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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ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny.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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82. Yojimbo (#113)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Chris Lavery, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

A wandering masterless samurai arrives in a small town divided between two rival gangs. Cannily and skillfully manipulating these opposing forces, the samurai sets about ensuring that he might be the only winner in this bitter turf war.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 113th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Django Unchained and Tarantino Off the Chain….

Django Unchained is one of the most quietly influential movies of the twenty-first century.

It feels strange to acknowledge that fact, to say it out loud. On paper, it sounds absurd. Django Unchained is an R-rated western that deals with slavery in the manner of an exploitation film, released at Christmas. It is a movie that is downright abrasive, in terms of both tone and content. On the one hand, it is cheeky and provocative, playful and flippant; it is hyperstylised, from the Ennio Morricone score to the camera zooms to the bright flourishes of colour. It is also so violent and brutal that it is difficult to watch, even having seen the film before and knowing when the horrors are coming.

However, the film was a box office success. It earned over one hundred and sixty million dollars at the domestic box office, and more than two hundred and sixty million dollars at the foreign box office. More than that, it became a cultural touchstone. Jamie Foxx would reprise the role of Django in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The character would appear in a number of licensed comic book adaptations, including a crossover with Zorro published by Dynamite and Vertigo publishing.

The influence of Django Unchained is subtler than that. It is a film that shifted the conversation on the popular history of the United States. It did not do this alone, and it is hard to argue whether it was part of a broader cultural shift or simply a reaction to it. Nevertheless, Django Unchained coincided with a massive shift in how popular culture engaged with American history. Its impact is felt in the strangest of places, from the blending of horror movie conventions with a western aesthetic in films like The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk to the sounds of Kanye West playing over the opening scenes of Underground.

There had been movies about slavery before; indeed, Django Unchained was released roughly contemporaneously with both Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. However, there had never been a movie about slavery like this. The western genre had been greatly diminished before Django Unchained was released, but it was profoundly changed in its wake. After Django Unchained, it seemed to become impossible to construct a western without reference to the atrocities upon which the west had been won.

Django Unchained argued that these horrors weren’t just one version of the story, but instead an essential part of the overall story of the frontier and the nation. Sofia Coppola’s refusal to confront slavery in The Beguiled became a minor controversy. Even Hostiles confronted the genocide of the Native Americans. There were westerns that avoided these controversies in the intervening years, but they became fewer and further between. Indeed, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is perhaps most notable for the ill-judged scene in which its only major African American character attempts to lynch the white lead.

Still, even approaching Django Unchained more than half a decade removed from its release, it remains a fascinating and compelling piece of cinema. It is a genuinely provocative piece of cinema, one designed to challenge and upset the audience. However, the true beauty of the film lies as much in its contours and finer details as it does in the broad strokes, in the little touches that enrich and enlighten the finished product. In particular, the sense that Tarantino understands the precarious nature of what he is attempting, despite the somewhat flippant attitude towards violence and bloodshed.

This sense of consideration and reflection is perhaps best explored in the character of King Schultz, who is positioned quite cannily as a deconstruction of the familiar white saviour trope.

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Non-Review Review: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a tough film to classify.

Visually and narratively, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts feels very much like a western. Writer and director Mouly Surya crafts a story that is recognisable as a classic western tale. The eponymous lead character lies alone in a remote part of Sumba, managing a farm following the death of her husband. When bandits arrive to raid the property, Marlina finds herself forced to embark on a journey across the region in search of justice – or maybe just even peace. Along the way, there is violence, retribution and reconciliation.

Director Mouly Surya and cinematographer Yunus Pasolang tell the story using the visual language of the western. The film features any number of striking and beautiful compositions, the camera taking in the sparse beauty of the Indonesian countryside in rich browns and yellows, the deep blue of the ocean occasionally visible in the distance or the background. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts even includes sequences of its protagonist riding on horseback, hoping to deliver a bounty to the forces of justice in a seemingly lawless land.

However, these trappings serve to provide a framework for a much more compelling and fascinating character study. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a quiet and introspective film, one that finds a strange warmth in the quiet resolve of its central character.

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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an undeconstructed and unreconstructed western of the kind that they don’t make any more.

And for good reason.

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Non-Review Review: Sweet Country

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

“What chance does this country have?” asks Sam Neill towards the climax of Sweet Country.

In the context of the scene, it isn’t entirely clear to whom the character is speaking. There is one other individual in the scene, but they are preoccupied at that moment and it’s not clear they are even within earshot when Neill’s character makes his grave assessment about the future of this young nation. However, outside the context of the scene, it is very apparent to whom Neill’s character is addressing his concerns. He is speaking directly to the audience through the medium of film.

Sweet Country is not a film that does subtlety or nuance. As Neill’s character offers this pointed question, he stumbles through the Australian wilderness, as if to suggest that he is lost. He stops just short of bluntly stating that he is lost, just like this country, the film demonstrating uncharacteristic faith in the audience’s narrative and thematic comprehension. Nevertheless, just in case the audience still doesn’t get it, Neill’s character asks this very profound question while wandering in the direction of the tail end of a rainbow set against a stormy sky.

“What chance does this country have?” the character wonders. The audience doesn’t feel the need to articulate the obvious response, “Not much, if it produces films like this.”

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Non-Review Review: Black ’47

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Black ’47 is a powerful piece of pulp storytelling, a bold and daring window into an under-served chapter of Irish history.

Directed by Lance Daly, working from a story derived by a variety of writers, Black ’47 is essentially a western set against the background of the Irish Famine. Of course, the reality is much more nuanced than that simple description would suggest, but it provides a suitable starting point for discussion. Indeed, all the genre elements are in place; a soldier returns home from war to discover the horrors that have befallen his family, and decides that there shall be no justice on earth save for that which he might exact by his own hand.

Black ’47 is a very sparse and rugged film. It would be a surprise if the nominal lead character, Feeney, speaks more than one hundred words. Indeed, at one point he explicitly rejects the English language as a tool of communication. The landscape of the film is rough and cold, the audience feeling the chill that runs through the film and almost smelling the decay in the air. Black ’47 reflects its rough and wild settings, and the characters who have been shaped and moulded by those surroundings.

Black ’47 is an effective piece of storytelling.

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