The Double – Richard Ayoade (2014)

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/the-gist/for-reels/vod-review-richard-ayoades-the-double/

I have a suspicion that The Double, the second feature by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, will end up being one of the most sneaky films of the year, psychologically speaking. The film, which mixes everything from Dostoevsky and Kafka to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, is the kind of thing that says more about the viewer than it ever could about the artists.

The film stars Jessie Eisenberg and Jessie Eisenberg as Simon James and James Simon, employees at the same faceless bureaucratic conglomerate who look remarkably alike, though no one seems to notice.

Simon is a smart, hard worker who is held back by his timid anonymity; James is a confident, charming social climber who gets ahead by using Simon’s work as his own to impress their dipstick boss, Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). If they sound like George McFly and Biff Tannen, they’re not. Simon is much more of a doormat than George ever was.

Though it gets there quickly, Simon and James’s relationship doesn’t start out in the dumps. In exchange for doing his work for him, James agrees to help Simon get the attention of his office crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the cute girl who works in the copy office that Simon admires from afar.

Naturally, she falls for the charismatic James instead of the insubstantial Simon.

And she falls hard.

It’s hard to find an aspect of this story that hasn’t been picked over at great length in so many indie films in the past that I’ve lost count at this point. Identity crises and unrequited love — not to mention visually quoting Billy Wilder and Franz Kafka — are the motor oil that keeps the indie film machine going, but there is something else going on in The Double too that makes it special.

We’re not necessarily asked through cinematic means to side with the painfully lonely and socially awkward Simon, as we usually are in an unrequited love story. He’s basically, whether he realizes it or not, a creepy dude who doesn’t really deserve Hannah. He spies on her with a telescope and picks through her trash for the artistic scraps that she throws away. Through the lens of the the telescope, Simon should be able to see that Hannah also isn’t the manic pixie dream girl he’s in love with in his head, but he’s such a blank personality that he can’t tell the difference.

Nor are we necessarily asked to identify with James, which is where the sneakiness lies. Ayoade keeps his distance from typicality, deflecting the identity question with a free riffing symphony of beautifully deadpan comedy (aided by a great supporting cast of Shawn, Cathy Moriarty, Noah Taylor, Chris O’Dowd, Paddy Considine, and Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige who played opposite one another in Ayoade’s first film Submarine).

Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine) don’t seem to hold Simon in contempt, but they don’t hold back making him the butt of their film’s cosmic joke either. It’s an existentially cutting film. Even though we’re not manipulated into identifying with either Eisenberg, the divide of love and hate for this film might exist in whether you do or don’t. If you do identify with Simon or James, or at least with the central question of the film, it’s an insightful film; if you don’t, it’s a pretentious art school waste of time.

Copenhagen – Mark Raso (2014)

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Characters don’t have to be sympathetic for art to be good. They don’t even have to be likable. History is littered with the despicable and despised. To empathize with a character is far more important. But in Mark Raso’s Copenhagen there is nothing empathetic, sympathetic or likable about William, a 28-year-old American backpacking in Denmark after the death of his father.

William is played by Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). In Copenhagen he explores the same bottomless pit of contemptibility as Joffrey Baratheon as he searches Copenhagen for his grandfather to deliver an angry letter that his father wrote him but never mailed. While searching, he runs into Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a beautiful young girl who helps him navigate the Danish geography and language barrier.

As the two search, they fall for each other. Deep. There is just one small catch. She’s younger. Much younger. Like, 14 (about to turn 15!). You’ll remember above, where I said William was 28, though he doesn’t.

It’s nearly impossible to buy Hansen as a 14-year-old though. She is 19 and looks it. It doesn’t make William any less terrible, but the film is about him growing up and coming to terms with the fact that having a terrible family doesn’t mean you have to be terrible too. Raso gets stuck in indie trope hell though, and can’t find his way out. Hansen is the film’s only redeemable quality; it’s a shame that she is wasted on this pointless search.

Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14032

For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14614

It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.

Four Lions – Chris Morris (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/four-lions-1.1083555

In British humorist Chris Morris’ debut film, he has set out to answer the question, “Why is this happening?” in reply to the July 7, 2005, attacks throughout London. It’s a question so loaded and complicated that a 97-minute farce doesn’t have a shot at answering it, but the endeavor is not fruitless.

Four Lions follows the lives of five Islamic extremists around the suburbs of England as they plan Jihad after work. The group of would-be mujahedeen includes Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is the leader by default as he is the only one with a brain, the dimwitted Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and the very dimwitted Waj (Kayvan Novak).

In an emotional tizzy over not being allowed to join Omar and Waj in Pakistan to train, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the very white Curly Howard of the group, takes over planning the jihad with Fessal, going so far as to recruit a new member, Hassan (Arsher Ali). Young, wealthy and English-born, Barry would be in way over his head if he thought it was any more real than playing G.I. Joe. But it seems impossible to think this bumbling bunch of misfits could ever actually pull anything off besides accidentally 
exploding themselves.

And this is actually the point of the film. We’ve seen the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and laughed at the silly ways they’ve tried to sneak explosives onto planes, but we’ve only been able to do so because they are so inept. The explosives they carried were as real as any used in the daily car bombings in Afghanistan. The scary thought is that even the last kid chosen for a pick-up game hits a jump shot once in a while, if only by blind accident.

In his attempt to answer “why?” Morris creates even more questions. Omar, Waj, Barry, Fessal and Hassan are not the only bumbling fools here. Their plans are made in broad daylight right under their English friends’ noses, none of whom seem alarmed by five Muslim men running through the streets nervously gripping large packages, or notice the detonators on the coffee table when they pop over for a visit.

Is it insightful? Yes and no. The curtain is pulled back, if only slightly, on the extremes that Muslim men are pushed to by a host of religious, political and cultural issues, and they are exposed with a deeply cutting wit – it really is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year – but it’s exposed by an outsider. How many European directors have we seen botch American war films because they are outsiders? It has to give the viewer pause.

But does it matter? Perhaps my middle-class, white, Catholic upbringing is showing here, but the film left me with a slightly empty feeling that all Morris has accomplished is getting me to split my sides in the face of something wholly terrifying, and that’s OK – even necessary – for now. But laughing in the face of people who reply with bombs stops being OK when the next printer cartridge slips unseen through security.

Nowhere Boy – Sam Taylor-Wood (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/watching-the-wheels-1.1054994

Is there a historical figure we know more about than John Lennon? True, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept meticulous notes and records of their lives, but they weren’t rock stars and frankly, founding a nation is hardly as interesting as having written “Imagine” or “Norwegian Wood.” And to use an example once offered by Lennon himself, we only “know” about a fraction of Jesus’ 
life, and nothing at all about his 
formative years.

It’s a daunting task to offer a new angle about Lennon’s life, to say the least. He exhaustively told us everything over the years, or at least what he wanted us to know. There have been earlier attempts to capture the early Beatles story, most notably Backbeat, which focused on Lennon’s relationship with Stu Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is a character here, as are McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and Harrison (Sam Bell), but Nowhere Boy is firmly about the inner workings and burgeoning genius of the 
young John.

Based on a biography written by his half sister, Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy starts out with Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in his youth, pre-Beatles – even pre-Quarrymen. Like most teenagers, he has a chip on his shoulder the size of Blackpool (the bustling port town near Liverpool where, the film shows, Lennon discovered rock & roll). He smokes, gets in trouble at school and hates to wear his glasses despite his Aunt Mimi’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) chiding. It’s typical teenage stuff, certainly not the sign of any particular brilliance to come.

The source of Lennon’s rebellion becomes apparent when his cousin gives him the news he’s always wanted to know: his mother, Julia’s (Anne-Marie Duff), address. It sets him on a journey of self-discovery that he’ll be on until – but wait a second. We’ve heard “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and saw Beatles Anthology. Lennon’s mommy issues are almost the foundation of modern popular culture. We know all of this already, don’t we?

We do. But to read about it or see it in a documentary is one thing. To see it live and breathe and take shape, brought to life in full color, is something different. And that’s what first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood has pulled off here, thanks mostly to Johnson’s embodiment of Lennon. It’s almost inconceivable that this is the same kid who played the gawky nerd-cum-superhero in Kick-Ass a few months ago.

Less is known about Julia Lennon, and manic-depressives are hard to play without garnering eye rolls, but Duff nails her spirit spot-on. In her more manic moments, there is a natural ease with which she and Johnson play off each other, reaching beyond the mother-son vibe – and teetering dangerously close to Oedipal territory – to the master-muse relationship that would be so important for John and Paul and George going forward.

Plot is important, sure, but in a biopic where the subject’s story is practically taught in kindergarten, the portrayals are everything, and that’s what works best here. It’s hard to suspend the fact that you know who lives and who dies, but it’s a great estimation of what the teenage John Lennon might have been like: a mixed-up kid who is kind of a dick, kind of sweet, very rebellious, very emotional and about to change the world.

Quick Hits on Jane Eyre – Cary Fukunaga (2011)

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-I’ve never read the novel, and the only previous adaptation I’ve seen of Jane Eyre is the one from the 40s with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in the lead roles. It wasn’t intentional, but I couldn’t shake the idea of how much better this film could have been with this cinematography and art direction but populated with Welles and Fontaine.

-I did like Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in their own roles, but was left a little dry by their lack of chemistry in the scenes they shared. Fassbender had plenty of strength of character and an immense screen presence to occupy a role that Welles made his own, though he was maybe a little too good looking to play Mr. Rochester.

-I get excited every time I see this kind of understated-yet-lush, deep-grained, autumn-colored cinematography. This is the second time Fukunaga worked with Brazilian director of photography Adriano Goldman, who also worked one another film I find to be incredibly beautiful, Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation. The two last teamed up on the gang/immigration drama Sin Nombe, which, again, was beautiful almost in spite of its subject matter. It’s getting increasingly rare to see this style of shooting with the mass exodus to digital. Grain structure is so important to the way light (that is, the image) shows up on film, but it’s not something video does well, because it’s not designed to. It’s designed to look sharp. Which looks like shit.

Quick Hits on Paul – Greg Mattola (2011)

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-I don’t quite understand why it was even attempted to keep Sigourney Weaver a secret in this film. She has one of the most distinctive film voices, and there wasn’t even really an attempt to mask it. At least it was a surprise when Madonna turned out to be The Blank in Dick Tracy, but it was rather silly to play it as a big finale reveal here. It’s obvious.

-I really appreciate the hell out of the nostalgia, though it does make me feel quite old. Most of the stuff that they’re nostalgic about is stuff that was 10 years old by the time it came out on video and I was old enough to process it, so I think it’s making me feel artificially old, not genuinely old, even though I’m about to turn 31 (that doesn’t even seem possible).

-Kristin Wiig, who I’m starting to like more and more as she gets away from SNL, was largely wasted on throwaway jokes. She handled them like a champ, but except for being adorable there was nothing really memorable about her in the movie. I suppose that is somewhat true of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, too, to be honest. Paul himself, and Zoyle, really steal the show.

-I was skeptical about Bateman as Zoyle at first, he won me over by the end, and I was thankful that it wasn’t Paul Rudd playing the character.

-Even though I did enjoy the hell out of the nostalgic elements, there were probably too many of them. I did half expect there to be a shark and a man in a fedora being chased by a band of Nazis somewhere in there. I hope Abrams handles the direct references better in Super 8.

-I enjoyed it quite a lot overall, though there are more than a few spots where I ended up groaning or rolling my eyes. It probably didn’t even need to be as long as it was, but there is going to be an extended edition DVD out soon. I guess that’s just to be expected with comedies these days, but I can’t remember anything in any of the extended edition DVDs that I’ve seen that I thought should have stayed in the theatrical cut. The most recent one I can remember watching was Get Him to the Greek, which is much better in the theatrical cut of the movie. I liked Paul but not enough to give it extra time.