TheDouble

‘The Double’ and ‘Enemy’ are doppelgänger films, but hardly alike

“You’re in my place.” That’s the opening line to “The Double,” and it’s the on-the-nose thesis to both that movie and a similar film also released this year, “Enemy.” In each film, a timid and lonely protagonist comes face to face with a more confident doppelganger, causing the original’s life to unravel.

Two copycat movies in a given year is a jarring coincidence, but to call them doppelgangers of each other would be a misnomer. However, it certainly doesn’t help that both are based off books called “The Double” and that neither is particularly good.

More so than a replica of “Enemy”, “The Double” is actually a pastiche of Orwellian dystopias, most notably Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”. Director Richard Ayoade’s first film was yet another cinematic pastiche (or homage if you prefer) called “Submarine” that reimagined the French New Wave with its own dark comedy turns. This new film owes Gilliam a lot, with drab colors and cold, boxy, ‘80s machinery and technology filling every part of the set design. Continue reading

Under the Skin

‘Under the Skin’ is a surreal, otherworldly masterpiece

There are two types of surreal terror in the trippy, experimental sci-fi “Under the Skin.”

In the first, Scarlett Johansson seduces lonely men on the streets, brings them back to a dark, rundown home, and once inside, the confines become an empty, dark void. She disrobes, the men dutifully follow, and as they approach her, they silently slip into a pool of nothingness, completely enveloped by the darkness. As they sink, they don’t struggle, or even break eye contact. They simply vanish, soon to become nothing more than a snake-like shell.

In the second form, Johansson tries her trick again at a beach. Off in the distance, a man watches as his wife is drowning and flailing in a choppy sea. He hurries to save her, but ends up drowning himself. The man Johansson is seducing uses all his strength to save them both, and Johansson then knocks him out cold and begins dragging him away. Sitting alone on the beach is the couple’s baby, wailing all through the night, perhaps never to be claimed.

“Under the Skin” is less a film but an experience, one that combines the grimly fantastical and the grimly mundane to make something that is as much human as it is alien. Jonathan Glazer’s film captures the kaleidoscopic images that made “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Vertigo” genre bending classics, but this aural/visual experience is largely unlike any film ever made. It’s a mostly plotless yet immersive movie with impressive power and dramatic tension. Continue reading

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

‘Nymphomaniac’ Vol. 1 and 2 is an auteur at the top of his game and at his most insulting

Think of a kiss, maybe the first kiss you ever had, or the first kiss with your loved one: what was the most thrilling thing about it? The excitement doesn’t lie in the sloppy locking of lips or tongues, but in the anticipation, the closeness and the connection between the two parties. Viewed at its most mechanical, there’s nothing exciting at all about a first kiss.

The same can be true of sex, which has become tangled up with so many complex emotions, excitement not always being one of them. Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” created fanfare as a scandalous sex drama because von Trier has become equal parts auteur and “persona non grata”, but his two-part opus does the job of removing the romanticism from sex. In the most explicit ways and on the grandest scale possible, it uses sex only as a lens through which to understand broader ideas about the world, spirituality and humanity.

Volume 1 examines the mechanics of sex while contrasting it with the philosophy and beauty of the more mundane things in the world. Volume 2 dares us to change our lens yet again, equating the main character’s sexual escapades to the Stations of the Cross and making sex truly about a woman searching for fulfillment. The collective whole is provocative, perverse, bizarrely funny and highly explicit, and what’s so surprising and disappointing is how thoughtful and fresh Vol. 1 feels while Vol. 2 could not be more depressing, repulsive and torturous. Continue reading

GoneGirlNickandAmy

‘Gone Girl’ is unsettling, daring and brilliant

One of the key moments at the onset of Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl”, and one of the key images in David Fincher’s film adaptation, is Nick Dunne’s “killer smile”.

Flynn’s description has a wry double meaning obvious to anyone. He’s flashed this plucky grin at a press conference for his missing wife, and it hardly bodes well for his appearance to the media, public or police.

In Fincher’s film, Ben Affleck splashes on the movie star charisma for that crucial second, just enough time to send our heads spinning.

Both Fincher and Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, are receptive to the miniscule gestures that can shape perception. They recognize how timing and spin in the contemporary media can shift the tides in an instant. They understand that people are often only as bad as we perceive them. “Gone Girl” is all about these perceptions, and while one of the strengths of Flynn’s masterpiece novel rested in its structure of alternating POVs from Nick to his wife Amy, Fincher’s brilliance is in his ability to balance them both.

Watching “Gone Girl” is like gnawing at a nagging itch, with each detail of Nick and Amy Dunne’s unraveling marriage and her impending disappearance continuing to burrow into your skin and jab at your sides. Fincher is remarkably attentive to the expressions, emotions and tones of voice that in sensitive situations like this can make us conflicted, uncertain and on edge. His film is as aware of the ways we project ourselves in the modern age as “The Social Network” did before, but “Gone Girl” also combines the meticulous mystery of “Zodiac” and the feminist charge of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. Continue reading

Birdman

2015 Oscar Picks Pre-New York Film Festival

I really can’t help myself. Pundits may hate that anyone can be an expert now when it comes to making Oscar picks, but when it’s this easy and fun to think about, is it really hurting anyone?

This year I’m staying away from most of the analysis, instead picking up on the rest of the buzz and using that to rank individual contenders week to week. You can read all of that each Thursday at Sound on Sight in my column The Hype Cycle. Here’s my introduction to the column, and here’s Week 1 Part 1 and Part 2 following Toronto, Telluride and Venice.

But like I said, I have to throw my hat into the ring, and I may yet prove to be more right than many of the so-called experts. These are my sight-unseen picks ranked in order of likelihood, along with just a pinch of analysis as to why I’m not pulling things out of my ass. These will change as the movies are actually released and I actually get a chance to see them. And yes, I get how silly it is to be predicting movies I haven’t seen yet, but then the Oscars are really silly to begin with. Continue reading

The Zero Theorem

‘The Zero Theorem’ is Gilliam’s ‘Brazil 2.0′

With each generation comes the same feeling of nothingness and monotony to the present. People get stuck in dead-end jobs with neuroses and apprehensions, and the new wave of technology doesn’t appear to change much. Terry Gilliam’s ‘80s sci-fi “Brazil” captured the Orwellian state with such surreal humor and visual creativity that its now 30-year-old vision of the 21st Century has made it a cult classic.

Gilliam’s latest “The Zero Theorem” is awfully close to being “Brazil 2.0”, a satirical reimagining of another not-too-distant future that matches “Brazil” structurally, visually and to an extent thematically. Critics have faulted Gilliam for doing a remix of his greatest hits, but his idiosyncratic message is as relevant now as it was then.

“The Zero Theorem” tells the story of Qohen (Christoph Waltz), pronouncing his name “Cohen” with a Q, but no U. Years ago he received a phone call that he believed would tell him the meaning of why he was put on this Earth, but he got disconnected in excitement and now lives in an old church vicariously waiting for that call back. His work involves a new form of computer programming, one that has reduced work to video gaming and inscrutable equations. Qohen begs his supervisor (David Thewlis) to work from home to await his precious call, and in exchange, Management (Matt Damon) puts him to the task of deciphering The Zero Theorem. Continue reading

Only Lovers Left Alive

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ is the coolest movie Jim Jarmusch has ever made

Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” is as much about vampires as “Night on Earth” is about taxi drivers or “Coffee and Cigarettes” is about either of those things. And if characters in Jarmusch films need a better excuse to be layabouts and wear sunglasses indoors, actually being a vampire is about as good of an excuse as any.

Jarmusch’s films exude coolness, and in a time when vampires are particularly in vogue, Jarmusch has found a unique vessel for his stories of mismatched relationships, affinities for the retro and ironic romance. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is dripping with style. It’s a vampire movie full of intrigue but remains mostly plotless without action or special effects. That the entire thing is absolutely magnetic despite it all is part of Jarmusch’s magic.

Jarmusch splits the time between urban Tangiers and an apartment on a notably empty street in Detroit. The film is so chic, so distinctly colored in every moment, it could belong to any time or place, and yet it is remarkably modern. Living abroad is Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose luxurious, golden, flowing robes are centuries old, and yet she still communicates fluently with an iPhone. Her only real companion is another vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who confirms for us that he did in fact give his plays to Shakespeare. It’s one of Jarmusch’s wry jokes playing vampires allows him to make, with characters taking credit for Schubert’s symphonies and spending time with Mary Shelley.

Her lover for several centuries is Adam (Tom Hiddleston), living alone in Detroit and making droning, melancholy, underground rock and only leaving the house to bribe a hospital worker for blood. He’s assisted by a helpful and adoring human named Ian (Anton Yelchin), clueless to Adam’s real nature but more than willing to get him rare, vintage guitars and bullets made of a fine wood. Only in a Jim Jarmusch film can the characters have conversations about types of wood and the mechanics of a guitar. It’s odd, tedious conversation, as all of Jarmusch’s films concern, and yet it’s dryly eloquent humor no one does better. Continue reading

Blue Ruin

Surprise indie ‘Blue Ruin’ nails neo-noir tension

Vengeance is not for the weak, the inexperienced or the unprepared, and yet so many are drawn to it, and just as many fail. “Blue Ruin” is about a man too careful and timid to get himself killed but not nearly clever, resourceful or vicious enough to get himself out of trouble. Jeremy Saulnier’s film speaks to our constant struggle for survival in an urban world contained within a minimal Greek tragedy. It’s one of the finest surprise indie films of the year.

“I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not; you’re weak.” Those are the harsh words Dwight (Macon Blair) receives upon returning home to his wife Sam (Amy Hargreaves). For months he’s been living as a vagrant along the beach, rummaging for half eaten food at carnivals and sleeping in cars. Dwight’s hair is long and filthy, his beard consuming his face. Though the movie doesn’t specifically say, he’s on the run from his own past. When a police officer informs him that a man named Wade Cleland is being released from prison, Dwight follows Cleland home and plots to murder him in retaliation for killing his parents years ago.

Dwight is so helpless that he can’t even steal a gun. When he manages to scrounge up a knife, his stealth attack is clumsy and a bloody mess, and his getaway is even worse. Soon the Cleland clan is after him, staking out his family’s home and tracking his every move. His idiocy often gets the better of him, yet somehow he manages to stay alive.

“Blue Ruin” has a quiet tension and careful, close-to-the chest filmmaking that recreates the best of neo-noir from “Drive” to “No Country for Old Men” to the Coen Brothers classic “Blood Simple.” And yet along with Macon Blair’s timid, feeble performance is a delirious sense that this guy is never in control. When he shaves his beard and hair and tries acclimating to society, he looks pitiful and out of place in his own clothes.

He’s trying so hard that he’s almost comically clueless. While trying to badger answers out of a Cleland gang member he’s taken hostage, he gets too close and has his gun stolen away from him. But the changing, ambivalent tone leads to some of the movie’s biggest surprise deaths and shocking acts of spite and hatred coming from this otherwise nervously crippled man.

Yet unlike something like “No Country” or “Drive”, “Blue Ruin” and Saulnier recognize that even these vindictive, backwards hicks are people he’s dealing with. They’re just as timid, just as vulnerable in their homes, just as impulsive to the trigger and just as reluctant to get future generations caught in the same mess.

The film does not end well for anyone involved, but it’s a powerful ending that speaks to how vengeance, hate and the unpredictable messiness of it all can only lead to a foregone conclusion.

3 ½ stars

BeginAgain

‘Begin Again’ recaptures the real, musical magic of ‘Once’

The mini-miracle of 2007’s hit musical “Once” was perhaps not so much of a surprise after all. Director John Carney took well-established Irish rock stars from the band The Frames (himself a former member) and made a simple movie without much of a plot and with much of Glen Hansard’s already classic music front and center.

But the fact that the movie had great music was really only half the battle. Everything about “Once” seemed cobbled together on the fly. Its look was a rough, documentary realism style and the dialogue was so bare bones it may as well have been improvised. And above all, the chemistry and romance between its two stars, Hansard and Marketa Irglova, felt genuine in both its journey and its outcome.

John Carney’s latest film “Begin Again” seems inspired by that makeshift attitude. It’s a story about working with what you’ve got and simply letting the magic happen. This time around, Carney is working with A-list actors, a pop-rock superstar and a budget that must dwarf what he had on “Once”. Yet when we see Keira Knightley singing into pantyhose with a wire inside or Maroon 5’s Adam Levine playing ping-pong, he’s found the magic again by making it feel real. Continue reading

TheArmstrongLie

‘The Armstrong Lie’ paints Lance with nuance

In the days following the revelation that Lance Armstrong, the most drug tested athlete in all of professional sports, was in fact blood doping and using banned substances all along, a quote came along that put the whole thing into perspective. “I don’t care if he lied; he’s done unbelievable things for cancer research that have nothing to do with his work on a bike.”

Another article talked about Lance’s skill and strategy on the bike that made him a champion regardless if he took drugs. During one Tour de France he daringly avoided a crash right in front of him and took his road bike offroad for several yards before picking up the racetrack again, not an easy feat while traveling 40 mph down a rough French mountainside.

After winning seven straight Tours de France, Lance Armstrong was undoubtedly seen as a hero, and his scandal was such a shocking lie and omission that the world turned on him in an instant. You really had to pick sides and decide, do you hate the man and believe he should be stripped of his titles or don’t you care and feel he should be respected for what he’s done on and off the bike regardless?

Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” teeters on those two sides. It’s hardly the only documentary chronicling the details of his lie, but it’s notable as the only one that features a candid Lance. Given that leg up, you would hope Gibney would do one of two things: tear into him and expose him as a psychologically damaged, pathological liar, or actually pay the man some respect and understand why he lied in the first place. Continue reading