The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.


Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.

Suffragette film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Gavron; Writer Abi Morgan; Cinematographer Edu Grau; Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise has made a bit of a career in recent times at the thoughtful big-budget science-fiction genre. Perhaps he wanted to be in Inception and is trying to make up for it? In any case, while he’s very much front and centre in Edge of Tomorrow (or “Live Die Repeat” as the trailers and the, er, hashtag prefer to call it), the real standout hero is Emily Blunt as Sgt Rita Vrataski. She holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Cruise’s Major Bill Cage and his ever-recurring present (think Groundhog Day but with less comedy and more guns and violence), and she also proves herself the emotional centre of the piece. The film may not advance the genre, but it fills its generic shoes with uncommon concision and, much like the first Bourne film by the same director, makes for reassuring pleasures. Major Cage starts as a battle-shy media relations man in the Army at a time when the world is battling a shape-shifting seemingly invincible monster and has a great (and humorous) scene-setting tête-à-tête with Brendan Gleeson’s General in charge of all the world’s forces. If the media collage opening, with its glimpses of current-day political leaders intercut with Cruise, Gleeson and others in Starship Troopers newsbite form, seems to stretch credulity, it also hints that the film takes place in an alternate universe – or should that be “multiverse”, given the repetition at its heart. Cage is soon busted down to Private, and it’s here that the interplay between Cruise and Blunt takes over, to excellent effect. From thereon in it’s all fairly straightforward, with a few subtle shifts of setting that serve to keep the audience engaged, and a redemptive finale that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Edge of Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director Doug Liman; Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル Oru Yu Nido Izu Kiru “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka 桜坂洋); Cinematographer Dion Beebe; Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 9 June 2014.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

As the series has progressed, there’s been a definite move towards darker textures and emotions. The possibility was always hinted at by the looming gothic architecture of the main locations, but now that the leads are in the midst of adolescence, one gets the sense that the filmmakers feel safer venturing into rather more disturbing territory. Hence the presence here of the “Death Eaters”, a cult-like fraternity dedicated to the resurrection of the spectacularly creepy Lord Voldemort (played appropriately by Ralph Fiennes), as well as far more terror and peril than the previous instalments allowed — even the otherwise more assured Prisoner of Azkaban — reflected in its higher classification (a 12 certificate rather than PG for the previous films).

There’s still of course a fantastic amount of plot, as well as of wizardy nonsense, on show, making this also the longest film of the lot so far. We move breathlessly from a shadowy opening which introduces David Tennant as someone clearly evil, to the Quidditch World Cup, where the Death Eaters make their first terrorising appearance, straight on back to Hogwarts, where there’s yet another new Dark Arts teacher (Brendan Gleeson’s delightfully unhinged Professor Moody) and a big competition between three different wizarding academies which takes up the remainder of the film. Thankfully, with all this to shoehorn in, we don’t have to sit through too much Quidditch, still the silliest of all possible sports (where the spectators in the stadium get to watch teams scoring goals, while somewhere out in the ether far from view, a couple of wizards chase a little flying thing, the capture of which pretty much renders all the stadium play meaningless).

We do, however, get a sense of a far bigger world of magic, as students from two different countries enter the picture — the elegant French ladies of Beauxbatons, and the beefy Germanic boys of Durmstrang. One student from each academy gets to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and while the French lady doesn’t fare too well, somehow the weedy Harry (who is also competing, much to everyone’s surprise) manages better pitted by now against the glowering East European chap (their provenance is all rather vaguely Teutonic). There’s also a second competitor from Hogwarts, the taciturn pretty boy Cedric (played by a gurning Robert Pattinson, in his first taste of adolescent-centred blockbuster franchise filmmaking). Meanwhile, threading through the whole thing are hints at the upcoming and unholy resurrection of Lord Voldemort, and his presence in the background makes everything in the film seem rather more grave. Even the Tournament is a treacherous and potentially deadly affair, as the wizards are pitted against huge fire-breathing dragons and sent into dangerous waters to complete their quests, though health and safety has never seemed to be a particular concern of Hogwarts or the wizarding world.

The visuals are all handled perfectly competently by the director and cinematographer roped in for this latest instalment (the director being the venerable Mike Newell, a journeyman who has shown competence on comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral as on the mafia drama Donnie Brasco), and if nothing impresses quite as much as in Cuarón’s film, at least it never gets too plodding. It all adds up to a fine two-and-a-half hours of entertainment, and at long last, with the arrival of Voldemort, has begun to resolve more strongly into an ongoing storyline that one suspects will be developed further in the final four films of the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Mike Newell; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 December 2013.