Sunday, March 30, 2014

Double take: Richard Ayoade does the double with The Double

“You are pretty unnoticeable, aren’t you? You’re a bit of a non-person!” – This is how Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), our protagonist is described by one of his co-workers. To his face. He admittedly has got a point: no one seems to care about or even notice Simon. He works a boring office job. He doesn’t receive credit for his work. Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the girl he is in love with, ignores him. Even the office elevator seems to hold a personal grudge against him. He is all but invisible to the world around him.

Then, inevitably, someone else turns up and steals his dreams from under his nose. Less inevitably, this person is Simon’s exact doppelgänger. James Simon (Eisenberg again) looks and sounds exactly like Simon James (the difference being that the former is confident and imposing), a peculiarity which no one seems to notice. Slowly, James becomes everything Simon wants to be, manipulating and humiliating him in the process.

I recently saw The Double for the second time at a preview screening, courtesy of the lovely folk of the Duke of York’s Picturehouse in Brighton. The film very much holds up on second viewing. It is loosely based on a novella by Dostoyevsky, but director Richard Ayoade (Submarine) replaces the setting in rural, 19th century Russia for a dark, moody fantasy-world, not too dissimilar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It is a subjective environment; we look at the world through Simon’s eyes. It looks like a futuristic Soviet union and is shot in an almost expressionistic style, filled with sharp, contrasting shadows and striking lights. There is no daylight. Everything is a little odd: the songs are Japanese pop songs and there is a science-fiction cop-show starring Paddy Considine on TV. Like Simon, we can’t really make sense of it all.

While the visual style is in many ways a (skilfully assembled) hybrid of various cinematic predecessors (Gillam, Wes Anderson amongst others), it is through the comedy that Ayoade shines through. The humour, which ranges from morbid to silly, keeps the story going and prevents it from becoming too dark. We laugh at Simon’s misfortune, but thanks to Eisenberg’s performance, we never lose affection for the character, which could become pathetic in lesser hands. Chris O’Dowd, who hilariously cameos as a nurse, is worth a special mention.

The Double is a very peculiar, but intriguing film. Movies about introverted, lonely people are very difficult to pull off, but Ayoade manages to put an interesting spin on the story. It is consistently funny and appealing to look at. It may not be a masterpiece or a classic for the ages, but it confirms Richard Ayoade as one of the most promising and skilful young filmmakers working in British cinema today.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Under the Skin

The first time I heard of Under the Skin was at the Venice film festival. I was talking to a British journalist, who works for FRED film radio and the BBC: “This is one of the worst films I have ever seen!” She went on and on: “I don’t know how this got made. What was Jonathan Glazer thinking?” Later that day, the film was booed by a large part of the audience at the gala screening with Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson in attendance. Others, including many British critics, came out of the screening correctly singing its praises.

Unfortunately I did not manage to see the polarizing film in Venice. I didn’t manage to see it in London either. I had to wait until it was released in the UK last week. At the time of writing I have seen it twice within 5 days, and I’m strongly considering going again. It is that good.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Glasgow in a white van. Her (or its?) mission is to pick up random men and lure them back to her house (spaceship? space?) where they are then, for the lack of a better word, “consumed” by some sort of extra-terrestrial sludge. If this does not sound strange enough, know that large portions of it were filmed with hidden cameras, using unknowing passer-by’s as actors. It is difficult and unnecessary to say more about the story, so I will leave it at this.

The most impressive thing about Under the Skin is the way in which Jonathan Glazer combines the gritty hyper-real and the slick, crazy surreal almost seamlessly through superb visuals and sound design. Comparisons have been made with Lynch, Kubrick or von Trier, but none of them are really satisfactory. Under the Skin is something different, a true original. Every image looks and feels right. Mica Levi’s mesmerizing, creepy score helps to join the different elements and creates a haunting atmosphere throughout the film. The importance of the music cannot be overstated and the recurring three note theme will burn itself onto your brain and haunt you in your worst nightmares.

What is it all about though? The answer to this depends on the spectator. If you are looking for answers and explanations, you will be disappointed. Glazer merely presents this story and encourages the audience to think. There are several ways to look at it. It could be a film about the strangeness of human behaviour. Seeing an alien imitate humans, clearly not understanding them, makes us realise how weird we must look to an outsider. In this sense, the film has the same effect as repeating the same word over and over, until it feels completely unnatural. There also is an interesting gender discourse within the film.

Scarlett Johansson’s performance is nothing short of brilliant; possibly the best of her career. It is an extremely physical achievement. She uses her entire body in a way she has never done before. Every gesture is full of meaning. She always seems slightly uncomfortable in her skin in the way she holds herself, slightly dropping her shoulders, the arms dangling loosely at her side. It is an extremely difficult performance to pull off, because her character’s main function is to be looked at. She is a passive character and she is the subject of her victims’ gaze, of the camera’s gaze and finally of her own gaze. About halfway through, she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and starts to develop an interest in her body. Mirrors are a recurring element, emphasizing the “fakeness” of her body. This stands in complete contrast to her character Spike Jonze’s Her (in which she was miscast), in which she also played a non-human form of intelligence with a desire to become human. Unlike the bodiless operating system Samantha, the unnamed alien of Under the Skin is primarily defined through her physical presence.

Under the Skin is a film that is very difficult to describe and impossible to put into a fixed category. It contains genre elements (science-fiction, erotic thriller, social realism) without belonging to any of them. Watching it is a strange, hypnotic experience and I haven’t been this captivated and fascinated by a film since Ming Liang Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Films like this remind me, why I love cinema so much. It will however divide people. Many will hate it, many will not understand it. In my opinion, it is the best film of 2014 so far.


Also on cine-jambalaya: The alienating realism of Under the Skin

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Welcome to the The Grand Budapest Hotel: such a lovely place!

Whenever I talk or write about Wes Anderson, I tend to come across as quite negative. Therefore I will start this review by saying that I really enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I was laughing the whole way through and had a really good time. The soundtrack tops my “most played” charts on Spotify. Go and see it.

If you have seen a Wes Anderson film before, you will know what to expect: symmetrical images, striking colours, children behaving like adults, imaginative swearing and Bill Murray sporting some form of epic facial hair. As many have pointed out, TGBH is his most Wes-y film yet. Anderson newcomer Ralph Fiennes stars as Gustave, the dedicated concierge of the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel, with a weakness for elderly ladies staying at the hotel. When one of those ladies, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves Gustave an invaluable painting, much to the dismay of her family, things start to fall apart. Hilarity ensues once the screwball plot starts to get going: wars break out, people are sent to prison and cats are thrown out of windows.

The narrative is not only Wes-y, but also messy: there are not one, but two unnecessary framing devices. Characters drift in and out of the film so quickly; you barely have time to recognise the huge stars who are playing them. Except for Gustave and his bellboy /mentee Zero (Tony Revolori), the characters are almost caricatures. Saoirse Ronan’s part feels particular underwritten and underdeveloped, even though she is the most prominent female character.

The central relationship between Gustave and Zero is however rather adorable, but it runs the risk of drowning in the sheer overload of quirkiness. There is so much going on in every single frame, carefully constructed by the director; you don’t have the time to get to know and connect with the characters. As a result, there is a hole of sorts in the film.

The reason why I am usually so harsh with Wes Anderson is because I really like what he is about. His visual style is brilliant and unique. He has a wonderful way with music (helped by composer Alexandre Desplat). He casts great actors. With Moonrise Kingdom, my favourite film of 2012, he proved that he can get it absolutely right. Yet, most of his films leave a faint aftertaste, a sense that they are close to greatness, but not quite there. 


Monday, March 17, 2014

And now for something slightly different: Near Gone

I recently reviewed the play Near Gone for my university paper, The Badger. It is also available on the Badger website here.
Review: Near Gone

The stage is empty. Empty, except for thirteen bouquets of white carnations spread across the floor on each side of the stage. Most of these flowers will not survive until the end of the show. A woman and a man, who had been sitting in the front row, get up.
They are wearing plain, grey but formal clothes. She starts telling her story. She speaks in Bulgarian.
He translates.
She is agitated and gesticulates a lot.
He is calm and composed.
“This is a difficult story to tell.” It is indeed. It is a story about fear, uncertainty and pain; about the limits of language. It is also a true story.
In Near Gone, Katherina Radeva and Alister Lownie (together they are known as Two Destination Language) share the grief they experienced through experimental theatre, dance and song.
The nature of tragic event is not that important.
The important things are the things that aren’t said. Katherina’s interrupts her account regularly and, for no apparent reason, starts to dance to Goran Bregovic’s pop-hit Kalasnikov.
Before the music starts, Alister hands her two bouquets of carnations, stands aside and watches.
It’s a fast, happy song and she completely lets go, shaking her entire body. Yet something feels off; her facial expression does not match her movements.
The flowers she clutches onto start breaking.
Soon the stage is covered in stems and blossoms.
With every repetition, the dance gets more intense and desperate.
The main theme of Near Gone is the insufficiency of language to express the deepest emotions.
In the Q&A session following the performance, Radeva revealed: “There was no way I was going to tell this story in English.”
The almost Brechtian translation puts a certain distance between her and the audience (unless they understand Bulgarian).
This not only makes us think about the difficulty of expressing ourselves, but also helps her make herself vulnerable and tell her story.
The idea of using music and dance to express emotions that can’t be put into words is not new or original, but is used to great effect. The songs (including a beautiful, Eastern European cover version of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day) are well chosen and effective.
The music and dances are the primary source of entertainment, but also full of meaning.
The flowers, a metaphor for death, further add to this.
Scattered across the stage in a chaotic mess, they reflect Katherina’s interior.
The performances were very strong and, above, all extremely honest.
The way they tell their story feels intimate and candid; they’re not hiding anything.  Their charm and charisma (particularly Radeva) also prevent Near Gone from being depressing. Despite the heavy subject matter, there are moments of levity and the overall tone is one of hope.
After the performance, the audience was prompted to take a few of the flowers home.
This is a nice gesture and a souvenir of an intriguing evening.
Eventually, the symbol of death and grief brightens up numerous homes.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

300: Beefcakes, Boats and Boredom

Eight years ago, Zak Snyder’s 300 was released. Since then, it has become some sort of cult favourite and understandably so. It was simple, stylish, violent, stupid and camp; in short, it was a lot of fun. Snyder was busy destroying Metropolis in Man of Steel, so he handed over the directorial duties to relative newcomer Noam Murro (Snyder remains as producer as and co-writer) for the prequel/sequel/equel/whateverquel 300: Rise of an Empire.

The result is as dull as its title. On the surface all the ingredients are there: huge battles, great CGI, slow-motion and countless (something tells me there were about 300 of them) topless, sweaty beefcakes. The action has been moved from a cliff to the ocean, where the Greek fleet tries to defend itself against the Persian invaders. The problem is that there is not enough of that. The film begins with 20 minutes of boring, pointless backstory explaining, in great detail, the origins of all the main characters.

The hero this time around is Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the leader of the Greek army who is very fond of delivering long, meaningful speeches while dreamily looking into the horizon. Apart from this, he has no discernable personality; he even looks boring. Say about Gerard Butler what you want, but at least he had an awesome beard.

The plot is appropriately stupid, but it lacks a sense of fun and silliness. There are some bonkers moments (at one point, Eva Green decapitates a prisoner and snogs the severed head for no reason) and funny one liners, but they are swamped by exposition and speeches. The less said about the misjudged sex-scene the better.

The one positive is Eva Green, perfectly cast as the Artemis, the ruthless commander of the Persian fleet. She dominates the screen with her chilly, menacing presence. Dressed in black, wearing more eyeliner than Johnny Depp, she seems to be the only one enjoying herself.

There is fun to be had with 300: Rise of an Empire: the effects are good, the action is well shot and there’s a horse on a boat; but overall it is a disappointment. The constant winks and nods to the original (yes, someone says “This is Sparta”) aren’t helping either, reminding us of a much better film. Let’s hope that Sin City 2, 2014’s other long awaited sequel based on a Frank Miller novel starring Eva Green, is better.