Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

The brothers Coen have succeeded in putting together a thrilling kidnap mystery. Set in snowy rural Minnesota, Fargo tells the story of a botched kidnapping plot hatched by an incompetent used car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), which is painstakingly and politely unravelled by ace trooper Marge Gunderson (Mc Dormand). Lundegaard hires two incompetent criminals (Buscemi, Stomrmare) to kidnap his wife and exact a ransom from her rich father. Minnesota is renown for being a particularly politely peopled place, and this film heaps niceties on you like spades, which is perhaps my favourite part of it.

William H. Macy … Jerry Lundegaard

Frances McDormand … Marge Gunderson

John Carroll Lynch … Norm Gunderson

Steve Buscemi … Carl Showalter

Peter Stormare … Gaear Grimsrud

Kristin Rudrüd … Jean Lundegaard

Harve Presnell … Wade Gustafson

Tony Denman … Scotty Lundegaard

The Coens are still a million miles from Hollywood staple, but with Fargo’s comic felicity, gun-packing coolness and ability to come up with the totally unexpected, they maintain their place among America’s most important filmmakers. Excellent. Empire
Gunderson’s investigation into the murder of a state trouper, killed during the botched kidnapping, is at times monotone but methodical and relentless. She breaks her politeness once saying to Lundergaard “you have no call to get snippy with me”, which in itself is sensational. See the snippy snippet below. I won’t share the whole scene as it does contain some spoilers. Why do I like this? Likely because it is one of the consistent comedic moments which are scattered throughout the film. We also have Showalter’s (Buscemi) constant and increasingly gory fumbles as he is trying to obtain payment for his illicit activities, which add a layer of levity to an otherwise quite serious topic.

 

The dark and cold weigh down everything, and in the middle, in their warm cocoon, are Chief Marge and her hubby, Norm, the painter of ducks. Without them, “Fargo” might have been “In Cold Blood” laced with unseemly humor. The Coens sometimes seem to scorn their characters, but their love for Marge redeems “Fargo.” Marge is the catalyst, and her speech at the end is Shakespearean in the way it heals wounds and restores order…Roger Ebert

Fargo is a dense film of tremendous merit. The dogged pursuit of the truth and exposing of the pathetic criminals trying to dupe Gunderson was destined to end poorly. There are so many memorable scenes and tropes: the coldness of the third rate kidnappers as contrasted with the coldness of Lundergaard’s father in law (Presnell), the disappointment of Mr Gunderson’s performance in a duck painting competition and the constant unending nightmarish pressure on Lundegaard himself make this a special film. I recommend it very highly indeed.

The Conjuring III – The Devil Made Me Do It – Exquisite New Horror

The Conjuring III – The Devil Made Me Do It – Exquisite New Horror

Avid readers of this blog will know that I am a devotee of the horror fiction genre in cinema. I am not entirely sure why, perhaps for the thrill of being moved (even if towards nightmares), perhaps because the acting muscles needed to succeed in horror are so vastly different from more common genres, or perhaps it is something to do with the power of God triumphing over evil. Indeed at one point in this excellent film, the target of the insidious force is “Purity, faith and love, God’s greatest triumphs”. The plot of the film explores the origin of the possession of Johnson and the Warren’s attempts at halting it before a sinister force wreaks unspeakable evil.

Patrick Wilson – Ed Warren

Vera Farmiga – Lorraine Warren

Ruairi O’Connor – Arne Cheyenne Johnson

Sarah Catherine Hook – Debbie Glatzel

Julian Hilliard – David Glatzel

John Noble – Kastner

Eugenie Bondurant – The Occultist

With my legal mind whirring constantly, I could but notice that this film is indeed all about a trial. This was the trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who murdered his landlord Alan Bolo in 1981. The Defence attorney in this case sought to prove her client’s innocence by way of demonic possession, birthing in the Conjuring III the (hopefully) immortal line: “your honour, my client pleads not guilty by reason of demonic possession”.

Arne Cheyenne Johnson being led to Court in 1981

The film itself was directed by Michael Chavez with a story by James Wan. It has Wan’s finger prints all over it, which was great for me as I am a big fan of his work. The film features stellar performances by Vera Farminga and a rather ailing Patrick Wilson (having suffered a demon-induced heart attack in the opening scene). There were innumerable chilling scenes, seeming to follow a 1-2-1 pattern of chilling, quiet, chilling again, presumably so as to not overwhelm the viewer. There were also an abundance of jump scares but not too many as is Insidious 3, where they really overdid it. And I found myself reflecting that hands played a recurring theme: hands slowly disappearing over shower curtain rails, hands disappearing around a sinister tree trunk and even a less than alive hand, which I will leave you to discover in your own time.

For me, the real surprise was seeing John Noble (Denethor II in Lord of the Rings) putting on a stellar performance as a retired priest with an obsession with the Occult. His unassuming but wildly threatening aura made the film that little bit more special for me. Perhaps my favourite scene was when a recently possessed David Glatzel (about 8 years old) is speaking to newly possessed Johnson in prison, in the presence of Johnson’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel (now wife, as it happens). This minuscule child talks to his soon to be brother in law in quite quiet tones about the vicissitudes of being possessed, how it feels and what he should expect. I thought this was extraordinary, and not a little chilling.

Overall, as with everything James Wan touches it seems, this is a horror film of tremendous merit. At times all over the place and unintentionally comical (think obese, possessed, wet, nude, bloated corpse running around a house chasing Ed Warren), but superbly filmed and with an unlimited budget. There are some real wow moments to look out for, especially at the film’s peak some 90 minutes in. It is out in cinemas now, do go and see it if feasible.

 

The Righteous Gemstones – Ecclesiastical Comedy

The Righteous Gemstones – Ecclesiastical Comedy

 

Once again I must thank my father for introducing me to this superlative comedy a few weeks ago. Written by Danny McBride (top, centre in the picture below), this 2019 series follows the story of the Gemstone family, a collection of remarkably egotistical evangelicals as they face a variety of challenges opening a mega church in a new town.

The show is written by Danny McBride (Vice Principals), who also stars as Jesse Gemstone, the corrupt eldest son of a patriarchal religious dynasty led by preacher Dr Eli Gemstone (John Goodman). Standard

I watched True Stories, David Byrne’s film recently, which also starred John Goodman and felt the need to review The Righteous Gemstones as a result of this. The two could not be more different from one another but I want to put True Stories (1986) on your radar, do look into it if you so desire.

The family have become ludicrously rich through the success of Eli and the late Aimee Lee Gemstone’s enterprise at garnering a country wide following and setting up a number of mega churches. They have an enormous complex where each of the family have an individual house each, all of which are lavish. They have a fleet of private jets named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also have a fantastic sign at the front of their property which I shall include below. This show did remind me of an excellent track on Stevie Wonder’s best album, to me, Jesus Children of America.

 

Tell me, holy (tell me)
Holy roller
Are you standing (I’m standin’)
Like a soldier? (Like a soldier)
Are you standing for everything you talk about?
(Holy roller)

By way of a nice segue, the above track does hint at the beginnings of the Gemstones’ issues which are explored in early episodes. Jesse Gemstone receives some video footage showing him participating in a very Christian drug fuelled orgy, they threaten him and attempt to extort $1M from him by the end of the week. The series’ struggles unravel from there. Of course as can be expected the blackmail does not entirely go to plan. But I shall leave you to find out how and why!

Why do I like this series? This is a topic and environment which is ripe for comedy; the idea of churches profiting from their ministry rather than sowing this back into the community has rankled me for some time, and the wealth of fascinating characters which make it engaging and consistent. Also, it is really very very funny.

Baby Billy is one of the most brilliant characters, jaded at Eli Gemstone taking his sister Aimee Lee away from him and profiting from her magic while leaving Billy in the dust. This long term feud fuels Billy’s desire to throw spanners in the works of the Gemstones’ activities.

Finally I’d like to mention Keefe Chambers, played by Tony Cavalero. He is the close friend and confidante of Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine), and is a former Satanist who has been reformed and is now following a life in Christ. His gigantic 666 tattoo is almost too funny, as is the underlying sexual tension between him and Kelvin. the consistent discomfort between the two as a result of this is a deep well of comedy.

The Righteous Gemstones is an exquisitely rendered comedy which makes the most of a rich seam of comedy. I cannot recommend it enough. I hope it will be available on more widely available platforms in the near future.

 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Magical Cinematic Experience

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Magical Cinematic Experience

Unsurprisingly this film was made by the same team as made Mary Poppins 7 years prior. Disney, to their great credit, have managed to create a film with enduring magic. What surprised me when watching again was how much of it I remembered from my childhood and the aspects which struck me then still striking me now. Why did I happen upon this film? Well, I showed Nick the avocado Matthew is growing, in a pot of water initially, and I made the remark that it was bobbing along. Nick, who had regrettably not yet seen the film, did not get the reference. I showed him the infamous video. The rest is history.

Angela Lansbury, one of those actors who arrived fully middle-aged, takes over from Julie Andrews as the kooky, genial pseudo-mother figure — here a proto-witch on a magical correspondence course rather than a flying nanny — and does a fair job with the necessary blend of the ethereal and stoical English pragmatism. Empire

 

Ain’t it lovely how we get along, swimmingly? Some choice rhyming aside, this did inspire many hours of laughter between Nick and I, a testament to the consistent quality of the film.

My favourite scene must be the Naboombu football game under the sea, with the most bizarre rules known to man or cartoon. I remember being amazed by this as a child, and perhaps it sourced by distaste for the sport. 1971 animation here folks, that’s the really astonishing part. 50 years have passed and the animation is still as fresh as day 1 and can perhaps compete with some more modern cartooning.

For the Naboombu soccer sequence, the sodium vapor process was used, which was developed by Petro Vlahos in the 1960s. Animator and director Ward Kimball served as the animation director over the sequence. Directing animator Milt Kahl had designed the characters, but he was angered over the inconsistencies in the character animation. This prompted Kimball to send a memo dated on September 17, 1970 to adhere to animation cohesiveness to the animation staff. Because of the heavy special effects, the entire film had to be storyboarded in advance, shot for shot, in which Lansbury noted her acting was “very by the numbers”. Wikipedia

Overall, while I could not get away from the knowledge that this was a children’s film, although perhaps the stock uninteresting children in Ms Lansbury’s care were only put there as ciphers for children watching, this film was squarely aimed at a wider audience. The plot is relatively dense, the comedy is consistent and the animation is fantastic. An enduring, magical special piece of cinema.

 

The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 Orson Welles Triumph

The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 Orson Welles Triumph

Another magnificent triumph from the one and only Orson Welles. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons tells the tale of a whip smart scion from an aristocratic family who tries to ruin his mother’s happiness. One of course questions whether there was an American aristocracy, perhaps an important family would be a more accurate description. In any case, this is a really terrific film, an unfinished masterpiece. Welles’ work is missing some 43 minutes after RKO decided to publish an alternative cut. I read recently that TCM have joined the search for the lost minutes of this masterpiece, which is very exciting indeed.

Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book struck many chords with Welles,  himself the Midwestern son of a wealthy inventor (like Joseph Cotten’s character, Eugene Morgan). In fact, he suspected that Tarkington, a friend of Welles’ family, based the spoilt brat and “princely terror” Georgie Amberson Minafer on him — he, too, was called Georgie as a child. Empire

Joseph Cotten … Eugene Morgan

Dolores Costello … Isabel Amberson Minafer

Anne Baxter … Lucy Morgan

Tim Holt … George Minafer

Agnes Moorehead … Fanny Minafer

Ray Collins … Jack Amberson

 Erskine Sanford … Roger Bronson

Richard Bennett … Major Amberson

Orson Welles … Narrator (voice)

For a film which is unfinished, the message in The Magnificent Ambersons is conveys loudly, clearly, and dare I say, completely. Joseph Cotton (later starring in Welles’ Citizen Kane) is the perfect antidote to the insufferable George Minafer – who is spoiled rotten and drives the whole town around the bend. His repulsive nature conveys perfectly the critique of the dying old money class as pitted against Eugene Morgan’s much more palatable character bringing in the new money of the motor industry. In a way the film pits old against new. Georgie represents the sternly held but ultimately unfounded set of restrictions, body and mind, which the bourgeoisie impose on itself. This is represented in the physical sense by Georgie repeatedly getting in the way of his mother having a relationship with Eugene, partly I suppose derived from his own desire to marry Eugene’s daughter Lucy but also out of repulsion for Eugene’s innovation and vigour. Of course Georgie goes about any purported positive goal in the worst possible ways and might end up receiving the correct comeuppance by the end of the film…

But it’s a flawed masterpiece, as brilliant a study of social change as Visconti’s The Leopard. We see a rich, Midwestern family in decline from the 1870s into the 20th century as a new commercial, bourgeois society emerges.Welles doesn’t appear but provides an eloquent, seductive voiceover, and the movie is admirably served by several Mercury Company performers from Kane (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins) and new recruits (Tim Holt, Anne Baxter). The experimental narrative combines extended takes with sharp montages of social commentary, and veteran Stanley Cortez’s photography is as remarkable as Gregg Toland’s on Kane. Guardian

 

The Trial – Claustrophobic Triumph, Orson Welles

The Trial – Claustrophobic Triumph, Orson Welles

Directed by Orson Welles and starring a magnificent Anthony Perkins, The Trial is a superlative interpretation of Der Prozess by Franz Kafka. The film was released in 1962. Welles wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film, which shows in its unique style, perspective and voice. The Trial tells the story of Joseph K, accused of something – bit we do not know what – and is subjected to a trial – but the court processes are not clear. It is a masterful interpretation of the novel and captures all its haunting nightmarish disquiet. In terms of further context, Sight and Sound voted Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in their 1962 annual review, likely giving Welles a well needed boost of confidence in the making of this film.

The blackest of Welles’ comedies, an apocalyptic version of Kafka that renders the grisly farce of K’s labyrinthine entrapment in the mechanisms of guilt and responsibility as the most fragmented of expressionist films noirs. Perkins’ twitchy ‘defendant’ shifts haplessly through the discrete dark spaces of Welles’ ad hoc locations (Zagreb and Paris, including the deserted Gare d’Orsay), taking no comfort from Welles’ fable-spinning Advocate, before contriving the most damning of all responses to the chaos around him. The remarkable prologue was commissioned from pioneer pinscreen animators Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker. Timeout

There are so many outstanding moments in this film it is difficult to find one or even three standouts. It is shot in a similar way to Citizen Kane, with a focus on wider shots and perspective, as can be seen by the cover photo I have chosen, showing the first scene in the film where Joseph K is at what I suppose would be the preliminary Hearing in his trial saga. A lot of the scenes were shot in the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, after it shut down as a working train station but before it became the Museum D’Orsay, which now houses some magnificent Van Goghs, among other tremendous works, which I remember being very moved by visiting as a child. I wonder how my perception would alter now.

Another quite haunting scene for me was when Joseph meets Titorelli the painter, who informs him all about the nefarious Court’s practices. This scene is preluded by Joseph K meeting the girls outside the artist’s studio who follow him. You can see them at either side of the hallway following Joseph K as he leaves Titorelli’s studio in the above photograph. This for me captures the almost choking claustrophobia of the book and film. The fundamental hopelessness of Jospeh’s cause is highlighted in this scene especially. Titorelli tells Joseph of the rules of the Court, while being badgered by dozens of young girls outside, who are also agents of the Court, and escapes them through a corridor which leads directly to the Court. I found it utterly extraordinary.

I shan’t go further to avoid spoilers but this is a truly special film, as indeed most of Orson Welles’ films are (Magnificent Ambersons is a must watch, even with pat of it still missing to this day). Beautifully shot, Anthony Perkins is radiant as Joseph, Welles is superlative as the useless lawyer and the whole thing is a beautiful translation of the airlessness of the novel.