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BFI London Film Festival

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a Massive Disappointment



The Coen Brothers are back with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a collection of short tales about The West. Featuring outlaws, Indians, coachmen, entertainers, prospectors, and gamblers, this should be easy territory from the directors of No Country For Old Men and True Grit, experts in both the wacky and the serious, the mythical and the specific. Yet this film sees the brothers at their most tedious, trucking in negativity instead of insight, and lacking the basic understanding of what makes a short film work.

It starts with a cracker, a stupid-funny, fourth-wall breaking tale featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a troubadour/gambling gunslinger continuously getting into fights. Featuring great tunes, precision-perfect comic editing, and a deeply memorable central character, it gives one the impression that we are in for a real treat. Yet from there it only gets progressively worse. Despite featuring such big stars as James Franco playing a bank robber, Tom Waits playing a man looking for gold, Brendan Gleeson as a bounty hunter, and Liam Neeson as a travelling entertainer, great presences are wasted in service of a nihilistic —and frankly boring — worldview. 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review

Don’t go in expecting fully-fleshed stories so much as long-depictions of one person trying for nearly half an hour to succeed at something before it being cruelly dashed away from them in the end. There is little setup and payoff here, and once you get into the film’s rhythms, it simply becomes excruciatingly predictable. Nearly every story ends with someone getting shot — hardly a comment on the inherent violence of the West, more just basic and lazy storytelling. Short stories have to be punchy and smart, and apart from the great opener, there are few twists, little suspenseful moments, and even less memorable lines. Throw in excessively mannered Old West dialogue, and it becomes easily one of their worst and most embarrassing films. 

We all know that The Coen Brothers worldview can be notoriously pessimistic, coming down to one simple thesis: life is pointless and all human endeavour comes to nothing. This negative outlook is fine for intense meditations on the human condition such as No Country for Old Men, but becomes almost impossible to sustain over six different stories. You know they will end badly, and they do. The End.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Coen Bros.

Done correctly, anthology stories can be a riot — consider Wild Tales and this year’s Panic Attack, both which manage to tell several stories and maintain a heady, thrilling sense of momentum. But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows that the exact opposite can happen, repeatedly bludgeoning the audience over the head with variations of the same sad tale. Perhaps just over a neat 90 minutes, this would’ve been a mere trifle in their storied filmography, but coming in at 132 minutes, it becomes nearly as interminable as The House That Jack Built. It leads me to think that the only reason Netflix and the Coen Brothers ditched the mini-series idea is that nobody would actually have the power to get to the finish line. It’s the biggest disappointment of the year.

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Patrick Murphy

    November 18, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Have to say, I completely disagree with your take. Although it doesn’t rank among their very best, I found it to be quite a treat, and even haunting at times. I won’t soon forget the blank look of resignation on the face of the limbless bard, nor the endearingly mannered dialogues along the course of the wagon train. Western lovers will find gold in how common tropes are used, and the visuals are absolutely pristine. I was struck by the imagery, and enjoyed the deliberate pacing. Some ending do seem abrupt, potentially without proper payoff, but the disappointment fits the theme.

    Highly recommended for western lovers, worth giving a shot for others.

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BFI London Film Festival

2018 London Film Festival: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Sublime Mess



It’s rare to really see a director take so many risks in one movie as Brady Corbet takes in Vox Lux. He doesn’t just throw in the entire kitchen sink; he raids an entire kitchen sink store. There’s home video footage, strobe lighting, music video parodies, dream sequences, news footage, and a concert movie. There’s voiceover by Willem Dafoe, including a lecture on how conservative musical policies in Stockholm inevitably led to Abba. There are long takes, dialogue scenes that last over ten minutes, and acres of bad taste. Then there’s Natalie Portman with a severe neck piece wearing beautiful sequins and sparkling in glitter. At times disconcerting, at others searingly funny, Vox Lux is one of the strangest and most unfocused films released this year. It’s definitely not a success, but it’s not exactly a failure either. What can I say: I loved it.

However intense and weird his previous film, Childhood of a Leader (notable for its booming Scott Walker score that gave it a grandiosity way above its station), was, Vox Lux is ten times stranger. It starts in 1999 at a school in New Brighton, Staten Island, with the now-familiar scenes of a boy entering a music class and shooting his contemporaries. One survivor is Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who suddenly rockets to fame by performing a highly televised eulogy for her dead friends. She and her sister (Stacy Martin) head to Europe to record her debut album. Already hardened to the harshest part of adult life — death — her elder sister introduces her to the pleasanter stuff: drinking, sex, and drugs.

In other words, Celeste is all messed up. In complete contradiction to the pacing of the first half, the second “act” (this movie is artificially split into two sections, with a prelude and an epilogue) is set over the course of one day, as a grown-up Celeste (Natalie Portman) prepares for her latest concert, accompanied by her manager (Jude Law) and daughter (Raffey Cassidy, again). Portman’s performance is really something; with a thick Staten Island accent as wobbly as Corbet’s command of tone, she lashes out, self-destructs, criticizes, and cries her way through a whole catalogue of mini-crises. This is a really heady performance. Not everything works, but the intensity simply demands to be admired.

There are some big ideas here. Vox Lux lacerates the whole grief factory by which artists turn their pain into stardom, the way people commit terrorist acts for fame, and the way people have replaced God with pop music. This movie will inspire a lot of think-pieces; Corbet loves the idea of something bigger or outside the story itself. Childhood of a Leader, for example, was about the rise of a fascist dictator that never actually saw him as a dictator. Likewise, the narration here tells us things that don’t happen on the screen itself. Coming at a time school shootings and terrorist attacks — and even terrorist attacks at pop concerts — are a common occurrence, there’s no doubt this film will upset a lot of people. I don’t think it ever really reconciles these ideas properly, and is ultimately much more interesting in the way it presents its ideas than the ideas its presenting, but perhaps cinema doesn’t have to be so tidy. Vox Lux may be a mess, but it’s a sublime mess — a unique and daring vision of a world completely off its axis. 

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 10 – 21. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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BFI London Film Festival

2018 London Film Festival: ‘Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’ Is a Tremendous Success



It’s New Year’s Eve and Colin (Neil Maskell) just wants everyone to have a good time. He has rented a mansion in Dorset for the entire family (and some family friends) for the night, a place we are constantly reminded is a whole “four fucking hours drive” from home. He’s really looking forward to it, but there’s just one problem: his sister Gini (Hayley Squires) has invited along his estranged brother David (Sam Riley). Containing more secrets and lies than any other British ensemble film released in recent years, Colin Burstead, Happy New Year is a familiar version of the family reunion genre that has some deft things to say about the nature of conflict and the impossibility of clean reconciliations.

Adopting a Dogme 95-like approach – filled with naturalistic, improvisatory performances filmed on handheld cameras – Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’s recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration in more ways than one. While not delving as deep as its bitterly dark Danish forebear, it is a similar mix of tragedy and comedy that makes full use of its brilliant British cast.

To explain the plot would be to explain several, which is perhaps the point of the movie, taking all the drama of a Victorian novel and condensing it in a brisk 95 minutes. As one character mentions, its the kind of no-holds-barred, cleaning-the-shit-off-the-plates night that happens once every ten years. At large family reunions, there is never just one story to be told, with several different storylines interwoven throughout. Credit must go to Ben Wheatley (who also edited the film) for keeping the whole tale coherent, knowing when to cut between lighter and darker moments, and maintaining a sense of forwarding momentum throughout.

Given Ben Wheatley’s penchant for veering his stories rapidly off-course, it’s easy to spend the entire movie waiting for the other shoe to drop. But Wheatley has something subtler on his mind, doubling-down on his authentic ear for Londoner-dialogue and his ability to bring the best out of seasoned British character-actors. This confidence in simply letting his characters hang out and be angry with each other is perhaps the most surprising thing about the film and how he has developed as a director. No special tricks are needed anymore.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

It questions whether its really worth it to expend so much energy to bring people who dislike each other so intensely together, and smartly pinpoints the ways anger can move in the wrong direction without anybody seemingly noticing. Family can be complicated beasts, full of contradictions and absurdities: the Burstead clan are no different.

At its centre is Neil Maskell, who really shines here as a man trying to bring his family together but finds himself slowly losing his cool. So often just another football geezer in forgettable outings such as St George’s Day and Rise of the Footsoldier, his performances for Ben Wheatley really show his range as an actor. He is supported by an all-star cast, including Bill Paterson as the failure of a father, Doon Mackichan as the overdramatic mother, Charles Dance as the charismatic uncle, Richard Glover as the mild-mannered Lord of the Manor, Asim Chaudhry as an unwanted gate-crasher, Mark Monero as Gini’s husband who doesn’t want to get involved and Alexandra Maria Lara as David’s German girlfriend who seems to think all of this is very amusing. This large cast, with supporting players often commenting on the main action, gives it a Greek-chorus-like feel, combining the snippy humour of British soap opera with kitchen-sink dramas like the movies of Mike Leigh.

Adding a larger context are the references to Brexit throughout (British people can hardly not talk about it these days), Colin’s New Year’s Eve plan referred to as “Project family” (i.e. “project fear”) and one character expressing his desire for an unachievable “Tony Benn Brexit”. It feels like no coincidence David absconded to Germany, the most powerful country in, and the de-facto leader of, the EU. Additionally, the constant wrangling by different, personally motivated characters to smooth over seemingly intractable family issues feels eerily similar to vested government interests leading the country to the potential disaster of a no deal Brexit. The inevitable doom of next spring lingers over the story like in a horror movie, adding a spicy socio-political edge.

As a British person who has seen over a hundred films released this year alone and found home-grown cinema to be having a pretty poor year – with no British films set in Britain in competition at either Berlinale or Cannes – a success such as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead finally shows off the wealth of acting talent available in the UK. Colin might be having no fun, but audiences certainly will. 

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 10 – 21. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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