Archives for April 2014

Fargo”, Kinda Funny Film, Very Promising TV Series.

Fargo the series.

Far­go” the series.

Fargo’s an odd film. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Basi­cal­ly, it’s half of two films sta­pled together.

The first two thirds is foot per­fect, flaw­less sto­ry telling. Whose sto­ry is it? William H Macy’s. What does he want? To become a man, to give his life direc­tion, to escape. But most imme­di­ate­ly; the mon­ey. And what’s stop­ping him? Every­thing! His wife, the in-laws, the snow, lady luck, every sin­gle thing he does to solve his prob­lems, they all come back to bite him. But prin­ci­pal­ly, him­self. It’s brilliant.

But then, just after the hour mark, he’s about to take the mon­ey to the kid­nap­pers. But his father-in-law grabs the case and he goes instead. And for the final third of the film, we fol­low the mon­ey á la The Yel­low Rolls-Royce, as it pass­es from hand to hand. From the father-in-law, to the nice thug, the real thug and final­ly the police.

Which should have been real­ly annoy­ing. But the film gets away with it because the sec­ondary char­ac­ters are so well drawn and so fan­tas­ti­cal­ly act­ed that you’re swept along.

So what’s the prob­lem? So what if it breaks the laws of dra­ma, if we’re all agreed that the film works?

The Bog Lebowski, 60 scenes in search of an ending.

The Big Lebows­ki, 60 scenes in search of an ending.

Well the prob­lem is, it con­vinced the Coen broth­ers that they didn’t have to wor­ry about con­ven­tion­al­ly struc­tur­ing their scripts with any­thing as bur­den­some as a begin­ning, mid­dle and end. So every­thing they’ve made since has been pants.

Far­go (’96) was fol­lowed by The Big Lebows­ki (’98), which is a series of won­der­ful scenes, but just stops. It has no end­ing – try ask­ing any of its fans what hap­pens at the end, and see how long they take to remember.

After which, we’ve had a series of increas­ing­ly for­get­table films with no end of sec­ondary char­ac­ters, but sto­ries which have just become thin­ner and thin­ner. O Broth­er Where are Thou? (’00), Intol­er­a­ble Cru­el­ty (’03), the Ladykillers (’04), Burn After Read­ing (’08) and True Grit (’10).

The hon­ourable excep­tion, No Coun­try For Old Men (’07), was, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, based on some­one else’s story.

So turn­ing Far­go into a TV series could have gone either way. Half way through the pilot episode, it looked as if it might have bit­ten off more than it could chew. As yet anoth­er body was added to the pile in what was a sur­pris­ing­ly gory open­er. But they man­aged to tie up the many loose ends with impres­sive con­fi­dence by its close.

Billy BobThornton.

Bil­ly Bob Thornton.

Hap­pi­ly, the prob­lems that bedev­il their fea­ture films are assets in a TV series. Those bril­liant­ly drawn sec­ondary char­ac­ters that they get dis­tract­ed by will have time to devel­op here. And for­ev­er post­pon­ing an end­ing is what all tele­vi­sion series are based on. And impres­sive­ly, they’ve man­aged to trans­late that very dis­tinc­tive mood they so often suc­ceed in evok­ing, at once threat­en­ing­ly eerie yet appeal­ing­ly quirky.

And then of course there’s Bil­ly Bob Thorn­ton. As, what? A sort of mod­ern day and mar­vel­lous­ly mis­chie­vous reverse image Jiminy Crick­et. Prowl­ing the town, qui­et­ly encour­ag­ing every­one he meets to fol­low their worst instincts.

It’s on on Sun­days on Chan­nel 4. You can see the Far­go trail­er here.

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Aretha, Otis, The Stones and the Musical Marvel that is Muscle Shoals.

Alicia Keys in "Muscle Shoals".

Ali­cia Keys in “Mus­cle Shoals”.

In 1967 the 25 year old Aretha Franklin was a spent force. She’d been with Colum­bia for over five years and they hadn’t known what to do with her. So in des­per­a­tion she left Colum­bia and signed up with Jer­ry Wexler at Atlantic Records.

Wexler sent her down to a Mick­ey Mouse stu­dio in Hicksville USA at the back end of beyond. He’d fall­en in love with the sound he’d stum­bled upon down there. It had a mus­cu­lar depth and a pri­mal res­o­nance that was unlike any­thing he’d ever heard before.

Muscle Shoals.

Mus­cle Shoals.

The first song she cut down there was I Nev­er Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). Its B side was Do Right Woman. A lit­tle lat­er they record­ed her ver­sion of Otis Redding’s Respect. And then (You Make Me Feel) Like a Nat­ur­al Woman.

Wexler sent the fiery Wil­son Pick­ett down. He arrived incan­des­cent with rage to dis­cov­er that this Palookav­ille stu­dio was, lit­er­al­ly, next door to a cot­ton field. What’s more, inside he found five skin­ny white guys who looked like they’d be more at home behind a bank desk than in a record­ing stu­dio. These were the guys that were sup­posed to be mak­ing that sound! And then they start­ed to play. He record­ed Land of 1,00 Dances, Mus­tang Sal­ly and his extra­or­di­nary ver­sion of Hey Jude. He was sold.

"The Swampers", the white guys that made that black sound.

The Swampers”, the white guys that made that black sound.

So was every­body else who arrived there. Otis Red­ding, Etta James, Can­dy Sta­ton and Clarence Carter. The Stones record­ed Wild Hors­es and Brown Sug­ar there.

When Wexler encour­aged the rhythm sec­tion to set up a rival stu­dio across the road, far from caus­ing its down­fall, Mus­cle Shoals now had two com­pet­ing stu­dios des­per­ate­ly look­ing for the next hit. And every­body want­ed to record there.

Dylan, The Stones, Rod Stew­art, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the All­man Broth­ers, Jim­my Cliff, The Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Any Williams, Lin­da Ron­stadt, Willie Nel­son and more recent­ly George Michael, Band Of Hors­es, The Dri­ve-By Truck­ers and The Black Keys. And many, many more.

Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music".

Peter Gural­nick­’s “Sweet Soul Music”.

Rick Hall was the skin­ny white kid who set up Fame Stu­dios in Mus­cle Shoals, Alaba­ma in 1963, invit­ing four or five of his white friends in their ear­ly twen­ties to come in and record with him. It became a rare racial haven in the heart of the South. And, togeth­er with Stax and Atlantic Records, they pro­duced some of the best and most impor­tant Amer­i­can music of the 20th century.

You can read about it in Peter Guranlick’s sem­i­nal Sweet Soul Music (you should read any­thing you can get your hands on by him), which mar­ries social and musi­cal his­to­ry to per­fec­tion. And you can see and hear about it all in the won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary “Mus­cle Shoals”, which is part of the BBC’s Sto­ryville series. You can see the trail­er here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “The Trip To Italy” on BBC2.

Series 1, The Trip.

Series 1, The Trip.

Few peo­ple noticed when The Trip slipped unob­tru­sive­ly onto our screens in 2010. A cou­ple of quite famous come­di­ans are sent off on a brief dri­ve around Eng­land to knock off a cou­ple of celebri­ty restau­rant reviews. In ret­ro­spect, as an idea, it was pitch perfect.

Super­fi­cial­ly, it pro­vides an excuse for a cou­ple of gen­uine­ly fun­ny come­di­ans to strut their impres­sions. But beneath that, and much more inter­est­ing­ly it was a por­trait of two men in the lat­ter stages of their mid­dle age try­ing to get their head around the unbridge­able gap between what were once their hopes and dreams, and what they’ve actu­al­ly done with their lives.

No longer on the menu alas.

No longer on the menu.

This is made all the more fas­ci­nat­ing by the fact that for many of us watch­ing, what we dream of is end­ing up exact­ly where they are. On the oth­er side of the screen. They have made it. What was so won­der­ful­ly dark about that first series was its explo­ration of what exact­ly “it” is, and whether the two in ques­tion real­ly have got there.

The sec­ond series kicked off on Fri­day. Inevitably it wasn’t quite as sharp or as dark as the first. The Trip to Italy is no longer the secret it once was and the bud­get and expec­ta­tions have shot up. So there was a ner­vous­ness to the first episode as it tried just a lit­tle too hard to please.

But at the very end of the episode they both stood there look­ing over at a cou­ple of pret­ty young girls. They’re not even threat­ened by us, they mused. We’ve become uncle mate­r­i­al. What was so impres­sive­ly dark about this, was that it was deliv­ered absolute­ly straight.

Series 2, now in Italy.

Series 2, now in Italy.

It was com­plete­ly and gen­uine­ly free from any sense of irony what­so­ev­er. And yet at the same time, you just knew with­out in any way hav­ing to be told, that deep down nei­ther of them believed it. When some­body next asks you what you mean by less is more, these two per­for­mances are as good an exam­ple as you’ll have to offer.

Bril­liant­ly act­ed and unob­tru­sive­ly direct­ed by Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, series two promis­es at the very least to be con­sis­tent­ly if gen­tly amus­ing. Hope­ful­ly, nice and qui­et­ly, it’ll con­tin­ue to be as bril­liant­ly dark.

The Trip To Italy is on Fri­day at 10pm on BBC2. Here’s a brief clip.

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Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farha­di is one of the few gen­uine­ly excit­ing film mak­ers work­ing any­where in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made out­side of his native Iran.

After the huge and entire­ly mer­it­ed suc­cess of his pre­vi­ous film A Sep­a­ra­tion, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keen­ly await­ed films at the 2013 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. But it only end­ed up get­ting the con­so­la­tion prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite cor­rect­ly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot bet­ter than that would sug­gest. Bejo has asked her estranged hus­band to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, with­out fill­ing him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slow­ly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daugh­ter is so unhap­py with her moth­er, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Sep­a­ra­tion, Farhadi’s abil­i­ty to care­ful­ly tell his sto­ry, slow­ly reveal­ing its metic­u­lous­ly posi­tioned plot points is unri­valled. And all the per­for­mances are out­stand­ing. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inex­plic­a­bly laud­ed The Artist reviewed here, is a rev­e­la­tion. Ali Mossafa is superb as her for­mer hus­band, but most remark­able of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three chil­dren – the two chil­dren plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extra­or­di­nary per­for­mances that French cin­e­ma some­how excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tra­di­tion of films from the likes of Fran­cois Truf­faut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of chil­dren, ren­der­ing their vis­tas all the more mov­ing  because of the per­for­mances they man­age mirac­u­lous­ly to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truf­faut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disin­gen­u­ous to pre­tend that The Past weren’t ever so slight­ly dis­ap­point­ing. The momen­tum dis­si­pates in in its final quar­ter as the focus shifts from the for­mer hus­band to the new man. And instead of build­ing to some sort of con­clu­sion, it qui­et­ly comes to a halt.

By any oth­er stan­dards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farha­di, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trail­er for The Past here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!