Netflix Review – The Little Hours: A Modern Comedy About Medieval Nuns

A packed cast of comedians star in this film about life in a Fourteenth Century convent.

SUMMARY

It’s 1347 in Italy and a convent of nuns is being led by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). The nuns, particularly the extremely angry Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), drive off the gardener and caretaker Lurco (Paul Weitz), forcing Father Tommasso to look for another one. At the same time, a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is kicked out of his position and ordered arrested by his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) for sleeping with his wife Francesca (Lauren Weedman). Massetto flees and runs into Tommasso, who has gotten drunk and lost the embroideries he was supposed to sell to fund the convent. Tommasso agrees to hide Massetto at the convent in exchange for being a gardener and pretending to be a deaf-mute.

LittleHours - 1Nuns.png
Wanna know what they’re doing? Nun-ya business. I don’t regret this joke.

Despite not being able to talk, Tommasso is soon befriended by Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie) who grows infatuated with him. One night, Sister Fernanda’s friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) appears and all of the nuns, including Alessandra, Fernanda, Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Mother Marea (Molly Shannon) get drunk while they’re being told that sex is amazing. Fernanda takes a drunken Ginevra back to her room for sex while Alessandra and Massetto start to get closer.

littlehours - 2yelling
Fernanda doesn’t quite get along with him. Or anyone.

At one point, Fernanda kidnaps Massetto and she and Marta have sex with him, seemingly confirming him as a viable candidate for something. Ginevra is upset by this, having fallen for Fernanda. Massetto and Alessandra begin getting physical, but get interrupted by one of the elders coming into the room. Soon, Fernanda again kidnaps Massetto, this time taking him to a coven of witches in the woods who prepare to sacrifice him for a fertility ritual. They’re stopped by Ginevra, who has consumed a bunch of drugs and shows up high, but Massetto reveals that he’s not a deaf-mute while escaping. The group is caught returning to the convent by the visiting Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen), who uncovers all of the secrets, including that Ginevra is Jewish and that Tommasso and Marea are having sex.

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She’s not sure he’s getting her point. I do kind of apologize for this joke.

Massetto is sent back to Lord Bruno, but is rescued by Alessandra and the other nuns. They all escape together, passing Tommasso and Marea who have likewise fled, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Bruno’s wife who is probably dead.

END SUMMARY

This movie is the most bizarre concoction I’ve seen in a while. It’s an adaptation of one of the stories from the Decameron, specifically the first story of Day 3, albeit a very loose adaptation. In the original, Massetto is a man pretending to be a mute gardener for the purpose of, successfully, seducing the nuns. It turns out that they actually choose to take advantage of him, believing that a mute won’t ever tell anyone. Unfortunately, he underestimates their desires, resulting in him having to beg for help from sheer exhaustion. He ends up begging mercy from the Abbess, who ends up keeping him at the abbey as a steward so that he can continue to service the nuns until he’s very old. That particular story, told by Filostrato within the text, would likely have been a very bawdy comedy by the standards of 1353. My favorite line is: “Madam, I have heard say that one cock sufficeth unto half a score hens, but that half a score men can ill or hardly satisfy one woman; whereas needs must I serve nine, and to this I can no wise endure; nay, for that which I have done up to now, I am come to such a pass that I can do neither little nor much.” While that’s not exactly how the film plays out, you can definitely see the influence.

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Other stories might also be derived from this.

A lot of the quality in the film is the dialogue, most of which sounds like contemporary speech adapted into subject matter fit for the 1300s. It helps that everyone delivering the lines are all comic geniuses, but Jeff Baena, the writer/director/husband of Aubrey Plaza also does a good job of crafting anachronistic situations that are just farcical enough to work. Granted, a lot of the secret to the movie is that it is just 90 minutes. Any longer and the premise would completely have run out.

Every performance is great, but I do have to say that Fred Armisen’s inquisition scenes basically had me floored with his delivery and quips. If you don’t get into the movie, I’d recommend going ahead and fast-forwarding to that sequence just to enjoy 5 minutes of sheer madness.

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Overall, I liked this movie. Not loved, but liked for sure. What shocks me is that I hadn’t heard about it before now. Usually when something has a cast this good and I don’t hear about it, I have to assume that it was just that bad, but this actually got decent reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes the audience score isn’t great, but for a film like this that’s not surprising. It’s not going to be everyone’s taste, but if you like the people in it, you’ll probably enjoy it.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

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Netflix Review – Happy!: The Trippiest Thing on TV (Spoiler-Free)

Patton Oswalt plays a blue flying unicorn and Christopher Meloni plays an alcoholic hitman. This is truly the Golden Age of television.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni) is a former police officer who is now a hitman trying to drink himself into the grave. After killing a number of members of a mob family and learning a secret that puts him in danger, he’s approached by a small, blue, winged unicorn named Happy (Patton Oswalt) who tells him that he’s an imaginary friend to a girl named Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo) who was kidnapped by a man dressed as a Very Bad Santa (Joseph D. Reitman). Together, Nick and Happy deal with the mob, child abductors, and a psychotic Santa in order to rescue the little girl.

Happy! - Season 1
Yes, these are our heroes. Jackie Chan and Christ Tucker are nothing to them.

END SUMMARY

This show is so bananas is every way and it works perfectly.

Meloni may be best known for playing the angry, aggressive Det. Stabler on Law and Order: SVU, something he draws on at points for Nick Sax’s character, but he also has done a ton of solid comedy work when given the right script. He plays Gene in Wet Hot American Summer and Freak Show in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, for example. This show perfectly blends his talents together by having his character be angry and cynical, but also just a little insane at all times. Unlike many other series, his character really does change from episode to episode, either growing or regressing, but still maintains all of the traits that make him so interesting.

happy! - 2sax
He has the stare of a man who gave up on life an episode ago.

Happy, similarly, changes quite a bit over the series, mostly because he starts as a completely innocent creature thrown into one of the darkest corners of the world. Patton Oswalt was, therefore, one of the best casting choices you could make. Oswalt’s voice constantly seems to be slightly inherently upbeat, but can also deliver a tone of being beaten down or overwhelmed when he needs to. In contrast to the cynical Sax, Happy is a perpetual optimist that is slowly tortured by reality (and occasionally actually tortured). He’s constantly being dragged down by Sax, because that’s the only way he can get Sax to help Hailey, the girl he loves.

Happy! - 3Happy.png
I refuse to hear anything by Pharrell Williams right now.

The show involves a lot of interesting hidden worlds which are contained within the secret rooms of the normal world, ranging from the obscure to the supernatural. A lot of the humor in the series comes from characters from each area being forced to interact and watching how they respond to each other. The portrayals of the supporting characters are pretty great all around. 

happy! - 4santa
This guy will terrify you.

The writing is superb and it really needs to be to successfully maintain such an oddball premise. It was written by Grant Morrison, the comic book author famous for doing a lot of very imaginative adaptations such as All-Star Superman and a lot of meta-writing where he appears in the work such as Seven Soldiers. He’s also slightly off-kilter, believing that he once died and saw the fifth dimension and learned the true creation of the universe. Basically, he’s perfect for this series.

This is a dark comedy, about as dark as it gets and about as funny as it gets. I’m not going to pretend that it’s for everyone, but if you like the first 20 minutes, it only gets better from there. The first season is over and now available on Netflix, but there’s a second season on the way soon, so check it out!

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: An Comic Anthology of Death in the West

The Coen Brothers make a Western anthology film and remind us all that they are masters of dark comedy.

This is an anthology broken down into 6 different stories. Each one is a different type of Western and all of them are completely unrelated. So, I’ll do the breakdown and analysis of each one separately, then the overall review at the end with a ranking of the vignettes. Is this a lot of work? Yes, but this is the hobby I have chosen and I will not surrender. Since it’s so long, I’m splitting this into two reviews. Don’t like it? Well, neither do I, but I’m doing it.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

SUMMARY

Ballad - 1Buster.png
It’s impressive he keeps his outfit that white on a trail ride.

Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singer, a gambler, and a gunman with a cheerful disposition and a penchant for breaking the fourth wall. His well-spoken nature and disarming grin lead people to attempt to bully Buster, which usually leads to him effortlessly killing them. When Buster arrives at the town of Frenchman’s Gulch, he enters into a “gun free” saloon and tries to join a poker game that has just been abandoned. The other players say that they will only allow him to join if he plays the hand dealt to the player who just left: The Dead Man’s Hand. Buster refuses.

Ballad - 2DeadMansHand.png
So named because Wild Bill Hickok was killed while holding it. 

Another player named Çurly Joe (Clancy “Lex Kurgan” Brown), upon finding out Buster’s identity, draws a gun on him to collect Buster’s bounty, but Buster maneuvers him into shooting himself in the face multiple times. He then proceeds to sing a ballad about the departed “Surly Joe” to the delight of the other gamblers. Joe’s brother (Danny McCarthy) challenges Buster to a duel, somehow accusing Buster of ambushing Joe unawares. Buster agrees happily and then shoots the man’s fingers off his right hand. When he tries to draw lefty, Buster kills him with a single shot to the head while looking in a mirror.

Ballad - 3Duel.png
Well, now he’s just showing off. 

He’s about to sing a song about this duel, when he hears a harmonica playing. The Kid (Willie Watson), another singing gunman, comes into town, telling Buster that he aims to prove that he’s the best at songs and duels. Buster agrees to another duel, but is shocked to find that the young man is faster than he is and is shot dead. Buster, now ascending to heaven complete with angel wings and harp, sings a duet with The Kid about all the anger in the world and hope for a better world in the afterlife. The story closes with a page reading that there is a new Kid out there somewhere that’s going to one day meet The Kid, and that it’s a story that’ll be all new, but somehow still the same.

Ballad - 4Duet.png
I wonder if the Kid’ll start wearing white now.

END SUMMARY

This is a combination of the lone gunslinger Western and the musical Western, with Buster humorously being both the man who rides into town wearing iron and also the one who spontaneously leads the crowd into jaunty tunes. This combination probably best represents the Coen Brothers’ sense of humor. It’s a juxtaposition that goes against the standard formula for each type, with the gritty violence of a Sergio Leoni Western put into the Rodgers and Hammerstein world of Oklahoma. The closest thing I can think of prior to this is the Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin film Cat Ballou, but even that didn’t have the explicit violence of this film.

Ballad - 5Ballou.jpg
Btw, this is an amazing movie if you haven’t seen it.

Buster is an interesting character. He resents the fact that many of his nicknames are inaccurate or unflattering, particularly being called a “Misanthrope.” He tells the audience that he never hates his fellow man, because even when they’re surly or cheaters, that’s just part of the human condition and that anyone expecting better is just being foolish. What’s interesting is that this IS a form of misanthropy, believing that people are inherently lousy and that it’s irresponsible to believe that people should be better. This makes it all the more fitting when, having died, Buster’s wish is to go to a place where people just are better. Not a paradise, not a golden city, just a place where he doesn’t feel like he has to expect people to be bad.

Ballad - 6Poster.png
The truth hurts the most.

Willie Watson’s acting isn’t spectacular compared to the all-star cast of the film, but he is a fabulous singer and a perfect fit for his character. The duet at the end of the story is beautiful. I was really impressed with Tim Blake Nelson’s performance and the general quality of the music as well. Given that it was done by Carter Burwell who has done the music for every Coen Brothers movie, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

NEAR ALGODONES

SUMMARY

Ballad - 7Bank.png
Christ, this shot haunts me.

A Cowboy (James Franco) tries to rob a bank but is thwarted by the makeshift-armor-clad Teller (Stephen Root) who knocks him unconscious. He awakes to find himself sitting on his horse with a noose around his neck. He’s told by a lawman (Ralph Ineson) that he was tried by a jury and convicted and sentenced to death by hanging while he was unconscious. The execution is stopped by a group of Comanche warriors attacking the lawman’s posse and killing everyone but the Cowboy. He’s saved from hanging by a Drover (Jesse Luken) who shoots him down after accidentally making him swing for a minute or two. However, the Drover turns out to be a cattle rustler who abandons the Cowboy to be arrested for stealing cattle. The Cowboy is convicted and sentenced to death in less than a minute by a Judge (Michael Cullen). Before the Cowboy is sentenced to die, he spies a beautiful girl in a crowd and mutters “there’s a pretty girl” right before he’s hooded and dropped, killing him to applause.

Ballad - 8Hanging.png
The First Hanging.

END SUMMARY

This is a bank robbery Western, but with the heist going wrong immediately and more time dedicated to the comical circumstances of the would-be robber trying to avoid justice. Ultimately, the Cowboy actually suffers more from all of the events that lead to him from being hung than he would have if he just got crippled by the Teller.

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This is somehow not the craziest thing in this segment.

Franco’s general lack of concern about his welfare is one of the more humorous aspects of the portrayal. When he’s asked about last words, he just says that the Teller didn’t fight fair. When he’s brought to the final hanging, he sees a man crying next to him and just asks him “first time?” It’s just so straightforward and disinterested that it perfectly contrasts with the ridiculous things happening around him. It’s got a lot less in terms of actual events than some of the other vignettes, but that’s because a number of scenes drag out to torture the Cowboy and, to an extent, the audience.

Ballad - 9Hanging.png
He’s basically old hat at being hung by this point.

MEAL TICKET

SUMMARY

Ballad - BHarrison.png
More than the lack of limbs, it’s that he doesn’t speak except when performing that’s odd.

An Impresario (Liam Neeson) travels the West with a performer named Harrison (Harry “Hot Dursley” Melling) who doesn’t have any arms or legs. Harrison recites classical poetry, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” Shakespeare Sonnets, the Bible, and the Gettysburg Address. At first, the audience gives generously to the Impresario for the performance, but as he goes to increasingly remote camps and small towns the money starts to run thin. This is compounded by the fact that he has to do everything for Harrison, including helping him urinate. The Impresario starts drinking and whoring to try and ignore the issues, which naturally seems to make everything worse. After a particularly bad show netting them no money, the Impresario sees a show that’s gathering a crowd, revealed to be a chicken that can do math. The Impresario buys the chicken, keeping it in the back next to Harrison. As the cart passes by a bridge, the Impresario gets out and drops a stone to check the depth of the water. He walks back to Harrison smiling. The next shot shows the chicken alone in the back, Harrison presumably dead. If you read the page that quickly is turned as the story ends, it’s made explicit that the Impresario dropped the helpless actor into the water.

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This is the smile you get when he finds you after you kidnap his daughter.

END SUMMARY

This is a twist on the survival Western, occasionally nicknamed the NorthWestern, something Liam Neeson kind of already did a version of with his film The Grey. Unlike most Westerns where it’s the conflict between man and man outside of normal civilization that form the basis for the plot, the conflict in a survival Western is between the man and the elements. Similarly, while most Westerns are typically set in the summer to characterize the verdant wilderness, this vignette is set in the Winter to drive home the harsh conditions that Harrison and the Impresario are dealing with as they make their way. Ultimately, though, this becomes a different kind of survival issue in the end, when the Impresario realizes that Harrison is now a mouth to feed that isn’t paying his own way. Meal Ticket indeed.

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The pieces which Harrison recites are shown over and over again and most of them feed somewhat into the final act of the short. Sonnet 29 from Shakespeare is about a speaker who has been an outcast his entire life. Ozymandias’s famous last image is that of the lone and level sands of the desert sweeping away, showing that nothing remains of the once great empire of Ramses, similar to nothing remaining of Harrison’s performance. Cain and Abel from the Bible… well, that one seems pretty straightforward. I always appreciate when appropriate references are used.

ALL GOLD CANYON

SUMMARY

Ballad - EView.png
This shot courtesy of John Ford. If you don’t get that, watch The Searchers.

A grizzled Prospector (Tom “I’m also grizzled” Waits) makes his way along with his donkey to a beautiful valley with a river running through it. He begins to systematically hunt for gold, attempting to find the mother lode (yes, that’s the spelling), who he calls “Mr. Pocket.” For the most part, the story is just following the Prospector’s efforts as he works his way towards the goal. Eventually, he does find the pocket after digging a giant hole.

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Delighted as you would expect.

However, right as he uncovers it and celebrates, a shadow falls over him. It turns out that a Young Man (Sam Dillon) has been following the Prospector and waiting to jump his claim after he did all of the work. The Young Man shoots the older one then smokes a cigarette before jumping in the hole to move the body. However, the Prospector is revealed to be alive, wrestles the gun away from the Young Man and shoots him to death. At the end, the Prospector buries the Young Man in the hole as “his share” and then makes his way back to civilization with his bags of hard-won riches.

Ballad - HShot.png
At least one person threatened to turn the movie off if he died here, that I know of.

END SUMMARY

I’ve seen jokes online about the idea that Tom Waits wasn’t cast for this role, he just surreptitiously appeared out of a tumbleweed when the Coens were discussing the idea of having an elderly Prospector as the focus for a short. I completely believe that. He’s so perfect in this role that I’m not sure I can think of anyone else playing the character. Really, he’s the reason why this segment works at all, because it takes a hell of a performance to captivate an audience when you’re the only thing on screen.

ballad - fpanning
Tom Waits didn’t know he was being filmed during this part.

This is a Western story that’s usually the B-plot in a movie, because it’d be hard to make it into the focus. It’s the Gold Rush (which, while that is a movie, is not a Western). It’s the man out there betting his life on acquiring the fortune that he believes was owed to him. However, and perhaps all too realistically, when he’s done all the work, someone is there to just take it from him and render all of his efforts meaningless. This seems like a shot at the dark reality of the American Myth of Hard Work: Someone out there is always waiting to steal it.

THE GAL WHO GOT RATTLED

SUMMARY

Ballad - IShot.png
This was filmed with the American Gothic filter.

Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) are setting off via a wagon train towards Oregon where Gilbert has arranged for Alice to be married to a business associate in exchange for employment opportunities. Shortly after they leave, however, Gilbert dies of Cholera, leaving Alice uncertain of what is going to happen when they get to Oregon. She soon discovers that they buried Gilbert with all of his money, leaving her no ability to pay the boy that Gilbert promised an exorbitant amount to drive the wagon. She seeks help from one of the wagon train’s leaders, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), and his associate Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). Billy asks for time to contemplate the situation, but also agrees to help Alice by scaring off her brother’s annoying dog President Pierce who had been upsetting the other travelers.

Ballad - JBillyKnapp.png
He’s surprisingly well-bathed for a guy on a wagon train. Just saying.

As Billy Knapp and Alice talk, they begin to grow fond of one another. Billy agrees to help Alice’s predicament by offering to marry her and assume Gilbert’s debt to the boy. She happily agrees. Billy informs Mr. Arthur that he plans to retire from leading wagon trains and will instead choose to farm in Oregon. Mr. Arthur seems unaffected by this. The next morning, Mr. Arthur cannot find Alice, so he rides off to find her watching over the returned President Pierce playing with some prairie dogs. Unfortunately, they’re immediately found by a Comanche scout and a raiding party is soon approaching the pair. Mr. Arthur thinks he can scare them off, but gives Alice a gun to kill herself in case the situation seems hopeless. Mr. Arthur successfully kills a number of the raiders, including the leader, but is hit by an attack from a hidden enemy at the very end, seemingly knocking him unconscious. He reveals this to be a ruse and shoots the last attacker, only to find that Alice, believing the attack killed Mr. Arthur, shot herself. He takes the dog back to the wagon train, observing Billy riding towards him, and has no idea what to tell Billy Knapp.

Ballad - KAliceDead.png
I’m surprised her eyes aren’t closed. Really a detail that I can’t quite figure out.

END SUMMARY

This is probably the most traditional Western in the series. It’s a love story told during a wagon train. Billy Knapp is the archetype of the hard-riding cowboy who still has the heart of a romantic. He’s not well-spoken, but he is extremely formal when addressing Alice. He doesn’t seem to talk with her much, but they both seem to recognize the subtext in what each one is saying, something that’s typical of romance in the Western genre. Hell, in Unforgiven, William Munn’s wife is dead for the entire time, but his speaking of her and her impact on his life completely conveys their love story.

Ballad - MAlice.png
It’s also that the first happiness she conveys is when she’s with him.

Mr. Arthur is the veteran trailblazer who doesn’t express his emotions. For the most part, he seems to not care about anything right up until the end, where he becomes despondent over the fact that Alice has killed herself. It’s not certain whether it’s the fact that her death was needless, or perhaps he blames himself, or if it’s the fact that his best friend has now lost the woman he loved, but he clearly is broken up over it. Given that the story explicitly states that he’s unsure of what he’s going to say to Billy Knapp, I’m inclined to say it’s the latter.

ballad - lmrarthur
To have worked so hard and still lost. I think Hines nailed this look.

It’s really the insertion of some difficult reality into such a romantic story that provides the dark comedy, and it is very dark, element, though this probably has the fewest humorous points of any of the stories. Gilbert’s abrupt death is the most prominent example, dropping from cholera in a few hours. The cut used to show the suddenness is a comic beat, even though it’s later the source of drama. The ending, likewise, almost has a comedy rhythm to the revelation, delivering her death as a grim punchline to the situation. It’s pretty much the Coen Brothers’ wheelhouse.

THE MORTAL REMAINS

SUMMARY

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This is when the lights start leaving.

Five people are sharing a twilight coach ride together towards Fort Morgan, Colorado. They consist of René, a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Thigpen, an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), Clarence, an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly), and an unnamed Trapper (Chelcie Ross). The five attempt conversation to pass the time, with Thigpen and Clarence saying that they often travel this route with “cargo,” implied to be dead bodies, one of which they have on the roof. For the others it’s their first time, with Mrs. Betjeman planning on reuniting with her husband at the destination.

Ballad - OThigpenClarence.png
They clearly love what they do.

The Trapper, a boisterous man, starts to tell about his previous life with a Native American woman who didn’t speak his language, but with whom he still lived for several years based on body language and facial cues. The Trapper concludes that most people are alike in their needs, saying that humans are basically like ferrets or beavers, all the same everywhere. Everyone else starts to relay their philosophies on life. Mrs. Betjeman says that there are two kinds of people: Upright and sinning. René says that no person can know another, with everyone having to “play their own hand.” He also implies that she cannot know that her husband still loves her now, because she hasn’t seen him in 3 years. This renders her in an apoplectic state, but when René tries to stop the coach, the Coachman appears unable to hear him. Thigpen tells them that the Coachman never stops. To calm the mood, Clarence sings “The Unfortunate Rake.”

Ballad - PCoachman.png
Faceless black clad guy who doesn’t appear to hear commands to stop? Hint.

Thigpen and Clarence then reveal themselves to be Reapers, something that the Trapper interprets as being bounty hunters. Thigpen tells them that he distracts people with a song (as he was singing as the sun set) or a story and Clarence “thumps” them. He says that the key is that the people in the story are “us” but “not us.” He mentions loving watching the eyes of the dying as they try to work out how the whole thing works, but gives a seemingly insincere answer when asked if anyone ever works it out. They then arrive at Fort Morgan’s hotel, the Reapers entering immediately, the other three following cautiously. The Trapper and Mrs. Betjeman enters, the latter saying that her husband is waiting. René watches the coachman go out to pick up more passengers, looking beaten, before finally putting on his hat, accepting his fate, and entering the hotel. The story ends with the line “the Trapper, who had spoken so many words and for so long, no longer had use for them. He settled in for a long quiet.”

Ballad - QHotel.png
It’s night and none of the lights here are that bright. I wonder what illuminates the upstairs?

END SUMMARY

This is both the most allegorical story in the collection and also the one that’s most obviously expressive of the theme of the film.

At first, when there is light on the ride, it appears that this is just a group of people heading towards a destination. However, as darkness falls, it becomes apparent that these people aren’t heading for Fort Morgan at all. They’re all dead and heading for the afterlife. That’s what makes the conversations so important. Each of these people have a different point of view of the world: The Trapper thinks all people are alike, the lady thinks all people are either dedicated to virtue or damned, and the Frenchman thinks that no human can ever understand another. Despite this, they’re all going to the same place in the end. Death doesn’t care about your philosophy, it’s going to come and, like the Coachman, it’s never going to stop. You can do whatever you want to rationalize it, but it’s always how the story ends.

Ballad - RCoach.png
It literally is the Coachman that ends the story. I F*CKING LOVE THAT.

I think the most surprising part for me is Brendan Gleeson’s wonderful rendition of “The Unfortunate Rake.” It’s probably better known as the Country Folk Song “Streets of Laredo,” which has been covered dozens of times, but that’s sort of the point of the song. The story changes over time with each player and each singer, but the ending is always the same. That said, I think that the version Gleeson sings, which is about a man dying from getting an STD from a woman and regretting that he hadn’t listened to his father about how his wicked behaviors would cut him down in his prime, was an interesting choice. I imagine they chose it because it’s a particularly tragic and, by modern sensibilities, unearned death.

FILM ANALYSIS

It’s about Death.

In every story, the main character is someone who is dead but doesn’t realize it yet. Buster says he should have seen it coming because he tried to stay top dog and invited challenge. The Cowboy in “Near Algodones” was doomed to be hanged, even if he managed to avoid the first noose. Harrison had been saved from death by the Impresario when he was younger, only for that same man to later revoke that gift. The Prospector should have died, but it turns out that when the Young Man jumped his claim, he apparently claimed his death for his own. Alice Longabaugh sadly was doomed never to find a husband, whether it be the one her brother chose or the one she chose herself. Each of the characters in the coach is already dead, only realizing it part of the way during the journey (although the Trapper might not have really grasped it until the very end).

The Western setting for each story works because a huge part of the myth (and reality) of the West is that it was filled with death and danger. In these stories we have death due to duel, we have death by execution, death by murder, death by suicide, and… well, just death. The West is filled with the stuff. Think about how many people John Wayne killed and he was a hero. Death was just an accepted risk there. That’s why it’s so much easier for the Coens to make a comedy about death among that setting. They also were able to present so many more variants around a common theme because that’s what we do with Westerns.

I’ve actually had to re-think things while writing this, so my ranking of the segments has probably changed as I went. Ultimately, I think I’d put them like this:

  1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

  2. All Gold Canyon

  3. The Mortal Remains

  4. Near Algodones

  5. The Gal Who Got Rattled

  6. Meal Ticket

That being said, all of these shorts are excellent and I applaud Netflix for giving the Coens the opportunity to try this kind of movie. I don’t know if this is the best Coen Brothers movie (actually, I do know, it’s not), but it’s definitely a great film.  

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Comic Anthology of Death in the West (Part 2)

Check out yesterday for part 1.

ALL GOLD CANYON

SUMMARY

Ballad - EView.png
This shot courtesy of John Ford. If you don’t get that, watch The Searchers.

A grizzled Prospector (Tom “I’m also grizzled” Waits) makes his way along with his donkey to a beautiful valley with a river running through it. He begins to systematically hunt for gold, attempting to find the mother lode (yes, that’s the spelling), who he calls “Mr. Pocket.” For the most part, the story is just following the Prospector’s efforts as he works his way towards the goal. Eventually, he does find the pocket after digging a giant hole.

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Delighted as you would expect.

However, right as he uncovers it and celebrates, a shadow falls over him. It turns out that a Young Man (Sam Dillon) has been following the Prospector and waiting to jump his claim after he did all of the work. The Young Man shoots the older one then smokes a cigarette before jumping in the hole to move the body. However, the Prospector is revealed to be alive, wrestles the gun away from the Young Man and shoots him to death. At the end, the Prospector buries the Young Man in the hole as “his share” and then makes his way back to civilization with his bags of hard-won riches.

Ballad - HShot.png
At least one person threatened to turn the movie off if he died here, that I know of.

END SUMMARY

I’ve seen jokes online about the idea that Tom Waits wasn’t cast for this role, he just surreptitiously appeared out of a tumbleweed when the Coens were discussing the idea of having an elderly Prospector as the focus for a short. I completely believe that. He’s so perfect in this role that I’m not sure I can think of anyone else playing the character. Really, he’s the reason why this segment works at all, because it takes a hell of a performance to captivate an audience when you’re the only thing on screen.

ballad - fpanning
Tom Waits didn’t know he was being filmed during this part.

This is a Western story that’s usually the B-plot in a movie, because it’d be hard to make it into the focus. It’s the Gold Rush (which, while that is a movie, is not a Western). It’s the man out there betting his life on acquiring the fortune that he believes was owed to him. However, and perhaps all too realistically, when he’s done all the work, someone is there to just take it from him and render all of his efforts meaningless. This seems like a shot at the dark reality of the American Myth of Hard Work: Someone out there is always waiting to steal it.

THE GAL WHO GOT RATTLED

SUMMARY

Ballad - IShot.png
This was filmed with the American Gothic filter.

Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) are setting off via a wagon train towards Oregon where Gilbert has arranged for Alice to be married to a business associate in exchange for employment opportunities. Shortly after they leave, however, Gilbert dies of Cholera, leaving Alice uncertain of what is going to happen when they get to Oregon. She soon discovers that they buried Gilbert with all of his money, leaving her no ability to pay the boy that Gilbert promised an exorbitant amount to drive the wagon. She seeks help from one of the wagon train’s leaders, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), and his associate Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). Billy asks for time to contemplate the situation, but also agrees to help Alice by scaring off her brother’s annoying dog President Pierce who had been upsetting the other travelers.

Ballad - JBillyKnapp.png
He’s surprisingly well-bathed for a guy on a wagon train. Just saying.

As Billy Knapp and Alice talk, they begin to grow fond of one another. Billy agrees to help Alice’s predicament by offering to marry her and assume Gilbert’s debt to the boy. She happily agrees. Billy informs Mr. Arthur that he plans to retire from leading wagon trains and will instead choose to farm in Oregon. Mr. Arthur seems unaffected by this. The next morning, Mr. Arthur cannot find Alice, so he rides off to find her watching over the returned President Pierce playing with some prairie dogs. Unfortunately, they’re immediately found by a Comanche scout and a raiding party is soon approaching the pair. Mr. Arthur thinks he can scare them off, but gives Alice a gun to kill herself in case the situation seems hopeless. Mr. Arthur successfully kills a number of the raiders, including the leader, but is hit by an attack from a hidden enemy at the very end, seemingly knocking him unconscious. He reveals this to be a ruse and shoots the last attacker, only to find that Alice, believing the attack killed Mr. Arthur, shot herself. He takes the dog back to the wagon train, observing Billy riding towards him, and has no idea what to tell Billy Knapp.

Ballad - KAliceDead.png
I’m surprised her eyes aren’t closed. Really a detail that I can’t quite figure out.

END SUMMARY

This is probably the most traditional Western in the series. It’s a love story told during a wagon train. Billy Knapp is the archetype of the hard-riding cowboy who still has the heart of a romantic. He’s not well-spoken, but he is extremely formal when addressing Alice. He doesn’t seem to talk with her much, but they both seem to recognize the subtext in what each one is saying, something that’s typical of romance in the Western genre. Hell, in Unforgiven, William Munn’s wife is dead for the entire time, but his speaking of her and her impact on his life completely conveys their love story.

Ballad - MAlice.png
It’s also that the first happiness she conveys is when she’s with him.

Mr. Arthur is the veteran trailblazer who doesn’t express his emotions. For the most part, he seems to not care about anything right up until the end, where he becomes despondent over the fact that Alice has killed herself. It’s not certain whether it’s the fact that her death was needless, or perhaps he blames himself, or if it’s the fact that his best friend has now lost the woman he loved, but he clearly is broken up over it. Given that the story explicitly states that he’s unsure of what he’s going to say to Billy Knapp, I’m inclined to say it’s the latter.

ballad - lmrarthur
To have worked so hard and still lost. I think Hines nailed this look.

It’s really the insertion of some difficult reality into such a romantic story that provides the dark comedy, and it is very dark, element, though this probably has the fewest humorous points of any of the stories. Gilbert’s abrupt death is the most prominent example, dropping from cholera in a few hours. The cut used to show the suddenness is a comic beat, even though it’s later the source of drama. The ending, likewise, almost has a comedy rhythm to the revelation, delivering her death as a grim punchline to the situation. It’s pretty much the Coen Brothers’ wheelhouse.

THE MORTAL REMAINS

SUMMARY

Ballad - NCarriage.png
This is when the lights start leaving.

Five people are sharing a twilight coach ride together towards Fort Morgan, Colorado. They consist of René, a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Thigpen, an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), Clarence, an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly), and an unnamed Trapper (Chelcie Ross). The five attempt conversation to pass the time, with Thigpen and Clarence saying that they often travel this route with “cargo,” implied to be dead bodies, one of which they have on the roof. For the others it’s their first time, with Mrs. Betjeman planning on reuniting with her husband at the destination.

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They clearly love what they do.

The Trapper, a boisterous man, starts to tell about his previous life with a Native American woman who didn’t speak his language, but with whom he still lived for several years based on body language and facial cues. The Trapper concludes that most people are alike in their needs, saying that humans are basically like ferrets or beavers, all the same everywhere. Everyone else starts to relay their philosophies on life. Mrs. Betjeman says that there are two kinds of people: Upright and sinning. René says that no person can know another, with everyone having to “play their own hand.” He also implies that she cannot know that her husband still loves her now, because she hasn’t seen him in 3 years. This renders her in an apoplectic state, but when René tries to stop the coach, the Coachman appears unable to hear him. Thigpen tells them that the Coachman never stops. To calm the mood, Clarence sings “The Unfortunate Rake.”

Ballad - PCoachman.png
Faceless black clad guy who doesn’t appear to hear commands to stop? Hint.

Thigpen and Clarence then reveal themselves to be Reapers, something that the Trapper interprets as being bounty hunters. Thigpen tells them that he distracts people with a song (as he was singing as the sun set) or a story and Clarence “thumps” them. He says that the key is that the people in the story are “us” but “not us.” He mentions loving watching the eyes of the dying as they try to work out how the whole thing works, but gives a seemingly insincere answer when asked if anyone ever works it out. They then arrive at Fort Morgan’s hotel, the Reapers entering immediately, the other three following cautiously. The Trapper and Mrs. Betjeman enters, the latter saying that her husband is waiting. René watches the coachman go out to pick up more passengers, looking beaten, before finally putting on his hat, accepting his fate, and entering the hotel. The story ends with the line “the Trapper, who had spoken so many words and for so long, no longer had use for them. He settled in for a long quiet.”

Ballad - QHotel.png
It’s night and none of the lights here are that bright. I wonder what illuminates the upstairs?

END SUMMARY

This is both the most allegorical story in the collection and also the one that’s most obviously expressive of the theme of the film.

At first, when there is light on the ride, it appears that this is just a group of people heading towards a destination. However, as darkness falls, it becomes apparent that these people aren’t heading for Fort Morgan at all. They’re all dead and heading for the afterlife. That’s what makes the conversations so important. Each of these people have a different point of view of the world: The Trapper thinks all people are alike, the lady thinks all people are either dedicated to virtue or damned, and the Frenchman thinks that no human can ever understand another. Despite this, they’re all going to the same place in the end. Death doesn’t care about your philosophy, it’s going to come and, like the Coachman, it’s never going to stop. You can do whatever you want to rationalize it, but it’s always how the story ends.

Ballad - RCoach.png
It literally is the Coachman that ends the story. I F*CKING LOVE THAT.

I think the most surprising part for me is Brendan Gleeson’s wonderful rendition of “The Unfortunate Rake.” It’s probably better known as the Country Folk Song “Streets of Laredo,” which has been covered dozens of times, but that’s sort of the point of the song. The story changes over time with each player and each singer, but the ending is always the same. That said, I think that the version Gleeson sings, which is about a man dying from getting an STD from a woman and regretting that he hadn’t listened to his father about how his wicked behaviors would cut him down in his prime, was an interesting choice. I imagine they chose it because it’s a particularly tragic and, by modern sensibilities, unearned death.

FILM ANALYSIS

It’s about Death.

In every story, the main character is someone who is dead but doesn’t realize it yet. Buster says he should have seen it coming because he tried to stay top dog and invited challenge. The Cowboy in “Near Algodones” was doomed to be hanged, even if he managed to avoid the first noose. Harrison had been saved from death by the Impresario when he was younger, only for that same man to later revoke that gift. The Prospector should have died, but it turns out that when the Young Man jumped his claim, he apparently claimed his death for his own. Alice Longabaugh sadly was doomed never to find a husband, whether it be the one her brother chose or the one she chose herself. Each of the characters in the coach is already dead, only realizing it part of the way during the journey (although the Trapper might not have really grasped it until the very end).

The Western setting for each story works because a huge part of the myth (and reality) of the West is that it was filled with death and danger. In these stories we have death due to duel, we have death by execution, death by murder, death by suicide, and… well, just death. The West is filled with the stuff. Think about how many people John Wayne killed and he was a hero. Death was just an accepted risk there. That’s why it’s so much easier for the Coens to make a comedy about death among that setting. They also were able to present so many more variants around a common theme because that’s what we do with Westerns.

I’ve actually had to re-think things while writing this, so my ranking of the segments has probably changed as I went. Ultimately, I think I’d put them like this:

  1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

  2. All Gold Canyon

  3. The Mortal Remains

  4. Near Algodones

  5. The Gal Who Got Rattled

  6. Meal Ticket

That being said, all of these shorts are excellent and I applaud Netflix for giving the Coens the opportunity to try this kind of movie. I don’t know if this is the best Coen Brothers movie (actually, I do know, it’s not), but it’s definitely a great film.  

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Comic Anthology of Death in the West (Part 1)

The Coen Brothers make a Western anthology film and remind us all that they are masters of dark comedy.

This is an anthology broken down into 6 different stories. Each one is a different type of Western and all of them are completely unrelated. So, I’ll do the breakdown and analysis of each one separately, then the overall review at the end with a ranking of the vignettes. Is this a lot of work? Yes, but this is the hobby I have chosen and I will not surrender. Since it’s so long, I’m splitting this into two reviews. Don’t like it? Well, neither do I, but I’m doing it.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

SUMMARY

Ballad - 1Buster.png
It’s impressive he keeps his outfit that white on a trail ride.

Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singer, a gambler, and a gunman with a cheerful disposition and a penchant for breaking the fourth wall. His well-spoken nature and disarming grin lead people to attempt to bully Buster, which usually leads to him effortlessly killing them. When Buster arrives at the town of Frenchman’s Gulch, he enters into a “gun free” saloon and tries to join a poker game that has just been abandoned. The other players say that they will only allow him to join if he plays the hand dealt to the player who just left: The Dead Man’s Hand. Buster refuses.

Ballad - 2DeadMansHand.png
So named because Wild Bill Hickok was killed while holding it.

Another player named Çurly Joe (Clancy “Lex Kurgan” Brown), upon finding out Buster’s identity, draws a gun on him to collect Buster’s bounty, but Buster maneuvers him into shooting himself in the face multiple times. He then proceeds to sing a ballad about the departed “Surly Joe” to the delight of the other gamblers. Joe’s brother (Danny McCarthy) challenges Buster to a duel, somehow accusing Buster of ambushing Joe unawares. Buster agrees happily and then shoots the man’s fingers off his right hand. When he tries to draw lefty, Buster kills him with a single shot to the head while looking in a mirror.

Ballad - 3Duel.png
Well, now he’s just showing off.

He’s about to sing a song about this duel, when he hears a harmonica playing. The Kid (Willie Watson), another singing gunman, comes into town, telling Buster that he aims to prove that he’s the best at songs and duels. Buster agrees to another duel, but is shocked to find that the young man is faster than he is and is shot dead. Buster, now ascending to heaven complete with angel wings and harp, sings a duet with The Kid about all the anger in the world and hope for a better world in the afterlife. The story closes with a page reading that there is a new Kid out there somewhere that’s going to one day meet The Kid, and that it’s a story that’ll be all new, but somehow still the same.

Ballad - 4Duet.png
I wonder if the Kid’ll start wearing white now.

END SUMMARY

This is a combination of the lone gunslinger Western and the musical Western, with Buster humorously being both the man who rides into town wearing iron and also the one who spontaneously leads the crowd into jaunty tunes. This combination probably best represents the Coen Brothers’ sense of humor. It’s a juxtaposition that goes against the standard formula for each type, with the gritty violence of a Sergio Leoni Western put into the Rodgers and Hammerstein world of Oklahoma. The closest thing I can think of prior to this is the Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin film Cat Ballou, but even that didn’t have the explicit violence of this film.

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Btw, this is an amazing movie if you haven’t seen it.

 

Buster is an interesting character. He resents the fact that many of his nicknames are inaccurate or unflattering, particularly being called a “Misanthrope.” He tells the audience that he never hates his fellow man, because even when they’re surly or cheaters, that’s just part of the human condition and that anyone expecting better is just being foolish. What’s interesting is that this IS a form of misanthropy, believing that people are inherently lousy and that it’s irresponsible to believe that people should be better. This makes it all the more fitting when, having died, Buster’s wish is to go to a place where people just are better. Not a paradise, not a golden city, just a place where he doesn’t feel like he has to expect people to be bad.

Ballad - 6Poster.png
The truth hurts the most.

Willie Watson’s acting isn’t spectacular compared to the all-star cast of the film, but he is a fabulous singer and a perfect fit for his character. The duet at the end of the story is beautiful. I was really impressed with Tim Blake Nelson’s performance and the general quality of the music as well. Given that it was done by Carter Burwell who has done the music for every Coen Brothers movie, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

NEAR ALGODONES

SUMMARY

Ballad - 7Bank.png
Christ, this shot haunts me.

A Cowboy (James Franco) tries to rob a bank but is thwarted by the makeshift-armor-clad Teller (Stephen Root) who knocks him unconscious. He awakes to find himself sitting on his horse with a noose around his neck. He’s told by a lawman (Ralph Ineson) that he was tried by a jury and convicted and sentenced to death by hanging while he was unconscious. The execution is stopped by a group of Comanche warriors attacking the lawman’s posse and killing everyone but the Cowboy. He’s saved from hanging by a Drover (Jesse Luken) who shoots him down after accidentally making him swing for a minute or two. However, the Drover turns out to be a cattle rustler who abandons the Cowboy to be arrested for stealing cattle. The Cowboy is convicted and sentenced to death in less than a minute by a Judge (Michael Cullen). Before the Cowboy is sentenced to die, he spies a beautiful girl in a crowd and mutters “there’s a pretty girl” right before he’s hooded and dropped, killing him to applause.

Ballad - 8Hanging.png
The First Hanging.

END SUMMARY

This is a bank robbery Western, but with the heist going wrong immediately and more time dedicated to the comical circumstances of the would-be robber trying to avoid justice. Ultimately, the Cowboy actually suffers more from all of the events that lead to him from being hung than he would have if he just got crippled by the Teller.

Ballad - APanShot.png
This is somehow not the craziest thing in this segment.

Franco’s general lack of concern about his welfare is one of the more humorous aspects of the portrayal. When he’s asked about last words, he just says that the Teller didn’t fight fair. When he’s brought to the final hanging, he sees a man crying next to him and just asks him “first time?” It’s just so straightforward and disinterested that it perfectly contrasts with the ridiculous things happening around him. It’s got a lot less in terms of actual events than some of the other vignettes, but that’s because a number of scenes drag out to torture the Cowboy and, to an extent, the audience.

Ballad - 9Hanging.png
He’s basically old hat at being hung by this point.

MEAL TICKET

SUMMARY

Ballad - BHarrison.png
More than the lack of limbs, it’s that he doesn’t speak except when performing that’s odd.

An Impresario (Liam Neeson) travels the West with a performer named Harrison (Harry “Hot Dursley” Melling) who doesn’t have any arms or legs. Harrison recites classical poetry, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” Shakespeare Sonnets, the Bible, and the Gettysburg Address. At first, the audience gives generously to the Impresario for the performance, but as he goes to increasingly remote camps and small towns the money starts to run thin. This is compounded by the fact that he has to do everything for Harrison, including helping him urinate. The Impresario starts drinking and whoring to try and ignore the issues, which naturally seems to make everything worse. After a particularly bad show netting them no money, the Impresario sees a show that’s gathering a crowd, revealed to be a chicken that can do math. The Impresario buys the chicken, keeping it in the back next to Harrison. As the cart passes by a bridge, the Impresario gets out and drops a stone to check the depth of the water. He walks back to Harrison smiling. The next shot shows the chicken alone in the back, Harrison presumably dead. If you read the page that quickly is turned as the story ends, it’s made explicit that the Impresario dropped the helpless actor into the water.

Ballad - CSmile.png
This is the smile you get when he finds you after you kidnap his daughter.

END SUMMARY

This is a twist on the survival Western, occasionally nicknamed the NorthWestern, something Liam Neeson kind of already did a version of with his film The Grey. Unlike most Westerns where it’s the conflict between man and man outside of normal civilization that form the basis for the plot, the conflict in a survival Western is between the man and the elements. Similarly, while most Westerns are typically set in the summer to characterize the verdant wilderness, this vignette is set in the Winter to drive home the harsh conditions that Harrison and the Impresario are dealing with as they make their way. Ultimately, though, this becomes a different kind of survival issue in the end, when the Impresario realizes that Harrison is now a mouth to feed that isn’t paying his own way. Meal Ticket indeed.

Ballad - DHarrison.png

The pieces which Harrison recites are shown over and over again and most of them feed somewhat into the final act of the short. Sonnet 29 from Shakespeare is about a speaker who has been an outcast his entire life. Ozymandias’s famous last image is that of the lone and level sands of the desert sweeping away, showing that nothing remains of the once great empire of Ramses, similar to nothing remaining of Harrison’s performance. Cain and Abel from the Bible… well, that one seems pretty straightforward. I always appreciate when appropriate references are used.

That’s it for part one, see you tomorrow for the other half.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Futurama Fridays – S2 E12 “The Deep South”

The Planet Express Crew takes a trip to the South’s best-kept secret.

SUMMARY

Due to a mix-up by Hermes (Phil LaMarr), Planet Express receives a mandatory fishing license, so everyone heads to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the ship and starts fishing. Eventually, Bender (John DiMaggio) uses the unbreakable diamond tether on the ship’s winch to try and catch a big fish. He hooks a colossal-mouth bass which is larger than their craft and it starts dragging them to the bottom of the ocean, about 3 miles deep, before getting off the line. The ship doesn’t work underwater, so the Professor (Billy West) and Leela (Katey Sagal) set about fixing the engines while Bender, Zoidberg (West), and Fry (West) go along the ocean floor to find food. Fry is only able to survive due to a suppository from the Professor that counteracts the pressure.

S2EC - 1Harpoon.png
This is also the first time we see Leela’s Harpoon which does, eventually, recur.

While exploring, Fry comes across a mermaid named Umbriel (Parker Posey) who starts to flirt with Fry, but no one believes him when he says he saw her. Later, Umbriel comes to the ship and takes Fry on a date. The two fall in love while doing underwater activities. The ship gets fixed, but Fry is still gone, so everyone heads to look for him. They’re shocked when they find out that they’re in the ruins of the city of Atlanta.

S2EC - 2FryPeek.png
I’m pretty sure he’s checking out her rack in this shot.

It’s revealed that Atlanta was moved to an island as a way to improve commerce, but the city grew too large and sank. Many of the inhabitants remained and, with the help of Coca-Cola, mutated into merfolk. Fry chooses to stay behind with Umbriel, rather than go back to the surface, but quickly changes his mind when it’s revealed that having the bottom half of a fish means she mates like a fish. Fry manages to make it back to the surface inside of the colossal-mouth bass, which Bender has caught again.

S2EC - 3PromoVideo.png
Look, I’m not pointing out that there’s only one black person in this tourism video, but…

END SUMMARY

I wasn’t in the room when this plot was pitched, but I have to believe that it was conceived by someone making a joke about the song “Atlantis” by Donovan. It’s such a ridiculous idea that it’s kind of inherently funny and  the parody of the song is probably the most solid joke within the episode.

S2EC - 4Donovan.png
Donovan seemed to tack Jane Fonda on. Clearly, she saw the divorce coming.

Umbriel is one of the more remarkable of Fry’s relationships, not just because she’s a mermaid, but because she’s pretty much the only one that Fry actually breaks up with. Technically, he breaks up with Morgan in the previous episode, but she also was basically out of the relationship before that happened. In this case, we don’t actually see it, but it’s pretty likely that Fry did, in fact, tell Umbriel that he wasn’t ready to try and fertilize a clutch of fish eggs. Somehow, though, they avoided making a joke about the fact that fish eggs that have recently hatched are called “Fry.” I don’t know what the joke would be, but it’s there somewhere.

S2EC - 5Bra.png
Looks like a Sea-cup.

Umbriel’s name is a reference to Ariel from The Little Mermaid, which probably surprises no one, but it derives from the fact that Umbriel and Ariel are both names of moons of Uranus. If that doesn’t surprise you, congrats on being Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The version of Atlanta that we see isn’t particularly accurate to the actual urban Atlanta area, but instead is a parody of the rural antebellum South… despite also having futuristic technology. The Colonel (David Herman) is probably the most extreme example, who leads Bender to hum “Dueling Banjos.”

S2EC - 6Colonel.png
He makes good fried seahorse.

FAVORITE JOKE

While underwater, Doctor Zoidberg finds an empty giant shell and decides to make it his home. Later, when the crew is leaving, Zoidberg finds out that he can’t stay because his shell has burned down, despite the fact that A) shells don’t burn well and B) THEY’RE UNDERWATER. He questions how it could have happened, something that Hermes says is a very good question. In response, Bender finds the cigar he left in Zoidberg’s house and smokes it, something that Hermes says raises even further questions, because they’re still underwater.

S2EC - 7ZoidbergHome.png

This scene is so absurd that it’s actually the page quote on TV Tropes for “Voodoo Shark.” A Voodoo Shark is when you try to explain a plot hole, but the explanation actually creates a way bigger plot hole. The term comes from the novelization of Jaws: The Revenge which tried to explain away the fact that sharks shouldn’t be capable of revenge plots by saying that the Brody family had been cursed by a Voodoo Shaman. What it doesn’t tell you is why the shaman would do that, how that gave the shark the ability to swim from New England to the bahamas as fast as a plane flies there, and, oh yeah, when the hell did Jaws involve magic? This episode takes that exact same concept, but instead plays it for laughs, never even trying to give an explanation that makes sense.

S2EC - 8Cigar.png
Hermes is having none of this.

Overall, solid episode, but it’s pretty shallow in terms of themes. A lot of it is just playing on the image of Southern Stereotypes with fish bodies. Fortunately, that was funny enough to keep me watching.

Well, that’s it for this week.

See you next week, meatbags.

PREVIOUS – Episode 24: How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back

NEXT – Episode 26: Bender Gets Made

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – A Series of Unfortunate Events (Spoiler-Free)

Netflix spent three seasons adapting one of the most dark and interesting children’s series ever written.

SUMMARY

A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the lives of the three Baudelaire Orphans: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith/Tara Strong). Violet is a brilliant inventor and engineer, Klaus is a polymath with a love of reading, and Sunny… is a baby that bites things hard. After their parents are killed in a fire, the three are sent to live with their distant relative, the evil Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a terrible actor who would never have been allowed to play Doogie Howser. Throughout the series, the Baudelaires try to find a place to hide safely from Count Olaf and his troupe of evil actors while making their way through the macabre world in which the series is set. All of the events are narrated from the future by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton).

asoue - 1cast
Real talk: Why is it so hard to get cast photos lately?

END SUMMARY

The series is basically divided into two types of adventures: Either the children are taken in by an eccentric/flat-out insane caretaker and attacked by a disguised Olaf or they’re on the run from Olaf and forced to hide in some insane location. The key is that nothing in this world quite operates on real logic, instead operating on the principle that basically everyone is off-kilter and, in most cases, anachronistic. The main characters are often the only sane people within any situation, pointing out that what most of the supporting characters are doing is either stupid or crazy, but, being children, they’re constantly ignored.

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Running gag is that these disguises actually fool people.

The setting for the series is intensely gothic, much in the style of Tim Burton or Barry Sonnenfeld… but more the latter because he’s the one that produces the show. Colors are largely muted, buildings tend to be in the gothic style, and the music often is best described as “eerie as hell.” The time-period for the series is completely nonsensical, with black-and-white movies and telegraph lines being commonplace, while also having jokes about streaming internet services.

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Every building in the show was designed by Edgar Allen Poe.

The tone is one of the darkest forms of comedy that you can put in a show ostensibly for children. People die frequently in this show, often in horrifying ways, and yet the spin on their deaths is usually very comical, because most of the characters refuse to react to death rationally. It also helps that Lemony Snicket is constantly adding levity and sarcasm into the series by addressing the audience directly with some off-the-cuff and off-the-wall observation. Since Snicket’s observations were one of the signature elements of the book series, it’s nice that they managed to work it into the show fairly organically.

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He’s basically riffing on his own show.

The acting in the show is phenomenal, although the way that the dialogue is presented will turn some people off. Neil Patrick Harris is a standout, matching Jim Carrey’s fabulous performance from the film adaptation, while still managing not to duplicate it too much. Harris sings the great theme song to the series “Look Away” which he sings in a different voice whenever he portrays a character in the episode, with the lyrics changing from book to book. They also find some excuses for Harris to let out his broadway side, something that, while it does make it harder to believe Olaf is a terrible actor, is too entertaining to pass up.

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Out-of-Character? A little. Out-Freaking-Standing? Definitely.

The downsides, if they are downsides, of the show are that, because of the nature of the medium, there are fewer of the wonderful ambiguities and hidden messages that permeated the books. Things that in the book series were left up to the reader to deduce are almost all made explicit. Additionally, some of the added scenes and characters are actually more positive than the rest of the tone of the show, possibly because it’s just so depressing to watch something that’s absurdist and, largely, hopeless. Frankly, it didn’t bother me, but I have heard a few fans of the books complaining.

However, there are two things this show does differently than most series that I really hope lead to its success. First, the villains are the ones shunning knowledge, while the heroes are the ones who seek it. A problem with the recurring trope of a criminal mastermind is that you have to make the villain the smart one, which often results in them making the hero a brawny dumbass. Think Lex Luthor versus Superman or Loki versus Thor (though neither Superman nor Thor are stupid, they’re not as smart as their opponents). This show 100% goes the other way, saying that the act of reading, learning, and exploring inherently makes someone more empathetic and therefore more ethical. Btw, studies suggest that this is generally true, reading makes you more empathetic (though not always as everyone thinks).

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Scientist bad. Big Muscled Guy good. 

Second, the show ends up pointing out one of the most difficult truths in the world: People aren’t all good or all bad. People are almost all morally ambiguous, falling somewhere on the scale between “hero” and “villain” or, within the series, between “volunteer” and “villain.” Everyone tends to think they’re a hero of their own story, but that’s likely the product of their own moral relativism: we define good as what we do, rather than defining good as good and then doing it. The show does a great job of exploring this concept.

Overall, I loved this series and I’m sad that it’s over. It’s only 25 episodes, total, so you should take a weekend or a week to watch it.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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