Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western sendup so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner spinning around inside it.
But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves from comedy into something else, something kind of amazing. Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, Buster Scruggs is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
As fodder for film, Victor Hugo’s mammoth 19th-century novel Les Misérables has rarely been out of style. Filmed as early as 1909, this saga of injustice, revolution, and redemption has been reincarnated in celluloid several times every decade since (except, oddly, the Sixties, when injustice and revolution—though not redemption—were much on people’s minds). Only a miniseries or “long form” version could hope to encompass all of Hugo’s saga, but the core narrative—the decades-long pursuit of reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean by the legality-obsessed police officer Javert—is wellnigh foolproof as religious allegory, psychological study, and bedrock suspense story.
Liam Neeson is back in action in the gritty crime thriller Run All Night (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), his third and most satisfying collaboration with filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop). Neeson once again has a very specific skill set—his nickname isn’t Jimmy the Gravedigger for nothing—but he’s been pickling it in booze for years to drown the guilt of his mob assassinations for Irish crime boss Ed Harris. Then Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), a former boxer turned limo driver, lands in serious trouble when his job takes him to the wrong place at the wrong time where he witnesses a gangland murder. Jimmy sobers up quickly and takes on his former boss and best friend—not to mention the bad cops in his pocket—to do protect his boy.
In the world of high-concept crime thrillers, this is surprisingly down to earth. There’s no superheroics or spectacular Die Hard-style stunts here. It’s all handguns and car chases and blood and broken glass on the urban mean streets at night, and Collet-Serra creates a very turbulent, unstable ordeal. Things move fast and the violence comes abruptly, and the atmosphere is tense and jittery. It lives up to the title. But Collet-Serra also grounds it in actual relationships—a son who has no respect for a drop-out father, a mobster who respects his alcoholic best friend more than his reckless son, who would rather play gangsta than understand the balance of power and diplomacy in the criminal underworld, and two fathers who will do anything for their sons despite the past.
It’s reminiscent of seventies crime picture, with corrupt cops and criminal codes and a new generation of thug that has no respect for the old ways. If it never becomes anything more than a great paperback crime yarn built on coincidence, bad luck, and blood ties, it does the genre proud. Vincent D’Onofrio brings a weary gravitas to an old-school police detective whose sense of justice outweighs his desire to put Jimmy down and Common is enigmatic as a hired gun with his own specific skill set.
On Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Xbox, and CinemaNow.
Amid the gumshoed masses of fictional detectives, author Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder looms large and wounded, an unlicensed private eye who continually takes the weight of the world on his shoulders in an attempt to quiet his inner demons. Adapting the 10th book in Block’s Scudder series, A Walk Among the Tombstones nails the mournful cynicism of the source material. If the sight of a man in a trenchcoat doggedly chasing down leads dings your particular pleasure centers, get to the theater as soon as you can.
Beginning with a tragic flashback, the story follows Scudder (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop who divvies up his time between doing paid favors for acquaintances and attending AA meetings.
Do not doubt Liam Neeson. This lesson from the recent string of action movies starring the 61-year-old actor is reinforced by Non-Stop, a bang-up thriller with Neeson as the lone hope for a plane full of innocent passengers and a crazed hijacker.
Seriously: If I’m on a flight and bad stuff is going down, I want Liam Neeson there. Dude is so gigantic and forceful he looks like he could land the plane by carrying it on his shoulders.
When did Liam Neeson, that Oscar-nominated rock of an Irish actor who starred in Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, become the toughest action hero of the day?
When actors pass 50 they generally transition into, let’s say, less physically demanding roles. You know, fathers and mentors and sturdy authority figures offering sage advice to the younger folk doing all the running around. But at age 55, Neeson took the lead in Taken as a retired special agent who cuts a violent swath through the French underworld to find his kidnapped daughter. He’s since led The A-Team, battled a pack of wolves in The Grey, and gone continental badass again in Unknown and Taken 2.
It turns out that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and this month he’s got competition. While he takes on hijackers in a transatlantic flight in Non-Stop, a title that could just as easily describe Neeson’s reinvigorated career, Kevin Costner heads back into the field as a veteran Secret Service agent on the trail of a terrorist in 3 Days to Kill.
Sam Raimi always wanted to make his own superhero movie. It was a natural fit for the director, as the Spider-Man films so clearly prove, but in 1990 no one was ready to trust him with a comic book hero on the strength of a couple of Evil Dead movies. So he created his own character: Darkman, a disfigured, damaged scientist who emerges from a fiery original story with one foot in the world of Gothic horror and the other in Hollywood action cinema.
Liam Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on the experimental “liquid skin” in a laboratory built out of a waterfront warehouse. He lives with Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney representing a shady developer (Colin Friels) whose trail of bribes starts to surface. When he sends his thug Durant (Larry Drake), a beady-eyed heavy with a jowly face, a posh sense of fashion, and a pocket cigar cutter that doubles as a portable guillotine for the fingers of his victims, to grab the incriminating documents, Peyton and his lab assistant become collateral damage.
Darkman was Raimi’s first studio film and, while hardly a big-budget project, he had more resources at his disposal than he had ever had before and he celebrates with a big, busy opening scene of gang warfare. Raimi lets us know exactly what kind of film we’re in for in the first scene, where a gang stand-off becomes a massacre after Durant’s men pull out a machine gun hidden in prosthetic limb.