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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be terrible if the Coen brothers didn’t make it

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be terrible if the Coen brothers didnt make it

Directors often get too much credit for making movies great. That’s not the case with the Coen brothers. In their latest release, their presence in the director’s chairs and behind the writing desks took what should have been a mediocre Old West anthology and made it clever enough that most viewers will enjoy it. Others, like me, will hate it despite their presence.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Coen brothers film made for Netflix that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is why 91% of critics reviewed it favorably on Rotten Tomatoes. But the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach by Rotten Tomatoes makes the rating a bit misleading. Many of the “positive” reviews I read were essentially homages to the Coen brothers. There were many complaints about the six-part anthology that were followed by “… but it’s the Coen brothers, so…”

That’s the big plus in the movie. The Coens were able to tell the six stories the way only they could with such attention to detail that I almost watched it a second time even though I hated it. The critic in me detested what the movie tried to do. The fan in me loved how the Coens tried to do it.

Unfortunately, that means the only valid reason to watch it is to see the Coens do their thing. That’s enough of a reason if you’ve already seen all of their other extraordinary works. If you’ve missed any of them, I’d start there before using The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a filler to get you through until their next masterpiece.

I normally don’t do spoilers. In fact, I make a point to not even spoil important components like mood or tone. Since this is a case where I’m not only going against the grain of other reviewers but I’m also trying to dissuade certain people from seeing it, I’ll go ahead and warn that there are spoilers ahead.

As noted already, this movie doesn’t take itself seriously. There are six completely separate stories tied together by two things: death and the historical Old West. We’ll deal with the death aspect shortly, but one good thing I can say about the movie is that I’ve never seen one capture the beauty of the period like this one. Even on a small screen, the sets are stunning. It’s a shame that such amazing cinematography will have so few see it on the big screen.

Now, let’s deal with death. It’s the overarching theme throughout, and it’s noteworthy that none of the reviews I read seemed to catch onto the specificity of the deaths. In order from first to last, the deaths are whimsical, ironic, undeserved, deserved, and tragic. This is done in a very particular order to keep the audience engaged. It’s an emotional ebb and flow that the Coens have mastered over three decades of filmmaking.

The opening story shares its title with the movie itself. It’s a live-action cartoon with stunning aspects that make the viewer laugh, marvel, and finally scratch his or her head. Buster Scruggs’ death is as quick and unexpected as the death the character dishes out throughout his story.

The second story, Near Algodones, demonstrates the inevitability of death for one who chooses a life of crime. Both times the lead character is captured and set to hang are comical and ironic, as if saying Death won’t be cheated by death. His final scene is the last real laugh we get in the movie.

As is common for the Coen brothers, there’s no attempt to ease in to a drastically changing mood. From beginning to end, Meal Ticket makes us feel melancholy and turns it up near the end of the third story. The only temporary relief is seeing an orange chicken mesmerizing a simple-minded crowd with its ability to do basic math on command, a not-so-subtle allusion to President Trump and his adoring fans.

The star of the anthology is the fourth story, All Gold Canyon, as Tom Waits delivers on multiple connections. He touches nature as both an intruder and its defender. He talks to his goal, “Mr Pocket,” like a friend about to deliver the good news of riches heading his way. The best line of the movie comes out in a dialogue between Waits and the pocket of gold when he says, “I’m old, but you’re older.” All of this combines for a deep connection we’re able to feel with his character. We may like or dislike other characters, but we actually connect with this one. Any of the stories could be fleshed out to be a standalone film, but this one would probably yield the best one.

The fifth story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is another one that could easily expand. It made me think someone could make an interesting series about life on the Oregon Trail that followed the guides back and forth in their exciting journeys. Instead, we get a glimpse at the trail, another glimpse of irony surrounding an annoying dog that survives both of its masters, and then a fleeting glimpse of real action as Grainger Hines fearlessly takes on a group of Commanche who want his scalp and the young lady he’s protecting.

The Mortal Remains rounds out the movie. It’s the only story that doesn’t end in death, though it’s predicated by death; two of the five characters in this story are bounty hunters with the body of their most recent prey strapped to the top of the carriage they’re riding.

There are different interpretations for this segment of the movie. Some say the self proclaimed “reapers” are taking the souls of the other three passengers to their resting place. This theory lends to the apprehension and dread they demonstrate when they finally get there. Others say they simply fear that death may come to them soon, which is why they hesitate to enter the hotel. I lean towards the first interpretation. The three in the carriage with the bounty hunters/reapers died normally while the body on the roof had to be hunted down, which is why he has to be carried to his final resting place instead of walking there like the other three.

Who knows? The Coens.

The stories in this movie were accumulated over 25 years. It’s very possible that there is a much deeper underlying meaning to all of this that the Coens may or may not ever reveal. It could be personal, like their own private joke about Hollywood; watching Meal Ticket definitely lends itself to the notion that the highest level of art can’t be as popular as a counting chicken. There may be nothing to it at all. The Coens know, and unless they’re changing their style, they aren’t telling us their secrets.

An uncanny number of reviews I read noted a variation of the idea that the whole was less than the sum of the parts.

The bottom line: Lots of people loved this movie for everything the Coen brothers bring to the table. Some, like me, hated it because it’s six stories that individually could have been great but compressing them into one movie didn’t do them justice.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Al Jackson

    November 28, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    “…like their own private joke about Hollywood; watching Meal Ticket definitely lends itself to the notion that the highest level of art can’t be as popular as a counting chicken.”
    From an interview the Coen’s gave about Netflix’s support for this film leaves no ambiguity about this social commentary for this story.

  2. Miss Muse Meant

    December 6, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    Reviewer you missed it.
    You act like the Coens have some total control over their Muse and that somehow the short story formula does not stack up.
    Like they have this easy choice of just turn these into features and it’ll be something worth your time reviewing.
    It’s an okay attitude to adopt for a certain kind of reviewer.
    The question is.
    Is it easier to change your perception than send Americas Finest on a redo mission?

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Entertainment and Sports

Twitter suspends Houston Rockets’ account

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Twitter suspends Houston Rockets account

What happened to the Houston Rockets’ Twitter account? Did they Tweet something conservative or Christian? Did they misgender someone? Is this retribution for falling to the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs four out of five of years? Whatever they did, Twitter decided to suspend them, leaving their 2.8 million followers in the dark.

All jesting aside, there are three likely scenarios. They could be the victims of a mass reporting attack in which multiple Twitter accounts report a user in a short period of time, prompting an algorithmic suspension. Or, if they’d been hacked, Twitter may have detected it and shut them down until the real users can regain control and change passwords.

But the most likely culprit is a DMCA takedown complaint that triggers instant temporary suspension. Chances are, they posted a video that included music they didn’t have permission to use. It happens.

The Rockets have not responded to our request for comment.

If you or someone you know gets suspended on social media, take solace in knowing even big organizations like the Houston Rockets can fall victim to the ban-hammer (though I doubt they’ll get the same scorn from Twitter as James Woods).

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Game of Thrones Series Finale: Review and Analysis

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Game of Thrones Series Finale Review and Analysis

The ending finally arrive. It was a tumultuous controversial season. The Game of Thrones series finale had to deal with a malcontentious internet fanbase that saw bad writing, but mostly in the wrong places. Indeed the Daenerys fans were unduly upset by her demise, and the Arya and Sansa fans consistently had bad takes. This ending was hardly for these people who wanted happy, predictable, endings that reinforced your “fandom.” Still this episode is where the good writing for the last three or four seasons went to. It was not the dreaded ending of a Republic, which given Tyrion’s voyage to Volantis, was conceivable. The idea was address and ridiculed. Instead it was two kingdoms at peace, at last. The Game of Thrones series finale was well shot, well performed, and strangely well-written(thanks to the cliff-notes of George RR Martin.) The ending was somber. On a scale of Dexter to Breaking Bad, the Game of Thrones series finale lands in the middle, being held back by D&D’s poor ability to get to the final two episodes.

Overall: The episode was a solid ending, given the poor last few seasons.

A Critique of Stalinism

In her speech, Daenerys Targaryen champions how she destroyed the system that oppressed people and made a bold goal to conquer the rest of the known world minus the far east of the continent south of Essos. There’s a lot to tackle from her speech. First, she seems to have a Rashida Tlaib recollection of history. Yes, she freed the Astapori slaves, but it ends horribly for the slaves in her new world. She left Astapor without a garrison, so a butcher took over, being the only one able to wield a blade semi-competently. She then abandons Astapor and the Yunkish coalition destroy the city and the newly freed slaves. who knows what happened to the Mereenese slaves she misruled, but with her dead, it’s a safe assumption they will be vanquished, probably by Volantis. So Daenerys is already rewriting her history, but other than freeing slaves in a world away, she has done nothing to systematically change the way of life for Westeros. She has only deposed Cersei Lannister, which is nothing new for a kingdom that saw Roberts Rebellion. So after giving a fictional account of history she vows to conquer the world, with her brand of liberation. It sounds exactly like Communism. Part of the end goal for communism, as the Soviets saw it was to make every country around them communist, which is what Stalin did during and after World War 2. The idea that a communist government can dissolve and the “people” own everything must come after private ownership everywhere is eliminated, in theory. Of course communism always failed, as does Daenerys. In her final words to Jon, Daenerys talks of removing people who stand in her way and declares herself the supreme authority of what is good. You can almost here the words: “in order to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs.” This classic defense of genocide is uttered, in sentiment, by Daenerys in her final words. In the Game of Thrones world, Daenerys was Josef Stalin. Off to the gulag with Tyrion and the other undesirables.

Drogon

Either Jon is good at playing innocent or Drogon knew the Iron Throne was what really killed Daenerys Targaryen. Either way, such moral accountability from a dragon knowing better than his mother. His subsequent escape is one unclosed detail that works really well.

Jon Snow King-Beyond-the-Wall

Jon Snow was sentenced to the Night’s Watch begging the question: why is the order still a thing? Still, Jon Snow is depicted leading the wildlings to the “true North” and the gate behind him is shut. Jon Snow was never cut out for the Night’s Watch, as shown in season one, and he’s killed for disregarding his vows in the books. The implication of Jon being King is made readily apparent.

Bran as King

The leaks told it true. I was extremely weary of this especially since I had Tyrion in mind for the Kingship or I thought the Seven Kingdoms would split. After all, Robert’s strength held them together, and he died in season one. But the Lords were too weak to seize their own kingship. But minus the cringy Edmere Tully return, Tyrion sold it, in large part because of the acting of Peter Dinklage. It was better written than one would have thought. The idea is growing on me personally and contains a lack of predictability Game of Thrones is known for. It also tied up succession nicely while providing a stable outcome a Targaryen dynastic return would not have brought.

Small Council

My biggest point of displeasure from this episode was the small council. Bronn receiving Highgarden and the Lord Paramount title was a sickening end to his character. He should have been killed off years ago. Sam becoming the Grand Maester was a bit of a stretch. Davos as Master of Ships was fitting and Brienne as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard wasn’t too shabby. The scene where she writes down Jaime’s legacy was excellent.

MVP Tyrion

Peter Dinklage gave an award winning performance this episode. I was getting critical of his poor portrayal of the Tyrion character, in large part because of the writing. But in the final two episodes, Peter Dinklage hit a grand slam on his performance. All of the actors did a superb job, but his was by far the best his episode.

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Binge-worthy show: I recommend Killing Eve to everyone even though I hated it

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Binge-worthy show I recommend Killing Eve to everyone even though I hated it

I wish I could say my entertainment tastes were simply too refined for most, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I like great television shows like Bosch yet I am not too proud to stop laughing at Family Guy. But somewhere in the middle is the artsy, modern, beautiful, and unpredictable world of great television shows that work today even if they wouldn’t have worked just a couple of years ago. One such show is Killing Eve.

When I first started watching it by accident with my mother-in-law (circumstances not important) I instantly fell in love with it. Literally 10 minutes in I realized this was the show I’d been wanting to see since all of the other great ones I’ve been watching were complete. I’m a 2-3-shows-at-a-time king of guy, so binging is the only way I can normally keep up. But lately, there’s been a lull. With Killing Eve, the lull was officially over.

Then the last two episodes went a little too weird for me. I should have seen it coming throughout, but I suspended my own logical disbelief and continued forward. I don’t regret it, and even though the show lost me to the point I won’t be watching season 2 or any future season, I still highly recommend it.

Have you ever read a review of a show or movie in which the reviewer hated it but still recommended it? Now you have.

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, the titular good guy and her prey/predator, are both award-worthy in their performances. The writing is sharp. The direction is spot-on. No complaints about any of the technical components of the show.

Where it lost me is the direction they chose to take their relationship. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall from the first episode on, but I refused to see it. I wanted a traditional cat and mouse, cops and murders show and Killing Eve is not that. Still, it was fun while I thought it would be that and when it took a turn I didn’t like, I was okay with it. Like I said, I recommend the show even though I didn’t like it.

Will it make one of my binge-worthy lists? Probably not. I reserve those lists for shows I loved. I didn’t love Killing Eve, but I know most probably will which is why I have no problem recommending it.

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