Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 6

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Spy Gone North, Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records, and Styx.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

One’s workload at a film festival is technically only as large and unweildy or small and manageable as they choose to make it.  You don’t HAVE to shotgun three press screenings a day, and also put in for public screening tickets in the evening, and also write reviews for absolutely everything that come to (on average so far) at least 800 words in a process taking upwards of an hour per film that you don’t have…  OK, written out like that, it makes me sound like a crazed workaholic masochist, but, as I repeatedly state at every opportunity in every conversation (like I’m a Bioware character), I live a jobless Northern existence so this is not something I get to do outside of the London Film Festival.  Therefore, you had better believe that I am going to cram in as much potential coverage as my eyeballs, fingertips, and terrible body can handle!  But it also means that I am already falling behind with my coverage, since I’m trying to socialise more this year (and my Set the Tape bosses wanting these pieces as stand-alone reviews requires I spend longer on each entry than I typically would have).  This is all my long-winded way of saying that my coverage of Day 6 in actuality begins with the evening of Day 5 and my first public screening of the Festival, Styx (Grade: C).

Styx is a procedural shipwreck drama.  By that I mean it is a no-frills nuts-and-bolts disaster movie focussed on every last agonising step of trying to rescue people trapped at sea.  For comparisons, you could say it’s in the vein of Gravity or, more accurately since it lacks Gravity‘s spectacle, All is Lost, the J. C. Chandor movie of similar-ish set-up.  We’re off the coast of Gibraltar and emergency doctor Reike (Susanne Wolff) has taken the weekend off to go sailing on her small yacht for a little-known island near South Africa when a storm hits.  Reike and the boat survive well enough but in the aftermath she spots a ship that wasn’t so lucky and, what’s worse, it’s a refugee ship filled with children who are desperate and dying.  Reike contacts the Coastguard who tell her to stay back whilst they plan a rescue, although the hours start ticking away and rescue seems to be in no hurry to get there.

You can probably already tell where this is going.  Writer-director Wolfgang Fischer utilises this constrained step-by-step set-up and structure, shorn of Gravity‘s catharsis and (thankfully) pop psychology – no dead relatives on Reike’s mind, the children dying in front of her eyes along with her properly-aligned moral compass are already motivation enough – to make a blindingly unsubtle point about the current refugee crisis.  How governments, authority figures, and corporations turn a blind eye to refugees’ plight and how those in a position to witness the trouble first-hand are caught between a rock and a hard place.  How those in charge’s negligence and deliberate disinterest in the lives of refugees negates the efforts of people like Reike, leaving the trauma and risk on her shoulders.  Fischer makes sure the refugee boat is in shot at basically all times in order to prevent the viewer from ignoring its existence like the authorities do; a technically impressive feat given that the at-sea portions (which make up almost all of the film) were done for-real at-sea, as Fischer was proud to point out before and after the screening.

The tactile, physical, in-the-moment sensation does provide its intended power.  Taking in even one desperate child trying in a blind panic to reach Reike’s ship is a gruelling challenge, his scars and injuries drawing audible gasps from my fellow audience members.  Susanne Wolff also gives a very physical, turbulent performance that had better open more doors for her going forward cos she can absolutely carry a film on her shoulders.  But, fatally, there’s very little to Styx.  Fischer lays out his entire deck of cards within about 25 minutes of this 80-odd film and plays them all by just over the halfway mark.  Once Reike rescues one of the children, the film gets stuck in a drawn-out rut and can’t go anywhere meaningful until the last few minutes.  This is intentional, because the whole thematic point of the movie is how Reike is incapable of doing anything (too many people get on her small boat and they’ll all die) and the authorities won’t do anything so you’re supposed to get frustrated, but it weirdly doesn’t translate to a dramatically satisfying or interesting film.  Fischer doesn’t find enough variations to spin the material off in, so once the kid enters the picture, Styx becomes caught looping between the same two conversations over and over and over and over again.

That’s not even counting the filler padding this thing out.  We open with a long completely irrelevant sequence of two monkeys chasing each other around Gibraltar, which Fischer claims is symbolic but wouldn’t expand further on that point, whilst the pre-storm sailing is quite honestly dull.  Again, intentionally so, but good filmmaking it does not make.  Styx also makes the baffling decision to import over the dialogue problems of Gravity, using the vast majority of its conversations spell out events and themes anybody actually paying attention to the movie will already have gotten and the result is tin-eared and mildly insulting.  (The ending, especially, suffers majorly from this.)  Styx is well-intentioned, technically impressive and infrequently powerful, but it feels more like a great short mercilessly stretched out well beyond its limits, ultimately ending up as a chore to watch for all the wrong reasons.

As for the reason why I had to push Styx coverage to a day later, I flung myself out of bed on barely six hours of sleep in order to catch Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Grade: B-), the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen.  Normally when I pick films to view down here at LFF, I discriminate based on two factors: is it coming out within the next two months, and will it play near me?  Buster Scruggs fails both of those two questions mightily, it opens on November 2nd and is a Netflix Original so I don’t have to travel anywhere to see it, but the idea of watching an all-new Coen Brothers film on anything less than the biggest cinema screen available is heathen talk to me.  So, there I rocked up at 8:30 in the goddamned AM for my latest fix.

My resultant exhaustion can only partly be blamed on the lack of sleep.  When Buster Scruggs was first announced, it was done so as a “Limited Anthology Series” comprised of six different stories told across six episodes, but at some point down the line it instead got reworked into a film that runs just over two hours.  The Coens emphatically denied the notion that Buster Scruggs was supposed to be a television series after the film played the New York Film Festival earlier in the month, but the finished product I feel betrays such a narrative.  This really does feel like a television series that was chopped down to fit a not-unreasonable running time, although it only becomes fully apparent as we get deeper into the collection, the most developed stories being saved for the back-half.  Binging all six of these at once is very much akin to binging a Netflix series, despite thankfully being A LOT shorter than even two episodes of most Netflix shows, and whilst some maniacs have the temperament for such a task, I found myself checking my watch numerous times which is a foreign action for a Coen Brothers film.

Perhaps it’s better to treat the shorts like one would a television series, watch one and then take a break before returning later to digest another episode, but I have a feeling Buster Scruggs would still fall victim to the typical wobbling quality of most anthology films.  The opener follows the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Robinson), a singing cowboy in the vein of Roy Rogers who parades his merry way across a farcical version of the Wild West as, effectively, Bugs Bunny.  The second shuttles a wannabe bank robber (James Franco) through a humiliating conga-line of indignities as a sort of microcosm for the vast majority of the Coens’ filmography.  The third focuses on an impresario (Liam Neeson) and his armless, legless “meal ticket” (Harry Melling) that gives the segment its name as the latter performs dramatic readings to dwindling audiences, in an effective gothic short film.

The fourth sees a prospector (Tom Waits) mining for gold in a plain untouched by humans and ends up being a better adaptation of The Lombax than the actual Lombax movie.  The fifth, longest and most developed takes us to the Oregon Trail as a young woman (Zoe Kazan) is forced to commit to her useless brother’s latest hare-brained scheme due to lack of better options once he contracts cholera and dies.  Lastly, five travellers – a mouthy trapper (Chelcie Ross), a judgemental religious fundamentalist (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and a pair of bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) – share a ride on a stagecoach that doesn’t stop in a segment which honestly feels like the prologue to a Hammer horror movie.  Besides being Western-set and all of them deliberately ending unsatisfactorily (a certain subset of audience members are about to get rapid-fire No Country for Old Men flashbacks viewing this), what predominately connects the six shorts that all differ wildly in length and tone is the theme of the violent cruelty of the Old West.  That your life can and will end at any minute in any way for any reason and if your fellow man doesn’t do you in, this period of history being an especially fertile breeding ground for the worst of human behaviour, then the uncaring merciless random bastardry of the universe will probably take care of that for them.

Even in the more serious or tonally adventurous shorts, Buster Scruggs is largely six different takes on the prevailing philosophy the Coens put forward with their underappreciated A Serious Man from 2009 (my personal favourite Coen film).  It’s just a shame that the combined issues of a wavering level of quality in the shorts – the first and fourth ones are superb, the sixth feels like it ends just as it’s getting good, the fifth’s too long, and the second and third are a bit undercooked – and shotgunning them all together makes experiencing Buster Scruggs in its supposed intended form a bit of a slog.  There’s a lot of fun here, and low-tier Coen Brothers is still leagues above the best works of a good 80% of other directors, but I just can’t fathom why this HAD to be a movie.  In certain respects it’s a retread of material the Brothers have covered better before, in other respects their experiments can feel half-cocked.  But sometimes, it hits just right and that magic makes itself known with a vengeance.  A grand bar-filled singalong celebrating the gruesome murder of a patron, a thrilling hopeless-seeming shootout with a Comanche war party, the surprisingly delightful Tom Waits performance that causes the fourth segment to soar so high, literal gallows humour.  Buster Scruggs really does satisfy, but reorient your expectations going in, and maybe ignore the intended viewing method too.

Second on my sleep-deprived watchlist for the day was South Korean spy drama, The Spy Gone North (Grade: B).  The latest by Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven, Kundo), Spy is loosely based on the real-life story of Park Chae-seo, here rechristened as Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min).  Codenamed “Black Venus,” he was recruited by the South Korean intelligence division in the 90s to serve as an undercover operative in North Korea.  Intelligence indicated that the North had the capacity to create nuclear weapons and Park’s mission was to infiltrate the country and get close to the nuclear centre in the locked-down city of Pyongyang in order to verify the rumours.  But because this is based on real events, although the film cops to having fictionalised aspects of the narrative, doing so took a years-long process involving the creation of shell companies, airtight covers, and plenty of close hobnobbing with top North Korean officials, in particular one Ri Myung-woon (Lee Sung-min) whom Park effectively became partners with on a massive unrelated project revolving around utilising the closed-off North as a potential shooting location in adverts for South-based companies which had the potential to thaw the frozen relations between the two countries.

Much like real spy work – from what I’ve heard in films and memoirs like these, I am very obviously not a spy myself – The Spy Gone North stars slow and unfocussed as Park and his superior (Cho Jin-woong) put together a believable cover business that will necessitate Park travel to North Korea on a regular basis.  But it snaps into greater focus in its second half, after Park’s first meeting with Kim Jong-Il (Gi Ju-bong), where the relationship between Park and Ri is brought to the foreground as the film’s emotional centre and Park’s mission is forcibly switched into helping influence the upcoming South Korean elections, as the ruling party becomes petrified about the rise of a Communist challenger.  Jong-bin and co-screenwriter Kwon Sung-hwi eventually reveal their intentions to be a condemnation of intelligence agencies altogether, whose existences are nothing more than an extension of tyrannical governments that serve only those in power rather than the people who need protecting.  North Korea is more blatant about it, the opulence of Kim Jong-Il’s palace and litany of personal guards who serve him blindly with a mixture of loyalty and fear contrasting with the dead children lining the streets, but the South turns out to be not much better, gladly colluding with anyone that can keep the conservative party in power and burning agents out of spite.

The film mixes day-to-day busywork required for successful undercover operations – Park’s first job is to intentionally discredit his name and character by becoming a deadbeat drunkard who pisses away his friends’ money to throw North Korean vetters off his scent, and much of the film’s first half is devoted to the many lengths everyone has to go to pull a believable business out of thin air – with old-fashioned spy drama tropes.  Bugging hotel rooms, wild goose chases designed to test loyalties, cryptic conversations where maybe Park’s been found out or maybe he hasn’t or maybe he has but the other person is intentionally turning a blind eye.  All are executed with enough skill and tension for The Spy Gone North to work as a traditional spy thriller.  But the real strengths of the film lie in the dramatization of a fascinating stretch of underdiscussed history, Hwang Jung-min’s double turn as Park (the cover persona Park cooks up is practically a second character entirely in aspects like temperament and mannerisms), and its pointed criticisms of the artificial nature of the conflict between North and South Korea.  Not to say that both countries don’t have ideological differences or legitimate grievances, but late-film reveals call out the self-serving reasons the countries have for keeping the conflict going and how they are purpose designed to empower the few at the expense of the many.  It’s definitely too long and could stand to benefit from some tidying up, but The Spy Gone North is a solid, engaging spy drama well worth a watch.

Ending the day on an inarguable high note, meanwhile, was the world premiere of Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (Grade: B+), Pulse Films and director Nicolas Jack Davies’ documentary about the groundbreaking British record label that brought Ska and Reggae into the mainstream before folding out-of-the-blue in the mid-70s due to bankruptcy.  In reality, this briskly-paced 95 minute documentary is three different stories in one, by necessity, for the story of Trojan Records is also the story of Ska, a genre grown out of Jamaican soundsystem culture trying capture the spirit of old American Jazz 45s from the 50s but with their own spin on it, and the story of Ska (plus its eventual evolution into Reggae) is the story of first-generation Jamaican immigrants moving to England once Jamaica received its sovereignty in 1962, bringing their culture with them and having to face the brunt of our country’s racism.  Being degraded in the streets and in political office, having establishment radio refuse to play their music because it is “too violent,” but developing a kinship with White working class counterculture skinheads – “back when it was in fashion, not in fascism” as Don Letts differentiates – and eventually crossing over to the mainstream by “sugaring the pill” of their music in various ways (mainly pertaining to string sections).

All three stories are told extremely well.  Davies pulls together interviews from the architects responsible for the music (or at least those who are still alive) and the record label executives who funded and cashed in on the movement to provide both sides of the story – tellingly, those making the music were all Black and speak about the culture and social consciousness behind the music, whilst those selling the music were mostly White and largely talk about it in terms of commerciality and “niche” markets – plus those who were influenced or positively affected by exposure to this radical Black music, like Pauline Black and Neville Staple.  The legendary Bunny Lee talks about how “music is like water, it has no colour and anyone can enjoy it,” a quote which bookends the film and is illustrated by Desmond Dekker relating the Jamaica-specific backstory behind the descriptor “rudeboy” (along with the tragic aftermath of the debut of his song about rudeboys) and then cutting to a White English Ska fan relating the English-specific way that term translated over here.  Music crossing boundaries but still being sincerely appreciated, just with different interpretations.

Somewhat ingeniously, Rudeboy rarely presents the talking head narration as straightforward talking head interviews.  Instead, and perhaps as a cover for the relatively small pool of interviewees and available archive footage, Davies and cinematographer Jonas Mortensen stage vibe-based reconstructions of the events and moods talked about to back the interviews to.  Nothing as trashy as a CBS Reality docudrama, thankfully, but more like a stylish music video, all hazy vibes and soft-focus and visual representations of a person or moment in time.  The feel of the music and genre, running segments of songs acapella before cutting in to the full backing, always ensuring that the name and artist of the 45 currently playing on the soundtrack is given a prominent view…  It really adds to the experience of the documentary without subtracting from it by going overboard with the visuals or the style.  They’re here to supplement the story rather than tell it; the music and the interviews doing a great enough job on their own.

Rudeboy does short-change the collapse of the label in its story, mostly glossing over what lead to Trojan’s eventual closer, which perhaps was a deliberate choice to keep this a celebration of Black Jamaican and Black British culture rather than fixating on the failure.  I respect that, but I only bring it up because the rest of the documentary is so comprehensive and insightful and entertaining that Rudeboy’s rush towards the end sticks out for its comparative thinness.  The only real mistake this superb documentary makes at all.  Otherwise, the film is excellent, a necessary insight into an underappreciated musical movement, and a loving tribute to a cornerstone of Black British culture.

Tomorrow: Andrea Riseborough gets her second lead turn of the Festival with Nancy; Morgan Neville plays his second documentary of this Festival, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?; and the legendary Mamoru Hosada returns with Mirai.

Callum Petch is in a state of flux.

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