The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coen Brothers’ last feature, Hail, Caesar!, was one of my very favorite films of 2016 and one of my all-time dearest favorites from the directors’ mighty catalog. It’s a testament to how little interest I have in the Western as a genre, then, that it took me so long to catch up with the Coens’ follow-up to that philosophical Old Hollywood farce. Readily available on Netflix for months, nominated for several Academy Awards, and elbowing its way to the top of many critics’ Best Films of 2018 lists (including James’s), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have registered as must-see-ASAP material in the scramble to catch up with the best films 2018 had to offer. Early in its runtime, I even felt foolish for having let it cool on the shelf for so long, as its opening ten minutes are an energizing, over-the-top subversion of a genre that normally bores me to tears. My appreciation quickly plummeted from there, however, as it more often participated in the standard tones & tropes of the classic Western without subversion or update – sometimes to disturbing political implication, often to by-the-numbers tedium. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t transcend genre so much as it gleefully rolls around in it.

This is an anthology of Western tales with an elegantly simple wraparound: an illustrated hardcover collection of short stories set in the Old West titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” As a disembodied hand flips the pages of the book it becomes clear why the titular story was highlighted as a standout and the other tales were grouped together beneath it. Coens veteran Tim Blake Nelson stars as the eponymous Buster Scruggs, parodying the exact smiling, singing cowboy archetype from Old Hollywood Westerns that Alden Ehrenreich played in Hail, Caesar!. Against the intensely artificial desert backdrops & drunken saloon shootout settings of classic cowboy musicals, Buster Scruggs exists as a kind of Bugs Bunny anarchist – mugging directly to the audience while enacting a brutal trail of slapstick violence. The segment’s Looney Tunes-level exaggeration of the typical Western’s brutality and anarchic mockery of its usual somber adherence to a strict moral code were a welcome subversion of a genre that could use some shaking up. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film felt so grim & macho (and weirdly racist) in the exact ways I’m usually bored with in this genre template.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings. Tall tales of brutish men fearlessly carving out a space for themselves in harsh, untamed terrain, nary a woman in sight; tone-deaf vignettes of white celebrities playing cowboy by slaughtering the indigenous nations of the land without subversion or critique; the indignity of having to continue looking at James Franco: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so often an unpleasant, outdated bore that by its final segments it’s difficult to remember all the way back (over two hours earlier) to the live-action cartoon subversion that opened the show. There’s something to be admired in how the Coens use the avatar of Buster Scruggs, billing him as The Misanthrope, to exaggerate the way their cruel, ironic pessimism is often interpreted by critics despite their ostensible role as singing, dancing entertainers, before then leaning into the exact prolonged misanthropy they’re too often dinged for. The problem is the contrast between those two modes – the self-parody and the business-as-usual – is unfavorable to the majority of the runtime.

As someone who’s bored by Westerns almost by default and doesn’t have the same scholarly, intensive interest in the Coens as a lot of serious Film Nerds do, I’m probably the exact wrong voice to weigh in on this film’s merits. After several unsuccessful attempts to watch their much-beloved No Country for Old Men in its entirely without falling asleep, for instance, my opinion here is likely not to be trusted. Either way, I do believe “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth a look. I just don’t think the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” have much to offer beyond what you’d expect from the “Coen Brothers Western” premise of the anthology.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Poison (1991)

It’s a goddamn shame the world has not been treated to more Todd Haynes features. Although the director has a follow-up to his recent critical hit Carol already on its way, the near-ten year gap between Carol & its predecessor, I’m Not There., is alarming, to put it lightly. At the same time, though, it’s actually something of a miracle that Haynes has had a career at all. I’d count works like Velvet Goldmine & Safe among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime (or they at least felt that way when I first saw them in high school), but it’s shocking that the director was even able to get them made, much less turn their minor indie world successes into more mainstream-friendly dramas like Carol or Far from Heaven. How is a director widely known for making an unsanctioned Karen Carpenter biopic with an all-Barbie doll cast or a pansexual glam rock opera that implies a rumored  romantic affair between Bowie & Iggy still around & pulling funding from prestigious, Oscar-worthy dramas? I love the improbability of his career. It’s an absurd unlikelihood that dates at least as far back as his first feature film, a fractured anthology about queer anxiety that somehow pulls influence from both 1950s drive-in creature features & Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. Todd Haynes has always been a movie industry anomaly, a fact proven by that debut somehow winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the year of its release.

Poison is an interwoven tryptic of three separate narratives. One story is a documentary shot in lurid Douglas Sirk colors about a young, constantly bullied boy who “murders his father and then flies away.” Another details unspoken homosexual desire between two 1940s prisoners that grows increasingly violent the longer it’s ignored. The third, most oddly lighthearted story, is a parody of 1950s B-pictures where a scientist accidentally consumes his own “sex drive serum” and becomes a monstrous, lethal leper. These stories might feel entirely disharmonious at first glance, even ranging from black & white to dull color to full Douglas Sirk indulgences in visual richness. However, they are each tied together by an expression of queer anxiety. Childhood bullying, living closeted, unexpressed desire, and the menace of HIV/AIDS inform so much of the film’s unspoken conflict that its context as a work of pure queer anxiety cannot be ignored. It’s felt as soon as the opening quote exclaims, “The whole world is dying of panicky fright” and never lets up as its three stories concurrently barrel towards their unavoidably sour ends. What’s most bizarre is the way Haynes can play this anxiety for varied effect. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes shockingly brutal, and often trafficking in the delicate, distilled imagery of a Guy Maddin picture, Poison’s intent & effect is a scattered, but consistently fascinating mess of anxious expressions of queerness.

As with a lot of first time features, this is a film that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. It’s jarring how widely ranging Haynes allows those influences to be, though, touching on everything from John Waters & Roger Corman to Jean Genet & James Bidgood. I’m not sure you can detect the eventual greatness Haynes would eventually synthesize these influences into in titles like Velvet Goldmine, but it’s so much fun watching him clash them against each other in this fractured anthology piece. Poison is recognizably the work of a young, enthusiastic, queer man aching to unleash his weirdo sensibilities on the movie world at large. I find it both improbable & delightful that he’s been rewarded for it, even if his work has been despairingly infrequent as of late. As a film, it’s difficult to deny that Poison is rough around the edges, perhaps even by design, but as a cultural object it has a kind of punk art world shakeup quality that’s easy to find infectious. At times I wished during its runtime that I could have watched any one of its vignettes play out on its own instead of the three fighting each other for air, but they worked well together as a kind of anxious artist’s statement and initiative war cry for a rewarding career that’s only gotten more delightfully improbable as the decades have rolled on.

-Brandon Ledet

5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

One of the year’s best surprises so far was the animated Japanese romance epic Your Name., which felt like it came out of nowhere before jumping into shockingly wide American distribution. Audiences who closely follow Japanese popular media were probably a lot less surprised by the film’s stellar quality and critical word of mouth success, however. Not only was Your Name. the top-grossing film in Japan last year, anime or otherwise, but it’s director Makoto Shinkai had been praised as “the next Miyazaki” for at least a decade now, despite not having much name recognition abroad. What really should have telegraphed the arrival of Your Name., though, was Shinkai’s sophomore feature, 5 Centimeters per Second, which shared a lot of basic DNA with the director’s breakout hit despite being released a decade in the past. It’s not nearly as significant or as cohesive of a work, but it is certainly fascinating as a wind-up to the pitch.

Told in a series of three interconnected vignettes, 5 Centimeters per Second is a kind of romance anthology, adopting a format usually employed by the horror genre. A young boy named Takaki yearns for intimacy with a classmate who moves to the countryside, several gruelling trains transfers away. In the first segment Takaki journeys to meet her at the station. In the second, he’s slightly older and painfully unaware that his current highschool classmate has a crush on him. His mind is still wrapped up in his childhood crush. The third segment finds Takaki as an adult with a job as an office drone, still living in an unfulfilled life as he mentally searches for a childhood love that never saw its due. Much like Your Name., it’s a film about two romantics separated by time & distance who yearn for an impossible shared space where they can fully explore their feelings for each other. Unlike Your Name., this film feels like a series of loosely connected, lightly detailed sketches that never truly come together in a cohesive way.

The three segments that make up 5 Centimeters per Second are obviously differentiated by drastic shifts in time: Takaki’s life as a school age boy with a devastating crush, his year as a hunky but oblivious highschool senior, and his adult state as a depressed, unfulfilled office worker. What really differentiates between these periods, however, and what keeps them interesting, is their individual senses of pacing. The opening puppy love segment is shot rapid fire at the screen with the excited energy of a young child to whom everything means so much. The highschool episode slows things down significantly, making room for reflective stargazing, matching Takaki’s off-in-the-distance sense of mental wandering. The concluding segment oddly ties the whole thing together by starting with Takaki’s aimless descent into dull adulthood tedium, but then reigniting the excitement of the film’s romantic spark with a music video crescendo that incorporates imagery from Takaki’s entire life onscreen. Each individual part has a clear sense of how to match its story with a corresponding cinematic energy, even if Shinkai is much less deliberate in how he brings them all together.

You can feel so many of Shinkai’s pet obsessions just starting to take shape in 5 Centimeters per Second that it makes sense it would take a decade for them to fully form. The film not only plays with the same city boy & country girl sending messages long distance dynamic of Your Name., but anchors that romance to a lot of similar imagery: cityscapes glistening like natural formations, birds flying against outer space backdrops, travel by trains, teens staring into cellphones in anticipation, etc. However, Shinkai seems less confident in this earlier work how to incorporate supernatural sci-fi into its central romance and how to conclude a story that spans such a long distance in both space & time. 5 Centimeters Per Second does stand well enough on it own as “a chain of short stories,” but it often feels like the sketchbook plans of the much better feature to come. Fans enamored with Your Name. should be able to find a lot to connect with in that respect, even if the movie is a loosely defined experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dungeonmaster (1985)

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Although there’s no way to ever again think about or mention the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” without calling to mind the short film that took the internet by storm last year, few statements are more accurate when it comes to the abysmal failings of 1985’s The Dungeonmaster. The title is inaccurate, as there are absolutely no dungeons in this movie, nor is there a master of these unseen dungeons. The alternate title, Digital Knights, is also incorrect, as there is only one person who could reasonably be called a knight in this film. In fact, even the original title, Ragewar: The Challenges of Excalibrate (as it was known before the reaction from a San Antonio test audience convinced the producers to change it), was also wrong, as there is no war in this movie whatsoever, and, despite it being mostly garbage, you’ll feel more unfulfilled by the movie’s underwhelming 73 minutes than moved to any strong emotion; this movie can’t inspire mild interest, let alone rage.

In 1989, Charles Band founded direct-to-video production company Full Moon Entertainment. Although it’s easy to ignore how revolutionary this was at the time, Full Moon was the first studio to create features exclusively for the burgeoning home video rental market in much the same way Netflix began creating content for its subscribers when streaming video began to catch on as an alternative to broadcast TV. Their first film was the surprise hit Puppet Master, which was not only a sharp and commercially successful film but also included a featurette about the film’s production on both the VHS tape and the Laserdisc, a novel idea at the time. When Full Moon released its fifth feature, the sequel Puppet Master II, it also introduced VideoZone, a video magazine that featured introductions from Band, featurettes, ads for Full Moon merchandise, and interviews that spotlighted upcoming releases. It was a brilliant and inventive business model that reflects how Band was an innovator, despite a less-than-stellar reputation that features (probably true) accusations of plagiarism and failure to properly credit artists involved in his ventures.

The strange thing about Dungeonmaster is that it also demonstrates innovation, or at least attempts to. The film is about handsome computer programmer Paul (Jeffrey Byron), who has created an inexplicably advanced computer named X-CaliBR8, which, in addition to acting as his FitBit/Google Glass/smartwatch, allows him to interface with ATMs and control traffic lights while being kind of a dick to commuters. Also, “Cal” (voiced by an uncredited actress) can process data like some kind of god, answering seriously open-ended questions featuring an anxiety-inducing number of factors with more speed than it took me to construct this sentence. Paul’s girlfriend, Gwen (Leslie Wing), is jealous of Paul’s relationship with the sultry-voiced computer, but she accepts his seemingly impromptu marriage proposal with only minor hesitation.

That night, the couple is kidnapped by Mestema (Night Court‘s Richard Moll–in fact, TV legend has it that he shaved his head for this role and then auditioned for the sitcom, leading the producers to suggest he keep it that way for all nine seasons), a sorcerer or demon or something, who transports Gwen and Paul to a quarry somewhere. He turns Paul’s magic computer into a gauntlet with buttons, and it is just as ridiculous and terrible as you are imagining; Cal identifies Mestema as the devil himself, which, were I Satan, I would find terribly embarrassing. Mestema exposits to Paul, to whom he gives the awful, awful name “Excalibrate,” that he has waited a long time for a challenger who’s up to his level or something and issues Excalibrate a challenge to seven trials, or else Mestema gets to keep Gwen. That’s where Band’s innovation comes into play: the rest of the film plays out as an anthology, with each of the seven trials being directed by a different person. This makes the story mostly incoherent overall, but some segments are better than others. In order to give the film a fair star rating, I’m going to rate each segment individually and then average them out.

The first trial contains the images that intrigued me most when I saw the trailer, as it features a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion statue monster. Entitled “Stone Canyon Giant,” this sequence was directed by David Allen; unsurprisingly, Allen’s earliest credit is for cult classic Equinox, where he worked on the movie’s beloved (if campy) visual effects. His only other feature directing credit is for the aforementioned Puppet Master II, but he was a stop motion artist and puppeteer on both classics like Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and *batteries not included as well as disputably nonclassic but beloved movies like The Howling, The Stuff, and Prehysteria (which was released on Moonbeam Entertainment, Full Moon’s family-oriented division). The titular giant is bound to induce nostalgic reminiscence of Harryhausens of yore, and the segment also features an appearance by New Orleans native Phil Fondacaro, formerly the second most well-known little person in show biz (Peter Dinklage has knocked him down to third place, with Warwick Davis still in first by a wide margin, in my book). Overall, though, it’s mostly mediocre, and it isn’t helped by the fact that it includes the first of many times we will see Paul inexplicably shoot lasers from the wrist-mounted Cal. 2.5 Stars.

The second segment was directed by Band himself, and is a headache-inducing music video for W.A.S.P. in which Paul must force his way through a group of “scary looking” punks at a metal show before Blackie Lawless (as himself, I guess) can turn into Mestema and cut Gwen in half. It’s titled “Heavy Metal” and is just awful. 1 Star.

The third segment is titled “Demons of the Dead” and was directed by John Carl Buechler. Two years later, Buechler would direct the underrated classic Troll starring The NeverEnding Story‘s Noah Hathaway, a movie which has long been surpassed in popularity by its (notoriously and endearingly) awful not-really-a-sequel sequel. He went on to direct the seventh Friday the 13th as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (wait, what?), as well as a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of. I knew that this would be Buechler’s segment from the moment I caught sight of Ratspit, a highly detailed and technically perfect goblin puppet who rules the dead. Most of the segment is utterly forgettable. Fighting reanimated corpses should be more exciting than this! 3.5 Stars.

The fourth segment, “Slasher,” relocates Paul to contemporary New York, where he spends most of the time he’s supposed to be saving Gwen from a serial killer trying to escape from the custody of two clumsy cops. This sequence does have some striking visual elements in its favor, but it, too, is largely forgettable. This was the only directorial effort ever put forth by actor Steven Ford, whose roles include such noteworthy appearances as “Secret Service #2” in Escape from New York, “Nuke Tech” in Armageddon, the nameless “Four Star General” in Transformers, and “Prometheus First Officer” in Babylon 5: In the Beginning. 1.5 Stars.

If I remember correctly, the fifth segment was Rosemarie Turko’s “The Ice Gallery,” which works in the sense that it feels like an homage to Hammer Films. Paul and Gwen are once again separated in a cave full of fictional and historical monsters frozen like wax figures in a museum. Marie Antoinette and Jack the Ripper are there, alongside the Wolfman, a mummy, a samurai, and, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, Albert Einstein. This is probably the most visually interesting segment overall, even if it’s dumb. Turko’s only previous film experience was writing, producing, and directing a film titled Scarred, about an underage girl who turns to prostitution to support her baby. She never directed, wrote, or produced anything after Dungeonmaster. 3 Stars.

“The Cave Beast” is the penultimate trial. It makes no sense. Paul gets lured into a cave and vanquishes a monster that is actually revealed to be an angel once defeated, or something, by figuring out how to reflect laser beams off of stuff. Director Paul Manoogian also directed Full Moon’s Demonic Toys and was the first AD on James Franco’s bombed directorial debut The Ape. 1.5 Stars.

The final segment was directed by Ted Nicolaou, director of TerrorVision and all of the Subspecies movies. He also directed Bad Channels, a Full Moon release about a radio station that is taken over by an alien infestation and features a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack (I have a fondness for Bad Channels that I know is indefensible). His contribution to this film, “Desert Pursuit,” however, is a lazy Mad Max rip off that features, as you might have guessed, a pursuit through the desert in ridiculous vehicles. 1 Star.

Paul wins all the trials, challenges Mestema to a physical fight that the warlock loses, and throws Richard Moll into a convenient lava pit. The end. Wraparound story: 1.5 Stars. So, the average is just shy of 2 Stars (1.9375, if you want to get obsessive about it). Despite an intriguing approach, Dungeonmaster is a lousy movie overall. If you want a positive experience, track down and watch the film’s trailer, as it consists of the three good minutes of this movie and leaves out the chaff.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond