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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 – Stephanie: Amazing Set-up, Follow-Through Needed Budget

Everyone knows kids can be really creepy. If a small child looks me in the eye and says “The specter of death looms large over your future,” then I say “How did you get in my apartment and why are you floating and oh god the burning has already begun.” Pretty sure everyone has had that happen before. Anyway, the point is: Kids can be f*cking creepy.

This is a movie about a creepy, creepy child. It’s not original in that aspect, but I’ll say that the way they handle it actually is.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is a child who has been abandoned in her home by her parents. She plays around with a toy turtle, watches TV (which occasionally mentions something about an apocalypse happening before she flips it to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), makes her own food, tries to befriend a bunny, and starts swearing because her parents aren’t there. Remember Home Alone’s montage when Kevin realized his family was gone? It’s that, but with a young girl.

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This is her learning she can say “shit” out loud.

Then, we start to find out that things are wrong. Stephanie is stalked by a shadowy figure that never seems to catch her. The body of a young boy, revealed to be her brother, Paul (Jonah Beres), is in a bed in the house and is decaying. Stephanie at first appears to be talking to it sadly, but then starts to blame it for her parents leaving and hits the body repeatedly.

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Who hasn’t smacked a corpse with a bat?

Eventually, her parents return, but that only starts adding to the mystery of what happened with this world.

SUMMARY OF THE END (Spoilers)

Eventually, her parents (Frank Grillo and Anna Torv) return and apologize for leaving. They bury Paul, but Paul’s body is thrown back into the house that night. Stephanie’s dad asks her what she thinks happened when Paul died. It’s revealed that Stephanie killed Paul using telekinetic tentacles that appear to be made from her shadow. The apocalypse is actually a dark force possessing children around the globe. The monster that’s been stalking her is a manifestation of her own powers. Her parents knock her out and try to perform a procedure to disable her powers, but she awakes and destroys the makeshift lab.

Her parents try to poison her, but her tentacles save her. Her father then shoots her multiple times, killing her. He returns home to his wife, but Stephanie reappears, revived. She brutally murders both of her parents, destroys the house, throws away her stuffed turtle, and walks away psychically destroying her entire neighborhood. A shot of the Earth reveals this to be happening everywhere.

END SUMMARY (End Spoilers)

This is a Blumhouse picture, which means that the budget was probably so small it hurt parts of the film. However, as Get Out proved, this can encourage some really inventive filmmaking with a focus on good story and concept to compensate for the lack of effects. This movie comes so close to that, but it just can’t quite keep it going. Admittedly, the lack of quality of the effects at the end is a little bit of an issue, but it’s mostly the way the film tries to handle the third act.

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When the parents return, the movie starts to drift.

At the beginning of the film, the mystery of what is happening to Stephanie is delivered slowly, with some odd hints surrounding the fact that we’re seeing a small child living on her own. She makes a lot of bad decisions and does goofy things, because she’s an unsupervised child, but we also see some slowly building evidence that the situation is much direr than it seemed. This part of the film is great. Since the director is A Beautiful Mind’s Akiva Goldsman, there should not have been any doubt that we’d really be able to grasp that we’re watching a kind of madness progress.

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Admittedly, it’s a different kind of madness.

As far as the performance goes, Shree Crooks does a phenomenal job. She conveys all of the nervousness blended with excitement that you’d expect from a child who finds themselves allowed to do what they want. The scene where she first realizes that she can swear is perfect, with every line and action and look building to something that’s both hilarious and adorable, which gives us a break in the tension while still reminding us of the situation. It’s a great scene, and there are several like that at the beginning of the film.

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She also conveys the fear well.

The progression of Stephanie’s disturbing behaviors is solid, going from mostly innocent behavior that shows she might be haunted by something to showing that she herself is frightening and unhinged.

The movie really just starts going downhill when her parents return, with much of the mystery being revealed with too much exposition and too little demonstration. Then, the ending was intense, but it still felt hollow. It feels like all the weight of the film has been removed by that point, instead replaced by some generic horror mixed with some, admittedly clever, deaths.

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She’s going to eat your soul… or a taco.

I liked the movie for most of it, I just wish that the ending had felt more profound or more like a continuation of the first act rather than a completely different movie that had been stapled on. I don’t know what exactly caused this, but the fact that the beginning of it, and some parts of the end, are so well-done says that this team could definitely make a hell of a film if they had a little bit more consistency towards the end. Since Goldsman’s next film is an adaptation of Firestarter by Stephen King, given the parts of this movie that worked, I think that movie should be amazing.

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

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Batman: Gotham by Gaslight – When Good Adaptations Go Bad

By the Grouch on the Couch

BatmanGothamFilmCoverGotham By Gaslight is a famous Elseworlds (alternate universe) Batman comic which takes place in a version of Victorian London that just happens to be called Gotham City. In fact, it’s the first “Elseworlds” comic and is still considered one of the best ones. Think about all of the fictional depictions of nights in London at that time, and that’s how this version of Gotham is depicted. Heavy fog. Dark alleys. Dark, ornate clothing. Serial killers, muggers, and some real-life supervillain-esque crimebosses. In other words, it’s the absolute perfect time for a Batman story to take place. It’s such a fitting setting that when someone suggested adapting it into a videogame a few years back, I thought it would be a perfect follow-up Batman game to the Arkham series. But, alas, some things are not to be.

SUMMARY:

batmanbenjaminharrison.jpgIt’s Gotham City. The year is… sometime in the Victorian Era, but we’re still in America, so let’s say it’s between Grover Cleveland’s administrations. You might ask why I didn’t say Benjamin Harrison’s time in office, but I think more of you probably would ask “Who the f*ck is Benjamin Harrison?” It’s that guy. —–>

BatmanGothamPoisonIvyThere’s a serial killer stalking prostitutes in the night around the city. One might say he’s a ripper of women. Perhaps something less than a King Ripper. Yes, it’s Jack the Ripper. Yes, it’s actually Jack the f*cking Ripper, in America, in a setting with Batman. If you’re thinking “okay, that actually sounds kind of awesome,” go read the comic and don’t see this movie, because you will be disappointed. We start the movie off by having Jack kill Poison Ivy, who is apparently a prostitute and an exotic dancer in this universe, and has no other connection to her comic counterpart than a name and red hair.

Image result for gotham by gaslight filmIn this universe, Batman is basically an urban legend at this point, but rumors about him scare everyone, since there aren’t any other vigilantes at this point. At the beginning, Batman stops three orphans from robbing a wealthy couple, and you learn that this is clearly an “adult” cartoon because one of the kids says “shit.” Batman then beats the crap out of the orphans’ boss, and sends them to an orphanage, because Victorian Batman ain’t got time for “wards.” Despite this, it’s obvious that the three orphans are this universe’s version of the first three Robins.

Image result for gotham by gaslight filmWe get a weird expository sequence about the city, just to make sure that the audience sees all of the guns in Chekhov’s collection. There’s a bat-signal projector, and Hugo Strange is there, and there’s a world’s fair. We’re introduced to Sister Leslie, a nun that takes care of orphans around the city as well as young ladies who may or may not be prostitutes (they are), as well as Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock who apparently haven’t been successful in catching Saucy Jack.

Image result for gotham by gaslight filmCut to night, and we follow a young woman through alleys as she’s being pursued by both Jack the Ripper and Batman. Batman apparently decides to wait until Jack gets inside of a literal slaughterhouse before taking him down, despite seeing him from the rooftops. The woman reveals herself to be skilled in self-defense, and also to be this world’s Selina Kyle, evident from her use of a whip and from a cat being in the shot with her. While she holds her own at the beginning, she eventually loses. As she’s about to be overpowered and die, Batman finally decides to intervene. Jack escapes after beating both of them.

Image result for gotham by gaslight filmSelina yells at Batman for interfering, despite the fact that she was clearly dying. We then see Commissioner Gordon dream of the Ripper killing his wife, only to have him wake up and lovingly console his wife in the middle of the night. Batman then appears to talk with Gordon, and ask for his assistance in taking down the Ripper. Gordon agrees to help him.

We’re then shown a cabaret sequence that lasts 60 seconds but feels like it lasts 30 minutes. It’s awkward and pointless and serves only to show what Selina does in her public life. Also, she’s apparently having an affair with Harvey Dent, whose “two-face” persona manifests as him being an adulterer and a drunk with a mean temper.

Image result for gotham by gaslight filmThat night, Sister Leslie is killed by Jack, and Bruce Wayne (if you don’t know this is Batman, I would like to speak with you about your homeland), who is at the scene, gets blamed by a homeless woman. He finds a bloody pin from a gentlemen’s club, telling him that Jack is a rich man. At Leslie’s funeral, Hugo Strange, the local asylum administrator, asks Bruce to send him the Batman. The three orphans try to rob Alfred, who puts them into his employ. Apparently, sending them to the orphanage worked out great, 19th century guy who could have easily given them a home.

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A Saucy Alibi

Later, Batman sees Jack kill Hugo Strange. Batman gives chase, but after a dramatic fight on a zeppelin, Jack escapes. Batman is pursued by the police, despite it being clear that he and the Ripper are different people, and Bruce hides with Selina Kyle, who he spends the night with. The homeless woman who accused Bruce is found dead, leading to his arrest.  The next scene has Harvey Dent prosecuting Bruce at his bail hearing while angry over Bruce sleeping with Selina. Weirdly, one piece of evidence that’s used against Bruce is the pin which Bruce himself had found at the crime scene… which Harvey should never have known about. Oh, and literally no other evidence aside from a dead homeless woman for whose murder Bruce has an alibi.

After Selina says she’s going to tell the Commissioner that Bruce is Batman to clear his name, Bruce escapes from Prison and picks up a steampunk motorcycle, because at least something in this movie should look kinda cool. Batman goes to Gordon’s house looking for Selina, and finds photos of Gordon as a surgeon during the Civil War, as well as a number of tools and organs in jars, indicating that Gordon himself is the Ripper (more on that in a second). Gordon’s wife tries to stop Batman, believing that Gordon is doing “Holy Work,” and showing Batman that Gordon burns her face with acid to “purify” her.

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The mask is… unexplained

Selina tells Gordon about Bruce’s secret, and Gordon reveals himself as the Ripper, attacking her. He injects her with a “7 per cent” solution, but she manages to escape and create a bat signal from the electric spotlight we were shown at the beginning. Gordon starts to monologue about how he’s killing not just whores, but also the poor, the illiterate, immigrants, anarchists, and pretty much everything else on the “what can I say to make myself seem like an asshole” list. It’s also revealed that Gordon is right handed, but Jack is a southpaw, because the nuns made him use his right hand. Yeah, that’s why he does this, because he was forced to use the wrong hand. I’m not a neurologist, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make you a serial killer. Also, he apparently decided that humanity sucked because of the civil war, which, I’ll grant you, isn’t the worst motivation, but he apparently just hates anyone who isn’t a white male (despite that being most of the people fighting in the Civil War).

Batman and Gordon fight atop a Ferris wheel, because Gotham is hosting the 1889 World’s Fair instead of Chicago, I guess. After the wheel catches on fire and Batman wins the fight, Gordon sets himself on fire and dies. Batman saves Selina with the help of Alfred and the orphans, and the World’s Fair burns down, but the movie ends with the orphans asserting that they’ll make something better.

END SUMMARY

So, this movie doesn’t exactly follow the comic. That wouldn’t be so bad, since adaptations need to be, you know, ADAPTED, except that the omissions and alterations both destroy some of the beauty of the setting and aspects of the Batman mythos itself. The former is more important, honestly, because the latter could have been used well to add levels of surprise to the movie if any of it felt real.

BatmanGothamComicCoverThe art style is great, but it’s wrong. This is a movie taking place in what is supposed to basically be Victorian London. Look at the cover for this comic. See how shadowy and dirty everything looks? Yeah, the movie doesn’t look like that. That isn’t to say the layout and character designs are bad, they’re actually pretty good, they’re just wrong for the setting of this film. And the city is too clean. In the day sequences, everything looks like a gleaming city of marble, which is cleaner and nicer than Gotham City looks even in the 1990s depictions, let alone when it’s supposed to be a substitute for Industrial Age London.

Because of the cleanliness of the art style, Batman’s design somehow is both taken from the comic and still sucks. He looks like he’s cosplaying steampunk Batman, rather than, you know, BEING steampunk Batman. The problem is he doesn’t look like he’s wearing time-period appropriate material, it looks like he’s wearing the same stuff he wears in Batman: The Animated Series, but with a different cut. The comic was drawn by Mike Mignola, the guy who did Hellboy, and that really worked better than this.

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Having Batman meet up with Jack so many times also really reduces Batman’s credibility, rather than boosting the effectiveness of Jack the Ripper as a villain. Jack is, presumably, a normal human with a knife, and yet Batman basically loses three fights with him before the end of the movie. Nothing Jack does really suggests that he should be skillful enough to do this, since Selina almost defeats him at one point. When it’s revealed to be Gordon, they attribute it to him being a boxer, which… doesn’t really explain how he’s good at wielding a knife in combat, or why he’s able to run long distances easily, or disappear like Batman when no one’s looking. Which brings us to the part of the movie I hated the most.

Gordon is the Ripper. Now, this could have been a great twist, especially for fans of the comic who weren’t expecting it. Instead, my first reaction was “bullshit.” My second reaction was “Bull. Shit.” My third through fifth reactions were similar. It just doesn’t make any sense within what we’re shown in the movie.

First, they deliberately give Gordon 0 traits to indicate that he’s the Ripper. They even show that the Ripper is left-handed, while Gordon is not. This serves less to throw the viewer off of the trail, and more to emphasize what an ass-pull this ending was. We’re shown his wife several times, but she doesn’t display any of her crazy until the end, even though no one is around except the audience. Gordon dreams of the Ripper killing his wife, but seems to wake up genuinely concerned about the dream… which makes no sense with the reveal. And Batman never seems to suspect him, despite him being BATMAN. The world’s greatest detective didn’t do any background research on the highest-ranking local police authority?

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A murderous psychotic criminal mastermind, unaware he’s being watched, acting normal

Second, it seems almost physically impossible that Gordon did this, given that, immediately after one murder, we’re shown that Gordon has been asleep and dreaming while Batman made the way to his house. At another point, he apparently fights Batman, murders a prostitute, then appears as himself in a matter of minutes.

Third, killing Hugo Strange made no sense. Gordon clearly didn’t think Strange actually knew his identity, didn’t know Batman’s identity, and Strange isn’t any part of the groups Gordon claims to be “punishing” at the end. Strange is a rich white male, the ONLY group Gordon isn’t attacking, so… why? I mean, Gordon’s weird rant where he basically says that he’s killing everyone except for WASPs is already kind of reducing any interesting aspects of the character by replacing a hatred for women with a hatred for “them.” He’s no longer an interesting psychopath, just an agent of blind rage.

Last, this means that Jack the Ripper literally never was in England. He’s only in America in this universe, which kind of defeats the point of having Batman face a historical serial killer, when you remove one of the most famously concrete facts about an unknown figure.

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Batman: Devil in Gotham City. There, a title.

Also, small note, if you’re going to set a Batman story at the 1889 World’s fair, why wouldn’t you change his enemy to H.H. Holmes? You know, the serial killer who BUILT A REAL-LIFE MURDER PALACE? A murder palace with gas chambers, moving hallways, trap doors, fake rooms, etc., all of which seem to be out of a comic book? How is that not your first f*cking thought there? I WILL WRITE IT FOR YOU IN 10 DAYS, DC.

Most of the time-period references also suck, btw. There are 3 references to Sherlock Holmes, including Bruce calling him “one of [his] mentors.” There’s a reference to Houdini, a reference to the Ferris wheel, and a reference to… shit, I think that’s actually it. Also, if Sherlock Holmes is real in this world, he clearly didn’t teach Batman most of the “good” detecting. Or how to fight. Selina is a proto-feminist, which, while nothing she says is inaccurate, comes off awkward since she’s supposed to be playing a con-woman who ingratiates herself with men while investigating. She even is shown dressing like a man to get into a men’s club, but she provokes fights over gender inequality. I’m fine with her being a feminist, but the context in which she does it is counterproductive to her current mission. Which is especially dumb because there are multiple contexts where it would absolutely have made sense.

BatmanGothamRottenTomatoesApparently, however, I’m alone in thinking this movie was a waste of potential. Critics and audiences seem to be loving this movie. It’s at like 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. But, not this Batman fan. It’s not just because I love the comic, it’s because it just felt wrong the whole time. I didn’t want them to adapt the comic word for word, I just wanted it to feel like it was in the same world. The twist didn’t feel clever, it felt like someone just said “Crap, we’ve only introduced like 7 characters,” and had to pick one. I am glad that it wasn’t the Joker, because that would have been a cheaper cop-out, but it still felt hollow. Even all the violence to justify the “R” rating felt gratuitous, although, admittedly, it made some of the sequences a lot more intense than the average animated movie.

Mediocre plot, good but ill-suited animation style, references seem thrown in awkwardly, and an ending that just made me feel cheated. Please, DC, give this another shot.

Joker’s Rebuttal:

Art complaints and plotting issues aside,

  • This movie managed to not try to inundate the audience by throwing in a thousand Batman references just for the sake of having them there. That’s a huge temptation in doing alternate adaptations of properties, so I’m pretty happy about that decision. Because of this, the story feels mostly self-contained. You could know nothing about Batman, really, and you’d be able to watch this movie.
  • The voice acting is perfect. Batman is voiced by Bruce Greenwood, who played Batman in Under the Red Hood. Alfred is voiced by Anthony Stewart Head from Buffy and Repo!, which is just f*cking perfect. Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter voices Selina. Scott Peterson (Luke from Gilmore Girls) voices Gordon. These are all really great casting choices, and they come off that way.
  • At least they were trying to alter the plot of the movie, rather than making it completely uninteresting for people who are fans of the comic. When they adapted The Killing Joke, they managed to both change it too much to the point where it defeated the merit of the movie, then kept other parts too strictly in line with the comic which made those parts less interesting to everyone who had already read the book. Granted, Gotham by Gaslight is a lot less famous than The Killing Joke, so there would have been fewer people upset about sticking with the comic, but still, at least they were trying to be original.

Ultimately, if you’re a Batman fan, you can probably enjoy this, even if you don’t love it.

Joker out.

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

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.

Cabin 28: The Worst Movie Ever

By the Grouch on the Couch

Cancel the Razzies. This movie has set a new record low. You want me to watch Gigli? Fine. You want me to double feature Battlefield Earth and Jack and Jill? Deal. Those movies are bad, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel disgusted by humanity. This movie has actually made me less optimistic about the merits of human existence.

Part of it is on me. I didn’t intend to ever see this movie sober, but I got snowed in and decided to put this on in the background at random from a list of sh*tty horror movies available while I worked on other stuff. However, I got so distracted by this movie about 15 minutes in that I had to add a review of it. Then, I got angry.

cabin28sheila.jpg
The real survivor

Cabin 28 starts off with the message that it is “based on real events.” In this case, the events were the unsolved murders of 4 people (a mother, 2 of her children, and a friend) in Keddie, California in 1981. Given that the family’s eldest daughter, who survived the night by being next door and came home to find her family murdered, and the youngest sons, who were IN THE HOUSE WHEN IT HAPPENED, are still alive, I’m sure this movie was done in nothing but good taste.

Oh, wait, instead they make the daughter’s character older and suggest that she’s had at least one back-alley abortion by the time she was 13? Well, that’s a very different way to go about depicting the ACTUAL LIVING SURVIVOR OF HER FAMILY BEING MURDERED WHEN SHE WAS 14.

SUMMARY:

The beginning of the movie is pretty boring, honestly. It’s just a set-up about the dysfunction between the family and the neighbors. It’s fairly boring until there’s a knock on the door late at night which is answered by the younger daughter, Tina (Harriet Rees). Here, she’s in her teens; in real life she was 12. It’s a guy portrayed in silhouette clearly wearing a hoodie. However, and this is why I finally had to start watching this movie, HE HAS THE SINGLE LEAST-BELIEVABLE ACCENT I HAVE EVER HEARD. It sounds like Gambit from X-men banged Mark Twain and the child they conceived was raised by Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester Stallone, and Tommy Wiseau.

Cabin28ShadowTo the girl’s credit, she doesn’t let him in despite all of his requests, locks the door, and she lies to him when he asks her to call a friend. She also notices when the guy accidentally says “we” when referring to his future intentions. Of course, the movie cues this by having a sound that sounds like glass breaking to the point that I thought that was actually what happened (turns out, no, just a bad sound effect). Her mother, Sue (Terri Dwyer), is awakened by the noise and immediately walks outside to “confront” the person, then says that nothing is wrong when she sees nobody, and denies her daughter’s request to call the police.

Again, this is a portrayal of a woman who was actually murdered brutally, likely in front of her children. So why not make her the dumbest person alive? That’s fair, right?

Cabin28Skeletor.jpgAfter her mom goes back to bed, the man returns and tells the daughter that he knows she lied about calling his friend, because he cut the phone line. Her mom returns and says that “it’s probably just some drunken hobo,” despite the fact that her daughter tells her the phone line has been cut. The mom is immediately then grabbed by a man in a skull mask (hereafter Skeletor), who she slips away from. She then grabs a baseball bat and, to her credit, whacks Skeletor over the head. She tells her very young sons to hide under the bed with their friend who was sleeping over, and for her daughter to watch the house while she goes for help. Naturally, Skeletor immediately wakes back up (after being down for 30-ish seconds) and grabs the mom. She tries to lure him away from the kids, but finds out that another guy in a really horrifying demonic clown mask (hereafter Scariest Thing EVEr, or STEVE) has also broken in. She runs back into the kids’ room and barricades the door.

Cabin28SteveThen, her oldest son, John (Sean Rhys-James), returns, drunk, with his friend Dana (Derek Nelson), who is also drunk and smoking pot, thus making sure that these real people are being depicted fairly in the way they lived before they were brutally murdered in real life. They sneak into the house through the window they left open, which appears to be how the killers got in. Dana leaves and gets strangled to death by STEVE while outside. John goes out to find him and the killers turn the radio on to lure him around the building, where he tries to open the door to the kids’ room and the mom brains him with the baseball bat. Skeletor and STEVE use this opportunity to grab Tina and the mom, stabbing the mother in the back. Oddly, while Tina is facing off against Skeletor and STEVE, the mom is just repeating her son’s name over and over again and trying to save him… ignoring that her daughter is about to die. Guess you really do have a favorite child.

Tina kicks Skeletor in the balls (which He-Man should have done), convincing him to go after the mom, and STEVE taunts her to grab the baseball bat. STEVE drops his knife and offers Tina “a fighting chance,” before mocking her for being weak. She proceeds to knock him down and tries to run, only to be confronted with a THIRD killer, who has not been seen or alluded to prior to this. She’s a woman who tries to stab Tina to death on the stairs. Tina finally escapes and runs next door, only for the people next door to turn off the lights. The mom is beaten unconscious with a hammer, John is stabbed, and Tina jumps in a passing car. She asks the driver for help, and he acknowledges that he knows her family is in Cabin 28, revealing that he is working with the killers.

Cabin28Montage

He brings her back to the cabin, where she is tied up with her dying mother and brother in chairs. Her mom begs for her small children in the other room to be spared. John is executed in front of his mother by having his head bashed in with a hammer. Tina then claims she’s pregnant to avoid getting her head smashed in. They hit her in the head with the hammer anyway, before killing the mother with the same hammer. One of the small boys, the friend, walks into the room and is horrified. The killers put Tina into the trunk of their car.

Cabin28Hammer2.jpg

The next day, the eldest daughter, Sheila (Brendee Green), returns home from her friend’s house and sees her mother, brother, and Dana mutilated on the floor. She finds that the young sons are alive in the next room. I’m going to pause to state that these kids clearly were not given much direction during the first shot of them, because 2 of them appear to be laughing a little at something, which doesn’t really match up with the “just heard your family brutally murdered” vibe.

It then cuts to an interview by a deputy with one of the neighbors, Marty, who lies about seeing a suspicious person in a bar. He then denies that the small boy who came out, who is apparently his stepson, saw anything about the killings. He then says a bunch of stuff that make him look blatantly guilty. When the deputy talks to the Sheriff, the Sheriff says that he just needs to drop it and not “pull threads.” The Sheriff implies that he’ll be convincing the DoJ to drop it as well.

Cabin28Marty

Then, another interview with another neighbor until the Sheriff shuts it down. The two men are shown leaving town afterwards. The end title cards indicate that no one was ever arrested for the murders and that Tina’s fractured skull was found one county over. The case is now active again following the discovery of the murder hammer in 2016.

END SUMMARY

Alright, so, first off: Almost all of the accents in this are terrible. Most of the actors were British, which might explain it if acting didn’t exist. I acknowledge that even some great actors can’t do accents well (*cough* Benedict Cumberbatch *cough* I love you, though *cough*), but seriously, this was exceptionally bad. The film is boring, it’s basically just The Strangers done worse. Since the characters really don’t seem to have done anything to earn their demise in traditional horror fashion, especially the daughter, the brutality of their execution is not entertaining, it’s just uncomfortable. They’re dying not for the narrative, but because they died in real life. I guess they added the Mom’s ineptitude, the brother’s drinking, and the daughter’s pregnancy in the name of “justifying” them dying, but that completely undermines the scary element of “this was completely random” that The Strangers and its ilk use. Fiction, unlike reality, has to be accountable for its actions, but this is just watching a re-enactment of a snuff film. Which brings us to my next point:

I honestly hate this movie on another level. The movie is portraying itself as being about real events, uses the real names for all of the parties, but also A) depicts several of the characters of having done things they probably both didn’t do and wouldn’t want to have depicted in film (one sister, the one who survived, had a pre-teen abortion; the youngest one, who was 12 at the time, is said to be pregnant when she’s killed; the mother is depicted as essentially mortally wounding her own son; the son, 15, was apparently drinking all night on fake IDs), and B) heavily implies that it knows which three people committed this crime. Granted, the two lead suspects are dead, but the third person implied in the movie as committing these murders isn’t. That’s probably why she isn’t made as “explicit” in her portrayal as a killer, to avoid lawsuits. Still, we don’t know who actually committed these murders yet, and actively implying that these people did it borders on slander… or libel, rather. Hell, I haven’t read a report that says there were three killers, except on one weird conspiracy site (which stated that the friend that was over, the 12-year-old stepson, actively took part in the killings, so I’m disregarding that whole thing). Also, it doesn’t just imply that law enforcement was incompetent, it flat-out says they were active in covering it up.

Seriously, this movie just pisses me off. It’s not just bad, it’s f*cking unethical. Don’t watch this movie. I know it wasn’t likely for anyone, but I’m telling you, I don’t think I’ve ever hated a film this much. Maybe Chaos.

Joker’s Rebuttal:

I have literally nothing to rebut here. If anything, I retroactively like The Strangers less after seeing this movie.  The best part of the movie was when I realized I might be able to prevent others from seeing 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.

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Reader Bonus: Kim Kardashian: Superstar (The Kim Kardashian/Ray J Tape)

KimKardashianSuperBowl
… Deflated balls joke not found

When I opened this up to requests, I was expecting some bad movies, or some weird TV shows that people wanted reviewed. What I was not anticipating was that someone would request a review of a celebrity sex tape. But, I only get a few requests a month, so I can’t really afford to turn them down, yet. Also, this is literally the easiest piece of media to find on the internet. The first copy I found had been watched 134 Million times. That’s more than watched the Super Bowl this year, and that’s just one video on one site.

KimKardashianMoesha
At least I remember Moesha

Up front: I’m not a fan of Kim Kardashian, and I actually thought Ray J was a completely different person (no, not Ray J. Johnson, I know he’s fictional… I thought it was the guy who played Moesha’s OTHER brother). However, I am a professional, so I did my due diligence.

Kim Kardashian is now famous for being famous and hot and married to Kanye West, but back in 2002 she was a hairstylist for Brandy Norwood (after she was Cinderella, sadly), and apparently was dating Brandy’s brother Ray J. Also, didn’t know Brandy was Snoop Dogg’s cousin until now, so that’s neat.

KimKardashianParis.jpgWell, Ray J and Kim went to Cabo to celebrate Kim’s 23rd Birthday, and filmed themselves goofing around, and also in the bedroom. Kardashian apparently was married at the time, something I did not realize. Ray J and Kim later broke up, and Kim became friends with other noted celebrity sex-tape-haver Paris Hilton. Then, in 2007, this tape got bought up by Vivid Entertainment (noted distributor of sex tapes), and apparently the rights were sold to them by Ray J. Kardashian sued to stop the distribution, but settled for $5 Million instead. The popularity from the tape, combined with her appearances on Hilton’s Simple Life, got her a TV show and ensured that we will never be rid of her or her family.

As part of my nauseating background research into this article (by which I mean reading TMZ, you sickos), I found out some other interesting things:

KimKardashianRayJ1) Ray J makes a lot of money on this. As of 2014, he makes around $10k/month. When Kim “broke the internet,” with her nude photo shoot, apparently Ray J made $50k that week in royalties. Also, apparently, every time she has a baby, gets married, gets divorced, or makes the news, that doubles or triples that week’s income.

2) Ray J is a douchebag. He constantly tries to remind people, especially Kanye, that he slept with Kim first. He has songs about it that I’m not going to listen to. (update: Some A-hole requested the song of course).

3) TMZ loves this tape and the ensuing drama. There are probably 100 articles about it. Including a series of statements that Kanye West owned a copy of this video before he and Kim started dating, and that he often watched it while with other women. That’s… love, I guess?

Now, there are two versions of this video: The Original and the Extended Cut.

TSDGOGI EC010
Here’s a picture of Bea Arthur instead

The original video was 41 minutes long, about 20 of which was sex. However, since then, they’ve cobbled together other tapes of Kim from her time with Ray J and added 1 hour of bonus footage, which includes, apparently, more sex. Specifically, about 4 minutes of it. In an hour. Of them doing stupid sh*t around Mexico and L.A. So, I stuck with the original.

I’m going to go ahead and skip the actual summary of the material for this. You can watch it yourself if you want, but I don’t recommend it.

The main takeaway from this is that Ray J should never have been the cameraman. It’s not just that he doesn’t do well with focusing, lighting, or any of that stuff, it’s that HE MAKES HIMSELF THE FOCUS MOST OF THE TIME. Clearly, he believed that he was going to be the real celebrity out of the two of them. So, in a video which is marketed as being about Kim Kardashian, famously attractive woman, she’s actually out of frame a lot of the time, instead having Ray J direct the camera towards himself.

KimKardashianPassedOutDonkeyThe other thing is that Kim Kardashian apparently has strong porn instincts as far as her mid-coitus dialogue goes. If this is actually what she talks like during sex, then this is clearly the work she was born for. The only problem is that half the time she sounds like she’s starting to fall asleep. And maybe she was. Mexican Donkey Valium is strong, I’m told.

I wish I could praise the artistic camerawork, the strong storycrafting, the masterful performances, but I actually believed Ray J’s character more when he appeared in season 5 of Moesha.

Overall, this is to erotica what Renegade was to television: Profitable, famous, but lacking in quality.

Link to the Archives.

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.

Inception : The Movie that Calls us Idiots

By: The Grouch on the Couch

grouch logo FINAL_white-01Welcome to this sample installment of Grouch on the Couch. Unlike my more positively slanted brother, I’m not really here to review Inception. I’m here to tell you why it’s calling you an asshole. This particular entry was inspired by my listening to the “Show Me the Meaning” podcast on this movie by Wisecrack (love their YouTube channel). They addressed an interpretation of this movie that I’d heard before, but hadn’t put much thought into. Specifically, the one confirmed as being present by Christopher Nolan in this interview with Wired, and then spoken of again in this interview in Entertainment Weekly.  Namely, that Inception is about making movies. However, if the characters in the movie represent filmmakers, what’s it saying about audiences?

Okay, so, quick summary of the movie (skip if you know it. Or if you don’t; I’m a writer, not your mom): Cobb (Leonardo “Donatello is better” DiCaprio) is a professional thief who uses a newly-discovered technology to enter people’s dreams. He is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, to go into the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a rival business, and “incept him,” or to plant an idea within his mind. Cobb assembles a team: Ariadne, the one who designs dreams (Ellen “turn the” Page); Eames, an identity thief who can become other people in dreams (Tom “Party” Hardy); Yusuf, a pharmacologist who specializes in dream-sleep drugs (Dileep “Superman Joke” Rao); Arthur, his partner who researches and manages the missions (Joseph “I don’t get a joke” Gordon-Levitt); and, in an advisory role, Stephen Miles, Cobb’s mentor (Michael “It’s Nolan, so I’m in it” Caine).

InceptionCast

The team, along with Saito, go into Fischer’s mind, but their plan is undermined at every point by Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is just a projection in Cobb’s mind, as well as Fischer’s own internal mental defenses. The team keeps going deeper and deeper into the “dream levels” of Fischer’s subconscious: Each level represented with a different aesthetic, and in each level, time passes faster. During the mission, Saito is injured, resulting in him “dying” within the dream which sends him to “Limbo,” a mind-space in which time passes extremely quickly compared to the real world, such that an entire lifetime would be but a few minutes/hours. Limbo also is completely unstructured, which can result in any person there becoming lost and forgetting what was real before they get there, and then believing that Limbo itself is reality. Cobb incepts Fischer, saves Saito, deals with Mal by confessing that he feels guilty about her death, allowing Ariadne to kill the projection. Cobb comes back to reality and quits his dream-thievery to spend time with his kids. The movie ends with Cobb’s totem (a top that spins forever in dreams, allowing extractors to know if they’re in the real world) starting to wobble.

InceptionTop
Cut to black. Piss off half the audience.

End Summary

A lot of people theorize about this film, especially about whether or not any of it is reality, what parts are, who is real, etc. This movie was basically made to be talked about and discussed, and, as you’ll see in a moment, I mean that extremely literally.

InceptionTheories
And the fans love to make graphs

This particular theory just happens to be one interpretation that the director agrees is part of the movie, though he denies it’s intentional. Unfortunately, even if it’s unintentional, there are a few negative implications about the movie-going public.

InceptionBeauty.jpg
Some films are trippier, though.

First, a breakdown of this interpretation: Under this view, the art of crafting dreams is the same as the art of crafting film. This idea was going to work its way into the movie no matter how hard they tried to avoid it, because dreams and films are inherently linked. They’re both escapes from reality. In both, we suspend our belief in what’s possible. In both, people can be multiple personas (like that dream where you’re talking to your father who is also Abe Lincoln. One is the actor, one is the role). In both, we are accustomed to having time jumps and to not seeing the whole story leading up to a scene. The very idea of making a movie about shaping dreams invites the comparison. Hell, motion pictures are entirely generated by your mind: You’re seeing a series of still images and your mind is treating them as if they’re moving naturally. If you’re asking how that differs from real movement, well, that’s a different paper, but the explanation involves calculus. I’ll write that later.

InceptionCafe2The scene that most directly compares films and dreams (as mentioned in the podcast) is the scene in which Cobb and Ariadne are at a café. The two are talking and Cobb points out that people don’t ever remember the beginning of a dream, because dreams always start at a place and begin happening immediately. He then asks her how they got to the café, at which time she realizes that she didn’t know, she just took it for granted. Well, so did we, the audience. In most films, we don’t see HOW people get to places, or what steps they took. Sometimes, if we actually thought about it, we’d realize that some scene changes are logistically impossible (like all the globetrotting within the series 24). We just go with it, because if not, well, as the movie demonstrates, it destroys the illusion. The café of the mind will be blown up.

InceptionCafe.png

So, within this dream to film analogy, each member of the heist team represents a different area of a film crew. Cobb is the director and the writer. He is the one who is crafting the story and adapting it to his vision. The reason he’s a combination of both roles is because Christopher Nolan is frequently both, and all art is somewhat biographical (this movie especially). Arthur is the producer/cinematographer. He’s the one who works out the logistics of how to make Cobb’s visions real. Ariadne is the production designer, the one who makes the look come to life. Eames is the performer, the one who directly interacts with the audience as someone else. Cobb himself later briefly takes on this role. Yusuf is the special effects guy, the wizard who controls how far reality is suspended. Saito is the studio, the one who bankrolls the movie and expects to profit. Miles is an older director/film theorist, the one who crafted the art before Cobb got onto the scene and established certain themes (or, within the movie, methods of extracting). This doesn’t really have to be a 1:1 breakdown of roles, and they shift a little within the movie (just like they do in a production), but the central idea still stands.

InceptionCastRoles
Notice the Studio, Director, and Producer are up front
InceptionStairs
All of the steps go up in a loop

The movie itself is also a little more dreamlike than many films, which helps the theme but hurts the movie. That’s actually why I don’t really like this movie that much. The structure can be confusing because dreams are confusing. The movie takes imagery, themes, and plot points from other films, like dreams contain recurring images or actions. The rules of the situation keep changing, most famously in the “dream bigger” or “impossible stairway (Penrose steps)” sequences where it seems that the extractors could just do whatever they want and solve most of the problems instantly, but in dreams the rules can constantly change without notice (also, it would make the movie short and might give Fischer a psychotic break).

InceptionFischer.png
You are a well-dressed audience.

So, within the film crew analogy, what is Fischer, the guy being incepted? Well, he’s the audience. He’s the one who is living, temporarily, within the dream that’s being crafted for him. His experience is being shaped by the team coming together and each doing their parts to make him feel as if he’s actually within this world. This seems like a pretty solid interpretation of it, and, again, it’s one that Nolan seems to confirm. The problem is, he’s not the only audience in the movie. He’s the audience for the fairly typical heist/Bond-style film that we’re watching, sure, but there’s another audience analogue within the movie.

InceptionMal
You are a damn sexy audience.

Mal, the last person incepted, is also the audience.

Here’s Mal’s story: She was married to Cobb and they had 2 kids. One day, she and Cobb are experimenting with the dream sharing technology, and they go too deep into the dreamscape, ending up in Limbo. They spend 50 years there in the span of a few hours real time, but Mal ends up refusing to return to the real world. Cobb incepts her by reactivating her totem, planting the idea in her subconscious that the whole of their reality is a dream (which it currently is). They end up leaving Limbo the only way they know how: By killing themselves. But, when they wake up, Mal is still convinced she’s dreaming, even though she’s now in the “real world.”

InceptionTrain
Weird Metaphor Alert

Mal then becomes obsessed with this idea and ends up deciding that the real world isn’t real and the dream world is. She kills herself to get back to “reality” and frames Cobb for her murder so that he’ll follow her, resulting in him never being able to interact with his children. This ends up creating a resonant image of her within Cobb’s mind, and this projection is obsessed with sabotaging Cobb’s plans. In the first heist we’re shown, within Saito’s mind, Mal alerts Saito of the theft and shoots Arthur. Later, when Cobb introduces Ariadne to lucid dreaming and she starts to change the dream in a series of artistic alterations of reality, Mal stabs her. It’s revealed that while Mal is somewhat restrained by Cobb, she still comes forward when he’s under stress and tries to destroy everything, usually with violence or a giant effect like a literal train appearing in the middle of a street. She ends up shooting Fischer, sending him to Limbo, before Cobb confesses to what happened, allowing him to stop feeling guilty for her death, and killing her for good.

So, let’s incorporate that into the framework. Mal was the audience for Cobb’s most important film prior to the current one, but it all went wrong. Why? Well, a few reasons, and all of them speak to parts of the creative process and the opinion of the director of the audience.

When Mal and Cobb first went under, she and Cobb were in Limbo. Limbo here is a blank seascape and a shoreline when you first enter it, but you can fill it with basically whatever you want. It’s described as “infinite raw subconscious,” which, weirdly, dialogue suggests is shared by all people even if they’re not part of the current shared dream. In fact, it’s not really a “dream” at all, for that reason, but a separate plane that can be shaped to resemble dreams.

InceptionLimbo1.jpg
Behold, the core of humanity, a beach in… California?

Essentially, Limbo is imagination. You are unrestrained by social norms, themes, or tropes. You can let your deepest desires come forth in any structure of your choice. Now, it’s notable that the things that Cobb builds are mostly images from his own past, because all creation is somewhat biographical. Also, nothing there is truly “unimaginable.” You can make impossible figures as long as they can still be visualized, just like you can in films, but you can’t create a new color. Limbo is literally just a blank slate for the imagination to fill, without any of the pre-set structure that comes in the dream levels.

InceptionNolanFilms.jpgFor Christopher Nolan, operating without “traditional” film-making rules is pretty much his bailiwick. Especially with story structure. Memento subverted traditional narrative structure by doing the movie backwards, constantly forcing the audience to re-evaluate their assumptions. The Prestige is literally a three-part trick on the audience, treating them as the subject of a magic show. This movie is a dream. While Interstellar came after this, that movie tries to show the inside of a 4-D structure. Nolan loves to punch traditional film restrictions in the nut-sack. Limbo is the birthplace of Nolan’s unconventional style, raw and unbound.

However, because Limbo doesn’t need to have any kind of logical structure and the rules and locations can change at any moment, it is harder to keep your bearings while in it. Mal and Cobb start getting lost within the project. They have no structure that they need to work within, so they are unable to find a point to end the film, thus they start wandering aimlessly. The source of structure that Cobb had at the beginning, his own life experience, has now been exhausted (they’ve been in Limbo longer than either of them have been alive). Eventually, however, Cobb remembers his role (and his children) and tries to bring the dream to a conclusion. Mal, however, doesn’t want this to end. The creative process is now her reality. So, Cobb decides to incept her, and therefore really transforms her into his audience. Now that he’s going to shape her perceptions, Cobb does the one thing that he knows will stop the dream: He asks her a cerebral question.

Image result for Being and timeCobb plants the idea within Mal’s head that the world is all a dream. That reality may not be real. Now, the nature of reality is a question that has been debated throughout history, and if you would like some opinions on it, I do, again, recommend checking out Wisecrack’s YouTube Channel, as well as some books on ontological philosophers. Maybe read Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. The fact that the person asking this is a fictional character makes it all the more interesting, but I’m not going into that discussion here, because it’s irrelevant to what it does in the movie. The point of the question is that it doesn’t have a simple answer and that it’s completely unemotional. And it ends the film, because the audience, Mal, doesn’t want to think about it.

But, that doesn’t stop the fallout. The impact of Mal’s reaction to the question follows Cobb back out of the film. Then, it follows him into all of Cobb’s subsequent projects. However, this Mal is no longer the audience; now she’s just Cobb’s internal issues manifesting themselves. She represents Cobb’s attempt to correct for the action that killed his first film by adding in what he thinks audiences want: Violence, dramatic tension, emotional plot points, massive special effects sequences, and a hot femme-fatale.

When Mal shows up, she disrupts the movie just so that THERE WILL BE A REAL MOVIE. If everything about Fischer’s inception went correctly, the film would be boring. Sure, it could have contained a ton of great questions about the nature of reality and the collective unconscious, but who the hell is going to show up to that? Audiences hate those movies. That’s why The Dark Knight Rises made $1 Billion, but Memento, a literal game-changing film, didn’t make $40 Million. The more unconventional a film is, the less likely it is to make money (just ask Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, and Edgar Wright, whose careers combined can’t equal Michael Bay’s Box Office… for the first 3 Transformers movies). That doesn’t mean that “conventional” films are inherently worse (they’re not, and they can be enjoyed thoroughly), but it means that your audience is just more likely to reject things that make them think a lot or see something too unusual. They need to connect with the movie.

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This hurt me more to make than it hurts you to read

Cobb, like Nolan, learned from this, even though it tortures him. That’s why in the movie, Cobb explicitly states that the core of “incepting” Fischer has to be an emotional concept and that Fischer’s mind will reject a cerebral core. Audiences can’t handle a movie without an emotional core. Appropriately, Mal’s relationship to Cobb, Cobb’s desire to return to his children, and his internal journey serve as the emotional core of the movie. If you combine the movie and the meta-movie, it means the emotional core of the movie is accepting that there has to be an emotional core to the movie. There has to be a character’s journey that you can connect with on a personal level in order to get the audience to accept the film’s message.

InceptionBrazilBut what does that say about us, as the audience within the movie? Well, it’s saying that we just don’t want to see what Nolan really is dying to show us: A completely cerebral film where we’re engaged and constantly questioning our perception and our understanding of structure. And, he’s probably right. Hell, Brazil, a very inventive and introspective film that is constantly questioning convention and has inspired countless other films (and is one of my favorites), didn’t turn a profit.

Instead, we want to see a heist film with some kickass special effects that focuses on the emotional connections of the main character and contains a bunch of elements that have been pulled from other films so that we’re already conditioned to accept it. Now, parts of that movie can question the nature of reality or the nature of our suspension of disbelief or how dreams have conditioned us to accept the illusion of film, but ultimately, we still need a bunch of relatable stuff to grab onto. Next time, you might be able to go a little further, but, for now, we need something we’ve already processed so that we aren’t lost when the movie talks about those issues. People aren’t gonna want to put forth the effort to make up much of the difference themselves, and, even if they did, they might not be able to.

Image result for charlie and the chocolate factoryThis is why Hollywood is sequels and remakes: Because we feel more comfortable dealing with things that are similar to what we have already seen, and they only want to fund what audiences want to see. If you talk to an experienced film analyst, they can tell you what book the writer read to learn screenwriting, because there will be certain things that happen at certain points of the movie. There’s even a running gag with some reviewers about the overuse of the structure from the screenwriting guide Save the Cat!

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Mercifully over

Luckily, people eventually start noticing similar themes and structures in their films and start to think about them, which causes the end of certain genres or franchises after they get tired. Cliche/Trope recognition is like Lucid Dreaming: You really only gain the ability to control the action, and thereby analyze the movie, when you notice recurring themes and elements. If every night you have the same dream, you are more likely to start to recognize that you’re dreaming. However, once you’re aware of it, it’s not interesting to have the same dream all the time. On a completely unrelated side-note, the Transformers franchise needs to die.

Index, Finger, Pointing, You, Hand, Me, AccusationBut, take a step back, and realize the implication of this message about audiences within this movie. It’s basically a preliminary defense against criticism. It’s not that the inconsistent abilities of the extractors are annoying and pull you out of the movie, it’s that you don’t get it. It’s not that the mechanism by which this dream-scapery works is overly complicated and completely misused by the society that has access to it: It’s that you don’t get it. It’s not that parts of the movie are confusing with all the cuts not only to different characters but also to different dream levels and relative speeds: IT’S THAT YOU JUST DON’T GET IT. You’re Mal, and your inadequacy to accept the novelty and brilliance of the message of the movie as it’s being presented is not the fault of the director. After all, he’s already putting emotional crap and a train into the movie just so you’ll watch it.

Ultimately, if you watched this movie, you just sat through 148 minutes of a director saying that he’s likely wasting his time by trying to provide you with an interesting idea to contemplate, so he’s wrapping your “what is reality” pill with a nice thick slice of “action sequences and relatable emotional plot” bacon.

Now eat it.

Joker’s Rebuttal:

cropped-couchedit1.pngIf Mal represents Nolan’s frustration with audiences not being super open to new ideas or concepts, that’s a sentiment I can completely understand. Nolan worked on this for a decade, during which he saw Memento and The Prestige get absolutely dominated by the box office for, well, The Incredible Hulk film. Not a lot of people were seeing his movies. It feels awful to work so hard on your vision only for most people to dismiss it. So, this movie that he’d put so much effort into, and that seems so autobiographical and personal, really has a lot of emotion invested in it. So, it’s natural to get defensive about the possibility that people might reject your vision for being too nebulous. But, the movie made a ton of money and was loved by critics, so clearly it didn’t turn out too badly, even if it was “compromised” by being a neat idea wrapped around a heist film wrapped around an old story of a guy wanting to move on from his own guilt.

InceptionMindUnderstand, also, that none of this was intentional, if it’s even accurate. In fact, Nolan denies that he consciously put the filmmaking analogy into the film, even if he acknowledges that it’s there. And sure, subconscious or not, Nolan is calling out audiences, because we need to be called out a little. The more a film challenges us, the less likely we are to watch it. That’s just human nature. We should work out, but it’s easier to watch TV. We should cook healthy meals, but it’s easier to grab a burger. We should open ourselves up to having our minds changed in engaging, challenging, debates, but it’s easier to call the other guy a cuck (granted, he’s usually a cuck). We’re more like Fischer: The change we experience at the end of the film is based on emotional appeal, not intellectual contemplation. The change is of the heart, not the mind. And that’s not inherently bad, by the way.

Emotional appeal is typically the strongest because emotions are the things upon which we base our values. Why do you want to be alive? Because of emotions: Fear, excitement, love, hate, etc. Why would you want to stop an innocent person you’ve never met from dying of hunger by donating to charity? Empathy. Priorities are based on values, which are typically based on emotional responses. Now, from those values, we can create logical reinforcements for those beliefs, or entire logical systems to contemplate how best to express or empower those values, but the values themselves are generally based on feelings. Nolan, unconsciously, is pissed off that you can make a worse film that uses emotional appeals that will be more successful than a “better” film that uses a cerebral approach to make you question perceptions (and yes, excitement at an action sequence is still an emotional response. So is hearing a John Williams score and feeling that inside of his soul is a complex universe we will never be able to comprehend).

And maybe we’re reading too much into this film. Maybe this entire interpretation is just an ass-pull. I think it tracks logically, but it’s always a little speculative to try to dissect someone’s subconscious from their work. Maybe this is us inserting our own opinions into Chris Nolan’s mouth. But, I don’t think so. Nolan loves movies. He’s one of the most vocal proponents of film being an art form. The fact that such a relatively small number of people want to really sit down and think about what the film is saying and what it means to them and grow from it is probably really hard for an artist to deal with. So, maybe his solution was to try and embed a message to audiences to be better. We shouldn’t be upset by that. He wants to help, and the first step to helping someone is to get them to acknowledge that there’s a problem. So, maybe, we should be more willing to go outside of our comfort zone. That’s my two cents, anyway.

Joker out.

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

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Reader Bonus: The Monster Squad

This movie is magical. I have loved it from the first time I saw it probably 20 or so years ago. In a lot of ways, this movie encapsulates one of my most basic philosophies of media: A movie can do anything, as long as it is consistent in the amount of disbelief it asks the audience to suspend. While the monsters in this movie are clearly just people wearing cheap costumes, that’s as a tribute to the old horror movies that the kids in the film are obsessed with. The movie asks you to just go with it because it’s fun, and dammit, that’s enough of a reason to go with it.

So, the Monster Squad is the story of a group of kids who are big fans of old-school monster films, mostly the Universal Monster films from the 1930s-50s and the Hammer films of the 50s-70s. The kids are the Monster Squad, not the actual monsters, despite the monsters also being in a squad. Or perhaps the monsters are the squad, but then the kids also take the name at the end of the movie…. There are many mysteries contained within this film.

SUMMARY

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So, the movie begins with Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) fighting Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and attempting to cast him into Limbo. However, Van Helsing fails and is trapped within the other world himself.

100 years later, Van Helsing’s diary ends up in the hands of newly teenaged Monster-phile Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower). In what is one of the most unbelievably excellent moments in film history, and one that films regularly skip over, Sean finds out that he can’t read the diary, not because it’s encoded, but because it’s in German (Actually Dutch, but why would Sean know the difference?). You know, the language that Van Helsing would naturally write in, because he’s Dutch in the book. Out of basically every Dracula adaptation, this is one of the only ones that actually bother to point this out when reading his diary.

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Sean and the rest of his friends, Patrick, Horace, Rudy, Eugene, and occasionally Sean’s 5-year-old sister Phoebe (Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Ryan Lambert, Michael Faustino, and Ashley Bank) go to see the local Scary German Man (Leonardo Cimino), who, as it turns out, is a kind old man who is happy to translate it from Dutch. Also, he was a former concentration camp prisoner. See, the scary figure actually was kind and himself a victim of cruelty. I wonder if this theme will come back in the film?

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A Victim. Not a monster.

The Diary describes an amulet that is composed of concentrated good energy. It helps keep the balance of good and evil in the world. However, one day out of every 100 years, it becomes vulnerable to destruction, which would unbalance the world and allow evil to run rampant. However, on that same day, the amulet can be used to balance all supernatural evil from the world, by casting it into limbo. And, darned if that day isn’t pretty soon. How surprising.

The Amulet was hidden in the US by the apprentices of Van Helsing so that Dracula couldn’t find it, but now, Dracula is coming. He summons his most vicious monstrous assistants: The Mummy (Michael MacKay), The Creature who may or may not be from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr.), The Wolf Man (Carl Thibault), and three school girls (Mary Albee, Joan-Carrol Baron, and Julie Merrill) who are made into his vampire brides. Dracula also breaks into a military plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan), who he assumes will join his army. However, the Monster, being part human, doesn’t like Dracula that much. The monster wanders off into the forest where he encounters Phoebe, who befriends him. The rest of the Monster Squad meets Frankenstein and determines that he is not evil, but kind, misunderstood, and a victim of cruelty. … I feel like I wrote that before.

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… Yes, this is really from the movie.

Meanwhile, the Wolf Man, when he’s human, is also not a fan of Dracula, and he keeps calling the police, who, of course, ignore him for talking about monsters. However, Sean’s father Del (Stephen Macht), is assigned to investigate all of the weirdness happening around town. He doesn’t believe any of it to be supernatural, of course.

Dracula and the monsters actually are occupying the building where the amulet is found, but the room it’s contained in is so littered with wards that no evil being can enter. The kids break in and steal it, and manage to avoid getting caught by Dracula. However, Dracula responds by following them back to their treehouse and… BLOWING IT UP WITH DYNAMITE.

MonsterSquadDraculaDynamite.jpg
I say Boom Boom Boom.

No, really, in what is one of my favorite movie moments, Dracula doesn’t do the traditional “sneak into your home and attack you personally” thing, he just starts chucking explosives. He’s immune to being blown up, why the hell wouldn’t he do this all the time? It’s brilliant. However, it does draw the attention of Sean’s dad, who finally sees Dracula and believes in the supernatural explanation for recent events.

The team have to find a female virgin to read the incantation to banish evil, and it must be on holy ground, so they drive to a cathedral with their older sister Lisa (Lisa Fuller). However, because it’s a cathedral, not a 7/11, it’s closed at midnight. However, they decide to read it on the stoop, as a work-around, since the entryway is technically holy ground. Lisa begins reading, but the spell fails, because Lisa had figured that the stuff she did with one of her exes “didn’t count.” Apparently the universe draws a different line than she does.

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… No comment

So, naturally, they realize that the 5-year-old Phoebe is a virgin, and the German man helps her read the spell. Meanwhile, Dracula and his monsters have come, so the kids face off against the monsters. What follows is a simultaneous invocation of monster lore (like pointing out that they need a silver bullet to kill a werewolf/no one knows the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Weakness) with a mockery/common sense takedown of them (alternate solution: hit him in the groin really hard and blow him up with dynamite. Doesn’t kill him, but slows him down a lot/ Bullets work really well on fish). Eventually, they manage to kill all of the monsters except for Dracula, who arrives late.

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Bullets! One of my only weaknesses! Also knives, cars, and heat lamps.

Dracula, unfortunately for the kids, doesn’t really screw around, and just starts killing a ton of the police with ease. He finally reaches Phoebe, and threatens her, however, Frankenstein’s monster shows up and spears Dracula with a wrought-iron fencepost as the portal to Limbo opens. Dracula grabs Sean, who manages to stake Dracula through the heart. However, this doesn’t actually kill him, but at the last moment, Abraham Van Helsing emerges from the portal and pulls Dracula in with him.

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Frankenstein then goes into the portal willingly, knowing that he doesn’t belong in the world of humans, and the portal won’t close without the monsters being on the other side. Phoebe gives him a stuffed animal to remember her.

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Soon, the Army shows up, ready to fight the monsters, but Sean informs them that evil has already been slain, presenting the General with a business card referring to them as “The Monster Squad.” Roll. F*cking. Credits.

END SUMMARY

What’s crazy is that I love this movie mostly for the reasons that other critics seem to hate it. First, it has a ludicrously high body count for a movie starring kids. Dracula is not the traditional portrayal; here he is decidedly more vicious and ruthlessly efficient. He’s not out to seduce lonely housewives or whatever, he’s here to take over the world, and to get rid of the people in his way. He has super-strength, invulnerability, and is immortal. He just dynamites his enemies, because that’s simpler than having to find a way to be invited in. This is one of my favorite Dracula performances of all time.

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I could turn into a bat, but… Dynamite, bitches!

Second, all of the monsters look like guys in costumes. Well, no sh*t. That’s what they are. The movie is a tribute to the costumes of the old horror movies. But they’re damned good costumes. Until The Shape of Water came out, this was my favorite-looking Fish-man (Abe Sapien is his own category).

Third, the plot’s generic. Well, yeah, but they use the generic plot to explore within it. And they play around with it enough to make it fun. Plus, the details are actually kind of nice. Van Helsing’s Diary isn’t in English. Cathedrals aren’t open at Midnight during the week. “Virgin” isn’t exactly clearly defined, because they don’t say whose standard it is. Nothing in mythology about the Creature from the Black Lagoon says you can’t just shoot him. These are great things that the movie points out, it’s like they intentionally were trying to avert some of the more common tropes of these horror movies.

Ultimately, I think this movie is underrated. I really do. I like the fact that it’s ALL of the Universal horror monsters together. I like the fact that Frankenstein is portrayed sympathetically. I like the fact that Dracula is just an unstoppable killing machine when he wants to be. I like the fact that the US Government knows enough about monsters to send in a huge number of soldiers and tanks to deal with them. Is it the best movie? No, but it’s damned fun and it delivers exactly what it promises. Honestly, this is one of the best homages to classic horror, and I hope it keeps getting seen.

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.