The Leftovers: season two review

Where does one begin with The Leftovers? It’s safe to say it’s like no other show out there. For sure, it has shades of other shows, mostly drama. But there’s a lot in there, and a lot that’ll go over your head (it did mine).

It’s also maddeningly infuriating too. As viewers and consumers and fans and critics we’re used to knowing everything these days. Instant gratification. The Leftovers takes that away from us. It puts us in the same boat as the characters, utterly lost and confused. And you sort of love it for that.

Assuming you’ve seen season one (it would take too long to explain, see here), season two picks up with the Garvey family (well, Kevin, Jill, Nora and a random baby) moving to Jarden, a town in Texas which has seemingly been spared the apocalypse while the rest of the world has not.

As well as being a tourist attraction the town is also closely guarded – after all, they can’t just let anyone in. This expands the world of The Leftovers and gives us an insight into other communities and how they’ve dealt – or failed to deal – with what happened; as the people of Jarden aren’t as ‘spared’ as the Garvey family first think. Furthermore, fleeing to this place won’t solve all of Kevin’s problems – he still suffers from guilt and is plagued by suicidal thoughts and visions which worsen as this season progresses.

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Other characters get a few scenes to keep things varied, but most are largely sidelined (Jill and Nora, prime suspects). So this season, it’s really all about Kevin. How does he adjust to Jarden? How does he deal with his guilt and depression? How does he connect with those closest to him?

With this show (based on a book by Tom Perotta), screenwriter Damon Lindelof has crafted something incredibly poignant, nuanced and painfully flawed. It takes a long, hard look at death, loss, grief, faith, religion, zealotry, persecution, belief – and a heck of a lot more. It poses more questions than it answers and, as a viewer, you’re often at pains to see where, if anywhere, the story is heading. Yet that’s its strength.

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And it has matured drastically between seasons one and two, shifting locations, adding characters, expanding the world and so on. Currently HBO are pondering whether it deserves a third season. Like many, I’m torn (almost every reaction I have to do with this show). On the one hand, like many fans, I crave a third season, one which might provide some answers, or at least some glimpse of where it’s going. But then, the show’s not about answers and story arc, not really. It bucks convention.

In some ways ending where it does would be sort of perfect. It’s dramatic, narratively satisfying and poetically beautiful. And I bet most shows would give a lot to be able to say the same thing after two seasons. Golden age of television, indeed.

Top 10 elevator scenes in movies

Is your screenplay complete without a good elevator scene? Probably not. As a director can you forgive yourself for not including one? No.

So there’s the argument, an open-and-shut case. Any film worth its salt has an elevator scene, so here are a few I’ve picked out I rather like.

What would make your list?

Drive
Oddly tender yet completely brutal, here Ryan Gosling’s character gently holds Carey Mulligan’s character back before he viciously stomps a guy to death.
The Untouchables
In a touching scene Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone find the mob got the drop on a member of their team in the elevator.
A Cabin In The Woods
Guards with guns race to face whatever comes out the lifts. And what emerges is holy hell – an explosion of monsters, blood and death.
The Departed
Showing no respect for big name actors – and in a genuinely shocking moment – a key character gets shot as soon as the lift doors open.
Terminator 2
The T-1000 chases Arnie and the gang into a lift as they flee the mental asylum. In such close quarters with a killer who has swords for arms it’s frighteningly tense.
Lost In Translation
Murray and Johansson’s characters say goodnight exchanging kisses. Wonderfully played. Murray also has another lift scene, standing a foot taller than the locals.
The Losers
Chris Evans’ character gets into a lift whilst singing Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing with gusto. Needless to say, no one gets in with him.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In a rare lighter moment, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason strips off in a lift in front of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch. Some are more pleased than others.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rodgers starts in the lift with a few guys. A door opens, more get on. Then more. He asks if any want out before they get started. He then gets started.
Inception
Ellen Page’s Ariadne descends in an elevator, sneaking into Cobb’s memories to find Marion Cotillard’s Mal, gorgeous and deadly.

The Theory of Everything: Redmayne and Jones dazzle and delight

And so there was a big bang and then… A brief history of Stephen Hawking came to pass. An as Englishman I sometimes forget that, as a global power, we punch massively above our weight. Particularly when it comes to producing bona fide geniuses.

In recent months The Imitation Game hit the cinemas, charting the life of the brilliant Alan Turing, the man who cracked the enigma device during WWII – expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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And now we have another Englishman stepping into the ring… Eddie Redmayne. Putting in a very fine performance as Stephen Hawking. Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by his wife Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), we cover a lot in this film. From his early beginnings as a student in Cambridge through to worldwide fame and recognition.

Right from the off we delve straight into the main factors that shaped who he was. His professor (David Thewlis) at Cambridge sets the class a task of ten impossible questions, everyone fails except Stephen who, in a bit of a rush, answers nine of them on the back of a train timetable.

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Within the first few minutes of the film we also meet Jane, the woman who becomes the loving constant behind the man. Felicity Jones is yet to put a foot wrong in her career and as Jane she is perfectly cast: elegant, womanly, beautiful and with a bit of an edge. Stephen, like the rest of us, become instantly captivated. And as a couple they suit each other well, as Redmayne and Jones have a very natural and believable chemistry.

As Stephen’s condition (motor neuron disease) worsens, Jane becomes the driving force of the narrative, caring for both Stephen and their growing brood of young children (apparently sexual organs are unaffected by the disease as they operate using a completely different system).

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Together, the writer Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh weave the story together well. It trots along at a good pace and we’re not overwhelmed by the science and maths of it all. Like Interstellar a few months ago, science serves the story. Indeed, the consultant on that film, Kip Thorne, gets a mention here, as someone with whom Stephen has a bet. The prize being a subscription to Penthouse magazine. This point is telling as we get an insight into Stephen’s character, as he has quite a devilish sense of humour. All the more heartwarming given his condition.

It might seem trite to say but Redmayne really transforms himself, going full Verbal Kint and then some. To give a performance where for half the movie you have to greatly limit the way you speak must have been tough. In some ways it’s like actors who have to wear a mask that covers all or part of their face; in that you have to find other ways to convey the emotions of your character to the audience. And Redmayne does just that, bookish, shy, inquisitive and intelligent and at times intense, yet disarmingly likeable. Characters are drawn to him. This is evident with his fans and admirers, but more specifically with those closer to him: his speech therapist, his professor and old Cambridge friends and, obviously, his wife Jane.

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This is where Marsh treads a masterful balancing act as director, blending together the relationship and affection Stephen and Jane have for each other, whilst at the same time keeping the audience drawn into Stephen’s rise as a world-renowned theoretical physicist.

As far as biopics – and indeed films in general – go it’s spirited, heartfelt, tragic and engaging; part love story part think piece. It’s one of those that will have the words ‘feel good’ and ‘life-affirming’ plastered all over the marketing material. But for once, without sounding cynical, that’s spot on.

Birdman: Keaton’s sad sack soars and swoops

In the last fifteen or twenty years, which actor do you go to for deranged and unhinged? Nic Cage? Jack Nicholson maybe? Actors who were wild in their youth tend to mellow with age, or grow old disgracefully. In the case of Michael Keaton it’s been quite some time since he last danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, so it was high time he returned to cinema. Here he’s channelled his talent into creating a character that has to be on a par – in terms of being washed up and on the last roll of the dice career wise – with Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler.

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And whilst the aforementioned film was on the serious and dramatic end of the scale, Birdman comes at things from a quirky yet melancholy point of view. Dark? Yes. Supremely odd? Check. But still a drama, with comedy elements aplenty, taking the time to explore some interesting themes along the way.

In terms of setup we start with Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (great name), a faded movie star, one famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. He yearns for recognition again and, perhaps even more than that, credibility and critical acclaim. In short, he longs to be taken seriously as an actor. And in the theatre he might just achieve that. However this is his last roll of the dice, as his lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galafianakis) regularly tells him.

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To help his credibility he drafts in a proper theatre actor daaahling, in the form of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who then proceeds to steal his limelight on stage and seduce every nearby female he can. This begins to push his buttons – or at least twiddle Riggan’s sanity lever till the dial gets a bit loose.

As a result he is barely holding the play – and himself – together as they approach opening night, and to add to his woes he has: a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and with whom he is failing as a father; a highly strung actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) using her sexuality as a weapon; another highly strung actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who craves a similar level of artistic accomplishment; plus theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) out for his blood and determined to ruin the play.

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a most interesting director. And a most interesting choice for this film. In the past he’s gives us Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. All pretty weighty tales. He tends to get drawn to exploring death and grief and how we deal with it.

With Birdman, whilst this is the first time he has tackled comedy, these morbid elements still get thrown into the mix. And as we know comedy and tragedy are often close bedfellows at the best of times. One treads a fine line alongside the other.

On the evidence of this film perhaps he should stick to this approach for the foreseeable future, as he has a knack for it. He also gives us a great sense of the mad, chaotic world of backstage. Indeed, behind the scenes of the theatre are a claustrophobic place, all cramped tunnels and confusing corridors. His camera often right on the shoulders of his cast, twisting and turning and swirling around them as the fight, argue, flirt and despair.

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You particularly get a sense of this from Riggan. As he moves through the back corridors of the theatre accosted and confronted by his team, we follow him closely. At the same time we’re subjected to a musical score that matches the madness, namely a lunatic on a drumkit. It’s entirely possible this isn’t the film’s score, but the soundtrack to Riggan’s unravelling mind. (Actually, that’s still a score, even if it is internalised to one character. See… the madness is affecting me!)

The way Riggan’s alter ego (or subconscious) is personified and harangues him throughout the film slightly puts you in mind of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Yet here it’s more of a peripheral presence, as Riggan wrestles with the inviting notion of celebrity and recognition versus the tough and uncompromising road of critical acclaim.

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Whilst this is Keaton’s movie by some distance, the supporting cast steal every scene they get. Simply put, they all looked just plain up for it. Considering Inarritu’s past work it seems he’s been storing a world of mischief up his directorial sleeve. Ed Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone… They all get to shine in a scene or two and are all an utter delight. It seems Inarritu has been supping from the cup of quirk formerly held by Wes Anderson. So in that respect it’s refreshing to see another director flourish and take up the mantle. (After Grand Budapest Hotel I feel Anderson may have got a little too quirky for his own good.)

I went into this film with no expectation or knowledge of the plot. I’d not seen the trailer. I knew the cast, but not the fact it was this director. Going by the title you might expect some sort of comedy featuring a shabby superhero. You could call it that. You could. But it wouldn’t be accurate.

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You could say this film flies the flag for character driven pieces, whether that’s cinema or theatre, it favours people and emotions over spectacle and explosions. It takes a thinly veiled dig at blockbusters, but also against the rather ridiculous and overblown world of theatre. And it’s all the better for it.

This film is clearly one that critics will love (for those that haven’t reviewed it already) but, without going out on too much of a limb, it should also be one that audiences will love. And it will most likely be a slow burner as word of mouth spreads. This one will last, people will say. And, in that, Riggan (and Keaton) will be remembered.

Black Mirror: White Christmas review

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. I bet when Bing Crosby sang that his vision was about as far removed from Charlie Brooker’s one as you could get. There’s only been a few Black Mirror episodes over the years, each taking a look at a not-too-distant future and our uneasy relationship with technology, but they’ve all been quietly affecting.

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In a slightly disturbed way I’ve come to look forward to them. Probably because the writing, concepts and performances are just so compelling. And as their notoriety grows the calibre of established actors that want to be on board grows too. That’s not to say some brilliant up-and-comers haven’t featured in an episode or two (Jessica Brown Findlay, Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Toby Kebbell).

With this Christmas special we start in a kitchen with Jon Hamm’s character Matt trying to engage Rafe Spall’s reclusive Joe in conversation. We don’t know why they are there, but each allude to the fact they’ve done bad things in their past. Are they in prison? Purgatory? Self-imposed exile?

It’s Christmas so Matt suggests they have dinner and proceeds to tell Joe his story. One which involves Matt providing real-time dating advice to a young chap which quickly takes a turn for the worse. He then proceeds to explain his day job: a sort of salesman/account manager who’s tasked with setting up an artificial intelligence programme involving Oona Chaplin’s Greta – in another disturbing yet highly plausible story.

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As each story feeds into the other Joe begins to open up, slowly sharing the experience which led to him being where he is now. So what begins as a straight up tale of a failed relationship gradually gets darker and darker, until the brutal reveal at the bitter end. You’d expect nothing less from Charlie Brooker right?

Jon Hamm does well driving the plot along initially. His natural, easy charisma allowing Joe to tentatively start talking. And Spall is a bit of revelation in terms of his performance. The anguish and self-loathing his character goes through is heartbreaking and thoroughly convincing.

As ever, Brooker’s standards as a writer remain high and he explores some intriguing themes and concepts. His characters are well realised and he makes you care about what will become of them. The casting no doubt helped. Both Hamm and Spall showcase their acting chops in maybe a way we’ve not seen before and they work well together.

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If you’re a fan of previous Black Mirror episodes, this will be right up your street. If you’re new to Brooker and his dark and twisted world, this is a TV experience that will be worth your time. Just know that you’ll be going to the dark side and it will be a gruelling – albeit rewarding – experience once you see it through.

Gone Girl: A love letter to marriage

Phase 2 of Ben Affleck’s career just keeps impressing. It probably started with Gone Baby Gone in 2006, which he wrote and directed. Then The Town in 2010, in which he starred and directed. He followed this with Argo in 2012, again, he starred and directed. In the same year he managed to fit in critically acclaimed film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

He’s been cast as the new Batman (so we’ll be seeing him again in 2016), but before that he’s added another thoughtful, measured and mature performance (and film) to his filmography with Gone Girl, directed by one of modern cinema’s bad boy geniuses David Fincher.

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

Gone Girl the novel – by Gillian Flynn – came out in 2012. By the end of its first year it had sold over two million copies. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for this film and her themes (and characters) are tremendously relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that’s gone somewhat awry.

The film tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who, upon returning home one day, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has vanished in suspicious circumstances. What ensues is a police investigation and media frenzy where everyone – in the absence of Amy’s body – accuses Nick of being a sociopath and condemns him for her murder. Their initial evidence? His awkward behaviour when dealing with the media and various failings that come to light concerning his marriage vows.

As probably one of the most famous guys named Ben in modern times, Affleck is no stranger to being put under the beady eye of media scrutiny. Here he treads a masterful line, giving Nick just enough of our sympathies to believe he didn’t commit murder, but with enough occasional flashes to keep us guessing.

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Credit should also go to Fincher, who jumps between Nick’s present day predicament and flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s past; from happier times when they first met to progressively tougher times as they both lose their jobs and begin to hate each other.

Without giving too much away (but let’s say spoiler alert anyway) the film changes tack about halfway through to tell Amy’s side of the story. Now Rosamund Pike has been around for a few years, putting in good performances here and there for the most part, but never really cracked the major A-list. That should now change pretty sharply.

Her performance here is captivating – all fire and ice as she shows first one side of Amy, then the other. Without giving too much away Nick has the lion’s share of the story, yet Amy’s scenes are pivotal and are the ones that jolt you out of any comfortable place you may have felt the story was taking you as a viewer.

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You’d expect nothing less from Fincher right? He gave us the ‘head in a box’ scene in Seven years ago, and it’s fair to say it looked like he felt right at home with the script’s dark themes.

Referring to the film as a love letter to marriage is really more of a question. The writer (of the book and screenplay) said she based the story on some of her own experiences. Much has been written about these characters putting you off marriage and relationships, but I’d say it’s blackly humorous, cynical perhaps, but also remarkably well observed in some ways.

There’s quite a few comic moments, which to me suggest you shouldn’t get too hung up on the darker elements, but perhaps take it with a pinch of salt as a cautionary tale. Or the opposite, as some sort of cynical love letter.

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Ultimately, the story and characters are highly engaging (in an unsettling way) throughout. Pike and Affleck’s performances are first class and Fincher shows no signs of giving up his dark cinematic throne any time soon.

Here’s to Amazing Fucking Amy. I’d marry her in a second.

I’d probably regret it… but it’d be a thrilling ride.

Nightcrawler: the ultimate entrepreneur?

Dr. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet, due to the close match between the personality traits of sociopaths and the unusual demands of high-powered jobs.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

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Jake Gyllenhaal has had an interesting career so far. He’s made good choices and played interesting parts. But then, you could argue he started out in Donnie Darko, so he hit the ground running.

With Nightcrawler he’s gone up another level. Some critics have compared his performance to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. In terms of his character’s detachment from society it probably is on that level, but in other ways it’s far more compelling (and brought right up to date for modern-day society).

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom who, when we first meet him, is a bit of a thief and a hustler. He is clearly a driven and articulate individual, but he has no purpose. Then one night he sees a car wreck on the highway and, as the police help the victim, he watches with fascination as a couple of guys race up in a van and film the whole thing. He’s instantly hooked and has found his calling.

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Like all good predators they lure you into a false sense of security and allow you to get close, but by the time you realise what their game is it’s too late. This is when Lou is at his scariest. For the most part he seems normal, albeit a bit odd, until he needs something from you. He’ll then persuade, reason and negotiate until, when all else fails, he threatens. And he means it.

At one point he says ‘I like to think that when people meet me they’re having the worst day of their lives.’ This applies not only to victims of crime that he films, but almost anyone he meets. If you’ve just met Lou, your day is about to get a hell of a lot worse. This is none more evident than the manner in which he treats his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), who gets a seriously rough ride throughout, to put it mildly.

Writer and director Dan Gilroy (making his directorial debut) has, in Lou Bloom, created a chillingly realistic portrayal of a man that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He spends much of his time talking about his company and business strategy, spouting corporate jargon as if he vehemently believes it.

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However, the situations in which he finds himself – in an effort to capture the perfect shot – are ludicrous and highly disturbing to anyone who has even a questionable moral compass and ounce of humanity. For Lou, he is a predator in the purest sense. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf would be the perfect theme song to this film.

Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s attention to character detail is masterful – from his cautious, fight-or-flight body language as he approaches a crime scene to the way his eyes seem to get bigger and light up in the darkness of the LA night if he senses a story is at hand.

Nightcrawler is the sort of film you go into with little expectation. At times it’s horrific and thrilling, but most of all it’s captivating. Much like the car wrecks and violent crime that Lou films, we can’t take our eyes off him as a character.

You can see where the film is largely going, but the inexorable, creeping sense of dread that it instils in you on the journey is something from which you cannot escape. And nor do you want to, in a twisted sort of way.

Homeland: The Drone Queen

A world without Brody. There’s no denying Damien Lewis is a very fine actor. I’m a big fan and his departure at the end of the last season of Homeland did leave a void, but it was almost like his character, Nicholas Brody, had become bigger than the show. With him gone everyone can settle down a bit and get on with things.

Particularly Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), now station chief in Afghanistan. The episode (and latest season) starts with her hesitantly authorising a missile strike. Her team watch a big screen stoney-faced as buildings blow up. They then bring out a cake for her birthday with her nickname, ‘The Drone Queen’, written in icing.

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This disturbingly blasé approach to ‘the war on terror’ won’t be lost on the audience. In fact, it won’t be lost on the characters. Carrie may have hardened up to the realities of her job or just be putting on a good show of it, but someone coping less well is the former hitman with a heart of gold, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), now stationed in Pakistan.

His conscious began to knaw away at him last season and his moral crisis continues here. His pain is clear to see and appears to be in direct contrast to the rigid exterior Carrie has built up for herself.

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One of the other main stalwarts of the show, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is now a private contractor advising the US government on the current conflict. He’s also questioning his stance and decisions made in the past, perhaps in a more reflective way, but it’ll be interesting to see how his influence on Carrie plays out now that he’s not directly calling the shots on behalf of the government.

For a season opener it’s not all moody introspection though. There’s a tense and dramatic sequence involving the (possibly corrupt) station chief in Pakistan, which sets up the story for (probably) the next few episodes in an intriguing way.

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Carrie, as ever, remains a conflicted and eminently watchable character, and with Brody out the picture she’s back to centre stage. No doubt a few new characters will emerge to put her off her stride and make her question her choices.

Either way, it feels like this show has somewhat turned a corner and it will be interesting to see where the writers take the story. The opening episode focused on the American’s use of drones, as did the whole of the latest season of 24, but this show is almost the opposite in terms of tone and style. So how they build on this premise will be key. If the first episode is anything to go by, it looks like a running theme to develop could be the degree to which each character questions his or her decisions.

The conflict of the moral compass you might say.

There’s no doubt after the first two seasons Homeland holds itself to a high standard. The last season suffered a bit of a wobble but I’m keeping an open mind on this one.

Two days, one night: a Marion Cotillard showcase

Are you an art-house guru? Are you familiar with the work of Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? If the answer is no then you’re like me and will come to this film with no expectation. I like Marion Cotillard and like the idea of her – one of France’s most glamorous actresses working today – stripped back in some sort of gritty, kitchen sink drama.

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And in the Dardennes brothers, she’s got the perfect sort of directors. This is the type of film that I imagine will wow the critics and have them raving about Marion’s performance which, I’d agree, is an impressive one; nuanced, raw and affecting. But it didn’t grab me, I didn’t engage with the characters. More on that shortly.

The premise of this film is simple. Marion plays working mum Sandra, a woman grappling with depression and faced with the prospect of losing her job so that her coworkers can receive their bonuses. She has two days and one night (i.e. the weekend and the film’s title) to convince them to vote for her to stay and, if they do, give up their bonuses as a result.

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With each colleague she visits she tells the same story. Where the film lives or dies, in terms of what you get out of it, is in the reactions she receives from each of her colleagues and how she responds. Each positive meeting gives her a tiny ray of hope, each negative one sends her spiralling back towards depression.

For an actress that can effortlessly do glamour in big budget Hollywood films such as Inception, Midnight in Paris and Public Enemies, to see Marion laid bare in this manner is rather refreshing. That said, her character is tough to like and difficult to engage with on an emotional level.

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Her long-suffering husband is where our sympathies probably end up. With each setback she faces she shuts down, blocking off friends and family, expecting the inevitable outcome. The constant rock at her side is her husband Manu, played in a no-nonsense manner by Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione.

Perhaps this is the sort of film that you need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy. I say enjoy, it’s a sad tale for the most part. Marion, as you’d expect, delivers a thoroughly impressive performance and, if you’re a fan of her work, it’s one you should see. Just be aware of the type of film you’re going to see and you’ll no doubt get something out of it.

Fargo: first season review

The first season of a new show based on a film could go one of two ways… obviously. In that it could sink like a soggy souffle or it could surprise and delight both fans of the original film – directed by the Coen brothers – and bring in new fans alike.fargo-episode-4-stills-synopsis

Largely this show has, pleasingly, done the latter. Following in the footsteps of the Coen brothers is no easy task, yet show creator and writer, Noah Hawley, has done just that, delivering a dark, witty and suspenseful tale, one that’s already meant the show has scooped a slew of awards and been renewed for a second season. It’s also followed the theme of a single story arc per season. The same format that the recent – also quite brilliant – True Detective has done in its first season.

Whilst the mighty script played a large part of Fargo’s success, good writing alone isn’t enough, the cast were, simply put, rather darn good. It helps to have A-list film actors from which to draw of course. And yes, I think we can safely say that now, after the body of work he’s built up, Martin Freeman is indeed A-list.

His performance drove the story along yet… rooting for him as your main protagonist was always going to be a tall order. Freeman’s ability to come across as likeable yet unsure of himself, determined yet afraid, a man with a moral compass yet, at times, completely immoral in terms of his actions, meant that, throughout the season you feel compelled to watch him to see how he will react in any given situation.

Fans of Breaking Bad will recognise a great deal of Walter White in Freeman’s Lester Nygaard. Both are characters that, in trying to change the course of their lives, end up doing despicable things… Yet you find yourself rooting for them. In a way.
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Then you have the straight up bad guy, Billy Bob Thornton’s elusive hitman Lorne Malvo. A man that seems to have a soft spot for Lester. The two cross paths only a few times throughout the season, yet their actions ripple out to affect most other characters in the show in fairly profound ways. Thornton’s performance was loaded with charisma to the point that it reminded me of George Clooney’s in Dusk Till Dawn. Both violent men with a dark side, but allow them to turn on the charm and then sit back and watch the way they hold a room – and, by extension, the audience – in the palm of their hand.

Honorable mentions should also go to some key players in the supporting cast including: Allison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson (the only person smart enough to figure out the various crimes committed and doggedly pursue them to the bitter end. Our real protagonist, if ever there was one); Bob Odenkirk as kindly Police Chief Oswalt (slippery lawyer Saul from Breaking Bad if you didn’t realise); and Colin Hanks as spineless Officer Gus Grimley (another who gets a surprising and satisfying character arc come the season finale).
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Whilst show creator, Noah Hawley, has said that season two will have entirely new characters and a new story, some must surely remain? You can see stalwarts like Molly Solverson and Gus Grimley surfacing from time to time. But maybe it will play out a bit like The Wire, where the show focuses on other towns and goings on in neighbouring parts of America, occasionally revisiting old characters so they keep their hand in and thus the Fargo world expands.

Either way, this show was a nice surprise, in that I came to it with little knowledge or expectation, but was drawn in regardless. To repeat the trick for a second season will be tough, but there’s still a lot of this world for the show’s creators to explore, so we can but hope they’ll deliver.