Film Review: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (USA 2018) ***** TOP 10

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Poster

An anthology film comprised of six stories, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West.


Ethan CoenJoel Coen


Joel CoenEthan Coen

Made as a Netflix original movie, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is the title of the first of six the Coen Brothers stories set in the American frontier.  It is also the best of the six stories.

Written and directed by the Coen Brothers (the name that is synonymous with solid entertainment), the film is comprised of six chapters that present a different story with a different attitude from the wild frontier.  

The odd thing is that instead of the best reserved for the last, the first chapter, and the title of the film is the best of the anthology.  Anthology films, so popular in the past are now not so common.  Each chapter lasts about 20 minutes or so, and stars a complete different cast of actors.

The first episode – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs-  tells the story of a sharp-shooting songster played by an unforgettable Tim Blake Nelson.  It is hilarious, unpredictable and fun from moment one.  Nelson shows up as the fastest gun in the west while breaking into song and dance unexpectedly as well.  Though predictable as to what will happen to him at the end, this is one chapter that one does not want to end.  And to watch again and again!

The second is called “In Near Algodones’, in which a wannabe bank robber (James Franco) gets his due and then some.  The bank clerk the robber has to deal with is someone totally unexpected, coming out a-shooting with his armour of pots and pans.

Meal Ticket is a gothic tale about two weary travelling performers with Liam Neeson.  This is the least strong of the stories and my least favourite.

Al that glitters is definitely gold.  All Gold Canyon is a story about a prospector mining for gold, with Tom Waits as the elderly prospector.  The scenes of him panning the sands for grains of gold nuggets are priceless with Waits eagerly waiting to strike the mother lode.  The next is a wagon trail in which  a woman finds an unexpected promise of love, along with a dose of life’s cruel irony, across the prairies in the chapter entitled The Gal Who Got Rattled. 

Finally, ghostly laughs haunt The Mortal Remains as a pompous Lady (Tyne Daly) rains judgment upon a motley crew of strangers undertaking a final stagecoach ride.  This is the most talky of the stories and clearly shows the film deserving of the Best Screenplay Award it won at the Venice International filmFestival.  The monologue by the uneducated trapper, played by Chelcie Ross in simple but and the superbly well-written prose is unforgettable.  

The common thread in all the 6 movie is the unforgettable central character.  Each story has one that stands out and each are performed by a famous actor trying on something completely different.

One can only wish for more of these priceless uniquely Coen Brothers stamped  stories.



Film Review: RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (USA 2018) ***1/2

Ralph Breaks the Internet Poster
Six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph”, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.


Phil Johnston (screenplay by), Pamela Ribon (screenplay by) | 5 more credits »

One can observe more and more formulaic flow in the Disney movies.  Even for their December Christmas animated features, one year features a male and the next a female young protagonist.  This year sees a young female (as it is the lady’s turn) but she dabbles in stuff that more males would be interested in – car racing.   Her character, Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman, who recently got her Hollywood Walk of Fame) is however, in a video game and her best friend is WRECK-IT RALPH (John. C. Reilly), who in this film breaks the internet.  Her dream is to win races.  The film questions the importance of friendship against chasing ones dreams.  No prizes for guessing the answer!

The film begins with something quite different.  While a lot of scripts begin with  some dream that needs to be reached from poverty, this story begins with Ralph and Vanellope having the perfect life.  They enjoy what there doing, are best friends and want nothing to change.  The film questions this status quo.

The setting is six years after the events of the first film (also in real time as the last RALPH movie was 2012).  The steering wheel controller on the Sugar Rush arcade game console breaks, forcing Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) to unplug the machine.  Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz evacuate all of the Sugar Rush residents to other games before it is shut down, placing the racers in the care of Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun.  Ralph and Vanellope then use the arcade’s new connection to the Internet to go looking for a replacement steering wheel.

The script uses fully all the quirks that can be found in the internet.  Those who are unfamiliar (maybe none in today’s audiences) will find a few things strange but the filmmakers make the solid assumption that everyone is aware of the concept of viruses, search engines and social platforms.  A few new internet characters like eBoy and  Mr. Knowsmore ( the man who knows everything in charge of a search engine) sprite up the list of characters.

The film also contains a few totally entertaining imaginative numbers like the tap dancing on the car hoods and the animated Busby Berkeley sequences.  The film’s funniest segment is Ralph’s visit to the virus Master, Double Dan (Alfred Molina in his British accent) and told never to look at his little brother, which of course, he cannot help but do, while making comments about him all the while.

John C. Reilly has an unmistakable voice and one can only expect him to do his goofy, sympathetic tones, especially in the scenes where he is pleading for Vanellope’s friendship.

Two lively songs ‘Zero’ and ‘Place Called Slaughter Race’ enliven he festivities.  (There are also a few songs in the other December Disney animated features).

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is no FROZEN, TOY STORY or COCO.  But it does have its moments and its inventiveness.  The most inventive of these involve the coming together at the film’s end of all the past animated movie characters (the Disney Princess lineup with The Muppets, Star Wars, Disney Animation, Marvel Comics, and Pixar characters)




The Christmas Chronicles Poster

The story of sister and brother, Kate and Teddy Pierce, whose Christmas Eve plan to catch Santa Claus on camera turns into an unexpected journey that most kids could only dream about.


Clay Kaytis

Before dismissing this new Christmas family Netflix original as boring fare, one should give the film directed by the director of the ANGRY BIRDS animated feature a chance.  THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES is actually surprisingly watchable though it rehashes many of producer Chris Columbus earlier films like HOME ALONE, GREMLINS and ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING.

Kate (Darby Camp) is a 10-year old who still believes in Santa.  Her brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis) is having doubts.  When they decide to cam-record Santa on Christmas eve, trouble begins when they sneak a ride on his sleigh resulting in lost toys and Santa arrested.  It is up to the two to save Christmas.

The story is cliché ridden.  The premise is that Christmas needs to be saved. The audience is led to believe that without the presents, good cheer will be lost resulting in unhappy angry people with lots more crime in the streets.

The script contains original ideas.  As the three search for the missing reindeer, they meet strangers – all of whom Santa knows (whether good or bad) since he had delivered presents to everyone when they were children in the past.  This idea provides ample opportunity for jokes and comedic set-ups.

For a silly movie based on a silly premise, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES is quite endearing and funny, making it light and enjoyable entertainment for the undemanding moviegoer.  Take the scene where the two ids first meet Santa Clause (played amicably by Kurt Russell).  “Alive and In Person one night only!”  He jokes.  “Disappointed.  Yes, I am not what you expected?  I get fat after all the cookies I eat.”  hen asked to go; “Ho-Ho-Ho.”  His reply: “I don’t do that.  That is a myth.  Fake News!”  The notion is the that the filmmakers know wheat this film is, never aim that high and take it for what it is.  This little film has more laughs than the dismal recent DR. SEUSS’ THE GRINCH based on the Christmas classic that audiences expect much more from.

The main character is Kate played by a young Darby Camp.  Camp is sufficiently endearing and cute, delivering her one-liners like a pro.  When Santa loses his magic hat, he questions Kate: “How do you think I am able to leap from one rooftop to another?  “Pilates?” replies Kate who decides then to help Santa so that she can remove herself from his naughty list for life.  Her brother Teddy plays second fiddle to her.

The film also contains an animated segment featuring the elves in Santa’s workshop and a musical number performed in a jail cell.

What is a Christmas film without a Christmas message?   The corny message delivered by Kurt Russell’s Santa feels at least, sincere.  The best thing about this film is actually Santa i.e. Kurt Russell.  Whether crooning the song “Santa is Back in Town” in shades or trying to convince everyone that he is the real thing, this is Russell’s movie.



Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Poster

The second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” series set in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World featuring the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander.


David Yates


J.K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling (based upon characters created by)

The sequel to FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM and the prequel to the HARRY POTTER movies, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD sees the entire original cast here performing more of the same, or in other words, marking time with nothing really to show for it.

The film continues where the first film ends.  The powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne).  But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escapes custody again and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards and witches up to rule over all non-magical beings.

The film’s best sequence is the beginning with Grindelwald’s (Johnny Depp) escape from jail custody.  Still, the action sequence is confusing with too many blurry special and CGI effects.  It sets up the beginning of events Grindelwald sets up to gain power and hopefully destroy human beings. 

It is best to get familiar with all the characters in the story before heading out to see the film, as it gets confusing and confusing very fast.  First and foremost is the main character, Newt.  

Newt is a British Ministry of Magic employee in the Beasts Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, as well as a self-proclaimed magizoologist.  This explains his suitcase containing all his magical creatures.  The creatures are cute-weird to look at, but they do not do much to propel the story, except to provide a few of the lighter moments, which can lead to boredom fast.  He played a part in remedying the events of a violent attack on the City of New York in December 1926 (the time when the film opens) involving dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. He is a confidante of Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), despite being an outcast from certain circles of British Wizarding society due to his checkered past.  

Newt’s on and off romantic interest is Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a promoted MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) Auror.  Thankfully, the romance is kept to a minimum with hardly any face sucking.  One of the story’s most interesting written characters is Creedance, the disturbed adopted child of Mary-Lou Barebone, violently abused and downtrodden. Enraged by people’s treatment of him and Grindelwald’s betrayal, he set his Obscurus parasite loose on the City of New York.  Menacingly portrayed by Ezra Miller (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), Creedance is one character one wishes had more screen time.  On the other end of the spectrum, the most annoying character is the plumpish and goofy baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).  Thankfully, he is given less to do than in the first film.  His romance with Queenie (Alison Sudol) undergoes some tests in the film. 

The film has a period setting of Paris and London and the film looks great, courtesy of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.  At least, he knows what to do with the $200  million production cost. Special effects are equally stunning.  But the problems of confused storytelling, muddled twists and turns and too many characters to keep track of, lead to an irrelevant and boring middle FANTASTIC BEASTS film, preparing for the next instalment.  


Film Review: NOTHING LIKE A DAME (UK 2018) ***1/2

Tea with the Dames Poster

Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith have let the cameras in on a friendship that goes back more than half a century. The four acting greats discuss their …See full summary »


Roger Michell

NOTHING LIKE A DAME follows four grand British dames of the cinema and theatre as they sit back and have tea.  It is a unique and rare opportunity to enter into their presence and share their esteemed company.  Director Michell captures the intimacy of the situation.  The four dames discuss the highs and lows of heir careers, their romances and as well as their advice on life.

The four dames are Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.

Director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL) takes his audience into the setting of a rural cottage in England that Plowright built with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, the legendary actor.  The four sit outside in the garden or inside in the kitchen or dining room often drinking tea. Or sipping champagne.  

A fair warning that the film is clearly British-bound – which means that unless you have a fair knowledge or at least interest in British fare, NOTHING LIKE A DAME might be a complete bore – like a visitor in uncomfortable company.

For the rest, there are lots to enjoy especially from the presented archive footage of plays performed at the National Theatre, London to old movies that feature the four dames in their younger days.

Director Michell resists the temptation of using the Roger and Hammerstein song “Nothing Like a Dame” from SOUTH PACIFIC.  The soundtrack often heard instead is the haunting and nostalgic theme composed by Nino Rota for Federico Fellini’s AMARCORD.   The score is at once immediately recognizable to cineastes and an appropriate one at that, as AMACORD means I REMEMBER.  The film is wholly made up of the memories of the four women.

Michell poses interview questions to the four, heard quietly, as if under his breath.  One involves the experiences of working with ones husband.  Their funny retort: “Which one?”  The clear one comes to mind is Sir Laurence Olivier married to Joan Plowright.  There is a clip from their movie together THE ENTERTAINER in which Plowright plays oddly enough, Olivier’s daughter.  Maggie Smith also talks about working with Olivier in OTHELLO with a clip of the film shown to illustrate the incident.  Also included is the famous scene of Smith kissing her husband who plays her lover in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

It is on a humbling note that none of them consider themselves as great beauties  They each laugh at never been seriously considered beautiful enough to win the role of Cleopatra.  They claim only to be laughed at when they mentioned the fact to their friends.  Dench herself says that she is too short while Atkins claims that she was never considered a great beauty, nit even by her father.

Near the end of the film, each offer wise words on life.  Atkins talks about being more even tempered and never to get angry while the others talk above the importance of love and the coordinated use of the brain with the body.


Film Review: GREEN BOOK (USA 2018) ***** Top 10

Green Book Poster

GREEN BOOK, the film is named from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a segregation-era road travel guidebook to help African-Americans dealing with racial discrimination issues and Jim Crow laws, such as whites-only garages, restaurants and hotels refusing services.  This book (nicknamed ‘vacation without aggravation’) is used during the tour of the Deep South in the 1960s by Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and New York bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who served as Shirley’s driver and security.

The film follows the protagonist Tony Lip as he takes a difficult new job in order to support his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and his two kids.  The job is to chauffeur and protect Dr. Shirley as he tours the racial prejudiced deep south.  It is a pretty country but not for the coloured folk there.  It is a simple story but one is both extremely moving and relevant in today’s times.  What makes the film totally winning is that it is a film about discovery, as each of the two main characters Tony and Dr. Shirley learn about each other, the people and ultimately about themselves.

As far as anti-racists films go, GREEN BOOK works because it captures the ugliness of racism without resorting to cheap theatrics and crowd pleasing dramatic setups as in the recent THE HATE U GIVE.  Racism occurs when the guilty racist demonstrates the fact, unaware that the is doing so.  This is demonstrated in the one scene where Tony hits an officer when he calls Tony a half-nigger.

There are many ‘best’ scenes in GREEN BOOK.  My personal favourite is the hotel corridor scene where Dr. Shirley pleads Tony not to give up his job as his chauffeur and driver only to be corrected that he never intended to do so in the first place.

The 60’s period setting is captured by effective yet simple props like the vintage TV, the old telephone, wardrobe and the old vintage cars.  

The film also demonstrates that a film’s climax need not always contain pyrotechnic explosions, super fight sequences or an exciting finish.  GREEN BOOK closes nicely with a well-thought out conclusion.

Besides besides a Top 10 film, GREEN BOOK also contains Top 10 of the year performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT).  Both actors are superb, Ali delivering a more controlled performance only letting all the emotions go in the one scene when his character walks out of the car in the pouring rain.  Mortensen (of Danish origin) perfects Tony’s Italian mannerisms to a ‘T’, putting on physically the weight of the role.  He captures the naivety and street smartness of his character.

GREEN BOOK won the Toronto International Film Festival’s most coveted prize of the People’s Audience Choice Award.  Last year’s winner THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also won the Best Picture Oscar.  GREEN BOOK hopes and deserves the same honours.  GREEN BOOK is not a good film but a great film.


Film Review: THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING (USA 2018) ***1/2

The Price of Everything Poster
With unprecedented access to pivotal artists and the white-hot market surrounding them, this film dives deep into the contemporary art world, holding a fun-house mirror up to our values and… See full summary »


Nathaniel Kahn

Basquiat paintings regularly fetch tens of millions of dollars, and the recent sale of a little-known Da Vinci topped $450 million—but what forces are driving the white-hot art market? Who assigns and who pays these astronomical sums? What currency adequately measures art’s value?  The captivating new documentary THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING takes the audience on a thrilling art ride – into a rarefied labyrinth of galleries, studios, and auction houses to wrestle with these questions and explore what society loses and gains when art becomes a rich person’s commodity.

As the film opens, the voiceover announces as an art auction takes place that art and money go hand in hand and that good art should be expensive.  Only if something has great value will it be protected.  The scene ends with a Basquiat painting sold at $8 million.

One of the pleasures derived from the film is the wide assortment of art on display.  This pleasure does not come from paintings alone, but from sculptures and other artifacts. One of the most famous is the Jeff Koons rabbit , a stainless steel bunny that on staring in, reveals a grand display of other art pieces.

The film also contains interviews from two prominent groups – the artists (including art celebrity darlings like Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons) and the art collectors.  Gallery owners and art dealers form the other interviewees outside these two groups.  This results in is one of the most insightful documentaries about art.  This is not to mention the dozens of priceless paintings on display on the screen, together with an estimate of their worth.

Director Nathaniel Kahn (Academy Award nominee for his 2 documentaries, MY ARCHITECT and  TWO HANDS) always keeps the film on track – the price and value of art.  The film considers all kinds of justifications for the price rage on paintings (including the economic forces of supply and demand) always reminding the audience the notion that a work can only really be considered important if it has cost a small fortune.  Kahn is also clear to emphasize the fact that a painter is usually very poor with only 99.99% making it rich.  An artist paints because he or she wants to.

A collector wisely compares the price of art like the price of stock in the stock market.  One has to be constantly keeping track on things, with price fluctuations rising as much as the crazy stock market.

Included is a valid debate on the subject of whether a famous painting be kept in a museum or private home.  The gallery owner obviously says that it should not be in a dark place like a museum but then at least all people rich or poor would have equal access to see them.  At the end of the film, a wealthy and successful collector Stefan Edlis donates two rare paintings to a museum, the reason he gives is that he has no grandsons.

THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING is a pleasure for those interested and familiar with the art world.  But it also proves an educational and informative source of information for the others.