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 Old Man and the Gun

* * * 1/2

Every great artist deserves a career swan-song like The Old Man and the Gun, producer/star Robert Redford and writer/director David Lowery’s ode to heist movies, ageing in style, and Redford himself. Filled with thematic callbacks and visual references to Redford’s incredible career, most notably to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film, like the man, is classy, intelligent, witty, handsome and delightfully old-fashioned.

Based on a New Yorker article about a real bank robber and his small “gang”, the material is ideal for its purpose, which is to send Redford off (he’s announced his retirement from acting with this role). If it had been about a cop, or an architect, or a grumpy geezer pissed off with all the rotten youths in his neighbourhood, it would not have served Redford nearly so well. By allowing him once more to rob banks, we get him at his most iconoclastic, incorporating his sly anti-authoritarianism, his cocky charm, and his devastating attractiveness. Forrest Tucker (the real bank robber Redford portrays) famously smiled as he stole, and was always a perfect gentleman. He was also, quite obviously, compulsive in his need to steal, which makes him a far more intriguing and complicated character than he first appears.

Other than Casey Affleck as the cop on his tail, Redford gets to share the screen with (near) contemporaries, including Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. All give thoroughly charming performances. This is a calm, warm, delightful film, and rather stunning to look at. Set mainly in the early 80s, the period design is impeccable, and the film grain – Lowery shot on Super 16mm – is sumptuous. Redford should be pleased, and proud. A very cozy treat.

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.

Wildlife

* * * * 1/2

US cinema is having a rich year, and the talent behind it is fresh. With only two months to go, 2018’s three best American films – Hereditary, A Star Is Born and Wildlife – are all directorial debut feature films. Seemingly disparate, they share some unexpected connections (the unexciting one being that they’re all, culturally, very, very white.) They seem to be rooted in their own genre lanes – horror, romance and family drama – but there is thematic connective tissue, with particular overlap between Hereditary and Wildlife, two films about the effect of family disturbance upon a teenage boy.

In this case, the boy is Joe, played with supreme sensitivity by Ed Oxenbould. It’s the early 1960s in Montana, which may as well be the 1950s or earlier, and Joe’s parents are struggling. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those men, littered throughout American literature (the film is based on the book by Richard Ford) for whom the American foundation is proving to be deceptive, if not an outright lie. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is, likewise, stuck in a construction – American mid-century marriage – that could not seem more like a prison. When Joe loses his job, both he and Jeanette take single, seemingly selfish actions, one following the other, like dominoes; the enormity of their effect can only be gauged on Joe’s face, in silent close-up, for it is only he who must absorb every single ripple of their actions through no impulse of his own.

Debutant director Paul Dano exudes incredible assurance. The film is flawlessly conceived. All of the performances are tremendous (Mulligan, with the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue and vulnerable moments, is staggeringly good), the cinematography is superb, the score precise and profound. Above all, the storytelling is intellectually rigorous. Dano never abandons his young protagonist to the fireworks of his parents’ behaviour; Joe might say very little, but he is always there. Like a lot of American dramatic cinema and literature, Wildlife uses the disintegration of the mid-century American dream to remind us that the biggest impact of all is that of parents on their children, and that culpability begins at home.

Suspiria

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Luca Guadagnino follows up his sublime Call Me By Your Name with a bonkers, WTF take on Dario Argento’s 1977 bonkers, WTF dance-school horror classic Suspiria. It’s weirdly entertaining, supremely stylish, and somewhat surprisingly superbly acted, even as it baffles at every turn, until the last, when it manages to draw at least some of its strands together and achieves something like profundity.

Guadagnino shifts the story to a professional dance company in Berlin in 1977, casting his A Bigger Splash actors Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as an incoming dancer and the company’s artistic director, respectively. As with the original, all is not as it may appear on the surface at the institution. Indeed – very minor spoiler alert – it’s actually a front for a coven of witches.

Guadagnino shoots the film, not as a garish freak-out in the style of Argento but with the grainy, semi-documentary 70’s grungy realism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (and has acknowledged the influence in interviews about the production). It is a very different vibe to Call Me By Your Name, all hand-held zooms and strange edits, weird pacing and disjointed storytelling. You’re constantly aware you’re watching a film, a construction, and more than a little aware of it being rather precious, or at least indulgent. It is, for example, two and a half hours long.

And yet, a lot of it really works. Besides the very rigorous aesthetic, which is entertaining on its own, the film has Johnson and Swinton, and that’s a lot. Johnson really engaged me throughout the whole thing; I found her mesmerizing, compelling, endlessly fascinating. Whatever Guadagnino is up to here, she seems to get it, and manages, through a very determined performance – including loads of contemporary dance – to bring us along. Her character, seemingly a naïf from Ohio, is surprisingly complex, and, by the time of the film’s truly demented climax and her part in it, she’s earned it, whatever the hell it is.

Besides the company’s chief artiste, Swinton plays two other parts, each under layers of prosthetics; one is a man in his eighties, Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who is investigating the possibility of witches at the company. She’s uncanny as Klemperer, so much so that no casual audience member would likely suspect the character is not being portrayed by a real old man, and I only reveal it’s her because it makes watching her performance far more fun.

In the end, Guadagnino goes for some hefty and intriguing questions about culpability during the Nazi era that are simultaneously provocative and confusing. I’m sure he knows exactly what he wants to say; I’m not sure he’s said it with great clarity, but I’m equally sure he hasn’t intended to. Suspiria is deliberately disorienting and perhaps deliberately obtuse; it’s never very scary, but it’s often beautiful and always fun.

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Fahrenheit 11/9

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 12.11.16 pm.png* * * *

Michael Moore’s new theatrically released feature-length documentary should probably not have been theatrically released. Despite the crying, aching need for Moore’s voice to be heard at this dire moment in the American story, in America itself this film was, relative to the immense success of Moore’s other films, a miss at the box office. This time, when Moore finally spoke, few listened, and I think the medium was the mistake. Moore should have made this film for Netflix.

I’ve sat in a hotel lobby in California and watched US cable news. It’s all Trump, and all rage, all the time. Combined with everyone’s news feeds, which everyone’s constantly swiping down to update, news saturation is a thing. The idea of trotting off to the cinema to get “more of the same” perhaps seemed redundant to the American cinema-going public. Especially to get more Trump. I imagine that people either reckoned they already knew what Moore had to say, or they felt content to get it from the “takeaways” on their feeds.

It’s a shame, because Moore’s film is absolutely worth seeing, impossible to reduce to bullet points, and – the big surprise – not really about Trump. Its call to arms is Trump’s election, absolutely, and its final act is a very persuasive argument for Trump as calculating fascist that puts a terrifying new spin on even his dumbest-seeming acts. But the bulk of the film offers a comprehensive account of a more localised example of sheer, jaw-dropping, morally incomprehensible corruption within the US political system, and holds that up, not only as a mirror to Trump, but as and example – to Trump – of what you can get away with once you’re in charge.

That would be the Flint water scandal – and by scandal, I mean abomination. What was done to the people of Flint, Michigan, by its Governor, Rick Snyder, in pursuit of his and his friends’ wallets and at the expense of his mostly poor black constituents is so unbelievably callous, reckless and obviously criminal that it feels like a war crime. Australian audiences will be aghast; it really does feel impossible that someone actually did this to their own constituents and pretty much got away with it. And that’s part of Moore’s point. He shows that corruption at this hellish scale has not only set up Trump, it has inspired him. When politicians can be as fundamentally evil as Snyder, voters disengage – give up – and shameless sociopaths like Trump can move in and make absolute hay.

By offering a thorough, moving and furious exposé of what happened in Flint, Moore is linking back to his first major documentary feature, Roger and Me, and, later in the film, when he examines the Parkland school shooting and its aftermath, to his second, Bowling For Columbine. This has a profound effect. Both those films highlighted serious flaws in the American system, whereby people were not only losing their jobs and their houses but their lives. By returning to both subjects – Flint and guns – again, with such focus, we see, shatteringly, that not only have things in the USA gotten worse, they’ve gotten substantially worse. Moore’s collective filmography thus charts sustained systemic decline. Oh, for the days when Flint’s only problem was the loss of all sustainable income, rather than the systemic poisoning of its children.

In sympathy with its sober content, the new film has a darker hue than Moore’s previous work. Unlike Roger and Me and Bowling For Columbine, there is barely any humour here; it’s hard to smile in the face of kids drinking lead, and kids eating lead. It’s the stuff of despair, and anger, and the film is full of each. That anger also strikes at the Democratic Party; Moore exposes its hijacking of Bernie Sanders in yet another instance of such brazen corruption as to feel unreal, and Obama comes in for a massive serve for his actions when he finally decided to deal with what was happening in Flint.

So, no. It’s not all about Trump. It’s never about Russian collusion, Comey, the first 100 days, Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen or money laundering, and there is no pee tape, N-word tape, sex tape or other smoking gun. It’s about the system, the prevailing winds, that allowed for all of the above. It’s about a country in serious trouble, and it’s compelling and deserves a massive audience.

It should have been on Netflix. But it’s not, so go see it at the cinema. The last thing we need is for people like Michael Moore to give up, too.