The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)


The Coen Brothers direct Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson and Tom Waites in this comical western anthology that takes in the mortality and skewed morality of the wild frontier.

No one will make an argument for this being Joel and Ethan’s best work. It is by its very nature bitty and inconsequential. That doesn’t stop it from being a visual marvel, full of slapstick comicality and wry assessment on luck, fate and death. Tom Waites has the best vignette as a lone prospector. Liam Neeson’s dark fable about market forces in the entertainment business feels particularly barbed and rich. All the horses are scene stealing bit part players. The literary framing device is neat and in on their narrative tricks. A fine afternoon killer. 

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Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Hal Needham directs Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason in this good ole boy comedy about a driver distracting the state police from a truck full of illicit beer.

Burt Reynolds died last month. This is still juvenile, amateur hokum. Graceless, witless and with a lead who wishes he was James Garner. I’m sure an eager but under served Sally Field wished he was too. 

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Widows (2018)

Steve McQueen directs Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez in this political heist thriller where three widows of career criminals find themselves caught between destitution and a political heavy if they don’t come up with a jackpot of cash within a month.

Steve McQueen is clearly a great director but his worthier works never really connect with me. Widows stands a better chance and was satisfying. A solid crime thriller, excitingly cast and glossily composed. Viola Davis rocks as the stone cold lead, mastermind and victim, excelling at one, struggling with the shock of being the other. It is a lead performance of steely resolve, possibly her most accessible piece of acting yet. She’s not alone. Elizabeth Debicki fills her part with sensitivity (she also lands a few laughs in what is a relatively po-faced affair). Daniel Kaluuya is muscular and unpredictable as the most proactive antagonist they face. It is also just pleasing to see Michelle Rodriguez in a project that feels more aligned to the promise she showed in her debut of Girlfight all those years ago. Girlfight is an apt comparison piece. A female led genre work that wants to say bigger things than merely ape the formula of its inspirations. As a political film Widows is even more ambitious, it has things to say about corruption, racism, social inequality, sexism and capitalism. There is a brilliant stand out sequence involving one shot of a travelling limo where the conversation, location and framing of the shot all shift to reveal disturbing but unquestionable truths. The heist set pieces are good too but that sequence really will be the moment McQueen’s movie is remembered for. Having said that the realism of the big issues touched on often feels a little trite or basic. It would be fair to say TV shows like The Wire or even Atlanta follow through on the same ideas with a lot more complexity and elegance. Likewise while the pulpier elements are satisfying there are moments that any TV cop show fan will tell you just don’t ring true. And I do feel something with intentions and artistry of Widows should be held to a higher standard than a midweek episode of Bones or Lethal Weapon when it goes to fingerprints on a gun being placed in a dead man’s hand. My last little gripe over what is fine thriller that deserves praise… the trailer gives away a big twist. Not the moviemakers fault but if you have a good memory and are observant avoid checking the adverts out.

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The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell directs Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Jones in this historical psychosexual horror movie about Father Urbain Grandier efforts to protect the city of Loudun from the corrupt establishment of Cardinal Richelieu and a frustrated crippled nun in 17th century France.

A Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Much grotesque kink, nun nudity and bad behaviour. Absolutely brilliant set design and perfectly OTT performances from Redgrave and Reed. He in particular probably does his finest screenwork here.

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The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael Cimino directs Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep in this somber and nihilistic view of what working class American men went through when they went off willingly to Vietnam. 

A guttingly powerful, ugly beautiful epic. Sure, you could shave 45 minutes off that first hour of weddings and boozing. But once we are in the shit, holding guns to our heads, getting rat-bit… we’ve marinated ourselves in who the dehumanised men were and who they now are. The final act is troubling and enigmatic. A brutal poem that leaves any intelligent audience member questioning its open ended ethics. A brilliantly, daringly crafted landmark of cinema I’m still growing into. This is big, massive filmmaking… the only close up I remember being deployed is two drops of ominous wine falling onto a wedding dress. Look where we see those wedding gifts stacked next, much much later in the film, and tell me Cimino isn’t an artist?

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Altered States (1980)

Ken Russell directs William Hurt, Blair Brown and Bob Balaban in this sci-fi headfuck where a committed scientist spends decades of his life in isolation tanks and on psychotropics exploring the far reaches of his mind and shifting his own evolutionary process.

The trip montages are ludicrous yet dazzling rollercoasters of surreality. Everything else is a bit dull and dry or worse yet camp. The film descends into a ropey precursor for Cronenberg’s The Fly. It might have got there first but it certainly doesn’t break the same ground effectively. Blair Brown catches the eye in a thankless role.

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher direct Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton and Gwilym Lee in this biopic of Freddie Mercury touching on his private life and celebrating the music of Queen. 

There’s a lot to be cautious about when watching the “official” Queen movie. The movie had a troubled production history. Surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor were very hands on / controlling / protective of the property before approving a lead and gifting access to the song rights. Bryan Singer was publicly sacked mid production for not appearing on set, with rumours about his sexual past and conflicts with eventual star Rami Malek lingering more persuasively than the excuse of family illness. Dexter Fletcher took over the end of production and reshoots. Many doubt the transgressive queerness of Freddie’s decadent lifestyle could be told in a PG-13 movie that often focuses on the band’s conflicts and Freddie’s early girlfriend. And having seen it twice the alarm bells should have rang. The first hour is clunky and cheesy. It is the epitome of the musical biopic formula. The band come across as dicks in general and especially in their interactions to Freddie. The stories being recreated are the duller ones from the talk show circuit, old beefs with producers and critics are re-aired. There is a definitive feeling the movie’s overriding ethos is “We are the champions but we have plenty of time to remind the losers who didn’t realise we were when we weren’t”. It is an awkward, barely competent narrative. As for Mr Mercury’s coming out, you get really scared in those early acts his homosexuality is only going to be represented in a few hinted at winks. Freddie might fancy boys too, he might just be scared of using public toilets if another bloke is in there. THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS… I’d say it is around the lengthy recording of Bohemian Rhapsody sequence. Suddenly the legend takes over and you don’t care what facts are whitewashed or how unlikable the background players are. Malek starts being shot from the waist up, he takes on heroic proportions. His performance matches it. A flamboyant yet vulnerable figure you really root for, really care about. It overcomes the strange moments later when the band rejects him for being a bit overbearingly lonely. It fuels the set piece live performances – the moments where the film and the iconic popular music shines. By the time we get to Freddie being controlled by an insidious lover and AIDS rears it inevitable head you love Malek as Mercury. Truly feel your little socks off about him. Forget A Star is Born. This is the powerhouse rock to riches story of the decade. The full on, all out, perfectionist recreation of Live Aid finale is the icing on the cake for quite the big time crowd pleaser.

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The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick directs Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn and Nick Nolte in this WWII drama looking at men battling to keep their souls in the battle of Guadalcanal.

There is an irony that one of most beautiful movies ever made is about the horrors of war. Forcing men to fight against their fear, morality and religion to cause death, experiencing hell on Earth on an island paradise. Malick truly paints with light… captures wrought faces, breathtaking landscapes, furious action and lots of metaphorical shots of nature patiently observing the violent follies of humanity. That last aspect robs The Thin Red Line of its perfect score, a shot of a crying soldier holding a bullfrog in the rain just felt too self parodic. Minor slip aside, this is inarguably the greatest cast of actors assembled in modern cinema. While some of the bigger names found their parts whittled down to mere cameos, there is meaty work from Penn, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson and especially Nick Nolte. How his toweringly compulsive tyrant of a turn failed to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination in that year’s Oscars is a mystery? (OK so he got nominated for Best Actor for Affliction but his co-star there James Coburn won Best Support… a political fudge that meant his finest on screen work was overlooked!)

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Married to the Mob (1988)

Jonathan Demme directs Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine and Mercedes Ruehl in this romantic comedy about a mafia widow who decides to start a new life in spite of “the family” and the FBI’s continued attentions. 

A very colourful attempt at screwball comedy, one that works better as a makeover movie than a crime caper. Even from that sentence you can tell Married to the Mob is a very busy film. The lack of focus means it never excels at any point but equally it is never boring. The cast is given room to grow into their stock parts, all making more than would be possible in a straight laced studio production. Ruehl, in particular, is fantastic, demonic even in her slapstick pratfalls as the jealous boss’s wife, while Pfeiffer is sweet and thoughtful in the lead, more than earning her top billing.

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Peterloo (2018)

Mike Leigh directs Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear and Nico Mirallegro in this epic period retelling of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819; where a peaceful gathering of workers and families were attacked by armed forces. 

Quite a dry history lesson with speeches recreated, didactic exposition spouted out over desks and Leigh’s comical look at class divides causing sneering laughter from those in the know. There is an ambitious sense of scale and an excellent sense of production design. The busy cast has stand outs; Peake, Kinnear, Neil Bell and John Tyas. But after the draining GCSE essay style ‘long term and short term causes’ build up and the chaotic shock of the massacre itself, you are left abruptly with no idea its effect on further history nor its import. 

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