Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review: Fargo 1.01 – The Crocodile’s Dilemma

Lovingly echoing its predecessor in tone, style and atmosphere, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, a new television series based loosely on the stone cold classic Coen Brothers film of the same name, is one of the best things I’ve seen on television this year thus far. Bringing back the nervous, darkly comic tone of the original for a new generation, the first episode of the series, titled The Crocodile’s Dilemma, tightly holds onto many of the aspects that made the 1996 film such an undisputed work of brilliance, but retains a surprising amount of uniqueness with its all-new, equally bloody narrative.

While Joel and Ethan Coen have given Noah Hawley nothing more than their blessing as executive producers and a currently unspecified number of scripts, Hawley does manage to capture the essence of the original Fargo whilst making it his own beast in the process. You see, this new adaptation features an almost entirely different narrative that echoes the original, introducing new characters thrown into or perhaps born from equally dark scenarios. Beyond that and the Minnesota setting, as well as tonal consistencies, Hawley’s Fargo offers us some fresh new twists and turns – of which there are plenty in The Crocodile’s Dilemma, some of which will have you shivering in fear.

At the forefront of the piece are Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, portraying Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo respectively. These two personas couldn’t be more contrasting in their capabilities and personalities, but when they cross paths through some pretty dodgy circumstances, the terrifyingly mysterious Lorne sets the chirpy albeit socially tortured Lester onto a path of destruction and carnage. Freeman’s portrayal of the metaphorically chained, failing salesman thrown out of his comfort zone – which wasn’t particularly comfortable to begin with – is absolutely spot on, and actually very likeable - not unlike William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, whom Freeman in some ways fills the boots of in this modern re-imagining.

Unlike Macy, however, Freeman brings a terrible sadness to the role of the failing salesman. His wife playfully beats him up with some blatantly self-aware verbal abuse; his brother tells him “I wish you were dead” for his lacking in common sense; and worst of all, the school bully still humiliates him far into adulthood. His shyness and train-wreck of thought is wimpy and pathetic, but Lester is a character I imagine most people will feel a hell of a lot of sympathy for thanks to his tortured existence – perhaps more-so than they did for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad.

Speaking of Breaking Bad, its creator Vince Gilligan has cited Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo as a huge inspiration on that show. What’s somewhat amusing, however, is that the Fargo TV series seems to borrow a fair bit from Gilligan’s magnum opus; and I’m not just talking about the inclusion of Bob Odenkirk, nor the fact that both series share the same editor. In terms of narrative structure one can’t help but compare The Crocodile’s Dilemma to the episode that begun spinning Walter White’s yarn. Lester goes through a transformation of sorts thanks to the world around him and ends up committing some pretty unspeakable acts because of it; and yet, you can still sympathise with him, much like many could with everyone’s favourite manipulative pork-pie hat sporting genius.

It’s not Lester Nygaard that fits the bill of the manipulative maniac in this universe, however. Those boots are reserved for Lorne Malvo, and you’d best make sure they’re polished. Malvo is a character I can see becoming a favourite of many, certainly myself, in the near future. His character is incredibly mysterious, ruthless and unsympathetic, with the motives for his actions being particularly questionable (fun, perhaps? Or maybe something more…) – and yet, I could never take my eyes off him in every single scene he inhabits and indeed steals with a brilliantly chilling performance from Billy Bob Thornton. He also packs a charmingly devilish personality. He’s the source of all the carnage that takes place in Fargo’s first hour and it all spawns from one unanswered question: “Yes… or no?”

I shan’t spoil anything that happens in this first hour, but if you think it’s going to be predictable having already sat through the film, think again. I was positively shocked at the twists and turns that this rollercoaster of a first episode took me on, not only from their superb execution but also how early they took place. Lorne Malvo doesn’t reveal any of his secrets in this first episode, but Lester sees more character development than you could shake a Heisenberg hat at. The best thing about this, undoubtedly, is that it didn’t feel rushed – and despite the lack of answers for Lorne, the character felt far from underdeveloped, packing plenty of potential adjectives that could be used to describe his character before he even speaks a word.

Aesthetically, Fargo is similar in style to the original, with a great soundtrack and a huge emphasis on the great white covering the quirky Minnesota setting. Speaking of quirkiness, and indeed speaking, fans of the film will be happy to know that the much-loved accents are back, as are the quips we remember so fondly, now coming out of the mouths of Martin Freeman and the majority of his fellow cast. Does he do a good job emulating the accent, what with his British origins? Oh ya, you betcha.

The Crocodile’s Dilemma isn’t without its problems, though. To me personally, the last ten minutes of the episode felt just a little tacked-on and disjointed, both in terms of the editing and the events that take place in these scenes. These sequences weren’t bad by any means, and I’d never say no to more of Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliance as Lorne, but I feel the episode would’ve benefited from ending on a much larger cliff-hanger, such as the aforementioned major events that took place towards the end of the first hour. This is a very minor complaint, however, and it really didn’t hurt the experience all that much. Suffice to say, the very last scene of the episode will most definitely make sense in the coming weeks.

If you had qualms about whether or not Noah Hawley’s Fargo adaptation would live up to what many consider to be the Coens’ finest then put those qualms to rest, because The Crocodile’s Dilemma was an absolutely superb opener for a series that I hope will stay consistent throughout its ten episode run. Different enough to not be pitted against the original but faithful to its tone and quality, Fargo might just be one of the best series of the year if it keeps up the quality demonstrated in its opening.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

TV Review: Doctor Who 7.09 - Hide

A number of months ago when I reviewed Neil Cross' début Doctor Who story, I pondered whether I would be able to write one-word reviews and still receive the same amount of wonderful satisfaction and feedback upon publishing them. Of course, this was a ridiculous idea to ponder over, but if I were to extend the thought to single sentence reviews, would that suffice? In the case of Hide, Neil Cross' second script of the series, my shortened review would go something along the lines of this hefty statement: Hide is, without a doubt in my mind, the best episode of Doctor Who's seventh revived series thus far. This is one of those rare scripts from a guest writer that manages to reach the heights of more prominent, plot heavy showrunner-penned stories without actually contributing much to the over-arcing plot at all. For similar outings in Moffat's run, see series 5 instalment Vincent and the Doctor, series 6's weep-inducing The Girl Who Waited and... well, not a whole lot else. This episode is magnificent, albeit subtly so. It's not difficult to imagine how fulfilling it is to praise what could've been something of a flop, especially after two weeks prior of dire offerings, one of which was also penned by Cross.

The Rings of Akhaten was a decent enough episode, but what it basked in with the colourful production and set design wasn't balanced out with an equally spectacular and intricate script. It packed some good ideas and memorable moments, for sure, but none of them came close to realising their full potential, instead being stretched out or overblown to barely fill the 45 minutes. Neil Cross' Doctor Who broadcast début was an unbalanced one, then - So what makes his second chance absolutely worthy of its place in the spotlight? It's quite simple, really: this is a much more developed and fleshed-out script than a fair few of its predecessors, and it succeeds in a great number of aesthetic aspects. In honesty, aside from a few jumpy moments and odd dialogue exchanges in the first act of the story, Hide rarely does anything but succeed.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Wind Waker HD's New Art-Style: Is it Really Such a Big Deal?

You can check out an enhanced version of this article in the upcoming fourth issue of Stream, the free web-mag edited by yours truly. The version you'll read below is the same in terms of the main bulk of the article, but the Stream version comes complete with comparison screenshots and the like. It'll be released very soon. Check out previous issues right here!

Ever wanted to know what my first truly magical Nintendo experience was? Set your DMC DeLorean to 2008 and crash through time into my abode (albeit not directly, because that could potentially rupture the space-time continuum and create a time paradox in which images of my body slowly disappear from any images that contain it, leading to an epic escapade in which you, my dear reader, attempt to undo your actions in order to resurrect me... wait, where was I going with this, again?) and you might just spot a GameCube and a copy of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker along with it. That, my friend, was my first experience with Nintendo. Well, excluding early sessions with the Parachute Game & Watch - but let me tell you something: that 3-frame LCD game ain't no Wind Waker, son.

Despite being a GameCube release, the third main polygonal Zelda game still stands tall as one of the most beautiful games ever made if you're looking at it visually. It can successfully topple many current generation titles when it comes to just how brilliantly crafted the game is artistically, and that's when we're not even bringing the gameplay, soundtrack, story, or any other aesthetics into the equation. If Ocarina had this magic spark in terms of how it was structured, then Majora's Mask certainly had it nailed down thematically even if the graphics were no different from its predecessor, in many cases quite literally. With Wind Waker, in my opinion, Nintendo pioneered in these aspects. Thematically it was no Majora, but in terms of gameplay and visual direction it trumps its predecessors, no questions asked, and all it has to offer is presented primarily through some truly wonderful art design. Oh, and did I mention the soundtrack? A large chunk of Koji Kondo's compositions for this game are among the best in the entire Zelda franchise. It really is a mesmerising experience from every angle, with very few hiccups along the way.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Back Again? [Update: 01/08/13]

A cold wind has blown over Noodle's Blog for a number of months, now. On the last day of January earlier this year, I promised I'd be rebooting the stream of reviews, features and what have you following another unannounced, lengthy hiatus over the Christmas period. Let's not beat around the bush, here... this didn't really happen. Sure, I got a bunch of Doctor Who reviews in several months later, and was on a roll mid-way through the latest series of the show, but due to a loss of time, interest, and most of all the individual episodes of impending doom that were my GCSE exams, I worked on but couldn't quite keep up with the schedule I originally planned. Despite two drafts of Doctor Who reviews already prepared for touch-ups and publication, GCSE revision took overall prominence and I decided to focus solely on what was undoubtedly the most important thing at the time.

So, I worked my butt off and tried my hardest in the exams. Some went surprisingly well, others didn't. But you don't really need to hear about that sort of stuff. What you may be wondering is what exactly this post is about. If you've been following my blog for a while - if so, thank you, and I appreciate you taking the time to read this here right now because it is sort of important - you may have noticed a trend when it comes to updates with the intention of getting back on track with my personal writing. The trend goes something like this: I post an update detailing a number of articles I plan on publishing sometime in the near future, nothing happens for weeks and eventually said articles are either unfinished or non-existent in my metaphorical pile of virtual sheets of paper. So yeah, I've not exactly been that reliable lately when it comes to writing. Thank goodness I don't have any real deadlines, because I'd be fired by now if I did.

Instead of repeating the same frustrating process detailed in the previous paragraph, I've decided to inform whoever is reading this of where exactly my head is at when it comes to writing at this moment in time. In one word, it's jumbled. In two, it's really jumbled. I want to keep writing, I know I'm capable of doing it - especially now there aren't any GCSE-related scrapes on the horizon, or hopefully ever for that matter - but since I finally finished my secondary education I've been suffering from something of a creative mental block; more commonly referred to as writer's block. This may seem like a cheap excuse for not writing, but until now I've barely been able to conceive a simple update such as the one you're reading right now. I wanted to write this friggin' thing a month ago when my free time officially started.

This doesn't mean I'm stopping altogether, mind. Far from it, in fact. I'll just be changing a few things. First off, the Doctor Who reviews, aside from that of the truly fantastic 'Hide' (which I'm working on to pleasing success at the moment, and should be published before the end of the month) may be postponed for a little while so I can work on other projects to give my blog a little something called variety. I enjoy writing Doctor Who reviews but I feel I'll be able to churn out other stuff faster seeing as I'd have to re-watch and re-adjust to the most recent series in order to finish of my synopses of its episodes. That said, they are broadcasting repeats of series 7 on BBC Three starting today, so in a few months we'll have reached the point where I'm at with the reviews, so many I'll resume writing the rest around that time.

Until then, what else is coming? Some kind of countdown feature, I should think, as I haven't worked on anything like that for quite a while now. I'm thinking something Breaking Bad related. I've not written any posts on Breaking Bad and I really feel that I should do so. Some one-off TV reviews have entered the realms of my consideration, too. A few Sherlock classics, or maybe even some Breaking Bad because, as noted above, I feel it appropriate for me to write about the TV show I enjoy the most (don't expect me to review an entire series, mind!). Something that is definitely likely to pop up soon enough is a review of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's fantastic The World's End, a film so good I saw it at the cinema twice and wouldn't mind going to see again.

Something that most definitely won't be happening any time soon but has been on my mind a fair bit lately is moving the blog to an actual web domain. I currently own a web space under my name and haven't really done anything with it since I received it as a Christmas present last year, but I do want to do something with it at some point and I'm not crossing off 'move blog to its own domain' off my metaphorical list of options just yet. On a very similar note, I've been trying to come up with a new name for the blog as 'Noodle's Blog' hasn't really felt relevant to me for quite a while now (I haven't used the alias of 'Noodle' for about a year). Any ideas on your behalf are more than welcome.

In short: new posts will be up soon, after my review of Hide has been published I won't be working on Doctor Who reviews for a little while and I'm looking for a new name for the blog, so if you have any suggestions drop them in the comments box below. Here's hoping I can get the blog back on track, and I mean that this time. Until next time, have a pleasant day!