reviews

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.

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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.

 

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.

Nature vs nurture: Psychos on film

My post about Elijah Wood’s creepy turn as Frank Zito in Maniac sparked a nice little discussion over on Blogcatalog about the depiction of psychotic, homicidal maniacs in cinema — and how they are so often portrayed as having a tragic start to life, which often triggers their psychosis. The whole thing got me thinking about the old Nature vs. Nurture debate and how it’s frequently used in horror films, especially.

We all know Norman Bates had mommy issues, as did Jason Voorhees, and Se7en’s John Doe was physically abused and suffered electric shock treatment as a child. But, is it more terrifying when on screen psychos have ‘normal’ lives?n

This started me off on one of my personal gripes. The remake. And, in this particular case, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween. I’ve got two things to say about that: One, I hated it. Two, it wasn’t necessary. And my reason for both is Michael Myers was totally misrepresented in the remake.Yes, that mask-wearing, knife-wielding unstoppable creep who in  John Carpenter’s original 1978 movie starts his killing streak by murdering his sister when he’s just a young child.

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What is so sinister and unnerving about this is that Michael appears to live in, what seems like, a great neighbourhood in a nice house with wealthy, loving parents. There’s absolutely no sign or suggestion that he suffered any type of trauma or mistreatment that could lead to his homicidal behaviour. Making it shocking and all the more blood-curdling to think evil can be simply born — and there’s nothing we can do about it. From a writer’s point of view, it was a refreshing twist on the well-worn road of serial killers having flashbacks of childhood trauma as a way of ‘triggering’ their behaviour.

Compare this to the remake where Michael is living in squalid conditions and regularly exposed to drug paraphernalia and abuse as well as his mom being mistreated by her clients — so, watching a kid live with such depravity and absolutely no moral compass, it doesn’t seem as shocking when he lashes out with violent behaviour and displays a complete lack of morals himself.

And, as a viewer, this portrayal of his character becomes immediately less interesting and therefore less frightening. In this instance it seemed almost reasonable, and understandable, for a child like that to grow up with a skewed view of the world and a warped idea of right and wrong. And from a writer’s point of view, this is the easy way out. Plain and simple.

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So, when it comes to psychopaths with absolutely no apparent rhyme or reason to behave the way they do Alex Delarge step right up. He is, without question, as depraved as they come. And why? Purely because he wants to be. He is a boy whose primary interests involve ‘Beethoven, rape and ultra-violence’ and we can all agree that two out of three of those are not things you’d list on your resume in a hurry.

Alex is a character I have been fascinated by and obsessed with for the past eight years. It’s a testament to Anthony Burgess’ incredible skill as a writer that he could create a character so devoid of empathy, or compassion and yet charming and endearing . Especially in Kubrick’s controversial big screen adaptation where there’s something sexy and alluring about Malcolm MCdowell’s portrayal of Alex, you become increasingly spellbound by his actions and the motives he gives. There’s never an excuse offered up as to why Alex is the way he is, and isn’t that more unnerving?

This ability to dazzle and blind you from his abhorrent actions is what I find most terrifying about his character. It’s a lot harder to pull this off, and perhaps this is why we are so often presented with characters with tragic backstories as a way of explaining why they are so maniacal. Maybe it’s an attempt to create some amount of sympathy, or a desperation to explain why because there must be a reason for everything right? Right? Does it make us, the viewer, more comfortable knowing that a human behaving with monstrous qualities is only that way because he was treated so monstrously too?

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And at this point it feels only right to mention Kevin Khatchadourian who, via the pages of Lionel Shriver’s exquisite novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, kept me awake at night for weeks.

In both the book and the on screen adaptation we are given the chance to get right inside the mind of a killer from a young age — but what makes this so interesting is it’s primary focus is on a mom trying to work out whether her son’s fatal attack on his high school had anything to do with the way she raised him or whether it’s just in his DNA. Think about that for a second. The thought that we might have no way of stopping evil in its tracks. Blood curdling.

There’s nothing here to suggest that Kevin is anything other than a cold, hard psychopath and the story of his life is engrossing — and spine chilling. Not to mention, an incredible contraceptive as the thought of having children becomes less and less appealing with each frame of the movie. Ha!

And this sense of mystery doesn’t just go for serial killers — I also feel the same about all characters if I’m honest. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Detective Loki in Prisoners. He was a tortured soul but we were never given a reason why — and that’s definitely a risky move on a writer’s part, but it pays off big time in my book. It keeps you thinking, and leaves you waiting for more.

Like Walt Disney said, Always leave ’em wanting more