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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ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny.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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37. No Country for Old Men (#171)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.

Lives are thrown into chaos when a drug deal in Texas goes horribly wrong. Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two million dollars in drug money, and finds himself drawn into a world of violence and chaos as cartel hitman Anton Chigurh is on his trail. If this is not the mess, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 171st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Hail, Caesar!

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Hail, Caesar! is little more than an excuse for the Coen Brothers to adventure through classic Hollywood; a series of fantastic scenes and sequences tied together more by central theme than by a linear plot. It is telling how many performers essentially find themselves relegated to only a single scene or two, with performers like Scarlett Johannessen, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Alison Pill, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum effectively (and occasionally literally) dancing around the film than weaving through it.

In many respects, this simply shouldn’t work. On paper – and perhaps on reflection – Hail, Caesar! plays like an anthology of great little scenes; a collection of short films all linked by the classic Hollywood aesthetic more than a single unifying narrative. The actual substance of the film is quite removed from the story promised by the trailers, which seem to tease “an old-timey movie Ocean’s Eleven with actors teaming up to rescue a kidnapped George Clooney.” It spoils nothing to reveal that the movie is most definitely not about that.

hailcaesar4

Although the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock is a central thread, Hail, Caesar! plays more like a day in the life of Hollywood studio fixer Eddie Mannix. Mannix is (very) loosely based on the real studio executive (and notorious “fixer”) of the same name, although it seems quite unlikely that he ever had a day quite as bizarre as that presented here. The Coen Brothers have a great deal of fun incorporating classic Hollywood iconography into their film, both as movies within the movie and then in a more meta-fictional manner towards the climax.

However, Hail, Caesar! is tied together through its recurring humanism. The movie opens with Mannix taking confession for his sins, part of a daily ritual. One of the films featured is an old-school biblical epic. Complex economic theories are woven through the narrative, and the film repeatedly touches upon the awkward relationship that exists between Capitol Pictures and its performers. Although Hail, Caesar! is too shrewd to propose easy answers to its complex web of character interactions, it does tease some insightful questions. And features some great set pieces.

hailcaesar5

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12 Movie Moments of 2012: “… it has its moments…” (Men in Black 3)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #4

Wait, this game doesn’t happen until October.

Oh, it’s always October and November and March. So many futures and they’re all real, just don’t know which one will coalesce. Until then, they’re all happening, like this one. It’s my favorite moment in human history. All the things that had to converge for the Mets to win The World Series. They were in last place every single season until they won it all.

You said you had a gift for us…

That baseball for instance, thrown for the last hour of the game, manufactured in 1962 by the Spalding Factory at Chicopee Massachusetts, was aerodynamically flawed. Due to the horsehide being improperly tanned because Sheila, the tanners wife, left him for a Puerto Rican Golf pro that Sunday…

– J, Griffin and K discuss the Mets

Sometimes great scenes pop up in the most unlikely of places. I enjoyed each of three Men in Black films, even if I’d be reluctant to rank them as among the finest films of their given years, or to consider all three among great cinematic trilogies. I’d be lying if I said that I had been eagerly anticipating the release of Men in Black 3 this year, which turned out to be a solid and reliable popcorn film in a year featuring films that so often went to one extreme or the other. It won’t be a surprise entry on my top films of the year, but it does what it sets out to do, and is often charming doing so.

However, it’s always incredibly satisfying to find one striking or memorable scene in a film that is fairly easy to dismiss as “merely” entertaining. Men in Black 3 has one such scene, featuring the superb Michael Stuhlbarg as the alien Griffin, who has the unique ability to see throw time, weighing and considering probabilities and possibilities. With the capacity to see any moment in history, Griffin uses his gift… to watch the Mets. Somehow, that makes all the wondrous “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” stuff seem even more magical.

Men-in-Black-3-Griffin

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My Best of 2011: True Grit & The Art of Modesty…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

True Grit is number eight. Check out my original review here.

Collective consensus is a funny thing. It pops up quite quickly and quietly, in the strangest sorts of places and the strangest sort of way. The Coen Brothers are respected filmmakers, to say the least. Even when a project of their doesn’t quite come off as smoothly as one might expect, it’s still compelling viewing. However, as with any other directors, there are greater films and there are lesser films. And there are those that sit in the middle. True Grit, for most critics, seems to sit firmly in the middle.

But not for me.

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Non-Review Review: The Matrix Reloaded

Today I’m taking a look at the Matrix trilogy. All three films, all watched and reviewed in one day. Join us for the fun! All three reviews will be going on-line today.

No, what happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.

How do you know?

We are still alive.

– Morpheus and Neo have one of the least obtuse conversations in the film

The reaction to the second and third films in The Matrix series has always somewhat surprised me. I don’t mean that I can’t see the criticism typically levelled at the films – I can see it and I agree with most of it. I mean that most viewers regard the second film as stronger than the third, while I always considered it the other way around. Rewatching all three films in one day just cemented that opinion – but I’m still curious about why cinema fans tend to favour the middle instalment over the last. Neither is as efficient or effective as the first film, but while I appreciate the sense of closure (and action) of the third film, I find myself regarding a significant portion of the second film as just idle padding – the franchise positioning itself for a final film, which would then go on to ignore a lot of what was suggested here.

Blade of glory?

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Noir the Battle to the Strong: Why I’m Afraid of Classic Cinema…

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir.

I have to admit, the “For The Love of Film Noir” blogathon is a very worthy cause. Bloggers from all around the world continuously blogging in order to raise funds to restore classic films. It’s something that I just couldn’t ignore the chance to be a part of – to have the chance to say that I helped restore a classic film print of an actual honest-to-goodness classic film. It was too great an opportunity to ignore… and yet I almost did. I hesitated as I wrote the comment agreeing to take part. My fingers felt heavy. My thoughts caught in wherever it is that thoughts catch. I wanted to blog about film noir for a week straight, but I was also genuinely terrified by the idea. After all, what do I know about classic film?

Too hot to handle?

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