The Beast in the Jungle

 

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

Directed by Clara Van Gool. Written by Glyn Maxwell and Clara Van Gool

This debuted at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2019 and is an imperfect yet quite daring take on the Henry James short novel of the same name. Van Gool is a well-known Dutch director of television and short films and has a penchant for dance in her work. Here she uses professional dancers Sarah Reynolds and Dane Jeremy Hurst to play the leads. The story concerns May Bartram and John Marcher and John’s obsession with the notion he is destined for something that is going to pounce upon him at any moment – like the titular beast in the jungle.

The film is beautifully framed and shot in muted tones by DoP, Richard Van Oosterhout and the opening act in particular reminded me of Merchant Ivory films, such as Maurice (1987) and A Room With a View (1985). The production design by Rosie Stapel and Diana van de Vossenberg works brilliantly here too. These scenes gave me a distinct feeling of melancholy, very similar to the novella, which I found a positive sign.

But Van Gool and Maxwell’s script brings the protagonists into the 20th century while maintaining the same muted colouring, which gave these scenes a very drab feel. I can see how this would fit with the source text, the unrequited love and overarching sadness but the bouncing back and forth is confusing for the audience and does little to propel the story. A far better recent example of this technique would be Greta Gerwig’s wonderful Little Women (2019)

The dance elements of the film are probably its best feature. Reynolds and Hurst might not be the greatest actors delivering lines, but through their bodies provide all the longing, uncertainty and pure physical attraction of this most chaste of love stories. At 87 minutes, it isn’t an overly long film but I felt the story wasn’t strong enough to carry a feature length work.

Van Gool’s experiments with temporal shifts often don’t play out well but I can understand why she tried this. It’s another example of risk-taking in film to try and find a new way to visually tell a story – and for that I applaud her!

Viaje

Viaje (2015)

Written and directed by Paz Fabrega

I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly watched a film from Costa Rica before, but this is one of the joys of MUBI, the indie streaming site I wrote about a couple of days ago. Unless it’s something I’ve seen before, or a classic film, I can never quite be sure what I’m going to get. 

And I have to say, this little film caught me off-guard. 

At my age, I find it unusual to be taken aback by what is no more than a romantic drama, but this Central American B&W gem fed directly into memories from my own (mis)adventures from the 80s to the present here in Australia. And there was no sugary, saccharine aftertaste that I so often get with films in this genre. 

Paz Fabrega is a leading director in her native Costa Rica, having received some prestigious international awards for her work, and her eye is subtle and fine. Coupled with some luminous black and white cinematography from Fabrega and Estaban Chinchilla, this is a delight to look at. Edited by Sebastian Sepulveda and Fabrega, the pace is gentle but brings life and meaning to the images. Fernanado Bolanos and Kattia Gonzales bring Pedro and Luciana to playful life and their chemistry is delightful as they dance around each other.

As always, it won’t appeal to everyone but at 70 minutes, this doesn’t overstay its welcome. I found this a delight that transcended both time and language, whispering gently in my ear about my own life and choices over the years, making me smile.

Honestly, what more could I want from a film?

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 2018

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I’ll start with a disclaimer – I love Westerns. There are particular old titles that bring back memories of Saturday matinees in my home town and late night television viewing with my father and older brother. One of my favourite (and most successful) papers written for my university degree was a comparative analysis of The Searchers (1956) and Serenity (2005). So, I came to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs with quite high expectations.

This latest production from the Coen brothers is an anthology of different stories of the American West, loosely linked to the theme of death. I’ve been a fan of their films all the way back to Blood Simple (1984), and in recent years have studied and analysed their movies and even written academic papers about them. Like all bodies of work that extensive, some of their movies speak to me more than others.  Similarly, anthologies always have stronger and weaker segments and I have to confess that some of these vignettes left me wanting more and a couple didn’t really speak to me at all.

Let’s start with the strengths. The cast is uniformly solid, which is vital with such a wide-ranging film but there are standouts. Tim Blake Nelson is excellent in the titular role and looks like he’s having a lot of fun. Similarly, Tom Waits as the Prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Liam Neeson as the Impressario in “Meal Ticket” are great but Harry Melling in “Meal Ticket” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are outstanding.

Melling is unrecognisable from the obnoxious Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter films and delivers everything with his expressive face and eyes. Kazan brings something quite special to the girl who finds herself abandoned and trying to take control of her life on a wagon train. I was reminded of a previous Coen film True Grit (2010) with references here to the Midnight Caller story. Framing in this vignette especially is pure homage to John Ford and at times it also reminded me of one of my favourite revisionist westerns, Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

As much as I enjoyed these performances though, it’s the ensemble in the final story, “The Mortal Remains” that had the biggest impact on me. Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, the ever reliable Brendan Gleeson and the wonderful Tyne Daly worked perfectly in a dark dreamscape that seemed to me like John Ford’s Stagecoach meets Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

On the downside, I found the CG in some of the earlier pieces annoying and at times, downright clunky – to the point that it took me out of the stories. And I have to say, the first two stories, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” really didn’t work for me despite solid performances.

While I believe this did get a limited theatrical release in the UK, the rest of the world is only able to watch it on Netflix. We are living in a fascinating and exciting time for new platforms and methods of film distribution. I sincerely hope it will enable more people to view different movies (particularly independent and foreign language cinema). But once again, as much as I love being able to stream films at home (I’m truly grateful for Netflix and MUBI) I’d have liked the option to be able to see this in a cinema and I have to wonder if some of my issues with the computer graphics would have been assuaged.

Nevertheless, if you like westerns (traditional or revisionist) this is well worth watching!

Night Tide

Night Tide (1961) Directed by Curtis Harrington

I was lucky enough to see a 2017 HD restoration of this black and white movie recently on MUBI, the movie streaming service for those of us who like to look beyond mainstream cinema.

Written and directed by the late, great Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter with Helen? and Killer Bees among others), I consider this more a quirky melodrama than a horror film, with a story of love and yearning at its heart. On shore leave, a young and lonely sailor (Dennis Hopper) becomes enamored of a beautiful young woman (Linda Lawson) he meets at a jazz club in Venice Beach. She plays a mermaid in the local carnival, but she is shrouded in sadness and mystery.

I can certainly see the cult appeal to film lovers like me – this is the kind of thing that played late on Friday night TV when I was kid and there’s a big nostalgia element for me. The score is by the celebrated David Raskin and the beautiful black and white cinematography by Vilis Lapenieks.

And even here, in one of his first starring roles, Dennis Hopper is a standout. This is a stunning restoration of a really sweet, moody and melancholic B-movie. If you get a chance to see it, do it!