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In anyone else's hands, "Fargo" would be a very ordinary movie. Thank god for the Coen Brothers...
The best movies are the ones that not only tell a good story, but make you think about yourself. They can be inspirational stories that make us strive to be better, or cautionary tales to make us more aware of things to look out for in life. Alternatively, they can make us think about who we really are this is where "Fargo" comes in. In anyone else's hands, "Fargo" would be a very ordinary movie, telling the story of a series of crimes and a detective who tries to solve them. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, it's a gory and often hilarious look at criminal life in cold Minnesota, and the oddball characters involved in it.
The focus for the first third of the film is Jerry Lundegaard, a car salesman played superbly by William H. Macy, who is in need of money, and hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so that he can take some of the ransom money. He's a brilliantly written character, who gets far too nervous in the tricky situations he's stuck in, and always tries to recover as things don't go his way. As things go wrong for the criminals they are forced to kill a number of witnesses, which gives them even more problems. This brings in the film's main character, pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who is calm and polite in her investigations and fascinating to watch. McDormand manages to steal the show brilliantly, with her awkward facial expressions at times and perfectly placed one-liners at others. It's difficult to see anyone else playing the role.
The script of the film is so sharp, but it's rare that the Coen Brothers don't deliver that for us. Why does the film make you think about yourself though? Because of its violence and the way you react to it. When Jerry's wife is being kidnapped, she hides in the shower and then runs along the hall unable to escape from the shower curtain, eventually falling down the stairs. It's brutal, but it's so ridiculous and so well shot that it's also kind of funny. The criminals, especially Buscemi's character, are so idiotic that their mishaps, including Buscemi being shot in the face, also make you laugh. The thing that really makes all of this click is the setting, the wintry town of Fargo, its bizarre residents and particularly the accent. There is one scene where Marge only says "Yah", but does it in such a way that it can't help being funny. They're ridiculous without being too simple, and constantly watchable.
"Fargo" is a relatively brief movie, at only 98 minutes long, but it uses every second to its advantage in painting this brilliant, funny and bizarre story. It shows all of its actors, and its two directors, at their very best, and doesn't let up for one moment so that you are always willing to go along for the ride.
The Lego Movie (2014)
I wrote this off as another attempt to sell a product. How wrong I was...
Two lists I want to bring to your attention on Wikipedia: Movies based on Video Games and, more relevant here, Movies based on Toys. If you look at the films on these lists and look for their Rotten Tomatoes scores, you will notice that very few are rated 'Fresh' - a startlingly low number, in fact. Why is this? I think this is because video games and toys often don't have plots that translate well to films, because they involve you doing things to them, and not characters as much. I will accept that video games are now a bit different, and that many are now far more plot based, but this was certainly the case in the past. When I first found out about "The LEGO Movie", I very quickly wrote it off as another attempt to sell a product within a shoddy plot framework. Thank goodness I was unbelievably wrong.
"The LEGO Movie" is funny, intelligent and exciting for the entirety of its runtime, and so many elements contribute to its outstanding success. The film tells the story of standard mini-figure Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), who teams up with the 'Master Builders' in order to save the universe from the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). In that simple form, it's an ordinary "chosen one" plot line, but the writing and details ensure that it's anything but ordinary. Along the way, Emmet meets a host of different Lego characters, including the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and many superheroes (Will Arnett's Batman is particularly great), and they travel through loads of different Lego landscapes on their quest.
You're probably still not sold on it, which is understandable - the film's plot isn't really its greatest quality. What makes this film so great is the writing and animation, both of a consistently high quality throughout. Everything in the animation is made of Lego, and is therefore animated like Lego. It's incredibly detailed, and through this you notice charming details throughout that make you appreciate just how much care has gone into the film. The visuals are great, and are the main thing that young kids will appreciate. The reason adults will see it is for the humour. I found myself laughing far more than my 6 year old cousin, and that's because it's written with the adults in mind. The song "Everything is Awesome", the ridiculous 'follow the rules' state that Emmet lives in, the references to Lego of the past, characters such as Liam Neeson's Good Cop/Bad Cop and the noticeable cameos are all things which adults will love and appreciate. The real genius of the film is that it appeals so easily to both age groups.
"The LEGO Movie" had the potential to be something so much worse. It could have been a thoughtless attempt to sell more Lego by constructing a shoddy, uninteresting plot around some bland characters (c.f. Transformers), but enough love and attention has gone into the film that you can't help but enjoy it. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, from '21 Jump Street' and 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' fame, are the perfect people to helm this film, with their irreverent and sharp sense of humour, especially visual humour. With a final quarter that is both surprising and poignant, this is undoubtedly a film that will touch adults and children alike, and leave them 100% satisfied.
The Godfather (1972)
A film of epic proportions...
I must confess, I find it really tricky to watch movies that are considered "The Greatest of All Time", because of one enormous fear: What if I don't like it? Sure, you don't have to stick to social majorities when forming your opinion on a film, but I suppose there's a certain reaction that comes when you say something like: "Yeah, I wasn't so seen on The Shawshank Redemption, actually". So this was my worry when I finally purchased "The Godfather" trilogy on DVD, and sat down to watch the first one. Thankfully, I absolutely adored it. It's a film of epic proportions, following 10 years in the history of the Corleone Family, with excellent drama and beautiful cinematography. And it also keeps you interested for the entirety of its 3 hour run time, which is by no means an easy feat.
"The Godfather" follows Don Vito Corleone (played by the masterful Marlon Brando), the head of one of the most powerful mafia families, and his son Michael (Al Pacino), who is soon to take over the family. We begin with Michael's wedding, which uses brilliant juxtapositions between the bright, happy event, and the dark office of the patriarch, where he hears the requests of his family and friends. It's a great scene because we realise the image that the family tries to send out, and the actual goings on behind the scenes. We also observe the power and influence that the family has in places like the media (involving the head of a certain animal ), so that we can then understand how much of a force to be reckoned with they are.
The film takes place over 10 years, and packs a lot of events into 3 hours, from the attempted assassination of Vito, to Michael's refuge in Sicily. Coppola shows us so clearly how life in a mafia family is a dangerous one, where you always have to watch your back and where people are always trying to kill you. Thanks to the character of Kay (played by a young Diane Keaton), we get an outsider's perspective on the family too, and Michael tries to show her that the business will become 'legitimate' soon, although we knows this is unlikely. The greatest sequence in the film is also one of the most famous the massacre that takes place during a christening, with sinister Bach organ music played over the top. It's a fantastic section because Coppola is contrasting life and death so well, making us aware of the cycle of mafia life.
"The Godfather" is truly one of the great masterpieces of cinema. It's complex and often slow going, but always reaches points which make waiting worthwhile. The acting is totally stunning, which Pacino and Brando shining in particular in their roles, and the whole film is shot with a dark, noir-ish lens. Every part of it is well thought out, particularly its score and pacing, and you can appreciate it at the end as both a great feat of filmmaking, and a satisfying watch. I was extremely pleased to find how much I enjoyed watching this incredible film, and can't wait to tuck into the rest of the trilogy.
It's a simple masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same...
Most people who talk about "Boyhood" will discuss its incredible production history, and I will admit, it's a pretty incredible thing. Richard Linklater must have been incredible passionate to convince four actors, a whole crew and a studio to make this film, which documents the growing up of a boy and his family over 12 years. It was shot for 3 days at a time, once a year, and it is a miracle that everyone stuck with it over that period. But the fact that the production stayed together would have been worthless if the film had been a cheesy affair with no substance and all style. Lesser filmmakers would have gone down that route. Thankfully, Linklater is no lesser filmmaker.
Due to the fact that it fills so many years into such a short space of time (and 166 minutes is no short movie), the film can often feel like a photo album a collection of events that documents the passage of time. Most photo albums record the so-called 'important' events in peoples' lives birthdays, weddings, family gatherings. These are the landmark moments which we take keepsakes of, so that we can look back years later and remember. "Boyhood" is not like that, because Linklater is very conscious not to make it cheesy. It's not a Hollywood film, and we don't get any Christmasses or First Kisses, which you'd think were the key moments to record. We actually only get one of Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) birthdays, and I think Linklater does this to make sure that we're not seeing repetitions of life events.
What he clocks into is the fact that the events that you remember aren't the 'important' ones, but the random ones that make you laugh or cry. Mason recalls to his father (Ethan Hawke) an event from a young age where he was promised his dad's car he can remember the event precisely, even whose house they were going to that day. It's not a key event, but it stuck with him. The film's success is in showing you these odd events which give us clear ideas about who these characters that we're seeing develop are, and making you root for their successes.
There are so many great points to the film, that I can't focus on anything. Linklater's vision and focus on people is as clear as ever much like the "Before" movies, nothing overwhelming happens, there's no plot twists or surprises, he's just showing you conversations which are fascinating. The acting is great, and you can tell how much these characters have become part of the actors' lives over the 12 year period by how close their relationships are. The script is sharp and extremely funny at times too. Hawke plays the father figure particularly well, giving his children 'the sex chat' and lessons in 'the art of conversation'.
I cannot recommend "Boyhood" to you enough it was difficult as it is to keep this review brief. It's a simple masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same, which is made great by a flawless script, interesting characters and extremely convincing acting. The concept and choice of events ensure that there is at least one moment which every audience member will relate to. Sitting inside the cinema, I could hear people from around the room chuckling to themselves (I did it too), because they've been through what the characters are doing. I'm unbelievably glad that's it's getting the recognition it deserves, and I simply hope that it reaches and touches as many people as it should.
What went so wrong with 'spoof' films?
We live in a world where satire is abundant and 'spoof cinema' has been taken to the extremes. Every year movies like "Scary Movie", "Disaster Movie" or "Vampires Suck" are released which attempt to lampoon recent film releases, but these always fail at the most simple hurdle being funny. In order to find some genuinely funny spoof comedy, you must go back to the very roots of the genre, and there is no finer place than "Airplane!", the greatest spoof of disaster movies that exists. Why does it work so well? It's not spoofing its immediate predecessors, but films made around 25 years before it. It knows all the genre tropes so well, and subverts them for our entertainment.
The film follows Ted Striker (Robert Hays), an ex-fighter pilot, who is on the same plane as his ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) when both pilots and many passengers are taken ill and he is forced to try and rescue the plane. They are helped by the doctor on board, played by the genius of comic timing Leslie Nielsen, and together they manage to get the plane onto the ground safely. Normally I would apologise for writing the end of the movie in my review, but honestly, it's not the thing that you care about at all in the film.
What makes "Airplane!" so great is the constant one-liners, and endless source of comedy in the fantastic actors, and the easy mocking of common tropes. The jokes don't feel cheap for a second, but subvert your expectations and use the many passengers, crew and people working at the airport as comedy. There are so many people involved, and everyone gets a look-in. Even the airport announcers get a joke at the very beginning, which is extremely funny and sets the tone for the film well. It's not afraid, among the barrage of lines, to refer to previous jokes and make them even funnier. The original "Don't call me Shirley" line which is so famous isn't actually that funny, but the followup line later on is what really qualifies the gag.
Everything is spoofed in the film, even the classic "disaster film" soundtrack. Elmer Bernstein is used for his experience in serious films and genre classics (his scores for "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape" are extremely well known), and is deliberately writing serious music so that the fact that none of it is serious is even better. "Airplane!" is fabulously written, and doesn't give the audience a single moment to breathe through the laughter. It truly is the greatest part of the genre that it revived, and it's a shame that its legacy is not better recognised by the trash that is "A Haunted House" and other films of a similar vein.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
This is a continuation of the dark sense of humour that the Coen Brothers have thrived on...
I have to confess that I don't know as much of the work of the Coen Brothers as I'd like to. I've seen "No Country for Old Men", "True Grit" and "O Brother, Where Are Thou", all of which I adored, and "The Ladykillers", which really isn't as bad as people said it was. Their dark sense of humour and ability to capture beautiful scenes is what sets them apart from the crowd as directors. Naturally, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is no different, with brilliant black comedy and memorable cinematography, except this time, just like "O Brother", we have the pleasure of music as well.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer living in Greenwich Village in 1961, around the same time as Bob Dylan. Nothing goes right in his life, with his singing partner's recent suicide and his failing solo album both adding to his depression. He is homeless as well, but despite so many bad things he doesn't give up, and constantly continues to try and make it. This is not always helped by the people around him, including his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) who tells him that she's pregnant and it might be his, and the always odious Roland Turner (John Goodman). The Coens write their characters extremely well, and they all have believable relationships with each other. They can give us a first impression with so few words too, which makes the characters even stronger. Their writing is as strong as always, with their eye for dark comedy coming through constantly. There are so many devastating scenes which you can't help but laugh at, or throw away lines that make you chuckle despite their grave nature. Goodman's line, "George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?" is mere genius.
Three things, apart from the plot, make this film such a joy to watch. Firstly, the acting is brilliant. Isaac's performance is bold and intimate, making us long for him to succeed so much. Among the supporting characters, Goodman, Mulligan, surprisingly Justin Timberlake and F. Murray Abraham all leave their mark with brilliant, funny or devastating scenes. And the cat that Llewyn is charged with looking after for so long is also great. The cinematography is great too, with the film being shot with a bleak, saturated lens. It feels dark and appropriate for the setting, but doesn't become too noticeable so as to be annoying. And finally the music is brilliant. All of the songs are memorable and well sung, with "The Death of Queen Jane" being my particular favourite, mainly because Isaac sings it so well. They don't feel pointless in the film, but there are times where you can just sit back and enjoy them.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" won't please everyone, because there are people who simply just don't 'get' the Coen Brothers' sense of humour. But for those that do, it's incredibly rewarding, and undoubtedly one of their best works yet. It was utterly robbed of a Best Picture nomination in February, and I cannot understand for the life of me why.
In a World... (2013)
Laugh out loud funny, and never too serious that it loses its goals...
The best comedies, especially indie comedies, are frequently the ones which also have the most drama. "Lost in Translation" and more recently "Mary and Max" are both extremely funny films, but they have dark sides to them which hit home on serious points. The reason this is done is because comedy films are so hard to make consistently funny and intelligent at the same time. Enter "In a World ", which is a low-budget comedy focusing on rivalry in the voice-over business. It's frequently laugh-out-loud funny, brings some excellent satire on the film industry, and never goes too serious that it loses its goals.
Lake Bell (who also wrote, directed and produced the film) stars as Carol Sotto, a struggling voice coach who lives in the shadow of her father, the so called "King of Voiceovers". When she provides a temp track for the trailer of The Amazon Games, a brilliant Hunger Games parody, the producers love it and want her to do more, angering a number of figures in the voice-over world. It's a sexist world where there are no real female figures, where every male voice is deep, gravelly and macho. Over time, she tries to become accepted into the industry, with the help of Louis, an awkward romantic interest for her, played by the hilarious comedian Demetri Martin.
The film's cast is one of its best features, with Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins making a sweet couple which breaks your heart when misunderstandings begin. Ken Marino is also brilliant as Gustav Warner, the industry's golden boy, who is extremely full of himself. The scene where he and Carol spend the night together is fabulously awkward and the two play it so straight that it makes it even funnier. But it is of course Lake Bell who shines in this film, which has a brilliant vision that runs through it. Her impressions and awkward nature are brilliantly carried off, and are what makes the film funny throughout. In particular, the scene where she automatically replies to a 'baby voice' girl in the exact same voice is hilarious, not just because of how perfect an impression it is but because of the content too.
"In a World
" is the kind of comedy that it's a shame we don't see more of. It's got a razor- sharp script which doesn't let up for a second, a set of likable and relatable characters, and hilarious situations that have come from close observation. Lake Bell makes a brilliant first-time director and writer, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.
Does "JFK" work as an interesting film, not just a politics lesson? Kind of...
There are a lot of problems that can be faced when making deeply political movies. Filmmakers try to share their views on corrupt systems and political mistakes, but through this they ignore the one thing that is most essential in an interesting film - the plot. There's a fine line between a fascinating thriller and a politics lesson, and occasionally directors will fall on the wrong side of that line. This has never stopped Oliver Stone, however, who has now built up a reputation for dealing with tricky subject matters, such as the Vietnam War, 9/11 or various presidents, in his movies. Here, he tackles the topic of JFK's assassination in a 3 hour movie which addresses as many conspiracy theories that it can. Does it work? Kind of.
The movie follows Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, the District Attorney of New Orleans who begins to look into the JFK assassination, since he is convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been the only killer. It begins by showing Kennedy's life just before his killing, through newsreel footage, building up to a reconstruction of the actual assassination. The film is intelligent in using this as exposition rather than a major plot point later, since it is such a familiar event, and we can then get right into the fallout. Various theories are debunked and brought up during the course of the film, including a scene where Garrison tests out whether it was actually possible for Oswald to have hit Kennedy from his supposed position at the time.
The acting in the film is mostly superb, with Costner being a likable lead who is also a powerful speaker. The speech that he gives during the court case right at the end is long, but he is a good enough orator that you focus on everything he says. Other great members of the cast include Tommy Lee Jones, playing Clay Shaw, a man accused of conspiring to kill Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, a man high up in Washington who suggests that the CIA had something to do with it, and Jack Lemmon. Kevin Bacon's performance seems like more of a caricature, and is slightly out of place in the film.
"JFK" is a fascinating and often thrilling movie at its best points. But it tends to drag when interesting information is not being discovered, and there is no way that all of its 3 hour runtime is necessary. Certain parts feel gratuitous so that every theory is covered, and others are just a bit confusing. There is also the important question of whether it matters if everything in the film is factual. So long as audience members know that it is supposed to be a representation of possible events, rather than stone cold fact, then this does not matter that much, since it is interesting enough as a movie, and at no point claims to be a documentary.
If you're going to watch "JFK", know that you're in for the long haul, and that some parts of the film are not easy to get through because they do drag. However often Costner's performance alone is great enough that interest levels are maintained in the telling if a story which is still shrouded in so much mystery.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This is one of the most difficult films I've had to watch, but is filled with phenomenal performances...
Some films have subject matters which are tricky to watch but important to know about. "Schindler's List" is by no means a film that you come out of and think "I really loved that", but it gets its message across effectively and is emotionally rewarding. In that film particularly, realism is key, and Spielberg doesn't hold back in images of brutality. "12 Years a Slave" is even more horrific at times and one of the most difficult films I've had to watch in a while, but it conveys important messages about racism and slavery, and thanks to its phenomenal performances, makes you relate so much to its characters.
The film follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped and taken into slavery. He fights for years to prove his innocence, while working under numerous cruel masters, including those played by Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender. One of the film's successes is in not creating a clear divide between black and white, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt both playing characters who support and are kind to Solomon. But under Fassbender's character, Edwin Epps, he is beaten often, as is Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o.
The performances in the film are all brilliant, especially those of Ejiofor and Nyong'o, who convey pain and suffering like I have never seen before on screen. They are both convincing and don't overstate it, which is what makes the characters so successful. You feel every minute of Solomon's journey, and he makes you root for him so much. The film's brutality is one of its most important parts, and occasionally you have to look away due to the sheer extremity of it all, but the fact that nothing is held back adds a sense of reality to it. The scars on Patsey's back after she has been lashed repeatedly are horrible to see, but send such an important message.
Steve McQueen shoots the film in a very artistic way, with lots of lingering shots on the beauty of the New Orleans country side. However he knows where to focus his camera during the more painful scenes to make them even stronger. A single extended shot, which runs for probably 2 minutes but feels like ages, shows Solomon tiptoeing around in some mud while hung up by his neck. The camera does not move, and you just hear the sounds of his throat clicking as he gasps for breath. It's difficult to witness, and goes on just a bit too long, but again this cruelty is important to the story, because it makes the audience think. It also makes the ending, which is filled with so much emotion, a whole lot more rewarding because we have seen and can understand everything that these characters have been through.
"12 Years a Slave" is an utterly unique movie. It has moments which are so difficult to watch, and perhaps it is important for audiences to know what they're getting in for before they watch this, but the stunning performances and breathtaking cinematography help to make it a rewarding and thought provoking experience.
This has great songs, beautiful romance, and is just a really great film overall...
When a movie has a minuscule budget, often sacrifices have to be made which can change the overall look or feel of the film. Things like special lighting and special effects are kept to a minimum, while locations are very simplistic. And often, this can be an extremely positive thing for a film, adding to its charm because of its simplistic nature. This is precisely one of the things which make "Once" such a charming and wonderful movie the constant realism which flows throughout the film. It's got great songs, beautiful romance and is just a really great film overall.
When the 'Guy' (Glen Hansard) is out busking one day, he meets and gets talking to the 'Girl' (Markéta Irglová), a Czech flower seller. There is clear chemistry between the two, and they meet again the next day and play music together. The nature of their relationship is always kept at a distance, since the Girl is married but her husband lives in the Czech Republic, and the Guy wants to get back together with his ex-girlfriend in London. Therefore, the two, along with a band of buskers, record a demo album so that the Guy can show it to the ex-girlfriend when he meets her. The ending is both incredibly daring and very satisfying, not falling back on classic Hollywood romance clichés.
However, plot in "Once" is not as important as the songs which feature throughout, a mixture of ballads and folk songs. "Falling Slowly", the film's main song which ended up winning an Academy Award, is a beautiful song, and its context within the movie is both simple and beautiful. The songs are all played naturally in the film, with one exception in "If You Want Me", a heartbreaking love song which the Girl sings with headphones in while walking down the street, and with the singing voice of the Guy played in the background. It's a bit more like a music video in that scene, but it's well shot and a brief moment of suspending the audience's disbelief.
The two leads are not professional actors, and neither are the majority of the supporting cast, but this merely adds to the naturalism which the film exudes. Director John Carney shoots it in a very natural way too, saving up any fancy camera-work until the very end. The film is brief, with a running time of only 86 minutes, but it fills that whole time with interest and never feels slow. Ultimately, "Once" is a beautiful and heartbreaking love story, with songs that you won't be able to get out of your head for weeks afterwards.