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!

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

Directed by Andy Serkis

I grew up with parents who read to me every night and some of my all-time favourites were Kipling stories, including The Jungle Books. I still have an old copy of both volumes on my shelves at home. When I was little I remember being incredibly disappointed with the Disney cartoon (yes, I’m that old) because the jungle seemed so clean and safe compared to the grit and peril of Kipling’s original.

There’s been quite a bit of chatter about the standard of computer graphics in this film. I saw it on my home system via Netflix and didn’t find myself being drawn out of the story at any time to consider the scene – a sure way for me to know if I’m distracted by poor CG. Rather, I think Serkis makes good use of the technology available to him. There’s one scene where Mowgli is hiding under water, looking up at Shere Khan lapping from the pool. The shot-reverse shot is gorgeous, delivering tension and realistic water refraction at the same time. Having said that, I don’t know how well some of the set piece action sequences would look on a big screen. As much as I love the new age of delivery models, I regret not being able to go to the cinema to see this.

The voice cast are a wonderful ensemble, featuring some of the best talent currently available. Standouts for me were Peter Mullan, Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris and Tom Hollander, with Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andy Serkis being their usual reliable selves. But Rohan Chand in the title role is really quite remarkable, with the appropriate mix of fear and determination in his portrayal. I recall he popped up briefly in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and I look forward to seeing more work from this talented young man.

Finally, Andy Serkis has offered a retelling that is much darker than any previous film version and far more adventurous in almost every respect, capturing the feel of the original work. There are comedic moments but overall, the tone is darker and more in keeping with Kipling’s text.

Well worth watching – but not for small children!

Extinction (No Spoilers)

Extinction 2018 Directed by Ben Young.

It’s been driven home to me recently that I’m getting old. My local cinema, the State Cinema in North Hobart is putting on a couple of screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release. But this also gives me cause to celebrate, as 2001 was one of the films that really hooked me into science fiction film, going to the movies in general and remains a film I still love to watch.

This release from Netflix reminded me again what in influence Kubrick still has over the genre, with some early shots from Extinction clearly paying homage. I also spotted a cinematic nod to Ridley Scott’s Alien (which is rarely a bad thing) and in hindsight, these little crumbs set the tone for this flawed but interesting piece of near-future sci-fi.

Essentially, this feature directed by Australian Ben Young is a film about family – what it means to be a family and how those bonds can be stretched, twisted and (in this case) strengthened – but it is quite a dour tale.

Michael Pena plays Peter, a building engineer cum maintenance worker who lives in an architecturally beautiful unnamed city with his engineer/town planner wife (Lizzy Caplan) and his two young daughters. Peter is troubled by dreams of an alien invasion that destroys his family but as his dreams become more intense and frequent, he finds himself increasingly alienated from those he’s trying to protect. I’m not going to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen this yet but suffice it to say that Peter’s nightmares turn into reality and the ensuing shenanigans provide the bulk of the film. The first act/set up tells us all we need to know and above all, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Once the action starts, it wisely relies more on practical than computer generated effects, which at times look very cheap. The tension mounts in a good but fairly predictable way but despite this, overall I found the second act pretty lacklustre. There’s a flatness about the action that took me out of the film on several occasions and I suspect this is one of the issues of trying to be a big blockbuster on a budget. Also, I felt Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan were sadly wasted in their roles, and the inclusion of Mike Coulter (Luke Cage) as Peter’s boss confused me. One of the things I really liked were the young daughters not being the standard stereotypical “plucky kids” so often seen in this kind of film. They’re not brave or particularly resourceful, they’re just terrified kids, which was refreshing.

The twist in the third act was very good and although I knew something was coming, I didn’t spot it specifically. (Again, no spoilers here – go and see it for yourself!)

Apart from uneven pacing and lacklustre CG, my main gripe with the film is the ending. Apart from clearly leading with a case for a sequel (please don’t do it!) I feel the movie lingered way too long after the denouement. I wanted it to wind up and wave goodbye at least 10 minutes before it did.

Despite this, I am increasingly impressed by Netflix’ foray into original sci-fi film distribution. While Extinction isn’t brilliant, along with Mute, Anon and the wonderful Annihilation (all of which I’ve written about elsewhere but neglected to review here!), Netflix is bringing a welcome breath of new(ish) science fiction to my screens. The ongoing issue I see here is the platform – these films were all made to be at their best on a big screen, with so much of their cinematic value being lost on my home television or laptop.

Or perhaps, I’m just getting old and feeling nostalgic for the magic of seeing something for the first time in a cinema? Nevertheless, I’m still watching with interest!