Reviewed today: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Doozy, Green Book, The Hummingbird Project.
Back in the days when Time Out London wasn't shit, it was the best magazine for getting advance warnings of the new films worth watching. It's because of them that I went to see the debut effort by a pair of wholly unknown filmmakers on its opening weekend. The year was 1984, the filmmakers were Joel and Ethan Coen, and the film was Blood Simple. Which is in part why I'm seeing The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the second of the films on my Netflix subscription that I'm paying money to watch here regardless. It's by the Coen brothers: it's 95% certain to give me a good time (I still haven't really forgiven them for Intolerable Cruelty, I'm afraid).
Buster Scruggs is a Western. Scrub that: Buster Scruggs is six short Westerns, presented as a single anthology film (at one point in its life it was going to be an episodic TV show, but I think this format suits it better). It uses the device of an illustrated book to tie the stories together: one of the most frustrating things about watching the film in a cinema is that we get to see the first and last page of each story, written very much in the style of Ethan Coen's own story collection Gates Of Eden, but flashed up on screen too quickly to enjoy the prose. (As The BBG smartly pointed out afterwards, this is exactly the sort of detail that the pause button on Netflix was made for.)
The book is an ironic device to give the stories an illusion of literary class, like Hollywood used to do in the old days. But even without it, these six vignettes already feel like adaptations of literature (there's an acknowledgement buried in the end credits that two of them actually are based on other people's work). They're relatively short on plot, working more as character studies and/or evocations of atmosphere. In each case, the Coens take a standard trope of Wild West stories - the singing cowboy, the bank robber, the travelling show, the gold prospector, the wagon train, the stagecoach journey - and put their own spin on them, each tale presented in its own unique style while being unmistakably the work of its creators.
There's so much to enjoy here. A huge cast (with at least one familiar face per episode, together with an entire rogue's gallery of unknown grotesques): lots of fruitily overwritten dialogue (the stagecoach scene, in particular, is a joy to listen to): some surprising violence mixed in with the laughs (in one episode in particular, the violence is the laughs). In the terms Graham Greene used to use for his novels, Scruggs is an entertainment rather than a serious piece, but it's a seriously entertaining one.
2.00pm: Surprise Film: Green Book [official site]
I'm pleased to officially report that it's possible to use the phrase Likely Lads as a verb. Here's why. In previous years, the LFF Surprise Film has played in one big cinema, or sometimes in a couple of screens with a delay of a few minutes between the two. This year, big cinemas are hard to come by in London, as the Odeon Leicester Square is still closed because of its ongoing refurbishment. (A refurbishment that will reduce its seating capacity by roughly half while keeping the auditorium the same size, but that's a debate we can probably save until next year.)
So for 2018, they came up with a novel way to maximise the number of people who could see the Surprise Film. Last night, they showed it at the Cineworld Leicester Square: this afternoon, they showed the same film again at the Embankment Garden Cinema. This means that anyone who'd got tickets for the second screening - and you've guessed it, that includes us - had to avoid all reports on the Surprise Film for a full eighteen hours. Remember when Bob and Terry had to get through the day without hearing the result of the football match they were going to watch on telly that evening? Same thing. For Friday night and most of Saturday, we had to Likely Lads it.
Somehow, despite the existence of social media, the internet in general, and our spending most of the morning on BFI premises, we still managed to get into the screening without knowing what the film was we were going to see. (According to a quick show of hands at the start, the same was true for about two-thirds of the audience.) In the past, the moment of revelation would be when the title of the film appeared on screen. However, more and more films these days don't tell you their title until the closing credits, so this year's Surprise Film was a personal record for me: I literally didn't know what I was watching until the end. I was vaguely aware of the existence of Green Book, as it had been mentioned once or twice in early online speculation, but I'd completely forgotten all of its details.
It's a fascinating exercise, watching a film like this. At the start, we're following this wiseguy Tony Vallelonga in sixties New York, and he's doing all the usual Italian-American dese-dat-dose small-time hoodlum stuff. One of the biggest surprises at the end was finding out that this was Viggo Mortensen, whom I'd completely failed to recognise. Is this a great makeup job, or has he changed his appearance completely? Did he look like this as far back as Eastern Promises, but we were all too busy looking at his cock? I dunno. Anyway, at one point early on he acts like an arsehole towards two black plumbers, so we're tipped off that racism is going to be a theme. When he's offered a job working as a driver for the mysterious Doctor Shirley, we can take a confident stab at what Tony's going to discover at the job interview. Still, it's interesting to observe that as soon as Mahershala Ali walked onto the screen, I could feel myself relaxing and thinking "actually, this could probably be all right."
Doctor Shirley is actually piano virtuoso Don Shirley, and this film is based on the true story of how he toured the Deep South in the days of segregation, with Vallelonga acting as his driver, protector and general assistant. And you know exactly how it's going to go from here: Shirley will encounter racism as he goes further and further into redneck territory, and he'll get it from Vallelonga as well, but gradually the two men will form some sort of friendship as they realise their own personal failings. To be fair, the story isn't quite as black and white as it could have been. At one point, Vallelonga berates Shirley for not knowing the work of more popular musicians like Little Richard and Chubby Checker - "these are your people!" - and it's not entirely clear whether you're meant to be reacting to Vallelonga's bluntness or Shirley's snobbery.
Still, it's all very sanitised PG-13 level racism, as you'd expect from a piece of blatant Oscar bait by Peter Farrelly, a director previously best known for Dumb And Dumber. (Note how the only time the N bomb is dropped, it's targeted at a white person.) Nothing too dramatic happens to anyone, and nobody really learns anything other than 'racism is bad'. It's pleasant enough to watch, anyway, and makes for a nice safe bet for the Surprise Film audience, which tends to get a bit antsy if you surprise them with anything a little bit challenging. Maybe the BFI could try surprising them a bit more next year.
9.00pm: Doozy [official Facebook]
It's funny how as mainstream films seem to be getting longer and longer, experimental films seem to be getting shorter and shorter. I can remember when programmes in the Experimenta section of the LFF were made up of full-length features, extended pieces by the likes of James Benning. But now, most of the Experimenta entries are so short that they need to be presented in bundles to allow audiences to feel they're getting their money's worth.
Tonight, we're effectively getting a shortish feature preceded by two even shorter films in support. Michael Robinson's Onward Lossless Follows is a collage of many disparate elements: an anti-science radio preacher, a subtext-heavy text message conversation, images of nature, stock footage of empty celebration, topless men mowing, and a really annoying strobe effect overlaying part of it. They all combine over fifteen minutes to say something or other, but for me John Smith's Jour De Fête achieves more in its 72 seconds with its simple juxtaposition of two hilariously incompatible images.
And so onto our feature presentation, Doozy by Richard Squires, which like Onward Lossless Follows is a mixed media affair. A biopic of sorts, it tells the story of the actor Paul Lynde: you may not know his name, but people of a certain age will know his voice, as he played baddies like The Hooded Claw and Mildew Wolf in late sixties Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Squires' theory is this: Lynde picked up these roles because he was a closeted gay man, and the 'otherness' of his personality made his voice perfect for a villain on American TV at that time in history.
Later on in Lynde's career, that closet became a little more transparent, with his bitchy neighbour role in animated sitcom Where's Huddles?, and his even bitchier quips from the Willie Rushton position in the original US version of Celebrity Squares. So were all his roles entirely defined by his sexuality, one way or another? Squires has several sources to draw on: archive interviews with Lynde, new interviews with an old school friend, and a panel of academics (wittily installed in a Hollywood Squares set) commenting on audio clips from the animations - presumably all they were allowed to use - to analyse period attitudes to homosexuality, masculinity and villainy.
It's an interesting subject for a film, and the combination of approaches generally enhances the analysis rather than getting in the way. Unfortunately, though, the element that turns out to be too much of a stretch is the most visually distinctive one - Squires' use of animation to depict some of the more troublesome scenes in Lynde's personal life. Hanna-Barbera's animation style was notoriously cheap, generally relying on a few key frames of art looped repeatedly. The cartoon sequences here recreate that style perfectly, even down to the canned laughter - however, once he's established a short animated loop, Squires lets it grind on for several minutes at a time. The momentum of the film is lost over and over again for the sake of a cheap meta joke, which is a shame because the rest of it's so much better than that. Still, that's experimentation for you.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Hummingbird Project [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - The world of High Frequency Trading is one where those with the fastest connections have the edge, trading very high volumes where being first with the price can make you a tiny amount of money each trade, but adding up to vast sums. So these days, rather than the action in financial markets taking place with traders on a trading floor, it takes place in computer algorithms running on computers in data centres. This is the world where The Hummingbird Project is set. But writer-director Kim Nguyen realised this was an esoteric world to show on a screen, and so he made, as he put it, a road movie with heavy machinery, and a film about the actual humans wanting to build a long, straight fibre-optic line to carry the trades, and write an algorithm to process them just one millisecond faster. Jesse Eisenberg plays Vincent Zaleski, the fast-talking trader behind the scheme, and Alexander Skarsgård, playing against type, his geeky computer-genius cousin Anton. So while Vincent is out there putting the deal together, getting the finance and crossing America to negotiate the strips of land needed for the cable, Anton is holed away trying to work on how to shave that millisecond.
Nguyen’s film is set in a very specific time period – 2011 – and the technology and practices in the film are totally true to the state of the technology and practices at the time, although the actual plot itself is his own fictional story. He brings the ethical issues into play, as well as the thrill of the race, although arguably he gives one major jeopardy too many, in order to add a further human dimension. But with fun performances, particularly from Skarsgård and Salma Hayek as the former boss the cousins betray, overall it made for a good piece of Saturday night entertainment.