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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ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny.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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Non-Review Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Early in the film, a supporting character reveals the ingredients of the eponymous culinary delight, the mysterious “potato peel pie.” Those ingredients are, somewhat predictably, potatoes and potato peels. With some small measure of pride, the character in question boasts that his potato pastry remains conceptually pure. There is no flour, no sugar, no flavouring. There is only potato. Watching The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this almost feels like a moment of self-awareness.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society could certainly use more flavouring.

Pie in the sky thinking.

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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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The X-Files – Redux I (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Redux I hits on the same problem that haunted The Blessing Way. It is very hard to structure a three-parter that bridges two seasons of television. The biggest problem is the second episode, which has the unfortunate position of having to serve as a season premiere while carrying the baggage from the last season finalé and remaining unable to resolve anything. So the episode inevitably becomes an exercise in spinning wheels as the show saves all of its potential resolutions for the third episode.

A particular cynical commentator might suggest that Redux I plays as Chris Carter’s twisted take on Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is famous for his sequences of characters walking through corridors while trading witty banter – a very nice way of keeping physical movement in the midst of largely dialogue-driven plots. This would become a defining feature of The West Wing, the show that Sorkin would launch in September 1999. Redux I seems to prefigure the style, albeit with a twist. There is lots of walking through corridors as characters talk to themselves in monologue.

"Wow, and I though my filing system was bad..."

“Wow, and I thought my filing system was bad…”

Redux I plays as a collection of voice-over monologues transposed over sequences of Mulder wandering through corridors in the Pentagon. One immediately wonders how the Department of Defence could have staged such a complex and convincing hoax against the American people when they cannot find one lost FBI agent inside the Pentagon. The drab setting makes for a shockingly dull episode; the majesty of the Yukon Mountains is lost, replaced by long sequences of grey walls and red doors.

Redux I has more than a few interesting ideas, but its structure is a mess. Sitting between Gethsemane and Redux II, the episode has no clear sense of purpose or momentum; no drive or ambition or excitement.

Don't worry, it could still make sense...

Don’t worry, it could still make sense…

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Star Trek – A Piece of the Action (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

A Piece of the Action is the last script credited to Gene L. Coon.

Of course, Coon would write two episodes for (and contributed two more stories to) the show’s troubled final season under the alias Lee Cronin. However, A Piece of the Action could be seen as the last hurrah for Gene L. Coon’s vision of Star Trek. The writer and producer had helped to shape and define many of the ideas that Star Trek fans take for granted. A lot of the core Star Trek ideas that have permeated into popular culture – the Federation, the Klingons – originated with Coon.

Dey call his Boss Koik...

Dey call him Boss Koik…

While Coon is often overlooked when it comes to crediting those responsible for creating Star Trek as fans have come to know it, history has tended to gloss over his wry subversive streak. In many ways, Coon could be said to be the godfather of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Had he not passed away at the tragically young age of forty-nine, Coon might have been coaxed back to write a first season episode of Deep Space Nine alongside Dorothy Fontana. Coon was, after all, the first Star Trek writer to shrewdly and knowingly problematicise the Federation.

So it feels appropriate that the last Star Trek script credited to Coon should have Kirk proposes the Federation as an intergalactic racket.

Top gun...

Top gun…

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Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle (Review/Retrospective)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. We’ve got a special treat for you this week, which is “Seven Soldiers Week”, so check back each day for a review of one of the Seven Soldier miniseries that Morrison put together.

Morrison’s fascination with Jack Kirby creations continues. The author also reworked the Newsboy Legion and Klarion the Witch-Boy as part of Seven Soldiers, but Mister Miracle allows Morrison to play with perhaps the most iconic additions that Kirby made to the DC pantheon, dating back to his return from Marvel in the seventies, the New Gods. It goes without saying that this four-issue series actually serves as more of a lead-in to Final Crisis than an exploration of the Seven Soldiers mythology, but it’s still an absolutely fascinating look at some of Morrison’s big ideas.

No escape...

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Non-Review Review: Short Cuts

Short Cuts is perhaps “the” big defining ensemble drama. Even those who haven’t seen it are familiar with Robert Altman’s epic three-hour twenty-two-character crisscrossing drama about life modern Los Angeles. It’s bold, ambitious and challenging. Personally, I prefer Altman’s skewering the studio system in The Player, there’s no denying that this big drama has its charms.

Altman casts a long shadow...

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