Rick and Mondays – S2E5 “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy”

It’s a Rick and Jerry episode! Let’s see a murder plot!

SUMMARY

Rick (Justin Roiland) breaks into Jerry’s (Chris Parnell) apartment and abducts him to go on an adventure. Rick explains that Morty (Roiland) told him to take Jerry on an adventure in order to keep Jerry from killing himself. They arrive at a resort in space which is contained in an immortality field, so even if Jerry wanted to kill himself, he couldn’t die. Jerry is soon abducted by Risotto Groupon (Clancy Brown), a native to the planet who was enslaved after Rick sold weapons to their enemies. Risotto tells Jerry that he can help him kill Rick on a roller coaster called the Whirly Dirly. Jerry declines, but after Rick admits that he worked to end Jerry’s marriage, Jerry decides to help with the plan.

S3E5 - 1Abduct.png
This could only have led to a murder attempt.

Meanwhile, Beth (Sarah Chalke) is trying to cope with her divorce stress by building structures out of horse hooves. Summer (Spencer Grammer) approaches and asks her mom if she’s hot, but Beth responds that her looks shouldn’t matter. It’s revealed that her boyfriend Ethan (Daniel Benson) broke up with her for Tricia Lange (Cassie Steele), a girl with big breasts. Summer tries to use Rick’s Morphizer-XE to make her boobs bigger, but accidentally makes herself a giant blob. Beth tries to use the Morphizer to turn her back, despite knowing nothing about how it works, which Morty scolds her for. Eventually, she makes Summer bigger and turns her inside out.

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To be fair, she DID increase her bust.

Rick and Jerry get on the Whirly Dirly, but Jerry changes his mind and saves Rick, destroying the immortality field in the process and stranding them in a jungle. Rick lets Jerry get eaten by a snake, telling Jerry that Jerry is a predator because he’s so pitiful that others feel a need to do things for him. Rick flat-out tells Jerry that Beth had options before getting knocked up by Jerry and that he ruined her potential life. Rick then uses Jerry as bait to get them back to the resort and a spaceport. At customs, Rick’s implants trigger security, so Rick is given a synaptic dampener, making him a harmless idiot. Jerry, now the more intelligent one for once, mocks Rick, but Risotto reveals he’s onboard. He plans to kill Rick, but let’s Jerry go, deeming him too pathetic to kill, even when Jerry tries to attack him. Jerry does finally manage to make Risotto shoot a panel on the ship right before the ship jumps through a wormhole, resulting in Risotto, Jerry, and Rick taking a journey through spacetime, curing Rick’s synapses and allowing him to kill Risotto.

S3E5 - 3Risotto.png
Contemplating living a thousand lifetimes in a moment is boring. More shooting.

Beth tries to call for “technical support” on the Morphizer, but gets nowhere, with Morty and Beth fighting until Morty points out that her obsession with being like Rick will do nothing for her relationship with Rick, but will ruin her other relationships. They then notice that Summer disappeared. Realizing that she’s going to see Ethan, Beth and Morty follow, and Summer is stopped by Beth, who makes herself giant and inverted. Morty then morphs Ethan as vengeance for breaking his sister’s heart. They return in time to meet Rick and Jerry, who Rick abandons outside of the house.

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This is a touching scene that no one would ever want to touch.

END SUMMARY

This episode is great character work. So much of the characters’ relationships and inner thoughts are revealed through this episode, mostly because it has a lot of intense and frank dialogue, though the comedy is still top-notch. It’s mostly that the exploration is now focused on the dynamics of everyone now that Jerry and Beth are divorced, but everything has somewhat normalized compared to “Rickmancing the Stone” or “Pickle Rick.

S3E3 - 6RickWong
As opposed to Rick being schooled for not normalizing.

Rick and Jerry’s plotline actually surprised me, because Rick is actually more open with Jerry than most of the other characters, owing in large part to the fact that Rick never considers him a threat. This will end up biting Rick in the ass big time later in the season, but in this episode it’s almost proven to be fair since even after Rick tells Jerry that he intentionally sabotaged his marriage, Jerry can’t bring himself to help kill Rick.

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Even though Rick does have it coming for a lot of reasons.

The concept of Jerry as a predator is something that I hadn’t considered prior to this episode. Jerry is so pathetic that people inherently feel responsible for him, which he uses to prey upon their kindness. This isn’t an insane concept, either. Studies from Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education have shown that people tend to naturally try to care for people who are completely harmless and pathetic, because we don’t see them as any potential threat. In other television, there’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Samaritan Snare” which introduces the Pakleds, a species who prey upon other, more advanced, species by seeming so pathetic that other races want to help them. In Doctor Who, there are the Tivolians, a race that loves to be conquered and appears pathetic in order to facilitate more invasions, because the conquerors tend to be merciful that way. The only difference with Jerry is that Jerry doesn’t know that he’s doing it, apparently, something that only makes him more pathetic.

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Like how Red Panda pups are so cute other species adopt them.

We also see a rare moment of Rick actually showing some concern about family members when Rick states that Jerry ruined Beth’s life, indicating that Rick really thought Beth had potential that all went away. However, this does conflict with the fact that, prior to that, Rick had often apparently been gone from Beth due to his divorce. Still, it’s a revelation that Rick did at least think that Beth was worth investing in before she got pregnant.

In the B-Plot, Morty finally confronts Beth over her worship of Rick when he points out that Beth’s attempts to adopt Rick’s cold, logical attitude has just driven Summer away because, rather than actually try to hear Summer’s concerns, Beth just told her that what she wanted was stupid. However, unlike Rick, Beth actually realizes that Morty is right, and she ends up choosing to resolve everything by emotionally connecting with Summer.

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Also, MORTY IS SCARY AS HELL.

Overall, this is a great episode, but in a different way than episodes like “Meeseeks and Destroy” or “Pickle Rick,” because it’s mostly about character development over plot.

Overall, I give this episode an

A-

on the Rick and Morty scale.

Wubba-Lubba-Dub-Dub, I need a drink. See you in two weeks.

PREVIOUS – 25: Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender

NEXT – 27: Rest and Ricklaxation

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.

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Netflix Review – Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia Part 1

Guillermo Del Toro takes an imaginative crack at a kids show.

SUMMARY

Jim Lake Jr. (Anton Yelchin/Emile Hirsch) is a high-school outcast, because he’s the protagonist and that’s pretty much the only thing a teen protagonist can be since Peter Parker. One day, while biking to school with his friend Toby Domzalski (Charlie Saxton), he finds an amulet in what appears to be the remains of a shattered statue. Naturally, it turns out that it’s really a magical talisman left by Merlin (David Bradley) and the statue was actually the remains of its last wielder, the Troll Kanjigar (Tom Hiddleston/James Purefoy). Jim is gifted with the title of “Trollhunter,” the protector of all the good trolls and the slayer of evil ones. Jim is the first human to hold the title. It’s revealed that Jim’s hometown, Arcadia, is actually built on top of a portal to “Trollmarket,” a magical kingdom where Trolls live peacefully, for the most part. However, there is an evil troll named Gunmar (Clancy Brown) who, along with his son, Bular (Ron Perlman), is trying to take over the world. The only thing keeping both the troll and human worlds safe is Jim, along with Toby, his tutor Blinkous (Kelsey Grammer), his protector AAARRRGGHH (Fred Tatasciore), and Claire Nuñez (Lexi Medrano), a gifted martial artist and magically-inclined human.

Trollhunters - 1Cast.jpg
The gnome on the right is named “Chompsky.” Because that’s fun.

END SUMMARY

This show’s strength is world-building. Almost everything about the set-up is a cliche that we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the show uses the audience’s familiarity with the set-up to quickly start expanding its mythology and its setting. The recurring characters each become well fleshed-out and distinct as the show goes on. The locations are all interesting designs that each convey a lot more than any of the characters say, something that always gets credit from me. The villainous monsters-of-the-week, too, are usually very clever concepts or at least visually stimulating, ranging from hive-minded goblins who have amusing idiosyncrasies to mummy assassins.

trollhunters - 2bular
Oh, and big guy with swords. Gotta have swords.

The main strength of the show is that it’s not really “happy” like most kids shows from my youth. The good guys are good and the bad guys are, for the most part, bad, but we do get a lot of gray areas and the entire series constantly has a bittersweet tone. Everyone has to compromise for victory and the mark of the heroic characters is knowing when and where to make those compromises so that they don’t end up destroying the things that they were trying to preserve. The characters make mistakes, sometimes grave ones, when they try to make those calls, and they keep getting more and more consequences for their actions as the series progresses. The emotional growth of the characters is also a big part of the series, with everyone changing a great deal in order to deal with all of the events they go through.

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Also, the power of friendship is a big thing. 

The animation style is going to be divisive, but I thought it was actually pretty spectacular for a television series. The character designs are simple enough for ease of computer animation, but are all distinct enough that you never get anyone confused. Action sequences are, for the most part, very good for this kind of series. It takes a while for them to get more creative than slash and stab, but once it gets there, we start to get fairly inventive sequences.

Overall, this isn’t the best animated series for adults out there (BoJack Horseman exists), and it starts slow, but kids will like it and it does get better over time as you become more invested in the world that you’re watching. It also serves as the first chapter of Tales of Arcadia, which looks to be a very interesting meta-series, combining Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and whatever Wizards turns out to be.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.