The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

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Film review – Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017)

On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).

And it’s really rather good.

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King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) pose for the cameras.

The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.

Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.

King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.

Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.

This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.

It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.

Film review – Little Evil (Eli Craig, 2017)

If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.

Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.

There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.

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The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.

There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.

Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.

Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.

Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.

Film review – Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

As I sat alone in the local multiplex chain cinema, watching the fellow viewers trickling in, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple on a date a few rows in front of me. They’d stocked up for the next couple of hours with the standard fare: a popcorn tub bigger than their own heads, a couple of XL soft drinks, a pouch full of chocolate nibbles. They may well have been wearing Star Wars t-shirts, hoping to see lead actor John Boyega in something other than Poe Dameron’s jacket, but I didn’t quite see. The point is, they almost certainly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. To some extent, neither did I.

As a British man in his early 30s, the real tragedy of the 1967 Detroit Riots were largely lost on me until the announcement of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. It’s a film seeking to shed light on the events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel as part of the 12th Street Riot. Whilst the motives behind making the film may have been perfectly justifiable when its production was announced in January 2016, the poignancy of its release over the backdrop of the recent events in Charlottesville could only be lost on the most unaware of cinema goers.

The film is split into three acts. The first provides a backdrop to the riots and the status of the never-ending and constantly evolving racial tensions across the USA. This act also serves to introduce some of the key players in the film: Boyega stars as diplomatic security guard Melvin Dismukes; Will Poulter portrays trigger-happy policeman Philip Kraus; Algee Smith is aspiring singer and performer Larry Reed; Hannah Murray features as young female Julie Ann.

The final act is essentially a courtroom drama that covers the fallout from the middle portion, which is a breathtaking piece of cinema that Bigelow has chosen to tell in realtime. Kraus heads up a police operation to discover what is believed to be a sniper rifle fired from the Algiers Motel, with a group of innocent black men standing accused along with two white girls. The racism is evident, driving the policemen’s actions and words to breaking point, leaving several people dead and the remainder with horrific memories of the night.

It is overwhelmingly upsetting and unsettling, made even worse by the fact it is based on accounts of real events. It seems unfathomable that anyone could watch this and not wince. It’s certainly something that has stayed fresh in my mind since I saw the film, which gives me a fraction of an idea of what it must be like for the survivors of the incident.

John Boyega’s performance is perfectly nuanced as he stands by almost helpless, doing what he can to keep the accused alive. As a security guard he is afforded a degree of respect, though it is respect that is only uniform deep. It’s not an easy role to pull off. The scene in the police interrogation room that kicks of Act 3 is almost as horrifying as what has come before, and it is in this scene that Boyega really shows his acting mettle.

Will Poulter is also worth pulling out as the extraordinarily derisible policeman Kraus. It may just be so good that he will suffer typecasting for the rest of his career. The role is written so you can do nothing but hate him, but not every actor can achieve this with such little charm. That’s deliberate and is thus a genuine triumph by Poulter.

Detroit has seemingly fallen away at the box office now, failing to recoup the production costs. In a week where The Emoji Movie continues to run having made a global profit of over $30m, I can’t help but wonder whether escapism is the order of the day for film fans at the moment. Why would we want to see a long film like this when it seems to be on the news every week anyway?

Film review – Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

A well-chosen ensemble cast and a smattering of quick-witted humour makes ‘Logan Lucky’ an enjoyable ride as Steven Soderbergh returns to the heist genre that has served up some of the most-popular films of his career.

The film stars Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as the Logans, two brothers who are renowned for their lack of fortune as much as their lack of intelligence. After Jimmy (Tatum) gets laid off from his job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway track, he and brother Clyde (Driver) hatch a plan to perform a heist on the track during a race day. Enlisting Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), the elaborate plot forms the centre piece for a smart cinematic sandwich that delivers more than it promises in the trailers.

The action on the speedway racing is kept to the minimum, which gives the racing much more appeal outside the southern areas of USA. When it does appear, it injects a bit of adrenaline without detracting from the focus of the story.

But it is the humour that really delivers the best moments for the film. Whether it’s the stupidity of the lesser-known Bang brothers, Craig unexpectedly being a great over-the-top comedian, or the slapstick visual gags involving prosthetic arms, it never fails to amuse.

It’s not all rosy. Seth MacFarlane’s performance as the pig-headed obnoxious businessman Max Chilblain does undo some of the hard work in other parts of the film. Perhaps it was hard to get past the woeful British accent, which may have been slightly off-kilter to create laughs, but it was too off-putting to set aside. I thought at times he might have been Australian. It’s frustrating when you know the man behind the moustache is one of the modern comedy greats.

Soderbergh’s previous heist films were famed for their great soundtracks but fans hoping for another great driving playlist will be sadly disappointed. For a quality soundtrack that accompanies a car-based action film, music fans will have to keep playing Baby Driver for a while longer yet.

Tatum plays the headstrong and world-weary lead excellently, but his comic abilities were almost completely untapped. I didn’t feel this was necessarily a bad thing. Soderbergh had a lot of character actors playing wildly outside their comfort zone in a manner that could have easily fallen flat. Here, it doesn’t. Adam Driver playing comedic straight man to a prosthetic arm? Yes please.

Logan Lucky won’t be as popular as Ocean’s Eleven but it doesn’t have the big money behind it to reach those peaks. Indeed, as of 21st August 2017 it is recorded as having the 25th worst opening weekend for a 3000+ cinema release film of all time.

If it fails to make its money back it will be a disaster that would tell you nothing about the quality of this picture.

Film review – The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Sofia Coppola’s choice to take on ‘The Beguiled’, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’, could be considered a bold move. The novel served as the source material for Don Siegel’s 1971 film, also titled ‘The Beguiled’, with Clint Eastwood taking the lead role. Its popularity is evidenced by its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating. A classic story about a soldier starring an all-time great film actor.

A simple remake would be drab, especially by Sofia Coppola. To reposition the whole story from the perspective of the women involved is a brilliant move and a gamble that pays dividends. The result is a swirling story of suspicion, falsities and lust that puts the central trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning at the forefront of the repositioned and wholly captivating story, reducing the central soldier figure to something akin to a supporting role.

The faded dresses the girls wear suggest a ghostly edge to their lives

The film is set in 1964 Virginia, USA, a prominent part of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. A young girl named Amy (Oona Lawrence) from a local Christian all-girls school is out picking mushrooms and stumbles across an injured solider. The man, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a soldier fighting for the Union Army of the north who finds himself critically injured and behind enemy lines. She decides to help him by taking him back to the school grounds. The head of the school, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), treats his wounds and nurses him back to recovery, whilst teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst) and older student Alicia (Fanning) become immediately interested in this mysterious man who has unexpectedly entered their lives. This is the perfect invitation for McBurney, with little to lose, to begin a charm offensive and attempt to stay at the school and avoid returning to the war.

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A captivating scene between Farrell and Dunst

 

McBurney may have been reduced to a supporting role, but Colin Farrell makes the most of his screen time to make sure the frenzy of interest is well justified. As in the novel, the character is a man of Irish heritage and Farrell plays on the stereotypes of a cheeky and charming Irishman to great effect. His character needs to stay in the school for as long as possible and he does his best to ensure everyone there doesn’t want him to leave. For Amy he offers a best friend and father figure, for Alicia he offers lust, for Edwina he offers the chance to escape and for Martha he offers intelligent conversation and companionship. This plotting is ultimately his downfall, and when it is abruptly halted Farrell is equally adept at exploding with anger – the juxtaposition against his charm making his performance all the more shocking.

 

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Dunst and Farrell

Coppola has crafted a film that lives in a completely different time to that of her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring. It was a move she actively sought to make, that film inhabiting an entirely more ugly modern world of theft, celebrity and social media that marked a departure from the norm for the director. It was a very good film, but was less well received than the likes of Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides; films that have helped define her as one of the most distinctive and identifiable directors in modern cinema. If The Bling Ring failed to speak the language we were used to, Coppola makes sure her voice is deafening in The Beguiled.

It is Dunst that eventually becomes the standout performer in a strong ensemble cast. She has been through a lot on film with Sofia Coppola, from a 15-year-old lustfully oppressed girl in The Virgin Suicides, to a precocious queen in the form of the titular Marie Antionette. In The Beguiled, Edwina is a character that could feasibly be lost alongside strong showings from Fanning and Kidman in roles of women who more clearly know what they want. Edwina is far more nuanced, at a juncture in her life where she feels lost. She is a woman who feels she is losing time and wasting her best years in a place far removed from a life. When Farell asks her what her one truest wish is, she simply responds that she wants to go as far away as she can from her current life. In the end, it was this character that I felt most sorry for, far more so that McBurney or any of the other girls.

For anyone wondering whether or not Coppola had lost her knack after an extremely strong start, a steady middle and a potential blunder in the form of A Very Murray Christmas, you will be pleased to know that The Beguiled is 100% a return to form. It may not go down in history as a great – as is the case with Lost in Translation – but it’s a fine film indeed.

Note: For further reading on Sofia Coppola’s response to controversies surrounding the omission of a slave girl from the original novel, read this article. I don’t see it as relevant to the discussion on the film so haven’t mentioned it in the main body.