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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ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny.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 X-Files – Roadrunners (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

In case there was any doubt, Roadrunners proves that the eighth season of The X-Files means business.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that Roadrunners did not receive a warning about graphic content. The season would wait until Via Negativa before offering a viewer discretion advisory. Roadrunners is one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling episodes in the show’s nine-season run, one that cements the “back to basics” horror aesthetic of the eighth season as a whole. It was clear from the opening three episodes that the eighth season was intended as a return to the darkness of the first five seasons, but Roadrunners commits to the idea.

Off-road...

Off-road…

Roadrunners is a “back to basics” script in a number of ways, even beyond its very graphic horror stylings. It is a very good “small town” story, returning to the motif that populated many of the show’s early episodes. It is a story about an eccentric and isolate space in America, a place with its own unique character and its own rich history and traditions. It is a place that stands quite apart from the modern world, that might have looked the same at the turn of the twentieth century as it does at the start of the twenty-first.

Roadrunners could be seen as Vince Gilligan’s answer to Home, a similarly brutal (and unsettling) small-town tale.

"On to new business. Today's mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet." "What are we going to do there?" "Just walk around not wearing a helmet."

“On to new business. Today’s mission is for all of you to go to the brain slug planet.”
“What are we going to do there?”
“Just walk around not wearing a helmet.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Emanations (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Emanations has a pretty effective set-up and solid premise. It is very clearly one of Star Trek: Voyager‘s “planet of the week” stories – like the show directly before it and the show directly following it – but it’s build around some vaguely interesting ideas. It’s very clearly an episode designed to function as social commentary in the grand Star Trek tradition, hitting on big ideas and bold concepts.

Unfortunately, it’s not the type of script that Brannon Braga is best suited to handle. It doesn’t feel so much an exploration of an important issue as a social treatise. It’s simplistic and heavy-handed while dealing with ideas that require a bit of nuance and sophistication. It feels under-developed, contrived and a little shallow. Despite an attempt at ambiguity in its closing scene, it feels like an episode driven primarily by an agenda rather than a strong story.

Emanations is a misfire, another example of the weird tendency in the first season of Voyager to assign the wrong writers to the wrong scripts.

Harry really got wrapped up in local culture...

Harry really got wrapped up in local culture…

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Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy (Review)

I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions more than orders.

– the Doctor

To be fair, it’s very clear that these two annual trips to North America have been an attempt for Doctor Who to “break” into the market place over there – to provide viewers with something recognisable as a gateway to a uniquely British television show. While the American backdrop of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon added some wonderful stylistic touches, and a nice juicy role for President Nixon, A Town Called Mercy feels like a more overt attempt to tell a distinctly “American” story within the framework of the show. Borrowing more than just its aesthetic from the setting, A Town Called Mercy is also decidedly American in theme and tone.

A gunslinger built…

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