FilmSpace at London International Film Festival: Roma; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Beautiful Boy; The Old Man and the Gun

15/10/2018
Calum Cooper

Film Critic Calum Cooper is in London for the 62nd London Film Festival, as he continues to bring in a series of reviews. Today, Alfonso’s Cuaron’s newest masterpiece Roma, the Coen Brothers’ anthology western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Timothée Chalamet’s latest in Beautiful Boy, and Robert Redford’s final performance in The Old Man and the Gun.

Roma – ★★★★★

Roma is a riveting, gut-wrenching, and utterly absorbing experience that completely floored me. It’s Alfonso Cuarón’s best film since Y Tu Mama Tambien, if not the very best he’s ever done. Its visual style, its character construction, its cinematic techniques, its messages – it does not set a foot wrong. It’s one of 2018’s best films without a doubt.

The story: it’s 1970 in Mexico and we follow the life of Cleo (Yaltiza Aparico). She is the servant to the Sofia household, consisting of Sofia, her estranged husband, her mother, and her three young children. The first chunk of the film reveals how Cleo works around the house, as well as how close she is to the children. However, something drastic happens to her outside of her work, and she now must faces the consequences over the next year of her life.

Cuarón returns to his roots with this film figuratively and literally. He based this on his own personal experiences with a family servant when he was a child. However, the film is exclusively from Cleo’s point of view. She acts as a mute witness to history, and endures her own hardships internally, setting the course for a film that’s about the strength of solidarity in the darkest times, and how family isn’t necessarily bound by blood.

Visual storytelling is what separates cinema from all other forms of art and folktale, and Cuarón takes the utmost advantage of this. Every frame in this film feels deliberate. Every shot seems intentionally placed. Cuarón uses his craft to create an immaculate vehicle for empathy. Cleo’s circumstances are difficult, and we feel like outsiders having to watch her go through all the strife. By the end of the film, we feel as if we have gotten to know a genuine person.

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Grand imagery and a strong reliance on silence act as the foundations behind this magnificent picture. Captured in gorgeous monochrome in 65mm, it relies on the strength of its actors and extended sequences that feel as organic as a memoir, many of which contain little to no dialogue. Moments play in lifelike fashion, using extended shot lengths, the end results inevitable, but no less heart-breaking. A particular fixation the film has is on water. Cleo requires water to fulfil her duties as servant and the family loves going to the beach to swim. The constantly changing shape of water and its numerous uses is as mercurial as she is.

It seems like such a simple film, and in a way it is. We’re solely watching a year of a woman’s life. But it’s the style in which Cuarón chooses to present her life and struggles that make it so immersive. We get deep insight into her as a person, and her relationship with this family, making her hardships tougher and more engaging via Cuarón’s stunning, and often experimental, visual prowess. All of it is harnessed to reach the conclusion on the strength of solidarity between people. The film opens looking on the ground, and ends gazing into the sky, perhaps suggesting that solidarity is the best way up for everyone. Then again, with style this euphoric, who needs an excuse to look up to this film?

Roma is miraculous! It’s a beautifully crafted love letter to a woman who shaped Cuarón’s life, its tragedy rivalled only by its natural belief in the strength of humanity. It frustrates me that, as of this review, it’s only slated for Netflix on December 14th. This is a film that deserves to be seen, and on the big screen too. Hopefully cinemas come to their senses on this, but whatever format it’s in, this film should not be missed.

All I can say is bravo!

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – ★★★★☆

Joel and Ethan Coen have made some unforgettable films together. Titles include, but are not limited to, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, all of which feature different styles and genres. Their latest film is their newest attempt at something different – that of the anthology film.

This wasn’t intentional. These shorts were originally supposed to be six episodes of a limited series. However, they’ve now been complied into a singular two hour film. You’d think that would make the film disjointed and wobbly. But the Coen Brothers come through once again. While it’s true that there’s no obvious narrative connecting these stories – other than all of them being set in the pulp Western – it’s the Coen Brothers’ signature sly humour and dark touch that connects the dots here.

The title is an interesting one since Buster Scruggs himself (played by Tim Blake Nelson having the time of his life) is only featured in the first of these shorts. But I think it’s the word Ballad that matters most. A ballad is a verse or a narrative often set to music. It’s also seen as a romantic song depending on your definition. In his short, Buster Scruggs is a smiling, singing gun slinger who enjoys killing a little too much. He breaks the fourth wall, the only time this happens in the film, singing to the audience about the thrills of the Western life.

I feel like the subsequent shorts, in spite of Buster Scruggs’ absence, serve as additional verses to the song he sings on his love for the Western life. Each short contains a different aspect of Western tropes, from bounty hunters to travelling showmen to gold miners. They’re treated in tongue-in-cheek fashion, but there’s no denying the appreciation for the genre underneath the insanity.

Assisting this are the great actors in various wild roles, as well as excellent comedy that had me in stitches, whether it was arguments, over the top deaths, or a mere two word one liner. It maintains the divisive goofiness of Hail Caesar and brings it to further heights. The enormous cast includes Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleason and Jonjo O’Neill among a plethora of others, all of whom are a riot to watch. It’s a shame that we only got to enjoy Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs for one short. He was such a loveable bastard that I could’ve watched a whole movie with him. But the following characters in the remaining shorts are their own forms of eccentric as well. Their respective tributes to the Western genre is engaging, and some of their conversations or monologues would’ve been music to my ears even without the accompanying ballad.

Buster Scruggs may not be the most consistently brilliant film from the Coen Brothers – some shorts are significantly better than others – but it’s a fun, playful homage to the Western genre that boasts laughs and excitement. It’s their best since Inside Llewyn Davis.

Beautiful Boy – ★★☆☆☆

Beautiful Boy left me feeling rather sad, but not in the way that it intended. A part of me wants to let it slide and kick it up a star. It’s by no means a bad film and it was clearly made with the best of intentions. Sadly it’s a case where a lot of its components work in isolation, but not as a whole.

Based on a real life father and son, it stars Steve Carrell and everyone’s favourite heartthrob Timothée Chalamet. Carrell plays David, a loving man who’s very relaxed around his family. So much so that his son Nick (Chalamet) doing a marijuana joint seems like no big deal. However, Nick soon replaces marijuana with crystal meth, and before too long becomes a full on addict. The film showcases David’s struggles to get his son off a downward spiral before it’s too late.

Okay, so what’s good about this film? Quite a bit in fairness. Rather than simply take off and run a linear story on Nick after he’s taken drugs, we’re treated to a fair few flashbacks of him at younger age. In other words, the film visually aids the relationship between father and son, showing how healthy it once was, and how fractured it is now. Pair that up with colourful cinematography, a solid score, and two genuinely terrific performances from Carrell and Chalamet, and the film has plenty going for it.

However, the ultimate problem with Beautiful Boy is that it’s too emotionally hollow. Its content is harrowing in theory, but you need connectable characters and a natural flow in order to glean fear or tears out of the audience. It’s far too reliant on the repetition of Nick relapsing for its drama. I get that relapsing is an unfortunate side-effect to addiction, but when it happens time and time again in a narrative, the film starts losing its much needed empathy.

Furthermore, while the film is great at demonstrating the terror and frustration of a parent in this situation, it doesn’t do nearly enough justice to Nick, who feels grossly underdeveloped despite being at the centre of the conflict. He talks about how his addiction is to try and recreate a high that made him feel good. But outside of a superb scene with a notebook, he merely talks about it in typical arguments or rehab sessions. The film hardly shows what he’s thinking and feeling, making Nick feel more like a vehicle for the plot and message than his own character.

Simply put, it’s a case of having good material and not going far enough with it. It stops itself short of doing something profound, if arguably problematic, with its messages about parents letting go of their children, settling for writing that feels inconsistent, and emotion that feels less organic and more manufactured for a specific reaction.

Perhaps I’m being stingy, but the film just didn’t do much for me personally. Nevertheless, it does boast some fine qualities with its actors and general craft. If this seems like your kind of film then hopefully you’ll get more out of it than I did.

The Old Man and the Gun – ★★★★☆

Robert Redford recently announced his retirement from acting, with David Lowrey’s latest supposedly being his final film. If that is sadly the case, then this movie serves as a wonderful swan song for his career. I hope that, like his character in this film, he goes on through life smiling.

Loosely based on a true story, Redford plays Forrest Tucker, an elderly convict whose secondary distinction is how often he’s broken out of prison. His primary distinction however is his juxtaposing politeness. He doesn’t rob banks and partake in car chases because of malicious intent against a system that he believes has failed him. He’s simply good at bank robberies and enjoys doing them, often with a single gun that he’s possibly never used. The film depicts Tucker’s crime spree, as well as the beginnings of a romance with a bright, open woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek), while a following detective (Casey Affleck) becomes transfixed with Tucker’s skill in his craft.

Although its subject matter could easily be applied to darkness, the film’s colour palette explodes off the screen both literally and metaphorically. Filmed in 16mm and using contrasting blue and yellow for its title cards, the film’s style circles in on the audience and soaks them up in its pleasing look. Combined with its early 1980s setting, it harkens back to the films of old, many of which Redford and Spacek had lending hands in. It feels so welcoming despite its subject matter on organised burglary.

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Complementing the film’s bright look are charming performances and genuinely attractive chemistry. Redford is simply a delight. He may be a criminal mastermind, but he’s so friendly and pleasant to be around. Even the people he robs from don’t seem to mind as he’s that polite while doing it. In jail I imagine he’s like Paddington from Paddington 2 – teaching the inmates to love and appreciate each other. Is it bad that I kind of wanted him to get away with it? Redford is transformative, and his chemistry with Spacek is intoxicatingly sweet. I could’ve watched a film about their romance on its own it was so appealing.

Tying it all together is an ambient, colourful script that effectively mixes genuinely heart-warming moments, and strong comedy that often mocks the bizarre nature of its premise. You enjoy watching these characters and what they do, from sharing coffee in a diner to kindly asking an assistant to hand over the cash. Therefore, the film itself becomes as buoyant as the people who occupy it. It’s as easy-going and loveable as its central character and actor.

It may not offer anything particularly profound or deep like other films from this festival. But it’s comfortable passing by with a beaming smile, much like its central character. Sometimes that’s all a film really needs.

If this truly is Robert Redford’s last film, then I tip my hat to him and the end of a legendary career. His character would’ve done the same.

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