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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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Non-Review Review: The Other Side of the Wind

It is still strange to think of The Other Side of the Wind as an object that actually exists.

The film has haunted film films for decades, the prospect and potential of one last Orson Welles film that remains to be found long after the iconic director’s passing. The footage had all been shot. The material was gathered. All that had to be done was to journey through those hours and hours of material, in search of something resembling a feature film. It evokes that famous story about how Michelangelo approached sculpting, except that instead of a lump of marble, this work of art is to be subtracted from mountains of film.

Of course, there is a valid debate to be had about whether the version of The Other Side of the Wind that has been screened can claim to be the real or actual version. After all, the film arguably only ever existed inside the head of Orson Welles. After his passing, the only thing that could be released was an approximation of his vision, an impression of his filmmaking. This is particularly true given the extent to which Welles relied on editing in his filmmaking. Welles famously boasted to Cahiers du Cinema that editing was more important than mise en scene.

However, watching The Other Side of the Wind, there is a strong sense that Welles himself would approve this ambiguity, that he would actively encourage it. The Other Side of the Wind is a knowingly twisty and slippery piece of work, a wry and iconic piece of film that somehow still seems avante garde more than four decades after it was originally shot. There is a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind feels like sly and biting joke, one told by a comedian with pitch-perfect timing. Only one question remains. Who is the butt of this joke?

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #39!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast! A somewhat bumper edition this time.

This week, I join Jason Coyle, Grace Duffy and Ronan Doyle to discuss the week in film. As usual, we talk about the top ten and the new releases, as well as what we’ve watched this week. In this episode, Jay talks about “instant classics”, Ronan discusses the heartbreak of Rosie, and Grace inadvertently watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings again.

In film news, we discuss the upcoming Cork Film Festival, Katie winning Screen Directors Guild Finders Series Award, and Netflix’s successful “Summer of Love.” There’s also an extended season about awards season social media fatigue.

The top ten:

  1. Night School
  2. Cliff Richard Live: 60th Anniversary Tour (Concert)
  3. Bad Times At The El Royale
  4. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
  5. Kler (Clergy)
  6. First Man
  7. Johnny English Strikes Again
  8. Venom
  9. Smallfoot
  10. A Star is Born

New releases:

  • The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid
  • Dogman
  • Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
  • Halloween

You can download the episode here, or listen to it below.

Non-Review Review: 22 July

22 July is both a very well made and a spectacularly ill-judged film.

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July focuses on the infamous attacks conducted by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011. The attacks were brutal and horrific, and sent shockwaves across both Europe and North America. To a certain extent, Breivik’s attacks prefigured a wave of similar violence in the years that followed, violence driven by nativism and xenophobia, toxic forms of ethno-nationalism that crept in to the social and politic spheres. There is no denying that these attacks (and their aftermath) deserve attention and discussion. They are a formative moment in modern western politics.

However, there is also a sense that Paul Greengrass might not be the best director to tell this sort of story. There are several reasons for this, but most them come down to Greengrass’ stylistic sensibilities, his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is incredibly obvious from the outset what kind of film Greengrass is trying to make. Greengrass is trying to capture the horror and brutality of Breivik’s actions, and to present the ordinary everyday heroism of those who survived and endured his assault. However, Greengrass’ directorial sensibilities conspire to undercut these aspects of the film.

Greengrass may be a very naturalistic film director, who at times seems almost like a documentarian in his storytelling, but he can direct a visceral and effective action sequence. This means that the part of 22 July that really feels alive and propulsive is the mass shooting. More than that, Greengrass’ no-frills style means that most of the characters in 22 July never feel particularly well-developed or well-formed, never having a life outside of the frame or what the movie expects of them. As a result, the only character who does stand out is Brievik himself.

The result is a film about mass murder and ethno-nationalism that structurally resembles more conventional issue-driven movies, but without any of the strong emotional cues or distinctive performances that serve to place the moral weight within those narratives. Instead, 22 July often feels rather blunt and matter-of-fact, a collection of events and occurrences without any actual living characters to clog up the mechanics. The only things that stand out within 22 July are those elements that are (by their nature) heightened and extreme.

The result is a movie about a horrific terrorist attack that only seems to come alive in its depiction of the attack, and an ensemble drama about the cultural response to trauma where the only compelling character is a white supremacist terrorist.

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Non-Review Review: Apostle

The paraphrase Ernest Hemmingway, Apostle happens at first very slowly and then all at once.

Written, directed and editted by Gareth Evans, Apostle wears its influences on its sleeve. The premise of the film invites an easy observation along the lines of The Raid meets The Wicker Man.” This is massively reductive, of course. It also misunderstands the film. If anything, the more accurate (but equally reductive) description of Apostle might be “The Raid by way of The Wicker Man.” Evans period piece exploration of religion and devotion is very much a game of two halves. Perhaps even that might be more accurately formulated as two-thirds-to-one-third.

The only boy who could ever reach me…

Apostle suffers somewhat in its pacing. The first two acts of the film are given over to a sense of mounting dread and anxiety, to the slow and gradual reveal of what precise brand of horror is unfolding on this mysterious island maintained by this mysterious cult. Evans is a capable director who skillfully creates a sense of the uncomfortable and the uncanny, but the issue with Apostle is that any cinematically literate audience has a very good idea where these two acts of mounting dread are inevitably leading.

However, Apostle really comes into its own when it finally plays the hand that it has been carefully and slowly hinting towards in its first ninety minutes.

Burning inside.

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Non-Review Review: Hold the Dark

“Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?”

An enlightening piece of work.

In the American consciousness, the frontier is a haunted place.

In some ways, it is a concept distinct to the United States, at least in contrast to Europe. The boundaries within Europe were established centuries ago; although they might shift and bend, the contours of the continent have been known to the people who inhabited it for millennia. In contrast, to the settlers who arrived from Europe, the North American frontier was a mystery and an enigma. The frontier is distinct a border space. A border implies a point of collision that might be crossed, the neatly delineated boundary between one place and another.

Let Bisons be Bisons.

The frontier is something entirely different. It represents the edge of reason, and limit of what is knowable. To reach the end of the frontier is to reach the end of “the West.” In geographical terms, off the western shore of the North American continent lies “the East.” In more abstract terms, the American frontier is an imaginary space rather than a literal one. After all, Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film – Green Room – suggested that the frontier could be found somewhere  surprisingly close to urbanity, only a few hours away from the familiar comforts of Portland.

Hold the Dark takes place in a decidedly more remote environment, against the snow backdrops of Alaska. Saulnier goes to great lengths to illustrate the isolation of that environment, paying particular attention to how long it takes Russell Core to reach the small Alaskan town that serves as the starting point of the story before venturing out into the real wilderness. At another point, Vernon Slone stops by an old hostel on his travels. Asked for his point of origin, he’s informed that there was no road connecting the two places. “Not directly,” he clarifies.

Shedding some light on the matter.

As with the snow-covered western wilderness in Wind River, there is a sense that Hold the Dark unfolds against the very limit of the American frontier, at the point where the continent has ceased to provide for the settlers and instead has become something harsh and unforgiving. It is a place that has been settled by humans, but is perhaps untouched by humanity. If Green Room allowed Saulnier to explore the vipers coiled underneath familiar rocks, then Hold the Dark is a story about the animals that hunt at the very edge of civilisation.

Green Room was effectively a cynical and grim take on the familiar horror plot that warned of the dangers lurking off the backroads, just out of sight. Hold the Dark is the story of a hunt for a dangerous predator in a harsh environment. In both films, the monster looks very familiar.

Mask appeal.

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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

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