The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

* * * * 1/2

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

The stories were originally going to be broken up, and producer Netflix was originally going to package them separately, as a TV series. I don’t know what discussions lead to the current format, of a single feature film, but suspect it may have to do with the stories’ disparate running times. The shortest feels around ten minutes, the longest at least half an hour; a TV series so comprised would have been radical, and perhaps ran the risk of being off-putting. As it stands, the experience of watching all in one sitting, as I did, is enormously rewarding, as the stories are well placed to thematically resonate and enrich each other.

The first, titular story, and the one that follows, are both very very funny and pretty violent, and seem designed to deconstruct the myth-making, “balladeering” of the old west. But as the film goes on, the stories grow in length, deepen in characterisation and darken in mood, and, while the sudden threat of fatal violence remains ever-present, the thematic focus shifts to language, such that the final story is essentially all dialogue, and all about words.

The Coens just love words with this film, and you’ll love them loving them. The lovely conceit of the whole seems to be that, while the American western frontier was coarse and rough in action, it was dignified and stately of tongue. This theme is spectacularly illustrated in the film’s final minutes, which fuse New World frontier law with Old World stately decorum while also nodding to an entire, hidden realm of unorthodox lifestyles. The final face we see is fearful, not just of potential violence, but of a love that dare not yet speak its name, and of society itself.

Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video)

Homecoming is based on a dramatic podcast, and the whole season of ten episodes is directed by Sam Esmail, who created and directed most of Mr. Robot. Oh, and it’s a half-hour drama. All those elements combine to give the show a very unique tone and feel. It’s bold and original. It doesn’t feel like anything else on television right now.

What it does feel like, and this is highly deliberate, especially on Mr. Esmail’s part, is The Parallax View, Capricorn One, The Conversation and other 1970s American paranoid conspiracy thrillers. It’s a total stylistic homage to those films and those directors, incorporating constant visual and aural references, particularly in the camera framing (and use of zooming), score, and title and cross-dissolve motifs. If you’re a fan of such cinema, you’re essentially predisposed to love this.

There’s a lot to love. The story is gripping, the performances – suiting the style – are a lot of fun, and the half-hour format is definitely fresh. Julia Roberts plays a counselor working for a government-contracted Florida-based Veteran’s program, called Homecoming, that aims to aid soldiers returning from the Middle East with their transition back to civilian life. But, of course, something nefarious is afoot. As the very embodiment of that nefariousness, Bobby Cannavle is (and has) a hoot, giving a very Bobby Cannavale performance. If you’ve listened to the podcast version, you’ll get a lot of enjoyment seeing the phone conversations between Roberts and Cannavale’s characters come to life.

But in the end, it is Esmail’s directorial flair, utilizing the cinematography and score, that puts this cool little oddity in the hoop. It just looks and sounds fantastic.

The Bureau

The Bureau Image.pngThe Bureau, or The Bureau of Legends as directly translated from the French original, is a sprawling, engrossing, thrilling espionage drama and one of the best shows I have ever seen. I put it only behind Engrenages (Spiral) as my favourite French show. So far there have been three seasons, and all are currently available on SBS On Demand. A fourth season began airing in France on October 22nd, 2018.

It focuses on the workings of the DGSE, the General Directorate of External Security, France’s principal external security service. The first season sees long-embedded spy “Malotru” (Mathieu Kassovitz) come in from the cold – Damascus – and try to adjust to “normal” life in Paris while wrestling with a particularly personal dilemma brought on during his operative term. The second season, one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, shifts the primary focus to the “B Story” lead character, Marina (Sara Giraudeau) as she goes undercover in Tehran. The third season… well, no spoilers from me, but it’s awesome.

There is a brilliantly conceived universe of fascinating characters here, warmly played by a superb ensemble. The operations, centred always in the Middle East, are compelling and believable, based, as they are, on real accounts by former spies and formidable research. There is humour, there are love affairs (and plain old French affairs), and the constant churn of truly difficult work, done in the shadows. But where the series really stands out is in its handling of suspense. This is a drama first and foremost, with the killings and action set-pieces held in admirable restraint, but when a tense sequence does kick into gear, it always works. At least once per episode, you’re likely to get sweaty palms.

N’attends pas! This is a binge delight.

WELLES FEAST

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND ****

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD ****

It’s difficult to know, objectively, how exciting the simultaneous release, on Netflix, of Orson Welles’ finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind and a documentary about that film’s production, They’ll Love Me When I’d Dead, will be for the general movie watcher. For me, it’s manna from heaven. If cinema is my love, Welles has been my obsession. I’ve read more books about him, watched more documentaries about him, just thought about him more than any other artist. And I’m not alone. Welles inspires devotion, because he was just the biggest, baddest, raddest, most ball-bustingly bravura filmmaker there was. He huffed and he puffed and blew all the doors down.

Of course, his very grandiosity, the thing about him that makes him so compelling, made him a pariah to some, and his story, no matter who’s telling it (I recommend Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Put Money In Thy Purse by Micheál MacLiammóir, and Run-Through by John Houseman, although there are scores more, including a mammoth multi-volume extravaganza by Simon Callow) always includes Hollywood’s abandonment of him, and his years in self-imposed exile, raising money and hell all over Europe and the world, starting many projects and tragically leaving many unfinished.

The most famous and infamous of these, the Golden Fleece, is The Other Side of the Wind, except that now, thanks to a smorgasbord of Jasons, it is, actually, finished, and you can, miraculously, push a button and watch it. But first, watch Morgan Neville’s extraordinarily entertaining documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, also on Netflix, or read (and read?) the book that inspired it, Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp, which is similarly delightful and inherently more detailed.

Then, once you’re up to speed on all the shenanigans, watch The Other Side of the Wind. It’s one of the more meta cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, for reasons that are self-evident, and plainly discussed in both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Karp’s book. The story of a Wellesian director, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, on his 70th birthday, having a party and trying to finish his latest film, it’s a stylistic tour-de-force first and foremost, a flashy, breezy and often very funny satire on the movies and reflection of Welles’s own predicament. If you’ve seen Welles’s superb cinematic essay F For Fake, you’ll recognise his editing style (and his leading lady and girlfriend, Oja Kodar), here taken to extremes. The cinematic conceit of the “main” storyline is that almost everyone at Hannaford’s party has some form of movie camera, and the film we’re watching is constructed from their footage, so the grain shifts, sometimes we’re in black and white, and very few cuts last longer than a couple of seconds. It’s propulsive and vibrant and edgy and fresh and unmistakably the work of Orson Welles. He had a true cinematic voice and it’s fully on display here.

We’re also treated to a hefty selection of scenes from Hannaford’s unfinished film – a film-within-the-film – also called The Other Side of the Wind. This is shot and edited in a completely different style (including in a different aspect ratio), being, within the film’s construct, not “Welles’s” work but “Hannaford’s”, and Hannaford, it turns out, is trying to connect with the late-60s / early 70s cineaste crowd by making an Antonioni-esque film. Thus the footage we see is a parody of Antonioni, and if you needed confirmation of that, the house Welles shot Hannaford’s party in is the house next door to the house Antonioni blew up at the end of Zabriskie Point. Now you see how deep the games go?

This footage – the film-within-the-film – is astonishing, for many reasons. It is intensely erotic (something rare for Welles), famously so thanks to the influence of co-writer Kodar, whom Welles adored and who obviously influenced him deeply during this period of his life. It is gorgeous, intricate, and often very creepy. If the main storyline is fascinating for its autobiographical take on Welles and his relationship to Peter Bogdanovich (playing a Peter Bogdanovich-type called Brooks Otterlake!) and young hip Hollywood (Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington and Claude Chabrol are all at the party, among others, and Susan Strasberg plays a version of Pauline Kael called Julie Rich), the film-within-a-film is fascinating to experience. Almost entirely free of dialogue, it is spellbinding, captivating, better than most of the films it so wickedly parodies.

If you love Welles you’ll be seeing both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind. If you’re new to Welles, give ‘em both a try. Regardless, watch the documentary first. It makes the film itself a vitally richer experience.

TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.

The Cleaners

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You’ll learn more about Facebook’s devastating relationship to the Myanmar genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the 88 minutes of this incredibly timely German documentary than you will from four hours of Apple News bits, bites and bobs. You’ll also learn more about how fake news spreads throughout not only Facebook and other social platforms but through Google itself than you would if you’d listened to the entire US congressional hearings into those applications.

You do so through the prism of “cleaners”, a work-force of thousands employed in Manila who spend their days and nights approving or deleting flagged images and videos for Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Some have to service 25,000 images or videos a day, and all of them, by their nature, have the potential to be highly disturbing. Violence, pornography, propaganda and terrorist acts all pass the eyes of these front-line curators of the world’s internet experience; they are then expected to be able to sleep at night and view 25,000 more upsetting things tomorrow.

This is stuff from dystopian fiction, it’s happening now, and it’s very disturbing. It also makes this compelling doc a must-see if you care at all about how the internet works.