Locke (2014)

Dir. Steven Knight

It’s easy to think you’re the only person in the world when confined in the pleasant or comfortably secure entrapments of your car.  Early on in Locke, our main man passingly refers to himself as such and we spend the next 85 minutes as he’s driving south at night on the M4 figuring out the details of his singular world - which is entirely in flux. Fortunately, it’s a really nice car that enables him to place calls at the touch of a finger. And unfortunately, it allows him to receive calls.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) and his BMW have an onscreen relationship of "Knight Rider" proportions. I’d seen the trailer for the film and scoffed at what appeared to be an extended, glossy BMW commercial. Or, at least, a missing, resurfaced entry in "The Hire" series - with Tom Hardy replacing Clive Owen. But writer/director Steven Knight (hey!) achieves many fine feats in Locke, not the least of them is making the interior of this BMW a fascinating location for just over 80 minutes - and really making this a story that could hardly of happened anywhere else.

We’re introduced to Ivan Locke as he’s leaving his job - a construction site in northern England. He enters his car and heads south on the M4 to London. He’s made a decision, you see, to be a better father than his dad was to him. The theme of “bastards” is prevalent throughout and Ivan is making sure that this woman who’s giving birth to his child in London is not going to be raising a bastard. He'll be damned if he's going to treat this child the way his father treated him. This decision comes at the expense of his job and his wife and two children. It’s a film that studies the decisions we make and the responsibilities that come with them. And Ivan is nothing if not a man of responsibilities and through his car, and the 80+ minute journey to London, we watch in real-time as he tries to juggle his job duties, his family duties, and the birth of this child. It is entirely captivating stuff.

Tom Hardy is still in top physical shape in this film - perhaps not of Bane bulk, but there’s a fine perverseness in Hardy being being confined to a seat, behind a wheel, being at the mercy of buttons and using only his voice to solve his problems. If there’s another ass-kicker of an actor out there who can use his voice to disarm just as well as his fists, I’ve yet to come across him. The fact that Ivan is battling a cold during this trip turns out to be an issue that Hardy was actually dealing with himself, and got written into the script, is just another fine touch. And though we never see any of the people he talks to during the film, the voice work on the other end of the line are all given the same due attention to evocative pauses, and telling timbre.  

Ivan goes down this path knowing that it won’t be easy and when he hits speed bumps, like his colleague at his construction site reacting to his departure by hitting the cider, it’s a joy to watch Hardy measure his reactions and contain his frustration. Ivan has a plan but, such is life, can only control so much and his reactions to incoming calls arriving at the wrong time are even comical in its anger management. If films like Bronson show Hardy painting fine art with large brush strokes, this is something of a masterclass in filling a canvas with the smallest of strokes. That’s not to say it’s all subtlety all the time. Ivan’s motivations, and hidden reservoir of anger and bitterness, are brought to surface in his off-phone moments when he tries to work out some of his daddy issues in the rearview mirror.

There are road-trip movies and then there are movies like Locke that never leave the car. What Knight is able to evoke with simple passing lights, like ghosts of memories speeding by, is truly special. At first, you may wonder why he chose to film wide - in a 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio - but that speculation doesn't last long. This isn't a film about a claustrophobic interior. This car provides Ivan a wide expanse. Steven Knight has proven his writing chops with Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things and really gets to shows that he has an equally detailed eye with Locke.

There are plenty of films that take place in one location. Sometimes it’s a dinner table, or even more confining than a car - like a coffin - but, corporate sponsorship aside, rarely has the automobile been such an appropriate tool for progressing a story, building momentum and sustaining tension. As we watch Ivan progress towards London on his dashboard GPS it becomes more and more clear that he won’t be able to tie up everything on this 80 minute journey, but we can easily amaze at what he and this movie we able to accomplish.

The Double (2014)

dir. Richard Ayoade

The Double is Richard Ayoade’s second film and already he has proven himself a unique talent with impressive control over tone and composition. Both The Double and his first feature, Submarine, waste no time in confidently establishing and dropping the viewer into a fully realized universe. In Submarine he displayed a keen understanding of the power of color and editing and even managed to use narration to great effect. It was impressive how he was able to sustain the youthful, breathless energy through its entire run time and reach a satisfying conclusion. So it is a bit of a let down when The Double fails to sustain the energy of its first act and leaves many intriguing strings dangling in its unsatisfying conclusion.

That is not to say there aren’t many reasons to see The Double - especially in a theater, with good sound. If Ayoade proved his visual acumen with Submarine, it is with The Double that he shows his aptitude for the power of sound in a film. His playfulness remains sharp here and I truly doubt Ayoade will ever make a dull film. The sound design in The Double is a marvel of editing and attention to how to make the most out of every scene. Certain sounds fade away, others rise, and footsteps - one of the more innocuous of movie sounds, take on sinister implications. It makes me wonder if the script, based on a Dostoyevsky novella, by Ayoade and Avi Korine (her brother Harmony Korine helped produce), didn’t receive the same level of attention.

In this case we are deep into existential paranoia territory. In a fine, understated performance (there really isn’t a poor one in the film), Jesse Eisenberg plays a down-trodden office drone of the Sam Lowry variety. In fact, much of the film, especially the retro-futuristic art design, full of tubes and knobby contraptions, is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and unfortunately ends up being a bit of a detriment. Eisenberg’s Simon James is a meek, fidgety thing who nearly disappears in his oversized grey suit and can’t work up the nerve to be anything but a productive worker. Sadly, he’s so much of a non-presence that his boss (Wallace Shawn) can’t even recognize or acknowledge his dedication. So he spends the rest of his time longing for co-worker Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska - who seems intent on being unavoidable in 2014.

Suddenly there appears a new employee at the office and to Simon’s shock, and no one else's, he is Simon’s exact double. His name is James Simon and Eisenberg plays him full of smarmy smirks and, of course, confident assurance. While Simon can barely display these slight smiles at the corner of his lips when observing Hannah, James is comfortable saying something like, "I'd tear out an elephant's ass if I had a shot at a piece of trim like that." The film dips briefly into a Cyrano situation, with James offering tips to help Simon woo Hannah - but it isn’t long before James is overtly undermining Simon until there is essentially nothing left of him to call his own.

There is something missing from this story and perhaps it’s just an entirely different second act than the one we’re given. One that makes the third act, which is full of Simon’s despair until he reaches his breaking point, more affecting. As good as Eisenberg is, the film doesn’t make much of a case for Simon. He clearly wants to be someone and the crux of the story is how he ends up doing that - but who is this person trying to emerge? He says he’d like to think of himself as a unique individual but we never see much to back that up. Brazil’s Sam Lowry had an impressive imagination at the very least. Simon likes a sci-fi television show, which isn’t at all unique since it seems to be the only thing they show on television in this world.

While I didn’t connect with some of the emotional resonance of the film and felt frustrated that certain aspects, like the appearance of other doubles later on in the film, were left discarded or unexplored, I still enjoyed myself with the abundance of dark humor the film has to offer. It’s a joy watching Richard Ayoade at work and it is clear that he is a filmmaker that will continue to push his craft. The scene’s between Simon and James are impressive, and consistently hilarious, on their own but the film has many unexpected technical flourishes to admire. I’m hoping his next film will have a satisfying story that is an equal to his audio/visual talents.

Under the Skin (2014)

Dir. Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin could easily fit under the title of Sexy Beast. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Birth. Or even vice versa. I find it interesting that Jonathan Glazer has, over the course of 14 or so years, made three films that could easily be mistaken as coming from three different directors - but with three titles that could be interchangeable. Okay, maybe Birth, which questions what is really under the skin of an apparently 10-year-old boy, wouldn’t fly under the title of Sexy Beast but after seeing his latest film, I wouldn’t rule anything out. (BTW, it’s The Shiksa From Another Planet FTW.)

Both playfully experimental and at times quite familiar, Under the Skin is the most exquisite collection of images and sounds Jonathan Glazer has compiled to date. And yes, this is taking fully into account how enjoyably sublime it is to watch Sexy Beast’s Sir Ben Kingsley standing in a kitchen spitting out the most creatively vulgar obscenities this side of In the Loop. Here we have Scarlett Johansson standing in her underwear seducing men into an inky black pit to be drained dry. It’s difficult to explain how much more touching it is than disturbing, but I’ll give it a shot.


It’s one of those films that could get described as a “mood piece”. Normally when you see that term used it boils down to meaning there isn’t much dialog or plot and the music and editing is minimally invasive. But the mood struck in Under the Skin is more uneasy and dreadful than that and it has much to do with the editing and music, both of which demand reckoning from the viewer. The first sequence is a 2001-style series of shapes coming together along with the sound of language being formed. It’s the birthing moments of our main character into something resembling an English Earthling. It’s a bold beginning and what follows could reasonably be described as continuing in a low-budget, small-scale Kubrickian fashion.

Quickly, we’re on the prowl in the streets of Glasgow with Johansson behind the wheel of the UK version of a molester’s van. It’s a bit of a comical scenario. Even someone like Michael Fassbender would have trouble picking up ladies in such a vehicle. Which is why Scarlett Johansson is practically the only actress who could pull this off. And the movie has some fun early on in these predatory moments. An early exchange between Johansson (none of the characters in the film are given names) and one of her conquests cuts back and forth between her at the driver’s wheel and him in the passenger seat - cleverly timed to the arrhythmic nature of their flirting.

In fact, the dialog is a useful tool in this film. Let’s face it, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really belong in Glasgow any more than Jayne Mansfield would. Even with darkened hair. So listening to these footballer kids speaking to her in their thick, nearly indecipherable Scottish accents only adds to the displacement that the viewer feels in these scenes and the alienation that creeps behind every movement Johansson takes.

These kinds of encounters escalate until Johansson reaches her breaking point in a seduction that is tragically uncomfortable for everyone involved. She flees from her complicit captors - or are they her underlings? Whatever these leathery men are they definitely do not want her to leave or for her actions to be revealed. What follows, as she tries to find some solace in the countryside, contains great images - perhaps the best of the film - but also begins to change the movie tonally into something that feels all too familiar. This does eventually lead to a stunning finale and therefore can be forgiven easily enough as some sort of rite of passage.

Under the Skin, taken from a novel by Michel Faber, can be read as trying to capture what it means to be human and/or, more precisely, what it feels like to not fit in - which can be an intrinsic part of being human. It’s a story that’s been told before but Jonathan Glazer tells it in an arresting way that has never quite been done before. Most times the film simply tries to make you feel as sympathetic to the main character as possible but Glazer gets you uncomfortable. He mixes images of beauty and banality and ultimately achieves in making Scotland seem as much some scary far away planet as any other. Here’s hoping he doesn’t borrow too much more from Stanley Kubrick and take another 10 years before he reminds of us his talent.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. They are perhaps the monster trifecta of movies looking for some sort of metaphorical shorthand to the human condition (granted, the werewolf - possibly the most powerful of the metaphors in its depiction of what lies beneath the surface - has gone a bit out of favor since, really, it is a bit on-the-nose). Since their invention they’ve been more or less inescapable due to how easily the mere image them conjures up all kinds of instinctual meanings. Who knows when the trend began but in most cases, the vampire is more than happy to watch the world disintegrate around them, even manipulating or egging it on. Bless Jim Jarmusch for giving a reactionary, loving flip-side to the humanity of the vampire tale in his newest film, and funniest in a while, Only Lovers Left Alive.

These titular lovers are, um, naturally?, Adam and Eve. Played by Tom Hiddleston and the incandescent Tilda Swinton, they are a world weary couple - Eve a bit more optimistic about the way the world has unfolded than Adam who seems to have found a comfort in tucking himself away in a victorian house in the middle of dilapidated Detroit. Adam has developed a great knack for creating his own (Nikola Tesla inspired) electronic contraptions, whose cords weave throughout, brilliantly connecting old and new technology. He collects and plays guitars (music courtesy of Jarmusch’s own band, Squrl), drives around in the middle of the night to take in the sights and only interacts with Ian (Anton Yelchin, getting more versatile with every film), the “zombie” who procures the guitars and sundry items Adam needs from the other “zombies”. Yeah, for a human, Ian’s all right.

Unfortunately for Ian, he doesn’t know what Adam’s really all about. In his eyes he’s just another reclusive musician - perhaps more eccentric than most as Adam takes great pains to steer Ian away from his bathroom that’s being used as a storage room. “Feel free to piss in the garden.” Adam is fantastic fun to spend time with - it’s a great treat to see a verbosely, bitterly funny character front and center in a Jim Jarmusch film again. As an idealistic, centuries-old vampire Adam has plenty of reasons to be upset with the world. He witnessed Nikola Tesla getting screwed over (his disdain over unsightly bundles of cords marring architecture is a recurring treat), his favorite city turned to ruins, and countless other injustices taken against the world’s real innovators/inventors and cultural centers over the years. It’s a great role and Hiddleston does a fine job of radiating in this bitterness.

Feeling that Adam is falling too far into despair, indeed he did just put in an order with Ian for a wooden bullet, Eve books a flight from Tangier to Detroit in order to try to breathe some positivity into his life. Traveling takes a toll on their kind and booking a flight from Tangiers to Detroit that avoids daylight is a challenge. Luckily, Eve still has some good stuff that she purchased from her supplier in Tangier, the one and only Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe (another tender performance from John Hurt). This is good news for Adam as his supply, obtained through a local doctor on the take (Jeffrey Wright), is always a precarious exchange.

Unfortunately the couple only has a few peaceful moments together as hot on the heels of Eve is her chaotic younger sister Ava, the preternaturally ivory-skinned Mia Wasikowska. Adam has had a sense of foreboding about her arrival and rightfully so. She is the kind of vampire that gives them a bad name and perhaps, sadly, she is the kind of vampire of these times. Adam and Eve can be seen, much like Jarmusch himself, as O.G. hipsters (for better or worse) embodying the best of the bygone. It’s easy to criticize the film for playing too much in Jarmusch’s wheelhouse and simply attributing his eclectic tastes to these characters but it is hard to deny these inventors and artists a torch-bearer - especially when Adam and Eve are slow-dancing to Wanda Jackson or grooving to Charlie Feathers on the car stereo, you can feel the love.

After the odd choice of using wild card cinematographer Christopher Doyle in The Limits of Control (a choice, and a movie that has come to grow on me since my initial viewing), Jarmusch has tapped Yorick Le Saux, a cinematographer for Olivier Assayas and Francois Ozon who is adept at capturing colors at their deepest - see also, I Am Love. He’s a perfect choice for Jarmusch’s embrace of the gothic aspects to the vampire mythos. The film is filled with reds, greens, golds and browns that you can wrap yourself around with loving attention paid to every wrinkle, making the film quite the tactile experience. It’s appropriate in more ways than one as Jarmusch adds an interesting addition to the vampire lore by giving Eve the ability to touch an object and sense its history.

The interior of Adam’s little Detroit castle of solitude is a marvel of mise en scene. You’re never really sure how long he’s been living there but as the camera hovers around and, especially, above him, you pick up on bits of information, some big, some small, lying about, or hanging on the walls, that do give a great sense of lived-in comfort. “Easter eggs” abound.

Not that there’s ever been a lack of rewatch-ability in Jim Jarmusch films. Like the best of them, he’s created a world in Only Lovers Left Alive that I could be happy hanging out in indefinitely. Not all of the jokes are gold, but it pleased me so much to be in a Jim Jarmusch comedy - granted, one of death and mourning - that even the ones that fall flat or seem too obvious are charming in the context of the film. Maybe the script could have used another draft, but seeing as he only makes a new film every four years or so… I really find it hard to complain.

Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2) (2014)

Dir. Lars von Trier

[As this is a review of both parts of the film, I’m going to get into the ending of the first part and slightly touch on the ending of the second. If you are spoiler wary, proceed with caution. Suffice to say, this is a positive review.]

Charlotte Gainsbourg is both enviable and sympathetic in her role as director Lars von Trier’s go-to actress for his past three films. He is one of the best writers of female roles as well as being the most punishing. This isn’t isolated to the “Depression Trilogy”, which includes Antichrist, Melancholia and now Nymphomaniac, just ask Dogville’s Nicole Kidman. If I recall correctly, Kidman basically told the director off in the Cannes press conference for that film, leaving von Trier to recast her role in the sequel. Someone should create some sort of medal of honor for what she’s gone through in these films. I know it’s all acting but I doubt anyone is that good at compartmentalizing.

After another stunning opening sequence of sound and image, Nymphomaniac begins with a bloody and bruised Joe (Gainsbourg) being found lying in an alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) as he’s returning home from the corner shop. Concerned for her, he takes her in to his apartment and through some gentle insistence he tries to figure out what has happened to her, despite Joe’s state of complete self-loathing and warning that it will be a long story.

It’s certainly not a coincidence that Skarsgard’s character is named Seligman. He shares the name with the highly regarded founder of “positive psychology”, Martin Seligman. Throughout the film, Seligman tries to reassure Joe of her self-proclaimed horrible actions as being reasonable or rational behaviour. It’s a great device for the film. Seligman is also an avid fly-fisherman and Joe’s early seduction stories often find a parallel with how to use a proper lure and the different tricks of the fisherman’s trade. It’s all part of nature, my dear.

Contrary to what the advertisements and even the director might want you to believe, the film is filled with humor. Much more so than his previous two films. There is a playfulness at hand between the way von Trier films Joe’s guilt-ridden tales and Seligman’s counter-stories of the habits of fish or the correlation between her losing her virginity and “the Fibonacci numbers”. It may reach its comedic apex when Seligman tries to pass her a story about the social importance of cake forks when Joe expresses her distaste for them.

Another clever device is how Joe chooses to begin each chapter of her story. Yes, the use of chapters and their seemingly requisite title cards in film can by now be a bit tiresome but von Trier manages to give these title cards their own humorous personality. Joe first notices Seligman’s fly lure on the wall for the first chapter and subsequently searches his room for the item that will trigger her next. It lends a very natural approach to the storytelling and reinforces the fine attention to detail that is always in von Trier’s films.

For the first half of the film - the Volume One - young Joe is represented in her story by actress Stacy Martin, a sexually aggressive wisp of a beauty who at an early age begins to follow an anti-love manifesto developed by herself and her conquesting colleague, B. They need nothing more than the reward of chocolates to go tearing through a (literal) train full of lads to prove their prowess. Cracks in this lifestyle begin to show when B confides that she has indeed fallen in love - and it, shudder, makes the sex better. Joe retaliates by going the opposite direction and taking on as many men as she can fit into her schedule. Her methodology of how to juggle these men is quite funny and boils down to a simple roll of a die.

This lifestyle comes to a brilliant climax of pathos when her juggling fails her and the wife of one of her lovelorn suitors, a sadistically heartbroken Uma Thurman as “Mrs. H”, brings her two young children to her apartment to confront both of them. It is the first time the positive psychology of Seligman begins to show some cracks of its own. It is difficult to justify Joe’s sexual blaseness when confronted by the pain of Mrs. H - no matter how pathetically hysterical she is.

This world crashing in on her is compounded by the death of her loving father (a surprisingly soulful performance by Christian Slater). Yes, it is indeed refreshing to have a film about nymphomania devoid of Freudian answers. Her father brought to her the only peace she found throughout her stories by giving her a love for nature - a nice flip-side to the themes of Antichrist (there’s also a perhaps too on-the-nose reference to the beginning of that film to be found in the second volume).

It is after her father’s death that she finds her one constant back in her life, Jerome. Played by Shia LaBeouf as a sympathetic dufus of sorts, he is the one who vulgarly took Joe’s virginity and the one who ends up breaking down her wall against love. This being a Lars von Trier film, and as such there are no happy endings - even to a “Volume One” - it is here that the horrors of all horrors happens to Joe. She can’t come.

I should add here that it is indeed a shame that some areas of the world are not releasing both volumes of Nymphomaniac in the theaters simultaneously. Though it would seem the longest interruptions only last a month or so. It’s true that Volume One really is only half a movie - with a silly preview of things to come in Volume Two montage at the end. Though this does allow the provocateur in Lars von Trier to goose you one more time into thinking what you are about to see is something far more sinister than it actually is.

The second volume picks up immediately where the first left off and despite the hint that things may take a turn for the darker in the preview, the tone remains the same. What von Trier doesn’t do in Nymphomaniac is linger very long in any one event and again in Volume Two, there is that sly humor that is never too far away. Even that image used in press photos and the Volume Two preview of Gainsbourg, who does take over the role of Joe in this volume’s stories, writhing between two muscular black men turns into a comedy of errors more than anything else. His bait and switch is impeccable throughout.

Those expecting explicit titillation from Nymphomaniac - or some bleak endurance test - will be disappointed. Especially with this film, Lars von Trier joins the ranks of William Castle & Hitchcock in the mastery of manipulating the viewer before they even sit down to watch the film. So much more was written about the use of real sex in this film than was the case for Antichrist that you realize what the power of a good title can do for publicity. The real sex we do see in the film takes up probably only a couple minutes of the 4+ hours of the total running time and, unlike Antichrist, none of it feels gratuitous - it simply isn’t hiding anything.

The majority of the second half is Joe getting her groove back. She finds her drive being rekindled by K (impressively played by Tintin himself, Jamie Bell), a Dom who allows Joe to discover the power of submissiveness. Until this point she has only known the dominant power of her sexuality. This sexual liberation comes at a cost though, and ends up liberating her from her relationship with Jerome and their young child as well (this break-up between Joe and Jerome is the one scene that I felt LaBeouf really nailed). She’s learned a thing or two from K though, and cleverly puts it to use in a new career as a debt collector.

Her new boss, L (Willem Dafoe), suggests that she acquire a successor (pun possibly intended). It allows Joe to be the mother-figure she wasn’t able to for her child with Jerome. This includes the joys of being a teacher and the pains a mother feels when that child reaches the age of resentment. Which brings us just about to the point of how Joe ended up in that alleyway. I won’t spoil the film any further by giving that away - nor how the relationship between Joe and Seligman ends. Just keep in mind that this “Depression Trilogy” began as a response to the psychotherapy von Trier received during his bout and given Seligman’s name-sake, his fate is sealed.