Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Sherlock HolmesIt’s been a long time since Guy Ritchie served up a proper hit: The box office reception of his last film “RockNRolla” was less than lukewarm despite many positive reviews and could never match his success with “Snatch” almost a decade earlier. Whether as an attempted remedy or not, “Sherlock Holmes” marks Ritchie’s first true departure from the gangster flick (let’s discount “Swept Away” shall we?) he perfected. Well, not entirely. After all the underworld of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s London was every bit as grim and dangerous as that of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the cocaine-injecting Holmes of the novels has something bizarrely parallel to something Ritchie might concoct himself. Drug use is only and barely implied on screen however (this being a PG-13 rating after all) but the new Sherlock Holmes is every bit if not more eccentric than fans might expect.

It is 1891 and something mysterious is brewing in the British capital as the villainous sorcerer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is seen rise from the grave and soon schemes to take control of the empire itself. With the police helpless, enter Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his somewhat reluctant companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to try and stop Blackwood before it’s too late. Meanwhile the appearance of dashing crook and Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) with her own agenda threatens to derail the detective further. Robert Downey Jr., in a role that actually suits his acting persona plays Holmes as an utterly (or at least seemingly) catatonic mess; mind racing, keenly observing yet highly frustrating to those around him. As he can speedily predict a bare-knuckle fist fight unfolding, so is he grossly unhygienic and performs medical or “scientific” experiments on himself and his bulldog. Many of these apparent contradictions come across in a manner not dissimilar from Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – essentially far cleverer than he appears. Watson is the foil of course, Jude Law doing an excellent job of “playing him straight” against Holmes’ schizophrenic strains and ultimately it is their on-screen sparring that becomes Ritchie’s biggest attraction and is genuinely fun to watch.

Which is very necessary because the coils of a rather shallow mystery plot are soon to unwind as Ritchie switches to all out action mode in the second and last third. These sequences are once again good fun (especially a slaughterhouse with added kaboom) and stylishly caught through Ritchie’s lens but come up short on sustaining viewer interest. The final showdown atop a half-completed Tower Bridge seems particularly underwhelming. even though the plot takes one more turn for the better. There are more problems besides: Rachel McAdams’ character is hardly developed at all and it seems one of her key scenes (seen in the trailer) ended up on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, shots of auld-London (again the bridge) make little effort to hide their digital inception and for whatever reason are all rendered in very soft light, thus highly jarring against Ritchie’s sharp live-action work and the fantastic art direction. Thus while “Sherlock Holmes” is an entertaining view, it abandons many elements of the traditional tales and has hardly anything to substitute leaving it without any real spark to ignite it.

Sherlock Holmes OSTRounding out a good year for Hans Zimmer was the rather surprising Oscar nomination for “Sherlock Holmes.” And while the recognition should really have gone to his “Angels & Demons” score, the German maestro clearly had a lot of fun creating the musical sound for the film. Collaborating this time with Lorne Balfe, their score is an eclectic collection of odd sounds, headed by a fun theme that runs into a mad endless loop like Holmes’ mind itself. Guitar, cimbalon, banjo, honky-tonk piano and of course the violin are all used (or abused) in creative ways, incorporating both Irish traditional and gypsy characteristics that make this perhaps the strangest score of Zimmer’s life. The highlight is the monster cue “Psychological Recovery… 6 Months” in which all the action and thematic ideas of the score are explored thoroughly including a mutilation of the Big Ben chime tune. Sadly some work contributed by “The Chieftains” never made it onto the album despite contributing a huge amount to the tone of the film. But still, a strong effort from Zimmer all around.

Downey Jr. and Law make for a great duo but Richie doesn’t quite have tight control over the film’s entirety. The inevitable sequel (already set up by this film) is on the way and there’s a real chance that some of the many good ingredients might gel more easily next time out.

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Goodfellas (1990)

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GoodfellasGangster films truly inhabit a world of their own. With the possible exception of good science fiction, no other genre has assembled such a loyal following nor indeed witnessed such an incredible amassing of cinematic talent. As if any confirmation of the latter was necessary, 1990 became the year in which the “don crown” passed hands once and for all. Francis Ford Coppola, long awaiting a return to glory failed to hit bars he himself set twenty years earlier, his third and final entry to the Corleone saga desperately lacking in innovation. Into this breach leapt an eager Martin Scorsese with perhaps his greatest contribution to cinema. Amongst all of the Italian’s well-remembered films (and there are many indeed), “Goodfellas” is by some distance his most popular among fans and critics alike. And though not exactly robbed of an Oscar – “Dances With Wolves” is after all a very fine film – it was most deserving of the Best Picture and Director nods that year. Maybe Kevin Costner made the Academy an offer they couldn’t refuse. Nevertheless, as an exercise in narrative and storytelling the Scorsese is by all mean exemplary.

The film is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” the true story of three gangsters’ lives. Beginning in the 1950s, the film tells three decades of life in the mafia, the people, the jobs, the lifestyle and the drama. Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) begins his mafioso career at the age of twelve simply because he’s always wanted to be a gangster. Initially running jobs for local mob man Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), Henry soon climbs up into bigger schemes, those of the highly paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and the highly aggressive Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Together they lift money from just about everywhere, constantly playing cat-and-mouse with the law while living it up in an endless chain of nightclubs and bars. Initially captivated by Henry’s charms is Karen (Lorraine Bracco) but the marriage soon turns for the worse as she is drawn ever further in, yet ultimately left behind.

Everything gangster-aficionados will expect (and more), “Goodfellas” is high on it’s own substance, containing excessive violence, black humour and an absolute overload of the f-word (over 300 times, in all its extraordinary variations). And though “Goodfellas” is a roller-coaster of extreme proportions, its incredible how much of the action happens off-screen: What many a film would pride as a central showpiece, the infamous robberies fall by the wayside, Scorsese making it clear that he is less interested in the plot as opposed to exploring the world of organised crime these characters inhabit. The essence, the real flesh and blood of their mindset is drawn out in countless conversations, sometimes relaxed, more often tense and unpredictable, something many minor characters learn the hard way. It’s a fine line between the jokes and threats and often with horrific consequences as immortalised by Joe Pesci with “What do you mean I’m funny?” The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi is expert in turning 180 degrees when the audience least expect it in a style later translated by Quentin Tarantino for his own “Pulp Fiction,” playing with seemingly casual exposition that has the potential to ignite the situation at any moment.

Remarkable at all times is Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled style, though that superlative does not describe it sufficiently. An education in filmmaking would be a more fitting title for the way he directs Michael Ballhaus’ camera swoops, the sometimes slow, sometimes quick edits, the freeze-frames around every setting. Repeat viewings will be necessary to fully appreciate his talent for telling a narrative in such a free-flowing and entertaining manner. Yet again, the genius lies in the details – take the completely irrelevant preparation of a meal during that fateful day: On page it might seem daft but on film it’s a brilliant tool for cranking up the suspense and pressure in Henry’s cocaine-fuelled life one notch further. Lastly, yet by no means least, several large kudos must go the simply excellent cast, both the leads and bit-parts all appropriately cast. De Niro and Pesci are outstanding in almost everything they do but these are roles that help define careers. The very important core of the film however lies with Ray Liotta. Superb firstly as the young “apprentice” criminal and then later as organiser. His performance is much more restrained than either De Niro or Pesci, his reactions and emotions a little more measured to those of audience members to particular scenes. Sadly this role has so far proven Liotta’s only truly great one as he has since been typecast to a certain extent though never again by Scorsese.

Goodfellas OST“Goodfellas” does not contain a single note of original film music. Scorsese was one of the very first to experiment with pure source music in his films and would do so again with “Casino” and “Shutter Island.” All of the director’s personal choices, including period hits by Tony Bennet, Aretha Franklin and many more fit the film like a glove however. They perfectly evoke both time and place for every scene though never in a manner that could be considered flashy or drawing attention to itself. While a “Godfather” style score would doubtlessly have worked as well, the songs lend the film a uniques atmosphere and it would be futile to deny their effect. On the other hand, an extremely measly album presentation leaves much to be desired: Of almost fifty songs, the album features a mere twelve. A “Forrest Gump” like double-CD treatment would resolve the issue but until that  arrives, the album for “Goodfellas” remains a significant disappointment for fans.

“Goodfellas” remains one of the defining movies within and without the gangster genre. It’s a masterpiece and a landmark in cinema that elevates Scorsese and his ensemble higher and higher as your appreciation will grow every time you watch it.

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Tsotsi (2005)

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TsotsiFilms about Africa are usually much too hard-hitting to be able to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and with good reason: The picture of poverty that needs to be painted is so impossibly gruesome that viewers shy away. Hollywood has struggled with this in the past (Meryl Streep, Stephen Dorff et al) but for one of the first times, a South African film tackles the subject head on. Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world and though a cinema release was limited, it seems people have sat up and taken notice. Aside from it’s obvious qualities in both acting and direction, perhaps part of its success can be attributed to the fact that it presents a somewhat hopeful picture, that despite the violence, disease and impoverishment, there are people who may be able to make a difference.

Very much inspired by both the tone and style of Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Gavin Hood’s film tells of young Soweto gang leader, Tsotsi (meaning “thug” in the language of the townships) who, angry and confused after a confrontation with a friend hijacks a car, unaware of the baby on the back seat. After initial reluctance and coupled with complete helplessness the young man, played by Presley Chweneyagae, takes the young child with him, and looks after it in the harshness of the South African slums. With the threat of execution he attains the help of young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who has a child of her own and eventually cares for the baby on her own. This may not last however as both the police and the baby’s rich parents are after the young criminal. In a world too cruel to be believed by western eyes (yet every inch true, make no mistake), Tsotsi’s efforts are out of place but act as a fragment of hope for a society mired in poverty, lawlessness and crime. At the same time, the film is very much a desperate plea for help for people without any sort of direction or perspective, as Hood highlights through some of the supporting characters, a failed teacher student (Mothusi Magano) and a victim of the gold mines, now crippled and trapped in a wheelchair. The mixture of languages spoken by the characters – known as Tsotsitaal, thug language – adds a touch of odd familiarity and contributes to the film’s symbolism to a certain extent portraying people without identity or cultural heritage, never mind a chance of escape or a future.

The film relies on Chweneyagae’s portrayal of Tsotsi and the young actor commands his debut film with incredible power and depth. His character is one of few words and this yields a wholly different level of communication with the performer and the audience. The emotional connection most viewers will make is intense and although the film’s open ended nature does not permit a payoff, this is very much to the advantage rather than the detriment of the film. Two more conclusive endings were filmed but were both dropped by Hood in the edit (they are available as a DVD extra however) and though neither is very optimistic, to change anything from the final cut would probably take away from the emotional journey Tsotsi has gone through. Quite rightly walking away with the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005, “Tsotsi” does give a more hopeful impression than Meirelles’ slum-epic though it cannot equal it in terms of innovation and pure cinematic style. And though entirely different from “Distric 9,” “Tsotsi” too present a nation that is still caught up in the long shadow of its apartheid history. An awareness campaign launched in combination with the film and presented on some of the posters reminds of the figures that do not make for easy reading: South Africa reports over 18,000 murders per annum.

Tsotsi OSTThough some original score does feature, selling point for the soundtrack were several songs performed by the South African musician Bonginkosi Dlamini, better known as Zola, who also plays a small part in the film. His merging of Kwaito and Hip-Hop are in keeping with many of the gangster aspects of the storyline, portraying “Tsotsi” at his most ruthless and cruel. To musically colour the rest of the screen-time and bundled into a second album is the original score material by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker and featuring vocals by Vusi Mahlasela. The score is minimalist and, vocals aside not particularly African. Going almost completely unnoticed in the film (neither does the film require a lot of music), its album presentation is enjoyable with cues like “On the Tracks” and “Miriam Feeds Baby.” These serve as the main ideas in the score, the first for Tsotsi the second for the much more hopeful character of Miriam. Score fans looking for something to represent the African continent may do better with something like James Newton Howard’s excellent “Blood Diamond” or Hans Zimmer’s “The Power of One” however.

With “Tsotsi” Gavin Hood has made the leap to respected director and has been able to launch a Hollywood career though none of his follow-up works have been able to come close. The film presents terrible realities and does not make for easy viewing but neither is it entirely bleak in its outlook. Highly recommended.

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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Shawshank RedemptionWhat began as a Stephen King short story outside of his usual horror genre, completely passed over at the box-office and by the Academy, “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of film history’s most improbable success stories. Eventually finding audiences on the home-video market, the film has since continually climbed up the ranks on the lists of both viewers and critics and, sitting on top of IMDb’s top 250, it continues to enthral and inspire the world over. Yet despite its almost supernatural and untouchable status Frank Darabont’s picture remains a very humble masterpiece, proving like “Titanic” did again three years later, that interest in old-fashioned stories will never wane.

Given two life-sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank state prison in 1947. Over the space of twenty years he befriends Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, one of the prison’s “getters” who for a small price can smuggle anything, including a rock-hammer and even Rita Hayworth in through the bars. Life on the inside isn’t always kind to Andy who attracts both assault from a prison gang and the attention of cruel guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the warden Norton (Bob Gunton). The latter use his financial skills as the accounting end of money laundering deals that would see them becoming millionaires. The arrival of young convict Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) with proof of Andy’s possible innocence complicates events further, driving Andy towards the edge. The watershed we always expect yet it sleeps below the movie’s surface and still manages to surprise us when it bursts onto the scene. Far more than a classic prison movie however, the eventual redemption makes Shawshank a touching statement about dreams, hope, freedom and humanity. Its genius in this regard rests largely with Darabont’s masterful screenplay and superior directorial style, creating expansive brush strokes of plot and character development that only few others have matched.

In Morgan Freeman Darabont has found the film’s perfect anchor-point. Providing the calming and witty narration, the part of Red has proven the main source of the actor’s godlike standing that continues to the present day. Tim Robbins in the main role meanwhile is quietly brilliant, Andy remains to the last mysterious yet incredibly likeable as he unites the prison inmates with beers on the roof, expands the prison library and, in one of cinema’s most memorable and moving musical scenes plays Mozart through the speaker system, leaving every condemned man speechless in wonder and flashing light into even the darkest corners. They are roles that have defined the careers of both actors.  Every other aspect of “The Shawshank Redemption’s” production are equally noteworthy, from the period-correct production and costume design to the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who regularly works with the Coen brothers) and the no less impressive  supporting cast including the great James Whitmore as the ageing Brooks, and William Sadler as Heywood. The film’s extended denouement could well be accused of being overly sentimental, however to Darabont’s credit he leaves (literally) no stone unturned when setting out to tell the tale of endurance and hope to the very end. Thus the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in a true ending is all the greater for the audience who have patiently waited for it.

Shawshank Redemption OSTComposer Thomas Newman who was enjoying a high time in his career throughout the early 90s, approaches the scoring of “The Shawshank Redemption” like most of his other scores. That is with extended piano meandering and string plucking that bores many listeners. The difference between Shawshank and his later scores for “The Green Mile” and others is Newman’s writing of a gorgeously haunting and beautiful main theme that encompasses the spirit of the tale perfectly. Heard in “Stoic Theme,” and “Suds on the Roof”  the theme is based on sweeping strings and the signature piano. The penultimate cue “So was Red” sums up the idea with an oboe performance and leading into “End Title” that mirrors a sense of accomplishment. And then of course there’s the Mozart: The duet from “The Marriage of Figaro” performed by members of the Berlin State Opera is rightly placed on the album as it is in the film. Similarly, several period songs including Hank Williams strewn across the album do not detract from the listening experience but complete the period setting musically. The score is Newman’s crowning achievement of that period and earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, an award he has yet to win.

Perhaps it was unfortunate that it was released almost concurrently with both “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994, two films that captured audience imagination and the prison epic was ignored, but “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of the few films that has the power to move viewers to tears no matter how many times they have watched it. Its place near or even at the very top of great films is well deserved and is unlikely to have its position challenged. Even for film illiterates, this is not something you can afford to miss. If six stars could be given, that’s what it would get.

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The Departed (2006)

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The DepartedIt’s been a while since Martin Scorsese has made a gangster movie. After 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Casino” the legendary director’s output has been largely dramatic: Films like “The Age of Innocence”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” have allowed him to broaden his palette somewhat and to work with new talent like Leonardo DiCaprio who is by now almost as big a Scorsese trademark as Robert deNiro. It’s not to say that these films aren’t good, no in fact they’re very good but it somehow seemed inevitable that one day Scorsese would return to his film-making roots of the gangster or mobster genre. His 2006 film “The Departed” is such a throwback in many ways, combining the best of vintage and “new” Scorsese and while it may not quite reach the heights of some of those other classics, “The Departed” nevertheless has a pretty good shot at it. It certainly justified the long-awaited Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for the director, deserved recognition from an association that has passed over his pictures many times in the past.

Adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, the screenplay by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is a masterpiece of storytelling and intrigue, focusing on the ongoing war between the Boston PD and the Irish-American Mafia led by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the city. Both sides employ moles to infiltrate the other, on one side undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other state detective Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who secretly works for Costello. Their double lives are led on a knife’s edge, a dangerous game of cat and mouse that threatens to explode at every turn – and does. Each man’s journey up the ranks is fascinating to follow, Damon’s charming and charismatic but ultimately deceiving and brutal Sullivan an excellent counterpoint to Costigan who needs to prove himself loyal to the mobsters who suspect a rat, but is running on empty inside. And both always living in the shadow of Frank Costello. This is of course true of the actors as well: both Damon and DiCaprio give performances that rank among the best of their careers. Jack Nicholson however, plays these kind of roles with such relish and a deranged, sleazy charm that he can hold the breath of any audience with ease, his Costello is unpredictable, chilling and quite frankly very, very scary.

The movie belongs to three leads, mainly Nicholson, no question but Scorsese has still managed to assemble an awesome supporting cast as well: Martin Sheen is always excellent, here as Police Captain Queenan as is Ray Winstone in the role of Costello’s closest ally Mr. French. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg throw enough insults at each other to fill a book. Wahlberg is particularly bad-ass and the very final scene is worth waiting for just for him. Graphic violence of this magnitude has always been one of Scorsese’s calling cards as well and things do frequently boil over: Action set-pieces are expertly staged and often gruesomely displayed. With the exception of a dirty computer processor deal and some drug running however, criminal activities are placed somewhat in the background. It could therefore be argued that it’s not a classic Mafia movie per se as we never really get under the skin to see how exactly this crime world ticks. But that was hardly the intent because Scorsese has shown us that before and he makes it clear that the focus should (rightly) be on the infiltration stories. To facilitate this, Vera Farmiga’s character Madolyn is significant, acting as the only link between the two moles – unknowingly of course. In many ways she and DiCaprio provide most of the film’s emotional anchor for the viewers.

The Departed OSTMartin Scorsese has always been very specific when choosing music to accompany his pictures, often personally putting together a mix-tape of songs, including one that then becomes the film’s signature. Here it’s “Shipping Out to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphy’s and its Irish and rock roots fit perfectly with the mood of the film. Not as immediately audible is the original score courtesy of Scorsese’s current composer of choice Howard Shore. The score consists of an excellent selection of tango and guitar (both electric and acoustic) pieces, despite there being no Latin influences in the story. It’s a complete departure (no pun intended…) from all of Shore’s previous work, those expecting to hear some horror-like dissonance or something LotR-esque could be disappointed but really it’s the mark of a master musical chameleon. Call it a curiosity if you will but for some reason it just works in the film and makes for an excellent album listen. Two are available, one with songs and two score tracks, the other a score only CD. You can read my full review of “The Departed” soundtrack here.

A stellar cast and an outstanding screenplay put this film right at the top of a year of excellent films, many of which could have been Oscar winners in other years. However awards hype aside, “The Departed” confirms that Scorsese still rules the roost with gangster pictures and while the film may not cover much new ground in its exploration of the crime underworld, it remains one of his most entertaining films ever. And really, that’s saying something!

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I’m writing a lot of 5 star reviews lately. Then again I’d like to recommend the films I do like. Would you like a more even balance of stars? Let me know by leaving a comment any time. Please also follow me on twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Until next time, all the best and thanks for reading!

Fargo (1996)

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FargoOf course I’ve heard of the Coen brothers! Who hasn’t? Certainly since their hits of “Burn after Reading” and “No Country for Old Men” the two brothers who have spent over twenty years churning some of Hollywood’s finest have finally entered the mainstream. As part of my ever on-going great film marathon I finally got around to seeing this, quite possibly their greatest film “Fargo” (thank you Mr. Podge for the loan of the DVD!). Safe to say, I was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of the movie! For any who haven’t seen this I’d strongly recommend it.

The story takes place in Brainerd, North Dakota and examines how even the best planned crime can quickly get out of control. Jerry Lundegaard (an excellently paranoid William H. Macy) is steeped in debt and so hires two gangsters to kidnap his wife and hold her to ransom. Her rich father would then pay this ransom and Lundegaard himself would walk away with $40,000. However things begin to go wrong from the out and what was intended to be a quick, clean crime turns bloody when a State Trooper and two innocent civilians are killed by one of the psychopathic criminals thus involving the highly pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

While this is certainly not a story for the faint hearted, the film rarely descends into sentimentality and indeed only once, towards the end do the Coen’s shove the message in the face of the audience as McDormand’s character points out “there’s more to life than a little bit of money.” Quite surprisingly the majority of the film is highly humerous, the story littered with the character’s banter and chit-chat as they go through their daily lives. And not for a moment is it dull. In a way it is similar to the “Royale with Cheese” sequence in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” as the dialogue is populated with irrelevant material but this makes the whole thing infinitely more enjoyable. This talk about nothing is an intelligent way for the Coens to highlight the gap between people: Lundegaard’s inability to communicate with his son and Marge’s reunion with an old pal are excellent examples of this, yet these issues never cut deep. Instead they only graze the surface, perhaps a little stronger from time to time, reminding us just how important life is. The great plot is accompanied throughout by some beautifully haunting cinematography by Roger Deakins of the snowy wastes of Fargo. Near the opening of the film there is a shot of a giant white expanse and along the bottom, a tiny dot of a car makes its way along. It’s like saying “In North Dakota no one can hear you scream…”

Fargo OSTAs a film music fan I cannot go without commenting on the film’s score composed by Carter Burwell. While I am not generally a huge fan of Burwell’s work I am in awe of the beautiful main theme he wrote for the film. Curiously this theme accompanies both the characters of William H. Macy and Frances McDormand and serves more as an overarching tune for the film rather than a character leitmotif. If you are new to Burwell this is a great place to start and a much easier listen than many of his other scores.

Fargo comes with an 18s certificate due to language and some bloody violence and certainly doesn’t make for easy viewing even for a mature audience. However it is easily one of the best films of 1996 and of all time, completely deserving it’s place in the 1001 movie book. If you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers or not this is highly recommendable.

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