Archive for Someone Else’s Writing

Poorly Scheduled Film Analysis: TED

By | September 29, 2014 | 0 Comments
Ted Actually Happened

Ted Actually Happened

So, this essay is going to be about the film Ted, directed by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame and co-written by him as well, starring Marky Mark and Mila Kunis. You may have seen it two years ago when this essay might have had some cultural relevance.

Anyhoo, I was thinking about this movie again for reasons impossible to explain. It’s not a terrible movie. Like all of MacFarlane’s work, it has flashes of quick wit and even brilliance muddied up with poop jokes and a frenetic over-reliance on the flashback. Still, all in all I enjoyed it. Except something has always bugged me about Ted. Something’s always been a bit off. Can you put your finger on it?

The titular Ted in this movie is an enchanted teddy bear who magically comes to life. But he completely, totally, absolutely does not need to be.

The Courage of Your (Writing) Convictions

Let’s consider this. No, seriously, let’s. There is absolutely no story reason that Ted has to be a magical teddy bear. None. Let’s play a thought experiment: Imagine watching this movie, and Ted is replaced by a CGI Benny Hill. Everything except some minor dialog would be exactly the same: Marky Mark and Ted become friends as children, Ted has some brief fame (for a reason other than being a magical teddy bear, of course – stay with me here), and Marky Mark’s girlfriend is fed up with their immaturity and lack of focus.

Every single plot point and scene still works with Benny Hill instead of a teddy bear. Every. Single. Plot point. Even the kidnapping at the end makes sense if we assume that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is just insane. Which, since he’s being played by the always-disturbing Giovanni Ribisi, we assume he is. Heck, even the one liners and jokes generally wouldn’t have to change, or not change much.

So why is Ted a teddy bear? Why bother when the movie’s really a buddy film about two friends finally taking the plunge into independent adulthood? I can only speculate, but I think he maybe didn’t trust his material.

I’ve done that: Dressed up a story as something else because I didn’t think I had anything funny or exciting to say. Turned a detective story into a SF story, a love story into a horror story, all because I thought I needed a lot of scares and flashing lights to keep people’s attention. I can’t say that Seth MacFarlane did that. Maybe he had a meeting with your typical Hollywood Producer:

MacFarlane: I have this idea for a coming-of-age comedy starring Marky Mark.

Producer: I am so stoned right now you appear to be a magical talking teddy bear.

MacFarlane: Okay … uh, it’s really warm and witty with my trademark –

Producer: This briefcase is filled with cocaine and cash. You can have it all if you make a movie about a talking toy bear. Otherwise I will dedicate my life to destroying you professionally.

MacFarlane: … SOLD!

You know it’s possible. In fact, I am now 100% certain this is exactly how Ted – and several other recent Hollywood films – came to be. My only question is, why won’t someone with a suitcase filled with cocaine and cash show up and force me to make films from my books?

Just Because Some Watery Tart Threw a Sword at You

By | August 28, 2014 | 2 Comments

I’ve had Enough of The One for a Lifetime

Hi there. I'm He-Man. Won't Someone Love Me?

Hi there. I’m He-Man. Won’t Someone Love Me?

Let us discuss He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, because it is a subject that has been sorely ignored by the media old and new for too long. When I was a kid He-Man was on TV all the time, protecting Castle Grayskull for some reason and fighting his eternal battle against Skeletor, who wanted in to Castle Grayskull for some reason. It’s all a bit fuzzy, because I was ten years old, and because I barely remember anything from all that time ago. I remember almost nothing from yesterday, in fact, so thirty years ago? We’ll need Leo DiCaprio and his totem to drill in that deeply.

Still, the problem of motivation: Why was He-Man He-Man? In other words, aside from Mattel’s desperate need to sell kids like me plastic action figures and advertising on the cartoon, why was He-Man chosen to be super strong and manly by The Sorceress (Note: There was also a Sorceress)? Aside from the fact that he’s one of about two men in reasonable physical shape on Eternia, his buddy Man At Arms would have been a better choice. Man At Arms is not only in pretty buff shape to begin with, he’s also a technical genius inventor of weapons. If you’re handing out He-Man-ness to random people, why not him?

An argument could be made that giving Man At Arms super powers in addition to his super-genius at creating awesome death-dealing weapons would have made him too powerful. I reject this argument because it requires a depth of thought impossible in the He-Man universe. He-Man is chosen to be He-Man simply because – and that is awful storytelling.

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Ancient Book Reviews Part Two

By | August 21, 2014 | 1 Comments
Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s As Far As I was Concerned

Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s as Far as I Was Concerned

Not too long ago I wrote about Lyndon Hardy’s “Five Magics” series with the intention of regularly returning to my ancient bookshelves to contemplate treasured cheap paperbacks from my youth. And then of course forgot all about it. Until today! Today for reasons beyond my ken I was moved to consider one of the most obscure books I’ve ever read, and one that I will frankly admit I do not remember at all: Dennis McCarty’s Flight to Thlassa Mey, published by Del Rey in 1986 and on my shelves ever since.

I remember nothing about this book, or the two sequels I also own.

This is what fascinates me about my book collection, these books I can’t remember. Dennis McCarty sold this book, no doubt promoted it, and published sequels and at least one other book I can identify – and yet no one remembers him or this book. Sure, someone does, but collectively he’s been burned out of the pattern. Since I always worry this will be my own fate, I’m drawn back to these obscure books.

And yet, nothing, literally nothing remains in my memory about this book. Sure, I read it 30 years ago and never again since – but you’d think something would remain, right? There are books on my shelves with similar stories – bought three decades ago by a younger man, read once, carted around the country ever since – but I recall at least a few slivers of detail and plot from them.

Flight to Thlassa Mey: Nothing.

The scant information on the Internet doesn’t help much; the book was a fairly standard fantasy from the 1980s (one glance at the cover tells you as much) and it was a time in my life when I was reading three books a week, just burning through cheap paperbacks like there was no tomorrow. I probably read this in three days and was on to the next thing immediately afterwards, all of its story elements lost in a swirl of swords and wizards and (based on the cover) princesses wearing ridiculous head gear.

But it is precisely this lack of information and memory that now fascinates me. Sure, I could read this again and maybe I should, but what really grabs me about this is the complete obscurity of it all. Try to find out something about the author or his books: I dare you. And that of course drives me to pour approximately six fingers of whiskey into a paper cup and slam it down, forgetting that I had just done that a few moments ago, and now here I am finishing this post from the hospital. Again.

Certainly the odds are good that I’ll be this guy in 20 years. While I’ve sold a few books and made a little money (and published more novels – 9 in October than most), I haven’t made any lasting cultural impact and don’t pretend that I have. If I stopped writing today, slowly I’d just sink beneath the waves of history, which will likely happen even if I continue to publish – there are books and authors that were best sellers in their day that are now totally forgotten, after all.

So, for a book review, this was shit. I can’t remember a thing about the book. You have learned nothing concerning whether or not you should read this book aside from the fact that no one remembers it which I guess is actually a pretty useful piece of data so this was, in fact, a great review and you are welcome.

The Real Reason “Halt & Catch Fire” Sucked

By | August 15, 2014 | 1 Comments
This poster is much better than the actual show.

This poster is much better than the actual show.

So, if you were one of the very small number of people who watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC this summer (possible reasons for your interest include being fascinated by 1980s-era computer technology and hacking [that would be my excuse] or possibly a fascination with bad television [also, strangely, me]), you likely share my reaction to the Season One Finale: A disgusted shrug. Put succinctly: This show was awful.

Also, the Whitest Show Ever Produced (and I watch Mad Men, y’all). But mainly: Awful.

It was, however, awful in a curious way. Yes, the writing was slipshod, the show reached for ridiculous dramatic moments far too often and failed to pull them off, and for some reason thought simply giving a character a “mysterious backstory” and then immediately revealing it to be a shallow and poorly conceived …. non-moment was somehow deconstructive or brilliant. Sure, stipulated.

The real reason this show sucked? It was too real. Halt and Catch Fire was the realest fucking show on television.

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“Dollhouse” and The Problem with U.S.-Style TV

By | August 6, 2014 | 4 Comments

DollhouseIf you fear spoilers on 5-year old TV shows, boy are you in the wrong place.

About five years late to the party, I started watching Dollhouse on Netflix recently out of curiosity. I remember the show, vaguely, from it’s run on broadcast TV, recalled the slight buzz about the unaired season 1 finale, so I tuned in. I often watch stuff out of morbid curiosity: Canceled shows, films with record low Tomatometer rankings, that sort of thing.

Dollhouse, for those who don’t share my morbid curiosity about failed pop culture, is a Joss Whedon show developed around the concept of “imprinting” personalities on people. The titular “dolls” are volunteers (mostly) who sign a 5-year contract, have their own personalities removed, and spend their time being imprinted with whatever the clients need them to be. Sometimes it’s a security expert. Sometimes a secret agent. Usually, the show implies very heavily, it’s a sex toy.

The show starts off a little rough with some really, really bad stories involving reasons to get Eliza Dushku into skimpy outfits. Slowly, the over-arching story arc asserts itself: The “doll” technology is getting out of hand, and that unaired final episode of season 1 makes it very clear: The “doll” technology is going to end the world as we know it.

Dollhouse as it ended up – 26 episodes – is a hot mess. But there’s a really, really great story in there that would have worked incredibly well in a British-style short-run of maybe 10-12 episodes.

The American Model  = Doom

To be fair, you can almost see (and Whedon has said as much) how Dollhouse got sold: Eliza Dushku in hot outfits, engaged in a new Charlie’s Angel-esque adventure every week, but with a Sci-Fi glamour about it. The first few episodes are pretty much this, and they’re awful. Whedon actually started to say publicly that people should stick around for episode 6 of the first season because that’s where he thought he began to assert the type of show he really wanted to make – and it shows.

A lot of Dollhouse is this awful filler, with the “dolls” instantly transformed into spies, backup dancers, fancy prostitutes, and other fairly dull ideas. The true joy of this series is in the back story and the arc, which details how the technology became mobile and broadcastable – meaning you could “imprint” someone over the phone, essentially – and how that basically allowed the rich and powerful to live forever by snatching other bodies, and how that basically led to the total breakdown of society and the end of civilization.

That story is pretty damn good.

The other aspects of the show that work are where the basic premise of imprinting someone is explored in more interesting ways. When a Doll is imprinted with a recently murdered woman who then investigates her own murder. When a major character on the show is revealed to have been a Doll who wasn’t aware of her status – who thought she was real, and her reaction to this knowledge is explored.

But mainly, it’s the end-of-the-world stuff that grabbed me. Cut away about 50% of the episodes, and you’d have a pretty tight British-style show that told an interesting Sci-Fi story. And you’d still have plenty of opportunities to put Dushku into miniskirts and have her shake her ass a little.

That’s the problem with American-style TV: The goal is always infinite episodes, or at least 100 episodes and syndication. This automatically lends itself to padding, filler, and awful plot decisions. In fact, I’d say that the fact that Dollhouse was pretty much always in danger of being cancelled at any time is likely why so much of it actually works – because Whedon was forced to always be thinking hard about getting his story goals accomplished. I can picture him madly typing away in some smoke-filled office, trying desperately to get to a denouement before FOX canceled his ass.

Is Dollhouse great TV? Not really. But it might have been, if they weren’t shooting for infinite episodes. Now that we’re moving into an era when a show like Dollhouse, with its traditionally puny 26 episodes – along with popular British fare like Sherlock, Luther, and The Fall – can be successful on Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu, maybe we’ll see more experimentation this way, and more shows modeled on a shorter run, with less filler. And that would be awesome.

 

X Men: Days of Future Past

By | May 29, 2014 | 3 Comments
Kitty Pride Indeed

Kitty Pride Indeed

Let’s say you have a time machine. What would you change? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you would go back in time and buy me a drink that one time when you refused to buy me a drink because I kept mispronouncing your name and then braying like a donkey, clearly implying that I knew I was mispronouncing your name. But looking back you realize I deserved that drink, and because I was sober I went on a rampage of writing novels and you hate to see me successful, so you figure: I’ll go back and buy him a drink and he’ll get drunk and step in front of a bus and die.

Don’t worry. It’s a common desire. I get that a lot.

So, you acquire a time machine via Dark Arts or Black Ops or what have you. How do you go about putting this plan into motion? Do you

A. Set the controls for the evening we were together, walk into the place just as Past You heads for the bathroom, and do the deed? or

B. Set the controls for the day I was conceived and totally cock-block my Dad? or

C. Set the controls for a week earlier and spend your time moving objects and leaving notes for friends and family, subtly arranging them like pieces on a board to ensure that Past You doesn’t make it to the bar that evening so you can impersonate yourself, and then put more work hours into making certain that my favorite liquor is stocked behind the bar, and then even more work into several side projects, including releasing a dangerous gorilla from the zoo to terrorize the neighborhood so the bar won’t be too crowded, except I have a deadly fear of gorillas and so now Past Me isn’t coming to the bar, and you have to reveal yourself to Past You and team up to kidnap me and literally pour booze down my throat, accidentally burning down Hoboken, NJ in the process?

If you chose “C,” you may be Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg, or Matthew Vaughn, the people who wrote X-Men: Days of Future Past. SPOILERS HO.

Sweet Jesus, I’m an Asshole

So, time travel movies tend to be ridiculous. Here’s a Pro Tip: Time Travel is not magic. It’s not supposed to be magic, at least – it’s supposed to be a manipulation of a measurable aspect of our physical world. As a result, they should have what we professional thinkers call “internal logic.” The rest of the world calls this making any damn sense.

XMDOFP Makes a valiant attempt to make some damn sense. The method of time travel is the typical mumbo-jumbo, but at least avoids someone actually building a time machine in favor of mental gymnastics, which has a nice simplicity to it, in my opinion. The basic premise is this: In 1973 Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates a scientist/industrialist, setting in motion a present-day where the world has been destroyed by “Sentinels” that hunt anyone with even a single mutant gene. On the verge of being exterminated, the final remaining mutants gather to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, whose arms and chest are a special effect that made me doubt my sexual orientation) back to his body in 1973 to stop her. To do so, they decide he must find Professor X (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) and Magneto (Ian McKellan/Michale Fassbender) to persuade her not to kill her target.

So, let’s run this through the insanity machine: On the one hand, you have the entire world destroyed an enslaved by horrible Sentinels. Weighed against that is the single mutant who causes the chain reaction in the first place. Solution: Kill Mystique, preferably a few years before 1973. Film over within ten minutes, the rest of the running time is Jackman doing one-handed push-ups while the rest of the cast cheers.

But no, they decide that despite the fact that the entire world destroyed an enslaved by horrible Sentinels Mystique, the woman who unknowingly caused this awful future, is far too important to kill. So they decide to spend a few days trying to track her down and convince her to not exact vengeance on this man. And for some reason, for some unknowable reason, they send Wolverine back to just a few days before her terrible act.

Wait. Why?

You are sending him back in time. For fuck’s sake, send him a few months back, give him some room to operate. Okay, to be fair, the implication is that he’s only back in his 1973 body for as long as Kitty Pride is actively manipulating him with her mutant powers, so the idea that she could do that for months is probably crazy. Except of course that she does do it for several days, because in 1973 Wolverine travels around quite a bit, and a lot of plot happens, and so we must assume Kitty pride knelt there holding her hands over Wolverine’s head for two, maybe four days. Without eating or drinking. Or bathroom breaks. Sure. Why not.

Okay! So maybe they had to send him back with just days to spare. Stipulated. I may have been drunk while watching this movie anyway. But! Here is the next complicating factor: Despite having just a few days to accomplish this goal, they spend a great deal of time breaking young Magneto out of his plastic prison. Because Old Magneto, despite knowing for a fact that he was a complete asshole back in 1973, insisted he would be necessary to convince Mystique. Which proves to be completely untrue, and it doesn’t matter anyway because Magneto immediately begins acting like the complete asshole he was in 1973.

In other words, if Old Magneto had said: Hey, listen, I was kind of a jerk back then and probably wouldn’t help you, better leave me out of it, the movie’s forty minutes long and the rest of the running time is spent giving Halle Berry a reason to be in the movie in the first place.

Man, I’m not, you know, Magneto-old. He appears to be 40 in 1973, so that makes Sir Ian McKellan 80 years old, which is … about right. In 1973 I was 2. But I can remember, for example, what kind of jerkass I was when I was 18. If you time-traveled back to when I was 18 and asked me to do anything that inconvenienced me in the least, I would yawn and pretend to be asleep. I know this. So if we were hatching plans to save the world that involved time-traveling back to me at 18 and getting my help, I would raise my hand and say guys – bad idea. I was kind of an asshole back then.

You know, instead of producing a plot thread that exists solely to expand the story to an appropriate film-length.

We won’t even get into the fact that Wolverine drowns, except doesn’t, and then magically wakes up in a shiny new future with no memory of the previous 40 years … for some unknowable reason. The metaphysics in this movie? not so hot. Sure, the movie’s fun. It also takes itself a little too seriously, and has an enormous number of continuity problems just with the other films. But Quicksilver was fun. I love that guy.

Godzilla 2014: Be Moar Dum

By | May 22, 2014 | 0 Comments
ROWR

ROWR

So, Godzilla 2014 kind of sucks. Spoilers ho, but if you fear spoilers … ah, who has the energy.

I know this isn’t the common opinion. Between B+ reviews and mega box office, I can only assume they pump gas into the theaters everywhere else, because this movie — while kind of fun in a brain damaged way — is Dumb with a capital D which rhymes with B which stands for Big Time Dum.

For yucks, let’s point every completely insanely stupid aspect of this film:

  • Radiation is apparently a white mist you can potentially outrun.
  • Automatic radiation safety doors have manual overrides so heartbroken husbands can endanger entire cities while they hold the door for their wife who is trying to outrun the white misty radiation.
  • Ancient ginormous monsters feed off of radiation, which apparently means they eat nuclear missiles like Heath Bars.
  • Godzilla exists to bring balance to nature by destroying these monsters whenever they appear. Godzilla is simply a force of nature. Because reasons.
  • After studying the radiation-eating monsters for 15 years, the scientists in charge know absolutely nothing about it. Not even how to kill it effectively. Nothing.
  • The radiation-eating monsters emit a mobile EMP pulse that knocks out power wherever they go. Except sometimes it’s a pulse, sometimes a measurable  “sphere of influence.” Despite being measurable, the armed forces continue to fly planes and drive vehicles into the sphere of influence just so we can see them drop out of the sky dramatically.
  • The army also thinks shipping a nuke by train to the West Coast so it can be laboriously towed as radiation bait into the sea and then detonated to kill all the monsters is a better idea than flying a nuke way out of the (measurable) sphere of EMP influence and getting it to the bait spot the long way around.
  • Nuclear missiles can be retrofitted with clockwork detonators. When the rigged nuke is found by the monsters, instead of eating it immediately like a Heath Bar as they with every single other radioactive element they encounter, they take it back to their nest for their offspring to feed on. Now the army has to send in a team of idiots to literally carry the bomb out of SF by hand, on foot.
  • Elizabeth Olsen is in this movie, apparently to remind everyone that women do, in fact, exist. She is a nurse and a mother, because that is what women do (they can possibly teach grammar school as well) in the minds of Hollywood assholes. Elizabeth Olsen’s role could have been re-written to be a Golden Retriever the hero loves, and it would have been exactly the same.
  • The other woman in the story is Juliette Binoche, who is the aforementioned wife running from radiation above, and is dead within five minutes, because that is the other role women can play in movies written by idiots.
  • At the end, after the radiation-eating monsters are dead and San Fran is destroyed, Godzilla wakes up and is mysteriously treated as a hero despite the fact that he is Godzilla, and the fact that he almost died killing mortal enemies in a savage battle does not in any way mean he will not simply proceed to eating the citizens of San Francisco like Skittles. Literally a news blurb on TV as the monster is walking through the city proclaims it the savior of the city.

I could go on. Believe me. Some of the sequences are cool, and the sensibility seems right, but boy howdy a young chimpanzee could have come up with a plot that made more sense. In the words of Bill Hicks: Go back to bed, America.

Fear of a Flat Planet: Fargo

By | May 5, 2014 | 1 Comments

NOTE: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.Billy Bob and the Haircut of Armageddon

Friends, all I do is sit around and complain. It’s become my “thing.” We all need a thing: Some folks go around donating blood and pulling old ladies and puppies from burning buildings. I have chosen to complain, and I’m good at it, although as I also never leave the house I’m running low on things to complain about. I have to get creative.

So, having little else to do with my time, I checked out episodes 1-3 of FX’s new series Fargo, based on Fargo, the Coen Brothers film. Now, I have no problem with repurposing the universe, setting, and generally sensibility of that film into a TV series — I think we’re all beyond such weak tea considerations, aren’t we? I mean, who gives a shit where the inspiration for something came from? Keep re-telling those stories, whether it’s Batman or Fargo. As long as the retellings are interesting, I don’t care.

What I do care about is that the retellings are interesting and well done. On the one hand, Fargo tics all those “golden age of TV” boxes: Good production values, top talent in all the major roles in front of or behind the camera, and a slow, thoughtful approach to the story that allows it to unfold slowly in what will hopefully be a twisty little plot filled with surprises and horrifying commentary on human nature.

One thing Fargo the TV series does not have, as far as I can tell, is any concept of depth of character.

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The World’s End and Characterization Vs. Copout

By | April 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

The-Worlds-End2Recently watched The World’s End starring Simon Pegg and written by Pegg and frequent collaborator Edgar Wright. Didn’t love it, which was surprising because of the good reviews and the fact that I really enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and even liked Scott Pilgrim well enough despite not being familiar with the comic and it being sort of ridiculous. I thought I was going to fall in love with TWE and ask it to marry me.

Instead, I enjoyed the first part and got bored the moment the skiffy element was introduced. What started off as an interesting, funny, and surprisingly moving tale of grown men dealing with childhood disappointment and the mundanity of adulthood just sort of went all cockeyed, for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you loved it I have no argument to make.

It did make me think about some of my own early writing. This isn’t really a review of the film or even a discussion about it, it’s about my own writing tendencies. Which included a period where I would deal with emotional and character development issues by copping out and introducing a Deus Ex Skiffy.

DEUS EX SKIFFY (I Just Made That Up and Like It more than It Deserves)

What that means is, I used Sci Fi and Fantasy elements as a way of writing about things I was uncomfortable with, by not really writing about them at all. It went like this: I’d start a story about, say, a doomed love affair. After establishing the characters I’d get bored with/be afraid of where the story was heading, and would instead suddenly introduce a killer disease or alien invasion and pretend like this was what I’d intended to write about the whole time.

Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Either way, the Deus Ex Skiffy is a copout.

The World’s End sort of has this feel to me. What starts off as a melancholy story about a man who is just starting to realize that he peaked at age 18 suddenly turns into a rather confused, muddled story of alien invasion that, frankly, makes very, very little sense. The film’s still fun, and worth watching, but as a standalone effort it’s kind a mess. And I think it may have been a similar writing exercise as my own failed attempts at solving knotty character problems by introducing killer robots: They just got bored with the story they were writing and worried it was a little slow and dull, and so they changed lanes and ended a totally different story.

I mean, there’s pretty much zero foreshadowing in the story. This may have been intentional to keep the surprise factor, but if so it was a miscalculation, because it only adds to the sense of separation between two entirely different stories. Believe me, I know; I’ve done it.

Shut the Fuck Up, Donny

By | April 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 2, circa 1998. I removed some meandering from the original essay but left in my juvenile abuse of dashes. You’re welcome. Also, 1998 was a hella long time ago and the Coen Brothers have released a lot of films since then, none of which factor into this essay.

MillerscrossingposterDislike and Disdain in the Films of the Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers, writers/directors/producers of the films Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, are, without any doubt, two of the biggest Swines to ever gain national distribution of their films. Put simply, The Coen’s absolute dislike and disdain for their fellow human beings is almost a palpable story element in every one of their films. They hate us. They make no bones about hating us. And we love them for it.

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