Grave Encounters (2011)

★★

Grave Encounters PosterDirector: The Vicious Brothers

Release Date: September 9th, 2011 (US); April 20th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko

We are abruptly informed that “what you’re about to see is not a horror movie”. Well, it is. At least it’s meant to be. Grave Encounters is so utterly infatuated by the genre, by appeasing the masses, that it sacrifices integrity for indiscreetness. Checklists at the ready: haunted asylum, moving wheelchairs, amateur crack team. It is all here. The Vicious Brothers have made a bad film, one that seeps with obvious happenings and undeniably familiar events. But they haven’t made a boring film. What Grave Encounters lacks in spontaneity it makes up for in irrational, occasionally eerie and often humorous sequences.

As far as ghost investigations go, the Grave Encounters team aren’t having much luck. When they seek out and pitch up at a desolate mental hospital, the group led by presenter Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) are quite willing to manipulate matters for additional shock value. Then increasingly strange occurrences rear, leading Lance and company to the stark realisation that they’ve landed in a location not to messed with.

Grave Encounters is many things. Ordinary. Ambling. Almost entirely lacking in scares. Truth be told, the first thirty minutes play out as a comedy, an embellishment laden on the film precisely due to one thing it ain’t: tactful. As upcoming events are foreshadowed, it feels like we’ve bought a ticket for the latest horror movie walk through; from a quick reminder of how dark it gets at night to the singling out of a window that peculiarly opens by itself, everything reeks of internal uncertainty and external panic on the filmmakers’ part. And it gets worse — before our not-so-beloved reality honchos begin their quote/unquote official investigation, somebody showing them around the asylum points out the service tunnels. (“It’s like a maze down here, you could easily get lost”). Paranormal terrors are set up in a similar vein to glass bottles, or targets, poised and waiting to be smashed.

Don’t worry about having to clean the subsequent shard-like mess. Even though The Vicious Brothers — who wrote and directed the picture — plainly relay their scare tactics, the film struggles to follow through. Sheer obviousness is an issue. We know what to expect because the horror has already been hinted at, and it’s not as if said horror is intuitive enough to overcome our expectations. The camera often peers down corridors for periods of time hoping to conjure up something of a creepy atmosphere. These moments are better but remain held down by a prevailing lack of authenticity emanating from an amateurish presentation, both within the film’s context and outwith its boundaries.

For instance, at the start a producer played by Ben Wilkinson, who is never present during the investigation, informs us that the content we are about to view hasn’t been tampered with in any way, apart from some editing to alleviate time constraints. Why, then, are behind-the-curtain sections left in? A car interrupting host Lance Preston’s introduction to the episode, or the team’s unrelated small talk upon meeting a historian. These are nagging issues that hardly amount to a fatal whole, but they are indicative of the filmmakers’ complacency. Attempts to induce realism are trodden on by a flawed premise. Just as events seem to be gaining some sort of momentum, such as the aforementioned shots settling on eerie corridors, this complacency once again crops up. Grave Encounters is scariest in silence and, though it owes more to REC than originality, the ending is quite unsettling. It simmers with hair-raising solemnity. Elsewhere, there is far too much shouting.

Grave Encounters would be significantly less entertaining minus its cast of cartoon characters who constantly indulge in gleeful idiocy. Lance, played by Sean Rogerson, is terrible. Our lead is the amateur biting off more than he can chew. The presenter pays an unassuming gardener to make something spooky up, and we’re resultantly left to ponder which is funnier: the caretaker’s nonchalant reaction to Lance’s request or the notion that, when push comes to shove, anyone would actually believe the local grass-cutter. During his Emmy award winning comedic exploits, Lance also decides to hire an overly eccentric, dark sunglasses wearing medium who emphatically gasps upon entering each room. (Incidentally, the ‘medium’ is probably a better gardener than he is spirit converser).

Rogerson’s persona is just one of a band of stupid characters who make stupid decisions for stupid reasons, and they each know of their dumbness. (“I know this sounds really stupid, but…”). We’ve reached a point in horror where lunacy has become the norm, an unfortunate feature that for the most part is something we must roll with to at least attain some level of enjoyment. It’s disheartening but it’s also reality — not an exclusive one, thankfully. We can’t take any of what is going on throughout Grave Encounters with a modicum of seriousness because there is hardly an ounce of existing tension and the characters are clichéd numpties. Believing in them is out of question, as is empathising with their plight.

Grave Encounters is so wrapped up in its attempts to appease the mass audience that the film misguidedly ventures down a shadowy corridor of ‘been there done that’. The Vicious Brothers’ piece might momentarily tickle a few horror cravings for those attracted by towards a shallow scare, but even that is debatable. The occasional influx of genuine terror hurts more because it signifies unfulfilled potential.

Perhaps it is best not to fret, and to simply giggle along with the absurdness.

Grave Encounters - Rogerson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Fanpop

Images copyright (©): Tribeca Film Festival

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

★★

I Know What You Did Last Summer PosterDirector: Jim Gillespie

Release Date: October 17th, 1997 (US); December 12th, 1997 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr.

We probably shouldn’t be too surprised that a film called I Know What You Did Last Summer reeks of laziness. Just as someone couldn’t find the time to come up with a proper title — it ain’t bad, but it is a tagline at the end of the day — renowned screenwriter Kevin Williamson must’ve had better things to do when he should have been jotting down ideas for this particular outing. Odd too, given some of Williamson’s best work hit cinemas only a year prior. Released during the peak of slasher popularity, I Know What You Did Last Summer is an almost wholesomely generic film that seldom has something fresh to offer. Though when it occasionally does, it’s quite fun.

The day is July 4th — it always is — and a group of friends partying at the beach are celebrating the end of high school life. Fuelled by alcohol, their lively drive home in the early hours of the morning takes a violent turn when designated wheel man Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) inadvertently hits a stranger. A year later, the quartet reconvene to face their demons after Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) receives a worrying letter from an unknown threat.

Riding on the coattails of horror’s slashiest sub-genre at its peak, this may well have worked for audiences 15 years ago. For those 90s kids who were willing to manoeuvre away from their post-Fresh Prince couches and venture along to the cinema in a search for their latest scare kick, an air of fragmentary vindication likely arose. The proceeding 15 years haven’t done Jim Gillespie’s piece any favours though as these days I Know What You Did Last Summer communicates sluggishly rather than scarily.

Characters who were once amusingly familiar are now dully recognisable; here we watch incompetent cops, hysterical teens, unappreciative family members and an oddball whose home is a cabin in the woods fight it out for screen time. You could go one further and split our four leads into general types: the douche, the do-gooder, the good-looking chick and so on. The lot presented before us are hardly fleshed out at all, not figuratively anyway — when main ladies Julie and Helen reconnect after a year, the duo interact as if they’ve only been apart for the length of a toilet break. Emotion, posted missing.

It is peculiar, then, that we sort of like the characters. The high profile names involved do well with the lightweight personas laid upon them — at least the car accident at the beginning manifests as some sort of an attempt to taint our protagonists with an iffy moral shadow early on. Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar are accommodating screen presences, and both veer closer to the scream queen tag than the annoying gal stamp. In a divergence from rule, we’re essentially roused to root for a pair of leading females and the film does well to split its time between them. Although Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen is a pageant contestant she is also quite resourceful and not stigmatised by her materialism. On the other hand, when he is afforded something to do Ryan Phillippe is either angry or the purveyor of comical nodes. “You can’t drive for shit, you know that?” Barry exclaims seconds before his pal runs somebody over. Slick.

Perhaps Kevin Williamson is aiming for self-awareness throughout his screenplay, akin to the tone promoted in Scream the year before. There is a noticeable pronunciation in certain elements that would indicate as such; from telling ghost stories around a campfire to dumping a body in a dark lake, at night, surrounded by mist and eerie silence. But the film gets caught somewhere amid tongue-and-cheek and deadly serious. Unlike Scream, a picture that successfully manages both overriding irony and a sinister underbelly, I Know What You Did Last Summer plods along an uncertain middling route. Humorous moments are infrequent yet amplified when they enter the fray. It doesn’t help when action lulls are supported by dialogue that is often erroneously funny. (“Maybe he wanted to die?”)

And it wouldn’t be a nineties slasher flick without splurges of stupidity either. Conversations are crummy but these are nothing compared to the baffling silliness on display, an unnatural lunacy that regularly exudes the horror norm. Some instances we are forced to forgive for the sake of sanity, such as the arrival of an ominous note on the exact same day Julie returns home, or that her mate just happens to work locally and not be in New York during Julie’s time of need. Other scenes are notable for their unavoidable absurdity: at one point Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character enters her bedroom and dozes off whilst the baddie hides in the cupboard, refraining from killing her. Guess someone behind the scenes managed to inform the villain just in time that there’s another thirty minutes to go.

Slasher outings aren’t really meant to be scary, not exclusively. The aim is to shock, to rattle the audience. Unfortunately this does nothing more than encourage a few winces. Admittedly, our persistence is somewhat rewarded with a couple of good ones. The first kill, for example, is impactful without being overly gory. From here Williamson’s screenplay hints profusely at who the killer is and does so effectively. We foresee a twist coming, we think we know the culprit. Ultimately, the conclusion flatters to deceive but the ponderous build up is admirable and an insight into what could have been.

I Know What You Did Last Summer clumsily loses touch with its tone. The piece cajoles between hokey and ominous, and the end result is rather fluffy. Sure, it is sort of fun if you are looking to suspend you brain for over an hour and a half. But it’s certainly not anything to scream about. And it’s certainly not Scream.

I Know What You Did Last Summer - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, The Movie Buff

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

The Borderlands (2013)

★★★

The Borderlands PosterDirector: Elliot Goldner

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (UK Frightfest)

Genre: Horror; Mystery

Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle

Elliot Goldner brings a heap of diligence to his directorial debut. The Borderlands is the Brit’s first venture behind the camera, the outing a horror flick that opts for patience over pillaging. Goldner manages the atmosphere well and his film builds to a genuinely creepy crescendo as a result. But the ingredients aren’t all that original, nor are they universally receptive. It is tough to root for obnoxious characters and tougher still to engage in such a familiar situation; we slot into the misty West Country, our time split between a haunted church and flaming sheep. Persevere, though, and be rewarded.

Having been summoned by the local priest, Vatican paranormal investigators Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle) find themselves trying to disprove a plethora of mysterious happenings. They are joined by Gray (Robin Hill) who, despite being non-religious, sees more weight in the ghostly declarations than his colleagues. That is until what is perceived to be coincidental gradually grows stranger.

The first thing to note is The Borderlands’ lack of originality. This is no spectacular deviation from the horror norm, certainly not in terms of character or overarching story. Candles moving without provocation, noises emanating from walls, a rural location. The characters too, divided by scepticism and belief, are more or less conventional. Deacon, portrayed fairly well by Gordon Kennedy, is the moody Scot bearing a mysterious secret that is no doubt disquietingly aligned to the current job. He won’t share it though, and instead we must succumb to generic small talk that does nothing for the characters. Discussions enveloped in weird histories sort of add to the film’s simmering tension but retread old ground in content.

A beginning that is at best innocuous trundles over into annoying territory the longer our resident tech guy Gray is on screen. You’ll recognise him as the tech guy because the tech guy is always the offbeat one, harmlessly immature and progressively frustrating. Gray laughs at place names and rustles crisp packets in church. “Food, cleanliness and a little bit of naughty,” is one of his more egregious lines. And just on the off chance you missed all of that, we also see him also partaking in a lot of webcam installation. Robin Hill plays Gray without any real panache but the performance serves its purpose. They all do — Luke Neal is perhaps the most efficient as Father Crellick. The problem is that these people are not the most likeable bunch. Mark arrives later on and completes the undesirable investigative trio, he a bit of a bumbler who objects to almost anything. By the time the scary stuff arises, we don’t really care too much for anyone’s safety. (Though, admittedly, the film overcomes this issue in the end.)

After a fairly average, and arguably quite boring, opening half hour — one that occasionally plays out like a peculiarly mundane episode of Big Brother — Goldner amps up the menace. Shouting matches emerge sparingly but time is most often filled by a growing sense of risk. Patience is the film’s most effective employee; the director never panics despite a narrative that is somewhat uneventful, at least in horror terms. The creaky characters become less creaky because the film no longer wholesomely relies on their interactive antics. Dialogue that may have manifested as outlandish beforehand gains a degree of importance, particularly as the end nears. (“That’s nature for you Deacon, big stuff eating little stuff”). By the time the final sequence plays out we are just about glued to the screen in an ocular concoction of fear and intrigue. It is an ambiguous conclusion, but not an alienating one.

The Borderlands’ technical aspects deserve credit too. In between scenes, the camera likes to pull back and take in the spooky country surroundings, every so often reminding us of the characters’ vulnerability due to their presence in a relatively secluded area. A mountain looms in the background with grey, murky clouds swirling overhead relaying somewhat of a foreboding nod. The gloomy cinematography ushers forth a landscape that frequently becomes a character in and of itself. Goldner, who also wrote the piece, is savvy when it comes to his use of the found footage element. Cameras are mounted on walls and characters wear Google Glass-esque lens recorders, covering all bases. Subsequently, what we’re presented with is a hybrid of found footage and classic direction that works well.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, The Borderlands is a fairly short film. It squeezes as much horror juice and brooding anticipation out of its runtime as possible and does so without ever revealing too much. Held down by shaky characters and a largely unoriginal story, the outing — though admirable in its atmospheric quality — hinges on a strong conclusion. It delivers.

The Borderlands

Images credit: BBFC, Gallery Hip

Images copyright (©): Metrodome Distribution

Drinking Buddies (2013)

★★★

Drinking Buddies PosterDirector: Joe Swanberg

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); November 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

If I knew anything about alcohol, I’d compare Drinking Buddies to an ice cold brew: refreshing and momentarily absolving, but certainly nothing impactful in the long run. Guzzle too much and you’ll wake up with a dizzied demeanour, clutching at the faint straws of last night’s antics. You probably wouldn’t want to indulge these characters for too long either, else their credible charm will devolve into a more septic annoyance. Director Joe Swanberg finds an amiable balance though and subsequently delivers a film that is controlled despite its obvious air of improvisation. But much like that 11th beer, Drinking Buddies just doesn’t feel necessary. There is a gaping plot contrivance, one that’s really difficult to ignore.

As co-workers at a Chicago-based brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) spend more time with each other than they do their respective partners. The duo even manage to squeeze evening bar gallivants alongside other staffers into their laid back schedules. A double date weekend away ushers in a few new home truths — at least one more than we’re already aware of — whilst also cementing the obvious, that these two should be a couple.

So why aren’t they? Drinking Buddies calmly shuffles along for 90 minutes and for at least 85 of those we ponder that exact sentiment. The notion promoting Kate and Luke as a terminally separate item is quite unbelievable, so much so that the amour scales eventually bowl over into absurdity. At its heart the film is a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story that seems destined for a conclusion within reach but beyond common sense. Kate and Luke are both drinkers, they’re both jokers, both laid back. The two even work at the same craft brewery. Better still, the duo’s respective partners are more suited to a relationship with each other as opposed to their current situation. Anna Kendrick is Jill, who likes to hike and muse over philosophical idioms. She’s not much of a bevy merchant. Inconspicuously, neither is Kate’s boyfriend Chris.

The plot, though straightforward and immersive enough, struggles to overcome the grandiose fabrication staring it right in the face. We spent far too much time frustrated, pleading with the characters to face the overt facts. Not frustrated in an enticing manner, rather, gratingly so. It is a shame because Swanberg — who also wrote, edited and co-produced — drives home a genuine sense of believability when it comes to his characters. We recognise the people and we like them, but their situation is borderline nonsense.

There is an impetus to improvise and, for the most part, a justifiable one. Although proceedings occasionally teeter down an overly spontaneous route where natural is irritatingly substituted in favour of awkward (a conversation during a mundane forest hike, for example) this mantra that puts the ball in the actors’ court is a welcome one. The indie tint is prevalent and actually very agreeable; visually, Drinking Buddies manifests as cosy if not at all flashy. Nor should it be flashy. The filmmaker squeezes a lot out of his $500,000 budget by tending towards simplicity, a decision that also coalesces neatly with Swanberg’s attempts to enforce purity.

Much of what is happening hinges on the talents of Drinking Buddies‘ cast and they universally deliver. Olivia Wilde leads as Kate, constantly dawning shades in order to convince us she is hungover. Kate could easily be unlikeable — she is sort of clingy and relentlessly fails to take control of situations — but Wilde’s effortless allure grants her unlimited lives. Stepping away from the wrestling ring for a moment, Jake Johnson turns up as the other half of the film’s dynamic duo, Luke. Johnson has a slightly easier job than Wilde but delivers wholesomely nonetheless; Jake is cool (he has a beard) and eternally collected. The flick is at its most mobile when these two share the screen, their chemistry constantly sizzling. Anna Kendrick is also thrown in at the deep end — Jill is the character who is sort of ruining what inevitably would be a picturesque relationship. Yet, we still get along with her. Kendrick’s stock is on a rapid ascent and it is clear why.

Simmering irrepressibly beneath the love quadrangle is alcoholism, a damning and serious issue. Though the tone fluctuates between frothy romance and light wit, the subject of alcoholism subconsciously rears every so often — it would, at the end of the day this is a piece about people working with drink and drinking after work — and Swanberg handles it well. He has to. Kate is definitely the serial gulp offender and it is consequently unsurprising that her personal life is the one falling apart. The director aptly manages said topic by raising awareness without stumbling into burdensome territory.

There is no avoiding the almost fatal error in Drinking Buddies’ narrative. The film’s strive to be authentic butts heads with its stubbornness when it comes to characters’ romantic tendencies. Put that to one side though, and Joe Swanberg’s light-hearted indierrific outing will certainly quench your thirst.

Drinking Buddies - Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.

Fargo (1996)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: April 5th, 1996 (US); May 31st, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy

A jack of all trades, and perhaps one of the best. Shuttled forth by a bleakly comedic narrative, Fargo occasionally amps up the awkward, tie-loosening tension before ploughing right and left into a caveat of blunt criminality. There’s an inherently dramatic element too, the underbelly of bumbling luck and the ultimate tale of karma. The Coen brothers boast a unique style; precise in their crafting and often ironic in their delivery, a deliriously absorbing mantra that stretches far and wide here. Characters gargle seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue, yet a nonchalant poise often demands bouts of laughter. And therein lies the film’s most admirable quality: it makes you guffaw through moments of sadism, but never denounces you for doing so. The sibling duo at the helm aren’t overly serious in their direction (only when required), yet still manage to divulge a genuine sense of authentic story-telling. In Fargo, every scene holds a certain weight and although engagement with the particulars is at the viewer’s discretion, there’s never a sense of an overbearing burden. Yaaaa.

In Fargo, North Dakota, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — a woman as cheerful as she is pregnant — is called to a road-side accident harbouring two casualties. Only it’s not an accident, and is instead part of a series of unfortunate events set alight by car salesman Gerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in an attempt to recoup much needed cash for his family. A master plan that would garner appreciation from the likes of John Kramer, Gerry hires a pair of quintessential henchmen to kidnap his wife and subsequently demand an $80,000 ransom, the spoils of which would be shared between the trio of plotters. Only Gerry is deviously untangling his own personal puppeteering strings, ready to juggle them against his father-in-law in an attempt to gain one million dollars from the extravaganza. In Gerry’s anxiety-plastered eyes, family comes first… and last.

There’s an ever-present aura that wilfully jaunts around any Coen film. It’s easy to spot, deliberate in implementation but astutely subtle as to never degrade proceedings. Drawing upon the experience of 16 previous films, seeing the words “Joel and Ethan Coen” sprawl across the screen nowadays prompts an intrinsic knowledge that meticulous sardonicism will soon be lingering. Released when their three-decade-old filmmaking odyssey was eighteen years younger, Fargo might just be the sibling duo’s most complete diamond of irony. Some films might be more wholesome in their flippant ideology, for example O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its caper-esque comedic quality, whereas others will undoubtedly offer greater absorbency through numerous interpretations and delightful tones, such as Inside Llewyn Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another Coen creation as genre-splicing as Fargo though, for this conglomeration of classification is what cinema is all about.

In a Minnesotan setting bitten by frost and populated with oddities constantly attempting to cover their innocuous tracks (“I don’t vouch for him”) the Coen brothers present and develop a number of wholly recognisable characters. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the absolute epitome of a caricature criminal partnership: the snivelling manipulator, out of his depth but armed with a motor mouth, and the dumb brute, purposeful only in violent outbursts or foul language. Gerry Lundegaard is the struggling businessman who ventures further into the ocean of uncertainty than he should, and is all the more blundering for it. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson has more money than patience, and decreases in accessibility when he knows his cash is at risk (“A lotta damn money” is one of the funniest gags). These characters are familiar, but they are also affectionately handled and escorted through a variety of tonal preoccupations, from comedy to crime to drama, constantly forging energy and slap-stick-like commotion. Our child-bearing detective Marge is the only figure who detours from the norm; noticeably pregnant, deliriously good-humoured and actively chasing murderers are three traits that do not often mesh together. This hodgepodge collection of characters coupled alongside a narrative that explodes with vibrancy, will refrain from giving you enough time to reflect on what just happened before it makes you ponder what’s going to happen next.

Yet, in spite of a growing sense of madness, the Coens always appear fully in control. Although the narrative is idiosyncratic — one minute a Steve Buscemi facial expression will have your jaw aching and the next a gunshot will leave you in shock — there is a point, a certain method, to all on-screen antics. The craziness of each character reflects the madness of his or her actions, prompting us to consider the length of a person’s sanity during tough times, whilst simultaneously sending out a nod towards the wondrous scope of cinema. Masterfully, the Coens develop a blunt and sadistic sense of realism amongst the hilarities. Fargo details karma as a rapid mule with more bite than the cold landscape from which it festers. In this tale of people playing people playing people, only the people face the consequences.

Shepherded by Roger Deakins’ icy cinematography, the arctic setting becomes a player of its own as it seeps into every other aspect of the film. Most characters endure cold minds. Lasting shots of mundaneness appear frozen to the screen. There’s a stiff lack of motivation, embodied emphatically by Marge’s police partner who can only conjure up phrases such as, “Watch your step Margie,” and, “You okay Margie?” as the heavily pregnant woman inspects dead bodies. Even the comedy is frosty — plotting and kidnapping is carried out in an atmosphere far more jovial than intense. Though, the funny buck stops at murder, an action presented more chillingly and viscerally than any other.

Regular Coen contributors Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi are once again on hand and, alongside William H. Macy, deliver terrific performances. Humour is the common denominator for the trio, though the source varies. For McDormand, an incessant politeness in the face of violence and misnomer creates a peculiar dynamic. McDormand’s poise throughout sees Marge one step ahead of the game, even when she’s a day or two behind the others. Entirely the opposite, then, is Macy as the bumbling goof businessman Gerry. Gerry’s idiocy is built from a spectrum of nervous facial expressions and worried posturing; an unassured plight that sees no positive solution. He’s anxious to a T, but so dud-like that you sort of expect his ridiculous plan to come off in a spectacularly inadvertent fashion. The third of three great performances derives from the acting chops of Steve Buscemi, whose raging demeanour funds a big-mouthed little guy not far removed from Tommy DeVito. He relentlessly contradicts himself and thus withholds attracting seriousness, but it’s obvious that Buscemi is having a blast with the role and fun is infectious. It also helps that he gets many of the funniest quips.

The Coen brothers leave nothing to chance and inject Fargo with fastidious application — it’s no surprise that a wintry white landscape pronounces vivid red blood. The film will keep you guessing, is littered with humour and completely embraces the medium from which it thrives. In doing so, it even has the wherewithal to reflect on the outrageousness of its characters’ wrong-doings.

In the often correct words of Roger Ebert, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.

The Blogscars!

Well that pithy attempt at a punny title went awry.

Don’t worry, this is not a post on injured bloggers, or deformed blogs for that matter.

Credit: Oscars.org

Hey! It’s award season, and I’ve been nominated for my first blog award…

The Liebster Award!

I feel like I’ve just starred in Jerry Maguire and won Best Supporting Actor, only the Blog Gods have given me more than two minutes to exclaim my thank yous. Or perhaps that’s just down to my lack of being constrained by a rapidly flowing, live three hour televised window.

This is all very suave. I don’t really know what I’m doing, a bit like Jacqueline Bisset at this year’s Golden Globes. Okay, maybe not that bad. Or externally influenced. I digress, taking my lead from the business’ best and most bumbling in doing so; this isn’t about me, this is about all of you brilliant people – and occasional spam-bots – who read my film ramblings. Particularly, a huge thanks to the wonderful Cara over at Silver Screen Serenade whose insightful, funny and positively effervescent blog is a must read for film fans, television nuts and life folks in general! Check it out now if you haven’t already done so (though I’m sure you have). I’m also following Cara’s awards blog layout, because it’s far too nifty to ignore.

The Liebster Award rules, then:

  • Nominated bloggers must link back to the blogger who nominated them.
  • Nominees must answer the eleven questions set out by their nominator.
  • Nominated bloggers must also select eleven other terrific blogs with less than 200 followers – though a few of mine are a little above that figure – nominate, and then prescribe them eleven tantalising questions (or, make up some head-shakingly unimaginative queries, as I have done).
  • If nominated, you cannot nominate the person who originally nominated you.

Anyone else starting to verbally trip over that nonimate, err, nominate word?

Enough about rules, down with the machine! etc.

Let’s get going with Cara’s questions, all about FAVOURITES:

1. Vacation spot?

Being Scottish, I’ve spent many a holiday abroad over in Spain (we’re very particular, apparently). I did go to America a few years back though, when I played football (soccer), and absolutely loved it. The whole team went over; we paired off and lived with American families for most of the trip, and I was based in a wooded, pristine Pennsylvania neighbourhood. After spending a day in New York, I eulogise over returning.

2. Color?

Red, as you can probably tell looking at my blog’s header and logo!

3. Dessert?

Shockingly, I’m not a big dessert guy (or a big guy in general, so it’s not really that shocking after all) but I do enjoy vanilla ice-cream stacked on top of a warm chocolate fudge cake every now and again.

4. Black-and-white movie?

It’s a Wonderful Life, without question. That film is delightful.

5. Superhero?

I’ve never read a comic book, so purely based on films and television shows, Batman. Chris Nolan made Batman cool again. Don’t ruin it Snyder.

6. TV show?

This is a tough one. I watch far too much TV, and often have upwards of ten different series’ recorded and ready to watch. I’m gonna have three, because ‘down with the machine!’ etc., remember? Two that aren’t on anymore but are crazily different and therefore I cannot separate: Friends and LOST. I got into Friends over in the States actually. We watched it almost every night and I became glued, such a smartly humorous, charming show. LOST, I watched from start to finish as it aired on the tele. It gets a bad rap for the finale, but it absolutely had me going. A truly stupendous first season. Of the current shows on air, it’s gonna have to be The Walking Dead. I’m intrigued by the whole zombie/apocalypse (and zombie apocalypse) genre. Having said all of that, True Detective begins over here tomorrow and I’m big on Matt McCon at the moment – we’re on a nickname basis.

7. Book?

I don’t read as much as I should, but off the top of my head I’m going to pick The Hobbit. It’s all very adventurous, and funny, and good-natured.

8. Beatles song?

“Let It Be”. Sorry for being so generic!

9. Dog breed?

Labrador, like the little guy in those Andrex adverts!

10. Beverage?

I’m a sucker for Citrus Oasis, or any other orangey drink. Alcohol-wise, I’ve only really ever tried Budweiser, and haven’t consumed alcohol since!

11. Nerdy franchise (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, etc.)?

Nerdy franchise? Hmm, evidently I’m quite a nerd when it comes to anything in the film (and television) Milky Way, but The Lord of the Rings is my favourite film trilogy/franchise so I’ll go with that!

Now, here are the magnificent 11 I’d like to give a shout-out to!

Since I’m all about the big screen, I’m going to compile a completely random, totally unserious list of film questions. Now then, should you guys choose to accept them (and please don’t feel the need to if it’s not your thing, or you’ve already been nominated!) here are my 11 quick-fire questions:

  1. Name one film that you have yet to see, but should’ve seen by now.
  2. Do you keep a list of every film you watch, and when?
  3. What is the first film that comes to mind when you read the following word: Guitar?
  4. What is your favourite Leo DiCaprio film?
  5. Name a film that you personally dislike, but that everyone else seems to love.
  6. What is your first film-related memory?
  7. Do you listen to any film podcasts, or radio shows, or watch any television review shows?
  8. Does the phrase “Hello to Jason Isaacs” mean anything to you?
  9. Was The Phantom Menace really THAT bad?
  10. What is your favourite film that is underappreciated elsewhere?
  11. When you hear the name Shia LaBeouf, what type of meat springs to mind? 

Have fun!

Oh, and if I’ve utterly messed all of this up and ruined the award-chain, I will repent at the feet of the Blog Gods for the rest of eternity.