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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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Non-Review Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is a beautiful piece of speculative paranoid horror.

The plot follows Michelle, a young woman who is involved in a car crash. She wakes up to find herself in a strange concrete bunker, under the care of the mysterious (and more-than-slightly sinister) Howard. As she comes to her senses, Howard advises her that something horrible has happened; the world has ended outside and they are sealed safely inside an air-tight self-sustaining bunker. However, Michelle has a healthy degree of skepticism about Howard’s claims, wondering what exactly is going on and just how trustworthy Howard actually is.

At home at the end of the world. Maybe.

At home at the end of the world.
Maybe.

To reveal any more would be to spoil the film. 10 Cloverfield Lane is very much a “mystery box” production, in keeping with various other JJ Abrams projects from Cloverfield to Super 8 to Star Trek Into Darkness. Although Abrams is not directing, 10 Cloverfield Lane retains a lot of the director’s aesthetic. It is a film that is designed to be seen with the bare minimum of information, to the point where the unveiling of the movie’s title came surprisingly late in the release process.

However, writers Drew Goddard and Daniel Casey (working from a story by Matthew Stuecken and Josh Campbell) and director Dan Trachtenberg use that mystery box structure in a manner distinct from Abrams’ blockbuster sensibilities. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays like a feature-length high-budget episode of The Twilight Zone, a story that looks and sounds great but would (mostly) lend itself to a stage play adaptation. 10 Cloverfield Lane feels very much like a classic high-concept science-fiction horror, in the best possible way.

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

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Non-Review Review: Batman – Gotham Knight

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. This is one of the animated feature films involving the characters from the creators of the original animated shows.

Batman: Gotham Knight was somewhat misleadingly advertised as a “missing link” between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Released in the run-up to Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel, the film was clearly intended to call to mind the Animatrix, with a strong sense of anime flavouring the variety of shorts on display here. Each was produced by a different studio in a different style from a different author. The result is, as you’d expect, a mixed bag. Some stories are good, some stories are bad – there are interesting stories let down by poor animation and strong stories featuring weak animation. It’s a very mixed bag, which never really seems necessary or exceptional.

Yes, that is a batarang in his hand. And yes, he is happy to see you...

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Batman: Haunted Knight

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. It’s a match made in nerdy comic book heaven. Of course, the duo made their name by working together on The Long Halloween and its direct follow-up Dark Victory and have both had a huge influence on the two Nolan Batman films, but before they completed that grand sweeping arc that tied together the early years of the Caped Crusader’s career, they first teamed up on three Halloween Specials through the mid-1990s. Why is it that Halloween Specials are so much better than Christmas Specials? Think about it, you have The Simpsons’ Halloween Special in one corner and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special in the other. Still, that’s a discussion for another day.

Because you wouldn't read a Batman Christmas Special...

Because you wouldn't read a Batman Christmas Special...

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You Are Now Re-Entering… The Twilight Zone

This is one of those ideas I am not too sure about. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way has announced that they are moving forward with a new Twilight Zone movie. With The Box coming out later this year, I imagined that Hollywood’s thirst for remakes could soon find its way to these precious anthology series (which have themselves been remade). It makes sense – there’s a lot more scope and freedom in taking a name from a show without a regular cast or confined to single storyline but still has name recognition. The only problem is that, without these staples, what exactly are they going to do to create a two hour movie?

If only the Twlight Zone were so easy to find...

If only the Twlight Zone were so easy to find...

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