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Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor

‘If your definition of a friend is someone who is willing to die for you, then you’ve got no friends.’

It’s been a little over a year since The Counselor was out in theatres, and after a lot of less-than-forgiving reviews I ended up missing it altogether — despite being drawn in by the trailer, the cast, and of course the genius, mouth-watering writing skills of Mr McCarthy.

Never one to worry about a critic’s opinion, or a bad rating, I finally followed my gut and waded in on The Counselor last night.

The Counselor, played by the exquisite Michael Fassbender, represents big-time drug dealers and other corrupt clients all around the world, and after popping the question to Laura (Penelope Cruz), he gets lured in by a one-time deal to set him and his fiancé up for life. He schemes with old buddies (or former clients?) the larger-than-life Reiner (Javier Bardem) and rootin’ tootin’ Westray (Brad Pitt) to make a quick buck by slingin’ drugs across the border. Sounds easy enough right? Wrong. Cue the Mexican cartel and other nasties, and you’ve got yourself a seriously sticky situation.

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From the moment it started, I was mesmerised by the beautiful, bleached-out setting of the Mexican plains — and the cinematography was divine. But it wasn’t just the exterior that was breath-taking, all the interiors — and the clothes — were in a class of their own. From opulent to eccentric, the art department went over and above on this movie. And it paid off, because it really gave us a sense that we were dealing with a different breed of human being. We were watching lavish lifestyles paid for with murky morals.

It will come as no great surprise that the screenplay was delicious — and in typical Cormac McCarthy style it was loaded with the obscurity, and sentimentality we’ve come to know and love. Using his seen-it-all-before tone he carved out what, on the surface, is a simple storyline but made it extraordinary and terrifying by playing on our emotions. Some of the dialogue is spine-tinglingly good and partly responsible for the wearing-down of the rewind button.

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But in the originality and ambiguity of McCarthy’s screenplay lies the movie’s biggest obstacle — and more than likely one the contributing factors as to why it wasn’t the smash hit it should have been.

The screenplay doesn’t spoon-feed us. A.k.a it doesn’t sluggishly lay out the plot for us in the first fifteen minutes, and then unleash all merry hell. In fact, it slowly lulls us into a false sense of security with its tantalising dialogue and interesting characters — which isn’t a bad thing, but in The Counselor’s case it doesn’t help to make clear exactly what is going on. So much so, that if it wasn’t for my brother’s excited running commentary at times I would be completely lost wading through a puddle of Sunny D tans and blinged out Cheetahs. Yes, really.

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But once shit hit the fan, the intensity and terror escalated and The Counselor once again became the high-octane thriller that I expected. There were plenty of you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-before moments, and enough twists and turns to keep us enticed — but I was still a bit confused. And, that is never a good thing.

It was around about this point that I thought perhaps The Counselor would have been better off as a book. But then that book would have been transformed into a screenplay, no doubt, because it is undeniably an absorbing story. So, should it have had a different director? But Ridley Scott did a great job of setting the scene, and capturing the intensity. It went astray somewhere, and I’m not sure how or where exactly, but it’s definitely the reason why this wasn’t a box office smash.

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Aside from the tantalising cinematography, my favorite thing about this movie was Cameron Diaz as Malkina. She was the icy, hard bitch in heels delivering wicked one liners and chilling the bones of every path she crossed. It was refreshing to see her in a grittier role, and even more refreshing to see a female role getting to shine without playing second fiddle to a man.

Michael Fassbender, who portrays pain and anxiety like no other, was triumphant as The Counselor — a man who was driven, and destroyed, by his own greed.

Now that I’ve seen the film, (eventually) followed the plot, and seen the ending I’m going to watch it all over again. Purely because the second time around you can relax into it, and enjoy the ride without grappling to understand the directions.

Cormac McCarthy, you’re still the best.

Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen stay out in the midday sun

What happens when four old school friends leave their families (and their morals) behind and renunite for a holiday in Mallorca? Absolute carnage!

Coping with the fallout from a tragic accident, stupid mistake, or even just the morning after the night before is a popular topic in the scripts of many Hollywood movies — and as it’s been such a formula for success for movies like Very Bad Things, and The Hangover, it makes sense to see how it will translate onto the small screen.

And Mad Dogs does just that. It follows four men, played by the magnetic John Simm, Philip Glenister, Marc Warren, and Max Beesley, as they try and cope when things take a sudden and very sinister turn for the absolute worst on their boys holiday to Mallorca.

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What started off as an excuse for the four actors, who clearly have an unrivalled chemistry on screen, to work with eachother quickly turned into an explosive and unmissable drama — and four episodes soon became four series, as audiences across the country could not get enough.

Without a doubt, one of the most electric and explosive shows on British TV in a long, long time. The writing is original, and becomes more terrifying and depraved with each episode, and the acting is authentic and exciting — but, don’t worry, there are a few moments of genuine humour to give some much-needed relief from watching through the gaps in your fingers.

Apart from anything, it’s just a fascinating insight into how human beings cope when things go wrong, on a massive scale. And when we’re catapulted into a situation where we have to react immediatly, without little time to plan and no one to turn to for help things get tough. Seriously tough.

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The character dynamics are my favourite thing about this show. As the series unfolds, you begin to feel like you know these people — the one two punch of brilliant writing and acting makes these characters feel real, which only emphasises the stress and tension you feel as they get themselves into increasingly ridiculous situations. The way the different personalites, and morals, of each character clashes with the next one is what gives this show a believable spark and sets it apart from everything else.

From the moment the show begins, there is a sense of something dark lurking beneath the surface — like it’s highly unstable at its core, so when shit really does hit the fan it sticks big time and doesn’t let up. But the backdrop for all this carnage and catastrophe is the beautiful and serene sky and sea of Mallorca, making it a refreshing change from the usual grim, gloomy settings in other dark TV dramas. Pathetic Fallacy it is not.

The acting, and evolution of the storyline makes for really intense viewing, and it definitely gets under your skin as you can’t help but imagine yourself in their situation. It’s not your typical tried-and-tested TV drama, but something with a bite to match its bark.

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But, despite its intensity it is very watchable — so watchable, in fact, that you’ll want to watch it over and over again to soak up the laugh-out-loud moments, and even the jump-behind-the-sofa moments.

 

Coen Brothers’ Fargo, episode one

Well heck, Fargo’s only gone and been made into a darn TV series. But, you already knew that didn’t you?!

Going into this I had no idea what to expect… And given my track record of loathing anything even resembling a ‘remake’, I was pretty sceptical. Fargo, the 1996 movie, achieved that rare feat of interlacing comedy with crime with bloody gore with interesting characters. So, how were they going to do that stretched out across a number of episodes?

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Well, the good news is it ain’t a remake. It shares the same name, the same backdrop, and the same executive producers (see Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan) but that’s where it stops. We’ve got new characters, a new story, and new weirdness to sink our teeth into.

It all started with an oh-so-familar panorama of bleak, snow soaked landscapes of small town Minnesota, and dark, brooding lighting. And the first episode continued to be loaded with beautiful scenery offsetting the bloody violence. So far, so good.

The beauty of a TV, versus film, is time — and having much, much more of it. And they’ve really put it to good use so far, with the screenplay spilling over with amusing, quirky exchanges — and all in THAT accent.

But the most impressive thing so far is not the photography, the writing, or the characters, it’s whoever made the decision to cast Martin Freeman as the downtrodden salesman Lester Nygaard. His portrayal of a man on the edge is both magnetic and as subtle and understated as ever as he proves once again you don’t need to be wide-eyed and maniacal to play troubled and borderline psychotic.

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But he’s not the only one delivering the goods, Billy Bob Thornton was enigmatic. I’ll admit, I was apprehensive going into it at the thought of there being a Steve Buscemi shaped hole burning its way through my screen, but my nerves soon settled as Billy Bob’s crazed intensity found its own fire, and kept on burning bright the whole way through.

Episode one did everything a first episode should: it introduced us to the characters, kicked off what is sure to be a weird and wild story, and left us thirsty for more next week. Can’t say fairer than that.

Bloody, brutal and beautiful: Martina Cole’s The Take

Good old Tom Hardy, he is that calibre of actor you can rely on to give a bone-chilling performance no matter what. I recently saw a magazine cover declaring him to be ‘the greatest actor of his generation’ and the first thing that sprung to mind was his portrayal of scumbag slash psychopath Freddie Jackson in The Take.

The Take, based on Martina Cole’s novel, is dark, sinister and explosive — it’s everything you could ever want from a crime thriller. But what really separates this from being just another ‘good old British crime drama’ is the acting. It’s been a while since I’ve been captivated by such dynamic, honest and exciting acting from every actor in a TV series. And leading the way is Hardy who picks up the ball and runs at an unrelenting full speed with it. The deeper the story twists and contorts into a black hole of corruption, greed, and depravity so does his performance.

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We meet him as he’s released after four years in prison, and itching to unleash hell on London’s East End. His psychotic and brutally violent behaviour grows more terrifying by the second. Like lighting a stick of dynamite, the closer it gets to the blasting cap, the more volatile and dangerous it becomes — and is at the same time frightening to watch but impossible to take your eyes off.

Freddie is a character that could so easily have been overdone and turned into a gurning caricature, but Tom plays it with enough depth and charisma — and he know exactly when to hold back to give some relief from the intensity of his unravelling demise.

The anithesis to Freddie’s intensity and ferociousness is his cousin Jimmy, played by the divine Shaun Evans, who offsets Hardy’s brute force with his own wrecking ball of unassuming subtlety. We watch his character start off as sweet, baby-faced Jimmy full of wide-eyed admiration for his newly-released cousin, who seems out-of-his-depth as he hangs on Freddie’s criminal coattails — but it’s not long until he starts transforming into a slick, smart criminal mastermind himself. Will he end up as depraved and unpredictable as his cousin?

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This is not all about the boys though, not by a long shot. You know what they say ‘behind every great man is a great woman, blah blah’ — well, Kierston Wareing and Charlotte Riley are flawless are the sisters behind the scenes of the Jackson family’s criminality. Kierston’s Jackie is frantic, desperate and deluded, and Charlotte’s Maggie is feisty, and interesting. A long with Brian Cox, Sara Stewart and other famous faces, The Take is full of reliably good actors whose performances layer up to create a dynamic and unpredictable story.

The masochist in me has a tendency towards anything that feels like an assault on my nervous system, and The Take is definitely that. At the end of it, I felt wiped out — I’d felt just about every emotion there is to feel from fear to anxiety to distress and excitement, not to mention a few genuinely shocking and gut-wrenching moments. We’re so spoiled for choice when it comes to good thrillers these days, and the downside of that is that we can become desensitised to otherwise exciting and thrilling things but The Take certainly provided a few blood curdling moments that took me by surprise — and still make me flinch just thinking about it.

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Call me biased, but British crime thrillers are the best in the world. They’re loaded with intelligent depravity, original writing, explosive performances, and gorgeously talented actors. But, The Take takes it up a few notches. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this before.

 

Philadelphia on the silver screen

Growing up with an Eagles fan for a dad meant somewhere behind Hello, Mom, and see-at (who knows?!) Philadelphia was one of my first words. Alright so I couldn’t say it properly, but it goes to show I’ve been raised with a strong love and passion for The City of Brotherly Love. It’s ingrained in me.

But once my strong love of film kicked in, it was all about New York though. I started drooling over the Big Apple and begged my mom to let me rent every movie from the video store that was set in NYC.  Ghostbusters, Three Men and a Baby, Sleepless in Seattle (a lot of it is set in New York, don’t let the name confuse ya!), Home Alone 2, The Usual Suspects, and of course Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a few of my favorite showcases of the city as a little one.

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But fast-forward a few years to The Sixth Sense, and suddenly the iconic and unmissable skyline of Manhattan faded away and the slightly more interesting and certainly more unassuming streets of Philly became immediately fascinating to me. My new mission was to dig out movies set in Philadelphia — which, was surely going to be so simple seeing as there were already two in my mom’s collection at home, ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’. These filmmakers were making it so easy for me to live vicariously in this exciting place through my new favorite movies.

Now, I can’t claim to have seen them all but I can say I have given it a good go. And as a celebration of one of my favorite cities in the world, and my favorite film location, I’ve picked the best of the bunch. A love letter to Philly, on the silver screen…

Philadelphia. Well, we might as well start with the obvious one — Absolutely no prizes for guessing where this movie is set, but the film itself gets top marks for being the only movie to this day that has made my dad cry (or so he claims!). When I set out on my quest to watch every film ever made that showcased Philly in some way or another, this was the first one I picked out — I was sure I was in safe hands. It’s a beautifully tragic tale that is acted intricately and to perfection and the city’s backdrop is really just that, this film is all about the story.

Rocky. Is there a man, woman, child or dog alive that hasn’t seen Rocky? Or, in fact, is there anyone out there who hasn’t gone for a run, listened to Eye of the Tiger and pretended they were Rocky Balboa? Didn’t think so! Those famous steps Rocky climbs in that unforgettable training montage? They lead right up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art — and a bronze statue of Stallone’s Rocky now sits at the bottom of those very steps.

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Witness. My Mom’s favorite movie of all time, which all kicks off in Philly’s 30th Street Station. It’s not long before Harrison Ford’s tough-as-old-boots cop John Book ends up living in an Amish community in deepest darkest Pennsylvania in order to protect a little boy who witnesses a murder in said station.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Twin Peaks might be (one of) my favorite thing of all time, and what makes it so incredible is the eccentric and original characters of the small town of Twin Peaks. But for the movie, David Lynch switched things up a bit and got the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia involved. And if you asked me, it worked.

The Sixth Sense. M Night Shyamalan was raised in Philadelphia so it makes sense that he’s chosen it to be the location for many of his films. This was the one that kicked it all off for me when as a ten-year-old I assumed I was watching yet another movie set in New York, I discovered I was dealing with a whole different kettle of fish — and if you ask me a whole lot tastier. Although, funnily enough, now watching it as an adult it’s actually completely impossible to tell where this movie is set as Shyamalan purposefully avoided any of the city’s iconic landmarks to create an ambiguous setting for this movie. The only clue is in the restaurant scene, which is a real-life eatery called ‘Striped Bass’ on Walnut Street right in the heart of Philly.

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In Her Shoes. If Cameron Diaz is in a film, I’ll watch it. There’s something electrifying and sassy about her performances that I just can’t resist making her my ultimate girl crush. So as you can imagine I was doubly excited to watch this film when it ticked two of the boxes on my hit list. Cameron and Philly. Winner. Plus, this is actually a sweet and funny flick that is a little more original and refreshing that most Rom Com types. And there’s even a nice little reference to Philadelphia’s most famous movie, Rocky, when Rose climbs those same steps — but this time there’s no boxing gloves, just lots and lots of dogs. Also, Philly’s famous and funky South Street is showcased again and again, and there really is no place quite like it.

Twelve Monkeys. What a freaking awesome film, that is both scary and alluring. Unlike some on this list that showcase exciting, cultural areas of my fave city Twelve Monkeys gives us a glimpse of the bleaker side. Eastern State Penitentiary, where Bruce Willis’s James Cole is locked up. In real life it’s a crumbling ruin, but if you like to take a walk of the weird side you can go on a tour and see exactly where Al Capone spent a large portion of his prison life. It’s only five blocks from those Rocky steps!

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The Master. Set mainly in California, this is one of the most exquisite and thought-provoking films I’ve seen in a long while and I was especially excited to see my beloved Philly crop up halfway through. Again, it’s really just a backdrop but it still gives me a warm, fuzzy glow just to know it’s getting its own nod of recognition. This, like Fire Walk With Me, is definitely cheating but I can’t resist.

Silver Linings Playbook. There’s not a lot I don’t love about this movie, and it’s being set in Philadelphia — and the continuous references to the Eagles — only add to it. In the opening scenes the audience is treated to a condensed guided tour of the city as Pat’s mom Dolores drives from Maryland back to Philadelphia. We get to see so many of those iconic, and glorious, Philly landmarks and there is no better way to open up a movie than that, if you ask me. So much of this film is set outside, from pounding the pavement and running in a bin liner (a strong look for Bradley), to getting into punch ups at the Lincoln Financial Field, so you really get a flavour of Pennsylvania’s biggest city! Gorgeous!

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While I love seeing the blue skies and the palm trees of Los Angeles, the crowded streets and the eccentric characters of London, the vibrant atmosphere and the diversity of New York City I want to see more of the City of Brotherly Love on the cinema screen. It’s got it all, a beautiful skyline that adds drama and depth, culture and arts that make for interesting backdrops and a rich history that deserves attention again and again.

Philadelphia, I love ya.

 

Blue Valentine, nobody baby but you and me

Like most females I know, if Ryan Gosling is credited to a film I’m drawn to it. Moth to a flame, red rag to a bull etc etc. But, unlike most of the other films he’s starred in over the past five years, I did have my reservations about Blue Valentine. Purely because it looked like an advert for the ‘all style and no substance’ movie movement. Even like something an art student has conjured up that’s designed to look pretty but not pack much punch besides that.

My initial reaction was, I don’t want anything to do with this. And stubbornly I  stuck with this stance for a good two years after it was first in cinemas.

Well trust me kids as important as it is to go with your gut instinct, but when it comes to movies it’s equally important to let your friends persuade you. After getting sick to death of my best mate harping on and on about Blue Valentine — and everyone reblogging stills and gifs from the movie on tumblr, I caved in. I caved in and loved every second of it.

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I felt such a fool — this wasn’t a pretentious attempt at creating a kooky movie about love, this was a no-frills story about emotion. Being the voyeur that I am, the opportunity to have an uncensored and unguarded glimpse into the lives of every day people is too good to pass up.

The film follows the evolution of Dean and Cindy’s relationship by cross-cutting from how they meet to them coping with the breakdown of their marriage. The cross-cutting is seamless and quite beautiful in how it weaves through their lives before and after they meet — especially when it effortlessly overlaps between the two time periods and they almost start to melt into one. This is something I appreciated even more the second (and third) time I watched it.

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My favourite thing about this movie is the direction — the way Cianfrance uses extreme close ups, often from awkward and unusual angles, at the most tense moments is what gives it its intense and claustrophobic feel. Which, of course, emphasises the stress in their fractured relationship. It makes for quite uncomfortable viewing, but in this context works well.

Their stay in the Future Room, with its sterile decor and blue hue, embodied the tension in their relationship  — and, it’s touches like this in a film that excite me. This part of the story was definitely hard to watch because you’ve got yourself front row tickets to the crumbling of what was once a beautiful and exciting relationship.

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The script is a dream — and trust me, it’s not your typical love story. It’s intelligent with warm moments, depressing scenes and genuine surprises. It will stay with you for a while, and give you plenty to gnaw over.

And as for my worry that it was going to be (a lot of) style over (little) substance, I was completely wrong. There is a lot of attention and focus over the overall image — and as a result it is a beautiful film, sometimes shot with soft focus and lighting that take away some of the hard edges of the story, that captivated me from the beginning.

And as for Ryan Gosling… Well, he was just an added bonus!

Breaking Bad all over again

Four episodes in and I’m thinking, why am I doing this to myself? I know what the final outcome is going to be, and I’m starting to feel like Devon Sawa in Final Destination if after he had the premonition of the plane bursting into flames and crashing he had decided to ignore it and stay on board instead of kicking and screaming his way off, only to watch it burst into flames from the comfort of the airport.

I finally joined the Breaking Bad fan club about two years ago after getting sick of my big brother nagging at me day and night to just please fucking watch it because you will love it. So, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and immediately, and somewhat appropriately considering the subject matter, became addicted. I flew through the first three series and then had to wait what felt like an agonising eternity for series four — and then ensure the excruciating wait for the final season, and of course THAT finale. Was it an incredible viewing experience? Absolutely. Was it a pleasurable viewing experience? Absolutely not!

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It was heartbreaking, stressful and overwhelming in equal measure. I felt sick and tortured for an hour each week, and longed to be put out of my misery — but most of all I was slung into a world of emotional trauma, and couldn’t believe how much my opinion on certain characters changed week by week. But, like all addicts, I kept coming back for more.

As much as it was a brutal assault on my nervous system, it was an experience I’ll never forget — and certainly became the drama I will measure everything else against forever more. From the acting to the writing to the cinematography, it was a delight. So, because of this I was dazzled into thinking I would want to watch it all over again — and so, naively, I bought the entire box set for my mom and dad for Xmas, because, like my brother, I was getting kinda sick of pleading with them to finally watch it.

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And, so here I am precariously teetering on the edge between the fourth and fifth seasons, wondering whether I can stomach it all over again. Mainly because the second time around I have been rooting for different characters from the start — and growing more deeply involved with their interests than before. I mean, I just want to reach through the screen and give Jesse a big hug and will him to get the fuck out of there before it’s, um, too late.

And mainly because, of course, I know what happens. I can pinpoint the moments it all went wrong and can only sit there watching through the gaps in my fingers, powerless to stop them spiralling towards their own demise. Nightmare.

It’s not all doom and gloom though — it actually seems funnier and this time round. Maybe because I’m not frantically stressing over ‘what ifs’ and can just grit my teeth and bear it (and try and remember it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real), or maybe it’s because I’m not trying to follow the plot so I can just sit back and (sort of) relax. I appreciate Hank even more this time around — his own brand of offensive, tongue-in-cheek humour is slicing through some of the tension.

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Also, I’m not sure how because I’m usually pretty neurotic about it, but the first time around I must have missed the music. There were certainly moments — like the ‘clean up’ scene in the season four finale — where I honed in on a song and loved it, but for the most part it kinda passed me by. But this time, again probably down to the knowing the story part, I’ve been soaking it up way more. I even downloaded it all to listen to while running but it was just conjuring up too many harrowing images of torture, betrayal and addiction while I was pounding the pavements. Ha.

So aside from watching episodes from behind a pillow, and dreading certain upcoming moments I am a huge champion of the re-watch. In fact, I think every thing from TV dramas to movies should be watched at least twice. You discover something new the second time around — and you can appreciate the narrative arc and watch it develop much more clearly, because you aren’t focusing all your attention on wrapping your head round the plot.

That said, I guess I’m gonna have to walk the walk, suck it up and actually watch season five again  — I think I owe it to Bryan Cranston’s stunning acting, and Vince Gilligan’s beautifully troubled writing at the very least. Wish me luck.