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Western

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen have put their inimitable stamp on just about every film genre there is. Their movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t even really their first attempt at an anthology. They previously turned in a segment in two different anthology collections. The first was for the film Paris, je t’aime, where each story is set in the City of Lights. The second was a three minute short for a film commissioned as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, called Chacun son cinema.

Scruggs, however, is all Coen Brothers, from start to finish. The film contains no out-and-out clunkers, but, as is the case with most anthologies, the whole is a bit uneven.

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Damsel

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Damsel

There is a brilliant premise at the heart of the new indie western Damsel. It’s too bad the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the promise of its central idea. Filmmaking team David and Nathan Zellner have made a deconstructionist western in which the damsel of the title, Penelope, is in anything but distress. At least, she wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all the men in her life who are trying to save her. She doesn’t need or want to be saved from anything, but every man she comes across tries to force it upon her, to her endless frustration.

That sly twist on a familiar trope is how the Zellner brothers upend the thematic myth of the western genre that insists women on the frontier needed men to protect and rescue them. That myth is alive and well in other forms of entertainment, and it has a pernicious hold on every part of our culture. That’s why it’s so refreshing that the Zellner brothers are skewering it in Damsel.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water

There’s a falseness to Hell or High Water that distracts from the quite potent visceral punch the movie delivers in its last act. The disingenuous vibe the movie gives off comes mostly from writer Taylor Sheridan’s heavily clichéd dialog and obnoxious character dynamics. The way Sheridan handles those attributes left me with the impression that Hell or High Water is his version of a Coen brothers movie, essentially a stripped down No Country for Old Men. But where No Country is full of delicate, nuanced character studies punctuated with nerve-shredding tension and bursts of violence, Hell or High Water eschews the rich character turns for a tired machismo that left me feeling bored.

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The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight

As if we needed any more confirmation, director Quentin Tarantino has proven again that he is a singular talent. There’s a real irony in what makes his films unique, because his art depends so heavily on referencing other movies. The man is like a cinematic blender; he fills himself with his favorite genres, and he violently liquefies them all into a wholly new product. The product this time is The Hateful Eight, a western that mines such distinct storytelling approaches as both an Agatha Christie drawing room murder mystery and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with more gallons of blood than Brian de Palma’s Carrie.

As big and loud and nauseating and hilarious as the movie is, it’s essentially a small chamber piece with a handful of characters talking to – and sometimes merely at – each other in a room for almost three hours. It could easily (and fascinatingly) be staged as a play. In fact, Tarantino first produced it as a staged reading with cast members like Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern already on board. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross by way of a grindhouse double feature. This eighth film by Tarantino is a blood soaked yarn that is by turns thrilling, disturbing, and troubling, but it further cements the director as a visual stylist and screenwriter who is unrivaled at his craft. The director’s attention to detail, and his loving devotion to the films of the past, is evident from frame one of The Hateful Eight, with an opening shot – filmed in beautiful 70mm Panavision – that is an incredibly slow pan of a gorgeous snow swept landscape.

Westerns are getting the treatment in this movie that he gave to exploitation movies in Grindhouse. If his last film, 2012’s Django Unchained, was an homage to the askew sensibilities of the Spaghetti Western, The Hateful Eight is honoring the classical Hollywood version of the same genre. This is The Alamo if it had been co-directed by Sam Peckinpah and Lucio Fulci. The “roadshow” cut of the film, which is the version I was able to see, even begins with a musical overture in the style of that Western classic. Supplying the overture and the rest of the score is legendary composer Ennio Morricone, whose music is deeply haunting and rich with atmosphere. The man who scored classics like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West a half-century ago has only gotten better, if that’s even possible. Morricone didn’t have time to provide an entire score, so he gave Tarantino permission to license unused tracks that he previously wrote for John Carpenter’s aforementioned The Thing.

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Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy

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Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy

I got up from my seat in the theater and did the math. I spent eight solid hours – a full work day – in a dark room with no windows watching Sergio Leone’s tribute to, and redefining of, the Hollywood Western genre. Most people would probably call me crazy, but I was hardly alone in the theater. There were 50 or so of us taking advantage of the special screening offered by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, which was celebrating Clint Eastwood’s 85th birthday by screening Leone’s Dollars Trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars (1967), For a Few Dollars More (1967), and the epic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). Three iconic films shown back-to-back-to-back, paired with all you could eat spaghetti. What did I get out of the experience, you might ask? Did I gain any new insight into the movies, myself, or life in general? I’m not sure that I did, but I can tell you I had a hell of a lot of fun either way.

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