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Jonah at NYFF part 2: ‘Burning,’ ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘High Life’

“It’s hard to describe it with words. You have to see it to believe it.” – Hae-mi, “Burning”

I wasn’t supposed to see “Burning.” I didn’t get a ticket. In hindsight, I don’t know why this movie wasn’t a higher priority: I’d heard A.A. Dowd (one of my favorite critics, more on him later) sing its praises back in May at Cannes, and “Burning” has already been selected by South Korea as its entry for “Best Foreign Language Film” at next year’s Oscars. Anyway, I am so glad I caught “Burning”– this tense “thriller” is not to be missed.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aimless recent college grad, is in a tight spot. His father has recently been arrested for assault facing serious jail time, he’s been left to take care of the family farm outside the suburban city of Paju and he’s relying on odd jobs for cash. But when he reconnects with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend, things seem like they might be turning around. If Jong-su sounds pretty passive for a main character, that’s because he is—yet this actually works to the film’s advantage. The beginning of “Burning” is a portrait of restrained filmmaking, slowly painting a picture of Jong-su’s life and letting us invest in the minutia of his day-to-day.

But this quiet cannot last: Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun). Immediately described by Jong-su as a “Gatsby,” Ben is a domineering force from the minute he enters the frame. When they first meet, he casually confesses to Jong-su that he’s never cried, then drives off in a Porsche. The tension just builds and builds from here: It’s never quite clear if Ben just competing with Jong-su for Hae-mi’s affections or if this dude is a sociopath.

This is in large part thanks to the strength of Steven Yeun’s (“Walking Dead,” “Sorry to Bother You”) performance as Ben. He’s pitch-perfect here, keeping the audience exactly the right distance from Ben’s psyche. Everyone else on screen keeps up with Yeun, a small but talented cast that all work to escalate the suspense.

I daresay “Burning” is thoroughly Hitchcock-ian, right down to the theme of constructed identities and pasts. It’s definitely as tense as a Hitchcock movie, simmering before concluding on a stark and fitting note. I’m not familiar with director Lee Chang-dong’s work, but from his impressive resume of Cannes nominations, one clearly should be. Chang-dong’s camerawork is never showy, but there’s a consistent quality to the shots. But if there’s one aspect where he actually outdoes Hitchcock, it’s in his social commentary: “Burning” has a lot to say about class, done in a way that’s subtler–and more effective–than what was on offer in Yeun’s last movie.

At two and a half hours, this isn’t a short movie, but that runtime is earned—you wouldn’t want to rush “Burning.” See it when you can—don’t pass on “Burning” as I nearly did.

Up next was the Coen brothers’ new film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Originally envisioned as an anthology television series, “Buster Scruggs” is a forward-thinking, lean piece of cinema. It’s also one of the Coens’ bleakest works, tapping into the same misery that’s at the core of “No Country for Old Men” and “Inside Llewellyn Davis.”

It’s difficult to evaluate “Buster Scruggs” because it’s not really a movie—it’s more like six bite-sized Coens flicks in one. I assume this would have made a six-episode season of television, and the transfer to a feature hasn’t been an entirely positive development. The segments are connected by a storybook structure and tied together by a few common themes and images but seriously vary in terms of quality. At the Q&A afterwards, Joel and Ethan explained that these stories were written over a 25-year period. That tracks—it’s not that “Buster Scruggs” isn’t coherent, but it’s nowhere near the best Coens script.

The second and third vignettes, in particular, look like they’ve had a lot cut. They’re also the two of the weakest pieces, featuring a miserable James Franco (who does get one hilarious line in) and an equally miserable Liam Neeson. That third segment verges on addressing the critique that Coens’ make the same movie every time, but the movie never really pushes that envelope anywhere interesting. The first segment is a winner: The titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is an utterly ridiculous take on the cowboy archetype, opening the films with lots of singing, laughs and violence. Credit where credit is due: In the hands of any other filmmakers the radical tonal shifts would come across as jarring. Then again, “if we could have come up with a better title,” mused Joel, “we would have.”

By this point, the Coens really know how to make a western. Their 2010 remake of “True Grit” proved as much, but where “Grit” packed impressive visuals from cinematographer Roger Deakins, “Scruggs” is not so lucky. Working again with Bruno Delbonnel–a frequent collaborator who shot “Inside Llewellyn Davis”–the images have a digital tinge that verges on too slick. The film doesn’t lack texture entirely (showing improvement on “ILD”), and this is all personal preference, but shouldn’t a western look a little grimier?

But “Buster Scruggs” also has a few peak Coen moments up its sleeve. The fourth vignette, starring Tom Waits as a prospector, is great, and seriously improves due to the cut exposition (I mean, I don’t know for sure, maybe this was always going to be a minimalist interlude). Meanwhile, the episode that follows (starring Zoe Kazan) is the most fully formed and, eventually, the most tragic. I didn’t much care for the ending, but the final puzzle piece does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of tying the film together (see what I did there?).

Joel and Ethan also know how to make a comeback. Their careers have never been in jeopardy. However, they followed the middling “Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) with “Fargo” (1996). They rebounded from “The Lady Killers” (2004) with the groundbreaking and Oscar-worthy “No Country for Old Men.” And after the lukewarm reception of “Hail, Caesar!,” they’re back with their most accessible film to date. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” will be on Netflix before the end of the year, and there’s literally nothing to lose from giving it a shot. See if you like the first segment, turn it off if you don’t. Skip to the fourth if it’s dragging. Six Coen Brothers movies for the price of none will always be a square deal.

Finally, I saddled up to Claire Denis’ “High Life” and had my mind blown.

We open on Robert Pattinson, but he’s in space. He seems to be repairing his ship, and he’s talking to a baby through his earpiece. We cut to the baby, then to a random garden, then back to the baby who is alone, communicating with Pattinson while being shown weird, random images. The child starts screaming in Pattinson’s ear; it’s excruciating, and thanks to some nifty editing it’s not quite clear what’s happening. Finally, Pattinson enters the spaceship, dons what looks like a prison jumpsuit and joins his kid. The truth sinks in: Pattinson is stuck on a spaceship and alone with a child.

From here, things descend into a perfect spiral of sex, violence and pure imagination. The opening sequence is so thought provoking that I was fully invested from the jump. This is a unique piece of science-fiction—the only two reference points I can offer are “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Children of Men.” The former is perhaps an obvious comparison (space babies, etc.), but “High Life” shares essential DNA with “Men.”

What director Claire Denis understands—that so little sci-fi gets–is that you need to find a conceit that has believable and thought-provoking emotional ramifications. Like in “Men,” Denis finds a situation with engaging psychological consequences. On the one end, there’s Pattinson’s hopelessness and loneliness, along with how difficult it is to single parent in space. On the other hand, Pattinson clearly loves his daughter and doesn’t want to give up for her sake. Denis isn’t interested in the usual technical questions the genre concerns itself with (how big is the ship? what year is it? etc.), instead investing in much more subjective territory.

This is not a movie that everyone will find profound, and maybe it’s all a load of empty garbage. But I ate up every bit of it. You know you’re in for a strange picture when you realize Outkast’s André 3000 is not only in the movie, but he’s playing the most normal person.

The rest of “High Life” proceeds in a non-linear fashion, which I suppose is to be expected. There’s a whole lot of sex and violence, and Denis doesn’t let anything inhibit her avant-garde instincts. It’s an outside the box film and not for the faint of heart. Like with Perry and Chang-dong, I am woefully unfamiliar with Denis portfolio, something I’ll be making a point to change in the coming weeks. But Pattinson keeps up with Denis at every turn, further proving his post-“Twilight” worth (and fulfilling the potential of “Good Time,” a film I couldn’t quite convince myself to like).

Perhaps the best thing I can say about “High Life” is that I’m hungry to see it again. Production company A24 has picked up the distribution rights, which is cool. “High Life” is a bit more out there than their usual fare (and a lot better than their last outing); I’m really glad this movie will make it to a lot of theaters. Aside from the copious amounts of sex and violence, the stilted dialogue may also be off putting to some. However, it sort-of feeds into the “absolutely bonkers” aesthetic (the script was written in French and then translated into English). It’s easily got the best baby-based sequence since “The F8 of the Furious.” If “High Life” weren’t so refreshing, maybe I wouldn’t have been as big a fan. It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve seen at the festival–not to mention, one of the best films on offer.

Stay tuned for more of my coverage from the 56th New York Film Festival! Still to come: my review of Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece “Roma” and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” follow-up, based on the James Baldwin novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”


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