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.

Non-Stop (2014)

I sometimes wonder what makes a great actor, and what really separates the performances that get recognised in major industry awards and the ones that prop up straightforward genre fare that won’t get anywhere near such recognition. Because this film — a taut action thriller set on a plane for which the threat of global terrorism is just a convenient prop for a bit of gung-ho men-with-guns nonsense — certainly has some good actors in it, ones who’ve had that taste of recognition (Lupita Nyong’o, who has a small role here, just the other night). But none of them are going to be getting any nods next year, except from their accountants, because the difference between those two planes of acting has little to do with the actor, but with the quality of the writing, and this right here is boilerplate generic action-by-numbers. It just so happens that it’s done with enough aplomb that it mostly stays on the right side of enjoyable hokum.

Liam Neeson has certainly redirected his career towards the kind of terrain more fitted to the talents of Jason Statham, essaying growly-voiced vengeance with rote regularity. Non-Stop isn’t quite the same as his Taken franchise though, and here he’s not out for revenge but to try and figure out just what’s going on. It’s not even clear to everyone that he’s the good guy — he’s a man seen swigging whisky on the job and smoking in the airplane’s bathroom, with a ferocious stubble and the hangdog expression of someone not really up to the job. On the other hand, as a friend pointed out to me, the film’s opening minutes do a terrific job of implicating just about everyone we see, including plenty of obvious stereotypes, which is as any whodunit should be. And if there is, in the end, an explanation for what’s going on, it’s pretty perfunctory and I’m not sure I could recount it for you even if I wanted to. That’s not the point. The point is the chase.

The dialogue may not find any new levels of truth, and some of the emotion-laden symbolism (Neeson’s relationship with his daughter, Julianne Moore’s need to be by the window) is unpicked in speeches and then groaningly resolved by the plot’s machinations, which however self-awarely contrived (“in an unbelievable twist…” announces a news anchor near the end) are still contrived. And then there’s the usual overreliance of the malefactor(s) on procedures being followed and on things being done in a certain way (though not perhaps to quite the extent of, say, Skyfall). But the writers and director at least do a good job with stringing out the suspense until there seems no escape before finding a tiny crack and moving things forward to the next brick wall. It ensures that even in the claustrophobically limited space there’s still plenty to hold the viewer’s attention. And that too is where the good actors come in handy.

It’s a film in which the terrorist (but who?) wants $150 million. Neeson’s character at length feels it’s not about the money. But for the filmmakers and the studio it has to be, and maybe that amount is their own target to get from the audience? It won’t win any awards, and it may not deserve them, but it’ll make money and, for the daffy enjoyment it provides, it probably deserves at least that.

Non-Stop film posterCREDITS
Director Jaume Collet-Serra; Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle; Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano [as “Flavio Labiano”]; Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 3 March 2014.

The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.

The Lego Movie film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted; Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.