Hitting Refresh: The Landlord (1970)

Hitting Refresh: The Landlord (1970)

A look back at the 1970 film, The Landlord, the directorial debut of Hal Ashby and one of the first feature films of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis. Written for the screen by the influential artist Bill Gunn, the racial satire remains vital and perhaps more relevant than ever.

On the Eye of the Beholder

On the Eye of the Beholder

Film isn't dead, and neither is film criticism. What's deteriorating is the thoughtfulness surrounding the medium and how we treat and share our opinions. I try to work my way toward the cause of today's message board mentality, shed some light on my own tastes, and offer some advice on how we can tone down the unproductive nonsense. Fair warning: it's a long one.

Academy Award Apathy, Before & After

Academy Award Apathy, Before & After

Brace yourself for yet another Oscar think piece as I brace myself for Mad Max: Fury Road's inevitable best picture loss. Then I get more philosophical about what effect the Oscars really have on the movie's we watch and how bad Spotlight's win is for movies in general and for the chances of anyone taking the Academy Awards seriously. 

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.