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The Light, The Dark & the souls in between: A review of FX’s Fargo by Nate Hill

Series creator Noah Hawley had the daunting task of taking Fargo, one of the most iconic Coen Brothers films, and turning it into a long form piece of television storytelling for FX. That’s the nutshell version anyways, what he was really up against was a gaggle of rabid Coen acolytes who wanted networks nowhere near the shining legacy of the film, which has gone platinum as a highlight in the Brother’s career. How did he and his team do? Well, better than the Coens themselves did, which may stand as a controversial opinion, but if you’re as big a fan of the show’s brilliant three season run as I am then you’ll agree.

The Coen’s designed the blueprint, if you will, while Hawley & Co. take that template and positively run wild with it. It’s an anthology piece where each season focuses on another bunch of ne’er do well characters who are connected sometimes loosely and sometimes in ways that floor you later on. Yes, all the tropes we love are there: thick blizzards of blinding snow, murder most foul, dark comedy and those hysterically quaint Minnesota accents that seem to be pulled right out of Tolkien’s The Shire in some odd way. But Hawley digs deeper, and for all it’s grounded noir, homicidal schemes and materialistic flash, his Fargo mines for esoteric gold and to me ultimately is about beings of light and dark waging war over human souls on our plane. This is of course my own intuitive theory and is evident sometimes more often than others within the show, but it’s hard not to see when you look at both how cheerfully angelic some of the good, kind folks are here and how fitfully, deliciously self aware the evil ones are, like it’s less their nature to be despicably destructive as much as it is simply their job.

The first and strongest season sees Billy Bob Thornton’s sagely psychopath Lorne Malvo blow into town on a whim and stir up a brew of horrors almost by accident or out of sheer boredom, pushing the already unstable nebbish Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) to ongoing acts of unspeakable destruction. A smart cop (Allison Tolman), another slightly less smart cop (Colin Hanks) and others fight the good fight to root out evil and stop Malvo’s unholy snowball effect of mayhem and restore order. This one works the best as a stand-alone, wraps up the loose ends most satisfyingly and holds as the showcase chunk the show has to offer. The second season is brilliant but less focused, flashing back to the snowy 70’s to chronicle Sheriff Lou Solverson’s (Patrick Wilson, also played by a stoic Keith Carradine in S1) battle against the brutal Gerhardt crime family when they’re turf skirmish with a big city syndicate erupts into all out warfare and the bodies begin piling up. What this season lacks in pacing and a clearly painted main villain it makes up for in spectacle, there’s a vast ensemble cast and lush period production design for a visual element that won’t quit. Zahn Mclarnon excels as Hanzee Dent, a troubled First Nations assassin who struggles with being a lone outsider and feels a moral crisis at the penultimate moment, Jeffrey Donovan is enthusiastically nasty as Dodd, the misogynistic elder brother of the Gerhardt clan, while Bokeem Woodbine is the slick city slicker encroaching on his territory. Season 3 unfolds on a smaller scale, back to the grassroots procedural drama that leads to heinous unlawful doings. Ewan McGregor does double duties as two twin brothers in a hateful feud, one of which finds himself in the ravenous maw of terrifying V.M. Varga (David Thewlis in a career best), a demonic opportunist out to cause bureaucratic anarchy within the ranks with his army of underworld goons. Local cop Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) tries to fit the pieces together and a mysterious messianic nomad (Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise) presides over the whole debacle with laconic benevolence. That’s the tip of the iceberg really, and vivid impressions are made by a beautifully chosen, star studded cast that includes Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Stephen Root, Bob Odenkirk, Shawn Doyle, Ted Danson, Nick Offerman, Jean Smart, Kieran Culkin, Michael Hogan, Jennifer Copping, Brad Garrett, Russell Harvard, Scott Hylands, Frances Fisher, Francesca Eastwood, Fred Melamed, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cristin Milioti, Angus Sampson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Goran Bogdan, Shea Wigham, Mary McDonnell, Key & Peele, DJ Qualls, Scoot Mcnairy, Mackenzie Grey, Wayne Duvall and Bruce Campbell in a cameo as Ronald Reagan.

Each of the three seasons is a dense, meticulously woven patchwork quilt of violence, mistaken identity, literary references, surreal allegorical imagery, unpredictable plot turns, monsters, and mayhem, each with its own unmistakable style and atmosphere. Much of the storytelling is filled with things that seem like planted arbitration, like UFO sightings or cutaways to other vignettes, but they’re there to gild the tales with further eccentricity and for you to make of them what you will, as much of it is never explained or totally elaborated on, which I appreciate. With each episode there’s a lot more going on than what’s in the main arc, these are stories to be savoured and scrutinized for clues and references, of which there are many subtle callbacks to the Coen’s other work, it’s fun to notice and tally them up. The themes of light and dark are ever present through the entire run though, as if we’re privy to a never ending battle of forces wrapped in a cluster of crime stories centred around snowy Minnesota and surrounding areas. I’m not sure whether they plan to go ahead with a fourth season and I’d welcome it, but as it stands this is a beautifully made trilogy, with fantastic writing that practically feeds the brain like prosaic protein, a cast that’s to die for and narratives that truly take you on harrowing, hilarious adventures. You betcha.

-Nate Hill

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Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers

Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. Fuck yeah. What a blast. I often refer to Dante as ‘The Toymaker’, as each and every one of his films (save for one political satire that only I saw anyways) has fantastical animatronic effects, plenty of creatures and no shortage of whimsy. The guy lives to make genre bliss, and you can always count on monsters, whacked out sci-fi or Tim Burton esque horror elements in his work. Here, it’s a bunch of action figures implanted with AI chips that make them fast, sentient, highly trained and very dangerous. The main story arc is something we’ve seen a zillion times: nerdy kid (Gregory Smith) looks for a way to win over girl of his dreams (Kirsten Dunst) and climb out of the beta pit. His cranky father (Kevin “lemme see that chainsaw for a second” Dunn, priceless here) owns a toy store, when he’s not terrorizing his insufferable neighbour (the late Phil Hartman) with power tools. Simultaneously, two super geeks (Jay Mohr and David Cross) over at a giant toy conglomerate ‘accidentally’ put military grade computer chips into two separate toy prototype lines which are, naturally, sent on over to small town suburbia, specifically Dunn’s store. This is all while the company’s arrogant CEO (Denis Leary) is too busy strutting around in a huff to watch his guys more closely. It’s a familiar series of events, until the toys come to life and start wreaking havoc, which is where the innovation really kicks in. The main threat is a deranged, pint sized band of commandos led by Chip Hazard (I can picture Tommy Lee Jones in the recording studio barking out lines in his pyjamas), who literally just want to blow shit up and cause widespread chaos. The voice talent they’ve amassed here is staggering, with the talents of old school tough guys Jim Brown, Bruce Dern, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy as Hazard’s gonzo unit. A much more sane band of mythical creatures also shows up, led by dog/elf thing Archer (Frank Langhella) as well as an eyeball on a stick (Jim Cummings) and a dopey Frankenstein hybrid (Michael McKean). They’re more peaceful, but immediately become the main target of Chip and Co., which causes enough of a skirmish to level city blocks. The real mad genius shows up when a group of pseudo Barbie dolls (the ‘Cindy Doll’) are reanimated by Chip’s team and start causing homicidal shenanigans, bald giggling lunatic chicks given the unsettling valley girl vocal talents of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar, both providing auditory nightmare fuel with their work. Roger Ebert thought this was too mean and violent to be a family film, and fair enough, but I really view it as a noisy, nihilistic black comedy that just happens to hide in the structure of a kids film. It’s no walk in the park, Chip’s boys see to it that it gets as shocking and messed up as one can without pushing that PG-13 rating, and that’s where the fun comes from. The special effects are really where it shines though, as they should in any film about a multitude of toys that come alive. The only thing missing is a cameo from The Indian In The Cupboard to lodge a Tomahawk in Tommy’s head and even the odds for Archer’s team. Perhaps in the sequel.

-Nate Hill

The Puppet Master: An Interview with Kevin McTurk by Kent Hill

They say in the film business, never work with children or animals. Of course you may find yourself working with dinosaurs, aliens, lions, beast-people, scrunts, kothogas, ghosts, morlocks, Batman, Spiderman, Hellboy, kaijus, wolfmen, clones, cliffhangers, vampires, giant crocodiles, homicidal maniacs, killer sheep, Predators, cowboys and mysterious brides out to Kill Bill.

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But that’s just some of the astounding creations and magnificent beasts that Kevin McTurk has encountered in his eclectic career in the realms of special effects.

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Working under the banners of legends like Stan Winston, Jim Henson and the new titans like Weta Workshop, Kevin has had his hand in erecting and simulating everything from the real world as he has from empires extraordinary. And, while I could have spent the entirety of our chat talking about his adventures working on the countless films, which are favourites of mine, he has in his CV, his impressive effects background is only part of the story.

For Kevin McTurk is a bold and visionary filmmaker in his own right. His puppet films, The Narrative of Victor Karloch, The Mill at Calder’s End and now The (forthcoming) Haunted Swordsman are exercises in capturing a style from a bygone era with modern filmmaking techniques. The results are beautiful, not only in their aesthetic quality, but in the level of excellence from the many different disciplines on display.

There is still time for you to join Kevin in his latest cinematic offering (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/935772123/the-haunted-swordsman-a-ghost-story-puppet-film), and to listen in now to the man himself talk about his movies, influences and career.

I give you the talented Mr. McTurk.

Visit Kevin’s website for more: http://www.thespiritcabinet.com/

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The Crow: Salvation 


Now let’s be real, there’s only one good Crow film. They were just never able to catch that midnight magic again, though they tried, with four more films and a dud of a tv series. Each of the sequels is nearly the exact same as the first, in terms of plot: a man is killed by feral urban thugs, only to be resurrected one year later by a mysterious crow, blessed with invincibility and begins to work his way through the merry band of scumbags in brutal acts of revenge, arriving at the crime lord sitting atop the food chain, usually a freak with vague ties to the supernatural or occult. All the films in the series are structured that way, but only one deviated and tried something slightly different with the formula. City of Angels, the second, is a boring, almost identical retread of the first, it’s only energy coming from a coked up Iggy Pop. Wicked Prayer, the fourth, had a premise with potential aplenty, and turned out so maddeningly awful I’m still dabbing the blood from my eye sockets. Salvation, however, is the third entry and almost finds new air to breathe by altering the premise slightly. Instead of lowlife criminals, it’s a posse of corrupt police detectives who frame an innocent dude (Resident Evil’s Eric Mabius) for crimes they themselves committed, fry him to a crisp in the electric chair and get off scott free. His girlfriend (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) is also killed in the process. Now, not only is it cops instead of criminals, but the arch baddie at the top of the pile is the police commissioner, who has occult written all over him. *Not only* that, but he’s played by Fred Ward, who is brilliant in anything. While nowhere near an iota of the atmosphere or quality of the first film, this one works better than any of the other sequels, thanks to that spark of an idea that changes the game ever so much. The detectives are a nice and skeevy bunch too, played by the reptilian likes of William Atherton, Walton Goggins and others. Ward wears the starched, proper uniform of an authoritative figure, but his eyes gleam with the same secrets and dark magic we saw in the two other previous underworld kingpins, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) and Judah Earl (Richard Brooks), but it’s that contrast that takes you off guard and makes things more intriguing. And as for Eric, does he hold his own with the others who’ve played the role? Mabius he does, Mabius he doesn’t, you’ll just have to watch and see. He definitely knocks Vincent Perez out of the park, that silly Frenchman. Real talk though, no one will ever dethrone Brandon Lee, not even whatever piss-ant they get for the remake that’s been hovering on the fringes of preproduction for the last half decade. On top of it all we also get Kirsten Dunst, of all people, as a sympathetic attorney who works alongside Mabius to clear his name, as he clears the streets of no-good crooked cops. So there you have it. If you ever find yourself meandering around the kiosks in blockbuster, and see the Crow films lined up on the shelves like emo ducks in a row, the first film will naturally already be rented out. Where then to turn? You can certainly do worse than this one. 

-Nate Hill

Jumanji: A Review by Nate Hill 

In the jungle you must wait, until the dice reads five or eight. So professes a mysterious board game possessed by dark magic to young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd), a boy with no clue just how far an innocent roll of the dice can take you. From the first ominous drumbeat the game utters, until the last fading tones it plays the film out with, Jumanji is a giddy rush of pure adventure, with a refreshingly dark and primal side to its mayhem. Alan disappears from the 1950’s and we fast forward 25 years later. Young orphans Peter and Judy (Kirsten Dunst & Bradley Pierce) are moving into his old family home, so fate (and those damn creepy drums) would have them find the Jumanji in the attic, and continue the game Alan started with Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) over a decade ago. Suddenly every jungle creature, meteorological phenomenon and 90’s CGI monster erupts from the game into their little town, causing a mess that goes beyond the word havoc. This includes a near feral middle aged Alan, now played by Robin Williams. Together with a most reluctant Sarah, the quartet try to stop the destruction, play the game, but mostly just survive this onslaught. Psychotic monkeys, mutant mosquitoes, an elephant stampede, monsoons, giant spiders (fucking shudder) and crocodiles are but a few of the wonders awaiting them. My favourite has to be murderous Victorian game hunter Van Pelt, played mightily by stage actor Jonathan Hyde, with a pith helmet and an epic mustache that would make Kurt Russell chortle. Hyde does excellent double duty as both the deranged hunter and Alan’s stern but loving father, a tough contrast he handles like a champ. I admire the film’s willingness to go creepy and dark, despite being geared towards kids. The danger feels real, the game has an eerie mysticism to it, a life of it’s own that gives you goosebumps. Not often do family orientated films have a shred of real fear in them anymore, so let’s count our blessings with this one, still holding strong today. The special effects are dated in places (those monkeys, man) and wonderful in others (that hardwood floor quicksand tho), but you have to cut them some slack, it being 1996 after all. Williams and Hunt have snarky banter that barely hides their love for each other, and it’s one of my favourite onscreen pairings he ever had with a gal. He makes Alan resourceful, kind and just a little bit crazy, but the guy did spend years alone in a treacherous jungle straight out of your nightmares, so that can be expected. Amidst the chaos you can look out for Patricia Clarkson, a deadpan Bebe Neurith and David Alan Grier as well. There’s a lot of stuff crammed into the film, but never does it feel bloated or crippled by it’s own weight, flowing nicely and taking time where it can to develop character and give it’s human cast just as much to do as all the crazy jungle stuff. I’m surprised I never saw any of this go down as a kid, because parts of it were filmed blocks from my neighborhood, and CGI was scant back then, so much of it would have physically been there, large and loud. Maybe I did, and have since forgotten. I definitely haven’t forgotten any of the film, though, and allow for repeated viewings whenever I have the time. It’s one of the best, most thrilling adventure stories of its time and ages well as each year passes. Cue the drums. 

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind: A Review by Nate Hill 

Films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind come around once in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. I watched it when I was too young to fully grasp much, and it flew over my head. In the last few years I had a revisit and was knocked flat. Few stories out there have the power to mine deep within the human psyche and search for the complexities, contradictions and puzzling flaws that lie in the beautiful disasters we call human beings. A contemplative yet fast paced meditation on relationships, love, heartbreak and reconciliation doesn’t even begin to paint a picture of what you’re in for with this uniquely told and one in a million film. Sagely ragamuffin Michel Gondry, not one for the easy way out, has truly outdone himself, as has screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who is never short on wild ideas with emotional heft that sneaks up and blindsides you. Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) ditches work on a whim one morning, and hops a train out to snowy Montauk. Through fate’s mysterious grasp, he meets free spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet), and the two hit it off immediately. He’s reserved, cautious and calculated, and she’s an impulsive wild card. They couldn’t be more different, but somehow they work. Until they don’t. Joel is devastated to learn one day of a radical brain alteration technique that effectively removes the memory of an ex from your mind, and Clementine has taken the plunge. Joel is confused and lost, and while the iron is still hot in his beating heart, he decides to undergo the procedure as well. Then the film really turns your world upside down. Whilst the staff of the Institute (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst) go to work on his mind in his sleep, he has a change of heart. With the memories of Clementine radidly disintegrating, he races through the internal landscape of his mind in order to find and save her, hiding her in obscure corners of his data log where she won’t be found. It’s a genius way to tell the story, taking a delightful turn for the surreal as both of them find themselves catapulted headlong into various moments of his life. On the outside, a tragic subplot unfolds involving Dunst and the the head doctor at the program (Tom Wilkinson). Kirsten and Tom have never been better, treating an often used trope with dignity and gentleness. For all its tricks and psychological whathaveya, the film is first and foremost about love. It isn’t interested in showing us any generic or clichéd depiction of it either, like most of the pandering fluff that gets passed off as romance these days. It strives to show love in all its brutal and painful glory, the fights, the hurt, the time spent alone, the resentment and the willingness to batter your way through all that, against better judgment and logic, if it’s worth it. Is love a force of its own, a measurable influence that can transcend a procedure like that? Is it it’s own element, or simply always a part of us? Carrey and Winslet (and, to a lesser extent, Wilkinson and Dunst) tenderly search for the answers to these difficult questions in what are the roles of a lifetime for both. Carrey has never been so vulnerable, so open, and despite his brilliant comedic work elsewhere, his performance here is a direct window into the soul, and his best work to date. Although the film is quite labyrinthine and jumps around quite a lot, it never, ever jumps the track or misses a beat. It’s always concise, deliberate and crystal clear, if you have the patience and dedication to watch it a few times in order to let all the beautiful images, words and ideas sink in. Movies are first and foremost for entertainment. You give the man your nickel, he fires up the projector and you watch the lone ranger chase down down a speeding locomotive. Every once in a while you get one like this, one that challenges and inspires deep thought, intangible feelings and teaches you something, maybe even about yourself. Every once in a while, you get one that alters your life, and that is what is so important about that little spinning machine that opens up worlds upon a simple flat white canvas where before there was nothing. A masterpiece.

Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Neil Jordan’s film version of Interview With The Vampire is simultaneously one of the most sumptuous and tedious visions of the affliction to ever hit cinema. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely gorgeous, atmospheric and old worlde glance at two damned souls who carry out their macabre destiny with flair and vicious grace. I say tedious as some kind of bitter compliment, because no other film has quite captured the internal torture of eternity or the nocturnal gloom that must prevail over such an existence quite as well as this film has. It barely runs over two hours and we feel like we’ve been planted in front of the screen for years. Such is the dedication of director Jordan, a sneakily versatile gent who augments his stylistic and tonal approach to whatever material he is working with. The film is exciting and raises a pulse, but only on its terms, and for long periods of time we sit through languishing despair that no doubt adds to the mood, but exists to serve the psyches of our two leads, and dares the viewer to suffer alongside them. I have somewhat of a bone to pick with certain producers behind the scenes who no doubt had a forceful hand in the casting of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. You see, author Ann Rice had her heart set on a filmic version starring Rutger Hauer as Lestat, and Lance Henriksen as Louie. Now, Cruise and Pitt are at the utter opposite end of casting types in Hollywood, and while Jordan is never a guy to compromise or chase stars right off that bat, I am still sour when I think of the film we’ll never see, starring two actors infinitely more fascinating and vampiric that Brad and Tom. Nevertheless, I have som much appreciation for the film that I can’t take it too hard, and remain a steadfast fan. Pitt plays Louie, a depressed Louisiana plantation owner with nothing left, especially to lose. He meets roaming vampire Lestat (Cruise), who promptly turns him, and the two embark on a century spanning odyssey of nighttime escapades, thoroughly fraught with homoeroticism. It’s isn’t so much an organized narrative as it is a lengthy look at these two, trapped by their condition and making the bitter best of it. They meet others along the way, including Armand (a slinky Antonio Banderas), Santiago (Jordan regular Stephen Rhea, lively evil incarnate) and Claudia, a child who Louie turns. She’s played by Kirsten Dunst in the best performance of the film. A young girl with the vampire curse thrust upon her at such an age, who mentally matures into a steely, furious woman trapped in the body of a ten year old. Not many actresses could succeed at that, but she is a spitfire little shryke who dominates every scene. All this is being retold by Louie to a 1990’s journalist (Christian Slater) who morphs from bemused disbelief to cold terror, and eventual morbid fascination. It’s a slog to get through, but an ornately beautiful one with some really bloody effects and the always terrific stewardship of Neil Jordan, whose films are never short of mesmerizing, whichever genre they fall into. A dark, dingy horror with lacy elegance at its core.