seen the movie Darkest Hour. 3/10 Cries

 

  1. The Shape of Water
    Look, a mute lady falls in love with a fish man. Richard Jenkins is lonely and has cats with funny names. It’s a romance about marginalized people who just want some goddamn love in their lives. So yeah, it made me cry a little. 4/10 Cries

 

  1. Call Me By Your Name
    My lord, I could almost cry from the Italian scenery alone…and from what that peach endured! But all stone fruit loving aside, what a visually gorgeous film. And lovely performances from Timothée Chalamet and Hello, Armie Hammer! Call me! The story is pretty darn good too—an early 1980s love affair and the pain and yearning of not only your first love and lust but a love and lust you have to hide, all while growing into adulthood? That’s basically the equation for making me cry. 6/10 Cries

 

  1. Lady Bird
    Remember when Lucas Hedges was in last year’s Manchester By the Sea and he has this crying scene and then that made me cry a lot? Well, guess what. Lucas Hedges is in THIS movie and he cries in THIS movie too—it’s like he knows I’m watching and is testing me. And apparently I will fail that test every time. The scene with him in this movie is such a beautiful and unexpected moment and I lost it. And when Laurie Metcalf cries while driving around that loop at the Sacramento airport, I also lost it (and this is from someone who has driven that loop many times…it’s quite a loop!). And yes, I am one of those girls who liked (likes if we’re being honest) Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me” and, yes, when the girls in the movie cried to it, I cried a little too. It didn’t help that this movie is set in Sacramento in 2002, which is essentially adjacent to my college experience in Davis in 2005 (20 minutes from Sactown for those not familiar with NorCal geography). Cue all the nostalgic feels. 8/10 Cries

 

Honorable Mention: Arrival 
This movie came out in 2016. I’m still crying. Amy Adams got robbed. The end.

The Force is Strong with J.J. Abrams

Today it was announced that J.J. Abrams will return to the directing chair for the final (for now) installment of the Star Wars saga, following the recent parting of ways between Lucasfilm and Colin Trevorrow (or, as some would say, after he was fired). Frankly, I’m excited. I loved Episode VII: The Force Awakens and I’m a big fan of his work. From Lost and Felicity to Super 8 and, yes, even Regarding Henry, Abrams has a knack for compelling storytelling and strong character development. Heck, he brought an epic franchise back to life after a tumultuous and CGI-ridden trilogy of prequels. He deserves some respect, as he often gets chastised for the fact that for some die-hard Star Wars fans (a categorization that I include myself in) he didn’t deliver a perfect movie. Look, not sure we’ll get anything more perfect than Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, so let’s not be so harsh. Other misgivings included that Force felt like a carbon(ite) (sorry!) copy of Episode IV: A New Hope. Well, to me, he handled the film with such care, affection, and general badassery I could feel it oozing from the screen—and as that die-hard Star Wars fan, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.

Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the most patriotic movie of the year? Yes, yes it is.

*This commentary contains minor plot spoilers

I wasn’t particularly pumped, or even ready, for a new Spider-Man film. Heck, I didn’t even care one bit to see the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb films, as I felt those were simply too soon for a reboot of our web-slinging friend. The first two Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi-helmed Spider-Man films set the tone and standard for our modern-day superhero blockbusters, and then everything just felt too soon in an onslaught of superhero movies to follow (except for Spider-Man 3…it was never too soon to move on from and forget that calamity). But funnily enough, it’s already (only?) been 10 years since Tobey Maguire last donned the Spidey suit and here we are with a second reboot. It’s as if we can pretend the Garfield/Webb films never existed at all (sorry, Andrew).

All of this is to say, when the production of this film was announced, albeit now officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was underwhelmed. Then I saw Captain America: Civil War, and thoroughly enjoyed the tease of this new Peter Parker, played with charisma and a youthful energy by Tom Holland. Yet, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I mostly enjoy the MCU movies, but as someone who never read about these superheroes’ escapades in comic book form growing up, I don’t go running to the theater with every release. It definitely took seeing the positive reviews flowing in that changed my mind. Fine, I’ll go check this one out.

Cut to sitting in the theater and enjoying every minute. I could elaborate on the spot-on casting of Tom Holland or the subtle layers of villainy behind Michael Keaton’s Vulture, or even how much I loved seeing the faces of Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and Martha Kelly in smaller roles. No, what struck me most was how relevant the film felt, and yes, even how patriotic it is. It’s a politically tumultuous time in America, where it can be challenging to feel proud of the country’s image and reception abroad, so it was extremely satisfying to see a story, even if fictional, that showcases some of the great and even messy things about this country.

Usually Spider-Man is such a staple for representing New York City, specifically Queens. I can’t admit to knowing much about Queens, having never been to that borough, but I hear that this movie does the borough and its accompanying community justice. I’ll go a step further and say that it’s utterly patriotic to boot (but not in a, you know, Nationalistic sort of way, thank goodness). Let’s consider the content:

The diverse cast. Like I mentioned before, Peter Parker lives in Queens and his neighborhood and high school reflect how diverse any major city (and even suburbs) is in today’s America. And even though diversity is something to celebrate, it’s handled here as a non-issue—as it should be.

Peter is smart and so are his friends. So many American kids are smart and talented, yet often in pop culture it’s looked down on and characters are labeled as geeks and nerds. Here, these kids’ brains are touted (one plot point revolves around an academic decathlon!) and even the guy who is somewhat the stand-in as “the bully” character is just as smart and goofy as the rest of Peter’s gang thanks to his side hustle as a DJ.

That whole Washington Monument set piece. What’s more patriotic than high school students going on a field trip to Washington, D.C.?

“Protesting is patriotic.” Martin Starr delivers this line as the academic team’s teacher, and boy is this something we’ve heard a lot lately in the American zeitgeist. There’s nothing quite more American than this country’s history of activism and protecting the right to free speech.

Themes of capitalism and class struggles. Michael Keaton gives us a powerful monologue that explains his grievances and the background for why he’s become a villain (in our eyes). He essentially bemoans the structures of capitalism and the American workforce, how he gave and gave and got nothing in return while the ‘bigger guy’ (aka Stark Industries) profited. So he took matters into his own hands to provide for his family. All about that American Dream, baby.

We don’t know if we should root for or against Tony Stark and Stark Industries. What’s more American than supporting big box companies while simultaneously despising them? We live in a world where it’s hard to avoid the largest corporations yet they structure our lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (see note about capitalism above). We support Tony Stark because the narrative of these MCU movies constructs that perspective for us, yet Stark Industries and even the Avengers have created a lot of collateral damage and have ruined people’s lives in the process.

Punk rock reigns supreme. Speaking of capitalism, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Pop” plays not once but twice in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thanks to punk’s anti-mainstream undertones (albeit a bit ironic to be placed in a big-budget blockbuster), the American punk rock movement is as essential to American music as any other genre and lends voices to those who feel sidelined and undervalued by mass culture and politics.

No matter which way you spin it, Spider-Man: Homecoming IS patriotic: it deals with messy, complicated facets of American society, showing not only the diverse faces that make up the American populous, but also the diversity of thought and opinion. All the while, a teenage boy is full of hope and determination to make the world a better place with his own American Dream in mind, rejecting a job offer to join the Avengers. Let’s just see how he feels when he hits 30 and if he peddles back on those ideals of his.