FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #143 – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen), “The Front Runner” (dir. Jason Reitman)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (with special guest Erika Spoden) check out the new Western anthology from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and see whether the true grit of a singing cowboy can stand up against the OTP of Math Chicken and Mamma Owl. Confused? Check it out on Netflix, then come back and listen we drill into all six segments. But first, Glenn and Daniel check out their second Jason Reitman film of this year, The Front Runner, and question how a political drama that ticks so many boxes of personal interest for the both of us can feel like it has so little to say (01:23:21).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Front Runner): 6/10 (Daniel), 4/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs): 9/10 (Erika), 4/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:21] Review: The Front Runner
  • [24:38] Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • [37:29] Spoilers: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Little Joe The Wrangler (Çurly Joe)” performed by Tim Blake Nelson and “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”, performed by Nelson and Willie Watson (of Old Crow Medicine Show), from the soundtrack for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
  • The loosely similar political film Glenn was thinking of during our Front Runner discussion was The Ides of March, directed by and starring George Clooney, and co-written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and House of Cards creator Beau Willimon. Check out the trailer here.
  • The article we referenced was, “The Blinding Whiteness of The Coen Brothers Wild West”, by Nick Martin of Splinter.

Listen above, or download: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Front Runner (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #140 – “Five Fingers for Marseilles” (dir. Michael Matthews), “Tully” (dir. Jason Reitman)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (with special guest Erika Spoden) venture back to another strong Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody team-up from earlier in the year, Tully, a harrowing newborn parenting drama that has unique resonance for one of us at the moment. But first we check out Five Fingers for Marseilles, a South African team’s unique and pulpy take on the American Western genre, out now in limited release in US theaters (67:11).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Five Fingers for Marseilles): 5/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Erika), 7.5/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Tully): 9 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:37] Review: Five Fingers for Marseilles
  • [21:05] Spoilers: Five Fingers for Marseilles
  • [35:08] Review: Tully
  • [49:50] Spoilers: Tully
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Tiergarten” by Rufus Wainwright and “Blue” by The Jayhawks, from the soundtrack for Tully.

Listen above, or download: Five Fingers for Marseilles, Tully (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“Ricki and the Flash” (dir. Jonathan Demme) – Well-rounded musical drama

I’ve often said that there are things I will tolerate from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other. Sudden romances, heightened emotional beats, and character arcs that are earned in neither the performances nor the screenwriting, but reliably and effectively manipulate the audience into feeling something through the sheer, awesome, neurologically-evocative power of music. And yet, Ricki and the Flash, an original collaboration from director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, may be the first musical I’ve seen that attaches this facile enhancement to a character drama whose beats are worthy of being musically heightened in the first place.

Ricki Randazzo, née Linda (Meryl Streep), is an aging rockstar who plays with a cover band co-led by her gentleman-friend Greg, who looks and shreds suspiciously like Rick Springfield. Like any good rockstar, she’s left behind her Midwestern roots – and her family – to pursue her dream, and while her glory days (in the form of a single album) are likely behind her, she still plays a bar gig in California with all the vim and vigor of Madison Square Garden. I find that I’m being a bit mean about this character not because I disliked Streep’s performance, but because she was so effective in the first half at making the character deeply unlikable. Late in the film, when she smiles and says, of attending a family event, “If I go there, something terrible will happen,” I laughed involuntarily. Then a crack appeared in Ricki’s half-smile. And Streep reveals the true pathos behind Linda’s face as she says of her family, “You don’t know these people. They despise me.”

This has probably been said quite enough, but Meryl Streep is an absolute treasure. And her ability to project instant familiarity and comfort with every detail of this character, from her decrepit apartment to her wobbly on-stage performance and rich, dusky singing voice, is unparalleled. Cody’s script gives Streep a good deal of complexity to work with, even if the character occasionally gets drunkenly didactic about the double-standards that male rockers face with regard to their family affairs. But for the majority of the film, Cody’s writing is quite strong – indeed, this may be her most mature script to date, with all of her quirk and sharp sarcasm perhaps tempered a bit by reality. This is seemingly the next sad chapter in the life of Charlize Theron‘s character from Young Adult.

When the family interaction finally happens, it’s propped up by a series of strong performances, from dapper, bourgie ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) to her decidedly non-gay divorcée daughter, Julie, played by Streep’s actual daughter Mamie Gummer. Gummer is an absolute wreck here, and I mean that in the best way. She is surely the most honest character in the film, both with herself and the rest of the cast – even if that honesty takes the form of complete disinterest in personal hygiene and a recent suicide attempt. Her looming divorce is the impetus behind bringing Linda back to her long-abandoned family in the first place, and indeed, much of the film’s strongest dramatic work comes between mother and daughter. Apart from that, Streep and Kline also share a delightful scene of family marijuana-time in which the lingering romantic nostalgia between the pair is teased, established, and appropriately not dwelt upon. Her two sons (played by Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate) are basically non-entities, imbued with a single, simple conflict apiece that contribute little to the film except a setting for the final act. They don’t drag down the film, but they certainly make it feel a bit overstuffed, especially when it manages to make such strong use of Audra McDonald with equally little screentime. McDonald plays Maureen, Pete’s “new wife” of 20+ years who did far more to raise Linda’s kids than she ever did. The script teases her arrival throughout the first half, and while McDonald and Streep ultimately only have a handful of scenes together, the tension underlying this relationship is clear and immediate. Maureen is established as an admirable woman in a great many ways, and the inevitable confrontation between the two ill-matched rivals is not only some of Cody’s sharpest dialogue; it may be the film’s best scene. It mixes emotion and exposition and a pair of stunningly executed performances and leaves the audience reeling for the start of the third act.

This is probably a good spot to mention that Ricki and the Flash is incredibly predictable, which is why I’ve been a bit looser than usual with spoilers. This is one of those vices of the musical genre that I’ll handily forgive. There was only ever one way for this film to end, with the titular band on stage playing us into the credits. But it’s in this third act that the musical elements of the film really start to shine. Scenes last for two, three minutes longer than they would in any other genre, and yet with Streep at the microphone, talented as actress and singer in equal measure, I found myself as thoroughly engrossed with the musical postscript as I had been with the dialogue preceding it.

The noticeable weak link is Springfield. His acting is not bad by any means; he’s just noticeably outmatched by Streep in every scene they share. He delivers a speech late in the film about how much he loves his kids, and his mid-Atlantic drawl and crisp, Jimmy Stewart delivery felt like an artifact of a bygone style of acting. It felt rather out of place, like he was trying much too hard in the presence of an actress who was comfortable enough not to need to. That said, Springfield is an order of magnitude better at acting than Pierce Brosnan or Russell Crowe is at singing, so if the musical genre demands crossover performers, it seems that I prefer it the Springfield way. Director Jonathan Demme impressed me here as well. This is a step outside of his prior genres (best known for The Silence of the Lambs), although the most direct spiritual predecessor to this film is his 2008 indie drama Rachel Getting Married. Like that film, Ricki and the Flash is a close-knit, dysfunctional family tale that rarely feels slight, despite its pairing with a screenwriter and genre that often risk being so.

And at this moment, I’m sad we couldn’t podcast this, because this is where Ricki and the Flash would play us out.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

Poster for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

This week, we took a cue from the movie studios and decided to cram one too many films into the same day. First, we delve into the dark and depraved world of David Fincher’s fresh adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Then, we’ll examine the maturation of Diablo Cody in her new collaboration with director Jason Reitman, Young Adult. (44:42)

Still from "Young Adult"

Please note that per usual, this podcast may contain NSFW language. Additionally, due to the subject matter of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, our review contains some rather frank discussion of rape and associated social issues. We understand these matters are delicate, and we recommend that any sensitive listeners skip past the spoiler section of this review (see the show notes for timing).

FilmWonk rating (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo): 7/10
FilmWonk rating (Young Adult): 8.5/10

Show notes:

  • (0:00) Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • (11:55) Spoilers: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (warning: disturbing content)
  • (24:07) Review: Young Adult
  • (36:21) Spoilers: Young Adult
  • Minor spoiler: Near the end of the Dragon Tattoo review, we allude to a certain character stealing a substantial amount of money. From the book, the actual amount was around $260 million USD, which was worth about 2.5 billion Swedish kronor when the book was written. In the film (according to Wikipedia), the amount is 32 billion Euros (~$41 billion USD).
  • We mention the actor who plays Lisbeth Salander’s guardian. This actor is Yorick van Wageningen, whom we may have recognized from his small part as “The Guv” in The Chronicles of Riddick.
  • For the record, there is no Mercury, MN.
  • Music for tonight’s episode is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ version of “Immigrant Song” (performed by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), from the soundtrack to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Listen above, or download: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Young Adult (right-click, save as).

Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” – The Devil’s in the Details

Megan Fox has something very much in common with her Transformers co-star, Shia LaBoeuf – they’re both strangely off-putting. LaBoeuf’s awkward reception can likely be attributed to being this generation’s geeky answer to Bruce Willis, but it seems to decrease as his acting prowess is steadily demonstrated. Conversely, Megan Fox has done very little to distinguish herself from any other honeypot on-screen, but from her vast array of tattoos and various attempts at being “edgy” to her public bickering with Michael Bay, she’s has done a fair amount to deserve a chilly reception off-screen.

Amid the scuffle of forced and angry celebrity, we’re presented with Jennifer’s Body, the latest outing from critically-polarizing Juno scribe Diablo Cody and Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, a sultry teenage sexpot-cum-succubus who is working her way through the boys at her high school…killing and eating them in the process. Her friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) works to uncover the truth and stop any more boys from being killed – including her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons).

Diablo Cody has once again shown her talent for whimsical character names and gratingly awkward teenage dialogue. Within the first ten minutes, we are treated to the following phrases:

“You’re just jello that you can’t go. Admit it! You’re just green jello!”
“You are so lesbi-gay.”
“Cheese and Fries!” [think “Jesus Christ!”]
“It smells like Thai food in here… Have you guys been f*cking?!”

And yet, as in Juno, if you can overlook the momentary twinges of painful repartee and hipster sensibility (which frankly didn’t bother me much in that film), what shines through is a fairly smart and amusing genre-straddler. The characters, some of which are in the film for the sole purpose of being killed, are much more fleshed out than most horror films would bother with these days. We’re treated to several none-too-elaborate, but nonetheless solid performances from Johnny Simmons (Hotel for Dogs), Kyle Gallner (“Veronica Mars”), Adam Brody (“The O.C.”), and Josh Emerson (I Love You, Beth Cooper). J.K. Simmons probably should’ve stayed home; he and Amy Sedaris are largely wasted in their minor adult roles.

Then there’s Megan Fox… About all I can say about her performance in this film is that it was one-note, but effective. There isn’t much to this character, and yet I can scarcely imagine anyone else playing the part. I suppose I must concede that Fox’s performance was passable, if utterly undemanding, but in spite of what the the posters might say, the real star (and indeed, the most prominent character) of this film is Amanda Seyfried. This is an actress whose work has steadily improved since she first caught her break as the dumbest of the Mean Girls, and went on to give a very effective turn on “Veronica Mars”. In this film, her character subscribes to the usual teen cliche of “hot girl + glasses/uncombed hair = plain girl”, but Seyfried continues to bring all of her signature likeability and earnestness to the role.

-“Our library has an occult section?”
-“It’s very small.”

As Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead have demonstrated, an effective blend of horror and comedy can make for a groundbreaking and fantastic film. This film may not reach the same levels of brilliance as either of those films, but it mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do.

It plays freely with the conventions of horror, often managing to surprise the audience by playing on the typical direction and storytelling. The film doesn’t overly rely on jump scares, and establishes an effectively frightening ambiance to several scenes. There was one shot in this film in which Megan Fox looked absolutely terrifying, and the camera lingered on it just long enough to make certain that the entire audience was squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the film’s appeal to the horror genre is unfortunately limited to just a few strokes of directorial aptitude. Once it begins to delve seriously into the rules of its world, the film throws itself firmly back into the realm of teen comedy.

I had to laugh at a scene toward the end in which Megan Fox was hoisted out of a pool by her invisible wires and harness to hang limply in the air, and the following exchange ensues:

Chip: “She can fly?!”
Needy: “She’s only hovering!”
Jennifer: “Do you have to naysay everything I do?”

What ensues is a myriad of nonsensical demonic combat and subpar wire choreography, but it’s all largely immaterial. By this point in the film, if you haven’t erupted in laughter several times, you’re probably not the target audience. This is a film that is unafraid to tackle the connection between painfully generic indie rock and the occult. A film that will gleefully present us with a scene of awkward teenage sexuality (rendered with alarming accuracy), and then cut back and forth to a boy getting brutally murdered. A film in which a scene of abduction and human sacrifice unfolds with all the subtlety of a “MadTV” sketch, but is nonetheless played for ample hilarity.

This was a fun film – just as laughable as the majority of the franchise horror films that will appear over the next few weeks, but not nearly as insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Or check out the red-band trailer at Shock Til You Drop (NSFW).